Christ Church

Virginia Smith's Homilies  May 2022 - April 2021

Bluebells 2022-1


Third Sunday  of Easter, 1 May

Texts: Acts 9 verses 1-6, John 21 verses 1-19

Reflecting on the resurrection stories it struck me that they all have something in common and that is they expose the  very human frailties and faults of people in the light of the risen Christ. Faults and frailties that are then transformed by His presence and the realisation of just what it is that God has done for them, for us, through the death and resurrection of his Son. Last week we had doubting Thomas with his need for certainties and proof; then we have the disciples on the Emmaus Road so wrapped up in their seemingly helpless and hopeless grief that they simply could not see for a long time what was in front of their eyes, namely  the risen Christ and  the reality of the hope that he brings. And now this week it is Peter’s turn to discover all the wonder of the power of forgiveness and love that is ours through Christ’s death and glorious resurrection.

Peter, who is just so full of human frailties and faults; the disciple who thought he could walk on water until he lost his nerve and stopped trusting in the Lord; Peter ,who was totally shocked and aghast at the  very idea of Jesus having to suffer, and tried to prevent him following his allotted path; Peter, who at the transfiguration blurted out the first thing that came into his head that they would build three dwellings not knowing, as the Bible says, what it was he was saying.  Peter, who again unthinkingly struck out with his sword when the arrest party came for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Weak, fallible but oh so human Peter. Peter, who in that High Priest’s courtyard completely lost his nerve and denied ever knowing Jesus, not once but three times. Each time more vehemently, making that denial until the cock crowed and the realisation of what he had done; his betrayal of his Lord, struck him with even more force than that with which he had wielded his sword and he went outside and wept his heart out.

And now we find him out fishing once more with his friends who, like him, had been the disciples of Jesus. Fishing, which had been his life’s work before that first encounter when he had so impetuously given up that familiar way of life to follow Jesus. And, as must have happened so many times before, their luck was out and seemingly no fish to be caught. And then there is this figure on the shore commanding them to cast their nets once more to the right side of the boat and lo and behold there was their net crammed to bursting point with fish. How they must have wondered as they began to haul such a phenomenally large catch to the shore. And it is then in the realisation that the figure is no less a person than the Lord that impetuous, impulsive, never stop to think Peter hastily throws on some clothes jumps into the water and heads for the shore.

And then we have that incredibly moving encounter between Peter and his Lord. The encounter when not once, not twice but three times Peter is asked if he loves the Lord. The significance of that number is not lost on us, nor could it have been as Peter was reminded so forcefully, but oh so gently, of those other three questions made in the courtyard of the High Priest and of the three times he vehemently denied knowing Jesus. That denial, that abject betrayal, must have lain like a great open bleeding wound in the heart of Peter in the days following and I’m sure at times the tears of guilt, remorse and self- accusation continued to fall. But here is the Lord with no forensic unpicking of the reasons for that denial, no words of judgement, no words of condemnation, no words of harsh recrimination but in their place three repeated questions; ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ And with each one comes the ever more positive affirmative and ringing reply: ‘Yes, Lord you know that I love you.’ This is no longer betrayal but an expression of true loyalty, of dedicated commitment, of unswerving love. This is Peter forgiven, redeemed and transformed by the Love that is Christ. Peter, who from now on will prove the wisdom of Jesus in appointing him as the rock on which Christ’s church will be built.

It is such a beautiful story, such a wonderful expression of how God’s redeeming love works not just for Peter but for all of us. We are not castigated and denounced for our sins, our acts of craven betrayal of our faith, our refusal to affirm our faith in the face of potential danger or ridicule; we are not robustly reprimanded, mercilessly condemned, subject to harsh punishment and retribution and ultimately cast out. Instead, we are loved with a love that, however much we may have failed, will not let us go.  A love that is almost incomprehensible and yet surely encapsulates all that we mean by grace interpreted as ‘God’s riches at Christ’s expense.’ A love that simply asks us again and again ‘Do you love me?’ until like Peter, piqued by being continually asked the same question, we burst out with our answer ‘Lord, you know everything: you know that I love you.’ 

And then, like Peter, once we have made that affirmation, we are called to show that love by feeding Christ’s sheep, feeding Christ’s lambs. In a world where it seems that there is so much hate, so much betrayal of the values that should lie at the heart of our humanity, so much blind and prejudiced condemnation of others for their real and perceived faults and failings we are called to love. This is radical love; the love that has transformed our understanding of God and we are called, as Peter was, to do our very best to display such radical love in our lives.  To bring the life restoring food of love to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the outcast, the refugee, the sinner. To bring the food that is the freedom of love to our friends, to our neighbours and, most importantly of all, to any whom we have considered to have wronged us in any way directly or indirectly In a world that is so full of sin, of abject betrayal, of unprovoked violence, of callous estrangement and blinkered, self-serving denial, are we going like Peter to do all in our power to feed Christ’s sheep; feed Christ’s lambs with His life restoring love?

St Peter by Malcolm Guite
Impulsive master of misunderstanding,
You comfort me with all your big mistakes;
Jumping the ship before you make the landing,
Placing the bet before you know the stakes.
I love the way you step out without knowing,
The way you sometimes speak before you think,
The way your broken faith is always growing,
The way he holds you even when you sink.
Born to a world that always tried to shame you,
Your shaky ego vulnerable to shame,
I love the way that Jesus chose to name you,
Before you knew how to deserve that name.
And in the end your Saviour let you prove

Second Sunday of Easter, 24 April

Doubt leads to questioning. Questioning leads to searching. Searching leads to answers. Answers lead to certainties. Certainites lead to faith.

Texts: Acts 5 verses 27-32, John 20 verses19-end

Let’s be quite honest here, would you have believed them? Would you have believed that a dead man reappeared just like that in a locked room? Of course you wouldn’t; you’re not so gullible and neither was I. Oh yes, they all told the same story but as far as I was concerned it was either a complete wind up or else they were suffering from some form of mass hysteria which, given all the events of the last few days, wouldn’t have been that surprising. Whichever it was and despite all their adamant and forceful protestations that they were telling me the absolute truth I was having none of it. Talk about a case of ‘pull the other one’; I mean dead men simply don’t rise and walk into locked rooms and if there was one thing I was certain of it was that Jesus was certainly dead; you don’t just bounce back from a Roman crucifixion; oh no, they make quite quite sure of that.  As far as I’m concerned there are, as you know, only two certainties in life; one is birth and one is death and that leaves room for a lifetime of doubts, and this was definitely one of them.

So  I did what any sensible rational person would do I said ‘fine, you believe what you like but I’ll only do the same when I have incontrovertible proof.’ Now that was just sensible wasn’t it? Children may like to believe in fairy stories, Father Christmas and the Easter bunny but once you’re old enough to know these are all pure fiction well you need proof to believe in things; well, most sensible rational people do. There are always some who will believe anything you tell them be it aliens, little green men, the miraculous, life enhancing  powers of the  latest wonder food or anti- wrinkle cream and, at the same time there are those who will refuse to accept the truth, even when it’s there in front of their faces like only thinking the earth is a few thousand years old or indeed that it’s as flat as  a pancake, not to forget all those who continue to ferociously deny even the slightest possibility of the existence of global warming. Now I’m not at either extreme but I do like proof; I’m not prepared to accept on trust a lot of what people tell me and that includes most politicians and I’m sure that you’re the same. 

But, back to where I started; having made my position quite clear I thought that would be the end of it. All the others kept banging on about it, keeping up their pretence that they had seen the Lord and if I’m honest it all got a bit tedious; I mean if I, who probably knew them better than anyone, didn’t believe them, then who on earth would? No, far better for us all to go home, forget as far as possible all the awful things that had happened to Jesus and get on with our lives as best we could. I mean what else was there for us to do; wait for another Messiah to come along? Going home; wasn’t that what he would have advised us? Think about it, whenever he did one of his miraculous healings, and yes, I freely admit they were miraculous, he always told those cured to go home afterwards so wouldn’t that be his same advice to us now?  No point hanging around Jerusalem where we were always regarded with suspicion by the powers that be both Romans and the mealy- mouthed carping, hypocritical religious hierarchy. What they had against us Galileans I’ll never know but, as far as they were concerned, we were always seen as trouble in one way or another, not that there was a shred of evidence to prove it. Didn’t matter what we did they never changed their minds; I mean look at Jesus and all the good he did, but none of it washed with them, they were just out to get him one way or another as, indeed, they did in the end. Of course, they came up with lots of trumped up charges, travesties of the truth, which none of them believed for a moment but a trumped up charge, however far- fetched, in their eyes is as good as a genuine one when one’s out to remove someone off the ends of the earth and write them out of history. 

But I digress and even though some of us talked of going home back to our old jobs we still hung around together always trying to keep well out of the sight of the authorities and keeping our doors firmly locked. Jerusalem was still a febrile place and one never quite knew when violence would erupt or the powers that be might strike regardless of guilt or innocence. If they wanted proof for their actions they could always conjure some up, just as they’d done with Jesus.

Anyway, it was exactly a week after the others had made their preposterous claim and we were all together again with, as I’ve said the door firmly locked, and Jesus, yes Jesus, calmly walked in. You don’t believe me? I swear, swear by everything that’s holy, I’m telling the truth, cross my heart and hope to die. Well no, I don’t want to die, well not yet because I need everyone to hear my story, to believe it; to believe, without a shred of doubt, in the reality of the resurrected Christ. 

Come on, you do believe me don’t you; you’re not still doubting are you? I know you’re all reading this and you’re all rational people and at a guess some of you might secretly be thinking that it all happened so long ago how can we know it’s true; where’s the proof? And I’m fully aware that there is a world out there full of cynics, sceptics and atheists who think it’s all as great a hyped up, unbelievable fiction, just like Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny, but you believe me don’t you? You’re not going to doubt for one second, are you? You’re not going to demand proof as I did are you?  Never mind what your rational brain tries to insist in your heart of hearts can you know and recognise the reality of God’s truth revealed in the resurrected Christ? Are you one with all those who over two millennia have both known and, more importantly, witnessed to that truth? Do you know, know without a shadow, a flicker of doubt that in believing and witnessing that you are truly and gloriously blessed just as Christ Himself promised me on that never to be forgotten day that you would be?  

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia 

Open your eyes to what is by Ian Adams
You see what you want to see.
There’s something good about that.
In that kind of seeing you are already shaping the world
as you long for it to be.

But the invitation (and  challenge) is to see what truly is.
Look closely, deeply, carefully—
and both the wonder and toughness of everything
will be revealed.

This is a demanding task.
And your seeing will never be the same again

Easter Sunday, 17 April

Delivered at Christ Church

Text: Acts 10 verses 34-43

Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, Allelulia! But to really grasp all the wonder, the glory, the proper sense of jubilant exultation of this fact on this Easter Sunday morning we have to go back a bit and contemplate what has gone before. In my work as a hospital chaplain I have occasionally had the experience of viewing a dead body and in that viewing I have had a very real sense of a form of abandonment, of emptiness because the living essence of that person is entirely missing. The flesh, blood and bones which were a person’s earthly body are now the inert, lifeless physical remnants of what was once a living, breathing person; a person who shared with others so many of the joys and sorrows of life; a person who laughed and wept with others, a person who shared the blessings of life and the joys of love with others and now all that life has been taken away. But has it? When, that last breath is taken is that truly the end? The great full stop? And the answer this glorious Easter Morn has to be an emphatic ‘No’ if we are to believe what the gospel writers, what Paul tell us. They tell us with supremely confident witness and glowing, unshakeable faith that Jesus, who is Christ our Lord, our Saviour, died and rose again; died a death of shame on the cross and rose to reveal the Father’s glorious purpose in redeeming us, his children from our sins and bringing us to new life with him. This is the glory of the Christian faith held for over two thousand years despite all attempts to belittle, ridicule and deny it.

For us this celebration of Easter is not and must not be about Easter eggs, bunnies, hot cross buns and roast lamb for dinner. Those eggs, those bunnies, those hot cross buns, even the roast lamb with its echoes of the Passover meal, have, very sadly, simply become secular add ‘ons’ to what the majority regard as just another Bank Holiday weekend where they are freed from the routine of work and indulge themselves in such pleasures.

As far as the general public is concerned the two Christian festivals the majority could probably name are Christmas and Easter. Christmas is fine with the joyful event of a birth of a baby accompanied by a delightful cast of animals, shepherds and angels; a happy story and one with which people are content to go along if only to sing with gusto the much-loved familiar carols. But Easter, that’s a different matter altogether and far harder to grasp, to even begin to properly comprehend and so best to just stick to those eggs and bunnies. Easter with its overtones of death which is, if not exactly a taboo subject, one most people do not care to think much about and want to push into the background of their consciousness for most of the time. But for us, if our faith is to have true meaning true and lasting depth, Easter has to be far far more than a saccharine sort of church festival. We will all I know in some way, be it in church or in our imagination, have witnessed Jesus’s death on Good Friday; imagined him pinned impotently on the cross before taking his final breath and becoming just a limp lifeless body of flesh, blood and bones. A body placed hastily and without ceremony in a tomb to lie there throughout the long empty day, which is Holy Saturday and then, then! Oh, the ineffable wonder, the impenetrable mystery, the overwhelming awe, the exultant joy that is Easter Day which is the discovery of that empty tomb. That empty tomb which contains no lifeless body but simply the discarded grave clothes which no longer have any purpose.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.

And, as we read our gospel account we learn of the initial bewilderment, the misunderstanding of those who had gone so early to that place of burial before, in the power of the Holy Spirit, they came to realise and to bear witness to the unshakeable eternal truth that Jesus, the man they have followed so closely for the past three or so years, has become, in all his glory, the risen Christ. The divine cannot be condemned to eternal death; cannot just become a lifeless body of flesh and blood and bones which ultimately will become the dust and ashes from which we are created. Christ has conquered death. Christ has risen again and, in that knowledge, we are able to begin to recognize just what it is God has done for us and the incalculable cost of it. He has, as St Paul affirms, made it impossible for us to be separated from his love either in this world or in the next. And now faith, hope and love abide these three; and the greatest of these is love. God’s love for all his children, however besmirched with sin and wrong- doing we may be, is everlasting. In some way we cannot begin to comprehend that love is surely ours in life, in death because of Good Friday because of Easter Day. We have to have both for the reality of what God has done for us to begin to be understood both the cost and the glory

I heard on a radio programme a nun say that the resurrection can only be understood in terms of music, and I think I sort of understand what she meant. The resurrection was truly a rising from the dead and glorious powerful exultant music such as will be played this morning paints a sound picture of that miraculous and divinely ordained rising. At Coldharbour to end our service we will sing that wonderful hymn of pure joy ‘Thine be the Glory risen conquering Son’ I pray that all of you may also sing out the words printed below and in so doing may find yourselves lifted spiritually by our faith, our belief that Jesus did indeed die and rise again and, like Peter, like Paul, be bowled over with amazement, with inexpressible wonder and with humble, over-brimming joy at what God has done for us. Christ is risen, he is risen indeed and thus we can be confident that death is conquered and through his deathless love we will, at our own death, be brought safely through the Jordan to his home above.

Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son,
endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won;
angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away,
kept the folded grave-clothes where thy body lay.
Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son,
endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won.

Lo! Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb;
lovingly he greets us, scatters fear and gloom;
let the Church with gladness hymns of triumph sing,
for her Lord now liveth; death hath lost its sting.
Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son,
endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won.

No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life;
life is nought without thee: aid us in our strife;
make us more than conquerors, through thy deathless love:
bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.
Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son,
endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won.

With my prayers that all of you will be blessed by an Easter filled with the joy of knowing the risen Christ in your hearts and homes. Virginia

Palm Sunday, 10 April

Texts: Psalm 118 verses 19-end, Luke 19 verses 28-40

Kings, the autocrats, the people of power come in a cavalcade of gleaming, expensive limousines, sometimes even bullet proof cars accompanied by outriders and security detail to give protection from the disaffected, the dispossessed, the desperate and the hopeless. Those rulers who regard such people as of no importance, of no value, an inconvenience, an irritation as they pursue their own ascent to ever greater power.  God, who is our King, does not come in this way. Our King comes astride a lowly beast of burden, unprotected with no one to watch out for him as he rides through the cheering crowds among whom are those who watch with the poison of envy, jealousy, hypocrisy and self-interest, who feel threatened and exposed by his overwhelming humanity and his message of mercy, justice and love for all, and who plot to unseat him.

Kings, autocrats, the people of power who wear hand-made suits and clothes of the highest quality; whose shoes are of the finest leather and whose watches cost a king’s ransom while their subjects cannot afford to feed their families and dress themselves from charity shops or rely on handouts; who have pawned or sold anything of value to buy time before the next bill arrives or the bailiff comes knocking. God, who is our King, comes in everyday, nondescript travel worn clothes with dust encrusted sandals worn down by constant use on stony paths; our King who only knows the time by watching the passage of the sun but who has unlimited and unrestricted time for all in need of him; who comes ‘Just as I am’ and  gives his very self for God’s children

Kings, the autocrats, the people of power who have a retinue of servants, of PR people, of speech writers and consultants to ease their way through life; to ensure that the message of power they wish to convey is dressed up in terms to attract their people. Messages which all too often hide the truth and are so subtly designed as to hoodwink and mislead their subjects into believing the lies dressed as platitudinous truth. God, who is our King, comes without any court, anyone to do his work for him, to doctor and massage his message, for he alone is the message; a message which has the power of eternal truth; the message which is good news for all people and not just the chosen few.

Kings, autocrats, the people of power, who often orchestrate their public appearances to provide a circus show for their people; public appearances which are carefully stage managed so that they only meet with the selected few; only speak with those deemed loyal supporters, sycophants whose flattery will only increase their vanity, their engorged sense of power. God, who is our King comes unexpectedly, unplanned, to ride amidst the people who are all God’s children. To ride among the people who admire and sincerely adulate him and the people who have allowed hate against him to grow in their hearts and whose shouts are false; people whose lives have been changed by him and people who are deaf to his message; people who long to know God’s love in their lives and those whose love is only for themselves. He comes to be among them all, be they saint or sinner, unafraid of any threat that might be posed by his enemies because he trusts implicitly that nothing can separate him from being held within the impregnable security of his Father’s love.

Kings, autocrats, the people of power who love to surround themselves with ‘yes’ people with their  adulation and flattery; who love and crave  all the trappings of power which can so easily corrupt and destroy their moral compass. Who may well imprison, torture or kill those who fail to accord them the respect they demand and speak words of criticism and complaint against their unjust systems, their self-serving practices and their bare-faced, blatant  abuse of power. God, who is our King, hears both the shouts of adulation ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ and the vitriolic shouts of ‘Crucify him, crucify him’ but these cries are swallowed within the silence of that still small voice of God which seeks to reassure and to comfort that all will be well. Nothing, neither the shouts of praise nor the shouts of condemnation, can affect or alter the divine purposes of God to bring redemption and salvation to all his people.

On this Palm Sunday at the start of Holy Week may we, too, in spirit be among that crowd who followed Jesus into Jerusalem. And in so doing may we recognise within us the conflicting emotions of love for God and neighbour and love of ourselves. The conflicting emotions of sincere and self-sacrificing humility and servitude set beside the desire for a sense of impregnable security and self-determination in our own lives. May we look with honesty and maybe even with shame as we think of how we personally have used power to manipulate others and feather our own nests at their expense. May we look with honesty at our neglect of those of your children in need; our unwillingness to turn aside and to share the gifts that bless our lives with others. May we reflect with honesty when we have merely paid lip service to the plight of others, content to voice our dismay and disgust when others suffer but never ready to actively help and sacrifice our own comforts to bring them the very basic comforts of life.

As we accompany our Lord, our King on this journey through Holy Week we pray that we will remain true disciples not turning away, not denying that we know him, until we find ourselves at the foot of his cross and see our King crowned, not with precious gem encrusted gold but with the thorns of the most priceless jewels of sacrificial love.                               

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
Bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, thy power, and reign

Sunday 3 April

Delivered at St James  Abinger

Texts: Isaiah 43 verses 16-21, John 12 verses 1-8

I love this week’s gospel story of Mary’s extreme generosity in anointing Jesus with the most expensive perfumed oil around at the time. The pure nard which came from Northern India would have cost the equivalent of a year’s wages which, in present day terms, would equate to over £30,000; so, yes incredibly expensive and Mary’s use of it was probably not just to Judas Iscariot but to all present somewhat shocking. And I am led to wonder just what sacrifices had Mary made in her own spending to acquire sufficient money to buy such a jar of nard; just what she had deprived herself of in order to amass such an extraordinary sum. But, for her, Jesus meant everything and just as other disciples had come to recognise Jesus as the promised Messiah, so I like to think that in this act of anointing, Mary too knew that here before her was, indeed, the promised Messiah, the Saviour of the world, the Light of the world who had come to reveal God’s love in all its amazing and wonderful munificence to all His children.

Extravagance!  What I wonder is the most extravagant gift we have ever given? What is our equivalent giving of an entire year’s wages? Something for all of us to ponder upon and question just how much we are prepared to give to God in token of all His love for us and the infinite number of extravagant blessings he pours out upon us day by day. Does our giving approach anywhere near to that of Mary’s, or are we quite frankly decidedly parsimonious? Yes, this is a lovely and very human story, but it is also one that contains great challenges for us as to our extravagant spending when it comes to the amount of our giving to God.

And to help us in deciding just how much we give, we only have to consider the sheer outrageous extravagance that God has poured out on us. His creation of this amazing, wonderful universe in which he has placed us, and which is just crammed with blessings so many of which we simply take for granted. And, on top of this is the utterly incomparable extravagance of his love for us; love that humbles itself so that we are counted as his children made in his image. Love that in its compassion and mercy sent us his own Son to teach and reveal the extent of that love. Love that ultimately was prepared to sacrifice his own Son so that we might be redeemed and have eternal life. What extravagance! What a God!  There is in my mind no doubt whatsoever of the munificence of God and, in that recognition, we are called like Mary to also be extravagant in our response.

The season of Lent which is drawing to a close is a penitential season and it is a good time to reflect on how much we are prepared to spend on that jar of nard. Is it going to be a token amount, that flashing of a note which is, in effect, the tiniest percentage of our abundant wealth or is it going to be our true wealth, the widow’s mite which represents all we have? The words of Jesus are clear as he observed this giving in the temple: ‘For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had; all she had to live on.’  In similar vein we recall the rich young man who, in wanting to be assured of eternal life, asked what he should do and was told; ‘go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.’

Such hard, challenging and testing teaching and one I’m quite sure we all wrestle with as we try to determine what limit we should place on our extravagance; what God is calling us to give to Him through our response to the needs of our neighbours. And here it is interesting to note that an item on the news reported how with the present strains on personal finances there is far less giving into those charity tins that sit on so many shop counters. Have we reduced our giving? Have we held back in case we need the money for ourselves?

Poverty is a crime against God and the fact that so many people in this country are being driven into debt is shocking while there are still others with immense wealth to cushion them against whatever price rises have occurred and may well continue to occur. But we have a radical God, as we have to appreciate if we take seriously the teachings of his Son. A radical God who wants a world changing system where there is justice, mercy and equality for all and not for just the few. God is, as I’ve said, the most extravagant giver and if we believe in him and truly want to bring about his kingdom then we too have to be rashly extravagant like Mary.

When we look at the Isaiah reading we hear of the waters in the wilderness, the  rivers in the desert bringing new life, a new thing and surely that water, those rivers will be made to gush and flow through our giving to help with those who starve in what has become the dessert of Somalia through lack of rain; the desert that is Mariupol, the dry land that is the fate of those in this country who cannot afford to feed or heat themselves properly. Oh, it is a very, very real challenge, and I am quite sure I am not alone in trying to work out just what price I should pay for my own personal jar of nard to anoint my Saviour, my Redeemer, my Messiah.

But I suppose the real question is not how extravagant is my giving but how extravagant is my love for God and for His children? Mary loved the Lord beyond anybody she had previously known because, through the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, she recognised that here was God’s love incarnate, and in bearing witness to that recognition she gave that precious gift of nard; a gift that must have cost her every little mite she could put aside but, for her, there was never a moment of doubt, a moment of counting the cost. She gave it with her heart filled with overwhelming love for the man, the God who ultimately would reveal to her and to all God’s children the depths and heights and the immeasurable, incalculable extravagance of divine love.

Mothering Sunday, 27 March

Delivered in Christ Church

How many of you still has or has had a cuddly toy? I think most people, certainly in the western world, have at some time or other had a cuddly toy or, in my son’s case, a rather large blanket he liked to drag round after him, and which caused him the most terrible angst when I insisted it just had to be washed. Such toys or blankets bring comfort and a sense of security when we are small and can even seem almost real. But there is also another aspect to having such a toy as, by cuddling and caring for them, we are exhibiting the beginnings of the very human desire to nurture, to in a word ‘mother’ That holding, that caring even when they become extremely smelly and definitely unhygienic is the start of the mothering love that we can all exhibit.

For this homily I have chosen just three very short Biblical snippets and then an excerpt from an eucharistic prayer to illustrate my theme

For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you, your right hand shall hold me fast. Psalm 63 verses 8-9

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you. Isaiah 66 verse 17

How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.   Matthew 23 verse 37

As a mother tenderly gathers her children you embraced a people as your own. When they turned away and rebelled your love remained steadfast.

Four snippets but each one points us towards the tender motherly love of God and of how that love is always there to comfort us, to hold us tightly by the hand, to shelter us using that beautiful image of a mother hen sheltering her chicks under the safety of her wings. Because, for so many hundreds indeed thousands of years, humans have, by and large, lived in patriarchal societies God has been seen and defined  as male and hence we refer to God our Father, but the truth is that God is beyond any such distinction and, given that we are told that we are made in His image, the Almighty God has surely both the attributes of a father and a mother and that is what it is so important for us to recognise today. The church calls this Mothering Sunday and not Mother’s Day and my children have longed learned that this particular Mother would always prefer cards to have the words Mothering Sunday on them although as the years pass and we become as a nation ever more secularised the hunt can prove to be in vain.

For some, this day can be extremely painful for a variety of reasons, especially as the stress on the word mother increases. Some will mourn this day for the mother they have lost; some will mourn for the child they were never able to have or the child they lost, and some will experience the estrangement from their mother which sadly can happen in families. Meanwhile, mums of every sort will be feted and the cards they receive will of course declare that they alone are the best. But again, some mums are, if we are honest, not the best and do not find it easy or even natural to be mums. Of course, mums come in every sort and size, the variety is infinite; we have super mums and tiger mums and working mums and stay at home mums; we have mums that can cook wonderful meals and mums who rely heavily on bung in the oven meals. We have mums who always look perfectly dressed, with their hair and make-up immaculate, and we have mums who do the school run in their pyjamas. And, never forget, we have mums who are dads, if that makes sense. Yes, mums really can come in an infinite variety.  And I thought perhaps, in the cause of honesty, I should let you know what sort of Mum I am considered to be so looked through my keepsakes and found the following in a letter from my daughter ‘thank you for coming up today, taking me out to lunch, taking away all my dirty clothes and helping me with my job application’ and then there was the  card, also from her, which proclaimed on the front ’Dear Mum, sorry I can’t be with you on Mother’s Day but I’ve got no washing that needs doing and I’m alright for cash.’ The evidence thus points to my noteworthy mothering attributes as dealing with dirty washing and being the bank of Mum plus the ability to write letters of application. To be fair I haven’t done her washing for quite a while now, and although the bank of Mum is still very active it is no longer used to bail her out of a hole caused by rash over-spending on her credit card which she kept forgetting was not inexhaustible, but I do still get the plea ‘Mum can you please help me write a letter?’ 

But, never mind what qualities mums may or may not have, there is one way they can all claim to be the best and that is when, like God, they enfold their children in their love, holding them safe, protecting them, comforting them even when they have been not as good as they might have been. How comforting it is to be held in the warmth of love, in the assurance of love, just as the cuddly toys are held. And perhaps best of all is to be held in that forgiving love when we have made a mess of things and done those things we shouldn’t have done. This is what real mothering is all about and each of every one of us can do the same. How many of our children have shown mothering when they instinctively know that we are sad, putting their arms around us and whispering those words’ please don’t cry’. Each and every single one of God’s children, and that means all of us, can mother, can show tenderness, compassion, comfort and love and at the same time if we choose we can turn to God and find that he, that she, can enfold us in a perfect love that is infinite.

May each and every one of you know the fulfilment that comes from the act of mothering and know too that all of you are held within the blessing and tenderness of God’s eternal mothering love this Mothering Sunday and always.

Sunday 20 March

Texts: Psalm 63 verses 1-8, Luke 13 verses 1-9

You are indeed my rock and my fortress: for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Psalm 31: 3-4

You are full of compassion, long-suffering, and very merciful, and you relent at human suffering.            Manasseh 6

Suffering! Unjust and unmerited suffering is always a huge theological problem and I have several books on my shelves on the subject. Books which wrestle with why suffering, and how do we find the presence of God at the heart of that suffering. The relentless and horrifying news of the daily and almost unimaginable suffering of the people of Ukraine yet again causes us to wonder at just how such inhumanity to man can still happen. How is it that we never learn the history of wars and their outcomes? How is it that we continue to devise more and more unspeakably damaging weaponry to create a reign of terror on those to whom it is directed?  

The people of Ukraine are like all people everywhere, a hotch-potch of the good and the bad, of saints and sinners. Just maybe there are some whose deeply troubled consciences recognize that they merit the suffering they are now experiencing but the vast, overwhelming majority will recognize that simply because of the power lust of one man and his ability to call upon an army equipped with every possible weapon of modern warfare they are suffering. Suffering in a way that is barely credible to us as we go on living our lives where the water and the electricity still function; where the shelves in the food stores remain well stocked and, if we need it, where medical help is always at hand for us. And please do not think I am being horribly pious but every morning as I wake in the comfort of my bedroom and then go to wash away the marks of contented undisturbed sleep I do give profound thanks for such blessings as I remember the victims of the evil that Putin has unleashed upon his neighbours.

We have all known suffering, be it the physical suffering of some part of our body, or the mental suffering of grief, or abandonment, of depression and of fear and hopelessness. And of course there is the suffering we experience as we watch helplessly the suffering of others and sometimes I think, in an extraordinary way, this can be the hardest suffering of all simply because of its impotency The suffering of the Ukrainian people is all of these as they experience homelessness, starvation, injury and on top of all this grief, the loss of all that is familiar and safe, and the fear and feelings of utter hopelessness for the future. Where is God in all this? Where is God when we too suffer? The answer was given by a survivor of Auschwitz, Hugo Gryn, who, when asked the same question, replied ‘I believe that God was there Himself-violated and blasphemed. The real question is ‘Where was man in Auschwitz?’ In similar vein Peter Longson writes: ‘That’s where we find God-in the dirt. In the blood and the dirt.’ 

God does not cause suffering; he does not make war with us; he does not shower us with the weapons of death; he does not deliberately take our loved ones from us or cause their cancers or their heart attacks and we must be very clear about this.  We may mistakenly ascribe to God the power to cause suffering but that is only to make excuses for ourselves. Suffering comes about because God has given us freewill and a limited earthly life and, as a consequence, we experience suffering either because of our abject failure as humans to love God and our neighbours or because our bodies, and indeed our minds, are not perfect and are subject to disease and, especially as we age, a failure to work as we would like them to do. 

But if God does not cause suffering there is no doubt in my mind that, like Hugo Gryn and Peter Longson, I believe God is right there beside us in that time of trial and agony. And for some sort of proof of such a claim we only have to look at the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Again and again, he was there beside the suffering bringing the comfort of his healing touch, his healing words. He was there for the young and the old; he was there for the Jew and the Gentile; he was there for the leper and for the sinner; he was there for the mentally ill and deranged; he was there for those who suffered both hunger and thirst; above all he was there when, as he suffered his own excruciating death on the cross, he brought comfort to the thief dying in agony beside him and to his own mother as she stood  at the foot of the cross as  a sword of suffering pierced her soul.

In sending his own Son to live among us, to die for us, God surely knew just what it meant to suffer; just what it meant to feel alone and abandoned as witnessed by that terrible cry of Jesus ‘My God, my God why have you abandoned me?’  A cry surely echoed down the centuries by those whose suffering is almost too great to bear; a cry surely heard again and again in the beleaguered cities t of Ukraine and by those forced from their homes and all that is familiar. And yet, we are assured that God never abandons us and that he truly is there in our suffering; our times when we walk,  or rather stumble, through those dark valleys of death where we feel ourselves to have lost all that has brought blessing into our lives and in their place left us alone in valleys of blackest despair and hopelessness. Malcolm Guite confirms this in these words: 'From the beginning of Creation God had foreseen the sorrow our misused freedom might bring, and chosen, from the beginning and in that knowledge, to share with us the consequences of our own mistakes, that he might redeem us from them.’

And one last question, how easily do we allow the suffering of others to fade from our consciences? As the tragedy of the war in Ukraine continues, I notice that less time is now devoted to it on the news and often it is not even the headline news. And yet with each day that the war, or ‘special military operation’ as Putin euphemistically chooses to call it, continues to be waged the suffering does not diminish but increases. Are we allowing ourselves to continue to be acutely conscious of this or have we turned aside, sated with the relentless bad news to find something more cheerful to lift our spirits? Jesus never turned aside from the suffering; never sought out just the company of the healthy and prosperous; in fact, quite the opposite. When pinned in utter helplessness to that cross God’s angels could have come to release him but that was not God’s plan. God’s plan was to show that he understood the deepest depths of  human suffering and that he would never turn away; never abandon those who suffer. Surely, we are called to do the same and walk for however long is required with those of God’s children who need us beside them in their hour of suffering however wearying, however demanding this may be. This call is echoed in this prayer poem written by Peter Longston.

God came in Christ to share the dark with us.
To all who need him now in this day’s dark
    he comes again.
He comes again, and soft, he comes again
Wearing the life of all who are willing
To do as he did and to share the dark.

In this way together we begin to
    make God’s music

Sunday 13 March 

Delivered in Christ Church

Text: Matthew 6 verses 1-6, 16-21

What have you given up for Lent ? What is its purpose? In fact, why do we give things up and what difference does it make? Is it just so we can be very smug saying ‘Oh no I couldn’t possibly have a piece of cake I’ve given up for Lent’ and perhaps failing to recognize that the cake may have been specially made for us and, secondly, that in being so smug about how virtuous we are being we can all too easily make others feel distinctly uncomfortable? Which is exactly the reason why in our gospel reading we are urged not to make a show of our fasting, or indeed any of our Lenten practices which may involve giving extra donations to a specifically chosen Lenten charity or making time for more prayer. I haven’t given up cake for Lent; indeed I haven’t given up any consumable item and I was glad when, last week, I was invited to tea with someone who had taken the trouble to have gone out specially to buy a cake. How discourteous it would have seemed to say, ‘Thank you bit no thanks.’

So, what is the purpose of this season of Lent when we are called upon to discipline ourselves? And here I think it’s really important to examine that word ‘discipline’ and recognize its links with the word disciple. We discipline ourselves so that we learn and are educated to become better disciples; better followers, in our case, of our Lord Jesus Christ. We do NOT discipline ourselves just to make ourselves feel somehow good about ourselves and proud of being so piously abstemious and then eat and drink far too much on Easter Day. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness to pursue some trendy diet; the diet was only a means to an end, which was to discern just what it was His Father was calling upon him to do, to teach, to educate and, by example, to show just what being part of the Kingdom of God demands of us His children. And here it is perhaps useful to remember that the word 'educate' comes from the Latin and means to lead or to bring out; in other words, to take us forward into greater knowledge, greater understanding, and education is definitely not just about acquiring a mere assimilation of facts and figures. Our understanding of God and his kingdom demands that we are led out from ignorance into a better comprehension, an increased, spiritually blessed, awareness of the wonder and the mystery which is the divine.

Any of you who are afficionados of A.A. Milne’s delightful Winnie the Pooh stories will, I’m sure, remember the one in which dear Pooh was stuck in Rabbit’s front door as a result of an overindulgence not just in honey but also condensed milk, although he did decline the bread. Stuck fast until his fasting led to a sufficient reduction in weight so that he could, with a lot of strenuous tugging, be liberated. Meanwhile Rabbit was making good use of his hind paws as a clothes’ driers while Christopher Robin was helping time pass by reading to him Sustaining Books in order to provide help and comfort to a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness. I think this is a wonderful metaphor for Lent. It is a time to try and rid us of, at least some of the encumbrances of modern life which fill us up with our love of consumer products, our love of indulging our appetites, our love of self so that we become bloated, self-absorbed and wrapped up in materialism which is so often accompanied by attendant worries and fears.  Lent provides a time when we can try to limit some of the things which fail to leave room for God; room to develop not our material and physical well-being but our spiritual well-being. What is it we really need in life? The answer, actually, is very little, but what I believe we do all need is more ‘God’ in our lives and more education to enable us to have a greater understanding of his love for us and how we can learn to respond ever increasingly to that love.

I believe our journey through Lent should, in a way, be a time of quiet contemplation and reassessment of our lives so that we come to recognize those things that are blocking our way to becoming even better disciples. What is it that takes up too much time in our lives and wedges us into a life of physical and material comforts when that time could be better spent drawing nearer to God? Drawing nearer in so many ways and, again, if we take the example of Pooh maybe we can do more at this time to be of use, of value to others of God’s children, by involving ourselves more in their needs, if not to dry their washing, at least to have someone to talk to, someone who shows they care. And for spiritual feeding there are just so many wonderful sustaining books or even websites to challenge us and make us think; books that bring both help in our pilgrimage towards the cross this Lent but also the comfort of trust in God’s merciful and compassionate power that I think we all need, particularly at this present time when the world is full of the evil of abused power. And here I must emphasise that you do not have to have a PhD in theology to understand these books and ideas. I am currently using one of my favourite Lent books which draws on parallels between the events portrayed in The Wind and the Willows and the life of Jesus’ disciples. Deceptively simple but with some profound ideas to chew over each morning in quiet contemplation before I launch myself on the busyness of the day.

I pray that all of us this Lent may engage on a fast that releases us from the all those things that act as some sort of material worldly prison and frees us to know more of God’s true purposes for us as His faithful disciples and, if we are successful, then come Easter day we can have a great feeling of liberation and, like Pooh, can hum proudly to ourselves and even indulge in an Easter Egg or two.

Lent is a journey as is life and I think both are beautifully illustrated  by these words from a poem of Ted Hughes: So we found the end of our journey. So we stood, alive in the river of light, among the creatures of light, creatures of light.’   

God grant that our Lenten pilgrimage will enable us to become ‘creatures of light’.

Sunday 6 March

Delivered at St James Abinger

Texts: Romans 10 verses 8b -13, Luke 4 verses 1-13

Temptation! We would not be human if we did not at various times experience some sort of temptation be it not to clear out the shed or tackle the ironing and to play computer games  or watch the box instead, to having another glass of wine, another piece of cake or to stay in bed and skip church just for once. Just this week I have been horribly tempted to buy a new summer dress shown in a catalogue which came through my letter box. It is so pretty and fresh and appeared even more so on a damp miserable day. I don’t need another summer dress but oh the temptation, if you see me in a terribly fetching pastel striped dress this summer, you’ll know I succumbed!

The whole structure of the advertising business is built on temptation, be it to have the perfect body, perfect teeth, perfect skin, to create the most modern, all singing, all dancing high tech kitchen, to go on that dream holiday or to treat oneself to some sort of supposedly luxury food. Think about it, all advertisements are designed to somehow appeal to our innate wish to better ourselves in some way, to indulge ourselves in that exclusive offer, rather than learn to be quite simply satisfied with what we have. What we have being far far in excess compared to that possessed by millions upon millions of other people around God’s world.

Our gospel reading today will, I am sure, be familiar to all of you here as it tells of the forty days Jesus spent out in the Jordanian wilderness during which time he, too, was tempted to achieve worldly fame and success by means which were completely contrary to the will of His Father. The sort of means which Vladimir Putin has been tempted to use to such horrifying and tragic effect as he seeks to increase his hold over Ukraine and possible even more kingdoms of the world. Jesus went into the wilderness to think, reflect and pray as to exactly what God purposes were for Him and how he might achieve them. What was it He was being called to do to bring the knowledge of the reality of the Kingdom of God to the world? The three temptations he faced were to obtain the rule of the world by power and domination instead of by God’s rule of love and care for all. Turning stones to bread is great when you have thousand upon thousands of desperate refugees seeking sanctuary from their homeland, reliant upon the charity of others to sustain them. But, in the end, what they truly need is not reliance on other people’s charity and their ability to turn donations into food, medical supplies and shelter just to keep them alive. What they most need is to be given the hope that there is a future for them; a future in which they can rebuild their lives, make their own bread,  and  in which they can know, once more, the love of homeland, the love of neighbour, the love of family, the love of peace and, most of all, to know at the heart of all those the love of God.

The second of Jesus’s temptations was, in obedience to the devil’s ultimate authority, to rule over all the kingdoms of the world; to exert the sort of power which is corrupted by evil such as Putin now wields. He was being called upon to worship the worldly ambitions that people of power so often portray, the worldly ambitions that are centred entirely on self and not on the wellbeing and happiness of those under their power. This is the power that quickly becomes authoritarian, oppressive and ultimately terrifying as it seeks to rid itself of all opposition, all criticism in an increasingly paranoid abuse of that power they have assumed. Compare that to God’s power which is never oppressive, never forced upon us because it is the power of love which is gentle, patient and forbearing.  Jesus was being called upon to reveal God’s kingdom where there is justice and mercy for all not just the powerful few; God’s kingdom which embraces all God’s children and does not discriminate on the grounds of race or colour or indeed any of those prejudices which are endemic in so many of our world’s kingdoms; God’s kingdom which will be seen in all its glory when all the kingdoms of the world have passed away.

And Jesus’s last temptation was to be part of some sort of grand breath- taking spectacle which relied upon God to counteract the natural law which would have led to Jesus’s untimely demise. Jesus knew that putting God to the test is not a sign of faith; it is  a call for ‘my will’ not God’s will to be done. Of course, miracles can happen as Jesus proved during His lifetime but we all know that however hard we may pray for a specific miracle, God may answer our prayers in a completely different way. Politicians promise miracles but rarely, if ever, achieve them, as indeed do so many products on the market. God only promises one thing and that is, come what may, we will always be held within the love of His covenantal care and that is, if you like, the miracle that is God. No earthly power can do the same and nor does it wish to do so. Divide and rule together with fear inducing tactics is all too often how men of power keep their authority, keep their ever- tightening grip on the people they command. 

Jesus’ time of temptation taught Him that His purpose as God’s Son was simply to reveal the power of God’s love and to show people what that love looks like. A love that is humble, never afraid to lose face by washing people’s feet; a love which is gentle, reaching out to those who have sinned and those who are outcast. Above all a love which is sacrificial and leads not to some spectacular angelic saving from death but a death which, in all its horror, shows how God understands the suffering and the pain that the world and its people of power can so easily inflict upon His children.

In the light of all this, what is it we want to achieve this Lent? Is it simply to boast that we can resist the temptation of chocolate or alcohol for some forty days or is that in itself a temptation? Or is there far more to what could constitute our Lenten observance? Jesus went into the wilderness to spend time alone with God His Father to discern His purposes for His earthly life and of how they differed from the purposes of earthly rulers. Should we, this Lent, be using that period to spend more time with God in prayer, in meditation, in silence and most importantly of all in hope. Hope that helps us trust that we learn, as Jesus did, how we too can do so much more to serve God’s purposes and help reveal the reality of His Kingdom which is both here on earth and in heaven? In the present state of this fallen world it may be the only thing that could make a difference and contribute to the peace of God which passes all understanding for all God’s children.

All the Kingdoms of the World by Malcolm Guite
So here’s the deal and this is what you get;
The penthouse suite with world commanding views,
The banker’s bonus and the private jet,
Control and ownership of all the news,
An ‘in’ to that exclusive one per cent,
Who knows the score, who really run the show,
With interest on every penny lent
And sweeteners for cronies in the know.
A straight arrangement between me and you,
No hell below or heaven high above,
You just admit it, and give me my due,
And wake up from this foolish dream of love….
But Jesus laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.
Love is the waking life, you are the dream'.

Ash Wednesday, 2 March

Text: Matthew 6 verses 1-6 and 16-21

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you they have their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.   Matthew 6: 16-21

Reflecting on today’s Gospel reading I was reminded of when my children were younger and how, if one of them was in trouble for some sort of misdemeanour, the other one would adopt the aspect of an angel. Behaviour which I’m sure all parents here will recognize. And maybe that sort of behaviour, in effect, continues even when we are considerably older and look askance at what we perceive of the poor behaviour of others and condemn them while adopting our most pious countenance to proclaim that, of course, we would never behave in such a way. And I think that it is also possible that in the forty days of Lent we are often tempted to proclaim just how good we are compared to others as we give up sweets or alcohol or even go so far as to fast completely for a day a week. ‘Oh no thank you I couldn’t possibly have a piece of cake even though it looks quite delicious as I’ve given up cake for Lent.’ 

But as our gospel reading teaches us, the practice of fasting is not to make a show of it; to let others know just how extraordinarily strong minded you are being. Surely, at the heart of that intention to deny ourselves some form of worldly treat or comfort is,  I might suggest, in part  to help us concentrate on the divine gifts that God alone provides. The question I think we should perhaps be asking ourselves is just what is it we want to, as it were, get out of this period of Lent? Is it simply to reach Easter morning and gorge ourselves on chocolate eggs, or indeed any other dietary item we’ve been denying ourselves with such piety, and probably at the same time announce just how much weight we’ve managed to lose? Or is there a lot more to this Lenten Journey and what are the really important temptations that we need to do battle with? The temptations that will lead us away from all the charms of the material world, the kingdom of mammon, the kingdoms of power and oppression and the pursuit of self-fulfilment towards the wonder, the awe and the mystery that is God’s divine Kingdom.

If fasting in some manner helps you to achieve such a goal then that’s fine, but there may be other ways and, in particular, I believe the resolution to spend a lot more time with God our Father just as Jesus did out in the wilderness. Time with God which might be in prayer, in meditation or quite simply in a walk in which one attempts to recognize some of the extraordinary beauty and diversity of God’s creation. Time when one really attempts to resist all the hundred and one thoughts about daily life, about, in effect, what you should wear, what you should eat and all the other concerns of daily living and use the time to allow the Holy Spirit to draw you into the presence of God Himself. And in that presence recognize, just what Christ did for us in His journey to the cross, His suffering and His resurrection.

Every week in church we say the Creed and acknowledge that Christ died and rose again, but do we truly recognize the enormity of the faith we are proclaiming? Lent gives us the time, the space if we allow it, to begin to examine more closely just what Christ did for us and all that God does for us, not just through the sacrifice of His own Son but each and every day. Surely Lent is not just about reaching Easter Sunday and smugly saying ‘I did it, I haven’t let a chocolate or glass of wine pass my lips' but saying I really believe I have been enabled to come closer to God. Our sacrificial Lenten journey can be infinitely rewarding as it leads us towards Golgotha and through all the blackness of Good Friday to the eternal light of Easter Morn. I pray that we may all use it wisely not for any sort of  show but simply in utmost humility and in recognition of both the poverty and the sinfulness of our earthly nature. And, in this recognition, draw nearer to God and to come to understand more of his infinite self- sacrificing, self-giving love for us and the pure, unalterable goodness of His Kingdom and, in that knowledge, find an even greater trust in His purposes for us, just as Jesus did during those forty days spent in the wilderness.

I would like to end with this poem based on Psalm 91 written by Malcolm Guite which I felt helps us in the pursuit of that trust I’ve just mentioned in these times when we are filled with fear and mistrust by the exploitation of power which has led to war in Europe.

He shares our grief and wipes away our tears.
And even in this life he shelters us
Beneath the shadow of his wings. Our fears

And hopes are known to him. His faithfulness
Will be our shield and buckler. We can trust
His constancy and know he will be with us;

With us through the best and through the worst.
I may be threatened by the passing harm
Of outward pestilence, but still I trust

He gives his angels charge, and with his arm
He shelters and embraces me. No power
Can separate me from his love. His Name

Is my protection and delight. I pour
My heart and soul to him in songs and psalms,
And he will bring me through my darkest hour.

Sunday 27 February

Texts: Psalm 147, Matthew 6 verses 25-end

What matters is that I should without ceasing hope in you and fear not. For if I have you, God, I will want for nothing. You alone suffice.    Teresa of Avila

Are you a worrywart? Someone who worries to excess and vividly conjures up  some sort of absolute disaster around every corner, or do you consider yourself more phlegmatic, able to take life as it comes and not always worrying your socks off? Wherever you are on the scale the fact is we are all capable of worrying, be it whether we are going to be late for some appointment or worrying that this morning’s coughing fit means we have contracted some fatal lung disease. When it comes to worry the human brain really does have no limits. 

And thinking about all this and possible Biblical examples I went right back to the story of Adam and Eve who, after suddenly becoming aware to their utmost horror that they were stark  naked, were so worried and ashamed that God might see them in the ‘altogether’ that they hid from him. And I’m sure all of us can imagine the sort of worries that were racing through their tiny heads at that moment in time as they looked into the abyss of a totally uncertain future. 

So, what do we worry about and what might be considered legitimate worries, and which are worries that we really need to get a grip on and dismiss as really of no consequence? If we are late for that appointment through no fault of our own then we need not worry but a prayer, if nothing else, might help calm us to wait in accepting patience, I am sure all of us have had just that experience when we have been caught up in traffic and the minutes are ticking away. And here I am reminded of going to conduct a funeral over at West Middlesex Crem and having left plenty of time, as our training always advised us to do, found myself stationary on the M3. There was nothing but nothing to be done except pray that sooner or later the motionless queue of traffic would begin to move again. And yes, prayers were answered, and I did arrive in time as did several others who had been caught in the same jam who came to that service. Worrying was not going to get me anywhere but prayer just might and did.

But what about those health worries? Again there is a simple answer which we are all urged to do ‘See your doctor, don’t just sit at home imagining the worst.’ And here we are all too aware that, because of the pandemic, that is tragically exactly what some people have done sometimes to serious cost to their health, but I’m sure we can all understand and sympathise with the predicament with which they were faced.

So, I hope you might agree that we do have to be pro-active about some of our worries but that leaves those worries that, however hard we try, do not go away and those are, I suggest, the ones we, as it were, hold for other people. The worry about our loved ones who are gravely ill, our loved ones whose life has suddenly taken a wrong term with perhaps the loss of a job or the break- up of a relationship; the worry for the future of our young people in a world threatened by global warming, pandemics and now,  all in Europe,  the horror of war and so much more. These are worries I am sure we all have and we would not be human if we didn’t; they are, if you like, the worries of love. And here we have the example of Jesus Himself, who when he was suffering those terrible excruciating death agonies on the cross, still had the ability to worry about his Mother and asked his disciple John to care for her. What an example for all of us.

But to go back to that part of the story of Adam and Eve which I always like the best, namely that God,  after telling Adam and Eve in no uncertain terms that life could never be the same again for them, ‘made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.’ And as a consequence at least that was one worry less for them in a world which, unlike the perfection of the Garden of Eden, would again and again present problems and situations over which to worry and turn their hair white.

To me that simple action of clothing Adam and Eve expresses all the wonder and mercy of God’s love for us even when we have gone badly astray and given Him every reason to disown and abandon us. But, of course, he never does and that is a worry that should never ever enter our minds. Whatever we do, however wrong we have been God is still there and ready to clothe us with, if not skins, then certainly with loving compassion and forgiveness for our sins and transgressions.  That one action of practical love shown by God towards Adam and Eve   speaks to my heart and tells me that I must learn to trust in the Lord implicitly for nothing can escape His covenantal care for me and for all His beloved children. Psalm seventy- three says it implicitly; ‘Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.’  With that knowledge let us try our very best to put all our worrying into perspective and in the power of prayer and of divine love know we are held by that right hand no matter what may befall us and live the ‘sacrament of the present moment.

Sunday 20 February
Virginia is having a well earned break!

Homily for Sunday 13 February

Texts: Matthew 5 verses 21-26

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift therebefore the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift.   Matthew 5: 23-24

One of the saddest aspects I find of ministry is when one walks with a family where members have fallen out and there seems little or no hope of a rapprochement. No hope that there can be a reconciliation to restore a sense of true familial love We’ve all, I’m sure, played Happy Families but the truth is that some families are far from happy and the need to both say sorry for past wrong doing and to forgive just does not seem to happen. And here it must be emphasised that the church family can also fall out and at one church I was connected to there was a real and cruel campaign of wrong doing towards one member by another causing huge distress and unhappiness. We, so called Christians, are as capable of sin and falling out with each other as anyone else.  The wrongs inflicted can feel akin to open wounds and yet no one seems prepared to come and put salve on those wounds by courageously facing up to the fact that they have, in one way or another, caused those wounds by that wrong doing, by their sinning, be it deliberate or unintentional

The fact that all of us have to acknowledge and face up to with complete honesty is that we are more than capable of causing hurt, of causing offence and damaging the bonds of love and, it must be emphasised, that an apology is not and cannot be the same as saying sorry. And here, if you doubt me, recall when you were young and an adult told you to apologise for calling another child a rude name or hitting them and you reluctantly mumbled an apology while in your heart knowing you simply didn’t care and would happily do the same all over again!

Sorry! Although the word does not come from the same origin as the word sorrow there remains a link and to say that we are sorry for something we have done means that we recognize that it has caused true sorrow, true pain not just to the person sinned against but also to ourselves because, in contravening the commandment to love others as ourselves, we have done just the opposite.

Our reading of the gospels will have shown us that, over and over again, Jesus forgave people their sinning and thus restored the bond of love. He knew that all people suffer not just the pain of physical illness but also the  mental and spiritual pain of guilt. Unless one is an out and out psychopath none of us are immune to feelings of guilt, of the knowledge that we have sinned and that unless such knowledge is faced up to it can grow a little like a cancer as we try fruitlessly to justify what we’ve done and pour all the blame on others.  Rowan Williams has these wise words for us: ‘The person who asks forgiveness has renounced the privilege of being right or safe; she (sic) has acknowledged that she is hungry for healing, for the bread of acceptance and restoration to relationship.’

So too this evening’s gospel reading has some equally wise advice to give which put briefly is do not allow your guilt and all attempts to justify it fester like a sceptic wound but act quickly; take courage in both hands and go and make every effort to seek forgiveness and be reconciled with those you have wounded.

And then pray that, like Jesus on the Cross who forgave the penitent thief, like the prodigal son whose wrong-doing had caused such terrible pain to his father, you too will be forgiven and embraced once more within the bonds of true and accepting love.

And for those who are called upon to forgive I’ve added these wise words of Archbishop’s Tutu for your consideration.

We don't forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest.

Forgiveness takes practice, honesty, open-mindedness and a willingness (even if it is a weary willingness) to try. It isn't easy. Perhaps you have already tried to forgive someone and just couldn't do it. Perhaps you have forgiven and the person did not show remorse or change his or her behaviour or own up to his or her offences – and you find yourself unforgiving all over again. It is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn't. If I slap you after you slap me, it does not lessen the sting I feel on my own face, nor does it diminish my sadness over the fact that you have struck me. Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.

Homily for Sunday 6 February
The 70th  Anniversary of The Queen’s Accession
Delivered at St James, Abinger

I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service... But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.  Princess Elizabeth, 21 April 1947 

When I spoke to you last... I asked you all, whatever your religion, to pray for me on the day of my Coronation - to pray that God would give me wisdom and strength to carry out the promises that I should then be making... I have been uplifted and sustained by the knowledge that your thoughts and prayers were with me. Her Majesty the Queen, Coronation Day, 2 June 1953

Texts: Psalm 138, Luke 5 verses 1-11

Seventy years ago a young twenty five year old was enjoying a relaxing and well deserved holiday with her husband when the news came that, tragically, her father had died and from that moment on her life was completely transformed as instantaneously she ceased to be simply a princess but the Queen not just of the United Kingdom but  also Sovereign of  another six countries besides. The Queen who, at her coronation in June 1963, swore to govern those countries and to uphold the law of God and the true profession of the gospel ending with these words: ‘The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.’  And it is, surely, this oath that has been central to her life and given as the reason why, when others would long ago have retired and passed the baton, on she has steadfastly kept going even at the astonishing age of ninety-five. This, like a marriage vow, was an oath for life

Her reign began when few people had televisions, cars were still very much a luxury for many people; when the recovery from the long and exhausting years of the Second World War were still taking their toll, with rationing and shortages still being experienced.  Those of us who were children at the time will, I’m sure, recall that glorious moment as late as 1954 when sweets finally came off the ration and we could, assuming we had the pennies, gorge ourselves on sugar.  Avocados were unheard of, hats were worn by men and women alike, and Sundays were still very much sacrosanct. Now, in 2022, we have a plethora of electronic devices to play with, cars are, if not two a penny, owned by the majority of people and some even drive themselves. and our shops are stuffed with goods from all across the world many of which would have been quite unknown in 1952.  Sundays are virtually the same as any other day and it’s probably only her Majesty who wears a hat on almost every occasion she is actively on duty. Yes, the world is a very different place but what has remained utterly constant in that time is the Queen’s sense of duty, of whole- hearted commitment to her people both here and across the Commonwealth.

Republicans will argue that the concept of an inherited monarchy is completely outdated and why, simply because of an accident of birth, should one person rule over all his or her subjects. But in making this argument they forget that, unlike a president, a monarch’s loyalty is to each and every single one of his or her subjects whereas a president will, of course, always be conscious of the need to maintain the support of the party that voted him or her into power.

Agreed our monarchy has immense wealth and some amazing homes and privileges but I wonder if even these seem of so little significance to Her Majesty as she wakes to yet another day of duty; another day when the red boxes will continue to arrive on her desk, when she will be called upon to make herself accessible to rich and poor alike; to at least feign an intelligent interest in all she is shown in all whom she meets.

And added to all these responsibilities is the fact that she and her family are always in the public eye and even more so as the length of her reign has increased and the media shows, only too often, scant respect for her and her family’s privacy. Of course, over the years she has made mistakes but then who hasn’t; she is not a goddess but she is a role model. A role model who, again and again, has shown us how to face tragedy and challenges, sorrow and pain and still appears immaculately dressed, still waving, still courteous and displaying interest to all whom she is called upon to meet.

How has she done this? The truth is we shall never really know but what we do know is that she had beside her a true and loyal consort, her liege man whose recent death she, again, bore with such stoicism and courage, acknowledging only that ‘grief is the price we pay for love’.  And the other factor is her deep, unwavering Christian faith and her trust in God to help her, to be with her in both the times of glittering pomp and the times, of which there must have been many, when she felt the utter loneliness off her position. These were her words in last year’s Christmas broadcast: ‘It is this simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so appealing; simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus - a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith.’ What a wonderful testimony and what an example for all of us to follow.

When we look at the last words of today’s gospel reading they seem so poignant in the light of the accession anniversary we are celebrating today; ‘When they brought their boats to shore they left everything and followed him.’ Surely, for the last seventy years since our Queen left that Treetops retreat in Kenya she has followed our Lord, often to the exclusion of all else, both family and personal desires. I am sure such faith has taught her the truth of the words of this morning’s Psalm: ‘Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures for ever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.’  Taught her, too, to say a prayer similar to this one of Catherine of Siena’s: ‘Clothe me with your truth that I may finish my course in true obedience and in the light of faith.’ That is surely what our beloved Queen Elizabeth has done for the past seventy years and will, God willing, continue to do so until he calls her home

The Queen’s sense of duty, her steadfast loyalty to her coronation oath is quite simply, in my opinion, without parallel and all that we her subjects can say is one humble, deeply heartfelt thank you for such an example of Christian witness and unwavering duty to her calling as the anointed monarch.

Homily for Sunday 30 January

Texts: 1 Corinthians verse 13,  Luke 2 verses 22-40

Everyone, I’m sure, knows the story of the Sleeping Beauty and her disastrous christening party when a malevolent fairy cursed the baby with the threat that she would one day prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Fortunately, the last of the good fairies present that day had not yet given her gift and was able to reverse the curse so that the princess would not die but fall into a deep sleep only to be awakened by the kiss of a prince. Now, what you may well be wondering has any of this to do with today’s readings? The answer is that for those two old people Simeon and Anna as they beheld the baby Jesus they knew him to be the promised Messiah for whom they and Israel had waited so long, but they also knew that his Messiahship would not be one of unmitigated blessing but also one of deepest pain and sorrow.  Of course, such pain and sorrow would not, as in the case of the Sleeping Beauty, come about because of a curse but because it was God’s will that through such pain and suffering the reality of His love for us His children would be revealed. And here, if we have any doubt as to the truth of this assertion, I am certain you will all agree that it is only when we have experienced pain and sorrow ourselves that we are enabled to reach out in compassionate, empathetic love to others. God knew that if His love was to be known in all its wonder and mystery it had to be shown not through power and riches but by humble, painful and sacrificial and, above all, loving servitude.

What a wonderful moment it must have been for, first, Simeon and, then, Anna to see that baby and know that God’s promise had been fulfilled; that all their long waiting, in which they had steadfastly served God had been rewarded with this glimpse of the divine. A glimpse which also showed them the truth of what had to come. I wonder how we have all felt as, perhaps, we have held our children or our grandchildren or indeed any new baby in our arms? Unless of course one really is not a ‘baby’ person and there is nothing wrong in that, we can’t all think that a totally helpless mewling baby is just wonderful. Some people need to see that helplessness overtaken by the first indications of the personality of that person; the first signs of a particular character which may or may not match with their own. But what we surely all have is dreams for that child; we may not be able to grant fairy wishes but we will want such things as good health, an abundance of happiness, a successful career perhaps or particular gifts such as the ability to kick a ball skilfully or pirouette gracefully.  But, if we are realistic, we know that good health can never be guaranteed and nor can happiness and as for the rest of the dreams they could as easily fail to materialise as to materialise.  Yes, we can and probably do pray for all these things while recognising that God may well have other plans for our loved ones, but there is one prayer that I think we can, and should, pray with confidence for them and that is that they should know the blessing of being loved in their lives and, in response, learn themselves to love. The Sleeping Beauty was awakened by a kiss of love and this is something that does not just happen in fairy tales we can all be awakened by the power of love. And it is this Sunday’s Corinthian’s reading that teaches us about just what true love is all about; the true love that Christ calls upon us to show in response to his love for us. This is not a cloud nine romantic or saccharine soaked love but a deeply down to earth radical love full of demanding qualities which at times we will all be hard pushed to put into practice. We need to read that oh so well- known Corinthians’ passage with attention to just what those qualities are; the qualities that will form an enduring love which will be there both in times of joy and sorrow, times of success and failure; times of good health and comfort and times of illness and pain; times when the sword pricks our own souls. This is the love our Lord Jesus Christ showed, and this is the love that Simeon and Anna clear sightedly recognised as they saw that helpless infant.

Simeon and Anna knew that the baby Jesus was not just a joyous blessing for Mary and Joseph but a blessing for all God’s people. A blessing which can never be matched or outshone; a blessing which endures for all eternity; a blessing that brings the wonder of the light of Christ and the mystery of the love of Christ to all.  A blessing we are called to imitate and to pass onto future generations so that they may learn just what it means to love God and to love their neighbour. 

This is my prayer for my children and grandchildren that they know love in their homes, in their relationships and in their hearts, no matter what else may happen in their lives, no matter what path they choose to make for themselves in that life. It is in the words of Lucy Winkett, ‘a love which is lived with courage that is only evident when it is tried. It is not afraid to get things wrong; it is a love which will risk saying the wrong thing, will risk overstepping the mark. Love risks its own reputation in the service of another way.’   And in such courageous and sometimes risky loving they reveal the truth of John’s words ‘No one has ever seen God: if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Homily for Sunday 23 January

Texts: I Corinthians 12 verses; 12-31 Luke 4 verses 14-21

At a guess, anyone reading this has squirreled away somewhere at least one certificate even if it’s only a School Certificate from way back when testifying that you have passed at the very least basic English and Maths and maybe a few other subjects besides. Then there may be degree or diploma certificates, shorthand and typing qualifications and nursing accreditations or on a more esoteric level maybe a pilot’s licence or HGV licence. Now there apparently is a useful qualification to have these days. For most people in the course of their lives there will have been points where they have acquired a new skill or academic success of one sort or another and, if it hasn’t been binned, the paperwork to prove it and here it has to be emphasised that age should never be seen as a deterrent to following a dream and acquiring a new string to one’s bow. One Archie White obtained a fine arts degree at the age of ninety- six so there’s an example to follow if your life needs a bit of pepping up.

In today’s gospel we learn, in effect, of Jesus being awarded his degree although, perhaps, in a somewhat unusual way but then, with Jesus, nothing could ever be described as ordinary or humdrum, We hear him reading the prophecy of Isaiah as to the coming of the Messiah and what that Messiah would be qualified to do. And what an amazing list it is: ‘to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives; the recovery of sight to the blind; the freeing of the oppressed and finally to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Reading that list makes me feel incredibly humble as absolutely nothing I have ever achieved can ever begin to match it.  And having read the scroll Jesus himself affirms that yes, he has all the necessary qualifications to effect such transformations in the lives of the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed and indeed the transformation of the lives of all who choose to come to him seeking his divine expertise to bring them the blessings of healing and love.

And we know from our gospel reading that he used that expertise both willingly and, more significantly, humbly in a true spirit of service throughout his life, never boasting or arrogantly pushing himself forward as we may well have done when pride makes us think our little qualifications make us better than others.

And, surely, the question for all of us is just how hard are we trying to match, in some small measure, those amazing all embracing qualifications of Jesus because, if we are His followers, then surely that is what we are required to do. These are not one off, ticked that box, sort of qualifications but ones that need to be honed and improved upon throughout the entire course of our lives. And, here again, I emphasise that age should be no barrier and we may well find that with age, because of the wisdom gleaned over many years, we actually discern and have a greater understanding of the work we are called to do in Christ’s name.

Of course, since none of us can ever compare with Jesus we will recognize that we can probably only pursue one of the qualifications needed for the work of bringing God’s kingdom here on earth. A lesson that is well taught in today’s Corinthian’s passage which stresses that each one of us is an individual part of the great body that is Christ but also each of us is, in however small a way, essential to the well-being and health of that body. Any small understanding of the incredible complexity of our own human bodies will help convince us of the truth of Paul’s words. And for the body to work properly we have to have care for every member of it and recognize the essential part they play however humdrum that part may seem.

And again, to keep the body healthy and full of life it has to be cared for and that takes us back to those qualifications and the need to keep on working at them so we do, indeed, remain healthy and do not become worn out, behind the times  or slothful.   We have, as Paul says, to ‘strive for the greater gifts’ and not be content with just that first school certificate. Or as the collect for the day last Wednesday says ‘help us to live simply, to work diligently and to make you kingdom known.’ And reading these words we can see that Christ’s life here on earth mirrored all these qualities to perfection. He was never proud, arrogant, never seeking his own glory but only that of His Father, He never ceased to work, often breaking off from private prayer or turning aside when he became aware that people needed Him and, of course, always always making known the truth of the  kingdom of God. What an example for us whose lives are often made far more complex by our love of worldly goods; our self-interest and our failure to recognize that the kingdoms of the world bear no comparison to the kingdom of God.

We are still in the season of Epiphany when we are called to assist and be part of the task of bringing the beauty of holiness into this darkened world. I just love that phrase ‘the beauty of holiness’ even if I admit I am not certain I fully comprehend it. But then that is yet another reason to, as it were, keep on studying, to keep on trying how best to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to free the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.  Another reason to recognize that spreading that ‘beauty of holiness’ is the work of the whole body of Christ and each of us needs to play our part in making it shine undiminished in the darkest of places.

So come and follow Jesus, you who have committed yourselves already, and you who would like to do so for the first time; you who have given yourselves to the care of creation and to the suffering ones of the world, and you who feel moved by the spirit to begin to offer yourselves; you who have been faithful in your life commitments and you who have failed. Come, for our Lord invites us to follow him, and to make new beginnings in our livesIona Abbey Worship Book

Lord, give me a spirit of sacrifice. I give You my hands to do Your work. I give You my feet to go Your way. I give You my eyes to see as You do. I give You my tongue to speak Your words. I give You my mind that You may think in me. I give You my spirit that You may pray in me. Above all I give You my heart that You may love through me. Amen.   Robyn Wrigley-Carr

Homily for Sunday 16 January
Delivered at St Mary's Holmbury and St John's Wotton

Oh, so you want to hear all about Saturday’s wedding, which doesn’t surprise me as everyone seems to have heard something about it. Mind you, that said, you can’t believe half the stories that are being spread around but I promise you I’ll only tell you exactly what I know, and you can take it as gospel truth. The wedding reception started off all right; all the usual stuff with the men looking uncomfortable in their best suits, some of which had obviously fitted a bit better some twenty years ago,  and some of the younger ones glued to their phones watching the football while all the women were beadily eyeing each other  and comparing  outfits. I must say there were one or two shockers. Two of the bride’s aunts were at daggers drawn as they had identical outfits and, as always. all the children were getting completely hyper having overdosed on sugar. But that’s weddings for you and this was a great deal better than some.

That is until the muttering started and the festive mood suddenly dropped from pleasantly merry to ‘just what sort of wedding is this?’. I was taking round trays of canapes not that anyone needed more food, but you know these weddings - no expense spared. However, everyone rejected my canapes, not sure I didn’t blame them - they weren’t that appetising - and kept shoving their empty wine glasses at me and asking when the next bottle was coming round.  I gave up on the canapes as a lost cause and went back into the kitchen where, if you’ll excuse the expression, all hell had broken lose. Turned out expense or no expense somewhere along the line not enough wine had been ordered and now there wasn’t a drop to be had.  The catering manager looked ashen, and I think we all felt that at that moment the kitchen was the safest place to be as we heard the muttering turn ever louder and definitely more aggressive

And then it was at this point when all we wanted to do was collect our wages and go home that this woman came in followed by a man. As they entered she was asking him, begging him, to please do something to help prevent what  looked as if it was becoming a disastrous situation. I think I heard him say something about not being the right time, whatever that meant. Anyway, by amazing good luck, it turns out the woman was Mary who was a friend of the catering manager and the man with her was her son Jesus. Having had the customary hugs she assured the catering manager that her son really could be of help to which he replied with words to the effect that in that case he’d better get on with it but not as politely as that. Jesus then stepped into the middle of the kitchen looked around and then told us, with the most astounding authority, go and fill these containers with water pointing at the very large ones we used for cooling bottles of white wine. Well, you can imagine we all just stared at him. Water was the last thing we needed just now unless it was to cool rising temperatures. But Mary again spoke and said ‘trust me he knows what he’s doing’ and Jesus looked at us with what seemed to me a sort of twinkle in his eye and repeated the instruction and there was just something about him that made us obey; after all, what was there for us to lose except a good tip at the end of the evening. So, we filled them feeling decidedly silly I have to say, and my goodness did they weigh a ton when they were full. We took them back into the main kitchen and Jesus smiled, acknowledged his thanks before asking poor Steve, who was standing nearest to him, to decant some of the water into one of the empty wine bottles and to take the bottle to the top table and pour some for the maître de to taste.   I think Steve couldn’t believe what he was being asked to do; he looked as if he might have a heart attack on the spot. But Jesus just gave him a look and what a look; a look that said, in effect, do what I tell you but also behind that command was something else; something I couldn’t put my finger on, but it was somehow reassuring as if in some miraculous way everything really was going to be all right. Well, I reckon Steve would have preferred walking over burning coals but there was no gainsaying that man and he went. The rest of us all crowded around the door to see just what would happen next and you could have heard a pin drop as people spotted what was happening and saw poor Steve inching his way towards the top table bearing this bottle as if it was a bomb; I say inching, but it was almost as if every step he had to pull his foot loose of the thickest gooiest mud. But eventually he made it and the maître de, who had I imagine been trying his best to resolve the situation with the groom and making sure everyone else was blamed but himself, seeing the bottle held out his glass which Steve filled although his hand was shaking so much I think more was spilt than went into glass. And then he lifted the glass sniffed and took a large gulp as everyone watched and then to our utmost surprise and our utter bewilderment, a vast smile creased his face and he turned to the groom and, so I’m told though I couldn’t hear the words myself, said something like this was the very best wine he’d ever tasted and why had it been kept to the last?  

Well, after that we all rushed back into the kitchen and grabbed empty bottles and filled them as quickly as we could and started circulating again and all we heard as we passed through the guests were words like ‘Wow’ ‘Awesome  and ‘Superb’ while those who considered themselves wine buffs were telling anyone who would listen that ‘this has to be the finest premier cru ever’ and then noisily debating just what the exact flavours were.   And here I have to admit that later we all had a taste and believe me I have never ever tasted wine like it; it honestly had a taste I could describe as divine; maybe it was what is called the nectar of the gods.

So that’s it really, but I keep wondering what really did happen that day. Who exactly was that man Jesus and what was it he had done? Turning water into wine yes, though goodness how, but there was definitely something far more to it than that; when we all talked about it afterwards we felt that somehow it wasn’t just the ordinary water which had been turned into an extraordinary wine but that all of us who had been with him were somehow transformed as well. It’s hard to explain, but from all I keep hearing about Jesus he literally does turn what seems ordinary, everyday and of little consequence into something extra-ordinary, something truly special; something that we all yearn for without maybe knowing exactly what it is until it happens to us. It seems that people who have met him. and that includes me, find that life has somehow taken on a whole new meaning, a whole new purpose in which everything and everyone is seen in a new light, and life can never be quite the same again.  If you’ve come across him I wonder if you have had the same experience and like me wonder at just how such a transformation has been made possible? Oh and I quite forgot in all my ramblings, the bride and groom really did looks full of joy and truly truly blessed by all the events of that momentous day.

Lord grant that in coming to know you our lives may be transformed so that all that seems plain and  ordinary becomes  part of the wonder and mystery of your Creation.

Homily for the Baptism of Christ, Sunday 9 January

Texts: Isaiah 63 verses17-25,  Matthew 3 verses 13-17

I very much doubt if anyone reading this  can remember the events of the baptism because, at a guess, all of us were ‘dunked’ well before any form of memory set into our consciousness. I certainly do not remember mine, but I know it took place in the parish church of Harpenden and of the three Godparents chosen by my parents one was, as it were, satisfactory and the other two not. These latter had been chosen by my parents on the basis that they were vague relations, childless and reasonably well off so seemingly a good choice so you can imagine my Father’s fury and contempt when their baptismal present to me was, wait for it,  not a silver spoon but a woolly ball. Then, no more gifts until my wedding when it was a cut glass vase and  finally in her will my Godmother, whom I had never clapped eyes on, left me not just one but six silver spoons so that most unexpected bequest might just have appeased my Father! I just hope that all of you had far more proactive Godparents not just as regards the gifts that they might have given you over the years but more importantly the interest they have or had shown in your general welfare and if they were truly God-fearing  parents your spiritual welfare.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, not as a tiny baby as one might expect, being so close to the day on which we celebrated his birth, but as a fully grown; a mature man of some thirty years old. It certainly didn’t involve any symbolic baptism over a small church font but full immersion in the waters of the River Jordan. And certainly, no woolly balls but of infinitely more worth and altogether more wonderful and awe inspiring there was first a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, descending from heaven and then the voice of God Himself proclaiming; ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ Truly a unique baptism which completely and utterly outshines any that we have ever experienced. No doves, no voices from heaven in our baptism services but there are words that are used in those services that I think carry huge significance for all who are baptised. The first of these is when, after the actual baptism has taken place, everyone present proclaims; ‘We welcome you into the fellowship of faith; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we welcome you.’ Such wonderful, warmly embracing words which help to remind us that, in part, God’s purposes in sending His own Son to us was to enable us to understand and to believe that whoever we are, we are all adopted children of God. We are all part of His family, embraced loved and cherished by Him as unique individuals. We are brothers and sisters of Christ Himself which is the most humbling thought but also, it has to be emphasised, one I certainly believe to be true. Christ the Son of God spent His entire life revealing all the grace and wonder of that divine love for us through his humanity, his care for all in need, his healing, His showing us another way in which to live our lives; His way, the way of that second commandment: ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’  And, of course, ultimately, He showed his love for us the, adopted children of God, by giving up His life for us that we might be given forgiveness and redemption of the sins that we all commit both individually and collectively which separate us from God. Whoever we are, we need that forgiveness, that redemptive power as Archbishop Tutu showed in his efforts to bring about both the truth of the evil that lay at the heart of apartheid and the reconciliation that is made possible through God’s ultimate love revealed in the dying figure of Christ on the cross.

The cross with which we are signed at our baptism, the cross that reminds us that it connects earth and heaven so we are always enabled to be in touch with God and He with us and whose outstretched cross beam will for ever remind us of the love in which we His children are held.

And, following on from this are the other words of the baptism service I want to draw your attention to and these are when the baptised are given a lighted candle and instructed to shine as light in the world to the glory of God the Father and this instruction is followed by these words: ‘You have received the light of Christ; walk in this light all the days of your life.’ Shortly, we will be lighting candles and thus reminding ourselves that no matter what age we are now that baptismal instruction still holds firm. We are each and everyone of us called to do our utmost to shine the light of God’s love into the dark places of the world. And here I would like to remind you that, by and large, no matter the size of a candle, the flame they emit is virtually the same size. The little seemingly unnoticed deeds of love can shine every bit as much light as the big, grand gestures do.  No matter the size of a candle their flames are virtually all the same size. In God’s eyes surely every time we reveal in our lives the light of Christ, the light of love, those flames of light  are all equal. I pray that throughout this year we may all continue, in one way or another, to shine as lights in God’s world and in so doing help bring about the dawning of His kingdom here on earth.

Loving Lord grant that the light of your love be born in us each and every day so that we might be enabled to  give light to all those  whom we meet who are in any sort of darkness. Amen 

Homily for Epiphany Sunday 2 January
Delivered at St James Abinger

Texts: Isaiah 60 verses 1-6, Matthew 2 verses 1-12

They left for their own country by another road. Matthew 2 verse 12b
He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.   Psalm 25 verse 9

At a guess everyone here has at one time or another made the decision to go home another way. Be it the M25, the M4, the A30, the M1 and every other road connecting to them they were all completely clogged on the outward journey and you’re just not prepared to endure similar hours of stop start crawl on the way home; there has to be another way even if it takes you via Land’s End or even John O’Groats. Consult the Apps, AA Route Finder or even the old fashioned road map but, for goodness sake, find another way.

And of course, in our gospel reading we hear of those three wise men doing exactly the same after their long journey from the East via Jerusalem to Bethlehem, But, it wasn’t the problem of too many camels out on the roads that made them seek another route. It was, as we first understand it, that the traffic update on the day of their departure had warned them against going home the same way. A traffic update which helped them realise that they would be unwise to encounter King Herod again; once in his company was quite enough to have taught them that here was a ruler whose intentions could not be trusted. A ruler who lived in fear of his own shaky grasp on power being either usurped or stripped from him and who would take any form of measure to prevent others from snatching such power from him. No, that traffic update had persuaded our wise men that they had no wish to see this tyrannical, cruel and self-seeking ruler ever again and that it would be most unwise on their part to enlighten him as to the precise whereabouts of this so called new King of the Jews. It could even lead to their own enforced stay in Jerusalem; something they sensed they would not enjoy

But, reflecting on all this, it seemed to me that there is another aspect of these lines which we should look at this morning. Three men had followed a star believing, without question, that it would lead them to a child who had been destined to be born King of the Jews. Three men who were, in the eyes of every Jew, despised Gentiles; outsiders who were categorically not the Chosen People and who did not worship their God. And we could well ask why, on earth, had they been so determined to follow that astral Satnav to come to pay homage to a tiny helpless child of a different race to their own? Why was it so important to them to risk such a long and arduous journey? In all honesty I’m sure I would never have embarked upon such a seemingly dubious and seriously challenging enterprise. Follow a star in order to find a baby who is purported to be the King of a country with which I have no connections whatsoever. No way! I’d stay firmly at home, leave the camels in their stables and carry on with my very ordinary life untroubled by just what I might be missing out on.  Fortunately, our wise men, the magi as they are often called, were a very great deal wiser and foreseeing than I am and had considerably more trust in recognizing that, in some way they could not initially understand, they were being called to become part of the greatest story ever told.  Called ,although they did not realise it at the outset, by the God who is Father to all His children no matter of what race or colour.  And so, they set out and, in the words of T.S Eliot, ‘A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey; the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.’  But, despite the hardships they kept on and as we know eventually arrived not at some glittering palace but at a poor dwelling which T. S. Eliot delightfully describes as ‘satisfactory’, where they found not servants to usher them into the presence but just a young and most probably uneducated mother and her tiny baby. A mother and a baby of no apparent significance who had been born not in great and regal affluence but certainly in some degree of poverty. And yet, despite all appearances, those wise men were completely overwhelmed with feelings of pure joy and knelt to pay homage to this tiny scrap of humanity. Knelt in all humility to give obeisance to the King, not just of the Jews but of all God’s people, Jew and Gentile. And here I am reminded of these wise words by Evelyn Underhill: ‘An incarnational and sacramental religion must be drenched in humility. Only the very meek can accept its lessons. Humility will always encounter God along humble paths in humble here-and-now ways. If we’re too lofty, we fail to meet Him.’ Those three wise men, full no doubt of every sort of book learning, in that poor home had the humility to see that here before them was something greater, more wonderful, more mysteriously incomprehensible than their most esoteric knowledge and they knelt casting aside all dignity, all pretensions as they fell to their knees in adoration and in awe.

Thus, knowing all this is it any wonder they went metaphorically home by another road. Hadn’t this experience changed them for ever? How could life ever be the same again for them? By the guiding of that star they had been led to a new way of life; the Way of Christ. No wonder Eliot writes: ‘We returned to our places, those Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.’ Our intrepid travellers had found a new Truth, a new Way, a new Life and for them life could never be the same. They had followed a star and found in its place the Light of the World which, unlike the star’s light, would never die, never be extinguished. They had met with God incarnate and turned their back on the corruption, the double dealing, the lies and dissimulation, the cruelty and the pride of a human King and set out to continue to seek the honesty, the truth, the gentleness, the justice, the mercy and, above all, the grace and the humility which are the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God. They had, in effect, taken ‘the road less travelled and that has made all the difference’ as described in Robert Frost’s poem; the road that was not filled with the hustle and bustle and vain ambitions of our secular and material lives but the less travelled road of the true pilgrims humbly and reverently seeking after God.   

Is that true of us? Have we, at this time, knelt in utter humility and sincere abasement shown our overwhelming adoration, our wonder and our awe at the mystery that lies before us and, as we rise again to our feet, chosen another way, a different way, the way of Christ which ultimately will light us home to God?

Homily for Christmas
Text: Luke 2 verses 1-14

If you think this Christmas is turning into a somewhat low key affair thanks to the predations of the Omicron variant just be grateful you were not trying to celebrate after Oliver Cromwell came to power when Christmas was ordered to be done away with lock stock and barrel because it had turned, believe it or not, into a ‘liberty to carnal and sensual delights.’ Although, this said, some preachers and the party’s newspapers did draw attention to the need to secure some ‘fires and plum pottage’ for the young people who had lost their Christmas fun and some brave souls risked arrest and imprisonment by putting out decorations of holly and ivy and one, Anthony Blagrave, ignored all prohibitions and gave a dinner to sixty-nine poor folk at his Reading farm.

But generally compared to such draconian measures of the Cromwell’s Protectorate, those of this present Government and their advisors seem relatively tame. Mind you, as now, there were many complaints as for instance that of a certain delightfully named Old John Taylor who pointed out the damage to grocers who were ‘wont to take more than £100,000 for fruit and spice to make plum pottage, mince pies and other cookery kickshaws’ whatever they might be. Echoes here of the understandable protests of our hospitality industry as parties are cancelled right left and centre and yet again their ability to continue in business is put under severe threat.

And, I am sure, all of us here have memories of Christmases which, for one reason or another, were if not a disaster certainly a somewhat damp squib. The first Christmas without a loved one is always the most poignant and heart wrenching one of all, however hard one tries to put on a brave face and pretend to be jolly. Or the Christmas when someone dear to you was really ill in hospital and you spent it anxiously waiting by their bedside and all the decorations put up by staff seemed somehow a mockery. There was, maybe, the year when someone forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer in time or there was a power cut and no Christmas lunch at all and you had to make do with raw sprouts, Stilton sandwiches and cold mince pies.  And, of course, there are those never to be forgotten Christmases when for whatever reason tempers frayed, maybe over the choice of telly viewing or not being the one to find the coveted sixpence in the Christmas pudding, and it really was a case of tears before bed time, although I do hope that has never been the experience of any of you reading this.

So yes, reality teaches us that not all Christmases can nor are likely to be perfect and again this year of 2021 we cannot, in all probability, expect to enjoy quite the festive Christmas that is portrayed by all the seasonal songs and those adverts that assume we will all be indulging merrily in the most wonderful time of the year with of course lots of frolicking in several inches of pristine  snow. 

But the question this morning is what is truly important about Christmas? What lies at the heart of this day? Yes, agreed we certainly must have Father Christmas with his sleigh drawn by reindeer and all his magic as he fills those stockings to the wide-eyed wonder and delight of children as they wake on Christmas Morn. Fortunately, he and all his helpers are immune to Covid. And, yes, a festive dinner with crackers and paper hats and dreadful jokes can make the day very special and, also agreed, is our reliance on ensuring our sock drawer is refilled at this time. But what else do we look for on this day?  What really truly is it that we are seeking on this most Holy day? As it draws to a close can we, like the child in Dylan Thomas’s beautiful, poetic story of ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’, get into bed, turn off the light and say some words to the ‘close and holy darkness’ before we close our eyes in sleep? 

What will ensure for us that sense of close and holy darkness as we snuggle down under the duvet tonight? Will it be a church service which, in some way that is indescribable in words, gives us a very real sense of the truth that God is with us? Maybe a moment of silence, the words of a well- known carol or a quiet contemplation of the stable tableau set out before us will somehow catch us and hold us in a moment of that sublimely divine holy peace.

But this recognition of the holy does not have to be just in church, it can be anywhere and everywhere. The holy is all pervasive if we are prepared to look for it and sense it be as we look at the beautiful scenery with which we are blessed in this part of the country or as we wake to the familiarity of our bedroom and the photos, the knickknacks which remind us of those who have helped fill our lives with love. 

Love! That surely is the key word to Christmas, the Love that came down at Christmas; the unsurpassable gift of Love that God our Father revealed in that scrap of humanity born in poverty in a Bethlehem stable. Love that has one similarity with the Covid virus in that it can mutate in so many different ways to bring, in place of the ills of the world such as  disease pain and sorrow, a new variant of its holy power to bring  the wonder and the mystery of the light that is Christ and His  healing  into our lives. And it is, surely, when each of us comes to realise that this gift is being given to us today and recognized within the stable of our hearts that we can all know that supreme joy of Christmas. Nothing in all God’s world can compare with the joy of being loved, giving love sharing love.

Cromwell, Omicron may have changed the externals of past and present Christmas celebrations but nothing, but nothing, can destroy the joy of finding once more we have been given unreservedly the Gift of God’s love and can kneel in wonder, thankfulness and adoration beside the Christ Child who in human form brought it to us. I pray that as you prepare to turn off your bedside light on Christmas night you will know that you and all who have shared this Christmas with you are held in the wonder and the peace of the close and holy darkness brought to you by the Christ Child.  

Open my heart, Lord, to the radiance of your love,
  the light that shone in the birth of your Son
  and that continues to shine today,
  nothing able to overcome it.

Help me to glimpse afresh
  the true romance of this season,
  the full wonder and beauty of it all,
  able to shed light in my heart not just at Christmas
  but each moment of every day.             
Nick Fawcett 

May the holy child be born in you today.

Homily for Sunday 19 December
Texts: Micah 5 verses 2-5a; Luke 1 verses 39-45

For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.  Luke 1 verse 44

The mountains skipped like rams, the little hills like young sheep. Psalm 114 verse 4

How much leaping do you do? I can imagine you thinking what a silly question! Most of us are far too old and far too dignified to do any sort of leaping. Leaping should be strictly reserved for spring lambs and March hares. But, mind you, if we think about it, most young like to leap and I vividly remember passing a field of piglets who despite their somewhat rotund shape were definitely leaping, and young children love to run and skip and leap as well as partaking in the great joy of puddle jumping.

It’s odd when you think about it that leaping is to a large extent associated with joy and fun although there are, of course, other associations such as leaping to safety. In today’s gospel reading Luke paints for us the most intimate vignette of two pregnant women meeting and mutually sharing the joy and the expectations of their condition. The joy of knowing that within the cradle of their wombs new life is growing and wondering at the mystery of it all. Particularly for Elizabeth there must have been a very real sense of bewilderment that she truly was pregnant; how could she be bearing a child at her age? And yet, as their eyes met in mutual recognition of their state of motherhood all Elizabeth’s doubts and fears were suddenly transformed to a surge of utter joy as the child within quickened and leapt in her womb. A joy that all women who have born children will know and, in a sense, so too have the fathers as they have laid their hands tenderly on that burgeoning bump and felt beneath their fingers that movement, that leaping of the child they have helped create. A child who will have grown from the almost infinitely small to become the most complex of all God’s creatures on this earth of His. 

The longer I have the privilege of being chaplain to a neonatal unit,the greater my sense of wonder and, indeed, of awe has grown as I look at the premature babies who externally are in every way perfect although because of their prematurity their organs still need time to grow in order to be able to function properly in the way they are designed to do. These babies have made too early an entry into this world but, my goodness, what fighters they are. They may not be able to leap but they certainly do their best to show that they are very much alive and literally in many cases kicking.

Thankfully, both Elizabeth and Mary were delivered of full- term healthy babies; the babies who had leapt in their wombs and were now here to begin their lifetime journeys and, as a result of those God directed  journeys, leapt for all time into the world’s history books.

And if we can wonder at the miracle of each and every birth how much more can we wonder at the mystery that is the birth of Jesus, Jesus the Christ child, Jesus who is Emmanuel, God with us. The story told by Luke of those first visitors to that stable is, again, a vignette of such beauty; we can just imagine the total amazement of those shepherds as first they heard the news from the angels and then responded by leaping down that hillside, abandoning their sheep so they could see ‘this miracle that has come to pass.’    Shepherds considered the outcasts of society because the necessity of looking after their flocks at all times meant they were unable to obey that injunction ‘keep the sabbath holy’. And yet, here, as our Saviour was born, they had absolutely no compunction about leaving those very same flocks and bounding like their own lambs down the hillside to fall in silent adoration beside that  holy child in the manger.

And so, as the last few days of Advent lie before us are we prepared to stop all we are doing and hear those angel voices so that we too are quickened and our limbs stirred to leap so that we also arrive breathlessly expectant to ‘see this thing that has come to pass’? Will we leave all those Christmas preparations without a thought and allow ourselves to become a part of the truth that is Christmas? The truth that within the miracle that is every new- born baby is also the unfathomable mystery that the baby born in a Bethlehem stable is God incarnate.

God who ‘flung the stars into space’; God whose creative powers caused the mountains themselves to skip like rams and the hills like young sheep; God who through the coming of his incarnate made this promise: ‘Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.’  Surely in those words don’t we, like Elizabeth, sense the quickening power of God to bring healing and restoration to our broken world? Doesn’t God want us, like any new- born baby, to learn to have our eyes and ears opened to all the wonder of creation; to learn to use our limbs to leap with joy and delight at the miracle that is life and to learn to sing our everlasting praises of adoration and thanksgiving to Him? Can we as Christmas approaches echo the words of E E Cummings

I thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(I who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(Now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened.)

I pray that these last few days of preparation will see us grow in expectant wonder as the day of Christ’s birth is realised. And in that growing wonder we will also be profoundly humbled in recognizing the utter humility of God who to show in the only way he could His love for us.

Then may we too leap with joy on Christmas Morn and be more than happy to emulate all those Lords a’leaping and indeed all God’s creatures who express their joy in life by having a spring in their step and even more importantly a spring of pure joy in their hearts. 

Homily for Sunday 12 December
Texts: Philippians 4 verses 4-7, Luke 3 verses 7-18

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 heard and learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4 verses 8-9.

Going through an airport scanner as they check that you have nothing on you that you shouldn’t is an experience that somehow seems to me somewhat demeaning, even very slightly dehumanising.  Certainly, an experience to be endured with patience, tolerance and, if possible, good humour. The one consolation, if one can call it that, is that it applies to everyone be they about to enjoy all the luxuries of first class travel or the privations of cattle class.  You may have ensured that you are entitled to fast track but you cannot avoid that scanner. But oh, the sense of relief when one is safely waved through.

And it struck me, reading the set gospel reading for the third Sunday in Advent ,that what John the Baptist was urging people to do was, in some sense, to prepare themselves for going through the divine scanner to ensure that they were deemed safe to be allowed into the presence of God.

When we go through that airport scanner we have to remove all our heavy bulky top coats or jackets; we may well have to take off our shoes and we will certainly be required to place phones and laptops, chunky watches and bracelets along with any hand luggage into those large plastic trays for close screening. And thus, unencumbered, we are called to walk through that body scanner praying that we won’t set off the beep which would entail us in a more thorough personal search.  

And, if we understand John’s words to us, maybe we can see the parallel and recognize metaphorically what we are being called upon to do to ensure we pass unchallenged through God’s scanner. Apart from being far more prepared to share all the excess of good things that we have with those who have none, should we also be stripping ourselves of those coats, those jackets which we have worn as protective covering to hide the truth, the reality of exactly who we are underneath?  All of us over a course of a life- time will wear such coats and it may prove difficult to discard them; hard shells that we have built up around ourselves whenever we have felt vulnerable, victimised, misunderstood, unloved and so much more. Protective coats that hide the truth of the person within but which we need to rid ourselves of so that we too see ourselves as God sees us. Then there are the coats of pride, of self-esteem and self-importance which we have donned to mark ourselves out from those who have no such coats. These, too, must be discarded. And after that what about the shoes and boots with which we have trampled over other people’s dream, other people’s needs, other people’s right to also be recognised as a child of God? Oh yes let’s be honest, our footwear has often been the means of treading down other people and leaving them lamed and even crippled in our wake

And finally there are the phones and the laptops  and all the other material accoutrements  which have absorbed our attention and become far too often little gods in our eyes. Little gods whom we have, in effect, worshipped while blocking our ears, our eyes to the presence of the one true God. These must be thrown away if we are to be enabled to make proper meaningful contact with the Lord our God.

We know from Psalm 139 that God knows us inside out: ‘O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.’  God’s scanner doesn’t actually need us to remove those protective coats, those well heeled and soled shoes and boots and discard the laptops and phones, but I believe if we are to feel comfortable kneeling beside that baby on Christmas day then it is necessary for us to get rid of them as John urges us to do. To rid ourselves of the excess and to lay bare the person, the child of God who ‘formed my inward parts’, who ‘knit me together in my mother’s womb.’

When I think of kneeling beside the incarnate Christ I feel overwhelmed, not just by the sheer wonder of  that new born child as I do for any baby but by the virtually incomprehensible wonder that here in human flesh is God’s own Son. Can this really be true that God loved us so much that he stooped to such humility; such stripping away of all the might, majesty, dominion and power that we associate and claim for the Lord our God? That baby had nothing and yet has everything that we truly need to make our lives blessed.

If we are to truly understand the miracle then we need to have passed through that divine scanner having shed all encumbrances so that the child of Christ can see not some carefully wrapped up adult but a fragile vulnerable child like himself. Without God, without His Son, we can never be self-sufficient however hard we try to assume the coats, jackets, footwear and ephemera which we think at times are all we need to look good in the eyes of the world. When we reach that stable in our Bethlehem hearts all we need to strive to do is appear before God as he knows us, ‘the frame which was not hidden from him’ when we were being ‘made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.’

Can we do our best as we complete the last stages of our Advent journey to have heeded those amazing words in today’s reading from Philippians and appear on Christmas day having done our best after shedding all those outer encumbering clothes to show ourselves as true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable in the eyes of the Christ child?  And thus, have that wonderful sense of relief that we have somehow by God’s grace passed safely through that divine scanner into all the incomparable joy, the love and the mystery that Christmas brings to us His children.

Homily for Sunday 5 December
Co-operating with the Spirit’s work of cleansing and refreshing us will help us get ourselves out of the way so we can truly worship God.  Evelyn Underhill

Texts: Malachi 3 verses 1-4,  Luke 3 verses1-6

My dictionary gives among others the following definitions of the word ‘refine’ namely to purify, to clarify, to free from coarseness, vulgarity, crudity, to make more cultured; to become more fine, pure, subtle or cultured.

Today’s Malachi reading talks about God’s refining fire and it seems to me that this time of Advent might be a very apt time to do a bit of self- refining, a bit of purifying and not leave all the hard work to God. Refining, purifying to remove the dross, the impurities, the coarseness and even the vulgarity of our natures. Refining, purifying so that  we can kneel beside that crib at Christmas if not squeaky clean at least looking a bit more polished and less unrefined in our inner appearance.

It always makes me wonder when I go to visit a funeral family to learn something of the deceased and of how I am almost always given if not a portrait of a saint certainly of someone who at times seems to have been too good to be true. It would seem that there is a very definite taboo to speak ill of the dead or make any sort of detrimental remark about them, whereas if I ask wedding couples what faults their chosen partners might have they are usually pretty forthcoming, which speaks to me of an honesty which is always important in any successful marriage. Also, as I am sure I may have mentioned before, I am always amused when people swear in my presence and then apologise profusely as if a swear word has never passed my lips because, I assure you, it certainly has although I hope never in anyone’s presence.

I am not perfect; far from it and I would hate it if should a tribute be paid to me at my funeral there was an attempt to brush over the imperfections, the faults and the failings because, believe me, I have them just, as indeed, does the most honoured and esteemed Saint.  In fact, from what we are told, some saints are a bit of a nightmare with whom to live and, as Evelyn Underhill wisely and perceptibly wrote about God, ‘You’ve taken the turbulent, unharmonious, sinful, rebellious; and have created Your saints.’ We are all imperfect; we all can admit to at least some of those on the list in Galatians which includes such things as idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger and envy. Could any of us truly hold up our hands and declare that we are innocent of all of these? I think not.

So, is now in this penitential season of Advent is the perfect opportunity to acknowledge our faults and do a bit more than a mere flick of the duster but a proper deep clean to make us a little more refined, a little purer and as I’ve suggested not leave the entire job up to God? Of course, we will still need God in the person of the Holy Spirit to give a hand by helping us uncover those imperfections that we have preferred to keep hidden and to acknowledge in all truth the extent of our failings.  Advent is all about preparation and that preparation is so much more than the preparation of all the material 'add ons’ that have become so much a part of our modern -day celebration of Christmas.

I know sin is not talked about overmuch these days and often such sinning as does occur is attributed to, and blamed upon, such influences as a poor or abusive childhood, lack of education or other unfavourable circumstances. And, of course, this may well be true, but it can never be the entire truth as we have to accept.  And here again Evelyn Underhill describes brilliantly our need for cleansing; ‘ “Forgive us our trespasses.”  Our mixed, half animal nature, the ceaseless tension between the earth’s pull and Heaven’s demand, is summed up in these four words. We need light, for our eyes are darkened so we can’t see the reality of our state; we need cleansing. Our souls are hopelessly sick; sin has sapped their energy. Here stands one who constantly falls short and knows it—blinded by prejudice, self-love, capable of hatred, envy, violence, fear; could’ve done more and didn’t, thought we were strong—turned out weak, trespassed in pursuit of our own ends: a child of God, facing the facts, says, “Forgive!”’ Can we be as honest as Underhill in acknowledging that all too often we fall short and are mired by similar faults and failings and, in confessing them, can we then appreciate and rejoice in the truth of these words of hers: ‘Here in the constant exercise of the Divine economy of penitence and pardon, is one of the strongest links which binds the soul to God.’?

So, too, in the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Advent we hear of John the Baptist ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ A baptism of repentance which includes turning back and straightening out all those crooked, rough paths we have mistakenly or deliberately taken in our own life’s pilgrimage so that we can walk with  renewed confidence and not just shiny shoes  and clean faces  on the true path that will lead us to that stable in Bethlehem? 

If we look back to our childhood I am sure all of us can remember times when we fell short of the standards and expectations of our parents and when our moments of rebellion and deliberate misdoing had passed knew that our only comfort would be found in going to express our sorrow in such wrong doing and be forgiven and held again within the safety, the security of their love. And now, although we are grown up, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we still have that same need to confess and to seek both forgiveness and, more importantly, the redeeming love that will bring us back within the safety and security of the children of God our Father.

I pray that this time of Advent can be used in part to engage in some careful refining, some purifying so we can stand if not gleaming at least fairly presentable at the Christ child’s side as Christmas Day dawns.

Save me Lord, from carelessness in my relationship with you. From being casual and complacent in my dealings, assuming I can gloss over whatever’s wrong between us. Teach me to work at my faith, preparing the ground each day to know you better, so that when your kingdom comes I may be ready to stand before you and meet you, face to face. Amen Nick Fawcett 

Meditation for Advent Sunday, 28 November
Delivered at St Marys Holmbury Advent Carol Service on Sunday evening

Advent Collect: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility: that on the last day, when he shall come again in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.   Amen

Advent Sunday and oh help less than four weeks until Christmas; are you superbly organised with carefully prepared lists meticulously crossed off or is it all going to be one mad last minute scramble with a great deal of trusting to luck? Customarily Advent was seen as a penitential season; a season of fasting and a time for self- examination when penitents were expected to both confess and reflect on their more sinful natures and of God’s saving grace in sending us His Son to be our Saviour freeing us from the sin and evil of the world. A time to prepare for the birth of Christ and try to make our spiritual lives more  beautiful and sparklingly clean for that miraculous birth just as any parents like to prepare  before their baby enters into the world. A sombre time when normal pleasures were put aside; a time when the Christian world, as it were, held its breath waiting for the coming of the light of all the world to break through that darkness of sin and evil which had corrupted the relationship with God. 

But now Advent, as Christians understand, it has been largely subsumed into a frenzy of material rather than personal preparation. A time when the feasting and party going begin long before Christmas Day itself and it is only after that day that any sort of real penitence begins as the credit card bills stack up and the scales reveal, to our horror, a very unwelcome increase in body weight. 

So how can we even begin to go against such an overwhelming call to extravagant consumerism and often excessive jollity? How can we leave this church today with some sort of plan or, in modern jargon road map, to make this Advent special? Make this Advent a time not just of material preparation; yes, the food must be bought, the cards written, and the presents wrapped, but a time of spiritual preparation?

And reflecting on all this it struck me that instead of being all baa humbuggish about the commercial side of Christmas we use it as an aid to our Advent preparation.  An aid of repentance and of praise such as the psalmists so often used 

Can we learn to look at all the baubles and decorations and repent of our attraction to, and even idolisation of the, worthless baubles of consumerism and our sometimes profligate spending? Then, can we see reflected in their glitter the beauty and wonder of all the blessings that decorate our lives not just at Christmas but each and every day and give thanks and praise?

Can we learn to look at the shelves in the Supermarkets laden with the most tempting seasonal foods and repent of our greed and our wastefulness, our throwing away of so much that is good? Then, can we recognize that however rich, however extravagant those seasonal foods, not one compares with the richness, the supreme richness of our Communion feast? The feast of the bread and the wine which speak of that Christmas baby grown to manhood who gave the ultimate sacrifice that we might have the food of eternal life and in response give our thanks and praise. 

Can we learn as we seek out suitable presents to buy to repent of all the times we have turned aside and  failed to give the gifts of love, of compassion and of care to those in need? Then can we recognize that Jesus gave us the incomparable present of the reality of God’s love for us revealed by his life among us? Our presents are limited to but a few whereas the present of God’s love is for all his children and in this realisation are our hearts filled with thankfulness and our mouths with praise?

Can we learn, as we are jostled by crowds or stand waiting in lengthy queues for the checkout, to repent of our impatience, our quick irritation, our self- centredness in trying to push ahead of others in our life journey? Then, can we recognize that there beside us and among us will be Christ himself, just as he was when needy crowds flocked to his side surrounding him seeking his healing, seeking his feeding on remote mountainsides? And in that realisation receive from his healing touch patience, selflessness and good humour and whisper our thanks and praise

Can we learn as we see more and more Christmas lights sparkling out, be they in front gardens or windows or along our high streets, to repent of our dark thoughts, our dark actions and our dark negativity and pessimism?  Then can we learn to recognize in each of those sparkling lights a reflection of the light of Christ which encompasses God’s world and shines into the darkest of places to bring the divine gifts of hope and peace and then together with the angels of light sing out our heartfelt thanks and praise? Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.

May this Advent for all of us be a time of patient waiting, repentance  and spiritual refreshment.

Meditation for The Feast of Christ the King- Sunday 21 November
Christ the King by Raymond Foss
Christ the King, the ruler eternal
Following the line of David, promised by God.
Entering in his gates, His throne room
Gathering in all of his sheep known to him
Each of us humbly bowing before him
Our brother, our saviour, our shepherd, our king
Christ’s rule eternal over all the kings of the earth.
The year at an end, the advent before us
The advent, the joy of Christmastide
And his humble earthly birth.

He was not a king born in a palace in some great capital city with gun salutes and flags flying and official pronouncements.

Christ our King was a King born in obscurity in a small unremarkable town; no razzmatazz just with the song of the angels if, like the shepherds, you are blessed to hear them.

He was not a king who grew up and was taught and prepared by the best teachers, the best advisors to learn the art of ruling, the art of lording it over his subjects 

Christ our King was a King who grew up with just the scriptures and the temple teachers to instruct him in the word of God; instruct him in the art  and purpose of divine ruling; the art of divine ruling which called for him to be not a lord but  a servant to all no matter their status.

He was not a king surrounded by courtiers chosen from privileged families who flatter and scheme to have the best, most important places beside their ruler and thus to be richly rewarded and thus be enabled to exact servitude from others.

Christ our King was a King who chose twelve simple, mostly uneducated, unlettered men from lowly backgrounds to walk beside him and to share all the challenges and privations of his itinerant life. They were not to expect the best places, not to be rewarded in any other way than knowing only that they did the will of their King, which was the will of God his Father who sent him to his earthly kingdom in order that he might reveal his divine kingdom.

He was not a king who travelled around his kingdom with fanfares, pomp and much ceremony and huge expense expecting his subjects to come out and make obeisance before him. Subjects who would be called upon to lodge him and his retinue at vast cost to themselves and to ply him with the richest gifts.

Christ our King was a King who travelled simply with no gold or silver in his purse, no bag, no extra shirt or pair of sandals, looking not for obeisance from those who surrounded him but for the warmth and generosity of a home which welcomed him in his poverty.

He was not a king who was remote from his subjects knowing little or nothing of their lives, their struggles to overcome harsh poverty and debilitating illness and disabilities. A king who would have shunned the lepers and the marginalized

Christ our King was a King who went among the poor, the outcast, the lame, the lepers and the sinners never afraid to touch them and to bring them not only the blessing of healing but the blessing of acceptance.

He was not a king who wore a crown of gold encrusted with jewels as a mark of his supreme rank in his kingdom.

Christ our King was a King whose crown was a twisted corona of thorn branches whose piercing needles shone with the scarlet of his own blood and the pearls of his sweat.

He was not a king who built great opulent palaces for himself full of the finest craftmanship and glittering works of art as proof of his wealth and his power.

Christ our King was a King who had no palace but, was himself not a palace, but our temple; the temple he built for us in three days. The temple in which each of us can discern something of the glory of God, the supreme craftmanship with which he created us and our world and where, in silent homage, we can gaze with awe on the wonder and the mystery of God’s love for us.

He was not a king who erected great statues of himself and ordered people to bow down and worship them. Statues cast in an heroic mould to point to the power wielded by that king

Christ our King was a King whose subjects erected an instrument of torture for him. An instrument of torture so that all those who saw it and believed would fall to their knees humbled by such a symbol. A plain and unadorned symbol which for all time points those who see it to the suffering servant, the suffering King who gave his very life that we might have life.

He was not a king who ruled by edicts and oppressive freedom, denying laws enacted at times in their name  by force and coercion.

Christ our King was a King whose only commandment to us, his subjects, was: 'I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another'. 

This is our God, the Servant King, he calls us now to follow him, to bring our lives as a daily offering of worship to the Servant King.

So let us learn how to serve, and in our lives enthrone him; each other’s needs to prefer, for it is God we’re serving.

Homily for Sunday 14 November - Remembrance Sunday
Delivered at St Johns Wotton
Text: Isaiah 2  verses 3-5
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

There were those who believed that they were giving themselves to build a world for us. They died for the future, for an ideal world that we could live in, an earth at peace. Now it is our turn to strive for peace on earth. War is not only made by statesmen. It is made by us, ordinary people who strive to achieve our own selfish ends, quarrelling and hating as we pursue our petty, sordid, self-seeking quest. We can make peace, with God’s help, if we have faith, and hope, and love for one another. We are responsible for peace. Let us begin here, to build what the dead of the wars left unfinished. Perhaps we were not worth dying for; but without their sacrifice we would not be alive today.

Let us thank God for them and let us honour them.  Michael Davis

It is now over one hundred years since the end of World War One and seventy- six years since the end of World War Two which means that the majority of our United Kingdom population, thankfully, has no experience of what it means to live through a war. So the question could so easily arise among those in, say, the twenty to thirty age group why do we still bother with Remembrance; why do we still wear poppies? Isn’t it time perhaps to forget and put the past behind rather than to remember?  Now I am quite certain that all who are reading this are quite shocked by such a suggestion and would consider it an absolute disgrace if the date of the 11th of November and the Sunday closest to the 11th were to become just two ordinary days with nothing special about them. Certainly, to us it is inconceivable that we would ever cease to wear our poppies at this time or, more importantly, would ever drop that extraordinarily profound two minutes of silence that holds the majority of the nation in its thrall.

But, this said, I think we do have to be very clear about why we continue to remember and hence why the younger generations, our grandchildren and great grandchildren, need to understand that they, too, are called to remember and to give thanks for the supreme sacrifice of so many of their grandparents and great grandparents.   As poppy wreaths are laid in churches and at war memorials throughout the land we are called to remember not just the shocking enormity of the number of deaths involved in those two great wars but the reasons why they fought and what it was they fought for; what they wished to safeguard for the generations to come. 

The simplest answer is that they fought for freedom; freedom from foreign powers wishing to usurp our sovereignty but above all, perhaps, freedom from the evils of war and the evils that can all too easily be associated with power. In a sense, there are no winners or losers in war because for peace to be both a reality and lasting there has to be an admission of wrongdoing together with forgiveness and reconciliation between the sides. A war without a lasting and meaningful peace is a war in vain as evidenced by the failure or a lasting peace between the two world wars. 

Freedom is a much used word and we need to be very clear as to what it means for us and what are the freedoms we would be prepared to fight for, never mind the cost. Freedom from evil of course such as the evil of Nazi Germany where people were categorised and classed as so undesirable as to be subject to all the horror of the Holocaust. And here it is imperative that we remember that so many knew of this evil on their doorstep and looked the other way. They too were shackled by evil; the evil of a deliberate blanking out of their awareness of other forms of evil being done in their name; the evil of refusing to speak out against such evil because of moral cowardice or simply wanting a quiet life, persuading themselves that the evil acts perpetrated by others are none of their business. Even certain members of the Church in Germany and, indeed, elsewhere refused to condemn; refused to show the moral outrage that the acts of the Holocaust demanded.

If we are to truly honour the memory of all those who sacrificed their lives for us, then we need to be acutely aware of the possibility of evil and the need to have the moral courage to speak out, to protest and lay bare the truth of what may be happening in our name. Already we know of the culture of ‘cancelling’ people when their views do not accord with some particular group’s agenda or philosophy, and I personally think those who died would be shocked at such restrictions on the freedom of speech. We need the freedom to have open, honest but, at all times, courteous debate without fear of being ‘cancelled’ because our views do not coincide with or meet the approval of others.

But, this aside, as our reading tells us we are called upon to be people of peace and to do whatever is in our power as Christians to spread the peace of God which is beyond all understanding. The peace that embraces all His children regardless of who they are or where they are from and here, perhaps, it’s important to recognize that in those horrific World Wars people from all around the world were engaged in that conflict and so many from what was then the British Empire were prepared to sacrifice their lives alongside native born British people. No matter their skin colour, the life  blood that was shed across the battlefields of the world was all of the same red.

Those men and women we honour today sacrificed their lives for an earth at peace and we are called to continue that ideal and to stand alongside the victims of today’s wars. The people of the Yemen, of Syria, of Sudan, of Ethiopia and wherever weapons are used to kill, maim and render homeless and helpless the innocent victims of war.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the courageous few who spoke out at the evils of the Nazi regime and in so doing was condemned to death, wrote this: But also true is the freedom of the church, and of Christians everywhere, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, the hungry, the downtrodden and the marginalized. Christ is the word of God’s freedom to you and to me. It deserves an answer beyond mere appreciation.

As we honour today the fallen  may we resolve to continue that fight for freedom; the freedom of God’s kingdom in which all the generations who will follow us may know His peace.

Verses and Thoughts for All Souls
Read and Delivered at Christ Church, Sunday 7 November

The Widow by Wendy Cope
I like this piece. I think you’d like it too.
We don’t very often disagree
Back in the days when I sat here with you
And knew that you were coming home with me.
This is the future. It arrived so fast.
When we were young it seemed so far away.
Our years together vanished like a day
At nightfall, sealed forever in the past.
I can’t give up on music, just discard
The interest we shared because you died.
And so I come to concerts. But it’s hard.
Tonight I’m doing well. I haven’t cried.
My head aches. There’s a tightness in my throat.
And you will never hear another note.

Jewels in my Hand by Sasha Moorsom 
I hold dead friends like jewels in my hand
Watching their brilliance gleam against my palm
Turquoise and emerald, jade, a golden band

All ravages of time they can withstand
Like talismans their grace keeps me from harm
I hold dead friends like jewels in my hand

I see them standing in some border land
Their heads half-turned, waiting for my arm
Turquoise and emerald, jade, a golden band

I’m not afraid they will misunderstand
My turning to them like a magic charm
I hold dead friends like jewels in my hand
Turquoise and emerald, jade, a golden band

I think it was very wise of those who in the mists of time arranged the church’s year to place All Souls’ Day after All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day, when we commemorate and honour all those great men and women who have been judged to have been so exceptional, so outstandingly courageous in their faithful witness of God and the gospel of Christ that they merited being sanctified and given metaphorically at least that golden halo. 

But the vast majority of us can never aspire to such headgear, but this does not mean that we should just be forgotten and dismissed as of no real importance, no real significance in the great scheme of world and church affairs. For you are all here because you are remembering all those who have touched your lives in some special and truly unique way; those who have brought the gift of love with all its overtones of warmth, affection and companionship into your lives; those who have inspired you and shown you how to live a life well. People who will never be forgotten and whose memories you will always treasure; the ‘little’ saints who have touched your lives and brought the light, not of brightly burnished haloes, but the incomparable light of love and friendship into them.

Both the readings I chose for today are to do with memory; the first, by Wendy Cope, resonated deeply with me and I hope with you. Losing someone very dear to you, someone who has been an integral part of your life; someone with whom you have shared so much is hard, terribly hard and certainly, initially, it can seem as if you have been amputated in a way, losing a very part of yourself. But slowly we learn to live life again and make the adjustments that make it possible to carry on our lives without the physical presence of that person. Picking up on the activities and enjoyments that once were shared and, in that continuation, remembering again past times when together we listened to music, went for walks, enjoyed holidays in familiar places or joined in intimate family celebrations.  Seeing those memories as jewels in our hands; precious jewels which glow more brightly with the warmth of being touched by all that has been shared between friends and loved ones; the times of joy and perhaps, in a way more importantly, the times of sorrow when we have brought the healing of comforting love and reassurance to one another. Or put another way by Margaret Pizer, our memories help teach each one of us that ‘I am only beginning to learn that your life was a gift and a growing and a living left with me.’

And so, I believe by the warmth of the gifts brought to us by such memories we are enabled to renew our little reserves of courage and of faith to pursue our own life’s journey. And, in the doing of this, I have certainly found that in the remembering there is also a very real, albeit intangible, sense of that person’s spiritual presence alongside us encouraging, supporting and comforting us even if my husband rarely seems to provide me with the answers to the cryptic crosswords which we so enjoyed doing together or responds to any of the many remarks I make to him. 

Some might scornfully poo poo such seemingly fantastical ideas but, however dismissive, however sceptical, they are they will never succeed in discouraging me or persuading me into giving up my trust in all those divine promises we find within our Bibles that this life is not, and cannot be, the end. So many Psalms that speak of an eternal love, of being always in God’s presence both in this life and beyond. Psalms that speak of God’s graciousness, mercy and steadfast love and of how he will always hear and respond to the cry of those who call on him and watches over them so that in turn we can bless and praise him, not just in the here and now but for ever and ever. So, too, we have the promise of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ that he has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us and that death is, in the words of Mother Theresa, ‘nothing but the going home to God.’

I pray that each of you here today can share that trust, that belief, and know that our loved ones are safe within the covenantal arms of God and the love we shared with them is revealed in those jewels of memory while also having a confident belief and a real hope   in the words ‘love is never changed by death; that nothing of love is lost by death; that in the end is the harvest of new beginnings.’

Homily for 7 November
Texts: Psalm 62 verses 5-end; Mark 1 verses 14-20

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Psalm 62 verses 5 and 8

It’s very hard to imagine just how those four fishermen felt as Jesus suddenly appeared with no warning into their lives and demanded that they left everything they knew, everything with which they were familiar and followed him. Four fishermen whose whole life undoubtedly had centred around fishing which at a guess was the traditional family way of life, the life of many generations of their forefathers. In those days people did not gad off around the world seeking new ways of life; new forms of employment but stuck to what they knew and what their fathers and grandfathers knew before them. And if this sounds somewhat sexist we do have to recognize that in the culture and mores of the time it was very much a patriarchal society and while women might well be the mainstay of a family’s well-being they would not be the wage earners or hold positions of any importance.

Fishing was what Simon and John, Andrew and James knew about; they knew about tides and storms and where might be the best place on any particular occasion to secure a catch; they also knew about the inherent danger of what they did and the physical strength and mental courage required of them. They knew, too, that when they were out in their boats success or failure depended in part of everyone on that boat working together, empathetically knowing what must be done next, be it haul in the sails or haul in a catch. And, again, it has to be recognized that it is most unlikely that any of these four men knew how to read or write and may in fact have had no schooling at all except in the school of life.

So why did Jesus choose these four? What was it about them that made him select them as four of his especially chosen followers? And the answer is we simply do not know; the answer is wreathed in the mystery that is God. Certainly, he did not require a CV from them or put them through aptitude tests or grill them in countless interviews. He simply called them. and they came. They didn’t stop to ask questions; to ascertain just what they were being called to do; what the terms and conditions were. They just came leaving not just their nets behind them but everything they knew, everything that was familiar.

As with all Mark’s gospel there is a directness in this account, told with a sparsity of words and thus leaving us with all these unanswered questions some of which I have posed. And here I think we have to recognize that for Mark, writing his gospel, it was always the centrality of the gospel, the good news that he wished to impart to his readers. He did not need to embellish his words with lots of detail but instead wanted his readers to understand, as those four fishermen did, that when Christ calls the imperative is to follow him confident that as the psalmist writes ‘we can trust in him at all times.’ When Christ calls to us or to anyone of God’s children we are not expected to ask to read all the small print at the bottom of the contract listing all the terms and conditions that apply as in fact there is no small print just those two words ‘Follow Me.’ 

And just as Jesus chose people seemingly on a whim so he chooses us and does not want a hugely detailed and impressive CV. He wants us as we are with our faults and failings, with our lack of experience, with our uncertainties and our doubts even as to just where we are going where he is leading us. But alongside such doubts will lie the one absolute certainty he has called us as he called those fishermen to follow him. 

And if we have any more doubts about this just remember that last Monday was All Saints Day when we remembered and gave praise for all those Saints down the ages who had heard that imperative and often costly call and followed Christ often. Men and women of every age, every nation and every background. God does not discriminate in any way when he chooses his special servants. And then next Thursday is of course Remembrance Day when then, and on the Sunday following, we will honour all those who were called to fight for their country and, if necessary, sacrifice their lives for that country. I know that in both World Wars there was conscription but there were also thousands upon thousands who heard the call to fight for their country and signed up. Again, people of every background and of every nation who were in some instances prepared to lie about their age just so they could respond to the call. 

So, the question for all of us this morning is have we heard or are we hearing that call to become ‘fishers of men’ and of course not just men but people everywhere. People who need to be sought out in their need to be caught within the net that is the net of God’s love. People whose lives are empty and lacking in spiritual blessing; people who are friendless, people who need the light of hope, grace and mercy brought into their lives.  People of every age, of every nation, of every background for we must never discriminate; never impose some sort of entry test as  to  who is to be caught and held within that net of love. Fishermen will throw back the fish that are of no value but as God’s children we all have value and it is never for us to judge what that value may be.

This is a wonderful gospel reading to inspire us and, hopefully, make each of us more aware that God does call all of us, however surprising or unlikely that may seem to us with what we would regard as our limited talents, limited qualifications for the task.

The words of today’s Psalm help remind us that in following that call we can rely with complete certainty on the fact that, wherever we are led, God is with us and is and always will be ‘our rock and our salvation’ and that we can have absolute trust as those four fishermen did in his purposes for us.

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you, and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you, and never be the same. In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show. Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.  John Bell and Graham Maule

Thoughts for All Saints’ Day, Tuesday 2 November
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of, God built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. Ephesians 2 verses 19-22

Each of us has the potential to summon up in others the spark of Godlikeness in the human spirit. 
Dr Paul Brand

Those who know me well will also know that I do love All Saints’ Day which has to my way of thinking such an air of celebration to it. I love singing that wonderful hymn For all the Saints and glad when no one suggests we omit some of the verses. The author William Walsham How paints such a vivid picture of all the glory but also the huge personal challenge that we connect with sainthood. Reading Wikipedia’s brief biography of How it would seem he was a bit of a saint himself and well known for his work among the poor, especially in the very deprived East End part of London. He refused preferment on several occasions but eventually was persuaded to become the first Bishop of Bedford which was a definite misnomer as his work continues in the East End. He did an enormous amount for women and also for children and became familiarly known as ‘The Children’s Bishop.’ A title which surely our Lord would have greatly approved of given his fondness for children made apparent in the gospels.

Saints, as we know, come in all shapes and sizes from the gargantuan St Thomas Aquinas, whose nickname of ‘the dumb ox’ was not nearly as endearing as How’s, to those saints who almost made a religion of fasting itself and who seemed capable of surviving on small cups of water and a lettuce leaf.

The history of sainthood stretches over two millennia but today, in 2021, I think we would be hard put to find a good example of a saint anywhere in today’s world. But I’m happy to be contradicted on this assumption. But what is certain is that saints are definitely not in fashion; no saint’s biography can be found in the magazine section of the broadsheet papers. Just glancing through The Times Colour Supplement for last Saturday we had the story of a private equity investor who had pocketed not millions but billions and admitted to being a ‘brutal taskmaster.’ Followed by one about a Top Gear Presenter and his rise from rags to riches and in all the articles it would seem that it was the pursuit of monetary wealth that lay at the heart of people’s motivation for life and which readers were being led to emulate. How different from the pursuit of Godliness practised by the saints where the accumulation of worldly wealth would have been seen I’m sure as positively sinful. 

Those who are familiar with Celtic Christianity will know that while Celtic saints may not have been two a penny certainly there were a lot of them and go to somewhere like Cornwall and the place names alone will confirm that sainthood was once very much alive and kicking; St Mawes, St Austell, and St Ives for example and also Constantine Bay and Budock both named after saints. Concrete and reliable facts about these long dead saints are hard to come by and what we now know is mostly legendary but I particularly like the story of St Sithney who was asked to be patron saint of unmarried girls but complained they would bother him too much in the heavenly places as they sought his assistance in their search for husbands. And, having rejected, such a patronage was given that of mad dogs instead!

So I think the question for this coming All Saints’ Day is do we, as a world, need more saints? I think the answer is decidedly yes. All right, we may not be able to find too many saints of the calibre of Mother Theresa or John Henry Newman but we could surely find ‘little’ saints whose lifestyle and commitment to God’s service is in marked contrast to that of all those wealth seeking individuals. And here I would like to suggest, as indeed I did last week, that the direction the Church of England seems to be taking seems to be more in the direction of corporate management and balance sheets than recognizing the saintlike dedication of so many clergy who are called to care for not a single parish but a multitude of parishes and whose commitment seems at times barely recognized. Why couldn’t their life story, their sacrifices be told in our Colour Supplements? The answer, of course, is that self- denying, self-sacrificing life-styles simply do not accord with our modern world’s idea of what makes for success. And yet, surely, it is exactly these people along with so many countless lay people who serve the church unfailingly and faithfully in an infinite number of small ways who will I am certain be part of How’s countless host. 

And, of course, the very nature of sainthood is that it never ever seeks or even dreams of seeking self- publicity; career advisors to my knowledge have never been asked for advice from potentially aspiring saints; private equity investors yes; television stars yes; even HGV drivers but the very idea of being a saint is just implausible.  Haloes are God given and never bought.

But back to How and the example of his life. A life devoted to service particularly towards the poor; a man who didn’t even aspire to be a bishop but a man who was surely a ‘little’ saint and recognized as such by those who knew him and his work best.

And as we celebrate the great saints of history while never forgetting the ‘little’ saints, especially those who have inspired us in our faith journey, let us take heed of some words of Lucy Winkett which call all of us ‘to be a human fully alive. And for my humanity to become more Christ-shaped the longer I live.’  Now there’s an aspiration for each and every one of us to be more Christ-shaped the longer we live and to be fully alive. Alive as all those early Celtic saints were to all the wonders and mystery of God’s amazing Creation of which each one of us is a part; alive to the Christ which I believe to be within each of God’s children; alive to the Christ within ourselves and in such awareness continue to labour, however feeble our efforts might seem, for the realisation of God’s Kingdom and all the Kingdom values of justice, mercy, gentleness, peace and love for all. 

As ‘little saints’ I pray that all of us may we be inspired not just by the works of the great saints but also by the words of Paul Brand and recognize that ‘Each of us has the potential to summon up in others the spark of Godlikeness in the human spirit.’                                                                                                              

Homily for Sunday 25 October
Delivered at Christ Church
Texts: 1 Kings 8 verse 1-4, 10-14 Matthew 16 verses13-19

We love the place, O God, wherein thine honour dwells; the joy of thine abode all earthly joy excels. It is the house of prayer wherein thy servants meet; and thou, O Lord, art there thy chosen flock to greet.

Today at Coldharbour they mark the 173rd anniversary of the consecration of this church by the then Bishop of Winchester and I think although 173 is not in any way a special number it is right to mark this anniversary as they go into a vacancy and a somewhat uncertain future. The church was funded by John Labouchere on land donated by the 13th Duke of Norfolk. And I think the first thing for us to note this morning is the generosity of Labouchere which was inspired by his desire to share his marked evangelical faith and to ensure that as the village of Coldharbour grew it could boast a church of its own. In the same way other philanthropic and wealthy Victorians funded or helped fund Holmbury St Mary church, Westcott church and Ranmore church among others. Church building was seen as a very worthy cause and proof mot only of one’s wealth but more importantly of one’s charitable regard for the spiritual well-being of others. 

Today I doubt if any philanthropist would dream of building a new church, if only on the basis that they might well consider we have too many already. Since Labouchere was a banker I thought it might be interesting to find out what his successor at what is now HSBC earned and did with his money and discovered that the present Chairman, Mark Tucker, donated his entire fee for 2020 of £1.5 million to Corona virus related charities and in the same manner the two top executives will donate a quarter of their salary to such charities amounting to some quarter of a million pounds. So philanthropy is still very much alive and kicking among the wealthy and, incidentally, it is also interesting to note that, among his many charitable causes,  Labouchere included Great Ormond Street Hospital  and ensured quite a significant expansion of the number of beds it could provide for sick children.

And here it is perhaps pertinent to note that while busy at work and with all his philanthropic causes he perhaps failed to  keep his eye on the ball as regards his own son who proved  to be a bit of a tearaway, cheating in an exam resulting in his being sent down from Cambridge minus a degree and  running up over £2,000 in gambling debts; a huge sum in those days, and who was then sent to South America by his family, obviously hoping this might help him mend his ways only to find he joined a circus troop in Mexico.

But back to today as Coldharbour celebrates this anniversary; for all who are reading this there has to be an underlying question mark as to the future of several of our local churches in the smaller parishes and just what the diocese’s plans are for the Deanery as a whole. In today’s world it would sometimes seem that the church hierarchy is more concerned with balance sheets and numbers than with the cure of souls. And such thoughts and uncertainty could so easily lead to a sense of gloom and pessimism but I do pray that they will not. The first reading I chose for today tells of the completion of the building of God’s first permanent home, the temple in Jerusalem, by Solomon and the rejoicing that caused among the Israelites. But we also remember that this magnificent building was the first of such edifices and was razed to the ground by the orders of Nebuchadnezzar to be rebuilt a second time when the Israelites returned from their exile in Babylon. Then, during the time of Jesus, the temple was rebuilt and refurbished only to be razed once more to the ground by order of the Romans in response to the Jewish uprising in 66CE and subsequently never rebuilt.  So yes, buildings can come and go and can also be considerably altered and improved as indeed many of ours have been.

Churches are built to reflect the glory of God and, whether a vast cathedral or a small church like Coldharbour, the architects and builders would always have sought to incorporate the best that could be afforded to create a building of beauty and even of wonder; to create a fitting and holy place to reflect and compliment the worship of those who come; an exalted place.

But, of course, a church is far more than a building as we are reminded by our second reading when Peter was designated as the person, the rock on whom Christ would build his church. It is perhaps a sobering thought that Peter himself never entered a church building and such Christian services as were held initially took place simply in people’s homes and what is believed to be the first ‘proper’ Christian church wasn’t built until 230AD,  in Jordan and was dedicated to Saint George. And in all times of persecution of the Church we know that services have taken place in hiding in a great variety of very mundane and sometimes even insalubrious places. And that is what is so important for us to appreciate this morning; Coldharbour church was built of local sandstone and each one of us should see ourselves metaphorically as little pieces of rock, of sandstone, all of which contribute to and are essential for the continual building up and renewing of God’s Church; our parish churches. Without our contribution to this work, our churches would be just another form of building, ornate agreed, but also empty and devoid of real meaning. Empty until they are filled with the sound of worship, of praise, of petition and of heartfelt thank voiced both in words and music.. These are the elements which  bring churches truly alive and make known the glory of God within them ; this spiritual church  where people gather together as one body can never be destroyed as bricks and mortar can be.

And here returning to the example of Labouchere and his son, I do think it’s important not to allow ourselves to be so engrossed in dialogue with the diocese and the powers that be, with PCC meetings and a mountain of bureaucracy that we fail to recognize the needs of those close to us and ensure their welfare, their well-being. And here we are given such a good and inspiring example by the early Christians who held all things in common and were always looking out for each other’s welfare. The Church is known as the family of God, the family of God who is our Father, and that, I believe, should be our foremost aim - to ensure that each of us contribute our gifts, our time, our prayers, our little bits of rock to building up that divine family structure within our parishes. And here I would like to give a perfect example of this which happened this week when no less than eight choir members came and sang at a funeral that had just three mourners. The deceased and the mourners were not known to anyone but in lifting their voices in song that afternoon those eight singers helped immeasurably to build up the family of the church that day as we honoured the death of one family member. This is just one small example as to how we can continue to build up our churches and make them places where the glory, the wonder and the mystery of God is revealed and we acknowledge again and again his gracious and eternal love and mercy which he showers upon us.

The future remains uncertain for many of our churches, not just in this Deanery but across the dioceses, but then the future always does and can never be guaranteed. But let us retain our hope in God’s eternal and covenantal care for our well-being and the well-being of all his children and take heart. Take heart that we have in all our parishes both a physical church and a spiritual church and continue with all our minds and hearts to blend the two into an outer showing and an inner showing combining to form a paeon of praise and thanksgiving for all God’s blessings upon us as individuals and upon our parishes. 

Homily for Sunday 18 October
Delivered at St Johns Wotton
Psalm 139 verses 1-18

I don’t know about you, but I find that the media at the moment seems to bring nothing but a continuous outpouring of bad and generally downbeat news and it is so hard not to allow it to make one feel depressed, despondent and even overwhelmingly disheartened by the way the world seems to be going. Someone far younger than me told me only this week that they had simply stopped listening to news broadcasts with their unrelenting diet of misery and I have for the most part limited myself to the headlines and even they are too much at times

Be it a lack of HGV drivers, empty shelves in the supermarkets, threats of a winter flu epidemic, threats posed by global warming, the shocking and lethal stabbing of David Amess and so much more. It sometimes seems that it’s been nothing but a downward spiral ever since the pandemic struck and we long for things to be ‘normal’ again. But, in that wish, we forget that life is a process of continual change and sometimes that change is for the better and sometimes for the worse and that has always been the case. And here, perhaps, it’s good to remind ourselves of just how difficult life was for our Lord with an itinerant and presumably somewhat precarious way of life and the continual threat and contempt from the Jewish hierarchy and even from his own neighbours when they threatened to throw him over a cliff.  At least I think I can be fairly certain that no one reading this has had such a threat made to them, thank goodness.

Add to these challenges, he was condemned as ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’, words which must have wounded and maybe even depressed him as people failed to understand his truly divine mission to bring good news to God’s world; to make real the light of Christ that we all seek.  Even his own family had very mixed feelings about him and I’m sure some thought it would be far better if he just gave up on all this preaching and teaching nonsense and went quietly back to being a carpenter and just settled down preferably with a good wife to keep an eye on him.

On Sunday I have the joy of baptising a one year old at Wotton but while we will rejoice at such an occasion none of us can have the least idea what future lies ahead for that toddler or indeed for any of our children and grandchildren. But, while we can in no way alter such uncertainty, we can ensure that whatever the circumstances our young people can learn that not only should they be protected and embraced within the love of  family and closest friends but, far more importantly, they are protected and embraced within the love of God and the family of God.

The Psalm I chose for today says it all in the most beautiful poetic language 
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

God’s presence is with us from the moment of our birth to the hour of our death. It is a freely given gift of the costliest nature given to each of us in love and for love. The news may fill us with foreboding casting us into the depths, but it is then that we are called to turn, look upwards, and seek God’s everlasting presence and know that we are held with complete security within the hand of God. The hand of God which will not let go, will not fail us.  The hand of God which was with the Israelites as they wandered for all those years in the wilderness. The hand of God which again was with the Babylonian Exiles so far from home. The hand of God which led our Lord to the cross and beyond.

For that toddler he will be reaching for the right hands of his dad and mum, his brother, his grandparents; all those he has learned already in his short life to trust. But as he grows older and begins to show independence those hands may not be as readily available;  it is then that I pray he will as, I hope we have all learned to do, reach confidently for that hand of God to protect, support and lead us forward with confidence and, more importantly, with a very real sense of  hope on our life’s pilgrimage.

Whenever I conduct a baptism I like to point to the cross and remind those present that the upright of that cross connects earth and heaven so that we are always in touch with God and he with us. And that the outstretched arm of the cross reminds us that we are always embraced within the love of God. Do we truly recognize that the cross of Christ on which he gave his life for us brings us a blessing which has an unsurpassable value; a blessing which helps reveal even on the darkest, most depressing day the light of hope given us through Christ’s death and resurrection?

At the end of the baptism service those who have been baptised are given a candle and will be called upon throughout life to ‘shine as a light in the world.’ This same command was given to each one of us at our baptism and I pray that we may all, even on the darkest day, in the depths of despair and uncertainty, reach out for God’s hand and know, without a shadow of doubt, that come what may we have the love of Christ always present in our lives. The love that will enable us to light our individual candles to shine out and bring renewed hope into our own individual lives and the lives of all whom we meet in this amazing and wonderful world that God our Father created in love for our joy and delight. The love that is the enduring melody of God’s presence with us.

Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.      Helen Keller     

Homily for Sunday 11 October
Delivered at Christ Church

Text: Mark 10 verses 17-31
You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

If you had to leave your home in a very great hurry, as so many of the countless millions of our world’s refugees  have had to do without any preliminary preparation whatsoever, what are the things that you would immediately grab to take with you; the few treasures with which you would never wish to be parted? In my case there are three ‘treasures’ which, in fact, are with me every day; the first is my wedding ring which I have never removed. The second is a small gold crucifix given me by my son on my ordination and which he had specially blessed for me. The third is tiny locket with a pressed forget-me-not flower given me by my daughter. These latter two I always wear and have only rarely taken them off. Each of these three are treasured because they remind me always of the three most important people in my life and of the love we have shared, or continue to share, and I would really hate to be without any of them.

But there is a fourth object which I just might grab if there was time, and it will seem a strange choice. It is a very small china basket decorated with flowers intended for rings and it was given to me by my son when he was just coming up to three years old. He bought it at a Christmas Fair when presumably I had given him some money to spend and, bless his little heart, he thought this was just the perfect gift for his Mother and, if I remember correctly, it cost the vast sum of six p. Now I knew nothing about this of course as I was helping on some stall or other until alerted by the sound of terrible sobbing. I looked up and saw it was James and he was surrounded by various kind people who had rushed to his aid and,  to my relief, seemed to know how to stem the flow of  tears.  It was only later that I discovered that the cause of his grief was that he had dropped my carefully selected gift and disastrously it had broken in two. However one of those who rushed to his aid by  some sort of divine providence  mended ceramics professionally  and promised him they could repair  it and it would be as good as new. Well nearly as good as new  as it still bears the mark of that break but, to me, it is so precious because, first of all, it was chosen by my son and, secondly, it bears lasting testimony to the loving kindness of others. It has no material value whatsoever but it has all the inherent value of generous and selfless love and compassion shown to a small boy in need. And, in an extraordinary way, it also reminds me that those are the values without price that Christ himself demonstrated in his living and dying. His broken body bought for us mended through the eternal love of God the Father but always bearing the scars of that brokenness.

Our reading today is such a hard one and always causes me to think deeply as to whether I place far too much value on my worldly possessions. Can I truthfully be accused of hoarding and of a failure to give with unfettered generosity to those in need? Do I indulge myself with material things that I could well do without instead of spending my money on the needs of those who know the reality of what it means to be truly impoverished? Looking around my home, as I’m sure many of you do from time to time, I am acutely aware of all I have accumulated over a lifetime and of so many things I do indeed treasure. But this said, do we treasure these things for their intrinsic monetary value, and do they testify to our rich even hugely extravagant spending as we seek to show we are right up there with the latest fashion be it horrendously expensive wallpaper or the very latest all singing all dancing appliance? Or do we treasure them because, like my little ring basket, they speak to us of the great love and affection in which they were chosen and given? There is a world of difference between these two extremes and that, surely, is what our Lord was trying to teach that rich young man and indeed us.

Oh yes, he was, in the eyes of those who knew him, an upright law-abiding man and for that he was to be commended. But then so I’m sure are all of us; we do not, as a rule, go around murdering people, stealing from people or defrauding them nor do we tell damning lies about other people. Yes, I’m sure each of us can boast that, taken as a whole, we are a pretty decent sort of person.

But, if we are to see ourselves as truly Christian, truly doing our very best to walk in the footsteps of Christ more is demanded of us. All right, we may not be called to give up all our possessions as for instance St Francis did, but we are all called to be prepared to be sacrificial in our giving. The old precept of tithing should, at the very least, be alive and well. And here I think it should be emphasised that it is not simply the tithing of our income but the tithing of our time. I was thinking hard about this and trying to work out if of the one hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week I have given seventeen of these to God be it in prayer and reflection or in trying to reach out and spend time to people in need. Maybe that is an exercise you would also like to do as I think it might be even more revealing than the tithing of income.

We are rich in so much; our lives are crammed full with divine blessings which are never stinted or withheld but is that true of us?  Do we withhold our wealth, be it of our material riches or of our riches of time?  Is it the accumulation of possessions which prove just how wealthy we are or is it the uninhibited sharing of those riches with others?  What truly matters to us; what it is that we would frantically grab as we had to flee our home? Do we prize that costly ornament, or do we prize that cracked ring holder which for ever speaks of the most outrageously expensive gift we have ever received and that is the broken body of Christ restored through God’s love to bear witness for all eternity of that love?

Sell all you Have by Malcolm Guite
To whom exactly, are you speaking, Lord?
I take it you’re not saying this to me,
But just to this rich man, or to some saint
Like Francis, or to some community,
The Benedictines, maybe, their restraint
Sustains so much. But I can’t bear this word!
I bought the deal, the whole consumer thing,
Signed up and filled my life with all this stuff,
And now you come, when I’ve got everything,
And tell me everything is not enough!
But that one thing I lack, I cannot get.
Sell everything I have? That’s far too hard.

A Harvest Homily for Sunday 3 October
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5 verses 22-23

Let the favour of the Lord be upon us, and prosper the work of our hands. Psalm 90 verse 17

Today we are blessed to have a cornucopia of lovely and exotic fruits coming from all over the world whereas as a child in wartime we could only have home grown fruit such as apples, pears and plums plus the occasional orange as these were shipped in to give us much needed vitamin C. Otherwise we relied upon rose hip syrup which was deliciously sweet and sticky. And we know now that people in this country don’t eat nearly enough fruit and even vegetables because their budget simply won’t stretch to what for them are luxuries.

Now if I had to choose what fruit, in the widest sense, I would like to be it’s a potato. Now I bet you’re all thinking what is she mad? A potato! That’s just sooooo boring and so every day, but you forget that this potato will do far more to feed someone who is really hungry than say a raspberry, strawberry or even an apple. A lovely baked potato alone provides good sustenance and with a filling in there as well it makes a really nourishing meal. Personally, I like it filled with butter and then grated cheese, but you will all have your own favourites.

And thinking about all this it seemed to me that if we are being honest with ourselves and humble enough we are all, at heart, very ordinary and unremarkable and are most unlikely to find our way into any of the history books or feature in a leading news item. We are almost all of us simply potatoes,  albeit of many different varieties, but with the potential to be good solid and extremely nourishing potatoes and, again, let us remember that compared to God we are absolutely nothing; merely an infinitely tiny speck in  the vastness of his amazing universe. But being a potato is really great because if we are willing to, as it were, give it to others with a wonderful topping of those fruits of the spirit listed in Galatians what nourishing sustenance we will give to those people. And thus, by God’s grace, help feed them with those spiritual foods which can never be bought however rich we are. Toppings of love, of joy, of peace, kindness, generosity to name just five and what a difference such gifts bring to our world and, my goodness, how much they are needed right now when it sometimes seems that greed, selfishness. envy and down-right anger and even hatred are the only toppings on offer. Or of course if you prefer chips you can fry them in those same gifts of the Spirit and my goodness how tasty they will be.

As professed Christians in a troubled and often despairing world I think it’s more important than ever that we see ourselves as Christ’s crop of potatoes, ready at all times to feed whomsoever we meet with who are in any sort of need. We know that in our churches holding a Harvest Festival  the donations of  tinned and dried goods will go to the Dorking Food Bank and that is just wonderful and I know they rely on these harvest gifts to really boost their stocks before the onset of winter. But, in giving them, we must never allow ourselves to forget that having a Food Bank in Dorking which is considered an affluent, well to do sort of place there is, hidden away where most people don’t care to look, real, grinding and all too often soul destroying poverty; poverty where children go to bed hungry and have to rely on a free school meal for their most substantial meal of the day and where parents also go to be even hungrier having given the little they have to their children. These are not feckless, idle people and if you took the time to listen to some of their stories it would break your heart. They are simply people for whom the harvest has failed for one reason or another; their potato crop has been blighted and they are quite simply desperate and without the Food Bank they simply would not survive. That is the truth and it is in my opinion a disgrace in a country that is one of the richest in the world ranking in the top twenty five economies while there has been over 100% increase in the use of Food Banks since the start of the pandemic. Surely, as Christians, such figures should shock us just as much as all the statistics of global warming and the consequent failure of so many different types of harvest around God’s world.

Jesus used the simple freely given gifts of five small loaves and two fish to feed not just five thousand men but women and children beside. In imitation of such miraculous feeding, may God grant all of us who follow Christ to have our eyes open and our hearts full of compassion for all those who hunger in any way; hunger physically and hunger spiritually for understanding, love and companionship 

So, as we celebrate harvest at this time of year my hope and prayer is that all of us will have the humility to see ourselves not as some expensive exotic fruit but as  a very ordinary and literally down to earth potato, but a potato which we will endeavour to fill with at least some of those toppings that are the fruits of the Spirit and thereby bring  the blessing of nourishment and well-being to any of God’s children for whom the harvest has failed.                    

What I say is if a man really likes potatoes he must be a pretty decent sort of a man.   A.A. Milne  

The Good and Bad Harvests by Nick Fawcett
It was a bumper crop, 
  the best ever,
  and why not? —
  for from sowing to reaping
  it had been carefully tended, 
  the latest technology used throughout
  to secure a maximum yield,
  increased productivity.

It was a poor crop, 
  the worst ever,
  all the effort that had gone into it
  thwarted by prolonged drought
  followed by heavy storms, 
  the seasons out of kilter;
  nature’s delicate balance undermined.

Teach me, Lord, that the skills and ingenuity  you have given humankind
  can either sustain your creation or destroy it.
Remind me that the fate of the planet is in our hands, 
  each having a part to play.
Help me to do my bit faithfully,
  and grant that others may do the same.     Amen

Homily for Sunday 26 September
Text: Mark 9 verses 38 - end

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or mule without understanding.    Psalm 32: 8-9a

Today’s gospel reading is one of those that we would probably rather like to simply skip over and ignore. It all sounds so brutal with its talk of being thrown into the sea with a great millstone around our necks, of cutting off hands or feet or tearing out an eye and not at all the sort of thing we expect from our Lord Jesus Christ whom we much prefer to think of as always gentle, always loving. This is the sort of wanton and deliberate cruelty that we associate with the more extreme practitioners of the Moslem faith not with us, oh so carefully civilised and always humane Westerners who profess our faith in Christ. Surely, he can’t really have meant what he said and, of course, in a sense he didn’t as in the custom of the times hyperbole was much used in rhetoric and could indeed be taken with a large pinch of salt.

But this said we still have to take his words seriously and look for the underlying truth within them. Can we look at these words and begin to understand what Jesus is driving at in each of his condemnations. First do we act as a stumbling block to any of God’s children and here an example I experienced last week might show how this can happen. I took a service of Holy Communion and baptism and I was acutely aware that for almost all the baptism party present the service and, in particular, the element of communion would have been totally alien and incomprehensible. I might just as well have been talking in Greek or Hebrew as far as they were concerned however hard I tried to make it intelligible and meaningful. I am certain it was a stumbling block and, in this instance, there was not a lot I could do about it except pray that somewhere in the service something may have touched their hearts and made them aware of the spiritual presence of God. And this makes me wonder how much of what we do in church is a stumbling block for those who are not familiar with it? The communion alone with its words about the body and blood of Christ must strike people with no knowledge of what this is all about as distinctly strange, repulsive even and quite possibly just as off putting as we find today’s gospel reading.  I don’t pretend to have an easy quick fix answer for all this but just to make us all aware that in our oh so secular society what we do in church must constitute a stumbling block for many and we need to seek ways to somehow make the practice of our faith more accessible, more understandable  for those seeking the presence of God in their lives 

And, of course, we also have to be totally truthful with ourselves and look critically at how we act, how we behave and how we speak as professed Christians. Do we reach out with our hands to draw in those in need? Do we walk across the road to them or do we simply walk on by? Is there a hint or maybe more than a hint of hypocrisy in what we do? Do we quite honestly love God and make Him absolutely central to our lives and, in so doing, ensure that we are in, as the words of the old Prayer Book, says in love and charity with our neighbour whoever that neighbour may be? 

And there is another aspect to all this, what faults do each of us possess that cause us to stumble? Are we too acquisitive reaching out to handle more luxuries, more non-essentials than we honestly need?  Possessions, if we allow them to be, can all too easily become a millstone around our own necks. Then we have to ask ourselves are we too self- absorbed and self-protective, making sure we only walk in those places we find agreeable rather than looking outwards to see those people whose walk in life is hard and painful?  Are we too blinkered in our approach to life, allowing prejudice and the hasty judging of others to blind us to the fact that all are God’s children?  Do we recognize that there are, indeed, so many people who act in God’s name who never go near a church and who might never outwardly confess a Christian faith but who truly are acting in God’s name? All these are questions we are called to ask; to examine ourselves and face up to the little mean and thoughtless acts that speak of  a deliberate rejection of others, the acts that speak of a certain callousness, the acts that are, in effect, deliberately cruel and wounding. The acts that sadly bring Christianity a bad name.

There can be no doubt in our minds that our Christian faith demands so much of us and often if we are honest more than we feel comfortable with giving. And it is this reluctance that causes us to stumble and, in our stumbling, can all too easily catch onto someone else and cause them to stumble as well. 

On Saturday I will conduct not one but two weddings and in each I will pray that the couple’s union in marriage will see them clothed in Christ. And, for me, this is such a beautiful concept and one that surely should apply to all of us, to be clothed in Christ. To be clothed in his love, his mercy, his peace and, in such clothes, become aware that we can and so shine like lights in the world. And if we have to metaphorically cut of and excise those offending parts of the body which are not Christlike that can surely only ensure that our light is brighter and more discernible to those we meet.

I pray that each of us can be given the grace to take a good hard look at themselves and see where we are stumbling and halting in our faith and where we are causing others to stumble and fall and act to ensure that the offending, diseased limbs are removed and we are left, if not with quite a whole  body with a whole heart with which to love and serve the Lord our God and our neighbour.                   

Homily for Sunday 19 September
Text  James 3 verses  13- 4, 3 verses 7-8a, Mark 9 verses 33-37

Then he took a little child and put it among them: and taking it in is arms, he said to them ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me'.  Mark 9: verses 36-37

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.  James 4 verse 8a

If you asked someone not familiar with a church service who was the most important person present, the answer, I suspect, would be the officiating minister, be it a bishop complete with mitre and crook or merely a lowly curate. And even some church goers might well give the same answer temporarily forgetting that, of course, the most important presence in any church service is God himself.  Of course, it’s quite understandable that the minister might be seen in the commanding role especially given that they will be dressed quite unlike anyone else even if it only amounts to a strange collar around their neck. But the plain truth is that, in effect, clerical garb merely professes that the wearer is a servant even if the dress is slightly more ornate than, say, that of a hotel chambermaid, a waiter or indeed a waste disposal operative, as what I used to call dustmen are now known. All uniforms, in fact, show that the wearer is in some form or other a servant whose primary purpose is to attend to the needs of others, be it to nurse the sick, remove our rubbish or preserve peace and good order.

Reading today’s gospel is a salutary lesson to remind me above all, but indeed all of us, that in God’s eyes we are all equal and that he never judges on how far we might have risen in the world or, indeed, how far we might have fallen. We forget, too, that despite all the advances we have made technologically and socially we are still, compared to the omnipotent God, simply little children learning painfully slowly to understand at least something of the wonder and the majesty that is God.

I say socially because, again, our gospel teaches us just how far advanced Jesus was in this respect. The society in which he lived some two thousand or so years ago was far more akin to, say, that of fundamental Islamist countries today where women and children are both denied the same rights or privileges and, in many instances, are regarded with little or no respect as their male counterparts. In the time of Jesus, children were of no account whatsoever compared to the children of Western society today where so many fathers do the most amazing job in sharing the role of nurturing and bringing up children. Thus, we have to try to get our heads around the fact that when Jesus picked up that child and placed him or her upon his lap such an action was completely counter cultural and would have brought gasps of outright disapproval from many there. And, then to add to that disapproval he further shocked those present by suggesting that it was incumbent on everyone to show welcome to children. In other words, to treat them not just with respect but far more importantly with love. And if you find this hard to understand, take time to think about how for instance the Taliban regard women and children.

But if socially we have learned that a father can have just as important a role in raising children as a mother, think of all those instances when socially we still regard ourselves as superior to others and would no more think of sitting them on our knees or welcoming them than a Jewish father of Jesus’s time would have thought about embracing a child. And, again, we are reminded of this when we recall that in the parable of the Prodigal Son the father rushed out to embrace his errant son on his return which no self-respecting father of the time would have dreamed of doing.

What Jesus was trying to convey to those argumentative disciples is that for God the customs and practices of the world are not those of the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God things are turned completely upside down and break all our nicely constructed social conventions with the first coming last and the last first. Wearing a dog collar does not merit any special favours but must be humbly accepted as a sign of servitude; a sign that, to the best of our ability and accepting all our human failings, we are simply there to wait upon God’s orders and to care for his other children. To welcome those other children, no matter who they are. And in the same way even if you cannot boast a beautiful bishop’s mitre or a curate’s cassock you, too, are called to recognize that as God’s child you are there to learn from his example and learn most of all to welcome the despised, the lowly, the outcast, the nobodies of this world with love.

However much some of the barriers of who is acceptable and who can be viewed as one of us the fact remains that there is still a very definite  pecking order in this country and that in many instances including the Church of England men still dominate and control those orders. We may talk the talk re human rights, but the fact remains that for many such rights simply do not exist anymore than they did for the children of Jesus’ time.

But as followers of Christ, as servants of God we are called to welcome all who cross our paths and in that welcome help disclose something of the mystery that is God’s love for all his children. The epistle for today has some very wise words for us to contemplate and help us to understand that selfish ambition and envy have no part in God’s kingdom nor does boastfulness and a lack of truth. Instead, we must do our very best to follow James’ advice to us; ‘But the wisdom from above is pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.’ Those words ‘without a trace of partiality’ are a salutary reminder that the child of the immigrant, the children of poverty, the children of neglect, the children of the world’s refugee camps are as welcome to sit on Jesus’s knee as any one of us and quite possibly more so.

Yes, I do have some rather lovely clerical robes and stoles but they are and must always be seen just as a uniform to denote that I am simply a servant of God. I may know a bit more theologically than some of you reading this but that knowledge was necessary for me to do the job just as a barista, nurse or policeman must be properly trained for their roles. But clothes and training apart I am quite simply like all of you, a child of God and if, one day, I can be asked to sit on the knee of Christ that would fulfil the only ambition of any real worth.

Whoever Welcomes by Malcolm Guite
Welcome, the word is always on your lips,
Each welcome warms another one inside,
An interleaving of relationships,
An open door where arms are opened wide.
First welcome to the child and through the chid
A welcome to the Saviour of the world,
And through the Saviour’s welcome all are called
Home to the Father’s heart. Each call is curled
And nested in another, as you were
Nested and nestled in your mother’s womb,
As Mary carried One who carried her,
And we are wrapped in you, deep in the tomb,
Where you turn our rejection into welcome,
And death itself becomes our welcome home.

Homily for Sunday 12 September
Delivered at Christ Church
A gentle answer deflects anger but harsh words make tempers flare.  Proverbs !5 verse:1

A careless word may kindle strife. A cruel word may wreck a life. A timely word may level stress. But a loving word may heal and bless.

Text: James 3 verses 1-12

How many words are there in the English Language? Apparently, the Oxford English Dictionary lists no less than 171,476 in current use and some 47, 000 which are now obsolete. Among the latter are some I think might easily be re-introduced including ‘brabble’ which means to bicker loudly about nothing, ‘fudgel’ which means to pretend to work when you are doing nothing of the sort, ‘twattle’ to chatter mindlessly and the delightful ‘growlery’ which is a place you can retreat to when in a bad mood. I think we all need one of those sometimes and I think we can all accept that at times we are more than capable of a little fudgelling

Of those 171, 000 odd words apparently, on average, we know between twenty to thirty-five thousand as an adult while an average eight year old knows about half that number. Compare this to Shakespeare who is estimated to have known some 65, 000 words.

So yes, we have an absolute treasure chest of words at our disposal and I have to say I do rather enjoy using slightly unusual words but was disappointed to learn in the course of my research for this sermon that apparently we only really go on adding to our vocabulary until middle age and after that we’re probably more than likely to forget them.

But it is, of course, how we use those words that really matters, as our reading from James’ epistle teaches us. The tongue really can act like a viper, inflicting the vitriolic poison of hatred, abuse, denigration and so much more. The old adage that ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words can never hurt me’ is far from the truth. Words can and do hurt, and I’m sure everyone can still think of occasions when someone caused them real anguish by the hurtful or even vituperative words that were hurled at them.  There is, in fact, a wonderful word that describes such language which, although not archaic, is probably not in most people’s vocabulary and that is contumelious which is to be scornful or arrogantly rude.  And here I think it’s really important to recognize the harm done through social media posts where it would seem that at times anything goes and the victim is rendered powerless by the onslaught of unconsidered posts which can be absolutely terrifying and words are used with rapier sharpness designed to cause the utmost injury and  which do so much to destroy the mental health of the victim. I do wonder what it is that makes people feel they can use the ‘tongue of social media' in this completely uncensored and cruel way.

But. of course, we must never forget that while words have the power to hurt so, too, they have the power to heal and again I’m sure we can all think of people who have had the ability to say just the right thing to us at exactly the right time.  People who sense that we need to be listened to with complete empathy and who then respond with the salve of kind and compassionate words together with the sharing of  the blessing of intimate silence.

And Jesus of course was an expert at such use of words and I am reminded especially of two such occasions. The first occurred when he spoke to the woman caught in adultery after he had saved her from stoning. When her attackers’ bloodlust had been crushed by his words and he was alone with the woman he could so easily have taken the opportunity to give her a good lacerating telling off to add to her woes but no what he gently said was ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and sin no more.’  How wonderfully healing and affirming such words must have been to that woman and must surely have been instrumental in helping her rebuild her life. And, of course, the second occasion was when, after his resurrection, he met with Peter and the other disciples at the Galilean lakeside and instead of justifiably castigating Peter for his own craven words of betrayal in the High Priest’s courtyard gently asked him three times ‘Do you love me?’ I like to think that there may well have been a profound silence after Peter’s response of ‘Lord you know I love you’ as the reality of what had passed between them sunk deep into Peter’s consciousness.

Are we as forgiving in our words when someone has sinned or wronged us? Do we actually enjoy hauling people over the coals? And here I am reminded of a positive dragon of a head mistress who seemed to delight in ordering her teachers to appear like naughty children before her to upbraid us in no uncertain terms for our perceived misdemeanours. Every morning we would go into the staff room and look at the list pinned to the side of the mirror of those she wished to pull into shreds before the teaching day started. It was humiliating and scary and did nothing for morale. I did not remain at that particular scholastic establishment long and found a much more congenial head under whom to work. Mind you some years later that same Headmistress came and visited the school and when I glimpsed her coming towards me I, coward that I am, turned and ran.

But good words can, as I’ve suggested, be a very real blessing and maybe all of us can resolve to work at perfecting the speech of blessing remembering, too, that silence can at times be the only possible course of action when words simply fail. The silent communication expressed simply by sitting in compassionate and loving companionship with someone can, in some circumstance,s be ten times more powerful than the most eloquent speech.

The most telling words one can say to another person are ‘I love you’; the cruellest ‘I hate you’. So, I pray this morning that all of us can learn to take more note of how we use words and recognize the power they have to both inflict grievous hurt and to provide the balm of healing. To learn to weigh our words and choose carefully just how we will use them. To learn how to express disapproval and disagreement with tact and sensitivity and never with naked hatred, spite or abuse. To learn how to find the soft soothing words and the silences which can comfort and encourage. And most of all to learn to speak those words which are full of thanksgiving and praise for all the gifts and blessings that God gives all of us day by day.

We tell the story of God’s love through experiencing it; and we don’t experience that love through punishing, pain or humiliation but through saying with gentle persistence to all the people that encounter that they are fashioned out of love for the purposes of being loved and sharing that love. Hannah Barr 

Homily for Sunday 5 September
Texts:  Psalm 146, Mark 7 verses 24 - end

The gospel passage for today has caused some dispute among Biblical scholars over what exactly can be interpreted from Jesus’s first response to the Gentile women which immediately strikes our ears as at the best curmudgeonly and at the worst deeply offensive. From all we know of Jesus through the gospels such traits were not part of his make-up and his response to any in need of healing was, in I think, every other case one of compassion and showed a ready willingness to heal and to show love. So why this response? Some have suggested that given his human nature and having been raised as an observant Jew he would have at least known all about their innate sense of separateness from other nations on account of their belief that they and they alone deemed themselves to be God’s ‘Chosen People’ and, resulting from this belief, their very real antipathy towards those they labelled Gentile. And it was then incumbent on his divine nature to come to the realisation that his true purpose was, in the words of the Nunc Dimittis, ‘to be a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.’ A realisation made possible by those beautiful and humbling words of that Syrophoenician woman. Such speculation, if nothing else, helps remind us of the unfathomable mystery that was and is  the incarnation of Christ.

Another explanation that has been given is that in responding so harshly to the woman’s request he was testing her and her faith in his divine healing abilities. I think many of us hearing such a response to our request for help would have perhaps retorted with a few well- chosen words of our own before turning away in disgust. But not this woman. Jesus could be as off-putting and unhelpful as he likes but she was desperate and of course she did have the unwavering faith to believe that Jesus could heal her beloved little daughter.

We will never know the truth of what caused that response of Jesus however long scholars may argue, but what we do know without a doubt is the effect that woman’s words had upon Jesus. ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’  It is, as I’ve said, a humbling response and it’s no wonder that with such words Jesus did, indeed, act to bring healing to that little girl and it is the first miracle of healing in Mark’s gospel of a Gentile.

So, what does this mean for us? I think first of all we have to be aware of our own innate tendencies to be ‘tribal’ and to categorise and even despise people from other ‘tribes’. I know full well that however hard I try I do just this. I make judgements and I show prejudice and unless I am properly on my guard  I see not simply another child of God but someone whom I consider for whatever reason not part of my ‘tribe’, my ‘circle’ and it is something I freely admit I have to fight against over and over again. We have, I believe, moved a long way since I was a child but not far enough. Just this last weekend I was delighted to visit my daughter and find that my granddaughter had a delightful friend from the Caribbean for a stayover. That would never have happened when I was a child, if only because I lived in an entirely white community. We may have had a few Europeans amongst us but no one from further afield and certainly no one of a different skin colour such as  a single Syrophoenician  to cause alarm  that our tribe had been infiltrated.  

And here it is good also to remind ourselves that Jesus would have regarded all of us as Gentiles and could just as easily have spoken those seemingly harsh words of apparent rejection when we have turned to ask for his help. And here it might be appropriate to ask do we think because we go to church, because we profess the faith of Christianity we too should be seen as the ‘Chosen People’ and not the Gentiles whom we deem to fail in this regard? But however that may be experience has surely shown us that in his infinite regard for all God’s children whoever they may be, whatever ‘tribal’ loyalties they may claim.  we have been fed not simply with the left-over crumbs but with all the richness of his grace and mercy.

So, the next question for us this morning is what is our response to those who seek the crumbs from under our tables? How, for instance, are we responding to the terrible plight of the Afghan people who have been brought to this country to begin a new life in an alien land, an alien country? These people have been flown here because they put their lives on the line to help our forces and representatives to attempt to bring peace and prosperity to that strange and wild land. They gave far more than mere crumbs and by so doing endangered their own lives and that of their families.  In rural Surrey do we simply regard it as not our problem or is there something practical we can do to help feed these people not just with actual food but with the warmth of our welcome and our acceptance of them? 

In another context, how good are we at placing crumbs in the Food Bank receptacles in our supermarkets and churches and do we just put the cheapest items we can buy, or does it ever occur to us that even desperate people deserve real treats from the top of the table such as we would give ourselves?

Just this week I read this wonderful sentence: ‘Learn to live with the eye of the heart’. The eye of the heart that sees beyond the outward Gentile, the alien Syrophoenician woman, the Afghan refugee to the child of God within. The child of God who may so desperately need not just the paltry crumbs but the abundance of our kindness, our compassion, our love in imitation of Christ’s overwhelming kindness, compassion and ever healing love. God grant that we learn not to look simply with the outward human eye but always with the inward spiritual eye of the heart

The Hope of the Few by Ian Adams
When the powerful manipulate the truth, when the powerless are exploited, and when we who seek good seem incapable of bringing change, where is hope?
Never forget the potential of a prayer made in seclusion, of one generous action, of some small gesture of faith, or of a simple blessing.
As alone as you may feel, as small, as unknown or as unnoticed, your prayers, your generosity, your gestures and your blessings will heal the world.

And here, at the end of this homily, I have taken the liberty of giving the website of a charity which has launched a crisis appeal to help these refugees from the tragedy that is now overwhelming their homeland and which was given at the end of an article in The Church Times: The Refugee Council.

Homily for Sunday 29 August
Delivered at St James, Abinger            
Texts: James 1 verses 17-end, Mark 7 verses 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I lived in Mexico for four years and we knew from the start of our stay there that we had to be exceptionally careful about what we ate and how it was cooked. Montezuma’s revenge was indeed terrible as I discovered for myself after a visit to what was considered a safe up-market restaurant. In particular pork had to be treated with extreme caution and virtually burnt to a crisp if one was to avoid being infected possibly for life by some most unpleasant parasites which do nothing good for one’s digestive system. In this more temperate climate we do eat pork but always with the stricture learned from my youth that it should be well cooked even if it’s not quite as necessary to burn it to a crisp.

Thus, it is understandable that in a hot country like Israel they were very conscious of the need to avoid eating pork altogether along with other food stuffs. Leviticus Chapter twelve gives a very full list of forbidden foods including camel, buzzard, bats and crocodiles but you can apparently safely eat grasshoppers and locusts. And to this day no observant Jew or Moslem will ever eat pork.

And of course added to this list of forbidden foods come all the laws re hygiene and the washing not just of hands but of all cooking utensils to ensure their cleanliness  and it would seem that over the years more laws had been enacted with ever more detail as to what could and could not be done to ensure absolutely perfect cleanliness. All self- respecting Pharisees would no doubt forcefully reject the old maxim that ‘you must eat a peck of dirt before you die.’ 

In today’s gospel we hear how Jesus and his disciples were roundly reproved for not observing the hygiene laws to the letter to the disgust of those oh so law abiding nit picking Pharisees. For them, it would seem that, petty rules had somehow been allowed to become a priority, a new god to be both appeased and honoured rather than see that in all life it is God alone who should and must be at the centre of our lives. And here, perhaps, it’s interesting to note that there are a great many examples of some of God’s people being fed in the Bible in less than perfect hygienic conditions such as Elijah being fed by ravens; Sampson eating honey from, believe it or not, the corpse of a lion and, of course, the five thousand being fed on loaves and fishes without a freshly washed hand in sight.

And haven’t we since the pandemic first struck been given rule after rule as to what we may or may not do in our churches? Initially no one not even the incumbent could enter the church and the doors were locked. Then came carefully measured out social distancing measures and hand gel and masks were obligatory while initially there had to be a seventy two hour gap between people entering a church. Following on from this were the rules regarding communion and, again, what could and could not be permitted. And as for congregational singing well that was definitely a ‘no, no’ until only a short time ago. Of course, we understood at least some of the reasons while protesting at others but we knew we had to act responsibly even if we were not always happy with what we had to do. And, add to this, I’m sure we’ve all had a great many grumbles and criticism of the Pharisees in Government, the NHS and even the Church of England and I know I for one questioned whether all these rules were absolutely necessary.

But the real question I think we need to be asking this morning is have we still been able to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness since the pandemic started and thus be fed with the spiritual food which will strengthen us to reveal the love of God in the manner in which we live out our lives and in all we do and say? Have we, in the words of the psalmist, recognised that ‘Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honour me’?  For surely that is what Jesus was driving at in his discourse. He saw the rigid imposition of often petty laws by the Pharisees as at heart hypocritical as they strove to prove themselves whiter than white whereas so often it was their own striving after status, privilege and influence that truly concerned them and blackened them in the eyes of Jesus.  And add to these concerns their abhorrence of anything or anyone they regarded as unclean as instanced in the parable of the Good Samaritan. All these traits were the poisonous parasites which corrupted their worship and their relationship with God and marred the worship of others.

Whereas Jesus was trying to teach those who would listen that it wasn’t the meticulous, unbending observation of hygiene laws or Covid regulations that, in the en,d will ever count in the eyes of God but who you are as a person and just how you relate to him. Has our worship become more second rate as we wrestled with Covid rules or have we been able to still joyously lift our hearts in thanks and praise even if there was no hymn singing? Has our worship continued to leave us filled with the awesome wonder and joy of knowing, really knowing, that God is a part of each one of us? Have we allowed ourselves to be fed not just by clean, hygienically prepared foods but by the far more important spiritually cleansing food of the consecrated bread and wine?  The sanctified food that was bought for us by the sacrifice of Christ that will enable us to reveal not those evil intentions such as avarice, deceit, envy, slander and folly but the gracious intentions of the fruits of the Spirit such as kindness, generosity, gentleness and self- control.  

For Jesus it was not the externals that mattered, not the perfectly scrubbed and polished brass pots and the hands that showed not an iota of dirt but the internals. The internals that understood at least something of the perfect love of God that had allowed his Son to be sacrificed so our sins could be washed away and we could know all the wonder of his redemptive power and respond with undiluted thanks and praise. It is not those pots and hands, our social distancing and our mask wearing on which we will be judged but, as St John of the Cross said, it will be the purity of our conscience and our ability to have tried to the very best of our ability to reflect  God’s love in all we do and give to Him unsparingly the sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Homily for Sunday 22 August
Delivered at Christ Church

Texts: Ephesians 6: verses10-20, John 6 verses 56-69

Our steps are made firm by the Lord, when he delights in our way; though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand. Psalm 37 verses 23-24

‘This teaching is difficult’ was the phrase that leapt out at me as I began to reflect on what I might preach today. And it made me think that to follow Christ’s teaching and to live out one’s life in response to that teaching is let’s face it not just difficult but most of the time extraordinarily hard. Jesus’s teaching is so counter cultural and goes in the face of so much that the secular world considers of importance today. And again, thinking about all this I was reminded of John Bunyan’s great hymn which sadly doesn’t seem to feature much in our congregational singing today. ‘He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster, let him in constancy follow the Master. There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.’ Is that our first avowed intent or do we in all honesty have other priorities in our lives which push the practice of our faith onto the back burner as it were?

And what about discouragement? If you are anything like me just at the present time I find the news so incredibly discouraging and apt all too easily to throw me into Bunyan’s ‘Slough of Despond’ as one hears of all the appalling fighting and brutality in Afghanistan, the terrible fires raging out of control in Greece, Siberia and the United States as the result of global warming, the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the pointless and tragic shooting in Devon, and so much more and we don’t even have the Olympics now to bring at least a little cheer. Yes, I think it is all too easy to find ourselves becoming discouraged and disheartened but the indisputable fact remained that come what may there is God. Oh yes some might mock, and others point to the examples of the sickening fundamentalist theocracy of the Taliban fighters as a reason to have no truck with either God or religion but, we are united in our belief in that God. The living God who created this amazing and utterly unique planet; the God who because He loved us his children sent His own Son to be for us the living bread. The living bread which feeds and grows our spiritual life; our God life if you like as we strive to be that pilgrim following in the footsteps of Christ. 

And I think more than ever now with this world as it is we are called to show just what a difference that living bread can make to life. Living bread that gives us all the ingredients we most need to have the strength to keep on with our avowed intent; the irreplaceable ingredients of mercy, of grace, of justice, of peace and above all of hope and of love. There’s that famous Beetle song ‘All you need is love’ and however trite those three words may seem it is in fact what this world of God’s needs more than anything else right now. Not some sickly sweet shallow and often self- centred love which is the stuff of pop songs but the universal, all embracing love shown to us by Christ as he lived out his life reaching out to everyone he met and humbling himself to show the love of servitude; the selfless love that put the needs of others way before any of his own needs; the love that in the end could only be revealed in all its glory through his death and resurrection.

As we read in today’s gospel some turned away from Jesus finding his teaching too hard, too demanding and too disturbing of the status quo in its radical approach which in effect turned the customs, values and practices of the world they knew on their head. Is that just as true for us today?

Surely where once he criticised the Pharisees for their harsh and unbending strictures on subjects like keeping the Sabbath and what one could and couldn’t eat maybe today he would be questioning our approach to exactly the same subjects. Do we even begin to keep the Sabbath so as to allow a rest day; a day set aside in which we can, if nothing else, taste the sweetness of peace and tranquillity of the very presence of God which we all need so desperately for our spiritual feeding? Should our present obsessive concern with diets and body image and what exactly we should or shouldn’t eat which can so easily lead to both obesity and anorexia and often results in the exploitation and poverty of many of the third world’s food producers be replaced with more of that spiritual food which satisfies the hunger for a true sense of inner well-being which can be enjoyed and shared by all? These are but two small and limited examples but if we are serious about following Christ’s challenging teaching there are so many other areas of modern life which need to be re-examined and re- thought about or do we, like the rich young man, just walk away because we find it just too hard to discard the ephemeral things of this world for the lasting joys of God’s kingdom? 

It isn’t easy, it isn’t meant to be easy, but if we want our churches to provide inextinguishable beacons of light shining onto the parishes which they serve then we have to recognize like Peter that there is nowhere else to go, no other option but to turn to Christ. And in this turning recognize too our greatest need to be fed by that spiritual bread Christ so freely offers us and thus be satisfied knowing that even in the world as it is today hope coupled with love can never and will never be extinguished. I’d like to end these thoughts with the last verse of Bunyan’s hymn:
Since  Lord, thou dost defend us with thy Spirit, we know we at the end will life inherit. Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say, I’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim. 

May God bless us all on our pilgrimage as we endeavour in the strength given by Christ, the Bread of Life, to journey with Christ towards the eternal Truth and Love which is the God we serve.

Sundays 8 and 15 August
Virginia is away.

Homily for Sunday 1 August
Reflection on Psalm 40
Gospel reading: John 6 verses 24-35

This week I attended a safeguarding course and as one of our exercises beforehand we were asked to consider either psalm 40 or Ssalm 91 in the light of safeguarding and, having done this, it struck me that it’s such a beautiful psalm to reflect upon and to find our own personal safety within its words of comfort and reassurance.

The actual gospel reading for this Sunday recounts Jesus telling the disciples of the true bread from heaven; the bread of God which gives life to the world. And to me the Psalms provide a very real taste of that bread and surely can and do help bring us life. They speak of every human condition while at the same time always confirming God’s presence and loving concern for us his children no matter what the circumstances. They are indeed sustenance for the soul.

Psalm forty begins with the wonderful words ‘I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.’ Words that remind us that we do need to be patient in our relationship with God; it isn’t a case of putting us on hold and some disembodied divine voice occasionally intoning ‘your call is important to us’ but simply that God’s time is not our time and learning to wait patiently until our time coincides with the divine time is a lesson that we all need to learn and to practice. He does hear our cry; I have no doubt about that but in the same way we too may hear the cry of the hungry, the refugees and the migrants and so many more we cannot respond immediately ourselves. We cannot wave a magic wand and make it all come right just like that and thus we have to understand that whereas God in his omnipotence could make it all come right just like that I’m sure  he chooses not to do so for our own ultimate good. 

Waiting patiently, waiting with trust, waiting and reflecting so that maybe we find in time God, has in fact without our quite realising it responded and shown us the way forward. Brought us ‘out of the roaring pit, out of the mire and clay; he set my feet upon a rock and made my footing sure.’  And this is where I personally take such comfort from my daily reading of the Psalms as they help me to recognize that time spent with God does, as it were, lift me above that roaring pit of troubles and worries, both personal and for the world at large, and place me upon the solid ground of faith and make me feel that come what may I am held securely within his love for me and his care for me.

No wonder, knowing this, the psalmist continues with the words ‘He has put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.’ Again, when life is hard and one does feel mired by the encroaching problems of life it is so good to find that secure place which trust in the Lord will provide and there give praise not solely for that sense of security but for all the blessings we receive from him. Do we as we wait patiently consider that ‘Great are the wonders you have done, O Lord my God? How great your designs for us! There is none that can be compared with you’? Giving praise is such a positive action and can help us feel even nearer to God and His protection.

And in addition to praise, the psalmist exhorts us to speak to others: ‘Your righteousness I have not hidden in my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your loving-kindness and truth from the great congregation.’ How important it is in this post truth and ego-centred world in which we now seem to live to speak in whatever words we choose of the eternal Truth that is God. To speak of and share His loving kindness which is given so freely without ever demanding anything in return simply that we come to Him and find that rock of security in Him and ‘do your will’.

And then the theme returns to innate need for God; ‘Do not withhold your compassion from me, O Lord; let your love and your faithfulness always preserve me.’ Compassion, love and faithfulness the ingredients of the bread of life; the sacred ingredients that will feed us spiritually and ease our hunger whenever we are in need, whenever ‘innumerable troubles have come about me’; whenever ‘our heart fails me’. This psalmist knew the pain and suffering that life can so easily and unexpectedly bring, but he knew, too, without a shadow of doubt that God would always be pleased in His time to deliver and to help. When I look back over my life I know without a shadow of doubt that God was there beside me even when the suffering, and most especially the mental suffering, was most intense. At the time He may have seemed to be nowhere to be seen but in His time He always brought me once again to that secure rock. And I know full well from talking to so many others that they would agree that this too has been their experience and that having God as an integral part of their lives has made all the difference. Having implicit trust in the Lord even when all is mire and clay is all God asks of us. In today’s uncertain world trust is often in short supply but trust in the Lord will never fail us; never prove false.

In verses fifteen and sixteen the psalmist vents his anger on those who ‘seek after my life to destroy it’ and again I am sure we can all sympathise with such feelings. How often do we feel that our secure lives are continually threatened right now by the pandemic, by global warming, by the false promises and policies of our government and world leaders and of course by individuals who do not share our values our beliefs and most significantly our trust and seek to erode and destroy them?

Venting one’s anger at God is perfectly allowable but when the outpouring of spleen has been fully exhausted then is the time to once again follow the advice of the psalmist ‘Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad; let those who love your salvation say always, “The Lord is great”. The time once more to acknowledge that ‘Though I am poor and needy, the Lord cares for me. You are my helper and my deliverer’ O my God make no delay.’

What rich food this Psalm provides and how beautifully the psalmist speaks the words we need to hear as we seek to have our spiritual hunger for God recognized and satisfied. Indeed ‘The Lord is great’.

Psalm 40: Expectans expectavi by Malcolm Guite
The stone itself will soon be rolled away.
I wait in patience, all expectantly,
Firm on this rock above the miry clay.

Where he has set me in his loving mercy.
I sing my psalm in Christ who sings in me,
A new song made in his love’s mystery:

‘Your wondrous works all rise like wings in me
And lift my heart to praise, I hear your call,
The simple call of Love: Oh come to me!

Bring me no gifts, for I have made them all,
Just bring yourself, and open up your heart.’
And so I come to you and bring you all,

All that I am and have been: joy and hurt,
Glory and shame. I bring you everything,
That you might make me whole in every part.

Homily for Sunday 25 July - The Feast of St James
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of love. Ephesians 4 verses 1-3.

Text: Matthew 20 verses 20-28

Ambition is a human trait that we all have to a greater or lesser extent, be it to climb to the top of the greasy pole of one’s particular expertise or simply to empty the ironing basket before it becomes necessary to purchase a second basket. Young people are always asked ‘what do you want to be’ and understandably in today’s very challenging world they often have absolutely no idea. Long gone are the days when little boys wished to be engine drivers and girls’ ambitions were, I fear, limited mostly to the prospect of a marriage and children but prior to that they might do some shorthand and typing or maybe nursing but not a lot else. Thank goodness the opportunities for women are now, if not entirely on a par with those for men, certainly a great deal broader than say even fifty years ago. I vividly remember my Father being aghast at the idea that I entertained of going to university to read chemistry of all things and I had to work for a year in a laboratory to prove the seriousness of my ambition. I suspect he rather hoped that I might change my mind but no I didn’t, in part because of all the encouragement I met from my bosses there, and I know he was genuinely proud of me when I obtained that coveted degree.

Today we celebrate Saint James the Apostle and our gospel reading relates the story of his Mother’s ambitious request for her two sons, and  I’m sure any parent can empathise with her. We all want our children to be successful in one way or another and I suspect that this particular mum couldn’t, in all honesty, see much worldly success for her two sons given their now itinerant lifestyle, traipsing around the countryside with Jesus. Such a way of life was never going to earn them vast salaries; in fact, by contrast, they were probably living literally hand to mouth and relying on the generous hospitality of others for a square meal and somewhere to sleep for the night. Nor, as far as she could see, was it going to bring fame and prestige; so if this present life wasn’t going to bring the rewards she felt were due to her sons then why not make sure they fared far better in the life to come? Surely it wasn’t asking too much to be assured that her two precious sons who, in her opinion, had given up everything others would consider worthwhile for the sake of this man Jesus should merit the top places at heaven’s banquet? Oh, how proud she would be then and it would certainly stop other family members and the next door neighbours making any more disparaging remarks as to her sons apparent lack of ambition and perceived failure to get on in the world. How many of us, I wonder, have at one time or another felt as that mum did when we think those we love haven’t received the recognition we think is their due and seek to redress the balance if we can. I know, as a teacher, ambitious parents would often lay the blame for their children’s lack of progress on my apparently poor teaching rather than accept that actually they really were not that good at maths.

I’m sure Jesus understood exactly what prompted that request and I suspect sympathised with that mum, if only because he would have known how hard it was for her to no longer have sons on whom she could rely upon to keep her in her old age. But he also knew that such worldly ambitions were not, and never would be or could be, commensurate with kingdom values. Also, as he was quick to point out, kingdom values were not all about feasting and prestigious table seating for the chosen and privileged few but about suffering for the greater good of all. Branson and Bezos may have ambitions for anyone who can afford it to jet off into space but the ambitions for the Kingdom of God are at complete variance with such worldly ambitions seeking, as they do, justice, mercy and peace for all. And in order to point the way to achieving such values he had to suffer an ignominious death and be treated as a despised criminal; hardly the ambition one would imagine for the Son of God.

James and John had to learn from Jesus that being a disciple of Christ is first and foremost being a servant and not a master. It is the ‘Servant King’ we are called to follow and act for and maybe, maybe in another time, we just might find ourselves sitting beside him but not and never in a position of grandeur or supremacy where we can look down the table at lesser mortals.

I had a beautiful example this week of that sort of Christlike service and the ambition that accompanies it. A youngish male nurse had come to this country with nursing qualifications from his home country which, for whatever reason, were not recognised here. He began work in the Intensive Care Unit as a lowly care assistant but at the same time determined to gain the necessary UK qualifications so he could become an accredited nurse. A humble man but a man with ambition to serve in a truly worthwhile capacity and this week he heard that after years of study while still holding down his position as care assistant he is to receive his coveted nurse’s pin number which is essential for all qualified nurses. Maybe he has ambitions to move even further up the NHS’s banding system; but I suspect that to work in Intensive Care and bring not just his newly acquired medical skills but also compassion and hope to critically ill patients will always be what comes first in his life. Surely this is an example for all of us to recognize that whatever ambitions we may have achieved to serve God is to begin again and again at the bottom.

Turning back to James we know so little about him other than the few references to him in the Bible and we do know that Herod Agrippa had him killed so that he became the second martyr after Stephen to die for Christ. Does he now sit at the right or left hand of Christ?  Or is it simply that heaven is somehow constructed so that truly all are seen there as equal in God’s sight and the only ambition for all there is to live in perfect communion with God and give Him always the praise and the glory for his love, his mercy, his ambition to make us one in Christ?

Lord grant that whatever our earthly ambitions are they will always be superseded by our ambition to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward save that of knowing that we do your will.

Homily for Sunday 18 July 

Delivered at St Johns Wotton
Texts: Ephesians 2 verses 11-end, Mark 6 verses 30-34, 53-end

What do you feel passionate about or what passions make up a part of your life? Whoever we are I think for all of us there are times when we do feel very passionate about something, be it global warming,  the slashing of the overseas aid budget, the plight of refugees, overt discrimination of various groups and so much more. Politics can very easily raise people’s passions and of course sport can be equally instrumental in raising blood pressures and causing both tremendous elation or deepest despondency, as was witnessed at Wembley last Sunday evening.

And then many people do have passions that absorb their time be it for gardening or scuba diving, classical music or motor bikes. Passions that excite us and bring a very real sense of pleasurable well- being and fulfilled enjoyment into our lives. 

But compassion seems somehow in a different category than passion; it suggests to me at least something far gentler, far more sensitive and the prefix ‘com’ of course denotes that this is, and must be, a shared experience; compassion must always involve another person or persons, whereas passions can be very self- centred and egotistical.

Today’s gospel reading is, I have to say, one of my favourites and always has the power to touch me as I read again those beautiful words describing Jesus’ compassion for the crowd who had rushed ahead in order to be with Jesus as he stepped from that boat. Now, if it had been us would we have felt the same way? Would we have felt compassion as we were greeted by that  overwhelmingly large and needy crowd? We know Jesus and his disciples were tired, exhausted even, and there must have been such anticipation as they set off on that boat trip in order to find peace and quiet; to be given an opportunity to recharge their depleted batteries and to be blessed by the peace and tranquillity of God’s presence with them in a deserted place. But such hopes were immediately dashed as they stepped ashore and that is when I’m sure most of us, and maybe the disciples too, would have felt more than a little aggrieved and very fed up and wished all those crowds of needy, demanding people would just go right away and not spoil our plans and ruin all possibility of that longed for rest, that ‘me time’.

But, however tired and exhausted Jesus was, his personal needs were superseded and replaced by his compassion for all those people and in that compassion he knew their need to be shepherded and cared for; to be led to their own green pastures and to find peace and rest for all their ills and troubles there. To me, this outpouring of compassion exemplifies in the incarnate Christ, the wondrous reality of God’s ever compassionate love for us his children. Wherever Jesus went his passion was surely to respond to the hunger of all people to be treated with compassion, with love. All of us, I think ,can recall times when someone has stopped and recognised our needs, our longing for a compassionate person to walk alongside us, be they friend or stranger, and at the same time known what it is like not to be noticed, to be ignored and not to have our hurts and sorrows tended to with compassion.

And as I wrote this it did just occur to me, did any of those passionate English football fans feel any compassion for Southgate’s team as they suffered that humiliating defeat at the hands or rather the feet of Italy? Did any in that vast dejected crowd think what it must have been like for that team as they failed to give England the glory as it were? Or were their thoughts simply of own their own disappointment and frustration at seeing their little dreams shattered?

Compassion is a truly beautiful human attribute and easily recognised by those who receive it. One of my most humbling moments is when I see the compassion shown to seriously disabled children; compassion that doesn’t recognise the disabilities however severe they may be but sees only another child of God needing to be loved for who they are and not what they are. And here we need to be reminded that ‘Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded; it is a relationship between equals.’ (Pema Chodron) We are all equal in God’s sight and the showing of true compassion needs both to recognize and to demonstrate this.

There is an amazing book I have just read entitled 'The Language of Kindnes's written by a nurse, and what makes the book so remarkable is the very real sense not simply of kindness but far more significantly of compassion that the author projects on every page. Oh yes she is immensely well trained and skilful medically but it is that compassionate  kindness, that marks her out as epitomizing the quality that should lie at the heart not just of nursing but with all of us as we make our pilgrimage through this world alongside other pilgrims who need our care, our help our compassionate company. 

We all know what it is to suffer, to feel alone, to feel fear and it is through such experiences that we are enabled to show compassion. And here we should never forget that Jesus himself knew the reality of terrible suffering, both physically and mentally, and it is no wonder that the ultimate journey to the cross is known as ‘The Passion of Christ’. For it was His passionate mission through that suffering to reveal to the world the love of God, the merciful forgiveness of God and the compassion of God.

Maybe we have been fortunate enough not to have been touched by the gnawing of cancer but we all know what it is to be gnawed by fear; we may not be riddled with arthritis but we have all known pain; we may not have been subjected to abuse but we have all known the effects of unkind and deeply hurtful remarks and it is thus that we are helped and enabled to show true compassion.

At the end of our gospel reading today we learn that Jesus went, at last, into the peace of the mountains to pray and find refuge in the compassionate love of God. May we too in our sharing of compassion with others also know the healing compassion of God in our lives.

I’d like to end with these words from a poem by Lyn McGrave subtitled ‘A young Doctor’s Discernment’
The white -coated people speak of the test but touch not being.
And I stand by the bed in a white coat and weep alone.
I have walked near flowing waters and felt the touch of Love. The only healing.
And I can remember when I saw my Beloved smiling behind the pleading eyes of pain.
So shall I rise, casting off my iron-coat and seek the Healer in the wildernes

Homily for Sunday 11 July 
Delivered in Christ Church 
Text:  Mark 6 verses 14-29

And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Matthew 28 verse 20

The one promise I can still recite from memory is the old Girl Guide promise which stated ‘I promise to do my best. To do my duty to God and the Queen. To help other people at all times and obey the Guide Law.’ Nowadays this promise has been amended to become more inclusive of people with different beliefs and so promises to ‘be true to myself and develop my beliefs but otherwise is almost the same.

But such formal promises aside we all make promises of one sort and another practically every day. ‘I promise I won’t be late’, I promise myself that today I will tidy the garage or that store cupboard’ I promise I’ll come and visit you’ And I’m sure all of us, if we are honest, can think of numerous promises we frequently make and, if you’re anything like me, frequently break. Because breaking promises is very much a human failing as surely we are all too well aware and sometimes we can be very hurt and feel scorned and even rejected by someone’s broken promise. And here it must also be said that sometimes, however hard we try, we are forced to break promises as anyone who has been through a painful and unsought for divorce will testify.

Our Bible reading this morning told the story of a very unwise promise which nonetheless was kept and the question we need to ask ourselves is: would we have kept it in similar circumstances? Imagine yourselves to be a great ruler and you’re throwing an ultra- big, completely over the top birthday bash specifically designed to impress your guests and you  are now in an extremely benevolent, good -humoured mood, no doubt having enjoyed at least a glass or two of some delightful and highly alcoholic drink. And here comes this gorgeous young girl who dances quite exquisitely and indeed, I suspect, somewhat suggestively, and your eyes are almost bulging out of our head as she weaves her spell of entrancement. And you’re so carried away that without any careful consideration you make the rashest of promises: ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ I think, sitting here, all of us can recognize that whatever the outcome this really was not the most sensible solemn promise to make and I’m sure there were quite a few gasps around the room as the guests speculated as to just what the girl would ask for.

And, in consultation with her mother, the answer came back; ‘the head of John the Baptist on a platter’ was to be the fulfilment of that rash promise. My goodness can’t you just hear the gasps around the room now as those fatal words are spoken. And what do you, as the person having made that promise, now feel? Aghast? Horrified? Mortified even? Just what have you done, and can it be undone? The answer is that unless you want to lose all face, lose all street cred with those present and, indeed, with your subjects as a whole when the news leaks out and thus forever be regarded as a weak and very foolish person instead of a strong but foolish person, you must keep that promise. The head of poor John the Baptist must be produced at the feast; the ultimate penalty he must pay for his outspoken condemnation of wrong- doing by Herod and his wife Herodias. Condemnation which had turned Herodias’s heart to stone and to bitter enmity against John. And my goodness what a turn off to all the previous jollity and bonhomie of that now infamous birthday bash as that blood dripping head is brought in. I simply can’t imagine anyone stayed long after that but said their goodbyes as speedily as possible and rushed home to bed feeling shocked and undoubtedly very queasy. And what about our dancer? Her mother may have had her virulent spite rewarded but surely her daughter must have felt just a bit cheesed off thinking of just what she might have had instead of a bloody head for all her artistic efforts; just a smallish diamond would surely have been a better reward for all that provocative exercise. And Herod himself had to live out the rest of  his life knowing that his rash promise had resulted in the horrific death of  a good man. A good man who was unafraid to speak the truth no matter what it cost him  had indeed paid the ultimate price for his moral rectitude.

Herod kept his promise and in the nature of what we understand by a promise that was the right thing to do. The wrong thing was making a very rash unthought through promise in the first place just as I’m sure we have all done from time to time, but hopefully not nearly as rash as that of Herod.  And thinking about this some might even consider that God’s promises to us are a bit rash given that we are so far from perfect and so fallible The promise that we will always be his people and he will be our God (Jeremiah 31 verse 33); the promise that he is our keeper (Ps121) and will hold us by our right hand (Psalm 139); the promise that ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28 verse 20). The Bible is literally  strewn with God’s promises to us; promises we can be absolutely certain will be kept; promises that have already stood the test of time; promises that in today’s uncertain world can give us both hope and strength as we in turn try to keep our promises to God.

Promises which it struck me are encapsulated in this baptismal profession of faith. 
Do you believe and trust in God the Father? I believe and trust in him.
Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ? I believe and trust in him.
Do you believe and trust in his Holy Spirit? I believe and trust in him.

It is not just the affirmation of belief that is so important here but the inherent promise in that affirmation to trust always in God; trust with complete confidence in all those promises he has made to us, his children.  David Adam puts it this way: ‘Faith is a commitment of love to a loving God who is ever with us and will never leave us.’ In making this affirmation of faith, can we recognize that we are also committing ourselves to a promise of trust?  A commitment which will surely carry us through not just the green pastures but, more importantly, the dark valleys and all the uncertainties of life. A promise of trust that when we fail, when we break so many of our other promises, both to God and to others, his promise of merciful forgiveness will stand firm. If we can maintain this promise of trust, trust with all our heart, in his amazing wonderful, never to be broken promises to us and his purposes for us, no matter what, then I think we will find ourselves truly blessed in all that we do. Blessed so that slowly but surely we will draw a little nearer to the wonder and the majesty that is God and begin to understand what is meant by his promise that he will be with us to the end of the world. 

The Lord delights in those who fear him; who put their trust in his steadfast love.  Psalm 147 verse 12

I will be with you by Malcolm Guite
Your final words fulfil your ancient name,
A promise hidden in Emanuel,
A promise that can never fade or fail;
I will be with you till the end of time;
I will be with you when you scale the height,
And with you when you fall to earth again,
With you when you flourish in the light,
And with you through the shadow and the pain.
Our God with us, you leave and yet remain
Risen and hidden with us everywhere;
Hidden and flowing in the wine we share,
Broken and hidden in the growing grain.
Be with us till we know we are forgiven,
Be with us here till we’re with you in heaven.

Sunday 4 July
Virginia is away.

Homily for Sunday 27 June
Texts: Psalm 130, Mark 5 verses 21-endMay bush in full flower

My guess is that everyone who reads this has on numerous occasions prayed for someone who is ill or suffering in some way; prayed often from the depths of their heart that they might be healed and made better. We can surely all know exactly how the psalmist felt when he penned those lines: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.’ But alongside such prayer I am also sure that everyone has known the frustration and sometimes bitter disappointment, anger even, of not apparently having those prayers answered, however fervent they may have been. Times when God simply did not seem to be paying the slightest attention to the ‘voice of my supplications.’ Just the other day I was asked to pray in the neonatal unit for a doctor who was desperately trying to insert a canula into an infinitesimally small vein of a premature baby and found my prayers unanswered. It seemed in the grand scale of things quite a simple request but God, no doubt, had his reasons why my pleas were seemingly ignored. But were they? For within a matter of just a couple of weeks this same baby was at long long last beginning to thrive, and everyone could once more entertain hope for her future.  Now, she is doing so well there is even talk of transferring her to the original booking hospital. On the ‘day of the canula’, if I can call it that, such an event seemed all but impossible but God, once again, proved that He moves in mysterious ways. Whether that doctor is now deeply cynical about the power of prayer I do not know, although what I do know is that there will be many other times when I will be asked to pray in that Unit. Prayers that may or may not be directly answered but will be made in faith that ultimately God’s will is always done.

Today’s gospel account tells of not one but two of Jesus’ healing miracles and we can only begin to guess at the sheer joy and sense of relief felt first by that poor woman who had suffered for so long and then by Jairus and his family as their little daughter was restored to health. Both miracles; both providing evidence of Christ’s power to overcome illness and suffering and replace them with all the blessings of good health.  And here it might be pertinent to recognize that while Jesus performed what, in effect, were a limited number of miraculous healings, he never for one moment restored the entire population amongst whom he moved to perfect good health. Miracles still happen but, in the nature of miracles, they are not, nor can we expect them to be, everyday events; but the healing power of Christ, I believe, is always there; a constant on which we can implicitly trust. 

Throughout the pandemic so many millions upon millions of prayers have been said for those affected by the Corona virus; sometimes those prayers have been personal and at other times more general with the realisation that this truly is a virus that has spread across the world bringing immense suffering and an ever mounting death toll in its wake. People have died and people have suffered often for many months no matter how heartfelt the prayers have been articulated for them. Are all those prayers ignored or simply rejected?  Surely our faith teaches us that they are not. What I believe is that all our prayers are heard, and all are used in God’s purposes for us and for his world, but we have to accept that those purposes can never begin to be fully understood by us and that God’s time is not, and never will be, our time. God’s pending tray may at times be extremely full but I am sure we can be confident that however full it is never left unattended.

I think too that we have to be much more willing to accept the reality of death while at the same time recognizing that death is not, and cannot be, the end of the story. We only have to look at the example of God’s own beloved Son, Jesus Christ whose suffering on the cross was never for one moment alleviated and which took him through death and beyond into all the wonder and glory of resurrected life. When someone’s death is patently imminent then surely our prayers should never be for some miraculous recovery but for the healing touch of peace to take hold of them and bring them safely through that gateway of death into the joy of heaven. Those lovely words from the Benedictus always seem so appropriate for someone near death rather than an impassioned plea for the reversal of nature. ‘In the tender mercy of out God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

So, there is I think no doubt that we have to accept that at times our prayers for actual and complete physical and even mental healing will not be answered in that manner but, that said,I am absolutely sure that all such prayers are listened to and responded as I’ve stressed  in God’s time and in His chosen manner. And I am also quite sure that, in ways we will never properly understand, our prayers for healing will, if nothing else, bring to the sufferer spiritual healing bringing a sense of peace and of being surrounded by God’s love and the love expressed in our prayers. A cancer sufferer said to me only this week that whenever she goes to Mount Alvernia for treatment she has a very real sense of peace as she enters that building. A peace, I’m sure, is due in part from the prayers of all the nuns who used to live there.

Our prayers, our support, our gentle words of encouragement and love do make a difference and do, through God’s infinite grace and mercy, bring healing, if not in body, certainly in spirit . Healing not just to those for whom we pray but also our own healing of the  anxiety and concern we experience for the suffering of those for whom we offer up our prayers.

I would like to end with these words of Michael Mayne who suffered with a debilitating illness for over a year in just the same way that so many sufferers of Long Covid are doing at this present time.
Jesus did not offer people perfect heath and a painless death. Human minds and bodies are fragile and vulnerable. What he offers is eternal life: a new relationship with God of such a quality that nothing may happen to us which can destroy it. And it is the kind of confidence and trust in God, come what may, which is the true healing of the human spirit.’

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord. 

O Israel hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. Psalm 130.

Homily for Sunday 20 June
Delivered at St Johns Wotton

Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned. I have called you by name; you are mine.     Isaiah 43

Texts: 2 Corinthians 6 verses 1-13, Mark 4 verses 35-41

Fear is an emotion known to all humans and is in part essential for our survival. Fear is an in built instinctive response to a threat of harm  be it  either physical or psychological and helps us to respond in a manner that aids our survival The response will be to either freeze, fight or flight; so if one is confronted by  a bellowing bull it’s probably best  not to freeze but to run for your life whereas if it’s your child or a loved one who is threatened by that same bull you just might be prepared to at the very least stand firm and eyeball the creature in the hope he changes his mind about attacking! Running from the bully in the playground or at work will not make life better but standing up to them, if only by a show of ignoring them, could well persuade them to leave you alone.

Reading today’s gospel account of those disciples terrified out of their wits by the violence of the sudden storm sweeping across the Sea of Galilee it struck me that experiencing fear is a bit like being storm tossed as wave after wave of dread engulfs you and you are rendered seemingly completely helpless by its power. I’m sure everyone has stored away in their memories times when fear held you in its grip and you were, to all intents and purposes, frightened out of your wits. And did you, I wonder, freeze, take flight or stand firm and fight?  I remember vividly crossing a field on a perfectly legitimate footpath suddenly being chased not by a bull but by an extremely antisocial horse who obviously had strong objections to my presence in his, or it may have been her, field. I took flight with horse very much on my heels and found myself pinned against a gate unable to move and in no position to attempt to clamber over. Fortunately, horse finally decided it had had its fun and ambled off a few yards, at which point I breathed a huge sigh of relief and scrambled over the gate still feeling very shaken.

But back to those fear drenched disciples who were all too aware of the often deadly power of a storm raging across the Sea of Galilee and knew that they were in no position to flee from it or to defeat it in some way. Nature can as we must surely all appreciate at times be all powerful.

And, through all the stomach churning tossing and turning, Jesus slept on, exhausted by all that he had been doing. How could he? How could he not be aware of the peril they were in of imminent death? What sort of man was he? Is it any wonder they woke him because if there was just one person who could help them now it surely had to be Jesus. And of course, he did have the greater power to fight the raging elements and to overcome the thrusts of the storm causing the wind to cease and the sea to become once more calm as a mill pond.  And it was then that he challenged those awe- struck disciples and asked ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ We are not told if they made any response to such questions merely that their feelings of awe grew and intensified as they recognised this man’s power to not just heal the sick and the lame but to have power over the wind and the waves.

So the question for us this morning is how much trust do we have in our Lord’s power to save and rescue us from our fears? When fear engulfs us are we always aware that we are not alone, that the presence of the Lord is right beside us? Do we trust or do we feel that we have been abandoned and alone as those disciples did as Jesus slept on seemingly unconscious of their fears? Trust comes from a Middle English word meaning protection and thus trust in God should indicate that we are confident that, no matter what, we are under his protection. He does hold us by our right hand; he does shelter us under the shadow of his wing.

Over the past months of the pandemic, have we allowed the intensity of the media-generated fear to feed on our own natural fears arising from the pandemic or have we held onto our trust in God that he is with us and that our help comes not just from PPE, social distancing and vaccinations but from him? Have we experienced that perfect love that casts out fear, or is that asking too much of our often somewhat limited  and faltering faith?

Fear is real and can at times appear all consuming but so is God’s presence and that is what will carry us through those turbulent waves to the calm seas. Just read Paul’s words to the Corinthians and be inspired by them. My goodness didn’t that man suffer and surely he must have known considerable fear as he was threatened with yet another cruel beating or more time incarcerated in some dank cell plus all the other calamities that assailed him including of course shipwreck on more than one occasion. And yet his faith carried him through, and it shines out so brilliantly in his words where he speaks of bearing all these fearful tribulations with patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love and most of all the power of God. The power of God to carry all of us through the fears that confront us in life.  And here I am reminded once again of the words of Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who, when asked afterwards, where was God in that man-made hell invoking fears none of us could even begin to imagine his answer was: ‘God was there himself-violated and blasphemed.’ God whose Son had Himself been violated and blasphemed and must surely have known fear just like any of us as his life was increasingly threatened but he also knew above all else the invincible power of God. 

Yes, life in 2021 presents us with many fears both global and personal, but God grant that through our faith in Him and his power we may always know the truth of  these words written by a doctor who came to the UK alone as a child refugee from Afghanistan: ‘The most important lesson to learn is that life is not what happens to you but how you respond.’

Homily for Sunday 13 June
Delivered at Christ Church
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown to spring up, so the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations. Isaiah 61 verse 11

Find the door of your heart, you will discover it is the door to the kingdom of God.’ John Chryostom

Text: Mark 4 verses 26-34

Until I looked it up I did not know that the United Kingdom is one of only forty four countries to have a crowned head and, in fact, there are only twenty nine monarchs all told because our Queen is also the reigning monarch of no less than fifteen other countries. And of those twenty nine all are what termed constitutional monarchs and only Saudi Arabia boasts an absolute monarch who can and does do exactly as he likes with no restraints. The word monarch comes from the Greek word meaning authority but for twenty- eight of the world’s present crowned heads that authority is limited although I did learn that in fact the Queen is at liberty to declare war, veto laws and dismiss her Government but would only do so having consulted with her Government whom I’m sure would certainly argue against the last of these regal rights.

In today’s world it’s the big tech giants and on-line retailers who, in effect, have built extraordinarily large empires for themselves and their ‘rule’ is felt in the lives of millions and it would seem in many instances that they have no watchful government to challenge their decisions or give advice. The problem of how to tax such mega companies is just one which has occupied the minds of governments around the world. They are, I believe, simply too big, too powerful and go their own way and all too often appear to make their own laws.

But today we are concerned with a completely different sort of kingdom, namely the kingdom of God; the ultimate kingdom. In the UK we have all sorts of evidence that we are ruled by a monarch be it our stamps or coinage all with a portrait of the Queen wearing a crown to all the various institutions which can boast the title ‘Royal’ such as the Royal Horticultural Society, the Royal Opera House, the Royal British Legion etcetera etcetera And then there  are also the Royal Warrant holders ranging from Abel’s Moving Services to Wren’s Super Wax Shoe Polish. And, finally, let us not forget that criminal trials are carried out in Crown Courts where the accused can surely not fail to notice the great coat of royal arms above the judge’s head. 

So, what evidence do we have that the Kingdom of Heaven exists, the Kingdom that belongs to the absolute monarch God himself? Can we glimpse branches of that great tree sheltering a multitude of birds? Can we recognize that there is, in reality, another sort of kingdom whose authority although absolute is also often at complete odds to the authority shown by actual kings and queens and by those who have built and rule over vast commercial empires?  A kingdom where the mighty are put down and the humble and meek exalted. Re evidence we do, of course, have our cathedrals, churches and chapels and some people will even wear a crucifix or have a fish motif on the back of their car, but is this really evidence of the kingdom or merely that some people call themselves Christians, for there is a difference? We can go to church each Sunday but that does not mean that we are helping establish the kingdom of God as we are called to do; are we, in effect, Royal Warrant Holders serving the Lord our God with our gifts and our faith? Richard Holloway said, ‘Christianity is not a way of explaining the world but disturbing the world.’ Disturbing the world so that we can be seen to be trying to bring God’s kingdom values here on earth. The Kingdom values of justice, mercy, peace and love for all. Radical values which are very much at odds with, say, the values of such kingdom builders as  Bezos, Musk and Zuckerberg. Kingdom values which are for all God’s children and not just a privileged few. Kingdom values where all have enough to eat, have clean water and education, access to justice and the joy of waking every morning to the peace and love to be found in a world without conflict. Kingdom values based on those two great commandments which supersede all the plethora of manmade laws which control our lives. Love God, Love our neighbour.

And it is our Gospel reading which tells us how we can work for such a kingdom here on earth, of how we can disturb the world. It is by sowing tiny seeds of kindness, of love, of hope in arid places where such blessings are in short supply. For I firmly believe that every time we sow such a seed there is the opportunity for it to grow as others learn to respond in the same manner. Trystan Hughes confirms this view when he writes. ‘We therefore open our eyes to his kingdom in the simple, everyday moments, as we recognise his presence in moments of love or grace which we witness. With him, though, such moments don’t stay mundane. When we actively recognize him in the rich colourful tapestry of our everyday lives, he makes the ordinary extraordinary - his grace causes everything to exceed itself, and his light causes everything to double itself.’ Isn’t that a wonderful thought that, when we try to bring his kingdom nearer by tiny acts of love and grace, he causes them to exceed the act itself and not just to double it but treble and quadruple it until it grows as that mustard seed did? To make the ordinary become extraordinary.

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are both  aiming to become travellers in space, their eyes fixed on the heavens above but we, if we truly believe in the Kingdom of God, must look downwards and find the heavens below heeding the words of Jack Kerouac: ‘If God isn’t somewhere out there in heaven, he’s right here in the dirt.’ God’s kingdom is literally a world away from those created by the likes of Musk, Bezos and Zuckerberg.

One of the most wonderful blessings of my life comes in the opportunity to bless premature babies in the Neonatal Unit. It is something I offer to all the families, and they are free to choose and many of them do. But perhaps what makes this such a special time is that the families may not profess any real practising religion, or they may be of a religion that is not Christian. For instance just this week I blessed a Hindu baby, but to me I am convinced that in blessing their precious babies the kingdom of heaven is apparent there in that room filled with medical equipment and beeping monitors. And my prayer afterwards is that in some way this moment will take root and grow for that family into a greater realisation of the presence of the kingdom of heaven which shelters all God’s children in its branches.

Each act of blessing that each of us do to make real the kingdom values here on earth has the capacity to grow and to nurture others.  John Chrysostom tells us ‘Find the door of your heart, you will discover it is the door to the kingdom of God.’ May we be granted the grace to find the doors of our hearts and in acts of love, kindness and mercy to those in need find we truly are Warrant Holders in God’s kingdom.

Thy Kingdom Come by Malcolm Guite
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.
Can we imagine what we’re asking for?
When all we know and all we think we’re worth
As vanity might vanish, disappear,
Fading before the splendours you reveal;
The beggars crowned with glory, all the meek
Exalted even as the mighty fall,
And everywhere the triumph of the weak.

And we, who have been first, will be the last
And queue for mercy like the refugees
Whom only moments earlier we passed
By on the other side. For now the seas
That separated are no more. The sun
Is risen like justice, and his will is done.

Homily for Sunday 6 June
Texts: Psalm 138,  Mark 3 verses 20-end

And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.  Mark 3 verses 34-35

Two articles I have read recently caused me to stop and think about yet another effect that this global pandemic is having upon our world. The first was detailing how, in the Ukraine, because of the conflict in the Crimea and the impact of Coronavirus, many children have been taken unnecessarily into state run institutions and in particular disabled children. The article had these words: ‘Desperate parents see orphanages as the only way to provide support for their children.’

The second article revealed the plight of children in India who have been orphaned by the pandemic and left destitute. The figure is put at around eight thousand children with the caveat that the final figure is likely to be far higher. Children who now have no means of support unless other family members, who may themselves be in extreme poverty because of the crisis, take them in and care for them.

Here, in this country, we no longer have orphanages but we do have some four hundred thousand children in social care amounting to around three percent of all the UK’s children. Also, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of the effect that the pandemic has had here in increasing poverty and the growing number of children who are having to seek basic nourishment from food banks.

The ideal of living in a happy closely knit family is not always a reality and for many children around the world they have no real concept of what such an ideal would mean. Teenage children such as those in North Korea who having been brought up in orphanages have now apparently ‘volunteered to work in difficult fields (such as coal mines.)’  And we have to be honest with ourselves and recognize that many families could now be described as dysfunctional in one way or another, and it’s definitely not always a case of Janet and John living happy fulfilled lives with their parents, grandparents and assorted family members. And again, we need to remind ourselves of the devastating effect that the pandemic has had on the freedom to visit family whenever and wherever one chose. 

Today’s gospel reading can seem very harsh on the surface as Jesus appears to reject his close family members. But of course I am sure this was in reality far from the truth for as we know as Jesus endured all the agony of the cross he was still able to look to the suffering of his own mother as he watched and ensured that she would be looked after and cared for by John.

Surely what Jesus was trying to do as he said those words,’ Who are my mother and my brothers?’ was to point his listeners and us to the teaching revealed in the prayer Jesus himself taught us that we are all God’s children. God is ‘Abba; God is ‘Father’. And if that is so then surely, we are in effect all brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers., all family members. We are one family for again was not Abraham told that through him and his offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed?

We are often told we live nowadays in a global village and the fortunes and more probably the misfortunes of people all around the world are continually being relayed to us by the media. So often we can feel completely overwhelmed by the tragedies, the cruelties and the sheer numbers we are given of those affected and it is so much easier just to switch off and concentrate on our own small concerns, our own family problems. But what surely Jesus is pointing us to do is to be prepared to expand our horizons and to open our eyes and to see God’s children and their needs not simply right beside us but far further afield. And as I paused at that moment to enjoy a mug of coffee I wondered just how many families both here and abroad had been involved in ensuring that I had not just the ingredients but also the power needed to make it. And were they too able to relax as I was for a few minutes or was their life one of constant hard grind and poorly paid work as they tried to provide for their families? So much we simply take for granted; so much we choose to ignore; so much we regard as a right and not a blessing.

Earlier in today’s gospel reading Jesus speaks these words:  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.’ For God’s kingdom to be realised we have to act together in His name. The kingdom of God is one kingdom in which all are equal brothers and sisters; all are one family and it cannot be divided. We may sometimes dream, as many Scots now do, of our own special kingdom with just the people in it whom we most like and feel a kinship with or whose opinions and approach to life accord with ours  but that is not and never can be the true kingdom. If we are truly to walk in the steps of Christ then we have to accept that we will find as our travelling companions a multitude of different people all of whom like us are God’s children and hence our brothers and sisters, our mothers, our fathers. We are called to have a relationship with God and with all His children; we cannot have just the first if we are to be true to our faith, our calling to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’.

I would like to end with these words of Desmond Tutu: ‘In God’s family there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian. Hutu and Tutsi. Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian-all belong…. we are members of one family. We belong… God says, ‘All are my children.’ It is shocking. It is radical.’

Homily for Sunday 30 May, Trinity Sunday
Delivered at St Marys Holmbury
Texts: Psalm 29, John 3 verses 1-17

It struck me that today’s gospel reading was entirely appropriate for Trinity Sunday as it describes Nicodemus’ bafflement at the very idea that one could be born from above for, surely, bafflement is something we also experience in trying to make sense of the concept of a Trinitarian God. I may of course be wrong, and you may have this extraordinarily perplexing theological concept all carefully worked out in your mind but for me it is one that is a part of the unfathomable mystery and wonder that is one God and yet simultaneously God who is three in one. 

Nicodemus was totally bewildered at the very idea that in some way it was possible to be born again, born from above for surely birth was a once in a lifetime experience. An experience which interestingly none of us can have any memory of as we slid from the darkness of the womb into the light of the world. And we can now recognize, as I hope Nicodemus came to understand, that being born from above, born of the Spirit, takes us from the darkness of a marred and sinful world into the glorious light of the divine presence that was revealed by the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The divine presence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit that, today, we celebrate on Trinity Sunday. There are a multitude of theological tomes written on this subject but there are two writers whose words on the subject have really struck a chord with me, namely Sam Wells and Richard Rohr. Sam Wells writes: ‘God is three persons in one substance. God isn’t a thing…. God is a relationship. God is a relationship of three persons, so wonderfully shaped towards one another, so wondrously with one another, that they are one, but so exquisitely diverse and distinct within that unity that they are three. With is the key to the identity of the God who is.’ These last words of Wells  of  course echo the meaning of Emmanuel  which quite simply translates as ‘God with us'.

What Wells and Richard Rohr in his book The Divine Dance are both suggesting is that we are invited to be part of that divine friendship, that divine dance and, in so doing, will know something of the wonder of being born from above and in a sense be made free of the restraints imposed by a material and self- possessed world. The Trinitarian God reaches out to all of us to be with Him in that friendship, that love, that interplay of diversity which makes up the whole. Rohr points us too to look at the Rublev icon of The Trinity where the three persons are shown as ‘eating and drinking in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves.’ But he goes on to say that the more you study the icon the more you come to realise that there is room at the table for a fourth person and that each of us is invited to be ‘a participant at this banquet and as a partner in God’s eternal dance of love and communion.’ Isn’t that the most wonderful joy giving idea that we are invited to share in the eternal dance of love and communion?

And it is here that I think we need to return to the story of Nicodemus and the necessity of being born from above. I am sure that almost all, if not all of you, here has been baptised and again probably have absolutely no memory of that occasion although there may be photos or a Baptism Card to verify that it did actually happen. But I think we need, in a way, to allow ourselves to be renewed and blessed within the Spirit of the Trinitarian God not on just one day of which we have no recall but on every day. The words of the hymn remind us that ‘New ev’ry morning is the love; our wak’ning and uprising prove; through sleep and darkness safely brought, restored to life and pow’r and thought.’ Do we recognize that each and every morning we are re-awakened, restored and re-energised within God’s love to live out another day with Him and for Him? Can we ensure that ‘the trivial round, the common task, will furnish all we need to ask’ and will indeed bring us daily nearer God?  Do we allow ourselves time to be conscious of the fact that, however mundane or humble our lives, in living out those lives with God we are part of the divine dance Rohr speaks about; that we are truly part of the relationship that exists between God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit? Such an understanding of this relationship with the divine is absolutely mind boggling and awe inspiring but it was Jesus Himself who taught us to speak of God as Father and of His love for us His children. 

The divine dance Rohr writes about is undoubtedly a dance of love and that is the dance we are asked to join in however clumsy, left-footed or ungainly we may be. And here I am reminded of my disabled Granddaughter who just loves to be included in any dancing which may occur albeit she is bodily confined to a wheelchair. God wants us, whoever we are to share with Him who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in that dance of love. A love perfectly encapsulated in these words of St Patrick: ‘The Father created us out of His love and for His love. The Son redeemed us by His love and for His love. The Spirit sustains us with His love and for His love. The Holy Three seek us in love and for love.’?

Nicodemus was mystified and left puzzled by the words of Jesus but we know that he must somehow have grasped some of their intent and what they meant for him personally, in that he had the courage to go openly with Joseph of Arimathea to lay Jesus’s body in the tomb in marked contrast to that first meeting when he came covertly by night. We will undoubtedly continue to be mystified and puzzled by not just the theology of the  Trinity but by the wonder and awe that the very idea God inspires in us and of which today’s psalm speaks with such passion.

But leaving aside the mystery and all the unanswered questions, the doubts too, can we hold fast to those words of St Patrick and respond in love and take joyous delight in joining in the divine dance. The divine dance of God’s creation in which we too can use our creative talents for the good and prosperity of God’s world. He divine dance of Christ’s Love in which we can discover new dance steps to show the love of care and compassion to all God’s children. The divine dance of the Holy Spirit in which we engage in new routines to engage others in the Good News that God is with us now, tomorrow and for all eternity? Can we recognize that every single moment of our lives is a God given opportunity to participate  with the Holy Trinity in the divine dance of love and communion?

Homily for Sunday 23 May, Pentecost
Delivered at St Johns, Wotton
Look graciously upon us, O Holy Spirit, and give us for our hallowing, thoughts that pass into prayer, prayers that pass into love, and love that passes into life with thee for ever.  Eric Milner-White   

Texts: Acts 2 verses1-21, John 15 verses 26-27, 16 verses 4b -15

If I asked you to pay the word association game and said the word ‘spirit’ I wonder what your immediate response would be. I tried it with my daughter and grandchildren and my daughter responded ‘ghosties’ and then admitted that she could just as easily have said ‘gin; my granddaughter said ‘animal’ which struck me as completely random, but it was for her the word that sprung immediately to mind, and my grandson said ‘live’ as in alive. Another response which might be given is ‘fighting’ and of course for those reading this we would most quite probably be influenced by the occasion and come up with ‘Holy’. This said I’m sure for the vast majority of the population this latter response would never even occur to them and sadly many would have no idea what was being talked about. 

The idea of just what we mean by spirit is not an easy one to answer as it can have so many connotations but today, on Pentecost Sunday, it’s the Holy Spirit which we have to consider; the Holy Spirit which in the King James’ version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer is called the Holy Ghost  so my daughter’s response was fitting. I must say I personally am happier with the nomenclature Holy Spirit as Holy Ghost smacks too much of Halloween and people draped in white sheets trying to look scary.

And that makes me wonder how scared were all those people in Jerusalem that day when the Holy Spirit made what has to have been its most dramatic appearance, not with white sheets, but with the sound like the rush of a violent wind and divided tongues as of fire and all the disciples upon whom the Spirit had rested were suddenly given the power to preach in a multitude of languages so that all present might understand their words? The Bible account does not make it entirely clear as to whether only the disciples sensed the wind and fire, but everyone certainly heard them start speaking with such passion and fluency. Is it any wonder that many accused them of having tasted of another sort of spirit that morning?

But today, as we celebrate Pentecost in our churches and our homes, just what does the Holy Spirit mean to us? In fact, does it have any very real meaning or is it in effect just an add on to God the Father and God the Son? Both God the Father and God the Son are in a sense easy to identify with and to have some sort of mental picture of albeit possibly an erroneous one, but God the Holy Spirit is I think a far more challenging concept. Richard Rohr writes that ‘the Spirit was always the hardest to describe, and even Jesus acknowledges this: “the Spirit blows where it will”. And Rohr goes on to suggest that because of this we can never control the Spirit, since we have no idea where it comes from or where it goes, or even say who has the Spirit. In other words, like my granddaughter’s response, the Holy Spirit is very much a random force in the outpouring of the divine Trinity. Of course, especially in evangelical churches, there is great emphasis on the Spirit and it might seem to us who perhaps prefer a less exuberant, more reserved style of worship that they somehow possess more of the gifts of the Holy Spirit than we do but I agree with Rohr that we cannot easily define who has the Spirit and who may lack knowing the reality of such a divine gift. Doesn’t everyone have a spiritual side even if they would never acknowledge it publicly? 

Yes, on that first great revelation of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem it was all too apparent who had the Spirit even if it was mistaken for quite another sort of spirit but from then on, through the centuries, I believe that the Holy Spirit has chosen to make its presence felt in people’s lives less dramatically perhaps but just as profoundly. It has been and always will be very much ‘live’ in our world and in shaping our particular spirituality. And here I have to say that for me the wonder of the Holy Spirit is found in the ability it seems to have in showing me where I might find just the right reference; just the right words for my sermons. Again and again, I have found a page of a book almost opening at some particularly apt page and been forcibly struck by the mystery that lies behind such an often repeated occurrence.

But I think even more importantly the Holy Spirit can, if we allow it, lead us into that quiet place of our heart where we will have a very real sense of the presence of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, Rohr states that in our desire to find God and to understand more about his infinite love for us the Holy Spirit ‘will get you there, as the Holy Spirit always does.’ In the same way Ian Adams writes in one of his supremely sensitive poems ‘Wait for the right time. Wait for the divine revealing. Wait for the Holy Spirit.’

And what is it exactly we are waiting for? Here we are given a clue in the words for Morning Prayer these past ten days, ‘Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in us the fire of your love.’ Surely that is exactly what the Holy Spirit did on that first Pentecost when there was not only the outward sign of tongues of fire but inner tongues that inspired those disciples and loosened their tongues to tell of God’s supreme love for us His children revealed in the life, the death and the glorious resurrection of His Son.

Today there will be no rushing wind, no tongues of fire, no ghosties or animals,or even a bottle of gin  for that matter, but there will always be the Holy Spirit who is live among us. Remember the word association game is designed to trap one player into repeating the word that the game began with and for us the Holy Spirit may blow where it will but it will always return to us to kindle in us the fire of God’s love.

O come Holy Spirit, inflame our hearts, set them on fire with love. Burn away my self-centredness so that I can love unselfishly. Breathe your life giving breath into our soul so that we can live freely and joyously, unrestricted by self-consciousness, and may be ready to go wherever you may send us. Come like a gentle breeze and give us your still peace so that we may be quiet and know the wonder of your presence, and help diffuse it in the world. Never let us  shut you out; never let us try to limit me to your capacity; act freely in us and through us; never leave us O Lord and Giver of Life.
Michael Hollings & Etta Gullick

Wait for the Divine Spirit
There is no rush
Allow time to become a gift.
Accept slow.
And wait.

Wait for the right time.
Wait for the divine revealing.
Wait for the Holy Spirit.

And allow yourself to be drawn in close.
Your spirit and the Holy Spirit
In a dance of life, of love, and of light.
Wait for the Holy Spirit                                           
Ian Adams

Homily for Sunday16 May
Texts: Psalm 1, John 17 verses 6-19

I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.’ John 17 verse 12b

For a long time now I have felt so sorry for Judas, the ‘one destined to be lost’ and feel that his place in the story of Christ’s death has, in a sense, been misunderstood and definitely mis-interpreted. For one I think the very fact that his name was Judas and hence immediately connected to the word Jew has, in part, led to the terrible and systematic persecution of Jews down the centuries on the grounds that they were responsible for Jesus’ death; responsible, in fact, for deicide. And tragically, today we still find that Jews are persecuted and widely discriminated against as for example has seen to be the case with the Labour Party.

Technically yes, it was a Jew, who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders and it was the High Priest and his Council who engineered his death, but remember Jesus himself was very much a Jew; he was not a Christian. In reviling Jews we are, in one sense, reviling Jesus himself. Had God chosen to send His Son to another part of the world it might well have been us or the Russians or the Nigerians who would have been seen as responsible for his death. For God’s true purposes for us his children to be revealed Christ had to suffer death. There was no other way that it could be achieved and as the gospel reading tells us, Judas’ part in that death was in fulfilment of the scriptures.

The more I think about it I feel that Judas, in a sense, represents all of us who have, from time to time, been responsible for betraying someone; from turning away from them and turning against them. How many times have family break-ups occurred because of a sense of betrayal by one member or another? How many times have friendships come to a bitter end because of a sense of betrayal? How many times have work colleagues fallen out because of a sense of betrayal, a sense of someone going behind your back and sticking the knife in? Basil Hume writes: ‘There is no greater betrayal of another than to fail to love him, and one of the most tragic aspects of our modern society is the betrayal of one by another: it is the failure to love.’ Now there is food for thought.

I think Judas’ action of betrayal epitomises the responses of all humans who, at one time or another, have felt disappointed in their expectations and frustrated by a seeming lack of action in which  their own little private dreams have not been realised. Jesus had continually preached about the coming Kingdom and I am quite sure that Judas was not alone in jumping to the conclusion that Jesus must be talking about a time when the Jewish people would no longer be subject to Roman Rule and would once more be a free people. Isn’t that the dream of all oppressed people who know the whip hand of those who have assumed power over them? Look right now at the Independence movement in Scotland where so many Scots feel that they are being subject to the dictats of Westminster and want to be free of the restraints they feel have been imposed upon them and in particular that of Brexit. 

There had been so many people before Jesus who had tried to lead a revolt against Roman rule and it was this history which naturally made people like the Governor Pontius Pilate nervous; a fact played upon by the Jewish Council when they were demanding a death sentence for Jesus. In 4BCE at least three messianic uprisings broke out simultaneously and all were crushed by the occupying powers. Then in 6CE another Judas, Judas of Galilee, led a force of Zealots against the Romans but again they were defeated and at least two thousand of them subjected to death by crucifixion while Judas himself was flung into the sea with a millstone around his neck.  These were events that, surely, Jesus and, indeed, all his disciples would know about and the injustice and the defeats would have surely rankled within them and Judas, who was himself thought to have been a Zealot, would have felt all this perhaps more keenly; possibly even relatives of his might have been among those killed. 

We all become frustrated and harbour a sense of grievance when our personal dreams and hopes are not realised and, in our frustration, can all too easily lash out. Only this week I was talking to the Chief Executive of St Peter’s Hospital who told me of the deluge of angry and hurtful e-mails she received when St Peter’s was perceived to be lagging behind other hospitals in ensuring its staff were being vaccinated. Look at Northern Ireland; look at the desperate struggle which has now broken out between Israel and Palestine. Festering grievances and an acute desire to be free of restraints placed by others , plus of course our failure to love those we perceive as different, can and so often does lead to the outbreak of violence. The sort of violence Jews have been subjected to throughout history in part because of a manufactured grievance that they killed Christ.

And in thinking about Judas it is interesting to note these words written in the Oxford Companion to the Bible: ‘Accounts of Judas are varied, inconsistent, and influenced by the theological opinions of the writers’. For three years he had, like all the chosen disciples, doggedly followed Jesus and suffered the hardships of that peripatetic life. Had he been as terrible as tradition paints him, would Jesus have even chosen him in the first place? No, I’m sure he wasn’t any worse than any human is who commits an act of betrayal. Anymore than any of us are when we, too, have betrayed someone for whatever reason. In human form Jesus had to know and experience  the vulnerability  which is part of all human life and betrayal was just one part of such exposure  just as we too can  be exposed to experience such acts in our life- times.

In a sense I think Judas represents all of humanity in that betrayal has always happened and it is betrayal that perhaps above all else destroys the bonds of love. Judas is central to the story and his act of betrayal represents the acts of all men and women who, for whatever reason, put their own dreams and aspirations before the common good. Basil Hume writes about the ‘inner ills’ of thwarted ambition, resentment, frustration, wounds inflicted by other people; the pain that comes from feeling unappreciated, disliked rejected which can cause wounds that fester. Surely Judas knew at least some of these as do we; in our own way we can all be seen as ‘little Judases’ But, and this is what is far more important and beautifully expressed again in the words of Basil Hume: ‘as Jesus hung on the Cross a new alliance was built between God and man. The Bridge-Builder was indeed bridging the gulf which separates man from God. He was making retribution for the enormity of the insult which sin is.’

Forgiveness of sins. Isn’t that central  to and indeed the crux of  our Christian faith; forgiveness for all those myriad times we’ve failed to love as God loves us  and surely if we believe this then can anyone be so bad that they can never be once more embraced within God’s redemptive love? Ours can never be the final judgement, be it for Judas or anyone else whom we feel has wronged or betrayed us. Such judgement we must leave to God’s redemptive mercy as we try once again to love as God loves us.

In hell there grew a Judas tree where Judas hang’d and died, because he could not bear to see his Master crucified. 

The Lord descended into Hell and found his Judas there, for ever hanging on the tree grown from his own despair.

So Jesus cut his Judas down and took him in his arm; it was for this I came, he said, and not to do you harm.

My Father gave me twelve good men, and all of them I’ve kept, tho’ one betrayed and one denied, some fled and others slept.

In three days’ time I must return to make the others glad, but first I had to come to Hell and share the death you had.

My tree will grow in place of yours’ its roots strike here as well: there is no final victory, without this soul from Hell.

So when we all condemn him, as of ev’ry traitor worst, remember that of all His men Our Lord forgave him first.

Homily for Sunday 9 May
Texts: Psalm 98, John 15 verses 9-17

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

One of the problems with the English language is that we only have the one word love which has to be used whether we declare; ‘Ooh I do love mint choc ice cream’ or ‘I’d love to go to the Bahamas’ or of course ‘I do love you will you marry me?’ What lies behind such usage may vary hugely in terms of what exactly we mean by love. So, what precisely is it that Jesus is asking us to do when he asks us to love one another in the same manner as he loves us? And here it is interesting to note that Greek has no less than eight different words for love and the one which is central to the gospel is ‘agape’ which is understood as selfless universal love. Also, it is worth noting that the Hebrew word most in use to express love is ‘ahava’ which is described as more than just a word it is an emotion that involves action and where Hebrew is the national language love is a way of life. And we should surely ask ourselves is that true of our lives?

Of course, we know that the greatest and most perfect proof of his love was Jesus’ willingness to give his very life for us and indeed having commanded us to love each other, he does go on in the same gospel passage to say; ‘No one has greater love than this,  to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ But except in time of war or in quite remarkable circumstances most people will never be called upon to give up their very life for another. This said, only very recently there was the story of the remarkable twenty year old Nigerian Olubunmi-Adewole, known to his friends as Jimi, who when crossing London Bridge saw a woman fall into the Thames and he and another bystander,  despite the cold and darkness, leapt unhesitatingly into the water to try to save her and in so doing Jimi lost his own life. The last words he spoke to a friend who was with him were ‘I have to save her, I’m going to save her.’

So, in what other ways can we be expected to emulate the love of Jesus? And thinking about this it struck me that what Jesus did again and again was notice people and not only notice them but recognize their needs. One delightful example of this is when Zaccheus, desperate to catch a glimpse of this man who was grabbing everyone’s attention; knowing his stature was such he would never be able to see at the back of the crowd rushed ahead of Jesus and his disciples and climbed a sycamore tree. Now I don’t know about you, but I suspect if I was walking along minding my own business I could so easily not even notice someone was up in the branches of a tree and if I did it would surely only strike me as somewhat odd but not worth stopping for and starting a conversation with him or her let alone asking myself to dinner at their house. But Jesus not only observed Zaccheus, but far more importantly he was able to recognize that here was a man who needed to be befriended, who in fact needed to be loved. Remember tax collectors were not exactly flavour of the month back then any more than they are now and add to this prejudicial dislike was the fact that at a guess his lack of stature had, in itself, made him the butt of jokes and unkind remarks. Jesus noticed, Jesus acted and in so doing he changed a life completely. Can we say that we have done the same?

For another example, think of how Jesus noticed lepers and instead of moving away as fast as he could to avoid the risk of infection he noticed, their plight, he acted and he changed their lives. And, perhaps, in this time of pandemic this is something for us to think about and whether just sometimes it’s more important to embrace someone in need rather than stand aloof and socially distanced? 

Then if we look at the parables Jesus told there are two in particular I think which illustrate perfectly this need to notice, to act and thus to show love. The story of the Good Samaritan who despite any possible  risk to himself stopped to help the seriously injured man on the road. Unlike the priest and the Levite, he did not simply walk on but, regardless of his own safety, when he saw the need, he acted, and acted with considerable magnanimity and he not only saved that man’s life, but I suspect changed it as well.  The second example comes in the parable of the Prodigal Son whose plight when he was starving went completely un-noticed and ignored. In contrast when he made that decision to return home and, despite having broken the Jewish honour code regarding property and of respect for one’s parents, he found himself embraced once more within his father’s love. His father had seen his desperate need not just for food and shelter but to, once more, experience being truly and unhesitatingly loved. The father saw ,the father acted and that son’s life was surely turned around and restored

I know I could cite many more examples, but I hope that I have made the point that I think is central to today’s gospel, which is that in order to emulate the love of Christ we must always be prepared to notice all the people around us; notice their needs; notice their pain and act to help and alleviate such needs, such pain. It may be the tiniest act which, in the great scheme of things, seems so insignificant but that isn’t what matters. And here I would like to give an example from my own experience. My daughter was very ill in hospital in London, and I had moved into her flat so that I could be with her all through the day. Travelling back to the flat one night in a crowded rush hour tube train and undoubtedly in my distress and exhaustion looking like the proverbial dog’s dinner a young man suddenly got up from his seat and offered it to me. He had noticed, he had acted, and I will never forget that act of selfless love at a time when I needed all the love I could get.

In John’s first letter he writes: ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help. Little children let us love, not in word or in speech, but in truth and action.’ Every instance when, having noticed someone in need and acted on their behalf, we are surely displaying our willingness to live our lives in a true and obedient response to that commandment that we should love one another as Jesus has loved us. The needs may range from bothering to check what is needed in the Food Bank this week to noticing that someone is really struggling with ill health or the burdens of managing work and a family and needs a bit of comforting reassurance, or to responding to the appeal for funds to provide oxygen for the desperately overstretched  hospitals in India. So let us pray that we make it part of our Christian journey to notice the person up a tree, notice those who have been ravaged by the circumstances of their life, notice those who have been scarred in some way by the pandemic and act in love towards them whoever they may be.’ 

Love is more than just a word, it is an emotion that involves action, love is a way of life.’

If you keep in mind my mercy, you will not be mean-spirited with yourself or with your neighbour. On the contrary, you will be generous in your compassion, nourishing your neighbour with all that you have, all that I have given you.  Catherine of Siena

Homily for Sunday 2 May
Texts: 1 John 4 verses 7-end, John 15 verses 1-8

The reading from John’s gospel will strike a chord with anyone who professes to be a gardener and who knows that pruning is  essential, be it the Chelsea chop or a more dramatic prune of one’s fruit trees. Such pruning is done to encourage and promote new and more abundant growth. According to Google the time for pruning vines is late winter after all the last grapes have been picked and the vine can then go into a form of hibernation before new growth shows itself in the spring and every owner of a vineyard prays there will be no late frosts as there have been this year.

But as Jesus’s words make perfectly plain we, too, are living beings and if we are to bear fruit then we too need from time to time to be pruned so that we also go into a form of hibernation where we seek to renew our strength through the core strength of the vine. The core strength that is the presence of the living Christ within each of us. As it says in the reading from John’s first letter, ‘No one has seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.’

But for that love to be perfected we need from time to time to be pruned, to be brought up short as it were and to allow that new and fruitful growth to realised. Talk to anyone who has undergone a ‘pruning’ be it the loss of a loved one be it from death or estrangement, the loss of employment, the loss of good health, the loss even at times of hope and you will be told how, by seeking God’s healing and strength, in time such loss re-shaped them and re-directed them and they were enabled to bear fruit again. The time of such pruning can be incredibly painful, so much so that it can at times seem impossible that any new growth can occur but slowly slowly that love of God which is the essential for all growth will enable it to happen.

But it will and can only happen if we do have that absolute trust in God’s love for us and his good purposes for us. If we try to go it alone or force the growth in any way it simply will not have the same result.

These past long months since the onset of the pandemic have seen so much pruning as our lives have been re-shaped and constricted in a way we could never have imagined. But now, as restrictions are lifted, we have the potential to show new growth; to bear the fruits of the spirit in a world which at times seems incredibly short of such fruits. I think the question we all need to ask ourselves is have we, in this time of lock down, allowed not such fruits as despair, idleness, even anger and frustration to grow and fester within us but those wonderful life enhancing fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control?

And here I think it’s important to recognize that we are all unique and will all bear such fruits in different proportions and there may even be one or two we will never bear successfully. Remember there are a vast variety of grapes and they are used for a variety of purposes be it simply a deliciously sweet grape to accompany a piece of well flavoured cheese or to make some premier cru wine or even to become a piece of dried fruit such as a raisin or sultana. No grape can be all these and in the same way even the most perfect saint is unlikely to bear all the gifts of the spirit. 

We know that the pandemic has highlighted so much division within not just society here in the UK but around the world and to rebuild and restrengthen this world which is God’s we are surely called upon to use those gifts of the spirit that I trust are now ready to bear fruit. Generosity and kindness, perhaps as we recognize just how poverty stricken some people are, be it financial or spiritual poverty. Or are we now enabled to reach out in love to those who are not part of our own close circle but who are God’s children just as much as we are and whose plight of being ostracised and even demonised has been highlighted in this time of the pandemic? Have all the countless hours of watching the news blunted us or re-awakened the recognition that we do need to do far more to love one another? Have we been stirred by the example of NHS staff and essential workers to emulate their sacrifice, their heroism in some way or now the worst is over do we forget what the cost has been to such people?

Lock down was far from easy; it was in a very real sense a pruning as our normal manner of life was cut down and pared but, if we look back over that time we can, I hope, be led to see what good has come out of it and where new fruits of the spirit have sprouted in us, in other people and, most importantly, in the church as an institution. I know that I for one am far more aware of just how hard life is for so many and the difficulties and trials that they face not just in a time of pandemic but for years on end. And I think too because of masks we are beginning to learn to look, really look, into people’s eyes and see reflected there the inner love that surely all of us carry but do not always show in normal times.

Today’s reading from the first letter of John is, I think, my absolute ‘go to’ piece of scripture which reminds me time after time of God’s love for us in all circumstances and all seasons and our call to respond to that love by loving one another. And it is also, I think, a reminder of the love we are shown in times of our own pruning that enables us to reflect that love in the fruits of the spirit that we bear.

This is proving to be a most glorious spring full of beautiful blossom promising in many instances fruit in the autumn; can we too as we re-grow from the pandemic also display God’s glory and love in the blossom we bear for the delight of others?

Become a Gift to those Around You by Ian Adams
Sometimes you slip into preoccupation with yourself.
With your life, your direction, your losses and your findings.

The invitation here is to look outwards.
To become a gift, a gift to those around you.

And you will become a gift by becoming truly the person you are.
By living the life that has always been waiting within you.

Your life aligned to your true North
will be a life that offers hope for others.

Love for God and love for neighbour will become as one.
And quietly you will become a gift to all around you.

Homily for Sunday 25 April
Texts: Psalm 23,  John 10 verses 11-18

The Good Shepherd image of Christ is one I am sure most people really respond to although, this said, I wonder if the same is true of younger people. Younger people who would not, in their often far more urbanized lives, never have set eyes on a shepherd and, if they have seen sheep, they would most probably be confined within the safety of a large field with no need for a watching, protective shepherd. By contrast I think those of us of a certain age will vividly remember television pictures of shepherds attempting to rescue their flocks from the accumulated snow drifts on such places as the Yorkshire Dales.  Perhaps the very fact that such pictures are no longer commonplace in the winter months is yet another example of the effects of global warming. And back to shepherding, I suspect that many of us wrinklies could quote almost verbatim today’s appointed Psalm, number twenty-three ,and who find the words of that psalm so comforting and reassuring with its final ringing words of confidence ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever'.

Throughout the Bible we find passages with the same image of the shepherd tending his sheep and so for Jesus’s listeners they would feel very comfortable with his same use of this imagery.

Many people kept sheep and goats although most only owned a few which they would tend personally, and it was only the rich who could afford a large flock to be looked after by hired hands. And hence we can properly appreciate just why someone who is merely a hired hand was more than likely to run away if danger threatened.

But what must also be understood is that the keeping and raising of sheep and, indeed goats, in a country like Palestine is markedly different from the keeping of sheep here where our climate ensures that there is plenty of green pasture and even sheep that roam on places such as the Dales will not have to go far in search of sustenance. In Palestine, and indeed all Middle Eastern countries, there is not such luxurious growth of suitable pasture and a shepherd might often have to lead his flock over very rough and difficult terrain in order to allow them to find new grazing. Hence the words of Psalm twenty- three with its references to green pastures and dark valleys would make far more literal sense to the Jewish people.

Yes, Jesus the Good Shepherd leads us all through our lives but what we do need to appreciate is that we still have free will. We may be led into those green pastures but, it is up to us to find the best grazing spots or, in other words, to make the very best use of the blessings we have been given. We must look for those places where we can be sure of being well fed under the protective gaze of the Good Shepherd but, it has to be emphasised, the choice of the exact spot is ours. Look at any field of sheep and see them scattered far and wide and only when danger threatens do they huddle together for protection.

Similarly, when we are being led through those dark valleys the Good Shepherd may lead but it is up to us to choose the exact path and avoid the most treacherous bits; to have the courage to place our feet on the next piece of rock however perilous it may seem. We will not be carried over such ground only led, and it is in the leading that our confidence and trust must lie. Some translations of the Psalm talk about walking through the valley of the shadow of death while another version I have talks of walking through the darkest valley which is perhaps, the most useful translation as it reminds us that those dark valleys may be many and varied. Yes, there is the valley of death itself but there are also the valleys where we experience the death of such things as good health, of job security, of a relationship and even the death at times of hope. In all such valleys we need to remember the Good Shepherd is always always with us and most especially in those times when we experience the death of hope. The death of hope that we know so many have experienced during these past months of the pandemic and who remain fearful and, indeed, lost as they fail to see any prospect of green pastures lying ahead for them.

And lastly, we recognize that we are free to stray, to attempt to make our own way and seek our own pasture unaided by the Good Shepherd’s guidance.  We are never forced to follow it must be our choice. The image given of sheep is often that of being silly creatures; we must ensure that in choosing to follow Christ we are not silly and understand that we have both free will and responsibilities to make the best of all the different and often challenging places into which we are being led throughout our lives.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is, indeed, a wonderful image, but we must never forget just what it cost him to assume this role. When the wolves of hypocrisy, self- interest, self- glorification, power seeking, ostracism, legalism, blinkered ideas and prejudice and so many other failings threatened the well-being of God’s sheep the Good Shepherd laid down his life for them. It was only by so doing that we could be led to understand and could begin to appreciate something of the unlimited depth that is God’s love for us. 

Death could not destroy the Good Shepherd but only served to make us more profoundly aware of His everlasting presence in our lives as he leads us on our earthly pilgrimage. We are his sheep, and he will, unlike the hired hands, never leave us to face dangers alone but is there as the hymn says to be our guardian and our guide, who hears us when we call out in any sort of danger or need.  He is there to ensure that we are held within his goodness and loving mercy throughout our lives and ultimately as our own death calls he will surely guide us safely to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23: Dominus regit me by Malcolm Guite
To suffer my own dereliction for me,
To be my shepherd, and to lead me through
The grave and gate of death, in strength and mercy

Christ has come down. At last I’ve found the true
Shepherd and the false just fade away
Before him.  I will sing of how he drew

Me from the snares I set myself, how day
Dawned on my darkness, how he brought me forth,
Converted me and opened up the way

For me, and led me gently on that path,
Led me beside still waters, promised me 
That he’d be with me all my days on earth,

And when my last day comes, accompany
And comfort me, as evening shadows fall,
And draw me into eternity.

Homily for Sunday 18 April
Texts: Psalm 4, Acts 3 verses 12-19,  Luke 24 verses  36b-48

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer

I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord , make me lie in safety. Psalm 4 verses 1, 8

Fear is something that every living person must have known at one time or another and for some fear is almost intrinsic to their lives. This pandemic alone has caused worldwide fear and even panic, and I hear stories of people who even now with lockdown rules relaxed are, tragically, too fearful to venture out. In our gospel reading we hear of the fear engendered in the disciples as they found themselves confronted by what appeared at first to be a ghost. Now I’ve never seen a ghost but my goodness I’m sure I would be frightened out of my wits if such an apparition did appear in front of me, so I have every sympathy with those disciples who were already living in a heightened sense of fear after the death of Jesus.

Fear can come in so many forms, from the fear of being laughed at or humiliated to the mind numbing, stomach churning fear of very real and imminent danger. Add to these fears such as those for the future of this planet given the threat of global warming or of hostile nations with possible war like intentions such as those being displayed right now by Russia towards the Ukraine.

And reflecting on all this as I looked out of my window at the sky which was a wonderful clear blue I was led to think as much as one is able to do so of the sheer immensity of space with its multiple universes and black holes. The statistics relating to space are certainly for most of us beyond comprehension and for me just served to make me realise just how infinitesimally small our planet is and that we as people are totally and utterly insignificant and unbelievably miniscule as regards the overall size of a creation which extends beyond all understanding. In the words of the psalmist, ‘The peoples are but a breath, the whole human race a deceit; on the scales they are altogether lighter than air.’  But, at the same time the greatest wonder and the most incomprehensible, unfathomable mystery of all  is that we are held within God’s love  so much so that he sent His own Son to this tiny insignificant planet simply in order to demonstrate that love. A love that bids us not to fear; not to be afraid but to trust in that love no matter what befalls us. Again and again in the Bible we read passages which urge us not to be afraid such as the wonderful psalm ninety-one or those oh so familiar words from St John’s gospel: ’Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you….Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.’ So, too, in the story of the great storm that blew up on Lake Galilee causing the disciples to fear for their very lives, Jesus having been woken from his sleep and having calmed the storm, spoke these words to them: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 

Can we read such words of reassurance and have our fears calmed? Can we trust that we are never called upon to face our fears alone? That God walks with us as it says in Psalm twenty-three both in the green pastures and in the valley of death. The valleys of death where, for whatever reason, we experience fear together often with loss of hope not recognising that the Lord is right there with us.  Lorraine Cavanagh writes that: ‘the full stop of fear can be transformed into a comma by a self-acceptance and compassion grounded on the embrace we find in Christ’. And here it is interesting to note that whenever the Church has been under a threat of persecution it has not only survived but even thrived. Certainly, our disciples having been reassured and convinced that they were not seeing a ghost were given the courage to face up to all and any fears they might have and preach the gospel of Christ risen with complete confidence.  Would you or I have been frightened to do the same in the face of all the forceful attempts of the authorities to prevent such a gospel gaining hold? Sitting quietly and peacefully at home the very thought might well terrify us and we would deny ever being able to do such a thing but I guess that is what so many saints and martyrs may well have thought before it came to the crunch and they knew that they only had one option. The option to overcome their fear and in its place to trust in God, trust in His embrace, to give them the courage that they needed to face whatever opposition, whatever threats, whatever persecution to which they might be subjected.

And of course, we must never ever forget the example of our Lord Jesus Christ himself as he walked the way of the Cross. Whatever his inner fears, whatever feelings of that mind numbing, stomach churning dread we have all experienced, nothing would stop him from fulfilling God’s purposes for his Son and consequently for us His children. Does our faith challenge us to overcome our fears about appearing stupid and deluded or becoming a cause for mockery, denigration or worse as we openly profess our beliefs?

Father Steve Grunow in a reflection on the life of Maximilian Kolbe who sacrificed his own life in a concentration camp so that another prisoner might be saved wrote the following.  ‘For too many Christians, the faith is a safe routine, a kind of philosophy of self-improvement, something meant to be comfortable and comforting. Christian faith is not so much about safety as it is about risk. It is meant to take us out into the world, into the shadows, to be a light to show the way home to those who live in darkness.’

Can we move into those shadows where there may or may not be ghosts but there will most certainly be our Lord Jesus Christ to uphold us and to give us the courage we need to face up to fear just as he gave it to those first disciples.?

Strength from the Shepherd by Eddie Askew
Lord, there’s always a catch.
I get hooked on the green pastures and still waters.
I could spend my time very nicely lying in the summer grass.
And if I feel really energetic,
I’d open my eyes and watch the clouds sail by,
safely, far overhead.
That’s where clouds should be.

But when these clouds draw thick chill curtains over the sun,
their shadows racing over the ground,
I shiver.
And when they come down to ground level,
my level,
shrouding me in mist,
I walk a panic path of fear.
The still surface of my peace shattered,
Rough rippled by the first breath of wind over the water.

Are these the paths of righteousness?
I pick my way through,
hesitating at every step.
Worried that when I move my foot may slip, my ankle twist.
And sometimes, putting out my hand,
there’s nothing there.
Or so it seems.

And yet, somehow a strength is there.
Supporting me.
The shepherd takes me high to pasture, over rocky paths.
Calling me to effort.
I climb, struggling through thorn thickets,
the way marked by scraps of wool,
torn from the fleece of my self-satisfaction.
It makes me breathless.
But you are there.

Counting the sheep.
Knowing when I stray.
Giving your life to rescue me.
Taking me, each day,
nearer the fold.

Homily for Sunday 11 April
Texts:  Acts 4 verses 32-35, John 20 verses 19-end

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.   Acts 4 verse 33 

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side I will not believe.’ John 20 verse 25b

As everyone knows the one certainty of life is death. But what other certainties are there that we can absolutely rely upon without a shadow of doubt? Gravity I suppose is a given, as is the regularity of our earthly peregrination around the sun and indeed the moon around us although I suppose there just might be some that deny even these last two. In fact, a great many established scientific facts cannot be regarded with anything but certainty.  But when it comes to our own lives then immediately doubt creeps in, beginning with the doubt as to when precisely we can expect that visit of the Grim Reaper. So much to do with our lives is the subject of doubt even for the most optimistic who are always certain they’ve passed all their exams, definitely landed that dream job or who know that their newly planted seeds will all sprout and produce an astonishingly bumper crop of runner beans much to the envy of all the neighbours.

And, of course, when it comes to the subject of religion and our beliefs then the possibility of doubt is never far away.  Do we believe every single word of the Creed as we recite it week by week or, do we have at the very least a few caveats and even some quite nagging and persistent doubts? And, if we do, let’s be clear that is not a reason to despair or to feel your faith is somehow lacking. An exercise during my ordination training exposed how all of us harboured at least some niggles of doubt about some of the aspects of that profession of faith. Personally, I think that as far as our understanding of God is concerned doubt is actually what we need as a spur to making us try as much as our limited intellectual powers allow us to unravel a little bit more as to the underlying and often seemingly impenetrable and imponderable mystery that is God. My goodness, I doubt if I will ever be able to fathom the workings of modern technology or the secret of opening childproof bottles however hard I try and both of which have rational explanations.  So, why should it be any different with our comprehension as to exactly what is God?  How can any human being possibly begin to be certain as to what truly comprises all the wonder, the glory, the creative power let alone the love which comprise the mystery that is God?

It isn’t that we doubt God’s existence, although there are plenty of people who do just that; it’s simply that we doubt our understanding of him and in particular our understanding of the reality behind the incarnation and the resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. So, reflecting on all this is it any wonder that Thomas doubted what his fellow disciples told him that day when they claimed to have seen the risen Lord? And maybe, in a way, it was deliberately designed that way. Designed so that Thomas should have been excluded on that occasion as it means we can all relate to Thomas and be reassured that if he could doubt then it’s all right for us too to harbour doubts and look for and even demand certainties as Thomas did.

Thomas did indeed see those dreadfully scarred hands and thus was enabled to believe which we will not do. But we have instead the extraordinary testimony of the disciples as to the truth of the risen Christ. Testimony they were prepared not just to give to an expectant world but to give their lives for if necessary because they could not and would not deny the truth of what they had witnessed. They gave that testimony that Christ’s words might be fulfilled: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ And here I think it is only appropriate to mention Prince Philip whose Christian faith was integral to his life and to his outstanding sense of duty and  who, I am certain, now dwells in the house of the Lord for ever and he is now  able to know the truth of the words of a favourite prayer of his included at the end of this homily.

In my mind, and I hope in your,s there is no doubt that Christ is risen and not just at Easter but every single day we can also bear witness to that fact and allow it to direct and guide the way in which we ourselves bear testimony to its truth. Of course, there are doubts. Of course, there are questions, and most will never be answered but we can use our doubts and our questions to gain a greater understanding of the mystery of God; the mystery of the incarnation and the resurrection. Stephen Terry wrote what for me are these encouraging words: ‘A true and living faith is defined not by its certainties, but by the questions it asks. Keep your mind open and continue asking the hard questions. And rest assures that God loves you for doing it.’ 

In expressing our doubts and our unanswered questions we can learn to grow our faith; we can be given that moment of epiphany when, like Thomas, we see the reality of the truth of those scarred hands and exclaim as he did; ‘My Lord and my God!’ The truth of the words ‘Every day moments of epiphany are bestowed on everyone.’ can be realised.

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity: in the habitations of thy majesty and glory, world without end. Amen

Though I need to be sceptical sometimes, Lord,
   rather than believe everything I hear,
   save me from closing my mind too easily
   to what’s beyond my experience.

Though I struggle at times with the idea of resurrection,
   so much causing me to question,
   remind me of the way you changed
   the lives of the apostles
  and of countless others since,
  transforming doubt to faith,
  sorrow to joy
  and fear to confidence.

Meet me, then, through the risen Christ
   so that, incredible though it may seem,
   I may know him for myself,
   and share his life,
   now and for evermore.  Amen
Nick Fawcett

Homily for Easter Sunday 4 April
Text: Mark 16 verses  1-8

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  Mark 16 verse 8

This joyful Easter tide! Is this how we feel this Easter, full of joy and happiness with a real spring in our step, a lightness of heart or, being perfectly truthful, is there a distinct lack of true joyous feeling as we are called to celebrate the most important and significant feast day in the Christian calendar? There can be no large indoor gatherings although if the rain and cold don’t deter us we can gather outside with six people, or two families, but that number is still very limited especially for those with big families. Those large Easter egg hunts which have become so much the norm are not possible and certainly no jetting off to some sunlit beach for an Easter holiday and not even the possibility of a weekend in Bognor or Brighton! And although, unlike last year, we can hold services in church these services are decidedly muted with social distancing, masks and perhaps worst of all no joyful communal singing except outside and certainly no happy buzzy socialising afterwards with coffee and maybe even a slice of simnel cake.

So, can we honestly say that this Eastertide of twenty twenty- one is joyful or, as with so much in our lives at present, does it seem just not quite right and not at all what we have become accustomed to as we have celebrated past Easters? And, thinking about all this, I think we need to recognize that the first ever Easter was also very muted and certainly not a time of huge celebration. Yes, the tomb was found to be empty but what exactly did that mean?  In the Mark account we are told that in place of a stone cold, decidedly dead body there was a young man dressed in white who instructed them ‘not to be alarmed’ and then informed them that Jesus had been raised, ‘he is not here.’ Which was perhaps the only thing those disciples were told which was patently obvious. As for not being alarmed what else did this stranger expect them to be and just what was meant by the words ‘He has been raised.’?  And as for seeing him again back in Galilee how could that be remotely possible? No wonder they fled from the tomb with the conflicting emotions of terror and amazement beating inside them. Nor is it any surprise whatsoever that they chose to tell no one.

Reading this account by Mark I cannot imagine that joy was uppermost in those disciples that first day of the week, the day we now term Easter Sunday. And even if we read the other gospel accounts of that day, I do not think it is too hard to imagine that overwhelming bewilderment, bafflement, and indeed terror were the feelings that were uppermost in their minds as they tried to make sense of it all. Add to these the feelings of fear and anxiety, knowing that their own lives could still be threatened by the same religious hierarchy which had condemned their Lord and Master to die. Thus, it is no surprise they told no one not just for fear of being ridiculed at what would seem to others a preposterous claim but also because of what the authorities might do. The authorities who would have baulked at any idea that the man they had thought they had successfully put a very decided end to might still in some way be alive would have been an intolerable one and they would have done all in their power to quash such a claim as indeed they did just that when the news finally became widespread. 

I, personally, think that it was more than likely that the reality of exactly what had happened and what it meant not just for those disciples but for all God’s children took a while to sink in and to be understood and it was not until the day of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit allowed them to express their truly exuberant joy at announcing to all who would listen that the man crucified on that hill outside Jerusalem was indeed the resurrected Christ, the  Son of God, the Messiah, the Saviour; our Messiah, our Saviour. 

And we too, like the disciples, are currently living in what to most seems a threatening world where so many of life’s securities seem to have been snatched from under us as Covid 19 has shown a power to destabilize our world that even the writer of the most dystopian fiction might have hesitated to conjure up.  Add to this the sabre rattling of some regimes and the repression of so many people around the world and there does not seem much good news to cheer us, let alone to make us feel joyful. We are fearful as to just what the future holds for us and perhaps more significantly for our children and grandchildren. We have hunkered down in our homes for long periods with closed doors just as those disciples did and many are scared to venture out even when some restrictions are lifted.

So maybe this is not the most joy-filled Easter BUT nothing, absolutely nothing can take away the reality of the risen Christ. That tomb was empty on that first day of the week, the first day of a new understanding of our God and His purposes for us. Jesus had risen and however low we may feel, however apprehensive or fearful this is a fact that we must and should allow ourselves to ponder and meditate upon as we search for the mystery and the wonder that is the truth behind those three words, ‘he is risen’. The disciples had forty days before that glorious Spirit affirming Pentecost to do the same, to recognize in all its wonder what God had done for us his children. It needed time and we are asked to take time too if we are to comprehend at least a small degree of that mystery and wonder and, as our understanding grows, so too will our joy in knowing what Christ has done for us. It will be a quiet joy to sustain and uphold us even when we are most fearful and feel most threatened. A quiet joy to comfort, console and strengthen just as it did those disciples as they took that first bold step to tell the truth of the risen Christ to the world despite all the danger and persecution they faced.

May all of you come to know in your hearts that joy together with the love of the risen Christ, our Messiah, our Saviour who in love gave his life for us that we might live out our lives in joy filled hope.

Do not be Afraid by Ian Adams
Have you noticed how fear is never far away?
And so destructive.

In the world around you.
But also within you.
How fear of what might happen seeps
Into so much of your decision (and indecision) making.

The invitation is to let go of your fear.
To believe the best.
To be bold
To face your fears with the love that flows
From resurrection.

You are beloved.
So love.
And do not be afraid.

Beneath are the everlasting arms-and they bear the print of the nails. No matter how far I have sunk, he descends to lift me up. He has plumbed all the hells of the world that he may lift us upwards. He is our firm support. David Adam

Meditation for Good Friday, 2 April

Whenever I give a small wooden cross to one of the families in NICU (Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit)I always explain that the upright reminds us that earth is always in touch with heaven and vice versa or in other words we can always be in touch with God and He with us. And then I indicate the cross bar and ask them to see in it the outstretched arms of Christ holding us always within his love revealed in his death upon a cross on that bleak spot outside Jerusalem. And in the same way when I offer a prayer for healing, I often say words to the effect ‘may the wounded hands of Christ bring you healing and peace.’

The Passion story is full of arms and hands beginning with the Last Supper when Jesus knelt to wash the disciples’ feet with his hands and then to break bread for them to share. Two such intimate actions, the sort we do every day probably without even thinking. But I’m sure that night Jesus was all too aware of what his hands were doing and what was the message he was giving to not just those few disciples but to all God’s children. 

Next, we have Judas embracing Jesus with that kiss of betrayal; that moment of infamy representative of all the times we have betrayed God by choosing the ways and ambitions of the worldly rather than choosing the divine way shown to us by Christ. Did Jesus flinch from that embrace or did he accept it as he did so much else that night? Accept that betrayal was yet one more item on the list of sins that he had come to forgive and redeem through his sacrifice? 

And then, throughout the next hours of brutality and mindless violence we have the striking arms and fists of the soldiers, the guards, as they manhandled and abused Jesus mercilessly. This man, who had used his hands to heal, to bless to comfort now receives the blows of injury of hate and wanton cruelty. Hands that hit, and punched, that pushed and shoved, roughly dressed him in a parody of kingship and thrust a penetrating crown of thorns on his unprotected head.

Hands that can do so many wonderful things creating works of art and beauty, green fingered hands that can grow some of the wonders of plant life, hands that can mend, sew and bake; soothing hands that can embrace and gently wipe tears away, hands that can ‘blow kisses’ and wave farewell.  But that night the hands that struck Jesus bore witness only to the savagery and physical abuse that truth be told we can all be capable of enacting.

And we must not forget the pointing and accusing hands that accompanied the shouts of the crowd as they demanded the death of Jesus and then stood around the cross mocking and jeering. We too must remember how often we too have pointed the finger and falsely accused or made fun of someone’s perceived weakness. 

Lastly in this story of hands we are forced to look up at the hands of Jesus pierced by cruel nails. Nails drive right through those hands and into the wood on that cross bar. It is impossible to imagine the agony, the absolutely excruciating pain that Jesus bore for us that day as his arms were stretched out and his hands pinioned in the greatest token of love the world has ever seen.

Today we remember all those hands and we have to acknowledge our own part In Christ’s crucifixion in using our hands for cruel and base purposes but it is those wounded hands that we must never forget and  recognize in them the testimony they bear to the love that passes all understanding. The love that became incarnate that through our lord Jesus Christ all the world might be saved.

As we leave here today let us pray that we may use our hands to the glory of God and in imitation of Christ’s hands to heal, to comfort and to bless. 

You are mine and I love you. Look, I have engraved you on the palm of my hands 
 Isaiah 49 verse 16

Meditation for Maundy Thursday, 1 April
Texts: 1 Corinthians 11 verses 23-26    John 13 verses 1-17 and 31b-35

I always have a special affection for Maundy Thursday and its various services including the annual Chrism Service in the Cathedral. This to me and I’m sure many others is a wonderful service and the singing is always truly something to make even angels the least bit envious!

Then there are the evening services like this one culminating again in normal years to that time of silent meditation before the congregation slip silently away into the night. Tonight, we will have to forego that time of meditation, but we will still make our softly trodden way out of the building. This is the service when we recall all those very intimate events of the last supper; intimate, touching and deeply personal vignettes as those twelve disciples shared a meal together with Jesus, their Lord and Master, for the last time before his death. First, there is the foot washing, when Jesus knelt in the position of the lowest slave within a household and washed those dirty grimy calloused feet of the men who had journeyed for the past three years with him.  I think in this modern age with our solid footwear and metalled roads we find it hard to appreciate just how welcome foot washing must have been but also how it was regarded as an exceptionally menial and much despised task. Is it any wonder that Peter protested? However, we like him must learn that we too must allow ourselves to be washed clean of our dirt encrusted souls by the gentle hands of Christ because it is something that we can never do for ourselves.

And following on from this vignette of a kneeling Jesus and no doubt somewhat embarrassed, even bemused disciples, we go to the meal itself; the meal where bread and wine are shared and the ritual of recalling and celebrating that first Passover meal back in the land of Egypt was repeated as it had been for centuries and is still done to this day. Bread the staple of life but not, on that particular night, the bread we eat most commonly but unleavened bread without any yeast to cause it to rise.  Unleavened bread is a very flat bread rather lacking in flavour and it’s unlikely that it would be the bread we would choose when we felt the need of a sustaining, pick me up slice of fresh bread covered possibly in delicious jam, peanut butter or even marmite. This pitta bread resembles the same type of unleavened bread which the Israelites ate together with roasted lambs and bitter herbs before they made their escape from Egypt into the wilderness.

Unleavened bread! bread which contains no yeast to cause it to rise. And it struck me that in a way this consuming of unleavened bread is symbolic, a metaphor even, of all that we will mark tonight and in the coming days until we come to the first light of another Easter Day. These three days of the Pascal Triduum as it is officially called which begin this evening and continue until Saturday evening. The flat days if you like when it would seem that all hope has been extinguished and we can only bear witness to so many base interests revealed over those three days; the betrayal of a disillusioned disciple, the cowardice of fearful disciples concerned only for their personal safety, the hypocrisy, jealousy and hatred, the mendacity of witnesses, the weakness shown by the ruling power, the mindless callousness  of orchestrated crowds, all culminating in brutal unprovoked and bloody violence. There is nothing in these three days to lift our spirits but just the demeaning example of human beings whose eyes are cast down and fixed firmly on those earthly and often very base values which they are so keen to preserve at all costs. Human beings who are content to tread the dirt paths of our self-centred lives rather than look upwards to the glory that comes with walking the Way of Christ.

How many people in those three days lifted their eyes to look into the eyes of Christ and saw reflected in them the true and unfathomable cost he was bearing for all their faults and failings?  How many considered for one moment the possibility that here in front of them was no despised and troublesome wandering preacher but the Bread of Life who had the power to raise them up on the last day? When they raised him upon that cross did anyone for one moment consider that this was the moment when God’s purposes would be fulfilled and come Easter Sunday we would know that truly the risen Christ was and always would be for all God’s children the Bread of Life, the Way of Life? Bread that can feed one spiritually, bread that can lift one’s eyes from the depths of human failings to the hope that trusting in the risen Christ he will always be there to lead you out from the slavery of sin and despair to the freedom that is given by the spiritual blessing of love; love for God, love for one another.

Tonight, as you leave in silence please take with you a piece of unleavened bread and over the coming days before the dawn of Easter Day reflect upon what you most need to help raise you up personally; raise you up to recognize all the amazing and wondrous love that Christ our Lord showed for each of us as he rose first upon that cross of shame and then in all the glory of Easter Day. And then I pray that all of us join with the angels to sing out our love, joy and praise for all the blessings which that day brings.

Maundy Thursday by Malcolm Guite
Here is the source of every sacrament,
The all-transforming presence of the Lord,
Replenishing our every element,
Remaking us in his creative Word.
For here the earth herself gives bread and wine,
The air delights to hear the Spirit’s speech.
The fire dances when the candles shine, 
The waters cleanse us with his gentle touch.
And here he shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
Though we betray him, though it is the night.
He meets us here and loves us into light.