Sunday, 31 March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mothering Sunday - Hannah and Baby Samuel

Mothering Sunday

1 Samuel 1:20- 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 24 March 2019

The Barren Fig Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Thoughts on the atrocity on Christchurch new Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love your neighbour as yourself.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Fortitude - Evensong First Sunday of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we heard from Psalm 119

“O let your merciful kindness be my comfort”


The first Sunday of Lent - going into the wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 3 March 2019

First sermon at All Saints Burnham Thorpe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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