Thursday, 15 August 2019

Can we be ready?

Luke 12:32-40

There was a time when I had a boss who was more difficult than most and it took me a while to understand why. It turned out that he had been involved in a very serious industrial accident, suffering thirty degree burns, spending many months in hospital and having been expected to die. This had changed his whole attitude to life especially to taking risks and in his case not in a good way: he swapped out his wife for someone new, moved halfway across America, took up a new career, burned the candle at both ends and all at the same time. The trouble was he grafted his ideas onto others insisting for example that a quiet, shy, family man up sticks from the outlying suburbs of Cincinnati and move alone to Tokyo or face being fired. Following on from last week he “seized the day” alright and expected everybody else to follow. He was difficult to be around professionally and socially. There is a lesson to be drawn though:

It is one thing to read ”For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” and another to really feel and experience that. Greg felt it for for him the Son of Man had almost come, the house had been broken into and the thief was on the stairs. How much I wonder would our lives be changed if from the start we did know the hour of our death? It would perhaps make some things easier but in my view it is a mercy that we do not and it means of course that we do have to have the lamps lit and be dressed for action in case the master returns.

It is rather a frightening thought - will we be, are we ready? What shall we feel if Jesus came in that door just now, while we are all here,? I am sure we will recognize the Lord as he walks along past the hymn books, turns the corner in front of the wall painting of St. Christopher, and comes up this North aisle. But what will we feel, what will we be saying to ourselves, will we be ready?

Perhaps the confession from the morning service will be the most appropriate:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things we ought to have done and we have done those things that we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.
O Lord have mercy on us miserable offenders.

Or then again those words from the general confession - we have sinned in thought word and deed. Especially the thoughts, for Jesus knows all this, he knows every thought on our minds before it is formed, every word on our tongue before we hear them -  how can we be ready?

“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Please hear that “It is the Father’s pleasure to give us the kingdom; you may be aware of a strand of thinking that we earn our place in heaven but discard it. We can never really do that - the gift of eternal life, the gift of heavenly rest and peace, of the good things that the Father gives us are from his grace and we can be ready only when we live in a way that anticipates - our wicks are trimmed, our oil  replenished,  but which anticipates that meeting with Jesus here in the chapel knowing all and still taking pleasure in giving us his love.


Friday, 2 August 2019

Emerging from retreat

The first thing to say is that the generosity of the community of nuns at the Community of St. Mary the Virgin is so gently offered that you may overlook it. I arrive bearing the impedimenta of the world, car, telephone, computer, Google, not to mention maleness into a society that has lived together, reclusively, for years. They have grown older together, watched their sisters die, worshipped together and established a pattern of being which is focussed on their desire to know God more nearly. There is nothing boring, repetitive or unexciting about that nor I suspect about their lives as a whole but it is sustained by rhythm, peace and cadence. Yet I am welcomed (and many are welcomed) into the poem, breaking in as it were into a late stanza without the benefit of the earlier pages. This is my third year in Wantage, yet it is still, even knowing what to expect and what I came for, difficult to fall into the pattern, feeling awkward, atonal, making a colon where there should be a comma. Yet I am welcomed into their spaces, their chapels, libraries, refectory, garden and silences. The generosity so gently offered is overwhelming in magnitude.

Emerging from this into the town there are innumerable words, all around in snatches of caught conversation crashes of sound which are jarring. Firstly swearing, lots of it, outside the pub, from the windows of a passing car, among the school age, between friends somehow exchanging greetings, men women children. No poetry here, only a short drive from the dreaming spires; it is painful. The some mothers with small children issuing warnings: do not run you will fall and cut yourself, no you cannot have them now, you will drop them and lose them. Some lewd remarks are heard in the market square.

And all this, usually just so much background, is picked out unwantedly as I walk to sit on a bench in a graveyard and in doing so I recognize how truly generous the sisters have been.
But they know that.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Saul and succession

Last week there was a special Panorama programme on Brexit - I forget the title but essentially it told the story of three years of negotiations so perhaps it may have been “How did we get into this mess?” It is good sometimes to take a step back and review the whole picture away from the detail.

The lectionary we have been following from the first Book of Samuel is richly textured and tonight we reach the point where David and Jonathan realise that now a decision has to be made. How did they get there?

 Saul had been chosen as king by Samuel but when Saul does not obey God’s commands to kill the oxen, sheep men women and children of the defeated Amalekites Samuel explains that the kingship will pass to another. God commanded Samuel to go to Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons king. This is unknown to Saul but we of course know that it is David who is anointed to be the future king of Israel. Saul meantime is suffering from intense changes of mood which are of concern to his servants and retainers. They suggest he could be soothed by a harpist. Incidentally only this week a team from the University of Pennsylvania published the results of an experiment to show that music can dinish anxiety and lower blood pressure just as well as drugs. “Find a man to play to me “ he commands and David is duly found and brought to court. Whenever the spirit from God troubled Saul David took the harp and played, then Saul grew calm and recovered and the evil spirit left him.

Bur Saul remains anxious, he is aware that he has been rejected by Yahweh and he has to watch as David grows in stature and prowess and popularity. David slays Goliath and wins many battles against the Philistines - in the victory parades the women sing:

“Saul has killed his thousands
And David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was very angry, for this saying displeased him - they have ascribed to David tens of thousands but to me they have ascribed (only) thousands. And Saul eyed david from that day on! Eventually Saul is in such a rage that he decided to arrange for David to be killed. Warned by his friend and Saul’s son Jonathan, David escapes to be with Samuel for a while. Jonathan would like David to return to court and this is the substance of the present conversation. It is almost the last the friends will have - they agree a signal which will tell David whether Saul’s anger has or has not abated - it has not and David will be forced to flee not the wilderness once more.

As we have discovered in recent weeks succession is difficult, love of power and jealousy have not been diminished by the passage of the millennia - the human condition is the thing we Christians work to change.


God continues to surprise me

The Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance to his tent by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day.

What a beautiful image is conjured by this story which captures the fragrance of a far off time. It has the same feel as that lovely line earlier in Genesis of The Lord was walking in the garden in the cool of the day evoking something deep and timeless, peaceful and yet expectant. This is the narrator alerting us to the importance of what we are about to hear. Abraham knows nothing He looked up and saw three men standing near him. Perhaps he thought he had dozed off in the heat and not noticed their approach which might explain his hurry: when he saw then he ran from the tent entrance to meet them. He welcomes the visitors, persuading them to stay by offering what travelers will most appreciate, a little water to wash their feet and a rest in the shade of a tree. He goes on to offer a morsel of bread.

Here his hospitality is so much more than a slice of pitta - he asks Sarah to knead three measures of choice flour into cakes, he selects a calf tender and good all at full speed so a lavish feast is energetically prepared and like a good host he waits discreetly by the tree while the three visitors enjoy it.

Paul was later to write in his letter to the Hebrews “ “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

This idea was in time to form the basis of the construction of the monasteries - the Abbot always slept in a cell near the main gate which in turn was near the kitchen and the guest chamber so that if someone came to knock on the door they were welcomed by none other than the abbot himself and the hospitality was immediately nearby. Ideally the abbot would be alerted to the approach of a visitor so he could go to meet them.

Unexpected visitors can indeed be surprising. Our farmhouse in Bedfordshire is at the end of a driveway that often people mistake for a road to a house that they are looking for. So when I was sitting in the heat of the afternoon in the front of the house one day and a car appeared I was not surprised except that the car instead of turning round stopped on the drive with its three women, each of a different generation and spent time looking at the house. I ran across the little green in front of the kitchen window to find out what they wanted - the car began to back down the drive but waving I persuaded them to stop intending to direct them to where they were really going.  Now they were not angels but it turned out the eldest had lived in the house when she was a girl and so I set about making a pot of tea and looking for biscuits while they looked around enjoying the old parts and marvelling at the new ones.

The thing is that it was very unusual for me to be in the front of the house at all - there is much more garden at the back. The likelihood was that they would have driven up the drive reversed and I should have been unaware of their visit.

But - you see God always puts you where you are meant to be. The question is why was Abraham just then sitting in the doorway of his tent in the heat of the day? There is much for a wandering man to do, calves and sheep to look after seed to grind and so on. So many times have I been surprised - I have set off to go somewhere and then maybe changed my mind and on the spur of the moment decided to visit a different place to walk the dog or to buy some supper and then there is a meeting with someone, with whom there is an important conversation (maybe they need to borrow a telephone charger) or perhaps at the last moment I have decided not to go out and there is a visitor in need.

In Abraham’s case we can see from the way that the story is told that God put him there. My question is why am I still surprised after so many events like this - why do I not expect God to put me in the right place at the right time  - why is it not a matter of course for us?

Well he is the  God of Surprises and this aspect reinforces our wonder and our worship and allows us to walk in the same awe as Abraham as he hears “I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”


The Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance to his tent by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day.


Monday, 8 July 2019

You reap as you sow

Galatians 6:1-16

What a plum cake of a passage we have just heard from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. There are lots of fruit to pick out :

Bear one another’s burdens
Restore (forgive) in the spirit of gentleness
For all must carry their own loads
Share in all good things
You reap whatever you sow
Let us not grow weary in doing what is right

Now having got you all here early thought i had better choose only one of these to talk about otherwise you will be home later than usual. So I thought to ponder on “You reap whatever you sow.” This was a favourite of my maternal grandmother, but then Nana had many little sayings and not a few superstitions (about magpies, stirring tea and lumps of coal and so on) She invariably used this one as an admonition - Look out don’t do that or say that = you’ll reap as you sow. Maybe she had in m knd the Old English edition that says “He that sows thistles shall reap prickles” or even the Biblical quotation from Hosea: “For they that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.” Certainly for me reaping and sowing had bad connotations for some time.

Paul though is speaking in the positive : Old English again: “He that sows good seed shall reap good corn.” How unfashionable that way of thinking has become.

Donald Trump for example. Well he would always seem to be sowing bad seed. His campaign for the presidency was uncivil, his trade wars, the latest with Europe where he wants to put tariffs on whiskey and cheese are aggressive, his relations with Iran …. How can he expect to form any future long term dialogue with a nation that he often threatens to obliterate? It has become almost unthinkable in our modern adversarial culture to begin any negotiation by being generous. Why I wonder did we not three years ago at the beginning of the Brexit discussion say that we would grant EU residents in the UK the right to stay? We were going to end up there anyway. Instead we put it in the pot for discussion causing distress to individuals and losing in my opinion respect and global reputation.

People are surprised when you sow good seed and they do not know quite what to make of it. One late evening a week or so ago in tee shirt and shorts I was in a food shop where there was a lady trying to work out where to obtain a telephone charger because she had left her one at home and was now here on holiday incommunicado. Tempted though I was to discuss the merits of that I butted in : “I can lend you one of mine” I said.  There followed a discussion as to whether she could trust this strange man who had made this proposal - her need for a charger overcame her reluctance and along she came to collect it. Having been told in the meantime that I was the rector the second thing she said to me was : “I suppose it is your job to be kind to people!”

So you see the thought that someone might simply make an unsolicited offer of help needed questioning - firstly it was met with suspicion - “what is this strangers motive for this, what is in it for him? And secondly it was thought to be my job perhaps like a policeman or a nurse “ Ah, now I understand he is being paid to do this. “

Paul says that if you sow in the flesh you will reap corruption, but if you sow in the spirit you will reap eternal life from the spirit. Paul is talking long term and this makes all the difference. It is easy to win a one off bargain but if you want to establish a substantive and lasting relationship you have to sow and cultivate quite different seeds: you must sow not thistles but good quality corn.

And what could be more long term than the promise of eternal life?


Monday, 17 June 2019

The Blessing

The Aaronic Blessing

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

The book of Numbers lies between Leviticus and Deuteronomy and tells the story of Israel’s wandering in the desert for 38 years from Mount Sinai to Mount Horeb on the border with canaan, the promised land. There are as you might expect lots of rules - similar to Leviticus and Deuteronomy and indeed Exodus the regulations for being a faithful Israelite are laid down in painstaking detail. It is called the book of numbers because of the census found in chapter one : here is a sample :

“And so he counted them in the deserts of Sinai:

“From the descendants of Reuben, the first born son of Israel :
All the men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army were listed by name, one by one according to the records of their clans and families. The number of the tribe of Reuben was 46,500.”

And this formula continues for the tribe of Simeon, Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher and Naphthali. There follows a description of how all these men are lined up in battle - Frankly this book is an unlikely bedtime read - one is more likely to look for Isaiah, Ruth, Jonah or Genesis ….

But then we come to this evening’s reading which follows some detailed rules of how to be a Nazarite. To be honest with you I did not know it was here - this poetic paragraph in the middle of the bulk of the book. It would be easily missed but that it stands out from everything before and the lists of offerings that immediately follow: again one for each tribe:

“The one who brought his offering on the first day was Nahshon, son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah:

His offering was one silver plate weighing a hundred and thirty shekels, and one silver sprinkling bowl weighing …. And this goes on for a little while.

Not only does it stand out but this is a blessing that I tend to use for informal services or perhaps a service of Baptism where there are lots of young people and so to find that its origins lie in one of the books written by Moses is a discovery. There is to my mind a celtic feel to it :

Compare for example:

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And the rain fall softly on your fields
Until we meet again
May God hold you
In the hollow of his hand.

Which also has those references to sun and being held.

All of which goes to show that the Bible can still surprise us - that this library of books, history, law, prophecy, stories, songs, poetry and pictures is rich beyond measure and is really the only book we need on that desert island -

And now the Aaronic blessing as conceived by John Rutter


Trinity and Wisdom

To the majority of you here it will come as no surprise that Wisdom is a woman! “She takes her stand, she cries out.Does not Wisdom call and does not understanding raise her voice?” We have this reading on Trinity Sunday to help us begin to contemplate the mystery of God. St. Augustine said “If you think you understand something then that something is not God.” Or try this: Looking for God is like looking directly into the sun - there is brilliance, warmth, absolute brightness but so much unknown and unseen. Because of the difficulty of the topic I have in recent years delegated the preaching on the Trinity to the curate ……

We know that this subject of the Trinity was difficult for the early church, that the creed we say was only agreed in 381 BC and then under pressure from Constantine the Great, we know that it is difficult for other faiths to accept - Muslims consider us polytheist  and yet it is a defining part of our belief. The test for a church wanting to jon Churches together in England is are they trinitarian?

The passage about Wisdom is wonderful imagery but I also suggest it is a helpful place to begin thinking about the nature of God.

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago; when there were no depths I was brought forth; When he established the heavens I was there , when he drew a circle on the face of the deep … then I was beside him…. And I was daily his delight.”

A mysterious and beautiful  passage but also revealing. The first of God’s acts shows that God is NOT solitary. That God who created the world is rich complex diverse and unfathomable should not be a surprise; that he is not to be represented as a bearded white male and so somehow alienated from many millions who have other identities is clear. Wisdom was beside him and we are told that SHE and God rejoice together, “I was daily his delight”

Wisdom and God have a relationship and so there is an emotion there, even before creation.

God is ever revealing himself and God can only reveal Godself (himself, herself) as God is - there can be no distortion - God cannot reveal anything that is not God - our understanding is of course severely limited but what we are shown can only be God

And so the beginning is the creation of the world - God showing us a glimpse of wonder, beauty and perfection that we barely know even after all these thousands of years.

Secondly the disciples understood in the end, if slowly and stumblingly that Jesus was divine - but as well they could see that he was separate from the Father. After all Jesus prayed to the Father - there is a relationship between them.

At Pentecost which we explored last Sunday the disciples experience a power amongst them and within them which allows them to begin the work of the church - reconciling the imperfectly understood languages but a sign of this. They knew, for they had seen Jesus leave them, that the Holy Spirit was not Jesus; they had heard him say “I will ask the Father and he will send you a counsellor to be among you.” They knew there was a relationship between them.

Again, God can only reveal God. These three elements of revealing tell us something, The doctrine of the Trinity redescribes God in the light of the EVENTS , the events of creation, of the coming of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of God’s transforming spirit.

Just as we saw that there was a relationship at the start - so there is one between the three. The three indwell and pervade each other, an infinite current of love streams without ceasing (we heard - I was ever his delight - there was always love, there was love before anything) and it streams unceasingly between the three persons of the trinity. The Greeks, and this may be the only word of Greek I ever use - called this perichoresis - we have no word for this - no word for the perfect flowing of love - no way of describing how God is love and always has been but God reveals through Jesus and the Holy Spirit that this is so and that he wants a relationship with us.


Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Ascension - Sunday evensong sermon

Ascension Thursday

I have had over the years to compose the occasional farewell speeches including the one to my last parish, so I have had a recent taste of the challenges of valedictory remarks; the ones that are the more difficult are when you leaving a team that you have built myself which is what Jesus had to do. To the disciples way of thinking He was leaving too soon, everyone on the team had been chosen by Jesus and  even if he thought they were strong enough the road ahead was steep and he wanted to leave them with helpful advice. This is a tricky problem.

The disciples had come together having seen Jesus several times in the forty days since his resurrection and now they were impatient, they want to know exactly what will happen next and when it will happen. Jesus quickly dismisses their all too human concerns about when the kingdom will come and instead sets out both a mission and the means by which it is to be accomplished. Jesus had previously promised that the Holy Spirit would come “the gift” from the Father but now he tells them why.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, in Judea , in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” These are the same men remember who will shelter in the upper room for fear of their lives worried about the authorities yet they have been given the task of establishing the church that is to spread the Gospel to all the world.

The courage and power that they will have to do this is to be given to them from God the Father and will be the same that propelled Jesus - imagine that for a moment - the power of the Holy Spirit is the same , the same Spirit that was in Jesus, that drove and shaped his ministry,  will be given to the church to fulfil its missionary purpose.

“After he said this he was taken up”. This immediate ascension amplifies and confirms that the Spirit is the same, for it is a necessary pre-cursor that Jesus be welcomed into heaven before the Spirit can be sent. Luke writing this first chapter of the book of Acts takes descriptive care to be sure we engage and understand this moment.

In my many travels through airports I have seen many farewells at the departure gate. Some I agree are perfunctory but the really meaningful ones are when the person saying goodbye, man or woman, boy or girl, lingers long after the passenger has gone through; they stand on tip-toe or crane their necks from  side to side hoping to catch an extra glimpse through the crowd or on a walkway and then when all chances of another sighting, a final wave or an extra blown kiss have passed they stay looking at the space, the doorway perhaps, simply remembering.

Such are the disciples, looking intently up into the sky as a cloud hid him from their sight. The picture strikes us as completely true, exactly what we expect when someone we love leaves us his farewell speech ringing in our ears.

And from now on a page is turned, the disciples have their instructions. They must wait in Jerusalem before being empowered to launch the work they have been given and to start the greatest missionary journey of all time. With Paul, who at this point they do not know at all, they will take the story on a journey from the shores of Galilee to the centre of the then known world to Rome itself. A journey that continues today with the church, and with each one of us a journey propelled by the risen and living Christ.

Monday, 27 May 2019

John 5:1-9 Do you want to be made well?

There are a number of things in these nine short verses which commentators and academics worry about. Some of them have spent time trying to identify which festival of the Jews it was, Weeks, Booths, Passover and so on,  others whether the pool was by the Jerusalem Sheep gate or whether it was a sheep pool somewhere else, whether the place is called Bethzatha, Bethsaida, Bethesda and a few others, and whether 38 years is a direct reference to a verse in Deuteronomy referring to the time the israelites spent wandering in the wilderness. Now it may be that if you are looking for a subject for a PhD one of these might do but what has caught my attention is Jesus’ question.

“Do you want to be made well?”

So here is a man who has been ill for a long time and since 38 years can stand for a generation maybe from birth, but in any case a long while. He has been coming to the healing pool often enough to know the mythology that you have to be one of the first in the pool once the waters are stirred up - perhaps by bubbling from underground mineral springs - and who is yet lying there. So is Jesus’ question redundant ? Why does he ask it?

Notice that the man’s answer is not straight forward. He simply says that he cannot get into the pool. Like me you may have met people who by our assessment and language seem ill and who weave their identity around that. Frequently it is something you are told early on in an acquaintance  “I suffer from X” and you are then obliged to some degree to frame your knowledge and understanding by this X. I sometimes then wonder to myself does this person want to be free of X or would that take away so much of who they are that they would be terrified?  “I am the man who has been paralysed for thirty-eight years, I am the one who lies by this pillar by this pool - this is what I do. I am brought here in the morning and I wait.”

On Any Questions that is the one on the wireless some years ago they were debating depression, when one of the panelists made what I thought was a telling point: “I used to suffer from depression badly and I only began to get better, to take the first steps after I came to believe and then imagine that I could be well.” or going back to our story  “Look, Jesus I am telling you there is no-one to take me to the pool and in any case it would be no use; for thirty eight years I have been like this, it is the way it is and it will always be.”

Jesus’ question is far from redundant for not all will answer it positively.

It is also a beautifully worded question - not “Do you want to walk?” or  Do you want to carry your mat?” but do you want to be made WELL? With all the spiritual nuance of that word.

In just a moment I will go to the altar and say this

“Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith to all who truly turn to him:
Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.”

These are words of invitation which is how I hear Jesus’ question to the man lying by the pool: Be clear it is not the man who asks but Jesus, Jesus takes the initiative.

So the question is not only pertinent but it needs to be asked.

Please let those words of invitation that I shall say in a moment dwell in you - hold fast to them, keep hold of the thought that He will refresh us whatever our burdens. Then wonder, when thinking of those we know who could be made whole by a knowledge of God’s love what our proper  response should be.

 It is far from easy this evangelism - Jesus was able to say to an unknown man “Do you want to be healed?”  Now we do not have Jesus’ power to heal nor his confidence to minister nor his resilience should the answer be no. And it might be “no” because they do not want to be “made well” or perhaps cannot imagine what being well in this way would be like. But maybe we could in knowing that turning unto Him is the first step,maybe we could reach out to someone offer them an invitation and try to help them into the pool.


Monday, 20 May 2019

Isaiah 61 a manifesto

As far as I can understand it the newly formed Brexit party does not have a manifesto. There is a single idea, followed by a statement that we will all find out later what we have voted for.

More than 2500 years ago we discover that the prophet Isaiah had a much better approach and if I may say, a much better style. Chapter 61 is a well known poem sometimes said to be the fifth Servant Song and is quite stunning in some of its imagery. It was of course quoted by Jesus himself and we read that in the Gospel of Luke chapter 4.

“He went to the synagogue on the sabbath day as was his custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written :

“The spirit of the Lord is upon  me
Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and the recovery of sight to the blind
To let the oppressed go free
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Note that this is deliberate, Jesus searched for this passage, looked for it found it and so proclaimed that He was the anointed one. “Today,” he says the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The full passage of isaiah 61 as we heard it divides into four sections: the first identifies the servant - and to a degree it refers to Isaiah also who is but a pale shadow of Christ.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. It is clear to us, post resurrection, who Isaiah is talking about.  And then the manifesto:

To bring good news to the oppressed - that israel would be delivered from the Babylonian exile, from sin and be restored.
To bind up the broken hearted - to mend the hearts of those so broken by life that they despair of even having hope
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour - note that there is a year of favour but only a day of vengeance - the good will last much longer.
To comfort those who mourn - not simply those who have lost loved ones but those who believe their sins have doomed them.

These are the bullet points the things listed on the front page of the leaflet that dropped through your letterbox, and then turning over come the benefits and practical consequences of the coming of the Messiah.

They shall build up the ancient ruins, the city shall be rebuilt, no longer slaves their flocks and their vines shall be tended by others so freeing the Israelites to be priests once more and the coming of the anointed one inaugurates a new and everlasting covenant.

So rightly this is celebrated in the fourth section in a marvelous hymn of praise, which begins “i will greatly rejoice in the Lord” and follows with line upon line of metaphor and pictures:

For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.

Now that is a manifesto - and in verse.


Sunday, 19 May 2019

What is God saying to us today?

Acts 11: 1-18

When your teenage child goes away on a trip with their friends the last thing they want is news of their activities to get back to you!. Somehow though this is what happened to Peter and  he returns from Joppa and Caesarea to face hostile questions from home. The believers criticised him, saying “you went into the home of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” On the conservative Catholic internet forums there are blogs which are highly critical of Pope Francis because he published a document which tentatively opens the door to the admission to Holy Communion of Catholics who had remarried after divorce. Our Anglican church is still prone to disagreements about women: a lady curate in my old deanery was left in no doubt that she was unwelcome in a conservative congregation whether in her collar or not. The common thread in these examples is a robust adherence may be I could say a rigid adherence to doctrine.

Our reading this morning is from the book of Acts, a faithful retelling of Peter’s experience on the rooftop which is told as it happened only a chapter before. “Peter went up onto the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat and while the meal was being prepared he fell into a trance.” It must have been an extreme shock to Peter to be told he must slay and eat beasts, unclean as well as clean. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus where the food laws are expounded were after all written by Moses. Peter’s scriptural understanding and long tradition, all he knew said “No, by no means Lord for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But the Lord God persisted and three times, by which metaphor we understand repeatedly and strongly, the vision and command were given.
Even so Peter was unsure, as we can read in the earlier “live” edition: “While Peter was greatly perplexed about what to make of the vision, that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius arrived.” Peter knew Jesus, had walked with him, sat at his feet and listened to him had watched him eat with sinners and yet this event in the roof, this confrontation with something new shook him. The outcome, that he did visit and did eat with Cornelius provoked criticism.

Note that Peter does not respond to his critics by saying “I think that what I did was right” or even by saying “you are wrong” but rested his case in what he and his six companions discerned what God was saying to them and to the early church.

A few weeks ago I was at a small social event when one of the gathering, not a churchgoer, spotting the new rector thought to move in over the canapes and white wine onto the subject of gay marriage. Now I am as fond of doing battle over the knives and forks as the next person but it was neither the time nor the place and in any case the question bore a note of hostility.

The real answer is that it does not matter what the ultra conservatives say about Pope Francis, nor our own anglo catholics about women bishops, nor what the rector thinks about gay marriage: It matters only what God thinks and is saying to us at this time. And like Peter we may be surprised if we really knew but of course we do not.

What I do know though is that the living God is continuing to reveal themselves to us and does have something to say to our time and our context and when we discern that, when we work out what that is,  it will allow us to develop doctrine just as the believers in Jerusalem were able to adapt and welcome gentiles to the faith. Peter was gifted a clear vision to give to the Jerusalem brothers “who when they heard it were silenced.” For us it is not so easy; discovering God’s will in our information saturated world of multiple and various opinions, needs grace and prayerfulness, most often more time than we expect, a willingness to listen, to be open, no hostile questions, and most of all love. 


Sunday, 12 May 2019

Do you believe in miracles?

As you all know Luke wrote two books - the Gospel of Luke which takes the message of jesus from Nazareth to Jerusalem and the book of Acts which take it from Jerusalem to Rome and indeed all the known world. The first half of the second book follows the very early church from the moments after the Ascension and interweaves the missions of both Paul and Peter. To adequately speak about this morning;s reading I need to go back a little to verse 32:

“Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. There he found a man named Aneas who had been bedridden for eight years for he was paralyzed. Peter said to him; ‘Aneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed’ and he immediately got up. And all of the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and believed in the Lord.”

Now, Joppa was not far, about ten miles away, note by the way that Tabitha is called a disciple, so when she fell in they sent for Peter. They must have known the story of Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter and they would have heard that Peter had healed Aneas so this would have been a natural thing for them to od. We hear that Tabitha was particularly loved. Peter arrives and replicates almost exactly what Jesus did: he puts the mourners outside and then prays. In both cases the healing is not done in Peter;s name but in the power of calling on Jesus Christ, aloud in the first case and in prayer in the second.

Now the book of Acts of course is what it says on the tin. Accounts of how Jesus acted powerfully through his witnesses, the apostles, so the acts of the apostles to ensure growth of the church. The word growth or the idea of growth occurs throughout this book. “All the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord” and “This became known throughout Joppa and many believed in the Lord” are but the two examples we have heard this morning. Jesus had risen to the Father and sent his Holy Spirit to the upper room to alight on the Apostles - the event we will celebrate at Pentecost in a few weeks time. His leaving was not the end but the  beginning at at that time the people of Palestine, Judea and farther afield  believed in Jesus because they SAW miracles.

I think it is the film “The full Monty” that has the hit song “I believe in miracles” in it and in the two stories that we have heard we are confronted with the question “Do you believe in miracles?”
And I mean real miracles - it happened that this week I was called on to review the newspapers - and I was much attracted by a headline in one of them : “Miracle at Anfield.” but it seemed it was not the story I was looking for! Over the years I have met many who tell me they do not believe in miracle and who reasonably look for rational explanations. Equally I have met others who fervently do. For example I knew a hospital chaplain who working day by day among the realities of disease, sickness and the range of happy and tragic outcomes would still encourage and take some patients to healing services and who had accounts of unexpected, surprising recoveries.

There is then a spectrum of opinion among my friends and acquaintances and I wonder does it matter? If you are inclined to analyze the accounts of witnesses, including the biblical ones, you may of course be left with doubts about specific instances. If you are lucky enough to meet someone who has experience of Christ working powerfully in their lives you will invariably be caught up in their certainties but for the most part of course we do not KNOW in the way that the apostles had seen and experienced. So what I think is important is not “Was Tabitha raised from the dead?” or “was the lady’s cancer cured by her visit to the Watford church?” for we can prove or disprove neither, but to decide whether the God you believe in and I believe in is CAPABLE of working miracles - I certainly believe that God can and does miraculous things every day -

The point is that the people of Joppa believed in Jesus because they saw miracles

I believe in miracles because I believe in the Lord.


Sunday, 5 May 2019

Hang in there

Isaiah 56:1-8

 In our reading from Isaiah we heard something unexpected. Isaiah, albeit second Isaiah is addressing his prophecies to the exiles in Babylon and of course is wholly devoted to Israel’s God At this moment he finds himself on the threshold of the fulfillment of earlier prophets’ expectations. So he is moved to say:

“Maintain justice and do what is right for my salvation is close at hand.”

Risen next door to  the Babylonian empire are the Medes who under Cyrus will become what we call the Persian empire stretching form the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, a powerful force which would capture the city of Babylon and indeed be welcomed as a liberator. This is the main thrust and hope of Isaiah’s prophecy and he starts by telling the Israelites to “hang in there.”  For at the moment the reality of life for the exiles and for those who have started to return is harsh. Even following these simple rules though is difficult.

Maintain justice and do what is right. “Happy,” he goes on to say, “is the man who refrains from any wrongdoing.“ You will notice that I have substituted the word EVIL, which for us denotes an extreme with a softer word which I hope captures the sense of trying always  to do what is right rather than what may be considered wrong. This seems evident enough but we are not good at this; our corporations and government institutions local and national and even whole countries spend a great deal of time arguing that what they do is “what the law allows”. Which is not the same thing at all! For example:

My friend’s benefits were stopped, the benefits that they lived on. They were stopped because they had not replied to a letter asking them a question. It could have been observed that over the years my friend had always replied to letters in fact had been diligent in doing so - so something was wrong, it might have been asked were they ill? It might have been asked were they alive? It might have been asked as was the case whether the letter had ever been sent or not delivered. But the law allowed the benefits to be stopped, so stopped they were. This was not maintaining justice and doing what was right.

And the rewards for doing right are considerable: “for my salvation will come and my deliverance will be revealed.” And - here is the unexpected bit even to the foreigner and the eunuch. Now Isaiah will be familiar with Deuteronomy especially chapter 23:1 to which I draw your attention as it explains in graphic detail, too much for before the watershed, that eunuchs shall not be admitted to God’s assembly and goes on to say the same about foreigners.

Isaiah as I said was wholly devoted to Israel’s God but now he is able and moved to say that being a people of God does not depend on ancestry, which is remarkable for the Jewish nation of his day,  but depends on following the Lord, holding fast to his covenant for whoever you are if you do this you will be brought to his Holy mountain.

Isaiah speaking God’s word is prophesying both near term, that there will be deliverance for the exiles from Babylon
and long term, that the coming of the suffering servant will change everything for everybody.

And this is why we have always to seek to do what is right, to maintain justice and not to do simply what is allowed.

Hang in there.

(How much) do you love me?

 John 21

There was a moment before Nina and Rosie when I was worrying about our previous spaniel, Fidget. Now I was travelling the world and Frances was busy with boys and studying so I proposed that we should look for a dog walker to keep Fidget exercised. Patrick, who was then about eight or nine said “Oh no don’t do that, because if you do then Fidget will not have enough love left for us.”

Of course we laughed, but it does bring us to Jesus’ question: “Simon, son of John do you love me more than these?” It is unclear who the these are? Does Jesus mean do you love me more than you love these friends and companion fishermen or do you love me more than they love me? Either way it sets up the question “(How much) Do you love me?”

Peter says “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” A second time Jesus asks “Do you love me?” and Peter replies again “Yes Lord you know that I love you.” And then the third time …..

How we feel for Peter here, he must have felt a terrible stab of pain and guilt as only a few days before he had three times denied even knowing Jesus, of ever having been with him and at that third denial he realised, he discovered, deep within himself, all the things Jesus had said. And now here is another third time and so Peter needs to declare with and from all his being that he loves the Lord. So the third time Peter  rests his affirmation not on himself but on Jesus: “Lord you know everything, you know (how much) I love you.

For Jesus’ question, the real question , is what is love?  Ever since the beginning God has been showing his love for us in creation, incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. Each of these has a completeness, a totality of giving which is beyond us. This is much more than our feelings of spontaneous, natural affection, fondness or admiration usually described by our word “love.” Each of these, creation, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, is an act of WILL - God intended creation to show a glimpse of beauty, perfection and wonder, meant incarnation to show his love for us despite our brokenness, crucifixion willingly surrendered to loving sacrifice and resurrection to show us the ultimate loving gift of eternal life.

Jesus showed us loving without limit and in doing so he revealed a fundamental and essential quality of God which is a model for human imitation.

Which is very scary. For we will always fall short. We will be a little like Patrick’s view of Fidget, that she has a tank of love which will run out.  It is clear that God’s immeasurable unending love for us is something we can only but poorly emulate but still we need to remember that as well, as a response, our loving  God is an act of WILL and with that will we must at least be sure to empty the tank that we have.


Monday, 29 April 2019

Fingers on Buzzers please ......

Exodus 14: 10 -end The parting of the Red Sea
John 20: 19-31         Doubting Thomas

Fingers on buzzers please - your starter for 10:

If 7 is hail and thunderstorms, and 9 is darkness what is 2?
The answer to this University Challenge question is frogs, and the bright young things easily got it right. Now the Israelites had witnessed all these attempts to persuade Pharoah to let them leave Egypt and to free them from the slavery of making bricks without straw, they had celebrated what we know as the Passover and had chosen to follow Moses, their leader and a man of God.

Yet despite all these clear signs from Yahweh, of frogs, lice, flies, boils, locusts not to mention the slaying of all the first born they came to a crisis of faith. “What have you done bringing us out of Egypt - were there not enough graves there for us to die into?”

Some of you know already that I am a fan of Handel’s Oratorio “Israel in Egypt” because I played a little of it at our Lent courses. At the end of part two there are three short and connected choruses:

“But the waters overwhelmed their enemies”
There was not one of them left,
There was not one not one not one of them left

“And Israel saw that great work”
That the Lord did upon the Egyptians
And the people feared the Lord

“And believed the Lord”
And his servant Moses

Thomas was one of the twelve, now the eleven. He had been with Jesus watching him perform miracles, expelling demons, healing the leprous, was alongside him as he preached and taught praying with him and was one of his most fervent followers. When Jesus hears of Lazarus’ death the other disciples try to prevent him from going to Bethany saying “No, no the Jews are waiting to stone you” but Thomas the twin said “Let us also go that we may die with him.”

Yet despite all these clear signs and Jesus’ own testimony that he would rise again after three days, when Thomas hears from the disciples that they have seen the Lord, he comes to a crisis of faith.

We do not know why Thomas was not in the room with the  others but I prefer to think that this was Jesus’ intent for we learn much from his absence. A week or so later Jesus came again; “Peace be with you”  Jesus of course knew of Thomas’ doubts, there is no upbraiding, but rather like the good shepherd seeking the lost sheep Jesus opens himself up, he opens himself totally to Thomas:

“Put your finger here and see my hands
Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

Thomas, without placing his fingers or hand in Christ’s body  becomes no longer doubting Thomas but, and as he always will be for me Believing Thomas: “My Lord and my God” he says in complete acceptance not just of Jesus’ presence but of his whole identity as Jesus and God.

The encouragement we draw from this is inestimable; this man who doubted came to be an extraordinary missionary and worked all over the East notably in India where he is particularly celebrated. What hope these two stories give us - we see that many before us with direct  experience of God’s works had moments of panic. “I am not sure, have I made a mistake, can it be true? Should we have stayed with the Egyptians or the non believers?

 Back to Handel for a moment:

And Thomas saw that great work, and believed in the Lord.


Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Easter Sunday - On the first day of the week while it was still dark

I wish I could paint - I do not mean the skimpy pen and wash apologies that fill my sketchbooks but I mean really paint!  I have Rembrandt in mind - There are three Rembrandt paintings from John’s Gospel:

Jesus and the Samaritan woman
The lifting of the cross
Doubting Thomas

But not the one I would like to paint -  emulating his style with layers of paint and with his use of light (which is extraordinary and always illuminates the detail of the story) with all of this I would like to make a canvass  “On the first day of the when it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.”

Take a moment please to imagine, any Rembrandt that you remember and apply it to this scene: Mary barely lit, the stone rolled away softly glowing, the centre of the miraculous moment like the Father’s hands on the prodigal son or the light on Jesus in the supper at Emmaus. Perhaps your  picture will be like this.

Now many of us will have returned to discover something unexpected, perhaps our car or our bicycle is not where we thought. Panic sets in - or it does with me - am I in the right place? Has it rolled away down the hill? Was it on another floor in that multi-storey? Our first idea is to try to find a rational explanation for what we see. When that fails our second is to tell someone else and see if they can help, Frances where did I leave the car? Mary I imagine went through all these things quickly and in a state of anxiety before deciding that somebody else had interfered with Jesus’ body and rushing to the disciples she says “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” Our third reaction is to blame someone: Frances, somebody has stolen the car!
Usually we discover the cause of our bewilderment and after all nothing too major has happened we find the right floor,the stolen car is recovered, the insurance pays up - life goes on.

But when Jesus was found everything changed. His resurrection was singular, there has been nothing like it before and nothing like it since. You may perhaps have Lazarus in mind but Lazarus awakened from his grave has again a mortality and is to die again. Jesus was raised from the dead but with a transformed embodiment. Mary does not recognise him until he speaks directly to her calling her name “Mary”

Then she does realise, recognise and the relief flows through her in great waves.
“Rabbouni” she cries - and like a mother finding a child she wants to hold him close to embrace him. Just as we would want to.

Our painting of Mary in the gloaming, in front of a tomb, the stone rolled away has to convey this - that everything has changed most especially our understanding of life, our understanding of death. For this we need a painter of the calibre of Rembrandt to paint the stones, the tomb, the garden, Mary and the mysterious light he would bring to the scene.

The light that allows us in funeral services to say:

Ini 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”

This is the promise, made real of Jesus alive.


Friday, 19 April 2019

Maundy Thursday Evening

Begin by standing unannounced on a chair

I know that energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light -because my physics teacher did just this - he stood on a chair and told us so.

You do not forget a thing like that.

What has struck me about this passage this year is how  Jesus continued teaching. We are told that he knew that his hour had come and that he loved his friends. I have not been at a farewell supper with quite this poignancy but I think I might anticipate a more sombre tone. And then during supper Jesus did this - like any good lesson he begins by grabbing the disciples attention, not by jumping on a chair, but by getting up from the table, taking off his robe and wrapping a towel around himself.What a shock, what is he doing they would say? And then he pours water into a basin and begins to wash their feet. I do not need to tell you about how menial a task this is, how only the most lowly of the servants would do this,  nor how dusty the roads were - you know all these things and the disciples knew them all too. But now they are focussed on the questions.

Energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light : Jesus the Messiah, the man we call the Son of God is washing my feet - but what could this really mean?
“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks as he brings them to the threshold of a new understanding. Jesus knows that in a few hours he will be betrayed, will be arrested, that he will walk the path to death, and he absolutely does not stop for knowing all this he is still teaching, still growing his disciples, still taking time to show them what it means.

“I give you a new commandment that you should love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” 

Jesus spells it out - look over all the things you have seen me do, all the things we have done together, look too at the thing that I am about to do- this is what it is about - change your lives, stop seeking advantage, preferment, an edge over your neighbour, a better place at table, and as I have loved you show love for one another. Here is the great lesson, remember in the time to come that I who you call Lord and teacher washed your feet, and told you to love one another.

You don’t forget a thing like that.


Monday, 15 April 2019

Palm Sunday 2019

Sermon Palm Sunday April 2019

We do not have a live donkey, well not this year - but maybe in time, maybe next year. I do have a knitted one though and it is a good place to start.

Somehow we have to move in our imagination from this peaceful church, from the blessing of  our carefully fashioned palm crosses from this quietly knitted reminder to the frenetic chaos of Jerusalem at Passover time. Apart from anything else the city was crowded. The historian Josephus writes that two and a half million Jews came for the festival and even if this were a tenfold exaggeration we still struggle to imagine how the city might have held them all. Jews from Babylon with their trailing black robes, from Phoenicia in their tunics and striped drawers, Jews from the plateaux of Anatolia dressed in goats hair cloaks, Persian Jews gleaming in silk brocaded with gold and silver. All these people crowded into the city - many had to sleep outside the town in the suburbs, on the hills, in tents or huts made of branches or perhaps under the open sky as Jesus and his disciples did that night in Gethsemane. Add to this the mixture of power - the Roman occupiers, Temple magnates, Herodian princelings the palaces of Antipas and the high priest Joseph Caiaphas. No wonder then that Pilate who usually ruled his province from Caesarea on the coast came to Jerusalem to supervise it all.

I was in Sheffield one Saturday when Sheffield Wednesday were to play Sheffield United for an early evening kick off. From mid afternoon the pavements outside the bars were thronged there were police riot vans on the street corners, shouting fans and burly truncheon carrying police keeping the factions apart. There was anticipation, enthusiasm, and excitement but above all a tension, a wariness the sensation that a small unexpected spark could set off trouble.

Into such a Jerusalem a town in maelstrom with money changers, the produce sellers and complete with 200,000 sheep waiting sacrifice, Jesus came.

Surrounded by his followers waving palm branches who are crying “Hosanna!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” and amplifying this point Jesus is on a colt, never ridden before in fulfilment of a long anticipated prophecy.

The line between joyous proclamation and provocation is thin - the authorities are on edge - like the police in Sheffield, they want the supporters to have a good time but are keenly watchful - when to step in? Could this all get out of hand? Shall we be in for a riot? I was extremely uncomfortable in the city that afternoon, I crossed the road zigzagging right and left to be away from the surging from the pub doors, looking for a peaceful place to be.

But Jesus, at some point outside the city at Bethphage and Bethany had accepted all that was to take place. From this moment, of sending for the donkey, of receiving it, of mounting it he shows us how he became humble, obedient and willing to do all that his Father asks of him. From now on, from that simple quiet act of getting on a donkey the cogs are enmeshed. The donkey walks steadily from the peace of the countryside to the turmoil, tumult and shocking events of the week to come, the week that will change the world and change our relationship with God forever.


Monday, 8 April 2019

The anointing at Bethany

5th Sunday of Lent : John 12:1-8

The sermon opened with a short extract from piece of music from Gabriel Jackson’s The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and also makes reference to Velasquez “Kitchen scene with Christ in the house of Martha and Mary” which is in the National Gallery

That piece of music is  from Gabriel Jackson’s “The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jackson was born in Bermuda in 1962, so many many years after J S Bach but he too as Bach does in his St. Matthew Passion begins his piece following an introduction with a setting of the “Anointing at Bethany.” Jackson’s music captures the ecstasy and worship of Mary and somehow too with those falling notes of the harp the slow pouring out of the costly perfume. And it was costly, the  price was more than a year’s wages for a labourer. In the passion and in these two musical settings it stands and prefigures the coming pouring out of Jesus’ life for us. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume as our lives are to be filled with Jesus’ love.

But, I wonder when you hear this story where are you in the house?

Are you, as I have often thought I would be, in the room somewhere watching Mary do this amazing thing? Not only does she pour out the perfume but she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair foreshadowing Jesus washing and wiping the disciples’ feet in just a few days time. Or are you Martha?

I would like you to look at the picture by Velasquez, “Kitchen scene with Christ in the house of Martha and Mary.” Now, I am cheating a little because this composition is based on Luke 10 where Jesus is not in the Pharisee’s house but in Mary and Martha’s house. In this account Martha askes “Lord do you not care that my sister has left me do all the work?” The Gospel of John has I think conflated these two events as he tells us in our reading Martha served - while Mary worshiped and wiped.

But look at the painting and imagine the young woman in the kitchen to be Martha; she is pounding something in a  mortar, being active her strong arm grinding the garlic and the pepper, the fish waiting for the sauce. She is in the foreground while behind in a picture within a picture through the hatchway is Mary kneeling at Jesus’ feet, still, thoughtful, attentive, rapt, not as I say about to anoint Jesus but she might be …… Looking again at Martha we see the tension, she is welling up with tears, she wants to be with Jesus but duty and fish and eggs keep her tied in the kitchen.

Where are you in the house?

Do we find ourselves drawn by activity ,good creative and necessary though it may be? Are these things in our foreground while the prayerful, quiet, reflective parts of us are pushed to the back? Is there anything we Marthas can do to be more like Mary, to be in the room with Jesus?

You may have noticed that in Holy week I have put three services of Compline. Compline was the last of the canonical hours included in the rule of St.Benedict and is said before retiring to bed. It is a very old service, predating Benedict, and I invite you to come on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Holy week at 6.30. I ask you just to come, you have to do nothing but bring yourselves, to contemplate a candle and let these centuries old prayers take you to into the house and into the room at Jesus’ feet.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Mothering Sunday Evensong - What are we to do with power?

Genesis 45:16 - 46:17 and Mark 15:1-21 Evensong
What so we do with power?

What a contrast we have between Pharaoh and Pilate. Both have power over people, they had the power of life and death over those that fell into their hands and we know from scripture and other historical accounts that they were not shy at exercising it.

Lord Acton (1834-1902) said “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” he was by the way writing to a bishop! It is a surprising thing to watch happening - this tending towards corruption - more than once I have witnessed previously quite pleasant people when promoted to the top chair even in small contexts become unrecognisably tyrannical. World history abounds with despots and dictators who more often than not are far from benign and do bad things not good. Frequently they do so in an attempt to hang on to the trappings of being a head of state.

Pilate is in this mode; we know that he wanted at all costs to avoid a riot on the day of the Passover when the eyes of the world were in Jerusalem and which if it came to the attention of the authorities would have been damaging if not fatal to his position. We see that he wanted to please the crowd, he wanted to be right in popular esteem and so instead of exercising justice, for he knows, he knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges. Instead of that he accedes to the mob, leaving me with the impression that he just wanted to be rid of the issue, to get it all over with and return to his palace for tea.
There is everything wrong with this and the release of the murderer, the nationalist who really might have been a threat to the state Barabas remains deeply shocking.

Pharaoh has even more power than Pilate who was just a provincial procurator, he is the king of Egypt, a deity in their culture. He does not know Joseph’s brothers but “when the report was heard Pharaoh and his servants were pleased. He makes an offer to Joseph’s siblings and his father “take your father and your households and come to me so that I may give you the best of the land of Egypt and you may enjoy the fat of the land.” (remember that Joseph’s brothers had come from their famine to  to beg food.) Pharaoh is not mean or stingy nor against these Hebrew refugees but offers them the best that he can and more than they could have possibly imagined. Pharoah’s generosity shows us how we ought to behave while Pilate’s insouciance and self concern how not.

Which if these is the model for our Mothering Sunday reflections?

Today we give thanks for those who cared for us when we could not care for ourselves, for those who nurtured and taught us. We are all indebted to our families. For some the memories are joyous for others painful yet there was a moment when we were born, when a miracle happened and we were born of a woman. It remains despite all our science a mystery, yes we understand the medicine, much  more than Laurence Sterne who I spoke about this morning;
We can talk about the cell structures, the DNA, Mitochondria, and so on  but it is still extraordinary that our mothers somehow make us who we are.

Father in heaven we thank you for the miracle of birth and of character. Teach us to value those who care for us.


Mothering Sunday - Hannah and Baby Samuel

Mothering Sunday

1 Samuel 1:20- 28

Well, you might be thinking “here’s an odd reading for Mothering Sunday.” We heard that Hannah, Samuel’s mum took him to the Temple when Samuel was just weaned, an important celebration in those ancient days and usually happened when the child was one or two years old. She took him to the Temple and left him there.

What’s that all about? What do we think of abandoning a two year old to strangers for the rest of his life and then going home?

The trouble is that today’s reading begins at the end of the story. The beginning of the book of Samuel tells us that Hannah had no children while PENINNAH, ELKANAH’s other wife, for he had two, had plenty of children. Year after year Peninnah would tease Hannah about her childlessness.

Frances and I and possibly some of you know something about this. It came upon us in the middle of our careers to want to start a family, and it is then that you discover that it is not so easy, sometimes extremely difficult in fact and inevitably at that very time all around you are announcing imminent births, you seem to be surrounded by people falling pregnant and the unfairness and pain of it is very great. So it was for Hannah. There were of course none of our modern options to help Hannah so she did what she could and prayed for a son, vowing that should she have one she would dedicate him to the service of the Lord. So here is a first aspect of motherhood: The desire to have a child.

And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son and she kept her vow made in extremis, for remember she would have done anything to have a baby.

In 1760,  which is quite recent compared with Biblical times Laurence Sterne writing in Tristram Shandy opened his book by saying:

“I wish my father and mother, or indeed both of them, had minded what they were about when they begot me.”

 It was a commonplace idea you see that the time place and conditions of conception would determine a child’s future and so Sterne is grumbling a little. He felt sure that his mum and dad had chosen the wrong time and if only they had been more careful in consulting the star charts his life would have been much better.  So limited was the eighteenth century understanding of childbirth in fact that Sterne in the next chapter was able to talk about the HOMUNCULUS, the “little man”  a theory abounding in those days that the complete human being in miniature came entirely from the father and mother only provided nutriment for nine months and no elements of character! 

Now of course we know of course that mothers are important form the very start. I always felt that it was difficult for our adopted boys when they were  growing up not to have been able to know their birth parents. I had the comfort  for example of being able to say to myself  “I have my mother’s Irish temperament -I can be a bit fiery -and I am so because my mother is like that and whether or not that trait was good or bad at least there was some sort of tangible explanation. Our boys did not have that. So a second aspect of motherhood is the gift of genes and character that she has given us.

Thirdly, all of us has had a mother and nearly all of us have had a mother figure in our lives, sometimes not the woman  who gave birth to us but someone who nurtured us, taught us, helped us and who played a pivotal part in making us who we are today. They may have been a family member or perhaps not, but someone who gave us advice to whom we turned in trouble or joy.

So among the things we celebrate today are those three things:  the desire to have children, the miracle of conception and birth and the love that mothers have for their children whoever they are, the love that grew and nurtured us and indeed the love that then and still grows in us.


Sunday, 24 March 2019

The Barren Fig Tree

I really like figs - and in season with bacon, wild Bulgarian honey of which we have an ample supply, maybe a hunk of sourdough bread and some black pepper my breakfast dreams are come true. But first, you must catch your fig.

In my last place my neighbour and close friend had  a tree in their garden; it was the most abundant I have seen in this country, planted against a whitewashed garage wall which reflected the heat and light the bush was every year fully laden down with fruit. There was one difficulty which was that my friend’s father who was the gardener was the only person in his family who ate them. I was the beneficiary and I am indebted to him for many breakfasts. When he learnt that I was moving Dennis worked tirelessly to try and take a cutting from his tree to give to me. In vain, for whatever reason they did not take and so in kindness and generosity he bought me a fig tree in a pot. Now I have a problem for his expectations are high and as I have said to some of you already I am a bad gardener. I am worried that under my care  my tree will look like the one in Jesus’ parable.

Fig trees were all over the Palestinian landscape, for natural seedlings grow freely in Mediterranean countries.It is undoubtedly one of the earliest fruit trees cultivated by man and indeed the first identifiable tree mentioned in the Bible. Figs were a principal foodstuff and they were a staple of the poor especially those who worked the land. Jesus used examples in his parables that people would have understood. Most probably the tree in question was mature and expected to produce fruit - quite likely already three years old - and yet for the subsequent years “not a fig.” The master comes looking for for his fruit and exasperated says “cut it down.”

There are two ways, at least, of thinking about this parable. The context in Luke suggests which one we might look at first. We heard just before of a disaster in Jerusalem where Pilate has massacred some Galileans - something which is consistent with Pilate’s reputation and the histories of Josephus. And also of another disaster where a tower has fallen on eighteen people. Jesus reacts by saying “Don’t think these people were worse than you it could happen to you - repent now before it is too late.” 

So the fig tree might represent the Jewish nation (as it often does) or because it is a single tree in a vineyard perhaps an individual soul. The message either way  is clear: if you do not repent (bear fruit) the consequences are pulling up and the fire  - I am coming again and the time is short.

Interestingly though the master is persuaded by the servant to relent. “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it.” The tree has been fruitless for three years - which is a long time - I mean I think it signifies a really long time. The hearers of Jesus’ words, people of the countryside would I suspect have uprooted, cut and burned the thing without hesitation to make room for something more productive.

So another way to interpret the parable is that it is about the ministry of Jesus. Jesus the servant sent by God (echos of Isaiah) to teach and preach and nurture, to bring  a last and supremely valuable chance to renew and repent. We are at the boundary of Old and New Testament times - from the three years and the judgement of God to the coming of Christ and the years given to us to bear fruit.

Here then is a parable that speaks directly to our Lenten practice of self examination, prayer and of reading and meditating on God’s word - in these forty days and forty nights we are digging around the fig tree, nurturing and fertilising and preparing to bear fruit.


Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Thoughts on the atrocity on Christchurch new Zealand

Last Friday morning we woke to the news of the horrifying and terrible events that had taken place in the mosque in Christchurch New Zealand. As I get older it seems that my emotions are more stirred. Somehow the combination of New Zealand which I know to be a beautiful country and is in some ways the epitome for us of far away and the image of sea, sailing and sheep and this unbridled callous act of hatred is too difficult to hold side by side. There was an installation a few years ago in the Tate Modern of a huge wavering crack across the turbine hall - the artist is Doris Salcedo - and it is this sort of dislocation, this sort of fissure that we met on Friday morning. There have been plenty of voices on the radio and most sound to me confused and unsure.

What I wonder is our place in all of this - by us I mean the Christian who believes in the words we said this morning.

Now as you will learn I am a poor gardener and each year the same thing happens - the yellow rose comes first and it is tucked slightly out of direct sight so I have to pad outside to look closely at it. It is a deliberately tall bush of an ancient variety and its flowers herald the beginning of the summer - and then I notice that there are high nettles and bind weeds that surround the poor thing and off I go to the garage in search of shears, saws, and other tools of destruction to take down the weeds. If only I say I had paid more attention and pulled up the baby nettles when they first came.

An alarming thing about the attack in New Zealand was that the man had been posting hate filled notices on social media, he was known to hold these views and what I want to stress is that he felt no compunction or shame in expressing them, presumably for a long time and in different ways. I have recently come from Luton where the incidence of prosecuted hate crime has been growing steadily. Here is a case it seems to me of nettles being allowed to flourish and to grow tall. The prosecutions are the secateurs being wielded too late. When did it become acceptable to use disparaging language against groups of people?

It is not new, I know.  Mary Whitehouse was derided in her day for complaining about the words of a character called Alf Garnett, but you know she was probably right  - but it is not this grossly evident behaviour that I want to think about but rather the seeds that are being sown every day. A politician interviewed recently described the behaviour of his colleagues as political idiocy - comparatively mild in these times - Laura Kuensberg picked him up on this asking if he was calling his colleagues idiots. He skirted her point - did the indirect insult inform the discussion? was it needed?

What we as Christians can do is pull the nettles up very early; we can be careful ourselves never to denigrate and more difficult we can intervene and say something when we hear others begin to do so - especially the young. we can pull them up. Of course we may be accused of “political correctness” a sort of excusing term for “calling a spade a spade” but which may be hiding a prejudice that is inconsistent with the great commandment

Love your neighbour as yourself.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Fortitude - Evensong First Sunday of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we heard from Psalm 119

“O let your merciful kindness be my comfort”


The first Sunday of Lent - going into the wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 3 March 2019

First sermon at All Saints Burnham Thorpe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, 1 February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

ENTER: SL Nina and Rosie 

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

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

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