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.