Saturday, 8 August 2020

Where do we look?

After Elijah’s extraordinary demonstration of the power of the Lord at Mount Carmel, where he set fire to his sacrifices on an altar surrounded by water simply calling on the Lord to set light to them he took all the prophets of Baal to the Wadi at Kishon and killed them there. For this reason he is fleeing for his life he is on the run from Jezebel and her forces and is hiding in a cave. Now often when we are in peril we turn to God for help  and Elijah of course does just this. But the question then will be where do we look for God and how do we find him? I went through  a phase of reading books about mountaineering not so much Chris Bonnington but storires of much earlier climbers with little more than ropes who climbed the Swiss alps, one book I recall was called Summits and Secrets and it provided insight into the climbers’ minds, their delight and awe they found in crossing glaciers, camping on ridges, and naturally on attaining summits. They were inspiring accounts and certainly a mountain would be a very good place to connect with the divine. 

So we need to imagine ourselves in shelter high up on a mountain having been told that the Lord is to pass by. Now this is a stimulating idea, how would we feel if we were told that the Lord is to pass by out there just next to St. Clements? We would surely go to see and we might be even more inclined to go if there were a mighty wind, after all God is big and all powerful so a wind so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks could seem to be exactly what we expect, but the Lord was not there. An earthquake, likewise deeply resonant, terrifying literally earth shattering but the Lord was not there nor in the flickering tongues of fire and the crackle and snap of burning woodland. And then there was the sound of sheer silence.


I doubt any of us has ever heard it - maybe Mike Tapper in his submarine lying on the ocean bottom - but even then I am not sure. It is so difficult to find total quiet, deserts are claimed to be the best - here is Gertrude Bell writing to her father during her first desert journey: “Shall I tell you my first impression, the silence. Silence and solitude fall around you like an impenetrable veil.” Usually there is always something making a noise somewhere, and in any case this silence is not an absence not arrived at by stripping away the sounds of animals, birds, insects, twigs or heartbeats but it is a presence. The Lord passed by bringing the SILENCE of the very beginning with him.  This may be more terrifying than all that went before, the earth was a formless void and the darkness covered the deep and God said “What are you doing here Elijah?” Contemplate that for a moment, that you have gone to look for Godin one of your favourite and expectant places, on the marsh in a cathedral, p a mountain and God comes in this great silence and asks:

“Steve what are you doing here?” 

John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker poet born in 1807 in Massachusetts is known to us as the author of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,. We all recall the final line of the hymn referring to our passage from 1 Kings “speak to us through the earthquake wind and fire, O still small voice of calm” but in the original poem, called “The brewing of Soma” which is about priests seeking the divine there is this verse omitted from the hymn:

With that deep hush subduing all

Our words and works that drown 

The tender whisper of your call

As noiseless let thy blessing fall 

As fell thy manna down.

The Lord passes by and brings down the impenetrable veil subduing our words and works which are filling God’s silence which is there within us - and when we find this deep inner peace than we are ready to face the question:

“What are we doing here?”


Saturday, 25 July 2020

Sourdough Bread

It seems amazing that it was only a few weeks ago, well actually it was just before June the 6th, that I dropped a mustard seed of an idea in Frances’ direction. It was the smallest of seeds but as Jesus told us it grew into the greatest of shrubs and ever   since I planted it I have been a sourdough bread widower. All I suggested was that it may be fun and interesting to try to make some and ever since …..

Which brings me to the second of Jesus’ metaphors.  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” If only it were so simple: actually it seems the science of sourdough is simple but the mythology extensive. Of course we all know we need a starter with or without grapes, to American or European recipes, and that only a small amount retained from a previous dough is needed to make another starter which by the way, you treat like a small pet creature but there are questions of temperature, fridge or windowsill, of catching it at the peak of her rising, of blending with the bread flour. Never apparently to knead, oh no,  but stretching and folding every thirty minutes on the dot for uncountable hours and then allowing the whole to rise in a preferred corner of the room for a very long time and then kneeling in front of the glass door of the oven like someone from bake off watching a curious thing and waiting impatiently for it which is called the oven bounce whilst protecting the crust from blackening.  The first few loaves had holes deemed too small so researches were made into the viscosities of various mixtures. Two or three times a week Frances rose so early as to disturb even the dogs to begin this day long endeavour straining at the worktop to continue her experiments.

So I ask how is this the kingdom of heaven?

It might be that the King James’ version is easier in this instance because it says:L “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until the whole was leavened. “ So we have not yeats and doughnut leaven and leaven. The word that is translated as measure in our version comes from the Greek and three sata  is about 50 lbs of flour, a huge quantity even more than Frances used up. Also we need to take the right viewpoint - what did Jesus mean when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven?

Jesus came to us and so in himself brought the kingdom of God which is not a place but an activity, not a territory but a whole new society described and inaugurated by His coming and of course it is a society that is radically quite different from ours.  My favourite commentator Matthew Henry talking about leaven considers this yeast as the word of the Gospel working in our hearts . Only a small amount is needed, and I like to think of it as no more than a whisper which once there,  in our hearts, rises silently yet purposefully to change us, just as Frances’ sourdough starter after many hours will produce a dough that will become a beautiful bread. But, notice the story of Frances’ experience is useful, for she has been working at the process, not simply hearing the word and leaving it unattended but putting in hours of practice, adapting and refining her ways until  …..

Well I have to say I think the loaf is perfect now.


Saturday, 11 July 2020

God's Word and Joy

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 and Isaiah 55:10-13

I am presently reading a huge book of fiction where a nineteenth century Hungarian politician is introduced to us as having “an enormous mouth which seemed to have become over-developed perhaps by the tremendous number of words that were constantly emerging from it.” This made me stop to think and to wonder at our ambivalent relationship with words.  Often we dismiss them as just so much hot air  but occasionally we want to pin people down with the “but you said”  that children say and actually so do a lot of grown ups.

This morning we are contemplating our relationship not with other people’s words but with God’s word. These are of course special and singularly worthy of contemplation. Many Bibles including the one in front of me now use red ink for Jesus’ words to highlight this which means that almost all the reading which we have heard from Matthew is in red. I was struck by how using a parable to explain how words work becomes self referencing. A parable is itself a particular type of word - they do not work directly but need to be listened to, sucked on slowly like a sweet in the mouth, allowed to develop as a seed in fertile ground. This parable of the sower is about the quality of our listening. The second half of the reading uses the word “hear” five times in as many sentences. We are prompted to ask how well do we listen to God’s word, should we not listen to it more carefully and thoughtfully than to an Hungarian politician say?

But then we might ask, “How do we know what God’s word is?” Even if our ground is not paved, rocky or thorny how can we be sure that the interpretation we have made from our fertile earth is sound? It is a puzzle and archbishops, bishops and theologians use words like discernment or seeking to understand to describe it. They appointed working groups to develop the Living in Love resources that we are all waiting for (Now postponed to November by the way)
 It seems it is more difficult to discover God’s word than simply  looking for the red ink.

But let us return to Isaiah. Chapter 55 begins with an invitation, an invitation to everyone that says let everyone who thirsts come to the waters and includes the lines:

“Listen to me and eat what is good, incline your ear and come to me, listen so that you may live.”

Isaiah is so sure about God’s word : “my word that goes out of my mouth shall not return empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And what is the purpose:

“For you shall go out in joy and go out in peace, the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

Listen carefully says Isaiah, and  I want to add that if what we discern does not meet the invitation to everyone and does not bring joy then it most likely is not the word of God we are hearing.


Saturday, 4 July 2020

Back to Church

There are many emotions in church this morning. For some it will be a joyful return, others may be perturbed by the differences that we have had to introduce, not a few will be anxious and some of you will be bringing the sadness of loss with you. During these lockdown weeks I have really enjoyed and taken advantage of the National Theatre streaming among whose notable productions were Twelfth Night, A streetcar named desire, Frankenstein and most recently Midsummer night’s dream. Although they were called National Theatre LIVE of course they were not but were recordings made in earlier seasons. A particular live theatre production is special and each one unique, created by the individual cast performance and by the audience whose reactions to and with the play form a vital ingredient of the whole experience. It has been good,  might say very good to see these plays from my armchair but it is not the same as being there.

And so this is what I feel about today ; the online services from the great cathedrals and dare I say in one case from a kitchen have not been the same as being here. There is an indefinable but nonetheless completely palpable sense of coming together, in sharing the liturgy, saying some of the words, feeling the presence of others, of being in the same space and intent on worshipping, confessing,  taking communion, praying, giving thanks, receiving blessing, looking at one another, being one body.

This particular service will not happen again and that mix of emotions that you have brought is part of what will make this a unique event, we shall not feel exactly the same again so let us keep a short quiet moment to feel the spirit and atmosphere of now.

Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel “Come to me all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest “  is perfect for today. It always reminds me of walking up steep dry mountains in Yugoslavia as it eh was carrying backpacks and coming across the refreshing cooling steams that flow down to the beautiful blue lakes below. Which of us has not felt weary at some point, the aching tiredness brought on by the drudge of daily toil or perhaps an unwanted and unexpected burden. As ever Jesus seems to offer a paradoxical answer - already burdened he says we are to take his yoke upon us. The point is that in jewish literature the “yoke” was the total of obligations which according to the teaching of the Rabbis must be taken on to follow the law. The yoke of the Torah would have been  a well known expression and  Jesus is saying “Throw this off, take on my teaching, learn from me. How easy are my simple commandments compared with the regulation and legislation of the Pharisees - discard these ideas and learn to love your neighbour as yourself and to believe in me.

So after 100 days of closed churches, here we are welcomed back with these beautiful words. Slough off the burdens, the claustrophobia, the fatigue, the anxiety the sadness, “Come to me all of you” and find rest for your soul.


Wednesday, 1 July 2020

So what advantage ... ?

Romans 6:12-23

So what advantage did you get from things of which you are now ashamed?

Fagin, in Oliver Twist condemned to death is given a chapter in the cell as he waits for his execution.

“He had only one more night to live. It was not until the night of this last awful day that a withering sense of his helpless desperate state came in its full intensity upon his blighted soul.; not that he had ever held any defined or positive hope of mercy but that he had never been able to consider more than the dim possibility of dying so soon. He had sat there awake but dreaming. Now he started up every minute and with grasping mouth and burning skin hurried to and fro in such a paroxysm of fear and wrath that even they who waited on him recoiled from him with horror. He cowered down on his stone bed and thought of the past. “ 

Now Fagin is cruelly painted throughout the book and we cannot draw a line under nor be but horrified at Dickens’ antisemitic language which is especially strong in the early chapters but reaching the end after many hours of audio book I found myself asking exactly the question that Paul asks us this morning and at the critical moment I suppose Fagin asks himself when he thought of the past.   “So what advantage did you gain from things of which you are now ashamed?”  Was Fagin, the receiver of stolen goods, the thief and teacher of boys, the author of Nancy’s murder ever happy? I want to say no; he may have had a pride momentarily in the artful dodger and a deal of self conceit for his own imagined ingenuity and control of others but I read of no joy taken in any moment.

Reading Paul always takes us to the Damascus road for as much as any man Paul understands the transformation wrought in our lives when we understand the full meaning of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. He was if you like pulled up by his bootstraps and turned from persecution to belief. He tells us “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness but present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” He explains that if God is our master then we are informed by his teaching and our road will not be from iniquity to iniquity but from blessing to blessing and ultimately to eternal life.

We live, says Paul under grace , or we may say by grace, and grace is something free: God bestows it on us all we do not need to earn it or hoard it or steal it or teach others to steal it for us, it is not accumulated but simply given. It is by the grace of God that we are forgiven for things of  which we are now ashamed, that we wish we had not thought or said or done and who better than Paul to tell us that, Saul who ordered the stoning of Stephen and is now Paul.

There is much in biblical teaching about reaching heaven and the rewards of a good life. So with this in mind the contrast between Fagin on his stone bench in the prison a few steps from the scaffold and Paul’s conviction that he will receive the free gift of eternal life could not be greater. Let us not miss however that following Jesus is joyful - we move from blessing to blessing as we grow and learn and live so please let us see the advantage of living under grace now.


Sunday, 21 June 2020

We are like eggs

Jeremiah 20:7-13, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

We were in the country heading out for a summer drive in our people carrier along country roads with four children and a dog and the makings of lunch all crammed in when we heard the news of Lady Diana’s death on the radio. We were a bit late hearing it for the press conference had been much earlier at 6.00 in the morning; it was unbelievable and as we knew the road, the underpass at the Pont Alma it made it very graphic and real. Our appetite for the picnic was broken and we went home to telephone relatives in England to talk over the news. For it was bursting from us. There are moments when we have such news that we must tell: expecting a baby, becoming engaged to be married, getting a hoped for job, the death of a loved one.

Jeremiah had been prophesying as only he could prophesy and PASHUR, the priest had taken him and publicly placed him in the stocks where everyone could see him. When he was released Jjeremiah continued saying “you Pashur, and all who live in your house shall go into captivity, and to Babylon you shall go and there you shall die.” Maybe these were not the best words to address to a man who had put you in the stocks and who had the power and willingness to do so again but as we hear Jeremiah in our reading tell is he was compelled to speak:

“For whenever I speak I must cry out.”
“If I  say I will not mention him or speak any more in his name, then within me is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary with holding it in and cannot.”

 Jeremiah has received the call, the word of the Lord and he must tell it, he cannot hold it in.

In Matthews’ Gospel we hear Jesus say “Have no fear of them for nothing is covered up, what I say to you in the dark tell in the light and what you hear whispered proclaim from the rooftops.” Here is the same idea as Jeremiah’s; what you have heard from me, and it is Jesus speaking, cannot be contained hidden or covered even from fear (of being put in the stocks say) but shout it from the very top of your house. I remember when I was installed as a curate in St. Mary’s Hitchin, the town centre church with a renowned set of heavy bells, a quarter peal was rung to announce my arrival. In this case the news was shouted from the church top.

Paul, writing in Romans, Paul the convert cannot keep it in. “What then are we to say? How can we go on living like we once did, like we used to, when we have been called when we have heard when we have been baptized? No, he says  we must walk in the newness of life.

All three of today’s readings have this motif of being unable to let our belief and understanding of God go unspoken or unseen. This is surely as vitally important now as it was when these three passages were written. This morning over my coffee I listened to the BBC World Service news summary, it was not an inspiring ten minutes. The number of refugees is at a record high, the number being repatriated at a record low, there have been Indian soldiers killed and captured on the border with China, there are violent demonstrations everywhere. All of which makes me ask have we been shouting loudly enough? Are the words like burning fire but are still shut up in our bones?

C S Lewis writing about Paul’s exhortation to us to walk in the newness of life says: we must go for it, for the full treatment (for the full implication of baptism.) It is not easy, he says, but we are just now with the word of God like eggs; “it might be hard for an egg to turn into a bird but it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg.” We must hatch.

And Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus all agree we should hatch and cannot and should not hold in the news.


Saturday, 13 June 2020

Private Prayer

The Psalm which is set for today is Psalm 100:

O be joyful in the Lord, all the earth;
Serve the lord with gladness

Know that the Lord is God it is he that has made us we are his;
We are his people and the sheep of his pasture

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
Give thanks to him and bless his name

For the Lord is gracious, his steadfast love is everlasting;
And his faithfulness endures from generation to generation.

From Monday we are at last allowed to enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. That is to say that our churches shall be open for private prayer.  Actually this phrase is a bit of a puzzle; Archbishop Rowan Williams in a seminar, or I should say webinar the other day began by saying “There is no such thing as private prayer.” It is always good of course to grab attention at the start by a controversial line. As well as this the trade journal this week (I mean the Church of England Newspaper) has much ink devoted to telling us that we do not need church buildings at all and expounding on how many like to watch big services with bishops on line. Now both of these are right, I suppose, but at the same time I do hope that both of them are wrong.

Archbishop Rowan is talking in view of the Holy Spirit who in that Pentecost arrival revealed the permeating, unifying power of God’s presence and love. To this extent we never pray on our own but are joined in our current prayer with those who are praying everywhere now, to those who have prayed before and those wo will pray in the future. This is a big idea, distinctively Christian, that we are all in the body of Christ but which perfectly allows us to pray alone. Times have changed since Julian of Norwich was immured, but in medieval times every town of consequence wanted to have at least one solitary, anchorite or anchoress, for the town regarded this as part of its welfare services. They were worth maintaining for the spiritual good derived from their prayers and penances. Mother Julian may have prayed on her own but her prayers and revelations sere for us all. Nothing private about that even if in private.

So to the question, do we need churches, should we bother opening them at all particularly just now when we offer no collective worship? We might stay at home guided by prayers on Facebook or Twitter or simply sit quietly in our armchairs. Some or many of you no doubt will do this but for others including me the sacred space has meaning and purpose, the framing of prayer time a value. Firstly there is the going. I know it is not possible for everyone but I like to walk to the church; it is a wonderful aspect of parishes that you can see people on a usual Sunday morning walking up the church path, hopefully not rushing but mentally steadying themselves. Then through the door into a place where countless have come before to bring their hopes and fears a time set apart to talk with God, praying (in the words of the Prayerbook) as well for others as themselves. A church engages multiple senses, the acoustic, the visual, a sense of smell and touch all of which contribute to the way we feel. I am sure we need them.

From Monday then we will carefully open our churches for you to come and pray in them, to give thanks and to bless his name” to be both apart and yet together in the mystery that is now, has been, and shall be for ever.