Monday, 25 November 2019

Christ the King Future or Present

[Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43]

I found myself on a long car journey going to a new destination in the US for a critical meeting. I was driving and in the passenger seat was a Jeremiah. He, the Jeremiah was map reading and the whole trip was punctuated by doom laden pronouncements -  not I hasten to add about my driving but things like: Well the traffic will surely mean we will be stuck for hours; I expect this hire car map is out of date; if the bridge ahead is not closed which I expect it will be, we could cross the river there; anyway it will probably snow and we will be stuck for months. It was by the way a bright September day!

Jeremiah, the biblical one, had a justified reputation for being doleful he was ever giving warnings to the leaders and people of Israel, but I am  not sure that I agree he was always pessimistic. Today’s reading from chapter 23 is extremely hopeful and ultimately uplifting. Jeremiah has been having an argument with Jehoakim, the king of Israel who among other things has been condemned in Jeremiah’s eyes for building a grandiose new palace and for neglecting his people. In fact Jeremiah is a vigorous opponent of the king and he begins our passage “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” a clear reference to those present day leaders who can expect nothing good. He goes on though to say

“I the Lord will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them and they shall not fear any longer nor be dismayed. I will raise up for David a righteous branch and he shall reign as king and deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

This idea of a king and of God as king of Israel bringing justice and order permeates the Old Testament.
Jesus’ teaching was in some respects in line with the apocalyptic view of his contemporaries. They would have understood that they were waiting for the coming of a God who would exercise the right and proper functions of a king as they understood they should be and would bring justice to all and deliver Israel from its oppressors.

We can surely relate to this feeling, perhaps more so in these weeks when we are choosing , not a king of course, but a government at our ballot box. Do we long for the promised God given realignment of society, do we sometimes feel powerless to change anything? Do we, like the Jews, thirst for a different and better age?

As we celebrate the feast of Christ the King this morning, this Sunday which is the last in the church’s calendar we hear again the promise of this new order. And rightfully so for here we are at the pinnacle of the story with Jesus now in Paradise - The thief on the cross reminded us of that and Paul too reminds us who Jesus is:

“He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body of the church, he is the beginning of the first born from the dead.”

He is Christ the king. Now the trouble with this vision, glorious as it is, is that it must exist in tension with other things that Jesus said about the kingdom, that it is here now, that it had come with him. As Paul said in the same passage we heard: “he has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his blessed son.”

So which is it that we celebrate today? The kingdom of Jeremiah , not my downcast navigator, but of the real Jeremiah, the hopeful one, the kingdom that we are yet waiting for or are we celebrating the the transformation brought about by Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection?

The answer is of course both - Yes at the end of the story, at the end of the church’s year we remember the promised kingdom but there is something to celebrate today, I mean now, this minute, for the moment that you allow Christ to enter your life and to be in charge of it - to continue the metaphor to be king of it - then for each of us a new way of being, a new society a new kingdom has already arrived.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Stick to the knitting

Begin with some knitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stick to the knitting”

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


Sunday, 10 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, 4 November 2019

Tripping over joy

Tripping over Joy

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

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

And that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 24 October 2019

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

John 1:1

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

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

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

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

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


Be inspired not afraid

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

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

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

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

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

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

Be not afraid but be inspired.


Monday, 14 October 2019

The Potter's Hand

Jeremiah 18:1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 30 September 2019

Wheat and Tares - political leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ways up the mountain : The Balkan National Park

My training incumbent who was especially interested in other faiths, notably Sikhism and HInduism, was fond of saying “There are many roads up the mountain” which he used as an analogy for seeking God. This has been on my mind recently for as you know Frances and I have been staying at the foot of the Balkan mountains in Bulgaria. Our hotel was the last building in the town and the footpaths up to the peaks started at the front door. The Central Balkan National Park is one of the largest and most valuable of the protected areas in Europe and is part of the United Nations List looked after by UNESCO and the World Wildlife Fund. There are centuries old forests of beech, spruce, fir, hornbeam and oak and the park includes ten species found nowhere else in the world. There are high mountain meadows, vertical rock faces, precipices, deep canyons, waterfalls and peaks and reports of wolves and bears. It does not begin at the hotel front door but 500 metres or so up - it is well worth reaching.

The many paths up the mountain are marked like this - painted on rocks or the trunks of trees there are green and blue trails leading to high altitude mountain refuges. Like my training incumbent’s paths to God, some of the signs seem clearer than others, easier to see and distinguish. Of course occasionally the paths run together so you have both signs on the same boulder, at other times they diverge and over time the blues and greens have faded a little and it is difficult to tell one from another. It becomes quite easy to take a wrong turning or perhaps drift from the path altogether.

What I particularly noticed on this trip was the incentive to climb! Even though it was quite hot, mostly between twenty-seven and thirty degrees and my energy levels were lower and my weight higher than when we had last taken a break of this sort, the way up, the reward of reaching a point was still a driver. It was easy to say “We’ll just look round the next corner.” We eventually acquired a map but before that we set off to reach what thought might be a refreshing mountain lake - we pressed on through woodland looking round corners ever upward following the stream until we recognized that we had missed it completely. We had strayed too high! 

Coming down is much less easy - the signs are designed to point the way upwards and on the way down they are so easily missed or ignored - only once did we manage to come down the right path and end up where we had started and often we were off the beaten track altogether.

You realise by now that this is an allegory of our journey of faith, there are various signs, more or less easily understood, convergence often with other faiths, as we explore truth, love, or peace; the perils of missing the way, that the signs naturally point upwards, the troubles of coming down. On our last ascent around 1200 metres up we came across a viewpoint looking over the valley, and there we found a set of metal tables and chairs, a playframe including a little slide, a running spring all of which had been in place for a long time and there also a tiny chapel beautifully built with tiny stained glass windows, a bell and just tall enough to step inside.
A resting place for the weary, a refreshment for the young, and inside  the chapel a wall of icons where the candles had been lit. There was no other way to be here other than on foot - someone had come up the mountain early in the morning before us, probably at dawn, and had prepared this sacred space for the travellers to rest and pray on the way to the summit.


Monday, 23 September 2019

To be trusted in a small thing

So if I am browsing in a second hand bookshop and I discover  a simple  but attractive  bookmark in a book that I do not decide to buy would it be legitimate do you think for me to move it into the book I do buy?

Here is a very small thing and you  may think it does not matter a jot - after all someone may or may not ever buy the book with the bookmark in it. But my even asking the question reveals something about my thinking.

Jack, who worked for me for a few years was in charge of buying company cars.
Now believe it or not there is little more emotive than this among the salesforce and the car aficionados. So there have to be rules. For me of course a car is a car (unless it is an MG of course then that is different) but otherwise it comes from the factory and I drive it. It takes me where I have to go. But there are some who add personal touches of upholstery, wheel trim, electronics and so on. The company policy allowed you to do this but only to a limited extent. The limits were there to avoid your Ford Escort being better equipped that the chairman’s Jaguar. And importantly for my story you had to pay for any extras yourself. Shortly after Jack ordered his own car he decided to leave the organisation. At that point while winding up his affairs some things came to light. Not only had Jack considerably exceeded the allowance for status enhancing trinkets he had not paid for them but rather added them to the cost of the vehicle. We were to be left with a long lease on a car of increased cost. So I summoned him and said “What is this I hear about you ?”
 He was not pleased and the conversation was a little difficult but I left him with a simple question “What are you going to do to put it right?”

Which is what the dishonest steward was doing. Having been caught out he set about managing his master’s estate and retrieving his debts. He tried to put things right. As we say in the Book of Common Prayer at evensong just before the absolution: 

“God desireth not the death of a sinner but that he turns from his wickedness and live.”

This then is what I think the master is commending the steward for : the steward found his master again returned to him and began to serve him. When we do wrong the solution to obtain God’s forgiveness is to turn back to God, to rediscover him.

But then Jesus in his conversation returns to my bookmark. He says this:  “He that is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much.” It is about the way we think. A way of thinking about the concluding famous observation “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” is to widen the definition of Mammon from our usual thoughts of richness, wealth and money perhaps from the abuse of the car policy that Jack was supposed to be policing -  There are two worlds- this earthly one and the eternal heavenly one. We serve either one or the other we cannot serve both.

Jesus is telling us that If we are to be trusted ultimately with the true wealth which are the gifts of eternal life then we need to behave in this world (with all of its dishonest wealth) as if we were in the other one or to put it more clearly we need to think and act as if we were already in heaven.


Friday, 30 August 2019

A cloud of witnesses

Since we have a cloud of witnesses: This is a neatly turned phrase and leads into one of the most evocative passages of the book of Hebrews. Paul having given us a host of historical examples - the crossing of the red sea, the falling of Jericho’s walls, Rahab, Barak, Gideon, Samson, David is about to press home his point with the ultimate example of Jesus and the resurrection. But does this retrospective work in today’s world? Paul would be unflattered indeed but I am minded of Jacob Rees-Mogg who notoriously begins many of his parliamentary speeches on current issues with historical parallels:

“I was thinking of Achilles sitting in his tent “ or
“I thought I would go back to Odysseus”

These do not really help; our knowledge of the classics has diminished and in any case it is all so far away from our time. I wonder then is our faith likely to be illuminated by the fall of the walls of Jericho, will they make a sufficient argument? Or have we dismissed the ancient miracles as being from a time before enlightenment and no longer pertinent to us?

But witnesses are important. My own curiosity to reestablish a connection with formal religion was stimulated by the witness of others. A man whose skills and comportment I admired was known to be a church going man - he did not flaunt that but it was a matter of general knowledge and was never denied. It made me pose the question, the one that Paul is trying to answer with his lists of past evidence of faith.

“If my man believes and practices then surely there must be something in it, I cannot simply dismiss it and in any case I want some of what he seems to have.”

Statistics show that by far most people come to faith in childhood, which is why the church spends such energy on the young. Today the regular and formal teaching of religion in schools, in assemblies and so on, a way of life until a few years ago is largely absent. Because of this there are large numbers of completely unchurched, those who have no idea of faith at all, as well as (and it is an ugly word I know) the dechurched, those who fell away as other interests took over in their lives, those who were driven away and there are diverse reasons for that and those who have been persuaded by modern secularism that there is no God.

So today the  witnesses are few. I am I know preaching to the choir, this is something we all know, but of course it makes it the more important that in our diminished cloud we witnesses well.

And we can - how interesting, by the way, that Dr. Ince having been persuaded to stand in the All Saints pulpit for better audibility said wittily “If only my mother could see me  now…” and after a moment of what seemed genuine reflection added “she would be proud.” You see despite the many failures of the churches, and they have been very great, there is still a general goodwill towards those who faithfully attend, who profess, and serve and I would say there is a hope that thoughtfulness, peacefulness, compassion, generosity, truthfulness will prevail - that the values we espouse will permeate the world.
We try to exhibit these, not ostentatiously, but gently and with humility and as far as possible consistently. In this way we ARE the cloud of witnesses and people will see it and will I pray say to themselves “I want some of that.”


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.