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.


Saturday, 6 June 2020


Trinity Sunday 2020
Isaiah 40:12-17, 27 - end

The question I want to ponder this morning is “As our human knowledge increases does God become more or less mysterious?” Our reading from Isaiah this morning finds him full of wonder:

“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
And weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?”

Although phrased as a question Isaiah is full of certainty. Faced with creation he is convinced not only of God’s existence but of God’s capability. Ever since Darwin’s dangerous idea1  there have been attempts to take God out of the picture by delving deeper and smaller. Contract this with Isaiah who steps back to look at the big things: the heavens, the seas, the whole earth of the earth, the mountains and the hills and who concludes that God is much bigger than all these. To help us, like a modern photographer who places a person in front of the Great Pyramid for scale he sets the creator against our sizes: a span, a measure, a scale or a balance.

Our science, however, seems more concerned with building blocks, the components of life, the genome, the DNA, the components of the universe, the particles, waves, quantum mechanics. The microscopes and telescopes were not there for Isaiah but if they had been I like to think he would have written in the same way.

Newton is of course now old hat superseded by Einstein who by now may be also partly old hat. Once I imagined I understood the atom, the proton, neutron and the electron, the orbitals and the excited states but that by now is very very old hat. My father- in- law a professional nuclear physicist in his day, wondered recently what he had missed and ordered a first year undergraduate textbook - the book was large, the print tiny and the changes considerable.

Considerable and for me often marvellous. There is a new thing, well new for me at any rate called “Quantum Entanglement.” This is a complex idea now demonstrated by more complex experiments that allows that something can be in two places at once. The technical definition is that entanglement occurs “when two (or more) particles are such that their quantum states cannot be described independently even though they are apart.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, where we reflect on the threeness and oneness of God and most especially the perfect loving, making sure we stress loving here, the perfect loving relationship between them. Or, even though God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be far apart they are indivisible and cannot be described independently.

The more we learn the bigger God becomes.


1 Dennett Daniel C Penguin 1995

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Pentecost Sunday : Language

Every Pentecost I speak about the miracle of language: “And how is it that we hear,each of us in our own native language?” Language is a textured complexity; the acting schools will remind you that the words themselves are only a minor part of any communication, with our facial expressions and tone of voice far and away dominating the story. During lock down I have been doing a couple of things which may have a bearing on this - listening to France Musique and also an audiobook edition of Oliver Twist. 

In the first case during a news bulletin there was a description of how the virus beginning in  bagts “S’est passé par un petit animal qui s’appelle un Pangolin.” In the measured and gentle tones of a (proper) French accent I developed a sympathy for the little animal which previously had been to our minds a hard scaly insect ridden malevolent creature responsible for devastation in unimaginable degrees.

And a single sentence from the beginning of chapter 27 of Oliver Twist:

“As it would be by no means seemly in a humble author to keep so mighty a personage as a beadle waiting, with his back to the fire, and the skirts of his coat gathered up under his arms until such time as it might suit his pleasure to relieve him; and as it would still less become his station, or his gallantry, to involve in the same neglect a lady on whom that beadle had looked with an eye of tenderness and affection, and in whose ear he had whispered sweet words, which coming from such a quarter might well thrill the bosom of maid or matron of whatsoever degree; the historian whose pen traces these words - trusting that he knows his place, and that he entertains a becoming reverence for those upon earth to whom high and important authority is delegated hastens to pay them that respect and to treat them with all that duteous ceremony which their exalted rank and (by consequences) great virtues imperatively claim at his hands.

Which when translated means “I will take up my story where I left off.” These words take us unerringly to the dark smog of Dickensian London and an age that was all its own and where we wait with held breath for the next issue of the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany.

All those people, the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, those from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia ,Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya, Cretans and Arabs heard not just the words, the consonants and vowels of their languages but the cadence, the tone, the whole message with their hearts. The miracle of the Holy Spirit is so much more than  a “Google Translate” for they each heard the words of Peter perfectly. Of course any miracle must be perfect, by definition, after all it is a gift from God. The Holy Spirit came and still comes  to speak to us on any wavelength, in whatsoever ways we find most easy to ways that we can take into our hearts and which can change our perceptions and our souls in ways we may not yet imagine.


Saturday, 23 May 2020

With One Accord - The Sunday after Ascension Day

When the disciples arrived back in Jerusalem they went to the room upstairs where they were staying. It will help our reflections if we go with them and although it may not have been, though some say it was, let us in any case, imagine that it is the same upper room where they celebrated the Passover Supper on the eve of the crucifixion. Since then they have known despair, were likely angry with one another (surely in the immediate days they asked themselves couldn’t they have spoken out more and done something to prevent this somehow?) . Soon afterwards they retired in defeat to Galilee, back to their boats then joyfully there were days spent with Jesus again, and now they are in Jerusalem fearful that the authorities may try to root them out for association and they gather. What to do surrounded by the memories, the cushions they lay on that night, the torture they witnessed, the uncertaintly of an empty tomb? But with Jesus having appeared to them and with the promises he gave them - everything he told them that would happen did happen: They must believe him now.

They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer or as the King James Bible says more strongly “These continued with one accord in prayer and supplication.” I do not know why modern versions omit that phrase, with one accord, for it is an important component of the scene before us. They were together in fellowship and harmony, united in experience with no quarrel or discord between them. Their instinctive response to Jesus’ ascension is to pray together. Behind and informing these prayers is that fullness of trust in Jesus, his being the Son of God that they had seen and felt and been part of. This depth and completeness of trust may at times be elusive to us so many hundreds of years on. But our view of the upper room with followers praying is not a picture we are looking into but one we

are part of. As we stand or sit alongside the men and women on that room we feel that they are afraid for the future; we are afraid for the future. They are, with the vision of Jesus ascending in recent memory, hopeful for the future; we are hopeful for the future. They know they will need help for the future; we know we need help for the future.

Their intuitive response to these uncertainties is to pray, but let us ponder a  moment. before this day, before this afternoon in Jerusalem they would not have prayed to Jesus. Is this the first time? Of course they would have prayed with Jesus many times and they should have had the inestimable benefit of his teaching them how to pray to the Father and how to make this a way of being,  a constant part of their daily lives but now, gathered together with Jesus not physically with them, palpably so, no look,no touch no certain presence they pray with one accord. Not, to a distant impersonal God but to a God they know and trust. Let us remain in their room awhile, with all our anxieties sharing the tensions they feel and pray with them to the God we know, and who we know knows us, for the things we know he knows we need so that when we leave the room we do so with confidence and trust.