Please see St Giles Graffham Facebook for daily reflections during the week.
Feast of Christ the King 22 November 2020
Psalm 95.1-7; Matthew 25.31-end
New episodes of The Crown have been released on Netflix, some will have been excited to know. To prepare myself for this I went back to the beginning of the series. I’m retracing the relationship between the Royal family and the Duke of Windsor now, with lasting resentment by the family at his abdication, leaving his less magnetically attractive or physically fit brother to take up the crown. And after George VI’s untimely death, his daughter, Queen Elizabeth did the same.
Her majesty is not characterised as a sparkling personality either. The Crown series highlights it’s unnecessary to be fabulous though, just loyal. This is driven home at her consecration, the entrusting of the monarch by God to service of this country for good – insofar as they can, with God’s help, fulfil it above all other considerations. The Duke of Windsor was not forgiven by his family or the government of the day, for placing something above that sacred trust. Love, it says in the TV series. But it was love that took what it wanted, not love that gave it away. In contrast the Queen, like her father before her, has inhabited a context of inescapable expectation of service which she has unfailingly fulfilled. This struck us all forcefully recently when at 94, possibly the most famous figure in the world stood alone respectfully at the grave of an unknown warrior, still fulfilling her duty, as no doubt he did.
Although we may avidly watch TV series about the Queen, I wonder if doing so helps us know her any more than we can know the unknown warrior? When we meet the Queen, our best behaviour public face meets her public face, as it should of course, the first Queen Elizabeth knew that very well. We don’t know what may be really going on for her though. I expect sometimes the Queen’s normal self has made her wonder how she can keep on representing something beyond herself. I expect sometimes she thinks she fails.
What is the mark of success though? Two characteristics, loyalty in service and something else. Loyalty defines royalty. To be a true king or queen is to be a true servant of those they lead. To do this with integrity, such a servant must take their lead from the one who is servant of all, thus monarch of all. With this we come onto common ground. God calls us to take our lead from him too, in whatever station we find ourselves in, in life. To come before the one who doesn’t fail to serve, who uses his service to enable ours, despite our inevitable failures. God allows us to see not God’s public image, but his reality, in all its vulnerability, and our potential strength in our service in His name. He invites us into an audience which is not a once in a lifetime opportunity. It is, rather, one to which we can be admitted any moment of any day. And to serve loyally, as much as we can; thus royally, in God’s eyes. And when we cannot, when we set conditions on our service, ‘I will do this if…you give me this’, not, ‘I will do this despite…having to do without this’, to fall back on his grace and start again, with the second characteristic, humility.
No one in any station of life is outside the compass of this service. Even the Duke of Windsor, so badly thought of for his failure to put his country and by extension, it would have been thought, to put God first – and had to live with the consequences of this decision – would remain within the scope of God’s mercy and redemption, if sought. We can take comfort from that on the days when the crown of service God willingly places on our heads, seems to fall down about our goat-like ears. Amen
Second Sunday before Advent 15 November 2020
1 Thessalonians 5; Matthew 25 14-30
‘Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting’, said the white rabbit, looking at its pocket watch, which is how it measured time. Once, only the light and the darkness marked time; then King Alfred started to measure it with a lit candle with regular markings; and since then, to keep us ‘on time’, we’ve had bells, and clockwork clocks, and electronic clocks and atomic clocks, leading to a quantum logic clock which can measure time accurate to one second in about 3.7 billion years. What would King Alfred have thought of that, when he blew out his candle at night?
Does this mean we’ve got time pretty much covered now? A steady, repetitive, accurate heartbeat of Time, which reflects our lived experience? Or sometimes, does time seem to fly, when we are enjoying ourselves, they say; or a man setting out on a journey, entrusting us with managing his funds is returning all too soon & we know we’ve let him down? Or does time drag, for a schoolchild waiting for the bell at the end of the day, or a parishioner sitting through a dull, interminable sermon…?
We may say measuring time, however regular it may or may not seem, establishes the present and divides the past from the future. But even this can be elusive. Some say the present doesn’t exist at all, no sooner here, but gone. The eagerly anticipated future no sooner arrives than it flashes into the past in an instant, ‘Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be, ere one can say, it lightens’. Others say, there is no past, no future, the present is all we have – we live in a constant series of present moments, so let’s live for the moment – an opportunity which runs out, Matthew tells us, when the day of the Lord comes ‘like a thief in the night’.
God calls us to embrace the present moment, not as one which denies the past and future, but one in which the past and the future can be caught up. This is the Christian way; to remember, re-member, put back together what has been, in the light of what will be. In this season of remembrance, when we ‘Do this, in remembrance of Him’, we hold Christ’s past sacrifice and future glory in a precious present, infused with the presence of God. We share a moment together that reminds us that God defines us, as a society for whom some things are worth remembering. We need not fear the day of the Lord, if our temporality can be broken into by this eternity.
I used to wonder, why does God give more talents to some than to others? I realise he doesn’t, he offers everything to anyone from his limitless store. It’s down to our limited capacity to take what is freely offered that we receive so little of his bounty. Taking little and doing nothing is down to us, not him. God warns us – don’t lose this opportunity to live in the generosity of eternity, receive this bounty, multiply it for your own sake and the world’s sake; or time, as the world measures it, will run out for you.
‘Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting’, said the white rabbit. Don’t forget, while there is yet time. Amen.
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Exodus 14.19-end; Matthew 18.21-35
Do not be afraid
Today’s story is of people pursued by an enemy that is implacable faced by a barrier that is impassable, or so it seems. If you have something terrible threatening to catch you up and no apparent means of escape, how does it make you feel? Stressed anxious terrified despairing? Lots of people thinking like that, is a recipe for disaster. Trying to think clearly in such a situation when you are responsible for the people can become nigh on impossible. Moses however is following God’s lead; they have a direct line to each other. The Lord said to Moses, Camp here, by the sea. The Egyptians will think you are lost and come to get you. They won’t, because I’m going to use this opportunity to show them, I am the Lord. The Israelites are scared enough though. Bad as it was, it was better how we were, they say. Don’t be afraid, says Moses, the Lord will fight for you, carry you through. Moses lifts up his staff like an Old Testament Gandalf, stretches out his hand to divide the sea into which they go on dry ground, with an angel and the luminous cloud of God’s divinity at their back. They are followed by the reckless Egyptians, who become promptly bogged down and are overwhelmed. The barrier which had threatened to prevent the Israelites escaping has become the very means by which the enemy is overwhelmed.
That’s interesting isn’t it? We’re sometimes no longer sure these days what the enemy is that we are facing. Is it Government restrictions actively weighing us down or the virus which may not have impacted on us that much personally. We need constantly reminding that it is despair, caused by the virus, not the restrictions that is the enemy. One of our sons assists with scouts. They have returned to meetings with certain limited activities following stringent risk assessment. How are you feeling about this, I asked him? Well he said, the virus was really brought home to us when our scout leader died. The people of this world have an enemy pursuing us in the shape of despair caused by a virus which spreads and, in some circumstances, kills. As a result, restrictions are placed on people’s freedom, barriers set up, screens erected, face coverings required, numbers limited, isolation demanded. Then businesses suffer, life events cannot take place freely, the economy deteriorates, as can our well-being and our confidence. We are stuck in the midst of this. Should we be stressed, anxious, terrified, despairing? I emphasize it is really important that we are not. It’s important to allow the barrier to become a means by which the enemy is defeated. Our son’s scouts are not dismissing the need for restrictions, quite the opposite now.
Last week we were given new instructions on how to behave socially from next Monday, in the rule of six. I am determined to abide by whatever rulings we are given, not because they are always right but because it is vitally important to co-operate. The Israelites all had to trust Moses to lead them into the sea or they would not have all been saved. My level of tolerance concerning these matters has gone up dramatically. I will not spend time being dismayed by restrictions that is better spent working through them – in a way that I’m determined enables positive outcomes to ultimately carry us through. Moses, says, do not be afraid, the Lord will fight for you The Lord saved the Israelites; into a wilderness experience admittedly. It would not be plain sailing for quite a while before they reached the promised land. They got there though.
So, let us not be stressed, anxious, terrified, despairing. Instead let us be resolute, tolerant, flexible, co-operative. With those who lead us, and with God who leads us safely wherever we must go. When we cooperate with God, keeping open that direct line to him we show the enemy who is really the boss round here. Amen
Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity & St Giles Sunday
Exodus 12.1-14; Matthew 18.15-20
Living a legendary life
I hope Moses and Aaron will forgive us, as they undertake their leadership responsibility to prepare the Hebrews for leaving Egypt. With a memorable liberation ritual characterizing the Jewish people’s identity through the ages to the present time, becoming part of the inspiration for our own faith practice here today. As we focus on another ritual practice, the annual commemoration of patron saint St Giles.
Giles lived a legendary life, patron saint of cripples on account of a legend which says while protecting a tame deer he was wounded by the Visigoth or Frankish king Wamba when out hunting. The many disabled people in medieval times turned to the saint for encouragement and support, making him a commonly chosen saint for the patronage of churches in those days. There are other miraculous legends surrounding St Giles. It’s hard to know how much is true. Legends are useful things though for reminding people, something unusual sticks in the mind, like a Passover meal shared in strange circumstances.
Without doubt there was once a good man named Giles who was respected by the significant people of his time. For myself, the most memorable aspect of Giles’ life is not whether he had a tame deer or a limp or performed miracles. It was that for many years he lived alone as a hermit in a forest away from the distractions of society, to focus his life on his faith in Christ. And having done so, founded the Abbey of Saint Gilles du Gard in the south of France, where people could ‘live alone together’ to learn to do the same. Our church is an extension of that ministry, inspired by the charism of St Giles. As the congregation of St Gilles du Graffham we can be concerned for what concerned him, follow his inspiration. It’s amazing how much we already do.
In addition to folk with disabilities, St Giles is the patron saint of beggars, of blacksmiths, breast cancer, breast feeding, cancer patients, Edinburgh, epilepsy, noctiphobics (fear of the dark), forests, hermits, horses, lepers, mental illness, outcasts, poor people, rams, spur makers, sterility. We give thanks for the South Downs around us containing many of the natural features in his patronage list, forests, sheep, horses… Our setting is perfect for a St Giles Church. Perhaps St Giles really did inspire a church planting here. We continue to work as best we can for charities to whom beggars, outcasts and poor folk turn. Foodbanks, Stonepillow… St Giles is inspiring us in this too. We pray for people with health issues for whom St Giles has a particular concern. The original inspiration for our pink Sunday healing service was for people with cancer issues. I’m sure the Mackie family in our parish would be delighted for us to pray for the people of Edinburgh, from whence they spring. Perhaps St Giles sent them to us too.
Taking time out is vital to nourish our faith, to be still and know God’s presence with us, as St Giles knew well. We can commit too to setting ourselves apart for a few minutes, an hour, a day, in the downland, forest or common land or at home, to pray individually, deeply and quietly for any of these issues or whatever God calls of us, and focus on our faith and vocation here. St Giles withdrew to a quiet place and somehow became a legendary saint. With God’s help who knows where our path will lead us. We may find ourselves living legendary lives of our own, for people to remember for the right reasons long after our time. Amen
Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Exodus 3.1-15; Matthew 16.21-end
Becoming a burning bush
We’re given to understand huge percentages of people are dissatisfied with themselves, with poor self-esteem because of weight problems or other reasons. We make futile attempts to become more acceptable to ourselves then give up in despair. We would like to be self-aware but not self-obsessed. Listening to scripture we hear that to find ourselves we must lose ourselves, deny ourselves, sacrifice our selfish selves, that a fundamental transition needs to take place within us. How to go about this successfully?
Do you remember the wardrobe in C S Lewis through which the children entered Narnia? Or mundane objects like an old shoe in Harry Potter that are portkeys, which you touch and are transported to a completely different place? There are wardrobes and portkeys in scripture too. Over and over, scripture says here is a transition place here is a transition person here is a transition opportunity. Here are holy places holy people holy moments that you can access to provide portals into a deeper wholesomeness of being for the sake of others – everyone has the potential though only some find.
Moses found himself in a holy place. When I say he found himself I don’t mean he happened upon it, though he did, I mean he found himself there. Encountering God, who is Truth, Moses discovered a calling, a deep-seated awareness already in him – though he couldn’t articulate it then – that something was unfair which a person like himself needed to respond to, however inadequate he might feel, and he couldn’t escape the fact that it could be him, and he was facing this potential there. The burning bush was a mechanism by which Moses faced the truth about himself, an essential first step towards accessing a deeper wholesomeness of being for the sake of others and the power for good he held within him.
Moses was and is a significant figure in Hebrew scripture. Human capacity for humanity is proven in Christian understanding now in the living example of the truly human being that is Christ who is utterly himself, I AM, in all that he is and did. We find the wholesomeness we seek through Christ the ultimate portkey in other Christians, as others find it in Christ through us when we express that same wholesomeness through him. So we are human portkeys too. That’s why it’s good to be in the churchyard now, worshipping God in a public place. Cyclists and drivers and walkers going by clock that a church service is going on when they pass. Oh, people set themselves apart to worship God in this place, that’s striking, I wonder why that’s an important thing to do.
Together, we are a kind of burning bush ourselves, called to be creative in providing places and people and opportunities to encourage people into this encounter. It’s incredibly challenging and vitally important to do so now, to help others discover their holy ground, their portal to life with God, as it was with Moses, as it is for ourselves. Amen
Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Exodus 1.8-2.10; Matthew 16.13-20
Follow my leader
Last week we considered 4 communities under stress, the people of Egypt suffering from famine in Joseph’s time, the Gentiles represented by the Canaanite woman convincing Jesus her daughter was no less worthy of help than others, the WWII world of VJ day, and today’s world under threat from Covid-19, including us today. To help communities through demanding times good leadership is required to hold us together with a common purpose and policy. Joseph and Jesus provided this for their communities in last Sunday’s two readings. Churchill may come to mind as well suited to the particular circumstance of leadership in wartime in WWII. Who provides strong leadership in our time? The jury may be out on that one; there’s no doubt any potential contenders are being judged on their performance as we speak. Two more leaders come into sight this week. Moses and Peter. What fitted them for their roles?
Critically, they each received a distinct vocation. We’ve had some scene-setting in our Exodus reading today, exposing the plight of the Hebrew people and the extraordinary rescue of one special Hebrew baby. Next Sunday we will hear of his call from God to lead his people to freedom in a promised land. Today we hear Peter’s call, that Jesus will build his church upon Peter, Jesus’ rock. Not a terribly secure rock at times, Peter, as the gospel story reveals. It is quite hard to bear the responsibility of leadership in such a way that no mistakes are made or weaknesses exposed. Moses didn’t always get it right either. Neither were perfect human beings by any means. Maybe that’s important for all leaders to learn. Nevertheless, whatever their limitations God was confident in these two.
Actually, we don’t seem to mind leaders not being perfect, we do mind when we can’t see their unselfish commitment to service. A sweet film I re-watched on Netflix recently is the King’s Speech, recounting George VI’s difficulty with public speaking because of a persistent stammer, and the help he received overcoming it. George VI or Bertie’s impediment prevented him from thinking he would make a good leader, when in fact his earnest desire to overcome this rather confirmed his leadership capacity. Another important factor in discerning good leadership is where they turn for support when the stress of leadership become too hard, the extent to which they recognize its not possible to lead in their own strength alone. Moses and Peter both knew to lean on the true rock that is God and allow his strength to carry them through. As did Bertie, as his Christmas speech of 1939 shows:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year. ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’ So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And he led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
I put Churchill forward as a contender for strongest leader in WWII. It was the king though, like Moses, like Peter, not perfect, though committed to service, and sensitive to the one he needed to turn to, to help him carry the people through. It’s striking that the 13 year old Princess Elizabeth was the one who recommended this reading to her father. The leadership Bertie followed we follow too, each one of us called by God into a kind of leadership ourselves in the service of others, despite our weaknesses, depending on God’s strength and support, and never needed more than now. Amen
Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Genesis 45.1-15; Matthew 15.21-28
Make a difference
We discover four examples of communities under stress this morning. The first is because of famine, the people of Egypt in Joseph’s time, as Sally read out in our Genesis reading. The second is because of prejudice. A Canaanite woman comes to Jesus for help. He doesn’t respond until she challenges the Jewish preconception that God their sole preserve and Gentiles are lesser people beyond his consideration. The third example is because of warfare, a cause of tremendous suffering, which we commemorated yesterday in the 75 anniversary of VJ day. The final example is because of pestilence, the Covid-19 virus pandemic affecting us today.
Joseph was treated badly by his brothers because of envy. He may have been upset about this, except things turned out rather better than they might for him in his new land where he fell in with God’s plan. It allowed him to make a difference to his new people, providing food for them in time of famine and did not exclude his brothers nor harbour resentment against them when they came to him. Something more important was at stake, people’s survival, which allowed any potential animosity to be set aside – this is how we learn to forgive.
Jesus response to the Canaanite woman was a turning-point in our definition of humanity. Something more important than God’s relationship to this chosen people was at stake. Jesus made a difference. The universality of God’s salvation is at the very heart of Christianity – so it should characterize our own attitude to people around us, valuing everyone equally.
Some people of Graffham gathered here yesterday before God to mark the 75 anniversary of VJ day and the end of conflict of WWII. We held emotions within us of pride and respect, which those who served in significant conflict with courage and endurance encapsulate for us. So long as we remember, those who suffered and died make a difference in reminding us of the dangers of human potential for unkindness or worse, which we resolve to resist to offer hope for the world. When we gather to remember, something important is at stake about not repeating our past failures.
In each of these situations something important is at stake, people’s physical survival, their entitlement to worth and equality, their safety from violence, and now our safety from what is essentially a threat of nature that endangers physical health and life.
What difference is called out from us to protect us from this danger? All sorts of ever changing guidance for which co-operation is asked of us, the hope of a vaccine to allow us to go back to the way it was before, or a sea-change in our attitudes and lifestyles that better respect our relationship with God’s creation and each other, what freedom means and where we may confuse this with inappropriate entitlement to behave as we wish without consideration of the consequences.
Famine not a historical situation; Prejudice is not a historical situation; Warfare is not a historical situation; Pestilence, we are starkly reminded today, is not a historical situation. In each case, something important is still at stake which we do well to remember. We pray to God that we can make the difference he calls of us. Amen
Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Genesis 37.1-4; 12-28 Matthew 14.22-33
On the face of it, we have an impossible scenario. People can’t walk on water, we’re far too heavy. We know this. So what are we supposed to make of Matthew’s story? These days, the virus is never far from our thoughts. It’s like a heaving sea, ebbing and flowing and swirling around us. We can’t ignore it. If we’re not careful it has power to overwhelm us. We’re all suffering from the shock of it. So today’s story can provide a ready context for present experience.
What about the boat though? It’s where the disciples are holding it together. A church is sometimes described in these terms; the word nave in a church comes from the Latin navis for ship. Jesus has commanded the disciples into this boat which then faces a precarious situation, battered by the waves. So our story’s metaphor continues to play out quite plausibly. Unexpectedly, we are being battered here, the virus has affected the church more deeply than anything we can remember, closing our doors, determining how and where we sit and move, speak or sing, sustain ourselves, engage with each other even. Familiar practices threatened, we’re tossed about in an unpredictable place, caring for a world in an unpredictable place. It’s only insofar as we work to hold together, that the church survives.
What about what Jesus and Peter are doing? Peter wants to be where Jesus is, to demonstrate an equivalent level of courage and power. So Jesus lets Peter try it. Come, he says. And Peter does come, leaves the boat, the other disciples to keep afloat without him. This seems quite hopeful up to the moment when Peter’s fundamental human weakness overtakes him. Then Jesus’ rescue sets Peter back in the right place to confront the waves. It turns out that’s back in the boat, alongside his fellow disciples, handling the crisis together, not striking out in a display of unsustainable superhuman strength on his own.
It’s within the boat with Jesus that the wind ceases, the danger passes. Here then, is the best place for us to be, taking heart from Christ’s saving presence, inspiring and supporting each other with the qualities needed to confront this challenge or any other. More than ever, even if we have to sail the boat a little bit differently to take account of the turbulent weather, I repeat, it’s only insofar as we hold together that the church survives. Thank you for doing so. Amen
Eighth Sunday after Trinity & Lammas Sunday
Genesis 32.22-31; Matthew 14.13-21
I suppose that’s one way to receive God’s blessing, to fight him for it. Jacob once stole a blessing from his brother so he was used to aggressive tactics. For God to bless Jacob despite his underhandedness was a grace deserving of great thankfulness. I wonder if Jacob felt it and said so. This reminds me of the thing you say to children when they have been given something. What do you say? And they dutifully say, thank you. Saying thank you is not the same as being thankful though. Being thankful is a much bigger deal & harder to bring about. Perhaps that was the battle going on inside Jacob. Fighting against the blessing he wanted because he thought he would never deserve enough to receive and be in a place to thank God for it.
How to properly feel blessed and thankful? You have to stop fighting and submit to the strength of God’s grace. I remember singing grace at school. Thank you for the world so sweet Thank you for the food we eat Thank you for the birds that sing Thank you God for everything. Amen. Singing it regularly helped us become more thankful I believe, because everything we do in life, what we say or sing, where we go, what we see and hear, changes us each time we do it, say it, sing it, see it, hear it. Little by little, it attunes us to what we are doing, saying, singing, seeing, hearing. Short, repetitive, regular activity is a powerful thing. Our own children said a different grace at school. Grace before meals. Bless us O Lord as we sit together, bless the food we eat today, bless the hands that made the food, bless us O Lord Amen. Rather easier than wrestling with angels, their grace blessed them for the same reason. Because they said it often, and remember it still.
In our gospel reading, the only thing Jesus did to make that bread and those fish special was to give thanks to God before breaking it. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, Jesus gave thanks and broke the loaves. Really meaning it enabled him to feed five thousand people, the fruit of a lifetime of thankfulness to God.
It’s such a shame people don’t commonly say grace these days. It takes a certain amount of courage and confidence to do so, especially in a public place. Discovering that courage makes a big bold statement about our belief in the power of words to transform us, in a table setting worthy of our gratitude. If it’s not your normal practice to say grace at mealtimes, please give it some thought. For what we receive from him, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen
Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Genesis 29.15-28; Matthew 13.44-46
All human life is there
Do you remember the newspaper The News of the World strap-line ‘All human life is there’, very much like the story of Abraham’s descendants in Genesis. This edition would provide perfect headlines. Man finds wrong sister in bed after wedding night. Poor Leah, we might say; or else, serves Jacob right. He tricked his blind father Isaac & cheated his older twin brother Esau, with mother Rebekah’s help, to receive his Father’s blessing & birthright. It seems only fair Jacob should have the wool pulled over his own eyes by Laban, and be given a wife he didn’t intend or expect.
Was it poor Leah? Jacob isn’t paying much attention to her is he, that he doesn’t notice she isn’t Rachel whom he really loves, until he wakes up next day? Did she wear a mask; didn’t he even speak to her? Maybe it was such a great party he was in no fit state to recognize anyone. Was Laban being kind to his daughter, palming her off on Jacob? Maybe he was, in a way. If unloved by Jacob, perhaps he was at least preventing her being shamed by being passed over. Perhaps there were worse things in life than being unwanted, in those days. Though it surely can’t have been the marriage she had dreamed of.
Who is the more significant sister in this story? Leah dutifully provided many sons for Jacob, and his beloved Rachel eventually bore two. And the saga continues with Rachel and Jacob’s beloved son Jo-jo-jo-joseph playing a colourful part in the next stage of this family’s fortunes. So, Rachel perhaps. The story of Abraham and his family is a mix of surprising faithfulness and disappointing selfishness however, with God taking the characters to twist and turn the story in unexpected directions. Villains can become heroes and peripheral characters take centre-stage in developing the story. Read the genealogy of Jesus’ ancestors at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is descended from Judah, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. And Judah is Leah’s son. So Leah is really important.
All human life is in this archetypal salvation story, including us in our own time. However insignificant or undesirable we may think ourselves, God looks at us intently, prizes our lovely eyes and goes to any lengths to obtain and love and use us in his loving purposes, just as he looked on Leah. Today’s story teaches that despite our human failings in all their variety, we are the treasure in God’s field, and his fine pearl, the ground of his kingdom, known and loved and precious in his sight. Amen
Sixth Sunday after Trinity
The House of God and the Gate of Heaven
Listening to this story reminds me of a London church, St Paul’s Bow Common built in the 1950s with words over its entrance porch proclaiming, ‘This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven’. What makes it so? We go back to the story. With a stone for his pillow, Jacob has reached rock bottom. He’s faced by his own faithlessness and selfishness towards his father and brother. Jacob is engaging with harsh reality. His living is all wrong.
Why does this allow him to see angels, a connectedness between earth and heaven, the Lord beside him promising him great blessings, to be with Jacob faithfully and keep him wherever he goes until his promise to him is fulfilled? Because that’s reality too; not harsh, it’s transcendent, resplendent reality. As much as Jacob’s faithlessness is debilitating, God’s faithfulness is robust, secure. If you can’t do as you could, or be as you should, I can and I will. I will redeem you.
That can be a difficult word, Redeemer. It really means someone who continues to fulfil what they have undertaken in a contracted relationship, when the other party fails to do so. God holds to the bargain he has made with humanity; on this occasion through Jacob, on another occasion through us, when we come before him with our hearts laid bare, exposing the truth of ourselves. That’s why we confess ourselves to God each time we meet in worship on Sundays. It transforms the place we find ourselves in.
The London church of St Paul’s Bow Common in Tower Hamlets may have this text in huge letters around its porch, but it’s not opening for people to come in. Because in a borough with the fourth highest rate of COVID related deaths in London, it still cannot risk endangering its congregation or wider community. This proves describing your church as the house of God and gate of heaven is not a statement about a physical building, rather a spiritual, prayerful community serving its people as it can.
If we look hard enough we can see that same statement written on the sky outside / above us as we worship and serve God together in this community, a physical and spiritual company of heaven, when we are honest before God. Amen
Fifth Sunday after Trinity 12 July 2020
Genesis 8.1-5; Luke 8.22-25
For wild confusion, peace
When I was little I lived in Wales with my Welsh mother and grandparents. When I cried my Grandpa Jones would nurse me Welsh fashion in a shawl. Welsh shawls were very big. So imagine, baby like this. Shawl over the shoulder, end tucked under the baby. Then under the other arm, pulled tight, wrapped round over the baby and held by the first arm. Baby is nice and snug and you have one arm left free to pat the baby or do anything else you need. That’s what my grandpa did. And because he was Welsh he would sing me to sleep, and because my father was away serving in the merchant navy, he would sing ‘For those in peril on the sea’. That’s why it’s my favourite hymn.
It’s also a wonderful visual metaphor of our heavenly Father’s love for us his children, calming us when we are restless and keeping us safe and secure. I trusted my grandpa or I wouldn’t have fallen asleep in his arms, Noah trusted God or he wouldn’t have built the ark, a symbol of salvation, Jesus trusted his Father when he slept safely in the boat despite the storm.
To traverse troubled waters safely, we can’t do better than to trust ourselves to God for the security he provides in uncertain times; God who gives, as the hymn Eternal Father says, for wild confusion, peace. We may all be in peril on a turbulent sea, but with God’s peace in our hearts we can bring peace to our families, and friends, our neighbours and communities and ultimately our world. Amen
Fourth Sunday after Trinity 5 July 2020
Genesis 24.34-38; 42-49; 58-end
Trust in God through the ministry of others
We’re all either married or at least familiar with the concept. So how does marriage come about? Do people just make a rational decision to do this? Or is there a sense of something preordained happening? That you are meant for someone, because you love them, which is essentially a mystery? Is it a bit of both? If so which is the more important?
In lock-down, I watched Pride and Prejudice yet again. Miss Elizabeth Bennett rejects the cringingly embarrassing Mr Collins because she’s convinced they would not make each other happy. Charlotte Lucas then makes the exclusively rational decision to marry him, to provide her with security. The love story of Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy is at the heart of the story of course, with two people’s rational animosity against each other overtaken by love. Both unions seem to have had satisfactory outcomes. So we conclude that in each case, however they came about, they were meant for each other, with a greater hand at work bringing this about.
What of Isaac? Does Isaac have nothing to do with his own marriage decision? Is it all being managed by others? Or does the story really centre on Isaac offstage, as a complete act of trust by him? Essentially not in his dad or his dad’s servant or his prospective wife Rebekah or her family but in God; God using all these people to fulfil his loving purpose for the future of the whole world really, through Isaac’s trust. The Genesis stories we’ve heard recently have all been about trusting God in challenging circumstances. Sarah’s mistrust, God’s faithfulness to Hagar, Isaac’s trust in his father, Abraham’s faithfulness to God. And today, Isaac’s trust in God through a series of people also trusting themselves to God, who does not betray that trust. Isaac takes Rebekah and she becomes his wife and he loves her.
It’s another archetypal story of humanity with faithfulness and trust as the redemptive elements. It says, if our marriage is not founded on trust & faithfulness in God through each other, it’s no marriage at all. If our life is not founded on trust in God through each other, it’s no life at all. Now is the time to found our corporate life, our church family life on trust in God to work in us and through us for the well-being of the world. It’s never been a more important time.
Third Sunday after Trinity 28 June 2020
Trust in God’s faith in us
It’s hard to work out where God stands in relation to some situations in life, and what he asks of us.
The only way to fulfil God’s promise to my husband for his offspring to be innumerable like the stars in the sky is for my handmaid Hagar to bear him a child, because I’m definitely too old for this myself, said Sarah last week. Her prime example of mistrust in God is offset this week by Abraham’s example of unwavering faith, the extremity of his faithfulness reflected in the extremity of the situation he faced. How can my offspring be so many, when you want me to kill my beloved son? Though if you ask it of me, no matter how bad it seems, I will trust and obey. Sarah’s pragmatic alternative plan B is bad, & Abraham’s dogged adherence to God’s plan A is good; because in a situation which looks like God has got it wrong, one is a story of someone trying to take over from him, and the other of someone sticking to God against all the odds.
But how do we know what God’s plan is, when it doesn’t always look like a very good one? It’s dead easy to trust in God’s loving purpose when all is well. Trusting God when you are having a hard time is the real challenge. It’s important to realize God’s plan for the world is rooted in the individual, not the individual situation. If a person trusts in God through thick and thin, the outcome of that faithfulness will reveal God’s power to save, whatever the situation, most often in surprising and unexpected ways. Not trusting in God is a fundamentally hopeless situation whatever the scenario, because one person alone can’t see the biggest picture and human resources always become exhausted eventually.
It’s a relief to place our trust in God, in his faith in us, and see the fruits of that appearing in all kinds of ways around us; innumerable pricks of light, like Abraham’s stars in the sky, illuminating the darkness and restoring hope. I’m seeing these lights in Graffham all the time now, and not just when I look up at the beautiful stars at night. Amen
Second Sunday after Trinity 21 June 2020
Open for Prayer
Yesterday afternoon, the West Door of St Giles Church swung open to welcome people again into our church. In a restricted way for a restricted purpose, to be sure, the freedom this allows is not generous; open, nonetheless. Though to be honest, not many were beating a path to the door to take advantage of this opportunity. I was grateful we could do it, though not overly encouraged as I returned home. We still have a long way to go before it feels like church in any way we can recognize as a gathering of a Christian community. I asked myself if it was worth continuing to provide this private prayer facility. Better to wait maybe, until services could be offered again. Even then, changes that have taken place, and those which necessarily continue may impact on the viability of face to face worship, I have to admit, and had to look hard for encouragement here.
We’ve been given Hagar’s story this morning. She had been asked by Sarah to save the day. Sarah had not believed she could herself provide a child to fulfil God’s promise to Abraham of his fathering a great nation. So, taking it upon herself to manage it, Sarah gives her handmaid Hagar to Abraham to fulfil that purpose; which they duly do. Then against the odds, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, proving her own lack of trust in God. Hagar and Ishmael are cast off by Sarah as a threat & embarrassment. Abraham sends them away and they find themselves in the wilderness with little hope of survival. God is not careless of his promise however. They are rescued and Ishmael becomes the first of those stars in heaven beyond number which God promised would be the extent of Abraham’s progeny.
I’ve two abiding memories of yesterday’s church opening. The scent of sweet peas from Betty’s beautiful flower arrangement, and the sight through the West Door of a single votive candle still burning in what seemed a darkened church. The church today is in the midst of a wilderness experience. It is challenged in away that sometimes seems beyond us. God is in control though, not us, as Sarah learned. And not careless of his promise to us either. While our church is filled with fragrance and a single star burns in our heaven, we are still here. Amen
First Sunday after Trinity 14 June 2020
Prayer of Humble Access
All People Matter
I’d like to reflect with Guinness the dog on the crumbs she found under the table in Izzy’s cartoon on Facebook yesterday. Did you know, Guinness, that ‘dogs’ was slang for non-Jewish, Gentile people in Jesus’ time? That’s why the Gentile Syro-Phoenician woman in another gospel story, requesting healing for her daughter, said ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ For this courageous comment her daughter was healed, & we learn ‘Gentile People Matter’ or better, ‘All People Matter’, in Christ’s world.
In the Prayer of Humble Access though, prayed before receiving communion, in all humility we don’t even claim that much, as Izzy’s cartoon quotes, ‘We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.’ Maybe that’s because too often we behave as if ‘Only We Matter’. Thankfully, this is followed by ‘…though you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he is us.’
Can that include us today, though, who are prohibited from eating Christ’s body or drinking his blood?
Are we though? When we abstain for such a reason, to protect others from harm, because they matter so much, therein lies our spiritual integrity, and effective communion with Christ, despite our physical abstinence. These are true crumbs of comfort until we return, Amen
Trinity Sunday 7 June 2020
Trinity of Prayer
Trinity Sunday is a day clergy fear the most, so they say. When they attempt to explain how God can be three persons while still remaining one God.
Because I don’t have a logical, scientific kind of mind I’m perfectly happy with the mystery of it all; so my apologies to you if your faith hinges on such explanation. Jesus commissioned us to make disciples, not analyse him, and a disciple is just somebody seeking a relationship with God, which comes about fundamentally through prayer. So instead of an explanation of the Trinity I offer a prayer.
O Lord our God, help us to know you when we pray. Help us to know you as the one to whom we pray; help us to know you as the one with whom we pray; help us to know you as the one in whom we pray. Help us to know you, and to love you, and to live our lives for you, with you, in you, One God in three, Holy Trinity.
As we pray, we are here and God is there, beyond us, around us, above and below us, so we pray from us to God. As we pray, we are here and God is beside us, praying with us, intimately supporting us, so we pray in companionship with God. As we pray, we are aligning our prayer with God’s loving purposes, entering God’s very heart in prayer, so we pray within God. In all these dimensions we meet God, in mutual recognition, in ‘personal’ relationship. So no explanation by me is needed really, each person discovers God’s personal nature as revealed to them in prayer for themselves.
We may soon experience that personal relationship with God through prayer in our churches again. I look forward to it. Amen