Saturday, 21 November 2020

God is with us now

The book of Ezekiel opens with a vision and a call fully reminiscent of the vision and call of Isaiah. Ezekiel was stunned off his feet, for in the confusion of storm fire and noise he had glimpsed something that looked like the glory of God coming towards him. Now there is a gap of more than a century between these two prophets yet the extraordinary thing is not this passage of time but the passage of place. Ezekiel, you see, is writing from the city of Nippur, south of Babylon and is among the exiles living along a tributary of the Euphrates. 

In the ancient world God is invariably associated with place - consider Solomon’s Temple with its outside courtyard for sacrifices, an inner vestibule or hallway leading finally to the holy of holies housing the Ark of the Covenant and there it is all built on the hill of mount Zion. God was there, up high, inaccessible. In Isaiah’s vision we remember that the lower hem only of God’s robe filled the whole Temple. People might almost unimaginably hope to partially approach him like Moses and the burning bush but this would be granted to very few, like the Devir to the priests alone and then only one day a year. 

Ezekiel and the exiles are far away, they have long since stopped blaming the Babylonians for their troub;les but are filled with the sense of their own sin,  their own distance from their God, their Temple destroyed as a punishment for all they had done wrong.  

So, Ezekiel seeing God coming towards them, there by the rivers of Babylon is completely outside and beyond all expectation. Separated from their Temple they are separated from their God yet he is coming to them. By chapter 34 of Ezekiel’s prophecies this has become very personal: “For thus says the Lord God I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of thick clouds and darkness.”

We think mostly of sheep in flocks, but I have rescued single solitary sheep, snipping the wool of one entangled in barbed wire, gathering a lamb with its surprisingly oily fleece, (which looks so fluffy from a distance) they do really get lost and need seeking out and I hear Ezekiel telling me that the Lord will gather all the sheep “gathering them from the countries” and bringing them back to their own land to be fed on rich teaching and to lie down peaceably and in safety. 

Make no doubt about it this is a big change - God is among us now, no longer far away in Jerusalem on mount Zion but here with all of us, looking down the ravines, up at the crags, in the marshes looking across the whole world. We no longer need a Temple or dare I say for all that I love them a church building. We can carry God with us wherever we are for God is mobile and God will never be far away again.


Saturday, 14 November 2020

When the Lord comes?

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-end 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Today is the second Sunday before Advent but as last week was Remembrance Sunday this is the first look we take at the Advent theme. The question is “What do we think happens or will happen when the LORD comes?” 

Zephaniah as befits an Old Testament prophet is unambiguous :

“That will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom a day of clouds and thick darkness. “

Now, right now mid lockdown this may be the last thing we want to hear; it contrasts greatly with our usual more excited approach to this time of year. Zephaniah was writing between 609 and 604 BC, he was a contemporary of Jeremiah so writing only a little  before the fall of Jerusalem and the exile. He foresees the coming of the Babylonians who will drag people from houses, streets, sewers and tombs where they have been hiding or as he puts it “at that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps.” Why though does Zephaniah write like this? He is it seems to me the sixth century BC equivalent of the graphic images which for a while at least appeared on cigarette packets, some of you may remember them the horrible pictures of diseased lungs :” REFORM,” says Zephaniah “or these bad things will happen to you.” 

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians has five chapters and the final verse of each and every chapter ends with a reference to the second coming of Christ. For example, chapter one ends describing “Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath.” and at the end of this chapter five which we have heard some of this morning it says” May God himself, the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely and may your spirit and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” 

And so here is the difference, there is still the unmistakable imagery of impending tribulations “When they say there is peace and security then sudden destruction will come upon them as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman and there will be no escape” and again just as in the Old Testament there is a warning of darkness to come. But this time the cigarette packet has two pictures, the inescapable diseased ling of sin, the warning is still there, but also a brighter clear picture of healed tissues brought about by Jesus Christ, who died for us that we might be clean. 

When Advent really comes we will give more emphasis to our waiting and this is what we are waiting for, not the day of darkness  but the day of light and so we wait not with the foreboding of the old prophets but with the anticipation of the new.



Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Remembrance Sunday 2020

Before 1914, there had been no world wars at all. Between 1815 and 1914 moreover no major power fought another one outside of its immediate region. (there were of course aggressive expeditions of imperial powers against weaker opponents especially in Africa India and Asia.) All this changed in the last century - during the two world wars Canadians fought in France, Americans all over Europe, Indians in the Middle East and Chinese in France and the naval battles were everywhere. One eminent historian called the period 1914 to 1945 the age of total war. But it was not simply a war of combattants, many millions were engaged and affected, civilians, doctors, nurses, cooks ambulance drivers the young the old : everyone.

"Have you forgotten yet?

For the worlds events have rumbled on since those gagged days 

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life : and you’re a man reprieved to go

Taking your peaceful share of time with joy to spare." 

These lines are the start of a poem  by Siegfried Sassoon called the “Aftermath.” 

Just those two phrases “Have you forgotten yet?”, “for events have rumbled” on tell us why we are here, to remember, to give thanks for those who made it possible for us to “take our peaceful share of time.”

And today it seems that there is again a world war - against this time an unseen virus and once more many millions are engaged: doctors, nurses, cooks, ambulance drivers, the young the old. And again there are those of great courage who take risks for others. 

There was among all the news coverage a week ago a lady in an hospital recovering from a stay in intensive care who summed it up - she said that the doctors and nurses had treated her without cease, for days working to save her  life, she was still ill, still hoping to be well again and as she told her story she broke into tears of admiration, thanks and amazement. 

So as we wear our poppies this morning remembering those who gave so much for so long for so many let us also acknowledge those who continue to do this today in different ways and in different times but who do so for the same reason: 

“That we may take our peaceful share of time with joy to spare.”


Saturday, 31 October 2020

All Saints

 We the Church of England have had a hot and cold relationship with saints: Article 22 of the articles of religion found in the back of the Book of Common Prayer says:

“The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration as well of images as of reliques and also invocation of saints is a fond thing vainly invented and grounded upon no warranty of scripture but rather repugnant to the word of God.” 

Which you may agree is extremely cold indeed. The Catholic church on the other hand has had no doubts about this subject and venerating the saints has long been an element of their devotions. Following Pusey, Newman and the Oxford movement, Anglicanism has as ever tried to follow the via media restoring some recognition to the saints in modern times. The general argument is that saints are close to God because of their holiness but also accessible to man whose nature they share. There was a feeling that the worshipping community on earth was but an outlying colony at some distance from the true worshippers who we read about in the book of Revelation. 

“There was a great multitude, that no-one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the throne, before the Lamb robed in white with palm branches in their hands.“

As my schoolboy nuns taught me “seeing God is heaven” and recognising this as we hear in this passage is a far cry from invoking saints’ interaction with the living. Yet this was previously so much the case that relics were moved from one place to another where it was thought that they might do more good. In Anglo Saxon England for example, St. Oswald was moved from Tynemouth to Gloucester and St. Judoc from Cornwall to Winchester. Sometimes the demands made on the saintly remains were more specific: Otto the 1st who was fighting in Magdeburg moved the body of St. Maurice the soldier saint from Burgundy to be among his troops in the field of battle. More prosaically but still current is the thought that we should pray to St. Anthony when we lose our car keys. 

Opinions have ever wavered on this,  St. Augustine himself changed his mind about saints being effective in the present, coming to this positive conclusion only much later in his life when he made use of the relics of St. Stephen. These  were brought to Africa to work daily miracles in St. Augustine’s growing congregation. So there is a range of views. 

In this church - All Saints Burnham Thorpe, you will observe the clear Protestant emphasis. There are no images of any sort, we are undistracted from our focus on God who is the only object of our worship. (Article 22). On this festival of All Saints, here, hearing again those words from Revelation we consider and reflect upon the examples of the so many faithful servants of God who have gone before us. Servants of all ages, sexes, races and conditions. 

Yet whatever their origins they are there “before the throne of God and worship him day and night.”

Here surely is the saintly example which we might all agree on , that above all we are to constantly give thanks and praise to God.


Saturday, 24 October 2020

Being Holy

 Knowing that I needed to talk to you about this passage from Leviticus I set out on Monday morning to be holy; I sprang from my bed with holy intentions, I said to myself, yes I will try to spend a holy day. By 7.35 - AM that is, the enormous red digger that was there, right there against the garden fence roaring and crushing great stones and boulders and being shouted at by the foremen of the site and disturbing my reflections was already causing me irritation. Moreover it was a chilly day and the best place to sit was in the sun facing the monster leaving me the impossible choice of being either cold and irritated or deafened and irritated. All attempts at holiness had leached away and my love for my neighbour, now an ugly red digger was non-existent. 

Yet Moses when speaking to the congregation of Israel, the nation set apart by God as his special people, is told to tell them “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God is holy.”  Which begs the question who shall we emulate? We hold an advantage over the Israelites of Moses’ time for we have Jesus Christ as our example and we may and I would argue we should set our sights on him. Faced though with inevitably falling short, what do we understand holiness to be? The book of Leviticus famously telles us many things that holiness is not of which only a tiny number are mentioned in this morning’s reading. It is not judging unjustly, and we might say in the light of Jesus’ teaching that it is not judging at all. You shall not hate your kin, and again in view of what Jesus tells us we shall not hate anyone at all even our enemies. 

Emulating God, “be holy for I am the Lord your God”, seemed too much for me and I am  not sure that Jesus makes it easier. A priest friend of mine used to say they preferred to emulate Peter, at least he had made notable mistakes and so there may be a sporting chance. I continue to say we should try to be like Jesus, after all he came to show us the way. But then what would it be like to try to be truly holy by being like Jesus? It seems I have to first love myself. This I can assure you is not easy, for I know, or think I know, or think I might know the terrible things in my heart, all the pent up unholiness past and present.  It would seem much easier to love someone else, Frances, my children, you, of whom I know comparatively little. 

Still there is that line from Plato to consider:

“Is that which is holy loved by the Gods or is it holy because it is loved by the Gods?”

So there we are, If God can love me despite those things that I know, think I know, think I might know but God does know then, maybe that makes me holy as a creation of God himself. So it is important for me to tell myself every day “God loves me” otherwise I shall forget and then red diggers or not I have no chance to be holy at all.


Monday, 5 October 2020

The Vineyard

I have been waiting for this reading from Isaiah ever since Frances and I visited Bulgaria over a year ago. We were staying in the Balkan foothills and our billet was at the top of a hill above the town, so each day we began downhill in the heat and the dust to perhaps catch a bus or to forage for lunch and on the way we passed small holdings which frequently were walled vineyards. The walls were protected by barbed wire not watchtowers and you could see the vines climbing trellises and strings, their grape clusters shining in the hot sun. In corners were primitive water butts and buckets, half drain pipes for irrigation. I recognised then more fully than before that each of these was a labour of love, the terrain, climate and soil needed to be harnessed, needed work and dedication to produce good grapes and that this was individual or family work. Later we would see men on motorbikes or a small car pulling little trailers filled with grapes taking them to the collective distillery to be made into their own wine. 

Isaiah  describes a perfect vineyard, on a fertile hill, well dug, cleared of stones and protected - his listeners would have understood as easily as my Bulgarian friends what this meant and would have shared in the frustration of the result Isaiaih describes of the well chosen vines being overwhelmed by wild grapes. 

The parable of the vineyard carries over from the Old Testament times to the New, where we recognise the care of the viticulturist, and we share the sense of anger at the injustices meted out by the tenants of the landowner’s vineyard to the slaves and most outrageously to the Son. These stories are universal, understood by any culture and any age group.

Isaiah speaking God’s words asks “What more was there to do for my vineyard?”

In 1968 Bill Anders on Apollo 8 took the photograph that has ever since captured our imagination.  “Earthrise” , a picture of our own planet rising with the grey surface of the moon in the foreground. The astronaut’s famous  picture is said to have changed our view forever and has been credited by some with the launch of the many environmental movements we are familiar with today. This is the vineyard we have been given, in all its beauty and diversity.

I have given up watching David Attenborough, not because I disagree with him bit because it is all so sad: the retreating ice caps, the breaking icebergs, the polluted oceans, savaged rain forests diminishing species numbers - actually it makes one cross:

“And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard, I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured. I will break down its wall and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste, it shall not be pruned or hoed and it shall be overgrown with briars and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. “

As tenants of the Lord’s vineyard, as stewards of his creation, the Church is rightly putting its weight behind increased responsibility to the earth itself - that's the one in the famous picture, the one that is permanently under threat - and we are urged to do all we can to help.


Sunday, 27 September 2020

Look after others

Today when we think of a poem, I suspect we will imagine something short, a page or two at most but it is not always so - consider Tennyson’s In Memoriam or  the poem I have in mind this morning “Leaves of grass” by Walt Whitman which is really a whole book. And the reason that I have this in mind is that little passage we have heard in this morning’s reading from Philippians:

“Let each of you not look to your own interests but to the interests of others.”

Whitman believed that everything joins up with absolutely everything else that amazing diversity and individuality and oneness were the same thing. He wrote\;

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars.”

Like many in the nineteenth century he thought that the triumph of democracy was inevitable and of course that America was the epitome of that ideal and would lead the way for the rest of the world. 

“Thou Union holding all, fusing absorbing tolerating all / Thee ever thee I sing”

I cannot help thinking that we (and surely the Americans) have lost our way and the principal reason for this is that we have been inattentive to that verse from Philippians. Somewhere in the struggle the tenets of unbridled self interest triumphed over the nobler thought of loving our neighbours. Our wisdom is that if everyone does what is good for themselves then the clockwork mechanisms of supply and demand, profit and loss, labour and capital will gently ratchet to the common good. Sometimes to be fair this can be true, there have been long periods [Macauly writes eloquently of these) over the centuries when prosperity has been generally increased. God’s wisdom is that if everyone does what is good for others then the result will be better. It is I think important to note how revolutionary, how upside down this is, so it was in Jesus’ time and still is now. 

2020 America is very different from 1885 America - a lady from Boston sitting in my house recently said she would not like to go back home to her country, for all the division, racial strife, economic disparity and political ugliness there now. It is hard to disagree, when Frances and I lived there now over thirty years ago it was still a place full of hope with an extraordinary appreciation of geography, flora and fauna - I am not sure we would recognise it now. 

 But it could have been different, if instead of looking after ourselves we had learned first to look after others. The paradox is that the clockwork would be the same but working consistently and more certainly. This looking after others is the missing skeleton of our modern democracies, the substance that would hold all the bones together. As Paul says:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit

Then perhaps Whitman could again write:

“And a song make I of the One formed out of all. “