Friday, 1 December 2017

Advent One 2017 Isaiah, Matthew and Ted Hughes

As we know, Advent is about waiting or more properly awaiting. The thesaurus alternatives include, wait for, expect, anticipate, look forward to, be ready for, each of which brings its own nuance. In our two readings today, this the first Sunday of Advent,  we discover different ideas about how we might wait:

Impatiently: “O that you would tear the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” writes Isaiah - he is calling loudly for God to come, what are you taking so long for? We need you now - and how true that still is - and quickly as when “fire kindles brushwood.” We want you back as you were before, when you did awesome deeds, you have hidden your face from us because of our sins and we urgently want you back.

(or we might wait)
Hopefully:  “Do not be exceedingly angry O Lord and do not remember iniquity for ever. Now consider - we are all your people” It is as if once again I am a child suffering under my mother’s sentence ”Just you wait until your father gets home.” I am fearful and at the same time hopeful that mother will have cooled in her telling of the offence that he has had a good day at the office, a swift journey and that all will be far better than I imagine. Nonetheless I worry, do not be exceedingly angry O Lord.

(or we might wait)
Prophetically ”But in those days after that suffering the sun will be darkened and the moon will not shine and the stars will be falling.” Jesus gives us the pointers, the signs that will alert us to the end of the world as we know it. We do wait like this for many things looking through our telescopes, fine tuning our antennae  for signs of what is to come so that we may anticipate and be ready.

(or we might wait)
Attentively Your teenager has borrowed the car, they have travelled to see friends for a night out and it is late, you are in bed, you know they are not back, you will not sleep, listening for tell-tale noises, for tyres on the driveway, for a step on the threshold for a creak of the door or the stair and you say to yourself “keep awake”

My training incumbent, saw me climb into the pulpit with a copy of the Financial Times in my hand once - he said “I never expected to see that paper in the pulpit.” and I think that he might say the same for this poem from Ted Hughes : but it has something to tell us about waiting -

Poem: Ted Hughes “Fate Playing” Birthday Letters Faber and Faber 1998 London p 31

So we might wait
longingly -

As the deer longs for the water brooks, so longs my soul for you O God.
Ps 42:1


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Memorial and Thanksgiving Reflection

Memorial Service 2017

Jenny Uglow is a well respected biographer and she has recently published a new book about Edward Lear. The review I read was uncomplimentary. We remember Lear for his nonsense poetry (the pobble who has no toes) and perhaps limericks like this one:

There was an old man of the Hague
Whose ideas were exceedingly vague
He built a balloon to examine the moon
That deluded old man from the Hague.

In her biography though Jenny noted that before this fame he was a traveller, visiting many countries and writing about them. Her book lists all of his destinations including intricate details of his journeys and accounts of the trains, steamers, roads, rivers and omnibuses that he took to reach them. The reviewer criticises her for missing the essence of Lear. I had previously been thinking about what we say at funerals and how we feel sometimes obliged to give an account of a person’s doings in life.

I could for example tell you of my grandmother, that she was born in Cork, moved after being married to Wembley, had two children,was widowed early and lived a long time. But my memory of Nana is something different. She was the woman who came to stay on feast days and holidays, who arrived mysteriously, and turned the house upside down, who unpacked as soon as her bag had barely crossed the threshold, odd helpful gadgets for my mother, paper and crayons for me. She was the woman who bustled with boundless energy, short, round, compact, who would finish her meal before anyone else and hover by your plate to whisk it into the sink the moment you laid aside your knife and fork. Nana who would be always cheerful, laughing, who liked chocolates by the boxful and a whisky before bed and though impossibly impatient was ready to do anything for you.  

Somewhere in there is some of the essence of Nana, and we all have such  memories of the one we love, not ordered, detailed or set to a timetable but a great splash of luxurious colour on the canvas and we know that essence to be unique and somehow we know that spirit is still there in heaven waiting for us.

When I light my candle I will not be lighting it for Nana’s accomplishments  but for the person she was, the person I know and the one I shall keep in my heart for ever.


All Saints : Revelation 7:9-end

Nearly all the retired people I meet, 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 but I am, not quite yet you understand, hoping to find out. I am also hoping to find out what heaven is like and this morning we have heard John’s vision of what is happening there. The earliest parts of the book of Revelation, the letters to the churches and the depiction of the trials of judgement day are concerned with what was happening on earth but now we come to a description of salvation, what is happening up there. Although less surprising to us, reading some nineteen hundred years later, the opening of this passage would have been stunning and shocking to first century Jewish readers.

“There was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. “ Stunning and shocking to the seven year old convent boy who even now remembers being told that Protestants were going down. At the time it struck me as very harsh and you will be pleased to know I have abandoned the doctrine. But still we might wonder what we mean when we celebrate “All Saints.” The Penguin dictionary of saints begins with Aaron, who you will remember is a Romano-British saint martyred at Monmouth in the 3rd century and it ends with ZITA, who is patron saint of maidservants. There are many more in between but still even when we take the whole book there is not the “great multitude that no-one could count.”

“Who are these?”, we ask, and John gives us the answer: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”  

He begins then with a message of hope - “out of the great ordeal.” There is no tribulation or trouble so great that it can  to separate us from the love of God. Those standing before the throne have been persecuted by men, tempted by Satan, troubled in spirit and have lost life itself, yet they have come through it with faith intact. We know this for they have washed their robes - we would not wash our robes in blood, for blood stains, but this is the symbol of the blood of the lamb, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for us, it is our faith in salvation that makes us clean. Jesus died for us and we can only get to heaven through his mediation. So All Saints are those who despite everything believe and trust.

If I have dropped the idea of saints being only Catholics I have retained the other thing that sister Mary Agatha told me which is that “heaven is seeing God.”  In our image of heaven we need to factor God in, for this is where God is to be seen. This is the most significant characteristic of the place.

“All the angels stood around the throne (and around the elders) and fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God.”

Even the angels fall on their faces - 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 how much more shall we be?

“They are before the throne and worship him day and night in his temple.”

We are sheltered by God, freed from hunger, thirst pain and tears. But like my image of lazy retirement, books, grandfather clocks, good claret I may have got it wrong. In heaven we are 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 and so refreshing yes but not a place of sloth.


Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Messianic Banquet

Isaiah 25:1-9 :The Messianic Banquet

“I will extol you my God and king
And bless your name for ever and ever
Every day I will bless you
And praise your name for ever and ever
Great is the Lord and his greatness is unsearchable”

These words are from Psalm 145 and I quote them to show you how the first verse of our reading from Isaiah echos this hymn of praise and thanksgiving in shape and content. Just as in the psalm  God is unsearchable so in Isaiah we hear that his plans were formed of old, faithful and sure, stressing the limitless range and space of God’s power in history.  

To understand this passage we have to look at what has gone before.

On one level Isaiah has been writing about the clash of two world empires, the Egyptian and the Assyrian and the effects that this has had on Judah, Israel and Palestine. Caught in the paths of the warring parties, sometimes making unlucky alliances these smaller states were often crushed. Specifically in the preceding chapters(23 and 24) we have heard of the destruction of Tyre -

“Wail o ships of Tarshish for your fortress is destroyed
When they came from Cyprus they learned of it”

Which put me in mind of John Masefield’s famous poem which begins

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory
And apes and peacocks
Sandalwood and Cedarwood and sweet white wine”

No rowing home to sunny haven for the ships coming to Tyre in Isaiah’s day for it was completely destroyed and the sailors only discover the catastrophe when they arrive.

On another level isaiah is writing about the ever present war between good and evil so a little later in the chapter we read:
“The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder the earth is violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut …… will not rise again.”

So you might by now be wondering why after all this the new chapter begins with a hymn of praise. Are we to be pleased that the city is a heap of rubble, that it will never be rebuilt? And the answer is yes for we have reached the moment of the Messianic banquet - the royal banquet where God swallows up the cursed shroud of permanent death and brings ALL people to feast at his table.

I wonder if you like me were horrified by the footage of the Iraqi army rather joyously setting out for the city of Kirkuk - so recently liberated from so called ISIS by the combined forces - the Iraqis want to reclaim the oil rich lands from the Kurds, who only a month ago were fighting alongside them for freedom.  It was a moment to shout at the television set -  ‘enough - surely there has been enough fighting in this land, enough blood lost enough already! ‘

“Only God can stop this.” and this is what Isaiah is celebrating:

The idea of a feast for ALL nations to celebrate the destruction of God’s enemies and the beginning of a new era of peace and security is a very ancient one - found in North Canaanite and other Asiatic mythologies it would have been a familiar image. The prophet Amos describes a sumptuous banquet - the guests lie on beds of ivory eating lambs and calves, drink wine and sing songs and anoint themselves with oil. And so Isaiah prefiguring the well known passage in Revelation concurs:

“On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all people
a feast of rich food, a feast of well matured wines
Of rich food filled with marrow, of well matured wines strained clear.”

“He will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.

I am a fan of travelling by train for you can look out of the windows at the countryside flashing by and I was struck recently by a passage in D H lawrence’s Women in Love where swishing through Bedfordshire one of the characters looks at the land passing by in the evening saying to himself
“Well, if mankind is destroyed, if our race is destroyed like Sodom, and there is a beautiful evening with the luminous land and trees, I am satisfied. That which informs it all is there, and can never be lost.”  

It is a strange thing to contemplate the destruction of the earth as we know it, the destroying of mankind the shaming of the sun and the moon but there is that divine promise so eloquently found again in the last book of the Bible:

See, the home of God is among mortals,
He will dwell with them, they will be his peoples
And God himself will be with them
He will wipe every tear from their eyes
Death will be no more,
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

And this promise was made by God to the people of Israel, by Jesus to all people, by the Holy Spirit to all creation and most crucially to you and me.


Saturday, 7 October 2017

The vineyard, wild grapes and God's mercy

Isaiah 5:1-6

The Jewish plains, especially around the sea of Galilee were especially fertile and were known as JIZREEL, God’s own plantations. Whilst each farm had a tendency to produce everything it needed (much as say a croft in Fairisle might do)  - there would be a kitchen garden and three or four sheep for the family’s wool and even the poorest family would have vines so they could have grapes. There were also real vineyards worked in a big way with watch towers like those the shepherds built to keep a lookout for robbers both four footed and two. Figs and fruit trees might be planted in the enclosure so that the vines might climb them but also vines were allowed to grow at ground level simply running along the earth. Pruning was quite unknown - the vine was not pampered, it simply did extremely well in the fertile soil and climate of Palestine. The Biblical expression “under the  vine and the fig tree” meant the delight of doing nothing whatever!
This is the kind of agriculture that appeals to me.

Isaiah’s poetic words were easily recognized by his audience - my beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill, he had provided everything for it; dug the rich soil, cleared it of stones, planted the choicest vines, built a watchtower to protect it and prepared for the harvest by hewing out a wine vat. Here is a lucky man blessed and diligent expecting his reward. His love will surely be rewarded and repaid with clusters of plump and vintage grapes and fine wine to follow.

But this was not to be - wild grapes, which are bitter and offensive and of no use were all that came.

This parable which is a teaching parable is typical of many found in the Old Testament and of a type often used by Jesus himself. We are drawn into a situation which we can easily relate to and then asked to comment on it. “Judge between me and my vineyard!” - only to discover usually too late that that parable is about ourselves and our own behaviour. The wild grapes in this case were the people of Judah and Jerusalem. But let us recognise that this has been  a long conversation with God which began in the garden of Eden. God had provided everything - “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” All Adam and Eve needed to do was obey one rule, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge but they could not.

It is too an ongoing conversation with God. Here we are hard on the heels of our harvest festival confronted with the question - having celebrated all God’s gifts we are forced to ask ourselves why are there so many places on our fruitful earth with wild grapes? This week  in Las Vegas, recently in Myanmar, for years in Syria.

And you know, when things are bad for us individually, when things are unfair to us do we sometimes feel like tearing up the hedge, breaking down the walls, trampling upon them, hacking down the watch tower and just letting it all go to rot and become overgrown with briers and thorns? I know I do.

And though we can see that God might easily have done just that, it is not what has happened. God never gives up on mankind, yes he could have torn up the blueprint right then in the garden of Eden and started again but he did not - he sent his prophets like Isaiah to warn and instruct, he sent his son to teach and to be an example and when we, like those in our Gospel  reading, put Jesus to death even after that we have been  promised the Holy Spirit, the Comforter to be with us always.

Isaiah penned a great poem, it is a poem we should read often for the graphic way it presents us with the disappointment God may justly feel in his creation but especially for the way it shows how God did not react in human ways but continues to forgive and have endless, truly endless, mercy.


Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Transformation now and at our deaths

“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
Through our Lord Jesus Christ
who will transform our frail bodies
That they may be conformed to his glorious body”

The truth of it is that we do not know what will happen - we understand the earlier part of this prayer - “earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes” all the more so in our world of usual cremation for this much is clear. We can touch it, see it but what then? In this passage from the story of the transfiguration, Jesus has taken his closest disciples, Peter, James and John up the mountain to show them something. Here is the pictorial, theatrical, enactment of the  teaching that Jesus gave them just a few verses earlier:

“The son of man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

As I said last week, heaven is beyond our understanding, (all the more so resurrection) and we need different ways of grasping Jesus’ words. Moses, Elijah and Jesus were talking, as Luke expresses it, of his departure. This word used is “exodus” - recalling the setting free of the the tribes of Israel from slavery in Egypt. “They were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” They appeared in glory - the passion is announced not with misery or foreboding but with transformation. Jesus is transformed to such a surpassing and Godlike brightness so in the words of Cyril of Alexandria, his garments glittered with rays of fire and seemed to flash like lightning. Notice they are speaking of accomplishment, not failure. Moses represents the law, Elijah the prophets and they are alongside similarly transformed. All this is shown to the disciples and then from a cloud comes a voice:

“This is my son, my chosen; listen to him.”

We are reminded of the account of Jesus’ baptism where again we find a visual teaching: Jesus is seen rising from the water, the holy spirit in the form of a dove descends upon him and a voice came from heaven “THis is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”

In both cases, the beginning of Jesus ministry and the beginning of his passion, they are announced unmistakably, and here on the mountain top with Peter and James and John we see a glimpse of the promise of eternal life. In glory and radiance, a tiny sliver of all that we find impossible, we are shown the tip of it all, the beginning of the promise.

Listen to Him

For he will transform us now through his ministry and teaching and and at our death through his resurrection.


Monday, 31 July 2017

The kingdom of heaven is like ....

The boat in St. James’ Piccadilly and the kingdom of heaven

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Now of course heaven is not a mustard seed, nor yeast, nor a treasure, nor a pearl nor a magic net and nor is the lover a summer’s day. For as Shakespeare says:

“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
And often is is golden complexion dimmed
And every fair from fair sometimes declines.

Now, Jesus knew about heaven, he knows it in every detail but he does not tell us expressly what it is, or where it is; he does not define it but even with all his certainty and intimate perfect knowledge contents himself by  saying what it is like. He is aware that heaven is so beyond our understanding, that we can only marginally approach it and then  by signs, symbol and allusion. By looking and thinking of things we know and which we can see and do comprehend we can be helped to touch the ineffable. For this we need language - it may be the language of art, of music, of poetry, it may be traditional, abstract or modern and then more often, it seems to me , it is what is not depicted, not sung, not said, the mystery in cadence, in the spaces that speak to us of the ethereal. But our world is so noisily attuned to “faster”, “more” and “what’s next” that there is no room for spaces and we rush on. To think about heaven we need to go “slower” do “less” stay in the “now” - we have to wonder -

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

St. James Piccadilly is a big London church set in the bohemian world of Soho with artists of all sorts, creatives from all walks of life  among the congregation. Last Christmas they strung from their roof a real, recovered, refugee dinghy - it was very large, mainly bright orange and it bore the scars of a Mediterranean crossing, a craft brought up from the Italian shore. In a church designed  by Christopher Wren it stood out  and at that season flavoured the story of Mary and Joseph without a bed, of Jesus being born in a stable and of the family fleeing to Egypt.

I thought this was great!  [Pause to look at the roof] we could get something smaller perhaps?
But then I thought “but this is OK for St. James’ they are used to such things, these men and women of theatre land but we Streatley folk are of less gaudy cloth not given to large gestures.   I tracked down the reverend Lucy Winkett and asked her

“How do I prepare my Christmas congregation who have come for carols and candles, how do I prepare them for a boat in the roof?”

She looked intently and penetratingly at me and said “You don’t - just let the image speak on its own!”

And so I am not going to unpack our Gospel, not give my explanations of the symbols but am going to ask each of you to choose the image that resonates most with you - think about it - savour it - give it space to speak to you.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Paolo becoming a priest

Paolo becoming a priest

What I am just so pleased about is there is no delay, no gap, no waiting. Only yesterday we were in the Abbey watching and listening as Bishop Alan placed his hands on Paolo calling down the Holy Spirit to ordain him  a priest. And now here we are at the first possible opportunity joining Paolo as he celebrates his first Holy Communion with us. Our Gospel which is taken from the instructions that Jesus is giving to his disciples says

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Or using a slightly different translation :

Jesus says “To receive you is to receive me and to receive me is to receive the one who sent me”

As we receive Paolo this morning it is it seems to me as if we are receiving directly from the Bishop’s hands, who received from the Holy Spirit, who was sent by the Father. And so we welcome Paolo newly elected and invested into the Holy priesthood.

Paolo, you remember the first stirrings of your calling, how a still small voice spoke in you, then visits to vocations advisors, the time with a mentor, the preparation, a director of ordinands, the discernment and study for the Bishop’s Advisory Panel, the joy of being selected - not to become a priest but selected for training , the three years as an ordinand in that training, lectures attended, essays composed, residency at far flung Ditchingham late nights at the bar pondering the  hypostasis   
- all these things and even a year of curacy have been endured on your journey but they are neither toll nor tithe.

We read in Matthew that Jesus gave his disciples authority to cast out unclean spirits, to cure every kind of sickness and disease, to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, even to raise the dead.
Now this was not because the disciples had somehow earned these powers, they were given them - it is a source of wonder to me that Christ should bestow his power, to bless, to forgive sins, to celebrate the Lord’s supper on anyone for we are  vessels made of clay, but you (and I) are a priest today not through the process and the study but because of the unlimited generosity of Jesus Christ. It is this unbounded giving, the giving that led him to open hs arms wide upon the cross, the giving of the sacrament that you will shortly celebrate for us that we give thanks this morning.

And so Paolo we welcome you as a gift - a gift to us all - a blessing to us all


Saturday, 6 May 2017

I am the gate for the sheep

Last week I needed to be at the Peace Hospice in Watford for a meeting of chaplains and as is my way I was there exactly on time - well to be very accurate I was alongside the building which for some reason was at the top of a cliff. I had not known there were cliffs in Watford but this was a cliff and as I looked hopefully up from the dual carriageway of the Watford ring road I could see the hospice with a welcoming portico, its impressive four greek style columns on my left - up there somewhere. Ahead by the town hall was a roundabout and I found there was a little carpark in the middle of it where I might safely park. Or I could have done if there had been spaces - there were none or at least none that were not reserved and so I spun around and was spat out along another spoke of the roundabout my bearings quite lost in search of another sheepfold for my car.  There seemed to be a car park by the town hall so I headed there only to find it was for staff only and took another one or two circuits of the roundabout before seeing Sainsbury’s offered a possible harbour and with difficulty I found the entrance before discovering that much of Hertfordshire were already queuing for a place and in so doing were blocking the exits and so I remained stuck for a while before finding a way to leave and once more navigate the roundabout with the town hall.

By now  I was more than fashionably late so rang the hospice to say that I was struggling to abandon my car - oh the lady said come and park in our car park (which you remember is at the top of a cliff and hidden somehow behind the building ) She began her directions with “Do you know the town hall roundabout?

Did I know the town hall roundabout! I had just ploughed a few new furrows round the thing. Their directions were the sort that are good if you know where you are and know where you are going ….I knew neither so was easily lost - I ended up back - at the town hall roundabout - so more phoning was needed before I finally ended up somewhere near the top of the cliff with cul-de-sacs and so on and trying several found myself eventually forty minutes late in front of a promising little red barrier.

In the reading so often used for funerals also from John’s Gospel, Jesus says - “and you know the way to the place where I am going” Thomas asks “Lord we do not know where you are going how can we know the way?” and Jesus’ answer is “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

Now I have preached on today’s reading from John 10 about the sheepfold a few times and of course as you would expect from me I have focused on the sheep, (I have brought bring a sheep!) how they know their master, how they know his voice how we know when Jesus is speaking to us,how we should follow him - but let us this time listen to what Jesus said about himself.

“I am the gate for the sheep.”  This is an exceptional figure of speech, after all a person does not readily liken themselves  to a gate. But that is exactly what Jesus did and it is exactly what we believe. Jesus is the gateway, the portico, the doorway, the portal the entrance the way to heaven, the way to the father the only way to know God.

“I am the gate, whoever enters through me will be saved”

Without Jesus even when I know I want to go to heaven I shall be lost, without him to lead and guide me and to do so even when I start off in the wrong direction, I shall never find the way. Jesus says look you do not need to be lost any more, searching for God, looking for a harbour, for a sheepfold,  I am the gateway, I am all you need for you to know the way to where I am going.  

Without the receptionist in the Peace hospice I might still be on the town hall roundabout.

Without Jesus I am sure my life would have gone around and around in circles.


Friday, 31 March 2017

The dry bones

"When I was small I would sometimes dream of a city - which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city clustered on the curve of a big blue bay would come into my mind. I could see the streets and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet waking I had never seen the sea, or a boat.
The buildings were quite unlike any I knew. The traffic in the streets was strange, carts running with no horses to pull them and sometimes there were things in the sky, shiny fish shaped things that certainly were not birds." 1

Ezekiel’s dream does not say that the bones are in a desert in a  post nuclear world as just described by John Wyndham but I always think of them this way -  the science fiction of my childhood often pictured utter desolation and I see endless brownish yellow dust and bones of all creatures piled in jumbled heaps stretching before me to the horizon and I suppose beyond. There is no hope here.

Ezekiel had known desolation; born in 623 BC he was the son of a priest and was one of those carried off into exile in 598 so only twenty-five years old under the armies of Nebuchadrezza : the trek was tortuous and few of the captives survived the march. Life on arrival in exile was better and he became a priest to the jews who were there as well as a prophet. Their world collapsed when the temple, the focus of their hopes and prayers  was destroyed in 586 and soon after Ezekiel’s wife died.  Ezekiel knew despondency personally and was all too aware of Israel’s sin, profanity and their turning away from their God. And so in his vision we find ourselves in a physical and a spiritual desert. The bones represent those who really died in the conflict and the travels, they represent the spiritual dryness of the people and they are scattered as the Israelites in exile in Babylon and elsewhere.

We may draw a parallel with those on the borders of Syria and Turkey in refugee camps, exiled from their homes, whose families have been scattered or killed and who hear of the destruction of their cities. When I properly look at the pictures of Aleppo it does look hopeless - those shells of apartments were once homes, with tables and chairs, meals, conversations, vases of flowers, hobbies, market squares, coffee shops,  plans for the future. How long I wonder could it take to rebuild all that physically and spiritually?  

Ezekiel had known the depths of bad times and he paints them as the worst possible -

“Can these bones live?”

Ezekiel then reminds us who God is, just how extraordinary and beyond our imagination, he reminds us of the God of Genesis - for in the beginning

“Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. “

Notice that in the vision God again first forms the bones - “there was a noise, a rattling and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked and there were sinews on them, and the flesh had come upon them, and the skin had covered them; but here was no breath in them.”

As in Genesis there are two stages and although this is a deliberate reminder of the creation of man Ezekiel’s vision is about more than the creation of man, “Mortal, these bones are are the whole house of Israel”  “and the breath came into them and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

We may at times have stood at the grave of our hopes - hopes for ourselves, for our families for the world and perhaps in these days for the church. Ezekiel’s vision is a message to those who find themselves spiritually thirsty, gravely ill, bereaved, unbearably lonely, trapped and unable to see a way forward. It is for those who have lost all grounds for hope. It is a message about who God truly is - the God of total renewal, God who never gives up, who does not abandon. It is not about individual resurrection but about complete transformation; in Ezekiel’s world the renewal of the state of Israel and by extension in ours the transformation of the whole of community from dryness and selfishness to a world of life.

As we shall say in a moment at the end of the creed “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”       


1 Wyndham J. The Chrysalids, Penguin Books, 1973 London

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Samaritan Woman

The Samaritan Woman

She is used to hiding, she is accustomed to cowering, she knows what it is to feel and be invisible. It was not her fault, actually none of it was her fault. Aisha had gone to school one morning in the sunshine, expecting trigonometry, tests in English, time with her friends, but she got guns, grim faced men and kidnapped. She was carried away into the remote Nigerian jungle along with 275 others then separated from them. The so called choice she was offered was to marry a “fighter” or to become a slave; either way for a seventeen year old girl the result was the same - violation, degradation and brutality. Eighteen months later she was freed by a military operation and she was  elated and wanted to go home to Chibok. But Chibok is a very conservative community. They don’t want any “Boko Haram wives” there and Aisha learnt what it was to be stigmatised, ostracised bullied, hated and harassed. She taught herself to be invisible and to keep out of the way.  

So she comes to draw water in the heat of the day, at noon when the sun is at its highest, when she knows nobody will be around. She comes to the well but there IS somebody there. Why we wonder does the Samaritan woman who feels just like Aisha, why does she come out of the penumbra when there is a man there, a stranger, most obviously a Jew? Why does she come still to the well?

Firstly of course, she needed water, she was thirsty both physically and spiritually and secondly Jesus must have seemed welcoming, non threatening, nor should we be surprised, if just Jesus’ presence sitting by, was attractive. She felt she could safely approach.

There are always Aisha’s around us and among us. Not released brutalised hostages perhaps, but men and women who feel marginalised, who may be saying “nobody notices me”, or “I am invisible.” (Usually) it is not their fault, actually none of it is their fault. They are people who are thirsty, perhaps just for companionship, for someone to listen to them or thirsty for the God they feel has abandoned them.

The good news is that we at least in St. Margaret’s are here. We have come to what we hope and pray is a well - somewhere in our variety of services or our clubs and activities we find spiritual nourishment, support and fellowship.

The bad news is that if St. Margaret’s is a well, then we are its temporal guardians. It is we who are sitting by, we who have to model Jesus’ example. We who have to appear welcoming, non threatening and attractive.  Sitting by the well we have to be attentive, ready to discern who is coming in and how we shall receive them. This is not about those on the door, giving out the books even though our sides people are appreciated and important, but it is about how each of us responds. Our church needs to be like Jesus particularly for welcoming the other:

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me a woman of Samaria?”

Oh, it is easy to welcome those who look like us, who dress like us, who behave like us but that is not Jesus’ way:

“The disciples were astonished that he was speaking to a woman” but they were not engaged enough to ask why he was talking to her, what had taken place, what had they said to one another? And look at what they missed. The Samaritan woman went home and said “What a great well this is - come and meet who I met there.”

Will our next unexpected, unknown visitor who has come because they are thirsty go home and say the same?


Thursday, 16 February 2017

Genesis 1:27 General Synod

Genesis 1:27

What might it mean then to be made in God's image? Look around you and notice that we are all different, young, younger and very young, round, less round and not round. It cannot be about how we look! Sometimes we struggle to remember the beauty and depth of that assertion made at the very beginning of the Bible, at the very beginning of creation that using the King James Version: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him."

In the Hebrew it would  have been clear that "image" meant the whole person, much more than looks it included even then, the powers of thought, communication and feeling. Genesis tells us that we each have God within us. When we look at one another, when I look at my son who has not picked up his clothes from the bathroom, has hoarded the towels crumpled in his bedroom, has used all the hot water, has squashed the soap into a ball, has left the bath unfit for for public viewing .....and that is only a catalogue of one room's irritations, when I look at my son there is God in there. God is in all of us. Now, God made human beings to love that they might love him and love one another.

Last week at General Synod both of these ideas were deployed in vigorous debate - that we are all made in God's image and that we should love one another. From your reading of the news you may have been brought to doubt that these things were present. The Guardian headline was "Turmoil as Synod rejects report on same sex relationships" and similar ones were to be found elsewhere together with excitement that the archbishop of Canterbury had been dealt a blow to his authority.

Let me take you into the chamber with me to tell you what happened. Before the debate began, a debate that had been extended by request of the members, from the original schedule to accommodate the many who wanted to speak we had met in small groups of half a dozen with one of the bishops to work through some examples of pastoral situations together and to talk about our reactions to the report.

The bell rang, the chamber was packed to capacity and the public gallery filled with journalists and cameras. The golden covered chairs are reasonably comfortable but small and close together - you know who your neighbour is. The bishops of Norwich and Willesden presented the report with an explanation of their intent and an apology for any offence and pain that it had caused to sections of the community and the synod. The debate began, more than 160 people had asked to speak, myself among them, and the atmosphere was expectant. I was not fortunate to be called to speak but Synod was fortunate to have very many  high quality thoughtful and passionate contributions. The passion though did not stop everyone being courteous to one another, it did not stop anyone listening - there is no waving of order papers, no noises off as there is in the other place just round the corner. Two hours of creative and persuasive oratory.

The motion in front of the house was "that this synod takes note of this report." I have to tell you what that means: ' Voting to ‘take note’ of a report such as this does not commit Synod members to the acceptance of any matter contained within it' which you may think rather a strange thing to arrive at after two hours of discussion but that is how the standing orders of the synod define a take note debate. The vote was counted using electronic devices, there is a short pause for the computer to work before the result is announced. The result was heard with the proper silence and gravity - no cheering or clapping or groans of disappointment.

The house of bishops unanimously (save one who pressed the wrong button on his voting machine) took note of their own report, the house of laity took note of the report but the house of clergy voted not to. As with everything there were shades of opinion why to vote for or to vote against but in essence the view of many colleagues was that any work proposed would benefit from more thought given to the starting point and from a more kindly worded report. In short for some it went too far and for others it did not go far enough. There was no turmoil.

In responding Justin Welby issued the following statement:

"No person is a problem, or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people.

How we deal with the real and profound disagreement - put so passionately and so clearly by many at the Church of England’s General Synod debate on marriage and same-sex relationships today - is the challenge we face as people who all belong to Christ.

To deal with that disagreement, to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

We need to work together - not just the bishops but the whole Church, not excluding anyone - to move forward with confidence.

The vote today is not the end of the story, nor was it intended to be. As bishops we will think again and go on thinking, and we will seek to do better. We could hardly fail to do so in the light of what was said this afternoon.

The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ - all of us, without exception, without exclusion."