Sunday, 10 March 2019

Fortitude - Evensong First Sunday of Lent

During Lent we may need fortitude which the shorter Oxford Dictionary defines as “ moral strength or courage, firmness in the endurance of pain or adversity. It is one of the Cardinal virtues and in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica he explains that “Fortitude is the virtue that enables a person to withstand the greatest difficulties that block them from achieving their true goal.” He goes on to discuss the greatest example which is to face death in a just cause. He goes on to expand his ideas by saying:

“Fortitude is that of enduring, of bearing up, of seeing the business through. It is not alone the virtue of coming to grips with danger, it is also the holding on.”

Which by the way what I desperately needed during the Lent that I decided to give up cheese - really a foolish endeavour which I may discuss on another occasion.

The main reason though that I want to talk about fortitude is that on Monday I am going to the Primary School to hold an assembly and this term they are exploring the virtue of PERSEVERANCE.

You will be relieved to know that I am not planning to talk about Summa Theologica or Thomas Aquinas to these young people but rather I shall explore other examples. Of my father, for example, who was a mechanical engineer and was determined to maintain his own vehicles.
When I was a boy I spent many a Saturday morning on my back underneath a HIllman or an Austin “helping” dad - which meant passing him spanners, screwdrivers, torque wrenches,  as he struggled to remove an obdurate part which was broken or needed replacing. He would never give up working his way through his tool box, the penetrating oils and even fashioning special devices if needed. It was a good lesson, if rather frustrating for a young chap who had other plans for the day.

Of course perseverance is a good lesson for young people to learn, a good virtue to cultivate. It feels to me a perfect counter to society’s prevailing view that if something is not working or not to your liking then change it.  Advertising works like this, it creates discontent in your mind - with your car, your hair, clothes, lifestyle and then offers you an apparently easy off the shelf solutions effortlessly delivered to your door in an instant. This is a pervasive culture - from how hard we study at school - and some things take time and dedication to learn to whether the young will work at marriages or take to divorce at the first hurdle.

Sarah’s story of  which we heard the conclusion, is a story of perseverance, she followed her husband Abraham into Egypt, pretended to be his sister, bore him a son in her very old age but even more ir is a story of God’s faithfulness to Abraham.

“Do not be distressed because of the boy, I will make a nation of him because he is your offspring.”

God PERSEVERES he is constant beyond our understanding, from the moment of the fall until now and beyond he is with us - all our fortitude is nothing compared with his faithfulness:

As we heard from Psalm 119

“O let your merciful kindness be my comfort”


The first Sunday of Lent - going into the wilderness

I like the season of Lent - no I love Lent, which you may find strange - surely you may be thinking Lent is not a season to be loved, after all it is about repentance, fasting, self denial, sackcloth and ashes - what is there to be loved about that? 

When I first read these passages about the temptation of Jesus, events that take place immediately after Jesus’ baptism - we heard that “Jesus full of the Holy Spirit returned from the Jordan and was led by the spirit in the wilderness.” I wondered whether I quite liked the Holy Spirit? Remember that I was young - but you perhaps see what I mean: The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into an inhospitable place where he was tempted by the devil for forty days.” Which does not seem very friendly.

Well my reaction back then had to be a misreading, there must be something else for as we know the love between the Holy Spirit and Jesus is perfect. Now the wilderness of Judea has a special resonance for the Jews. it was a place of religious hope as well as refuge, it was the place from which John the Baptist emerged as the herald, the messenger foretelling the coming of Christ, and it was the symbol of the wandering Israelites where they were lost for forty years before God brought them to the promised land. People had been retiring into this wilderness for years to be ascetic to pray to fast to perhaps join one of the religious groups like the Essenes and to seek wisdom and holiness. What then more natural for Jesus than to go there (led by the Holy Spirit manifestly present at his baptism) to prepare for his ministry?

What then more symbolic and easily understood by the population that Jesus should come out of the wilderness to begin his preaching, teaching and healing? The next verse, following our reading makes this point:

“Then Jesus filled with the power of the Spirit returned to Galilee, and a report spread about him through all the surrounding country.”  (Luke 4:14)

The season of Lent, as I said on Ash Wednesday has been observed by Christians since the early days and by our carefully keeping it we take to heart the call to examine ourselves, the call to pray, to read and to meditate on God’s word.  Together with fasting and self denial we seek to increase our own understanding, devotion and commitment.

Our whole world as you know is focussed on DOING; especially for the young who are ever exhorted to work long hours, to holiday hard, to go to the gym, to measure their daily steps and to fill every moment. But for all of us and especially I think for a priest there is a tension between DOING and BEING. Oh, there is plenty to do, and filling one’s days is not difficult  but as you know that is not enough - we at least must also be priestly.

Which is why I love Lent - for forty days and nights the priority is to reflect, to pray to read to create if you like a mental and physical retreat - to go into the wilderness.

Jesus began his earthly ministry in this way and I count it an inestimable privilege that I am beginning my time here among you at this season. No, don’t worry I am not going to lock myself in the rectory for a month and disappear from view but I will try to carry before me the Lenten approach, so to encourage myself to have deep prayerful pensive conversations with God that will hopefully, helpfully inform my conversations with all of you.


Sunday, 3 March 2019

First sermon at All Saints Burnham Thorpe

As you may know I was not always a vicar and when I was working in America at the beginning of my career the financial director of my company was a genial, rather larger than life ex-baseball player with a likeable and compelling personality. From time to time Mark would appear in my office with the question “Steve, would you like to do lunch today?” Now, I was busy managing a factory with all the troubles that involved but I quickly learned that the answer to that question had to be yes and not no. I knew that this meant that Mark had a particular and important message that he wanted to give me over the steak and fries - it might be a good one or a bad one but he was determined to give it. Now I was reminded of this when I read this morning ”Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up onto a mountain to pray.”

How did that come about I wondered? Most usually we see Jesus in a crowd or at least with all his disciples so there must have been an invitation: 

“James, Peter, John can you do a mountain today?”

We now know that whenever a Bible passage is set on a mountain that something important can be expected. The giving of the ten commandments or the sermon on the mount are just two of the best known examples but there are many other occasions. In any case I imagine that James, Peter and John were ever expectant : Being around Jesus would make you that way. And so of course they accepted the invitation, and this mountain top moment was quite exceptional.

We find ourselves towards the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry when he is beginning his journey to Jerusalem, Luke foreshadows this by noting that the disciples were heavy with sleep and we cannot help but remember that this would be true again in the garden of Gethsemane in some days time. Jesus is praying and his clothes become dazzling white reminding us of Moses coming down from the mountain where he had been speaking with God. Every time Moses was close to God he was changed and so he adopted a veil to shield Aaron and his followers from the brightness. Jesus, talking with God the Father is similarly transformed. We are shown in this way most certainly that the God Jesus speaks with and calls father is the same God that Moses spoke to. We are struck that prayer is transformative and that even Jesus in close communion with the Father is affected. 

Equally we are offered an echo - for at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he is baptised by John in the Jordan, he came up out of the water, the Holy spirit alighted upon him in the form of a dove and a voice came from heaven saying 

“This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

And now on this mountain top with Moses and Elijah nearby a voice comes from the cloud saying

“This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.”

So at the beginning of his ministry and now as Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, critical moments in his time on earth it is clear that God the Father wants to dispel any doubt that may linger in the disciples’ minds about Jesus’ identity. Only a few lines previously in this Gospel Peter has answered Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” and now Peter is there on the mountain top seeing that Jesus cannot be Moses or Elijah and being told “This is my Son”

When  financial director Mark appeared in my office, my mind would turn to the to do list - the product that had not turned out right, the union negotiation that needed managing, the report for the board, - I have not time for lunching I would think. 

I wonder if we are sometimes like this - Jesus invites us to pray to him and to God our Father, to bring our worries, hopes and dreams to him. There is a permanent invitation and we should find opportunities to take it. For in our daily lives if we can find even a moment, just a moment to be with God, we may just find ourselves a mountain top being overwhelmed with fresh insight and being transformed anew. 


Friday, 1 February 2019

Farewell Sermon to St. Margaret Streatley Luke 4:14-21

It turns out I am fond of symmetry, which may be why I like knitting Aran jumpers,which are always nicely symmetrical, and you will by now have noticed that quite often, I begin a sermon with an image and then conclude with a reference to that same idea.

Well, on Sunday the 12th September 2010 you will all remember that the lectionary reading was a  parable about a lost sheep - it was my first sermon here and I climbed into the pulpit - your first surprise - and I turned my mind to the day that Frances and I lost our dog in the Foret de Rambouillet near Paris and the joy of finding him again. Now he was by the way called Wellington and the reaction of the locals as we called his name for some hours and rather loudly was let us say interesting. 

It is now the 27th January 2019, and my last sermon here, the lectionary reading is about Jesus beginning his ministry at the synagogue in Nazareth and the part of the story that we have heard is about recognition.
 “He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” The next line of our passage goes on to say that after He had rolled up the scroll “All spoke of Him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. “

Now at this point I need some assistance so please Frances, Becky and Alex may I ask you to bring in my visual aid - which is just outside the North door and needs more than one person to bring in there will be a short pause: 

ENTER: SL Nina and Rosie 

So Wellington is no longer with us but Nina and Rosie are - and the story I want to tell you is how that came to be.We adopted Nina from a kennel club breeder, she had had two litters and needed a home and we were delighted to welcome her as a companion to our then elderly spaniel Fidget. A couple of years later Nina was on her own an I got in touch with the breeder again to see if I could adopt a companion for her! My friend was a bit emotional - “Oh yes she said, only this week I have decided to retire Rosie - she is 3 years old and Nina’s daughter. I would love you to have her come over quickly!” So we went taking Nina for the introductions. Those of you who know dogs, who have watched dogs know that on meeting they examine each other - thoroughly, intricately, all over intimately intrusively we would say. Not so Nina and Rosie, they met glanced at one another and set off together to sniff a corner of the garden. It was as if they instantly recognised who they were  - that this was RIGHT.

And so back to the beginning of Jesus ministry and that moment in the synagogue when the congregation were amazed and enthused.  They knew not only that Jesus was special but that it was right that he was among them. I like to think that if Jesus came in that door that that is how we would feel. There would be a moment of recognition - and that unlike the congregation in the synagogue we would not turn against these instincts on hearing His challenging messages, but would be true to what we deeply know, faithfully believe and would embrace his coming.

And if I like to think that, then I am certain that when we get to heaven it will be so. I do not know in what form I shall be - save that our Lord Jesus Christ will transform our frail bodies so that they may conform to his glorious body - but I do know that when we meet Jesus it will be like Rosie meeting Nina it will feel right, natural perfect and we will be where we always were meant to be.


Wednesday, 19 December 2018

John the Baptist pruning

“You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Well, there is a way to welcome your customers! After all they were coming in their crowds to be baptised by him. We would be shocked if sainsbury’s or the John Lewis advert welcomed us in this way. But John the Baptist was a difficult fellow - he had spent time in the wilderness dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey with a strict religious group, most probably the Essenes - the wilderness of Judea was the centre of religious hope as well as a place of refuge -it was the symbol of the wilderness in which the Israelites had wandered for forty years before God brought them into the Promised Land. So the emergence of a young priest baptising from the wilderness caused excitement to sweep through the region. His is a sharp message, do not say “We are descendants, we have Abraham as our ancestor, we are the chosen people, this will not save you. You must bear good fruit or otherwise be cut down and thrown into the fire. Not then the gentle image of a simple  man living on locusts and honey, weaving his own clothes but a firebrand, a radical an outspoken preacher - a man who will be thrown into jail by Herod Antipas as a dangerous prophet potentially gathering resistance to the establishment and who will ultimately be beheaded. He preaches repentance for all, he extolls generosity -if you have two coats share with those who have none and he warns against avarice: Tax collectors do your job, only your job and do not line your own pockets and to the soldiers he says do not abuse your strength and power.

I ought now I think to have listened to my father more - less on the subjects of generosity and greed perhaps than on the topic of pruning - he was keen on trees bearing good fruit and on roses especially bearing good blooms. He spent a summer hour once with me and my roses with some secateurs pointing to the places where I might wield them - all my books had proved beyond me - you may have seen those ones with drawings of a rose bush and thick black lines at various angles and heights - they left me more perplexed than before - but dad pointed to buds (otherwise invisible to me) and bade me cut just above (I think) or it may have been below, he would identify dead wood “cut it out, cut it out” he would say in a fair imitation of John the Baptist and then there were things called runners, also headed for the bonfire.

John wanted the tax collectors, the soldiers and all who came to the river Jordan to prune the bad parts of their lives. Do we have parts of our lives which are straggly, long legged , non productive which we might carefully prune away?  As we wait now in Advent, this is the season to look hard at it all, to reflect and prepare, to see what might want pruning and wield the secateurs and so make ourselves ready to celebrate the one who will be born, the coming Messiah who will burn the chaff in unquenchable fire but will gather the fruitful and the wheat into his granary.


Saturday, 17 November 2018

The Temple

It was tricky being a disciple, you had to be careful what you said and I know how that feels. Years ago now when I first left university I was interviewed for a job in Amsterdam, it would have suited me quite well and I progressed to the final shortlist of two - things were going fine when at the last in the meeting with the big boss there was a pause in the conversation which I decided to fill with a small remark of praise for an aspect of the job and I was immediately crushed:  “Too narrow,” he said, “you are too narrow.”

And so I feel for the disciple who innocently leaving the Temple with Jesus looked around at the wonderful stones of the courtyard which Herod had considerably enlarged and filling a pause in the conversation offered a remark of praise: “Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.” and he was immediately crushed : “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.”

As ever Jesus’ words work at different levels. Firstly we might take them as literal prophecy, for we know that in 70 AD Titus the Roman laid siege to Jerusalem completely destroying the city and the Temple by fire and fury. There is nothing surprising about Jesus predicting a future event, after all he was doing so throughout his ministry but it would be surprising if that were all he was doing. The disciples ponder his words as they cross the Kidron valley to walk up Mount Olivet where they sit, I like to think unpacking their sandwiches and looking west again to the magnificent temple glinting in the sunshine. And the brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John ask what he really meant “When and what are the signs?” Jesus tells them to beware.
Now the first danger is inherent in the very metaphor of the Temple, the second is of false Messiahs, of prophets claiming they are sent, predicting the end of the world and their own glory and the third danger is of being distracted by world events, by wars and rumours of wars and indeed in our own time there is a lot of that sort of thing to worry about and it may lead some to despair but Jesus says “do not be alarmed, this is but the beginning.”

Returning to the metaphor of the Temple it is interesting to note that there are still some stones remaining on the Temple mount - the end is not come for then “not one stone will be left here.” The Temple of course was the focus of Jewish religion, thought, culture and philosophy and it seems to me that Jesus is saying to the disciples, beware, be careful magnificent as they are, this building, these stones, these practices are not important - what is important is that you believe in me.   

Some years ago now, someone came to worship here at St. Margaret’s who came from another tradition. They were attached to their previous church, to their old way of being, to their old way of doing things and they would grumble to me that we did not have this or that, or did not behave quite properly here or there. One day they were talking to a senior churchman about all this and according to their own account the archbishop after listening carefully said reflectively “Yes, that may all be so - but surely God turns up doesn’t he?”

I would like you please to ponder Jesus’ message of the Temple in the coming months, notice the disciple’s easy attachment to the beautiful stones, and to be sensitive to our easy attachment to our ways of being church, to not be like me in the interview - too narrow, too narrow, and to think carefully and prayerfully about what it is that really matters:

That God turns up and we are here to worship only Him.


Sunday, 11 November 2018

Remembrance Sunday 11th November 2018

Armistice 2018

Christopher Clark’s 2012 book argues that the statesmen of the nations of Europe were “Sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” And it was the world, for the unforeseen consequence of an assassination in Sarajevo would involve as well as the whole of Europe, the United States, Brazil, Australia, new Zealand, Africa, Japan and the Pacific. The numbers of the dead are too large to be assimilated in the mind; more than eight million excluding civilian casualties which were almost as high. The post war influenza epidemic exacerbated by the poor conditions claimed a further ten million lives.

After 1561 days of conflict beyond imagination, the armistice was signed in the Forest of Compiegne at 5.30 a.m. on November the 11th 1918 - but came into effect at eleven o’clock in the morning - the fighting continued until 10.45.

It is impossible for most of us and certainly for me, a product of a generation that has not known conscripted all consuming war to imagine the thoughts of 1918 so I have compiled some from those who were there at the time. We start with David Lloyd George who said in the House of Commons:

“Thus at eleven o’clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say thus - that this fateful morning came an end to all wars.”

There were some celebrations of course, mainly in London but for the most part the reactions were more muted; the horror, shock, numbness from all that had happened and fear for the future weighed heavily. Thomas Hardy who was too old to have been a combattent captured the mood in his poem “And there was a great calm” written on Armistice day:

Calm fell; From heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky
Some could, some could not, shake off misery
The sinister spirit sneered : ‘It had to be.’
And again the spirit of pity whispered “Why?”

Laurence Binyon, whose words we will hear later as we lay our wreaths at the memorial stone, asked Elgar, the great composer of wartime music, to set a peace ode but he curtly and steadfastly refused to do so.  His cello concerto, familiar to us very often in the Jacqueline Du Pre performance has been called an elegy for the war dead - he did write it following the armistice so maybe it is.

Here is Virginia Woolf from her diary.She and Leonard had travelled to London:

“Twenty-five minutes ago, the guns went off announcing peace. A siren hooted on the river, they are hooting still, a few people ran to look out of windows. A very cloudy, still day, the smoke toppling over heavily towards the east, and too wearing for a moment a look of something waving, floating, drooping. So far neither bells nor flags”

Eve Curie speaking about her sister, Marie Curie:

“The armistice surprised her in her laboratory. She wanted to dress flags on the Institute and took her collaborator Marthe Klein with her to search neighbourhood shops for French flags,, there were none left anywhere. An attendant drove them up and down the streets, to and fro, through the eddying mass of people both happy and grave. In La Place de la Concorde the crowd stopped the car. People clambered onto the fenders of the Renault and hoisted themselves onto the roof.”

The outlook was not optimistic, people had been writing about the coming peace virtually since the outbreak of war - people we know, H G Wells, Bertrand Russell, Clive Bell, D. H.  Lawrence and a plethora of clergymen. Here is Beatrice Webb writing on November the 4th 1918, so just seven days before the day we have now in our minds:

“There is little or no elation among the general body of citizens about the coming peace. The absence of public rejoicing and sombre looks of private persons arises, I think, from preoccupation as to the kind of world we shall all live in when peace has come.”

The faith and prophecy of Micah is missing:

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more, but they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees and no-one shall make them afraid anymore.

Of course the armistice was not the end : The Times continued to print its daily roll of honour well into 1919 as men went on dying of old wounds and men previously described as missing in action were declared dead. The armistice was not the end because as we all know there was another world war, there was Korea, Vietnam, The Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan and the list goes on.

This morning we are gathered together to remember the dead of all wars, particularly those of our nation, perhaps especially that here in Britain we have had comparative peace in our land, but we are not there yet : We cannot be sure to sit under our own vines and fig trees, we cannot be sure never to be afraid, we cannot stop being truly watchful and we must not stop proclaiming Jesus’ words:

“I give you a new commandment that you love one another as I have loved you”

And for this men and women lay down their lives, for our todays people fought, endured, suffered, survived and died.

We will remember