Saturday, 24 April 2021

Be good shepherds to one another

 There seems to have been a recent renewed interest in sheep and shepherds, Philip Walling’s “Counting Sheep” and James Rebanks best selling “The Shepherd’s Life” both published in the last five or six years come to mind and I am sure there are others, fuelled by the renewed and special subject of traditional breeds. Walling suggest that the lives of shepherds and those connected with sheep husbandry are these days in a parallel world largely unnoticed by the majority of the population yet this was not always so: the wealth of our nations was founded upon woll and in Jesus’ day the flocks were huge and the shepherds numerous although poor and distrusted. Jesus says “I am the good shepherd”, a fine metaphor - if you have a few sheep Anthea has some in her little paddock for example - then you want to entrust them to somebody competent, honest and eligible, someone who knows what is best for them, who can aid their lambing and collect them from their wanderings when they need to come down from the hills in winter. 

Not that all sheep are alike; a few names to think about: The Leicester, Swaledale, Cheviot, Suffolk, Hardwicke and so on each of which have a distinctive appearance and they do have a varied lifestyle. The sheep of Ronaldsay, for example, travel up and down with the tide and are so fond of seaweed that they will sometimes swim out to discover tender shoots on small islands. I have taken lunch with a sheep who, having gained access to the dining room, refused all efforts to budge him out again. So it is worth considering this metaphor some more to substitute any view we are holding of white dots of cotton wool on a green hillside with a much more varied population akin to the variety of the human race. Jesus is the good shepherd and we are all of his flock. 

Of course when we are out and about in the dales the sheep are there doing sheepy things, looking strong and independent and yet as we know they need help quite often. My catalogue of rescued sheep and lambs continues to grow and this week Frances’ phone call included a story of saving an ewe and her lamb from the Dorset highway. We too need help and assistance quite often, especially when shadowed by sorrow or need and we are then able to turn to the great shepherd of the sheep in prayer asking for the help we need. Our shepherd laid down his life for us, and will answer our prayers but most often now in the agency of other people. 

Returning to the letter from John where we read that:

“… we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abode in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses help?”

This gives a different emphasis to laying down our lives. There are thankfully few who are called to physically give their lives for a cause but we are ALL enjoined to lay down our lives in the sense of dying to self, setting aside our own wishes, dislikes and priorities to help others. We did see this during the last year in many communities, including our own. The team which twice a day, every day for week after week checked on the RED/GREEN cards to be sure that residents were safe had to forgo a warm morning or night at home and sometimes probably more. In this sense they laid aside something of their own lives. There are many other examples but all of them help us to remember that we each need to be Good Shepherds to one another. 

Have we not seen miracles enough? Exodus 16:4-15

I love the Old Testament  and tonight's reading from Exodus illustrates one of the reasons. I noticed the other week or so in the Guardian an article lamenting the performance of Sir Keir Starmer as leader of the Labour Party. Now such a lament is to be expected from the Telegraph but since this was in the Labour Party’s house journal I sat up to take notice. After all, it was not so long ago that the same paper had so high an opinion of Sir Keir that they daily polished his reputation. What had happened? Well it does not really matter because I want to return to the Israelites. Only in the chapter before our reading we hear the song of Miriam:

“I will sing to the Lord for he is highly exalted
Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea
The Lord is my strength and my defense
He has become my salvation
He is my God and I will praise HIm 
My father’s God and I will exalt him.”

But at the beginning of our chapter the Israelites are grumbling: “Why have you brought us into this desert, we should never have come, at least in Egypt we sat around pots of meat and had all the food we wanted, but you, you have brought us to this wilderness to starve us to death.”

It is the same you see, “Kier at least under Corbyn we knew where we were, now we are lost straddling fences shy of attacking this horrid government “ or anyway something like that.

And I love that the people of the Old Testament are as real, as human and as fickle as we are. For then it is easy to get inside the story. The Israelites were unhappy as slaves of Pharaoh, they watched the various plagues sent, they saw the parting of the Red Sea, the defeat of their enemies and now on the 15th day of the second month, so a mere 45 days after the Passover they are unreasonably cross with Moses and Aaron. Had they not seen miracles enough?  But yet they complain. The Lord hears them, has compassion upon them and sends quails in the evening and so much manna in the morning that it seems like frost on the ground. 

Which is why I am optimistic about the environment. Have we not seen miracles enough? God gave us the miracle of this planet and all its abundant life and I am certainly not saying that we should continue abusing it in the ways we have been nor that we should not amend our ways but I am confident that we were given miracles in the past and that there are miracles we do not yet know about and that there are more to come.



Saturday, 17 April 2021

Peter from wayward to obedient

 Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. We remember him trying to set up booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. We remember him having insufficient faith to walk across the sea to Jesus, we remember him refusing to let Jesus wash his feet, and that threefold denial before the cock crows. His frailty and fallibility are undoubtedly encouraging to us for even with all these weaknesses Jesus makes him the head of the church. 

This morning’s reading from the book of Acts, Luke’s account of the early days of the church has been set adrift from its context. “When Peter saw it he addressed the people.” A strange beginning which prompts us to look back to answer our question “When Peter saw what?”

The preceding story is set at the beautiful gate of the Temple where a lame man is being carried in as he is every day to lay there and to beg for alms from the people going in for the three o’clock prayers. Peter and John seeing him there begging from them declined to give him any money but instead Peter said: “I have no silver or gold but what I have I give you - in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth stand up and walk.” The lame man is spectacularly healed and he enters the temple walking and leaping about praising God.” When the people saw this they all ran to Peter and John who by now are in Solomon’s portico. And this is what Peter saw, an excited, enervated crowd running to them to hail them and give him and John the credit for the miracle. Now this is a new Peter, not the one who ran away from a servant girl and the taunting when she said “He is one of them!” but one who has been empowered by the events of recent weeks. 

The transforming effects of the resurrection and of Jesus’ appearances to them all the coming of the Holy Spirit (for all this takes place after Pentecost) not to mention his own self confidence boosted by these miracles of healing have so altered Peter that he wants to confront, argue with and if possible change the crowd in front of him. He absolutely grasps the opportunity to do so which may be even more surprising since here in the Temple he leaves us in no doubt that this audience are the “crucify” crying people of Good Friday. Brave therefore in the face of possible attack or arrest yet he does not hide his belief and allegiance. 

In our Gospel reading Jesus stood among them and said “Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be procl;aimed in his name to ALL nations beginning with Jerusalem.” Notice how closely Peter follows these instructions. He and John are at the Temple in Jerusalem at the very centre of the Jewish world; they are to take the message of the Messiah to all nations. Peter begins his preaching by recalling Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to underline that Jesus is from the one true God, the God of these people, of their ancestors and of Peter. By this power has the lame man been healed, we Peter and John are but witnesses, just as Jesus said, and look at what Peter proclaims - repentance and forgiveness. He says repent and your sins may be wiped out.

Peter, previously known as wayward; “Get behind me Satan”, Jesus told him, is now fully in line, following the instructions to the letter, he is changed forever. There are the transforming results of all they had seen, felt, herald and now fully believed. Can we reach back to grasp this and be transformed ourselves?

Do not worry C of E

 Deuteronomy 7:7-13

Moses knows full well and so do we that the Israelites can be stiff necked and rebellious, witness their behaviour in the wilderness or at the foot of mount Sinai. Now they are established in Egypt, Moses, is exhorting them to obey God’s commandments and statutes especially those concerning the worship, or I should say the prohibition to worship, foreign gods and idols. As I say they have form on this one. Moses has just reminded them that they are a Holy people to the Lord God and that they have been chosen to be a special people above all the people on the earth. He then explains that this is an outpouring of God’s grace, there was nothing to commend them at all. They were an inconsiderable number when brought out of Egypt and even now settled as they are they are the fewest of all the peoples. [Hittites, Girgashites, Ammonites, Cananites, Perezites are all more numerous.] God chose to love them but not for their merits. God is not earthly, where the greatness of our kings is measured by the numbers of their peoples. He loved them because he would love them. I have mentioned before that Peter Schaeffer’s play Amadeus opens with Salieri looking at a picture, he tells us it is of an Old Testament God, the sort of God you could bargain with. There is a hint of this at the end of Moses’ speech “If you heed these ordinances … he will love you, bless you and multiply you, the fruit of your ground, grain, wine,oil, cattle and flock” which sounds like a good deal doesn’t it. I think that considering it as a bargain though must I think to misread Moses' intent.

Rather he seems to be saying “Look without you deserving anything, God chose to love you and remember that a fruit of that love was the oath he swore to your ancestors so recently exemplified by bringing you out of Egypt. This love moreover is steadfast, returned to you who love HIM to the thousandth generation. 

Actually it seems we already have the gifts of grain, wine, oil, cattle and flock not to mention much else besides all of which are the fruits of his love for us.

So please can we take this on board? I have from time to time commented that in these recent  times the Church of England has become an anxious place; our leaders worry about the size of the declared membership (prepare for probable rending of garments following the census), they worry about balancing their budgets (see the clergy pay freeze and the call for bishops to be paid less) they worry about our buildings (committee after committee in a constant state of review) they worry  about how many clergy there are (see our own diocesan deployment review). Where is Moses in all this? Where is the simple faith “God loves you, he loves his church  - obey the statutes, stick to the great commission and God will bless and multiply you.?

So please do not worry, C of E, do not be disheartened, hear the promises of God which he made down to the thousandth generation. 


Saturday, 27 March 2021

Palm Sunday Eyewitness

I would not usually have been there but my wife reminded me about the flour and herbs we needed for next week and how with so many visitors, the merchants could easily sell out so even though it was a hot afternoon I went out taking my boy Johannes with me.He was six years old and eager to come on the errand, so we cut through the narrow alleyways. I was holding him tightly by the hand for there were crowds from all over come to celebrate the Passover. We headed for the shop on the corner of the main road  where I knew the herbs would be fresh and of the finest quality, dodging the carts and the bundle carriers as we went. But when we reached the shop it was impossible to get in as it was surrounded  by people who were surging out of the city, the road was completely full and we soon got swallowed up in it all, I can tell you. I caught up Johannes and he climbed on piggy back style, his arms clasped tightly around my neck as the crowd sucked us out with it onto the Bethany road.  Outside the city gate it was marginally less of a crush and I could stand at the roadside able to breathe again. There was such excitement about and up ahead I could hear chanting. It was too far away for me to make it out but it seemed to be good natured, joyful and happy and coming toward us. Shortly we could see a small group coming down the hill in front of a crowd, they were all led by a man on a donkey. Now I could hear the chanting: “Hosanna”. 

Well I still did not know what was going on and I tugged at the man next to me

 “What’s happening?”  

“It's the man from Galilee, see he is coming - the one who raised Lazarus,, they say that Lazarus might be with him but look - there is the one they call Jesus - on a donkey.”

“Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord : The king of Israel.”

The enthusiasm was so infectious, the donkey and the man came closer, and I do not know why but I felt an urge to join in; I lifted my arms above my head and asked Johannes to hold the ends of some palm branches so I could  break them off - I had never done anything like this before but Johannes and I waved our fronds and we sang with the others “Hosanna ,Hosanna” and now the crowd around the gate moved out to meet the man and we continued to wave the palm  branches in his honour and then as he got closer, we threw them on the ground to make a sort of carpet for the donkey to walk on as the strange procession went through the gate into the city. The people had thinned out a little bit now so I could put Johannes back on the road, hold him by hand as we followed the stream of people, the chanting now ahead of us as the crowd at the front grew with more and more people coming out of the sidestreets. It looked as though they were heading to the Temple. 

“Daddy, who was that? Why are all these people here?”

To be truthful, I did not really know how to answer Johanes’ question - how do you speak to a small boy about Roman occupation, about the imprisonment of Palestine, which is his country but which he has only known this way. How to tell him of the freedom we crave and the hope that exploded with the coming of this miracle worker seated on a donkey riding into Jerusalem just as Zechararia had foretold? 

"Johannes,” I said “ this is a special person, come from God, a really good man, and I am so glad that you have been here today and that you have seen him.”

You know I forgot all about the shopping, the flour, the herbs, I forgot everything in those Hosannas.”

Saturday, 20 March 2021


You might like me be puzzled about MELCHIZEDEK and the comments in our reading from Hebrews. What is the order of Melchizedek and why is the writer of Hebrews (who most likely was not Paul) equating Jesus with him? What could this be about? A couple of weeks ago now we were speaking about Abram/Abraham and it is in the middle of this story that Melchizedek appears. Abram has successfully defeated a group of eastern kings who among other things had captured Lot (Abram’s nephew) and after this rescue, suddenly without previous mention we read in Genesis 14:18-20b:

And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God most high. He blessed him and said:

“Blessed be Abram by God most high maker of heaven and earth and blessed be God most high who has delivered your enemies into your hand”

And Abram gave him one tenth of everything.” 

The first thing perhaps to notice is that he was priest and king - a sacral king therefore exercising authority in Salem later to become Israel’s holy capital and of course the place where Jesus would come to show that he was the Messiah. To understand why this comparison is being made, and the writer will make it more fully in chapter 7, we need to remind ourselves about the office of “High Priest.”

In the Jewish tradition the high priesthood is established (in the book of Exodus) when Moses ordains Aaron as the first high priest, the one charged with entering the Holy of Holies on the day of the atonement. All high priests were to be descendants of Aaron. Originally the high priest’s status was secondary to that of the king but gradually the authority of the high priest extended to the political arena. The important point is that Melchizedek of Salem is pre-Moses - he is not part of this hereditary lineage. He is both priest and king and even Abraham, the father of all Israel paid tithes to him and was blessed by him. 

The author of the Hebrews is determined to explain that Jesus is superior to all other beings, he is uncreated, immortal and permanent, superior to all biblical heroes including Abraham and Moses. His priesthood was divinely appointed:

“So Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest but was appointed.”

The letter to the Hebrews (although rather more like a sermon than a letter) stresses that the incarnation of Christ is a rupture with the past.The language of continuity between the covenants and laws of the Old Testament and the marriage of the New which we are used to is not found here. Rather it is overturned expressing the suppressionist view that Christianity replaces everything else, particularly Judaism. Hence this link was made to Melchizedek, drawing a line from Genesis directly to Christ bypassing everything else. Hebrews will explain that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the ultimate one, superseding all sacrifices made from Moses to to the end of the Temple period by any high priest, descending from Aaron. 

The purpose of this book then is to reinforce the new covenant to pass us from previous religious rules and to engage unhesitatingly in the spiritual cleansing and renewal that Jesus urges on us. A very suitable passage for the fifth Sunday of Lent.


Sunday, 7 March 2021

The ten commandments are less popular now

 The ten commandments are less popular now. Although there is provision for them to be used in modern Common Worship services some churches like ours use a summary of the law and even  more usually go directly to the invitation to confession. The first 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, however did not use the commandments in the Communion service but began with a Psalm and then the nine verse form of the Kyrie:

Lorde have mercie upon us (three times)

Christ have mercie upon us (three times)

Lorde have mercie upon us (three times)

Ten years later in  1559 edition a new instruction was added at the beginning of the service:

“The shall the priest rehearse distinctly all the ten commandments”

The ninefold Kyrie was adapted to serve as responses to the individual commandments and this is what we see in our current editions of the Book of Common Prayer. In 1547, so a couple of years prior, during a general demolition of rood screens and images, churches were white lymed and commandments were written on the walls. This Protestant revolution, where images were replaced by words, was formalised under James 1st when it was required by Canon (1604:82) that the Ten Commandments were to be set on the east wall of every church. St. Clement’s Overy has a fine example of this and we can easily picture the faithful looking at these words as they were preparing to receive communion with them in their hearts.

But the ten commandments are less popular now. It may be that visitors to our churches and perhaps even those regularly in the pews do not notice, do not see the writing on the walls. Now, in this the season of Lent we are called to self examination and repentance, to positively take to heart the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospels. But against what is this self examination to take place?  

I have been worried by the case of Anna Sacoolas, the driver of the car which collided with 19 year old Harry Dunn who died following the accident at RAF Croughton. The circumstances of Mrs. Sacoolas fleeing to the USclaiming diplomatic immunity are well known, extradition to attend a hearing in the UK was refused but last week news came that a civil  case could be brought even though Mr. Sacoola’s lawyers argued that it could not because the case should be heard in the UK where she will not go! What worries me is that our laws of social justice, our international courts and our basic government constructs have failed to find a place for the simple question “What happened?” to be asked and answered.

The ten commandments are less popular now - I am the Lord your God, make no graven images, do not take the Lord's name in vain, keep the sabbath, honour your parents, do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet. It does seem that had they still been in the forefront of society’s thinking then the story of Harry Dunn would have read differently and that Mrs. Sacoolas would have been able to hear her conscience.

We need a sounding board for our reflection and meditation in Lent and indeed throughout our lives and I can think of no better than the decalogue.