Saturday, 29 August 2020

Christian leaders need be radical

 Romans 12:9-end 


It occured to me that this reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans might help us with the American election. At this week’s Republican convention one of the president’s supporters said: “This election is about whether you want Church, Work and School or Riots, Violence and Disorder. What I found interesting about this was not the extreme exaggeration or questionable truthfulness of the effect of voting for Joe Biden but the Republicans positioning themselves with the ultra conservative, solid core ideas of church, school and work when only the week before at the democratic convention their delegates had explained that a vote for them was a vote away from extreme change and a return to normal. Both candidates I believe have laid claim to Christian credentials which are aligned with …….


Well, there is the question, what should today’s Christian be modelling? Paul begins his instructions, and they are after all expressed as imperatives, with things that are easy to agree with: Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, love one another with mutual affection, rejoice in hope and more but soon the messages get harder if not hardest. Bless those who persecute you, do not curse them, if your enemies are hungry feed them.


It is worth, I suggest, remembering who Paul was at the beginning of the book of Acts: 


“Then they dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. And Saul approved of their killing him. And a few lines later to emphasis his character we read: “meanwhile, Saul still breathing threats and murder agianst the disciples of the Lord, “


What a change has been wrought in this young man. He of all people may have been the least expected to advocate nourishment, fondness and blessing for his enemies. Paul’s manifesto is completely changed and not even to  a pre-existing one. Early Roman writers commenting on the Chritians are all amazed at and praised the way they “loved one another and cared for the poor, the destitute and the widows.” Paul’s and the Christian  manifesto was changed to a radically new one unknown in Roman times. 


And surely this is what we need; it will not be enough to return to the doctrines of national self interest which have been ever present until now.  I do not want to go back to a normalcy or to a sentimental nostalgia for a past that never really existed. If we have learned anything over the past few months it is I suggest that our systems of international cooperation do not work. As a world people we have failed. 


Back to Paul: “Live in harmony with one another, do not claim to be wiser than you are, extend hospitality to strangers, do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”


Imagine, that we, and here I am talking about nation states, had been living to this agenda, how different would the last eight months have been? 


In this light the manifestos of the presidential hopefuls and certainly the manifestos of Christian leaders need to be radical.


Amen


Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Including Eunuchs Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

The verses from Isaiah that we have just heard are very few but very deep. I started by wondering “ What would be an acceptable sacrifice to God? ” and I will return to this question but first I realise that the passage is not about what but about who can offer sacrifices. Our reading as it was set in the lectionary has some verses missing. Verses 3 and 5 speak of the foreigner : “Do not let the foreigner say ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people and do not let the eunuch say ‘ I am just a dry tree ‘ For thus says the Lord to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths I will give them an everlasting name. “ I do not know why the lectionary compilers left put these verses, perhaps to avoid talking of eunuchs - which is a pity. Montesquieu gives a description of harem life explaining that ordinarily in a noble's house there would be between six and eight eunuchs whose job is to insist on obedience, order and silence in that strange world. Strange world indeed and it must have been strange for Isaiah’s audience to hear that these too will be welcomed by God and will be brought to the Holy mountain and that their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on his altar. 

Isaiah writing more than 500 years before Christ, so more than two and a half millennia ago would be shocked to discover how little progress we have made.  Only a few years ago, a Catholic couple one of who had been divorced came to be married in our Church of England church. Because of the divorce they were not allowed to take communion in their own church. I wondered if they would like a marriage with Holy Communion they were overjoyed so that is what we did. Now they were faithful parishioners coming to our services on Sunday for their own integrity - they did not need to as they qualified to be married by living in the parish - and they went to saturday evening mass with their children to maintain the connection. This carried on for a year. Listen to Isaiah again:

And the foreigners who joined themselves to the Lord

To minister to him, to love the name of the Lord

And to be his servants all who keep the sabbath

And do not profane it and hold fast my covenant

These I will bring to my holy mountain

And make them joyful in my house of prayer.


I do hope and pray that our wedding couple are still joyful.

When will we truly absorb what Isaiah is telling us? That the Lord’s house shall be a house of prayer for ALL nations and that He will yet bring home all that remain to be brought in. …. All that remain to be brought in …. Why are some people’s sacrifices not acceptab;e to some denominations or even some wings of our own churches?

What is an acceptable sacrifice to God? Isaiah and the jewish thinkers who followed and even later Paul make clear it is not about physical descent, or nationality; there is no longer Jew, or Greek, no longer slave or free there is no longer male or female or for that matter EUNUCHS -the covenant outweighs all other considerations. The acceptable sacrifice is

That we should love our God  with all our heart, with all our soul with all our mind and with all our strength. 

And when we do this we may come to the Holy Mountain and be filled with joy.


Amen 

 

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Where do we look?

After Elijah’s extraordinary demonstration of the power of the Lord at Mount Carmel, where he set fire to his sacrifices on an altar surrounded by water simply calling on the Lord to set light to them he took all the prophets of Baal to the Wadi at Kishon and killed them there. For this reason he is fleeing for his life he is on the run from Jezebel and her forces and is hiding in a cave. Now often when we are in peril we turn to God for help  and Elijah of course does just this. But the question then will be where do we look for God and how do we find him? I went through  a phase of reading books about mountaineering not so much Chris Bonnington but storires of much earlier climbers with little more than ropes who climbed the Swiss alps, one book I recall was called Summits and Secrets and it provided insight into the climbers’ minds, their delight and awe they found in crossing glaciers, camping on ridges, and naturally on attaining summits. They were inspiring accounts and certainly a mountain would be a very good place to connect with the divine. 

So we need to imagine ourselves in shelter high up on a mountain having been told that the Lord is to pass by. Now this is a stimulating idea, how would we feel if we were told that the Lord is to pass by out there just next to St. Clements? We would surely go to see and we might be even more inclined to go if there were a mighty wind, after all God is big and all powerful so a wind so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks could seem to be exactly what we expect, but the Lord was not there. An earthquake, likewise deeply resonant, terrifying literally earth shattering but the Lord was not there nor in the flickering tongues of fire and the crackle and snap of burning woodland. And then there was the sound of sheer silence.

Pause

I doubt any of us has ever heard it - maybe Mike Tapper in his submarine lying on the ocean bottom - but even then I am not sure. It is so difficult to find total quiet, deserts are claimed to be the best - here is Gertrude Bell writing to her father during her first desert journey: “Shall I tell you my first impression, the silence. Silence and solitude fall around you like an impenetrable veil.” Usually there is always something making a noise somewhere, and in any case this silence is not an absence not arrived at by stripping away the sounds of animals, birds, insects, twigs or heartbeats but it is a presence. The Lord passed by bringing the SILENCE of the very beginning with him.  This may be more terrifying than all that went before, the earth was a formless void and the darkness covered the deep and God said “What are you doing here Elijah?” Contemplate that for a moment, that you have gone to look for Godin one of your favourite and expectant places, on the marsh in a cathedral, p a mountain and God comes in this great silence and asks:

“Steve what are you doing here?” 

John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker poet born in 1807 in Massachusetts is known to us as the author of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,. We all recall the final line of the hymn referring to our passage from 1 Kings “speak to us through the earthquake wind and fire, O still small voice of calm” but in the original poem, called “The brewing of Soma” which is about priests seeking the divine there is this verse omitted from the hymn:

With that deep hush subduing all

Our words and works that drown 

The tender whisper of your call

As noiseless let thy blessing fall 

As fell thy manna down.

The Lord passes by and brings down the impenetrable veil subduing our words and works which are filling God’s silence which is there within us - and when we find this deep inner peace than we are ready to face the question:

“What are we doing here?”


Amen 


Saturday, 25 July 2020

Sourdough Bread

It seems amazing that it was only a few weeks ago, well actually it was just before June the 6th, that I dropped a mustard seed of an idea in Frances’ direction. It was the smallest of seeds but as Jesus told us it grew into the greatest of shrubs and ever   since I planted it I have been a sourdough bread widower. All I suggested was that it may be fun and interesting to try to make some and ever since …..

Which brings me to the second of Jesus’ metaphors.  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” If only it were so simple: actually it seems the science of sourdough is simple but the mythology extensive. Of course we all know we need a starter with or without grapes, to American or European recipes, and that only a small amount retained from a previous dough is needed to make another starter which by the way, you treat like a small pet creature but there are questions of temperature, fridge or windowsill, of catching it at the peak of her rising, of blending with the bread flour. Never apparently to knead, oh no,  but stretching and folding every thirty minutes on the dot for uncountable hours and then allowing the whole to rise in a preferred corner of the room for a very long time and then kneeling in front of the glass door of the oven like someone from bake off watching a curious thing and waiting impatiently for it which is called the oven bounce whilst protecting the crust from blackening.  The first few loaves had holes deemed too small so researches were made into the viscosities of various mixtures. Two or three times a week Frances rose so early as to disturb even the dogs to begin this day long endeavour straining at the worktop to continue her experiments.

So I ask how is this the kingdom of heaven?


It might be that the King James’ version is easier in this instance because it says:L “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until the whole was leavened. “ So we have not yeats and doughnut leaven and leaven. The word that is translated as measure in our version comes from the Greek and three sata  is about 50 lbs of flour, a huge quantity even more than Frances used up. Also we need to take the right viewpoint - what did Jesus mean when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven?

Jesus came to us and so in himself brought the kingdom of God which is not a place but an activity, not a territory but a whole new society described and inaugurated by His coming and of course it is a society that is radically quite different from ours.  My favourite commentator Matthew Henry talking about leaven considers this yeast as the word of the Gospel working in our hearts . Only a small amount is needed, and I like to think of it as no more than a whisper which once there,  in our hearts, rises silently yet purposefully to change us, just as Frances’ sourdough starter after many hours will produce a dough that will become a beautiful bread. But, notice the story of Frances’ experience is useful, for she has been working at the process, not simply hearing the word and leaving it unattended but putting in hours of practice, adapting and refining her ways until  …..

Well I have to say I think the loaf is perfect now.

Amen

Saturday, 11 July 2020

God's Word and Joy

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 and Isaiah 55:10-13

I am presently reading a huge book of fiction where a nineteenth century Hungarian politician is introduced to us as having “an enormous mouth which seemed to have become over-developed perhaps by the tremendous number of words that were constantly emerging from it.” This made me stop to think and to wonder at our ambivalent relationship with words.  Often we dismiss them as just so much hot air  but occasionally we want to pin people down with the “but you said”  that children say and actually so do a lot of grown ups.

This morning we are contemplating our relationship not with other people’s words but with God’s word. These are of course special and singularly worthy of contemplation. Many Bibles including the one in front of me now use red ink for Jesus’ words to highlight this which means that almost all the reading which we have heard from Matthew is in red. I was struck by how using a parable to explain how words work becomes self referencing. A parable is itself a particular type of word - they do not work directly but need to be listened to, sucked on slowly like a sweet in the mouth, allowed to develop as a seed in fertile ground. This parable of the sower is about the quality of our listening. The second half of the reading uses the word “hear” five times in as many sentences. We are prompted to ask how well do we listen to God’s word, should we not listen to it more carefully and thoughtfully than to an Hungarian politician say?

But then we might ask, “How do we know what God’s word is?” Even if our ground is not paved, rocky or thorny how can we be sure that the interpretation we have made from our fertile earth is sound? It is a puzzle and archbishops, bishops and theologians use words like discernment or seeking to understand to describe it. They appointed working groups to develop the Living in Love resources that we are all waiting for (Now postponed to November by the way)
 It seems it is more difficult to discover God’s word than simply  looking for the red ink.

But let us return to Isaiah. Chapter 55 begins with an invitation, an invitation to everyone that says let everyone who thirsts come to the waters and includes the lines:

“Listen to me and eat what is good, incline your ear and come to me, listen so that you may live.”

Isaiah is so sure about God’s word : “my word that goes out of my mouth shall not return empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And what is the purpose:

“For you shall go out in joy and go out in peace, the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

Listen carefully says Isaiah, and  I want to add that if what we discern does not meet the invitation to everyone and does not bring joy then it most likely is not the word of God we are hearing.

Amen

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Back to Church


There are many emotions in church this morning. For some it will be a joyful return, others may be perturbed by the differences that we have had to introduce, not a few will be anxious and some of you will be bringing the sadness of loss with you. During these lockdown weeks I have really enjoyed and taken advantage of the National Theatre streaming among whose notable productions were Twelfth Night, A streetcar named desire, Frankenstein and most recently Midsummer night’s dream. Although they were called National Theatre LIVE of course they were not but were recordings made in earlier seasons. A particular live theatre production is special and each one unique, created by the individual cast performance and by the audience whose reactions to and with the play form a vital ingredient of the whole experience. It has been good,  might say very good to see these plays from my armchair but it is not the same as being there.

And so this is what I feel about today ; the online services from the great cathedrals and dare I say in one case from a kitchen have not been the same as being here. There is an indefinable but nonetheless completely palpable sense of coming together, in sharing the liturgy, saying some of the words, feeling the presence of others, of being in the same space and intent on worshipping, confessing,  taking communion, praying, giving thanks, receiving blessing, looking at one another, being one body.

This particular service will not happen again and that mix of emotions that you have brought is part of what will make this a unique event, we shall not feel exactly the same again so let us keep a short quiet moment to feel the spirit and atmosphere of now.

Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel “Come to me all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest “  is perfect for today. It always reminds me of walking up steep dry mountains in Yugoslavia as it eh was carrying backpacks and coming across the refreshing cooling steams that flow down to the beautiful blue lakes below. Which of us has not felt weary at some point, the aching tiredness brought on by the drudge of daily toil or perhaps an unwanted and unexpected burden. As ever Jesus seems to offer a paradoxical answer - already burdened he says we are to take his yoke upon us. The point is that in jewish literature the “yoke” was the total of obligations which according to the teaching of the Rabbis must be taken on to follow the law. The yoke of the Torah would have been  a well known expression and  Jesus is saying “Throw this off, take on my teaching, learn from me. How easy are my simple commandments compared with the regulation and legislation of the Pharisees - discard these ideas and learn to love your neighbour as yourself and to believe in me.

So after 100 days of closed churches, here we are welcomed back with these beautiful words. Slough off the burdens, the claustrophobia, the fatigue, the anxiety the sadness, “Come to me all of you” and find rest for your soul.


Amen 

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

So what advantage ... ?

Romans 6:12-23

So what advantage did you get from things of which you are now ashamed?

Fagin, in Oliver Twist condemned to death is given a chapter in the cell as he waits for his execution.

“He had only one more night to live. It was not until the night of this last awful day that a withering sense of his helpless desperate state came in its full intensity upon his blighted soul.; not that he had ever held any defined or positive hope of mercy but that he had never been able to consider more than the dim possibility of dying so soon. He had sat there awake but dreaming. Now he started up every minute and with grasping mouth and burning skin hurried to and fro in such a paroxysm of fear and wrath that even they who waited on him recoiled from him with horror. He cowered down on his stone bed and thought of the past. “ 

Now Fagin is cruelly painted throughout the book and we cannot draw a line under nor be but horrified at Dickens’ antisemitic language which is especially strong in the early chapters but reaching the end after many hours of audio book I found myself asking exactly the question that Paul asks us this morning and at the critical moment I suppose Fagin asks himself when he thought of the past.   “So what advantage did you gain from things of which you are now ashamed?”  Was Fagin, the receiver of stolen goods, the thief and teacher of boys, the author of Nancy’s murder ever happy? I want to say no; he may have had a pride momentarily in the artful dodger and a deal of self conceit for his own imagined ingenuity and control of others but I read of no joy taken in any moment.

Reading Paul always takes us to the Damascus road for as much as any man Paul understands the transformation wrought in our lives when we understand the full meaning of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. He was if you like pulled up by his bootstraps and turned from persecution to belief. He tells us “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness but present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” He explains that if God is our master then we are informed by his teaching and our road will not be from iniquity to iniquity but from blessing to blessing and ultimately to eternal life.

We live, says Paul under grace , or we may say by grace, and grace is something free: God bestows it on us all we do not need to earn it or hoard it or steal it or teach others to steal it for us, it is not accumulated but simply given. It is by the grace of God that we are forgiven for things of  which we are now ashamed, that we wish we had not thought or said or done and who better than Paul to tell us that, Saul who ordered the stoning of Stephen and is now Paul.

There is much in biblical teaching about reaching heaven and the rewards of a good life. So with this in mind the contrast between Fagin on his stone bench in the prison a few steps from the scaffold and Paul’s conviction that he will receive the free gift of eternal life could not be greater. Let us not miss however that following Jesus is joyful - we move from blessing to blessing as we grow and learn and live so please let us see the advantage of living under grace now.


Amen

Sunday, 21 June 2020

We are like eggs

Jeremiah 20:7-13, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

We were in the country heading out for a summer drive in our people carrier along country roads with four children and a dog and the makings of lunch all crammed in when we heard the news of Lady Diana’s death on the radio. We were a bit late hearing it for the press conference had been much earlier at 6.00 in the morning; it was unbelievable and as we knew the road, the underpass at the Pont Alma it made it very graphic and real. Our appetite for the picnic was broken and we went home to telephone relatives in England to talk over the news. For it was bursting from us. There are moments when we have such news that we must tell: expecting a baby, becoming engaged to be married, getting a hoped for job, the death of a loved one.

Jeremiah had been prophesying as only he could prophesy and PASHUR, the priest had taken him and publicly placed him in the stocks where everyone could see him. When he was released Jjeremiah continued saying “you Pashur, and all who live in your house shall go into captivity, and to Babylon you shall go and there you shall die.” Maybe these were not the best words to address to a man who had put you in the stocks and who had the power and willingness to do so again but as we hear Jeremiah in our reading tell is he was compelled to speak:

“For whenever I speak I must cry out.”
“If I  say I will not mention him or speak any more in his name, then within me is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary with holding it in and cannot.”

 Jeremiah has received the call, the word of the Lord and he must tell it, he cannot hold it in.

In Matthews’ Gospel we hear Jesus say “Have no fear of them for nothing is covered up, what I say to you in the dark tell in the light and what you hear whispered proclaim from the rooftops.” Here is the same idea as Jeremiah’s; what you have heard from me, and it is Jesus speaking, cannot be contained hidden or covered even from fear (of being put in the stocks say) but shout it from the very top of your house. I remember when I was installed as a curate in St. Mary’s Hitchin, the town centre church with a renowned set of heavy bells, a quarter peal was rung to announce my arrival. In this case the news was shouted from the church top.

Paul, writing in Romans, Paul the convert cannot keep it in. “What then are we to say? How can we go on living like we once did, like we used to, when we have been called when we have heard when we have been baptized? No, he says  we must walk in the newness of life.

All three of today’s readings have this motif of being unable to let our belief and understanding of God go unspoken or unseen. This is surely as vitally important now as it was when these three passages were written. This morning over my coffee I listened to the BBC World Service news summary, it was not an inspiring ten minutes. The number of refugees is at a record high, the number being repatriated at a record low, there have been Indian soldiers killed and captured on the border with China, there are violent demonstrations everywhere. All of which makes me ask have we been shouting loudly enough? Are the words like burning fire but are still shut up in our bones?

C S Lewis writing about Paul’s exhortation to us to walk in the newness of life says: we must go for it, for the full treatment (for the full implication of baptism.) It is not easy, he says, but we are just now with the word of God like eggs; “it might be hard for an egg to turn into a bird but it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg.” We must hatch.

And Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus all agree we should hatch and cannot and should not hold in the news.


Amen

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Private Prayer

The Psalm which is set for today is Psalm 100:

O be joyful in the Lord, all the earth;
Serve the lord with gladness

Know that the Lord is God it is he that has made us we are his;
We are his people and the sheep of his pasture

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
Give thanks to him and bless his name

For the Lord is gracious, his steadfast love is everlasting;
And his faithfulness endures from generation to generation.

From Monday we are at last allowed to enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. That is to say that our churches shall be open for private prayer.  Actually this phrase is a bit of a puzzle; Archbishop Rowan Williams in a seminar, or I should say webinar the other day began by saying “There is no such thing as private prayer.” It is always good of course to grab attention at the start by a controversial line. As well as this the trade journal this week (I mean the Church of England Newspaper) has much ink devoted to telling us that we do not need church buildings at all and expounding on how many like to watch big services with bishops on line. Now both of these are right, I suppose, but at the same time I do hope that both of them are wrong.

Archbishop Rowan is talking in view of the Holy Spirit who in that Pentecost arrival revealed the permeating, unifying power of God’s presence and love. To this extent we never pray on our own but are joined in our current prayer with those who are praying everywhere now, to those who have prayed before and those wo will pray in the future. This is a big idea, distinctively Christian, that we are all in the body of Christ but which perfectly allows us to pray alone. Times have changed since Julian of Norwich was immured, but in medieval times every town of consequence wanted to have at least one solitary, anchorite or anchoress, for the town regarded this as part of its welfare services. They were worth maintaining for the spiritual good derived from their prayers and penances. Mother Julian may have prayed on her own but her prayers and revelations sere for us all. Nothing private about that even if in private.

So to the question, do we need churches, should we bother opening them at all particularly just now when we offer no collective worship? We might stay at home guided by prayers on Facebook or Twitter or simply sit quietly in our armchairs. Some or many of you no doubt will do this but for others including me the sacred space has meaning and purpose, the framing of prayer time a value. Firstly there is the going. I know it is not possible for everyone but I like to walk to the church; it is a wonderful aspect of parishes that you can see people on a usual Sunday morning walking up the church path, hopefully not rushing but mentally steadying themselves. Then through the door into a place where countless have come before to bring their hopes and fears a time set apart to talk with God, praying (in the words of the Prayerbook) as well for others as themselves. A church engages multiple senses, the acoustic, the visual, a sense of smell and touch all of which contribute to the way we feel. I am sure we need them.

From Monday then we will carefully open our churches for you to come and pray in them, to give thanks and to bless his name” to be both apart and yet together in the mystery that is now, has been, and shall be for ever.

Amen

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Entanglement

Trinity Sunday 2020
Isaiah 40:12-17, 27 - end

The question I want to ponder this morning is “As our human knowledge increases does God become more or less mysterious?” Our reading from Isaiah this morning finds him full of wonder:

“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
And weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?”

Although phrased as a question Isaiah is full of certainty. Faced with creation he is convinced not only of God’s existence but of God’s capability. Ever since Darwin’s dangerous idea1  there have been attempts to take God out of the picture by delving deeper and smaller. Contract this with Isaiah who steps back to look at the big things: the heavens, the seas, the whole earth of the earth, the mountains and the hills and who concludes that God is much bigger than all these. To help us, like a modern photographer who places a person in front of the Great Pyramid for scale he sets the creator against our sizes: a span, a measure, a scale or a balance.

Our science, however, seems more concerned with building blocks, the components of life, the genome, the DNA, the components of the universe, the particles, waves, quantum mechanics. The microscopes and telescopes were not there for Isaiah but if they had been I like to think he would have written in the same way.

Newton is of course now old hat superseded by Einstein who by now may be also partly old hat. Once I imagined I understood the atom, the proton, neutron and the electron, the orbitals and the excited states but that by now is very very old hat. My father- in- law a professional nuclear physicist in his day, wondered recently what he had missed and ordered a first year undergraduate textbook - the book was large, the print tiny and the changes considerable.

Considerable and for me often marvellous. There is a new thing, well new for me at any rate called “Quantum Entanglement.” This is a complex idea now demonstrated by more complex experiments that allows that something can be in two places at once. The technical definition is that entanglement occurs “when two (or more) particles are such that their quantum states cannot be described independently even though they are apart.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, where we reflect on the threeness and oneness of God and most especially the perfect loving, making sure we stress loving here, the perfect loving relationship between them. Or, even though God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be far apart they are indivisible and cannot be described independently.

The more we learn the bigger God becomes.

Amen.

1 Dennett Daniel C Penguin 1995

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Pentecost Sunday : Language


Every Pentecost I speak about the miracle of language: “And how is it that we hear,each of us in our own native language?” Language is a textured complexity; the acting schools will remind you that the words themselves are only a minor part of any communication, with our facial expressions and tone of voice far and away dominating the story. During lock down I have been doing a couple of things which may have a bearing on this - listening to France Musique and also an audiobook edition of Oliver Twist. 

In the first case during a news bulletin there was a description of how the virus beginning in  bagts “S’est passé par un petit animal qui s’appelle un Pangolin.” In the measured and gentle tones of a (proper) French accent I developed a sympathy for the little animal which previously had been to our minds a hard scaly insect ridden malevolent creature responsible for devastation in unimaginable degrees.

And a single sentence from the beginning of chapter 27 of Oliver Twist:

“As it would be by no means seemly in a humble author to keep so mighty a personage as a beadle waiting, with his back to the fire, and the skirts of his coat gathered up under his arms until such time as it might suit his pleasure to relieve him; and as it would still less become his station, or his gallantry, to involve in the same neglect a lady on whom that beadle had looked with an eye of tenderness and affection, and in whose ear he had whispered sweet words, which coming from such a quarter might well thrill the bosom of maid or matron of whatsoever degree; the historian whose pen traces these words - trusting that he knows his place, and that he entertains a becoming reverence for those upon earth to whom high and important authority is delegated hastens to pay them that respect and to treat them with all that duteous ceremony which their exalted rank and (by consequences) great virtues imperatively claim at his hands.

Which when translated means “I will take up my story where I left off.” These words take us unerringly to the dark smog of Dickensian London and an age that was all its own and where we wait with held breath for the next issue of the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany.

All those people, the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, those from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia ,Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya, Cretans and Arabs heard not just the words, the consonants and vowels of their languages but the cadence, the tone, the whole message with their hearts. The miracle of the Holy Spirit is so much more than  a “Google Translate” for they each heard the words of Peter perfectly. Of course any miracle must be perfect, by definition, after all it is a gift from God. The Holy Spirit came and still comes  to speak to us on any wavelength, in whatsoever ways we find most easy to understand.in ways that we can take into our hearts and which can change our perceptions and our souls in ways we may not yet imagine.

Amen

Saturday, 23 May 2020

With One Accord - The Sunday after Ascension Day



When the disciples arrived back in Jerusalem they went to the room upstairs where they were staying. It will help our reflections if we go with them and although it may not have been, though some say it was, let us in any case, imagine that it is the same upper room where they celebrated the Passover Supper on the eve of the crucifixion. Since then they have known despair, were likely angry with one another (surely in the immediate days they asked themselves couldn’t they have spoken out more and done something to prevent this somehow?) . Soon afterwards they retired in defeat to Galilee, back to their boats then joyfully there were days spent with Jesus again, and now they are in Jerusalem fearful that the authorities may try to root them out for association and they gather. What to do surrounded by the memories, the cushions they lay on that night, the torture they witnessed, the uncertaintly of an empty tomb? But with Jesus having appeared to them and with the promises he gave them - everything he told them that would happen did happen: They must believe him now.

They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer or as the King James Bible says more strongly “These continued with one accord in prayer and supplication.” I do not know why modern versions omit that phrase, with one accord, for it is an important component of the scene before us. They were together in fellowship and harmony, united in experience with no quarrel or discord between them. Their instinctive response to Jesus’ ascension is to pray together. Behind and informing these prayers is that fullness of trust in Jesus, his being the Son of God that they had seen and felt and been part of. This depth and completeness of trust may at times be elusive to us so many hundreds of years on. But our view of the upper room with followers praying is not a picture we are looking into but one we

are part of. As we stand or sit alongside the men and women on that room we feel that they are afraid for the future; we are afraid for the future. They are, with the vision of Jesus ascending in recent memory, hopeful for the future; we are hopeful for the future. They know they will need help for the future; we know we need help for the future.

Their intuitive response to these uncertainties is to pray, but let us ponder a  moment. before this day, before this afternoon in Jerusalem they would not have prayed to Jesus. Is this the first time? Of course they would have prayed with Jesus many times and they should have had the inestimable benefit of his teaching them how to pray to the Father and how to make this a way of being,  a constant part of their daily lives but now, gathered together with Jesus not physically with them, palpably so, no look,no touch no certain presence they pray with one accord. Not, to a distant impersonal God but to a God they know and trust. Let us remain in their room awhile, with all our anxieties sharing the tensions they feel and pray with them to the God we know, and who we know knows us, for the things we know he knows we need so that when we leave the room we do so with confidence and trust.

Amen

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Ascension Day Reflection

Just before we spend a moment or so reflecting on the Ascension and what it may hold for our present understanding, the sharply observant may have noticed that I continued the usual reading in Acts by adding verse 12 which says: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. As well as giving the location where the ascension happened it speaks to today’s situation. A sabbath day’s journey did not mean something you could accomplish in a single day but it was a specific distance that you were allowed to travel on the Sabbath. The Dead Sea scrolls restrict it to 1000 cubits or if you were pasturing animals then 2000. Despite the parallels with our modern day restrictions operating in France Spain and elsewhere it reminds us that 1st century Palestine was not our world.

The ancient’s understanding of what lay beyond the dome of the sky was limited; it was certainly where heaven was and in addition a cloud was frequently met in the Old Testament (Exodus, Daniel for example) as a sign of God’s presence. With all respect to my Walsingham friends whose chapel of the Ascension has feet poking down from a ceiling, I do not really find this imagery helpful. Even Luke, writing in Acts does not really dwell on it - he is more concerned it seems to me with what is being said.

The question uppermost in the disciples’ minds is “What next?” Having seen and fully understood that Jesus is raised from the dead they want to know if he would now go on to fulfill the expected purpose of the Messiah, to restore the kingdom to Israel. The answer they are given is “It is not for you to know when this might take place and your job rather than asking these questions is to be my witnesses in the world, in fact to all the ends of the earth.” And when he had said this as they were watching he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. The disciples witnessed a change from Jesus’ physical presence with them to a spiritual one. They certainly felt that, Luke and doubtless others sought to explain this transformation in terms of things they knew using language that their hearers and readers would understand.

I am comfortable with that. It is a very human thing to do. I was looking recently at an old Japanese print that was seeking to explain the existence of air. The print contained a picture of fish in a bowl. The artist and scientists of those times had no concept of the composition of air, which came very much later,  but they understood that fish inhabited a medium and were able to describe our place in an invisible emptiness as being something like this - something they could see and touch, like fish in water.

The transformation that happened there on Mount Olivet is quite beyond us and I am happy that it is: Paul writing in 1 Timothy  3:16 puts the untouchable ethereal nature of Jesus well:

He was revealed in flesh
Vindicated in Spirit
Seen by angels
Proclaimed among the Gentiles
Believed in throughout the world
And taken up in glory.

Amen

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The Rainbow

Genesis 8:20 - 9:17


The bows appear as concentric arcs with the common centre on the line connecting the eye of the observer and the light source. Most frequently only one bow is visible. It appears on the opposite side from the source; its angular radius of the red border is about 42 degrees. Other colours of the spectrum can be seen inside of this border ending with the violet. Occasionally another secondary rainbow is observed above the primary rainbow. Its angular radius is about fifty-four degrees and the sequence of colours is reversed. The centre of the bows is angularly as far below the horizon as the source (sun) is above.

This entry from the 1964 edition of the encyclopaedia Britannica is less picturesque than Genesis:
“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and every living creature that is with you for all generations. I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the whole earth.”

People have marvelled at rainbows always and as an example of the beauty and mystery of God’s creation they do evoke wonder and questioning, awe and admiration. Yet the science that I have quoted dates only from 1611. The 1771 Encyclopaedia Britannica finding all this still quite modern devoted pages 435 to 441, so some six pages, and a set of exquisite diagrams to the entry. It i s a miracle that we ever came to understand it so minutely, another example of God’s gift to us of reason, deduction and creativity.

All creation is God’s way of revealing himself to us; the perfection that we see in nature, tiny leaves, buds, flowers, fruits always seeming to be the right shape, in the right place, looking as if they ought to be there. But the rainbow is a special sign: God said to Noah “I will remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

It is always thrilling to see a rainbow and remains so for most of us well  beyond childhood. Here is Wordsworth thinking about that:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
So it was when my life began
So it is now that I am a man
So be it when I grow old
     Or let me die
The child is father of the man
And I would wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

“My heart leaps up” and I wonder if the rainbow we see today, comprehensively explained though it is, strikes deep into a spiritual core that we all know we have and have had from the beginning or as Wordsworth says - “So it was when my life began.” So when we look up at a rainbow we are the ones who remember.

I was struck when exploring rainbows to discover Dame Laura Knight’s picture (in the Tate Gallery) called “Spring.” Painted in an impressionist style it shows a pastoral scene of a meadow, a fly fisherman, a country lady with a gathering basket, lambs in a distant field and overarching it all in the sky a rainbow. The picture is dated, 1916-1920 and is so clearly peaceful. I do not know the life story of Laura Knight but it seems to me to be a response to the joy springing from 1918, and the end of the Great War.

We have recently adopted the rainbow to be a sign for the NHS, it may have several meanings but it is I suggest among other things a sign of eternal hope and a reminder of God’s promises to us.

Amen

This sermon can be heard on the following podcast:


The painting that I refer to can be found at




Friday, 15 May 2020

June Letter : Carefully unzipping the tent

Carefully unzipping the tent

Dear Friends,

As I write this letter we have had a statement this evening on how we begin easing the lock down. It is, by the way, another world away since a bellow of “Unlock” from the Speaker of the House made us sit up in anticipation of another cliffhanger of a vote. Today is a cliffhanger of a different sort. There is a lot at stake and to help appreciate this I want to tell you about a conversation I witnessed between survivors of the virus. This is not in any way to minimise the grief and mourning of the thousands  of family members of those who have died nor to forget the lives tragically and prematurely lost but to remind the younger and fitter why it is crucial to be super cautious, to be mindful of others and for ourselves.

These two did not previously know one another, neither had been hospitalised  but they were introduced across a wide road. The one in running shorts and a T-shirt outwardly a picture of suntanned health, the other a horticulturalist used to working outside every daylight hour. Both had suffered with Covid -19 and now five weeks later they were still invalids. The runner, not running anywhere, the gardener not pruning or trimming; both were exhausted two days out of three so only a smallish chance brought them both standing at the same time. (Frances could work it out!) And then even on these “good” days there were still hours when they were prone. They shared experience across the white lines where the similarities were striking: The sniffle they thought they had, the interminable coughing, the temperature and fever, the exhaustion, the getting up and the exhaustion again, the full recovery still awaited.

Hopefully by the time this appears in the magazine they will both be springing around like gazelles, which is a source of hopefulness for us all. I am optimistic but my message this month is less for the vulnerable or the elderly who can see the graphs and the big risks but for the younger of you, who will be back at work maybe, who see but the small block on the barchart of mortality but may not be aware of the weeks of illness that may come your way if infected.

We cannot of course stay zipped in our tent forever but as we emerge let us be sure to live well, safely and with a  mind for others who remain anxious.


With blessings


Steve

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Faith in difficult times

I forget from where we were returning but there we were, Michela and I at the luggage carousel in Heathrow.  Now Michela was young successful and one of my brightest people , she had a taste for the good life, arts, culture, good restaurants and Cava: suddenly into the tedium of waiting for bags she said, “I wish I had your faith.” I looked at my watch - as if to say - we have not been waiting all that long you know - but then looking at her  I deduced that she was not anxious about her Louis Vitton but was worried about why she did not or could not believe in God while I did. What I have remembered about her remark is that sentiment “I wish.”  It is an odd construction to my mind for if it were something really wished for surely there is no impediment to just believing, or is there?

We meet Philip almost exclusively through St. John’s Gospel. His calling is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke but no more is he mentioned by them. The advantage of this is that we have a consistent account of Philip’s life with Jesus. It begins in chapter one “The next day, Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathaniel and said to him “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote: Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”   Philip took Nathaniel to Jesus.

Philip was there at the feeding of the five thousand, indeed Jesus asked Philip the question “Philip, where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” he said this to test him for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him “Six month’s wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Philip helped gather up the fragments of left over bread into twelve baskets.”

In chapter twelve we find Philip once again helping people find Jesus. “Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. “They came to Philip who was from Bethsaida in Galilee and said to him ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’  Philip went and told Andrew, then Andrew went and told Jesus. “ Philip brought Gentiles to Jesus.”

And yet after all this witness we then come to today’s reading which takes place very shortly before the final Passover meal so some three years of following Jesus behind him:

“Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied”

No wonder there seems a tone of exasperation in Jesus’ voice: “Have I been with you all this time Philip and you still do not know me?” 

In recent days I have spoken to people who have found their “faith” shaken by recent events. This is way deeper than Michela musing over the luggage. In the face of plague, and surely this is the right word, in the face of so many bad things we might choose to hold up in support of doubt or disbelief it is unsurprising. What to say in the face of such disaster?

Well I want to offer two things - firstly I remain convinced of God’s love for us and in those gifts of inventiveness and creativity given us. I know that the minds we have been given are from God and are capable beyond all our expectations and they will be purposely turned to the searches for prevention, treatment and cure of this virus and I can trust in these things.

And secondly that Philip’s doubt and search for proof, is an encouragement to us. If Philip, who was with Jesus, who experienced all that can still say “BUT only show us the father and we will believe” then let us not be too hard on ourselves when in the face of adversity we may be cross and wavering.

Amen

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Reflection on our closed churches



The fourth Sunday of Easter

I want to say sorry to you all.

I have until now been quiet, zipped here in my tent, peacefully behind the flaps but the trouble is I so disagree that our churches are closed for private prayer, tightly shut, slammed, barred and bolted. And I think someone should say they are sorry.

No more can we kneel in dust moted aisles and seek the sweet voice of God as centuries of people before us have done during plague or famine or simply to mourn a single death. These spaces have been nurtured, augmented, fashioned individually by generations of the faithful and the arguments that we do not need them to be close to God true as they most certainly are, nonetheless fall like stones upon my ears because we can see that we have always needed sacred spaces. Think perhaps of Stonehenge or Ravenna or the building of St. Peter in Rome not to mention our Saxon heritage here in North Norfolk.

There are some who are saying that we are returning to the original way of the church yet this morning’s reading makes me question that. The reading comes from Acts 2:42 which immediately follows Peter’s speech to the assembled people of Jerusalem - there is no gap it is not hidden in an obscure sub paragraph but it is there on the very birthday of the Church.

“They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  All who believed were together and had all things in common. Day by day they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”

A distinctive feature then of Christian life from the beginning was being together, gathering, holding things in common. Now of course I do not think we should hold services and certainly we should not expressly invite people to gather for that would be irresponsible but is there a clear reason for closing churches that are usually open for private reflection and prayer?  It turns out that we are more responsible than our leaders foresaw, and I am not sure that the praying population would be any less so. We can keep two broomsticks from each other in many places (I have just come back from the pharmacy window at the surgery) we can wait our turn affably and have developed a penetrating fear of the outdoors that prompts us to vigorous hand washing on returning home.

At the beginning of the virus outbreak many, often not regularly seen in the pews,  said to me how grateful they were for the chance to go into our churches, our visitor books’ entries illustrate the support for open churches. Lots of people find our places of worship comforting.  Again I am sorry that they are not there today when comfort is sorely needed. As we are constrained to be apart there is something about the sharing, expressed so clearly by the earliest Christians, that is important: When sitting in a church we are there with all who have walked through that 800 year old door to sit by Norman columns carrying burdens we cannot imagine and to lay them before God. We share with the person who was there yesterday, an hour ago and who will be there tomorrow.

In  our Gospel reading Jesus says that he came to open the sheepfold so that the sheep may enter by it. Please could you in your prayers this week include a prayer that this aspect of the Church’s Lockdown - capital C and capital L may be speedily revisited so that we sheep may come into his house, one or two at a time, apart from one another but sharing deeply together. Amen

You may listen to the whole service and this sermon at


Saturday, 25 April 2020

The Road to Emmaus

Luke 24:13-35

You may listen to this sermon at


Since lockdown Frances and  have been walking, companionably every day, with Rosie and Nina of course, talking about all the things that have happened, or we have heard about or read during the morning when we have been in our separate studies engaged on different things. So the story of the two disciples, Cleopas and another, waling and talking feels more than usually resonant. We walk a lot in any case but these past weeks the distances have increased as we have to start on foot from the rectory. Once the tuggy dogs have settled there is a gentle reflective rhythm that sets in creating space for appreciation for the world outside and space for new thoughts.

I have always liked to think that Jesus came and stepped into this space, falling naturally in step, drawing near. Although we know that Jesus’ followers were frightened these two open up to this unrecognised stranger who has joined them. Heedless of any risk they reveal that they are full disciples, that they had hoped Jesus was the one to redeem Israel. So at the very beginning of this story before any steps had been taken we see the two disciples stopping to let Jesus in. “They stood still, looking sad” and we hear them nonetheless, feeling safe, safe enough to own up to their allegiance in this now manifestly police state.

As I said, walking itself, the rhythm of one foot in front of the other can free the miind., laying down the noise of everyday worries and opening possibilities for fresh ideas. Beethoven knew this, he used to walk regularly in the afternoons saying that freeing his fingers from the keyboard would admit new melody. Jesus sees the sadness of the couple, hears their disappointment and dashed expectations and in a tone of astonishment says “But cannot you see that He (Jesus) is the  Messiah and all these things were necessary?”  It was you see, never part of general Jewish thinking that the Messiah should suffer but that the annointed successor to David would abruptly overturn and defeat the enemies of Israel and rule over a period of peace, prosperity and justice. Against this religious background Jesus’ teaching is groundbreaking. He goes on to point to all the references in scripture from Moses onwards that speak of the true coming of the Son of God.

Notice how at the end of the journey, having let Jesus in, having heard him, even if they as yet do not know who he is, the two disciples do not want to let him go! “They urged him strongly, saying ‘stay with us.’” And so he stays and breaks bread with them in that marvellous showing of himself.

Now on our lockdown walks over the course of a week we visit all of our benefice churches and I am sad for we and everyone are forbidden to go inside. Like Cleopas and his friend, we have lost contact, they with the physical Jesus and we with our sacred space. No longer can we walk convivially with strangers, fall in step with one another and be three o the road. But we can learn, for they stopped and let Jesus in, without seeing him and we can do the same; actually I think we must do the same. And we will wait then for the time when after all this we will gather again and we will break bread and take communion and recognise who we have been with.

Amen

Monday, 20 April 2020

Midweek Morning Prayer

¶    Prayer During the Day on Wednesday

Preparation
O God, make speed to save us.
All   O Lord, make haste to help us.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord,
and teach me your paths.
Praise
You, Christ, are the King of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you took our flesh to set us free
you humbly chose the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
from Te Deum Laudamus
The Word of God
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4

The Psalm will end with:
All   Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.
Short readings
Week One
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Isaiah 61.1-3a






Week Two
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.
Micah 4.1-4a

Week Three
Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’
Matthew 9.35-end

Week Four
Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
    John 18.33,36-38
Prayers
Opening with:

O Lord our God,
grant us grace to desire you with our whole heart;
that so desiring, we may seek and find you;
and so finding, may love you;
and so loving, may hate those sins from which you have delivered us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen

Finishing with The Lord’s Prayer
Conclusion
May God grant to the world justice, truth and peace
All   Amen.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Learning to see : The first Sunday after Easter

One of my companions during lock down has been Simon Schama’s book “Rembrandt’s Eyes” which in common with all Schama’s output is meticulously researched, in this case sumptuously illustrated and very weighty. You need time to settle with one of his tomes, often they come in two volumes for example “Citizens” or “The History of the Jews” but just now time is something we do have so I have tackled the 750 pages. History of art books are a joy to read and one of the things they do is teach you to see. For example in the section on Rubens, Schama discusses a painting “The Trinity adored by the Duke of Mantua and his family.”   At a first glance it does exactly what it says on the tin. In the lower half of the picture are the Duke, his mother and other family members on a balcony looking into the upper half, where the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost are to be seen. Now Schama explains that the rules pertaining in those times stipulated that the Holy Trinity could only be seen by Apostles or Saints - among whose number the Duke of Mantua was not. A careful look at the painting shows that the Trinity are depicted on a tapestry so the Duke and his family are exonerated - there is a perfectly painted edge and since the top of the material is held up by angels it should really have been clear enough.

All three of our readings this  morning are about learning to see, for what should have been clear enough, that is the Resurrection of Jesus seems to need elaboration for us to truly receive it.

The modern lectionary takes us immediately this Sunday to the passage in Acts where Peter is addressing the crowd on Pentecost morning. This is strange for we know that we have to wait another forty days for the coming of the Holy Spirit  but the church decides to mandate this reading now.  [It is true you have no choice : the reading from Acts must be either the first or second reading!] Peter in his speech summarises Jesus’ ministry “a man attested by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs,” relates his death and then proclaims his resurrection. “God raised him up, having freed him from death because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” Peter with his raised voice says “Listen, you Israelites, look at the resurrection and see what it means.” The church has put this reading here chronologically too soon and is saying “ Listen you Christians, look at the resurrection and see what it means.”

Jesus also understood that the act of Resurrection would  not be enough, for when the disciples are hidden away for fear, even so soon after the event Jesus appears to them. He makes them look at the details of the wounds in his hands and side and says “Look you disciples see what I am giving you.”

And then Peter’s letter written sometime in the 60’s AD reminds us of our difficulty, that unlike Peter we have not seen him. And so our faith, without having seen, is more precious than gold. Tested and tried by tribulations and troubles our faith has to be secured against them. We have to love him although we have not seen him, we need to rejoice still in the Resurrection even if it were so long ago. Rubens cannot paint a picture of us adoring the Trinity for we are neither Apostles or Saints but nonetheless we can learn to believe and see Jesus Christ, resurrected at the right hand of the Father.

Amen

The sermon refers to a painting by Rubens which if you wish you can find on Wikipedia here:

https://www.wikiart.org/en/peter-paul-rubens/the-trinity-adored-by-the-duke-of-mantua-and-his-family-1606

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Easter Sunday from within the tent


This morning I want to start with Wordsworth, not the daffodils which would be so suitable for the time of year but lines composed on Westminster Bridge:

Earth has not anything to show more fair
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent bare
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did the sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock or hill
Ne’er saw I,never felt, a calm so deep.
The river glideth at his own sweet will
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep
And all that mighty heart is lying still.

It seems so fitting amidst the scenes of silent cities to stand with the poet on the bridge looking over the scene, pondering, absorbing and waiting. Bating our breath with him. From Good Friday afternoon  until Easter Sunday morning the world held its breath, angels were waiting, the people of Jerusalem did not recognise who Jesus was yet they were waiting for a Messiah. We know that our modern world is broken, it is always and usually so, and today it feels even more fractured and so we wait,

This Easter our joy is muffled, no bells ringing out the Easter morn, the news distressing, disturbing and deathly. But wait, the promise of Easter is of new life, of awakening; that promise is still there “all bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” and we can still celebrate the Resurrection for its extraordinary announcement of change and hope. Jesus came to show us the way, there is no looking back from this moment nothing is the same again.

Perhaps we need this Easter even more than before. In Wordsworth’s poem there is, it seems to me, a propulsion forward, a compulsion indeed to look forward. Those words - fair, majesty, beauty, bright, glittering, splendour, calm, sweet are a pregnancy, ready to burst forth when the city houses which seem to sleep will sleep no more. Like Jesus the mighty heart has been lying still, like us the beating of every unaccustomed day stilled. But we wait in hope, in certainty for on this day we celebrate the news, the demonstrated, exhibited astounding recorded, witnessed truth that after death comes LIFE.

May I wish you all a happy Easter.

Amen

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Palm Sunday 2020 The crowds in Jerusalem

Jean Francois and I were together, a typically grey overcast day but in the city the excitement was high, the crowds milling around outside the pubs, in the squares people selling programmes shirts and pennants. We had travelled from Paris and now were in Cardiff on the way to  Cardiff Arms Park for a five nations match between France and Wales: naturally the Welsh, passionate about singing and Rugby were in good voice and strong in numbers for this vital game between Gallic rivals: the whole city was alive with the prospect, conversation was about nothing else, the visiting French pursued by a cloud of Gallois smoke roamed through the pedestrian precincts equipped with flasks of Calvados proud and confident in l’equippe Francaise. As kick off time approached the atmosphere got hotter: The authorities became more visible mounted on huge police horses increasing their vigilance for the least of sparks that might ignite trouble.

So it must have been in Jerusalem that day as huge crowds gathered to celebrate the Passover festival, a time when expectations of God’s deliverance always reached fever heat among the pilgrims and when resentment of the Romans was a touch paper for nationalist passion.

And into all this came Jesus, throwing off the secrecy that had shielded his early ministry Jesus came.Notice the trouble that Jesus takes to make his kingship and his identity clear and not just that it is so but also the nature of that kingship. A donkey is an important symbol, it is a lowly animal, a slow creature one that is easy to approach   (not lofty and distant as someone sat on a horse) there are significant biblical precedents of rulers coming on donkeys as a sign of peace but most importantly the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9) is fulfilled in every detail.

Rejoice greatly O daughter Zion
Shout aloud O daughter Jerusalem
Lo your king comes to you
Triumphant and victorious is he
Humble and riding on a donkey
On a colt the foal of a donkey.

Jesus intends his entry to leave no doubt that he is coming as the Messiah who the Jews have been waiting for. During his ministry he had given many signs, healing the blind, the lame, driving out demons and as we heard last week raising Lazarus and now openly and symbolically he came to Jerusalem declaring boldly who he is.

Jesus has stepped out, now he is in the public arena as never before at the centre of the Jewish world, his time has come and he proclaims himself in his arrival at this time of heightened sensitivity, sensation, suspicion and after all hope, as the expected one setting off the adulation of the crowd :

“Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest heaven” they chant, they spread their cloaks before him laying down palm fronds, the very accolade that Roman emperors would give to victors in their games. The excitement mounts, the crowd whispers to one another that he is here, the roars increase and the authorities mounted and vigilant cannot fail to take careful note.

Of course we now know that the crowd have the wrong idea about what will happen next. They expect a sacking of the establishment, the collapse of the oppressive Roman occupiers, the overthrow of this to their eyes modern day Pharaoh and for them to be saved from the deeply felt and hated tyranny of empire. But what happens next is not an assault on the Roman garrison or their seat of power.

Jesus instead will go to the Temple, the seat of the High priests power and once there he will overturn the tables of the traders, drive out the money lenders declaring that “My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.”  Jesus is the promised  Messiah but not at all as the crowds expected, he has indeed come to save them but not from the Romans but as he demonstrates by going to the very heart of religious observance. He has come to save them and all of us from ourselves.

Amen

Saturday, 28 March 2020

 The Raising of Lazarus : 5th Sunday of Lent John 11:1-45

There is an audio link to the service for the 5th Sunday of Lent here:



Please also look at the following link from the National Gallery London

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/sebastiano-del-piombo-incorporating-designs-by-michelangelo-the-raising-of-lazarus

In the league table of miracles “The Raising of Lazarus” is near the very top and among the best known. Deservedly, for it is a great event. Even so I was surprised by Sebastiano del Piombo’s painting which shows a much larger crowd than I had ever imagined streaming out from the town; there are people really pressing around Jesus and to me more surprisingly around Lazarus - and look how healthy he is! It feels even more surprising perhaps in light of our social distancing but somehow I always thought I would be seeing this from a distance afraid of what was going to happen when Jesus said “take away the stone.” I am sure that I would step sharply back and certainly would not be like the young man on the right of the picture peering over Lazarus’ shoulder to get a better look.  But perhaps Piombo has the better idea.

Indeed we read early on that Jesus intends this to be “for God’s glory so that the son of God may be glorified by it,” for which reason he stayed two days more even though he loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He continued this idea saying to the disciples “For your sake I am glad (I was not there) so that you may believe. Let’s go to him.” Jesus wants to be close up.

This account of lazarus only appears in John’s Gospel and its absence from Matthew, Mark and Luke has led many to question its truth. After all if it is so significant and it was certainly dramatic, why would the others have left it out? Readers considering Jesus’ miracles are sometimes tempted to explain them in terms of moder medical understanding but the details of this one as John tells them make it difficult to explain this one away like that.  Dead for four days, laid to rest by his sisters, wrapped in the grave cloths, the tomb sealed up. We are in no doubt that Lazarus is dead and that people, his closest relatives in fact, have seen him so and all this points up the magnitude of the miracle.

Still you may have some doubts.

When Somerset Maugham visited China in 1919 he made observations of what he saw and heard in a set of yellow notebooks and from these he later produced a set of stories1. One of these, only recently published, talks about stories themselves. The tale concerns the Japanese who wanting to build  an ocean liner applied to a firm of shipbuilders for a design and a quotation.  The shipbuilder sent both knowing that the Japanese would never accept the quotation. When the Japanese of course built the ship themselves from the plans it was found to have a great design flaw: It was so top heavy that it would only remain vertical if the hold were filled with a lot of concrete. But if you did that the boat was commercially unviable. Maugham’s short story tells that this very doubtful happening is told the length and breadth of China by everyone he meets and he sees that they tell it in their own way.

Now maybe you think Lazarus was not raised but the story of Lazarus is told, retold, depicted in classical and modern art and has a proverbial presence in our culture. Part of the miracle is that the story is told the length and breadth of the world.  We believe Jesus could have done this and that He intended us to hear of it.

Back for a moment then to the picture which is in the National Gallery - the crowd is good for Jesus wanted the world to know, the closeness is good for he wanted the world to see - so you know what I am going to say: we may not just now be able to be physically close to one another, social distance yourself please but not from Jesus for he loves us close up.

Amen.