Sunday, 17 November 2019

Stick to the knitting

Begin with some knitting

The other day I found myself among a group of grumblers. Things were not ot their liking, the structures they were working within were top heavy and growing more so, the financial costs they had to bear were too great, they were insufficiently appreciated for the impossible tasks they attempted to perform, their customers were deserting them for greener pastures, and, you have guessed already this was a group of clergy men and women.

The last verses of our two New Testament readings this morning are :

2 Thessalonians 3:13 “Brothers and sisters, do not weary of doing what is right.”
Luke 21: 19 “By your endurance you will gain your souls”

Jesus, as Luke tells us,  was more than aware that his disciples down the ages would face many challenges: war and insurrections, earthquakes, plagues, famines, betrayals and persecutions. In the light of this it is perhaps surprising that his followers who personally knew his ministry and heard hs words expected His coming again to be quite soon, but they did and we know now that it was not to be and that these “in between times” are still with us”

 In May 2019 the Bishop of Truro published his report into religious persecution where he concluded that Christians are the most widely persecuted community. It is an issue that stretches across 144 countries and in eleven of these the persecution is officially described as extreme. [previously this was only the case in North Korea] Alongside this the present world order is destabilising and I think we might say that at the very least  there is a rise in national sentiments for example in Hungary, Germany and Spain among others. Nation still fises against nation and we read in Luke that we “are not ot be terrified for these things must take place first.”

The “in between times are difficult to live in.” This week at morning prayer we have been saying a prayer set for the period between All Saints and Advent:

Blessed are you sovereign God, ruler and judge of all
To you be praise and glory forever
In the darkness of this age which is passing away
May the light of your presence which the saints enjoy
Surround our steps as we journey on

This age will pass away and the question then is how shall we behave in it in these challenging years, what should we model? Well, Malachi the last book of the Old Testament also has something to say to us:

“But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” In other words that is what we are called to do; to continue to revere God, to endure and to never weary of doing what is right.
When I sat among my grumbling group my advice was “to be patient, to be faithful, to continue doing the work we are called to do”  More simply put

“Stick to the knitting”

When I do that  I feel in good company with Malachi, with Paul and with Luke.


Sunday, 10 November 2019

“For those who laid down their lives for God and country”

In my old village there was some discussion at the parish council about the wording of the new memorial plaque that they planned to lay on the green in front of the church. They could not agree among themselves so they decided to write to the vicar and ask his opinion.

We gather today in common with millions of people to remember and honour those who have fought for their country and after this service we will lay our poppies at the memorial as a symbol of our remembrance. The remembrance collect we have just read includes the words: “Hear our prayers and thanksgivings for all who we remember this day.”

But I wonder if this is enough? Yes we should surely remember and give thanks for the men and women who gave of themselves and who are still doing so in hostile environments, deployed across the world in the many conflicts that continue to rage but I think that I want us to do more

To quote from Archbishop Temple broadcasting in 1939 on the home service at the outbreak of war: He said:

“No positive good can be done by force; that is true. But evil can be checked and held back by force and it is precisely for this that we may be called upon to use it.”

We might very well think about the first part of the sentence – “no positive good can be done by force“ in reference to recent conflicts and we have as a nation reevaluated the modern wars in the Middle East where the use of force has been seen by some to have had unwelcome consequences. That no positive good can arise  is of course why we avoid using force wherever possible. But the second part of Temple’s sentence can also be seen to be true “Evil can be checked and held back by force.” We saw the evil of the Second World War when liberating soldiers discovered Auschwitz, Buchenwald,and the camps in Asia, we saw the evil in Serbia and in Rwanda, we have seen the evil of violent men in European cities London, Paris, Manchester  and the evil we shall discover in Northern Syria.

Those who gave their lives gave them to preserve a way of life, to preserve our rights, freedoms and liberties; theirs was a struggle for good against evil a good that resided in shared values especially in the way they believed and understood that we should behave towards one another.

And that is why the village concluded that the words on the stone were not simply “for those who laid down their lives for country”– but “for those who laid down their lives for God and country” because there was more to it – there were those values - and the best values the best ways of living together come from our understanding of God and his message of love. On the memorial in Burnham Market there are some of the words form John’s Gospel

 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you, no-one, ”says Jesus “has greater love than this – to lay down one’s life for ones friends.”

So - when we lay our poppy or wreath on the stone I would like us to also think about this:  Is our society the one they were fighting for, do we as a community and as individuals do more than remember, do we still struggle to uphold and live by these values that they fought for and for which many are fighting for still?

Yes, we lay our poppy to remember and honour but also let us think deeply as we do about our lives and how we live together, how we care for one another, how we converse with one another  let us again resolve to live up to the values of those who sacrificed themselves for us and for the way of life they dreamed for us.


Monday, 4 November 2019

Tripping over joy

Tripping over Joy

What is the difference
Between your experience of existence
And that of a saint?

The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God.

And that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move

That the saint is now continually
Tripping over joy
And bursting out in laughter
And saying “I surrender”

This poem which I have read to you in translation was written by a celebrated Persian Poet called Hafiz who lived about the same time as Chaucer so in the second half of the 1300’s. For hundreds of years his burial place in the garden city of Shiraz was a site of pilgrimage and it was Goethe who mainly introduced his poems to the west. His collected poems are a classic of the mystical, meditative and poetic tradition of his country. In this poem he asks us a question - what is the difference between you and a saint? He tells us that if we look up from ourselves, out from our introspective lost strategic maneuvering our human ineffectual grappling with the idea of God, the games we play to place God within our understanding we will discover that God is truly there.
Which of course is what the saints we celebrate today discovered and when we do that we will trip over joy bursting into a laughter of delight.

Written much earlier of course is Psalm 149 which is an eschatological hymn looking forward to the end of time when God has won the final victory and we are at his feet and we know who He is. We are exhorted to rejoice in anticipation, sing his praises to the congregation of the faithful but not only you notice with our lips but also by worshipful body movement and by melody of percussion and strings: “Let them praise his name in dance, let them sing praise to him with timbrel and lyre”

Often when we speak of heaven we talk of peace, of rest and quietness; there will be some of that in our service of thanksgiving this evening and it is comforting. I wonder if this image has something of retirement about it : books, grandfather clocks, good claret maybe? The funeral collect expresses this hope - “the fever of life is over and our work is done; then grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last. Nearly all the retired people I meet by the way, and by now I have met quite a number, say something like “I don’t know how I found the time to work!” Now I am not entirely sure why this should be so and I am, not quite yet you understand, ready to find out but I am in time hoping to find out what heaven is like and it may be that this image of passive rest and peacefulness is wrong:

In heaven we will be exceedingly moved to worship God, there we discover that we can praise him and there we may discover that heaven is a place that gives us rest but we are moved to worship day and night.

In the book of Revelation we read that even the angels are to be found before the throne and they worship him day and night in his temple. The most excellent of creation, who have never sinned, who are with God continually, not only cover their faces but fall in humblest adoration before the Lord.

If they are moved in his presence to do this then surely Hafiz is right at the last we will trip over in joy, burst out in laughter and surrender ourselves to total praise in every way imaginable. 

Thursday, 24 October 2019

John's first letter : 1 John 1:1-2:11

John 1:1

We declare to you that what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life. This is John, writing towards the end of his life, beginning his epistle by reminding his readers, (most probably the church at Ephesus) that he had been at Jesus’ side. Robert Browning’s poem “A death in the desert” speaks of JIhn being the last of the close disciples:

When my ashes scatter
There is left on earth
No one alive who knew (Consider this)
Saw with his own eyes and handled with his hands
That which was from the first the Word of life
How will it be when no more saith “I saw”?

I have asked before “what would we do if Jesus came in that door now, walked up this aisle”?
This letter of John tells us . “Consider this ..” JOhn did see and in his Gospel and three letters and the book of Revelation he proclaims the transformative power of being with Jesus. Firstly, John tells us that HE is light, there is no darkness at all, mot a single tiny speck. Jesus is in this respect unlike us for if we say that we have no sin in us we deceive ourselves and there is no truth in us.

If Jesus is here, there in front of us now we would all see that. So blindingly that we would confess our sins. I am convinced there would be no stopping us,because as John says “the light is already shining”. Remember John was there, he saw it, this testimony of John’s lives so that we may have the fellowship that he John had with the Father and the Son. We would be irresistibly moved to expunge the darkness in our lives.

And we know the message of John - God is love and we must walk as he walked. Now this might seem far to high a target, we cannot reach this it is beyond our poor mortality to be as perfect as Christ was perfect. But “Consider this ..” if we could see and hear and touch we would be motivated beyond all previous driving force we may have experienced in our lives to be like HIM. We shall be so inspired to love our brother and sister that there would be no cause for stumbling and we would indeed love and be loved.


Be inspired not afraid

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

The other day after a funeral I fell into conversation with two sisters : one was full of questions for me, to the extent that the other was moved to ask, “What is this, an interrogation?” to which the questioner/interrogator replied, “but I have never had a chance to ask a priest these things.” Well, how interesting. Paul writing to Timothy, who was in charge of the church at Ephesus says “I solemnly urge you to proclaim the message : be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable, convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” 

There was probably never a time more favourable, for my new friend had been moved by the funeral, was thinking about its significance even about hymns for her own service and here I was captive over the ham sandwiches. And for me, how lovely to have someone asking good questions and ready to listen.

It is not always like that. Certainly in my old life in the boardroom the ears were not itching to hear sound doctrine but rather preferred to hear teaching attuned to their desires. We have had a recent example maybe with the collapse of Thomas Cook and we may at least call into question who they were listening to and what their motives may have been - we shall see. Paul says “Do the work of an evangelist fully” , so what are we to do in a situation when things seem to be taking a wrong turn and the doors are not open?

We are not all Paul, not firebrands and we may be timorous in the face of likely hostility. Some years back I had an experience which changed my approach. I found myself in Cincinnati at a board meeting of a company where I had no right to speak, no power, no vote just sitting in a corner listening to a discussion about the future of a senior employee which I thought was unjust. I knew only one or two of the people in the room and their organisation was reputed to be tough and uncompromising.  But what they were proposing was unfair and so I remember saying a little arrow prayer before I opened my mouth to intervene. “This,” I said, “does not seem to me to be right ….. “ and I explained why. There was a silence that I expected to be filled with protest and “This has nothing to do with you,” but no - the hardest nosed of the people I knew, the Alan Sugar in the room said “Steve has a point, let us reconsider.”

Jesus said to his disciples, when you are put to the trial do not worry about what you will say, the Holy Spirit will give you the right words. It is a matter of faith, of trust which is much easier to imagine when in front of a friendly lady interrogator but look, it is always there. There is steel in the promise of the Holy Spirit so when you need to proclaim in unfavourable circumstances as I had to do that day, remember Paul’s words: “All scripture is useful, for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.” Use your faith knowledge and understanding of the Bible to speak into truth. You may well be surprised.

Be not afraid but be inspired.


Monday, 14 October 2019

The Potter's Hand

Jeremiah 18:1-17

Edmund de Waal who wrote the best selling “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” which I have not read also wrote a history of porcelain. This begins with a trip to Jingdezhen a famous city for porcelain from ancient China. On an old road near an old farm with a wrecked car parked outside propped up on bricks he climbs a nearby hill and discovers under his feet a mountain of shards of broken pots dating back hundreds of years. He says “and the wares that went wrong wold have been thrown over the shoulder from the kiln mouth- so many many thousands of pots that haven’t worked. Fascinating,, really, that only a short plane ride away we can connect with Jeremiah’s words, with the words of the Lord. Of course Jeremiah is describing pots before they are fired but nonetheless the making of pots and the frequent need to rework the clay to reach the desired shape and properties is an ancient idea.

“So I went down to the potter’s house and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled - and he reworked it as seemed good to him.” (Jer 18:4)

Jeremiah is speaking to and about the nation of Israel: Look out the Lord may fashion punishment against you, turn now from your evil ways so I may instead once more build up your people. I have in mind the BBC black and white television “interlude” I think it was called; a little film between programmes showing a potter’s wheel and hands slowly raising a pot from a pool of clay.

There is a modern Hillsong worship song by Darlene Zschech (a favourite at Spring Harvest and similar gatherings). I am not to trouble you with the music but the lyrics of the chorus say this:

Take me, mould me
Use me, fill me
I give my life to the potter’s hands
Hold me, guide me
Lead me, walk beside me
I will give my life to the potter’s hand.

This is a difficult idea, we are not educated to rely on others, to trust, to work in other than our own ability - to fall back into the arms of another. We question even those trained to look our health, to protect us for example from disease. This is not new : verse 12 of our reading

“But they (Israel) say “it is no use we will follow our own plans and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.!”

The book of Jeremiah dates from more than 500 years before Christ - I love those moments when the Old Testament comes alive and is right up to date. We are still following our own plans for the world for in it there is inequality, poverty, war, avoidable illness, famine. Do you perhaps wake up some mornings and pray for the whole pot to be reworked into another vessel as would seem “Good to Him?”   

De Waal Edmund The White Road, A pilgrimage of sorts  London Chatto and Windus 2015

Monday, 30 September 2019

Wheat and Tares - political leaders

Ordinarily we tend not to talk about judgement too much. It is uncomfortable in our age of liberty to consider being brought to account. This week we have had a lot of talk of being held to account and even if the sense is a little different still it is in order that we can think about this in the context of tonight’s reading. Jesus’ parable begins with a good man, that is to say God the Father sowing good seed, actually the best seed, in the world and then another, the enemy Satan coming and sowing weeds amongst the good. Naturally the question for God is “Why do you allow evil to flourish in your field ?”

This is a question which used to come up often when I was attending a church in a city centre, especially at the late evening service attended by the young - “Why” they would ask does your God allow bad things to happen? “ And it is a good question in the context of the parable “after all master you are all powerful please pull the weeds up.” The answer we are given “but if we gather the weeds we may uproot the wheat” reminds me somewhat of the conversation between Abraham and the Lord which we find in Genesis (chapter 18).

‘Abraham came near and said : “Will you indeed sweep the righteous away with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city will you then sweep away the place and not forgive the fifty righteous that are in it?”  And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom, fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” And you will recall that the conversation continues as Abraham progressively reduces the number of the righteous in the city.

I am not sure that the parable is quite so easily interpreted since the implication is that the weeds are there and cannot ever be other than weeds. It may be that the weeds in question were probably darnel which are difficult to distinguish from wheat in their early growth and in our post resurrection world it may be that the parable works better with this in mind. After all we have a gospel of forgiveness so weeds have an opportunity to transform - or if we have weeds in our lives then we have an opportunity to discern them and then transform them ourselves. (If your right hand causes you to sin …)

Jesus is of course talking about the kingdom of heaven and the day of judgement when the weeds and the wheat are fully developed. Then there will be no dissembling or cloaking God who knows all the secrets of our hearts will instruct the reapers to separate the wheat from the tares. It is the final snapshot, the harvest time has come and the yield is what it will be.

So it matters what we do. I have to say that watching recent events in our politics I wonder whether some have forgotten this. The intervention of our bishops is timely - and by the way to manage to get all the bishops to agree on a joint statement is astonishing, a rarity in my understanding. It matters how we behave, it matters how we speak and it matters what we do. If not propelled by the exigencies of our own world let us pray that our leaders may be compelled by the thought of the next.