From Lent to Easter

Earlier posts

Third Sunday of Lent

Readings: Exodus 20.1-17; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22

Jesus and the temple

Those of you who consider such matters will realise that the lectionary readings are in a three-year cycle and use the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as the primary source for the gospel readings with John being used more at specific seasons, such as Easter, Lent and Advent or at times to supplement the synoptic gospel or indeed to bring forward ideas not mentioned in the basic gospel of that year.  The reason for this is fairly easy to identify in that the synoptics follow a chronological pattern, admittedly with variations and differing emphasis to the events of this pattern, whilst John’s reflective style has variations unique to his gospel. Indeed, there are only six miracles recorded in John’s gospel, two of which are recorded in the synoptics, and John refers to them as signs not miracles. Miracles can be regarded as things which are easily recognised and identified by all whereas signs are based upon similar, but not so evident, events from which their true meaning emerges to those who reflect upon them.  Being generally a different set of ideas recorded in the various gospels has led to the charge of inconsistency from those wishing to challenge the Christian faith, whilst in effect they are probably all true but the specific writers have highlighted the specific ones which bring out the meaning they wish to communicate.  The first sign in John, and not recorded in the synoptics, is the wedding at Cana of Galilee, and indicates what John’s whole thesis is about.  It is changing water into wine, and refers to the way in Jesus, God is changing the water of humanity back into the wine of His kingdom.

These differences of approach don’t come without their difficulties and today’s gospel reading is no exception.  This cleansing of the temple is recorded in all four gospels and as such must have significance and meaning for all of them.  But that is where the similarity ends, indeed extending to the whole idea of Jesus in Jerusalem at all. The synoptics only record Jesus as visiting Jerusalem, and thus the temple, once (Luke introduces a further visit when Jesus is twelve years old).  John, on the other hand, has Jesus in Jerusalem at least seven times, three of which are at Passover meals on various occasions.  In addition, the focus for the synoptics is the ministry of Jesus in Galilee, whilst the focus for John is Jerusalem, with only a very limited number of his events relating to Galilee.  A source of confusion certainly, and a possible charge of inconsistency.  Yet they are probably both correct, just focussing their story on parts which were more familiar to each writer, and illustrated what they wanted to pass on.  Indeed, there are some who think that there were two groups of followers of Jesus, one based in Galilee whom we know much most about, and one based in or around Jerusalem of whom we know much less.  Regardless of it being a passing acquaintance to us, the closeness of Jesus to Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and the familiarity Jesus appears to have with Jerusalem and its surrounds, provide reasonably strong evidence of this idea. The idea of Jesus being familiar with Jerusalem is further enhanced by the event where he weeps over Jerusalem and vows to gather her children together (Matthew 23.37)

The account of the cleansing of the Temple is similarly quite difficult to place in time.  John has this taking place early on in Jesus’ ministry, whilst the synoptics have it at the end, as part of the finale of his challenge to the religious leaders.  Who is right?  In this instance probably the synoptics.  If this confrontation had taken place, as John suggests, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus would have been a marked man as far as the temple was concerned, and probably Jerusalem per se.  If that had been his opening challenge it would seem to be highly unlikely that the temple authorities would have tolerated him there on future occasions.

The most interesting matter for these four accounts, however, is their remarkable similarity in detail.  It is not just in the detail of what Jesus did, but what lay behind his anger.  It is Mark’s account which really brings it to light, in remarkable brevity. In chapter 11, verse 17 he records these words of Jesus, “My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations”.  Those six words that I have put in italics were probably the source of Jesus’ anger.  To understand we need to know something of the Temple ground plan.  It was a series of courts around, and leading to the Holy of Holies.  Without going into too much detail there were several such outer courts including the Court of the Women, and the Court of the Gentiles.  This latter court indicates that the Temple had a place for all people who were seeking after truth, it was not limited to those who had superior knowledge or experience. There was a place for all in the Temple, with increasing knowledge being needed only as they got closer and closer to its heart.  The anger towards the traders and money changers was two-fold.  Firstly, it took place in the court of the Gentiles, and thus they had been excluded for this practice to take place.  Secondly, even poor Jewish people were being excluded because they could not pay the exorbitant price for the acceptable sacrifices, or indeed to change their money into currency which was acceptable to the authorities.  Here then is the heart of this passage, exclusion of people who wanted, for whatever reason, to be there.  Exclusivity fermented Jesus’ anger.

Over the centuries it has remained an area where the Christian Church has also had its difficulties. Perhaps because of the nature of its development as a universal faith,exclusivity has often not been far from its structure. Our most recent history shows attempts to rectify this, from the introduction of nave altars and font placements to all-age services, but it is still an issue facing our churches.  The single most important issue still facing them us is how to make them more inclusive. Indeed, it could be that unless the issue is solved in the near future many of our smaller churches will disappear.

Being inclusive one of the issues at stake in Jerusalem, it remains very much at the heart of present day survival. That is where the supporting readings come into the reckoning for today.  On one hand we have the clearly defined path to God as indicated by the Ten Commandments with the idea that if we stick rigidly to that approach we will be alright.  On the other hand, we have Paul advocating that people need come to God through their own situations and experiences of life.  Which is correct?  Well both probably, we must approach Him as the people that we are, not the people we try to make ourselves into.

I would end by saying that I have certainly not covered all the ideas that this gospel reading opens up.  The concluding remark of John’s gospel sums it up, “If everything were written down the whole world could not hold everything that is written”.  I hope my emphasis on the Temple and what it can still teach us will not exclude your own wider thoughts. Yet for me the development of a church for all is the heart of the future of the church.  Its ability to touch our whole community, regardless if they share our story or not, will be the significant factor. By so doing God’s story will become their story.

Prayer
City of God, how broad and far
outstretch thy walls sublime!
Thy free and loyal people are.
of every age and clime. 

In vain the surge, angry shock,
in vain the drifting sands;
unharmed upon the eternal Rock
the eternal city stands.


Second Sunday of Lent

Readings: Genesis 17, 1-7 and 15-16; Romans 4, 13-25; Mark 8, 31-38 

One of the cartoon character, Charlie Brown sayings is, “Winning may not be everything but losing is nothing!” Something many of us have thought from time to time, and it sums up Peter’s response in our gospel reading today.  There is often a struggle to get to an understanding of the Sunday Lectionary readings, as some people found with last week’s reading.  This week’s gospel reading is no different and to get a grip on it we probably need to refer to a few paragraphs before if we are to understand today’s reading.

From verse 27 Jesus has been discussing with the disciples who the people think he is.  They respond with ideas from John the Baptist to Elijah and the prophets, but Jesus wants to know more.  But you, he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  What is your understanding of what I am doing, what is your understanding of what I will be doing, is really the question he is asking.  It is Peter who steps forward with an answer, “You are the Lord’s Anointed one, the Messiah”.  In a blink, no doubt, he probably regretted that response.  Jesus was not content to leave it there, and he proceeded to tell them of the way things were going to pan out which certainly didn’t help Peter at all.  In fact it was far from what Peter, or any of the disciples, could understand about Jesus or the Messiah in general, it totally confounded them. 

To begin to understand we must first get some idea of what the Messiah meant to the Jewish people.  This cannot simply be done from the Bible alone, for the Jewish ideas began long before any written record could be made, a faith steeped in a powerful oral tradition.  Even when their civilisation had reached a stage where records could be written they weren’t, because it was deemed unlawful to record them.  It was much later before such written records could be kept and the Mishnah, written in the 3rd century B.C., is the full comprehensive record, “The Oral Torah” as it is sometimes referred to.  There are a few references to the ideas in the Book of Isaiah and that of Jeremiah, with others in the Apocrypha, but it is only the Mishnah where that true picture of the Jewish Messiah emerges.

It emerges as Israel begins to move into a time when its memories of being a free state had almost disappeared. Over numerous centuries they have been over-run by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and finally the Romans.  Their memory and their story were fast disappearing which led to a change of heart regarding the writing down of such memories.  It was here the Jewish ideal of the Messiah emerged as a vengeful concept returning Israel to what they pictured as their rightful place, far from anything like the concept of the Messiah that we hold now.  When Peter referred to Jesus as the Messiah he would have been influenced by much of  that thought as someone to return Israel to its rightful place  whatever the cost. It was an aggressive, nationalistic, vengeful, violent even, concept which perpetrated the Jewish thinking of the time.  In the other three gospels, we see this idea returning in the person of Barabbas, a person who displayed all these characteristics, and whose release the crowd clamoured for.

The continued times of subservience had limited any idea of the real Messiah beyond this thinking, it was natural that someone was needed who would break their continued subjection. Far indeed from where Jesus himself was,  I guess even Peter’s response of the Messiah made Jesus angry, so angry that he spelt out in very graphic detail of what his Messiahship would mean.  Here was the first real human/divine conflict for Jesus, and one that the disciples just could not understand, ideas which were both incredible and incomprehensible.

We can perhaps understand something of the dismay facing the disciples which gave rise to such an anger in Peter that he even chose to rebuke Jesus.  But what of Jesus’ response to Peter’s anger?  We certainly aren’t expecting it, so how can it be explained.

 Firstly, it is worth noting that Mark’s writing can be very critical of the disciples,” they were close enough to see everything and yet understood nothing” often being the source of his criticism.  Mark was never reticent when the disciples were found wanting, and here was a particularly bold example.  Why, after all the time you have followed him do you not see what Jesus is all about, he seems to be asking.  Have you seen all those things he has done, and you still want to control what he is and does to suit your own needs?  Certainly, the anger was partly used by Mark to make his point. Mark choses to ignore the obvious and very vulnerable feelings of the disciples at this time. so soon after the beheading of John the Baptist.

The anger of Jesus, towards Peter in particular, goes much further.  This is a difficult time for Jesus also.  Whether as a result of the death of the Baptist or not, Jesus has just made the decision to turn his eyes towards his challenge to the religious hierarchy and the ultimate cost there will be.  As we discussed last week the vulnerable side of Jesus came to the fore and here the exchange led to anger. This anger probably went much deeper as he saw in their response an attempt to control God, just indeed as the Jewish hierarchy were doing, and against which his final battle would be. Yet despite this anger something good came out of it, for as we see Jesus speaking to the crowd following him, by emphasising their part in this new covenant which God was making with them.  In all covenants it is easy to assume the effort coming solely from God and mostly it does, but here we see the part we have to play by genuinely following where he leads.  The Old Testament reading this week is about the covenant Abraham had with God, again looking one sided until we see how that covenant depended on Abraham’s new loyalty and faith, his trust and obedience.  The covenants with Noah and Moses were similar. Today’s New Testament reading follows this up with Paul explaining that human commitment to the covenant in his letter to the Romans.

Out of this difficult moment comes a powerful universal message, our part in the covenant. The promise God gives us in Jesus Christ is enhanced or reduced by the measure our loyalty and our faith towards Him.  Fullness can only come when we let go of ourselves, when we refrain from using God for what we want of him or where we want him to go.  It is simply about “letting go and letting God”, or as the hymn says, “Trust and obey, there is no other way…”. That is the faith which leads to the deep peace that we seek.

The Gift of a Cross
by Pat Marsh (published by Inspire)

Lord, I simply desire
that my life should reflect your love,
my feet
walk in your footprints
and my lips
speak your praise.
I only desire
that my strength
should come from the cross
and above all else
that my will
should be in alignment
with your will   
always.                        


First Sunday of Lent

21 February 2021

Readings: Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

We return to the baptism of Jesus by John.  Two things happen which are significant.  Firstly, we see the affirmation of God and signifies the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, followed by (according to Mark) Jesus being led out to the wilderness.  During our last week’s zoom Sunday Worship we thought about the word love, and in particular what love is, and for most of us it was easier to recognise than define.  For my part it seems there are two quite distinct aspects, one which encourages and one which challenges, and these are held together in a spirit of affirmation.  We see these two diverse aspects held closely together in our gospel reading today.

A first reaction may well be to see these two aspects as quite distinct and of quite different origin, the one coming from God and the other from Satan.  However, if we look closely it isn’t the origin that is important but is more about seeing God in both.  The difficulty encountered is in the understanding of the concept of Satan or Devil.

In our present time we have come to understand Satan as the enemy or adversary of God, and this colours our understanding of what is going on in this initial part of Mark’s gospel.  In the time that it was written, and throughout Jewish history, Satan was not seen in that wider, universal sense but more as an individual adversary within each one.  As an example we see Solomon finding peace because he has overcome his own adversary (1 Kings 5.4) and the reading of the Old Testament where we see this understanding emerging time and again.  Indeed, it is the heart of the Book of Job, which is an account of Job coming to an understanding of his own adversary and eventually emerging from it. Even his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are part of his inner turmoil.  This view was certainly prevalent at the time of Jesus and the writing of the gospels, since Jesus in his healings is seen as attacking the inner adversaries of each individual in a unique and individualistic way.  Being able to see this as a struggle withing the individual, rather than a cosmic battle between good and evil, enables us to begin to consider God’s presence and love within it. Significantly the action of Judas Iscariot can be more easily understood in this way.  A Jewish Zealot very much opposed to the taking of Elijah’s cup as abhorrent, this emerged as the ultimate breaking point in his relationship with Jesus. In a small way these “inner demons” are reflected in our own actions with our own children as they grow up, or with someone for whom we have love.  We might desperately wish to protect them from all the struggles and difficulties which will impinge upon them, but in the end all that we can really do is to support them through it.

This original understanding of devil or Satan makes it somewhat easier to get a handle on the events following the baptism of Jesus. Following this magnificent moment when God refers to Jesus as his son, we immediately then see Jesus in the wilderness.  But it was the manner of Jesus getting there which seems to be more incongruous with our present idea of a universal devil. The varying Bible translations describe this in various ways, from the more recent translations of being led into the desert, to the older and more accurate translation from the original Greek of being driven or thrust into it.  It is hard to see the instigator being God who has just proclaimed or affirmed Jesus, but neither is Jesus likely to be led or seduced by the devil at this life-changing moment.  Much more likely is the concept of the inner struggles and uncertainties within each one of us, and probably within Jesus himself as he is overwhelmed by the task that faces him.

Jesus needed seclusion to sort it out in his own mind, the wilderness was the only place he could find that seclusion after such a dramatic moment. We only have to move on two chapters in Mark’s gospel  to realise that those close to Jesus realised this inner turmoil going on. In Mark 3.31-35 we read of his mother and his brothers coming to try to take him away from this way of life. Sadly, we see this episode being obscured by Jesus’ question of who are his mother and his brothers, which we will no doubt come to in due time.  Sufficient at this time is to try to understand what Jesus is actually going through, now we see the glory but at the time he must have been very conscious of the personal cost of it all.  Would he be able to bear it, would certainly have been his human consideration as he contemplated it.

Unlike the other gospels which embellish the situation by the actual temptations that Jesus faced, Mark is content to simply describe the harshness of the place and the threats that it, and the ultimate decision, place upon him. Mark confines himself to the human Jesus.  The wild animals, the threats awaiting him on every side, are very evident and Mark uses them to define the hostility of the situation in which Jesus finds himself. (see footnote)

What we see emerging is  the increasing realisation of Jesus that he will not face this on his own.  Mark is no doubt mindful of the story of when Elisha and his servant are under siege from their enemies, and Elisha enables the young servant to see that they are not alone but surrounded by the ‘the angel army’ of God, (2 Kings 6).  Jesus emerges from the wilderness and the struggle stronger and ready to face the task ahead of him.  It is an account which is mirrored in our own lives.  Many of us face desperate setbacks and daunting ways forward where it is so much easier to want to hand it over to God to sort it all out for us, or to hide behind the great hope that God will put it all right in the end.  He will, but perhaps it would have been better to play our own part in it, realising that we are never on our own but recognising God is always in the struggle with us – not least in the present world worries and situations, let alone in our individual ones.

Mark gives us a picture of the human Jesus and he doesn’t clutter it with theology or other agenda.  He simply tells us the story of Jesus and from it we can gain so many messages and inspirations for our own lives.  Jesus knew it too, and tried so hard to ensure that the miraculous didn’t get in the way.  The trouble is, then and now, the desire for the easy and the miraculous is so great that we fail to see that miracle exists in every step of creation’s journey, in every aspect of our life.

 Footnote
Throughout the Old Testament it is recognised that our relationship with God has broken down and a sign of its restoration is that creation can live in harmony.  That search for creational harmony emerges in several places starting with Noah and finding places in the words of the Prophets, especially in the words of “the lion will lie down with the lamb”.  Others may well interpret this account of the ‘temptation’ in the light of this suggesting this has already begun in the wilderness where Jesus was able to do just that.

Divine dynamic
from Whispers of Love by Pat Marsh 

Gracious Lord,
when you called me to follow
I little thought
that it would be this painful,
lonely, hard.
Would I have restrained my “yes”
had I but known
where it would lead?
Could I have withheld
acceptance to your call?
I know
That I could not.
No ordinary invitation that,
when you came knocking,
in my dreams,
but rather some divine dynamic
calling into being
the beginnings of my destiny,
Could I have withheld my “yes”?
I know that I could not.             

Prayer

O Lord, in Jesus you took on our humanity,
He was the fullness of your love for us.
The greatest love that there could be,
yet we set it aside so easily
seduced by the glimpses of his divinity.
Help us to see the humanity of Jesus,
the reality of our lives in his.
Help us to see the struggles that he had,
and the joys, in following you.
A pattern for humanity, a pattern for me.
Help me to know his feelings,
and realise that they are my own.
As I try to hide from his struggles,
help me to realise that it is there
He has set a pattern for my journey home.


Parish profiles

Plans are in place for a merger between the Draycote benefice and the adjoining Leam Valley benefice. Both are currently in vacancy. You can find out more about these parishes on their websites and from the profiles – both are linked below.

The Draycote Benefice

In the Diocese of Coventry, at the heart of Warwickshire, the Draycote Benefice comprises four rural parishes with four churches, at the heart of each village.

  • All Saints’ in Stretton on Dunsmore with Princethorpe
  • St. Leonard’s in Birdingbury
  • St. Nicholas’ in Frankton
  • St. Peter’s in Bourton on Dunsmore with Draycote

The Leam Valley Benefice

The Leam Valley benefice comprises 4 small villages with 5 churches. We reflect in many respects the joys and challenges of many small rural multi-parish benefices. 

  • St Mark’s in Flecknoe
  • St Peter’s in Grandborough
  • All Saints’ in Leamington Hastings (with Church of the Good Shepherd, Broadwell)
  • St Nicholas in Willoughby

Advent to Lent

Transfiguration Sunday

14th February 2021

Readings: 2 Kings 2.1-12; 2 Corinthans 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9

In many ways this is a well-known event associated with Jesus, and yet the least understood.  What was this all about, for whom was it particularly important?  What is the significance of it, beyond a spectacular event which the three disciples witnessed?

To begin to get to the heart of it we have to understand something of the thinking, the customs and understanding of the time.  The two most important historical figures for the Jews were Moses and Elijah, Moses being the supreme law-giver, and Elijah was the first and considered to be the greatest prophet of Israel. Elijah they believed would appear before the coming of the Messiah. To grasp something of the full significance of the transfiguration we need to understand more about the beliefs of the actual time, before we begin to put our own interpretation on what took place.

The lectionary uses the account of Elijah and Elisha to portray some of these most effectively. On some occasions the Old and New Testament readings of the lectionary simply provide just a backdrop to the Gospel reading, on this occasion the Kings reading is very much an integral part of the story.  Without it we never really understand the full significance of the event.

Elijah has already chosen Elisha as his successor and despite the exuberance of Elisha’s response in slaughtering the twelve yoke of oxen and using the meat for an elaborate leaving party, it is still very much a human event.   In 2 Kings 2 we see Elisha finally being confirmed by God as Elijah passes into the heavens. Elisha has doggedly followed Elijah to this moment of departure, and as Elijah was carried up into heaven his mantle and cloak fell upon Elisha.  This is interpreted within the Jewish situation as God’s confirmation of Elisha as supreme prophet.

Interestingly there are some other things going on which could seem as a bit random. Firstly, Elisha took the mantle that had fallen and tore it in two, a bit strange perhaps.  In the reading you will notice that there were a good number of prophets accompanying them at the time, and the halving of the mantle is quite significant in relation to them.  According to the Jewish law regarding inheritance the oldest son must inherit half of his father’s estate.  The person holding that half is deemed to be the inheritor of the estate, so Elisha now holding half of the mantle is the new true prophet. There will remain other prophets of God, but it is Elisha who is important.

This is probably behind the strange final request of Elisha to Elijah, “Let me inherit a double share of your spirit”,  relating spirit to miraculous powers.  Taking the idea of halving as already discussed, Elisha’s request is that he should, even with half the inheritance, be at least as powerful as Elijah had been. Elijah’s response to that would also prove to be important in the later transfiguration of Jesus, when he replied that Elisha would receive that request if he were able to see Elijah’s departure.

Armed with at least some of the culture and thinking of the time, we are probably able to understand the transfiguration a little more clearly.  We see something of a reflection of that understanding, when we see Jesus accompanied by a number of people, taking just three with him on this important occasion.  The mantle and cloak of Elijah can be interpreted within this account as the cloud that descended (indeed throughout Jewish culture God only appears from within a cloud).  But there is much more than this.  Firstly, Elijah is there, but this time in an even more important role.  Such is the profile and importance that Elijah has risen to that by this time he was seen as a necessary preliminary to the coming of the Messiah. The presence of Elijah is all important in the proclamation of the true nature of Jesus.  The presence of Moses as the person who established the new base of Israel speaks for itself.

The stage is set for something special, and this happened as Jesus was confirmed in his role by God.  Again, we see the similarity to Elisha, but now in the most powerful way that Israel could proclaim.  Throughout the subsequent years people have had various opinions regarding the nature of Jesus, but here we see him being confirmed by God.  For Mark the humanity of Jesus is all important, he is careful to portray a real humanity not a pseudo humanity.  It is in this real humanity that Jesus has made his own decision upon his ministry and has taken the most difficult step of all by turning towards the wrath and pain of Jerusalem.  For Mark this was the turning point in the ministry of Jesus and in this event of the transfiguration God puts His seal and His blessing upon it.  There has been considerable theological debate about who the transfiguration was meant for, Jesus or the disciples (and thus for as all).  For this gospel there can be only one answer, it was definitely for Jesus himself.  Jesus had made own decision as to how his ministry was to develop, and now having taken the decision to face the religious inadequacy head on, he receives the confirmation and blessing of God.  For Mark this is one of the most important moments in the whole gospel.

As a people we often seek guidance, or even action, from God in difficult situations.  Yet this is not the God that Mark is portraying.  For him God is not there to remove our responsibility but will support and confirm our actions.  We are not puppets on strings, our role is being a co-creator with Him. For Mark we have the responsibility of our course of action, and God will bless and confirm, or alternatively retrieve things when we get it wrong.

As in the Elisha account we see others looking on and ultimately accepting their role alongside God’s chosen, so here we see the disciples in a similar position (and of course those who come after them).  Theologically there has been debate concerning the actual disciples present (Peter, James and John) and this has often been surrounded by the debate concerning the eventual leaders of the early church following the ascension of Jesus.  There does seem to be an easier resolution if we accept that Peter was one of main reference points for Mark’s gospel.  The leadership matter however, ought not to be dismissed without proper consideration as it re-appears in the four gospels as to who actually were the first witnesses to the Risen Lord.

The final reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a reminder to all, those of his time and beyond. “It is not ourselves that we proclaim but Jesus Christ”.  It is very easy to lose sight of that, even in our time. We have to find the pearl in the ploughed field and commit ourself to bringing it to its fullness.

 The Bright Field    
by R.S. Thomas 
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had the treasure
in it.  I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.  Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, or hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but it is eternity that awaits you.    

Prayer    
O Lord, how we wish all life to be bright fields
rather than ploughed fields.
How we wish to see your glory everywhere,
to know your presence in everything around us.
We want it all to come from you,
so that our life may be easy and full of meaning.
Yet what we need, and what you give us
are bright fields amongst the ploughed patches.
We want them all to become your splendour
and turn our eyes to anywhere that might give it.
O Lord, help us to see that it was there
all the time in that ploughed expanse,
the wonder, the miracle of the bright field,
just waiting for us to venture inside
and see its fullness. 
O Lord, help us to search, to see
and to find.              Amen


Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Isaiah 40.21-31; I Corinthians 9.16-23; Mark 1.29-39

I would like to begin with a little story that I once heard.  It takes place on a cold and wet Sunday morning, the sort of morning when you don’t want to get up.  The man in the story certainly felt like that on a particular day and despite his wife’s best intentions to get him out of bed he just snuggled down deeper under the duvet.  “Just give me two good reasons why I should get up” was his response to yet another “invitation” or nag from his wife, who herself was dressed ready for the day.  “Well alright” she said, “Here they are then. First it’s Sunday,” and after a brief pause added,  “and secondly you’re the vicar taking the Service!”  Surely not true!

There is a particularly interesting suggestion in the Book of Deuteronomy which causes me to think of this little story.  It is in Chapter 18 and takes place after God has spoken to the Israelites on Mount Hebron.  It is there that the rules of how they should live are spelt out in detail.  The rules seem to cover every eventuality.  They range from the animals they are allowed to eat and how you may cook them, to lawsuits disputed in the courts.  At the end of the exhausting session  one of the Israelites is heard to say, “Let us not hear again the voice of the Lord, nor see this great fire again, or we shall die.”  No doubt you may have heard or even had similar thoughts in sermons, or even in meetings! Referring to the Deuteronomy reading the essence of the comment is that they just couldn’t cope with the vastness of the demands.  However, it had its effect because as a result God promises his prophets to them, prophets who can bring their life and religion into unison.

The prophets are the beginning of proclamation, which is at the heart of all three readings from today’s lectionary.  “Do you not know, have you not heard?” is the cry of Isaiah as he highlights all that God has done.  He goes on to illuminate the wonder for all those who will stop to hear and to know, “They will soar on eagles wings, run and not feel faint, march and not grow weary”.  St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians speaks about the privilege and joy of proclaiming the good news of Jesus.  He certainly had many trials and tribulations in doing that, yet they are as nothing compared to the immense sense of inner resilience which he finds from proclaiming Jesus Christ. Paul certainly soared as the eagle, and was never found lacking nor grew weary whatever happened as a consequence.

Proclamation, telling the world our secret, is the one thing we are called to.  It is easy to miss it, but today’s section of St Mark’s Gospel is all about that too.  These new disciples of Jesus must have been bursting with hope, they had witnessed his healing in the synagogue and then Peter’s own mother-in-law.  They must have felt that they had just started a journey that would never end, as they anticipated the crowds that would flock to Jesus.  And the next morning they were proved right as crowds flocked around the door to seek healing.  Unfortunately Jesus was not there, he was nowhere to be found.  When they did eventually locate him he burst their bubble immediately, for it was not back to Capernaum that he was going, not to the numerous people seeking his healing, but to the people, villages and towns beyond Capernaum.  And healing was not the purpose of his mission, he was going to proclaim the message and good news through his preaching.  Mark’s gospel very briefly describes all this in four verses, but if you stop to think of how long this would take it would probably have run into weeks or even months to achieve.  Proclamation was the heart of what Jesus was about, although there were many attempts to change his course.  Yet wherever he went his prowess as a healer had gone before him. But such was Jesus’ compassion  that he could never ignore human need.  Mark’s gospel is often described as the “secret gospel” in that so often we hear Jesus saying to the benefactor of his healing, “not to tell anyone”.   The reason begins to emerge, he simply knew that it would get in the way.  It would be the reason for people coming to him, not because they sought his message but for seeking the solutions to their own needs.  Jesus saw proclamation of God’s love for the world as his priority.  Later on in Mark’s gospel we shall see Jesus harnessing his healing power into his message of proclamation.

So proclamation is at the heart of our Christian heritage, and before that it had a long Jewish heritage.  That was the role of the church.  It was the very reason why churches had spires and towers, so that they would stand out. It was only much later that humans put bells in them to ensure everyone knew their duty and time to attend!  Do we as Christians, does our Christian church still proclaim that message of hope?  We might want it to, we might want to think that it does, but where are our priorities?  Are they really about people finding a new hope where they will soar like eagles, or are we counting how many attend, how well we balance the budget and how good that makes us feel?  There is a book by D. Parry- Jones, “A Welsh Country Parson” where he discusses the “new phenomenon”, of counting attendance at church, which he immediately dismisses by suggesting that the real question we should be asking is “How many people did not come”.  We shall learn far more from that question he suggests than  from a thousand responses to the previous one.

We still think, certainly in less multicultural areas, of being a Christian country.  But do our actions sustain this view?  As I write this there is an ‘unholy’ debate going on about the supply of vaccines to various parts of the world, including the very poorest countries.  The predominant view is that we should certainly keep all our vaccines until we see what is leftover.  A very practical view, but is it commensurate with being a Christian country?  In general, in life do our individual actions speak the language of proclamation, or are they too centred on our own needs with only the left-overs for those outside?  

Desert Father quotes from Abba Anthony

Our life and our death are with our brothers and sisters. If we gain one, we have gained God.  If we scandalise one, we have sinned against Christ.

The things that you strive for in your daily life will tell you much about your prayers.

Prayer of St. Richard of Chichester

Thanks be to you, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits you have given me,
For all the pains and insults you hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know you more clearly,
Love you more dearly,
And follow you more nearly, day by day.


Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Readings:  Deuteronomy  18.15-20; 1 Corinthians 8.1-13; Mark 1.21-28

The public ministry of Jesus begins in the synagogue. It seems easy to draw parallels between our own church and the synagogues at the time of Jesus, yet they are quite different.  Synagogues were really places of instruction, teaching, prayer and reading of the Law.  They were not something that would be associated with worship, that taking place in the Temple.  Synagogues were quite numerous and there was a law in place that a synagogue had to be provided where there were ten or more Jewish families.  It is the interpretation of the Law that synagogues were primarily concerned with communal life, as adherence to the law had to take precedence over all else.  Everything existed for the Jews of that time in the Law, the Torah (the first five books of our Bible), and all that was needed could be found in them.  The scribes were responsible for the interpretation of the Law, in particular when instances were brought before them when answers were not directly found in the Torah.  A term that is mentioned in the Bible, and often in relation to Jesus himself, is Rabbi, which is the chief scribe.  Often the synagogues were seen primarily as community buildings more so than religious ones, and perhaps bear some comparison to our town halls and village halls in relation to local legislation and community activities. They also had a special role in relation to providing for the poor (similarities can be seen with the 19th and 20th century churches which did much in this latter respect).

Whilst the scribes were responsible for all legal aspects it was the synagogue ruler who had full responsibility for the activities.  The synagogue was open to all who wanted to make a contribution, people simply had to approach the synagogue ruler and a space would be found.  This is exactly what happened with Jesus, he chose to begin his public ministry in the synagogue in Capernaum.  Whilst other gospels tell us something of how and what Jesus did, Mark is only concerned with the impact that it had on the people there. The people were struck, overawed even, with the authority of Jesus.  In the past prophets had tended to limit their warnings to specific issues or to couch their own thoughts in the traditional and accepted authority of the time. That was not so for Jesus.  Whatever Jesus did that day its emphasis was completely different from all that had been witnessed before. His emphasis was powerfully about eschatological matters, the breaking in of God’s Kingdom.  There was nothing in what he said which looked for individual power, he saw it simply as a way where God’s love would burst in through Jesus’ service to humanity, rather than by any interpretation of law.

Immediately Mark shows this happening in the actual synagogue where there is “a man possessed by an unclean spirit”.  The challenge to the Law is immediately obvious, since no work (including healing) could be done on the Sabbath. What perhaps is more illuminating for us is to look more closely at what Jesus did.   With a far better scientific understanding it can be difficult for our generation to comprehend those first century attitudes to many things including the causes of illness.  Many of their illnesses, particularly of a mental nature, were understood to be caused by these unclean spirits or perhaps sometimes the sins of the people themselves.  But it was a very real understanding of their time, as evidenced by the procedure of trepanning which is the surgical removal of a small piece of the skull to enable the evil spirit to escape.  Archaeological evidence from that time emphasises how prevalent  trepanning was (one such piece of research showing that in a cemetery of 120 graves of that time contained 10 skulls which had been so treated).

Further research shows the belief that these demons entwined themselves with the personality.  This shows itself in Mark’s account with the response not just of the demon, but of the plural, “What do you want with us?”  This sense of the way illness entwined with the personality  was the key issue of the time, and one way in which Jesus was able to break that chain was often the key to the healing of so many . Illness can still seen as a defining aspect of a person right up to our recent history. Yet perhaps now things are beginning to change. Some of you may have seen the moving TV programme recently of Katie Price and her son Harvey which shows how the world is at last moving on.  Harvey matters, the person matters despite his problems. Everything is being done to dissociate the problems that Harvey has from the gifts that he has, to find a way and place where he can flourish.  Equally all of us will  have visited a person who is seriously ill, or with a potentially long illness, and  thus be aware that such people do not wish to be constrained by their illness and are keen for us to speak of anything but that illness. They seek to engage in a fullness of life not the limitation of their own circumstances.  It is important that we see the person not the illness, nor even the person with the illness.  Disengaging the illness is central to going forward, and as you read through the gospels you see Jesus doing this so often in his healing miracles.

Yet it moves far beyond sickness and is true for each one of us in some measure, whatever our circumstance. For all of us our personality can become so entwined and changed by many external factors, ranging from our background to the knocks that life throws at us.  Real healing begins when we can rid ourselves of all those external matters. It is then that we can  return fully to our deepest being, seeing ourselves as God sees us.  That is exactly what Jesus’ ministry was all about, seeing our worth in terms of what we were created, not what life has changed us into.  In his lifetime it was Jesus’ authority which enabled many to grasp this.  It is now through the faith and the Holy Spirit he has left  with us that we can gain this life-giving dimension.  So as we read these gospel accounts let us be sure that they are not just about sick people, they are about all of us to some degree.  We need to disentangle those things that have changed us, or reduced us, if we are to return fully to a relationship with God who knows and understands who we really are. Recognising who we are is perhaps just as difficult for us as it was for the man in our gospel reading today. Just as difficult is the courage to comprehend, and then to relinquish, what life and circumstances have changed us into.    Yet it is where we must begin if we are ever to become what we truly can be in God’s eyes.

Prayer

This week I use a poem as the basis of our prayer.  Some of you may know it as “The Crabbit Old Woman”, or as “Look Closer Nurse”.  I first learned of it through Helen, our daughter, who heard of it whilst training as a nurse from an inspired tutor.

Poem often attributed to have been written by an old lady and found under her pillow, but usually attributed to Phyllis McCormack in 1966.

Look closer nurse

What do you see nurse, what do you see?
What are you thinking when you are looking at me?
A crabbit old woman, not very wise
Uncertain of habit, with far away eyes
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice, “I do wish you’d try”
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe
Who, resisting or not lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you’re thinking, is that what you see?
Then open your eyes nurse, start looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still
As I rise at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I am a child of ten with a father and mother
Brothers and sister who love one another.
A young girl of sixteen, with wings on her feet
Dreaming  soon of the lover she’ll meet.
A bride soon at twenty, my heart gives a leap
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
At twenty five now I have young of my own
A woman of thirty, my young growing fast
Bound to each other with ties that will last.
At forty my young sons have grown andsoon be gone
At fifty, once more babies play round my knee
Again we know children my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead.
I look to the future, I shudder with dread
For my young are all busy, rearing young of their own
And I think of the years, and the love I have known.
I am an old woman and nature is cruel
Tis her jest to make old age look a fool.
The body it crumbles, grace and vigour depart
There is now a stone where I once had a heart
But inside the old carcass a young girl still dwells
And now and again my battered heart swells
I remember the joys, I remember the pain
And I’m living and loving life all over again
I think of the years all too few and gone, so fast
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So, open your eyes nurse, open and see
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer, see ME.

So let’s pray

 O Lord, when I look at others, help me to see what you see
Let me not see the ravages of life, but the glory of your love in them
Help me to cast away the struggles of their life,
And to see the glory of all that there is to be loved.
O Lord when I look at myself, help me to see what you see
Help me to put aside what life has made of me
Help me to grasp again Your wonder that is in me
And to see the glory of all that is to be loved in me.
O Lord when others look at me, help them to see what you see
Not what I have made of life, or what it has made of me.
Help them to put aside the things I have become
And to see instead the wonder of your love, part of the wonder of your creation in me.

A thought to ponder from one of the Desert Fathers

A pilgrim came to Abba Marcarius and asked, “ Why are so many happy and yet I am not?”  Abba Macarius replied that they had probably learned to see goodness and beauty everywhere.  “Then why do I not see it” asked the pilgrim? 

Abba Macarius replied, “Because you cannot see outside of you what you fail to see inside”


Third & fourth sundays after Epiphany

Readings: 1 Samuel 3.1-10; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; John 1.43-51; Jonah 3.1-5; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20

The calling of the disciples

The readings for the next two weeks centre on Jesus calling his disciples.  The readings actually ought to be in reverse order to the Lectionary to fully understand how it took place. The first disciples to be called were Andrew, Peter, James and John whereas  the lectionary begins with the calling of Philip and Nathaniel.  So let us begin with Mark’s account of the calling of the four fishermen by the Sea of Galilee.

We can be certain that this was the first event because of the Greek word used to describe one of those fishermen in all of the early Christian writings outside of the Bible. That was Andrew, referred to in the Orthodox Church, and many others , by the Greek word  Protokletos, meaning the first called.

However, reading Mark’s account could lead us to a misinterpretation of the actual calling of the isciples.  Mark uses his brisk ‘event’ style to lead us straight from the Baptism of Jesus to the Sea of Galilee where he seems randomly to call these first disciples.  The Gospel of John, however develops this more fully.  In John’s Gospel a wider range of information of events begins to emerge, including the fact that Andrew was previously associated with John the Baptist.  In fact Andrew was a disciple of John.  It is worth noting that the Baptist’s disciples were different from what we would normally associate with Jesus’ disciples. Certainly the Baptist had disciples who did accompany him  but he also had a second group of disciples who did not. These could probably be better described as dedicated followers, yet they were as devout  as the first group. This group generally remained in their own life situation and acted as disciples within that context.

Significantly we find Andrew was a disciple of the Baptist and probably one of the latter group.  This one small fact changes the way we look at Jesus’ calling of his disciples.  This call of Jesus to the fishermen was certainly not impulsive or random.  Neither was their response to that call. Andrew would have witnessed the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus, and would have enthusiastically told the others  about it.  So when Jesus came and said “Come and follow me,” they had no hesitation in doing just that.  From all that Andrew had told them about seeing the signs of the Messianic age as Jesus emerged out of the water, would have provided enough proof to remove any doubt from their minds.  This rather different understanding of events should lead us to see these four men in a different light.

They were not just four people randomly picked out of obscurity to become part of this ministry of Jesus. They were deeply thinking people, informed people, people who  wanted to make sense of what life was all about. This is what Jesus saw in them. Unfortunately the pace of Mark’s Gospel can leave us with a limited understanding of the full dynamic of this event,  instead a sense of the miraculous emerges rather than an understanding of what actually happened. This is sad because this human aspect of Jesus is exactly the part that  Mark wished to portray in his Gospel.

This further knowledge may also explain what later happened to Andrew in the unfolding ministry of Jesus.  Andrew was certainly the one who started it all and presumably held an important place in that group. Yet he did not become one of the significant disciples in the future ministry of Jesus as Peter, James and John did.    Andrew possibly held on to the style of discipleship that he had learned from John the Baptist which meant, that he was not one of the disciples who were constantly with Jesus during this three-year period.  For Andrew life had to go on, and it could well be that he divided his time between being with Jesus and returning home when necessary, and thereby missing some of the events which brought the other three to the foreground.

Philip performed a similar role in the calling of Nathaniel.  After choosing to follow Jesus himself,  Philip then sought out Nathaniel and urged him to come and see. It is in the discussion that Jesus then had with Nathaniel where a deeper understanding emerges.  Nathaniel challenges Jesus as to why he has been approached at all.  “You don’t know me” he says. But Jesus soon put him wise to the fact that he did.  “I saw you under the fig tree,” was the reply.  At this point there was no further hesitation, Nathaniel was in!  Now it may seem a bit strange to change everything on such a simple observation, but there was probably more to it.  The fig tree being leafy was one where people would sit for shade.  It was probably the place where people would discuss matters or just ponder them, away from the blazing heat.  It became synonymous with thinking, searching for truth.  In all probability it was this colloquialism which is at heart of this comment of Jesus.  What it does show of course is that the choosing of disciples was far from a random act on the part of Jesus.  He wanted to know something about them, just as much as they wanted to know something about him.

The essence of all of this is that these, and later people, weren’t just chosen at random, they were chosen carefully and for a reason, for a task they could and would perform. 

This understanding is tied together by the two Old Testament readings in the Lectionary.  The first is the lovely reading of Samuel hearing the Lord calling him as a child in the Temple and we are left in no doubt that it is God who is in charge.  Similarly the Jonah reading re-iterates this as He sends Jonah to warn Ninevah of the coming destruction, only to find that God in His compassion changes His mind.  In fact Jonah is so fed up about it that he goes and sits sulking in the heat of the day. It is only the tree that God provides that saves him. A fig tree that he could ponder under, perhaps!

Going back to the gospel passages two phrases stand out for me, “Come follow me,” spoken by Jesus and “Come and see,” spoken by Philip.  As I reflect upon these it just occurs to me that we have tried too hard to own the first one, the one that belongs to God. What we have forgotten is the one used by Philip, “Come and see”, and then let Jesus take care of the rest.  The task to which we have been called is not to make the decisions of God, but simply to encourage each one to bring their own concerns to a God who will deal with them well. Ours is the invitation to extend to all  to simply “come and see”. It is not to legislate what they will find or how it may change things. That was, is, and ever will be for God.

Prayer of the disciple – The Methodist Covenant prayer

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
You are mine and I am yours.
May the covenant now made on earth be ratified in heaven.   Amen


Epiphany – the baptism of jesus

Readings: Genesis 1.1-5; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1 4-11

So we begin Mark’s story of Jesus, his good  news of Jesus.  It begins here, not with speculation of events which he could not verify but with verifiable facts that were circulating in his time.  As mentioned in an earlier reflection of Mark’s Gospel there is a reasonable assumption that this was closely aligned to Peter, but not completely going unchallenged in regard to the source of Mark’s information.  The important element for Mark is that the information was verifiable and well known within a community of faith.  He does not, therefore, tend to give much supporting information.  He just puts the story together as it occurred, or as best he could put it together from his sources.  The way in which Mark does this just confirms that he assumes that they know something of these accounts, and he is trying to formalise varying parts of collective oral history and knowledge.  The most obvious place for him to begin is at the start of the ministry of Jesus.

Often we see Mark’s thoughts simply as an account of the event rather than looking too deeply into the underlying meaning behind it.  This short passage (in the Greek it was just 53 words) contradicts this and contains much reference to Old Testament prophesy albeit much more subtly than the other gospels.  Mark often presents his gospel on two levels, the surface story and the deep underlying issues. The very fact that Mark chooses to begin with Jesus’s baptism is indicative of this.

 Little had been heard of Jesus up until this point, certainly on a wider scale.  This is brought home by the fact that initially he was unnoticed by the crowd.  They were there to see John, to be baptized by John, to hear his radical message.  Wherever John went they flocked out to see him, perhaps because of this message he was giving, but more likely that in John they saw the return of the prophesy which had been absent from Israel for three hundred years or more.   More specifically in him they came to believe that they had found the Messiah that they craved.

For John’s part he did not collude with their desire.  In fact he simply spelt it out as it was, that he was the messenger.  John’s message was simply that the important step for all of them was to look at themselves.  Look at what their life had become.  Could they honestly expect God to come to them if they remained as they were?  The first step was to realise what that life had become and change it. John’s baptism was the message of repentance, or in Greek metonia  which simply means a change of mind. Repentance he was reminding them was not simply about saying sorry, it was really about changing the person they were.  The baptism of water only confirmed what they had already done.

This was the heart of John’s message, look into yourself and see honestly what God will see.  Don’t compare it to what others might be, and certainly do not try to justify yourself by finding or pointing out the failures of others.  Simply question who you are, and how far you have slipped from the perfection in which God created you.  Until that moment repentance is nothing more than a word or a concept. They had to find out who and what they were, what they had become, and change it.

We see this same thing going on with Paul in Corinth.  He isn’t looking  for a quick answer, an instant convert.  So as Paul spoke in the temple he was certainly telling them his story but more importantly listening to their story.  As the graffiti response to someone who had glibly written on a wall, “ Jesus is the answer”, someone had written, “But what is the question?”  Repentance can only come when we have discovered those questions and searched for the answers for ourselves. Something perhaps that is easily neglected in mission, that listening is more important than telling.  

However in this account there is a bigger problem that has confronted serious students of the theology surrounding this text.  It is simply questioning why Jesus was baptized at all.  If the background to Jesus is as the gospels say and Jesus is the Son of God, surely this implies that he is sinless.  Yet in three of the gospels this account of the baptism of Jesus figures largely, and in Mark’s it is the launch point.

 Two major reasons have been presented to try to account for this.  The first focuses on the humanity, and thus the human choice, of Jesus.  In this train of thought the conclusion is that this action represents the moment Jesus chose to begin his ministry. The moment of decision, a significant moment, and as you read through Mark you can see that this is the way that  he intended the account to portray all that was to come.  The second response to this action by Jesus is to suggest that it was all about identification.  By this action Jesus is fully identifying himself with humanity, with his people, and committing himself to them.  He is prepared to save his people by being one of them.

However the main point of the baptism of Jesus overtakes all of these other thoughts.  As Jesus emerges from the water the heavens are opened and the voice of God says, “You are my son, and with you I am well pleased.”  Now this is not just a powerful piece of prose, it actually answers the whole question of who Jesus really is and to understand that we must go right back to the thinking of the day. The messianic age had (still has) a prominent place in Jewish thought (much of the Book of Daniel is devoted to this) and is recognised by three aspects.  The first is that the heavens open, the second is the Spirit descending and the third is God speaking through all this.  For that Jewish context these three things needed to happen together, and in just a few words in Mark’s Gospel they all happen as Jesus emerges from the water.  There could be no other starting place for Mark’s Gospel which goes onto explain what that actually meant to human life.  He wastes no time using events to illustrate who Jesus really is.  Mark’s Gospel will just tell us what this new order will look like, and perhaps take us back to a glimpse of the peace that existed when the world first came into being.

As the church moves into its new year this is indeed an important starting place for us.

Last week I left you with a little conundrum.  Today I leave you with a similar story, but one which perhaps may suggest an answer to the first.

This event is again actually true and happened in Birmingham.  A 14 year old girl of another faith became interested in Christianity and eventually made her way to an inner city church where she got very familiar with the faith and the teachings of Jesus.  Unfortunately, other members of her family  began to become aware of her moving to another faith and after warnings were ignored by her, her legs were broken to prevent her attending the church.  The members of the little evangelical church were deeply upset and concerned.  What shall we do?  It quickly became apparent that if the girl had any further contact her life would be in danger.  How will she be saved? This was of course their concern in the wider context of things as well as the present threat to her.  A wise elderly nun amongst them cut straight to the chase.  “My dears”, she said to them “She is all-ready saved, perhaps even more so than we are.  Let her be, Jesus will look after her”.


second sunday of christmas

readings: jeremiah 31.7-14; ephesians 1.3-14; john 1.10-18

Some of you will have heard me preach on Jean Francois Gravelot, or as he was better known, “The Great Blondin”.  He became one of the greatest tight-rope performers of his day and made his name by walking a tight-rope across Niagara Falls on many occasions.  But he was far more than a daring tight-rope walker, he introduced great theatre and sensation into those crossings.  He crossed Niagara Falls on stilts. He crossed the falls with a man on his back.   On one occasion he took a chair and some refreshments with him, set the chair up above the middle of the falls and sat down to have a meal!  All this on a 3 inch swaying wire, some 180 ft above the  falls and over a distance of 1100 ft.

Among all the stories of Blondin’s incredible crossings of the Niagara Falls there is one however, which sticks out in my mind.  It is the story of the wheelbarrow.  With typical pre-event publicity the organisers ensured a great crowd attended including many from the press.  After a number of stuttering attempts to get the wheelbarrow onto the tightrope and a few wobbles Blondin set out on his journey over the falls.  On the way he had a few ‘moments’ but these were probably included to increase the drama rather than serious difficulties.  Having reached the middle, the difficult part really began as the wire would, through its own weight and his, have quite an incline to reach the end.  There was a hushed silence in the crowd as he came to the last few steps, and just as he reached the platform thunderous applause broke out.  Amongst this applause was a plea for him to do it again, but this time going back the other way.  Everybody cheered and cheered as he turned his wheelbarrow around and made out as if he was going back, indeed he made a couple of attempted starts.  Then, the crowd was hushed to complete and dumbfounded silence, as Blondin pointed out to them that the angles of incline in this other direction were different, and to do it he would need a volunteer to sit in the wheelbarrow!  The silence was now palpable, and there were no volunteers!

Blondin never did that reverse journey.  Whilst there were hundreds of people who wanted to see him do it, hundreds who knew he could do it but there wasn’t one who was prepared to sit in the wheel barrow as ballast.  This true story can be used in various contexts of the Christian faith and people, but today I use in the context of God, God who didn’t hesitate to get into the wheel-barrow of humanity.

The word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The original written version of this and all the New Testament is Greek, and for any Greek person reading this seemingly simple statement would have been a major problem.  Although translations may offer various alternatives such as, a person, or mortal, or human, the Greek version uses the word flesh.  The problem is that this word does not just simply imply human, it implies human beings with all their faults.  The same word is used quite often by St Paul in his letters to illustrate not humans but human weakness. God has not just come to us, he has come to be one of us, to share our human weaknesses. For the Greek reader that was not just impossible, indeed it was blasphemous.  The spirit for them was far superior to the body, and it would never have been deigned to even contemplate the spirit associating with the body let alone becoming part of it. (see footnote)

What we have in this gospel reading is a powerful assertion of Jesus as an integral part of God from the beginning, and that same God taking on our humanity with all its weaknesses and failures.  This is Emmanuel, God with us, in its fullness, as indeed had been portrayed by the prophetic ministry prior to Jesus, in particular Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Today we hear the joy of that prophecy that God will turn their grieving into gladness; and give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.  It was this God who was prepared to be with them in their sufferings and struggles which gave them heart to look beyond and perceive something far greater than themselves, things that they shared in God and with God. The continuing account of Jesus in John’s Gospel is a powerful reminder how he was in the world, but not of the world.

Prior to the writing of John’s Gospel (indeed all of them), St Paul had repeatedly referred to these spiritual blessings in Jesus. Indeed in our reading of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we see this pre-dating Paul himself, as he includes an existing prayer in his opening statement (vv.1.3- 1.6). In this passage we find Paul reminding the reader that they have been blest with a bounty they could never have known, it is the bounty of heaven come down to earth.  He also reminds them that they have not chosen God, but that God has chosen them and chosen them for a special reason.  The reason is simply to be holy and blameless in the world.  The word holy will, no doubt have several connotations, but recalling that since this was first used by Paul who was a Greek, and it was printed first in the Greek language, perhaps some thought as to what this Greek origin  of the word hagios or holy is necessary.  It simply means separated or different.  Paul is saying to those early Christians that God has chosen them to be separated from the world, and through the way they live that separated life others will come to value it.  Perhaps this is the challenge that we as Christians, as indeed the Christians of every age before us, have been slow to face.  It is here to present an alternative version and vision to life.  The more we try to become worldly the less we live up to that calling of holiness.

This point perhaps brings us back to Blondin and to think of his challenge to get into the wheelbarrow as one for ourselves.  St. Paul spells out clearly that we are called to be holy, separated, and whilst we applaud those who have done it before, or even do it now, it still begs the question.  Are we prepared to get in the wheelbarrow and let God lead us along the tight-rope of life?  We are in the world, but do we fulfil our calling by being too much part of it?

Footnote

For those of you who may be interested in the development of the church, this would explain the body of people who are known as Doceists.  The base word for this in Greek would be Dokein with a translation of seeming to beFor them Jesus was simply God appearing as a human being rather than really being one, and was a substantial theology in these early stages.  I suspect that is why John in his Gospel was so uncompromising in his description. So those of you, myself included, who love that old language need to realise that it was often used as a way to confront conflicting thoughts and ideologies which were prevalent at the time. The study of the Bible cannot be limited to its speaking at our present time, but must refer in some way to why it would have been written. Doceism was condemned by the First Christian Council at Nicaea in 325AD but interestingly it has

When I was at Theological College, our studies were punctuated by some deep discussion on issues.  This following scenario provided one very heated discussion with our group containing a wide range of Christian stances from the liberal to the fundamental.  The discussion was based around a very good friend of ours, a devout Muslim and about one of the talks he and I had had on many occasions.

On this particular occasion we were talking about our faiths and he came out with the following:

“You Christians are very lucky, we as Muslims have the Book but you have the Man”. Indeed my friend whist still being devout in his own faith was also very informed on Christianity.  The discussion which arose in the College situation was simply whether his statement met the criteria for everlasting life as reportedly given by Jesus, that it was for all who believed in Him. So where from a Christian perspective would you place Mamdooh, our friend? Perhaps it is something you might wish to exercise your mind with!

Prayer

Not an easy option
from ‘Whispers of Love’ by Pam Marsh.

Stirring the easy slumbers of my consciousness,
or the easy answers of my own wants.
O God, you jolt me
From the cosy rut or righteous one
I’d channelled for myself.
Breaking the mould of others’ expectations, and my own,
You question once more the status quo in me.
You prompt me to steer my route
across uncharted ground, unfamiliar ground,
You challenge me to set my feet on pathways new
To places that I’d rather not go.

It’s not an easy option following You, God.

For You call me in directions
where I had not thought to go.
You require of me a courage that I did not think I had.
You turn on their head
my preconceived ideas and plans.

It’s not an easy option following You, God.

But there again it was not an easy option for You
when You chose to share my humanity and even my flesh.
Inspire my courage by what You have already done for me.


first sunday of christmas

readings: isaiah 61.10-62.3; galatians 4.4-7; luke 2.15-21

Who on earth are Simeon and Anna?

Our son, Gareth, didn’t study art to any real depth at school, yet he is wonderful at drawing.  He didn’t study music or instrumental music much, yet he is a wonderful practical music maker, playing quite a few instruments and more importantly just being able to play a piece of music he has only heard perhaps once or twice.  He didn’t spend much time learning to cook, yet he is a magnificent cook also. 

But it is in his drawing  where it all comes together.  With a little persuasion  (although sometimes it takes a bit more!) he will just sit and draw in a very short time a picture to illustrate something,  usually a character, for the children.  The remarkable thing about this is that you have no idea of what it is, or what it will look like until the last moment.  The drawing is made with seemingly random strokes which give no indication of what the picture is about until suddenly with the last few of these strokes the picture emerges before your eye. A wonderful gift I wish I had.

Luke has a similar gift also in his writing, none more so than in his version of the birth of Christ.  With few material facts to work with, probably limited to Old Testament prophecies in the main and some local folklore, his story of the birth the whole picture of Jesus emerges. In fact he goes on doing it through the whole of his gospel.  Using Mark’s account, along with at least one other source, he weaves a real sense of Jesus from the basics that have been presented to him.

Today’s reading is fascinating in this respect.  In a few words, a few strokes of his pen, Luke explains everything about Jesus, who he is, what he will do, and the cost of what it will cost him.  All this he does through two characters, Simeon and Anna.  So who were Simeon and Anna?

Well we know very little directly from the Bible about them, this being the only time they are mentioned.  Yet there is a great tradition surrounding them.  The most powerful aspect of these traditions stems from the group they were associated with in Israel.  At this time of high expectation and hope in Israel for a Messiah to rid them of the Roman occupation, there was a separate group with similar high expectations but expectations for a very different saviour.  This group was known as the quiet in the land. They were a very devout and prayerful group who just simply prayed for God to be among his people.  They had no expectations of what that would be, other than He would be among them.  This was their only expectation yet it was the real hope for the world.

It reminded me of a  deep memory from when I was quite young, watching a stonemason repairing  a dry stone wall.  The vast array of stones of every shape and size lay on the ground, the smallest being not much bigger than a pebble.  Yet with his skill all were found a place in the wall and each contributing to its strength and ultimate glory and longevity.  There were the obvious ones that we see, the facing stones and the coping stones, and some that we may be aware of, or even see if we try hard enough, such as the foundation, coping and through stones.  Yet at heart of this wall are stones we never see, the heartings and the pinnings, the very stones which give  the complete strength and longevityto the wall.  Without them the wall would soon be gone, pushed over by animals or just succumbing to the still, silent movement of the living earth.  Then over the days that followed when I spent my time  watching the wall being completed, and amazingly not a stone of that great original sprawl remained, and even more amazing no additional stones were needed to complete the wall.  It was all there, and complete only when every stone was used.  Equally amazing, and perhaps life forming for me, was the fact that he never used a hammer in his work.  He just spent a long time looking at those stones as they lay on the ground and memorized them, seeing their strengths, their places no doubt, and for every space to be filled in the emerging wall, there was a stone already there.

Its strength arose from the fact that it was a dry wall without any form of mortar being  used.  The strength of all stone walls is the ability of its constituent parts to move and react to the changing pressures exerted on it.  It is flexibility which gives the wall its strength not its rigidity. The more cement which is added will simply make it too rigid for long term stability, it is the dray stone wall with its mixof components being the one which stands the test of time.     

The building of that wall remains an over-riding memory for me, and one which I can still see still some 70 years on as I travel past my grandfather’s farm. That stone wall is still there among the modern sectional buildings  built, rebuilt and replaced a number of times .  That wall has been for me a picture of so many things in life from friendships and relationships to the nurture of children and so much more.  It was the struggle of the “human” aspect of the church in this respect that has led to its decline and even failure in some situations.   A genuine desire to keep it perfect has in the end only created something which could not adapt and adjust.  Like the wall made with mortar it does not take long to fail to the changing pressures of real life.

That is to me exactly what Luke was portraying in relation to Jesus Christ, the rebuilding of the covenant.  He brings in countless folk to represent the whole spectrum of humanity without which the covenant will never be complete or strong.  He never forces  rigidity or conformity, he simply enables them to realise their part in the kingdom.   So who were these people that Luke used in his story, and  in particular Simeon and Anna?  Were they just an author’s stroke of the pen, or did they exist? And if they existed how did they get into Luke’s Gospel which was written some 100 years later?  Well we have no answer to those questions, except to see that with the shepherds and the kings together they  represent  the multitude of God’s children.  These few people represent   the full humanity which was at the heart of God’s love and gift.   What is more they have existed through all of eternity and still exist.  That covenant, that Holy Family, will never be complete until all are part of that great wall which adorns paradise. 

The Wire-fence
from ‘Prayers of Life’ by Michel Quoist

The wires are holding hands around the holes;
To avoid breaking the ring, they hold tight the neighbouring wrist,
And it is thus that with holes they make a fence.
Lord, there are lots of holes in my life.
There are some in the lives of my neighbours.
But it is your wish that we shall hold hands
We shall hold tight
And together we shall make a fine roll of fence to adorn paradise.

Nunc Dimittis – The Song of Simeon
Luke 2.29-32
Now, Lord, you let your servant go in in peace
your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes  have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people;
A light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.    


fourth sunday of advent

readings: 2 Samuel 7.1-11 & 16; Romans 16.25-27; Luke 1.26-38

Our daughter and family have two lovely cats. However they are very anxious to please  and regularly bringing tasty morsels into the house for the family.  These are usually a mangled mouse, but have varied from frogs to a pigeon, which when let go was soon flying around the room!  It is lovely to see this trait of wanting to please, but the results of this pleasing instinct are not always so pleasing to the one who is to be pleased, so to speak!

The whole of our economy it seems now rests on Christmas, or at least on the money that we spend at Christmas.  It is spent on lavish and even obscene amounts of food in part, and a considerable amount on presents.  How often though do those presents reflect the needs or wants of the recipient?  Sometimes perhaps they reflect the givers own situation and character, and in so doing highlighting how little we know about, or perhaps want to know, about the recipient.  I love the summing up of it all in Thomas Betjeman’s poem, “Christmas”  as he recalls

       The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent,
      And hideous tie so kindly meant.

Today our Old Testament reading is just like that.  It has King David now living safe and secure in his palace, remembering perhaps the uncertainties of his former life and the risks and perils of his nomadic life as a shepherd.  He begins to compare this new found security with the precarious nature of God’s existence.  He must do something about this state of affairs, he must build a new home for the ark of the Covenant which still residing in a tent.  David’s great desire is to please God but by suggesting that he might build a house for God, David is expressing far more about himself than he is about God, about David’s own uncertainties or needs perhaps. Through Nathan, God points out that His desire couldn’t be further from this.  His desire is to build a house, a home, for His people not for himself.  A place where He could be with them, not separated from them.  God’s way is indeed far from our way and His understanding far from our own.  If we are to really fulfil our desire to be closer to God we have to begin to put aside what we want and open ourselves up to what God wants.

And this is exactly what Mary did. She must have been just as fearful as David had been.  Here was this strange companion expressing the most outrageous idea that would turn her whole world completely upside down, that would threaten her very existence and everything that she hoped for.  If she accepted this her whole life would be changed, her reputation thrown away and her future becoming most unpredictable, if indeed there would be one at all. 

‘O God no!’ must have been her first reaction.  I will do anything, build you a house even, but please not this.  Please not these things that will destroy everything that I have been, everything that I want to be.  Gabriel quietly explained that his was not about what she wanted to be, but what God wanted her to be.  She would indeed build a house for God, but not as David had imagined.  The house she would build for God would be for His people and He would share it with them.  Indeed it would be a temple beginning in the temple of her own body, the temple of her very being.

Then let it be so was Mary’s response.  “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said”.  But what, oh what, must have been her feelings as the angel left her?  How on earth can this possibly work out?  What will become of me?  Questions and doubts must have thrashed through her mind.  But for all this Mary remained resolute, everything is possible with God.  Indeed nothing is impossible with God, and through Mary God did establish His home where it had to be, in the centre of his people.

But returning to echoes of John’s gospel, unlike Mary, God’s people did not know him, or perhaps want to know him when they realised what that knowing entailed.  They would much prefer to pay lip-service much like Betjeman’s  ’tissued fripperies’.  It would be much easier, and the price would certainly be less.  Fortunately in a world which knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing, at least Mary was focussed to put value before cost, to put God before self.

It is Mary who should be our example, Mary who did not choose God for where she wanted to go, but allowed God to take her where He knew she could go.  Through each one of us God is able to widen and deepen His home among people, but have we the courage and the imagination of Mary to let it happen?  Are we prepared to play our part in ushering in God’s kingdom?

Prayer adapted from ‘Whispers of Love’
by Pat Marsh

O God, you stir the easy slumbers
of my consciousness.
You jolt me from the cosy rut
I’d channelled out for myself.
Breaking the moulds of other’s expectations,
breaking the mould of my own expectations
You question once more
the status quo in me.
Prompting me to steer my route
across uncharted ground,
You challenge me
To set my feet on pathways new.
It’s not an easy option following You, God!
For you call me in directions
where I had not thought to go,
requires of me
a courage which I did not think I had,
turns on their head
my preconceived ideas and plans.
It’s not an easy option
following You, O God
Give me the trust, give me the faith
to go where You know  I can go, to go where you need me to go.

A short prayer from Mark 9.24

I believe, help my unbelief

Perhaps one to think and meditate on for some time.


Third sunday of Advent

readings: isaiah 61. 1-4; 1 thessalonians 5.16-24; john 1 6-8, 19-28

In last week’s readings we saw John the Baptist appearing in Mark’s Gospel and representing the line of prophets who had been so influential in Israel’s past.  Today we meet him again, but this time in his own right.  The author of John’s Gospel is concerned only with the message the Baptist brings and the role that he performs, pointing to something beyond himself.

On the surface of it the message was a scandalous one.  Israel, the chosen race, were to submit to baptism alongside the Gentiles proselytes.  They were no better than the Gentiles who had been the scorn of Israel!  To the vast number of Israel this was indeed scandalous, even blasphemous, yet there were great numbers who came to John, recognising some fundamental truth in what he said.  Recognising their own inadequacies they sought him out to try to get to the heart of their own concerns.  And people came in great numbers.  We even see Jesus himself being part of it.

Repent was the powerful message they heard from John, but it was something deeper they really sought.  Through that repentance a great peace could be found, leaving a joy at the centre of their inadequate existence.  It came from a recognition that God could be approached, that he was near.  Grasp the God who is close by, was John’s message, and know the joy that it gives.

But this was no ordinary joy.  It was a joy that went to their very centre, a joy encapsulating all joys they had previously known, a sustaining joy. Perhaps in our human situation it could be compared to meeting someone whom you knew would be your soul mate for life, or holding your newly-born child.  In moments like these nothing else matters, or could ever matter again.  This is what they found in John’s message.  It was no arbitrary action, it was knowing a joy that would never leave them. 

So that is the message which we celebrate in the middle of Advent.  The inner joy of knowing that God can be with you, that God is indeed with you.  Whatever you face in life, whatever the problem, whatever the struggle you are never alone.  It was summed up in the poem ‘Footprints in the Sand’ where the single set of footprints highlights the times when God carries us.

So here is the real message of Advent, and we celebrate it on this “Gaudete Sunday”.  Gaudete, a Latin word simply meaning rejoice, letting joy rush out.  The liturgical colour of the day changes to rose, as does the colour of the Advent candle. The Advent carol,  O come, O come Emmanuel , spells out our longing, while  the chorus  is about the joy of knowing God’s saving  response to that longing.

              Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel
              Has come to thee, O Israel.

But this is more than a message for a particular Sunday in Advent, it is more even than a particular season of penitence.  This message is the very centre of our faith.  It is far more than the things we get wrong, and will get wrong.  It is about the love of God which always puts them right!  This is the ‘Christmas’ of John’s Gospel, and of Mark’s.  To them there is nothing which can overtake the knowledge of this unearned and undeserved love which God continually pours out to his world.  There is no other reason why they wrote their gospels. 

It was the message that Paul spoke of in our Thessalonians reading today, and is the heart of a prayer he uses in the letter to the Philippians (4,4). It is a reminder to us all that every moment is a revelation of God’s love and every moment is a Gaudete opportunity.

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice.
Do not be anxious about anything,
but in everything with thanksgiving present your requests to God.
And the God of peace which transcends all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

This is why so many sought out the Baptist, may it be our reassurance and joy also.


second sunday of advent

readings: Isaiah 40.1-11; 2 Peter 3, 8-15; Mark 1.1-8

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God”, so begins the gospel according to Mark.  Certainly no pulling any punches there, or indeed searching through the Old Testament scriptures about how it might have happened.  Here, in this man Jesus Christ are the wonders that prophets had proclaimed and the people had longed for, God’s presence was among them and the gospel goes on to proclaim how Mark and others have become so convinced of it.

It was not however in the way that people had hoped for.  They knew their scriptures, but it was a selective remembrance.  They would probably have known the Isaiah prophecy of “Comfort ye my people” but did they recall that it was devastation that would proceed that comfort?  Isaiah’s God was not a God who would pat them on the head and just put everything right, for Isaiah we had to journey through the bleak desert, through the struggles and the failures first.  Isaiah’s God wasn’t showing them a way around the desert, it was a God who was giving courage and help to go through  the centre of it.

This was the  message that John the Baptist came to preach with his straightforward message of repentance which came to fullness in baptism.  We may be wary of this man from his appearance and life style, but it is that baptism which defines the severity of his message.  Jews would have been very familiar with ritual washing as recorded in the Book of Leviticus, but for Jews baptism was not required, symbolic or otherwise.  Baptism was part of the process that was reserved for Gentile proselytes of Judaism, which signified cleansing from sins of past life.  Yet here was John demanding that Jews themselves, the chosen race,  submit to the  humiliating experience alongside the proselytes.  The chosen race had failed miserably in their response to God’s love. John’s appeal came through his own humility and despite the recognition of their desert of  faith, or perhaps because of it crowds flocked to him.  There were no seductive promises of an easy passage, just the reality of what those who turned to him knew in their own hearts, the failings they recognised in themselves.

Every railway station is either the beginning or the end of a journey.  The message of John is simply that this is the place where the journey begins.  Like the train journey the route of faith is set out, all we have to do is to have the courage to step aboard. God’s grace has already prepared the way, but is it the way we would choose to go?  Would we not prefer a simpler way, an easier way?  Will the pain of making every road straight and every hill and valley smooth be more than we want to bear?  John certainly didn’t leave them with an easy choice, but people turned to it because of what they saw, or probably failed to see in themselves.  This was John’s wake up call, the advent, to Israel.

From 600AD this has been the heart of the period of Advent in the Christian Church, probably beginning with the fasting time associated with St.Martin originally.  Certainly the earliest records of Advent come from Tours in the 6th Century.  Its heart is self-reflection, the very principle laid down by John the Baptist.  This reflection of Advent  centres upon the vibrancy of the faith of many who have brought us to this point in the journey, from the patriarchs to the prophets, and notably include John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus.  Traditionally Advent would have included some very powerful visual images emphasising this vibrancy and its gradual slipping away.  Some of these very meaningful traditions have to all intent been lost, whilst others have been modified to such an extent to a point where they barely reflect any meaning.

Of the former probably the most visually significant was the bringing in of the greens.  Starting with Advent Sunday the vibrant branches of yew and laurel would be brought into church signifying the great hope of our faith, but as Advent progressed the greens gradually began to lose their vibrancy.  It was a visual reminder of what was imperceptibly happening to our faith, in the un-remitting demands of life.  On Christmas Day it sprang back into life when the vibrant green of the holly leaf and its attendant red berries were laid on the decaying greens. Interestingly it was the Victorian church where this custom seemed to go into abeyance, probably because the dead and dying greenery which was an important part of the message, just simply made the church look untidy.  The very tidy Christmas wreath took their place.  A similar visual reminder can be seen in our still active practice of the Advent wreath, where week by week the appropriate (and usually purple) candle is lit and gradually loses its significance as it becomes smaller and smaller.  The bright and vivid white light, the light of Christ, blossoms forth among these diminishing purple lights and dark green background. Again I can recall churches where the candles were only lit at the end of the services for a very few minutes so that they wouldn’t lose their sparkle, and thereby obliterating the message that is at the heart of the wreath.

 The Jesse Tree was the fore-runner of both the advent calendar and the Christmas tree.  It was a dead branch which was brought into church, or into home, on Advent Sunday and day by day grew into life as pictures or representations of the origins of our faith were hung upon it.  Finally on Christmas day a bright, white candle was placed at its very top, the light of Christ. The Victorian inspired Christmas tree, with its twinkling lights and candy is indeed a poor imitation.  The Advent calendar was traditionally very similar, but seems to be moving further and further from its meaning as chocolates and other treats replace the symbols of faith.  Indeed I have seen one such adult Advent calendar advertised which replaces the chocolates by tasters of various spirits that can be sampled on these days, mind you it did cost over £100! The four last things and the great O’s (you can view this service on YouTube at our Cathedral) are also traditions which you may wish to find out about, but all these traditions were at the heart of the season of Advent, a time to reflect on whether our  own faith is as vital or as life-giving as it could be, or indeed once was.

So Advent is not just a time to prepare for Christmas, though indeed it may be a busy time as we do this, it is a time to prepare for the greater things of life.  What is our faith all about, how do we live it out.  Is it a faith which can sustain us through all difficulties and disasters, or is it just a barrier which we hope will keep out all such unpleasantness and struggle?  Have we reduced God to someone whose purpose is to enable our own version of the journey of life happen and make it easier, or is He a God who will sustain us through the real journey of life whatever that may be?

For those of you who are gardeners it will not escape your notice that there are two main periods of pruning if we wish our trees to remain fruitful, they are in autumn and spring, or Advent and Lent. May this Advent be a pruning time for us so that we remain fruitful in God’s kingdom. When Jesus tells us to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, He is saying that we must do that because it bears Caesar’s image, how much more important then to render to God the things that bear God’s image, ourselves.  As we do that may we strive to return it in a form nearer to the perfection it was made and given in.

St Peter in writing to the Jews in Rome is in fact commending them to be grateful for this waiting time of life. To regard its gifts, but not to lose sight of the responsibilities we have to it, and the responsibilities we have to one another.  At this time when Covid-19 still rages within our world perhaps our time of Advent is more important than ever as we try to focus on the place and responsibility of human existence, and live it out as God intended rather than how we would like it. Let us ““stand in our wilderness and start to build a place where righteousness is at home” (Jane Williams ‘Lectionary Reflections’)

Advent prayers From ‘The Promise of His Glory’

Lord God, we come to you
with sorrow for our sins,
and we ask for your help and strength.
Help us to know ourselves
and to accept our weakness.
Strengthen us with your forgiving love,
so that we may more courageously
     follow and obey your Son,
Awhose birth we are soon to celebrate.

Night Prayer
As watchmen look for the morning
so do we look for you , O Christ.
Come with the dawning of the day
and make yourself known to us in the breaking of the bread;
For you are our God for  ever and ever.


advent sunday

readings: Isaiah 64.1-9; 1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37

There are always a few problems moving from the Before Advent season to Advent itself.  Advent is about preparing for the coming of Christ and the Before Advent season being the time we prepare to prepare!  Often there is overlap between the readings in these two seasons.  When the Gospel of Mark is the ‘incoming gospel’ this makes it even more difficult since Matthew (and for that matter Luke) used Mark as a significant resource for his own writing.  We may well come across readings which we think we have had before, and in reality probably have in another gospel during the just completed Before Advent season.  This week’s Gospel reading is one such example.

To try and get into the meaning of this passage, since it is the first in Mark’s Gospel for us, we really need to go back to the beginning of the chapter.  Immediately we see that Jesus is actually referring to the destruction of the Temple in this passage, not the end of the world.  The Temple of Jerusalem, although still unfinished, was regarded by many as the most beautiful building in the world and the disciples are overcome at seeing it for the first time.  Yet Jesus informs them that it will soon be destroyed, not one stone will remain resting on another.  He goes on to say that this will happen in the lifetime of many of the hearers.  From Matthew in particular this has been interpreted as being the coming of Christ, the end of the world, and that Jesus must have got it wrong.  But when we return to Mark, the original Gospel, we see that it was used in the context of the Temple and this did indeed happen in the lifetime of some of them, less than forty years later.

As we begin to read today’s Gospel account we could be forgiven in thinking about the prediction in terms of the apocalypse.  The words attributed to Jesus, or used by Mark to signify the desolation to come, are from a far earlier period, certainly Isaiah but possibly earlier.  This was the language and the idea that the Jews were familiar with in relation to the Day of the Lord, and certainly the destruction of the Temple could be considered as the end of their world.  The problem has been that we have continued to use this gospel reading in the same vein. Later writings have completely separated it from the Temple destruction. In the Christian context it is now associated with the second coming of Christ, a reminder perhaps that we ought to reference similar gospel readings and even see them in the wider context than the Sunday reading sometimes gives. 

The prediction is further enhanced by the idea of “the son of man coming on clouds with great power and glory”, and is itself a reference to these earlier prophecies.  This time the text for the prophecy is from the Book of Daniel (Daniel 7.13), and Mark prior to writing this account would have witnessed countless false prophets offering vain hopes of salvation.  This may well have contributed to Mark writing his Gospel, to journal the ministry of Christ the Messiah, and simply to record the facts of this stage of the life of Jesus.

We must not lose sight, however, that that day will come for all and we live in its shadow.  One thing that life teaches us is that we can never control what happens along its journey, or indeed when it will end.  Covid-19 in particular has been a warning that no matter how much we try to take control, we cannot.  Whilst we must always try to overcome the situations that will threaten us individually or collectively, there is always the knowledge that we do not have absolute control.  Each of us must be ready for the moment when things change.  So alongside the many actions of life we do so in the hope that life holds much before us, we must also live it in the knowledge that it may not, and will not, forever.  The wise person is the one who never forgets that he/she needs to be ready when the moment comes. It is that person who can live in hope rather than terror.

As a child I used to be fascinated by fairground mirrors, the mirrors which changed your reflection into all sorts of different shapes and sizes.  I cannot understand why I always returned  the mirror that made me look tall!  I am told, though since I rarely go to clothes shops,that stores use similar mirrors to “encourage” people to buy.  Advertising is based upon that same principle, of deluding you into thinking that their product will make you into the image you seek to be, the control you seek.  If we are not careful life can easily become all smoke and mirrors!  What we must hold onto is that the mirrors change nothing, and despite that brief moment when I was tall and slim, I have had to come to terms with what I am.  It was easy with the fairground mirrors, they were only there for a short time each year, the reality of present day life is around us all the time. The difficulty is that by losing sight both of our true self and what it is in the end, the important parts of what you are.  The journey of life will teach you that, if you let it.  It will also lead you to a glory you would never have envisaged if you had stayed looking into the mirrors of delusion.  Keep watch, seek to know more of what you are and more of what you will be.

The reading from Isaiah 64 is all about the delusion we limit ourselves to, and to the hope that God offers to us, “Do not let your anger pass all bounds , O Lord, look on us, your people”.  The more we search for God the nearer we will come to seeing that happening.

Today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians pours out that hope in abundance.  “There is indeed no single gift that you lack, while you wait expectantly for our Lord Jesus Christ to reveal himself.  He will keep you firm to the end without reproach on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

They, and we, can safely smash our mirrors of fear and delusion!  Perhaps Advent is the time to begin to look into the mirror of our true to see ourselves as we really are, the way that we are fully seen by Him

Collect for Advent 1 from ‘The Promise of His Glory’
O Lord, you have set before us the great hope that Your kingdom will come on earth,
and have taught us to pray for its coming:
give us grace to discern the signs of its dawning,
       and to work for that perfect day
when Your will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven;
       through Jesus Christ our Lord.   

From ‘Praise God in Song’
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe:
Eternal creator of light and darkness.
In this season of Advent when the sun’s light is swallowed up
by the growing darkness of the night,
You renew Your promise to reveal among us the splendour of Your glory,
made fresh and visible to us in Jesus Christ Your Son.
Through the prophets you teach us to hope for His reign of peace.
Through the outpouring of his Spirit, You open our blindness to the glory of his presence.
Strengthen us in our weakness;
Strengthen us in our stumbling efforts to do Your will and free our tongues to sing Your praise.
For to You all honour and blessing are due, now and forever.

Trinity to Advent 2020

Homilies by Rev. David Shaw

A series of short homilies reflecting on the readings for our Sunday services


Christ the King

Readings: Ezekiel 34.11-16 & 20-24; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46

So we arrive at the final Sunday of Year A.  Next week being Advent Sunday we move to a new church season and a new lectionary which is the Gospel of Mark.  But now we end this particular year with the Messiah seated on the throne and an affirmation of what God is asking of us, what being a Christian means in reality.

There can be no missing the point as Jesus, or Matthew in his recording of it, repeats it four times.  It is simply that we will be judged by how we have treated others, especially the less fortunate.  It begins with Jesus separating the people into two groups, something the people of the time would have understood.  The shepherds would sometimes separate the sheep from the goats for a very practical reason.  In winter  when he would return the flock to the village after a day’s feeding on the surrounding hillside he would separate them because the goats were unable to cope with the cold nights and were thus vulnerable unless given some cover, while the sheep with their fleece could cope on their own. Any goat left to fend for itself on such a night would not survive. 

In many modern Bibles this is often referred to as the parable of the sheep and the goats when in fact it was an illustration used by Jesus to emphasise a point he was making, a parable is something with a deep meaning contained within it. The emphasis on the sheep and goats somewhat obscures the central message. Many people use this expression in various contexts with no relation to the main thrust of the argument that Jesus was making.

That real point is simply that we will be divided according to how well, or badly, we have treated the less fortunate of the world. The fact that the details are recorded four times should leave us in no doubt that this is the heart of Jesus’s message.  As Jesus is visualised as Christ the King we are reminded of what He did on earth, His absolute concern for the needy, for the forgotten of the world.  During those times we were often instructed to go and do likewise, and now in this discourse the point is hammered home.  Surprisingly it is not any of the major things we could perhaps do, it is the simple things of caring, of giving the necessities of life, looking to people whom the world has shut away and clothing those who have none. These are the very things that everyone can do, it is not restricted in any way.  So acceptance by God begins and ends in what we do for the needy and disadvantaged, and is something which in our own way we must do.

Most importantly it is to be done unconditionally and uncalculatingly.  In the illustration those who are saved wonder why they are there, and  are reminded of the many times in life they actually did those things , whilst those  who are excluded are reminded of the many opportunities they had had which were either ignored or just not recognised as being important.  However, we can be seduced by the description of the periphery and miss this main point. The imagery of King Jesus and indeed the imagery of the shepherd looking over the sheep link our thinking to Old Testament ideas but we must be careful they do not dominate and thus obscure the real message. 

It is the ordinary things that we do in our journey of life, rather than in the major things we would like to do.  Barclay in his analysis of this passage records two events which emphasise this.  He tells the legend of St. Francis of Assisi, although well-born and well-to-do, was still very unhappy with his life. On one of his journeys he met a leper badly disfigured by the disease.  Seeing him in this terrible state Francis embraced him, and in his arms the disfigured face of the leper changed to the face of Christ.   As someone put it in our last week’s zoom discussion, we just need to do something.

The other example Barclay uses is that of St. Martin of Tours.  Again from a well-to-do family and as a young man an officer in the Roman army.  He became involved with the Christian church at the age of ten and was a catechumen, despite being in the Roman Army .  On one fearfully cold day as he was entering the city he was approached by a poorly clad beggar asking for alms.  Martin had nothing he could give him, but seeing  that the beggar was shivering and blue with cold, he dismounted from his horse, took off his tunic and cut it in two, giving one part to the beggar.  That night Martin had a dream when he saw Jesus wearing half of a blue tunic, and when asked about it Jesus replied, “My servant Martin gave it to me.” From that moment onwards Martin was fully committed to his faith, and indeed ultimately became Bishop of Tours.  We just need to do something.

As we approach Advent the legend surrounding Martin of Tours figures powerfully. November 11th is the Feast Day of St. Martin and in a number of countries this was the start of a period of fasting for 40 days (not including Saturdays and Sundays) which eventually became our period of Advent.  Martin as Bishop also formed a rudimentary basis for our parish based system of church organisation, and his little cloak (French: Capella)  he used to further his concern for people in prison by designating their ministers as chaplains, a term now used in a wide variety of other contexts.  Small rural chapels also got their name from the root word of capella, and although Martin is not a Saint in the Anglican tradition what he achieved is still found at the heart of much of what we do.

The image of the shepherd is used frequently in the Old Testament and Ezekiel uses it powerfully in Chapter 34, which contains one of the supporting readings for the day, in which he compares the hireling to the true shepherd, an idea which was later used by Jesus.  The portion we hear today is the prophesy of the Messiah as the Good Shepherd thereby raising  “shepherding”  from the mundane to a Royal calling.  The later prophets began to focus this idea of the true or good shepherd and in the latter part of today’s extract, the details of this Royal calling emerge which match very closely to Jesus’s words in the Gospel text.

The Letter to the Ephesians which is primarily the work of Paul reflects those same values.  It has been referred to “as the remarkable letter that unfortunately mentions the relationship between husbands and wives”, and many people have foregone the wonder of this letter because of this.  But in the portion we read today Paul is affirming the unity of the church, the place of all. It is not based on history or tradition but simply on how we live life.  The section we read is a prayer for the Gentile congregation of Ephesus, that they will know and live in the wonders of that promise of eternal hope, over which Jesus has been given all authority.  The later chapters of this letter offer some ideas of how this can be achieved, although sadly some of these have become outdated and divisive.

So we come to the end of our present reading of Matthew’s Gospel.  We have been left with several images of what the future may be, but with the over-riding idea of what we must do to know it fully, either in this life or beyond.  We will see its glory in what we do for those who need our help, we will see the face and the Kingship of Christ in all that do. Christ the Servant King is the inspiration for the journey and our support upon it.

Prayers

 Almighty God, as you stir up the wills of all faithful people,
stir up our will, O Lord that we may follow your example in life,
that we may see you in your Kingship by doing the things you did here on earth,
that we may care for all in need, that we may share all that we have,
and that we may truly understand the situations of all we meet.


2nd Sunday before Advent

Readings: Judges 4.1-7; Zephaniah 1.7 & 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30

As we approach the end of the year of Matthew’s Gospel we come across a parable which at first reading seems easy to grasp, but there is more behind this reading than we can interpret from just our present understanding of the concept of ‘talents’.   Contextually Matthew has set it apart from its original situation, it ought really to be found in the middle section of chapter 23 which is his blistering attack on  the Scribes and Pharisees.

To understand this parable it is first important to grasp what a talent meant in the context of Israel, and it’s changing nature in the era of the prophets just prior to Jesus.  A talent was traditionally not a unit of currency, it was a unit of weight.  Indeed a significant unit of weight, around 75lbs of material. As a currency unit it became associated with either that weight of gold or silver,  both with astronomical values in currency terms. Even the servant who was given one talent had indeed been given enormous responsibility.  Such responsibility was even governed by Rabbinical  Law, which sought that to protect individuals. In such circumstances the law decreed that anything you looked after on someone else’s behalf should be buried in a safe place, thereby providing legal protection should it be stolen.  This was indeed a shrewd parable of Jesus because the only one doing it according to the law was the third servant who did just that, the other two had risked the amounts on commercial activities which in the advent of anything going wrong would have been their responsibility.  Of course Jesus was drawing a parallel with the law in general which was burying the potential development of mankind and their relationship with God.  The conventional is not the way of God!

Those who defined talents in the then increasingly modern way of monetary terms fared no better, here they came up against the idea of usury.  Usury in our context is the accumulation of excessive profits, but for the Jewish community it was much more fundamental.  A Jew cannot charge interest on money to a fellow Jew.  So again we see the only person in the parable who doesn’t break the law is the third servant with the one talent.  This parable certainly turns our human world onto its head.

 The talent, the weight is the backdrop of the parable, something that had to be carried. For me it emphasises the main thrust of the parable is that it is not a gift but a responsibility.  In our world, and probably long before us, it is easy to interpret a talent which is given for our individual benefit. If that is in sport it can certainly be exploited, and so many other  talents when viewed in this way.  They are rarely seen as a responsibility to others.  Just recently you will have been aware of the debate surrounding the provision of free school meals to poorer children during the holidays in this Covid dominated time.  It provides a supreme example of how Marcus Rashford  used his footballing skills to the benefit of many such children in ensuring they will receive meals during holiday time, the responsibility of talent rather than the gift of talent.  But the resulting change of heart was not down to Marcus alone, it was also very largely reliant upon the talents and living responsibility of the 1 million people who backed his petition and the people who in the end had the influence to make it law.  It seems reminiscent of Paul’s gifts of the Spirit which can only come to fruition when its collective and we treat them as responsibilities to others rather than cherish them as gifts for ourself.  How sad it is that those surrounding President Trump in the White House at present are unwilling to ‘man-up’ to their responsibility, and perhaps save him and his country from the embarrassing course he seems set upon.

Once we go down this way of thinking of talents as responsibilities other issues spring forth.  The idea of being a chosen people needs to be thought of differently, chosen not to a privileged position but chosen for a task.  This parable was indeed life shaking and remains so.  Throughout our own Christian history we too have struggled over similar things, the usury question having appeared in many major Councils of the Christian Church agendas through the ages.  The message of Jesus is stating that individual responsibility is at the heart of every other responsibility in the world.  Here talents extend beyond all that we are and to all that we have.  The parable of the building of barns hints at it, that it is our responsibility to use our gifts, talents or whatever, not for ourselves but for the good of others and the benefit of God’s creation. Our time, our material assets, our whole being needs to  be focussed on  that wider purpose if the world is to grow to the full potential of its creator, rather than our own narrow self-interest.  Issues such as climate change, animal husbandry, waste, care in the community, poverty and so much more are at the centre of its domain.

Knowing the demands, perhaps we have tried to sidestep those responsibilities in so many ways.  Charity is one that springs to mind. Giving to good causes is indeed very laudable but is it always for the greater good?  We are reluctant to hand over our talents into the sea of humanity, choosing rather to share them with causes that are close to our own hearts.  But deep down that is still seeing talents as our gift which we can still maintain control over, rather than just simply offering them to the world. Perhaps there is sometimes even a self-gratification in  the good we hope to do.  In the world many needs could be met provided we shared the talents that we had. Perhaps  these needs could be better resolved if the world and its assets were more universally focussed, that they were shared rather than gifted.

I suppose this is a giant step to take.  Paul’s letter to the Thessalonica is about that step.  They want the Good News but are apprehensive about it, what will it entail?  It is not actually about loving outside of ourselves, it is about knowing how it is that we are being loved unconditionally. Yet in the world we are deluded into thinking that indulgence and self-importance are central,  the step we need to make is to realise God’s unconditional love for us all ,even when we make terrible mistakes.    

Can we really believe in and expect His  love?  Let’s pray that we can because only then will we be able to share it with others through the many talents we have been given. This would really be the way to carrying the weight of the talents we all have been blest with.

As the Archbishop quoted in his Armistice Day sermon concerning Covid,  “None of us are safe until we are all safe”, similarly not one of us can find peace and joy until we all find it. Understanding a little more of the parable of the talents might bring us a little closer to achieving that.

PRAYER
After reading a section from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Giving
O Lord teach us to know that
it is well to give when asked, but better to give unasked, through love;
that there is nought that we should withhold, but should rejoice in the season of giving.
O Lord, teach us that when we are tempted to give only to the deserving,
that the trees in our orchard say not so, nor the flocks in our pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
O Lord, teach us to realise that he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life
deserves to fill his cup from our little stream.
O Lord, teach us to give as in yonder valley the myrtle who breathes its fragrance into space,
that through the hands of such as these God speaks,
and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.
O Lord, teach us to realise that only when we give of our-self do we fully give.
O Lord, may we live in the world, but be citizens of heaven above all else.


Third sunday before Advent

Readings: Joshua 24.1-3 & 14-35; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13

Be prepared, we do not know when he will come.  The reading from Matthew’s gospel this week is directly related to the difficult reading we had last week.  This week, though, is seemingly far easier to understand and is a direct parable relating to the Jewish Day of the Lord.  It is again aimed directly at the Pharisees, who are far more concerned about their own situation than about that day when the Lord will come.

Weddings have some strange customs built up around them, in our society just as much as any other.  What we read today may seem strange to us, but would certainly be well understood in Palestine,  even up to the present day .  We hear of it twice in Matthew’s gospel, firstly relating to the guests who didn’t want to come and in this one in relation to the bridesmaids, each situation being used to put a different understanding upon religious matters.

There is a Jewish saying which says, “That everyone from six to sixty will follow the wedding drum” and emphasises the great importance of a wedding that even in a world dominated by rules and regulations  a man studying the law was permitted to join in the wedding and the following week-long celebrations.  The only problem was that no one knew precisely when it would take place.  The preparations were all made, everyone was ready and they waited until the bridegroom decided to arrive.  Just as in our society it has become custom for the bride to arrive late, so in the Palestinian wedding it was the prerogative of the bridegroom. To add to the difficulty he may even arrive at night, and when he did the wedding would go ahead immediately.  The role of the bridesmaid was simply to keep the bride company until the bridegroom arrived, and to be ready to dash out and welcome him as soon as he did.  There is another twist of course that if this happened when it was dark the bridesmaids would have to light their lamps to go out to meet him, and it was another of those Jewish laws which stated that they could not go out without a light.  So in this parable, the bridesmaids  who had not brought oil for the lamps would have been dismissed, meaning that they not only missed the ceremony but the week-long celebration that went on after it, no doubt facing absolute disgrace.  Weddings had to be prepared meticulously so that when the bridegroom arrived everything was ready.  Being unprepared meant that they missed it all.

Be prepared, be ready is the important message.  In its original telling it was aimed at the Pharisees, comparing them to the foolish bridesmaids who were so intent on their own importance that they had lost sight of why they were there.  But it remains a timeless message to everyone.  To the Jewish nation it drew particular attention to the day of the Lord when all would be judged.  Live life well certainly is the message, but do not for one moment think that you can control it.  Make plans certainly, but always remember that you do not control destiny.  Make sure that in all life you are prepared for it to end.

C,S. Lewis, in his Screwtape Letters, has a senior devil giving advice to a junior, as the latter has the task of diverting the people away from God and to the devil. Whilst the junior comes up with some ingenious ways of doing it, the senior devil is always able to point out the various flaws in those plans and schemes.   In the end he assures the junior that there is only one way of being sure that the people forget their God.  The advice he gives is simply to reassure the people that there is no hurry, that there is plenty of time.  Let them, indeed encourage them, to go on living life as they  want to live it as if there is no end, and then God will disappear from their minds as new wonders of the world appear before them to tantalise and seduce.  Quite a prophetic piece of writing for a world where daily new ideas and aspirations appear before us, we do indeed live as if it will never come to an end. 

Until of course it suddenly does, not least in the Covid situation which the world collectively faces.  Suddenly, almost inexplicably, our world has been stopped in its tracks.  Suddenly there is great hurry to find a solution, to find the golden bullet which will stop it and enable us to get back on the merry go round of life.  But increasingly it is becoming apparent that the magic bullet has as much to do with ourselves as it does with external factors.  The spread has much to do with our own actions, and simply  restricting some of those  will reduce the spread of the disease.  If we reflect on how  we have turned that wheel of life faster and faster, we perhaps have to ask ourselves if this could possibly go on forever.  Or would there be a time when we were exhausted, the planet was exhausted, life was exhausted.  Were we ready for that?  Were we prepared for something that was outside of our control.  In many ways the parable of the ten bridesmaids has an even more powerful message for our world than it did for the people it was aimed at 2000 years ago.  Many of those saw the prophecies coming to light in their own lifetime, will we also be left doing that? Just as those foolish bridesmaids were happy to accept the honour without the responsibility, are we wanting to assert our increasing freedoms without the responsibility in so many situations?

Be prepared, the hour is closer than you think is the message of today’s reading.  Jesus himself made reference to it, and the zeal and hectic activity of the early Christians are based on it, as we see in the Book of Acts.  They expected the new creation to begin in a short while and were determined to spread the word as widely and quickly as they could.  Paul, in particular, was at the forefront of this. After his conversion his mission was to pass on that message and that urgency to the Gentile world, and in so doing visited nearly all of the major towns of the Western world.  The reading today is from the letter to one of these, Thessalonica, and the reading reflects that hope of the new creation when Christ will return. Paul encourages them to console themselves with this hope in the face of their struggles.  Paul’s letters to this and the other fledgling Christian churches tell us something of those early beginnings and the struggles they faced, both from the outside and from the inside.  However, Paul was far from being the only one in spreading this message, in the course of which the message became disparate as each spoke of his own knowledge to communities with differing needs and expectations.

It was to answer these, and in some way to formalise that emerging faith that the gospels were written.  There were many such gospels each, in some way based on accounts of people associated with Christ’s ministry.  Of these just four were included in the Bible, Mark (the earliest) which is a chronological account, followed by Luke and Matthew  which take Mark’s account and present a more theological approach.  Finally John’s account emerges which places far more significance on the meaning of some of these parts of the ministry of Jesus, than it does in trying to record it.  However, the one thing they all have in common is the urgency of action.  At the heart of each of them is the message to be prepared for what will come in the (near ?) future, for that is their hope.  As time has passed where we generally now  place  much less importance on this day of the Lord.  It  can cause us once again to be tempted to live life irresponsibly.  We do not know in reality how or when this will happen but for each one of us it is a reality.  Preparing for it (either in life or at the end of life) is still of utmost importance, and we can do it simply by living out those two great principles of Jesus, to honour God and extend our concern to the planet and to all humanity.

PRAYER
Almighty father whose will is to restore all things,
we pray that we may look forward to the journey of life before us
in hope and anticipation, so that we may be prepared
to see the fullness of your glory in all things and in all ways that we have travelled.


last sunday after trinity

readings: deuternomy 34.1-12; 1 thessalonians 2.1-8; matthew 22.34-46

The Pharisees are far from being defeated, they come back on the attack.  “Which is the greatest of the commandments?” they demand of Jesus.  Before we look at his answer it is worth asking a question of ourselves, how many commandments are there?  The obvious answer of ten would be wrong, for those were just the ones that were given by God to Moses whilst in the wilderness.  There are many commandments which appear in the Torah, the history and reflection on the time when the Israelites had actually completed that wilderness journey and were now settling in the promised land. With these laws relating to a more stable living pattern, and with it a developing system of government, there are in total 613 commandments. Often commandments from the Prophetic period were additionally included and this increased this number still further.  It was a world where there were rules (commandments) to govern everything, even to whether it was lawful to pull an animal out of a ditch on the Sabbath!

I mentioned in last week’s reflection that Jesus was not a person of rules and regulations, that he was a person of principles, and he responded without hesitation in referring their question to one of principle.  Love God and love your neighbour was the answer he gave.  They seemed astounded by that response, strangely since if they had been watching him, as it is portrayed they were, they would have known that these two principles were exactly what he had followed during his earthly life. In truth it was probably this that frightened them most.  If you limit judgement to rules it is relatively easy to determine whether these are kept or not, but principles pervade every aspect of life.

The Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy links in to this theme of rules or principles.  Moses, although somewhat reluctantly in the beginning, had led his people from slavery through a long journey in the wilderness.  He had been a leader who had relied very heavily on strict rules which were necessary for their precarious journey.  Now they stand looking down on the promised land, a land that where they will need to develop in their own way and, a land where they will grow in numbers and in strength, but a land also where they will need to live by principles and vision, rather than rules. It was for them a land of milk and honey certainly, but a land of struggle and hardship too.  Moses style of leadership cannot work there, that would limit their own development.  The time has come for leaders who can put vision and principle to the fore, and let the people grow rather than just follow.  So Moses looks down from Pisgah on to the promised land, but sees a land to which he can never go.

The Jewish leadership are no more capable of this than Moses was, but they have drawn up such a tight sense of rules that God’s people  can only be limited by them.  Jesus once again was leading them to a new promised land, as Moses had done previously, it was here they would need to develop and grow into their place as God’s people.

 In his reply to the Pharisee question Jesus explains that all that is needed is love.  Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. Like the Pharisees it is easy to delude ourselves that we are loving God, even when we are far from it.  Where we fail more obviously though is that we cannot love others as ourselves.   All sorts of things get in the way but mostly it is simply because they are not like us.  How can we love them when we don’t like them, when we don’t understand them, and perhaps when we don’t even want to understand. It is hard to love those who have different values and ways from our own.

Yet God always provides us with opportunities to see things differently.  Real life provides us with those opportunities.  When I was a raw curate in Sheldon I met so many lovable people, but more importantly I was often thrust up against people who were not so obviously or immediately lovable, some of whom even it was almost impossible to love.  Among that latter group were a family who had been involved with the British Fascist movement in the past, and were still very much part of it. One Sunday each year there was a march through the area of similarly minded people from much of Britain, it was a day which the community at large hated, and mostly stayed inside.  But then something quite dramatic took place  in life generally which caused the rest of us to think again  A young family living in the area were thrust into an impossible situation by an accident to the father leaving him paralysed. Whilst the vast community rallied around to some extent, it was that family with those widely hated political values that came to the fore.  Whilst sympathy and help which was so evident in the early stages for the desperately struggling young family gradually ebbed away, it was that family who the community disliked, that continued the support.  Throughout that long, desperate situation whatever was needed to be done they did.  From  organising childcare as mother returned to work, to even repairing a garden fence which blew down,  Joe and his family were never found wanting.  They even paid for the struggling family to take the children away to the seaside for a holiday.  Even where the general community thought it was least likely to happen, real love took root.  God gave us that moment to glimpse that within everyone there is always something that is lovable, even people very different from those around them.

Wherever we have travelled since there have always  been people who in their own way and  mostly unheralded, have quietly influenced life in that place by simply recognising the loveliness and the lovable in the people around them both near and far.  Without that we cannot begin to try to keep the “New Testament” commandments to love, and without that love we cannot find God.

Finding loveliness, seeking the lovable is the heart of those two great commandments which Jesus gave in his reply to the Pharisee question.  We begin by seeking the lovable and when we find it we can begin to love our neighbours, no matter whom or what they are.  They are loveable because they are loveable to God.  Seeing their loveliness, no matter how concealed by human differences or even the grime of life, enables us to progress.  Firstly it enables us to begin to love our neighbour whom we can see, but also causes us to see the wonder of God who is continually trying to bring that loveliness to its perfection.

For Paul loving God and loving his neighbour were intertwined.  There were no limits and no obstructions in the way of that. It is sometimes in the struggles that we are given those wonderful glimpses of God’s vision in his creation. Armed with that vision we can begin to achieve those two great commandments of truly loving God and our neighbours.


19th Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Exodus 33.12-23; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22

So the counter-attack of the Pharisees and the Herodians begins as these two strange bed-fellows  combine to force a response from Jesus which will give him no alternative but to provide an answer which will immediately bring the Roman rulers onto their side.  This very amalgamation of Pharisees and Herodians shows just how desperate they were.  Under normal circumstances they would have little or nothing to do with each other, their political viewpoints were diametrically opposed, with the Pharisees being supremely orthodox and resenting the idea of paying taxes to any conquering power, whilst the Herodians depended upon Rome totally for their influence.  Their joint attack was indeed brilliantly thought out.  Whichever answer Jesus gave to the question of paying the hated poll-tax, he was bound to upset either the Romans, or the great band of people who saw him as the leader who would rid themselves of the Roman presence. One or other of these two would certainly get rid of him, so they thought!  The collusion of these disparate groups shows how desperate they are, and leaves the reader in no doubt of the lengths they were prepared go to.

There were three distinct taxes that the occupied territory had to pay to the Roman at that time.  Firstly they had to pay a ground tax which was a tax on the crops they had produced, this being partly paid in currency and partly in goods.  Additionally there was the income tax which amounted to 1% of an individual’s income.  Finally there was the hated poll tax (yes, it had happened prior to 1989!).  The reason for the strength of feeling is that this was actually a temple tax, which under Roman occupation went to the Roman authorities.  However, that in itself does not fully explain the resentment felt by the Jewish people to this temple tax.  The significant reason was that the role of Emperor was now seen as supreme ruler, taking the place of God himself.  So as a people they were being forced to pay a tax to a god who had been thrust upon them, and in so doing had superseded their own God.  In many ways this was the centre of the great unrest burning in Israel, and their desperate search for a messiah who would rid them of all of this.

However, by the time Matthew was writing of this confrontation, the situation had become significantly worse.  By this time the Temple at Jerusalem had been sacked, and now the tax was still being collected but now used for the benefit of a pagan temple, the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.  The outrage was extreme amongst the Jewish people, and it was to these people that Matthew was predominantly writing.  So in Matthew’s gospel we see this anger and resentment boiling over as he recounts the original confrontation between Jesus and his adversaries.

The coin with Caesar’s image is far more than the rightfulness, or otherwise, of paying a tax, it challenges their deepest faith.  In the early part of the exchange Jesus asks the Pharisees whose image it was. Either a seemingly silly question, since everyone would have known, or as it is sometimes portrayed as Jesus playing for time as he thought out his response.  I think it was neither of these, for by their response that it was Caesar the Pharisees were already admitting to colluding with the downgrading of Israel’s God.  A softening up punch soon to be followed by the knockout blow, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.

Both groups, he is saying, as parts of the ruling groups in Israel are the ones who have compromised all for the sake of their own influence.  They have a duty to the rulers of the country and to God, both of which they have been prepared to set aside for their own advantage.  His wonderful reply begs the question, “Are you citizens of earth, or are you citizens of heaven”, and that is the nub of the response for them, and powerfully for all Christians since then.  Jesus  rarely speaks about rules or regulations, his words are about principles and it is in these principles Christians of all generations  have sought  out their answers to perplexing issues of their own time. 

For Jesus the answer lay simply in living up to our responsibilities, either immediately to the rules and regulations of government, and to the overarching desire of God for us to live our lives in thanksgiving for the gifts he has blessed us with.  Sometimes there is conflict in that, and there are no ready-made answers, just something that all Christians have to work out for themselves. The present COVID-19 situation is one such struggle.  We are faced with changing responses which are demanded of us,  yet sometimes we cannot see the rationality of them, and some people even seem determined to put their own individual situation and freedom at the centre of it.  Yet if we simply live out the responsibilities of loving God, and loving our neighbours,  we can see that our individual wants and needs will have to take a back seat for a while.  We wear masks for the safety of others, we keep our distance for the safety of others, we mix with others as little as we can for the benefit of others,  and others do exactly the same for us.  It is in our responsibility to our neighbours, and what we do for the least of them we do for God.  That is being a citizen of earth and heaven, anything less is simply arranging things to suit ourselves.  It is hard giving up some of our freedom, but we must always remember that freedom is seldom free.  Someone, somewhere has to pay the cost of that freedom, and when many demand that freedom, or act as if they have got it by ignoring all rules, many will have to pay that cost.

Perhaps we can take some heart from the small band of Christians which were emerging at Thessalonica. The letter of St. Paul to these Christians  is testament to their living out their faith in the heat of life’s struggles.  In 51 AD Paul and Silas, along with Timothy who was an assistant to Paul, had visited them and were particularly struck by the manner in which the faith of this group was holding up despite the many hardships they were suffering.  After a few months there Paul and his associates  had to leave under considerable duress caused by the preaching of the gospel (details of this can be found in Acts 17, although Timothy, as an assistant, is not mentioned in person).  Subsequently Timothy returned to find the Christian group holding on to those principles despite even harder times, and indeed knowledge of this group and their faith spread to the whole of Macedonia.  The letters of Paul to the Thessalonians are quite different from his other pastoral letters which are often drawing attention to ways in which things were going wrong. His letters here are much more personal  to the group with a strong  sense of encouragement.  They were indeed succeeding in being citizens of earth and citizens of heaven despite their terrible experiences, and even significantly changing and rectifying things within their community.

The Exodus reading assures us that we will not make this difficult journey on our own.  Moses needs God’s presence and God’s reassurance as the journey through the wilderness continues and wears them down.  God gives to him the vision that will sustain them for the times ahead, and this reading is the lovely story of God showing Moses His glory whilst sheltering him in a crevice in the rock.

 In Jesus Christ we have that vision to sustain us through those difficult aspects of life, even the COVID-19 regulations.  What he gives is the example of self-giving love and if we follow that example we are on the journey to being true citizens of earth and of heaven, living out our thanksgiving to God and by acting responsibly to our fellow creatures.  

Prayer/Meditation
Adapted from Breaking the Rules by Eddie Askew

Lord, you don’t have an easy time dealing with me.
I use the right words,
wear all the appropriate labels
and profess to trust you,
but when the moment comes
to put myself completely in your hands,
my lifestyle, my wants say I don’t.
My words and deeds
don’t seem to synchronize,
their contradictory signals just confuse.

I just think that I am living out your commandments.
I just think that loving you and my neighbour
is at the centre of what I do.
But then, when I begin to see things from your perspective,
 there is always someone in the way
myself and my wants.

I come to you for help,
but when it is offered
I am not sure I want it, after all.
Especially when it limits what I want it to be.
I’d rather chose an easier way.
Your presence sometimes
seems to threaten, Lord rather than to heal my hurts,
and your requests can work out hard.

Lord, all I can do
Is ask once more for help.
Not to take away immediate problems
but to help me cope with them.
To find the grace to put my life and being,
firmly in your care.
Help me, Lord to open my hands, loosen my grip on self.
To let go of self, to share the road and the cost with others
as together we wait for you,
as together we long for you.


18th Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Exodus 32.1-14; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14

Matthew’s gospel account this week gives us two interesting points to ponder.  The first, verse seven, just doesn’t fit into the ambience of the parable.  The king sent out the invitations to his son’s wedding and one by one the apologies started to come in.  This must have been galling to the King, because this wasn’t the first time the invited guests would have heard about it. They would have been told about the soon to happen event, but all had left it to this late stage to say they wouldn’t be there.  Very disappointing for the king certainly, but I can’t but think that his reaction was a bit over the top!  Sending out his soldiers to destroy them and to burn down their city! Disappointment can evoke some strong emotions but this seems somewhat too far, even for a parable.

But this one verse tells us a lot about the Gospel as a whole.  It is certain that Jesus would not have included it in his parable, more likely that the writer of this Gospel had included it as a reminder of a terrible disaster that had actually overtaken them between the parable being used by Jesus and the time that the gospel was written.  This terrible, life-changing event, would have been the destruction of the temple and city in 70 AD.  So the inclusion of this event helped to date the origin of Matthew’s Gospel for us, and it is done in such a way that the actual memory is painful without it being too imminent providing a sound reason for the dating of this Gospel, with 80-90 AD being the usually accepted period.

The second point to ponder is the poor old fellow, one who had been plucked from the highways and byways, did arrive but hadn’t time to put on his wedding robes.  What treatment he received!  He was  cast out into outer darkness. Again, it doesn’t seem to fit with the tenor of the parable, so what is behind it? Simply that this is in fact two parables which Matthew has joined together because of similarity of content.

The first parable has some powerful messages within it, as well as significant challenges to the religious leaders.  Accepting the invitation of God is one thing, but there are expectations which go with it.  You cannot enter that kingdom just on your own terms, or in your time.  This is powerfully emphasised by today’s Exodus reading when the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness waiting for God as He instructs Moses in matters regarding the Tabernacle.  They begin to do things in their way and in their time, and soon the golden calf emerges.  What they create is all about their own expectation, their own idea of what religion is about.  A very similar story to the first part of Matthew’s parable where they have now allocated their time and efforts to their own needs rather than trusting in God. 

The second parable, or the second part of our reading today, is a reminder that God’s invitation extends to all. It is certainly not limited by human expectation. However this also comes with a warning of its own.  Again, it is not sufficient to just accept the invitation, an acceptance includes an expectation also.  The man from the highways and byways was no doubt pleased to have the invitation, but not pleased enough to put himself out in any way.  For him there was an equally fierce condemnation.  Herein perhaps there is a message for our present day church, in its eagerness to fill the pews there is often an invitation to come on your own terms.  Certainly not so for the people associated with Jesus, they were asked always to move on in some way.  As such it is still a message of invitation and expectation.

The parable(s) is certainly all about God’s grace and our response to it. The emphasis is on the spirit in which we accept that invitation into the joy of that kingdom.  It is the joy of being there which should be at the heart of everything, a joy which is greater than the joys or demands outside, a joy so great that we will do everything to share in it completely.  It is the joy that far exceeds the duty.  It is here that the church of our times has struggled. It has, like all human institutions, extended a joy and welcome which they themselves understand, but does it extend a universal welcome to everyone?  It is there, perhaps that the decline of the church began, as the world in general saw the shallowness of the welcome. That joy seems hard to define.  Paul had suffered much for his proclamation of the gospel.  He had been treated badly, imprisoned and beaten so the idea of joy seems far from our understanding of it. Paul in this letter to the Philippians uses the word peace, the peace that surpasses all understanding.  It is a peace that has sustained many Christians, but from the early beginnings has caused great difficulty collectively.  Here in St Paul’s inspired group of Christians we see evidence of differences, differences which can lead to problems.  Paul urges two women to set aside their differences as indeed to other leaders in the church there. Be known, not for your strength of opinion, but for your love of others, is Paul’s advice to them.  Set those differences aside, leave them to the Lord so that together you may rejoice in Him.  Set aside those things which divide, so that you may rejoice in the Lord always.  As our own wider knowledge has grown, so has our tendency to think we know more about God, that this somehow may be the passport to the kingdom.  Not so, the passport to that kingdom is simply your joy in the Lord, a joy so strong that leaves others to find their joy in Him too. A joy of not just knowing it but of living within it.

We can always take heart. All were invited and those who entered into it with fullness found a joy and a peace at its centre.  That is perhaps the story of religious life, perhaps we spend too much time worrying God to keep us safe and secure, that we haven’t the time or the inclination to see the gifts he has surrounded us with.  Our future has been secured, so perhaps all we need to do is rejoice with it, just as Paul advocated to the Philippians.  All we need to do is to come prepared.  

PRAYER

As the potter moulds the clay,
So, Lord, I want to mould my own life.
To mould it into a way which suits me.
I hear your invitation, sense your call,
Yet cannot let go of those things which are so dear to me.
I hold on tight to the way I think things should go, or that I want them to go,
And in holding on tightly, I set my own schedule, my own agenda.

I come to you, but on my terms, not yours.
I listen, but so often I do not hear.

Help me, o Lord, to listen for your voice.
Not just in the storm, but in the wonders of peace.
Help me to hear your way for me, to put them above those things that I would choose.
Help me to do those things which lead to your everlasting glory, rather than fulfilling fleeting desires.

Help me Lord, so that when I come to you, I come as one who will receive.


17th sunday after trinity

Readings: Exodus 20.1-20; philippians 3.4b-14; matthew 21 33-46

A parable which we are much more familiar with, and one from which the message can be grasped easily.  This is a head-on attack by Jesus, and there is no denying the various parts:

God is the owner, Israel is the vineyard and the prophets are the servants.  Here Jesus answers very powerfully who he is, the question the Pharisees and elders had been skirting around for some time.  He is the son of the story, but more he is pointing to himself as the Messiah.

The intriguing part of the parable is the vivid description, so much so that in fact, that we can surmise that it is not just part of the story, but is indeed a reference to something very important in this context between God and mankind.  The general opinion is that it is a very specific reference to the Torah, to the Law of Moses.  It is for this reason that the two readings, other than the Gospel reading, relate to that, to the ten commandments. The Exodus reading is those commandments, whilst the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes something much deeper.  The keeping of the law became the most sacred part of the Jewish faith with laws, laws to explain laws, and laws to explain laws which explained other laws.  Paul challenges this and further challenges anyone to question his credentials or zeal, he goes on to say to them that he could not be saved by those laws, it was only by his faith and by the way he lived his life in Christ.  A little later on in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 22, 34-40 we see the Pharisees challenging Jesus as to which of those laws is  the greatest, to which Jesus reply was straightforward, love God and love humanity. “Everything in the Law and the Prophets hangs on these two commandments,” were his words.  So perhaps those commandments are not as edifying or complete as they might be.

So perhaps  in the parable, the hedge is where we need to look.  Most vineyards had a hedge which was a thick-set thorn hedge primarily to keep out wild animals, and specifically wild boars.  It was a deterrent  to stop anything that would damage or steal the crop, animal or man.  The thicker the hedge the more effective it was.  Unfortunately as well as keeping things out, it keeps things in as well.  What we see emerging in this parable that the problems were not on the outside, but on the inside.  There we find a group of cultivators within whom emerged this idea of not paying their rent, not fulfilling their part of the bargain.  With no contact with the outside world this idea took root and grew, so whoever was sent to them  soon came up against their wrath, and the owner’s servants were either treated very badly or were even killed.  With no external force to modify them, their opinion was right and their actions justified.  And there is the problem with the hedge, there is the problem with any defined barrier.  Isolation can only lead to self-justification.  Barriers can lead to as much imprisonment as to the well-being  they wished to accomplish.

When I was a curate, it was at the time that there was increasing concern about safety in people’s own homes.  Watching the news on television we often heard of  homes being broken into and often with much violence and sometimes worse.  It was only natural to protect yourself.  So in a period of three years I saw waves of self- protection systems going up, but also fewer and fewer people going out.  There was one lady in particular who had a burglar alarm fitted, panic buttons fitted all over the house, online call system to the local police station, and locks and chains everywhere, curtains permanently drawn with just a small gap to look out through..  Whenever I went to see June it would take ten minutes to get in, ten minutes whilst she switched off the alarms, unlocked all the doors, and removed the chain from around the door handles. It was the same for all of her friends who used to visit her regularly, and soon their visits diminished and mostly stopped.  June couldn’t understand why they didn’t come any more and soon wouldn’t even answer the phone to them if they rang.  Worse, her attitude to all human beings changed so dramatically, she became a judgemental, grumpy old so and so.  She died some years later a very negative, and in some ways nasty person, and simply because the barrier, the hedge she had built around herself, had imprisoned her.  Being locked in that house without any other viewpoint except that of the television news which went on reporting one violent incident after another, she was soon convinced that this was the only way to survive.  All joy of life disappeared, and she would even shout angrily out of the window if two people stopped outside her garden to talk to each other. 

This was the problem that Jesus and Paul could see.  By trying to define clearly a barrier, a hedge around ourselves it would, in the end ensnare us, rather than defend us.  The ten commandments were appropriate to their time and place as the Israelites needed to have laws which held them together as they journeyed through the wilderness of Sinai, but as the circumstances changed the laws needed to become much more sophisticated and outward looking.  Otherwise they would become nothing more than unsophisticated indicators, with us on the inside and all others outside.

So just as the hedge does in the end imprison us, the corner stone can become the very thing that crushes us if we do not live it out..   Directly the reference to the corner stone can be found in Psalm 118 but the real meaning of it in this context  is to be found in Daniel, Chapter 2. Here we see Daniel interpreting  a dream of King Nebuchahadnezzer, at the heart of which is the promise that the King of Heaven will establish a kingdom which will never be destroyed, unlike the fragility of earthly kingdoms

There was, however, in the vineyard something that could have changed things.  The wine-press allowed the grape juice to run down from the pressed grapes down to a storage trough below.  Usually it was built as a tower which enabled the free draining of grape juice, and additionally that tower occupied a situation that looked beyond the fence into the wider world and built with this additional use in mind.  By climbing the watch-tower it certainly enabled the occupiers to be aware of the dangers outside but I guess in looking out for those dangers, it actually locked them into a place of fear of their own making. They never realised that the watch-tower gave them opportunities to see goodness outside also.  We live in a world where barriers are drawn up and so often it is easy to rely on those barriers too much and in so doing imprison ourselves with a narrow constricted view of the world.  We need hedges to protect against many things but where we have hedges  we need watch towers to look beyond them, to help us to understand the fullness of God’s world in which we live, to put our lives into a wider perspective.  As Christians that simply means living as Jesus did, in the world but not of the world.

An adaption of two meditations
by Eddie Askew

If I can say the other’s wrong,
it strengthens my conviction
that I must be right.
Helps me to live a comfortable, comforting
Exclusivity.
And adds a little hollow holiness
to my hypocrisy.
It is easier to judge than love.
Easier to pile up the differences,
brick on brick, thorn by thorn
to build a wall, to build a hedge.
To take the wall, and build a house,
and live in it with judgement as companion,
love’s presence elbowed out.
No room, no room.
Then chain the door,
drill through a little eyehole,
which offers me a small, constricted and distorted view
of what stands on the other side.
Give me your strength, Lord,
to face the world un-blinkered.
To make a move that takes me
from the sterile shelter of my fears
into your light outside from the darkness inside myself.
For that is where real life begins and grows,
secure in the love that you have shown us.           


16th Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Exodus 17.1-7; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

One of the difficulties of the Sunday lectionary system is that we only read part of the story.  Quite large chunks are missed out, though they may well come in subsequent years of the lectionary when events missed out in a particular year are included in future gospels and years.  For me the particular reading of today’s particular part of Matthew’s Gospel suffers from this because we have  missed out the triumphal entry and the actions of Jesus within the Temple.  It is these, particularly the latter, which is the foundation of the Gospel reading of today, and which would explain the significance of both the chief priests and elders in their interrogation of Jesus, and indeed the parable he gave them.

“By what authority do you act?” was their actual question, but the real one which they dare not ask was, “Are you the Messiah?” Jesus’s action in the Temple has to be seen not merely as an action to end the bad practices that had crept into that situation, nor indeed of the misuse of the poor.  It was about the authority of Jesus, because the only person to have that level of authority over the custodians of the faith and the Temple was God’s chosen one, the Messiah.   Certainly the actions of Jesus seemed to suggest it, for he came into the Temple day after day, not just the once to throw out the money changers, etc.  His very approach was throwing down the gauntlet, challenging them to make their move.  Jesus was exposing their weakness.

When it came in an oblique way He carefully avoided their question by asking one of his own. In answering it they would need to express their own opinions openly.  And they knew there was danger in whatever answer they gave.  If they agreed that  the baptism of Jesus by John was from God, then they were effectively recognising Jesus as the Messiah, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3,17).  But if they denied that John’s ministry was from God they risked the wrath of the people, and it is worth noting that even then the assassinated John still had a large following, perhaps an even greater following than Jesus did himself, even amongst his disciples, some of whom had been disciples of John.

The high priests and the leaders were indeed between a rock and a hard place.  But their response when it came was the worst possible one they could have come up with, “We do not know”. In a sense they had answered their own question, for as rulers  that was their role, to know the answers and to decipher God’s word and action. Not knowing was not an option for those who  to be God’s representatives on earth. They had now exposed their own weakness in the pursuit of their own power.

And so Jesus pressed home his advantage with the parable of the two sons.  The most intriguing thing about this parable is that there isn’t a good one amongst them!  There is the son who conforms to all the niceties of the demand and agrees to do it, but the moment he is out of his father’s  sight he  had not the slightest intention of doing it.  The other son is an uncouth individual who immediately says he is certainly not going to do it, but on reflection thinks better of it, and in the end conforms reluctantly to what his father wanted. At least this second son did in the end come round to do what his father wanted, and of course relates to the prostitutes and tax-collectors.  The former son has absolutely no interest in fulfilling his father’s request, but will say anything  if it means he can go on doing what he wants.  I am sure the high priests and rulers were left in no doubt to whom Jesus was referring here.  His actions in the temple had every semblance of throwing down the challenge, now there could be no doubt.  The battle-lines were drawn and it was the Jewish leaders who would have to instigate what happens next.  A simple little parable, mostly not remembered even by Christian groups, yet the very one which unleashed the fateful events leading up to the crucifixion.  It is interesting to see that, even with our understanding and help of the Bible, we still miss the significance of so many of the things that are recorded, and this is certainly one of them..

So let us return to the son who refused but who later relented, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes. Perhaps best typified by Zacchaeus on the one hand (Luke 9, 2-8), and Mary of Magdalen on the other (John 8,11)(1).  Yet there is no condemnation for them, as in humility they come to understand their own failures and in those failures and in their weakness they come before God, contrary to the Rulers who wished only to preserve their own power.  So the message is indeed simple, if we acknowledge our own failings we will enter into his kingdom, “Sinners all have a future”. Sadly though although we all can, some for whatever reason just won’t.

It was this temptation, perhaps even for good reasons, that Paul had concern for the people of Philippi.  Whilst he was among them he was able to give some regular guidance, but how would they fare under their own devices.  Hence, as I mentioned in last week’s thoughts, this is not a single letter, but a series of communications from Paul to Philippi just reassuring them and himself that all was still going well.  What he is advocating as the answer to any problems they may face, is humility, the humility of the tax-collectors and the prostitutes, of the surly son, that as we get it wrong as no doubt we will, it will not count against us  as long we go on searching for the truth and reassess our actions.  It is certainty  the pursuit of personal power which  precludes God’s glory, all else He can and will overcome.  The central part of Paul’s thoughts in this passage comes not from himself, but from an earlier ‘hymn’ of the newly forming church which Paul quotes in verses 6-11.  It’s focus is the humility of Christ, who did not claim equality with God but made himself a slave, which is a form of the creed we still use occasionally in our churches, but in fact is the heart of  all our creeds. In these thoughts to the Philippians Paul is reminding them of that humility of Christ, and pointing out what this means in practice through our actions which need to be ‘of Christ’.

The Old Testament readings are a reminder of the danger of the predominance of self, sometimes when we seem to have no alternative , even in very difficult and demanding ways.  Today’s Exodus reading centres around one of those extremely difficult times when they had no water, but by following Moses to the rock which he struck with his staff, God did indeed answer those needs.  Ezekiel’s warning is that God is always just and reminds the Israelites if they give up the wickedness of self, God will act justly with them.

So this little known text has a powerful message for each one of us to ponder.  Which of the two sons are we?  Do we pretend to say yes as long as it suits us, is our faith more about concealing than revealing? Or are we the second son who is often directed and controlled by our human condition that we just cannot comprehend there can be an alternative to what we or the world wants?  Yet, if we can, in the humility of Christ, try to put things into God’s perspective, rather than trust our own then certainly we may know the peace and wonder of the kingdom.

Footnote (1)

In referring to Magdala , the reference I have used does not refer to Mary Magdalene directly, but present scholarship has concluded that the woman caught in adultery must have been her, if indeed there was to be any significance to the risen Lord appearing to her.

Prayer

Last Sundays Morning Worship on Radio 4 had a wonderful prayer of Thomas Merton, a rare treat since he didn’t write many.  I include it her mainly because it is such a beautiful prayer and, hopefully, has some relevance to today’s readings.

My Lord God, I have no idea of where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot for certain know where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you, does in fact please you, and I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire.  I know that you will lead me by the right road, or return me to the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my fears or my journey alone.


15th sunday after trinity

readings: exodus16. 2-15; philippians 1.21-30; matthew 20.1-16

As I sit writing this I hear children outside.  It isn’t long before I hear one of the youngsters complaining that something ‘isn’t fair’!  One of the older ones in the group point out that in this game of developing space frontiers,  it isn’t meant to be fair!

Such wisdom for a young child, it isn’t meant to be fair!  Fair and fair play is a very human concept into which we have somehow tried to dig deeper and deeper.  Even the games which we as adults watch, the concept of fair play has assumed greater and greater importance.  Every line call in tennis is checked by an instant replay.  VAR or its equivalent has certainly dumbed-down my interest in soccer, rugby and cricket.  Such has been the drive for fair play that somehow the excitement of live sport has been diminished, as we wait for the third referee to replay every camera angle of an event, which can go on for many minutes sometimes.  It may be more fair, but we are left with nothing to argue over, nothing to get excited about until the VAR result anyway, and nothing to remonstrate about, not even to suggest the referee needs glasses!  Gone are the reconciling thoughts on the coach home that ‘his foot was definitely in touch’, or whatever. The eternal striving for fair play is removing all the excitement from the things that mattered to me.

Luckily our readings for today speak differently, where people are again  complaining that something isn’t fair.  What is our reaction to them?  What does it tell us about fair play in relation to God and the ultimate kingdom we seek?

The first reading, and the easiest to see, is Matthew’s account of the vineyard owner.  The account is vivid, mostly because this way of hiring labour, particularly at harvest time, was a very common sight in the time of Jesus against a background of dire unemployment and poverty, and indeed for centuries since.  It  was particularly relevant  to the grape harvest in September, when there was a short interval of time between the crop being ripe and a period of very heavy rainfall. Everyone was needed in those few days if the season was to be successful to the vineyard owner, and because of this was a very lucrative time for labourers for whom this was a time of higher wages.  For whatever reason, and perhaps it was simply that he saw the rains coming, the vineyard owner went back to see if others were available for work and hired them, even right up to an hour before the end of the day.  But you can imagine the outcry when he paid them all the same, ‘It isn’t fair’!

There has been much speculation about this parable. Who was it meant for?  The easy answer is that it was meant for the Jews, they were the chosen people and certainly didn’t agree with this upstart Galilean suggesting that all had equal access to God’s kingdom and glory.  I think the Pharisees took particular offence at this.  But if you read this account in the context of the  whole gospel, it comes at a point where Jesus is leading the disciples to question themselves.  Much of this comes out in relation to Peter, but would have been aimed at the disciples as a whole.  Here is a very firm reminder to them that they are not to see themselves as a people of privilege. even though they had given up  much to follow Jesus.  It doesn’t necessarily end there.  During so much of his ministry crowds had been following Jesus, and some of these perhaps were perhaps envious of those he healed, or were even scandalised by them.  Even among the crowds who followed him there would probably have been some for whom healing did not happen, and they would have felt it greatly unfair.  St John overcomes the problem by referring to the healings not as miracles but as signs.

Certainly the Israelites in the early stages of their flight from Egypt were beginning to have second thoughts as we see in the Exodus reading.  ‘Why have we been brought here to die alone and hungry? was a thought on many hearts.  ‘We were beginning to make things better where we were.  It is  just not fair.’ They cried in complaint.  Although Moses and Aaron were totally frustrated by the attitude of the group, God was not, and soon he overcame their immediate plight.

The letter from Paul is an interesting one in that this letter is not a single document.  The considered view is that this epistle is made up of extracts from at least three separate letters which have been combined into this one letter.  Paul was close to the church in Philippi, having met them during his second missionary journey.  He regarded them very much as his partners in mission, and as such the idea of him communicating with them on multiple occasions is reasonable.  The context of the final letter sees Paul writing it to them from his imprisonment (probably his second time of arrest, and much more difficult than the original house arrest) and to a people who were certainly having their own trials.  It isn’t fair would certainly seemed to have been a reasonable response from both Paul and the Philippians, but neither would have anything to do with that state of mind.  The Philippians from their part weren’t down hearted by their own struggles and instead sent supplies to Paul in his troubles, whilst Paul even saw his imprisonment as a more effective way of evangelism than his freedom was.

So these three readings begin to show us that fairness, or privilege, is not something that features strongly in the Bible.  The grace of God is not ruled by fairness, it is ruled simply by the needs wherever they are and God’s love for his people which is at the heart of everything.  The critics of the bible will often use the arbitrary nature of God’s action to attack our faith.  Yet our faith is straightforward in that we should always react to need in the essence of God, for wherever it exists God’s love will come through.  But that has not stopped the church or parts of the church trying to create a model in which the human view of fairness still takes priority

So where do these readings leave us as a church and as followers of Jesus.  In the same place as everyone else, we cannot appeal to God’s sense of fairness or importance. Like Judgement, that belongs squarely in God’s hands.  By his grace all will find his comfort.  On one of the broadcast Morning Services recently I heard a quote which I thought summed it up.  ‘The saint has a past, the sinner has a future’.  We may meet some who seem like saints, some who might try to make us think they are saints, but that past is with God.  We are all sinners, and in that we have a future.  In that future worrying about fairness or privilege will be irrelevant.  As sinners we have a future with God, nothing else matters. That was the heart of Paul’s message to Philippi, and whatever happens ‘I shall go on rejoicing’.  Perhaps it remains a powerful lesson we all have to learn.  There is little to be gained from envying the good fortune of others.  Better to rejoice in the gifts we have been given, and   share them with others. They in turn will share theirs with you.  A difficult message for our world, but one all Christians need to grasp if they are to know the wonders of the kingdom.


14th sunday after trinity

readings: exodus 14.19-31; Romans 14,1-12; Matthew 18.21-35

So Jesus’ comments about reconciliation got the disciples thinking, at least they got Peter thinking.  So how does this work out in practice, he wonders. He comes to the Lord with that great question of how many times he must forgive his brother, and in his exuberance offers the idea of seven times, seven times!  Quite a lot is made of that number Peter uses, seven, and it is certainly a number we see occurring often in the various religions. If there was a religious significance in that number for Peter it would probably have been associated with God’s creation of the world in seven days, but more likely it was an exuberant number to offer. As a Jew the number of times forgiveness would have been asked for is three, so for Peter to offer seven was far and above anything that he or the others would think of. Yet it was not, as Jesus’ response of seventy times seven illustrates.  It is far, far short of what we must aim for. So what is Jesus telling Peter and us in this account.  If love is to be our second nature, then forgiveness must be central to our faith.

We must breathe forgiveness as we breathe air, it has to be the very heart of our faith, and certainly not an add-on or an accessory.  But forgiveness must be given as well as received and so the story of the unforgiving servant emerges.  At its heart is the story of the forgiveness of God for us in terms beyond measure which are contrasted with our own meanness of love for others.  It is a story which speaks plainly for itself and its understanding is gleaned simply by seeing ourselves in the account.  Quite often there are commentaries which focus on the detail of the story, and in particular the number seven is focused upon as a special number, but that for me detracts from the central theme of forgiveness.  That is what Peter had to come to terms with and what we have to come to terms with, and that is where it gets uncomfortable.

It is in that uncomfortable place of living out the faith that the passage from Paul becomes significant.  It is evident from this reading from Paul’s letter that this group of “followers of Christ” were growing in numbers, but in that growth divisions were occurring.  Even at this stage the differences between the traditionalist and the liberals were causing problems.  In this little group who were firmly of the opinion that their future was securely in the hand of God, whilst others believed that could only be achieved by their own actions, by their own ways of doing things.  How do you reconcile this vast chasm of views.  For Paul it was easy, and as he points out these matters are not for our concern, they are for God.  “Who are you to judge another man’s servant” he asks and as all of us are God’s servant the answer is self-evident.  Live together in love with forgiveness ever in your heart is the only choice we have.  It is not important that we think in the same way, or act in same way.  All that is important is that we think and act in matters that are important to us, with conviction.

As the church has developed and grown so have the problems .  There is the lovely Welsh story of a man rescued from a desert island after many years.  When they looked at the things he had achieved in his time on the island they were surprised to find two beautiful chapels that he had built.  “Why have you got two chapels when you were all alone here?” they asked.  Pointing to the first chapel the man pointed out that this was the chapel he attended, whilst the other one he never went inside because they have some stupid ideas there!  Isn’t that the story of our faith, churches and chapels that we go to and others we wouldn’t dream of setting foot in.  Doesn’t the existence of these different places tell us that we are still getting it wrong, that we have still not taken the idea of reconciling differences and tolerance to heart?  Live together in love with forgiveness in your heart is the only choice we have, but it seems we still can’t grasp it.

A much deeper significance develops in relation to this in the wider context of our lives.  The letters of  Paul are often helpful in this context, but it must be remembered that they are letters to churches of his time, and dealing with specific issues.  The particular reading today highlights some of the issues facing the fledgling group in Rome.  In particular one point of conflict seems to be that a sub-group seems to be under the impression that all such directions apply to the particular day of worship, whilst others seem to be of the opinion that “putting on Christ” is universal, we do not limit it to a specific place or time.  This means that love and forgiveness has to be at the heart of all that we do, in every aspect of our lives.  Here it embraces the difficulties.  As we take on Christ, as we endeavour to live his life in ours, his forgiveness must be ours in relation to all aspects of our world.  Something which has already been a struggle when we bump up against individuals and organisations which prove difficult, but significantly increased as a result of modern speeds of communication.  Our first response isn’t always our best, yet so many of us (myself included!) are writing emails or making phone calls before we have had time to think it out fully. One of the things which we tried to do in one parish that I worked in, was to try and leave a time before responding, saying nothing until sufficient time had elapsed for any hurt to dissipate before responding.  It changed the nature of our church and our parish significantly.  Responding as if we were in Christ had significantly more influence in evangelism than anything else.

Martin Luther King Junior summed up what forgiveness was all about for him, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude”.  Nelson Mandela realised that being unable to forgive had a more damaging effect on him than those who had treated him badly,  “As I walked through the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison”.  Confession is a central part to our services, it is  here we can leave behind the things that will imprison us if we let them fester.  Today’s reading from St. Paul reflects upon something the Romans would have known well, standing alone before the  judgement seat, and he is contrasting it with the situation that we will never have to face.  If we put on Christ we will never have to stand alone before any judgement seat, he will be always be with us.  But it is more than acknowledging Christ, it is to put him into our lives, and these difficult testing moments will tell us more clearly  about how well or badly we are doing this than the easy ones or even the joyous ones we can hide ourselves in.  Seventy times seven in the context of life seems a very small number indeed.

A Meditation
from ‘Breaking the Rules’ by Eddie Askew 

Lord, judgement comes so easily.
To skim the surface of another’s life.
To fasten on the bits I don’t understand, or the bits I don’t want to understand
and use as evidence against him.
So easy to divide the world.
So satisfying too,
To crystalize the categories
into us and them.

If I can say he is wrong,
it strengthens my conviction
that I am right.
Helps me to live a comfortable, comforting
exclusivity.
And adds a little hollow holiness
to my hypocrisy.

It is easier to judge than love.
Easier to pile up the differences,
brick on brick,
and build a wall.
To take a wall and build a house,
to live in it with judgement as companion.
love’s presence elbowed out.
No room. No room.
Then chain the door,
see the world through a little eye hole,
which offers me a small, constricted and distorted view
of what stands on the other side.

The trouble is,
That with each day that passes
it’s harder to unlock the door
and to ask love to come back in.
In the end I am left with judgement
when I could have lived with love.

Lord, help me hold prayer
as dear as he,
and leave judgement
where it most belongs,
with you.


13th sunday after trinity

REadings: Exodus 12.1-14, (or Ezekiel 33.7-11); romans 13.8-14; matthew 18.15-20

I would like to begin today by telling you about a man who ‘stopped’ our town.  Like many people in our town, I didn’t know him well. In fact I didn’t know him personally at all, but he was a man who had a dramatic effect on my life.  Let me explain. I first encountered Harvey as I was going on the school bus, feeling rather terrified on my first day in the secondary school at the nearby town.  I disliked school anyway, but going to a school with 400 pupils from a village school with 20 pupils was a big step for me, and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to it.  Just as we entered the town there was a man who, on hearing the bus, stopped and turned to face us.  He smiled a very warm smile and waved, and that little action made that first terrifying day much more bearable.  That, I later found out, was Harvey and day by day during my 7 years in that school Harvey was always there, and his smile and his wave remained a special part of the day for me, just as it was to most of the pupils on the bus as they turned and waved back.  Without knowing us, or knowing him Harvey had a dramatic effect upon many young people on that school bus. But it didn’t end there, Harvey was the same wherever he went or wherever he met people, to such an extent that when Harvey died the whole town stopped, closed down whilst his funeral took place.  Not many of us, I suspect, before or after will have such a testament to life as that.  The secret was simple, Harvey loved life and he loved every one he shared it with, no matter how inconsequential the contact.  I am sure he was welcomed most warmly in heaven, for he had lived out the very wish of God to love.  When we look deeply into this, and merge them with the parts before it and after it in Matthew’s Gospel, it is love which is the heart of what Jesus is leading us to know.

We begin with the gospel reading itself.  Controversy has followed this part of the gospel.  Some have argued that these could not have been the words of Jesus because he uses the word, Church, which in his time and for some time after his death did not exist.  Others would argue that the inclusion of the concept of church, has in fact been changed in translation, and suggest the word that would have appeared originally was assembly, which would have been as appropriate to the little groups who had searched out Jesus, as much as it did to larger synagogue congregations.  I personally tend to accept the second view, but it is something that needs to be thought about.   Also bearing in mind that the Gospel of Matthew was probably written 70 – 80 AD when the fledgling churches, such as those Paul is writing to, were emerging this could have been some ideas which emanated from this particular time with their inevitable differences, could have worked its way into  the oral gospels from which our present documents emerge. 

The essence of this gospel account is reconciliation, it is about those differences which were emerging in these “Christ following” groups and the need to reconcile those differences.  In many ways the wording of the text can seem out of context with what Jesus would say, but pay particular attention to the way he suggests treating people with those differences of opinion.  “Let him be to you as a gentile or tax-collector”.  If we have been careful in our remembering Jesus’s contacts with either of these groups we see him recognising powerful faith where perhaps he didn’t expect to find it.  The woman at the well, the Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter, Zacchaeus who climbed the tree and even the disciple Matthew himself are such examples where he responded in great warmth to their situation and their need.  In reality Jesus, like other Jews of his time, would have little other contact with these groups, and the response of the disciples who were accompanying him back-up that view.  If we now hear him telling us to see them as tax-collectors or gentiles, it must have been to his disciples as these he was referring to, and nowhere were they or their situations taken as inferior. 

Reconciliation in the recent church has generally not been handled well.  Even in our one denomination we are a very broad church with a wide variety of opinions on a number of issues including the Bible.  I was fortunate during my ‘active’ ministry to be involved in churches where these differences could be all too apparent, and lead to significant areas of conflict.  I use the word fortunate in that the people there were very largely reconciling people and approached others with different views in a very positive way, and as a result we moved forward together in a constructive way as we became increasingly a wider, inclusive church where even people from outside the church could find a place.  In my ‘retirement’ ministry I have been just as fortunate.  I have ministered in churches with a varied theology, from churches who don’t want me to wear a dog-collar to a Forward in Faith church.  From all of them I have learnt something new. All of them have given me a different  perspective of God, of Jesus and on the gospel.  The highlights often came when I have taken a combined service for a few churches in a benefice, all with differing views of how it should be done.  In the services to see these differences as enriching, whether it be standing or sitting, kneeling or not, some taking the host, whilst others wait to be given it, so many variations. All doing it in their own way, side by side, but by far the greatest joy is seeing them after the service as simply brothers and sisters, differences laid aside and just content to be the people of Christ.

Reconciliation, of course, needs to go much further than the church.  Recently we have been more aware of race and colour, whilst conflicting religious ideologies have emerged as a difficult path for the world to tread.  Again I was fortunate to work in Leicestershire where there was thriving dialogue between the different faiths in which all of us learned something from the other and gave something to the other.  It led not just to a religious coherence, but a practical, city-wide one also.  They had learned long ago in that place that papering over the cracks would not or could not last.  The context of Jesus’ teaching and actions have a resonance to those situations, and perhaps tell us of the role we can play.

The extract we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Romans, sums it up perfectly. Love he says is the complete fulfilment of the Law.  If we love perfectly we do not need the commandments, love will always seek the well-being of the other, not his downfall.  Love, not resolution is the heart of reconciliation.  Reconciliation can only emerge through love, it is the platform on which reconciliation can take place .  “Let us walk in loveliness of life”, Paul says, and we can only walk in loveliness when love is at its centre.   This passage was in fact central to the conversion of St. Augustine, as he realised that putting on Jesus Christ was to put on Christ’s love for the world.

I guess that is where we need to be as Christians, putting on Jesus Christ not fighting battles for him.  We see only dimly in a mirror, but in that dimness we can still pick out the things which were and are important.  Loving our world and the people we share it with is central to that even though they might think very differently from us.  Strangely enough the more we speak and listen (and don’t forget God gave us one mouth and two ears!) it soon emerges that the things that divide us are far less than the things we have in common.

Prayer by William Temple, 1881-1944
Educated at Rugby School and later became Archbishop of Canterbury

O God of love, we pray that you will give us love;
Love in our thinking, love in our speaking,
Love in our doing, and love in the hidden places of our souls;
Love of our neighbours near and far;
Love of our friends, old and new;
Love of those we find it hard to bear,
And love of those who find it hard to bear with us;
Love of those with whom we work,
And love of those with whom we take our ease;
Love in joy, love in sorrow;
Love in life and love in death;
That so, at length we may be worthy to dwell with you,
Who art love.                                                    


twelfth sunday after trinity

Readings: Exodus 3.1-15; Jeremiah 15, 15-21; Romans 12. 9-21 Matthew 16.21-28

Poor old Peter, from hero to zero in a moment, in one statement!  One moment he is the rock on which the church will be built, then in a blink of an eye he has become Satan who is in the way.  The human condition and our individual experiences never go away. No matter how high the mountain top we are lifted to, it doesn’t take  long to push us  over the edge and we find ourselves back on the valley floor.  Our ideas may indeed be well sought out, they may well be our best intentions, but in the end they are the ways of the world, not of God.  That is the message that comes through much of Matthew’s Gospel. Don’t be misled into thinking that even the best of human ideas, the best of human actions can become anything more than aspirations.

To be fair to Peter, this particular reading is not as damning to him as our present translations seem to suggest.  The only things we can compare it to are the temptations of Jesus in the desert, but if we were to go back to the original Hebrew/Greek version we would see a much different inference than we get from our translations.  In that original version we do indeed see Jesus pushing Satan out of the way, “Get thee behind me Satan”, but in that original version he doesn’t say that to Peter.  The words to Peter may have some similarity but are not nearly as dismissive.  His words in that version are to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan be gone”, a very different perspective than we get from present day translations.  It is still a significant rebuke to Peter, but not as damning as our present Bibles would suggest.  (To me it brings some interesting thoughts as to why the translators made this change, was it the style of translation used, was in the cause of brevity, was it to clarify more recent language, or was it a more “political” statement to the church of the time, which certainly wanted to control human minds by denying them direct access to the Bible?  Taken in this context there is a definite reminder of where the church should be, behind Christ as Peter should be, not In front where Satan wishes to be.)  Origen, a scholar and one of the founding fathers of the church around 200AD suggested that this event was a reminder to Peter that, “Your place is behind me, not in front of me”, something that we can all get wrong, particularly when, through the best intentions, we huddle with others of similar views in our own burrows where thinking becomes limited and blinkered, rather than open and expansive.  Origen, by the way, was the first Christian expounder to put forward the idea of the Trinity (I thought  Andrew  might appreciate this small fact, based on his comments about Trinity Sunday! )

We think as people think, not as God thinks, an obvious observance but a timely reminder to all of us.  How often do we justify what we do or what we say by the fact that it is what God would do or say, or by following what Jesus did.  This is a powerful reminder that, although we are precious in God’s eyes, we are nowhere near to making that call. God’s way is God’s way and no particular aspirations on our part will ever change that.  We must follow Christ to the best of our ability, and especially in situations where we do not want to go, or even into situations where we know we are going to fail.  It is like doing things in a mirror. As all of us who have tried to reverse a car, or worse a trailer, using our mirrors only, will probably realise how difficult this can be (or possibly just reversing, or parallel parking!), as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, “At present we see only in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13.12)

St. Paul in all of his letters, strongly exhorts the concept of God’s grace as being our saving influence.  It is not by our own doing but by God’s love that we are saved.  This is Paul’s fundamental premise, and remains so in his letter to the Romans, yet in today’s portion of that letter it is easy to be led into thinking that we have a system of rules to follow if we are to be partakers of this promise. This is not what he intended at all, although again we are quick to latch on to it as if it were.  Throughout this passage Paul is giving us some indicators for our own benefit through which we may know something of God’s ways and God’s grace, but never as a definitive way of achieving it.  In the first part of this reading it is through sincerity and zeal in our actions where we begin to feel something of that Grace in action, and in the second part this sincerity and zeal are defined in their fullness.  If any of us, even the great leaders of the church throughout history, tries to use this as a ladder to the kingdom we are certain to fall.  If, however, we use it an inspiration to what we can be, then we will be rewarded by glimpses of the kingdom to which we aspire.  It is certainly not meant as a definitive list of what we must do to be part of the kingdom, if it were then heaven would be a fairly quiet and quite empty place!  I have written before about the essence of our confession, about it being a place where we are open to our own failings and thus becoming the very place for own growth and newness.  This particular part of Paul’s writing takes us further into this process.

Certainly our ancient past possesses one such person who typifies our human condition in this respect.  As we read a little more about Moses in Exodus we find a man with failures to hide and a great reluctance to go into a future which he felt was beyond him. At the point of our reading this is all in the future, and the Book of Exodus is a rich seam for all of us, some of which we will find in the weekly church readings, but will only be fully appreciated by reading it all.  But even at the early juncture in the life of Moses there is a powerful lesson. Without the part of his mother, Jochebed, and his sister, Miriam this great development would never have unfolded.  But now today in the reading of his calling we see Moses turning aside to see the burning bush, an event probably not so un-rare in the stifling heat of the desert.  How many of us would have turned aside to see it, to ponder it, or more likely pass by regarding it as just one of those things that happen in that situation, a combination of blistering heat and oil being given off by the plant. But Moses turned aside to see it and it is there that the wonder begins. How many burning bush equivalents do we pass by in our lives I wonder?  How often do we take life with its many glimpses, and how rarely do we give them the curiosity and the reverence that Moses did?

Real spirituality, real closeness to God won’t ever be in the things we try to make them or manipulate them.  Those opportunities will be around us always, even if we don’t always like them. Through life, in its joys and its struggles, God is calling to us to step aside, to listen and to follow him.  We fail when we don’t turn aside to see the wonders, or we fail also in seeing them and not attaching relevance to them,  so often caused by the fact that we want to strive forward at the front, thinking that we now know it all.

The message of today’s readings is just to remind us who we are, and more importantly who God is. Throughout history this was a lesson all had to learn before they could fully do his will in the world.

Prayer of St Anselm (1033-1109)
O Lord my God.
Teach my heart where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.

Lord, if you are not here but absent,
where shall I find you?
 But you are everywhere, so you must be here,
 why then do I not seek you…..

Lord I am not trying to make my way to your height,
for my understanding is no way equal to that,
but I desire to understand a little of your truth
   which my heart already believes and loves.

I do not seek to understand so that I can believe,
but I believe so that I may understand;
and what is more,
I believe that unless I shall believe I shall not understand.                 

Lord, help me to see your glory in every placeMichaelangelo, (1475-1564)

O God, I am not my own but yours.
Take me for your own,
and help me in all things to do your holy will and follow you.
O God, I give myself to you,
in joy and sorrow,
in sickness and in health,
in success and in failure,
in life and in death,
in time and in eternity.
Make me and keep me your own;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord.       


                                

eleventh sunday after trinity

exodus 1.8 – 2.10 – the birth of moses; isaiah 51.1-6 – my deliverance will be everlasting; romans 12.1-8 – christian service & community; matthew 16.13-20 – but who do you say i am?

The gospel reading is about  the return from Tyre and Sidon and passes through Caesarea Phillippi.  Here Jesus and his disciples stop and rest, and what an appropriate place it was for the events which were soon to come.

Caesarea Philippi had a long an interesting past, stretching back to the Greeks. Most notable was its strong religious association going back to that Greek beginning when it was called Paneas, relating to Pan the Greek god of flocks and shepherds, founded some 300 years before Christ was born.  In the immediate area of Paneas were something of the order of 10-20 major shrines to various baal gods, showing that through its early history, religious quest had been at its centre long before we hear of it in the gospels.  It was a place of personal and religious searching.  It was situated just south of Mount Hermon, again with its religious associations going back to the exile.  It was on a hill itself, with a vast cave under the hill with a large lake under that of unfathomable depth which was the source of the river Jordan.  It was in this place that Herod the Great had built a magnificent  white marble temple to the Caesars in Roman times and hence its change of name (Philippi came later to differentiate  it from Caesar Maritima on the Mediterranean coast). With its history and being close to a major trade route, Paneas became a place of much interest and sanctity.

Following Herod the Great, his son Phillip the Tetrarch became ruler of this part of the empire, under the Romans, ruling it from Paneas, which explains its change of name together with it being close to a major trade route.  It was in addition a major city on  the route from Tyre to Galilee.  It was here that the disciples stopped and the conversation we read of in the gospels took place, in a place heavily laden with the spiritual from the many who had searched for meaning here in earlier ages.  It is not by chance or coincidence that this was the place where Jesus had this deep conversation with his disciples.  The historic sanctity of the place certainly added to the electrifying atmosphere that was about to happen.

After the easier questions of “Who do people say that I am?” which the disciples easily deal with, will come the question that is the very centre, the very heart of it.  But before we rush on to that question it might be helpful to look at some of the things that the disciples reported back. Amongst the responses were John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah. 

Herod Antipas who had John beheaded, was fearful of the extraordinary power of John and lived in fear that he would indeed return.  There were very many who also thought of the Baptist in this way, and certainly explains a strong opinion and feeling within a wide selection of Jewish people of the time.

Elijah was the great prophet of Israel.  In associating Jesus with Elijah they were giving the highest honour to Jesus.  Indeed it was Jewish belief that before the coming of the long awaited Messiah, Elijah  would return.  Some of you who have any knowledge of the Passover meal will recognise the significance of this in that a spare place and seat are laid for Elijah.  The only time that Elijah’s cup is filled is for the final toast and is not touched (some of you may remember the significance that I place on this in regard to Judas and the betrayal).

Finally in these responses there is Jeremiah who had a curious place in the expectations of the Jewish people.  It was firmly believed that before the people of Israel were taken into captivity, Jeremiah had taken  the Ark of the Covenant and the altar of incense out of the temple and hidden them in a cave on a high mountain.  It was their belief that Jeremiah would return them before the coming of the Messiah, and to these people living close to Mount Hermon this could indeed be the very place.

But then came the question which  struck at the heart of the matter, “Who do you say that I am?” I guess there was a very heavy silence for some time until Peter, impetuous Peter, blurted it out, You are the anointed one, the Son of the Living God”. ( The anointed one is synonymous with the term Messiah).  So here we have Peter, going beyond all of the  ideas about who Jesus was, which he and the disciples had heard much and often.  Here was Peter’s own personal response, not measured or looking for ways of covering his tracks, as he uttered what many of the time would have thought to be blasphemous.  I doubt if Peter, or anyone, could have given a rational explanation of his answer other than in Jesus he saw something far beyond any human being.  This answer was the response Jesus was hoping for, here was a person who would not be limited by human considerations or by individual understanding, here was someone who could place his trust in God and in Jesus.  For this, of course, came the supreme reward, and alongside it the supreme challenge, but for now it was sufficient for Jesus that he had found one of them at least who would continue his ministry and his work.  The task was complete and Jesus could now fully turn towards Jerusalem, and that part of the work that only he could fulfil.

In Caesarea Phillippi, the place of much religious searching, Peter had found his own answer and his own commitment.  In our religious quest  we are all searching for answers and for meaning.  Perhaps we should learn from Peter, that it is our own relationship with of Jesus that matters, our own commitment to him that will count.  In  the final analysis, knowledge will be of no consequence, commitment and actions will be of no consequence, and an understanding of every aspect of the bible will be of no consequence.  It is simply to the question that all of us will face, perhaps a number of times in our lives but certainly at its end, “And  you.  Who do you say that I am?”  It is there that we too will know the joy of Jesus’ reply.  It is there that we fully become Christians.

Like Peter we will be totally inadequate to the task , but like him it is only our faith in him that is required as the bedrock of the our faith and our church.  In a great sense nothing has changed.  Our readings from Genesis have had that same theme from the beginning, that indeed God worked with people who in many ways fell short, but the real issue was not that it was real trust in God.  Today the Old Testament readings move on to Exodus and in particular the birth of Moses.  Again we will hear how in so many ways on human terms he would have fallen short, yet his faith in God carried him through to lead the Israelites from captivity, through 40 years in the desert and finally to the promised land. The alternate reading of Isaiah is simply part of his great prophesy that God is doing all these things and will do these things again.

In our New Testament reading Paul is imploring this new emerging Christian community to offer themselves to God, and in so offering themselves fully to use the various and diverse gifts he has bestowed on them to His glory.  Karl Barth wrote a significant commentary on the Epistle to the Romans and one of the great themes emerging from that was “the great disturbance of God”, teasing us out of the holes in the ground that we have begun to make for  ourselves, and in which we may have begun to feel secure and comfortable. Out into the  glorious kingdom of God where together all will be achieved simply by trust in him.

It doesn’t end there. Throughout the history of the Christian church we see countless individual who have done this and have so changed the world. But it doesn’t have to be spectacular.  My abiding memory of parish ministry is not about such raging successes that we read of in the Bible, but about ordinary people who in ordinary, and sometime daunting situations, did just that.  Their actions simply answered the question of “who do you say that I am”, and in so doing make sense of their life and situation.  They may not have been able to express it as well as Peter, but the way they lived their life certainly did.  Just by always remembering that question to Peter will help us in the journey before us  and bring each step closer to the kingdom.  Law and ethics can never do that, but the Holy Spirit will.

Prayer

God be in my head,
    And in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes,
    And in my looking;
God be in my mouth,
    And in my speaking;
God be in my heart,
    And in my thinking;
God be at my end and at my departing.

“Who do you say that I am?”
Lord Jesus, like the disciples we struggle to find words.
Help us to reach forward,
As Peter did,
Recognising not what we can understand but what we can hope.
Where words fail us in answering your question,
May our actions, however simple, reach up to you,
For you are our Lord and our Saviour.


Ninth sunday after trinity

Genesis 37,1-4 & 12-28; 1 Kings 19, 9-18; Romans 10,5-15;
Matthew 14, 22-33

So we arrive at Joseph in our readings from Genesis.  What do you think of him? Was he a spoiled, precocious little brat with delusions of grandeur, or someone who was listening and responding to genuine messages from God?  Whichever way you look at him he was nothing short of a pain to live with and his brothers were all too ready to put an end to it and to him.  Yet luckily Reuben had some feelings towards his young brother and through him set in process a whole new train of events which had a significant impact upon Israel beginnings. Joseph, on his part, ruffled many more feathers before his full story fully emerges, but we see in him a faith developing which sees him through some difficult times, many of his own making, but it never shook his faith or his vision of his destiny.  In the end the whole picture emerges in Chapter 50, when he reveals himself to his brothers when his understanding of it all emerges, “You meant evil towards me, but God used it for good”.

Doesn’t his life in some way sum up our own, well not in detail, thankfully, but rather in essence.  It is all too easy to picture a life full of God’s blessings and goodness, so much so that it would be very easy to fall at one of the obstacles along the way. If we are not careful, it is easy to let even our prayers to be overtaken by them, to use our prayers as escape routes from the disaster our lives have become, individually or collectively.  These obstacles can sometimes seem to subsume all our life, yet we, like Joseph, can emerge on the other side knowing that God has been with us in those difficult times, and perhaps more importantly, has used them for good.

The account of Jesus walking on water is just one of many such human experiences.  The disciples are commanded by Jesus to leave a situation which is the high spot of their lives.  They have just witnessed the absolute wonder of the feeding of the 5,000. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to stay there, in that sort of easy existence forever? The parallel with the Transfiguration prompts a response when Peter says ,” Let us build three shelters”, let us stay here forever.  But not for then and not now.  Jesus sends them to the boat and orders them back to real life with all its troubles and difficulties. And they didn’t have to wait too long for the troubles to start!

As the wind blew up so did the waves, there was trouble ahead, even for those who were experienced in matters of fishing on the sea of Galilee.  Even today the Sea of Galilee, the Lake of Tiberias is subject to these sudden surges of bad weather due to the surrounding hill formations, when strong winds and gales can suddenly appear , so that even the motorised boats of our age do not take any chances when a storm is looming. The story beautifully unfolds in Matthew’s account, but it is not as straight forward as it may appear in our bible accounts. It stems from the fact that walking on the water has been translated from two different expressions in this account.  In the original Greek version v.25 records it as epi ten thalassan  which can be translated as over the sea or towards the sea, whilst verse 26 uses the expression epi tes thalasse, meaning on the sea or at the sea. This is further complicated by the word peripatien which is to walk on or about and used in both these verses.  The storm in this situation would seem to indicate a severe head wind which is driving the little boat back to the shore and the danger of being wrecked on the rocks.

 So the original bible doesn’t seem to put so much emphasis on the physical event but rather more on why this act seemed to be such an important moment, on the calming presence of God in an otherwise frightening , threatening and desperate situation.  Just like the feeding of the 5,000 which can be interpreted as a miracle event or a human miracle, this can be interpreted as a miracle of fact or one of meaning.  Whichever way you understand it the essential message is that God came to the disciples in their distress, in their hour of need.  Just like for Joseph, God used it for good.  The various, and subsequent translations of the bible can sometimes, in building up the event, lose the heart of its meaning.  The heart of its meaning for our time is surely not that Jesus walked on water, but that he came to the disciples in their distress, just as he comes to us in ours.  God will use all of life for good.  We spend so long speaking of the blessings of God and relate them to the things that make us happy or enhance the things we find good in life.  In reality the blessings of God are his very presence in all aspects of life, the good which is enhanced and the difficult or desperate which is transformed.

It was exactly the same difficulty that the Jewish people had before and in the time of Jesus.  They had been pre-conditioned to believing that God existed in the good, and that if anything else occurred it was due to their own sinfulness, their failure.  In the Romans 10 reading Paul is confronting this misconception. In this he is directly (probably more directly than anywhere else in his letters) by comparing grace and works, and coming down heavily on the side of God’s grace.  We can never save ourselves by our own efforts it is only by faith, by trust that God is with us in all situations and making them good, that we will know his joy and his peace despite everything. Realistically we are still reluctant to grasp it, we still try to earn our ‘God points’, when all we need to do is to trust Him and journey on knowing that He is there with us.  Do any of you remember the poem, “Footprints”  which in the 1990’s seemed to be quoted in so many sermons of the time, but which seems to sum up completely what Paul is saying and, importantly, what Jesus is saying? It is recognising God, and his transforming presence in the whole of our lives which will lead us to the heart of what we need in life and courage to go beyond it.

The 1 Kings reading is a lovely account of Elijah and his challenge to all those who worshipped the Baals, other Gods who actually counted actions as important.  Let us see who is more powerful Elijah is saying, your gods and all your joint and powerful preparations, or my God in whom I have complete trust.  It is not to be missed, so commit yourself to a bit of extra reading this week, indeed it might be worthwhile spending a bit of time reading much more about Elijah.  The message is actually the same.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, all that is important is that you trust God and recognise his presence in every aspect of your life, the way you will be transformed, and will not need to be like Peter who jumped into the water to prove his love, and  who without the sustaining presence of Jesus would have come to a very watery end.  The sooner we can grasp his presence in every part of our life the sooner we will know his peace.

Footprints in the Sand
By Caroline Joyce Carty

One night a man had a dream.  He dreamed
he was walking along the beach with the LORD.

Across the sky flashed scenes from his life,
for each scene he noticed two sets of
footprints in the sand: one belonging
to him, and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene of life flashed before him,
he looked back at the footprints in the sand.
He noticed that many times along the path
of his life there was only one set of footprints.
He also noticed that it happened at the very
lowest and saddest times of his life.

He challenged the LORD.
LORD you said that once I had decided to follow
you, you would never leave me on the way,
but I have noticed that during the most
troublesome times of my life,
there is only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why when
I needed you most you would leave me.

The LORD replied
My son, my precious child,
I love you and I would never leave you.
During your times of trial and suffering,
when you see only one set of footprints,
it was then that I carried you.

Prayer from SPCK  Book of Christian Prayers
by Lesslie Newbegin

Give me, Lord, a stout heart to bear my own burdens,
a tender heart to bear the  burdens of others,
and a believing heart to lay all my burdens on you, for you care for us.

Adapted from a prayer from SPCK Book of Christian Prayer
by Miriam Therese Winter

Helper of all who are helpless,
We call on you in times of stress
And in times of devastation.
Pick up the broken pieces
Of our lives, our hearts, our homes, our history
And restore them to your glory.
Give us the means of starting over
When everything seems lost.
O God our help in ages past,
hope for all that is to come,
We place our trust, our hope in you.


Eighth sunday after trinity

Genesis 32, 22-31; Isaiah 55, 1-5; Romans 9,1-5;
Matthew 14, 13-21

Text: You give them something  yourself!

Today in Matthew’s Gospel reading we find the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, possibly the best known miracle of all and one which many would wish could be replicated in so many parts of the world now.  It is a miracle that has attracted many interpretations, and even been the basis of criticism to later day Christian societies.  We will never know what happened that day, but we can deduce something about God and Jesus from it, and from the way that love works in our world.

So let’s begin with Jesus himself.  The account begins with an exhausted Jesus seeking perhaps some restbite from the fervour of all that has been going on, or more probably some time with God as Jerusalem draws ever closer.  The crowd still has its struggles and they soon find out where he is.  The word is out and soon great numbers flock to him. The only gospel which gives us a real indication of their journey seems to be in John. From Capernaum to the other side of the sea of Galilee is about 4 miles by boat, but a distance of some 9 miles by land over a ford, reaching a little grass covered plain called El-Baritiyah, on the way to the town of Bethsaida Julias. It is here that we get that most important glimpse of the qualities of Jesus.  Despite his own tiredness, his own feelings of exhaustion and perhaps even concerns, his first thoughts were for those who needed him, needed his time and his healing.  As night drew near the compassion of Jesus was fully emphasised. The place would have been truly remote, that is why he went there, and such was the need of so many who had travelled great distances to find them many would have come totally unprepared, probably without food.  So the stage for this miracle was set.  This action which was to illustrate the compassion of Jesus and of God was ready to begin, but something more was needed.

That something more was the five loaves and the two fish.  In their own concern for the crowd the disciples had gone to Jesus but were told to feed them themselves.  The five loaves and the two fish became  the catalyst for all that happened there.  John has a different account from the synoptic gospels on how they appeared, whether from the disciples themselves of from the young lad.  It is of little importance except they were presented and became the basis for all that was soon to happen.  Jesus took the food and blessed it and has the food was being shared it increased many times.  This increase has perplexed people through the centuries but increasingly it is seen as a miracle in the hearts of those who were there, rather than one which changed the whole nature of the food on offer.  The hearts of people who perhaps had come prepared for such an eventuality were opened, and they began to share their own food which previously had been well hidden.  For some this view is a diminution of the event, but for others it increases the miracle in that it changed the thing most difficult to change, namely the heart of people. Whatever the interpretation one thing is certain, it needs the action of God and mankind for anything to happen.  We are well aware that we are helpless without God, but this reminds us that God cannot do anything without us.  As such it emphasises the role of co-creators which is fundamental to the Old and New Testaments.

This event became so central to John’s thinking that it became the basis of his Eucharist.  The ordinary human situation had become a deeply spiritual event for him.  It was an event shared between man and God, which gives the deepest meaning to human life.  To the synoptic gospels the event remains one of the miracles, yet anyone who reads it or hears it, cannot but be touched to the very core by its simplicity in one aspect and yet its deepest spirituality  at the other extreme.

How many times in life do we meet with a seemingly straightforward situation which could become just as momentous and spiritual just by treating it differently.  Covid has proved to be deeply damaging in many countries and to many individuals.  Yet within it some of the best and deepest aspects of humanity have emerged, stories which have been told daily in the newspapers and in the wider media.  Yet, despite knowing this, it fails to touch the greater part of our individual and collective life.  Around us we have global situations of poverty, of racism, of global catastrophe, of present day slavery (even in our own country), of individuals rights to shelter, to food and to safety, of increasing media manipulation of democracy, and I could go on; yet they go on as if we can do nothing about them.

Without God we can do nothing, without us he will do nothing.  If the disciples had just walked away, thought the task was too big for them, and they too small, we wouldn’t have had the miracle we have before us today.  We cannot allow ourselves and God’s world to be drained by the greed and desire of individuals, the place of everybody matters.  You may not be able to do much, but by the doctrine my grandmother instilled into me, “every little bit helps”, the world can become as God intended rather than what we have made it.  It may be by just simply caring for someone in a difficult situation at the moment, it may be by putting your weight behind the situations which will go some way to ending poverty and homelessness, it may be in the way we give of our fortunes (large or small), it may be in our lamentations of the plight of refugees, it may be in so many different things.  What is clear, however, from this parable, is if we do nothing, nothing will happen.

We are no doubt aware of the saying, “That if evil defeats evil, then evil is the victor”, but perhaps there needs to be another thought, “That if we allow one evil to thrive at the expense of another evil, there will be an even more invidious and dangerous  evil at the centre”.

We will no doubt have, like Jacob, to wrestle with problems and upset the status quo.  We may have to wrestle with things which are insurmountable, or even to discern the insidious evil breaking into the situation.  We may even feel that sometimes we are wrestling with God himself. But without us nothing will happen.  Be inspired by the wonderful passage from Isaiah 55, the vision of what can be, if we truly live out our faith in the world. That is the very heart of our unique relationship to God.

Notes
The placing of the miracle at El-Baritiyah is immediately clarified by  looking at a detailed map of Galilee in that time, but is significantly enhanced in the John account by his reference to Phillip who originated in this area (Chapter 1, verse 43) and who would therefore have local knowledge of ways to feed the crowd, if they existed.


seventh sunday after trinitY

READINGS: genesis 29, 15-28, 1 Kings 3, 5-12, Romans 8, 26-29, Matthew 13, 31-33 & 44-52

‘He is like a householder who can produce from his store things old and new

I wrote and spoke last week about the waiting time. I could have waited until this week, as images of the Kingdom emerge before us, not in a burst of miraculous moments, but slowly and sometimes imperceptibly taking root and growing in our midst.  Patience is perhaps the quality we need to cultivate.  No one would suggest that Paul was a patient man by the way he dealt with his fellow workers, yet patience, or endurance,  was something he frequently drew to the attention of the communities that he set up. And this patience was there within Paul himself.  There were not many people who suffered as much for their faith as Paul did, often  imprisoned and treated appallingly, yet there was this unflinching aspect to his character.  Today’s reading from Paul is not from an imprisoned situation but others were.  This letter to the Romans, part of which we heard today, is from the  inter-custodial period, and in it he is powerfully proclaiming, as he always does, the victory that has already been won by Jesus Christ.  Most of us can never expect to hold a faith as strong and unflinching as Paul so we need something else to focus our minds, to keep our minds on what God has done for us in Jesus.

Jesus was very aware of this, both in the people he spoke to and his disciples.  He understood our struggles and gave some snapshots of the world around us to nurture our insight.  Matthew’s gospel collects many of these together as the kingdom is like…” examples.  They range from the ordinary things such as the growing of the mustard tree, to things of our greatest hope, even of finding a treasure in a field.  There cannot be many people who in some period of their life had wished that God would provide the miraculous treasure to put all things right.  But the reality for most of us is it grows within us, like the mustard seed, and without our knowing it becomes something so large that it can be a resting place for all the things we cannot cope with in our own strength.  From a preaching point of view this thematic approach of Matthew does present its problem, just because you are locked into this same theme for several weeks.  It is no doubt the same for those having to endure those weekly sermons!  (Take heart from St. Paul!)  Here, however, in this kingdom is like section I find it very positive.  In fact I can easily find myself drawn to stories from other sources but which have the same message.  One of my favourites are folk stories, which draw out absolute truths from the simplest and ordinariness of ever day situations. Some of these you will have heard me recount on numerous occasions!  But in reading today’s gospel my mind fell on two of these folk stories in particular, which I won’t repeat again, but feel that they add, certainly, to my understanding of God’s kingdom and I hope they might to yours. The first is the story of the leaky bucket, used for watering the garden, but in carrying water from the well to the garden waters much more on the way.  The second is more akin to the treasure in the field.  It is the flawed ruby, a priceless ruby made worthless when a crack appeared within it, until someone had the skill and patience to carve the crack into the ruby making it even more beautiful than before.  In those is the story of life, and the story of God’s love to me. Importantly it is the story of my life and legitimises who I am.

Returning to the Matthew reading, most of it is quite familiar to us, there are stories cherished by people who would call themselves spiritual people, yet to all they point powerfully to something we would all wish for in one way or another.  But in the reading we had today there is something that few have taken much notice of, and certainly don’t’ remember.  It is the bit at the end of the reading, and is about taking the old and the new out of the store cupboard.  Perhaps the reason we don’t remember it is because we can’t quite understand it.  Yet it follows the part of the account in which Jesus asks his disciples if they have understood what he has said about the kingdom, and this addition seems to put new and additional importance on this extra part which is for their ears only.  Take the old and the new out of the store”  What does it mean?

To me Christianity has been rather pre-occupied by new birth and new beginnings, and leaving the past behind.  In this little discourse Jesus is suggesting something quite different for his disciples. Your past, the old, is still important.  It is the very place from which the new will grow.  There will be mistakes, some grievous but they are part of your story, don’t bury them but learn from them. Move on from them, grow from them.  In most church services confession plays a significant role.  Is that really about reminding us how bad we have been?  It certainly is not so for me, rather more of the flower from its seed, the butterfly from its chrysalis.  It is reminding me, challenging me to consider how much, or little, I have moved on.  It reminds me of how little I could do without God, and what I can achieve with him.  In a sense it is the same story we read of Jacob in the Genesis reading, where he began and where he has begun to move towards.  It is the story of Solomon in the 1 Kings reading, recognising that his own frailties could only be made whole in God,  that he could only succeed in God’s blessing.

The heart of a religion, the heart of a church can never be its own story.  It has to be firmly based in the stories of the people it is here to serve.  Jesus’ ministry was about the stories, the lives of the people he met, and how he gave meaning to their stories.  He challenged fearfully the organisations which had begun to put its own story at the centre of everything, to believe all the things it wanted others to believe. In every action we find Jesus  listening, and heeding  the many and varied stories of the people who mattered to God.  Their social importance was of no consequence to him, but their story was, it was out of that old story that the new one could begin.  That storeroom with the old and new together is a powerful resource for each one of us.

As a church, both locally and at a wider level, we are in a place where we need to move on to a new beginning.  We look at structures, we look at ways of doing it but we will never be where God is until we listen to the stories of people who surrond us, rather than insist they must listen to the stories we want them to learn.  Life is individual, faith is individual.  We are indeed all the image of God who understands all of the aspects other people may find difficult.  Our listening to those individual stories enables those who tell it to realise that God listens to it also.  Without the stories of those around us, and our willingness to listen to them, to recognise them and to console them, the church will never reach the place it strives to be.  I mentioned in an early reflection our place as a royal priesthood and it is worth repeating that the role of the priest is not to draw attention to our stories but to enlighten the stories of others.  So this little seemingly add on part to the kingdom is like, is in fact the very heart of it.  The fact that most of us can never remember it, or can never even remember hearing it perhaps tells the story of the church situation and failure. 

The heart of life, the heart of faith is for people to understand their part in it and their importance to it.  Sadly it is only in time of emergency, such as the Covid-19 situation that we begin to realise that.  With his disciples Jesus was bringing new beginnings through the disciples who had a very varied, and sometimes chequered past.  That is where our present day church should always start from!  The stories, the lives of the many people around us are the heart of our ministry.

Prayers from the Celtic Heart by Pat Robson

A prayer of St David
God to enfold me,
God to surround me,
God in my speaking,
God in my thinking.
God in my sleeping,
God in my waking,
God in my watching,
God in my hoping.
God in my life,
God in my lips,
God in my soul,
God in my heart.
God in my past,
God in my present,
God in what lies before,
God who has brought me to what I am.      

A prayer of St Teresa of Avila
Christ has no body on earth but yours
No hands but yours
No feet but yours
Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion
is to look out for the world
Yours are the feet with which to go about doing good
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.                                    

Some random thoughts worth pondering!

God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.
John Henry Jowett

Pour out that you may be filled. 
Augustine of Hippo

The Christian can be a very interesting  person provided you can keep him off religion.
The priest’s duty is to animate, not to dominate .
Archbishop Basil Hume

God gave us all two ears and one mouth, so the Chinese proverb tells us.  He seems, however, to have given most  priests two mouths and no ear at all.
Revd Donald Carpenter 

The wise lover thinks less of the gift than of the love which prompted it.
Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ


sixth sunday after trinity

Readings: Genesis 28, 10-19a, Matthew 13, 24-30 & 36-43

It has been two excellent weeks for me in my garden and allotment!  Twice in two weeks I have been wet through planting cabbages, and everyone knows the best time to plant anything is when it is wet.  Well if you are wet through it can’t get any better than that!

Secondly from the rain and the warm weather the weeds have grown to a good size!  To such a size in fact that they have been easy to identify and pull out by the root.  And isn’t it so much easier to pull out weeds when the soil is moist. Scientific Fact: It takes 6 cuts with a hoe to kill a weed but pull out the root and it is gone.

Two good weeks, goes some way to making up for the hours I spent watering during that really hot period.  So when it came to the gospel reading today about the wheat and the tares, the wheat and the darnel I felt on somewhat firm ground.  Jesus is using an analogy to something I understand, something we all understand to some degree….well our generations anyway.

The workers come to the landowner in a bit of a stew, someone….some enemy, has planted the darnel amongst the wheat.  Certainly the wheat will not flourish as it should as the darnel will take up some of the goodness from the soil and some of the limited moisture that is there.  Shall we go and pull it all up?  Certainly not!  Firstly you will do more damage to some of the wheat that is growing by your tramping through it, they hadn’t heard of raised beds in those days!  But, and more importantly, there is little difference between young wheat and young darnel.  If you rashly rush in you will also pull out a lot of the wheat anyway.  Wait until later, until the harvest even then you will be able to separate it.  Wisdom indeed.  From a  God who knew all about waiting.

I grew up spending  much of my time on my grandparent’s small farm.  Planting and watching the corn grow was a rather special time.  Watching, feverishly, for the brown earth to take on a greenish tinge and then for the abundant green to appear.  My grandfather, although it was on a small scale, didn’t have the time to do all this by hand.  So alongside the other farmers of his time he adapted the principle of this story to his own fields.  In our corn field there were three distinct areas.  It began with an area around the field, the headlands as we referred to it.  This is an area which suffers most from infiltration by weeds, so the crop will always be seen as inferior.  When it came to harvesting this part of the crop was always used to feed the cattle, and the cattle only, in wintertime. Any thoughts of why it should be the cattle only?  Never the sheep and certainly not the horses!  The centre or fertile ground was the best crop and some of the seed from there was kept for planting next year.

So I know what you must be thinking.  We’ve been away from church for 10 weeks and when we do come back he is talking about farming, old time farming at that.  Well actually I am really trying to get at our gospel reading, and two themes seem to emerge from it…..stewardship and waiting….the very qualities which were at the heart of the farming I have spoken of.  We may not have scraped the highest possible yield from the land, but certainly with crop rotation ensured the sustainability of the land not just for our time but for future generations also.  Present high intensive methods can only be concerned with the present, and I don’t blame the farmers for that.  With our obsession of having the nicest looking crops, and often out of season…..strawberries on Christmas Day!… that stewardship has been put in jeopardy not by the people who grow it, but by us the consumer.  The role God gave us was that of co-creators and stewards, how far we have veered from that path, and how fragile the very structure of the earth’s existence become as a consequence of it. It rests not just with the soil but with the air also, as we see climates throughout the world being randomised by the effects of global warming.  We see the oceans and the seas being polluted by plastic and chemicals poured into it, all because of our clamour to have everything now, and just as we want it.   Jesus did not speak of such things in his parable, but you can be sure that stewardship, as he saw it then, was at the very heart of his thinking.

The other very important aspect that emerges is that of waiting.  Through his parable of the unfruitful vine, his stopping on the way to the dying Lazarus and here, we see him advocating a waiting time.  The timetable is God’s not ours, no matter how hard we try to make it otherwise.  The farmhands couldn’t wait, but later on the mustard seed needs time to grow into its full glory.  The woman won’t be able to wait for the bread to rise.  The early Christian church couldn’t wait either, they had grasped what was on offer and they wanted it now.  That is our problem too, and to a much more serious level.

We just can’t wait for God’s time.  We have our expectations and we need them to be realised; full churches and Christian values are waiting for us, why can’t they be here now!  Well Jesus spent a lot of time teaching us about prayer, far too much unless it was to sustain us through these waiting times.  Even the Lord’s prayer has waiting at its heart, “Your kingdom (will) come on earth as it is in heaven”.  Our waiting time is an important part of our journey to the glory of God. Our patience might run out but God’s never will.

So to end perhaps an opportunity to think of the field to which Jesus was referring. Was it that wider field of the world, or our own communities and we, the workers, wanting to rush in to pick out the offending darnel?  I think not, more likely he was referencing our own beings, our own characters to the wheat field.  Much good wheat within it but places where there is darnel too.  Our lives will become closer to God as we recognise and tear out those things which are alien to his love.  Like the early Christians we might be anxious to get there quickly but let’s not lose hope when we can’t get there immediately.  It is God’s time not ours.  Let us just be prepared like Jacob to recognise the hope along the way, to see in each moment, not the fullness of God’s glory, but the ladder that reaches up to that glory from where we are at that moment.  Let every aspect of our life have something of the Bethel within every moment given.

prayers

The Waiting Time

O Lord let me find the waiting time.
Lord may I rest in the peace that is, rather than search for what I hope is to be.
Give me patience with life, patience with others, patience with myself.
May I be fulfilled by what I have, rather than ruled by what I want,
not overcome by what others tell me I need.

O Lord let me rest in the waiting time.
Help me to reach out and see what I have, rather than curse for what I have not.
There may be much ahead of me, but help me to see
that it will not be brighter than what I can find now.
That the hope of the future rests on the joy I can find in this moment.

O Lord let me find the peace of the waiting time.
As I find joy in your holding, let me feel the deep love of your being.
And as my confidence in that love grows,
Help me to see it as the gateway to your glory.
That the waiting time is your time for me, and my time for you.

Disclosure

Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher.  All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and

Wait.

Often, nothing seems to happen;
There is space, silence and

Expectancy.

No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there,
And will come again.
Seeing or non seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes, when you’ve almost
Stopped expecting it,
A flash of brightness,
Gives encouragement.


fifth sunday after trinity

readings: Genesis 25,19-34; Isaiah 55, 10-13; Romans 8, 1-11; Matthew 13, 1-9 & 18-23

The Good News Bible has this particular gospel reading sub-headed as ‘The Parable of the Sower’, and its context and content certainly seem to suggest it is a parable, but when read in its full form the text seems to be something more or a prophesy even. Jesus can be seen speaking to the disciples and instructing them in their future role and mission.  So a further question springs to mind, who was this discourse from Jesus meant for?  Is it this meant for the crowd Jesus was speaking to, or as something quite specific to the disciples?  The fact that the writer of Matthew effectively tells the story twice would seem to indicate that he wasn’t sure either!

Whatever it was, it was almost certainly inspired by the situation.  To me it shows a picture of Jesus in the boat with this large, expectant crowd in front of him, and then looking up sees a lone sower on the hillside. I can’t recall how many times that sort of thing has happened to me in my ministry.  Often when having thought through what I was going to do in a service I become very conscious of someone in front of me and seeing their pain or joy suddenly puts a whole new slant on what I was going to say, as it has done for countless preachers and ministers through the ages.  What we say is not text bound, but circumstance and people bound, as we see the readings coming to light in the people there.  That is what makes the writing of a sermon in isolation so much more difficult, and often so irrelevant.

In our gospel reading Jesus sees the sower, and sees it in the context of the people in front of him, crowd or disciples.  But what he tells them in the story is obviously not correct, for who on earth would waste good seed on rocky ground, or amongst thorns or on ground that would be trampled down by people constantly walking on it (and that is without pigeons and rabbits!)?  Certainly they wouldn’t, and we wouldn’t.

But God does.  That is the heart of this passage, God cannot be made into a human, super or not. God does not sow for want of return or reward, but out of love for his creation.  God does not choose to love, He is love, and real love has no limits.  Everything in creation  is given its chance, nothing is lost in our human ideal of efficiency.  To understand God’s ways we have to let go of our human perceptions including those of fairness, of right, of earned reward or privilege, or even of being left out, as God grows his kingdom on earth.

Certainly it begins to make sense of the Abraham, Sarah situation, where if we read the complete account, including their questionable actions in their days as Abram and Sarai (Gen 12), to survive when famine overtook the land, or indeed in their treatment of Hagar and Ishmael which we have already come across in our Sunday readings.  We can’t ……..but God can!  And such is God’s love that he always will.  Even when Jacob, in today’s Genesis reading, takes untimely advantage of the situation Esau finds himself in, we find a God who will act where we as ethical humans would struggle.  No wonder Paul, in today’s reading, probably his most noble writing, stands amazed at what we can do with God’s love, and how little we can do without it.

And this is the essence of the sower story being important to the disciples, and is the heart of the message they will proclaim.  It is not for them to question, or to admonish the motive of the sower.  It is simply the instruction for them to do likewise, to proclaim a love that is beyond our understanding, beyond sometimes our own acceptance and that of the world.  It is the heart of priesthood.  Certainly it would be nice to be well-liked, appreciated and even acknowledged, but those things do not matter. Letting the world know of that great love that is theirs as well as ours, is what we are called to do.  Don’t forget, as Christians we are all that royal priesthood (1 Peter 2, 9), a priesthood to proclaim the abundance of God’s love.  We are not called to be the sower choosing what to sow, or where to sow it.

Taking on that role of priesthood will, on occasions, put us at odds with the world simply because the world cannot understand its values.  The heart of Christian ministry is to the poor, the marginalised and the needy, rich or poor. Where does that make any sense in our world view?  Our ministry is to the perpetrator just as much as it is to the victim.  Does that make any sense in a world where there is so much hurt caused by one upon another?  Forgiveness, not retribution, is our watchword.  No matter what the cost to ourselves, or of ourselves, it is the new beginning which the world is in real need of, between countries and across countries, between races and cultures and across cultures and races, between rich and poor, between strong and weak.

This is the random sowing from which God’s kingdom on earth will grow. The absolute randomness of sowing that enables people to grasp a different, and better view of stewardship of the world’s resources and its impact upon how we live together.   It is by each of us proclaiming God’s deep love that hope will again begin to flourish. 

There is no action that will be too small in that task ahead of us.  I recall a fellow minister telling me of a funeral he had performed for John, a parish member, who for various reasons had become a very grumpy, isolated man in old age.  The vicar was expecting to be the only one there, but one other person did turn up, a police officer, and from what my friend could make out of it, quite a high ranking one.  After the service he spoke to the man and in response to my friend’s question of why he was there, the police officer said that John had been his teacher.  But more than just being his teacher he had proved to be a considerable steadying influence and inspiration at a particular difficult time in the officer’s early life and helped him to cope with his negative and sometimes anti-social actions following his father’s death.  “It is thanks to John” the officer said, “that I am this side of the bars”. 

Everywhere there is opportunity for the Christian to proclaim something of God’s love pouring into creation. I wonder what part of God’s seed we will have to proclaim in the coming week?  One thing is certain if we proclaim it truthfully, the world will not always thank us for it, but in the end will be a better place for it. If we simply do as Jesus did in his lifetime on earth, and live out the parable of the sower it will indeed prove to be a wondrous prophesy.

Lord why do I have to make the effort
by Michel Quoist

Go, little one,
don’t ask yourself how you feel about doing this or that,
don’t look for any reward,
ask if it is what the father wants
    for you and for your brothers and sisters.

Don’t ask for strength to make the effort;
ask first to love with all your strength,
   your God, and your brothers and sisters,
because if you loved a little more
    you would suffer a little less,
and if you loved much more
    your suffering would bring forth joy and life.

A Silence and a Shouting
by Eddie Askew

O Lord, help me to realize that there are folk around me
with bigger problems than mine.
Folk around me
with harder existences than mine.
Frightened, anxious and lonely,
just wanting a bit of human contact, just wanting a bit of your love.
Perhaps needing a little courage to face life, to hang on to life.

I can encourage them
just by being with them, just by listening and hearing their story, just by taking a bit off their load,
like you take mine.

Is that what you want me to?
I can’t do it on my own—but thank you, Lord,
because with you beside me, I don’t have to.

A prayer from S.P.C.K. Book of Christian Prayer
by Alan Paton,

Give us courage, Lord, to stand up and be counted, to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
Give us courage to stand up for the future of your world, and the place of those who come after us.
Give us courage to stand up to ourselves when we are seduced by the ways that others see the world and are tempted to follow suit.
Let us love, not fear

Let us love nothing more than you, for then we shall fear nothing.
Let us have no God before you, whether nation or party, state, church or want.  Let us seek the peace that you hold before us, opening our eyes, our ears, our hearts and our hands to join the wonder you began in creation.
Let that hope always greatly exceed our concern for self.


Fourth Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-49,58-67 – Rebecca chosen as a wife for Isaac
Zecharia  9: 9-12 – The prophet of the 2nd captivity looks to the future
Romans 7: 15-25a – Paul reflects on what he wishes to be and what he is
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30 – Hope and re-assurance in Jesus

It is interesting to look at photographs of events and people in past times.  Birthdays are often commemorated on Facebook with some of those memories from the past showing the development of the person into what they or we are now. Each year Mair (my wife) does a collage of the family in photographs of the immediate past year, then placing the previous year into an album which grows into a history of our family. These, alongside photographs from previous generations, are our family history. So much so, in fact, that a complete 2m by 1m bookcase is full of such albums!  They will never be thrown out, when perhaps more recognised items and books may be as space becomes limited.  The books, etc, can never tell us how we have come to the place where we are, only  photographs really do that, unbiased by our memories , our deep seated opinions or even our aspirations.

Much of the Old Testament is similar, showing something of our journey into where we are now.  But just like our photographs there can easily be a tendency to build up our version of what that history has been, to understand it completely we must look at it all, and more than the stories and the ideas which appeal to us. The set readings for today show the emergence of this hope through various stages of our evolving pre-Christian and Christian family, and the very brief synopsis of the readings will give some indication of this.

But I start with a photograph of ours which I find so special.  It signifies our own family growing into independence. The photograph was taken when we went to Wren’s Nest  (Dudley) to collect some fossils one Sunday afternoon, some 30+ years ago. It shows our son in the background, absolutely intent on fossil hunting, and in the foreground our then 14 year old daughter just not wanting to be there!  She is just entering the “fashion stage” and there she is, on a quite precarious rock slab in a very tight straight skirt and high heel shoes, with a face that communicated it all! Helen hates that photograph, but it is the very heart of life and what and how we all become what we are.  Mind you I don’t have to look far into albums of the previous generation to see where it came from.  One in particular shows Mair and her sister, no doubt going through the same phase of life, in very similar garments walking on Snowdon!  Some years later I enjoyed  walking and climbing on Snowdon, but always well prepared myself, and was often amazed at the states of dress of some people on that mountain which can seem so wonderful in sunlight, but that can change in an instant.

In many ways life is like the mountains.  One minute in the sunshine they can be glorious and awe inspiring, and then without any warning we may be in thick cloud unable to see even the shortest distance in front of us.  We need to journey through life with that in our mind, and that is where faith comes in, a faith which will carry us through the invisible, through the darkness, through the cold and even through the lashing rain of it.  The prophets all show us a way to reach towards that.  Their message encompasses the past, the present and the future.  The past, the memories, the knowledge and the hope will inspire us and sustain us, but it cannot protect us in the present.  The present is our journey, and although it may be similar to those who have travelled that journey before, it will be uniquely ours. It is we who must travel it and we must be prepared for what we encounter on the way.  Just as it is foolhardy to attempt to climb a mountain in high-heeled shoes and light summer garments just because it is a beautiful day, so we cannot journey life in fashion garments.  The faith that will sustain us through life will need to be much more than a “fashion faith”, or even a “hark back to the past” faith.  The only faith that will sustain us is one that has a solid rock to launch from and a clear beacon to call us on, as we trample over the rocks and through the quagmire which most will probably face  somewhere on the journey.  In a sense it is being prepared for that journey of life when the glitter or the tradition either wears off, or is just simply not enough to see you through.  We have to find the shoes and the clothes of faith that will sustain.  I am of an age when I can remember Dr Barbara Moore walking from Land’s end to John O’Groats.  A reporter of the time, James  Fyfe- Robertson, from the Tonight programme, asked what her preparation had been to which she replied, “Rubbing my feet with surgical spirit, wearing two pairs of socks and oiling my boots and walking them in”. With that she was prepared to meet whatever would happen, even when her feet became sore and blistered.

In our readings today one of the things that struck me was the struggle Paul had.  He has a vision of what he might be and is so impatient to get there, wanting to leave behind all those things which actually make him what he is.  The great gift that the disciples had was that they travelled with Jesus in his ministry, and in travelling with him learned a great deal from him.  They learned, as we hear in today’s gospel reading, that he saw opportunities rather than problems and that became very much part of them.  Paul’s background was such that everything was clearly defined and that he had great difficulty when things didn’t fit that pattern.  The journeying disciples saw in Jesus many facets of the fullness of God’s love, but at the same time had to contend with some of the real difficulties of present life .  Some of you will have heard me preach on one of those before, when Jesus is reported by Matthew, to have said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”. I wonder how they reacted when they heard that.  Well we don’t know, because in high probability he didn’t say it, our version is because of more recent translations.  The word easy in Greek is chrestos, which has a far wider meaning as fits well.  My yoke fits well and my burden is lighter, something that a carpenter of Nazareth would know well, since this would have been the major trade of such people.  That is the message that the disciples saw Jesus proclaiming and what they themselves later proclaimed.   Trust in me, trust in God’s love, and there you will find a path which can envelop all of what life will be, Jesus is saying.

It is the message we can proclaim in whatever aspect of life we find ourselves in.  It would be wonderful if we had a miracle to give, but it would probably only be temporary, if at all.  The message for our world is simply that God’s love will help you through  it, including the times when you cannot journey unaided. I hope that we were able to communicate that message to our children as they grew up, and to other people in some small way, in the various twists and turns of life

A prayer by David Adam

O Lord, give us yourself above all things.
It is in your coming to us that we are enriched.
It is in your coming that your true gifts come.
Come, Lord, with your healing presence.
Come, Lord, with healing of the past,
Come and calm our memories, our shattered dreams and unknown weakness,
Come with joy for the present,
Come and give life to our existence, even when we ourselves can find none,
Come with hope for the future,
Come and give us a sense of eternity.
Come, with strength for our wills,
Come, with hope for our hearts,
Come, and give affection to our being.
Come, Lord, give yourself above all things
And help us to give ourselves to you.

A prayer by Rex Chapman (adapted)

I am tired, Lord.  Too tired to think, too tired to pray, too tired to do anything.  Too tired, drained of resources, “labouring at the oars against a head wind”, pressed down by a force as strong as the sea.  Lord of all power and might, “your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters”: calm my soul, and though I want you to take control. Lord of all power and might, most of all I want to feel your presence beside me.

A Prayer by Marjorie Holmes

You, who said, “Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest”, I come to you now.

For I am weary indeed.  Mentally and physically I am bone- tired.  I am all wound  up, locked up with tension about  the things that hurt me and drain away my hope.

Lord, let your healing love flow through me.

I can feel it easing my tensions.  I can feel my body relaxing, my mind begin to go calm and composed.  I feel your healing in all those things that I could never have done for myself.

Thank you for unwinding me, Lord, for unlocking me.  Thank you for freeing me from what I cannot change, so that I may flow freely, softly, gently into your future.

A prayer by Bishop Leslie Newbigin
(incidentally, a man who was as lovely as his prayers)

Give me, Lord, a stout heart to bear my own burdens, a tender heart to bear the burdens of others, and a believing heart to lay all of my burdens on you, for you care for us.

Poem from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it all began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then?  I cannot say.


Third Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Genesis 22,1-14, Jeremiah 28, 5-9 , Romans 6, 12-23, Matthew 10, 40-42

What have you being doing during ‘lockdown’?.  Judging by some of the responses on Facebook, even on “All Things Stretton” many of us have been having a clear out.  Indeed since charity shops and refuse disposal have been closed down, I hear that our long-suffering refuse collectors, as key workers, have  experienced a dramatic rise in their work load as people have cleared out their lofts, their garages and even  their houses during this enforced isolation. Indeed in Birdingbury, Christine and Barbara have used the situation to continue their support of the PawPrints Charity but also to build up some new community contacts in the village, and well done to them.  But as for me, I am not a “thrower-away”  person.  I just keep things in the hope that there will be another day when they will be useful again. Indeed this is proven in the fact that with the hot weather, especially the muggy nights, a fan which we bought pre-2000, came to the rescue, after some repair action was undertaken! Similarly, all those experiences and insights which we have in life remain so important to our future actions and thoughts, too valuable by far to be thrown away or tucked into some filing drawer of our brain.

So, with no throwing away to be done I have focussed myself on doing those jobs I never seem to have time for, with one in particular which has been repairing and painting our garden fence! Now that has proved to be a jeremiad (now that’s a nice scrabble word!) experience indeed. There seemed to be no end to it, and it has been filled with frustrations, not least that since many others have been doing the same thing, I have run out of paint and there is none to be found anywhere on line.  As I have been working around the fence and the frustrations of it, my mind has often strayed to Jeremiah, in particular to his yoke. The yoke that cannot be forgotten just because it has been torn off and thrown away.

Although Jeremiah’s work is not now featured as much in our local service readings as we tend instead to hear the more familiar works with well-known stories.  But this is an injustice to Jeremiah because he has a very powerful message for all who seek God.

In the bible he is classified as a major prophet, but this does not really do him justice, as our bible simply classifies long texts as major prophets and the shorter ones as minor prophets.  But Jeremiah is a major prophet in a very much wider context.  He was significant as the second major prophet of Judaism, second only to Moses, and was influential in the drawing up of the formalisation of their religion including influences in Deuteronomy.  In addition, his influence spreads into Islam as well as Christianity. His influence has seeped into much New Testament theology, in particular to the Book of Hebrews where there are over 40 references to Jeremiah and his prophesies.  In the Book of Jeremiah, we have amongst the lamentation, such beautiful imagery including his yoke, the potter and the clay, right through to his confidence in buying a field. Don’t be put off by the 50 chapters, it is full of wisdom and direction for us all.

Just like Moses, Jeremiah was very reluctant to accept his role.  “I am only a child, and do not know how to speak on such issues”, he protests.  Undeterred God touches Jeremiah’s lips and from that moment on his heart is on flame with God’s message.  He remained in that role for forty years, under five different rulers and his message centred on how Judaism had tried to modify their relationship with God to one they wanted it to be. Jeremiah sought to bring their minds back to what God wanted.  As such he spoke and prophesised on their own misguided attempts having desperate repercussions and pointing to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah is often referred to as the weeping prophet as he lamented the repeated failure to re-centre their religion onto God.  Jeremiah repeatedly warned his people that spirituality is not simply a lifestyle choice.  You cannot choose faith like you chose the way you dress, or an ornament.  Faith is a life based not upon your needs but on God and on the wider good.  You cannot profess one thing and live another.  True faith will penetrate your very being and impact upon everything you do, say or think.  Anything less may suit you, but it certainly will not suit God.  Anything but real commitment will never solve the problems that are boiling up towards you.

As such, it seems to me, that the somewhat forgotten Jeremiah is a prophet for our own time.  We live in a world where actions and decisions are based upon the immediate good.  We seem to forget there is a wider world and future generations to consider.  Yet so much of our global situations, which ought to remind us of the interconnectedness of our world and people are forgotten in so many ways.   Our reluctance to consider the effects that global warming will have on those following us or those around us, being a case in point as we try to pin-down God’s goodness and love to our particular place and time, to our own wants.  Then along came Covid-19 and suddenly we are fearful, but now as that fearfulness begins to drift away with time, and the inability to shop or converse with others begins to frustrate , the freedom to do what we would like begins to prioritise our thoughts. With those emerging demands so we see the resolve and lessons of the fearful time being moved to the back of our minds.  Perhaps, deep down, we might even wish to throw them away altogether, or bury them so deep that they no longer bother us.   Similarly, we thought and even hoped that racism was at an end, thankful perhaps that we didn’t need to think about it anymore so that our lives could continue in just the way we wanted them to.  Yet it hadn’t and hiding the matter did not solve that major problem either, perhaps it made the situation worse for some.  Such deep-seated matters will not be solved until we learn to see through God’s eyes rather than our own, until we work in God’s way not our own.  That was Jeremiah’s message to his people and it remains a powerful message to us, particularly in the present situations. As we begin to move into a world where the Covid-19 precautions are being lessened, a world where climate change has been all but forgotten, and the BLM action is less reported, will we have learned anything from those experiences?  Will we go forward with a different perspective?

Just like Jeremiah, Paul says to the Romans that faith and spirituality are not an add-on choice.  They are the deep-seated base of the world God created and respect for that otherness is the only way that world can move forward or even survive.  It is the message that has to be proclaimed in our world and in our churches.  We cannot find a way just to suit ourselves but we must strive to find a way for God’s world and everything that is in it.  As Christians we must be aware that we too have a yoke to wear, but knowing of his love for us and all his creation makes that yoke fit far more easily. Are we prepared to do our part so that the world may know it also, so that it may become a world which is not looking in every direction fearful of the boiling pots which may envelope us? When Jeremiah felt unworthy to take on his role God gave him strength and vision. So, God will do for us, and in doing it we will find his reward, even if the only thing we can manage is to give a cup of water to those in need.

We should not be striving to find a way to suit ourselves but a way that incorporates the whole of God’s creation.  That is where we will find his peace, his yoke is easy and his burden light. As a church we must be a prophet, to proclaim a world where there are no strangers only friends we have not met.  To those of us in the world who are more fortunate it is incumbent on us to build larger tables rather than higher fences. That is the way to where our treasure will be found.

____________________________

I attach a poem sent to us by Maureen Hinton, it is probably the best prayer we can have at this time.

Corona’s Letter to Humanity
A poem by Vivienne Reich

The earth whispered but you did not hear.
The earth spoke but you did not listen.
The earth screamed but you turned her off.

And so I was born….
I was not born to punish you…
I was born to awaken you….
The earth cried out for help….

Massive flooding.  But you didn’t listen.
Burning fires. But you did not listen.
Strong hurricanes.  But you did not listen.
Terrifying tornadoes.  But you did not listen

You still don’t listen to the earth when….
Ocean animals are dying due to pollutants in the waters.
Glaciers melting at an alarming rate.
Severe drought.

You didn’t listen to know how much negativity the earth is receiving…
Non stop wars.
Non stop greed.

No matter how much hate there was…
No matter how many killings daily…

It was more important to get that latest iPhone than worry about what the world was trying to tell you…

But now I am here…
And I have made the world, your home, stop in its tracks

I have made YOU finally listen.

I have made YOU take refuge.

I’ve made you stop thinking about materialistic things…

And now you are like the earth…..
You are only worried about your survival…
How does that feel?
I give you fever…as the fires burn on earth
I give you respiratory issues…..as your pollution filled the earth’s air
I give you weakness as the earth weakens every day.
I took away your comforts…
Your outings.
The things you would use to forget about the planet and its pain.
And I made the world stop…

And now China has better air quality…
Skies are clear blue because factories are not spewing pollution into the earth’s air.
The water in Venice is clean and dolphins are being seen.
Because the gondola boats that pollute the water are not being used.
YOU are taking time to reflect on what is important in your life.

Again I am not here to punish you…..I am here to awaken you
When all this is over and I am gone…..Please remember these moments…

Listen to the earth.
Listen to your soul.
Stop polluting the earth.
Stop fighting among each other.
Stop worrying about materialistic things.
And start loving your neighbours ……wherever they are.

Start caring about the earth and all its creatures.
Start to really believe in a creator.
Because next time I may even come back stronger……
Signed Corona (the Virus)


Second Sunday after Trinity

Readings:  Genesis 21, 3-21, Jeremiah 20, 7-13, Romans 6, 1b-11, Matthew 10-39

 How many sparrows are you worth?

I remember one matter which had a very acrimonious impact upon the church we, as a family, attended for many years. It started innocently enough, when one of our members was asked to build a new life-size crib for our church.  Andy was both very skilled as far as craft was concerned, and a deep thinking man.  But when the new crib he had made was unveiled to the church, there was uproar.  There was uproar because Andy had made the crib as it really was, a mean stable with all of its hardships and rejections.  That was not the crib, or the message, that most of our particular popular, well attended church wanted to portray.  After all, the Mayor was coming to our bursting Christmas Eve service!

We can see a similar theme developing with the crosses we often see in the world and even adorn our churches.  Some  are worn as adornments with little or no perception of its origin, others wear them as significant of a deep faith.  Those crosses, either worn by individuals or within our churches themselves, can be more about art and design, about the aesthetics, than they are about the origins of the cross.  When we were in Italy for a holiday we visited some local churches, some of which were in very poor areas.  No matter how poor the people or the area, the cross was always glorious, elaborate and a  costly work of art and jewels. Just as the reception of the new crib in our own church had caused us much heart searching and disillusionment, so the way in which these churches were portraying the cross bothered me also. Nowhere did I see its pain, or its cost in pain. The only cost seemed to be to the poor people that tried to maintain them.

What is this interpretation of the cross as a true reflection on the cross of many in life, or indeed on the cross of our baptism?  For it is by the cross we begin our journey in faith.  In our gospel reading today we hear Jesus proclaiming, “No one is worthy of me who does not take up his cross and follow me”.  So often we are seduced by the earthly wonder, the ‘golden calves’1, that we can easily lose sight of its real glory, and of the pain of the love God bore for us. (There is the counter-argument of course of a magnificence which somehow proclaims that glory, the wonder the artist wished to portray when he made it, the real test is surely though in the heart of the one who views it).

In trying to glorify the cross we have changed it.  As indeed can happen in the translation of the Bible on many occasions and we find one such example in our Gospel reading today.   When Jesus speaks of the value in God’s eyes of the sparrows, the way this has been translated gives the impression in  of sparrows dying, of death.  But that is not a true reflection of the original Greek version.  The RSV Bible provides us on this occasion, as on many others, with a closer approximation to the original, and translates the Greek, not as falling to the ground with its implication of death, but as “lighting on the ground”, which has much more implication about life. To really understand it we must research much further to find its association with  the assarion.

The assarion was a sub-division of the denarii, and as such the smallest form of currency (1/16 of a denarii) and hence the translation into penny (or farthing in some versions, perhaps an even better one since there was a wren on the back of it!).  Two sparrows were sold for two pennies, but in paying four pennies the purchaser got an extra sparrow, 5 in total (the first BOGOF?).  So the extra one was thrown in free, it had no value.  But Jesus used this fifth sparrow, the sparrow that had no value in the world, to illustrate God’s love being the love that cared for all.  This account is far more than a nice story, it is the very essence of all of the teaching of Jesus. God loves even the sparrow that has no value.

So even the humble sparrows chattering outside the window, have a very important message for us! Perhaps the sparrow should be the symbol of our stewardship of the world’s resources!  But most of all it is a reminder that even the forgotten sparrow is dear to God. Are you not worth more than the sparrows?  If the sparrows are dear to God so should, everything and everyone be dear to us, unconditionally?

Churches try to live this out in many ways.  We seek out things that can be done and often do them very efficiently.  What is often lacking is not the concept of what we do, but the reason why we do them. Does it have an imitation of God’s love at its centre? The why of an action is far more important to God than the what, and even more important than how well it is performed.  But take heart we also are dear to God, and even when we get it wrong he remains with us, still like the sparrow. Even the actions of Abraham and Sarah did not change that, even when their actions seemed far from what God intended.  Even the lament of Jeremiah, as he is seemingly overtaken by the futility and hardship of his 40 years of proclaiming God’s will in a very hostile environment, God will still come to his aid.

What then is our reaction to the demand to take up our cross and follow him?  If we can understand the why then the rest will follow.

By the cross, Paul assures the Roman Christians, that they have entered into the death of Christ.  Whatever the circumstances they are still part of that death, of that struggle, but Paul even more strongly reassures them, that they have also entered into the resurrection of Jesus, where everything will find new meaning, and a new beginning simply because everything is dear to God. So it is also true for us and every time we light on the ground we will be at the heart of God. Walk, walk in that light Paul says.  Not in the light that you may always want it to be, not in the light you try to make it, but in the light where God knows you, and the world he loves, will find the treasure, even if it is sometimes in a very mucky field. The important thing is that our lives care for even the sparrow, for those whom the world ignores, for those who are even shut out by the world.  That is the real rest, the message that Andy was trying to show with the crib that he made.

Prayers and Inspirations

From The Prophet by Kahill Gibran, the section Giving

Speak to us of giving.
You give little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

_______________________________________

There are those who give little of the much which they have – and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire to make their gifts wholesome.

And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life,
and their coffer is never empty.

There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.

And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.

Through the hands of such as these God speaks,
And from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.

Based on a prayer from God’s Springtime by Joyce Huggett

O Lord,
As you have filled us with your fragrance, help us to spread it wherever we go.
Flood our hearts with your spirit and your love.
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly so that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine in us and through us, so that we may all feel your presence in our soul.
Let us look up and see Jesus.  Let us feel his cross in ours.
As we have been crucified with him, let us share in his resurrection.
May we all shine for each other, may your love in each one of us be a beacon in the world,
A beacon to all those who are wearied and ground down by life.
And let us praise you in the way you love best, by shining on those around us.

_________________________________________

Breathe on me, Breath of God;
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

_____________________________________

Footnotes

  1. Golden Calf Exodus Chapter 32
  2. The hidden treasure Matthew chapter 13

1st Sunday after Trinity

Readings:  Genesis 18, 1-5 or Exodus 19, 2-9a, Romans 5, 1-8, Matthew 9.35 – 10.8

The heart of the readings today is about faith. All of us live by faith in some way or another.  Every time we go to our car we do so in the faith that it will start.  When it does and we begin our journey we do so in the faith that the other road-users will do so in a way that won’t affect our safety.  Even in a scientifically led situation such as medicine, faith in our doctor still plays a large part of the process.

So faith is something that in many ways we all live by, the difficulty comes when we are to put our faith in ideas of which we have no control.  Science has had a dramatic effect upon religious faith in society.  We live in a world where we need scientific evidence, and if we cannot find that, or it is not available, then we find it difficult to have faith.  Yet in reality it is no different from ordinary situations in which we often have absolutely no knowledge at all.  We expect our car to start, but if it doesn’t our faith is still sustained by a man who can!

This need for knowledge, or knowing a person who does, has had a dramatic effect on our own religion and yet can be an obstacle too. “It is beyond my understanding “is often used as a rebuttal to any belief in anything beyond our self, or beyond our world. The reading choice from the Old Testament readings shows a different approach.  The one speaks of Abraham and his faith so that nothing was too much trouble when three unknown people appeared before him, even the possibility of parenthood for him and his aged wife.  The second is about the faith of Moses who not only trusted God, but also inspired the people he led to trust God as well.

Martin Luther defined faith as “a living, bold trust in God’s grace, certain of God’s favour.”Certainly Abraham and Moses personify that definition as do many others throughout the Bible. Yet in our world there is an enormous chasm between understanding such faith in others and seeing it in ourselves.  Perhaps the example of the disciples in today’s Gospel might be a starting point for all us.

As Jesus called the twelve to him he also sent them out to proclaim what they felt in their hearts.  He gave them no more than their faith and a few basic instructions.  Indeed his main instruction seemed to be to whom they should go, and what not to take with them.  God and their faith would be their inspiration and their protection. A seemingly awesome task for ordinary people, but they would not be alone.

Yet these were ordinary people from such a range of backgrounds that it would seem an impossible task.  Indeed within that group would be people who hated each other.  If Simon, the zealot, had met Matthew, the tax collector, in any other situation he would probably been more likely to kill him rather than work with him.  God’s healing powers and their faith were already at work in them and so  they had all that they needed. They were to be heralds of Christ, the original Greek word would have been from the noun, “kerux” which is just that, herald. What they did would stem from that, whether in the form of action or words, simply by all that they did to point to some hope in the life of the people they met.  If you look at the list of tasks near the end of that reading it would certainly be far beyond them, but proclaiming God’s love in whatever situation they met would be the key to all of these tasks and beginning in the hearts of those oppressed in whatever way.

Yet they were at heart ordinary people facing everyday situations, and that has never changed.  If we look at what is happening in our world it is still there. .  Sometimes it is found in the way people just remain cheerful in incredibly difficult and uncertain situations. “How do they do it?”, is a phrase so often heard.  Or it may be in the way they give their time to others, “Where do they find the time?” may be another.  Simply being with such folk makes things easier, giving a glimpse of hope when so many get lost in hopelessness.  Often without realising it these people are indeed the herald of God’s love.  Without realising it they are bringing hope into the lives beyond themselves, and with strength from outside themselves.

Sometimes, of course, the situations of life present us draw us into a more dramatic situations.  The unlawful killing of George Floyd in America drew attention, once again, to the evils still lurking in that society.  Ordinary people in their protest are raging at one such evil and in so doing raging about how our world needs to encompass God’s love.  The spread of such protests to our own country certainly indicate our empathy with their cause, but perhaps indicate the ongoing failings here also.

As Christians we have a special part to play, a special responsibility as Paul pointed out in his Letter to the Romans, our hearts “have been flooded with God’s love” for this purpose.  As Augustine also powerfully pointed out, “Faith cannot help doing good works constantly.  It doesn’t stop to ask what  we should be do, it is already being done unceasingly”.  The continuing failures of our world are a reminder to the Christian church that those problems exist because we and it have failed to be the herald of what God’s love really is.  So often we have colluded with the world’s view and in so doing diminished God’s love within it.  For evil to succeed it is only necessary for the good person to do nothing.

“A faith which sets bounds in itself, that will believe so much and no more, that will trust so far and no further, is no faith”.2  In reaching out for faith we do so in the hope that we do not just receive it, but live by it and that it will indeed flood our hearts.  We must pray fervently for  courage to encompass it, for that is the only way we will find that peace for which our hearts are restless, and for which the world is in urgent need.

References

  1. Martin Luther, An introduction to St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians
  2. W. and A.C. Hare, Guesses at truth

Prayer from the Anglican Church of New Zealand

Holy and eternal God,
give us such trust in your sure purpose,that we measure our lives
not by what we have done or failed to do,
but by our faith in you.

Adapted from a prayer by Monica Furlong

Dear God, it’s so hard for us not to be anxious.
We worry about work and money,
about food and health,
about weather and crops,
about war and politics,
about loving and being loved,
about the problems surrounding us, near and far.
As you show us how perfect love can cast out fear,
Give us faith to work towards your kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.

The Wire-Fence
from Prayers of Life by Michel Quoist

The wires are holding hands around the holes:
To avoid breaking the ring, they hold tight to the neighbouring wrist,
And it is thus with holes they make a fence.
Lord, there are lots of holes in my life.
There are some in my neighbours.
But with your help we shall hold hands,
We shall hold very tight
And together we shall make a fine roll of fence to adorn Paradise.


Trinity Sunday

Readings:  Isaiah 40 12-17,  2 Corinthians 13, 11-13, Matthew 28,16-20

So what is all this fuss about the Trinity?  Is it a theory, perhaps an irrelevant theory?  Is it part of a doctrine of bricks and mortar, not just the sort that tie us to a place but to a way of thinking? A Welsh poet, Idris Davies (often quoted by Max Boyce!) certainly thought this about religion…”They sent us to the chapel, to make us meek and mild”!

Yet people want to see God, see what he is really like. Yet the more you see the more confusing  it can become.  We are faced with a myriad of images of God, from the creator to the judge of all things in an environment which we just can’t get a grip on it all.  The concept of the Trinity was an attempt to get a hold on this nature of God.  It began with one attempt in the Council of Nicea in 325AD, but took many, many more such councils to fine tune what the original council had tried to clarify, or was it to change what they had said?

People want to see God, or at the very least get some idea of the meaning of life.  One of the great privileges of being a parish priest, in my day, was to be involved with the whole community and to see the various attempts by many, religious and non-religious, to get some sort of answer to this question. One I remember particularly.

One of my congregation at Chelmsley Wood asked me to visit her brother, living in the same area, who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  “He won’t be pleased to see you”, she said encouragingly!  Bob didn’t believe in religon, or the church but he had no one else to talk to.  It was with some trepidation that I walked up the stairs to his flat on the 15th floor (the lift was broken again!, something the residents lived with on a regular basis).  When I got there I found a charming man, perhaps not a man interested in formal religion, but certainly a man who thought deeply about life and its meaning.  After about an hour of conversation he invited me to see his trees!  Expecting to go out onto the tiny balcony to look out across the countryside I followed him out.  But there I really did see his trees, about 200 of them, bonsai trees!  There they were on his tiny balcony, a few in pots, but many in discarded vegetable tins.  Not the exotic Japanese varieties, but saplings he had picked up in the wild over the years and which he had subsequently trained and nurtured.  All of them came from an area within a mile of his flat.

They all fascinated me, but one in particular which was over 40 years old.  It was a miniature oak tree.  It was growing in a small baked bean tin and was about 8 inches high, yet  a perfectly formed oak tree, but in miniature (made me feel much better about myself, living in this world of tall Anglo-Saxons!) He then carefully took the tree out of the tin and proceeded to trim it, to show me the secrets of bonsai.  He trimmed the top to what he wanted, and then lovingly untangled the roots and trimmed them to match the top before handing the tree to me to look at.  “That’s what I see your God as”, he said, quietly and quite out of the blue.  He couldn’t cope with all the words or the rhetoric of formal religion, but he had certainly thought about it more than most, perhaps even more than those of us who never missed a Sunday at church!  He went on to explain the balance between the roots and the branches, and the 7cm girth trunk which held it altogether. For Bob it was simply the oneness of creation.   It was indeed a fascinating afternoon.  In that brief meeting I felt that I had been given a greater understanding of God, even more than years of attending church, hours of theological lectures and even charges, rebukes and affirmations of Bishops!  We planned to meet again, but never did.  He died a week later, but not before leaving instructions for me to officiate at his funeral. This turned out to be a small but wonderful affair consisting of the people who understood his quest for knowledge of life, in which I saw a quest for knowledge of God, his quest for a  knowledge of what it is all about.

So after wrestling with all the theology of the Trinity, I decided to tell you about my mentor Bob and his home grown bonsai trees.  The little oak tree I had been privileged to hold, told me everything I needed to know about God.  God is community.  Maybe a community of three, maybe more, but a community in perfect harmony.  The roots, the stem and the branches were all separate but were in perfect unity, together the tree that they made up was perfect life.

So in the readings of today we see God as the unwearied creator, God as the inspirer, God as the critic, God as the evangelist, God as the comforter, God as the healer, God as the teacher…… all of which come together in perfect community and perfect unity.  The Garden of Eden portrays a situation where we, as part of that community, can live fully, yet it takes little to set us off-course.  The spirit of unity is soon broken, and you cannot have a community which is one sided, where one gives and other receives.  You cannot have a community where there are unequal partners. You cannot have a community where individualism rears its head, no matter how well intentioned. I was left with the feeling that Bob had more of a grasp of the Trinity than all of those involved at Nicea and all the other Councils, and certainly the humility to just rest in the mystery in front of him.

We have a God whose very presence reminds us of what it can be, yet so often we try to do it our way, to blur the edges or even to build walls around them or perhaps even knock them down.  We have indeed seen what God looks like in Jesus Christ, and if we follow his example we will be getting nearer and nearer to what God is.  If we lose directions sometimes there is always the Holy Spirit to nudge or kick us back on track. The demands of Jesus Christ can sometimes leave us seemingly far short, yet in that community of God we can also encompass  an incredible peace, a God given peace.

As for me I will always have this picture of that little oak tree and of that miniature forest on a tiny balcony of a council flat in Chelmsley Wood to remind me.  Thank you Bob, or Joan his sister who sent me there, or even the Holy Spirit! What we shared has been my inspiration.  And now I tell you the story, so it may be  inspiration to you.

Oh, I just had a further little thought.  As you think of the tree, which you part of it would you consider to represent  the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? What parts of the Trinity relate to the parts of the tree?  Perhaps it will remind us that life is not a matter of questions and answers.  True life is a matter of questions, followed by further questions!

From SPCK Book of Christian Prayer
by Caryl Micklem

God the father, God beyond us, we adore you.

You are the depth of all that is.
You are the ground of our being.
We can never grasp you, but you can grasp us:
the universe speaks of you to us, and your love comes to us through Jesus.

God the Son, God beside us, we adore you.
You are the perfection of our humanity.
You have shown us what human life can be like.
In you we see divine love and human greatness combined.

God the Spirit, God around us, we adore you.
You draw us to Jesus and the Father.
You are the power within us.
You give abundant life and make us the people we can be.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
God beyond, beside and around us;
We adore you.

The Sequel

After Bob’s death his collection of Bonsai trees was bought by a more recognised collector for £20,000!  Who would have thought that such treasure existed on a balcony in a Chelmsley Wood Council Flat?

Bob knew!

For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also  – Luke 12, 34

Christian Aid week

Christian Aid Week:  10 – 16 May 2020

As the coronavirus spreads across the world, love rises up in response.

Our benefice can’t make the usual door to door Christian Aid Week collection this year. This collection is vital for their work protecting our neighbours around the world.