Vicarage Coffee Morning
Thank you to everyone who supported the event on Saturday 7th May. There was a marvellous turnout, a fabulous choice of cakes to take with coffee and more still for the cake stall. The Summer Picnic Hamper, the raffle prize, looked splendid and delighted the winner. The sun shone and what’s more, all who attended much enjoyed the opportunity to get together, chat and learn about bees, in a way that hasn’t been possible for a couple of years.
Mothers’ Union members from St Mary’s and St Peter’s are thrilled to announce that the sum of £530.35 was raised for Mothers’ Union charitable projects supporting families and family life.
9th January - The Baptism of Christ
I thought that I would start this morning by conducting a brief survey amongst those of us here in church. If you don’t want to take part, there’s no pressure. I am going to read out four statements, and I would just like you to put up your hand when I read out the one which applies to you. Here goes:
Statement one – I was baptised as a baby
Statement two – I was baptised as an adult
Statement three – I have not been baptised
Statement four – I don’t know if I have been baptised or not
The responses are pretty much as I expected: that most of us here are baptised – and most of us here were baptised as a baby.
Let me ask you another question. This time, I am not expecting a response. Just something for you to think about as I speak, and for you to reflect on in the days to come.
What does baptism mean to you? What difference does it make to you that you are baptised?
Our two readings this morning both focus on baptism, but the baptisms to which they refer are actually quite different.
Our reading from Luke refers to the baptism of God’s people by John the Baptist, before Jesus’ ministry, and of course to the baptism of Jesus himself.
At the time of Jesus, baptism was not an official part of Judaism, and you cannot find the word baptism anywhere in the Old Testament, but it was practised unofficially by some Jewish people in the century before and after Jesus' birth. It was seen as a simple sign of general repentance, and as such could be repeated. Around the same time, ritual baths for purification became more common among Jews in urban areas, and, if you go to the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem today, you can see houses with ritual baths dating back almost 20 centuries. This is the context for the baptism of God’s people by John the Baptist in this passage.
Jesus, of course, as God’s son, is sinless, and there is no need for him to repent, or to receive forgiveness, in the way that the people do. In Matthew’s account of the baptism, in fact, John tries to refuse to baptise him saying that it is he, John, who should instead be baptised by Jesus. It is however important for Jesus to be baptised, so that he can become like one of us – Emmanuel – God with us. It is a symbol of his great humility, and he sets an example for his followers. His baptism is also an opportunity for God to show Jesus’ divine authority with the words: You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Our reading from Acts on the other hand refers to the baptism of new believers by the apostles in the early church.
It has been a very difficult time for Christian believers. One of their leaders, Stephen, has been stoned to death by the mob whilst preaching the gospel. This has been followed by severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and most of the church members have fled to the countryside of Judea and Samaria. However, finding themselves amongst people who have not heard the gospel, they take the opportunity to talk about Jesus, and many come to faith. The tragedy of the death of Stephen has therefore in fact been the catalyst for the spread of the message in the wider community.
Slightly earlier in this chapter, we are told that the people have believed, and are baptised, by Philip, both men and women. Then, here in verse 14, we are told that Peter and John go down and pray for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, and then they lay their hands on them. This seems to suggest that the way in which Philip was baptising people was only a first step, and the new believers also needed the laying on of hands by the apostles as a final step in coming to faith.
These are controversial verses, because no-one is really quite sure what they actually mean. There are lots of different explanations, and, if you want to look into this further, I can point you in the right direction. I usually try specifically to disentangle the tricky verses in a Bible reading, but, this morning, it’s not a discussion which I want to get bogged down in, because I want to concentrate instead on what baptism means to us.
So what does baptism mean to you?
When I talk to parents who have asked me to baptise their child, I ask them this very question. They tell me that it is a chance to give thanks for the safe arrival of their baby, and a chance to celebrate with friends and family. They also however have the feeling that it is something which they need to do for their child. This is partly because it is seen as a traditional rite of passage, but it is more than this, I think. A new baby is a miraculous gift, which gives them a sense of wonder and awe, and sets them thinking more deeply about life and creation, and about God.
And within the Christian church itself there are a range of possible answers to this question. A range which is probably represented here in church this morning, in terms of your own experience, and what you believe.
Most Christians would agree that baptism is a sacrament. That is to say an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace – a sign of God’s unconditional love at work in and through us. Most Christians would also agree that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of those who are baptised. The Holy Spirit of course plays a part in the accounts of baptism in both our Bible readings too.
There is less agreement however on the role of the sacrament of baptism in our lives. Does the baptism bring with it forgiveness of sins, or does it simply signify that forgiveness has already taken place? Putting it another way, is baptism as an essential act, a saving act, through which a person becomes a Christian, and is put right with God? And without which a person is not a Christian? Or is it an important, but non-essential act, which is merely symbolic of what is essential, that is the sincere belief and commitment in the heart, the soul and the mind of the person, which puts that person right with God, and makes them a Christian?
I asked you at the beginning if you were baptised as a baby or as an adult.
If you were baptised as a baby, it would have been in a church tradition which believes that it is the sacrament of baptism which brings us into a relationship with God. That church therefore practises baptism for children who are unable themselves to make a personal commitment, but whose parents are able to do so on their behalf. Within this tradition, a baby which is very ill would be baptised as a matter of urgency, often in hospital. In the Roman Catholic church and most of the Anglican church for example infant baptism is the norm.
If you were baptised as adult, it would either have been because you had just become a Christian, or because you were part of a church tradition which believes that baptism is symbolic of a faith commitment in the heart, the soul and the mind of the person. That church therefore only practises baptism for people who are old enough to believe and make a personal commitment, that is adults and older children. A believer’s baptism, as it is known, takes in place in Baptist and Pentecostal churches, and some Anglican churches, and it of course follows the example of what happened in the early church, as our reading from Acts reminds us.
So, as I asked you earlier, what does baptism mean to you? What difference does it make to you that you are baptised?
Clearly only you can answer that question.
And let me say at this point that, if there is anyone here who has not been baptised, and would like to be, please do speak to one of us this morning, and we would very pleased to talk to you about it.
For now, let me share with you three images which come to mind for me – amongst many possible images - around what baptism means to me, and what difference it makes to me.
When I was at school, I had a friend called Rebecca, who was a Baptist, and she invited me to attend her baptism. It was something I will never forget. She was baptised by total immersion in a long white dress. Just before she was baptised, she gave her testimony, speaking passionately about the difference which being a Christian made in her life, and, after each person was baptised, and climbed back out of the pool, we all sang the chorus of that wonderful Easter hymn “Low in the grave he lay” (which we will sing in a few minutes)
Up from the grave He arose
With a mighty triumph o'er His foes
He arose a Victor from the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign
He arose! (He arose)
He arose! (He arose)
Hallelujah! Christ arose!
It was so different from anything I had seen in the churches I normally attended. I was blown away by the power of the symbolism, and by the sincerity of the testimonies of those who were baptised. This was believer’s baptism at its best.
I trained for ordination alongside another Rebecca. Becky had never been baptised, as a baby or as an adult, and, you have to be baptised in order to be ordained. During our four years of training, the group of ordinands had become very close-knit and supportive, and so it was a wonderful moment on Maundy Thursday 2014 at our Easter School when Becky was baptised from amongst us.
And finally – my own baptism. For me it has always been something which I feel connects me with people. It connects me with people all over the world, and with people going back in time.
I was baptised as a baby in the Methodist Church. When I came to be ordained, I found that, although my mother had kept all my certificates, including my one for swimming a width, she hadn’t for some reason kept my baptism certificate, and I needed it. I contacted the current minister at the church in south east London where I was baptised, and I received a lovely covering letter back. The minister said that there were still people there who remembered my parents, and who sent me their good wishes.
I was baptised in this beautiful silk christening robe, which was made by hand by my maternal grandmother. My mother was baptised in it, as was my sister, and our two sons. I myself baptised my two granddaughters, but sadly, with them living abroad, they had grown too big to fit into it by the time we were able to arrange the baptism.
My baptism connects me then with those who have gone before me, but it is also very precious because it connects me with Christians from other traditions and other parts of the world. Despite all the differences between different traditions in the Christian church, we all recognise each other’s baptisms. We all recognise baptism as the invisible indelible mark that someone is a Christian.
I leave you with these powerful words from the Common Worship baptism service.
As the minister makes the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead, he or she says
Christ claims you for his own
Receive the sign of his cross
Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified
To which we all add
Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ
Against sin, the world and the devil
And remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life
Go home today with those words ringing in your ears.
Be encouraged by them.
Be challenged by them.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/19dTszeAGk8
Christmas Eve - Midnight
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Last week some gas engineers dug up a road. A small boy who lived in the road was fascinated by their machinery and the large hole they created. He asked if they were digging for treasure. When he came home from school there was a parcel on the doorstep – it contained a bag of gold chocolate coins. There was note – “We found the treasure” – signed by the gas men.
That story was on the internet, so it must be true. But true or not the fact that it was upvoted to the front page meant that it made a connection with a lot of people.
Another story, much older, but absolutely true.
A prison chaplain was visiting an inmate for a service of Holy Communion. Such visits were only permitted once every six months and were strictly supervised by a prison guard. When they reached the Peace the prisoner stopped the service and went over to the guard who was supervising.
He addressed the guard by name – “Brand, are you a Christian?” The guard replied that he was. “Well then, you must take off your cap, and join us around this table. You cannot sit apart. This is Holy Communion, and we must share and receive it together.”
To the chaplain’s astonishment the guard meekly removed his cap, joined the circle, and received Communion.
The chaplain’s name was Harry Wiggett. The guard was Christo Brand. The prisoner was Nelson Mandela.
It was a small act – to address another person by their name, to see in them a fellow human being, to invite them to belong.
It was a small act – yet it bridged huge differences. The guard held all the power, represented all the authority. The prisoner had nothing, nothing except respect for a fellow human being - and an absolute refusal to allow history to determine the future.
It was a small act – but with hindsight we can see in it the process by which change was made possible. Change in individuals, change in a nation, change that has echoed around our world. By countless such small acts is our future crafted. Small acts often connect with people’s lives. They give us hope, and this is a time of hope.
The refusal to give up on others is at the heart of Christmas, simply because God refuses to give up on us. This is another small act – the birth of a child. In individual lives of course each birth is momentous. Yet viewed over the entirety of human history one single birth, long ago, far away, hardly registers. There were many births that night, most of them have no relevance for us today.
Yet we claim that this birth is relevant, that this child, these parents, are connected to our lives. This child – this small act of human fragility – makes a difference. If human destiny is crafted by countless small acts, then here it is radically reshaped.
In prison Nelson Mandela faced the reality of choice – how people on opposite sides of conflict determine each other’s response and reactions. He, and others, came to realise that good news has to be good news for everyone, or it is good news for no-one.
We live in a world which contains much that makes us anxious and fearful. I sometimes think that you hardly dare turn on the news or open the paper for fear of whatever new tragedy might confront us. We can only take so much bad news – the cynicism which pervades British culture is a symptom of a people who are weary of disappointment. It suggests we have given up on hope, worse still, we have given up on ourselves. We need to be reminded that God does not give up on us.
There are those who suspect that Christmas is nothing more than sentimental escapism, wishful thinking for how our world might be. As Alan Sugar says to Father Christmas, it’s a nice idea, but it’s not a business plan. Or is it?
There was question asked on the same internet forum last week – “Are you really happy or just really comfortable?” It’s an interesting question. Are you really happy, or just really comfortable? The comments in response were rather sad – most people said they’d settle for whatever comfort they could get. They’d given up on happiness, echoed in a comment I believe is attributed to Pope Francis, our “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy”
Christmas is a time of big expectations, many we know to be unrealistic, many will give up on hoping for too much. Yet maybe we need to learn to hope for more.
Don’t believe all you read on the internet, but all the same, if you listen to what people are saying there is still a message to be heard. We may live in a cynical and disbelieving world, but stories of hope still connect. And usually it is the small acts that connect the most. There’s something important going on in small acts.
At our crib service earlier this evening everyone was given a coloured glow stick, the type you snap and shake and they glow different colours. Seeing the church in darkness filled with people waving multi-coloured glowsticks I am always reminded of Desmond Tutu’s message that we are a Rainbow People of God.
He was of course a hugely important part of the fight against apartheid, but more importantly, his integrity, humility and authority made him a key part bringing reconciliation to a deeply divided people. Where most expected civil war to ensue he chaired South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission.
When he was asked what was his most life changing moment Desmond Tutu remembered that when he was a small boy, about nine, he was walking with his mother to her work as a domestic servant. They met a white priest, a tall white priest wearing a black cassock and a hat – the priest stopped – and doffed his hat to Desmond’s mother. Tutu said it was mind blowing – that a white man should doff his hat to a black servant was “the biggest defining moment in my life.” The priest was Trevor Huddleston, whose fierce passion for justice Tutu himself emulated.
Small acts, seemingly so insignificant, can change a life, can change a nation, can change history. We know this to be true, therefore there is hope. There is always hope. God never gives up on us.
Christmas is at the turn of the year, when we are past the shortest day and the longest night, and we start to push back the darkness. We look to the future, and we wonder.
It will not be an easy future, we know this to be true, but we can change its course – we can make a difference. Small acts – ordinary people. That’s where things important can happen. If there is one thing you take with you from this night, let it be a determination to believe in small acts, because small acts are possible, and they work miracles.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/eQrtTw5Q-Ew
Fourth Sunday of Advent
I wonder if you can work out what these three popular songs have in common?
Lucy in the sky with diamonds by the Beatles
Waterloo by Abba
God only knows by the Beach Boys
Well, they have all at some time been banned from being played on the radio.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds for what were considered blatant references to drug use; Waterloo during the Gulf War due to its connotations with armed conflict; and God only knows because back in 1966 simply using the word God in a pop song was deemed to be blasphemous.
And if you think that is all a bit over the top, listen to these assessments of another very well-known song.
E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist preacher and scholar, called it "the most revolutionary document in the history of the world." William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, instructed missionaries to poverty-stricken India never to mention the words of this song in public because it could incite riots in the streets. And Baptist writer, William Shurden, said that, when you read the lyrics of this song, you "sniff the powder of dynamite."
What song am I talking about?
Well, it’s the Magnificat – Mary’s song – which you heard just now in our reading from Luke’s gospel. The Magnificat is so-named, of course, because magnificat is the first word – meaning magnify – in Latin version of this song. This song is sung by an unmarried teenage peasant girl who has just found out she is pregnant, a girl we know as Mary. And Mary is a very special person chosen by God for a very special role in his plan for the salvation of the world.
Step for moment with me inside these ancient words, and hear the voice of this young mother as she announces that a new day has dawned, both for her and for us. She glorifies God as she sings of what he is going to do for the world through her.
This song – like much of what we read in the Bible – is both a comfort for us and a challenge to us. You can divide the song into two sections. The first section – verses 46-50 – brings us comfort, and the second section - verses 51-55 – challenges us. You might want to look at the text on your service sheet.
We could call the first section “The gift of God’s grace”. This is the comfort.
In verses 46-50, we see something wonderful and true about God: He loves the underdog, the disqualified, and the unimpressive. Mary stands before the Lord just as we do - needy, flawed, with nothing to merit his favour, nothing to earn but judgment. She is amazed at a God who knows her so well and chooses her anyway.
That all sounds fairly uncontroversial, I hear you say. Why all those warnings? Nothing so revolutionary in that.
But hold on. The second part is coming. This is where Mary turns her attention to world and its systems, and interprets the meaning of Christ's coming for this earth. We could call this section “God’s transforming power”. This is the challenge.
In v. 51-55, Mary sings of radical reversals of what our world values, shifting everything in order to bring God's justice for his people. Three groups of people will be impacted we are told: the helpless, the humble and the hungry.
Firstly, in verse 51, we learn that God will rescue the helpless.
He has shown strength with His arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
Mary is just a young girl, not a political analyst. She is standing in the living room of an older relative in the hill country of Judea, singing this song. But she sees it all coming. Her boy-child will up-end all the centres of power humans have established on this earth. This baby is God's signal to power-brokers in every strata of society: the end of human self-centred ambition is at hand.
Secondly, in verse 52, God will exalt the humble.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
Mary's song means we need to reverse our ambitions if we want to flourish in God's world. We need to stop buying into the idea that if we're going to get anywhere in life, we've got to be assertive and stand up for our rights! There's a higher law at work than the "law of the jungle." Jesus gives it to us in Luke 14: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
Thirdly, in verse 53, God will fill the hungry.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
Mary’s words here do refer to the physically needy of this world, to those without food, but they also refer to the spiritually needy, to those who are conscious of the God-shaped hole in their lives. Hungry people have one focus—where to find food. Deep inside them humans also have the sense that whatever else in life they have, they must know God?
So, in this song – this revolutionary song - Mary announces that a new day has dawned, both for her and for us. She glorifies God as she sings of what he is going to do for the world through her.
What we need to understand is that these promises are come in two stages.
There is the promise of the new heaven and the new earth at the end of time, when God will make all things new in his kingdom. This is the hope which we share with all those who follow Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
But there is also the promise of a foretaste of his kingdom here and now, and, as I said earlier, there is in this promise for us both comfort and challenge.
We receive the blessings and encouragement of being God’s people and this brings us comfort.
Personally, Mary stands before the Lord just as we do. We too are needy, flawed, with nothing to merit His favour, nothing to earn but judgment, but her words remind us that the church of Jesus Christ is for people who feel their own emptiness. Here's a gift you won't find under any tree this Christmas - the gift of God's grace – his unconditional love - in Jesus Christ, who has come for each and every one of us.
Looking at the big picture, we also need to remember that God loves everyone else in this world too. We are therefore also called to be his agents of change in offering his blessing and his comfort and his encouragement to those around us – to a needy world.
God loves the forgotten and the passed over. He shows mercy to those who don't deserve it. He chooses the lowly over the proud, and he finds the hungry and fills them. God is on the side of those who can't take care of themselves. And he calls on us to play our part. He calls on us to seek humility, not glory. To labour for the Lord, not ourselves. To stop caring who gets the credit. To give without expecting anything in return.
This is the challenge. What are we doing for the forgotten and the passed over, for those who cannot take care of themselves? What are we going to do to be God’s agents of change in our world today?
Are you now beginning to sniff the powder of dynamite in this message? I hope so.
There are so many areas of our life today where those who cannot speak up for themselves are finding it increasing difficult to cope, or even survive. Health and social care. The benefits system. Housing. Training and employment. The divisions between different groups in society and between different parts of the country. And the pandemic has just made things even worse.
What can we do?
We can write to our MP. Some MPs are more proactive than others, but they do take notice when their constituents lobby them about particular issues.
Let me give you one small example. Our local MP Mike Amesbury tabled his school uniforms bill in February last year after winning a Private Members' bill ballot, and as a result of lobbying from his constituents. The bill will help families across England struggling with uniform costs, because schools must now keep rules regarding branded clothing items to a minimum, and uniform suppliers must give the highest priority to cost and value for money. This bill has just become law.
We can also give financial or practical support to charities which are looking to change the world we live in.
Again, let me give you a small example. Crisis is a national charity for people experiencing homelessness. It offers year-round education, employment, housing and well-being services. It also campaigns to end homelessness for good, by suggesting possible solutions, including how long it will take and how much it will cost. This is just one of hundreds of charities which can give us the opportunity to make a difference, and to become agents of change for God.
And what about discussing these issues with friends and family, and especially with children and grandchildren? They are the leaders and influencers of tomorrow.
Above all, let me suggest that if the message which we preach, and the actions which we take, in our world in 2021, do not sound revolutionary, do not upset those with power and influence, do not bring into question the existing structures, then perhaps we are not simply not radical enough. And if there isn’t a sniff of the powder of dynamite – why not?
Oscar Romero was Archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970s, during a time of great political and social turmoil in his country. He spoke out courageously against violence, and supported the demands of the poor for economic and social justice. He became increasingly unpopular with the authorities, but, despite receiving threats, he refused to be silenced. On 24 March 1980, he was assassinated in his cathedral whilst presiding at mass.
Let me finish with some words of his:
he essence of the church lies in its mission of service to the world, in its mission to save the world from in its totality, and of saving it in history, here and now. The church exists to act in solidarity with the hopes and joys, the anxieties and sorrows, of men and women. Like Jesus, the church is sent to ‘bring good news to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart, to seek and save what is lost’,
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/zzG6j6djhWc
Third Sunday of Advent
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
I was watching an article on YouTube about a used car salesman. As a small boy he’d been fascinated by cars. As a teenager he’d bought some cheap old cars, done them up and sold them for a small profit. Over time he bought better cars and more of them. Eventually he found himself renting a plot of land and setting up his own business.
He still loved working with cars, especially quirky British models most other dealers wouldn’t touch. The cars were great, it was his customers that drove him mad.
Anyone who has worked face to face with the public will have some sympathy with the car dealer, and also John the Baptist when he says to the crowd – You brood of vipers. I can think of a few teachers who might like to use that phrase at a parents’ evening. But we’re not meant to go round upsetting people so sometimes what needs to be said doesn’t get said.
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
Let’s take another look at that verse. Firstly – rejoice. Today is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin, rejoice ye. We light the rose coloured candle in our Advent ring because rose is the liturgical colour for joy.
Advent is a tough season. We are watching, waiting, preparing. It is a time for self-examination and in former times for fasting. By the third week of a fast people were weakened. Gaudete is a sign of God’s grace, the fast is relaxed, we draw close to the birth of Christ. This is a day to rejoice at hope that is entering our world.
And then gentleness – let your gentleness be known to everyone. We tend to think of gentleness as tenderness or kindness, as a mother is gentle with her child. But in ancient use gentleness had another meaning, in the Psalms for example it means loving correction. So when a parent disciplines a child, and takes the tough responsibility for guiding a child through the complexities of life, that also is gentleness.
It is the same loving correction we hear in the voice of prophecy, the voice of a loving parent reaching out to rebellious and disobedient children. A voice that is often ignored, and often resented, but a voice that speaks in love and will not give up.
I often find myself saying to parents preparing for baptism, if you’re doing parenting right then at some stage you will be the worst parents in the world. The meanest, the most strict, the ones who set a curfew when everyone else is allowed to stay out all hours. That is the price you pay for gentleness. But in the long run you also reap the rewards.
John the Baptist saw the need for change. As I said last week the unpopular word ‘repentance’ means to go beyond the mind you have, to think better of yourself, to think better of others, to see new possibilities. But change is hard.
The used car dealer said that 60% of his customers were fine. Many of them came back and bought more cars from him. But 40% were bonkers. They lied about faults on cars they were trading in. They’d buy a £500 banger and then expect the same warranty as a brand new car. They’d be late for appointments, promise to view a car which had to then be prepared and got ready and then they’d never turn up.
Ha! I thought, you want to try being a vicar mate.
Some of John’s crowd got the message – then what should we do? I suspect it wasn’t 60%, just a few, but they understood the need for change.
His advice was very practical and down to earth, share a spare coat, share food, don’t cheat, don’t abuse power to extract money out of others, don’t trade in a car with a broken gearbox (no I made that one up, John didn’t say that.)
But think about it – we know things in our world aren’t as they should be. I was reading a new report on Afghanistan, the desperate poverty affecting millions, and with the Taliban in power what can we do?
As a school governor I read the report that says when children have to self-isolate due to Covid that absence counts against the school’s attendance records. So are teachers meant to encourage children with Covid to attend? It doesn’t make sense to me. What can I do?
We know there are families locally fearful of winter heating bills, or struggling to put food on the table. Is that something we can make a difference about?
I read of a teacher in Uganda, a man with 20 years experience, earning £30 a month, who has had to give up teaching to run a farm to feed his family. How will his children get an education?
Same question as the crowd asked – then what should we do?
About Afghanistan, I don’t know. I suspect there isn’t much I can do other than be aware and pray and watch for when things might change. We need to discern what we can change and what we can’t. Don’t let one prevent us from doing the other.
About school attendance – well I have a good track record of asking awkward questions to those who make silly policies.
About local families – well we have our Foodbank and we know that works.
About Ugandan children’s education – well our Christmas card present aid gifts can make a difference. So far we can send some chickens, a nanny goat, a sewing machine, some cocoa saplings, pay for schooling, cover the cost of antibiotics, and provide clean water.
There are some things we can’t change. There are others we can. At a wide range of levels we know things could be, ought to be different. We know change is needed.
These point of unease are important. They are the moments when the prophetic voice within us is awakened. They are Advent moments, times when we experience the otherness of God’s kingdom. A different reality draws closer.
Therefore rejoice, even though we are still in the fast God’s graciousness is glimpsed. John’s message is to value those moments of awakening. They lead to the question – what should we do? And that makes it possible for us to be part of a different future.
The Youtube linke is https://youtu.be/2v_dq8L9Nh4
Second Sunday of Advent
“And did those feet in ancient time?”
My text is a question mark. Not any old question mark, but specifically the question mark from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem. Billy Bragg once said that when you sing that hymn you have to sing the question marks, they make a difference.
Hubert Parry set the words of Blake’s poem to music to support a 1918 rally campaigning for Votes for Women. He recognized in Blake’s words a vision of England, not as it is, but as it might be. When you include the question marks Jerusalem become aspirational - it is about what might be, if we have the will and the determination to make it so.
Aspirations do not come cheap, the metaphorical Jerusalem comes at a price. Blake writes of weapons, the bow of burning gold, the chariot of fire, the sword that will not sleep. And of courageous resilience, the mental fight with which this new land is forged.
1918 was of course a time when the nations had been put through the furnace, and what had emerged was still being shaped. The future was being written - and we are still living through the consequences of those days. We also write the future. It is said that the final cost of the economic meltdown presented by Covid will be paid for by our children, and quite possibly by our grandchildren.
New lands, new visions, are built by people. To change our land, and our future, begins by changing ourselves. The unknown 14th century writer of the Cloud of Unknowing wrote, “It is not what you are or what you have been that God looks at with his merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.”
Not what you are or what you have been…., but what you desire to be.”
John the Baptist stands at the heart of our Advent journey. When Luke speaks of him he begins with those who held power at the time, Tiberius, Pilate, Herod and Philip, Annas and Caiaphas. Between them they embodied political, military, economic, social and religious authority. They were the big players, the movers and shakers, they made policy and they wrote the rules. The future surely lay in their hands.
Yet when change came it came not through them, but by John son of Zechariah, living in the wilderness. And his message was of repentance.
It’s not a word we use too much today. People associate repentance with guilt, repentance means religious people telling everyone else how to live, repentance implies accusation. But if that’s how we think about repentance then it’s like singing Jerusalem without the question marks. We get it wrong, because the meaning is something else entirely.
To repent means quite literally “to go beyond the mind you have.” To enlarge the scope of what you think possible. To believe more of yourself, and of others, and for others. Repentance is aspirational, because it dares to believe things might be better.
The powerful often think far too small. Their power makes them fearful. They have too much to lose to hope for better things. And of course, as history shows, and shows time and time again, by their power they have lost everything.
But not John - John who had nothing to lose gained everything, and his message endures - and what a message.
I cannot help but come back to his burning passion for the words of Isaiah - Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill laid low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”
Blake and John would get on well together. Because John’s proclamation has a fiery message if you read between the lines. His world was dominated by the Roman roads. Straight, smooth and level they pointed to Rome, seat of imperial might. They were symbolic, and more - because the roads enabled troops to swiftly descend on anyone who stepped out of line.
The roads were a sign - the Romans couldn’t control so vast an empire with the limited troops they had, so they built their roads. The roads spoke of who was in charge, and where power was held and what would happen to anyone who dared to think differently. So when John quoted Isaiah you can almost hear him saying - it is God who holds authority, and the Lord who wields power, and not the Emperor, and not Pilate and not Herod. And the future is in God’s hands, not theirs.
Repentance is about being set free, free to think beyond, free to think better, free to hope more.
Now this week - it may not be the best idea to go into work tomorrow and invite everyone to repent. It’s not a line which will appeal to many down the pub. We may be wiser to begin with ourselves, and ask - as do Blake’s question marks - what stands in the way of my best aspirations,
what makes me doubt God’s best hopes for me;
what prevents me from seeing myself as God sees me, not as I am, nor as what I have been, but as what I desire to be.
If repentance is about going beyond the mind that we have, to enlarge our hopes, to believe more of ourselves and others, then John’s message is just as relevant today as it was then. It is, as David Adams prays, to dare to stand before God, and to catch a glimpse of glory.
Holy God, we look for you, we long for you.
Let us see that you are come among us;
make us aware of your presence
and grant us a glimpse of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/L9h1sZmvYbo
Christ the King
Christ the King John 18: 33 -37.
Once again we arrive at the last Sunday of the Churches year, next week, Advent Sunday, begins our new year and our preparation to celebrate again greeting Jesus into our world.
This last Sunday of the Churches year is known by many as the celebration of Christ the King. In Christian terms it is a fairly recent innovation only starting to be celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925 and being accepted into the Anglican lectionary in 1970, over 50 years ago I know, but in church time very recent.
Prior to that, and still in some churches, today is known as stir up Sunday due to the collect or post communion prayer which begins; stir up we beseech the O Lord.
Many think it is so called because today you should stir in all the ingredients of the Christmas pudding, but now I guess most come from M & S or similar, if there are any on the shelves this year.
In fact it is a call to stir up the hearts of all faithful people to worship our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Christ the King.
One of the most difficult concepts to preach on, or for any of us to understand, is that of the Holy Trinity, One in Three and three in one. Father Son and Holy Spirit, all God and yet all different in form.
And it is that part of the Trinity we call the Son, Christ, who we also call King.
I know that at times we talk of our God and King, not least in that great hymn, but today is designated as Christ the King which I think is much more accurate and helpful.
What do you think of when you hear the word King?
The most important piece on a chess board, the king in each suit in a pack of playing cards, King Street which occurs in many cities and towns.
I used to get the subway at King and Bathurst in Toronto when I first lived there. You may think of Elvis Presley, known by many as The King. There was a hurricane King in Florida in 1950 which caused massive damage.
The word King appears in so many different ways in our usage but probably most of us think of a male Monarch when we hear the word King.
A supreme or absolute head of a state and government, either in reality or symbolically. A monarch is normally not elected but usually comes to power by right of birth and holds the title and post for life.
So a King is not just a name for things, but someone who is real, someone who we can see and hear, now or in the past, just as we see and hear each other.
God is the supreme being the creator of everything but who we cannot see, even Moses hid his face in the presence of God.
But, as we will celebrate again in just a few weeks, Christ was sent by God to be with us in human form, to be real.
In his trial and at His crucifixion many called Him mockingly King of the Jews, but He was and is King over all creation.
This is referred to in our reading from John's Gospel when Pilot questions Jesus. Jesus, a King but not an earthly one.
And that is what we celebrate today, Christ who was real and in human form and is now still real but returned to the father and sits at His right hand.
He came to us not only to show us the way to eternal life.
Christ came to us, to all of creation, to make clear the power and the love of God for all His creation and so it is right that we call Him King, supreme and absolute head of our church and of our lives.
He also came to teach us and to show us how God wants us to live in His creation, how to be good stewards of our world and how to live together with each other, however different we may be.
But although today we celebrate Christ the King we cannot separate Him from God the Father or the Holy Spirit, as all are one, part of the Holy and eternal Trinity which has the ultimate authority over everything.
I believe it is good to remind ourselves of these things before we get carried away with our celebrations of the birth of Christ and all that goes with the celebration of Christmas.
In our reading we saw a questioning Pilot, he did not understand what was going on, I doubt he understood the reply Jesus gave to him. He was a man of the world and understood the power a King could wield and yet in front of him was an ordinary man who did not even claim greatness.
There is nothing wrong in not understanding everything, even in having doubts about our faith or aspects of it, we are in good company, then and now. Remember not long after his appointment even our Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby admitted to having doubts from time to time.
Perhaps the most common cause for doubt is the question I was often asked by those I met in the hospice, patients or their relatives or by those grieving when I meet to discuss funeral arrangements.
Why does God allow suffering? So and so went to church regularly was a good person and yet why are they suffering now or did suffer.
There have been over the centuries many answers given to this question, I would suggest that many of them have been the cause of even greater pain and suffering by loading guilt on to pain by trying to say that suffering is a punishment for sin. Or that if we still suffer even though we pray that is because our faith which is not strong enough.
I do not accept either of those ideas.
Others have tried to say that it is through suffering and dealing with it that we grow, the no pain no gain approach. Again I do not accept that.
Still others say that suffering is what allows God to show his love for us. Sorry, again that does not strike me how the God I know would behave.
So what is the answer, and this is where I admit to having a real problem, I don’t have one.
Suffering, pain, does exist, I have seen it affecting many people who I know had a strong faith, who I know had tried their very best to lead a good life, never hurting anyone or causing suffering to others. And yet still they suffered.
I am absolutely convinced that God does not impose suffering on us nor is it a result of our own sin or actions. Although I do accept that there are lifestyle issues which can bring pain and suffering on ourselves at times.
In the end I think we have to make a choice, to accept our great limitations, that there is so much we do not understand and put our trust in God to guide us, wherever it may lead knowing he is always with us whatever happens. Or we can blame God for everything and be constantly angry.
It is perhaps summed up well in the prayer by Reinhold Neiburh the American Theologian. You probably recognise the first part often paraphrased, but I would like to read it all as it was written.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace
taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
so that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/3GiyQHrI31U
The start of our ‘First Thursday Café’ was welcomed by 20+ visitors who enjoyed coffee, tea and cake along with friendly conversation. This was a tremendous opportunity for some to catch up after a long period of isolation due to the pandemic.
We look forward to seeing everyone again at 10.30am on the 2nd December. Don’t forget everyone is welcome so please bring a friend or neighbour.
It’s 1861. 160 years ago. The Americans are in the midst of a civil war. Italy is united for the first time under King Victor Emmanuele II. In Russia Tsar Alexander II has just freed the serfs. Nearer to home, Queen Victoria is on the throne. Thomas Cook is organising the first ever package holiday from London to Paris. The first ever full census of the population is taking place. And somewhere in the backstreets of London a silversmith is crafting something of beauty in his workshop. Let me show it to you.
When I was staying with my sister in Cambridge a few weeks ago, we went into an antique shop, and came across this. It is a communion set with a chalice and a paten, in silver, made in London in 1861 specifically for home communions. It is still in its original travelling case, lined with red velvet. It is well-used and well-loved.
And this started me thinking. Thinking about whom this communion set might have belonged to. Who he was (and in 1861 it was inevitably a man). Where he lived and worked. Thinking also about the people who had received communion from him. In their own homes. Because they were too ill or infirm to go to church. Thinking about how they would have felt. Encouraged. Reassured. Cared for.
Today is All Saints. The day when we remember especially all those faithful Christians who have gone before us. Not just those who have been recognised by the church as saints. St Mary. St Thomas. But also our parents. Our grandparents. Those who worshipped in this church in times gone by. Those we know only through the stories of their lives or the books they wrote. And the previous owner of this communion set and his parishioners.
In Hebrews chapter 12 verse 1 we read this
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Yes, as we sit in church here in this morning, we are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. In other words, by all those who like us followed Jesus as Lord and Saviour, and who, as our Christian brothers and sisters, can still today encourage us to persevere in the faith. And we give thanks for them.
I wonder who comes into your mind?
For me there is Brian. A quiet reflective man. With an enormous hug and the strongest ever handshake. Brian who never had very much money, and only possessed two items of footwear: a pair of sandals and a pair of wellingtons.
For me there is Norman. A caring schoolmaster. But so caring and concerned about other people, that, when he became a headmaster, the demands of the job were so great that he took refuge in alcohol.
For me there is Joanna. A dynamic colleague and someone with great emotional intelligence. Who sat talking with me for literally hours during my ordination training.
And then there is C.S. Lewis, whom I only know through his writings of course. Converted to Christianity from atheism as an adult. For me someone who explains the Christian faith probably better than any other person.
Who is in your mind at this moment? Whom do you especially give thanks for this morning?
Come back with me again to 1861. As the silversmith is crafting the communion set in one part of London, the Revd Edward Hayes Plumptre, aged 40, and chaplain and Professor of Theology at King’s College London, is walking the streets of the capital, before going back to his lodgings to write hymns. And it is Edward Plumptre who wrote our last hymn this morning. Would you like to turn to it? It is 814 in your hymn books.
In this hymn, Edward Plumptre above all wants to emphasise Christian unity. The importance of the faith we share with others in our own day and down the ages. A faith which is bigger and greater and stronger than the things which divide us.
And in order to emphasise this, he reminds us of God’s faithfulness to each successive generation, and of our responsibility to recall this and talk about it. In verse 1, we sing
Our forebears owned thy goodness
And we their deeds record;
And both of this bear witness:
One church, one faith, one Lord.
He reminds us however that being a Christian has never been easy. In verse 3, he speaks of many a day of darkness and many a scene of strife.
In our own personal lives, there have undoubtedly been dark times, when perhaps we have even questioned our faith and questioned God, just as Mary in our gospel reading questions Jesus with the words: Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Certainly, as we think back to the lives of Christians who have gone before us, there have been many times when the faithful few [have] fought bravely, and continued to share the good news, the gospel of redemption, sin pardoned, hope restored, against overwhelming odds, and in the face of persecution. And we remember that we are part of a world-wide church of well over 2 billion believers, where many still fight for the freedom to follow Jesus, and to preach the gospel.
Verse 4 of our hymn follows up on this with a challenge. The stories of these faithful people can inspire and encourage us, in the words of that verse from Hebrews, to run with perseverance the race marked out for us, but it often feels as if we too are part of the faithful few, in a world which is increasingly secular, and where traditional Christianity seems to have lost its appeal to most people. The challenge then to us is this. In our time and our place, are we going to evade the conflict and cast away our crown? Are our hearts going to fail and our hands hang down?
The answer in this hymn comes back loud and clear: NOT SO! We will hold our nerve unflinching. And we will do this because, as verse 5 tells us, we are not in this alone. God’s mercy will not fail us. His right hand (his strong hand) will help us. He is with us every step of the way.
On this All Saints Sunday, as we give thanks for those who have gone before us, we remember that we are all working together for the same goal, that is the coming of God’s kingdom throughout the world and in all creation. This is the moment which St John describes in our first reading from Revelation 21. And this is also the moment which is described so beautifully in that most well-loved hymn ‘For all the saints’ which we sang earlier. As I close, listen again to those encouraging words:
From earth’s wide bounds
From ocean’s farthest coast
Through gates of pearl
Streams in the countless host
Singing to Father
Son and Holy Ghost
Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen
The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever. Psalm 19:9
The fear of the Lord, what does that mean to you? Are we here to put the fear of God into people? Are we here to put the fear of God into ourselves?
Fear is something we do not like. It is a negative word. Why would we associate ‘fear’ with God?
But in the Bible fear is not always to be avoided. In the book of Proverbs for example, chapter 9, verse 10, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is something different, something positive, something to be sought after.
The Bible is full of surprises, surprises we often miss because we don’t read it often enough or carefully enough. For example, I was at our Deanery Synod meeting last Wednesday. The topic was our environment, something naturally on our minds as we near the global summit of world leaders. So let me ask you a question, in the Bible who is your neighbour?
Who is your neighbour? Any ideas?
Our first answer is that our neighbour is people. But let me point you to the Bible Jesus grew up with, what we call the Old Testament. In Leviticus 19: 18-20. Verse 18 says, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. OK – that’s fine, but then come three examples of who your neighbour is.
Firstly – your animals. You must look after them properly.
Secondly – your fields. You must tend them wisely.
Thirdly – people. You must treat them with respect.
So when God says love your neighbour he is not just talking about human beings. He is also talking about your animals, your cattle, sheep, elephants, giraffes, penguins, fish, birds. The loss of each species is the death of your neighbour. God takes it seriously.
God is equally serious about your fields, how they are ploughed, how they are fertilised, how chemicals are used, how crops are engineered, how hedgerows are maintained, how land is drained. Jeremy Clarkson may not sound like an angel but his series on farming tells us that what we ask of our farmers is unsustainable. The National Farmers Union voted him Farming Champion of the Year. A voice for the land is a voice for our neighbour.
Finally you get to people. The animals and the fields come first. Your neighbour is your animals, your fields, and then people.
The fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom – because the first step towards life is knowing that God is different to us.
Take our reading from Isaiah. There are three paragraphs, three sections. Take the middle one first – verses 6-9.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your way my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Remember the story of Adam and Eve, where did they go wrong? Well obviously an apple was involved. But what was the intention? It wasn’t because they were hungry, nowhere does it say that they ate the apple to survive, they had plenty to eat.
No, listen to the words of the serpent, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” See that’s where humanity goes wrong, when we think we can be like God. When we think that over there are the animals and the birds and the insects, and the fields and seas and the air. Those are over there, they are things. And we are over here, we’re like God. All those things belong to us and we can do whatever we want with them.
But then we read Leviticus. Look after your neighbour. And your neighbour is first of all your animals and your fields. People are included, but they are not separate and they do not come first.
In other words – you are not like God. You are not God. You are part of creation. God is different. God is not like us, and we are not like God. We are not over here with God, we are over here with the animals and the land, we are part of creation, not separate from it.
My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. God is different. That’s the fear of the Lord, the beginning of Wisdom. Knowing God is different.
Then we look at the first paragraph in Isaiah, verses 1-5. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”
Jane referred to this a couple of weeks ago, the energy we expend seeking happiness in all the wrong places, all the wrong things. We see this all around us, a society never healthier, never richer, never safer, never better educated, yet beset by anxiety and unease. We look for meaning in all the wrong things.
God says – life, the fullness of life, is abundant, it is without money, and without price. Incline your ear to me, listen, so that you may live.
But we don’t listen, so we don’t live. At least we do not live as God offers. We have not heard that our self-sufficiency is a myth. We still think we are over here, godlike and in control. Not over here, part of a complex and incredible world. But also a fragile and broken world.
So what can God do about this? What does he do about it? The third part of Isaiah, verses 10-11. “
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return until they have watered the earth – so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”
Rain cannot fall without watering the earth. God’s Word cannot be given without making God’s will known.
We meet because we have heard this Word. The Word made flesh, that dwelt amongst us. And his Spirit, sent to those who listen. To remind us that we are not like God, God is different from us, that is the fear of the Lord. It is the beginning of Wisdom because when you know God is different, God is not like us, you can begin to understand that God’s will is for us to be like him. And to see his creation as gift and abundance, and to be part of it joyfully, thankfully, reverently and carefully.
God is not like us – but he wills us to be like him. Which is why humanity is given choice. Know that God’s way is different, and choose to follow it.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/YeZiM3QPhtA
Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
In the verses just before our reading from Mark, Jesus gives his final and most detailed prediction of his trial, suffering, death, and resurrection. He is about to enter Jerusalem and confront the temple-based authorities.
So James and John seem to think this is an appropriate time, perhaps their last chance, to request privileged places for themselves to Jesus’ right and left.
In doing so, the sons of Zebedee appear to have misunderstood almost everything Jesus has said and done, except perhaps for the transfiguration. They recognised that glorification awaited Jesus. They expected that the authority Jesus had exhibited in his ministry would lead to something big, perhaps to a royal rule, and they wanted a special place in that.
When Jesus gently chastises them for their ignorance and speaks about “the cup” he must drink and “the baptism” he must undergo, he reiterates that violence and death await him in Jerusalem.
Although James and John affirm their willingness to endure suffering with Jesus, he waits until later to explain that they will fail to do so in the immediate future. Instead he addresses their desire for power and prestige. He comments on the nature of human power–the kind of power that will soon crush him in the political spectacle of his trial and execution–and on the meaning of his death. He puts his life and death, along with the lives and sufferings of his followers, in complete opposition to such expressions of power, the power which seemed more normal, even to his disciples.
James and John are not the only disciples enticed by visions of a triumphant reign, we hear that the rest of the Twelve fume over the brothers’ bid to outflank them in prominence. Jesus corrects their vision by holding up the behaviour of the Roman authorities as negative examples. They regularly “overpower” and “tyrannise” others. They rely on coercion and control to maintain their dominance and position.
In absolute contrast, greatness among Jesus’ followers is measured by their ability to live as servants and slaves, even if that life means suffering oppression at the hands of those who wield earthly power.
Jesus has spoken in similar terms, where he compares himself to a child, an image of powerlessness and vulnerability.
Jesus’ final line — “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” — connects to his preceding words about service and enslavement, indicating that his death will be just as much an example for them as was his way of living.
At the same time, Jesus’ mention of a “ransom” indicates that his death will be more than just an inspiring example or a martyr’s tragic protest against an unjust system.
The word used in Greek, lytron indicates that his death does something; it secures a release.
The context in which this statement appears is about power and servitude, not the problem of sin or the need to secure forgiveness.
Furthermore, the Old Testament usage of lytron, while sometimes referring to a redemption or purchased freedom, just as frequently refers to God’s acting to deliver people. A lytron is a liberation wrought by divine strength, not by payment such as the examples of lytron found in Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 15:15; 2 Samuel 7:23; Psalm 69:18; Isaiah 43:14.
Jesus therefore declares (without stopping to clarify precisely how) that God, through Jesus’ death, will free people from oppression and captivity, restoring them to membership in the community that corresponds to God’s reign.
All this to me raises some questions:
From whom or what does Jesus’ death deliver people? According to the immediate context, it delivers those who believe from the accepted norms of social and political power that human beings concoct to control each other. According to the story of the passion and resurrection, God defeats the power of death itself.
What about sin and forgiveness? The Gospel of Mark promises forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness are part of Jesus’ proclamation and ministry. But Mark presents these topics as subordinate pieces in a more comprehensive apocalyptic showdown that sees the cosmos and human existence transformed by God’s reign and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Who benefits? The mention of Jesus as a ransom on behalf of many emphasises the contrast between many and the one who acts on their behalf. Here, “many” has the sense of “all” or “everyone,” which is in keeping with the cosmic scope of Mark’s apocalyptic drama.
The latter verses from Mark describe Jesus as a servant, an example which he instructs his disciples to follow. It could be assumed that Jesus acts as he does so we do not have to do so, but I do not believe that is how it is presented here.
The idea of a vicarious atonement — Jesus as a sinless sacrifice carrying the full burden of human sin to satisfy God or cosmic justice and therefore release us all from any responsibility is a nice thought, but I suggest not what it intended.
So what does it mean for the church, for congregations, and for individual Christians to imitate Jesus, who submits to the designs of his powerful enemies? And how do we, when and where we live, experience the realities of the liberation that God has accomplished for us through the death of Jesus Christ, and not through our own success or failure at adopting the role of a servant to others?
I’m not sure that I can give you an easy and adequate answer to
That question but Perhaps Kipling sums it up in his poem Mary’s
If you stop to find out what your wages will be
And how they will clothe and feed you.
Willie, my son, don’t you go to the sea,
For the sea will never need you.
If you ask for the reason for every command,
And argue you with people about you,
Willie, my son, don’t you go on the land,
For the land will be better without you.
If you stop to consider the work that you’ve done,
And to boast what your labour is worth dear,
Angels may come for you, Willie my son
But you’ll never be wanted on earth dear.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/LYTnKhvh9Rs
Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”
Let’s set the scene – this is part of the Exodus story. The people of Israel had been held as slaves in Egypt. Life had been hard, Pharaoh was a harsh taskmaster. They laboured in sweltering heat day after day, every aspect of their lives was under someone else’s control.
But God heard their cry, he had called Moses, perhaps a most unlikely choice and certainly someone who felt he wasn’t up to the task. Moses was a reluctant leader.
We know the story, how Moses, who had himself fled from Egypt, went back and challenged Pharaoh – let my people go.
Then came the plagues, the escape into the desert, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the years in the wilderness.
Life in the wilderness was hard. Far harder it seemed than life back in Egypt. The people remembered the food, they forgot the suffering. As someone said this week, when we look back it is through rose tinted glasses.
In his Rule St Benedict told his community to take their past seriously, and not through rose tinted glasses. We need to be honest.
Listen readily to holy reading, and devote yourself often to prayer. Every day with tears and sighs confess your sins to God in prayer and change from these evil ways in the future.
The ancient world saw the gift of tears as a sign of God’s grace. If we are able to face that which has distorted life in the past then we can avoid the making same mistakes in the future. This is not a popular concept in modern culture, but perhaps it needs to be. Joan Chittister writes, “Life, Benedict implies, is a tapestry woven daily from yesterday’s threads. The colours don’t change, only the shapes we give them. Without the past to guide us, the future itself may succumb to it.”
The past couple of years have taken us into a new wilderness. Much that we took for granted has gone, we have a choice before us how we look to the future.
There will be some who hanker for things as they were before. There will be others who will wish everything to be different. There is a Christian path of being realistic about the past, being realistic about ourselves, that can help us shape what comes next.
Our church councils, for example, have looked at things we have done before, things we see good in and wish to do again, but things we know we need to do differently this time round. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
At St Peter’s our Monday Knit and Natter has become a Wednesday Coffee and Chat. What’s the difference? Maybe not a lot. It is a morning rather than an afternoon. It is twice a month rather than once. It moved days to be avoid clashes with other events, so it is open to a wider range of people. It is one small step to create a time and a place where people can meet just to be together. As such it is something we can do to help break down social isolation which we know affects too many people.
At St Mary’s we have looked at our village fair, something that is important as a fundraising event, but that’s not what people talk about. What they talk about is the friendship and working together, the sense of community and a shared commitment to celebrate life. Those who have led it in the past have been courageously realistic about how we need to do it differently in the future. And that relies on a wider range of people taking leadership.
When the wilderness seemed overwhelming Moses complained to God. This task is just too difficult. These people are just too awkward. And what did God do?
What he didn’t do is to ask more of Moses. Quite the opposite. Go find seventy others, share this task with them. Of course, then, as now, having tasted the responsibility many didn’t continue, but some did. And they did it differently.
When Eldad and Medad remained in the camp and prophesied the former leadership felt threatened. Joshua, Moses’ assistant – for which read, next leader in waiting – pleaded with Moses to stop them.
But that isn’t God’s way. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.” Moses wasn’t afraid of different people doing things in a different way.
Jesus had the same confrontation with his disciples. When they tried to stop a man acting in Jesus’ name because he wasn’t one of them he rebuked them. Anyone who does good in my name will inherit their reward.
If you go to the Cross outside St Peter’s in Chester you may meet the Town Crier. Wearing his red robe and tricorn hat, ringing his bell, he is popular with tourists. An American couple asked him if it is true you can walk all the way round the city on the Roman walls.
Oh yes, said the Crier, you can go this way round, or that way round, all the way, and you’ll end up back here.
Gee, that’s amazing, they said, which way’s shortest?
There are different ways to discover God’s will. There are different paths towards God. There are different journeys to build his kingdom. But there are no short cuts.
Our readings today are difficult. Both point to letting go of the past, letting go of power, letting go of self-sufficiency. Both suggest we need to work with others, perhaps others we don’t yet know, who may be different from us, and do things differently to us. And that will be hard. It was hard in Moses’ time. It was hard in Jesus’ time. We have no reason to think it will be any different today.
Like Moses we may feel we’re not up to the task. Like Moses we may be reluctant to take up a new direction. Like Joshua, or the disciples, we may mistrust those different from us.
Benedict advises us to listen readily to holy reading and devote ourselves often to prayer. In a recent survey younger people, those aged 18-34, are shown to pray twice as often as older people, that’s those aged 55 and over. In term of attending worship the younger age group are three times more likely to participate.
Maybe that isn’t church as we know it, maybe we need to listen again to Moses’ words - “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/6-Fa40swizs
Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
When I was first introduced to preaching, almost 30 years ago now, I was given the advice that I should try to limit any sermon to covering just three points.
Sometimes that works, sometimes it would be less than helpful and miss many of the things which are important for us to hear.
There are also times when one point is so important that including anything else would diminish it.
Sometimes it is difficult to know what points we should want to make, or in fact what if the preacher is merely putting forward their own view of the world.
When you have the privilege to stand up here and preach, usually without being challenged, you have the responsibility to be careful to remember that all we are, or should be trying to do, is make what we hear and read from scripture more accessible and understandable.
At least to those able to stay awake.
The Gospel we heard this morning has very much given a situation which helps me make three over arching points and thus follow the initial advice I was given. At least I hope so.
It seems to me that what we heard from Mark is about three things, about Jesus, about being human and about the outlook we need to have to be a follower of Jesus.
What do I mean by this?
In the first couple of verses we hear Jesus explain to his disciples what is to happen to him, his death and resurrection, which is fundamental to who he is.
As we know Jesus is an excellent teacher and leader but to me in this period of his ministry he is acting more like a coach of his particular chosen team. We hear that he has taken them away from the crowds to talk to them directly and discretely.
I don’t think it’s a secret that I am a great fan of rugby union, I used to play and still have a keen interest watching Sale Sharks whenever I get the chance, on TV or live. In fact if there is a game on TV I will try to watch whoever it is, Saracens beating Bristol Bears on Friday night for instance.
What Jesus is doing with his disciples is very much how a good coach works. First they select the right people, not all the same, not all with the same set of skills or personalities, but all who have one aim which unifies them as a Group.
The coach then has to work with each of them to develop their individual skills, in a professional rugby club the coach gets help here from assistant coaches with specialist skills for each different position on the field.
The head coach then has to bring all these things together by making sure that each member of the team knows how their skills fit into the game plan the coach has put together to try to defeat the opposition.
They also have to learn how they can each support their team mates for the good of the team not just going out for their own glory.
Jesus wanted his disciples to know what their opposition was going to be like and how they might work to spread the message he had brought to them, supporting each other.
But as we move on we get to see the human traits coming out.
They did not find it easy to understand what Jesus really meant, what he was saying seemed alien to them, they wanted to understand but we are told they were afraid to ask him what he meant.
I’m sure we can understand that, it may have been that they did not know what they wanted to ask, what he was saying was so outside their experience of life up to then.
They tried to get what he said to fit into their understanding, they were used to having some people be in charge and be more important than others so they applied this to their group.
We all like to think we are more important than the average, that there is something special about us which sets us apart. But the reality is we are all the same.
We are all born unable to do very much of anything other than eat sleep and in very simple ways let whoever is around us know when we need something.
It is as we grow and find the influences of our environment that we start to feel if we have a particular place within it.
Modern life with all the instant communication of social media platforms where influencers tell us what is good and what is not and how we should feel and behave, these make life much more complicated.
In the news recently we have heard about Emma Raducanu who at eighteen and in only her second major tennis tournament won the US open going through from the qualifying rounds to win the final without dropping a set.
The stuff of movies, the stuff of dreams. In the media much has been made of how this will motivate others to do the same.
Yes that is possible, but I would suggest highly unlikely.
Mainly as most of us don’t have the innate talent and abilities that she has and probably don’t have the single mindedness and discipline required either.
But we do all have our own skills which to us may seem to be very little but which to others are often something they cannot attain.
I have never been able to draw or paint, my grandad could, he was very good, in trying to help me he used to say, just draw what you see, it never worked for me though.
If we don’t win some major prize or reach a high position or become a pop star, does that mean we have failed. Social media might imply that but I am sure that is not a view Jesus would subscribe to, and nor should we.
If anyone wishes to be first he must be last and the servant of all.
A hard message to hear, and an even harder one to live by, especially in our modern age where we tend to think we are measured by our wealth or our possessions.
That constant conflict is with us all as human beings and why we need to keep looking to Christ not only for what we should do but also for the strength to help us do it.
And so we come to the last two verses where Jesus makes it clear what he expects of us.
I said earlier that we are born unable to do much, we need the help of others, particularly our parents, to help us get through each day and to grow and develop.
What Jesus is suggesting is that we approach everyone with a view to how we can help them, how we can reposed to their needs, not look to how they can help us.
That doesn’t mean that we should treat others a though they are children and we know what is best for them.
But it does mean that we should value them, allow them to grow and develop, and try to recognise and respond to their needs as best we can, but also help them to know the love and support which is there for them in Christ Jesus.
So three main points to take from this passage;
Jesus is the son of God who came to show us God’s love and what he expects of us and also that death is not the end.
That we are all human and get things wrong at times, but that there is hope for us all.
And that being important is not important, knowing the love of God and helping others come to know that too is what is really important.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/RfBMRuGE97Q
Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
I wonder how many Christians feel their heart sink when they hear those words? These are hard words. We know we don’t live up to them.
Faith is not easy. It never has been. Isaiah identifies the hallmarks of God’s servant:
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
Christians have long identified the suffering servant of Isaiah with Jesus of Nazareth. This was hard to understand. How could God’s own Son be rejected? How could God fail? How could the Messiah suffer and die? Which, as I have said before, is why Mark wrote his Gospel. To explain that God’s way is often the hard way. Those who choose to follow it choose a life that is not comfortable.
Jesus makes this clear. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Last Sunday was rather bizarre. After our morning services I was at Chester Cathedral for the installation of our new bishops, Julie and Sam. It was the Church of England being the Church of England.
There were processions of Lord Lieutenants, Mayors and other civic dignitaries. The Canons had our own procession and proceeded to our named stalls. Everybody bowed to everyone else. Bishop Mark read out the charge which quoted both the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the regulations of Canon Law. The organ played, the choir sang. The Cathedral remained open for visitors who could watch through the rood screen – you see in their eyes that this was all completely bonkers and baffling.
From the Cathedral I went up the M56 to a Bikers’ Church service held in a Methodist Church east of Warrington. Two blokes with guitars provided the music. A lady in red Ducati leathers led the service. People wandered in and out with cups of tea. The speaker was a mental health chaplain from Chorley. He introduced himself as the Chorley Chaplain.
He spoke on the letter of James, chapter 1, verse 2 – Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials. He held this verse alongside the story of Job – Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Reciting those words in Hebrew to a bunch of bikers wasn’t what I had expected. But you could tell he hit home. Many of those present had endured trials, loss, grief, anxiety, sickness, mourning. His message was that being a Christian isn’t about avoiding the trials, it is how we respond to them that matters.
At the Cathedral I fell into conversation with our Archdeacon and Diocesan Secretary – it is good to have two new bishops, but the year ahead will be the most testing we have known.
Being a church is going to be harder than ever before. We are short of money. We are very short of people. Not just people who attend, but people who make things happen. So many of those who do the thousand and one tasks of the kingdom have stepped back during the pandemic – many of them, so far, are not coming back.
As a church face a time of trial, the speaker at Biker Church reminds us, how we respond is what matters.
St Benedict was no stranger to holding a community together during difficult times. One of the extracts of the Rule for this week is this:
Now that we have asked God who will dwell in the holy tent, we have heard the instruction for dwelling in it, but only if we fulfil the obligations of those who live there. We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to God’s instructions. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Holy One to supply by the help of grace.
In that short passage Benedict sets out a lifetime of wisdom. Firstly, if we choose to dwell in the holy tent we accept there are obligations involved. If we are citizens of the Kingdom of God then citizenship comes with responsibilities.
Secondly, this will be a battle of holy obedience. The choices set before us won’t be easy, if our instinct is for safety and comfort, avoiding the difficult things, then we will not be obedient.
Thirdly, what is not possible by nature, let us ask God to supply by the help of grace. Benedict knew none of us would find this easy. We cannot do it by ourselves. We can only do it if we consciously seek God’s grace and rely upon it.
Jesus asks us to take the hardest path, to deny ourselves, to take up the cross, to follow him – but he does not expect us to do it alone.
Last Sunday was bizarre. At the Installation of Bishops there was the Church of England at it most splendid. Formal processions of the great and the good. Wonderful music from the organ and choir. Everything done with perfect rehearsal and in accordance with ecclesiastical tradition.
At biker church it got started when everyone wandered in having found a cup of tea. There was no order of service. The vestments were mostly leather jackets with a cross on the back. Someone’s dog got loose.
But in both those who wandered in were found a seat. Both worshipped God as our only source of hope and strength in difficult times. Both were places where prayer was valid and strangers were joined in common purpose.
Both were moments when people put Jesus first – and accepted the consequences of following his way.
When Benedict reminds us that we cannot win the battle of holy obedience without God’s grace he reminds us also that it is in community where we find such grace. Whether that is the formality of a great cathedral, or the organised chaos of a Biker Church, God’s grace is with us. And we do not take up this cross alone.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/sDFo66UhoFU
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
I wonder if you know what one of these is. If you have children or grandchildren of a certain age, you may recognise it. It’s a toy which you can change from, in this case, a car to a robot and back. It can be two different things. Yes. It is a transformer.
The dictionary defines a transformation as a change in the appearance or character of something or someone, and then adds especially so that that thing or person is improved.
Well, the theme of transformation – in our lives and in the world around us – and especially the idea of positive change, which brings with it an improvement or a benefit - is very much at the heart of our two readings today. The first is an extract of one of the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, from the book of Isaiah. And the second is two stories from the ministry of Jesus from the gospel of Mark. The one then predicting the coming of Jesus. The other telling us what actually happened when he finally came. But both make the same fundamental point – that transformation at all levels in our lives and in our world is the work of God. God the creator at work in and with his creation.
So let’s spend a few minutes this morning thinking about the theme of transformation with the help of these readings.
At a basic level, transformation is physical.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of the physical change in someone when their bodies are transformed, when a blind person is able to see, a deaf person able to hear, or a person who was unable to walk suddenly finds they can. And Mark too, in our gospel reading, tells the story of a deaf man with a speech impediment, whose ears are opened and whose tongue is released. This man’s life is transformed.
In 2014, when Kelly Thomas was 19, she lost control of her truck on her way home. The truck rolled over, and her head hit the roof. The impact severely compressed her spine, causing complete paralysis of her lower body. Her surgeon told her she had maybe a 1% chance of ever walking again. However, a pioneering spinal implant was installed just below the site of her injury, and the electrodes were then connected to a spinal cord stimulator surgically implanted in her abdominal wall. Only 3 ½ months later, she was able to walk with no assistance other than a walker, and she is now flourishing in her new freedom. Kelly’s life has been transformed. She can walk again.
The prophet Isaiah also speaks of physical changes which take place in the natural world. He speaks of water which breaks forth in the wilderness, of streams in the desert, of burning sand which becomes a pool, and of springs on the thirsty ground.
We see that in our world too. Amazing natural phenomena. Here is just one example.
The Atacama desert in northern Chile is one of the driest places in the world, but, every five to seven years, there is intense rainfall, which causes buried seeds to germinate and flower. More than 200 species of plants have in fact been found to grow in the area. The normally barren landscape is transformed into a carpet of white and yellow and purple flowers.
Now these physical transformations can take place through surgery or medication or other advances in medicine. They can take place through the natural healing processes of the human body or the natural restorative processes in nature. And sometimes there is really no way of accounting for them other than seeing them as miraculous, as in the stories from Mark’s gospel. One way or another, it is God the creator who brings about the transformation of course.
I wonder what examples you can think of such a transformation in your own lives, or in the lives of people you know?
So, the transformation might be physical – in our bodies or the natural world. But it might also a transformation in our minds, in our mental state, in our attitudes or opinions or thought processes. In that sense, we need to read the words of Isaiah not only literally but also metaphorically.
There are many times in our lives when we are blind, or deaf, or speechless, or unable to act, not because of any physical problem, but because of the sort of people we are. If we then begin to understand ourselves and other people better, we see things more clearly, and we listen more attentively to other people. We are able to express our thoughts and feelings more coherently, and we are able to make wise judgements about what to do or not to do. This is about self-awareness and self-acceptance, and an emotional intelligence, which helps us to empathise with those around us.
In this transformation too, it is God who brings it about. The Holy Spirit, working in our lives through the experiences we have, the people we meet, the music we listen to, the books we read – including the Bible of course, transforms us and the people we are. Let me give you one small example from my life.
As a child I was very shy and didn’t like to socialise very much with other children. Over time I learnt how to cope in social situations, but I always found it very hard. I thought this was a fault in me. Something which I needed to fight against and get rid of. And then in my 50s, as part of my ministry training, I learnt about the difference between introverts and extroverts. That introverts get their strength from being alone whereas extroverts get their strength from being with other people. Introverts then need recovery time whereas extroverts don’t. It was a light-bulb moment. There was nothing wrong with me, nothing odd about me. I was just an introvert. It transformed both my view of myself and the world around me. And this transformation came through the Holy Spirit at work in my ministry training course.
Has God transformed you, or someone you know, in the way you think about things? Something to reflect on.
But there is still another – and arguably the most important - sort of transformation which can take place in our lives – and that is a spiritual transformation, a transformation in our relationship with God. Isaiah refers to it briefly in verse 4 when he tells his listeners that God will come and save them. And the interaction between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 is as much about her own spiritual needs, about a spiritual transformation, as it is about the healing of her daughter. Let me explain.
The slightly odd discussion between the woman and Jesus about throwing the children’s food to the dogs is actually about whether she can be put right with God or not, whether the salvation which Isaiah refers to, through belief in Jesus, is on offer to her. She is a gentile, a non-Jew, symbolised by the dogs in this discussion, and the children to which Jesus refers are the Jews. The good news of the coming of the Messiah comes first to the Jews, but is then shared with the gentiles. The children are fed first, in this metaphor, but then the dogs also get to eat the food too. As St Paul writes in Romans 1:16 : I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
And it is the woman’s understanding of this important truth, when she says even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs, which shows her faith in Jesus as her saviour, and then results in her daughter being healed.
In my sermon in early August, I quoted from the French philosopher Blaise Pascal who wrote about our relationship with God, and our spiritual needs. He said this, you may remember:
What does our craving, and our helplessness, tell us? It tells us that we once had true happiness, but that now all we are left with is an empty print and trace? We try to fill this emptiness with things from the world around us, looking for help in these things, but nothing can help, because this endless emptiness can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.
In Luke 4, when Jesus stands up in his home synagogue, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, this time from Isaiah 61 saying:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[f]
Yes, Jesus is talking here about social justice and about physical healing and freedom, he is talking about our mental and psychological state, but he is talking also about much more than that. The good news is the promise of a restored relationship with God. The acknowledgement of the God-shaped hole which each of us has. The recognition of our longing to fill that endless emptiness refers in our lives to which Pascal with God himself. This is about a spiritual transformation, which makes a positive difference in our lives. It is not about a one-off moment, about a moment of conversion to faith in Jesus if you like. It is about a day-to-day ongoing transformation of our lives.
But what does that transformation feel like? How do we recognise it for what it is?
Well, to go back to Pascal, it is when we no longer try to fill this emptiness with things from the world around us. It is about changed priorities and perspectives. It is about a new sense of peace and well-being which helps us to flourish and grow.
A couple of examples.
Many of you will know the story of John Newton – who wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ – but for those who don’t .. John Newton went to sea at a young age and worked up to being a captain of slave ships. After becoming a Christian, he was ordained into the Church of England and became a prominent campaigner against the slave trade. Newton lived to see the British Empire’s abolition of the African slave trade in 1807, just months before his death. John Newton’s priorities changed completely and his life was transformed by his Christian faith.
And nearer to home … something which I imagine we can all relate to …
During the pandemic, we have been deprived of many of those things from the world around us which Pascal talks about, and with which we fill our lives. We haven’t been able to go to the cinema or a restaurant. We haven’t been able to travel far from our homes. We have been restricted in which shops we can go to. We haven’t been able to socialise or entertain in our own home.
In some ways, all this has left us bereft. We have all really missed seeing family and friends. Many of us have also missed the excitement of travelling around in this country and abroad, but we have rediscovered, or even discovered for the first time, an inner strength, and a certain sense of peace in a simpler way of life. The pandemic has brought much suffering and heartache, of course it has, but it has also transformed our world and our lives in lots of different ways. I wonder if you have also found that it has in some way or other changed your relationship with God?
God then is a God of transformation at so many different levels. He transforms our physical bodies, he transforms the natural world we live in, he transforms our minds and the sort of people we are, and, above all, he transforms our relationship with him, filling forever that endless emptiness, that God-shaped hole.
And of course we need to remember that there is more to come.
These transformations are but a foretaste of the transformation which will take place in the new heaven and the new earth which we read about in the book of Revelation. As I close, listen again to the words of St John as he describes his vision in Revelation 21. I am going to read it in a different version from the one you are probably used to. I find that sometimes a different version of a familiar passage can give us a fresh perspective. So I am reading from The Message.
I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. 2 I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. 3-5 I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighbourhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.”
Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
“For it is from within, from the human heart…..”
Do you know the story of the car that didn’t like vanilla ice-cream?
The story goes that in the early 1970’s General Motors received a letter from a customer who claimed his car didn’t like vanilla ice-cream. They thought it was crazy so they ignored it. But the customer wrote again.
“I know this sounds crazy but it’s true. My new Pontiac doesn’t like vanilla ice cream. It is a family tradition to have ice-cream each evening, so I drive down to the store to buy it. If I buy vanilla the car won’t start. If I buy anything else it is fine.”
The board of General Motors still thought it was crazy but they sent an engineer to investigate. The engineer accompanied the owner to the store, he bought vanilla ice-cream. The car wouldn’t start.
The next night the engineer went again. The owner bought chocolate ice-cream, the car started perfectly. The next night it was mint, the car started fine. The next night vanilla, the car refused to start.
The engineer explored things further. He accompanied the owner into the store. When he bought chocolate ice-cream, or mint, raspberry ripple, the storekeeper went into the back of the store to fetch the flavour for that evening. But when it was vanilla, the most common flavour chosen, the ice-cream was kept in a freezer right by the counter.
You will have course seen what the issue was?
The vanilla ice-cream was kept by the counter, all the other flavours were in a freezer in the back store room. It took longer to get the flavoured ice-creams than the vanilla. The car’s fuel pipe was slightly too close to the exhaust, so with a hot exhaust the fuel in the pipe formed a vapour lock and the car wouldn’t start. With a slightly longer wait the exhaust was cooler, no vapour lock, so the car started perfectly.
That story is told in many settings to do with management, customer service, and looking after personnel – because it is about attitude. The engineer didn’t dismiss the car owner’s problem. It sounded crazy but it wasn’t. He looked and he listened, and he solved the problem. Approach people with the right attitude and better outcomes ensue.
This is pretty much the same thing as Jesus is saying when he speaks of what comes from within. Our capacity for good or bad, our treatment of others, our view of ourselves, comes from within. We have to take responsibility for it.
When I was at college we were invited to the Ministry of Defence as part of a course we were following. We were ushered into a room where to our surprise we found ourselves face to face with Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for Defence. It was quite late in the day and his aide told us he had an important engagement so we wouldn’t get long.
He proved to be a most gracious and charming host and listened far more than he spoke. The meeting went on and the aide was making increasingly frantic gestures that the Secretary of State had somewhere far more important to be.
Eventually he played the ultimate card – he leant over and said in a whisper loud enough for everyone to hear – “Sir, you wife is on the phone.” To which Michael Heseltine replied – “Thank you. Please let her know I’m in a very important meeting and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
And then he gave us full attention for a further half an hour. We left with a very clear impression that here was a man of integrity and honour, a public servant who could be trusted to put the national interest before personal ambition. It came from within. Some would say he’s the best Prime Ministers this country never had.
We might be tempted to be critical of the Pharisees and Scribes for nit picking rules, but then rules which say you should wash your hands after shopping, or wash cooking utensils carefully, are not entirely silly.
Nor is the concept that sometimes rules need to be enforced for people’s own good. The rules about not working on the Sabbath protected a day when people could not be at work. Many of those working from home during lockdown have found the boundaries between work and personal time have been difficult to manage. Many have struggled with mental health as a result of never switching off.
The French have laws that forbid sending emails out of work hours. These laws have the same intention as enforcing the Sabbath. Setting clear boundaries that make people take time off is a sensible thing to do. I have scolded more than one bishop for setting a bad example by failing to take a regular day off. I am pleased our new bishop has a hobby, he rides motorbikes, and tomorrow, with the Bishop of Hereford we’re riding from Chester Cathedral to Hereford Cathedral. You may want to avoid the A49.
Rules aren’t the problem. The problem is how we use them, and that primarily depends on what comes from within. One of the sad things during lockdown was how many people took the rules and turned themselves into tinpot dictators. Do you remember people walking being pursued by drones, or the lady who had a coffee being charged by police for holding a picnic? And churches weren’t immune from such silliness, funeral directors have told me how badly they have seen people treated trying to mourn under such difficult circumstances.
We’ve all encountered people who have taken a sensible precaution and then used it to boost their own power and ego. That also comes from within.
One of the Psalm set for this day is Psalm 45, which begins, “My heart is astir with gracious words.”
The mark of a faithful person is their heart, whether it be gracious, kind, generous, resilient, or judgemental, harsh, or mean.
If someone tells you their car doesn’t like vanilla ice-cream you may jump to the conclusion they are crazy, a person not worth listening to, a problem to be avoided. Or your heart may be astir with gracious words, and a problem can be fixed.
In the week ahead, be ready to listen, be aware of what comes from within.
Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
“Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”
When I was a scout our Group Scout Leader, George, smoked a pipe. If you asked him a question he would fish out his pipe, find his pipe knife, scrape the old ash out of the bowl, blow through it a few times, suck on it experimentally, then find his tobacco pouch, pinch off some baccy, finger it into the bowl, tap it down, suck on it, dig it out again, then press it back, then find his matches, light his pipe, puff on it a few times, and then answer your question.
You never got a quick answer, but you always got a good answer.
We live in an age of instant gratification. We want and we want it now. We don’t save up any more, we buy things on credit. We don’t make an appointment to see the bank manager, it’s all handled at a 24/7 call centre. We don’t browse in bookshops, we click on Amazon and download to a Kindle.
Not everything however can be instant.
We are here today because we choose to answer the invitation to become companions with Jesus through bread and wine. Jesus spoke of himself as the bread of life, his life nourishes our life, but only if we have a hunger for him, and a patience for him. If we are filled with other priorities and satisfied with material wellbeing, then there is no space in us to receive him.
I want to remind you that our gospel has a wider context. John chapter 6 begins with the feeding of the five thousand - a narrative so important that it is the only miracle story found in all four gospels. John tells us what happens next -
The people were delighted with free food. Their hunger had been satisfied, they have been given what they wanted. This was pretty wonderful. You might, of course, suspect such a preacher to be buying people’s affections. If we put a sign outside church saying free beer and cakes perhaps the congregation might grow.
(And if not in numbers then at least in waist size!)
But Jesus wasn’t buying their affections. When he moved on they sought him out - when they found him they were shocked because he had hard words for them - he recognized what they were after. “Truly I say to you - you seek me not because you saw signs, but because you had your fill.”
And he went on to make clear the point of the feeding was not that it filled their bellies, but that it is a sign of something far more life changing. What he offers is a different set of rules, and alternative set of values, a new way of living.
But it has to be chosen, it has to be accepted. And most people choose not to accept.
The life of faith, though joyful, is at the same time sacrificial and hard. The fullness of life offered is found through obedience and service. The rewards are not instant, nor are they easy. Like George with his pipe - you don’t get a quick answer, and often not an easy answer.
Predictably, then as now, these words are hard. Even the disciples protested - “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Many didn’t, and they knew it. It is one thing to follow a leader who everyone wants to be with. It something quite different to follow a man who makes people turn away.
The task of the church is not to be popular, nor to count success as growth through numbers. The first task of the church is offer worship, through which relationship and companionship are formed. And not formed quickly. It takes time, patience, and hunger.
The task of the church is to be transformational. You don’t need me to repeat the diagnosis that despite our standard of living, our technology, our health care, despite all the good things we enjoy, there remains a deep longing for happiness.
I read of a sign outside a pub - ‘Had a rough week. Tired. Exhausted. Bored. Come to our Happy Hour and experience the attitude alteration hour. Come and leave with a new perspective on life.
The pub trade is pretty desperate, but no-one really thinks a Happy Hour will make anything better. The crowd had had their happy hour - free food - yet still they were searching. They might be full, but they sensed their emptiness.
There is no happy hour - but there is a choice that alters attitudes and creates a new perspective. It was not an easy choice then and it not and easy choice now.
The prophet Isaiah said, “He who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and labour for that which does not satisfy”
Most of the time most of the people seek satisfaction in the wrong place. Isaiah speaks of that which is without price, but which is worth everything. It was famously said of Margaret Thatcher that she knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. I think that describes a great many people these days.
The choice Jesus offers goes against the grain. It is not easy, we ought to be surprised that when the gospel is proclaimed those who proclaim it do not have the biggest fan club.
Christians today know we are in the minority - and some people think this is a bad thing. I am reminded of George messing about with his pipe - always refusing a quick answer, and always coming up with a good answer.
The crowd left. Jesus said to his friends, “Do you also wish to go away?” How we answer that question is rather important.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/j8KilToT6I4
The Blessed Virgin Mary
This day 24 years ago is a day which I will never forget.
I was driving our Renault Espace car on the A6 motorway in France, just south of the city of Troyes. Andrew was in the back with his knee in a leg brace, having smashed his kneecap on holiday in Switzerland, and spent a week in hospital. So things were already not going well. Then suddenly all the warning lights on the car started to flash at once. I had no choice but to pull off at the next exit. The fan belt had snapped, and we weren’t going anywhere. To make matters worse, absolutely nothing was open, and all the hotels were full. Thanks however to the kindness of a wonderful French mechanic, we did eventually find somewhere for the night, and get back on the road just 24 hours later.
It was 15th August, which, in the Roman Catholic tradition, even in secular France, is widely celebrated as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a public holiday. In our Anglican tradition, we don’t recognise the Assumption of Mary as such, and we have no public holiday, of course, but 15th August, remains a special day, when we remember Mary the Mother of our Lord, and that is why our readings today focus in particular on Mary, and on her place in the Christian story.
So what is your view of Mary? Of the Blessed Virgin Mary? To whom of course the church here/at Whitegate is dedicated. And how would you assess her place and her importance in the Christian story?
At a fundamental level, there is the simple view of Mary as a young homemaker from Nazareth, who is called by God to be the mother of Jesus, the Messiah; who is the only person who is present both at his birth and at his death; who sees him arrive as her baby son, and watches him die a painful and humiliating death on the cross. This image portrays her as an example of faithful obedience to God’s will, and as someone whose life shows us that God’s plans often involve extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. The key verse which expresses this is perhaps Luke 1 verse 38 when Mary says to the angel who visits her:
I am the Lord’s Servant. May it be to me as you have said.
This simple view of Mary is based on what we learn about her from our reading of the Bible, and it probably fits quite well with your own view of her. It is a view widely shared by all Christian traditions.
I could have preached a sermon this morning something along these lines. It would have been uncontroversial and safe, but it would also have been very similar to many other sermons which you have heard about the Virgin Mary, and, more importantly perhaps, it would have ignored the enormous elephant in the room, that is that fact that the figure of Mary in Christianity is not quite as straightforward as this simple view would have us think.
So I am not going to play safe, and I am going to acknowledge the elephant in the room, in other words the complicated issues raised by the figure of Mary within the Christian church.
However, I am also going to tread carefully this morning, because Mary has (through no fault of her own, I have to say) often been a controversial figure, who has divided Christians, and down the centuries led to much persecution and suffering, and I don’t want to make matters worse.
Well, as I am sure that you are aware, there are other views of Mary, not derived from what we read in the Bible, which form an important part of some Christian traditions, in particular the Roman Catholic tradition. The observance of 15th August as the Feast of the Assumption is just one example.
In those traditions, there are in fact perhaps 4 main doctrines which I will mention briefly. There is the doctrine that Mary remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus – that is of her perpetual virginity. It is also believed that she was so favoured by God’s grace that from birth she was free from original sin. That is know as the Immaculate Conception. There is then the view that she is a partner with Jesus in the work of salvation, including interceding in heaven on behalf of the faithful. It is this doctrine of course which is at the heart of that most popular of prayers to Mary – the Ave Maria, or the Hail Mary – with the words
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
And finally there is the doctrine that after death Mary’s body was assumed into heaven - the Assumption – which I have already mentioned.
So what are we to make of these doctrines? They clearly have no biblical origins. So where do they come from?
Well, for what it’s worth, my take on the situation is that they are all an attempt to make Mary a more important and influential figure within Christianity than she would normally be. And why try to do that? Well for two main reasons, I would suggest.
Firstly, the Christian story is dominated by powerful male figures, and, although there some significant women both in the gospels and the early church, there are no women of the stature of St Peter or St Paul for example. These additional doctrines about Mary turn her into a more prominent female figure, which God’s faithful people, and particularly other women, can relate to and connect with.
Secondly, we need to remember that down the ages there have been pagan religions with significant female figures, goddesses, whom people have worshipped. When converts flooded into the early Christian church, they brought with them the cultural influences of these other religions, including devotion to these female figures, and then gradually over time the church assimilated, and ‘Christianised’, if you like, these figures. One such figure was the Egyptian goddess, Isis, who was in some ways assimilated into Christianity in the person of the Virgin Mary. There are statues of Isis holding the Egyptian God Horus which have actually been physically altered and reused as icons of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus. The desire then to ‘Christianise’ female pagan deities may therefore in part account for the doctrines which give more importance to the figure of Mary.
So there we have it. That is the elephant in the room. There is a view of the Virgin Mary, which adds to and elaborates on the image of the Virgin Mary as we know her from the biblical account. I have to say that personally find quite difficult accept this view, but I also realise that this view is a significant part of the faith of millions of our Christian brothers and sisters. How should I react? What should I do or say? Especially when I know how divisive and damaging this has been over the centuries.
Well, let me suggest a way through this. A way which I have found helpful. It is a two-pronged approach.
Firstly, I go back to Acts 2:21 Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. My brothers and sisters from other church traditions who do not always believe exactly what I believe, or who believe things which I find hard to accept, are followers of Jesus just like me. They like me call on the name of Lord. We all share one church, one faith, one Lord as we sing in that well-known hymn. For me, although I cannot entirely agree with what my Christian brothers and sisters believe about the Virgin Mary, it is not a deal-breaker.
And secondly, I always look at other church traditions, and see whether there are things which I can learn from them. Different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking, which might help me in my walk with God. This is true in terms of the different approaches to the Virgin Mary I might come across in different church traditions.
Let me give you two examples.
I myself first came across another view of Mary on a family holiday in Portugal when I was 12. I was brought up in the Methodist church, and so I had at that time very little idea of the importance of Mary beyond the stories in the Bible. During that holiday, however, I found myself really drawn to the story of Our Lady of Fatima, who appeared to three Portuguese shepherd children in 1917, leading to the growth of the Portuguese town of Fatima as a place of pilgrimage. I was fascinated. And here is the wooden statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which I bought at the time, aged 12, and have treasured ever since.
What was it then that fascinated me about Our Lady of Fatima? I was sceptical, and I remain sceptical, about what those children actually saw, and whether or not they really saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, but I was introduced, through this story, for the first time, to the idea of visions and miracles as part of my faith, to the possibility of a supernatural element within Christianity.
And I think that is what continues to be the appeal of this aspect of the Christian faith for many people: a sense of the transcendent, a sense that our relationship with God is more than our rational brains can grasp and understand, a sense that it defies analysis and logic. For me, this is not incompatible with a belief in the authority of the Bible. The Bible itself after all is full of visions and miracles and supernatural events, not least, of course, the resurrection itself.
My next close encounter with a different view of the Virgin Mary, came when I was at university, where I got to know an Irish Roman Catholic priest, called rather inevitably Father Pat, who worked at Westminster Cathedral, the Roman Catholic cathedral in central London, just down the road from Westminster Abbey. On one of my visits to the cathedral, I remember coming across a small group of mostly elderly ladies praying in a side chapel one evening. They were reciting the rosary, traditionally the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Gloria, and of course a number of Hail Marys. These ladies then were asking Mary to intercede on their behalf. They believed that she had a special relationship with God, as the Mother of Jesus, and that she would therefore be able to help them to communicate more directly with God himself.
Again, I was fascinated. I was unsure, and I remain unsure, about this view of Mary, about her role as an intermediary between God and his people. In 1 Timothy 2 verse 5 St Paul writes For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, and this is a view I share. I was however fascinated at two levels. I was fascinated on the one hand by the prayerful quiet dedication of that small group of ladies, and on the other hand by the way in which they used their rosary beads to help them focus on what the prayers they were saying.
When I applied to be considered for ordination, I had to attend what is called a BAP a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, and as part of the assessment process you have to give a talk. I decided to give my talk on using the rosary beads in private prayer. This was a risky choice, because, as I have just explained, the rosary beads are so closely associated with certain beliefs about the Virgin Mary, but the talk went down well. It is in fact possible to use rosary beads as a means of focusing on any sequence of prayers, and I am happy to point you in the right direction if you are interested in exploring this idea further.
Where does all that leave us?
As I said earlier, I do not believe that the difference between what I believe about the Virgin Mary, and what someone else from a different tradition might believe, is a deal-breaker. We are both share the same faith and the same Lord. I would also argue that there is always something which we can learn from Christians from other traditions which will help us to grow in our faith and our relationship with God. And most of all I believe that we should welcome and listen to Christians from other traditions, not with suspicion and distrust, but graciously and with love. And so, in this spirit of openness and graciousness towards all our Christian brothers and sisters, even though we don’t always agree with them, I have asked Andrew to play the Ave Maria, as set to the music of Franz Schubert, during our time of reflection. But first a prayer.
Let us pray
On the day before you died
you prayed that your disciples might be one just as you are one with the Father.
Forgive our unfaithfulness.
Give us the honesty to acknowledge and reject our mistrust of each other and our intolerance.
Make us one in heart and mind, that, bound together in love,
we may bear witness to your grace in the world
According to your will and to the glory of your name.
Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Before our younger son Ben went to university, he spent 6 months teaching in a boarding school in India, and it was a very formative period of his life. I remember him telling me, when he came home, that his time in India had taught him that there is a big difference between the things which we as humans need and the things which we want. He had developed a clearer idea of what his priorities in life should be, and how to make the right choices.
So what is it that humans really need?
Some of you may be familiar with Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, which is a five-tier model of human needs in the form of a pyramid. You can see a simplified version of the model on your service sheet. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic needs – food, water, rest, warmth and safety. As humans, this is what we need to survive. Without these, we will die.
In many cultures, including both our own, and the middle-eastern culture of Jesus’ day, it is bread which in part fulfils our basic need for food. Bread is a staple food, something which most people eat pretty much every day. As those of you who have travelled to France will know, there is a boulangerie on every street corner, and someone in a French family will go out every morning to buy fresh bread – aller au pain. In some parts of Morocco, there are still communal bread ovens, where they bake the loaves of bread for the people living in the surrounding streets. And I remember when we were walking in the mountains in Switzerland that we didn’t take a complicated packed lunch with us – just plenty of bread and cheese. That was all we needed.
Bread then has always been, and still is, an important part of the diet of many people all over world, and so it is not surprising that the image of bread is one which Jesus chooses when he is teaching his disciples.
He refers them back first to the story in Exodus 16 of the Israelites in the wilderness, on their way to the promised land, and facing starvation. God miraculously provides food for them in the form of manna. It is a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground, we are told, like coriander seed and it tastes like wafers made with honey. The fact about manna however is that, as Jesus reminds them, although it is a miraculous food sent by God to save his people from starvation, it not only goes mouldy like any other food, but it is just that – food – nothing more. It makes no difference to the people’s relationship with God, and to their part in his plan for the salvation of the world.
The point which Jesus is trying to make of course, is that life is about more than our physical need for food, or a baguette from a French boulangerie.
Have another look for a moment at the pyramid on your service sheet. Maslow recognises that, as humans, we also have psychological and personal needs which go far beyond the basic need to survive. We need to love and to be loved, and we need a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. Maslow is of course a psychologist, speaking in a secular context, and so it is perhaps not surprising that he makes no mention of any spiritual needs which we might have. I would like to suggest however that our spiritual needs, and in particular our need for God, are really fundamental to our lives, and deserve a place well towards the base of the pyramid.
In 1670, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal published his Pensées, as a defence of Christianity. In that book, he says this:
“What does our craving, and our helplessness, tell us? It tells us that we once had true happiness, but that now all we are left with is an empty print and trace? We try to fill this emptiness with things from the world around us, looking for help in these things, but nothing can help, because this endless emptiness can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.”
There are certain questions which I have been asked regularly over the years. The questions go a bit like this.
Am I a good Christian? Am I even a Christian at all?
Am I good enough for God? What does God think about me?
I have made such a mess of my life – God won’t be interested in me, will he?
What is interesting is that I am very often asked these questions by people who are on the face of it not part of the church, and who appear to have no particular connections with Christianity. It has always seemed to me that these people are asking me these questions because they have a sense of something missing in their lives. In an inarticulate and muddled way they are expressing their need for God. They expressing this endless emptiness. I believe, as Pascal did, that all humans have then in them what you could call a ‘God-shaped hole’. We are created by God, to be in a relationship with him. There is therefore a part of ourselves which needs God, which craves God, just as a starving person craves food, and which will only be satisfied by a relationship with him.
This then is what Jesus means in our gospel reading when he says
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
It sounds simple enough doesn’t it …
Absorbing and accepting what this means, that is believing in Jesus, and following him, is actually not easy, nor is it easy to understand our relationship with God, and his plan for our lives. We still always have a lot of questions about what it means for us to be a Christian. Those same questions are still there:
Am I a good Christian? Am I even a Christian at all?
Am I good enough for God? What does God think about me?
I have made such a mess of my life – God won’t be interested in me, will he?
So that brings us to our epistle passage this morning. In this passage, St Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus to help them to answer these questions – to understand about their relationship with God, and his plan for their lives, to understand what it means to come to [Jesus].
On first reading, St Paul might seem to be giving us a long list of rules and regulations, of things which we have to do in order to be good Christians. He might seem to suggest that we need to tell the truth, to avoid anger and bitterness and arguing, to be kind and tender hearted and so on … in order to be good enough for God.
Now, if we go with that interpretation, there is a danger of us using this passage to convince ourselves that our relationship with God depends on what we do or don’t do, that we are saved – that is put right with God – because of the sort of people we are. In theological terms, this is called salvation through works.
Over the last few sermons, however, I have spoken a lot about our relationship with God, and about the fact that we are not saved through anything which we ourselves do, but instead through his unconditional love for us. As I have said many times, God is just like the father in the story of the prodigal son, watching and waiting and longing for his son to come home. This is salvation through grace.
What then is the correct interpretation of this passage? What is St Paul actually saying to the Christian believers in the early church in Ephesus about being a Christian?
Well, as is often the case in the Bible, the context is really important. At the beginning of the chapter St Paul says this I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. And then in verse 30, he reminds the Ephesians that they are marked with a seal for the day of redemption. They have been put right with God, through their faith in Jesus. That comes first. That is the first step. Salvation comes first – the new way of life comes second. It is not the other way round. It is not a case of being better behaved, if you like, in order to earn their salvation.
I’ll not spend too long on the details in the passage from Ephesians, You have it there in front of you on your service sheet, and it is fairly self-explanatory. Perhaps take it home and read it through quietly later. Pick out all the negative behaviours which St Paul lists, and ask yourself whether there is one of these which you are more prone to. Anger perhaps? Or bitterness? And then focus on the positive behaviours, and think how you can be more kind and tender-hearted and forgiving.
There is however one piece of advice which jumps out of the page for me, a piece of advice which is a much-used, although I wonder how many people know that it comes from the Bible: Do not let the sun go down on your anger. What good advice! It is all about reconciliation and healing. It is about building bridges not bearing grudges. It is about working hard to make our relationships work. An important message, don’t you think? And a message which is at the heart of our Christian faith.
So let’s draw the threads together a bit as I close.
We are created by God to be in a relationship with him. We each have a ‘God-shaped hole’ deep in our being, and without God to fill that hole we have a sense of endless emptiness. At the same time, God our creator loves each and every one of us, with an unconditional love, and he welcomes us back time and time again, no matter what we do. It is through believing in Jesus, and following him, that we are put right with God, and our craving for God in our lives is satisfied. It then follows that, once we have this restored relationship with God. once we have been marked with [his]seal, the next step is for us to reflect this change in our lives and in the way we behave towards each other.
Listen again to the words of Jesus:
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
This is the good news which sustains us as Christian believers, and which influences the way we live our lives. This is the good news which we are called to share with others. This is the good news in these words from a much-loved hymn
Guide me O Thou Great Redeemer
Pilgrim through this barren land
I am weak but Thou art mighty
Hold me with thy powerful hand
Bread of heaven - Bread of heaven
Feed me now and evermore - Feed me now and evermore
James the Apostle
“We have this treasure in clay jars…”
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God.”
The more I read about holy people the more I become aware that they are people who are deeply flawed, and profoundly fragile. For example, during Lent I read Gandhi’s autobiography which reveals him to be a person with a great many faults. His treatment of his family was harsh. At times you wonder how such a self-opinionated bighead could become the man so revered by many.
Those who were close to Mother Teresa found her very difficult to get on with. Holiness is often attractive at a distance, but pretty hard to live with close up. As those who met Jesus found out.
Today we are meant to be celebrating St James the Apostle. Yet our gospel story is hardly flattering. In St Mark it is James and John who seek glory. Matthew, writing some time later – by which time James and John were revered – makes a slight alteration to the story. Here it is not the brothers who ask, but their mother. However you tell it – neither version is flattering.
Jesus himself gave James and John the nickname – Sons of Thunder, perhaps remembering the time they wanted to call down lighting to destroy unfriendly villagers.
As Paul reminds us, the treasure is in clay jars, to make it clear that the extraordinary belongs to God. Or as Edward King would say, in the saints we see not extraordinary people, but ordinary people through whom God does extraordinary things.
Elsewhere Paul makes another comment about clay, the potter can refashion the clay. When a pot goes wonky the potter can reshape the clay and make a new start.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Simon Parke. He was a vicar who felt he’d lost his way so resigned from the church and went to work in a local supermarket. He wrote a book called Shelf Life telling of the characters he met whilst stacking shelves, people through whom he rediscovered what life and faith is all about.
We invited him to lead a parish weekend, one of the themes he kept coming back to was of our need to be dismantled. To have our self-importance, self-reliance, self-seeking, undone.
Do you remember the BBC2 comedy Rev? Following the various mishaps of the Revd Adam Smallbone as he begins a new ministry in an inner city parish. The dialogue and the storylines might offend some, but what I rejoice in are the times when Adam says his prayers. Sometimes kneeling in his gloomy and empty church, sometimes whilst washing the dishes. But he tries to keep in touch with God.
In one episode Adam was tempted by the apparent success of a former friend. A man he trained with was now a regular contributor to Thought for the Day, and often appeared on television. Everyone thought him witty, clever, and tipped for promotion. By contrast, ministering to a small inner city congregation seemed rather unglamorous.
The Archdeacon didn’t help. He encouraged Adam to want to get on, but there was painful fact – there are 10,000 vicars in the Church of England and only 350 top jobs. Promotion, he said, was a likely as becoming a General in the Chinese Army.
I think the script writers got that bit only half right – what they are doing is what Simon called a bit of dismantling. But the truth is that there are 350 bishops and archdeacons – and 10,000 top jobs.
In the end Adam’s successful friend was revealed to be an empty, lonely, desperate man. All his fame and success was an attempt to fill a void – it was he who envied Adam, in whose day to day life of little tasks the real glory was present.
I used to take groups of children on tours of our church. One day I received a letter from a child saying how much they had enjoyed their visit. I was rather chuffed, but then I read on. Their favourite bit wasn’t ringing the bell, dressing up in the robes, gazing at the glorious stained glass, or the vicar’s witty explanation of the various parts of the church.
No, their favourite bit was the font. Because when you pulled the plug out and the water swirled down the drain it made an incredibly rude and funny noise.
Letters like that mean the world. The delight and laughter of children are of immense value. This is treasure - in clay jars. Remember the clay jars – but take very seriously the treasure within.
We honour James the Apostle – and what do we know of him? We know he was a fisherman. We know he was probably closely related to Jesus. We know that he and his brother were sometimes impetuous. We know that at significant moments the two of them were often present as part of a very small group. We know that they, like the other disciples, had designs on promotion when the new kingdom dawned.
None of those are reasons to honour him. Why we honour James is because at the end of the day he allowed Jesus to take apart all his ambitions and hopes and misconceptions. He went through the betrayal and the desertion and the despair. He went through the loss of faith. He went through all that might, and undoubtedly did, turn others away – and at the end he came back.
We honour James because he is no saint – just a man – but a man who in the end remained loyal, in end trusted, in the end understood.
During Covid much of our lives has been dismantled, much of our church has been dismantled. St James reminds us that when God dismantles it is so he can reshape, as the potter refashions the clay. What emerges is different, unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable.
The wonky clay may be reshaped – it will only ever be clay – ordinary and fragile – yet clay may hold treasure, and the ordinary may be used to contain the extraordinary.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/BMUukzbEUFc
Seventh Sunday after Trinity
“Graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion,”
The Collect for this week:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of your great mercy keep us in the same.
Increase in us true religion. What does that look like?
Appearances can be deceptive. A letter published in the Times on 27th May 2014.
Sir, Enoch Powell once attended a country fete and was amused to see an ‘Enoch Powell lookalike’ competition. On the spur of the moment (and having a much greater sense of humour than he was usually credited with) he entered, incognito. He came third.
Things aren’t always what they seem to be. Increase in us true religion – so how do we recognise it? How do we do it?
Let us come at it from a different direction. Someone who used to train people for ministry asked a question; What is the biggest problem facing the church today?
How would you answer that question? What is the biggest problem facing the church today?
What answers might we suggest?
The answer has never changed, it is the same answer today as it was when Jesus had compassion on the crowds. It is the same answer as when Jeremiah spoke of God shepherding his people. The greatest problem religious people face is the overwhelming abundance of God.
God is always, has always, and will always, offer more than we can dare imagine. The greatest problem for the church today is coping with God’s generosity.
Increase in us true religion – is about living with the overwhelming abundance of God.
St Benedict took seriously a community that lived with overwhelming abundance. That didn’t mean that individual members of the community had more than they needed – far from it, what it did mean is that every person received the things they needed.
St Benedict’s rule is powerfully against private ownership within the community. Things, Benedict says, distract us from God’s overwhelming abundance. If we live with the delusion of self-sufficiency we are blinded to the generosity of God. But Benedict knows people need things, and he is equally powerfully in insisting that every person is given what they need.
There is no sense here of everyone being treated the same, we are all different, we have different needs. Pianists need pianos. Writers need computers. Artists need paint. Farmers need tractors. Those who manage need time for meeting with others. People with bad backs need the right kind of beds. Those working with others need time to be alone.
In a Benedictine community nobody counted what they needed, they looked to what others needed, and if it was more than they had themselves then they thanked God their own needs were less of a burden.
There’s the first sign of true religion – living with God’s overwhelming abundance.
True religion might also be described a rhythm of life. Being in the presence of God for others. Being in the presence of others for God. Benedict taught people to pray not because the words themselves mattered, but because the discipline of prayer and the words used, shaped a relationship with God alongside others.
Being with God for others, being with others for God. It is why worship matters. It is the rhythm which balances us. There’s another mark of true religion. A life with a rhythm, between God and others.
True religion takes what we need seriously. Take a look at our Gospel reading this morning, from Mark chapter 6, look at verse 31. Jesus said to his friends, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” He knew their needs.
The context of that is that they had be sent out two by two to walk the roads, visit towns and villagers, to tell of God’s love and spend time with those who would listen. They came back exhausted, but as Mark tells us the crowds wouldn’t leave them alone. The demands were unrelenting.
You probably know the story of the two foresters who went into the trees with their saws. The first worked tirelessly. He rarely took a break, from dawn to dusk he cut timber. The second was different. Every half hour he stopped for ten minutes, without fail he cut for 30 minutes, then stopped for 10.
At the end of the day the first forester noticed that his friend’s woodpile was much bigger than his. “How can that be”, he asked, “you kept stopping every half hour?”
His friend replied – “Yes, I kept stopping to sharpen my saw.”
True religion accepts we have needs, and accepts these are met in God’s overwhelming abundance. Looking after others means also looking after ourselves.
Increase in us true religion. How do we recognise it in every task of every day? I suggest those two marks are a guide – to live in the abundance of God, and to live with a rhythm of life. That way we can keep in touch with what really matters.
There is a story of three stonemasons. Each was shaping a block of stone. A traveller asked the first – What are you doing? He replied – I am shaping this stone.
He asked the second. I am preparing a foundation.
He asked the third. I am building a cathedral.
We are builders of a new kingdom, we do it one small task at a time.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/x9WNrYmMN9A
Sixth Sunday of Trinity
I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.
Last week Jane spoke of prophecy, prophets can be anyone. An organist dressed up as Yasser Arafat, a lady with a mobile phone, a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic. Anyone and everyone may speak with God’s voice. But I hope Jane won’t mind me saying that there was one kind of prophet she didn’t mention, and that is the false prophet. Amos says, I am no prophet, or a prophet’s son. I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.
I am no prophet - Amos was distancing himself from the most common form of prophet of his day. The yes men. The hired lackeys who tell the king what he wants to hear. The professionals who know which side of their bread is buttered. False prophets.
Those who say what the powerful want to hear were there then and they’re still here today. Only when they fall from grace do you hear what they really think.
Some context might help. In Amos’ day, about 750 years before Jesus was born, Israel had attained a height of territorial expansion and national prosperity never seen before. The country had a strong army and enjoyed economic affluence. People believed this was a sign of God’s favour, gained not least through their extravagant support of the official shrines. Shrines run by the professional prophets who made sure the king heard what he wanted to hear.
Into that complacency stepped Amos, speaking harsh words to a smooth season. He denounced the injustice and corruption of the elite, he spoke of God’s anger that the rich were getting richer and the poor getting poorer. He raged against hypocrisy and false dealing. He reserved a special hatred for the false religion that was self-serving and seduced by power.
His vision of the plumb line is effective. You use a plumb line to show what is straight and true, whether you’re hanging wallpaper or building a wall, the plumb line is a tool that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. This is straight and true – revealing that Israel’s life was bent and crooked.
So Amos rages against the high places, the official religion that favoured the rich, the false prophets who spoke smooth words to the powerful. Amos wasn’t one of them. He was an ordinary bloke, doing an ordinary job, and God chose him to speak for truth.
The true voice of prophecy usually goes against the grain. So it was with John the Baptist. If anything reveals his authority and credentials as a prophet it is the opposition he aroused. And the price he paid.
So it is also with the prophet from Nazareth – no stranger to hostility and rejection.
I remember when I had been a Vicar for just a few months. The parish had been vacant for a very long time. Most people had worked with generosity and grace and the church had thrived. But there was one person who was a bully. They used the time to build their own little empire and everyone learned that resistance was futile.
One day it became clear that there needed to be a showdown and the post service coffee turned into the gunfight at the OK corral. It ended with a set of keys being thrown to the floor, keys the person wasn’t meant to have had in the first place, and a slammed door – which didn’t quite work because it had an automatic closer on it.
A few weeks later I was at a gathering of new vicars. Those in their first parishes. A wise old Roman Catholic priest asked us a question – in your first six months, he asked, who has had a row with someone? I rather shamefacedly raised my hand. I was the only one. “Good,” he said, “if you haven’t upset someone in your first six months you’re probably not doing your job.”
He didn’t mean it was a good thing to generally upset people for the sake of it, what he meant was that if you are being prophetic then you will find yourself challenging people. You will find yourself asking difficult questions. You will find yourself saying hard things to situations which need to change. You will find a voice which some will reject.
As Jesus said, blessed are you when men (and women) revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The voice of prophecy, which is a voice every Christian must sometimes speak with, is a voice that goes against the grain.
Prophecy has two directions. The first is to hold the plumb line – to check how things are, to know if things are straight and true, to read the signs of the times, to understand what is going on. The second is see where the present takes us. So Amos predicted that a corrupt, self-satisfied and unjust society would implode. And he was right.
It is a message repeated over and over again generation after generation. In the Bible the voice of the prophets is always unpopular, always rejected, always ignored. And it is always, always right.
The irony is that the lesson is never learned. Listen to the hard words. Hear the message that is uncomfortable. Stick with the voice you don’t want to listen to. Because the voice of prophecy is essential to our well-being and happiness.
That might seem strange to say because the voice of prophecy is uncompromising and uncomfortable. But who would you rather go to – the doctor that tells you all is well and there’s nothing to worry about, or the doctor who tells you the truth and what can be done?
Smooth words that do not disturb might be nice, but the truth is better for us.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/kqhm2RN2Gmc
Fifth Sunday of Trinity
What is a prophet? What does a prophet look like? How do you imagine a prophet?
A bit like this? Male. Long flowing robes and headdress? Perhaps with a stick for walking long distances in the desert?
Or like this? Female. Smartly dressed? With a mobile phone in her hand?
Yes. What is a prophet? What does a prophet look like? How do you imagine a prophet?
Wikipedia tells us that a prophet is an individual who is regarded as being in contact with a divine being and is said to speak on behalf of that being, serving as an intermediary with humanity by delivering messages or teachings from the supernatural source to other people.
And what does the Bible say?
Well, every time there is Morning Prayer we say the words of the Benedictus, which actually come from Luke 1. They are the words of Zechariah at the time of the circumcision of his son, John, as he looks forward to what God has in store for him. He says this:
And you child will be called the prophet of the most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
So John the Baptist, as his baby son went on to become, was called by God to prepare the way of the Lord and to give knowledge of salvation to his people.
Can we perhaps use that as a Biblical definition of a prophet – someone who is called by God to prepare the way of the Lord and to give knowledge of salvation to his people?
Have you noticed that, nowhere in these definitions, either in Wikipedia or the Bible, does it say that a prophet needs to be of a certain gender or age, or to have certain qualifications, or to wear certain clothing or carry other items in order to be a prophet?
So who can be a prophet?
Well …. in my recent sermons, I have spoken about a lot about God’s grace, about his unconditional love for us. There was Acts 2:21 which reminded us that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, and there was the message of John 3:17 that God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. As I said at the time, both of these passages are really challenging, because they are not simply intended to make us feel comfortable and self-satisfied about our relationship with God. These passages are also intended to remind us of our calling to live lives which bring glory to God and reflect his gracious love for us, by in turn showing our unconditional love to everyone.
With that in mind … let me suggest to you this morning that, in our own ways, all of us, each and every one of us, is a prophet of the most High. Yes, we are all called prepare the way of the Lord and to give knowledge of salvation to his people.
What a scary thought, don’t you think? What is your immediate reaction? Really? Even me? I wouldn’t know what to do or say. No-one would listen to me. I’m not good at that sort of thing. All sorts of self-doubts come into our minds. This is quite natural, because we are well aware that being prophet brings with it many responsibilities and challenges, and that those responsibilities and challenges are enormous and very daunting.
And I have to say that our two Bible readings this morning don’t at first glance seem to do anything to make us any less daunted by the enormity of the task ahead, but let’s all the same have a look at them now, and see if we can perhaps derive comfort or strength or encouragement from them for us on the way ahead as prophets of the most High.
In our Old Testament reading, we hear the words of God as he calls the prophet Ezekiel, and sends him out to speak to the people of Israel.
First of all, in verse 1, God tells Ezekiel to stand up on [his] feet, and then, in verse 2, we are told that a spirit entered into [him] and set [him] on his feet. It sounds to me as if Ezekiel found it quite hard to stand up on his own – and that he needed God’s help, through the spirit, to find the strength to do it. This is not just about standing up rather than sitting down of course. This is surely an image which reminds us of how difficult it can be for all of us at times to motivate ourselves to do something, especially something as challenging or scary as speaking out about what we believe, and how we often cannot do it in our strength alone.
In verses 3 and 4, God then speaks to Ezekiel of the challenge ahead, of the sort of people God is sending him amongst. The people have rebelled against [God], and transgressed, we are told. They are impudent and stubborn. They have clearly not only turned away from God, but also become very set in their ways, unwilling to listen to God’s message. God doesn’t paint an attractive picture of these people, and we can imagine Ezekiel’s heart sinking as he realises the enormity of his task. Ezekiel lived in the 6th century BC, but the world in which we live today is not that very different from the one he knew. The people of our day are also mostly very set in their ways, and unwilling to listen to the message of God’s love for them.
So perhaps we also need to listen to God’s words of advice to Ezekiel in verse 5 when he tells him that whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. God is calling on Ezekiel to make his mark, to make sure that he makes an impression, to make sure that the people get a chance to hear his message, even if they choose not to listen to what he has to say.
As Christians here in Mid-Cheshire in 2021, we too are called to make our mark, to make sure that people get a chance to hear the message, even if they seem to reject it. We, like Ezekiel, are simply sowing the seed. We may well never know whether it takes root and flourishes or not, but we can make sure that they know that there has been a prophet among them.
The message of this passage is surely just the sort of encouragement which we were looking for? It will not be easy – we knew that of course - but we don’t have to do it in our own strength, because we have the Holy Spirit alongside us every step of the way, and then all we have to do is sow the seed, and leave the rest to God.
And what about our New Testament reading?
Well, in our gospel reading from Mark 6, we hear firstly about the ministry of Jesus himself and then about his instructions to his disciples as he sends them out to teach among the villages.
In verses 1-5, we follow Jesus as he returns to Nazareth, and preaches in his home synagogue. Again, Jesus’ experience reminds us that it will not be easy. His friends and neighbours, who have known him since he was a boy, growing up as the son of Joseph the carpenter, are astounded, we are told, to hear him preaching to them, and they take offence. Not only do they not recognise him for who he is, the Son of God, the Messiah, but neither are they prepared to listen to what he has to say, because they see him as an arrogant upstart, who has gone up in the world, and become too big for his boots.
This reaction seems to take even Jesus by surprise, because we are told that he is amazed at their unbelief, although St Mark, as the narrator, seems less shocked, as he reflects on how difficult it often is to get true recognition from those closest to you, saying that prophets are not without honour, except in their home town.
This is certainly something which we need to hear and to understand, as we think about our calling to be prophets of the most High. Our best opportunities to talk about our faith, and the good news of gospel, are going to be with the people whom we come into contact with the most – our families and our neighbours and our work colleagues – and yet we could, like Jesus himself, be amazed at their reaction, because they could, like the people of Nazareth, be astounded and take offence, wondering who we think we are. This is something which we need to be prepared for.
Then, in verses 7-11, Jesus sends out his disciples into the surrounding villages with his message of repentance and reconciliation with God. It is interesting to note that he sends them out in pairs. In some ways, it would have been more efficient to send them out alone, so that they could cover a wider area, but Jesus knows that they may well face rejection and opposition. By travelling together, they will be able to strengthen and encourage each other. We too, as we set out to talk to people about the gospel, may face rejection and opposition - we have already thought about that – but we can look to our Christian brothers and sisters for support and encouragement. We can work as a team, sharing experiences, both good and bad, and offering advice and reassurance when it is needed. As we serve God, there is no need for us to try to go it alone.
So what does being a prophet in 21st century mid-Cheshire look like? It’s certainly not about wandering from village to village wearing sandals and carrying a staff. For most of us, neither is it about standing up in church and preaching to large groups of people. We are simply called to give people the message about God’s love for them, and to prepare the way for him to come and work in their lives.
There are so many ways of communicating with people these days. If you want to write to someone, there are emails and text messages and Facebook posts and tweets on Twitter, as well as letters and cards, and if you want to speak to someone there is Facetime and Zoom and such like, although you can’t beat a chat with your neighbour over the back fence, or amongst the fruit and vegetables in Sainsburys.
And then there is all the non-verbal communication. Actions speak louder than words they say, don’t they? The kind gift of a freshly-cooked meal to someone who has been recently bereaved, a few hours baby-sitting to allow an exhausted single parent to get break, a lift in the car to a hospital appointment. And there are many more possibilities of course.
So yes, it will not always be easy to be a prophet – it never has been – and there will discouraging moments, and criticism, and setbacks, but, as our reading from Ezekiel reminds us, God gives us strength for the task, both through the Holy Spirit, and our fellow Christians, and he merely calls us to make sure that they know that there has been a prophet among them. He will do the rest.
Listen to the words of Isaiah 6, paraphrased into a well-known modern hymn by Dan Schutte.
I, The Lord Of Sea And Sky,
I Have Heard My People Cry.
All Who Dwell In Dark And Sin,
My Hand Will Save.
I Who Made The Stars Of Night,
I Will Make Their Darkness Bright.
Who Will Bear My Light To Them?
Whom Shall I Send?
Here I Am Lord, Is It I, Lord?
I Have Heard You Calling In The Night.
I Will Go Lord, If You Lead Me.
I Will Hold Your People In My Heart.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/lw3msAtyjb0