Thursday, 15 August 2019

Can we be ready?

Luke 12:32-40

There was a time when I had a boss who was more difficult than most and it took me a while to understand why. It turned out that he had been involved in a very serious industrial accident, suffering thirty degree burns, spending many months in hospital and having been expected to die. This had changed his whole attitude to life especially to taking risks and in his case not in a good way: he swapped out his wife for someone new, moved halfway across America, took up a new career, burned the candle at both ends and all at the same time. The trouble was he grafted his ideas onto others insisting for example that a quiet, shy, family man up sticks from the outlying suburbs of Cincinnati and move alone to Tokyo or face being fired. Following on from last week he “seized the day” alright and expected everybody else to follow. He was difficult to be around professionally and socially. There is a lesson to be drawn though:

It is one thing to read ”For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” and another to really feel and experience that. Greg felt it for for him the Son of Man had almost come, the house had been broken into and the thief was on the stairs. How much I wonder would our lives be changed if from the start we did know the hour of our death? It would perhaps make some things easier but in my view it is a mercy that we do not and it means of course that we do have to have the lamps lit and be dressed for action in case the master returns.

It is rather a frightening thought - will we be, are we ready? What shall we feel if Jesus came in that door just now, while we are all here,? I am sure we will recognize the Lord as he walks along past the hymn books, turns the corner in front of the wall painting of St. Christopher, and comes up this North aisle. But what will we feel, what will we be saying to ourselves, will we be ready?

Perhaps the confession from the morning service will be the most appropriate:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things we ought to have done and we have done those things that we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.
O Lord have mercy on us miserable offenders.

Or then again those words from the general confession - we have sinned in thought word and deed. Especially the thoughts, for Jesus knows all this, he knows every thought on our minds before it is formed, every word on our tongue before we hear them -  how can we be ready?

“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Please hear that “It is the Father’s pleasure to give us the kingdom; you may be aware of a strand of thinking that we earn our place in heaven but discard it. We can never really do that - the gift of eternal life, the gift of heavenly rest and peace, of the good things that the Father gives us are from his grace and we can be ready only when we live in a way that anticipates - our wicks are trimmed, our oil  replenished,  but which anticipates that meeting with Jesus here in the chapel knowing all and still taking pleasure in giving us his love.


Amen

Friday, 2 August 2019

Emerging from retreat

The first thing to say is that the generosity of the community of nuns at the Community of St. Mary the Virgin is so gently offered that you may overlook it. I arrive bearing the impedimenta of the world, car, telephone, computer, Google, not to mention maleness into a society that has lived together, reclusively, for years. They have grown older together, watched their sisters die, worshipped together and established a pattern of being which is focussed on their desire to know God more nearly. There is nothing boring, repetitive or unexciting about that nor I suspect about their lives as a whole but it is sustained by rhythm, peace and cadence. Yet I am welcomed (and many are welcomed) into the poem, breaking in as it were into a late stanza without the benefit of the earlier pages. This is my third year in Wantage, yet it is still, even knowing what to expect and what I came for, difficult to fall into the pattern, feeling awkward, atonal, making a colon where there should be a comma. Yet I am welcomed into their spaces, their chapels, libraries, refectory, garden and silences. The generosity so gently offered is overwhelming in magnitude.

Emerging from this into the town there are innumerable words, all around in snatches of caught conversation crashes of sound which are jarring. Firstly swearing, lots of it, outside the pub, from the windows of a passing car, among the school age, between friends somehow exchanging greetings, men women children. No poetry here, only a short drive from the dreaming spires; it is painful. The some mothers with small children issuing warnings: do not run you will fall and cut yourself, no you cannot have them now, you will drop them and lose them. Some lewd remarks are heard in the market square.

And all this, usually just so much background, is picked out unwantedly as I walk to sit on a bench in a graveyard and in doing so I recognize how truly generous the sisters have been.
But they know that.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Saul and succession

Last week there was a special Panorama programme on Brexit - I forget the title but essentially it told the story of three years of negotiations so perhaps it may have been “How did we get into this mess?” It is good sometimes to take a step back and review the whole picture away from the detail.

The lectionary we have been following from the first Book of Samuel is richly textured and tonight we reach the point where David and Jonathan realise that now a decision has to be made. How did they get there?

 Saul had been chosen as king by Samuel but when Saul does not obey God’s commands to kill the oxen, sheep men women and children of the defeated Amalekites Samuel explains that the kingship will pass to another. God commanded Samuel to go to Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons king. This is unknown to Saul but we of course know that it is David who is anointed to be the future king of Israel. Saul meantime is suffering from intense changes of mood which are of concern to his servants and retainers. They suggest he could be soothed by a harpist. Incidentally only this week a team from the University of Pennsylvania published the results of an experiment to show that music can dinish anxiety and lower blood pressure just as well as drugs. “Find a man to play to me “ he commands and David is duly found and brought to court. Whenever the spirit from God troubled Saul David took the harp and played, then Saul grew calm and recovered and the evil spirit left him.

Bur Saul remains anxious, he is aware that he has been rejected by Yahweh and he has to watch as David grows in stature and prowess and popularity. David slays Goliath and wins many battles against the Philistines - in the victory parades the women sing:

“Saul has killed his thousands
And David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was very angry, for this saying displeased him - they have ascribed to David tens of thousands but to me they have ascribed (only) thousands. And Saul eyed david from that day on! Eventually Saul is in such a rage that he decided to arrange for David to be killed. Warned by his friend and Saul’s son Jonathan, David escapes to be with Samuel for a while. Jonathan would like David to return to court and this is the substance of the present conversation. It is almost the last the friends will have - they agree a signal which will tell David whether Saul’s anger has or has not abated - it has not and David will be forced to flee not the wilderness once more.

As we have discovered in recent weeks succession is difficult, love of power and jealousy have not been diminished by the passage of the millennia - the human condition is the thing we Christians work to change.

Amen

God continues to surprise me

The Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance to his tent by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day.


What a beautiful image is conjured by this story which captures the fragrance of a far off time. It has the same feel as that lovely line earlier in Genesis of The Lord was walking in the garden in the cool of the day evoking something deep and timeless, peaceful and yet expectant. This is the narrator alerting us to the importance of what we are about to hear. Abraham knows nothing He looked up and saw three men standing near him. Perhaps he thought he had dozed off in the heat and not noticed their approach which might explain his hurry: when he saw then he ran from the tent entrance to meet them. He welcomes the visitors, persuading them to stay by offering what travelers will most appreciate, a little water to wash their feet and a rest in the shade of a tree. He goes on to offer a morsel of bread.

Here his hospitality is so much more than a slice of pitta - he asks Sarah to knead three measures of choice flour into cakes, he selects a calf tender and good all at full speed so a lavish feast is energetically prepared and like a good host he waits discreetly by the tree while the three visitors enjoy it.

Paul was later to write in his letter to the Hebrews “ “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”


This idea was in time to form the basis of the construction of the monasteries - the Abbot always slept in a cell near the main gate which in turn was near the kitchen and the guest chamber so that if someone came to knock on the door they were welcomed by none other than the abbot himself and the hospitality was immediately nearby. Ideally the abbot would be alerted to the approach of a visitor so he could go to meet them.

Unexpected visitors can indeed be surprising. Our farmhouse in Bedfordshire is at the end of a driveway that often people mistake for a road to a house that they are looking for. So when I was sitting in the heat of the afternoon in the front of the house one day and a car appeared I was not surprised except that the car instead of turning round stopped on the drive with its three women, each of a different generation and spent time looking at the house. I ran across the little green in front of the kitchen window to find out what they wanted - the car began to back down the drive but waving I persuaded them to stop intending to direct them to where they were really going.  Now they were not angels but it turned out the eldest had lived in the house when she was a girl and so I set about making a pot of tea and looking for biscuits while they looked around enjoying the old parts and marvelling at the new ones.

The thing is that it was very unusual for me to be in the front of the house at all - there is much more garden at the back. The likelihood was that they would have driven up the drive reversed and I should have been unaware of their visit.

But - you see God always puts you where you are meant to be. The question is why was Abraham just then sitting in the doorway of his tent in the heat of the day? There is much for a wandering man to do, calves and sheep to look after seed to grind and so on. So many times have I been surprised - I have set off to go somewhere and then maybe changed my mind and on the spur of the moment decided to visit a different place to walk the dog or to buy some supper and then there is a meeting with someone, with whom there is an important conversation (maybe they need to borrow a telephone charger) or perhaps at the last moment I have decided not to go out and there is a visitor in need.

In Abraham’s case we can see from the way that the story is told that God put him there. My question is why am I still surprised after so many events like this - why do I not expect God to put me in the right place at the right time  - why is it not a matter of course for us?

Well he is the  God of Surprises and this aspect reinforces our wonder and our worship and allows us to walk in the same awe as Abraham as he hears “I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

Remember:

The Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance to his tent by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day.

Amen

Monday, 8 July 2019

You reap as you sow

Galatians 6:1-16

What a plum cake of a passage we have just heard from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. There are lots of fruit to pick out :

Bear one another’s burdens
Restore (forgive) in the spirit of gentleness
For all must carry their own loads
Share in all good things
You reap whatever you sow
Let us not grow weary in doing what is right

Now having got you all here early thought i had better choose only one of these to talk about otherwise you will be home later than usual. So I thought to ponder on “You reap whatever you sow.” This was a favourite of my maternal grandmother, but then Nana had many little sayings and not a few superstitions (about magpies, stirring tea and lumps of coal and so on) She invariably used this one as an admonition - Look out don’t do that or say that = you’ll reap as you sow. Maybe she had in m knd the Old English edition that says “He that sows thistles shall reap prickles” or even the Biblical quotation from Hosea: “For they that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.” Certainly for me reaping and sowing had bad connotations for some time.

Paul though is speaking in the positive : Old English again: “He that sows good seed shall reap good corn.” How unfashionable that way of thinking has become.

Donald Trump for example. Well he would always seem to be sowing bad seed. His campaign for the presidency was uncivil, his trade wars, the latest with Europe where he wants to put tariffs on whiskey and cheese are aggressive, his relations with Iran …. How can he expect to form any future long term dialogue with a nation that he often threatens to obliterate? It has become almost unthinkable in our modern adversarial culture to begin any negotiation by being generous. Why I wonder did we not three years ago at the beginning of the Brexit discussion say that we would grant EU residents in the UK the right to stay? We were going to end up there anyway. Instead we put it in the pot for discussion causing distress to individuals and losing in my opinion respect and global reputation.

People are surprised when you sow good seed and they do not know quite what to make of it. One late evening a week or so ago in tee shirt and shorts I was in a food shop where there was a lady trying to work out where to obtain a telephone charger because she had left her one at home and was now here on holiday incommunicado. Tempted though I was to discuss the merits of that I butted in : “I can lend you one of mine” I said.  There followed a discussion as to whether she could trust this strange man who had made this proposal - her need for a charger overcame her reluctance and along she came to collect it. Having been told in the meantime that I was the rector the second thing she said to me was : “I suppose it is your job to be kind to people!”



So you see the thought that someone might simply make an unsolicited offer of help needed questioning - firstly it was met with suspicion - “what is this strangers motive for this, what is in it for him? And secondly it was thought to be my job perhaps like a policeman or a nurse “ Ah, now I understand he is being paid to do this. “

Paul says that if you sow in the flesh you will reap corruption, but if you sow in the spirit you will reap eternal life from the spirit. Paul is talking long term and this makes all the difference. It is easy to win a one off bargain but if you want to establish a substantive and lasting relationship you have to sow and cultivate quite different seeds: you must sow not thistles but good quality corn.

And what could be more long term than the promise of eternal life?

Amen 


Monday, 17 June 2019

The Blessing

The Aaronic Blessing

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.


The book of Numbers lies between Leviticus and Deuteronomy and tells the story of Israel’s wandering in the desert for 38 years from Mount Sinai to Mount Horeb on the border with canaan, the promised land. There are as you might expect lots of rules - similar to Leviticus and Deuteronomy and indeed Exodus the regulations for being a faithful Israelite are laid down in painstaking detail. It is called the book of numbers because of the census found in chapter one : here is a sample :

“And so he counted them in the deserts of Sinai:

“From the descendants of Reuben, the first born son of Israel :
All the men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army were listed by name, one by one according to the records of their clans and families. The number of the tribe of Reuben was 46,500.”

And this formula continues for the tribe of Simeon, Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher and Naphthali. There follows a description of how all these men are lined up in battle - Frankly this book is an unlikely bedtime read - one is more likely to look for Isaiah, Ruth, Jonah or Genesis ….

But then we come to this evening’s reading which follows some detailed rules of how to be a Nazarite. To be honest with you I did not know it was here - this poetic paragraph in the middle of the bulk of the book. It would be easily missed but that it stands out from everything before and the lists of offerings that immediately follow: again one for each tribe:

“The one who brought his offering on the first day was Nahshon, son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah:

His offering was one silver plate weighing a hundred and thirty shekels, and one silver sprinkling bowl weighing …. And this goes on for a little while.

Not only does it stand out but this is a blessing that I tend to use for informal services or perhaps a service of Baptism where there are lots of young people and so to find that its origins lie in one of the books written by Moses is a discovery. There is to my mind a celtic feel to it :

Compare for example:

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And the rain fall softly on your fields
Until we meet again
May God hold you
In the hollow of his hand.

Which also has those references to sun and being held.

All of which goes to show that the Bible can still surprise us - that this library of books, history, law, prophecy, stories, songs, poetry and pictures is rich beyond measure and is really the only book we need on that desert island -

And now the Aaronic blessing as conceived by John Rutter

https://open.spotify.com/track/1GQgoiKHdaapTc1iHasHKB


Amen

Trinity and Wisdom

To the majority of you here it will come as no surprise that Wisdom is a woman! “She takes her stand, she cries out.Does not Wisdom call and does not understanding raise her voice?” We have this reading on Trinity Sunday to help us begin to contemplate the mystery of God. St. Augustine said “If you think you understand something then that something is not God.” Or try this: Looking for God is like looking directly into the sun - there is brilliance, warmth, absolute brightness but so much unknown and unseen. Because of the difficulty of the topic I have in recent years delegated the preaching on the Trinity to the curate ……

We know that this subject of the Trinity was difficult for the early church, that the creed we say was only agreed in 381 BC and then under pressure from Constantine the Great, we know that it is difficult for other faiths to accept - Muslims consider us polytheist  and yet it is a defining part of our belief. The test for a church wanting to jon Churches together in England is are they trinitarian?

The passage about Wisdom is wonderful imagery but I also suggest it is a helpful place to begin thinking about the nature of God.

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago; when there were no depths I was brought forth; When he established the heavens I was there , when he drew a circle on the face of the deep … then I was beside him…. And I was daily his delight.”

A mysterious and beautiful  passage but also revealing. The first of God’s acts shows that God is NOT solitary. That God who created the world is rich complex diverse and unfathomable should not be a surprise; that he is not to be represented as a bearded white male and so somehow alienated from many millions who have other identities is clear. Wisdom was beside him and we are told that SHE and God rejoice together, “I was daily his delight”

Wisdom and God have a relationship and so there is an emotion there, even before creation.

God is ever revealing himself and God can only reveal Godself (himself, herself) as God is - there can be no distortion - God cannot reveal anything that is not God - our understanding is of course severely limited but what we are shown can only be God

And so the beginning is the creation of the world - God showing us a glimpse of wonder, beauty and perfection that we barely know even after all these thousands of years.

Secondly the disciples understood in the end, if slowly and stumblingly that Jesus was divine - but as well they could see that he was separate from the Father. After all Jesus prayed to the Father - there is a relationship between them.





At Pentecost which we explored last Sunday the disciples experience a power amongst them and within them which allows them to begin the work of the church - reconciling the imperfectly understood languages but a sign of this. They knew, for they had seen Jesus leave them, that the Holy Spirit was not Jesus; they had heard him say “I will ask the Father and he will send you a counsellor to be among you.” They knew there was a relationship between them.

Again, God can only reveal God. These three elements of revealing tell us something, The doctrine of the Trinity redescribes God in the light of the EVENTS , the events of creation, of the coming of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of God’s transforming spirit.

Just as we saw that there was a relationship at the start - so there is one between the three. The three indwell and pervade each other, an infinite current of love streams without ceasing (we heard - I was ever his delight - there was always love, there was love before anything) and it streams unceasingly between the three persons of the trinity. The Greeks, and this may be the only word of Greek I ever use - called this perichoresis - we have no word for this - no word for the perfect flowing of love - no way of describing how God is love and always has been but God reveals through Jesus and the Holy Spirit that this is so and that he wants a relationship with us.


Amen