Thursday, 30 January 2020

What we share

I was thinking of telling a jolly story about Patrick and a ginger cat and then I read Paul’s well known letter to the Corinthians and I changed my mind - well I suppose Paul was always about changing minds.

“I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you  but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

So I rethought, reflecting on the past year and our various divisions and decided to save the jolly ginger cat for another day.

What Paul does not say is how easy it is to make divisions and revel in them. There is nothing easier than to decide to fall out with someone or these days often a group of people (by gender, by religion, by race, by wealth, by fondness for the Europeans or any other stereotype you can think of.) and then to needle away at it with or without purpose. Think of those separated or divorced who can find fault with past partners at the drop of a hat. My old friend Lisa for example discovered in the petition for divorce that she had never folded Alan’s shirts well enough. Oh it is easy to pick a quarrel with Apollos or Cephas and side with the other man; it is easy even in churches to point up differences: “they won’t accept women priests”, “they are very high”, “they have too many candles” , “their sermons are too long”   and so on.

What is difficult in our modern culture which thrives on news of conflicting opinion (Europhile, Eurosceptic, for Harry and Meghan, against Harry and Meghan,  ) - yes you see if on the Today programme you begin your answer with “I agree” then the next word from Sarah  Montague will be “but” as she probes for a fissure into which she may poke her bodkin.  What is difficult is to attune ourselves to what we have in common, what we share with the other. For example when walking from Overy hard to the beach we meet many people, we know nothing about some of them, are they day-trippers, longer term vacationers in holiday cottages, second home owners, common right holders, guests at the Hoste, residents we simply have not met before? None of these apparent classifications or demarcations matter, it does not matter whether we are for Apollos, Cephas or Paul it matters that we have in common walking on the bank, enjoying the features of the day, landscape, bird life, tides, marshland - this is the basis of our relationship.

I am afraid that in the coming months what is to come is  a period of talked up divisions: the UK and Europe, Scotland and independence, trade deals, good and bad, and we may need the words of Paul to remind us that we are all to live together “in agreement, that there be no divisions among you, that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Back to ginger cats though - another ginger not the one I had first in mind but Henry who lives in the rectory may have something to teach us. He lives with Nina and Rosie, they curl up together, sharing the carpet, the bed, the garden, biscuits they sometimes guard the entrance all three with shared purpose - well if a cat and dogs can do it ...................


Monday, 20 January 2020

Unshakeable Conviction Isaiah 49:1

Could you resist preaching on a passage which begins “Listen to me O you coastlands?” Well of course not, for here we are on this most beautiful of coasts able every day to see the sea, the marshes, the birds, the geese, the sand the tides, the tussocks and to be blessed with it all. Isaiah is an extraordinary prophet known for his grand imagery, use of poetic language and the the musicality of his writing - this passage from Isaiah 49 is known as one of the five Servant songs - not that there is any suggestion that this or other parts of the writings were ever sung  but the writing of these five is distinctive and especially lyrical. But as well as these things a chief characteristic of Isaiah is his unshakeable certainty.  He wants to communicate that above all, whatever has happened to the people of Israel who were beginning to believe that God, had abandoned them, that he was certain that this was  not so.

We find ourselves in a world where the Babylonians who had taken the people of Jerusalem into captivity and exile are the world power but are about to collapse and fall to the emerging Persian empire under the leadership of Cyrus. One great empire is about to fall before another ; Cyrus will in time create an administrative system that will last a thousand years and was unusually tolerant of the customs and religions of his conquered peoples and will indeed allow the Israelites to return to rebuild the temple. But we have not got there yet and right now Isaiah is writing to the second generation of exiles who are losing heart are becoming inured to the Babylonian way of life and need to be propelled back to their mission.

There is a question as to who is speaking for Isaiah does not make it explicit he says only  “The Lord called me before I was born” but for me at least and for many Christians this prophecy is about Jesus Christ  - even before the formation of the worlds Jesus was formed for the task of proclaiming, redeeming and saving. Like a sharp sword he was always ready , with powerful words, but as we know He will be rejected and despised by those who received him as John says in the opening of his Gospel:  “He was in the world yet the world did not know him - and his own people did not accept him”. As Isaiah foretells:  “I have laboured in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” But again following this lament of despair and failure Isaiah’s unshakeable confidence bursts through - “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord and my reward with God.”

“Listen to me you all you peoples far away” this summons in contrast to those previously in earlier chapters is not directed just at the house of Jacob but to the whole world - the message is to be proclaimed to everyone even to us, who live on the very edge of the land.

In some ways this is surprising, after all the jerusalem and the tribes of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and now were to be subject to the Persians; It is if the refugee Syrians of today set about a mission to bring their beliefs to all those who have overrun their country and sent them is a modern diaspora. Yet here is exactly what the Lord commands - the geat commission of the Old Testament:

“O it is too light a thing that you should talk only to Israel, I will give you (my servant) as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.””

Isaiah talking to the tired and forlorn, discouraged exiles in Babylon reminds them of what their mission is - to proclaim the Lord everywhere to everybody, friend and enemy alike  - he foresees the coming of the suffering servant and importantly for us in these days of empires clashing with empires, of a world with more than 65 million refugees , where our stewardship of the earth is questioned, Christains are persecuted and the churches less attended, he reminds us to be unshakeable, that even though we may not be believed it does not diminish our faith or its truth.


Choosing Words

Ezekiel Chapter Two

He said to me “O mortal stand up on your feet and I will speak to you and I heard the Lord speaking to me.”
“You shall say to them. Thus says the Lord God.
Whether they hear or refuse to hear do not be afraid of their words But you mortal hear what I say to you”.
And actually there are a few more says and hears and speaks in this short passage before the dramatic conclusion where Ezekiel in his vision eats the scroll.

Language is important - the words we choose are rarely neutral. Their accidental misuse or deliberate bias causes me to rant at the wireless and television - take this from Look East this week: “The chief executive of the Norfolk and Suffolk healthcare trust  admits there is more work to do.” You see how loaded that is, they admit and immediately we hear suggestions of guilt, culpability, something confessional, but it need to have been so: I hope the chief executive does think there is work to do, otherwise why are they there? Surely the chief executive SAID there is work to do.

But I am  not alone in ranting about language, this week in a  Church Times piece a contributor was if not ranting then at least lamenting the falling away of the general familiarity with Shakespeare, the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer. The imagery of these books through their language once so familiar to the English could be used even in conversation to make a point powerfully, dipping into allusions that were ingrained in all. Now I am not sure that they are entirely right about that for we all have our favourites: 

From Shakespeare, for example I am likely to respond to an injury with Mercutio’s line “Marry tis not so wide as a barn door but twill suffice”
Or on my way to bed from the Bible with “Sufficient unto the day the evil thereof”
And of course there are many beautiful phrases from the Book of Common Prayer:
“We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”

Phrases beautifully constructed where their authors have laboured over the choice of every word - think of the Eucharistic prayer that Cranmer created where his object was to be poetic, prayerful, profound, precise and to express protestantism.
So this sermon was moving towards being an empathic if curmudgeonly agreement with  the CHurch Times BUT this week I went to Wells Primary school to sit on a lesson planning meeting with six English teachers (by which I intend teachers of English) and I emerged excited and buoyed up by Beowulf.

Yes one of the plans was to rediscover this oldest of the freat long poems in English, possibly completed in the eighth century. They were not going to use the Olde English but two modern versions remodelled for the young by Michael Murpogo and our own Kevin Crossley-Holland. These versions are individual, they begin the story in a different setting yet as you would expect from these and especially in reconnecting with a classic each word is chosen with care, for its nuance and all the richness of its meaning.

It seems to me that this present generation is slightly sidetracked by speed of response - an immediate tweet, a quick e-mail, a phone call a vox pop to the interviewer and we have lost the art of taking just a little longer to pace the right word.

But firstly I am encouraged that the next with a return to literature and perhaps a boredom with the rapid will be better equipped and secondly I think of God preparing Ezekiel to go to the house of Israel - God gave him the nourishment of a whole scroll to inform the things he wold say. Let us continue to read the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer (and Shakespeare) so we may imbibe the language and make it our reflex to choose carefully and powerfully.


Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Crossing the Jordan

Here is the beginning of a new history, after 40 years, a generation of wandering in the wilderness the Israelites are to cross into the promised land. Moses is dead, the covenant has been renewed and Joshua appointed to lead in his place. The book of Joshua begins “The Lord spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ assistant saying “My servant Moses is dead, now prepare to cross the Jordan you and all this people into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. This is the land promised to Abraham and his descendants in the book of Genesis. In between the Israelites have received the Law, they know that what they must do first and foremost is to place their trust unequivocally in God. “They came to the Jordan and camped there (before crossing).

There is something about being on one side of a river especially when it is a boundary. I remember the thrill of crossing the Tamar into Cornwall. So many times I have made this journey and always there was a moment of elation, of joy that Cornwall had been reached - it was a long way from the deep countryside of Kent, that for a little while the way of life would be different, something new was beginning. The boundary was tangible and visible.

Now near Jericho the Jordan in Spring overflows its banks and in places is more than a mile wide and treacherous to cross. How to do it? The people followed Joshua not knowing how but with great faith. The ark of the covenant was the most sacred of the tabernacle furnishings and symbolises the throne of of the Lord. So in the account the Lord himself went ahead of his people, as he led them to the land of Canaan. The significance of this cannot be overestimated for the manner of crossing will bring assurance to the nations, that the one true God is with them and that he will surely dislodge the present inhabitants of Canaan. Those on the other side of the river worship Baal, thought by them to be the most powerful of their Gods for he triumphed over the sea-god. By opening the waters of the Jordan, for us a reprise of the parting of the Red Sea, God shows that he is Lord of the waters, just as he was Lord of of the flood and of course of creation (the spirit of God hovered over the waters) Such clear power over water will strike fear in the Canaanites and boost the confidence of the tribes of Israel. Notice too that the ark remains in the river bed until all have crossed. It is through the Lord that the people reach the promised land, they came through the Jordan by his power.

Paul in his letter to the Hebrews begins by reminding his readers of God’s permanence.
“In the beginning Lord you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands, they will perish but you remain: you are the same.”

God’s promises are everlasting, they can be relied on in ways unknown for the promises of man. No matter what the circumstances, God will fulfil them - so the priests after three days on the edge, looking at the waters, without bridge to cross follow Joshua’s instructions and dip their feet in the edge of the water .

Imagine that - the promised land (think of my Cornwall maybe) waited for, for so so long and it comes down to dipping your toes in the water and trusting.



In Checkov’s short one act comedy The Proposal, Lomov comes to propose to Natalya his neighbour’s daughter. After a short introductory scene explaining his purpose it is time to bring Natalya on stage. The question for director and actress is how to do that, how to start. Lomov waits in his evening dress centre stage, nervous, uncertain, bumbling while Natalya ia told by her father that “A merchant is come by claim his goods.”  You need to set her character from this moment - the proposal by the way will not go well and within a few paragraphs they are arguing so as she arrives on stage in her working clothes and apron it has to be clear from her tone of voice and gesture what sort of a person she is. This beginning more than anything in my view is what will make the one act play will work.

Beginnings are important and here this morning as we hear about the start of Jesus’ ministry he comes on stage and he comes to tell us who he is. Our first question might be “Why does Jesus need or want to be baptised?”surely as John the Baptist points out this is upside down. There immediately is a signpost for Jesus’ earthly ministry: He will throughout his time, in his preaching and teaching turn established ideas, particularly those of of the religious leaders, on their heads.  Notice too that Jesus immediately exerts and shows his authority, John consented. We know that Jesus is strong, quiet, persuasive;  we will see him calling the disciples Andrew and John from their fishing boats, Matthew from his tax collecting and they will follow him they will consent.

Jesus comes to fulfil the words of the prophets and returning to our reading from Isaiah we hear:

“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights, I have put my spirit upon him. Thus says the Lord God, the lord who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it - who gives breath to the people.” Isaiah reminding us so beautifully who God is, the creator of all, tells us that he is sending his servant, his chosen one.

Jesus comes to us as man and God - in this first action, he shows it is never going to be only about words and this first gesture shows that he is one of us that he is identifying totally as a person just as all those others who have come to be  baptised by John he submits to be baptised but notice Jesus’ first steps on the stage are not made alone.

“And when Jesus had been baptised he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove. And a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

So as Jesus comes in from the wings we are straight away introduced to the Trinity, there are Father, Son and Holy Spirit on this occasion and to my reckoning only on this occasion manifested to us all at the same time. Jesus the Son rising from the water, the Holy Spirit as a dove and the words of the Father coming from heaven. Now good theologians and Christians that you all are you doubtless thinking “But the three persons of the Trinity are always with us always together what is Steve on about?” This is the only time that we do see them all at once and I emphasise again this is the beginning, the people on the bank of the Jordan do not yet know that Jesus will promise us the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the counsellor, they do not know who Jesus is -even the disciples will not know until almost the end of the Gospel, yet it is all here at this first entrance.

Jesus comes to turn things upside down, to be authoritative,to fulfill the words of the prophets, to show us he is incarnate and to tell us and show us the love of the Trinity. In these four verses is the perfect beginning.