Friday, 16 December 2016

Isaiah's Prophecy 7:14 and the Bible today

I was cutting it fine the other day when leaving the house and I put out my hand to pick up the keys from the kitchen counter only to find myself outside trying to lock the door with a teaspoon. 

The reason I bring this up is that our passages from Isaiah and Matthew this morning need thinking about. The background is that Ahaz the new young king of Judah is being attacked by his powerful neighbours, modern day Syria and Israel who have formed a strong alliance against him. Isaiah has received word from the Lord that these two enemies will not succeed to overturn the kingdom of Judah. “It shall not stand it shall not come to pass!” Ahaz is disbelieving so Isaiah says “Ask your God for a sign - anything you like.” Now we might recognise Ahaz’s response - we are sometimes very reluctant to ask questions especially when we fear an unwanted answer and this is especially the case where God is concerned - you have to be strong to ask God for something. Isaiah is a little exasperated with Ahaz, knowing that his people who had expected vigorous new policies from their young king to rescue the country from its difficulties were also weary of him, Isaiah says “is it too little that you weary mortals that you weary my God also?” Prophets frequently offered signs to accompany their foretelling so that their hearers would know that God will fulfil the prophesies that the prophet has made. Isaiah then decides to get on with it even if Ahaz will not ask himself:

“A young woman is with child, and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” (which means God with us)

Now the King James Bible is more explicit:

“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel.”

So this verse when looked at in its context and in its place in history is very clearly concerned with the immediate future of Judah, the prophecy that Judah will survive the attacks of these powerful neighbours and indeed this survival was extraordinary – years later Ahaz was able to survive and place his son on the throne of a still intact kingdom. What seemed impossible by human measure was well within the power of God. Isaiah was spooning God’s words into Ahaz even if he did not want to hear.

But then we come to Matthew, who writing seven hundred years later found not a teaspoon but a key.

“All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel’”

The Messianic hope burned brightly in the first century Jewish Community and it was natural for Matthew to take this verse from the works of Isaiah and apply it to Jesus. You see, even if Isaiah was at the time talking only of the local situation he was speaking the words of God which have been handed down to Matthew and us as scripture.  Matthew accepted all scripture as prophecy and that it was intended to be interpreted in the time that it was being read. This kind of interpretation presumes that God moves in all ages mysteriously so that later ages may unravel the puzzle to determine God’s intention and direction. 

And I am very happy with that! It is perfectly right that God may have spoken in the 8th century BC about the situation then and about the birth of Jesus in the 1st century. It means that the Bible can and should be read with a view to understanding what it is saying to us today, about our times. Scripture is not like my 1920 Encyclopaedia Britannica which enshrines scientific thought and geography of that time only. Scripture is alive and God continually reveals his intentions to us by his presence in the world and by his holy word and our present day reading of it.

So I return to my idea that verse 7:14 of Isaiah may have been both a teaspoon of medicine for Ahaz but still is a key for us.


Saturday, 3 December 2016

Advent and Preparing: Isaiah 11:1-10

When still a Catholic boy I would go to church on Saturday morning to make my confession. It was dark and musty inside even before entering the confessional which was darker and mustier. Freshly absolved, emerging into the outside brightness and attractiveness of the day a boy was confronted with the problem of the coming twenty-four hours. The challenge of keeping sin free until the eleven o’clock mass the next day was considerable. In my defence I did have a little brother – who of course was very irritating. Nonetheless, the confession on Saturday was to prepare for Sunday. 

“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  

John the Baptist cries that we should repent with urgency for the axe is lying at the foot of the tree, the winnowing fork is to hand and one more powerful than he is coming. John’ heartfelt purpose is to prepare us to be in the presence of God, to be ready to receive him.

Isaiah foretells who we are waiting for he reminds us of the greatness of God. He does not shirk the humbleness of Jesus’ coming. A shoot, just a shot, a small tender and delicate product, from a stump a humble beginning the idea reinforced by Isaiah saying that this branch will come out of Jesse, not referring to King David, but Jesse who lived and died in meanness and obscurity, whose family was of little account.

But very quickly we hear of his greatness: The spirit of the Lord shall be upon him, Wisdom, Counsel, Might, and Knowledge. There will also be fear of the Lord for this fear comes from an appreciation and acknowledgement of his power. We need to imagine how we would feel if Jesus came in through the church door, that he walked down our aisle and is now standing there next to the front pews.

It is one thing to think about God, to believe in God, to hold onto an idea of God in our heart and mind but quite another to be in his presence. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see or his ears hear,” he will know us, each one of us perfectly, he will know our inmost selves. He will judge with righteousness and equity.

Isaiah then continues with extraordinary imagery to tell us what the result of all this will be: the Prince of Peace when he comes will usher in a new world, where men of the fiercest disposition who used to bite and devour all around them, making easy prey of the meek, will be transformed. They will live in love with all as if the wolf were lying with the lamb, the lion eating straw and the snakes rendered peaceable. If we are in doubt about the greatness of God, here is a wonderful description of his power, to rid the world of wickedness, evil, war, dissent, even the tiniest most venial sin.  

“Repent for the kingdom of God is near”

This is why when we come to church, the great cathedrals, the minsters, the parish churches, the mission huts we begin our services with the confession; for we have come to meet with God, to come into his presence and so we start by acknowledging that we have erred and strayed like lost sheep, that we have followed the devices and desires of our own hearts, we receive absolution and open ourselves up, prepared to receive – to receive the word of God in scripture and teaching, to receive Christ in the sacrament of bread and wine and then to depart in the peace of the Holy Spirit.


Saturday, 19 November 2016

Christ the King

Luke 23:33- 43 and Jeremiah 23:1-6

As some of you know I have been cooking carrot cake. The problem is that for the first time ever this year I watched a whole series of the Great British Bake Off. I am of course too late in discovering its charms just as it is all about to change but nonetheless inspired I set off with flour, butter, sugar and a carrot or two persuaded that if Candice of Barton could do it then Steve of Streatley might be le to bake a cake! Well people were kind about the first effort, taste, texture, lightness flavour, were all OK (no soggy bottoms) and to be fair it was eaten in two days. But I was dissatisfied with the rise – on holiday I had watched other boys and girls eating carrot cake like this; but mine was I felt rather skinny and so to try and improve I have been cooking carrot cakes. I have also been asking your advice, which has been plentiful, beat the flour less, beat the butter and sugar more, grind the carrots to a powder – yet so far for all my efforts I feel that at the moment of judgement KING Paul will kick me out of the tent.

Christ the KING takes a different view. The tent of heaven remains open to those who believe and as we hear in today’s Gospel to those who recognise and repent even though they may seem to us and to themselves to have failed.

“Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom,” says the condemned criminal and Jesus replies “truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The kingdom of God is like no other, it is not bounded by walls, fortresses or tent flaps and guy ropes but is open; there are paths to follow, shepherds to guide us, good shepherds who will give us good advice and counsels, who will tend us and lead us. Christ the king recognises those who are seeking the way, working in our lives to teach and encourage us placing people around us in whom we can see goodness. We all look at our lives and find ourselves unworthy knowing that we fall short but as we reach this Sunday, the end of the church’s year when our cycle of readings closes it is appropriate to remember the sweep of the story, the great truth of the Gospel.

“When they came to the place called ‘The Skull’ they crucified him there.” Christ died on the cross to save us – He died for you and me.

Metropolitan Andrew Bloom, who has written books about spiritual endeavour, meditation and enrichment speaks of the value of these practices, of trying to perfect the inner self, in his description he reminds me of learning to play a musical instrument – there is hard work perhaps some struggle but there is joy in the learning and approaching some competence. The kingdom of God is something to be sought with joy.

In the season  of Advent, traditionally one of penitence and reflection as we look forward to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, Paolo will lead a series of four reflections in the Parish Centre at 8.00 on the Thursdays of Advent beginning with Thursday the 1st December.

So please join us for these so that we can explore, discuss and practice our faith – it may be if I practice hard and heed all the advice I have been given that by the last reflection on the 22nd December there may be a carrot cake which comes closer to keeping me in the tent.     

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Remembrance Sunday 2016

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

There was some discussion at the Parish Council about the wording of the memorial plaque on the green in front of St. Margaret’s church. I think that it came out about right. 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 on this stone with these words 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, once again from Archbishop Temple broadcasting in 1939

“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 been thinking about the wars in the Middle East where the use of force is 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 in the same theatre 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, Ravensbruck and Dachau among others, we saw the evil in Serbia and in Rwanda, we have seen the evil of violent men in Paris and I am fearful of the evil we shall yet discover in Mosul.

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 words on the stone are not simply “for those who laid down their lives for country” – but “for God and country” because there was more to it – and the best values the best ways of living together come from our understanding of God and his message of love. 

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

As we read this morning:

“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.”   

Let us then lay our poppy to remember and honour but also let us think deeply as we do about our lives and how we live together let us resolve to live up to the values of those who sacrificed themselves for us.


Saturday, 29 October 2016

Blessed are the (poor) refugees Luke 6:20-31

Jesus is turning things upside down.

In ancient Israel the commonly held belief was that if you had something wrong with you, if you were blind or crippled or leprous, then somehow you deserved it. If you were poor, destitute or starving, then somehow you deserved it. You or perhaps your forebears were sinful and this is both the result and the confirmation of your wrongness. Of course this was a convenient idea for the complacent, rich, well fed and happy.

The shock then of “Blessed are you who are poor” would on its own be considerable. And to follow it up with “for yours is the kingdom of God” overturns doubly the prevailing opinion:

“How so?” says the rich person, “I am rich, I am blessed; see, God is showering his favour upon me and the kingdom of God is surely mine.”

Jesus speaks against this self fulfilling idea and is speaking of both the future kingdom of heaven and now. In the future kingdom the poor, hungry and broken will be blessed for as Jesus tells us over and over again the kingdom of heaven is open to all. But now those who are better off face a challenge firstly to accept this paradox, that the kingdom is open to all – and then to understand that their way into the kingdom is to work to bring about compassion and love now in thier time.

- Love your enemies
- Do good (even) to those who hate you
- Pray for those who abuse you
- Give to everyone who begs from you.

I wonder if, when we think about the refugees, the rich countries have somewhere in their corporate or governmental subconscious that ancient idea that those who have fled terrible conditions, including war, persecution, starvation and death are somehow responsible for some of it. 

“Why didn’t they stay on the other side of the Mediterranean? Why did their government behave so badly? Are we not baling them out at both ends with money to the camps and now do we have to take them in as well? “

Jesus though does not argue in our ways. He sees the poor, starving homeless refugee and he sees a soul, whose place is in heaven. He does not see a man, woman or child who might perhaps be a threat or a burden, he sees a soul who is blessed.

He tells the rich, the well fed, the amused and the laughing ones to see the refugees with his eyes and if we could we would love them and give them all we can.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Harvest 2016

In my mind at least I have been toying with goats! One of the advantages may be shorter grass in my meadow - it used to be a paddock but this year I let it grow to encourage the wild flowers and was rewarded with an abundance of butterflies visiting the buddleia in the garden - but back to the goats there would be milk, cheese and wool and eventually some years off maybe a curry. Frances is less certain, or rather she is very certain that she does not wish the company of goats. We have though been richly blessed with the fruits of the earth this year. Samphire picked straight from the marshes, blackberries and little plums from the hedgerows, elderflowers for making a sorbet, cobnuts from Kent, rhubarb from the garden, all the herbs that flourish in outdoor pots and best of recent days, figs from a neighbour’s tree enjoyed with Bulgarian cheese.

There is something special about eating from the wild that is exciting- the special treat of something freely given which is available when it is ready, not forced or imported from afra but right there within reach and to hand. These things need to be wild in my case for I am a poor cultivator. I walk my dogs jealously past the allotments admiring the raspberries, marrows and tomatoes knowing that I could never make those work for me.

There has been a resurgence of eating “in season.” My present cookbook of choice is Nigel Slater’s third set of kitchen diaries with his particular recipes for each month of the year and recently I found Tamasin Day Little’s book subtitles “The art of seasonal cooking.”

Abandoning the supermarket mentality of having everything whenever you want it restores our connection with seasonality and the rhythm of life but also sharpens our anticipation. Waiting for blackberries, gooseberries, mushrooms brings with it a mouthwatering expectation. Deuteronomy tells us

     “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you ……you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground  ….. And you shall put it in a basket.”

The basket is to be taken to the priests to be placed on the altar where you are to celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given you.”

My father would say of his garden at at certain times that “it had gone over” meaning that the roses, the fruit or the flowers were past their best and were looking a little dowdy. There is no question of that with our offerings to God: We are to give the first fruits, those which appear when the all the conditions were perfectly right, when the fig, the apple or the strawberry judges that it is time to put forth. Notice too that our anticipation is then at its peak. We wonder at the things we have been freely given, we pause to give thanks for the abundance and the beauty and bounty that we have been gifted we do not eat the first but give it in thanksgiving to almighty God.

Tamsin's book - the art of seasonal cooking has a better and fuller main title: It is called “Simply the best”  

And that is what we offer, what God gives us and what we give thanks for.


Friday, 16 September 2016

Public Prayer Timothy 2:1-7

Timothy was one of Paul’s closest co-workers and friends; we know this because they sent letters jointly to churches and at the end of his life Paul called Timothy to his side. We are privileged to have this letter where Paul is giving instructions to the young Timothy on how to manage the church at Ephesus. Paul is beginning to realise that he is not going travel there again and he wants to give Timothy all the help he can. Now we all know how difficult it is to pass on advice to young successors [I wonder what David’s notes to Teresa contained?]

So Paul goes for the overarching, the most important thing: “First of all,” before anything else he speaks about prayer. It is clear and obvious that every church is a worshiping fellowship but sometimes the thing that is under our noses is the very    thing we overlook. William Temple a past archbishop of Canterbury said,

“The most effective thing the Church in Christ can do in the world
is to lift up their heart in adoration to God.”

When we think of the times in which he lived, from 1881 to 1944, so through two world wars, when there was so much practical work for all in including the churches to do that he identifies prayer as the most effective activity of the church speaks volumes.

Paul’s words are very strong, “I urge you,” he says “that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone,” and here he is speaking about public prayer. These prayers are for others and their purpose is less the benefit to the interior life of the person praying and more the outworking of prayer in the world. Paul says we do this “so we may live a quiet and peaceable life.” Prayer and I mean the interconnected fabric of praying souls, reaches a realm beyond our understanding. I remember as just one example when our archdeacon came home from a long spell in hospital that he spoke movingly about how he had felt spiritually and physically buoyed up by all the prayers that he knew were being said in the churches of the archdeaconry Sunday by Sunday. 

I often think of how supportive it feels to know that the readings at morning and evening worship are shared (via the lectionary) across the world; my friends and yours are hearing and pondering the same lessons and Gospels that we are, they are being inspired, puzzled and praying through the same ideas.

Since William Temple’s time the perceived idea that religion is something one does in private has gained ever stronger footholds with public prayer in schools in council chambers and even as part of a church advertisement in cinemas coming under sustained attack. Modern men and women deem it an affront but Paul did not know our strange world. For him it was natural, a reflex, to pray for all and he specifically mentions kings and people in high positions because by doing that, together, outwardly with integrity it would be acceptable to God and God would work his purposes out.

Also the kings, queens prime ministers, presidents and leaders of the world would hear the prayers of the people. So from the Book of Common Prayer for years said in every church in the land every Sunday:

“We beseech thee to save and defend all (Christian) kings, princes, governors, and especially Elizabeth our queen that under her we may be godly and quietly governed.”

Let us remember Paul’s first words of advice and seek to follow them faithfully committing all we do and everyone in our prayers.          

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Summer holidays are over

I can tell summer is over because I have put my watch back on my wrist.

For twenty blissful days in August my left arm was bare and I only had to know the time for at most four events throughout the whole holiday. Time plays havoc with our peacefulness working its pressure on our minds and bodies bringing unwanted and often unnoticed stress. The background tracking of time in my mind interferes with my search for silence and peacefulness. Sara Maitland in her book “A Book of Silence: a journey in search of the powers and pleasures of silence”1 describes how she goes to many different places to find silence, the loneliness of a Scottish cottage, where she lived as a solitary for a whole year, the peculiar silence of the desert and in the end she discovers that true silence comes finally from within.

The simple absence of noise is not enough.

I do not especially like William Henry Davies poem “Leisure” because the way it scans and rhymes somehow jars with me but its famous line

A poor life this, if full of care
We have no time to stop and stare

does have something to say about the way we miss so much because of the business of our minds. Sitting in a remote corner of Snettisham nature reserve one afternoon with Frances companionably painting alongside, the dogs sleeping under the shade of the bench, still and slow and quiet, I heard the small bird on the ground rustling in the leaves before I saw it, heard the bee exploring the thistle flowers and I soaked up the beauty and peace of that time. I could sit there as long as I wanted, there was no need to go or to move or to be anything other than a man sitting on seat.

W B Yeats puts it differently –

His eyes fixed upon nothing
A hand under his head
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

From “A long legged fly”

These times are very precious and the challenge now is to find ways to recreate them now that we are back to the daily routine.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Brexit, God and Promises

So about Brexit – (I know you will be pleased to hear about this) The problem it seems to me was that promises were being made by both sides of the argument by people who could not be at all sure to deliver. The “exiters” promised to break off one of the three legs of the European Union which since the beginning have been the free movement of capital, goods and labour while the “stayers” promised to lead a reform of the seemingly so far irreformable. Neither is impossible, either might be desirable but each needs a lot of cooperation from many other people, notably those who live on the other sides of the English Channel (La Manche), the North Sea or for that matter the Irish Sea. So then all these promises were wrapped in a fog knitted of doubt.

Abram had spoken with God before – or rather God had spoken to him: “Leave your country, your people and go to the country I will show you; to your offspring I will give this land.” So Abram had gone and we find him now in this morning’s reading (Genesis 15:1-6) having successfully rescued his nephew Lot with from captivity, a man of reputation and wealth a man of lands and cattle. “Do not be afraid, Abram,” says the Lord in a dream, “I am your shield, your reward shall be very great.”

Abram though betrays his frustration: Lord I have very much already but I have not got what I really want. I want a child! I continue childless he cries and in that word continue we hear the ache that many will know – the hurt and experience of an unfulfilled longing for a child and we can relate easily and deeply to it. The yearning remains even though Abram and Sarai are getting on in years. But Abram has given up. Ancient documents from the second millennium before Christ discovered near the river Tigris explain that it was legally possible for a childless man to adopt one of his male servants to be heir and guardian of his estate. Abram’s mourning, anger and despair for his childlessness has given way to accepting and planning for that acceptance by dreaming of naming Elezier his servant as his inheritor.

Then the Lord in that memorable visual promise takes him out on a clear Middle Eastern night to count the stars.

And he believed the Lord.

It feels a bit weak that word believed for this is no trivial agreement, say with  Boris or David, rather Abram lays back in God’s arms and “believed and trusted” in him. Neither is it accidental that this trust is born from the word of God and the vision of his creation. It seems God is saying “See the stars that I have made  look at them closely and know therefore that I can supremely deliver on my promises.

“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is the New Testament promise, that there will be life everlasting after death in the kingdom of heaven and as we listen to the words of Genesis joining them with these from the teachings of Jesus towards the end of his earthly ministry, as we hear and absorb that great span of revelation be sure that this is the same God that Abram trusted and that we can trust also for he delivers his promises. 

Friday, 29 July 2016

Sheffield University Graduation 2016

Ecclesiastes 1 and Patrick’s Graduation

There was quite some vanity on display at the Octagon building in Sheffield on Wednesday last week when maybe as many as 200 students, among them my son, received their degrees. Not that they were vain. No, they were I think mostly amazed to be there, to have reached this day to be receiving their degree, overcome with joy and I ought to say that the parents, among them ourselves, were thrilled and proud and emotional. What was strange to my mind was the opening procession of the vice chancellor and other notable dons in full attire following at least dutifully if not reverently what appeared to be a very heavy golden mace. They were accompanied by organ music and as we all stood watching them perambulate around the hall towards the stage I wondered what it was they were honouring.

“Vanity of vanities says the teacher, all is vanity.” These things we strive for are but a chasing of the wind. Not the sermon to give to those recent graduates who have gained awards and who are looking forward to their futures. In general I am not worried about age, I have never hankered after lost youth (maybe after the hair of my lost youth – yes), but never thought that I wished I was younger; except for this one moment, when just qualified the young person does have the whole world before them. I remember listening to my nieces wondering around a lunch table what steps to take next. “Shall I train to be a nurse, should I take another degree, perhaps I will travel with my back pack the oceans of the world.” Here it seems in life is a fulcrum a special time that will inevitably, if not determine, then at the very least colour and shade the future direction of their lives.

But then if all is meaningless, emptiness, futility or vanity what is the point? Are we simply chasing after the wind, shall we give our hearts up to despair concerning the total of our labour under the sun? Surely not you say and we push back against this idea with all our worldly energies, surely we have been placed here for something. And here is the peril of only reading short texts from the books of the Bible. Ecclesiastes is a short book and our reading this morning merely the introduction. It stands as a prompt to our thinking and to the thoughts of the teacher that follow. You will recall this famous passage from chapter 3:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
(New revised Standard Version OUP 1995)

And usually we stop there but it has its coda a line or two later:

“God has made everything suitable for its time.”  
And this is the thought that had I been the vice chancellor I would have wanted to leave with those two hundred geographers. She said “you came in a “graduand” and you go out a graduate” Perhaps I would say that you are sitting there thinking of filling your barns even of producing abundantly, maybe ample, sufficient to allow you to relax, but listen to Ecclesiastes, the teacher, who tells us that all of life is meaningless, futile, hollow and vain if it is not rightly related to God. Only when based on God and his word is life worthwhile.

Concluding his book our teacher says:

Be happy young man when you are young,
Follow the ways of your heart
Remember your creator in the days of your youth

 And here, suitable for the occasion, are words of wisdom and advice that we can agree with.