Homily for Sunday 25 July - The Feast of St James
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of love. Ephesians 4 verses 1-3.
Text: Matthew 20 verses 20-28
Ambition is a human trait that we all have to a greater or lesser extent, be it to climb to the top of the greasy pole of one’s particular expertise or simply to empty the ironing basket before it becomes necessary to purchase a second basket. Young people are always asked ‘what do you want to be’ and understandably in today’s very challenging world they often have absolutely no idea. Long gone are the days when little boys wished to be engine drivers and girls’ ambitions were, I fear, limited mostly to the prospect of a marriage and children but prior to that they might do some shorthand and typing or maybe nursing but not a lot else. Thank goodness the opportunities for women are now, if not entirely on a par with those for men, certainly a great deal broader than say even fifty years ago. I vividly remember my Father being aghast at the idea that I entertained of going to university to read chemistry of all things and I had to work for a year in a laboratory to prove the seriousness of my ambition. I suspect he rather hoped that I might change my mind but no I didn’t, in part because of all the encouragement I met from my bosses there, and I know he was genuinely proud of me when I obtained that coveted degree.
Today we celebrate Saint James the Apostle and our gospel reading relates the story of his Mother’s ambitious request for her two sons, and I’m sure any parent can empathise with her. We all want our children to be successful in one way or another and I suspect that this particular mum couldn’t, in all honesty, see much worldly success for her two sons given their now itinerant lifestyle, traipsing around the countryside with Jesus. Such a way of life was never going to earn them vast salaries; in fact, by contrast, they were probably living literally hand to mouth and relying on the generous hospitality of others for a square meal and somewhere to sleep for the night. Nor, as far as she could see, was it going to bring fame and prestige; so if this present life wasn’t going to bring the rewards she felt were due to her sons then why not make sure they fared far better in the life to come? Surely it wasn’t asking too much to be assured that her two precious sons who, in her opinion, had given up everything others would consider worthwhile for the sake of this man Jesus should merit the top places at heaven’s banquet? Oh, how proud she would be then and it would certainly stop other family members and the next door neighbours making any more disparaging remarks as to her sons apparent lack of ambition and perceived failure to get on in the world. How many of us, I wonder, have at one time or another felt as that mum did when we think those we love haven’t received the recognition we think is their due and seek to redress the balance if we can. I know, as a teacher, ambitious parents would often lay the blame for their children’s lack of progress on my apparently poor teaching rather than accept that actually they really were not that good at maths.
I’m sure Jesus understood exactly what prompted that request and I suspect sympathised with that mum, if only because he would have known how hard it was for her to no longer have sons on whom she could rely upon to keep her in her old age. But he also knew that such worldly ambitions were not, and never would be or could be, commensurate with kingdom values. Also, as he was quick to point out, kingdom values were not all about feasting and prestigious table seating for the chosen and privileged few but about suffering for the greater good of all. Branson and Bezos may have ambitions for anyone who can afford it to jet off into space but the ambitions for the Kingdom of God are at complete variance with such worldly ambitions seeking, as they do, justice, mercy and peace for all. And in order to point the way to achieving such values he had to suffer an ignominious death and be treated as a despised criminal; hardly the ambition one would imagine for the Son of God.
James and John had to learn from Jesus that being a disciple of Christ is first and foremost being a servant and not a master. It is the ‘Servant King’ we are called to follow and act for and maybe, maybe in another time, we just might find ourselves sitting beside him but not and never in a position of grandeur or supremacy where we can look down the table at lesser mortals.
I had a beautiful example this week of that sort of Christlike service and the ambition that accompanies it. A youngish male nurse had come to this country with nursing qualifications from his home country which, for whatever reason, were not recognised here. He began work in the Intensive Care Unit as a lowly care assistant but at the same time determined to gain the necessary UK qualifications so he could become an accredited nurse. A humble man but a man with ambition to serve in a truly worthwhile capacity and this week he heard that after years of study while still holding down his position as care assistant he is to receive his coveted nurse’s pin number which is essential for all qualified nurses. Maybe he has ambitions to move even further up the NHS’s banding system; but I suspect that to work in Intensive Care and bring not just his newly acquired medical skills but also compassion and hope to critically ill patients will always be what comes first in his life. Surely this is an example for all of us to recognize that whatever ambitions we may have achieved to serve God is to begin again and again at the bottom.
Turning back to James we know so little about him other than the few references to him in the Bible and we do know that Herod Agrippa had him killed so that he became the second martyr after Stephen to die for Christ. Does he now sit at the right or left hand of Christ? Or is it simply that heaven is somehow constructed so that truly all are seen there as equal in God’s sight and the only ambition for all there is to live in perfect communion with God and give Him always the praise and the glory for his love, his mercy, his ambition to make us one in Christ?
Lord grant that whatever our earthly ambitions are they will always be superseded by our ambition to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward save that of knowing that we do your will.Homily for Sunday 18 July
Delivered St Johns Wotton
Texts: Ephesians 2 verses 11-end, Mark 6 verses 30-34, 53-end
What do you feel passionate about or what passions make up a part of your life? Whoever we are I think for all of us there are times when we do feel very passionate about something, be it global warming, the slashing of the overseas aid budget, the plight of refugees, overt discrimination of various groups and so much more. Politics can very easily raise people’s passions and of course sport can be equally instrumental in raising blood pressures and causing both tremendous elation or deepest despondency, as was witnessed at Wembley last Sunday evening.
And then many people do have passions that absorb their time be it for gardening or scuba diving, classical music or motor bikes. Passions that excite us and bring a very real sense of pleasurable well- being and fulfilled enjoyment into our lives.
But compassion seems somehow in a different category than passion; it suggests to me at least something far gentler, far more sensitive and the prefix ‘com’ of course denotes that this is, and must be, a shared experience; compassion must always involve another person or persons, whereas passions can be very self- centred and egotistical.
Today’s gospel reading is, I have to say, one of my favourites and always has the power to touch me as I read again those beautiful words describing Jesus’ compassion for the crowd who had rushed ahead in order to be with Jesus as he stepped from that boat. Now, if it had been us would we have felt the same way? Would we have felt compassion as we were greeted by that overwhelmingly large and needy crowd? We know Jesus and his disciples were tired, exhausted even, and there must have been such anticipation as they set off on that boat trip in order to find peace and quiet; to be given an opportunity to recharge their depleted batteries and to be blessed by the peace and tranquillity of God’s presence with them in a deserted place. But such hopes were immediately dashed as they stepped ashore and that is when I’m sure most of us, and maybe the disciples too, would have felt more than a little aggrieved and very fed up and wished all those crowds of needy, demanding people would just go right away and not spoil our plans and ruin all possibility of that longed for rest, that ‘me time’.
But, however tired and exhausted Jesus was, his personal needs were superseded and replaced by his compassion for all those people and in that compassion he knew their need to be shepherded and cared for; to be led to their own green pastures and to find peace and rest for all their ills and troubles there. To me, this outpouring of compassion exemplifies in the incarnate Christ, the wondrous reality of God’s ever compassionate love for us his children. Wherever Jesus went his passion was surely to respond to the hunger of all people to be treated with compassion, with love. All of us, I think ,can recall times when someone has stopped and recognised our needs, our longing for a compassionate person to walk alongside us, be they friend or stranger, and at the same time known what it is like not to be noticed, to be ignored and not to have our hurts and sorrows tended to with compassion.
And as I wrote this it did just occur to me, did any of those passionate English football fans feel any compassion for Southgate’s team as they suffered that humiliating defeat at the hands or rather the feet of Italy? Did any in that vast dejected crowd think what it must have been like for that team as they failed to give England the glory as it were? Or were their thoughts simply of own their own disappointment and frustration at seeing their little dreams shattered?
Compassion is a truly beautiful human attribute and easily recognised by those who receive it. One of my most humbling moments is when I see the compassion shown to seriously disabled children; compassion that doesn’t recognise the disabilities however severe they may be but sees only another child of God needing to be loved for who they are and not what they are. And here we need to be reminded that ‘Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded; it is a relationship between equals.’ (Pema Chodron) We are all equal in God’s sight and the showing of true compassion needs both to recognize and to demonstrate this.
There is an amazing book I have just read entitled 'The Language of Kindnes's written by a nurse, and what makes the book so remarkable is the very real sense not simply of kindness but far more significantly of compassion that the author projects on every page. Oh yes she is immensely well trained and skilful medically but it is that compassionate kindness, that marks her out as epitomizing the quality that should lie at the heart not just of nursing but with all of us as we make our pilgrimage through this world alongside other pilgrims who need our care, our help our compassionate company.
We all know what it is to suffer, to feel alone, to feel fear and it is through such experiences that we are enabled to show compassion. And here we should never forget that Jesus himself knew the reality of terrible suffering, both physically and mentally, and it is no wonder that the ultimate journey to the cross is known as ‘The Passion of Christ’. For it was His passionate mission through that suffering to reveal to the world the love of God, the merciful forgiveness of God and the compassion of God.
Maybe we have been fortunate enough not to have been touched by the gnawing of cancer but we all know what it is to be gnawed by fear; we may not be riddled with arthritis but we have all known pain; we may not have been subjected to abuse but we have all known the effects of unkind and deeply hurtful remarks and it is thus that we are helped and enabled to show true compassion.
At the end of our gospel reading today we learn that Jesus went, at last, into the peace of the mountains to pray and find refuge in the compassionate love of God. May we too in our sharing of compassion with others also know the healing compassion of God in our lives.
I’d like to end with these words from a poem by Lyn McGrave subtitled ‘A young Doctor’s Discernment’
The white -coated people speak of the test but touch not being.
And I stand by the bed in a white coat and weep alone.
I have walked near flowing waters and felt the touch of Love. The only healing.
And I can remember when I saw my Beloved smiling behind the pleading eyes of pain.
So shall I rise, casting off my iron-coat and seek the Healer in the wildernes
Homily for Sunday 11 July
Delivered in Christ Church
Text: Mark 6 verses 14-29
And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Matthew 28 verse 20
The one promise I can still recite from memory is the old Girl Guide promise which stated ‘I promise to do my best. To do my duty to God and the Queen. To help other people at all times and obey the Guide Law.’ Nowadays this promise has been amended to become more inclusive of people with different beliefs and so promises to ‘be true to myself and develop my beliefs but otherwise is almost the same.
But such formal promises aside we all make promises of one sort and another practically every day. ‘I promise I won’t be late’, I promise myself that today I will tidy the garage or that store cupboard’ I promise I’ll come and visit you’ And I’m sure all of us, if we are honest, can think of numerous promises we frequently make and, if you’re anything like me, frequently break. Because breaking promises is very much a human failing as surely we are all too well aware and sometimes we can be very hurt and feel scorned and even rejected by someone’s broken promise. And here it must also be said that sometimes, however hard we try, we are forced to break promises as anyone who has been through a painful and unsought for divorce will testify.
Our Bible reading this morning told the story of a very unwise promise which nonetheless was kept and the question we need to ask ourselves is: would we have kept it in similar circumstances? Imagine yourselves to be a great ruler and you’re throwing an ultra- big, completely over the top birthday bash specifically designed to impress your guests and you are now in an extremely benevolent, good -humoured mood, no doubt having enjoyed at least a glass or two of some delightful and highly alcoholic drink. And here comes this gorgeous young girl who dances quite exquisitely and indeed, I suspect, somewhat suggestively, and your eyes are almost bulging out of our head as she weaves her spell of entrancement. And you’re so carried away that without any careful consideration you make the rashest of promises: ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ I think, sitting here, all of us can recognize that whatever the outcome this really was not the most sensible solemn promise to make and I’m sure there were quite a few gasps around the room as the guests speculated as to just what the girl would ask for.
And, in consultation with her mother, the answer came back; ‘the head of John the Baptist on a platter’ was to be the fulfilment of that rash promise. My goodness can’t you just hear the gasps around the room now as those fatal words are spoken. And what do you, as the person having made that promise, now feel? Aghast? Horrified? Mortified even? Just what have you done, and can it be undone? The answer is that unless you want to lose all face, lose all street cred with those present and, indeed, with your subjects as a whole when the news leaks out and thus forever be regarded as a weak and very foolish person instead of a strong but foolish person, you must keep that promise. The head of poor John the Baptist must be produced at the feast; the ultimate penalty he must pay for his outspoken condemnation of wrong- doing by Herod and his wife Herodias. Condemnation which had turned Herodias’s heart to stone and to bitter enmity against John. And my goodness what a turn off to all the previous jollity and bonhomie of that now infamous birthday bash as that blood dripping head is brought in. I simply can’t imagine anyone stayed long after that but said their goodbyes as speedily as possible and rushed home to bed feeling shocked and undoubtedly very queasy. And what about our dancer? Her mother may have had her virulent spite rewarded but surely her daughter must have felt just a bit cheesed off thinking of just what she might have had instead of a bloody head for all her artistic efforts; just a smallish diamond would surely have been a better reward for all that provocative exercise. And Herod himself had to live out the rest of his life knowing that his rash promise had resulted in the horrific death of a good man. A good man who was unafraid to speak the truth no matter what it cost him had indeed paid the ultimate price for his moral rectitude.
Herod kept his promise and in the nature of what we understand by a promise that was the right thing to do. The wrong thing was making a very rash unthought through promise in the first place just as I’m sure we have all done from time to time, but hopefully not nearly as rash as that of Herod. And thinking about this some might even consider that God’s promises to us are a bit rash given that we are so far from perfect and so fallible The promise that we will always be his people and he will be our God (Jeremiah 31 verse 33); the promise that he is our keeper (Ps121) and will hold us by our right hand (Psalm 139); the promise that ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28 verse 20). The Bible is literally strewn with God’s promises to us; promises we can be absolutely certain will be kept; promises that have already stood the test of time; promises that in today’s uncertain world can give us both hope and strength as we in turn try to keep our promises to God.
Promises which it struck me are encapsulated in this baptismal profession of faith.
Do you believe and trust in God the Father? I believe and trust in him.
Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ? I believe and trust in him.
Do you believe and trust in his Holy Spirit? I believe and trust in him.
It is not just the affirmation of belief that is so important here but the inherent promise in that affirmation to trust always in God; trust with complete confidence in all those promises he has made to us, his children. David Adam puts it this way: ‘Faith is a commitment of love to a loving God who is ever with us and will never leave us.’ In making this affirmation of faith, can we recognize that we are also committing ourselves to a promise of trust? A commitment which will surely carry us through not just the green pastures but, more importantly, the dark valleys and all the uncertainties of life. A promise of trust that when we fail, when we break so many of our other promises, both to God and to others, his promise of merciful forgiveness will stand firm. If we can maintain this promise of trust, trust with all our heart, in his amazing wonderful, never to be broken promises to us and his purposes for us, no matter what, then I think we will find ourselves truly blessed in all that we do. Blessed so that slowly but surely we will draw a little nearer to the wonder and the majesty that is God and begin to understand what is meant by his promise that he will be with us to the end of the world.
The Lord delights in those who fear him; who put their trust in his steadfast love. Psalm 147 verse 12
I will be with you by Malcolm Guite
Your final words fulfil your ancient name,
A promise hidden in Emanuel,
A promise that can never fade or fail;
I will be with you till the end of time;
I will be with you when you scale the height,
And with you when you fall to earth again,
With you when you flourish in the light,
And with you through the shadow and the pain.
Our God with us, you leave and yet remain
Risen and hidden with us everywhere;
Hidden and flowing in the wine we share,
Broken and hidden in the growing grain.
Be with us till we know we are forgiven,
Be with us here till we’re with you in heaven.
Virginia is away.
My guess is that everyone who reads this has on numerous occasions prayed for someone who is ill or suffering in some way; prayed often from the depths of their heart that they might be healed and made better. We can surely all know exactly how the psalmist felt when he penned those lines: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.’ But alongside such prayer I am also sure that everyone has known the frustration and sometimes bitter disappointment, anger even, of not apparently having those prayers answered, however fervent they may have been. Times when God simply did not seem to be paying the slightest attention to the ‘voice of my supplications.’ Just the other day I was asked to pray in the neonatal unit for a doctor who was desperately trying to insert a canula into an infinitesimally small vein of a premature baby and found my prayers unanswered. It seemed in the grand scale of things quite a simple request but God, no doubt, had his reasons why my pleas were seemingly ignored. But were they? For within a matter of just a couple of weeks this same baby was at long long last beginning to thrive, and everyone could once more entertain hope for her future. Now, she is doing so well there is even talk of transferring her to the original booking hospital. On the ‘day of the canula’, if I can call it that, such an event seemed all but impossible but God, once again, proved that He moves in mysterious ways. Whether that doctor is now deeply cynical about the power of prayer I do not know, although what I do know is that there will be many other times when I will be asked to pray in that Unit. Prayers that may or may not be directly answered but will be made in faith that ultimately God’s will is always done.
Today’s gospel account tells of not one but two of Jesus’ healing miracles and we can only begin to guess at the sheer joy and sense of relief felt first by that poor woman who had suffered for so long and then by Jairus and his family as their little daughter was restored to health. Both miracles; both providing evidence of Christ’s power to overcome illness and suffering and replace them with all the blessings of good health. And here it might be pertinent to recognize that while Jesus performed what, in effect, were a limited number of miraculous healings, he never for one moment restored the entire population amongst whom he moved to perfect good health. Miracles still happen but, in the nature of miracles, they are not, nor can we expect them to be, everyday events; but the healing power of Christ, I believe, is always there; a constant on which we can implicitly trust.
Throughout the pandemic so many millions upon millions of prayers have been said for those affected by the Corona virus; sometimes those prayers have been personal and at other times more general with the realisation that this truly is a virus that has spread across the world bringing immense suffering and an ever mounting death toll in its wake. People have died and people have suffered often for many months no matter how heartfelt the prayers have been articulated for them. Are all those prayers ignored or simply rejected? Surely our faith teaches us that they are not. What I believe is that all our prayers are heard, and all are used in God’s purposes for us and for his world, but we have to accept that those purposes can never begin to be fully understood by us and that God’s time is not, and never will be, our time. God’s pending tray may at times be extremely full but I am sure we can be confident that however full it is never left unattended.
I think too that we have to be much more willing to accept the reality of death while at the same time recognizing that death is not, and cannot be, the end of the story. We only have to look at the example of God’s own beloved Son, Jesus Christ whose suffering on the cross was never for one moment alleviated and which took him through death and beyond into all the wonder and glory of resurrected life. When someone’s death is patently imminent then surely our prayers should never be for some miraculous recovery but for the healing touch of peace to take hold of them and bring them safely through that gateway of death into the joy of heaven. Those lovely words from the Benedictus always seem so appropriate for someone near death rather than an impassioned plea for the reversal of nature. ‘In the tender mercy of out God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
So, there is I think no doubt that we have to accept that at times our prayers for actual and complete physical and even mental healing will not be answered in that manner but, that said,I am absolutely sure that all such prayers are listened to and responded as I’ve stressed in God’s time and in His chosen manner. And I am also quite sure that, in ways we will never properly understand, our prayers for healing will, if nothing else, bring to the sufferer spiritual healing bringing a sense of peace and of being surrounded by God’s love and the love expressed in our prayers. A cancer sufferer said to me only this week that whenever she goes to Mount Alvernia for treatment she has a very real sense of peace as she enters that building. A peace, I’m sure, is due in part from the prayers of all the nuns who used to live there.
Our prayers, our support, our gentle words of encouragement and love do make a difference and do, through God’s infinite grace and mercy, bring healing, if not in body, certainly in spirit . Healing not just to those for whom we pray but also our own healing of the anxiety and concern we experience for the suffering of those for whom we offer up our prayers.
I would like to end with these words of Michael Mayne who suffered with a debilitating illness for over a year in just the same way that so many sufferers of Long Covid are doing at this present time.
‘Jesus did not offer people perfect heath and a painless death. Human minds and bodies are fragile and vulnerable. What he offers is eternal life: a new relationship with God of such a quality that nothing may happen to us which can destroy it. And it is the kind of confidence and trust in God, come what may, which is the true healing of the human spirit.’
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord.
O Israel hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. Psalm 130.
Homily for Sunday 20 June
Delivered at St Johns Wotton
Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned. I have called you by name; you are mine. Isaiah 43
Texts: 2 Corinthians 6 verses 1-13, Mark 4 verses 35-41
Fear is an emotion known to all humans and is in part essential for our survival. Fear is an in built instinctive response to a threat of harm be it either physical or psychological and helps us to respond in a manner that aids our survival The response will be to either freeze, fight or flight; so if one is confronted by a bellowing bull it’s probably best not to freeze but to run for your life whereas if it’s your child or a loved one who is threatened by that same bull you just might be prepared to at the very least stand firm and eyeball the creature in the hope he changes his mind about attacking! Running from the bully in the playground or at work will not make life better but standing up to them, if only by a show of ignoring them, could well persuade them to leave you alone.
Reading today’s gospel account of those disciples terrified out of their wits by the violence of the sudden storm sweeping across the Sea of Galilee it struck me that experiencing fear is a bit like being storm tossed as wave after wave of dread engulfs you and you are rendered seemingly completely helpless by its power. I’m sure everyone has stored away in their memories times when fear held you in its grip and you were, to all intents and purposes, frightened out of your wits. And did you, I wonder, freeze, take flight or stand firm and fight? I remember vividly crossing a field on a perfectly legitimate footpath suddenly being chased not by a bull but by an extremely antisocial horse who obviously had strong objections to my presence in his, or it may have been her, field. I took flight with horse very much on my heels and found myself pinned against a gate unable to move and in no position to attempt to clamber over. Fortunately, horse finally decided it had had its fun and ambled off a few yards, at which point I breathed a huge sigh of relief and scrambled over the gate still feeling very shaken.
But back to those fear drenched disciples who were all too aware of the often deadly power of a storm raging across the Sea of Galilee and knew that they were in no position to flee from it or to defeat it in some way. Nature can as we must surely all appreciate at times be all powerful.
And, through all the stomach churning tossing and turning, Jesus slept on, exhausted by all that he had been doing. How could he? How could he not be aware of the peril they were in of imminent death? What sort of man was he? Is it any wonder they woke him because if there was just one person who could help them now it surely had to be Jesus. And of course, he did have the greater power to fight the raging elements and to overcome the thrusts of the storm causing the wind to cease and the sea to become once more calm as a mill pond. And it was then that he challenged those awe- struck disciples and asked ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ We are not told if they made any response to such questions merely that their feelings of awe grew and intensified as they recognised this man’s power to not just heal the sick and the lame but to have power over the wind and the waves.
So the question for us this morning is how much trust do we have in our Lord’s power to save and rescue us from our fears? When fear engulfs us are we always aware that we are not alone, that the presence of the Lord is right beside us? Do we trust or do we feel that we have been abandoned and alone as those disciples did as Jesus slept on seemingly unconscious of their fears? Trust comes from a Middle English word meaning protection and thus trust in God should indicate that we are confident that, no matter what, we are under his protection. He does hold us by our right hand; he does shelter us under the shadow of his wing.
Over the past months of the pandemic, have we allowed the intensity of the media-generated fear to feed on our own natural fears arising from the pandemic or have we held onto our trust in God that he is with us and that our help comes not just from PPE, social distancing and vaccinations but from him? Have we experienced that perfect love that casts out fear, or is that asking too much of our often somewhat limited and faltering faith?
Fear is real and can at times appear all consuming but so is God’s presence and that is what will carry us through those turbulent waves to the calm seas. Just read Paul’s words to the Corinthians and be inspired by them. My goodness didn’t that man suffer and surely he must have known considerable fear as he was threatened with yet another cruel beating or more time incarcerated in some dank cell plus all the other calamities that assailed him including of course shipwreck on more than one occasion. And yet his faith carried him through, and it shines out so brilliantly in his words where he speaks of bearing all these fearful tribulations with patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love and most of all the power of God. The power of God to carry all of us through the fears that confront us in life. And here I am reminded once again of the words of Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who, when asked afterwards, where was God in that man-made hell invoking fears none of us could even begin to imagine his answer was: ‘God was there himself-violated and blasphemed.’ God whose Son had Himself been violated and blasphemed and must surely have known fear just like any of us as his life was increasingly threatened but he also knew above all else the invincible power of God.
Yes, life in 2021 presents us with many fears both global and personal, but God grant that through our faith in Him and his power we may always know the truth of these words written by a doctor who came to the UK alone as a child refugee from Afghanistan: ‘The most important lesson to learn is that life is not what happens to you but how you respond.’
Homily for Sunday 13 June
Delivered at Christ Church
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown to spring up, so the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations. Isaiah 61 verse 11
Find the door of your heart, you will discover it is the door to the kingdom of God.’ John Chryostom
Text: Mark 4 verses 26-34
Until I looked it up I did not know that the United Kingdom is one of only forty four countries to have a crowned head and, in fact, there are only twenty nine monarchs all told because our Queen is also the reigning monarch of no less than fifteen other countries. And of those twenty nine all are what termed constitutional monarchs and only Saudi Arabia boasts an absolute monarch who can and does do exactly as he likes with no restraints. The word monarch comes from the Greek word meaning authority but for twenty- eight of the world’s present crowned heads that authority is limited although I did learn that in fact the Queen is at liberty to declare war, veto laws and dismiss her Government but would only do so having consulted with her Government whom I’m sure would certainly argue against the last of these regal rights.
In today’s world it’s the big tech giants and on-line retailers who, in effect, have built extraordinarily large empires for themselves and their ‘rule’ is felt in the lives of millions and it would seem in many instances that they have no watchful government to challenge their decisions or give advice. The problem of how to tax such mega companies is just one which has occupied the minds of governments around the world. They are, I believe, simply too big, too powerful and go their own way and all too often appear to make their own laws.
But today we are concerned with a completely different sort of kingdom, namely the kingdom of God; the ultimate kingdom. In the UK we have all sorts of evidence that we are ruled by a monarch be it our stamps or coinage all with a portrait of the Queen wearing a crown to all the various institutions which can boast the title ‘Royal’ such as the Royal Horticultural Society, the Royal Opera House, the Royal British Legion etcetera etcetera And then there are also the Royal Warrant holders ranging from Abel’s Moving Services to Wren’s Super Wax Shoe Polish. And, finally, let us not forget that criminal trials are carried out in Crown Courts where the accused can surely not fail to notice the great coat of royal arms above the judge’s head.
So, what evidence do we have that the Kingdom of Heaven exists, the Kingdom that belongs to the absolute monarch God himself? Can we glimpse branches of that great tree sheltering a multitude of birds? Can we recognize that there is, in reality, another sort of kingdom whose authority although absolute is also often at complete odds to the authority shown by actual kings and queens and by those who have built and rule over vast commercial empires? A kingdom where the mighty are put down and the humble and meek exalted. Re evidence we do, of course, have our cathedrals, churches and chapels and some people will even wear a crucifix or have a fish motif on the back of their car, but is this really evidence of the kingdom or merely that some people call themselves Christians, for there is a difference? We can go to church each Sunday but that does not mean that we are helping establish the kingdom of God as we are called to do; are we, in effect, Royal Warrant Holders serving the Lord our God with our gifts and our faith? Richard Holloway said, ‘Christianity is not a way of explaining the world but disturbing the world.’ Disturbing the world so that we can be seen to be trying to bring God’s kingdom values here on earth. The Kingdom values of justice, mercy, peace and love for all. Radical values which are very much at odds with, say, the values of such kingdom builders as Bezos, Musk and Zuckerberg. Kingdom values which are for all God’s children and not just a privileged few. Kingdom values where all have enough to eat, have clean water and education, access to justice and the joy of waking every morning to the peace and love to be found in a world without conflict. Kingdom values based on those two great commandments which supersede all the plethora of manmade laws which control our lives. Love God, Love our neighbour.
And it is our Gospel reading which tells us how we can work for such a kingdom here on earth, of how we can disturb the world. It is by sowing tiny seeds of kindness, of love, of hope in arid places where such blessings are in short supply. For I firmly believe that every time we sow such a seed there is the opportunity for it to grow as others learn to respond in the same manner. Trystan Hughes confirms this view when he writes. ‘We therefore open our eyes to his kingdom in the simple, everyday moments, as we recognise his presence in moments of love or grace which we witness. With him, though, such moments don’t stay mundane. When we actively recognize him in the rich colourful tapestry of our everyday lives, he makes the ordinary extraordinary - his grace causes everything to exceed itself, and his light causes everything to double itself.’ Isn’t that a wonderful thought that, when we try to bring his kingdom nearer by tiny acts of love and grace, he causes them to exceed the act itself and not just to double it but treble and quadruple it until it grows as that mustard seed did? To make the ordinary become extraordinary.
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are both aiming to become travellers in space, their eyes fixed on the heavens above but we, if we truly believe in the Kingdom of God, must look downwards and find the heavens below heeding the words of Jack Kerouac: ‘If God isn’t somewhere out there in heaven, he’s right here in the dirt.’ God’s kingdom is literally a world away from those created by the likes of Musk, Bezos and Zuckerberg.
One of the most wonderful blessings of my life comes in the opportunity to bless premature babies in the Neonatal Unit. It is something I offer to all the families, and they are free to choose and many of them do. But perhaps what makes this such a special time is that the families may not profess any real practising religion, or they may be of a religion that is not Christian. For instance just this week I blessed a Hindu baby, but to me I am convinced that in blessing their precious babies the kingdom of heaven is apparent there in that room filled with medical equipment and beeping monitors. And my prayer afterwards is that in some way this moment will take root and grow for that family into a greater realisation of the presence of the kingdom of heaven which shelters all God’s children in its branches.
Each act of blessing that each of us do to make real the kingdom values here on earth has the capacity to grow and to nurture others. John Chrysostom tells us ‘Find the door of your heart, you will discover it is the door to the kingdom of God.’ May we be granted the grace to find the doors of our hearts and in acts of love, kindness and mercy to those in need find we truly are Warrant Holders in God’s kingdom.
Thy Kingdom Come by Malcolm Guite
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.
Can we imagine what we’re asking for?
When all we know and all we think we’re worth
As vanity might vanish, disappear,
Fading before the splendours you reveal;
The beggars crowned with glory, all the meek
Exalted even as the mighty fall,
And everywhere the triumph of the weak.
And we, who have been first, will be the last
And queue for mercy like the refugees
Whom only moments earlier we passed
By on the other side. For now the seas
That separated are no more. The sun
Is risen like justice, and his will is done.
Homily for Sunday 6 June
Texts: Psalm 138, Mark 3 verses 20-end
And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother. Mark 3 verses 34-35
Two articles I have read recently caused me to stop and think about yet another effect that this global pandemic is having upon our world. The first was detailing how, in the Ukraine, because of the conflict in the Crimea and the impact of Coronavirus, many children have been taken unnecessarily into state run institutions and in particular disabled children. The article had these words: ‘Desperate parents see orphanages as the only way to provide support for their children.’
The second article revealed the plight of children in India who have been orphaned by the pandemic and left destitute. The figure is put at around eight thousand children with the caveat that the final figure is likely to be far higher. Children who now have no means of support unless other family members, who may themselves be in extreme poverty because of the crisis, take them in and care for them.
Here, in this country, we no longer have orphanages but we do have some four hundred thousand children in social care amounting to around three percent of all the UK’s children. Also, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of the effect that the pandemic has had here in increasing poverty and the growing number of children who are having to seek basic nourishment from food banks.
The ideal of living in a happy closely knit family is not always a reality and for many children around the world they have no real concept of what such an ideal would mean. Teenage children such as those in North Korea who having been brought up in orphanages have now apparently ‘volunteered to work in difficult fields (such as coal mines.)’ And we have to be honest with ourselves and recognize that many families could now be described as dysfunctional in one way or another, and it’s definitely not always a case of Janet and John living happy fulfilled lives with their parents, grandparents and assorted family members. And again, we need to remind ourselves of the devastating effect that the pandemic has had on the freedom to visit family whenever and wherever one chose.
Today’s gospel reading can seem very harsh on the surface as Jesus appears to reject his close family members. But of course I am sure this was in reality far from the truth for as we know as Jesus endured all the agony of the cross he was still able to look to the suffering of his own mother as he watched and ensured that she would be looked after and cared for by John.
Surely what Jesus was trying to do as he said those words,’ Who are my mother and my brothers?’ was to point his listeners and us to the teaching revealed in the prayer Jesus himself taught us that we are all God’s children. God is ‘Abba; God is ‘Father’. And if that is so then surely, we are in effect all brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers., all family members. We are one family for again was not Abraham told that through him and his offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed?
We are often told we live nowadays in a global village and the fortunes and more probably the misfortunes of people all around the world are continually being relayed to us by the media. So often we can feel completely overwhelmed by the tragedies, the cruelties and the sheer numbers we are given of those affected and it is so much easier just to switch off and concentrate on our own small concerns, our own family problems. But what surely Jesus is pointing us to do is to be prepared to expand our horizons and to open our eyes and to see God’s children and their needs not simply right beside us but far further afield. And as I paused at that moment to enjoy a mug of coffee I wondered just how many families both here and abroad had been involved in ensuring that I had not just the ingredients but also the power needed to make it. And were they too able to relax as I was for a few minutes or was their life one of constant hard grind and poorly paid work as they tried to provide for their families? So much we simply take for granted; so much we choose to ignore; so much we regard as a right and not a blessing.
Earlier in today’s gospel reading Jesus speaks these words: If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.’ For God’s kingdom to be realised we have to act together in His name. The kingdom of God is one kingdom in which all are equal brothers and sisters; all are one family and it cannot be divided. We may sometimes dream, as many Scots now do, of our own special kingdom with just the people in it whom we most like and feel a kinship with or whose opinions and approach to life accord with ours but that is not and never can be the true kingdom. If we are truly to walk in the steps of Christ then we have to accept that we will find as our travelling companions a multitude of different people all of whom like us are God’s children and hence our brothers and sisters, our mothers, our fathers. We are called to have a relationship with God and with all His children; we cannot have just the first if we are to be true to our faith, our calling to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’.
I would like to end with these words of Desmond Tutu: ‘In God’s family there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian. Hutu and Tutsi. Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian-all belong…. we are members of one family. We belong… God says, ‘All are my children.’ It is shocking. It is radical.’
Homily for Sunday 30 May, Trinity Sunday
Delivered at St Marys Holmbury
Texts: Psalm 29, John 3 verses 1-17
It struck me that today’s gospel reading was entirely appropriate for Trinity Sunday as it describes Nicodemus’ bafflement at the very idea that one could be born from above for, surely, bafflement is something we also experience in trying to make sense of the concept of a Trinitarian God. I may of course be wrong, and you may have this extraordinarily perplexing theological concept all carefully worked out in your mind but for me it is one that is a part of the unfathomable mystery and wonder that is one God and yet simultaneously God who is three in one.
Nicodemus was totally bewildered at the very idea that in some way it was possible to be born again, born from above for surely birth was a once in a lifetime experience. An experience which interestingly none of us can have any memory of as we slid from the darkness of the womb into the light of the world. And we can now recognize, as I hope Nicodemus came to understand, that being born from above, born of the Spirit, takes us from the darkness of a marred and sinful world into the glorious light of the divine presence that was revealed by the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The divine presence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit that, today, we celebrate on Trinity Sunday. There are a multitude of theological tomes written on this subject but there are two writers whose words on the subject have really struck a chord with me, namely Sam Wells and Richard Rohr. Sam Wells writes: ‘God is three persons in one substance. God isn’t a thing…. God is a relationship. God is a relationship of three persons, so wonderfully shaped towards one another, so wondrously with one another, that they are one, but so exquisitely diverse and distinct within that unity that they are three. With is the key to the identity of the God who is.’ These last words of Wells of course echo the meaning of Emmanuel which quite simply translates as ‘God with us'.
What Wells and Richard Rohr in his book The Divine Dance are both suggesting is that we are invited to be part of that divine friendship, that divine dance and, in so doing, will know something of the wonder of being born from above and in a sense be made free of the restraints imposed by a material and self- possessed world. The Trinitarian God reaches out to all of us to be with Him in that friendship, that love, that interplay of diversity which makes up the whole. Rohr points us too to look at the Rublev icon of The Trinity where the three persons are shown as ‘eating and drinking in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves.’ But he goes on to say that the more you study the icon the more you come to realise that there is room at the table for a fourth person and that each of us is invited to be ‘a participant at this banquet and as a partner in God’s eternal dance of love and communion.’ Isn’t that the most wonderful joy giving idea that we are invited to share in the eternal dance of love and communion?
And it is here that I think we need to return to the story of Nicodemus and the necessity of being born from above. I am sure that almost all, if not all of you, here has been baptised and again probably have absolutely no memory of that occasion although there may be photos or a Baptism Card to verify that it did actually happen. But I think we need, in a way, to allow ourselves to be renewed and blessed within the Spirit of the Trinitarian God not on just one day of which we have no recall but on every day. The words of the hymn remind us that ‘New ev’ry morning is the love; our wak’ning and uprising prove; through sleep and darkness safely brought, restored to life and pow’r and thought.’ Do we recognize that each and every morning we are re-awakened, restored and re-energised within God’s love to live out another day with Him and for Him? Can we ensure that ‘the trivial round, the common task, will furnish all we need to ask’ and will indeed bring us daily nearer God? Do we allow ourselves time to be conscious of the fact that, however mundane or humble our lives, in living out those lives with God we are part of the divine dance Rohr speaks about; that we are truly part of the relationship that exists between God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit? Such an understanding of this relationship with the divine is absolutely mind boggling and awe inspiring but it was Jesus Himself who taught us to speak of God as Father and of His love for us His children.
The divine dance Rohr writes about is undoubtedly a dance of love and that is the dance we are asked to join in however clumsy, left-footed or ungainly we may be. And here I am reminded of my disabled Granddaughter who just loves to be included in any dancing which may occur albeit she is bodily confined to a wheelchair. God wants us, whoever we are to share with Him who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in that dance of love. A love perfectly encapsulated in these words of St Patrick: ‘The Father created us out of His love and for His love. The Son redeemed us by His love and for His love. The Spirit sustains us with His love and for His love. The Holy Three seek us in love and for love.’?
Nicodemus was mystified and left puzzled by the words of Jesus but we know that he must somehow have grasped some of their intent and what they meant for him personally, in that he had the courage to go openly with Joseph of Arimathea to lay Jesus’s body in the tomb in marked contrast to that first meeting when he came covertly by night. We will undoubtedly continue to be mystified and puzzled by not just the theology of the Trinity but by the wonder and awe that the very idea God inspires in us and of which today’s psalm speaks with such passion.
But leaving aside the mystery and all the unanswered questions, the doubts too, can we hold fast to those words of St Patrick and respond in love and take joyous delight in joining in the divine dance. The divine dance of God’s creation in which we too can use our creative talents for the good and prosperity of God’s world. He divine dance of Christ’s Love in which we can discover new dance steps to show the love of care and compassion to all God’s children. The divine dance of the Holy Spirit in which we engage in new routines to engage others in the Good News that God is with us now, tomorrow and for all eternity? Can we recognize that every single moment of our lives is a God given opportunity to participate with the Holy Trinity in the divine dance of love and communion?
Homily for Sunday 23 May, Pentecost
Delivered at St Johns, Wotton
Look graciously upon us, O Holy Spirit, and give us for our hallowing, thoughts that pass into prayer, prayers that pass into love, and love that passes into life with thee for ever. Eric Milner-White
Texts: Acts 2 verses1-21, John 15 verses 26-27, 16 verses 4b -15
If I asked you to pay the word association game and said the word ‘spirit’ I wonder what your immediate response would be. I tried it with my daughter and grandchildren and my daughter responded ‘ghosties’ and then admitted that she could just as easily have said ‘gin; my granddaughter said ‘animal’ which struck me as completely random, but it was for her the word that sprung immediately to mind, and my grandson said ‘live’ as in alive. Another response which might be given is ‘fighting’ and of course for those reading this we would most quite probably be influenced by the occasion and come up with ‘Holy’. This said I’m sure for the vast majority of the population this latter response would never even occur to them and sadly many would have no idea what was being talked about.
The idea of just what we mean by spirit is not an easy one to answer as it can have so many connotations but today, on Pentecost Sunday, it’s the Holy Spirit which we have to consider; the Holy Spirit which in the King James’ version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer is called the Holy Ghost so my daughter’s response was fitting. I must say I personally am happier with the nomenclature Holy Spirit as Holy Ghost smacks too much of Halloween and people draped in white sheets trying to look scary.
And that makes me wonder how scared were all those people in Jerusalem that day when the Holy Spirit made what has to have been its most dramatic appearance, not with white sheets, but with the sound like the rush of a violent wind and divided tongues as of fire and all the disciples upon whom the Spirit had rested were suddenly given the power to preach in a multitude of languages so that all present might understand their words? The Bible account does not make it entirely clear as to whether only the disciples sensed the wind and fire, but everyone certainly heard them start speaking with such passion and fluency. Is it any wonder that many accused them of having tasted of another sort of spirit that morning?
But today, as we celebrate Pentecost in our churches and our homes, just what does the Holy Spirit mean to us? In fact, does it have any very real meaning or is it in effect just an add on to God the Father and God the Son? Both God the Father and God the Son are in a sense easy to identify with and to have some sort of mental picture of albeit possibly an erroneous one, but God the Holy Spirit is I think a far more challenging concept. Richard Rohr writes that ‘the Spirit was always the hardest to describe, and even Jesus acknowledges this: “the Spirit blows where it will”. And Rohr goes on to suggest that because of this we can never control the Spirit, since we have no idea where it comes from or where it goes, or even say who has the Spirit. In other words, like my granddaughter’s response, the Holy Spirit is very much a random force in the outpouring of the divine Trinity. Of course, especially in evangelical churches, there is great emphasis on the Spirit and it might seem to us who perhaps prefer a less exuberant, more reserved style of worship that they somehow possess more of the gifts of the Holy Spirit than we do but I agree with Rohr that we cannot easily define who has the Spirit and who may lack knowing the reality of such a divine gift. Doesn’t everyone have a spiritual side even if they would never acknowledge it publicly?
Yes, on that first great revelation of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem it was all too apparent who had the Spirit even if it was mistaken for quite another sort of spirit but from then on, through the centuries, I believe that the Holy Spirit has chosen to make its presence felt in people’s lives less dramatically perhaps but just as profoundly. It has been and always will be very much ‘live’ in our world and in shaping our particular spirituality. And here I have to say that for me the wonder of the Holy Spirit is found in the ability it seems to have in showing me where I might find just the right reference; just the right words for my sermons. Again and again, I have found a page of a book almost opening at some particularly apt page and been forcibly struck by the mystery that lies behind such an often repeated occurrence.
But I think even more importantly the Holy Spirit can, if we allow it, lead us into that quiet place of our heart where we will have a very real sense of the presence of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, Rohr states that in our desire to find God and to understand more about his infinite love for us the Holy Spirit ‘will get you there, as the Holy Spirit always does.’ In the same way Ian Adams writes in one of his supremely sensitive poems ‘Wait for the right time. Wait for the divine revealing. Wait for the Holy Spirit.’
And what is it exactly we are waiting for? Here we are given a clue in the words for Morning Prayer these past ten days, ‘Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in us the fire of your love.’ Surely that is exactly what the Holy Spirit did on that first Pentecost when there was not only the outward sign of tongues of fire but inner tongues that inspired those disciples and loosened their tongues to tell of God’s supreme love for us His children revealed in the life, the death and the glorious resurrection of His Son.
Today there will be no rushing wind, no tongues of fire, no ghosties or animals,or even a bottle of gin for that matter, but there will always be the Holy Spirit who is live among us. Remember the word association game is designed to trap one player into repeating the word that the game began with and for us the Holy Spirit may blow where it will but it will always return to us to kindle in us the fire of God’s love.
O come Holy Spirit, inflame our hearts, set them on fire with love. Burn away my self-centredness so that I can love unselfishly. Breathe your life giving breath into our soul so that we can live freely and joyously, unrestricted by self-consciousness, and may be ready to go wherever you may send us. Come like a gentle breeze and give us your still peace so that we may be quiet and know the wonder of your presence, and help diffuse it in the world. Never let us shut you out; never let us try to limit me to your capacity; act freely in us and through us; never leave us O Lord and Giver of Life.
Michael Hollings & Etta Gullick
Wait for the Divine Spirit
There is no rush
Allow time to become a gift.
Wait for the right time.
Wait for the divine revealing.
Wait for the Holy Spirit.
And allow yourself to be drawn in close.
Your spirit and the Holy Spirit
In a dance of life, of love, and of light.
Wait for the Holy Spirit
Homily for Sunday16 May
Texts: Psalm 1, John 17 verses 6-19
I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.’ John 17 verse 12b
For a long time now I have felt so sorry for Judas, the ‘one destined to be lost’ and feel that his place in the story of Christ’s death has, in a sense, been misunderstood and definitely mis-interpreted. For one I think the very fact that his name was Judas and hence immediately connected to the word Jew has, in part, led to the terrible and systematic persecution of Jews down the centuries on the grounds that they were responsible for Jesus’ death; responsible, in fact, for deicide. And tragically, today we still find that Jews are persecuted and widely discriminated against as for example has seen to be the case with the Labour Party.
Technically yes, it was a Jew, who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders and it was the High Priest and his Council who engineered his death, but remember Jesus himself was very much a Jew; he was not a Christian. In reviling Jews we are, in one sense, reviling Jesus himself. Had God chosen to send His Son to another part of the world it might well have been us or the Russians or the Nigerians who would have been seen as responsible for his death. For God’s true purposes for us his children to be revealed Christ had to suffer death. There was no other way that it could be achieved and as the gospel reading tells us, Judas’ part in that death was in fulfilment of the scriptures.
The more I think about it I feel that Judas, in a sense, represents all of us who have, from time to time, been responsible for betraying someone; from turning away from them and turning against them. How many times have family break-ups occurred because of a sense of betrayal by one member or another? How many times have friendships come to a bitter end because of a sense of betrayal? How many times have work colleagues fallen out because of a sense of betrayal, a sense of someone going behind your back and sticking the knife in? Basil Hume writes: ‘There is no greater betrayal of another than to fail to love him, and one of the most tragic aspects of our modern society is the betrayal of one by another: it is the failure to love.’ Now there is food for thought.
I think Judas’ action of betrayal epitomises the responses of all humans who, at one time or another, have felt disappointed in their expectations and frustrated by a seeming lack of action in which their own little private dreams have not been realised. Jesus had continually preached about the coming Kingdom and I am quite sure that Judas was not alone in jumping to the conclusion that Jesus must be talking about a time when the Jewish people would no longer be subject to Roman Rule and would once more be a free people. Isn’t that the dream of all oppressed people who know the whip hand of those who have assumed power over them? Look right now at the Independence movement in Scotland where so many Scots feel that they are being subject to the dictats of Westminster and want to be free of the restraints they feel have been imposed upon them and in particular that of Brexit.
There had been so many people before Jesus who had tried to lead a revolt against Roman rule and it was this history which naturally made people like the Governor Pontius Pilate nervous; a fact played upon by the Jewish Council when they were demanding a death sentence for Jesus. In 4BCE at least three messianic uprisings broke out simultaneously and all were crushed by the occupying powers. Then in 6CE another Judas, Judas of Galilee, led a force of Zealots against the Romans but again they were defeated and at least two thousand of them subjected to death by crucifixion while Judas himself was flung into the sea with a millstone around his neck. These were events that, surely, Jesus and, indeed, all his disciples would know about and the injustice and the defeats would have surely rankled within them and Judas, who was himself thought to have been a Zealot, would have felt all this perhaps more keenly; possibly even relatives of his might have been among those killed.
We all become frustrated and harbour a sense of grievance when our personal dreams and hopes are not realised and, in our frustration, can all too easily lash out. Only this week I was talking to the Chief Executive of St Peter’s Hospital who told me of the deluge of angry and hurtful e-mails she received when St Peter’s was perceived to be lagging behind other hospitals in ensuring its staff were being vaccinated. Look at Northern Ireland; look at the desperate struggle which has now broken out between Israel and Palestine. Festering grievances and an acute desire to be free of restraints placed by others , plus of course our failure to love those we perceive as different, can and so often does lead to the outbreak of violence. The sort of violence Jews have been subjected to throughout history in part because of a manufactured grievance that they killed Christ.
And in thinking about Judas it is interesting to note these words written in the Oxford Companion to the Bible: ‘Accounts of Judas are varied, inconsistent, and influenced by the theological opinions of the writers’. For three years he had, like all the chosen disciples, doggedly followed Jesus and suffered the hardships of that peripatetic life. Had he been as terrible as tradition paints him, would Jesus have even chosen him in the first place? No, I’m sure he wasn’t any worse than any human is who commits an act of betrayal. Anymore than any of us are when we, too, have betrayed someone for whatever reason. In human form Jesus had to know and experience the vulnerability which is part of all human life and betrayal was just one part of such exposure just as we too can be exposed to experience such acts in our life- times.
In a sense I think Judas represents all of humanity in that betrayal has always happened and it is betrayal that perhaps above all else destroys the bonds of love. Judas is central to the story and his act of betrayal represents the acts of all men and women who, for whatever reason, put their own dreams and aspirations before the common good. Basil Hume writes about the ‘inner ills’ of thwarted ambition, resentment, frustration, wounds inflicted by other people; the pain that comes from feeling unappreciated, disliked rejected which can cause wounds that fester. Surely Judas knew at least some of these as do we; in our own way we can all be seen as ‘little Judases’ But, and this is what is far more important and beautifully expressed again in the words of Basil Hume: ‘as Jesus hung on the Cross a new alliance was built between God and man. The Bridge-Builder was indeed bridging the gulf which separates man from God. He was making retribution for the enormity of the insult which sin is.’
Forgiveness of sins. Isn’t that central to and indeed the crux of our Christian faith; forgiveness for all those myriad times we’ve failed to love as God loves us and surely if we believe this then can anyone be so bad that they can never be once more embraced within God’s redemptive love? Ours can never be the final judgement, be it for Judas or anyone else whom we feel has wronged or betrayed us. Such judgement we must leave to God’s redemptive mercy as we try once again to love as God loves us.
In hell there grew a Judas tree where Judas hang’d and died, because he could not bear to see his Master crucified.
The Lord descended into Hell and found his Judas there, for ever hanging on the tree grown from his own despair.
So Jesus cut his Judas down and took him in his arm; it was for this I came, he said, and not to do you harm.
My Father gave me twelve good men, and all of them I’ve kept, tho’ one betrayed and one denied, some fled and others slept.
In three days’ time I must return to make the others glad, but first I had to come to Hell and share the death you had.
My tree will grow in place of yours’ its roots strike here as well: there is no final victory, without this soul from Hell.
So when we all condemn him, as of ev’ry traitor worst, remember that of all His men Our Lord forgave him first.
Homily for Sunday 9 May
Texts: Psalm 98, John 15 verses 9-17
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
One of the problems with the English language is that we only have the one word love which has to be used whether we declare; ‘Ooh I do love mint choc ice cream’ or ‘I’d love to go to the Bahamas’ or of course ‘I do love you will you marry me?’ What lies behind such usage may vary hugely in terms of what exactly we mean by love. So, what precisely is it that Jesus is asking us to do when he asks us to love one another in the same manner as he loves us? And here it is interesting to note that Greek has no less than eight different words for love and the one which is central to the gospel is ‘agape’ which is understood as selfless universal love. Also, it is worth noting that the Hebrew word most in use to express love is ‘ahava’ which is described as more than just a word it is an emotion that involves action and where Hebrew is the national language love is a way of life. And we should surely ask ourselves is that true of our lives?
Of course, we know that the greatest and most perfect proof of his love was Jesus’ willingness to give his very life for us and indeed having commanded us to love each other, he does go on in the same gospel passage to say; ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ But except in time of war or in quite remarkable circumstances most people will never be called upon to give up their very life for another. This said, only very recently there was the story of the remarkable twenty year old Nigerian Olubunmi-Adewole, known to his friends as Jimi, who when crossing London Bridge saw a woman fall into the Thames and he and another bystander, despite the cold and darkness, leapt unhesitatingly into the water to try to save her and in so doing Jimi lost his own life. The last words he spoke to a friend who was with him were ‘I have to save her, I’m going to save her.’
So, in what other ways can we be expected to emulate the love of Jesus? And thinking about this it struck me that what Jesus did again and again was notice people and not only notice them but recognize their needs. One delightful example of this is when Zaccheus, desperate to catch a glimpse of this man who was grabbing everyone’s attention; knowing his stature was such he would never be able to see at the back of the crowd rushed ahead of Jesus and his disciples and climbed a sycamore tree. Now I don’t know about you, but I suspect if I was walking along minding my own business I could so easily not even notice someone was up in the branches of a tree and if I did it would surely only strike me as somewhat odd but not worth stopping for and starting a conversation with him or her let alone asking myself to dinner at their house. But Jesus not only observed Zaccheus, but far more importantly he was able to recognize that here was a man who needed to be befriended, who in fact needed to be loved. Remember tax collectors were not exactly flavour of the month back then any more than they are now and add to this prejudicial dislike was the fact that at a guess his lack of stature had, in itself, made him the butt of jokes and unkind remarks. Jesus noticed, Jesus acted and in so doing he changed a life completely. Can we say that we have done the same?
For another example, think of how Jesus noticed lepers and instead of moving away as fast as he could to avoid the risk of infection he noticed, their plight, he acted and he changed their lives. And, perhaps, in this time of pandemic this is something for us to think about and whether just sometimes it’s more important to embrace someone in need rather than stand aloof and socially distanced?
Then if we look at the parables Jesus told there are two in particular I think which illustrate perfectly this need to notice, to act and thus to show love. The story of the Good Samaritan who despite any possible risk to himself stopped to help the seriously injured man on the road. Unlike the priest and the Levite, he did not simply walk on but, regardless of his own safety, when he saw the need, he acted, and acted with considerable magnanimity and he not only saved that man’s life, but I suspect changed it as well. The second example comes in the parable of the Prodigal Son whose plight when he was starving went completely un-noticed and ignored. In contrast when he made that decision to return home and, despite having broken the Jewish honour code regarding property and of respect for one’s parents, he found himself embraced once more within his father’s love. His father had seen his desperate need not just for food and shelter but to, once more, experience being truly and unhesitatingly loved. The father saw ,the father acted and that son’s life was surely turned around and restored
I know I could cite many more examples, but I hope that I have made the point that I think is central to today’s gospel, which is that in order to emulate the love of Christ we must always be prepared to notice all the people around us; notice their needs; notice their pain and act to help and alleviate such needs, such pain. It may be the tiniest act which, in the great scheme of things, seems so insignificant but that isn’t what matters. And here I would like to give an example from my own experience. My daughter was very ill in hospital in London, and I had moved into her flat so that I could be with her all through the day. Travelling back to the flat one night in a crowded rush hour tube train and undoubtedly in my distress and exhaustion looking like the proverbial dog’s dinner a young man suddenly got up from his seat and offered it to me. He had noticed, he had acted, and I will never forget that act of selfless love at a time when I needed all the love I could get.
In John’s first letter he writes: ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help. Little children let us love, not in word or in speech, but in truth and action.’ Every instance when, having noticed someone in need and acted on their behalf, we are surely displaying our willingness to live our lives in a true and obedient response to that commandment that we should love one another as Jesus has loved us. The needs may range from bothering to check what is needed in the Food Bank this week to noticing that someone is really struggling with ill health or the burdens of managing work and a family and needs a bit of comforting reassurance, or to responding to the appeal for funds to provide oxygen for the desperately overstretched hospitals in India. So let us pray that we make it part of our Christian journey to notice the person up a tree, notice those who have been ravaged by the circumstances of their life, notice those who have been scarred in some way by the pandemic and act in love towards them whoever they may be.’
Love is more than just a word, it is an emotion that involves action, love is a way of life.’
If you keep in mind my mercy, you will not be mean-spirited with yourself or with your neighbour. On the contrary, you will be generous in your compassion, nourishing your neighbour with all that you have, all that I have given you. Catherine of Siena
Homily for Sunday 2 May
Texts: 1 John 4 verses 7-end, John 15 verses 1-8
The reading from John’s gospel will strike a chord with anyone who professes to be a gardener and who knows that pruning is essential, be it the Chelsea chop or a more dramatic prune of one’s fruit trees. Such pruning is done to encourage and promote new and more abundant growth. According to Google the time for pruning vines is late winter after all the last grapes have been picked and the vine can then go into a form of hibernation before new growth shows itself in the spring and every owner of a vineyard prays there will be no late frosts as there have been this year.
But as Jesus’s words make perfectly plain we, too, are living beings and if we are to bear fruit then we too need from time to time to be pruned so that we also go into a form of hibernation where we seek to renew our strength through the core strength of the vine. The core strength that is the presence of the living Christ within each of us. As it says in the reading from John’s first letter, ‘No one has seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.’
But for that love to be perfected we need from time to time to be pruned, to be brought up short as it were and to allow that new and fruitful growth to realised. Talk to anyone who has undergone a ‘pruning’ be it the loss of a loved one be it from death or estrangement, the loss of employment, the loss of good health, the loss even at times of hope and you will be told how, by seeking God’s healing and strength, in time such loss re-shaped them and re-directed them and they were enabled to bear fruit again. The time of such pruning can be incredibly painful, so much so that it can at times seem impossible that any new growth can occur but slowly slowly that love of God which is the essential for all growth will enable it to happen.
But it will and can only happen if we do have that absolute trust in God’s love for us and his good purposes for us. If we try to go it alone or force the growth in any way it simply will not have the same result.
These past long months since the onset of the pandemic have seen so much pruning as our lives have been re-shaped and constricted in a way we could never have imagined. But now, as restrictions are lifted, we have the potential to show new growth; to bear the fruits of the spirit in a world which at times seems incredibly short of such fruits. I think the question we all need to ask ourselves is have we, in this time of lock down, allowed not such fruits as despair, idleness, even anger and frustration to grow and fester within us but those wonderful life enhancing fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control?
And here I think it’s important to recognize that we are all unique and will all bear such fruits in different proportions and there may even be one or two we will never bear successfully. Remember there are a vast variety of grapes and they are used for a variety of purposes be it simply a deliciously sweet grape to accompany a piece of well flavoured cheese or to make some premier cru wine or even to become a piece of dried fruit such as a raisin or sultana. No grape can be all these and in the same way even the most perfect saint is unlikely to bear all the gifts of the spirit.
We know that the pandemic has highlighted so much division within not just society here in the UK but around the world and to rebuild and restrengthen this world which is God’s we are surely called upon to use those gifts of the spirit that I trust are now ready to bear fruit. Generosity and kindness, perhaps as we recognize just how poverty stricken some people are, be it financial or spiritual poverty. Or are we now enabled to reach out in love to those who are not part of our own close circle but who are God’s children just as much as we are and whose plight of being ostracised and even demonised has been highlighted in this time of the pandemic? Have all the countless hours of watching the news blunted us or re-awakened the recognition that we do need to do far more to love one another? Have we been stirred by the example of NHS staff and essential workers to emulate their sacrifice, their heroism in some way or now the worst is over do we forget what the cost has been to such people?
Lock down was far from easy; it was in a very real sense a pruning as our normal manner of life was cut down and pared but, if we look back over that time we can, I hope, be led to see what good has come out of it and where new fruits of the spirit have sprouted in us, in other people and, most importantly, in the church as an institution. I know that I for one am far more aware of just how hard life is for so many and the difficulties and trials that they face not just in a time of pandemic but for years on end. And I think too because of masks we are beginning to learn to look, really look, into people’s eyes and see reflected there the inner love that surely all of us carry but do not always show in normal times.
Today’s reading from the first letter of John is, I think, my absolute ‘go to’ piece of scripture which reminds me time after time of God’s love for us in all circumstances and all seasons and our call to respond to that love by loving one another. And it is also, I think, a reminder of the love we are shown in times of our own pruning that enables us to reflect that love in the fruits of the spirit that we bear.
This is proving to be a most glorious spring full of beautiful blossom promising in many instances fruit in the autumn; can we too as we re-grow from the pandemic also display God’s glory and love in the blossom we bear for the delight of others?
Become a Gift to those Around You by Ian Adams
Sometimes you slip into preoccupation with yourself.
With your life, your direction, your losses and your findings.
The invitation here is to look outwards.
To become a gift, a gift to those around you.
And you will become a gift by becoming truly the person you are.
By living the life that has always been waiting within you.
Your life aligned to your true North
will be a life that offers hope for others.
Love for God and love for neighbour will become as one.
And quietly you will become a gift to all around you.
Homily for Sunday 25 April
Texts: Psalm 23, John 10 verses 11-18
The Good Shepherd image of Christ is one I am sure most people really respond to although, this said, I wonder if the same is true of younger people. Younger people who would not, in their often far more urbanized lives, never have set eyes on a shepherd and, if they have seen sheep, they would most probably be confined within the safety of a large field with no need for a watching, protective shepherd. By contrast I think those of us of a certain age will vividly remember television pictures of shepherds attempting to rescue their flocks from the accumulated snow drifts on such places as the Yorkshire Dales. Perhaps the very fact that such pictures are no longer commonplace in the winter months is yet another example of the effects of global warming. And back to shepherding, I suspect that many of us wrinklies could quote almost verbatim today’s appointed Psalm, number twenty-three ,and who find the words of that psalm so comforting and reassuring with its final ringing words of confidence ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever'.
Throughout the Bible we find passages with the same image of the shepherd tending his sheep and so for Jesus’s listeners they would feel very comfortable with his same use of this imagery.
Many people kept sheep and goats although most only owned a few which they would tend personally, and it was only the rich who could afford a large flock to be looked after by hired hands. And hence we can properly appreciate just why someone who is merely a hired hand was more than likely to run away if danger threatened.
But what must also be understood is that the keeping and raising of sheep and, indeed goats, in a country like Palestine is markedly different from the keeping of sheep here where our climate ensures that there is plenty of green pasture and even sheep that roam on places such as the Dales will not have to go far in search of sustenance. In Palestine, and indeed all Middle Eastern countries, there is not such luxurious growth of suitable pasture and a shepherd might often have to lead his flock over very rough and difficult terrain in order to allow them to find new grazing. Hence the words of Psalm twenty- three with its references to green pastures and dark valleys would make far more literal sense to the Jewish people.
Yes, Jesus the Good Shepherd leads us all through our lives but what we do need to appreciate is that we still have free will. We may be led into those green pastures but, it is up to us to find the best grazing spots or, in other words, to make the very best use of the blessings we have been given. We must look for those places where we can be sure of being well fed under the protective gaze of the Good Shepherd but, it has to be emphasised, the choice of the exact spot is ours. Look at any field of sheep and see them scattered far and wide and only when danger threatens do they huddle together for protection.
Similarly, when we are being led through those dark valleys the Good Shepherd may lead but it is up to us to choose the exact path and avoid the most treacherous bits; to have the courage to place our feet on the next piece of rock however perilous it may seem. We will not be carried over such ground only led, and it is in the leading that our confidence and trust must lie. Some translations of the Psalm talk about walking through the valley of the shadow of death while another version I have talks of walking through the darkest valley which is perhaps, the most useful translation as it reminds us that those dark valleys may be many and varied. Yes, there is the valley of death itself but there are also the valleys where we experience the death of such things as good health, of job security, of a relationship and even the death at times of hope. In all such valleys we need to remember the Good Shepherd is always always with us and most especially in those times when we experience the death of hope. The death of hope that we know so many have experienced during these past months of the pandemic and who remain fearful and, indeed, lost as they fail to see any prospect of green pastures lying ahead for them.
And lastly, we recognize that we are free to stray, to attempt to make our own way and seek our own pasture unaided by the Good Shepherd’s guidance. We are never forced to follow it must be our choice. The image given of sheep is often that of being silly creatures; we must ensure that in choosing to follow Christ we are not silly and understand that we have both free will and responsibilities to make the best of all the different and often challenging places into which we are being led throughout our lives.
Jesus the Good Shepherd is, indeed, a wonderful image, but we must never forget just what it cost him to assume this role. When the wolves of hypocrisy, self- interest, self- glorification, power seeking, ostracism, legalism, blinkered ideas and prejudice and so many other failings threatened the well-being of God’s sheep the Good Shepherd laid down his life for them. It was only by so doing that we could be led to understand and could begin to appreciate something of the unlimited depth that is God’s love for us.
Death could not destroy the Good Shepherd but only served to make us more profoundly aware of His everlasting presence in our lives as he leads us on our earthly pilgrimage. We are his sheep, and he will, unlike the hired hands, never leave us to face dangers alone but is there as the hymn says to be our guardian and our guide, who hears us when we call out in any sort of danger or need. He is there to ensure that we are held within his goodness and loving mercy throughout our lives and ultimately as our own death calls he will surely guide us safely to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Psalm 23: Dominus regit me by Malcolm Guite
To suffer my own dereliction for me,
To be my shepherd, and to lead me through
The grave and gate of death, in strength and mercy
Christ has come down. At last I’ve found the true
Shepherd and the false just fade away
Before him. I will sing of how he drew
Me from the snares I set myself, how day
Dawned on my darkness, how he brought me forth,
Converted me and opened up the way
For me, and led me gently on that path,
Led me beside still waters, promised me
That he’d be with me all my days on earth,
And when my last day comes, accompany
And comfort me, as evening shadows fall,
And draw me into eternity.
Homily for Sunday 18 April
Texts: Psalm 4, Acts 3 verses 12-19, Luke 24 verses 36b-48
Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer
I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord , make me lie in safety. Psalm 4 verses 1, 8
Fear is something that every living person must have known at one time or another and for some fear is almost intrinsic to their lives. This pandemic alone has caused worldwide fear and even panic, and I hear stories of people who even now with lockdown rules relaxed are, tragically, too fearful to venture out. In our gospel reading we hear of the fear engendered in the disciples as they found themselves confronted by what appeared at first to be a ghost. Now I’ve never seen a ghost but my goodness I’m sure I would be frightened out of my wits if such an apparition did appear in front of me, so I have every sympathy with those disciples who were already living in a heightened sense of fear after the death of Jesus.
Fear can come in so many forms, from the fear of being laughed at or humiliated to the mind numbing, stomach churning fear of very real and imminent danger. Add to these fears such as those for the future of this planet given the threat of global warming or of hostile nations with possible war like intentions such as those being displayed right now by Russia towards the Ukraine.
And reflecting on all this as I looked out of my window at the sky which was a wonderful clear blue I was led to think as much as one is able to do so of the sheer immensity of space with its multiple universes and black holes. The statistics relating to space are certainly for most of us beyond comprehension and for me just served to make me realise just how infinitesimally small our planet is and that we as people are totally and utterly insignificant and unbelievably miniscule as regards the overall size of a creation which extends beyond all understanding. In the words of the psalmist, ‘The peoples are but a breath, the whole human race a deceit; on the scales they are altogether lighter than air.’ But, at the same time the greatest wonder and the most incomprehensible, unfathomable mystery of all is that we are held within God’s love so much so that he sent His own Son to this tiny insignificant planet simply in order to demonstrate that love. A love that bids us not to fear; not to be afraid but to trust in that love no matter what befalls us. Again and again in the Bible we read passages which urge us not to be afraid such as the wonderful psalm ninety-one or those oh so familiar words from St John’s gospel: ’Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you….Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.’ So, too, in the story of the great storm that blew up on Lake Galilee causing the disciples to fear for their very lives, Jesus having been woken from his sleep and having calmed the storm, spoke these words to them: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’
Can we read such words of reassurance and have our fears calmed? Can we trust that we are never called upon to face our fears alone? That God walks with us as it says in Psalm twenty-three both in the green pastures and in the valley of death. The valleys of death where, for whatever reason, we experience fear together often with loss of hope not recognising that the Lord is right there with us. Lorraine Cavanagh writes that: ‘the full stop of fear can be transformed into a comma by a self-acceptance and compassion grounded on the embrace we find in Christ’. And here it is interesting to note that whenever the Church has been under a threat of persecution it has not only survived but even thrived. Certainly, our disciples having been reassured and convinced that they were not seeing a ghost were given the courage to face up to all and any fears they might have and preach the gospel of Christ risen with complete confidence. Would you or I have been frightened to do the same in the face of all the forceful attempts of the authorities to prevent such a gospel gaining hold? Sitting quietly and peacefully at home the very thought might well terrify us and we would deny ever being able to do such a thing but I guess that is what so many saints and martyrs may well have thought before it came to the crunch and they knew that they only had one option. The option to overcome their fear and in its place to trust in God, trust in His embrace, to give them the courage that they needed to face whatever opposition, whatever threats, whatever persecution to which they might be subjected.
And of course, we must never ever forget the example of our Lord Jesus Christ himself as he walked the way of the Cross. Whatever his inner fears, whatever feelings of that mind numbing, stomach churning dread we have all experienced, nothing would stop him from fulfilling God’s purposes for his Son and consequently for us His children. Does our faith challenge us to overcome our fears about appearing stupid and deluded or becoming a cause for mockery, denigration or worse as we openly profess our beliefs?
Father Steve Grunow in a reflection on the life of Maximilian Kolbe who sacrificed his own life in a concentration camp so that another prisoner might be saved wrote the following. ‘For too many Christians, the faith is a safe routine, a kind of philosophy of self-improvement, something meant to be comfortable and comforting. Christian faith is not so much about safety as it is about risk. It is meant to take us out into the world, into the shadows, to be a light to show the way home to those who live in darkness.’
Can we move into those shadows where there may or may not be ghosts but there will most certainly be our Lord Jesus Christ to uphold us and to give us the courage we need to face up to fear just as he gave it to those first disciples.?
Strength from the Shepherd by Eddie Askew
Lord, there’s always a catch.
I get hooked on the green pastures and still waters.
I could spend my time very nicely lying in the summer grass.
And if I feel really energetic,
I’d open my eyes and watch the clouds sail by,
safely, far overhead.
That’s where clouds should be.
But when these clouds draw thick chill curtains over the sun,
their shadows racing over the ground,
And when they come down to ground level,
shrouding me in mist,
I walk a panic path of fear.
The still surface of my peace shattered,
Rough rippled by the first breath of wind over the water.
Are these the paths of righteousness?
I pick my way through,
hesitating at every step.
Worried that when I move my foot may slip, my ankle twist.
And sometimes, putting out my hand,
there’s nothing there.
Or so it seems.
And yet, somehow a strength is there.
The shepherd takes me high to pasture, over rocky paths.
Calling me to effort.
I climb, struggling through thorn thickets,
the way marked by scraps of wool,
torn from the fleece of my self-satisfaction.
It makes me breathless.
But you are there.
Counting the sheep.
Knowing when I stray.
Giving your life to rescue me.
Taking me, each day,
nearer the fold.
Homily for Sunday 11 April
Texts: Acts 4 verses 32-35, John 20 verses 19-end
With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. Acts 4 verse 33
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side I will not believe.’ John 20 verse 25b
As everyone knows the one certainty of life is death. But what other certainties are there that we can absolutely rely upon without a shadow of doubt? Gravity I suppose is a given, as is the regularity of our earthly peregrination around the sun and indeed the moon around us although I suppose there just might be some that deny even these last two. In fact, a great many established scientific facts cannot be regarded with anything but certainty. But when it comes to our own lives then immediately doubt creeps in, beginning with the doubt as to when precisely we can expect that visit of the Grim Reaper. So much to do with our lives is the subject of doubt even for the most optimistic who are always certain they’ve passed all their exams, definitely landed that dream job or who know that their newly planted seeds will all sprout and produce an astonishingly bumper crop of runner beans much to the envy of all the neighbours.
And, of course, when it comes to the subject of religion and our beliefs then the possibility of doubt is never far away. Do we believe every single word of the Creed as we recite it week by week or, do we have at the very least a few caveats and even some quite nagging and persistent doubts? And, if we do, let’s be clear that is not a reason to despair or to feel your faith is somehow lacking. An exercise during my ordination training exposed how all of us harboured at least some niggles of doubt about some of the aspects of that profession of faith. Personally, I think that as far as our understanding of God is concerned doubt is actually what we need as a spur to making us try as much as our limited intellectual powers allow us to unravel a little bit more as to the underlying and often seemingly impenetrable and imponderable mystery that is God. My goodness, I doubt if I will ever be able to fathom the workings of modern technology or the secret of opening childproof bottles however hard I try and both of which have rational explanations. So, why should it be any different with our comprehension as to exactly what is God? How can any human being possibly begin to be certain as to what truly comprises all the wonder, the glory, the creative power let alone the love which comprise the mystery that is God?
It isn’t that we doubt God’s existence, although there are plenty of people who do just that; it’s simply that we doubt our understanding of him and in particular our understanding of the reality behind the incarnation and the resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. So, reflecting on all this is it any wonder that Thomas doubted what his fellow disciples told him that day when they claimed to have seen the risen Lord? And maybe, in a way, it was deliberately designed that way. Designed so that Thomas should have been excluded on that occasion as it means we can all relate to Thomas and be reassured that if he could doubt then it’s all right for us too to harbour doubts and look for and even demand certainties as Thomas did.
Thomas did indeed see those dreadfully scarred hands and thus was enabled to believe which we will not do. But we have instead the extraordinary testimony of the disciples as to the truth of the risen Christ. Testimony they were prepared not just to give to an expectant world but to give their lives for if necessary because they could not and would not deny the truth of what they had witnessed. They gave that testimony that Christ’s words might be fulfilled: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ And here I think it is only appropriate to mention Prince Philip whose Christian faith was integral to his life and to his outstanding sense of duty and who, I am certain, now dwells in the house of the Lord for ever and he is now able to know the truth of the words of a favourite prayer of his included at the end of this homily.
In my mind, and I hope in your,s there is no doubt that Christ is risen and not just at Easter but every single day we can also bear witness to that fact and allow it to direct and guide the way in which we ourselves bear testimony to its truth. Of course, there are doubts. Of course, there are questions, and most will never be answered but we can use our doubts and our questions to gain a greater understanding of the mystery of God; the mystery of the incarnation and the resurrection. Stephen Terry wrote what for me are these encouraging words: ‘A true and living faith is defined not by its certainties, but by the questions it asks. Keep your mind open and continue asking the hard questions. And rest assures that God loves you for doing it.’
In expressing our doubts and our unanswered questions we can learn to grow our faith; we can be given that moment of epiphany when, like Thomas, we see the reality of the truth of those scarred hands and exclaim as he did; ‘My Lord and my God!’ The truth of the words ‘Every day moments of epiphany are bestowed on everyone.’ can be realised.
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity: in the habitations of thy majesty and glory, world without end. Amen
Though I need to be sceptical sometimes, Lord,
rather than believe everything I hear,
save me from closing my mind too easily
to what’s beyond my experience.
Though I struggle at times with the idea of resurrection,
so much causing me to question,
remind me of the way you changed
the lives of the apostles
and of countless others since,
transforming doubt to faith,
sorrow to joy
and fear to confidence.
Meet me, then, through the risen Christ
so that, incredible though it may seem,
I may know him for myself,
and share his life,
now and for evermore. Amen
Homily for Easter Sunday 4 April
Text: Mark 16 verses 1-8
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark 16 verse 8
This joyful Easter tide! Is this how we feel this Easter, full of joy and happiness with a real spring in our step, a lightness of heart or, being perfectly truthful, is there a distinct lack of true joyous feeling as we are called to celebrate the most important and significant feast day in the Christian calendar? There can be no large indoor gatherings although if the rain and cold don’t deter us we can gather outside with six people, or two families, but that number is still very limited especially for those with big families. Those large Easter egg hunts which have become so much the norm are not possible and certainly no jetting off to some sunlit beach for an Easter holiday and not even the possibility of a weekend in Bognor or Brighton! And although, unlike last year, we can hold services in church these services are decidedly muted with social distancing, masks and perhaps worst of all no joyful communal singing except outside and certainly no happy buzzy socialising afterwards with coffee and maybe even a slice of simnel cake.
So, can we honestly say that this Eastertide of twenty twenty- one is joyful or, as with so much in our lives at present, does it seem just not quite right and not at all what we have become accustomed to as we have celebrated past Easters? And, thinking about all this, I think we need to recognize that the first ever Easter was also very muted and certainly not a time of huge celebration. Yes, the tomb was found to be empty but what exactly did that mean? In the Mark account we are told that in place of a stone cold, decidedly dead body there was a young man dressed in white who instructed them ‘not to be alarmed’ and then informed them that Jesus had been raised, ‘he is not here.’ Which was perhaps the only thing those disciples were told which was patently obvious. As for not being alarmed what else did this stranger expect them to be and just what was meant by the words ‘He has been raised.’? And as for seeing him again back in Galilee how could that be remotely possible? No wonder they fled from the tomb with the conflicting emotions of terror and amazement beating inside them. Nor is it any surprise whatsoever that they chose to tell no one.
Reading this account by Mark I cannot imagine that joy was uppermost in those disciples that first day of the week, the day we now term Easter Sunday. And even if we read the other gospel accounts of that day, I do not think it is too hard to imagine that overwhelming bewilderment, bafflement, and indeed terror were the feelings that were uppermost in their minds as they tried to make sense of it all. Add to these the feelings of fear and anxiety, knowing that their own lives could still be threatened by the same religious hierarchy which had condemned their Lord and Master to die. Thus, it is no surprise they told no one not just for fear of being ridiculed at what would seem to others a preposterous claim but also because of what the authorities might do. The authorities who would have baulked at any idea that the man they had thought they had successfully put a very decided end to might still in some way be alive would have been an intolerable one and they would have done all in their power to quash such a claim as indeed they did just that when the news finally became widespread.
I, personally, think that it was more than likely that the reality of exactly what had happened and what it meant not just for those disciples but for all God’s children took a while to sink in and to be understood and it was not until the day of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit allowed them to express their truly exuberant joy at announcing to all who would listen that the man crucified on that hill outside Jerusalem was indeed the resurrected Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Saviour; our Messiah, our Saviour.
And we too, like the disciples, are currently living in what to most seems a threatening world where so many of life’s securities seem to have been snatched from under us as Covid 19 has shown a power to destabilize our world that even the writer of the most dystopian fiction might have hesitated to conjure up. Add to this the sabre rattling of some regimes and the repression of so many people around the world and there does not seem much good news to cheer us, let alone to make us feel joyful. We are fearful as to just what the future holds for us and perhaps more significantly for our children and grandchildren. We have hunkered down in our homes for long periods with closed doors just as those disciples did and many are scared to venture out even when some restrictions are lifted.
So maybe this is not the most joy-filled Easter BUT nothing, absolutely nothing can take away the reality of the risen Christ. That tomb was empty on that first day of the week, the first day of a new understanding of our God and His purposes for us. Jesus had risen and however low we may feel, however apprehensive or fearful this is a fact that we must and should allow ourselves to ponder and meditate upon as we search for the mystery and the wonder that is the truth behind those three words, ‘he is risen’. The disciples had forty days before that glorious Spirit affirming Pentecost to do the same, to recognize in all its wonder what God had done for us his children. It needed time and we are asked to take time too if we are to comprehend at least a small degree of that mystery and wonder and, as our understanding grows, so too will our joy in knowing what Christ has done for us. It will be a quiet joy to sustain and uphold us even when we are most fearful and feel most threatened. A quiet joy to comfort, console and strengthen just as it did those disciples as they took that first bold step to tell the truth of the risen Christ to the world despite all the danger and persecution they faced.
May all of you come to know in your hearts that joy together with the love of the risen Christ, our Messiah, our Saviour who in love gave his life for us that we might live out our lives in joy filled hope.
Do not be Afraid by Ian Adams
Have you noticed how fear is never far away?
And so destructive.
In the world around you.
But also within you.
How fear of what might happen seeps
Into so much of your decision (and indecision) making.
The invitation is to let go of your fear.
To believe the best.
To be bold
To face your fears with the love that flows
You are beloved.
And do not be afraid.
Beneath are the everlasting arms-and they bear the print of the nails. No matter how far I have sunk, he descends to lift me up. He has plumbed all the hells of the world that he may lift us upwards. He is our firm support. David Adam
Meditation for Good Friday, 2 April
Whenever I give a small wooden cross to one of the families in NICU (Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit)I always explain that the upright reminds us that earth is always in touch with heaven and vice versa or in other words we can always be in touch with God and He with us. And then I indicate the cross bar and ask them to see in it the outstretched arms of Christ holding us always within his love revealed in his death upon a cross on that bleak spot outside Jerusalem. And in the same way when I offer a prayer for healing, I often say words to the effect ‘may the wounded hands of Christ bring you healing and peace.’
The Passion story is full of arms and hands beginning with the Last Supper when Jesus knelt to wash the disciples’ feet with his hands and then to break bread for them to share. Two such intimate actions, the sort we do every day probably without even thinking. But I’m sure that night Jesus was all too aware of what his hands were doing and what was the message he was giving to not just those few disciples but to all God’s children.
Next, we have Judas embracing Jesus with that kiss of betrayal; that moment of infamy representative of all the times we have betrayed God by choosing the ways and ambitions of the worldly rather than choosing the divine way shown to us by Christ. Did Jesus flinch from that embrace or did he accept it as he did so much else that night? Accept that betrayal was yet one more item on the list of sins that he had come to forgive and redeem through his sacrifice?
And then, throughout the next hours of brutality and mindless violence we have the striking arms and fists of the soldiers, the guards, as they manhandled and abused Jesus mercilessly. This man, who had used his hands to heal, to bless to comfort now receives the blows of injury of hate and wanton cruelty. Hands that hit, and punched, that pushed and shoved, roughly dressed him in a parody of kingship and thrust a penetrating crown of thorns on his unprotected head.
Hands that can do so many wonderful things creating works of art and beauty, green fingered hands that can grow some of the wonders of plant life, hands that can mend, sew and bake; soothing hands that can embrace and gently wipe tears away, hands that can ‘blow kisses’ and wave farewell. But that night the hands that struck Jesus bore witness only to the savagery and physical abuse that truth be told we can all be capable of enacting.
And we must not forget the pointing and accusing hands that accompanied the shouts of the crowd as they demanded the death of Jesus and then stood around the cross mocking and jeering. We too must remember how often we too have pointed the finger and falsely accused or made fun of someone’s perceived weakness.
Lastly in this story of hands we are forced to look up at the hands of Jesus pierced by cruel nails. Nails drive right through those hands and into the wood on that cross bar. It is impossible to imagine the agony, the absolutely excruciating pain that Jesus bore for us that day as his arms were stretched out and his hands pinioned in the greatest token of love the world has ever seen.
Today we remember all those hands and we have to acknowledge our own part In Christ’s crucifixion in using our hands for cruel and base purposes but it is those wounded hands that we must never forget and recognize in them the testimony they bear to the love that passes all understanding. The love that became incarnate that through our lord Jesus Christ all the world might be saved.
As we leave here today let us pray that we may use our hands to the glory of God and in imitation of Christ’s hands to heal, to comfort and to bless.
You are mine and I love you. Look, I have engraved you on the palm of my hands Isaiah 49 verse 16
Meditation for Maundy Thursday, 1 April
Texts: 1 Corinthians 11 verses 23-26 John 13 verses 1-17 and 31b-35
I always have a special affection for Maundy Thursday and its various services including the annual Chrism Service in the Cathedral. This to me and I’m sure many others is a wonderful service and the singing is always truly something to make even angels the least bit envious!
Then there are the evening services like this one culminating again in normal years to that time of silent meditation before the congregation slip silently away into the night. Tonight, we will have to forego that time of meditation, but we will still make our softly trodden way out of the building. This is the service when we recall all those very intimate events of the last supper; intimate, touching and deeply personal vignettes as those twelve disciples shared a meal together with Jesus, their Lord and Master, for the last time before his death. First, there is the foot washing, when Jesus knelt in the position of the lowest slave within a household and washed those dirty grimy calloused feet of the men who had journeyed for the past three years with him. I think in this modern age with our solid footwear and metalled roads we find it hard to appreciate just how welcome foot washing must have been but also how it was regarded as an exceptionally menial and much despised task. Is it any wonder that Peter protested? However, we like him must learn that we too must allow ourselves to be washed clean of our dirt encrusted souls by the gentle hands of Christ because it is something that we can never do for ourselves.
And following on from this vignette of a kneeling Jesus and no doubt somewhat embarrassed, even bemused disciples, we go to the meal itself; the meal where bread and wine are shared and the ritual of recalling and celebrating that first Passover meal back in the land of Egypt was repeated as it had been for centuries and is still done to this day. Bread the staple of life but not, on that particular night, the bread we eat most commonly but unleavened bread without any yeast to cause it to rise. Unleavened bread is a very flat bread rather lacking in flavour and it’s unlikely that it would be the bread we would choose when we felt the need of a sustaining, pick me up slice of fresh bread covered possibly in delicious jam, peanut butter or even marmite. This pitta bread resembles the same type of unleavened bread which the Israelites ate together with roasted lambs and bitter herbs before they made their escape from Egypt into the wilderness.
Unleavened bread! bread which contains no yeast to cause it to rise. And it struck me that in a way this consuming of unleavened bread is symbolic, a metaphor even, of all that we will mark tonight and in the coming days until we come to the first light of another Easter Day. These three days of the Pascal Triduum as it is officially called which begin this evening and continue until Saturday evening. The flat days if you like when it would seem that all hope has been extinguished and we can only bear witness to so many base interests revealed over those three days; the betrayal of a disillusioned disciple, the cowardice of fearful disciples concerned only for their personal safety, the hypocrisy, jealousy and hatred, the mendacity of witnesses, the weakness shown by the ruling power, the mindless callousness of orchestrated crowds, all culminating in brutal unprovoked and bloody violence. There is nothing in these three days to lift our spirits but just the demeaning example of human beings whose eyes are cast down and fixed firmly on those earthly and often very base values which they are so keen to preserve at all costs. Human beings who are content to tread the dirt paths of our self-centred lives rather than look upwards to the glory that comes with walking the Way of Christ.
How many people in those three days lifted their eyes to look into the eyes of Christ and saw reflected in them the true and unfathomable cost he was bearing for all their faults and failings? How many considered for one moment the possibility that here in front of them was no despised and troublesome wandering preacher but the Bread of Life who had the power to raise them up on the last day? When they raised him upon that cross did anyone for one moment consider that this was the moment when God’s purposes would be fulfilled and come Easter Sunday we would know that truly the risen Christ was and always would be for all God’s children the Bread of Life, the Way of Life? Bread that can feed one spiritually, bread that can lift one’s eyes from the depths of human failings to the hope that trusting in the risen Christ he will always be there to lead you out from the slavery of sin and despair to the freedom that is given by the spiritual blessing of love; love for God, love for one another.
Tonight, as you leave in silence please take with you a piece of unleavened bread and over the coming days before the dawn of Easter Day reflect upon what you most need to help raise you up personally; raise you up to recognize all the amazing and wondrous love that Christ our Lord showed for each of us as he rose first upon that cross of shame and then in all the glory of Easter Day. And then I pray that all of us join with the angels to sing out our love, joy and praise for all the blessings which that day brings.
Maundy Thursday by Malcolm Guite
Here is the source of every sacrament,
The all-transforming presence of the Lord,
Replenishing our every element,
Remaking us in his creative Word.
For here the earth herself gives bread and wine,
The air delights to hear the Spirit’s speech.
The fire dances when the candles shine,
The waters cleanse us with his gentle touch.
And here he shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
Though we betray him, though it is the night.
He meets us here and loves us into light.
Homily for Sunday 28 March - Palm Sunday
Text: Mark 11 verses 1-11
The second year running that we cannot have donkeys, Palm Sunday processions and possibly not even our own individual palm crosses to take home with us. For some there may be the opportunity to worship in a church while others must make do with Zoom but no communal singing of such wonderful hymns as ‘Ride on , Ride on in Majesty’ or ‘All Glory Laud and Honour’. No, we cannot pretend; things are not the same and the most pessimistic may well wonder if they ever will be quite what over the years many of us have become used to on such special Sundays in the Christian year.
And thinking about all this I wondered if in twenty-twenty one what Jesus would have done as a modern- day version of that triumphal ride into Jerusalem? Would he have resorted to Twitter or made some sort of YouTube clip to be disseminated around the world? And where would he choose to make such a virtual procession? It is almost certain that it would be a ‘no win’ situation since there would be an outburst of criticism for wherever he chose. No, I think we have to be grateful that this particular procession took place when and where it did and even then, as we know, it caused huge upset, alarm and criticism.
But this led me on to think exactly why did Jesus choose to ride into Jerusalem in such a manner, collecting a huge and enthusiastic crowd around him as that humble beast of burden stolidly plodded its way into Jerusalem? Was he purporting to be a King, a Messiah who would somehow replace the Roman rule and restore the dreams of a lost monarchy and the glory days of King David? Or was there a more subtle reason? Was he there in fact to test the crowds themselves and their loyalty and their faith? We know from the gospel accounts of that ride into Jerusalem that the crowds were all fired up as crowds so very easily are, tearing down palm branches to provide the equivalent of the red carpet and aping each other in full throated, feverish and undoubtedly increasingly uncontrolled shouting? Just watch again the pictures of the riots in Bristol last weekend and you can see how very quickly the mood and passions of a crowd can change and become violent and uncontrollable. And when we look at the words shouted by the crowds that day outside Jerusalem it would seem that they certainly saw this procession as the precursor of some sort of rebellion against Roman rule: ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.’ These words alone suggest that they had a completely different idea as to the purpose of this ride compared to Jesus.
And of course. as events unfolded over the following week we can see how the mood of the people radically changed from adulation to condemnation as they discovered that their dreams were not only unrealistic but completely contrary to God’s purposes in the sending of His Saviour, His Messiah. And it occurs to me that what Jesus’s purpose in making that Palm Sunday ride was so that looking back people could see what those true purposes of God were for all his children.
Jesus did not come as a worldly leader, some sort of King David like figure with immense power, wealth and an army of people to maintain and uphold his prestige. No Jesus came as the servant king; the king whose divine power did not place him above his people but with his people. With his people to bend down and wash their feet, to reach out to the lepers and outcasts, all those troubled in mind body or spirit with healing hands and ultimately to ascend the only throne he possessed here on earth; namely the throne of the Cross and there to bear witness that through his death and glorious resurrection he would reign supreme and could save God’s children from their sins, their follies, their foolish, self-serving and self- seeking dreams.
So, the question I think for us this morning is as we walk into Jerusalem today what is it we are seeking; really seeking? The very quick answer could well be from all of us freedom from Covid and that is perfectly understandable given all we have been through in the past year. How many of us have dreamed of a return to ‘normal’ while in our hearts knowing that whenever normal does return it will be very much a ‘new’ normal. But then for the followers of Jesus; those disciples who recognized in that initial journey into Jerusalem followed by that journey to Golgotha that the world for them would never be the same. The old carefully controlled and prescriptive religion as practised by so many of the Pharisees and Scribes was being replaced by something very different. A way of seeing God not as some divine being hidden from sight behind the veil of the Temple but a divine being who had shown something of his mysterious and all -powerful reality in the incarnation of His Son, our Saviour.
Life for those disciples after all the events in Jerusalem would never be the same, never ‘normal’ and it would be in many ways even more challenging and difficult, but, they would not have had it any other way.
We can march into Jerusalem demanding freedom from restrictions, freedom from rules, freedom for fear; we can turn and become violent and angry as our dreams are unfulfilled just as those people did in Bristol last weekend, or we can take time to think where exactly it is that we wish Christ to lead us and what are his purposes in so doing. Lead us away from self- centred, self-seeking desires to God-centred obedience.
So, no life is not going to bring us back to the perceived ‘glory’ days pre Covid but if we have understood Christ’s purposes in that apparently triumphal ride into Jerusalem we will understand that we are called to recognize just what sort of kingship he has shown to the world and it is a kingship we are called to submit to in loving, humble, costly and obedient service to him. A loving, humble, costly and obedient service displayed by so many in this past year as they strove to bring healing, care and love to a broken but not defeated world.
Homily for Sunday 21 March
Texts: Hebrews 5 verses 5-10 John 12 verses20-33
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. John 12 verse 32
Anticipation! Always such a difficult time especially when the event being anticipated contains a very real element of dread. Waiting for an operation, waiting for an interview, waiting for news about a loved one in some form of distress, waiting for a funeral. All of these can produce feelings not just of dread but of fear and uncertainty and I think most people would probably agree that, in a way, the anticipation, the waiting can be far worse than the reality of the event when it does take place. One can’t get a physical hold on ‘waiting’ whereas once one is actually as it were immersed in the event one is guided and indeed strengthened as to how to act, what to do, how to respond and that is in so many ways easier than the nebulous waiting period.
Reading today’s gospel I am immediately struck by just how incredibly hard it must have been for Jesus as he anticipated his own death and all the horror that would accompany it. To be honest my own imagination fails completely to grasp the thoughts, the images, the agonising fear and brain numbing dread that Jesus must have felt as He prepared not just himself but others for what was to happen. And, of course, for his disciples it must also have been such a challenge to even begin to comprehend what it was exactly that he was talking about; what he was predicting in the coming days.
This discourse comes just after the triumphant ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday when Jesus had been greeted as a king, a Messiah and now he’s talking about his death and the ultimate meaning of that death; it must have been so confusing, so puzzling for them. I wonder sometimes did Jesus feel frustrated amongst all his other emotions as he prepared himself and attempted to prepare his followers for what was to happen?
We who know the end of the story forget how incredibly difficult it was for those first disciples to make any sort of sense of what it was Jesus was telling them. What on earth was meant by the words ‘The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’? Were there to be more exultant processions and Jesus elevated to some sort of kingly status in place of the country’s subjection to Roman rule? That of course would have been the dream of many. But then what was meant by the words ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ That didn’t seem to quite fit with the idea of placing Jesus on some sort of solid gold encrusted throne right here in Jerusalem. No, I’m certain that Jesus after telling his disciples all this left them scratching their heads and wondering what if any sense they could make of it.
And I think that for us who do know the end of the story, or think we do, it is important to recognize that there remains so much which is still complete mystery and even in 2021 when scientists and researchers from a great variety of fields have unravelled so many mysteries about our lives and the amazing universe in which we are placed, no one has unravelled and explained in neat formulaic terms the mystery that is God. The mystery that is His love for us partially revealed in that unique time stopping moment when Jesus gave up his last breath lifted high on a cross in the wasteland outside Jerusalem. His throne was not in the centre of Jerusalem or Rome but in the wasteland known as Golgotha the place of the skulls. The place where mortal dreams were brought to an end but where divine purposes for our eternal salvation were brought to life and realised.
So, as I know I have advocated before, I think we need to travel slowly on these last two weeks leading up to all the glory that is Easter Sunday and use the time not just to anticipate all that glory, not to mention the chocolate eggs and the breaking of Lenten fasts, but to try to understand a little more what exactly it is that God, through Jesus Christ His Son, has done for us. Think too about our future and what needs, as it were, to die within us that we might bear more fruit in his service. A time to ponder and to think just what it is we understand about God and what it means to us to have him as part of our lives and how he is calling us to serve him as we step forward into the future.
A future which still looks uncertain because of the pandemic; a future about which many are anxious and worried; a future which is not by any means under our control but always always under God’s control strange though that may seem at times. Just as Jesus made that last deeply spiritual, incredibly challenging last journey to the Cross so we too should surely see each of our days as a spiritual journey leading us towards that eternal salvation promised to us. A journey which in Lent should be slowed down and carefully thought through.
David Bryant writes this: ‘Rethink the spiritual journey, question every aspect of faith, search always for new paths and fresh visions of God’s glory. Yes, it is a fearful and daunting journey, but would we expect the pathway towards the Lord of Light to be otherwise? Take heart too, for all the seas, rough, smooth, swelling or calm, are the work of the divine hand. What is more, that hand is on the ship’s wheel.’
The disciples were being prepared by Jesus to anticipate a different future, a more glorious future. This said the actuality of that future after his death was far from easy and indeed many of them walked treacherous and dangerous paths but they could do so with confidence because now they understood something of the mystery behind those words; ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ And they knew too without a shadow of doubt that the hour had come when the Son of Man was glorified for all the world to see and marvel at the unfathomable depth of God for all his children.
So I pray that we too can use this time of anticipation for the dawning of Easter Sunday not in fear and anxiety for our worldly future but in complete trust in God’s loving and always compassionate purposes for us. The future may still be tough and not what we would choose but all time has the glory of God’s presence in it and that is all that truly matters.
One Goes Ahead of you by Ian Adams
You do not have to do this on your own.
The path has been trodden before.
One goes ahead of you.
All your doubts and fears,
spoken and unspoken,
have been experienced before.
Whatever you face has been faced.
Your questions about life and death.
And the personal stuff you are carrying with you.
That sack of stores.
All of it is shared.
That does not mean that everything is planned out for you.
But rather that the path will reveal itself
as you walk it.
With just the hint of another.
The outline of a footprint in the earth
some clearing in the grass
So take the next step, with faith and hope and love.
One goes ahead of you.
Homily for Sunday 14 March - Mothering Sunday
Text: John 19 verses 25b-27
As each year passes my daughter finds this particular Sunday more and more of a challenge and she struggles to search out a card with the words ‘Mothering Sunday’ rather than ‘Mothers’ Day ‘on it. She has been sufficiently indoctrinated to know that I find the commercial hijacking of what for centuries was very much a Sunday with strong religious over tones concerning. What was once something really quite simple has become an excuse for a spending jamboree with often vastly inflated prices. I am sure I am not alone in preferring a £1 bunch of daffodils to some overpriced bouquet or to receive a card with a very simple message to one which positively gushes with sentimentality and costs an absolute bomb.
But, aside to this objection to the ever burgeoning materialism which accompanies this day there is also the concern that all this hype about mothers can be terribly wounding to some people and cause great pain and sorrow and even anger. People whose mother has recently died or whose memory still causes very real shafts of pain even years after the death; people who, for whatever reason, are childless and whose hearts ache for one and who will never know what it is to care for a child with an all- embracing love. And, in addition to these, there are those who have painful memories of their relationship with their mothers; people where that relationship for whatever reason has broken down; people who never see their mothers and people who ache for a reconciliation of the parent-child relationship. So, while the commercial Mothers’ Day may paint the rosiest picture of happy families and mums being overwhelmed with extravagant gifts the reality in so many homes may well be quite different. Only recently I talked to someone who absolutely dreads this Sunday because her relationship with her daughter is so fragile, so remote and so counter to the picture that is painted by all the media hype and the adverts which prevail at this time.
So, scrub Mothers’ Day! But Mothering Sunday is something very different in my opinion because the act of ‘mothering’ is something we can all do, women and men, young and old, those who can boast numerous children and grandchildren come to that, and those who remain single and unattached. And when we look at one of the possible readings appointed for today we can gain an insight into what I am getting at when I suggest that mothering is not and never will be a quality confined simply to women who have been blessed with God’s gift of children. Christ on the cross in all his physical and mental anguish is still able to look down and recognize the anguish of his own mother as she stands helplessly by watching the life seep from her son’s battered, bruised and tormented body. What mother could ever have greater suffering that that imposed upon Mary on that most terrible of days? And Jesus somehow is given the strength to overcome for at least a few moments his own suffering as he attends to her suffering and calls upon John to take care of her, to take her into his own home and to adopt her as his mother. In his own agony he can still see the grief which is piercing Mary’s soul and the grief which is tearing apart his beloved disciple John and he sees their mutual and desperate need to be mothered and cared for as his life ebbs away. I can just imagine their holding together in the tightest of embraces as Jesus gives them their instructions: ‘Woman, here is your son’, ‘Here is your mother.’ No blood ties bound these two but the ties of love which are even stronger and which all of us can share with others as we seek to ‘mother’ them. We are all capable of such acts; it is not and never should be merely a role for women who have actually given birth to a child. And should you have any doubt just watch a father cradle to his bare chest a new born infant or foster parents take to their homes and hearts a child who simply needs to be mothered. And here it must also be recognized that we are all God’s children and until the day we die the ‘mothering’ given to us and the ‘mothering’ we offer to others are essential to our well-being both physical and spiritual and our sense of inner worth.
I would like to end this short homily with an experience I was privileged to be part of this week and which to me epitomised what this Sunday should really be all about. It was the occasion of a baby funeral out in the open air in the amazingly lovely and peaceful Brookwood cemetery. The baby had been born prematurely at twenty- five weeks and had been cared for in St Peter’s neonatal unit for over five months. But it was not only the baby who was cared for but also his mother; an Ethiopian woman who in a stop off in the UK to renew her United States visa had given birth prematurely. She was all alone in this country with her husband in the States and her own mother and siblings in Ethiopia. All alone and with a desperately sick baby until the staff of NICU adopted and mothered her and walked with her until tragically the baby’s fight for life was lost. Thus. it was that last Monday as we gathered by that tiny graveside the mother and father, who had only recently been able to join his wife, were surrounded not by their own blood family but by their adopted family, the consultants, doctors, nurses and administrative staff who had taken them to their hearts. As each person present, be they male or female, parents or childless, laid a white rose upon that grave this was for me the most powerful example of mothering, of caring, of truly loving.
That is why for me all the flowers and gifts of this day pale into insignificance when I remember and give thanks for all those who have mothered me and adopted me into their families as Mary and John adopted each other on that lonely bleak hillside. Golgotha which should have been a place of ultimate horror but proved instead to be a place where God’s love for all his children was ultimately revealed in all its power.
Homily for 7 March - Third in Lent (delivered at St James)
Text: John 2 verses 13-22
During this time of Covid I wonder what, if anything, has made you righteously angry. I don’t mean just generally angry at the perceived or even actual stupidity, failings or misdirection of the Government or their advisors or angry at your lack of freedoms because you have to wear a mask, must observe social distancing and can’t do the things you most enjoy. No! I mean righteously angry; righteously angry at the terrible injustices in society worldwide that this pandemic has exposed. Injustices such as the plight of hungry children, the terrible enforced isolation of people in care homes or prisons. And how many of you felt, as I did, righteously angry only this week at the Government’s derisory and, in my opinion insulting offer, of a one percent wage increase to our heroes in the NHS? Is it any wonder they are up in arms feeling that all they have sacrificed over the last year has counted for virtually nothing?
In our gospel reading today we read of Christ’s righteous anger as he entered the temple precincts and found there not a place of sanctity but a place where mammon had usurped the divine. A place where the poor were being ripped off as they were forced to exchange hard earned Roman coins for specially minted temple coins. A place where the birds and animals to be presented for sacrifice had a premium on their heads no matter how small or scraggy. A place where the religious hierarchy was happily accumulating their own wealth as the poor were stripped of theirs. No wonder Jesus was angry; this was all so unjust, so counter to the spirit in which the temple had been built. The spirit that wanted this great edifice to be a place of sanctuary, a place of prayer; a place of praise, a place where the glory and presence of God could be demonstrated through those prayers and that praise. Instead, it was an edifice where earthly powers now sought their own glory their well-being as their prayers for worldly wealth usurped those for heavenly wealth.
When we step inside any holy building, I’m sure it is the silence that so often prevails that helps remind us of the sanctity of the place and in that liminal silence find the presence of God. But in the temple precincts all Jesus heard was the frenetic sound of commerce and the noises and cries of terrified animals. No wonder his ire was aroused. No wonder that he burst forth in condemnation of such practices. The house of God had become, indeed, a market- place and not just any market- place but a corrupt, confusing and unjust market- place.
We very often attribute love as the characteristic that was most recognisable in Jesus and, yes, love for God’s children always lay at the heart of all that he did but in loving he also was passionate about justice and the plight of those who suffered from the injustices imposed up them by the self- interest and selfishness of those who held more power, more influence and more clout than they could ever hope for. A version of the Lord’s prayer I frequently use has in place of the phrase ‘your kingdom come’ the words ‘may we work with you to establish your new order of justice, peace and love.’ And I think the order is critical because without justice there cannot be peace and without justice and peace there cannot be the perfection of Christ’s love.
And surely in the light of today’s gospel the place to begin is with our institutional Church and our individual churches and making quite sure that they truly are places of justice and peace where God can be found and, moreover, where he would be happy to be found in whatever pew he chose to sit! Surely being Church is not about an overwhelming and self- important, self-regarding hierarchy imposing their will, their ideas, their demands even on others and with a protective attitude to self- interest akin to that demonstrated by the Pharisees? Being Church is surely about fostering a genuine and pervasive sense of communion; a sense of companionship and mutual respect, a sense of community as we strive to live the gospel and both worship and serve the Lord God; a place where in God’s eyes all are simply just equal.
It is all too easy for both the Church as a body and individual churches to become obsessed with what one might term the ‘market place’ where the finances and fund raising together with all those maintenance jobs of upkeep, future planning, documentation and administration take precedence. But, for the true purpose of any church to be realised we should surely heed the words of Jean Vanier: ‘The church is a place of compassion and fecundity, a place of welcome and friendship.’
I think we need to begin by ensuring that our churches provide a place of warm and sustained welcome and empathetic care for all, and I do stress all, who come to join as part of the body of Christ in worship.
I think one criticism which, very sadly, I think is true of almost all churches that I have attended is that though they profess to be friendly too often there are very obvious cliques and simply not enough open- handed friendship is extended to all who come not just on Sundays but at other times for to be part of a church is decidedly not just about what we do on a single day of the week.
And in saying this I think we need to be mindful of past and current history when the Church as a whole has been and is still today guilty of stigmatising, marginalising, ostracising or even excluding specific groups of people.
Christ was angry in part because those who came to the temple were in effect being treated as consumers to be exploited rather than as pilgrims on a journey of grace. Do we in our churches sometimes do the same? Do the dioceses do the same as they look at attendance figures and balance sheets and make corporate plans for the future of small churches such as the ones we attend? Are, our eyes and theirs open to the reality that we are all fellow pilgrims sharing a mutual need above all else for God’s blessing on that journey? The numbers and the balance sheet are surely irrelevant what is relevant is the journeying together as one body be it in twos and threes or hundreds.
Jesus was undoubtedly right to show such righteous anger and we too are called as his followers to show righteous anger and to speak out and act against injustice and penalising discrimination wherever we find it. And it strikes me that Lent is the ideal time to take stock and to make absolutely sure that our churches are places where Christ, in whatever guise he comes, would find our churches are truly places where any market place values take a very secondary role and all can expect a generous all- embracing loving welcome with absolutely no strings attached. And in that spirit of welcome be more than happy to stand beside us in a spirit of justice and peace as together we offer up heartfelt prayer and soaring praise to the glory of God the Father.
Homily for 28 February - Second in Lent (delivered at St Marys Holmbury)
Texts: Psalm 22 verses 23-end, Mark 8 verses 31-end
As we all know the one certainty in life is death, but the manner and timing of that death is something even the most prescient amongst us cannot foresee. I’m sure we would all think it wonderful if we could slip peacefully away surrounded by our loved ones in our own home. But of course, this is not always possible and indeed I have known some people who having made their earthly good-byes have deliberately chosen to die privately committing themselves trustingly and without fear into the arms of the eternal God. Watching someone pass from our longing into God’s care is a very privileged time and there can be a wonderful sense both of peace and of sanctity as that moment of death occurs. But, however it happens, as I’ve emphasised, we cannot possibly know the manner or the time but have to trust implicitly in our Christian belief articulated so beautifully by Mother Teresa that ‘death is nothing else but the going home to God’.
By contrast to our own lack of knowledge Jesus knew exactly what lay ahead of him as he walked on that long last journey to Jerusalem. Our gospel reading today spells it out in detail. He will undergo great suffering and here we recognize that this anguish will be both physical and mental; he will be brutally and callously rejected by the religious elite and leaders of Jewish society and ultimately he will be killed. Killed in one of the cruellest ways ever to be devised by man. Killed specifically on the day when the Passover lambs were sacrificially slaughtered in order that the people of Israel might be saved from slavery in Egypt so that now it is the sacrificial blood of Christ which will save not just the Israelites but all God’s children from the slavery of sin. Jesus was fully cognizant of all that lay ahead of him; all that he must endure if he was to fulfil God’s purposes.
And I believe that in Lent we are called to make this journey with him or, as it says in our gospel reading, take up our crosses and follow with him to Jerusalem and witness all that happens there before continuing onto Golgotha and standing with the women at the foot of his instrument of torture. No, it will not be an easy journey, and nor should it be, and here it is interesting to note how few people now choose to attend Good Friday services with all their harrowing sorrow, preferring to jump straight to the joy of Easter Morning. Peter wanted the journey to be very different in nature but to fulfil God’s purposes there was only one and one very specific way it could be and we, like Peter, must be prepared to accept that and not try to pretend that there is some easier way.
I believe that we are called to make this journey along with Peter and the other disciples and, as we do so, come to recognize how it is that we too have played our part in Christ’s suffering, his rejection and his death. How often have we, like the disciples, failed Jesus at crucial moments either by allowing ourselves to absent ourselves from his needs seen in other people or even to turn our backs and run away in fearful protection of our own safety? How often have our prejudices and our traditions shaped our obstinately held practices of our carefully constructed religion so that we fail to recognize the wonder and the mystery of the truth of what Jesus came to teach us and to show us exactly what God’s loving purposes are for us? How often have we wounded him with our barbed comments, spiteful words and thoughtlessly cutting remarks that we have inflicted on others? How often have we hammered in the nails of deeply embedded unarticulated resentment, of hatred even, and of unexplored, unenlightened ignorance into his frail flesh?
Walking this journey will be hard as we learn to be as honest as we can be with ourselves and acknowledging that this is not merely a historical journey but one that happens again and again but most especially in every season of Lent. Can we, this Lent, learn to be completely honest with ourselves, to face up to the truth of the part we play in Christ’s passion? We are told again and again that he died for us and if we are ever to begin to understand the reasons why he made this supreme sacrifice we surely have to explore what it was in us, in you and in me, what are the faults, the sins, the failings that have contributed to the essential need for God to offer up his own Son for us.; to make him the unique sacrificial lamb who could lead us from the slavery of sin.
Samuel Wells writes as follows ‘This is God-constantly vulnerable to human rejection, embodying agonizing love, and yet never letting that suffering have the last word. there is only the breaking through of wondrous love amid the scars and hurts of painful conflict………Christians believe because they are drawn into the mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, and find in that story all the truth they can imagine about who God is and who they are.’
Can we make this journey and discover at the end of it that both the scars we have inflicted upon the body of Christ and the scars that others have inflicted upon us have been acknowledged and confessed as sins which need so desperately to be forgiven and healed through the immeasurable grace and mercy of the wondrous love that God has revealed for us in this last earthly journey of our Lord Jesus Christ? The word atonement is often used in relation to Christ’s sacrificial death a word which can become the three words ‘at-one-ment’. In facing up to the part we have played in Christ’s death and by allowing his healing love to redeem us from the slavery and separation that sin inflicts upon us we can experience the amazing blessing of healing when we are restored to being at-one with Him.
No, neither the manner of our own death nor its timing can ever be known with any certainty, but to make this journey with Christ will surely help in making us ever more fully alive to that wondrous love.
For my Salvation? By Ann Lewin
His bloodied knees
Caught my attention….
I’ve grown accustomed
To the sight of blood
Pouring from thorn-crowned head
And marks of nails and spear;
The crucified Christ
Bearing the sins of the world.
A distant Christ, carrying
The big sins-murder,
Other people’s sins, not often mine.
(Although I have it in me)
But the sore knees
Brought him close.
That blood comes from
Tripped up by inattention,
Undue haste, or thoughtlessness.
We feel the sting.
Those sins I know,
Catching me unaware.
It was the weight of such sins
Caused him to fall under the cross
And craze his knees.
Should I not then cry, Mercy?
Homily for Sunday 21 February - First in Lent
Texts: Genesis 9 verses 8-17, Mark 1 verses 9-15
I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Genesis 9: 13
He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him. Mark 1: 13
Lent on top of lock down! Surely that equates to piling Pelleon on Ossa or in less classical terminology mountain upon mountain? Aren’t we suffering enough without having to think of depriving ourselves of even the tiniest piece of chocolate or slurp of wine? Surely in our Lenten observance of twenty twenty- one we aren’t expected to do any fasting. Life in lock down has deprived us of so much and most of all the joy of socialising with other humans so surely, we are enduring more than enough without adding on more penances to add to the overall feeling of gloom.
And this is where our two readings for this Sunday are so appropriate, if only to remind us that we are certainly not the first people to feel cut off and isolated and surely will not be the last. What must it have been like for those eight human beings on that ark who having endured those forty days of lashing rain then just had to float around aimlessly as the waters abated for no less than one hundred and fifty days until they found themselves perched precariously on Mount Ararat? But that wasn’t quite the end as, according to my reckoning ,there were another fifty- four days before they knew it was safe to put a foot outside the ark onto what was presumably still quite soggy and squelchy land. Two hundred and forty- four days in all which makes our lock down periods seem somewhat insignificant although we will undoubtedly continue to grumble just as poor old Noah and all his family must have done. There must have been so many times when they despaired of ever leaving that life-saving boat which had now become their prison and being as subject to frustration and despondency as any of us. No, it can hardly have been all sweetness and light for the duration of their ordeal. No Netflix, no X boxes and certainly no one else to talk to even via Zoom; what on earth did they do to fill their time? Well, I suppose feeding and cleaning out all the animals must have taken up a good few hours of the day but certainly not all. While anyone suggesting a game of I Spy would surely have run the risk of reducing the people count by one! And yet somehow even if there were squabbles and shouting and stomping of feet, hope must have continued to act as a tiny glimmer of light as an endless boring day succeeded another endlessly boring day. Hope that God was not making a mockery of them but that he was with them and would continue to be with them until they could safely walk with confidence across his earth once more.
And then looking at the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness we are made aware of his self- isolation for those long heat filled days and bitterly cold nights for what at times must have seemed an interminable forty days. And this was a far more extreme isolation than any that we have had to face and an infinitely more testing time as He struggled with all those temptations to go the way of the world rather than the way of God. But, of course if He was to fulfil God’s will there was no other option; He had to do it. He had to endure this first challenging testing if He was to be enabled to endure the second when He had to face the utter abandonment of the cross. Abandoned by His friends and seemingly abandoned by God.
So, as we read and explore these two stories we are made acutely aware that we are by no means the first to live in a form of isolation with minimum contact with other people and where social life has shrunk to virtually nothing. Yes, it’s tough and I doubt if anyone would dispute that but if we look the glimmer of hope is always there. The glimmer of hope revealed by a rainbow but also by the reawakening of nature as we move from darkest winter into spring. The glimmer of hope that can be found in knowing that the angels are with us just as they were with Jesus; angels who, of course, come in so many disguises if we only have eyes to see through them and allow ourselves to be ministered to by them.
So, what should we be doing this Lent to mark it? And for me the answer lies in simply taking more time, of which we currently have plenty, and allow ourselves to sit in peace and tranquillity in the presence of God. Sit and absorb the fact that he is with us and will not leave us. That he is with each and every one of us as we drift on the slowly shrinking flood of the pandemic. Our situation has so much in common with that of Noah and his family and we are called to trust as they did that there is and must be an end to this journey. We will step out onto a more familiar landscape even if it remains very soggy in places. But in my mind, there cannot be a shadow of doubt that we will come through just as Noah did, just as Jesus did.
For me, I hope this time of Lent will enable me through having more interludes with God to understand more of his purposes for me personally and for the Church in a post pandemic world. Malcolm Guite has written a wonderful poem which expresses what I feel this Lent is calling me to do. The following are lines from the first and the last verse.
'Come to the place where every breath is praise, and God is breathing through each passing breeze. Slowly discern a life, a truth, a way, where simple being flowers in delight. Then let the chaff of life just blow away.’
Praise instead of grumbles; praise in place of discontent; praise offsetting pessimism; praise overcoming anxiety and despondency. Praise the reality of the truth that God is in every passing breeze. And in that act of praise discern that it really is in the simply being that we can encounter a life, a truth, a way filled with delight and in so doing let all the chaff that this pandemic has left in its wake blow away. Our fasting will be to give up the negatives that life and the pandemic in particular has led us to indulge in and in so doing find that these have been replaced by the richness of praise and best of all the richness of simply being each and every day in all the wonder and glory that is God’s company.
It won’t be easy and we will, I’m sure, often be tempted to resort to those grumbles, that discontent, that pessimism, that anxiety and despondency. But if we are resolute in our determination to work on our praise this Lent, praise in the simplicity of being with God, then surely we will learn to see the rainbows and hear the voices of the angels encouraging and ministering to us
Psalm 1 Beatus vir qui non abiit by Malcolm Guit
Come to the place where every breath is praise
And God is breathing through each passing breeze.
Be planted by the waterside and raise
Your arms with Christ beneath these rooted trees,
Who lift their breathing leaves up to the skies.
Be rooted too, as still and strong as these,
Open alike to sun and rain. Arise
From meditation by these waters, bear
The fruit of their deep rootedness. Be wise
In the trees’ long wisdom. Learn to shar
The secret of their patience. Pass the day
In their green fastness and their quiet air,
Slowly discern a life, a truth, a way,
Where simple being flowers in delight.
Then let the chaff of life just blow away.
I am serene because I know thou lovest me; because thou lovest me, naught can move me from thy peace. Because thou lovest me, I am as one to whom all good has come. May the peace, the serenity that only God can give be ours now and remain with us throughout this time of Lent.
Homily for the Sunday February 14 - Last in Epiphany
Texts: 2 Corinthians 4 verses 3-6, Mark 9 verses 2-9
For it is God who said, ‘Let line shine out in the darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ 2 Corinthians 4:6
This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him! Mark 9: 7b
On a very snowy and bitterly cold Monday of this week I had the most wonderful surprise in that I saw a pair of redpolls on my bird feeders. In all of my seventy plus(!) years I have never before seen a red poll and now suddenly there were two of these quite delightful little birds. It was just such a special moment; one of those that one doesn’t forget perhaps akin to the time I watched fox cubs playing or another time when sitting on a hillside in the Yorkshire Dales a rabbit had the temerity to casually walk over my foot. Such moments are truly special as I’m sure you will agree when you too witness some rare and possibly unique event.
And of course, I could not help comparing this experience to the one witnessed by those three disciples, Peter, James and John, on that high mountain as Jesus was transfigured in front of their eyes. Now I am not for one moment here suggesting that what I saw on Monday could in the remotest possible way compare with what the disciples saw but it did help to remind me, forcefully, that although we will never be privileged as those disciples were to see such an incredible and out of this world event that nonetheless, if we are properly awake and are using all our senses to ‘listen’ we can receive intimations of the wonder and the mystery that is God’s world. Intimations that remind us just how complex and amazing this world is in which we are privileged to live and to be a part of the miracle that is God’s creation.
And if I could become so excited and enthralled at my first ever sighting of redpolls then goodness knows how those disciples felt as they witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus. Shortly before this event Peter had indeed acknowledged Jesus as a Messiah but I do wonder just what sort of Messiah he really thought Jesus was. I suspect that he could, like so many people of the time, very easily have thought of a Messiah in human terms as one who would liberate them from the Romans and restore the independence of Israel rather than as the divine Messiah whose victory over death has the power to liberate all God’s children from the oppressive regime of sin and evil. Jesus had in fact tried to teach them about all the sufferings he was to undergo and the reasons for it but reading Mark we can tell that for the most part it seemed to make little or no real sense to his listeners.
And following on from these events we find on that deserted mountainside those three disciples witnessing the sudden and totally unexpected, unprepared for, and unique transfiguration of Jesus. An event that without a shadow of doubt bridged the human and divine. It’s interesting that the only detail that we are given by Mark of this event is that his clothes became whiter than white; a dazzling white unlike anything they had ever seen before. Was his face also lit up so that it, too, somehow glowed with an unearthly radiance? That we are not told, and I would like to suggest that when the disciples were called upon to describe what they had seen words completely failed them so that they had to resort to just describing the sheer wonder of the brilliance of his robes. And I can completely understand this because maybe, like Moses, they found that in fact to look upon the face of God was an impossibility and here I am also remined of the beautiful words of Psalm one hundred and four which describes God thus: ‘You are clothed with majesty and honour; wrapped in light as in a garment.’ But whether they did or they didn’t see his radiant face they saw enough to be absolutely astounded and indeed terrified and were left in no doubt that what they had seen was divine rather than human.
And of course, should they need further proof there were the words from the cloud: 'This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ And again, we are reminded of how this mirrors the manner in which God spoke to Moses through the cloud when he gave him the ten commandments. And the transfiguration God is, in a sense, revealing not just to those three disciples but to all the world; the living commandment of his own Son; the living commandment who abides in God’s love and who is obedient to that love and who commands that we, in turn, abide in Christ’s love. The words of John’s gospel spell it out: ‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (John 15 verse 10).
Thinking about all of this it seemed to me that, in a way, the divinity of Christ was revealed to the world as a sort of jigsaw where all the different pieces had to be searched for and fitted in to make the complete picture that is the Messiah, the Son of God, our Saviour and our Redeemer. The transfiguration was a central part of the picture but maybe at the time it happened those disciples couldn’t see for the life of them how exactly it fitted. And I think maybe our own experience of the mystery and the wonder that is God is only revealed piece by piece so that slowly over a lifetime we begin to have not the whole picture but an intimation of the glory that is God.
We can spend our lives just trudging along, and while trying to do our best to live our lives in obedience to God’s command we are not always watching as we should for those moments of wonder and of awe when we are made aware of God’s presence with us. I think it must have been like this for the disciples as for much of the time they dutifully, and for the most part loyally, followed Jesus while not properly appreciating or understanding until after his death the true magnitude of who exactly he really was. We may blithely claim that, of course, God is always with us but what do we mean by this? Do we always see him in others; do we sense him in the amazing diversity and harmonious beauty of the created world; do we above all else allow time to stop and to listen for him? Listening was what those three disciples were called upon to do as they came down from that totally awe-inspiring interlude on the mountainside and that is what we are called to do. Listen to him in the voices of those in need; listen to him in the words of friends and of strangers; listen to him in the voice of creation; listen to him in the solitude of the quiet watches of the night.
We will not like Peter, James and John witness the transfiguration but by learning to listen we will surely be made more fully aware of the presence of the living God in our lives and while we will certainly not be transfigured we just might by God’s grace be transformed to help reflect to those around us a little more of the glory that is God.
We live at mystery's edge,
Watching for a luminescence
Or a word to guide us.
In fragile occurrences
You present yourself
And we must pause to meet you.
Daily there are glimmers,
Reflections of a seamless mercy
Revealed in common intricacies.
These circles of grace
Spill out around us
And announce that we are part of you.
Homily for Sunday February 7 - Fifth in Epiphany
Text: John 1 verses 1 - 14, Colossians 1 verses 15 -16
You may or may not be aware that having celebrated Candlemas on the official date of the second of February we then entered what is known as Ordinary Time in the Church’s liturgical year. So, having had the purple of Advent, the white or gold of Christmas and Epiphany we now have the green of Ordinary Time for a mere two weeks before returning to purple as we begin our Lenten observance. Ordinary Time! It sounds so prosaic and as the pandemic continues to change our lives from anything but ordinary it seems almost a mockery. How can anything be ordinary just now?
And right now, if you are anything like me it is all becoming a bit too much and it is so easy to allow despondency to gain a grip. The death toll figures continue to cause both alarm and fear and, of course, deep sorrow as when we learned that the amazing centenarian Captain Sir Tom Moore had succumbed to the virus, or in my personal case, as I witnessed the death of a three month old premature baby, also baptised as Tom, as his life support was withdrawn. Then the virus itself seems to be behaving like a totally uncontrolled unrestrained puppy rushing heedless here and there causing mayhem and upset rather than learning to act as a well- trained dog ,ever sensitive to its master’s bidding. Virologists and epidemiologists may find the virus’s ability to mutate and change its characteristics to produce new strains fascinating but for those of us who do not share their passion for these strange organisms we are just made more fearful. Can our current vaccination programme protect us from these new strains or are we doomed to live in some sort of permanent state of lock down while the virus displays more tricks than that of the most accomplished magician?
And add to these the weather! Can we ever be guaranteed not just half a day of sun but maybe say two full days. Would that be asking too much? The first lock down was blessed with the most glorious weather which helped us so much but the endless grey skies and the downpours of rain are not conducive to good mental health and hopeless for gardening.
Yes, the times are not ordinary at all but we cannot allow despair, misery and frustration to gain a hold. And here we are given such true reassurance from today’s gospel reading. A reading which I’m sure most people associate with Christmas but here we have it on the first Sunday of the year which falls into Ordinary Time. Just reflect on those extraordinary opening words; ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shine in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’
These words are as true on this Sunday as on Christmas Day and indeed on any day of the year. The Light of Christ is eternally with us; eternally being born within us; eternally there to guide and to shine a light for us as we travel through the dark and scary places of our lives. And here I was reminded of some words from that wonderful hymn which begins with the words ‘Immortal, invisible God only wise’ and later ‘To all life thou givest, to both great and small; in all life thou livest the true life of all.’ The Word which became flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord lives in us and is with us from the moment of birth to the time of our death and, of course, beyond. The words of today’s epistle from Colossians confirm this: ‘He is the image of the invisible God…for in him all things were created- all things have been created through him and for him.’ Whoever we are we are God’s children created by Him and for Him and nothing can change that fact; it is immutable. When the darkness descends upon us and we feel lost and rudderless let us turn and read the words of both the gospel and the epistle and know that God holds all things together for the ultimate good of his purposes. We always always have the light of Christ with us but it is sometimes too easy to put on blinkers and fail to perceive it.
And thinking about all this I tried to remove my blinkers and start looking for where I had been aware of Christ’s light shining in the darkness in the last few days. First there was the nurse who so tenderly, carefully, lovingly dressed baby Tom in the most beautiful Christening gown for his baptism and the fact that all rules were placed on one side as his siblings were allowed to join us for that baptism. And then there were the words of the final farewell service for him which should surely be a reminder to all of us as to our purpose in life: ‘From love you came, to love you will return. And for your earthly span, you have been given that love might be known.’ Live with these words always in the forefront of your mind and surely the darkness will seem so much less. And as I said my prayers on Tuesday evening there was the thought that maybe somehow in ways we can never understand Captain Tom could now be cradling Baby Tom and both would be at peace within the love of God.
Add to all this ‘light’ the gift of the most amazing fruit and vegetable boxes for NHS Staff which were stuffed full of outsize goodies; quite the largest apples, tomatoes and cabbages you’ve ever seen amongst other produce. What kindness, what thoughtfulness and the words on the card which came with each one said ‘Packed with thanks’ Packed with thanks! Is that what we do day to day pack it with thanks for all the good things we can still enjoy and most of all for that Light of Christ, the Word made flesh which never leaves us? Thanks for the snowdrops now appearing; for the rare sighting of a blackcap on my bird feeder, for the incredible scarlet blooms of my Christmas gift of an amaryllis. Packed with thanks for all my friends and for all their prayers for me. Packed with thanks for the smiles with which fellow walkers or the staff in the supermarkets greet me. Packed with thanks for the delights of sublime music or a really good enthralling book.
Can it ever be said that any day is ordinary? I think the answer has to be ‘No’ if only because each and every day gives us the opportunity to encounter the Word made flesh, the Light of the world to lift our hearts and respond with our praise to God who is Father to us all.; God who is and always will be extraordinary and beyond our understanding and yet filled with love for us.
O God, though you are unseen, let us see you all around
Though you are silent, let us hear you in the birdsong and the trees.
Though you are untouchable, O God, let us know your presence with us,
May God be a bright flame before you,
a guiding star to lighten your darkness.
May God smooth the way for you,
and when it is hard to see, lead you with outstretched arm.
May God shield you and surround you,
hold your sorrows, wipe your tears,
and give you the courage to lift your faces
to walk with him into the light of a new day.
Homily for Sunday January 31 - Fourth in Epiphany
Texts Hebrews 2 verses 14-end, Luke 2 verses 22-40
For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. Luke 2 verse 30-32
One of the great challenges of this third lock down is just what to talk about. With everyone more or less closeted in their own homes only venturing out when absolutely necessary, where are the sources of gossip and bits of interesting, even juicy, news to impart? My own conversations over the phone with my daughter seem to consist of what we are going to have for supper and after that what we are going to watch on the telly and to be honest they cannot be classed as stimulating. Conversations with my son are more lively if only because he likes to forcefully air his opinions as to what he perceives as the dismal failures of the UK Government to get a grip on the situation; views I do not necessarily concur with but it’s best not to argue when he has the bit between his teeth! And conversations with friends feature on whether or not we’ve had the vaccination, who else has had it and if our families remain well and of course the weather! The snowfall last Sunday did bring a spark of interest as we compared just how much had fallen on our particular patch. But by and large there really is not a lot to discuss however hard we try.
We are in effect in a sort of limbo; a period of waiting for this pandemic to be brought under some sort of control and we can abandon all the restrictions of lock down. And of course, this ties in with today’s gospel reading when we hear of both Simeon and Anna waiting long into their old age for the coming of the Messiah. As each year passed and they became more fragile, more aware of the reality of their own impending death did they ever give up hope that what they had been promised would not be fulfilled? Reading the words again I don’t think Simeon did for a single moment for the promise he was given was emphatic; a promise revealed by no less than the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. And in the same way I think Anna too with all that praying and fasting had a very real sense that at the end of her life she would be given some sort of sign of the reality of God’s presence with her.
And of course, both were rewarded and we have two beautiful tender vignettes of two elderly people holding in their arms the promised Messiah. One of the many truly sad outcomes of the pandemic is that grandparents cannot do this at the moment, and it is so hard for them just to have to make do with photos rather than hold that new baby who in some way is indeed a part of them.
Like Simeon, like Anna we too are called upon to simply wait; to be patient and to believe that God’s promises to always care for us will come true. Just this week in my peregrination through the psalms I came to one hundred and seven which has these wonderful words: ‘Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.’ I find such consolation in these words and would recommend anyone who is struggling to read the entire psalm with its promise that God will not abandon us.
Life is not brilliant for anyone at the moment and of course for some it is nothing but hardship and heart-break, but we have to retain our confidence in God’s amazing grace. We miss human contact terribly and oh how we long for the joy of real rather than virtual social inter-action but the reality of God is always there. He always has time for us; he will listen to what we have to say and if we in turn listen, we may hear something wonderful to truly lift our spirits.
Someone who knew God’s loving presence intimately was Julian of Norwich and, if we despair at our isolation, our being cut off rom the world it might help to think of Julian who committed herself to the life of an anchoress in which she was physically locked away in a walled cell from contact with the outside world. Not something any of us would willingly do I am quite certain. But it was in her solitude, her self- imposed exile from society that she was granted the most amazing revelations of the nature of God and in particular of his love for all his children.
It was Julian who wrote these wonderful words which surely we should all read and re-read to encourage us whenever we feel that our world is closing in on us: ‘So, I was instructed by God’s grace to hold steadfastly to the faith, and, at the same time, to believe firmly that everything will turn out for the best. For this is the great action that our Lord will accomplish, and in this action he will keep his word entirely. And that is not well shall be made well.’
This was the faith and the belief that sustained Simeon and Anna and they were rewarded with seeing God’s words fulfilled as they gazed in adoration and wonder at the baby lying in their arms. The baby who was to bring the light of revelation to the Gentiles and to be the glory of God’s people Israel.
And surely it is possible for us ,if not to hold that baby. to know that light in our lives to illumine the darkness and make us confident that all shall, in God’s time, be made well. Again, Julian of Norwich can be our inspiration: ‘Behold, I am God. Behold I am in all things. Behold, I never fail to guide all things towards the purpose for which I created them, before time began, with the strength, wisdom, and love, with which I created all so how can anything go wrong?’ Yes, so much in our world seems wrong now but we just have to believe in the saving grace of God to restore our lives and renew our hope for the future; a future determined by the wisdom, strength and love which is made manifest in all the wonder and the mystery that is the Lord our God.
Life is hard just now. Being isolated and lacking what all humans need, namely social interaction, is testing all of us. But we have to hold to our faith and always remember the words of Christ himself at the very end of Matthew’s gospel: ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Dear Lord, help me to trust in your wisdom that nothing is forgotten. Give me the strength to meet the events of my life, believing that in you all will be revealed and everything made well. Help me to surrender my anxiety so that my spirit may have ease and be at peace in love. Based on words of Julian of Norwich
Homily for Sunday 24January - Third in Epiphany
Texts: Revelation19 verses 6-10, John 2 verses 1-11
Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them to the brim
Who doesn’t enjoy a wedding? They are such happy and joy filled occasions as two people make their vows to love and care for each other until in the words of the marriage service ‘death us do part.’ Certainly the two weddings at which I officiated last year were extra special, if only because the greatly reduced numbers permitted to be present meant that that the couple had chosen those who meant most to them and who truly cared for them. Thus, the services seemed to have a heightened sense of the presence of God to bless the couple and all those who had pledged to support them.
When we read about the wedding in Cana it’s obvious that this was far more likely to have been a wedding where, if not every ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ were invited together with their significant others, certainly there was a large turnout more than ready, once the official part had been ‘got over with’, to enjoy the party and. it would seem, to make the most of the hospitality offered. I’m sure we have all attended weddings a bit like that.
But then when everything seemed to be going perfectly disaster struck! Someone had made a massive boob with the catering and the wine was running out. Eager waiters were no longer coming round with fresh bottles to top up glasses and for the thirsty the best they could offer was something non-alcoholic which naturally held little appeal for most of the guests especially as drink and drive laws were a completely unknown requirement for the times. Even the most drunk guest could probably rely on his donkey to take him, or her, safely home as long as he or she clutched the reins tightly enough.
Thus, the mood of the party quickly changed from lively jollity to an increasingly voluble complaint as to just why the glasses weren’t being refilled while the most pessimistic were forecasting this as an inauspicious omen for the prospects of a long and happy marriage. Meanwhile, the poor servants were doing their best to remain unseen in the kitchen and hoping no one was going to accuse them of being the cause of such a mess up. And then into the kitchen strides this man Jesus and, instead of castigating them for their failure to bring him more wine, orders them to take the vast purification jars and fill them with water. What! Water! Is the man mad; water isn’t going to solve the problem and surely even an idiot would know that it is most likely to exacerbate it. But the man is adamant and being well trained servants and able to recognize authority when confronted with it, they reluctantly shoulder the jars and make their way to the well. And having filled them they made their way even more reluctantly back into the midst of those unhappy guests not daring to look up in case they catch someone’s eye and wishing fervently that they could be anywhere but there. The rest of the story we know as Jesus performed his first miracle and that water became wine and a potential flop suddenly became the best of parties again. But it was not just any old plonk that was being poured by now grinning waiters but wine of the finest vintage causing incredulous amazement from the guests and in particular the steward who in all his experience had never known wine to be served that could in any way compare with this hitherto unknown premier cru.
And reflecting on this story, which for me never loses its appeal, I recognized the similarity that I was experiencing in writing this homily. However hard I tried I could not find a theme on which to base my words. All sorts of ideas came and were dismissed; I even tried linking it to the inauguration of President Biden but in truth that didn’t work and nor did any of the other possibilities that I dreamt up in the small hours of the night. To me it seemed as if the wine of inspiration had definitely run out however much I up-ended the bottle for the last drips. So maybe I should just forget about writing anything this week. Surely it wouldn’t be the end of the world and everyone would understand or that’s what I tried to persuade myself while trying to excuse myself from that resolve to discipline myself to write once a week. I could, as it were, just go and skulk in the kitchen and hope no one would come and shout at me for my failure to keep the wine of words flowing
And it was then that I realised that even if I had no inspiration, no divine help from the Holy Spirit that I had no alternative but to go and fetch plain old water from the well and use that even if it seemed pretty pointless. What message might that convey to those who read this? What help would that be to anyone to know that I was, like the wedding guests, feeling fed up as my glass, like theirs, remained empty?
And having got that far and knowing come what may I had to write something, anything however dull and uninspired it might be and lacking all potency I realised that again and again that is what we are asked to do. Asked to fetch the water and take it to Jesus to be blessed that it may in ways we can never understand bring refreshment to others and re-awaken the party spirit. One of Jesus’ infinite number of divine gifts was his ability to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. It wasn’t just water for he worked the same sort of miracle with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish and of course with the very ordinary men whom he chose to be his disciples. What was special about them? Nothing! But while during his lifetime they often continued to display very human and very common weaknesses after his death they in a sense became miracle workers themselves as they took the gospel to a thirsty world and convinced men and women from across the civilized world of the time to join the party.
So, I believe that we too are continually being asked to bring to Christ what strikes us as exceedingly ordinary and humdrum so that in ways we may never know and certainly won’t comprehend he uses our gifts for extraordinary purposes. Now I’m not for one moment here even beginning to suggest that this could possibly be true of what I’ve written today but what I do now realise is that even when the bottle seems empty, I don’t just go and find my donkey and slink off home filled with disappointment. Instead acting on his orders I can always go and find some good old plain water and take it to Christ our Lord so that He can make use of it in any way he chooses. Nothing we do for Christ our Lord will ever be valueless and just sometimes it might, with his divine blessing, even assume a value we could never ever have imagined.
In the faithful living out and quiet affirmation of this day’s duty, lies worth, and joy. And on some wall a mark is made. A mark of love, shaped like a cross. Eddie Askew
Homily for Sunday 17 January - Second in Epiphany
Texts: Acts 19 verses 1-7, Mark 1 verses 4-11
Our faith is in the empathy and compassion of God made incarnate in Christ. Those who know God in Christ are called to be the most caring of people, with special unspoken insight into the needs of fellow human beings. In them, the world can see a truly incarnate Church, as “compassionate and trustworthy” as Christ himself. (Redemptorist Publications)
First of all my apologies as I managed to muddle my lectionary readings and this, in effect, should have been last week’s homily when the first Sunday after Epiphany is designated to honour the Baptism of Christ. Maybe it was a sort of subconscious refusal to accept the difficult transition in just over two weeks from celebrating the birth of a baby to having that same baby a full- grown man in the prime of life. The time- line of the lectionary bears no resemblance to real time but then, in a sense, that is helpful as it reminds us that God Himself is out of time. He is the ever- present God who declared to Moses that His name was ‘I am’ not ‘I was’ nor ‘I will be’ but ‘I am’ who is the ever present and unchanging and unchangeable God.
And so too in a sense baptism is the sacrament which confirms us as one of God’s children held for all time within the family of God. Other sacraments can be repeated and indeed the Eucharist is continually repeated week by week even day by day, but baptism is a ‘one off’ because once a child of God we are forever His Child even when some may think differently and even strenuously reject such a notion.
So to the baptism of Christ, and I know for some the question is why on earth was it necessary for Jesus to be baptised? Surely there was absolutely no need and indeed no grounds to be cleansed from his sins, as was the case with all the other people who came to be baptised by John. For me, the answer has to be that yet again we are being shown that the Son of God came, in all his humility, to demonstrate that His life would be led with those who needed the grace of God to cleanse and to heal them; to redeem their sins and help them recognize that they too were children of God. In the same way that his lowly birth proclaimed such an intention, so now in his baptism we see Jesus immersing himself in the murky and polluted waters in which others have washed off their sins. Jesus never ever shirked away from being with the outcast and the sinner and as he himself proclaimed when he said: ‘I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ All through His life Jesus went to heal people whom the religious leaders would never ever dream of even approaching and of course His death was that of the most abject and despised sinner. Hebrews explains this purpose in these words: ‘For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.’ (Hebrews 2 verses 14-17)
So, Jesus went willingly into those murky polluted waters so that as he arose from them the testimony would be given for all to hear not just at that precise moment but present in all time that ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ So, too, all our baptisms draw us away from the scourge and debasement of sin into the presence of God our Father and maybe, just maybe, sometimes we too will be given the encouragement that he is also pleased with us. Pleased when we fulfil that baptismal exhortation to ‘shine as a light in the world.’
And isn’t that what we are being called to do just now more than ever. To bring a glimmer of light into the dark places. As I’ve certainly said before in these homilies we are right now in a very dark place and the bad news is relentless but we surely have a responsibility to come out of the mire of bad news and proclaim that the Good News is that God is with us. The last sentence of that quote from Hebrews is ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.’ (Hebrews 2 verse 18)
Reflecting on all this, I was reminded of the time that my husband and I after a long walk managed to miss the last bus which would have taken us back to our starting point many miles away. We had no alternative but to turn around and start walking which is when the rain also started! I can still vividly real each weary footstep as we kept plodding on as the rain intensified and the daylight faded. We couldn’t just stop we had to keep walking and that is what we are called to do now, however painful, however exhausting because there will be an end and we will come out of the dark and the rain into the light of a new day. Jesus endured all that suffering of his trial and crucifixion to come out into the glorious light of Easter morning and in that reality lies our hope for our future; the future good of all God’s children
In our baptism we are proclaimed as God’s children and nothing can take that away from us not even death. So in response to his love we have to keep plodding on with heads held high not looking down into the murky polluted waters of constant bad and depressing news but looking up to the heavens where we might just catch the sound of God’s voice of encouragement or feel his touch to straighten our backs and renew our strength.
In St Peter’s Hospital this week everyone I talked to was plodding on however exhausted because that is what they had pledged to do in following a vocation for healing. And it is to honour their efforts, and that of all essential workers who have kept this nation on its feet as it were, that we too must plod on and honour our vocation to bring the Good News; the Good News that proclaims that we are all God’s children and all equally loved by Him. We must keep the lock down rules and do our best to keep safe and prevent the virus spreading but perhaps even more importantly we must try our very best not to grumble, moan, fret or become all spiky and not allow the insidious effect of bad news to weaken that resolve just to keep on plodding. And as we do so never forget for one moment that just as God in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord, was with those sinners, together with all the moaners and groaners, who immersed themselves in the River Jordan, so He is with us on this journey for He is the God who totally and completely understands suffering because that is what His own Son went through in His life.
May God through our baptism grant us the grace to shine as lights in the world. Amen
Homily for Sunday 10 January - First in Epiphany
Texts: 1 Samuel 3 verses 1-10. John 1 verses 43-51
Speak for you servant is listening. 1 Samuel 3 verse 10
Be still and know the Lord is here.
When I read the words ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ in today’s gospel I immediately without even thinking rephrased the words to ‘Can anything good come out of Covid?’ Of course, there is a world of difference between the two; Nathaniel’s slur was presumably based on the simple fact that Nazareth was a backwater, insignificant and certainly no power base where no one of any importance in the world’s eyes held sway. In other words, a place like all the small parishes in the Dorking Deanery; perfectly pleasant but hardly the centre of the world and certainly not places where one would expect exceptional people to emerge and become the centre of the world’s attention as Jesus did.
By contrast Covid is far from insignificant and has certainly become for the moment at least the centre of the world’s attention. But that is surely the point in that its power is ‘for the moment’ whereas the power of God revealed in Christ Jesus is an everlasting power which cannot be diminished or defeated as Covid surely will be.
But back to my rephrased question, ‘Can anything good come out of Covid?’ Do we quite simply just want to be able to return to the life we knew before Covid or do we want something else not just for ourselves but for our communities, our countries and our world? Do we really want and are prepared to fight for the justice, mercy and peace that our Lord calls for and which are central to Kingdom values? One of the tragic results of Covid has been not only the so called ‘excess deaths’ but the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Just before Christmas driving past the small church in the Goodwyns estate which is now doubling as a centre for the Community Fridge I was truly shocked to see the length of the queue stretching down the road. And if this is what is happening here in wealthy Surrey what must it be like in say some of the Northern towns where unemployment was an issue even before Covid struck?
As Christians we simply cannot shut our eyes and ignore the reality that there is such a gap and that those at the bottom of the pile must surely struggle to find any sort of hope for the future at all. What must it be like for such people when they heard, as I did on Wednesday, that the ‘Footsie’ one hundred Chief Executives earn the equivalent of the average salary of some thirty-one thousand pounds in less than three days making their annual salary some one hundred and twenty times greater than that of the average UK worker? Luke Hildyard of the High Pay Centre said that ‘These figures should prompt debate about the effects that high levels of inequality can have on social cohesion, crime and public health and well-being.’ So, the question for us this morning is perhaps do we truly want to be part of that debate? Do we want somehow to be instrumental in ensuring that when Covid no longer holds power then such inequalities can be somehow if not ironed out at least minimised? Minimised to the extent that the feelings of insidious envy, gross unfairness and even a sense of oppression can be alleviated. Now I’d be the first to admit that there is probably so little we can actually do other than just to be aware of such gross inequality, aware of the millions without employment at this time, to pray and always be ready to look for opportunities to be more pro-active remembering the words of Tearfund’s founder that ‘One person cannot change the world but you can change the world for one person.’ So too we should surely resolve to have our voices heard along with others around the world who yearn for a more equal and just society reflecting not the value of the market-place but the Kingdom values taught by Christ. Kingdom values which are expressed in the radical words of the Magnificat: 'He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ Words which are in direct contradiction of the ways that prevail in the world of mammon. Are these words which we are prepared to take to heart or do we blindly skip over them as either not applicable to ourselves or simply too impossible to accomplish. But are they impossible?
An example perhaps of the sort of thing that can be achieved is the realisation that China is using the slave labour of the despised Uighurs to manufacture their goods for export and as a result firms like Marks and Spencer are refusing to purchase such goods any longer. Wherever there is injustice, especially as a result of Covid, can we make our voices heard to remedy the situation?
But before we choose to make our voices heard I think, like the boy Samuel, we need to be prepared to listen to the voice of God and try to catch what it is he is calling upon us to do in his name. Samuel was called first of all to right the greed and the injustices that were being perpetrated by Eli’s sons and to restore faith in the priestly caste. Not an easy task and one that could so easily have found him very much at odds with his mentor Eli but it was a task he knew he had to fulfil. I certainly feel strongly that I am hearing that voice very clearly in all the books I have read recently and in the substance of so many leading articles in the Church Times. A voice that is crying out against the injustices in society and the lack of a shared vision for the good of all. A voice that seeks the ‘common good’. The common good which should take precedence over any of our individual wants and ambitions. A voice that cries out to us not to ignore or neglect all those who have been forced only this year because of Covid into joining the outcasts, the underdogs of society. It is a voice I do not think we can afford to ignore if we truly pray those words ‘your Kingdom come; your will be done.’ Pope Francis said: ‘Those called may not know it is God who is doing the calling, but they realise it is something that transcends their own interests.’ In the same vein Jurgen Moltmann writes: ‘Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is and the rational response of faith to the state of the world, and the confusions about the essence of human nature, is to work for something better.’
Can we hear that call as Samuel did and in responding in our Christ filled hope help to be instrumental in ensuring that something good and world changing does come out of Covid?
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him Psalm 62 verse 5
Homily for Sunday 3 January - Epiphany
Texts: Jeremiah 31 verses 7-14, John 1 verses 1-18
I very much doubt that many people had any regrets at all in saying good-bye to the year twenty- twenty and as the clock struck midnight and we passed into a New Year the hope must have been in everyone’s mind that this year has to be better than the last one and some sort of normal life will once again be possible and the words ‘lockdown’, ‘tier’ and ‘social distancing’ will, to everyone’s immense relief, disappear from our collective vocabulary and there might even be a ceremonial burning of masks! But before we turn our backs completely on twenty-twenty I do think we need to recognize that it was not all bad and that there were things about it to celebrate and indeed to remember with gratitude. There were the Thursday nights when we all went outside our homes to clap and cheer in order to show our deep appreciation for the NHS and indeed all essential workers who demonstrated such dedication and commitment despite all the challenges they faced. Then there were the heroes like Captain Tom and Marcus Rashford whose courage and tenacity in achieving their philanthropic aims inspired all of us. Add to these the incredible sunshine which stretched on for month after month and helped keep up our spirits until inevitably the rain arrived to remind us that in this country, at least, the weather will always be a topic for conversation. And finally, and most importantly, we were made continually aware of the acts of friendship and neighbourliness, the acts of reaching out to those in need, the acts of pure selflessness and marked generosity all of which shone out as lights in the darkness of fear and anxiety generated by the threat of Covid. Acts that surely must remind us that we are made in God’s image and called upon continually to reflect that image by our acts of love towards both God and neighbour.
We are certainly not the only people who have encountered a collective darkness in our lives and in the Old Testament reading today we have the example of the people of Israel who were taken into captivity and exile for some seventy years in Babylon far from their homeland and all that was familiar to them. Jeremiah had warned the people again and again that such a fate would befall them, but they had no interest in listening to him and indeed did all they could to shut him up. But while he prophesied tribulation and woe for the people he also, as we heard in the reading, gave them the promise of hope that in time they would return to the promised land. It is a wonderful passage designed to lift the spirits of the lowest and I love the verses ‘Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them comfort for sorrow'. These are surely words to turn to in the weeks ahead when winter has its firmest grip and the news most probably continues to emphasise the pessimistic rather than optimistic, the bad rather than the good.
Study any period in history when the future for whatever reason seemed uncertain and recognize that always always there remained a sense of the light that must come again. Not just the light that for instance means to all intents and purpose the end of Covid but far more importantly The Light of Christ that as we heard in that amazing reading from John’s gospel cannot and will not be overcome however dark it may appear.
In the inspiring and uplifting words of Peter Sills we are surely given reassurance of that faith, that hope. ‘As we live from day to day, we have to hold together good and evil, light and darkness, certainty and doubt, joy and sorrow, life and death. In the dead of winter we celebrate new life; in the darkness we hail the new light; in the one life we see salvation for all; in a particular story we see universal truth. Faith holds together these paradoxical symbols; we too need simply to hold onto them and to resist trying to resolve them, letting the tension between them draw us more deeply into the truth to which they point but do not exhaust.
This is the way of faith, and it needs reaffirming in a world where faith is in decline and hope hard to come by. Faith is not an opiate, but a foundation, a source of energy and strength, the expression of a deep longing within us that good will outlast evil, light will overcome darkness, joy overcome sorrow, and new life vanquish death.’
This was the faith of Jeremiah which he so earnestly tried to impart to the Israelites and give them hope that in God’s time their trials would be over and their young girls would dance with joy and the young men and the old would know merriment again.
This was the faith that could not be destroyed despite all Hitler’s attempts to destroy not just the faith but the entire Jewish race in the holocaust. This has to be our faith and in holding onto it we will surely help reveal the truth of the Word made flesh. As it says in John’s gospel not everyone recognized the truth of who Jesus truly was but for those who did he gave them the power to be the children of God.
Our faith, our hope should give us that power now. Power to go out from this church this morning to share the gift of hope, the gift of light so that together as God’s family we can overcome our fears, our anxieties, our despondency and believe that in the Light that is Christ and, in the grace and mercy which is God’s will towards us ultimately the time will come when our young women dance and both the young and the old of whatever sex are merry again.
Today we celebrate a few days early the feast of the Epiphany when those wise men followed the star to find Jesus bringing him the symbolic gifts to remind us that Christ truly is a divine King who rules over earth and heaven, so too we are called to follow perhaps not a star but the calling of the holy Spirit to bring those gifts I’ve spoken of to those who so desperately need them at this time. The gift of hope perhaps found in a food parcel at the Food Bank; the gift of light perhaps provided by companionship albeit at a distance to the lonely, the depressed and the fearful. The Christian faith is a communal faith not an individual faith and to be truly effective we work together to shine the light of faith, the light of real and undiminished hope in dark places and show that we do sincerely care for the well-being, both physical and spiritual of others whoever they may be because of the ultimate truth of our faith that God cares for us. And that care, that love is revealed in the Word made flesh, the Light of the world, His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
God grant that we may be compassion-filled people who are not afraid to be with someone who is hurting; faith-filled people who bring encouragement by our presence and our words; hope-filled people who bless others by giving them the confidence to overcome adversity.
The Epiphany by Ian Adams
Jesus the Christ revealed as gift for all.
Light for you.
Light for the world!
Now let the light do its work on you,
making you ever more translucent,
from opaque towards transparent.
Allow the light to shine through you.
And from you-for you too are divine.
This may come at some cost.
And a sword will pierce your own soul too.
The process of discovering our divine nature
is bound to be searing,
a burning, but one in which we will not be consumed.
You are the light of the world
Let your light shine.
Homily for Christmas Day
It is, I imagine, almost certain that everyone here can produce a picture of themselves as a new-born baby albeit some they would prefer were not submitted to public display. And in addition to these reminders of one’s own babyhood when obviously each and every one of us was at least in the eyes of our parents quite exceptionally beautiful, quite perfect, we can also produce either in albums or on smart phones baby photos of siblings, partners, children, grandchildren and probably a host of other baby photos sent by proud parents or grandparents who are absolutely one hundred percent certain you’d really really like to see them. Speak to anyone now with a smart phone and I bet they can produce several and possibly hundreds of baby photos which they will show you with intense pride. I certainly have been held hostage to grandparents who insist that I should be shown and be enthralled by each and every one and who are definitely on a par with people who show the same persistence in parading their holiday photos. And since this complete Luddite does not possess a Smart phone I can never ever get my revenge!
Babies; the most wonderful, awe inspiring reminders of the miracle of creation and it really does take the hardest of hearts not to coo over them even when they are not quite as beautiful as their parents imagine. The exquisite perfection of each tiny finger or toe certainly cause me to stop, blink back unbidden tears, to marvel and to thank God with all my heart for the blessing of another of His children. When I am in the neonatal unit and see babies weighing less than a pound of butter my sense of awe is perhaps all the greater and again and again, I am witness to the sheer determination of these tiny scraps of flesh and blood to overcome all the hurdles that such an early start in life presents them with and thrive against all the odds.
But today we are thinking of another baby of whom not a single photograph was taken and no records kept. Mary was never asked to complete one of those floppy red books presented to all new parents in the UK in which is kept a record of all the weight gain and shows exactly where the little cherub is on the percentile mark together with a comprehensive detailing of each and every milestone of that baby’s life. And as I reflected on what to write for today it struck me as distinctly strange that the baby who has arguably had the greatest and most significant impact on human civilisation and history has almost no history of his own. Of all the gospel writers it is only Luke who gives us details of the actual birth comprising a mere seven verses which are then augmented by the account of the visit of the shepherds to the manger. Seven verses of which the first four deal with explaining why the birth took place in Bethlehem and it is only the last two verses that provide the merest detail of that unique and wondrous birth: ‘While they were there, the time came for her to deliver the child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’ Forty- four words alone convey the sheer poverty and the incomparable richness of the birth of God’s Son. Mind you I reckon a tweet could reduce it to just five words namely ‘Boy, Bethlehem, swaddled, in manger’! Be that as it may there were no photos, no official records just forty- four words to tell us that God’s Son has been born among us. No announcements in Court Circulars, no firing of guns, no flags flying, no street celebrations, no commemorative mugs, no paparazzi just forty-four words. No speculation as to where the bands of cloth had been purchased, no seeking out or interviewing of the carpenter who had made that manger so everyone else expecting a baby could have an identical one, but forty-four unvarnished words to tell the world of the truth of the incarnation. The truth expressed in the single word Emmanuel , God with us.
Since that time goodness knows how many words have been written in carols, poems and learned treatises not to mention all the hundreds of thousands of sermons like this one to give voice to that birth. And just in case you’re interested this one comes to exactly one thousand and eighty words.
But those words of Luke’s are more than enough for us as we come once again this Christmas time to worship and in the words of the carol allow the Holy Child of Bethlehem to descend to us today, to cast out our sin and to be born in us today. No wonder there are no photos of the Christ child although there are goodness knows how many artistic representations of him for surely if we are able to sense the Christ born within each of us then every person we meet is in some way an image of that Child; an image that can through God’s amazing grace reveal the love that is God.; the love that embraces all God’s children; the love that made possible the birth of Christ our Saviour and through him revealed some tiny but revealing glimpse of the unfathomable mystery that is God
I pray that today despite all the darkness that Covid has imposed upon our lives we may still know without a shadow of doubt the Light of Christ shining through that darkness bringing the gift of hope that with God nothing can overcome us. And that we may by our worship and our pondering on the divine wonder and mystery that is the incarnation find ourselves blessed by the very presence of that baby in his manger in our hearts and in our home.; blessed with the love and the joy that lie at the heart of Christmas. And I pray also that each and every one of us of whatever age will carry that baby who is love incarnate out into this darkened world hearts and thus through God’s grace be enabled by all that we do or say to reveal His love and the hope He brings to all God’s children whom we will meet or speak to not just this Christmas day but every day of the year.
Into this world, brutal and brilliant, comes the holy child.
Now let this child trusting and wonderful
be born in you---
flooding you with light
so that in the company of countless others
you may ignite
an aurora of rippling light,
a dance of earth and heaven
that will never be extinguished.
May the holy child be born in you again today
Fourth Sunday in Advent - 20 December
Texts: Romans 16 verses 25-27, Luke 1 verses26-38
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen Romans 16 verses 25-27
Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.’ Luke 1 verse 38
I wonder what any of us have aspired to be in life and whether we can boast that we have achieved all that we set out to do. Did we dream of being the boss of our own company or business or at the very least a CEO or were we content to just jog along in a more menial position and accept being told what to do by those who ranked higher than we did? It is very much a part of human nature to try to better yourself and to rise up that greasy pole of ambition and success. We want to escape the darkness and danger of the coal mine or the tedious repetition of the factory floor or secretarial desk and find a more comfortable, more human and more rewarding way of life. Often, too, we want to escape the authority of others and always being told what we must and mustn’t do instead of being recognized, not as just the equivalent of a working part on some production line but as someone who has ideas and inspirations of their own; a real person in other words, not a seemingly faceless and even nameless employee.
Society is hierarchical and that is as true of the Church as in any other business. I’m quite sure that when people come forward to ordination they don’t actually harbour a secret ambition to become in time the Archbishop of Canterbury but inevitably, over time, there will be some who will begin to see and grasp at opportunities to rise higher and wield more power. I mean it must be rather satisfying to wear that mitre and hold that crook and have everyone bowing and scraping before you as you process solemnly down the aisle in some church service.
To gain power is a great motivator and of course power can so very easily be the means by which others are bullied, victimised, downtrodden and abused. I have certainly worked under two head teachers who were both guilty of abusing their power and making life very hard for those of us who worked under them. And of course, as a run of the mill teacher I also had power over the children I taught and I am sure there must have been times when maybe knowingly, more often unwittingly I hope, I abused that power. If a child is being an absolute pain in the neck then giving him or her an hour’s detention can be very gratifying whereas it might have been far better and more productive in the long run to establish just why they were causing such mayhem in the class.
Authority and unfettered power have all through history been the cause of wars, of oppression, of tyrannical regimes. Look today at the war- torn countries around the globe and you will see, as different factions strive for mastery, the abuse of power and the terrible human suffering it causes. But today in our readings we look to a different authority, the authority of the Lord our God and of how in the example of Mary we should respond to such divine authority. Mary! A young girl barely out of childhood; what were her dreams, her ambitions? We have absolutely no idea, but I would like to bet that they never for one moment included having a baby at such a tender age and out of wedlock. The idea would have been preposterous in the society in which she lived and even now in many societies it would be a shaming and damning event. What thoughts went racing through her mind as that unasked for, uninvited angel appeared to her with his message as to her future? Why me? Is this real? Am I dreaming? And perhaps even more simply ‘Just leave me alone and go away and bother some other girl with your nonsense.’ before sticking the ear plugs back in. Then of course there is the other possibility that hearing that quite astounding news that she was apparently to be the mother of the Son of God she thought maybe of all the prestige and honour this could bring her. My goodness how she could lord it over all the other girls she knew if this was really true. Wow! This would make all the difference to her status in the community and wouldn’t she be crowned ‘Queen of the May’? But even if she did entertain such ambitious and indeed powerful thoughts, they remained unspoken for as we know her only response to that angelic being was: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.’
A response, so simple but so direct, that is steeped in utter humility and in total obedience to divine authority. A response that has echoed down the centuries and inspired so many others to try to emulate Mary’s example of humble acceptance of God’s will for them. God’s authority which although absolute is never tyrannical, bullying, abusive or self- seeking. God’s authority is one which demonstrates that it chooses to rule, to hold sway only by the sovereign power of unqualified love and merciful justice for all.
Whoever we are, whatever we have achieved in life, whatever our status, power or prestige in worldly terms when we come to submit to God’s authority exposed in all its might and majesty by the birth of a baby lying in a humble manger in an unsanitary stable, we kneel together as equals in God’s sight. The shepherds who came were considered as among the lowest in society, uneducated, un-regarded but chosen by God to be the first to witness the mystery revealed that day in Bethlehem. The Magi when they came were esteemed for their wisdom and their learning and highly regarded but they too knelt in humble obeisance, just as the shepherds had, recognizing that here was an incomparable authority which could never be challenged, overwhelmed or defeated by even the most powerful of this world’s rulers.
I pray that as Christmas dawns we too, may like Mary, willingly submit and humbly and obediently kneel in awe and adoration and then, in obedience to God’s authority, be prepared to bear witness that, as at every Christmas, here among us is God incarnate revealed in all His humility and His servitude to us His children.
The Hope of the Few by Ian Adams
When the powerful manipulate the truth,
when the powerless are exploited,
and when we who seek good seem incapable of bringing change,
where is hope?
Advent is a celebration of the few.
Of the small.
Of the unknown and of the unnoticed.
Never forget the potential
of a prayer made in seclusion,
of one generous action,
of some small gesture of faith,
or of a simple blessing
--to scatter the proud
and to shatter the illusion that theirs is the last word.
As alone as you may feel.
As small, as unknown or as unnoticed.
Your prayers, your generosity, your gestures, and your blessings
will heal the world.
Third Sunday in Advent - 13 December (Gaudete Sunday)
Texts: Isaiah 61 verses 1-4, 8-11, 1 Thessalonians 5 verses 16-24, John 1 verses 6-8, 19-28
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;…he has sent me to comfort all who mourn;…..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 verse 1
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1Thessalonians 5. verses 16-18
But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you, Psalm 5 verse 1
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Psalm 90 verse 14
This third Sunday in Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday or translated from the Latin ‘Rejoice’ Sunday. Now, as you will know, Advent is classed as a penitential season so suddenly to have a break from solemn prayer and tummy rumbling fasting in order to rejoice is definitely good news. And, given the year we’ve been subjected to, a bit of rejoicing can surely help lift our spirits. But you may argue what exactly is there to truly rejoice about? All right there’s the arrival of the first doses of anti Covid vaccine and there’s Christmas in less than two weeks but of course as everyone is quick to tell you it won’t be like a normal Christmas however hard we try to make it so. Throw Brexit into the mix and a few other grim sounding news stories and what is there to even smile about? So, can we truly rejoice? And I am absolutely certain the answer is yes! If we stop and really think about what joy is and understand that it is not the same as happiness then we can all be joyful; joy to me speaks of a real inner glow; a sense, if you like, of the divine love permeating our lives and revealed in the sharing of such joy with one another. David Steindal -Rast describes the making of joy in these words: ‘The root of joy is gratefulness. It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.’
But again, is such joy possible in December of twenty twenty given the present climate of, if not exactly doom, definitely of gloom and a sort of pervasive unhappiness or discontent however many strings of Christmas lights we suspend around our houses? And for me the answer to this question is again a decided yes. And here I would like to cite my own experience this week when I just happened to celebrate a birthday. No there was no cake, no candles or balloons and certainly no party but what there was made it very special. There was the delight of opening cards of course and some lovely, carefully chosen presents but best of all were the doorstep visits. Doorstep visits when people went out of their way to come and knock, step back the regulatory two metres, and then, when I opened the door, greeted me with a ‘Happy Birthday’, a big smile and an even bigger virtual hug. Somehow the very fact that they had taken the trouble to do this made all the difference and the gratitude at such a simple but meaningful act was reflected in the very real joy I felt. And if this can happen on a run of the mill birthday then surely it can happen today as we prepare for all the wonder and awe that is Christmas.
Whenever a baby is expected preparations are made for that exciting and joy filled arrival. And that is what we are called to do in order to share in the joy given to Joseph and Mary, the angels and the shepherds and indeed to the world at large on that first Christmas. Not by going over the top with decorations and super expensive presents and over-rich food but by simple acts of calling on people perhaps with a card and not just posting it through the letter box and slipping away unseen but by ringing the door- bell so that the recipients can see your smiles, feel your virtual hugs. There will, I know, be heart- warming joy in such an exchange. There will be joy, too, in acknowledging with true gratitude all those who work in shops, the postman or postwoman, the delivery drivers and so many more who come with gifts real or virtual to our ‘stable’ Are we grateful? Or do we take too much for granted? Do we moan at the length of the queues at the checkout instead of patiently and humbly waiting as Mary and Joseph did for the arrival of that precious baby? Do we barely acknowledge those who come with letters or parcels to the door turning them away as the innkeepers turned Mary and Joseph away? Do we hunker down in our warm, carefully decorated homes, wrapped in our own self- isolation from the realities of the outside world, forgetting that it was the shepherds on that cold hillside who were first given the joyous news of Christ’s birth?
To experience the true joy of Christmas we are called upon to be people of gratitude. Gratitude at all that God has done for us; gratitude that He has created such an amazing world in all its infinite variety in which to live; gratitude that He has made the seemingly extraordinary decision to adopt us as His children; gratitude that in all the wonder and the mystery that is his love for us He sent His own Son in order to reveal the depths and the heights of that love. It is surely in recognizing all these unasked for, unmerited gifts that our hearts and minds are filled with a true sense of gratitude and in so doing we know the joy that makes today Gaudete Sunday.
There is a lovely prayer I use as part of the final blessing at a marriage service which is: ‘The joy of this day be yours; the joy of this week be yours; the joy of this year be yours; joy for ever and ever be yours. The hands of the Father uphold you, the hands of the Saviour enfold you; the hands of the Spirit surround you.’ Can we discover in every day that there truly is joy to be found in gratitude for all that we are given however small or insignificant it may first appear? Or put another way can we in John O’Donohue’s words, ‘experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.’? The ‘heart of wonder’ experienced by Joseph, Mary and those shepherds as they looked in adoration and in joy at the miracle which is every new baby.
No, our world is very far from perfect; the year twenty-twenty has brought anxiety, fear, sorrow, doubt and unhappiness; but God remains the same and He has not deserted us. The gifts of His creation, the gifts of His love, the gift of His Son remain the same. Each and every day if we open our doors to Him, He will be there on the threshold with arms held wide to embrace us in His loving care. And in gratitude for such a constant, supportive presence may we be granted Alleluia hearts filled with joy. Joy to be shared with all whom we meet this Christmastide just as God shares it with all His children.
Second Sunday in Advent - 6 December
Texts: Isaiah 40 verses 1-11, Mark 1 verses 1-8
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ Isaiah 40 verse 3
(John) proclaimed ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ Mark 1 verses 7-8
If we read St Luke’s account of John the Baptist we discover a man who was not in the least afraid of telling people exactly what he thought of them and what it was they were doing wrong and calling on them not simply to repent but to change their entire way of life. He called on the rich to give away a substantial share of their abundance of clothing and food to the poor; he called upon the tax collectors to start acting with complete integrity, only collecting the prescribed amount of tax and not taking more to feather their own nests. He told the occupying forces not to intimidate the people over whom they held power with threats of false accusation and the demanding of money with menaces. These were all the sort of people who strutted the world of Christ with the trappings of wealth and power but John showed no hesitation in telling them that they were wrong to abuse their positions and to hoard and increase their personal wealth so that the downtrodden, the poor and the impotent suffered all the more. John never minced his words as we discover in Matthew’s gospel when he used that wonderful expression to describe the sort of people he was getting at as ‘you brood of vipers’.
Today we live in a world where there is sadly not nearly so much straight speaking and at times it is so hard to recognize the truth whereas John was always able to hone in on the truth and tell it to people without flinching. Have we become too mealy mouthed? Are we prepared to speak out against the many injustices of the world and also to proclaim with boldness the truth of the gospel as John did? We seem to live in a world where trust is in short supply. Do we trust our Government? Do we trust our world leaders? Do we in fact trust the leaders of the Church? Is there clarity in what we are being told and if there is, is it a clarity, an honesty we know we can trust?
Our Government has seemed at times very unsure of itself in its handling of the pandemic and often we seem to be being given very mixed messages and, being very political here, I was not happy when Dominic Cummings was not dismissed on account of his unlawful trip north nor the Prime Minister’s defence of Priti Patel when she was found guilty of the sort of behaviour that John was condemning among the occupying forces. But we do not have a John, it would seem, to say it loud and clear. We do not have a John to tell Donald Trump that he should concede his position as President and gracefully and magnanimously retire. We do not have a John to tell us to unite not just as nation but as a world to combat this pandemic instead of looking out solely for our own self- centred wishes to see the back of the pandemic in our own circumscribed bubble. We are for instance told that the first doses of vaccine will shortly be available here but what about it being available in the refugee camps in the Lebanon or in Cox’s Bazaar where some many thousands upon thousands of Rohingya Muslims now eke out some sort of utterly impoverished existence? Would John be telling us to share those doses with such people? I rather think he would be but I could be wrong. If I am John would surely tell me.
But there was another side to John apart from his straight speaking and that was his utter humility and his recognition that in the presence of God he was nothing. The only way he could portray this understanding of his own unworthiness was to declare that he wasn’t even fit to untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet. And here we have to understand the culture of the time for the removal of sandals was the task given to the lowest of the low slaves; the slaves who were themselves deemed to be incapable of doing any higher from of service. We see the same sense of unworthiness displayed by the disciples when Jesus himself knelt to wash their feet.
So in John we find a man confident in his ability to speak the unerring truth to people and point out without equivocation their faults and what they should do about them but at the same time a man who knew his own unworthiness in the presence of God who is above all and who is absolute power and authority.
And perhaps in this paradox there is a lesson for us in that there has been an acknowledged trend towards the ‘me society’ the ‘me first' way of life and this has meant that we have trampled on the poor, the dispossessed, the vulnerable if only because we choose not to see them in case our little contented ‘me’ is upset or made to feel guilty by their suffering. But the ‘me’ way of life is contrary to all that Jesus teaches us; the ‘me’ way of life fails to acknowledge that we are quite simply unworthy to untie the sandals of the man who gave his very own life that we might have life in all its abundance. Dominic Cummings thought he was perfectly entitled to break the rules because of who he was; Priti Patel thought she could swear and bully because of who she was; Trump thinks he can continue to contest the legality of the Presidential election because of who he is. But none of these people, like us are worthy in the presence of God’s own Son to untie those sandals and that is the truth that we have to recognize however hard, however humiliating even we may find it to do so. Until we do, we continue to be slaves to the expectations of our world rather than discover the freedom which comes from serving God.
Isaiah calls for the roads to be made straight for the coming Messiah and here is a metaphor for us to straighten out our lives and begin to recognize just what John would castigate us for in the way in which we live our lives and at the same time show us how we can bring ourselves back onto that straight path that leads to Bethlehem.
I would like to end with these words of Peter Sills: ‘Who comes first, God or me? The common good or our individual wants and ambitions? … If we are going to be realistic about our hopes, then these questions cannot be avoided, and the Christian faith offers answers that are distinctively deeper than those of the secular world: answers which derive from the truth of God revealed in Jesus. Wherever we place ourselves on the moral and political spectrum, this is the standard by which we are judged, and -this is the hard part-if we do not see things as God sees them, it is for us to adjust our outlook. …… what we do and believe in the marketplace cannot be separated from what we do and believe in the holy place.’
Baptism by Ann Lewin
Birth by drowning
Upheaval of a settled way of life.
All birth is dying
A painful separation from the past.
Our first birth called us from
Security, to face the lifelong
Struggle to survive.
Our second, no less vigorously
Calls us to set out on our
Pilgrimage with Christ,
Finding in him, with all our
Fellow pilgrims, new insights
Into love, and truth and life.
A pilgrimage that daunts us
And excites us,
And will not let us rest till
We arrive. Our only certainty
God’s promise. ‘My love will hold you,
Do not be afraid.
Advent Sunday - 29 November
Texts: Isaiah 64: 1-9, Mark 13: 24-37
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is here. Mark 13 verse 28
You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.
O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter, Isaiah 64 verses 5 and 8
I don’t know about you but I have found something a little disturbing in seeing Christmas decorations up even earlier than usual and looking at last Saturday’s colour supplement it was just full of expensive and way out ideas for preparing for Christmas and I threw it in the waste paper basket with some disgust. How could people even contemplate paying excessive sums of money to beautify their home or provide a feast for royalty when we know that so many will truly struggle this Christmas to have even the smallest of celebrations? Or am I just being horribly ‘baa humbug’ about all this and failing to appreciate that people are understandably desperate to bring a bit of fun, some jollity into their lives just now and if that means extending the festive season what’s the harm? But I suppose my argument has to be that isn’t all this assumed jollity rather false and without proper foundations and doesn’t it miss the true purpose of Christmas as a Christian festival?
Father Christmas, or Santa as he now seems to be more familiarly known, may be a most delightful tradition for small children but in so many ways he has come to represent the commercial heart of Christmas with ever larger stockings often especially purchased rather than the long socks I hung up as a child with very limited capacity. Santa, who will apparently provide presents of considerable value rather than the small toy, the sugar mice and the orange that used to be considered sufficient. Yes, the magi brought expensive and indeed exotic gifts, definitely Harrods not Lidl, but their true value was in their symbolism not the cost of the gift. The symbolism that here in this small baby was God incarnate, the King, who would, through his death, become the Saviour, the Messiah of the world.
We are entering this Sunday into the season of Advent marked in the Church’s year as a time of penitence and preparation. Personally, I find little evidence of any penitence around in all the hype that seems to be the modern Christmas. And to be strictly honest with ourselves just how penitential do we make this season which is supposed to be one of fasting and prayer? Once preparations for Christmas only began with any seriousness on the Eve itself but now in our frenzied world we all know August is about the starting date and all of us can too easily be caught up in that frenzy and simply not leave time for any hint of reflective penitence and as for the fasting well forget it! With so many tempting delights filling the supermarket shelves and certainly in past years lots of parties to go to the fasting has no option but to be delayed until January!
And do we engage in extra prayer, penitential or not, or again are we too busy creating that perfectly decorated tree, those quite delicious hand- made truffles and complicated canapes that are this season’s proof that you are in tune with all the latest trends for this year’s festive season? Again, maybe the penitence will come in January when the credit card bill comes in and we realise just how much we’ve spent and as for standing on the bathroom scales well that really will make the penitential tears flow!
The time of Advent is in effect about a journey in which penitence and fasting can play their part. It is a journey to reflect that of Joseph and Mary as they made their way to Bethlehem. It is a journey which reflects the culmination of God’s creative plan for us His children. It is a journey which also reflects all those other journeys of God’s people returning from slavery in Egypt or captivity in Babylon. It is a journey where we seek the treasure that lies at the very heart of our Christian faith revealed in a baby born in the most poor and demeaning circumstances. No flashy decorations, no gargantuan feast, no holly or ivy or glitteringly dressed trees, just a basic stable in which the miracle that is every birth took place; but this was a miracle to change our world. Change our world if we allow it to happen where the hungry are fed; where the refugees and the homeless are given shelter; where the new vaccines against Covid are given not just to the wealthy nations but to the poorest as well. Change the world so that the Prince of Peace can come to war torn countries such as the Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan and babies born there can grow up in safety and with hope.
Are all these just dreams? Surely not for we have the gospel story where we are shown that humility, meekness and obedience to God our Father’s will can and does overcome death and in the death and glorious resurrection of Christ we are given redemption for the sins of the world. Sins that are ours both as individuals and collectively; sins to be thought over during Advent; sins to be acknowledged; sins to be disclosed and laid as strange gifts at the foot of the manger in penitence. For surely these are the ‘gifts’, the offerings that are called for before we can truly celebrate Christmas for they will cost us dearly as like the Prodigal Son we come to the honest realisation that yes we have sinned and we are not worthy to be called God’s children. But, in admitting to that unworthiness we will surely find ourselves embraced once more come Christmas Day within the eternal love of God made manifest in that mean stable.
And thinking of the image of the fig tree with all its new leaves which mirrors in a way our Christmas trees perhaps we can also see here an opportunity to dress that fig tree on our journey of preparation. Dress it with a gift to the Food Bank; dress it with a donation to the work of the homeless charities or those charities who work with refugees. Dress it with a visit to someone living alone assuming such visits are permitted but if not a visit a phone call. Dress it with a smile for all those who work in our shops, a smile for the postman and the Supermarket delivery person; a smile for all whom you meet as you walk with open eyes to ensure you actually see those around you. Dress it with prayers for all those who are so in need at this time that they may be given the blessing of hope for the future. Dress it with prayers for ourselves that this Christmas the greatest and most wonderful gift that you will be given is the Light of Christ shining through you as you approach that stable.
I would like to end this particular homily with this prayer poem by Ian Adams entitled The Hope of the Few
When the powerful manipulate the truth,
when the powerless are exploited,
and when we who seek good seem incapable of bringing change,
where is hope?
Advent is a celebration of the few.
Of the small.
Of the unknown and of the unnoticed.
Never forget the potential
of a prayer made in seclusion,
of one generous action,
of some small gesture of faith,
or of a simple blessing
- to scatter the proud
and to shatter the illusion that theirs is the last word.
As alone as you may feel.
As small, as unknown or as unnoticed.
Your prayers, your generosity, your gestures, and your blessings
will heal the world.
May our fig trees shine with the light of God’s blessings freely given, freely received and may this time of Advent be for all of us a journey made in trust and in hope for God’s world
I’ve added this prayer which I thought was also rather suitable for Advent
Lord, instil into our hearts the wisdom of peace, the strength of justice and the joy of compassion. Grant us insight and strength so that we may always respond to hatred with love, to injustice with dedication to justice, to need with the sharing of self, to war with peacemaking. Amen.
The Feast of Christ the King - Sunday 22 November
Texts: Ezekiel 34 verses 11-16, 20-24 Matthew 25 verses 31-end
‘Hope is knowing that I have been forgiven, my guilt removed. Hope is knowing that there is a future, a life after death. Hope is knowing that there is love, that there is a God, and I am loved by him. Whatever happens he does care.’ Cardinal Basil Hume
What struck me forcibly when I reflected on today’s gospel reading was that the king himself does the judging of all those sheep and goats, all those sheep and goats who represent us his imperfect and flawed people. Here in the UK the Queen would not for one moment act as the Red Queen did in Alice Through the Looking Glass and herself declare to any poor transgressors ‘Off with their heads’ but leaves all judgement and the pronouncing of the appropriate sentence to her magistrates and judges who administer justice in her name. Hence the royal coat of arms which is prominently displayed on the front entrance of all courts and on the wall of the courtroom behind the judges’ bench; a concrete symbol that justice is enacted in the name of our reigning monarch.
But when it comes to the final judgement we are assured that it will be the king himself who does the judging and to me this is just one more example of God’s supreme humility revealed in his incarnate Son. He is not isolating himself from the sheep and the goats leaving it to someone else to sort them out and report back on their verdicts but he will be there himself in the sheepfold; not with his crown but with his welly boots amongst all the muck and dirt. Once again reading this gospel passage we are made aware that in God we truly have the Good Shepherd who will care for us in life, in death and in the final judgement. A shepherd and a judge whose knowledge of each one of us far surpasses that of any of us human beings however close we may consider ourselves be to the truth of our own assumed knowledge of ourselves.
And then of course the decision; are we to be classed as sheep or goats and here I am reminded that the actual physical difference between Middle Eastern sheep and goats is such that they are not easily told apart when altogether in a flock. Apparently, sheep’s tails hand down while the goats’ tails point upwards. And it must also be recognized that sheep and goats are strictly comparable in that they provide us with similar blessings, namely milk and meat together with their fleeces and skins. And thus, it seems to me that maybe this separation is a little more complicated than a straightforward ‘You go to the right and you go to the left!’ form of justice such as was experienced when those trains unloaded their terrified and degraded human cargo at the gates of Auschwitz. Because surely, if we are as honest as we can be with ourselves, we are in fact a very complex, hybrid mixture of sheep and goat. We have all reached out in love, compassion and generosity towards the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, those whom life has stripped bare, those who are sick and those who in some way feel imprisoned by the circumstances of their lives. But, haven’t we also walked by on the other side again and again ignoring the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger the sick and those who are imprisoned or naked? If in any doubt about this think of the way our media responds to some tragedy be it caused by nature or by man’s inhumanity to man. When it happens it’s there in all its horror and suffering in the forefront of our media but next day where do we find it? Maybe a tiny slot towards the back of a newspaper or a sort of afterthought in the news bulletin. Surely the media itself encourages us to walk by on the other side; to forget about the continuation of tragedy and loss, the ongoing need that exists long after the event which caused it.
Talk to anyone who has been bereaved and you will discover, if they are honest with you, that at first he or she felt and knew themselves to be surrounded by sympathetic friends but as the weeks and months go by that sympathy dries up and becomes for the most part a thing of the past as they move on in their lives telling themselves that surely by now the bereaved has been enabled to do the same. Or is it that they are sated with compassion fatigue and feel it’s time to seek a more feel good sort of diet? I know, being honest, that sometimes that is exactly how I feel and have to forcibly remind myself of all the times I have felt the pain of separation and sorrow so that I can continue to walk alongside others.
And then again don’t we so often display our innate prejudices, our own carefully nurtured likes and dislikes and choose rather carefully those whom we are happy to help and then feel good about ourselves because what we’ve done will surely class us as sheep. But surely, just as often, there are others whom we quite deliberately choose to ignore while conveniently forgetting that such behaviour ensures that we then have to be counted among the goats.
Not even the greatest saint could boast that for their entire life he or she has been one hundred per cent a sheep; has never strayed and mingled among the goats in the flock. So if this is the case what can we make of this judgement, this separation and maybe just maybe we can see it in terms of a metaphor where the separation can be viewed as a form of cleansing where all those goat-like failings are stripped away and forever destroyed leaving only the purity of the sheep-like loving kindnesses much as Jesus the Carpenter would have stripped away the rough outer wood to uncover the beautifully smoothed heartwood. Maybe by God’s incomprehensible grace that is what will happen because otherwise there is no way we can do it alone or by any of our efforts to do the right thing because, as I’ve suggested, only too often we will have done the wrong thing.
Christ is surely a king unlike any other; the kingdom over which he rules is unlike any other and it is so hard for us to grasp just how completely different it will be from our fractured, divided and imperfect world. How can it be possible that there really will be justice, mercy and peace for all contained within God’s love and yet that is our Christian hope. A hope expressed by Michael Mayne in these beautiful and inspiring words: ‘There is a feeble gospel and there is a powerful gospel. The feeble gospel sees Jesus as our pattern, our example. Such a gospel may not do much harm, but it has no power to change our lives. It leaves you untouched at the centre. But the powerful gospel has at its heart the cross and Passion of Jesus, the compassion of God. It speaks of forgiveness and of new life. The feeble gospel says “you may be forgiven.” The powerful gospel says, “you are redeemed!” and properly to understand the powerful gospel, that of the cross and resurrection, is to be seized by the vision of a world turned topsy-turvy, a world in which greatness means the service of others and love means the giving of yourself……. A world in which, when judgement and compassion conflict, compassion always wins and forgiveness always, in all ways, has the final word.’
Thank God we have Christ the King for our ultimate judge.
Lord grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit we may serve Christ our King with meekness and humility always trusting in his mercy to forgive us whenever we fail Him in this service.
Lord of all Blessing as we walk about your world, let us know ourselves blessed at every turn.
Blessed in the autumnal sun and leaves; blessed in the winter wind;
Blessed in rain and shafts of sunlight; blessed in the moving of the stars;
Blessed in the turning of the world beneath our feet;
Blessed in silence; blessed in sleep;
Blessed in our parents and our friends;
Blessed in conversation and the human voice;
Blessed in waiting for the bus or train or traffic lights;
Blessed in music, blessed in singing voices, blessed in the song of birds;
Blessed in the cry that pierces the heart; blessed in the smile of strangers;
Blessed in the touch of love, blessed in laughter,
Blessed in pain, in darkness, in grief; blessed in the desert and the frost;
Blessed in waiting for Spring; blessed in wanting and waiting and waiting.
Lord of all blessing, we bless you. Hugh Dickinson
Texts: 1Thessalonians 5 verses 1-11, Matthew 25 verse14-30
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation…. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5: 8,11
Though the dawn breaks cheerless on this Isle today, my spirit walks upon a path of light. For I know my greatness, Thou hast built me a throne within thy heart. I dwell safely within the circle of Thy care. I cannot fall out of the everlasting arms. I am on my way to glory. David Adam
Last Monday we were given the most wonderfully uplifting news that a vaccine has been developed that has shown itself to be a powerful and effective enemy of Covid 19 with test results giving a reported success rate of a staggering 93%.The hope was expressed that a licence to use it here in the UK, where the Government has had the foresight to order forty million doses, could be rushed through and it might even be available for at least some of the most vulnerable members of the population together with front line NHS staff before Christmas. I am quite sure that, like me, you felt a lightening of the heart at such news which is the very best we’ve had since the pandemic started unless you count Biden’s win in the US election or Leicester City’s re-emergence at the top of the Premier League!
Hope! What an amazing blessing it is to have and obviously for an awful lot of people it’s been in very short supply over the last eight months or so. People’s morale has taken a huge battering and we know that the figures for mental illness have soared over this period since the pandemic struck. Talk to anyone and most will admit that they have entertained an underlying fear as to just what the future holds and now suddenly we are given, thanks to the amazingly brilliant and totally committed work of scientists, a very real hope that this virus can in time, at the very least, be kept firmly under control and will no more be free to ravage the world’s population and destroy so much of the way of life that we had blithely and often unappreciatively taken for granted.
Hope is such an elusive quality and even the most optimistic may in some circumstances begin to think that the pessimists may be right after all and doom and gloom is the only order of the day and perhaps the glass is only half full if that! But if we look at the words of today’s Thessalonian’s reading what encouragement they give us and if we really take on board what it is they are telling us we can surely, no matter how grim the news, realise that our life in Christ will, and always will be, full of blessings. I love the idea of virtually wearing the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of hope of salvation. For surely these amazingly protective spiritual garments are what believing in Christ and His redeeming work gives to us. Faith in God’s merciful goodness and abiding care for us; faith in Christ who has promised to refresh us when we are bowed down by life’s burdens and to lighten those burdens; faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to be our comforter and our guide in all circumstances. Are we truly aware of just what a blessing faith is and the incredible difference it makes to our lives? Just sitting and thinking I am held and supported within God’s protective paternal love is in itself mind boggling and deeply humbling.
Love is all around us if we open our hearts to the reality. Julian of Norwich writes: ‘No mere creature can ever imagine just how tenderly our Creator loves us. So with his grace and aid, let us spiritually rest in contemplation, forever marvelling at the high, surpassing, single minded, immeasurable love that our good Lord extends to us.’ And in recognizing such love we are then inspired to share it with our neighbours and in such loving we must surely add to people’s hopes. Throughout this pandemic we have heard not just the bad news stories but tucked away in little corners the good news stories of people sharing God’s love with others. People going out of their way to help neighbours; people going out of their way to provide food for those who would otherwise go hungry; people going out of their way to visit or talk to the lonely and the depressed.
But even with the greatest faith that all will ultimately be well; even with an acute awareness of God’s love within ourselves and others, hope can still be a stumbling block. Oh, we might have hope for eternal life but that is way in the future isn’t it and for now what hope can we have for tomorrow or even for six months down the line while the repercussions of this pandemic seemingly continue to control our lives? I noted when I said to people this week that it was such good news about the vaccine the response was very muted. Yes, they agreed it was good but at the same time I noted a hesitation; a definite ‘let’s wait and see’ if it really is so good; all it makes out to be. Whereas for me I just felt a n extraordinarily real surge of hope just as perhaps the Israelites felt when the first plague struck the Egyptians and they could hope that this really was the beginning of the end; the beginning of the end of their years of slavery and the anticipation that their dreams of freedom could by God’s grace be realised. Of course that freedom didn’t come immediately and even when it did there were still lots of hurdles in their way but the hope was there if they could only see it and not simply focus on the misery and trials presented by what was happening today.
Covid won’t miraculously disappear but hope, if we allow it, can be real. Trystan Hughes writes this: ‘.. life can hold meaning and hope, even under the most miserable conditions. Our lives, after all, are viewed through whichever lenses we decide to wear. We can see ourselves as blessed, even in the midst of dreadful suffering. Conversely, we can see ourselves as cursed, even if we are leading comparatively comfortable lives. It is important that we recognize the timeless truth that each of us has the option to create and cultivate our own world, instead of succumbing to the one that is weighing us down.’
I find these words inspiring and they certainly help me to focus on just how many blessings each of us does have in our lives. No! Life is never perfect and just now it’s tough and for some it’s heart- rending but the blessings are still there and the most important ones of faith, love and hope eternally remain. Faith in God and hope in all His loving purposes for us can surely sustain and uphold us and help us glimpse that light which lies at the end of this pandemic.
May the God of all hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15: 13
8 November - Remembrance Sunday
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. John 14; 9
Christ as a light illumine and guide me.
Christ as a shield overshadow me
Christ under me; Christ beside me on my left and my right.
This day be within me and without me, lowly and meek yet all powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak; in the mouth of all who speak unto me.
This day be within me and with out me, lowly and meek yet all powerful.
Christ as a light, Christ as a shield, Christ beside me on my left and my right.
The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours.
The love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have, a rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
The majority of people living in this country today can have no conceivable idea what it must be like to stand on a battlefield facing an enemy who may well be unseen. Stand on a battlefield and know without any shadow of doubt that today you may or may not survive, you may or may not be wounded possibly in a lifechanging manner, you may or may not lose companions in arms; men and women with whom you have formed a bond of supportive friendship which has enabled you to keep going; to keep on serving. And should you wake unscathed to the dawning of the next day the same terrible possibilities remain as they will continue to do for each and every day you are ordered to the front line of fighting. It is again impossible to imagine the sort of thoughts that go through the heads of those who take up arms in the service of this country as they prepare themselves both to kill and to be killed and nor can we fully understand what such service does mentally to those who return to civilian life. Books and films may attempt to convey the realities, but I suggest that however vividly these are portrayed they are in a sense a pale shadow of the reality of war and all its multitude of horrors.
The two readings today have been chosen by Peter and Amanda Dolamore who have faced that reality and know what it is like to be under attack; to hear the apocalyptic sounds of battle and seen for themselves the ravages that war inflicts on people both military personnel and civilians. I know that they thought long and hard as to what pieces to choose and I find their choices deeply revealing because both give us a clue as to what people cling to as they face not just the actual enemy but also the ultimate enemy namely death.
Amanda’s choice seeks the reassurance of the abiding presence of Christ; the presence that interestingly is both vulnerable in its lowliness and meekness but also all powerful. Christ from his life on earth understands all the frailty of human beings but also shows the unconquerable power of God to support and to save. In God’s wisdom he surely knew that in order to ever begin to have the slightest conception of his love for us he had to send his own Son as the only possible way that his love could be revealed. This was the meek and lowly Son who tended to the sick and the disabled, the outcasts and the lepers, the mentally disturbed and the hungry. This was the meek and lowly Son who went to his own death upon the cross. This is the same meek and lowly Christ whose love is revealed on battle fields around the world as the injured and dying are cared for and comforted and the fears and terrors engendered by war are kept at bay by the resolute comradeship and faithful companionship of friends. I remember Peter telling me that what he found most true to life in the film 1917 was the way in which such essential friendship was conveyed amongst all the carnage and filth of the Western Front in World War One. In all battles, be they those fought in a war or the battles the world faces now against the all the threats that Covid 19 brings to our world, Christ is with us, Christ is beside us and it is ultimately his power , the power that is formed from his meek and lowly sacrificial love that will win through.
And Peter’s choice speaks to me of another sort of love; the love of family and dearly loved ones back home. This is the love that surely on any battlefield helps men and women remember that there is another way of life where such love and peace can be found and that is what they are fighting for; fighting to re-establish those precious bonds that mark civilisation. And here I am reminded of the suggestion made that civilisation truly began when an injured man with a broken femur was not abandoned to his fate but looked after and cared for by the tribe despite the onus this must have placed upon them. I am certain that any member of the armed forces who has seen action could testify to such acts of caring even when it would be so much easier and possibly more sensible just to walk away. In the face of weapons of war the weapons of love must seem of little value but there is no doubt that it is these seemingly impotent ‘weapons’ that ensure that the fight to restore justice and peace continues no matter what the cost.
(Webmaster: Peter's choice is code poem written by Leo Marks and used by Violette Szabo, a Special Operations agent captured and killed by the Nazis. It features in 'Carve Her Name With Pride' a 1958 film about Violette which starred Virginia McKenna, who has read it in Christ Church.)
Today, Remembrance Sunday, we can be truly grateful for the thousands upon thousands of service personnel who have served our country and who continue to serve it and most especially those who sacrificed their lives that we might know peace. Today we are called to show a similar form of self- sacrifice and heroism as we unite as a nation to defeat the force of Corona Virus. May we be empowered to do so just as all those gallant and heroic men and women whom we honour today were empowered and encouraged by the knowledge that Christ is with us, our light and our shield and what they did and what we do is not for ourselves but for all our loved ones and most particularly for a future of hope for all our young people.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78-79)
1 November - All Saints Day
Texts: Psalm 34 verses 1-10, Matthew 5 verses 1-12
I sought the Lord and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him and be radiant so your faces shall never be ashamed.
O taste and see the that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him, Psalm 34 verse 4-5, 8
Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. Matthew 5 verse 8
God is light and the one who approaches the light will be illuminated. St Thomas Aquinas
When you look at images of saints do you see radiant people? Personally, I can’t think of a single image which gives such a picture. Oh yes, their haloes may shine ever so brightly but all in all I reckon they look rather glum or if not glum then decidedly po faced and dismally fail to give the impression that they could ever be the life and soul of any party. No one, as far as I know, depicts a saint with a great beaming from the heart smile, a radiant smile. Those who paint or sculpt images of saints seem to think they must not appear to be truly filled with happiness; a slight simper is about the best one can hope for. And this makes me wonder why do we portray saints in this way because I cannot believe that the best ones never joked or smiled or showed in the faces the sheer joy of being alive in God’s amazing world. The one person who sprang immediately to mind when reflecting on all this was Desmond Tutu (not that he’s yet been deemed to be qualified for official sainthood) whose smile is truly radiant but when I searched for paintings and statues of him it was only the rare painting that attempted to catch that infectious smile; the rest although not perhaps as straight faced as some saintly images were definitely of a serious nature.
Why? Why can’t we see in saints the joy that must surely be theirs; the joy that comes from knowing God and recognizing how he blesses all our lives, be we saints or sinners, and fills them with his love and his grace revealed in the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Today is of course All Saints Day when we come to give thanks not just for all the great saints whose importance in the life of the Church has entitled them to both a glittering halo and a specially named day but also all the little saints whose names are known only to God. The little saints whom I’m sure all of us have known at one time or another; the little saints who have inspired us to attempt to follow their example of Godly living, of showing love to God and to neighbours. The little saints who have shown radiance in their smiles and in the joy they find from living daily in the presence of God which fits with Sam Wells’ description of a saint as ‘just a small character in a story that is fundamentally about God.’
Radiant is not a word that is much in general usage and in fact I rather suspect some younger people may not even know what it means having chosen to adopt such modern slang words as awesome or cool for looking really great. But none of these have the meaning of radiant which of course has the same roots as radiator. A radiator radiates heat; it gives out comforting warmth and makes one feel a great deal better inside when it’s a miserably cold day outside. So, when we possess a radiance we are enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit to give out the warmth of love, the warmth of friendship, the warmth of caring, the warmth of being included. I think it’s really important that we recognize this and then start learning how it is that we might be blessed with a smidgeon of radiance to share with others.
And here perhaps we can learn from our gospel reading of the beatitudes, the blessings that can be ours in our service of God. We may only be very ordinary, seemingly extremely un-saint like persons but we can still know God’s blessings in our lives and we can always respond to his love for us by sharing that love with others. One of the Roman Catholic Church’s most recently canonised saints was Sister Dulce Ponte, a Brazilian nun who worked among the poorest and most destitute people of that country earning herself a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. She didn’t receive that particular prize, but she now has an official halo which is surely an even greater reward. She never saw herself as a saint but quite simply as a perfectly ordinary human being whose small acts of love Jesus turned into great works. Isn’t that such a lovely concept that any, and I stress any, of our small acts of love may be transformed by Jesus into great works? Oh! agreed we will probably never see these transformations as Sister Dulce did, as Mother Teresa did, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t happen. Our small acts in reaching out in love to any of God’s children will surely enable us to recognize the divine that lies within them and thus not only bring blessing to them but just as importantly be blessed ourselves. Saint John confirms this with these words: ‘Beloved let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.’
Now isn’t that the most amazing fact and surely if we believe it we should be filled if not quite with radiancy with joy, with happiness that we can share in this amazing love which is given us freely and in such abundance. Now at the start of this homily I reflected on the fact that images of saints are for the most part very solemn and serious and do not exactly radiate joy. But of course, there were some really happy joy filled saints and there are three in particular. St Philip Neri who is actually known as the saint of joy, St Thomas More who wrote: ‘I believe that the truth can be told laughing. It is certainly more fitting for a layman, as I am, to pass on his thoughts in a cheerful and lively manner rather than in a serious and solemn manner like preachers.’! And finally St Francis of Assisi who pronounced ‘Always be joyful’ and called the religious order he found the Society of Joy. Mind you I also looked up their images and yes, you’ve guessed, they are all portrayed without the hint of a smile but I bet you when they went through those pearly gates their grins were akin to those of the Cheshire cat.
Today we celebrate All Saints and as we celebrate this astonishing crowd of witnesses to the truth of the gospel, do we have a sense of joy that through the ages these witnesses have brought the good news, the good news that outshines any other good news, to the poor, the meek, the persecuted, those who mourn and those who strive to bring peace and justice to all? And in bringing this good news blessed countless million people, including ourselves, to continue the work of the saints. ‘God is light and the one who approaches the light will be illuminated.’
25 October - Bible Sunday
Texts: Nehemiah 8 verses 1-4a, 8-12, Matthew 24 verse 30-35
So they read from the book, from the law of God with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. Nehemiah 8: 8,12
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Matthew 24: 35
Many who are well educated cannot recognize my truth in scripture because they approach it in pride, blocking out its truth and letting clouds of self- love come between them and my truth. They take the scriptures literally rather than with understanding. They taste only its skin, never reaching its marrow.
Catherine of Siena
It might be interesting to discover how many Bibles we could amass between us. I think I could probably add at least eight including one whose print is too small for me now to read and an outsize dramatized version which I have to admit I’ve never made use of. My favourite is an appallingly battered copy which has been extremely well used and will continue to be my ‘go to’ copy until that sad day when it finally falls completely apart.
The Bible! The most read book in history and, as of September of this year, has been translated in its entirety into no less than seven hundred languages and when we take into consideration the partial translations the number reaches the staggering figure of 3,386 languages or dialects. So, on this Bible Sunday what do we personally make of the Bible? Have any of us read it in its entirety I wonder. I certainly haven’t but there are of course parts that have been read over and over again and I’m sure all of us have our favourite ‘go to’ bits that we love to read again and again such as psalm 23.
I doubt if anyone reading this is a fundamentalist believing each and every word such as the fact that this amazing planet of ours with all its wealth of living things set so perfectly within the solar system was created in six days flat which is probably less time than that needed to assemble an Ikea flat pack. Instead we read the story as a pointer, a guide to all the wonder and the mystery which is God’s creative spirit. All those favourite Old Testament stories however improbable they may seem have a core of truth and that is what we are called to search for and to understand in our reading of the Bible. We have to, as it were, unpick them and look behind the stories and so discover what divine revelations are hidden within them or, as I recently read take care not to ‘taste only the skin never reaching its marrow.’
I know that every time I preach on the same text which, using the lectionary, means every three years I know for a certainty that I will discover some new insight, some new understanding and also of how a particular reading may link to or have significance to what is going on in the world at this time. So thinking of today’s gospel reading I am encouraged and heartened at the thought that Covid certainly will pass away in due time just as heaven and earth will pass away, but the word of God will never pass away. The word of God, the Word that was in the beginning is and will remain both indestructible and all powerful.
The Bible is not set in stone; it is not like, say, a copy of one of Dicken’s books when each new edition remains true to the original copy he submitted to the publishers. This is why new versions are always being produced; in part because making a translation from the original Hebrew or from the Greek is never easy particularly Hebrew, as it is written without any vowels, which naturally leads to some sort of guessing game. For instance if you just have the two letters ‘l’ and ‘v’ the actual word might be love, live, lave, leave, alive or olive so you can now appreciate why the business of translating is never a straightforward task and has indeed led to bitter arguments. Mind you popping round to your neighbours with a bar of soap and offering to lave them would, I suspect, cause far more surprise and indeed considerable consternation than an offer to love them! Even with the Greek it’s not simple because each language has its own particular idioms and use of words and there may be no equivalent in the language into which it’s being translated. As another simple example Greek has no less than four words for our single word love which means that it is all too easy to misinterpret exactly what it was the original author intended. For the Greeks simply saying, ‘I do love your face mask. Where did you get it?’ would require a completely different word to the one used to say ‘I do truly love and adore you, please will you marry me?’
And even when two people read the same text they may view it in completely different lights and should you happen to be a theologian this leads to wonderful intellectual disputes and a plethora of weighty tomes and learned articles arguing their own point of view as to the exact meaning intended.
The Bible should never be as some dusty, outdated and largely irrelevant tome to be for the most part ignored but as a living book which will, if we seek the help of the Holy Spirit, reveal new insights, new revelations, new ways in which we are led to understand slowly but surely a fraction more about the infinite mystery that is God and his divine purposes for us. We can see something of this in the way in which Jesus himself taught about the scriptures and helped people to relate to God in a new way; a way which was far more intimate; a way which introduced us to the concept of God as our loving and protective Father not as the rather fearsome and at times seemingly vindictive Old Testament portrayal of God who appeared, on occasions, quite happy for people to do a lot of smiting and killing in his name. But when we look carefully and with intelligent insight at the Old Testament we will also find many indications of a far more compassionate, tender and merciful God in line with the teaching of Jesus.
Also, when we read the Bible we have to remember to put some of the stories in the context of the time; a time which was hugely different to ours. We no longer live in a largely pastoral society and we certainly don’t live here in Britain in a patriarchal society. We have changed, society has changed and the way in which we read and interpret the Bible must surely reflect those changes. St Paul might be shocked to the core to discover that women now speak in church, no longer cover their heads and as for being obedient to their husbands, well forget that! But his ‘rules’ were what was expected of the time and even if they don’t apply now what remain are the fundamental beliefs of Paul in the life, death and glorious resurrection of Christ that hold as true today as they did then.
The Bible is there to be formative not simply informative, a word to dwell in us richly and most importantly to read the love between the lines. A word which we all need to nourish us spiritually not just occasionally or even once a week on a Sunday but each and every day. And here mention should be made that in this techy age you can even read your Bible on your smart phone or tablet. Now that would surprise St Paul!
I will end with these wise words of Saint Augustine: ‘Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought.’
Lord Grant that in all our reading of the Bible we may always be shown the words to inspire us to build up the bonds of love between you and our neighbour.
Texts; Luke 10 verses 1-9
The time when faith and action are most important is when things are at their worst. It’s not the time to hide and tremble, but the time to do something.
If you were asked for a list of inventions or things that had changed the world over the course of history I imagine we would all come up with things like fire, the wheel, paper, gunpowder, steam power. Electricity and perhaps most recently the world wide web. I’m sure that you could add many more, but these were the ones that first occurred to me. But would any of us have placed on that list the four gospels I wonder? For let there be no doubt those four short tomes have indeed had the power to change our world and continue to do so. Today we celebrate St Luke’s Day who was the author of the third gospel and also of the book of Acts in which he detailed the life and development of the early church. What an amazing legacy and it would simply not be possible to ever estimate how many lives have been changed by their reading of that gospel be it in the original Greek or in the most recent translation which from my research is in the language of Laks spoken by some of the population of Dagestan wherever that may be!
We may be well versed in Luke’s gospel, but we know so little about the man himself. Was he a Gentile as most people assume or, was he in fact a Jew as some believe? Paul referred to him as ‘the beloved physician’ so was he a doctor or was this a metaphorical description intending to mean that his witness to the gospel of Christ brought healing into people’s lives. Was he, as some people claim, one of the chosen seventy we read about in today’s gospel or had he in fact never known Jesus in person? For a man who has been instrumental in changing the course of history we know the barest of facts as to who exactly he was what he was like. I think one of the few undisputed facts is that on the basis of the quality of his Greek he was a well -educated man but there is nothing else that can be claimed with the same certainty.
We know far far more about the make-up of the virus Covid 19 that is presently causing mayhem throughout the world than we do about St Luke. However what is important for us to grasp today is that whereas in time Covid 19 will inevitably take its place in the history books along with the accounts of medieval plagues, Spanish flu and Sars, the living gospel of Luke will continue to be instrumental in changing people’s lives and bringing them to faith in the redemptive and healing powers of the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. Yes, Covid is for the time being turning our lives upside down and inside out but ultimately it will cease to do so, but the gospels will continue to inspire our thoughts and our beliefs and help our spiritual lives to continue to grow and expand. Grow and expand so that we are empowered like the seventy to go out in the name of Christ to bring them the peace of God, the healing of Christ and the inestimable blessing of hope that comes with the knowledge of the kingdom of God.
Peace, healing and hope! At this present time these are the qualities that the world is desperately in need of as well, of course, as an effective vaccine against Covid. But while we must wait for the latter the former are here for everyone now if we are able to recognize that truth. Times are unbelievably tough for some and all of us are naturally concerned for the future but if we can only learn to stop, be still and reflect we will discover that there can be peace in our hearts; there can be healing of our fears and there can always always be hope. If we are in any doubt about these claims remember the words of Jesus to his disciples; ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.’
Reading Luke’s account of the early church in Acts can make one wonder how that tiny band of men and women kept going in the face of so many troubles, so much persecution, and such a catalogue of hardships but they did. And that is what we need to appreciate, that despite all that was thrown at them they kept going and nothing would deter them, not even the martyrdom of some of them including Luke himself who is reputed to have suffered that fate at the venerable age of eighty four in the city of Thebes. And just thinking about this it struck me that a great many of us having approached or exceeded the age of four score years might well opt for retirement and the luxury of putting one’s feet up but not so Luke. Preaching the gospel of Christ was for him a life’s work just as I believe it should be for us. Maybe we cannot be as active as we once were but that still leaves plenty of scope to share generously and impartially the peace, healing and hope with which our faith in Christ has blessed us.
President Trump has claimed that his contracting Covid 19 was a gift from God and while we may mock such a rather bizarre seeming claim, we might also recognize a certain truth in his words. In the face of the sufferings that Covid has wreaked upon our world we can still be reassured that God’s power is immeasurably greater than that of any virus and his unbounded love for us his children can and will overcome all suffering. There is a very real danger that we may, as it were, bow to the temporary power of Covid and in so doing forget to whom the real power belongs and who it is who is calling us as he did Luke to share the good news in place of all the bad news that is being generated ad nauseum. I pray that, like Luke, we will be given the courage, the strength and the determination to do just this.
How good is our Lord, and how powerful! You are a true friend, and with you I feel myself so empowered. Knowing you will never fail me, I feel able to withstand the whole world, should it turn against me. You are on our side, O Lord, you can do all things and subject all things to yourself. We have nothing to fear if we walk in the truth, in the sight of your majesty with a pure conscience. True love goes beyond prayerful words to loving deeds. True love for you must not-cannot-be concealed .
Teresa of Avila
Texts: Philippians 4 verses 1-9, Matthew 22 verses 1-14
Do you remember all the fuss when Jeremy Corbyn elected to wear a hooded anorak at a Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph when all the other men present were wearing either uniform or smart well pressed dark coats? There was an absolute outcry at what was perceived at best a slight and at worst an outrage in wearing such casual dress on such a solemn occasion. Many saw it as a grave insult to the memories of the dead who had given their lives in service to this country. He was accused of being ‘scruffy and disrespectful’ and his attire compared to that of a former Labour Leader Michael Foot when in 1981 he chose to wear a donkey jacket at a similar occasion at the Cenotaph.
There are definitely occasions when there is an expected dress code and to break that code can easily earn the opprobrium and disparagement of others who see a lack of conformity or deliberate flouting of the code as a quite deliberate insult. Once no one would dream of wearing anything but the most solemn black at a funeral whereas today sometimes we are actually requested to wear bright colours in place of such funereal garb.. Weddings too, as in Jesus’ time, demand a display of finery even if ladies’ hats are no longer de rigeur and the dress codes for such places as Royal Ascot are strictly to be adhered to as some have discovered when they have tried to bypass the stewards in clothes deemed unsuitable for such a prestigious event.
I’m sure all of us here have at one time or another agonised as to what we are expected to wear at certain functions or parties but whereas Jeremy Corbyn’s and Michael Foot’s choices may have been quite deliberate, I would imagine that none of us here would like to make such a spectacle of ourselves and would indeed be mortified and humiliated to do so.
And reflecting on all this I think we can understand why that casually dressed guest earned such a castigation when he came to that all- important wedding. This wasn’t the wedding of the year or even the wedding of the century but the most important wedding of all time. And here comes a guest in the equivalent of that well- worn anorak because no way is he going to dress up for this bridegroom however royal he may be. On the previous two Sundays our gospel readings have concentrated on parables told by Jesus in which he has quite deliberately targeted the religious hierarchy of the time and I think we can safely assume from today’s gospel reading that once again the subject of this criticism is yet again that same religious hierarchy. That religious hierarchy who had no respect for Jesus and were determined that he should if, at all possible, be redacted from history. They had no wish to be at this particular wedding but for the sake of appearance felt obliged to be seen to be there. Thus, in effect the religious hierarchy came under protest and deemed it unnecessary to show the proper respect that such an occasion demanded. No wonder the King who was their host was angry at such a deliberate and calculated slight and responded as he did.
And here we might just be thinking about all those other guests invited very much at the last minute; were they properly dressed in wedding robes? And the answer must surely be that however impoverished the very fact that they had received and accepted this once in a life- time invitation would have meant that one way or another they would have spruced themselves up. And here I am reminded of funerals I have had the privilege to conduct where I know all too well that money is tight and yet every person there has made an effort to wear clothes suited to the occasion even if it’s meant placing themselves further in debt.
So the question for all of us this morning is first of all do we accept with true gratitude that invitation to be a guest of Christ the King or do we, being quite honest, sometimes think we have better ways of spending our time and simply go through the motions of being at the party? And the second question of course is do we come clothed in our wedding robes? In my childhood no one would have dreamed of going to church in T-shirt, jeans and trainers but would make sure they had on their Sunday best which in the case of women usually involved a hat and gloves as well as a special dress. Nowadays there is rarely such attention to what one wears and if it’s a Zoom service well almost anything goes. But while we may not concern ourselves too much with the outward appearance, although just possibly we ought to be asking ourselves why not, what about the inner appearance?
Do we come clothed in the wedding robes of awe and wonder at being in the presence of our Lord? Do we come clothed in praise and thankfulness at being part of this amazing celebration of God’s goodness? Do we come clothed in humility and reverence that God has stooped to embrace us within His love? Do we come clothed in love; love for our host and love for all our fellow guests? Surely even if we opt for our PJs at a Zoom or web service these are the spirit wrapped clothes we are called upon to wear to honour our Lord and God.
And back to my first question are we over the moon at being invited to such an occasion for surely each and every single act of worship should in effect be seen as a wedding feast with our Lord, the groom present with us where we can be blessed with a glimpse of God’s kingdom already present here on earth. Can we ever be accused of regarding our church going more as a habit than truly a time for joyful celebration of all that God has done for us; all the blessings he pours out upon us day by day. Do we ‘ascribe to the Lord the honour due to his name’? Do ‘we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ or is it just possible that we do so in the routine of rote repeated words? And is there also an honest acknowledgement that we have been gathered from the highways and byways of sin and wrongdoing and that despite this we are called to participate in this awesome, never to be rivalled feast which is yet another reason to bow down before our Lord God with the gold of obedience and the incense of lowliness.
I would like to end with these words from our Epistle which surely are the benchmark by which we should live our lives and ensure that as far as is possible we will be wearing wedding clothes as we kneel and adore our Lord who is our most gracious host , our God, our King and our Saviour.
‘Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.’
Texts: Psalm 19 verse 7-end, Matthew 21 verse 33-end
Let’s be honest, isn’t there something rather satisfying about hearing someone else receiving a good telling off? There’s a certain smugness about it as one congratulates oneself on being the good one; the one who isn’t in trouble. Young children in particular like this state of affairs when a sibling is the subject of their parents’ castigations and they can stand back and observe as if butter would melt in their mouths and their little haloes are shining with a horribly self- righteous glow, In fact children are not above scheming or lying just to get a sibling into trouble as I remember my own daughter doing when she taught her young brother a swear word she’d somehow picked up (I can’t imagine how!) and told him to go and say it in all innocence to Mummy! And this week I suspect that so many of us relished the putting down of first a minister and then the Prime minister himself when they failed dismally to be capable of enunciating the detail of their own rules re lock downs?
When we read today’s gospel account of Jesus telling the story of the landowner and his vineyard the purpose of which was once more to discomfort and bring home the errors of the religious leaders of the time we can just imagine the gleeful delight, that little smirk of self-satisfied righteousness of his disciples and other ordinary listeners. We can imagine them thinking in their heart of hearts ‘that’s telling them!’ and ‘Good on you Jesus, telling those stuck up pious so and so’s the truth about themselves. ’Go for it!’
This week we had the dubious pleasure of seeing the two United States presidential candidates Trump and Biden hammering away at each other, attacking each other, listing each other’s faults real and perceived, and what an unedifying and uninstructive spectacle it was. Jesus in his attack on the chief priests and elders was far more subtle in his approach but the kernel of truth was plain for all to see.
But after the show was over as it were I wonder if those disciples, those other people who had heard the parable reflected as to whether they too might just be guilty of some of the sins and faults of which Jesus was speaking? Were they quite as lily white as they liked to think they were? Had they always done as God wished them to do and listened to his messengers, the prophets sent to Israel over the centuries? Were they really and truly listening to the words and teachings of Jesus or did a lot of it go in one ear and out the other.? Yes, it’s very satisfactory when we are listening to others being justly berated , but if we let them occur there can also be needle pricks of conscience, the thought that there but for the grace of God go I.
Those servants in the vineyard did not want to listen to the instructions given them by the landowner’s servants; the instructions that, in effect, the fruit of the vineyard was not theirs to keep illegally but was the rightful property of the landowner. And the question for us this morning is how well do we listen to God or those he sends to us with his words of instruction as to how we should behave, how we should live our lives and what is rightfully due to God?
Almost every, if not all, books I read on the subject of prayer emphasise the importance, the crucial importance of learning to listen to God. Learning to give precious time to God in silence so that within that silence we can really sense his presence and his desires for us. Practising listening to God in stillness and thereby catching an intimation of the profound mystery which is God; God who showers upon us the gift of overwhelming love, the fruit of his vineyard. And in that slow and dawning recognition are we led to understand, as those religious leaders failed to do, that we are called to return that love to God by the manner in which we live out our lives? The fruit must be returned to its rightful owner by first of all joyful and generous worship and praise to God the Almighty and secondly, by loving others be they he or she, Jew or Gentile, neighbour or stranger.
Do we strive to do this? Do we really and truthfully? Or do we, as it were, accept as a matter of course the gift of God’s love, the fruit of the vineyard to indulge in hugging it to our sole use? Michael Mayne writes this: ‘Jesus of Nazareth takes men and women just as they are, human, complex, vulnerable. He at once gives them his whole attention. He starts talking to them and, as he talks, so new perspectives and possibilities open up, for he dearly loves them. He calls them to open their eyes to their true potential and to the love of God; he calls them to renewed attention. And each is enabled to do so because each is himself the focal point of Christ’s loving attention.’ Jesus gives us his whole attention; he makes each one of us his focal point. Can we say we do the same? Do we listen to him and what he has to say instead of filling our prayer time with constant babbling and repeated pleas? Or, are we learning to listen in order to hear his voice, his directions, his will for us so that we are given new perspectives, new possibilities as we endeavour to work in the vineyard of life and bring the fruits of such a life to offer them back to God in humble and grateful obeisance for all his grace and goodness to us?
The chief priests and elders weren’t really bad people; in fact I doubt if they were very different to us but they had somehow ceased to listen in silence and humility to God and as a result their practice of religion had become skewed and blinkered. They had ceased to acknowledge, as we are also called to do, the profound truth of those words offered up to God that ‘all things come from you and of your own do we give you’ They wanted to keep their little powers, their protected privileges, and most of all their prejudices. Their prejudices that the religion they practised was simply for a the few, the chosen and no one else should be permitted to share in it. Yes, they certainly merited the penetrating and searching criticisms and the stinging rebukes of Jesus but let us not be complacent and feel all ‘goody goody’ kidding ourselves that of course we’re not like them; we’re little angels aren’t we?
Do we listen when God speaks or sends his messengers to us? Do we continually seek to give back to God His love, his care, his compassion? I pray that though we may often fail we will attempt to begin each day in the silence which will show us somehow a glimpse of the mystery which is both the immanence and the transcendence which is God. And having spent that time in ‘the halls of space, avenues of leisure and high porticoes of silence where God walks’ be shown what fruit of our labours carried out on his behalf God wishes to receive this day and every day.
Texts: Philippians 2 verses 1-13. Matthew 21 verses 23-32
Whoever we are all of us will have, I’m certain, experienced having an authority figure of one sort or another in our lives. For a start when we were much younger parents would be seen to have a certain authority over us even if at times we kicked, screamed and generally dug our heels in when it came to bedtime or whether we would or would not eat our lovely vegetables before being allowed any pudding! And I’m sure, like me, as one became more rebellious in one’s formative teenage years there were even more challenges against parental authority as one pushed harder and harder against the boundaries to test just how solid and indeed reliable they were.
School will of course, have brought us into more contact with authority and what we could and couldn’t do; what was acceptable and what was definitely not such as failing to do one’s homework or trying to skive off the dreaded cross country running on a day when it was too wet to use the games pitches!
And so, as we grew and matured, we learned what authorities affected the general nature of our lives and which individuals had the power to still put, to use a phrase, the fear of God into us. I can still vividly recall one headmistress under whom I served for a short time who could reduce seasoned and capable teachers to shivering wrecks in an instant by her authoritarian and unbending manner.
And now today we discover we are being subject to what at times appears a very arbitrary, even quixotic, authority as almost daily new and even contradictory regulations are issued as to what we may and may not do. This week we learned we could not eat out or go to the pub after 10.00pm; weddings now have to be limited to fifteen people while you may still have thirty at a funeral and just as you thought you were being urged to return to your work place you’re being told to work from home again. No wonder people are confused and begin to question the wisdom of all this.
When we look at our gospel reading, we also find there some serious questioning of authority with the religious elite of the time, the chief priests and elders demanding to know by whose authority Jesus is acting. This challenge comes in Matthew’s gospel just after that dramatic scene in the temple courtyard when Jesus had overturned the tables of the money-changers and driven out all who were buying and selling denouncing all of them with the words: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer but you are making it a den of robbers.’ And then, to compound matters he had cured the blind and the lame having the temerity to do so within the temple precincts. No wonder the religious authorities were in uproar; no wonder they were furious and demanding to know by whose authority Jesus was doing such things. Look at any Authoritarian regime such as the one in Belarus today and recognize how it responds to any challenge to its powers; any attempt to remove it from office. The religious hierarchy in Jerusalem were no different; they want to maintain their seemingly unassailable position of enforcing a plethora of rules and regulations which kept people firmly in line and subject solely to their authority. This religious hierarchy had evolved into an authority which sought worldly power, position and privilege just as much as it may or may not have sought to worship and pay obeisance to a divine authority.
Jesus discerned all of this and recognized the hostility and prejudice that was rapidly growing around him. He knew he did not accord to the plethora and minutiae of their rules, be it healing people on the Sabbath or visiting the homes of those categorized as well- known sinners. He did not accept their way of practising religion, the hypocrites who stood in public places to pray so that they could be seen by others; the hypocrites who disfigured their faces to show others how hard they were fasting; the hypocrites who wanted to take the speck out of someone else’s eye while trying to ignore the log in their own eye. When he taught about these things the religious authorities could be only too well aware as to precisely at whom Jesus was aiming his criticisms. Authority by and large does not like to be questioned or criticized and listening to any exchange during Prime Minister’s Questions and one is immediately aware of such dislike and the sort of response it provokes.
When Jesus was challenged, he craftily turned the question of authority back onto his persecutors by asking them as to whether the baptism of John came from heaven or was of human origin. He knew that if they opted for the first they would then have to explain why they had not heeded John and believed his teaching and in particular his teaching as to the one who would come after him, in other words Jesus himself. Whereas if they chose to believe John’s power to baptise and teach was only of human origin then they would face the anger of the crowd who had no doubts that John was a prophet. A prophet who had in baptising Jesus received divine assurance that here indeed was God’s Son, the Beloved.
God’s Son who represented in human form God’s authority and who, throughout his life, demonstrated the nature of the supremacy of that authority. This is an authority which is never oppressive, capricious or coercive, never feathering its own nest, seeking its own advantages, its own protected interests, never arbitrary or controversial in its rulings; instead it is an authority which seeks only to provide a continuum of justice, mercy and peace for all regardless of who they are or what their station in life. No wonder the religious authorities of the time baulked at such an image of authority which in so many ways contradicted the type of authority they wielded. No wonder Jesus compared them to the son who told his father he would work in the vineyard and then completely failed to do so.
I think the lesson for all of us this morning is that in recognizing that yes, we do have to obey, by and large, the authorities of this world and their dictates we are always always subject to the supremacy of a far Higher Authority namely God himself. This is an Authority in which we can trust unquestioningly with all our heart and know that come what may it has the best interests of us its children in its remit to provide that justice, mercy and peace for all. The words of psalm nine say it all: ‘But the Lord shall endure for ever; he has made fast his throne for judgement. For he shall rule the world with righteousness and govern the people with equity. Then will the Lord be a refuge for the oppressed; a refuge in time of trouble.’
This is an Authority we are called to serve even if initially we are like the first son who says ‘I will not’ To work for justice , mercy and peace for all is a very hard and demanding task and it is not surprising that we may feel we cannot do it but, we can because in accepting God’s Authority we will be empowered with the necessary strength to carry out his wishes. Jesus was thus empowered to carry the cross and lose his life upon it and we must surely act in imitation of such self- sacrificing obedience to the one and only divine authority. The religious authorities were not ready to accept the full authority of God but paid for the most part token lip service to it. Can we do better? Can we see the need in this troubled, divided and fearful world to show that there is an Authority in whom all can have implicit trust and confidence and shape our lives accordingly so that ultimately in the words of Julian of Norwich ‘All will be well and all manner of things will be well.’ I pray that we can.
You are righteous, O Lord, and your judgements are right.
You have appointed your decrees in righteousness and in all faithfulness.
My zeal consumes me because my foes forget your words.
Your promise is well tried, and your servant loves it.
I am small and despised, yet I do not forget your precepts.
Your righteousness is and everlasting righteousness, and your law is the truth.
Trouble and anguish have come upon me, but your commandments are my delight.
Your decrees are righteous for ever: give me understand that I may live.
Psalm 119 verse 137-144
Text: Matthew 20 verses 1-16
The British rightly or wrongly have a reputation for fair play and honest dealing which is perhaps why the present shenanigans re the Brexit deal and the possibility of our nation breaking international law has gone against the grain and upset so many of us. Whatever happened to a ‘Gentleman’s word is his bond’?
So, in view of this perceived approach to life it is hardly surprising if we find that this morning’s gospel reading rather upsets our ideas of fair play. How is it possible for those who have toiled possibly as long as twelve hours since early morning until dusk receive the same wage as those who just rocked up a couple of hours ago? Indeed, surely justice demands that there should be some sort of sliding scale to allow for the actual time any particular labourer has worked. Surely what the landowner is doing is manifestly unfair and the unions definitely need to be called in and probably an employment tribunal as well to sort out such blatant discrepancies.
But reflecting on this as I typed are the pay scales here any fairer when so many people can be employed on a zero hours contract, a nurse can do a twelve hour shift and be paid very little while others earn mind boggling mega sums. In fact, we might applaud fair play but the truth is that life can be far from fair and for many the unfairness is a constant struggle not just for a short time but for the entire course of their life.
And this is where we have to find real hope in our gospel reading if we think about what exactly it is we are being told. That landowner wants the same for all his workers; he does not want to show discrimination or favouritism, cronyism even. That landowner knew that the workers he hired almost at the end of the day were the weak and possibly completely unskilled whom no one else would dream of employing. The workers whom he’d taken on at the beginning of that working day were the strongest and the best at the job. Of course, they were! Quite understandably the best, the most suited are naturally everyone’s first choice Think of those terrible slave markets which worked on exactly the same principle. Think of any job interviews where the employer is always seeking out the best. What employer would be daft enough to consider taking second or even third best for an important post? You are hardly going to look at a line- up of possible employees and opt for the least well- qualified; the least suited to the task. What sort of sense would there be in that? Surely that would mean we would never have to bother with qualifications, with gaining experience to prove that we were among the best. No! We could be completely unemployable and still be taken on if that were the case.
And of course, that is exactly what our landowner did; going back at intervals taking the second best, the third best, the fourth best and ultimately at an hour when all hope must have gone taking the dregs. The dregs of humanity, the migrants escaping destitution and oppression in their own countries only to end up in some migrant camp, the ex- prisoners, the disabled, the chronically sick, the vulnerable, all the women around the world denied education, whole groups of people deemed as inferior or untrustworthy, and so many many more who exist in the lowest stratas of our societies. The dregs who had waited all day, hot, hungry and thirsty in the vain hope that someone, anyone would take them on and they could at the very least earn enough to buy the most basic of food for their family so they would not starve that night.
And then, having given the shreds of dignity, the rags of self-worth to these ‘dregs’ by using them however poorly they might perform, at the final reckoning our landowner gave them not shreds and rags but the richness of a full day’s pay. What must that have felt like to these poor wretches who must have known all too well that they had virtually nothing to offer compared to those who had been that landowner’s first choice?
In our world qualifications, experience and aptitude are what count. If you do not have these, you are condemned to at the best the gig economy or at worst unemployment. Mind you that said in today’s topsy turvy world even the best qualified, the most experienced can find themselves at the end of the day still waiting almost without hope for someone to give them gainful employment. But at least with their qualifications, their skills they retain some hope of finding new employment whereas there are others who must wonder if they will ever work again even at the most menial of jobs.
But in God’s kingdom we find that things are completely different; the scale of values we employ are meaningless to God. We judge on fitness, on education, qualifications, experience looks, etecetera, etecetera whereas God sees just another beloved child of His and reaches out to them with the same open handedness, the same warmth, the same desire to have them beside him in his kingdom. In God’s kingdom there are no special privileges, no best seats, no preferential treatment but one equal love. And that of course is the symbolism behind the landowner giving all the workers the same amount of pay. We may or may not have been life -long Christians while others may be relatively or completely new to the faith or even still standing uncertain at the edge of faith but through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ there will only be one equal payment as we seek the wonder and the joy of knowing the reality of God’s kingdom where there is justice, mercy and peace in equal measure for all.
Let us pray that we learn from today’s gospel to look at others not with an unfair assessment or judgement of their worth as to what they might do for us or as to what use they might be to us, but as our brothers and sisters who in God’s eyes all have identical intrinsic worth. And, in learning to look with the fairness and open handedness of God begin to learn to love as He loves each and everyone of us.
Lord, teach me to rest in you.
To find my joy and satisfaction,
not in proving myself how much above the rest I am,
but in the realisation that I’m love.
That you love me without conditions.
and that gives me a worth beyond imagining.
Lord, if I’m loved like that,
with all the faults I hesitate to even list,
prefer to ignore,
then maybe slowly,
I can start to see the good in others.
Discount the differences.
Perhaps begin to see the richness that they bring to life.
And slowly find it possible
to love a little.
Text Matthew 18 verses 21-35
If you, Lord, were to mark what is done amiss, O Lord who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you shall be feared……O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy. With him is plenteous redemption and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins. Psalm 130: 2-3, 6-7.
Bad news! Terrible news! God has decided to give up on forgiving our sins! What! Can this be true? Surely God would never do that or would He? I mean, He’s always forgiven us; always taken us back as it were just as He did the Prodigal Son. God can’t give up on forgiveness; it’s part of what He is.
How I wonder would we really feel if God did call it a day and decide that he’d had more than enough of us and that one way and another we were beyond redemption as again and again we sin, both as individuals and collectively, and condone evil. What would it be like not to hear those words; ‘Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and keep you in life eternal.’? What would it be like if we came to God knowing full well we’d sinned in thought word or deed, sinned in acts of commission and of omission and however sincerely we said we were truly sorry He did not respond? What would it be like if then we found ourselves still wrapped in our guilt feeling rejected and unloved and we were denied that life restoring act of forgiveness? What I wonder would have been the fate of the Prodigal Son if his father had, instead of forgiving him, taken him at his word, and demoted him to a slave within his household? I’d like to bet that over time he would have not accepted his fate with equanimity thinking it was no more than he deserved but would slowly but surely have allowed resentment and even a sense of perceived injustice and grievance to harden his heart and allow evil to grow in some way within him.
We may not remember as a child having done some misdeed and having to go and say sorry to our parents before being forgiven and hugged once more in understanding love but I’m sure we can most probably remember performing such acts of forgiveness when our own children or even our grandchildren have committed misdemeanours. As an example my youngest Granddaughter can go into the most fearful strops and then once the tempest has blown itself out she comes to be wrapped in a hug as she silently confesses her wrong doing and knows that she is still loved and cherished.
Please God, in your great mercy, you will never give up on us; still forgive the magnitude of our sinning just as that king forgave his slaves. Let us pray that we can always have complete confidence and trust that Christ Jesus did indeed come into the world to save us sinners.
But, the question for us this morning is in the face of such confidence, such trust in the forgiveness of God do we forgive? Do we extend such God like mercy to others who have in some way sinned against us? Or are we like that slave who having been so extravagantly forgiven by his master failed utterly to forgive the infinitely less significant sins, the paltry debts of a fellow slave?
Forgiveness can be hard; extraordinarily hard in some instances. And how often have we heard others say ‘I could never forgive them’ when some monstrous act of evil such as the Manchester bombing has been perpetrated? But if we think it’s hard how incomprehensibly harder it must have been for God to allow His own dear Son to suffer so cruelly, so evilly that we might have a sure testimony of His forgiveness of the sins of the whole world?
If, we cannot learn to forgive we can be said to perpetrate, promulgate and perpetuate evil ourselves. Think of the blood feuds such as those that exist within such organisations as the Mafia or indeed the ongoing hatred and bigotry that tragically still remains alive and kicking in Northern Ireland. If we harbour a complete lack of forgiveness, a lack of mercy, that lack of forgiveness and mercy hardens and grows into a new form of evil which, while it may or may not destroy others, will certainly destroy us. We must be in no doubt whatsoever that we are all capable of not just wrong- doing but of evil acts. And it is undoubtedly in my mind an evil act not to forgive someone and allow them to feel once again a part of God’s family and held within, not just His love as an abstract construct, but every bit as importantly through His love expressed in our reaching out in love to those who have in any way wronged us.
This does not mean that there should not be punishment for wrong doing but the child who is sent to the naughty step to contemplate, one hopes, his or her wrong doing, must also know and be assured that the naughty step is there to serve a purpose and once that purpose has been served he or she will be restored into a loving family relationship. One of the hardest pastoral situations that I encounter is when parents and children have fallen out and one side or other has been condemned to sit seemingly forever on the ‘naughty step’ with no prospect of forgiveness being demonstrated. Such stories make me so incredibly sad and I just long to be able to wave a magic wand to allow into the situation a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness.
What exactly is it doing to us if we do not learn to forgive and to accept unquestionably that so often judgement for sins committed is not for us to instrument but must be left entirely up to God?
John Swinton in his brilliant book ‘Raging with Compassion’ writes this: ‘We are not called to forget past evil and let bygones be bygones. Christians are called to take their experiences of evil, suffering, and rage to the foot of the cross and allow that event to reframe their response. We may well remember the injustice of an evil that has been perpetrated against us, and we cry out to God in lament. But as we do that, the vicious circle of revenge, retribution and evil is broken. When this happens, we can at least acknowledge our call to forgive as we recognize the significance of the cross, a place where God renders judgement on all and offers forgiveness to all.’
I have an icon I look at every morning in which Christ is portrayed looking down in love and compassion on all those beneath him while the Roman soldier, who presumably represents the centurion in charge of executing that death sentence, together with the powers of the world that condemned Jesus looks up at the broken figure in an awareness that here indeed is God’s Son bringing His Father’s forgiveness to all the world. Can we too learn to come to the foot of the cross with our lack of forgiveness, our thoughts of retribution and revenge, our patina of evil and look up at that same broken figure and know we are forgiven yet again and in that forgiveness, that release, turn towards those beside us whom we need to forgive?
‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ Do we know what we are doing to God, to each other and to ourselves when we fail to forgive? Thank God He will always forgive us.
I beg your pardon by Ann Lewin
Easy for you to say, ‘Forgive,’
But how can I forget that hurt,
Welcome that person?
Etched deeply in memory,
I can’t ‘forget’ as though
It never happened.
Can I then learn to remember?
There is a way that keeps the hurt alive,
Quick to imagine other grievances.
There is a way that’s based on pretence-
That all was for the best-failing to
Realise the gravity of the event, or
Take it seriously. ‘It doesn’t matter’,
Said dismissively, diminishes the person
Asking pardon, as well as failing
To acknowledge hurt.
There is a way that says, ‘Yes,
That was bad, it hurt, but now
In fuller knowledge of each other,
Let’s go ahead and set each other free
To build up trust and grow again in love;
Perhaps together, but perhaps apart,
Only without the rancour that destroys.
Texts: Romans 13: 8-end, Matthew 18: 15-20
“Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’
For goodness knows how many years I have been a fan of the Radio 4 soap The Archers with those who know me well recognizing that the time between seven and seven fifteen pm was sacrosanct and phone calls at that time were not appreciated. But now my previously unwavering loyalty has been destroyed since the format has changed to individual’s introspections and again and again some sort dislike of another character has been expressed often in very angry or bitter diatribes. I simply do not want a diet of dislike, confrontation, vituperation, criticism, complaint and general rants and moans about someone else’s perceived faults and failings as part of my evening entertainment
And away from Ambridge into the real world we have the increasingly acrimonious and bitter tones of the United States presidential election with invective and insults the order of the day to remind us that the diplomacies of old fashioned statesmanship seem, on the whole, to be a thing of the past along with a few other things that certainly we ‘wrinklies ‘used to cherish such as properly flavoured orange smarties! Smarties aside it has also to be acknowledged that in this country we also have quite a lot of similar expressions of ill feeling, fault finding and general outrage against individuals forcefully made public in one way and another.
Agreed we can all have such feelings from time to time; we can all feel aggrieved or hurt by other people but surely there is so much more to life and , in my humble opinion, a life well lived is intended to recognize all the good things, all the many blessings that fill our lives and not harp on and on about the negatives. Surely, we should not be continually finding fault and criticizing others and throwing their failings in their faces with scant regard for how this must make them feel or indeed, more significantly, what such behaviour says about us.
I think one of the unfortunate consequences of this prolonged pandemic which has brought so much uncertainty into all of our lives is that to mask that uncertainty, that fear even, that we may quite understandably be feeling, we have to some extent become more critical and less tolerant of the presumed shortcomings of others. As an example of this as some of you may know I am a chaplain at St Peter’s hospital and on my return have been saddened to learn that in the words of one person clapping has given way to slapping. Not literally of course, but in general the public is as likely to put in a complaint however trivial or to shout down the phone as to utter words of appreciation and thanks. Rightly or wrongly I think such responses are born in part out of frustration at the situation we find ourselves in where all too often it would appear we have little control over our futures nor indeed any real insight as to just what that future may look like. For example operations have had to be cancelled and no one can tell you when they might be rescheduled and that is, to say the very least, both frustrating and annoying so is it any wonder that some people lose control and lash out at the nearest person who happens to appear obstructive and to stand in their way. So much of what we took for granted has been taken away from us and whoever we are we are going to feel and absorb some of the stresses and tensions inherent in such a situation and unless we are very careful there is a very real danger that we will unleash those stresses and tensions onto others especially by finding fault with them.
But, if we look carefully at our reading from Romans this morning, we are categorically told to love one another; to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, not to wrong our neighbour. We hear these words again and again but how much heed do we actually take of them? Do we love our neighbour whoever that neighbour might be? In God’s kingdom our neighbour is not simply those people who live in our own carefully constructed bubble but the person at the end of the phone who has drawn the short straw to tell us our operation has been cancelled or the person whose political views clash completely with ours. Our neighbours are not just those people in this church this morning but all those who worship the Lord our God in any way today be it the highest of the high Anglo Catholics with bells and smells in abundance and lots of prostrations or the exuberant liberated worship of say the Pentecostalists with their hallelujahs and their arm waving. Neither perhaps what Abinger or Coldharbour would approve of or even sanction but that is not the point they are still and must remain our neighbours in Christ
Catherine of Siena writes these wise and compelling words: ‘It is necessary to bear with others and practice continually the love of your neighbour together with true knowledge of yourself. Only in this way can the fire of my love burn within you, because love of neighbour develops from love of me. It grows as you learn to know yourself and my goodness to you. When you understand that you are loved by me beyond measure, you will be drawn to love every creature with the same love with which you know yourself to be loved.’
Have we begun to learn just how great God’s love to us truly is and is indeed beyond measure and in such wonderful enlightening knowledge do we respond by loving our neighbour? I always think it’s a good test of our neighbourliness to be able to recognize that every individual with whom we come in contact might turn out to be right beside us as we seek entrance to the kingdom of heaven. How are we going to feel about them then?
Thinking ill of people, criticizing them and even ostracizing or reviling them is not neighbourliness; it is not love of neighbour. Yes of course we find fault but then who among us can claim to be perfect, never to do anything wrong? Harbouring ill, critical and angry thoughts such as the characters in the Archers seem to do relentlessly does none of us any good; indeed it can so easily turn us away from God Himself as we allow our petty egos to ride rough shod over the feelings of vulnerability and frailty we willingly expose ourselves to when we express true love. I think it is absolutely incumbent on us as professed Christians to do our utmost in this uncertain and unstable world to do all in our power to reflect God’s love revealed in His Son Jesus Christ and in so doing give hope for the future.
St John of the Cross said that in the evening of our life we will be judged on love alone. What will that judgement reveal about each one of us?
Become a Gift to Those Around You by Ian Adams
Sometimes you slip into preoccupation with yourself, with your life, your direction, your losses and your failings.
The invitation here is to look outwards, to become a gift, a gift to those around you.
And you will become a gift by becoming truly the person you are. By living the life that has always been waiting for you.
Your life aligned to the true North will be a life that offers hope for others.
Love for God and love for neighbour will become as one. And quietly you will become a gift to all around you.
Texts: Romans 12: 9-end, Matthew 16: 21-end
By one of those serendipitous coincidences before sitting down to write this I happened to be shown a pamphlet about the Ranmore Church war memorials and glancing through it I was immediately struck by the fact that the name Cubitt appeared no less than three times. These were the three eldest sons of Henry Cubitt, who became the second Lord Ashcombe, and all were killed within eighteen months of each other in the slaughter that was the first World War, aged twenty four, twenty three and twenty one respectively. What did their parents feel as they heard the news of each successive death brought via the delivery of that War Office telegram dreaded by all who had sons, brothers or fathers fighting on the hell that was the Western front? Did they not long to call them back home and protect them and themselves in the safety of the Surrey countryside from all the horrors of war and the constant agonising threat of yet another untimely death. It is no wonder that when the youngest of the three died, it was ruled that the family had suffered enough, and the fourth brother was barred from further fighting.
It doesn’t matter who we are. I believe we all have an innate wish to protect and guard those we love from danger be it watching in nervous apprehension as our children or grandchildren insist on climbing trees as high as possible or worrying like mad when they set off on some long road journey vividly imagining the stupidity of other drivers who just might cause an accident! And of course just recently the boot has been firmly on the other foot with children severely admonishing their over seventy parents not to place so much as a toe outside their front door in case Covid 19 might be maliciously waiting to pounce upon them!
Recognising this trait, we can, I think, well understand Peter’s outburst protesting at the very idea that Jesus had to undergo great suffering and be killed. Whether he even heard the third element of Jesus’s prediction in which he talked of being raised on the third day is I think doubtful and even if he had would he for one moment have understood what was meant by such words? No for Peter, like us, the very idea that Jesus was not only to suffer but also to be killed was anathema..
Peter for all his many faults, his impetuous headstrong nature, loved Jesus, most probably more than he had ever loved anyone else in his entire life. Here was a man whom he had followed devotedly and who had begun to reveal to him an insight into the unfathomable love of God for all his children and now he finds him talking of pain and death. For Peter this was unthinkable. After all, only a short while earlier it was Peter who had been led by the Spirit to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Messiahs don’t suffer, Messiahs don’t die; Messiahs save. Is it any wonder that Peter vehemently protested ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’
And of course, Jesus’ response to these words is equally vehement: ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling- block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ And perhaps in this response we can see at work something of the mystery of the incarnation as the human side was perhaps very tempted to turn away from the path ahead; the path that the divine side demanded he must take. The path that involved all that must be endured both physically and mentally, the suffering and the death which would lead ultimately to all the glory and wonder of the resurrection and thus ensure that the entire world could than truly recognize and glorify him as our Saviour. our Redeemer, our Messiah. Unlike that fourth Cubitt son he could never retreat from the battle that he was born to fight and destined to win.
So, what about us? Does our practice of our religion demand the embracing of possible, indeed probable, dangers or do we refrain from and carefully avoid anything that might put us in peril or disturb the relative tranquillity of our lives us in any way? Can we recognize the truth of these words of Catherine of Siena: ‘In the pursuit of spiritual growth you will be tempted to want the consolations, but not the struggles. It will be easy to delude yourself into thinking that this is not an act of selfishness, but an attempt to please me more by keeping me more consistently in your mind and heart. But it is a pathway to trouble, designed in pride. This kind of thinking is not humble but presumptuous. I set the conditions, the time and place for your consolations and tribulations. I determine what is needed for the salvation of your soul.’
A wise parent or grandparent will not stop a child from climbing a tree but encourage them even if this might entail a fall. Journeys however foolhardy or dangerous they might appear must be undertaken. So, God who is Father to us all wants us to risk the climb seeking the heights of faith and all that such faith demands of us. Staying safely at the bottom does not help our spiritual growth and our understanding of just what it is we are called to do in God’s name. Jesus was called to give his very life. We may not be called to such a fate, although some have been and no doubt still will be, but we are called, as Jesus said, to take up our cross and follow him.
If our faith is to have any real value and to grow in maturity then we too are called to suffer and to experience the distress of pain and rejection and all the struggles that life throws at us as we try to demonstrate the love of God for all his children. I think it is incumbent on all of us of whatever age to pray for the Spirit’s guidance as to exactly which struggles we are called to embrace and face up to in God’s name. Climate change, homelessness, poverty, disease, exploitation and so many more similar scourges that dominate the world scene today and that deny our fellow human beings such blessings as dignity, respect, justice, and equality that surely we should all be able to enjoy. Blessings that lay at the very heart of our Lord Jesus Christ’s teaching as to how we should live out our lives by demonstrating love for God and love for our neighbour. Staying comfortably in our own little bubble of contentment is surely never an option however much we may be tempted to do so. Those beautiful words from Romans say it all: ‘Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord…..Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.’
Just as Christ served for our sakes the purposes of God so we are called also to serve Him at whatever cost in order that we work together in life’s battle to bring about the establishment of his kingdom of justice peace and love. Our Lord Jesus Christ gave us His life; the Cubitt sons gave their lives. What will we give? What will we dare?
Go! By Ian Adams
You could stay here
But the invitation is to go
This may or may not involve a physical move
But you are being asked to give yourself with devotion to what lies ahead of you
To live in the spirit of resurrection
Wherever you are called
With St. Brendan to abandon the comforts of home
To leave the shores of your experience
And to set out on the ocean that is calling you
In this endeavour you will not be alone
The Christ’s Go! is always a Come
Texts: Romans 12: 1-8, Matthew 16: 13-20
Rock! What pictures do you conjure up when you hear or read the word ‘rock’? Do you imagine as I do, scrambling over rocks at the seaside, carefully working out how to make your way from one safe foothold to another? Or perhaps you can recall a particular rocky path you ascended or descended again having to take considerable care where you placed your feet? You might also have an image of a large rockery such as the one at Wisley which I always find fascinating as one searches out the various plants tucked into all the different nooks and crannies.
And then of course there is the metaphorical picture of being between a rock and a hard place; a place I’m sure all of us have had to both experience and endure at some time or another. But there is also the picture created by recognising that some special person has indeed proved a rock to you in your life. A person to whom you can always turn; a person whom you can unfailingly trust to be there for you and to provide some sort of anchor hold when life seems to have left you adrift and fearful.
In today’s gospel we read of Peter being designated as such a person by Jesus Himself. A rock on which the Church of Christ was to be built; a rock, a bedrock indeed, that is still firmly there for us today no matter what may be happening in the world. Peter who despite his many failings and impetuous nature was able to recognize the truth of exactly who Jesus was; ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And it was that recognition that provided the faith that turned Peter into a living rock determined to be an anchor hold for all who sought the truth of the living God; the God who is always with us. The God whose love for us His children meant that in order to demonstrate the unfathomable depth of that love sent His own Son to reveal it in person through His life, His death and His resurrection to eternal life. Peter was the designated bedrock of the Church but of course he still found there were times when, as a mere mortal, he found himself scrambling over some very rocky and unstable ground and it was all too easy to slip and find himself falling yet again. Throughout his life he continued to discover that his faith required so much from him and nothing could be taken for granted such as when he learned and was led to accept that Christ was the Saviour not just of the so called Chosen People but all people, Jews and Gentiles. In other words, Peter was just like any other human being full of faults and capable of taking wrong turns but at heart his faith was his rock and his grounding.
Is that true of us? Is our faith our rock without which we would find ourselves scrambling fruitlessly over some very different types of rock; the rocks of mammon, the rocks of selfishness and greed, the rocks of naked ambition or the rocks of self- isolation from the cares of the world? I suspect that many of you can confidently confirm that your faith is your rock and without its presence life would be unimaginable. But this said I think we all need to stop sometimes and as it were re-examine that rock and just what it is we are clinging to with such tenacity. Have we perhaps, like Peter, seen as it were just one aspect of that large boulder and not appreciated that it has other dimensions? A quick look at the first picture I’ve included will confirm that there are hidden sides and facets to that vast rock and as for what lies in its very centre we have absolutley no idea. Faith is called to be a living faith in a living God and that surely implies that it can change and be both modified and increased as we seek to learn more about the truth that is God just as Peter’s was. Michael Mayne writes: ‘The Christian life is a pilgrimage where, as we learn to be open to the Spirit at work within and among us, this truth is slowly apprehended and made part of us.’
Only a quick look back over the history of Christendom will immediately disclose how faith has continually changed and altered the way we are and the way in which we understand God. We cannot expect to have a static faith; the sort that bemoans that ‘things are not what they were’ and clings to the old ways, the old prejudices, the old, and let’s be honest, often outmoded ways of displaying that living faith in the world. A perfect example of this has been the way in which churches have adapted to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic and found innovative and lively ways of conducting worship. Ways which have undoubtedly attracted new people to join in and find both spiritual insights and refreshment. Ways which have inspired people to try new things and experiment with a huge variety of ways in which to worship. A bit like Peter discovering that Gentiles were God’s adopted children in exactly the same way as Jews were so we have discovered that our faith can be joyfully and meaningfully expressed in both traditional church worship, albeit now with the regulation mask, and via Zoom or websites. Wow! This rock is certainly proving to have hitherto unsuspected dimensions.
Michael Mayne expresses it so well in these words: ‘While I believe God to be the source of my life and the ground of my being, who (in St Paul’s words) “has not left us without some clues to his nature”, I know I must in fact live with paradox: the paradox of One who is both unimaginable, unknowable Other, and also the intimate, immanent, incarnate God, in whose image I am made and whose creation and whose creatures carry haunting echoes of his presence.’
We can never ever begin to understand the infinite magnitude and utter complexity of the rock on which our faith is based but I believe that, if we choose to do so, we like Peter can again and again be shown something of the revealing truth that is God; God who is with us whoever we are, wherever we are. We are called to continue throughout our lives to push forward as on a rocky path discovering new secure footholds along, it has to be admitted, with some decidedly shaky ones. And as we take each tentative step we will surely be enabled as Peter was to look back and see for ourselves our progress in making our way closer to the Lord our God, our rock and our shield, and with each step discovering and understanding something new and more wonderful about Him and His infinite love and care for us.
You ask so much, Lord.
Somehow, I’m meant to see the invisible.
Discern you in the unexpected.
Allow infinity into my life.
You offer me eternity,
but just the simple,
not so simple, act of living out today,
demands all I can give.
My little mind asks certainty,
the comfort of particularity.
Of knowing where I am,
and what I’m meant to do.
I seek the refuge of routine,
blinker myself in pettiness.
My mind can’t span the wonder of your love.
My pigmy courage can’t accept
the challenge of your presence.
Lord, let me understand that caution
kills the joy of knowing you.
That life with you goes far beyond the safe.
That I must make the leap of faith into the dark.
But, making it,
my senses come alive.
shake off constriction,
unfold their wings,
Eddie Askew, adapted
Virginia is away on holiday
Texts: Romans 10: 5-15, Matthew 14: 22-33
Interestingly mankind has discovered the secrets of flight and space travel and only recently has sent not one but three space probes in the direction of Mars. We have also devised means by which the ocean floor can be explored and of course we could claim that we have become the masters of cyber space. But what no one has succeeded in doing in emulation of Jesus is ‘walking on water.’ In fact, the very phrase has now become indicative of doing something seemingly impossible.
The story in today’s gospel is I find a delightful one and tells us a lot about human nature and how our reactions to events and the emotions engendered can swing so violently. First of all, we can picture those swarthy fishermen among the disciples labouring in the face of the wind and the waves to bring their vessel safely to land. They would have been all too familiar with such conditions which are commonplace on the Sea of Galilee and can in a mere few minutes transform it from the most tranquil of places to a storm-tossed nightmare of a place on which to find oneself. Knowing what I would feel like in such a situation I’m sure that those among the disciples who were unused to such conditions would have become increasingly anxious and fearful and wondered if they would ever make it to the safety of land. And even those who had regularly fished those waters would know inwardly just how dangerous such storms could prove and be a very real threat to life.
So, with already heightened emotions and even the thoughts of imminent death it is no wonder that they thought they were seeing a ghost as Jesus came to them striding with seeming unconcern across the wave bespattered water. If they were fearful before, now surely they were completely terrified imaging that this apparition surely heralded their last hour. And then to their amazement the ‘ghost’ spoke and revealed itself to be none other than the solid reassuring body of Jesus himself. You can just imagine the slowing down of the palpitations while at the same time their minds must have been asking ‘How can he do this?’
And then Peter, dear old Peter at his most impulsive thinks if he can do it then surely I can and asks Jesus to command him to step out of the safety of the boat and also walk across that turbulent sea. And to begin with all is fine until Peter takes on board as it were just exactly where he is and what he is doing. What on earth is he doing attempting to walk not on reassuringly solid ground but on the uncertainty of shifting, mobile water while the wind howls around him and makes the ‘path’ ahead all the more difficult to traverse as the waves sweep and crash around him. With this realisation his nerve is completely shattered and he begins to sink ignominiously and, in his mounting terror calls for the Lord to save him. Which of course he did and brought poor sodden humiliated Peter back into the boat no doubt to the vast amusement of his fellow disciples.
Oh Peter, oh you of little faith! Oh Peter what will your impulsive nature lead you to do next?
And reflecting on this story it struck me that at this present time it may well appear that we too are attempting to walk on water in this strange and very alien world created by the global pandemic which is Covid 19. All that was firm, all that was reassuring, all that we regarded with certainty has been swept away in the storm created by a virus sweeping unchecked around our world. Lock downs, social distancing, masks, are just for starters but then there are the vast and immensely threatening waves of economic meltdown, recession, unemployment, debt and even complete destitution in some parts of the globe. We may not be walking actually on water but we’re definitely on some extremely slippery and unstable ground. How can we traverse all this with any possibility of success? Can we really keep our heads above water, or will we sink in abject fear at all such turbulence? Can we remain hopeful that ultimately all will be well or in the immortal words of Sergeant Frazer of Dad’s Army do we feel we are all doomed?
I think the secret in all this is to do what Peter failed to do and keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus and recognize that in so doing our faith will keep us going. If instead of doing that we keep immersing ourselves in the troughs of all the waves that are generated by the media, by the government and by our own imaginings we will find that our trust is eroded and we cannot hold onto that belief that ultimately all will be well. Peter failed because he allowed the dangers that undoubtedly surrounded him to become uppermost in his mind rather than concentrating on the power and the love of Jesus to uphold and protect him.
There can be no doubt that we live in dangerous times but then such times have always been inflicted upon the human race. Why should we be any different to those who lived through those terrible medieval years of the Black Death which killed an estimated quarter of Europe’s population or indeed the seemingly endless years of the two world wars which led to millions upon millions of deaths as well as changing people’s lives every bit as catastrophically as this pandemic is doing ?
Yes, it would be wonderful if we could turn the clock back just as Peter must have wished he’d never left the safety of that boat but we are as impotent regarding the reversal of time as we are of walking on water. Covid 19 is here in just the same way as that storm that battered the lake. We have to be courageous and keep going and not give in to despair or helplessness. Christ is still more than capable of walking across the water to our aid and best of all by his very presence still our beating hearts, calm our fears and bring us in time into more placid and tranquil waters.
I think the following prayer poem of Eddie Askew expresses all that we need when times are threatening to overwhelm us. May they bring to you the same comfort, reassurance and hope that they bring to me.
Lord, if it’s questions you want
I’ve got them.
I’m like someone out of depth,
standing on tiptoe,
the tide sucking away the sand
from under my feet.
My arms stretched out,
just above the waterline of doubt.
The water’s cold,
it slaps my face.
another wave and I’ll go under.
But when I pause,
take breath, so shakily,
I think, perhaps if I asked less
there’d be more time to hear your answers.
My mind’s so full of self-created doubts
there’s little space for you.
Part of the trouble, Lord,
is that I want life tidy.
And that’s not how you work.
I’ve found that out,
painfully at times.
I’ve got the scars to prove it.
But occasionally I find the honesty
to say that you’re in charge.
And so I ask, Lord,
not necessarily to understand
the way things are,
but just the grace to rest in you.
To let my problems wait.
To still my mind
and in the blessed peace and quiet
that comes when I relax,
and lift my arms,
surrender to your presence.
And in your nearness
find that’s all I need.
Sunday 3 August
Texts: Isaiah 55: 1-5, Matthew 14: 13-21
It was a funny sort of day and I’m not sure really what to think about it now as I look back on all that happened. Of course, I’d no intention of becoming involved as I had more than enough work waiting to be done. But when people kept hurrying past my workshop and were obviously all excited and worked up over something curiosity got the better of me and I found myself stopping one group I recognised and asking them what was going on that had sparked all this commotion. They told me that Jesus from Nazareth, whose reputation as a prophet and teacher was growing like wildfire, had been spotted in the vicinity and they were going to listen to him. Now I’m not much of a man for prophets and never cared for any of my teachers at school but all the same despite telling myself it was all a lot of hooey I found myself caught up by the feverish excitement and thought if nothing else it might be good for a laugh so I joined in with one of the groups.
It was quite a long trek to the lakeside which is where the rumour was that Jesus would be and I almost turned back but having started I thought I might as well keep going as if this was going to be the event of the year I didn’t want to be the one idiot who’d missed out on it did I? By the time we reached the lake I could see that an immense crowd had already gathered and was somewhat surprised that news about this man Jesus had spread so rapidly through the grapevine. After all just who was he? What made him such a draw? As I understood it he was merely a carpenter from some backwater with, as far as I knew, about as much education as I had. But I have to admit that when he stepped from the boat and started to speak I could tell he had real charisma and was, truth be told, quite unlike anyone I’d heard before although that’s not saying much given my limited acquaintance with the movers and shakers of this world. Not that I understood a lot of it and some made little sense and some was just a lot of rather extravagant pipe dreams as far as I could tell. But I liked the way he had such subtle digs at those stuck up Pharisees even if at the same time I couldn’t see myself making bosom friends of riff raff like Samaritans or tax collectors. I mean how could he have one of the latter amongst his chosen disciples and to be honest I wasn’t sure about one or two of the others; not really the sort of people I’d care to associate with. And then there was a lot about not storing up treasures for ourselves as if any sensible person wouldn’t ensure that they took care of their future and that of their family.
But, even if I couldn’t see the point of a lot he talked about there was absolutely no doubting his power to heal people; now that was amazing and I wondered to be honest of some of it was a con but whether it was or not the crowd loved it although, looking around, I did detect a few sceptics like myself but, wisely in the circumstances, we were keeping our thoughts to ourselves
When I set out I’d had no intention of staying all day but once in that crowd and at times swept away by the charisma of Jesus and the atmosphere going home didn’t seem an option. But then the temperature began to drop and it was getting late and there was as it were a sort of collective rumble among the crowd as we all began to recognize that we’d been there a very long time and our stomachs were decidedly empty. It was then I saw Jesus talking to his special mates and there was some sort of discussion going on and I saw one of them handing him something but was too far back to see exactly what. Then, as we all became more restive and quite distinctive grumbles could be heard, came the order that we should all sit down on the grass which frankly we were more than glad to do. It was then I could clearly see Jesus lifting up a small quantity of food, no more than a couple of fish and five loaves, goodness knows who gave them to him, and I thought ‘ Now, what’s he up to? Are we going to just sit here and watch while he and his mates have a bite?’ But no! As we watched, in what became a profound silence, which seemed to steal over the entire hillside, he blessed the food in front of us all and then calmly handed it to his disciples. After that and to this day I couldn’t tell you what happened but we were all suddenly aware that the disciples were moving between us , working their way methodically through the crowd, and bringing fish and bread to each and everyone of us. At first it did occur to me that because of my tiredness and gnawing hunger I just might be hallucinating but no, when one of the disciples reached our little section I realised that we really were all being given food and very tasty it was too and for that matter extremely welcome.
How had it happened? I’ve absolutely no idea and if I live to be a hundred I won’t be able to fathom it out but somehow that strange, mesmerising, somehow other worldly man had performed some sort of miracle. How could so tiny an amount of food feed a multitude? What had made it possible? I know from my chats afterwards that the sceptics among us were searching for some sort of plausible explanation even while wolfing down that ‘manna’. But let’s be honest there simply wasn’t a rational answer and I don’t suppose there ever will be unless of course we find ourselves in that kingdom of heaven he kept banging on about.
Anyway, once we’d been fed the party as it were broke up and we all made our way wearily home. It was only when I was getting myself undressed that I realised I’d forgotten all about the couple of bread rolls I’d hastily stuffed in my pocket as I left the workshop that morning. They looked very unappetising compared to that feast we’d had earlier.
Did it change my life that day with Jesus? I’m not sure if I can answer that; I still have my doubts about him and so much of what he’d said and taught still appears a bit too pie in the sky if I’m honest; all that about bringing good news to the poor. I mean you can’t just change a world order can you? There’s always been rich and poor; it’s just the way things are. I mean it’s just not possible to feed everybody is it? But that said, in my quieter moments when I stop and reflect, I do recognize that what I heard and saw that day has had an effect upon who I am. I do try harder now to live a reasonable and upright life, a God- fearing life you might call it. I don’t recall ever having deliberately harmed my neighbours and I hope if you asked them they would tell you that I have shown kindness, compassion and even love to them through the years, though this said I know in my heart of hearts that I still prefer to keep some of them at arm’s length but then don’t we all? I’m reasonably generous with my money but I’m sure you’d also agree there are plenty of scroungers and wasters around who don’t deserve handouts. But, if you press me would that be all there is to it? Hmmm! I know it sounds silly when said out loud, but I reckon that having been in the presence of that man even for so short a time I was given a glimpse of something quite wonderful, something that in my dark moments I now realise kept me going; something that, yes I’ll say it, showed me a glimpse of the power and love of the divine for me personally. And that’s what’s made the difference for me.
But that’s more than enough about me, what about you? I just wonder what do all of you feel about this man Jesus and all you know about him? Has he changed your life? Have you been fed by him? And if you have, do you continue to hunger and thirst for more; to know more, to understand more, to experience more, to respond more, to live more? Has he made a very real difference to who you are, what you believe , what you do? I’d love to know.