see St Giles Graffham Facebook for reflections during the week.
Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity ‘Bring your bike to church’19 September 2021
James 3.13-4.3,7-8a; Mark 9.30-37
Things I have asked God to Bless.
People who come to church. Water for baptism. Rings for weddings. Brides and grooms. Palm Crosses. Food at Harvest time and mealtimes. Dogs and sheep and donkeys. A funeral director’s New Chapel. A ladies’ dress shop. A house with a troubled past. Most recently, the stumps of a cricket match between Graffham and West Wittering Ladies’ cricket teams. And now, bicycles…
Blessing as an act of love.
Some of these blessings are of people and some of things. What about people? How do we feel when someone asks God to bless us? To know someone cares about us enough to ask God to do this, shows how much they trust God loves us. A blessing is an act of love. Jesus is blessing children in the gospel story today. Jesus places a little child in the middle of the people then welcomes it into his arms. He is saying just how valuable children are, how much God surrounds children with his love. Jesus says welcoming a child is like welcoming God. Children, do you think that’s good to know…? It means you are very important, to be welcomed, looked after, and listened to. We are all God’s children really, valued and loved by him, as we discover when we open ourselves to his blessing.
Blessing as an act of love in a context.
We can understand this about blessing in terms of people and other living creatures. What about things though? What does it mean, to bless an object? The truth is, we never bless in a vacuum. I suppose I could actually be asked to bless a vacuum… but what I mean is, we always bless in a context. The blessing of an object is an act of love in a specific context. The blessing of a wedding ring, a lifeboat, a chapel, a cricket stump, is always ultimately about the people for whom the object is symbolic in that context, in that situation. With rings, that the people may be happy and make each other happy; with a lifeboat, that people may be safe and bring others to safety; with a funeral chapel, that people may be consoled and bring others consolation; with a cricket stump, that people may have fun and build community together. And if I was ever asked to bless a vacuum, it would be all about caring for home and family.
Blessing as an act of love in the context of cycling
What about blessing in the context of cycling? What are we really blessing in blessing bicycles here? This village provides hospitality to many cyclists each year, in surroundings to lift cyclists’ spirits. Bikes prompt thankfulness for the beauty of God’s creation, and the desire to care for and preserve it. Bikes enable a special kind of companionship with friends or family. Bikes provide a joy of physical exercise, of pushing the boundaries of physical ability. There’s sometimes a good reason why someone can’t ride a bike – though you only have to watch Paralympic cycling to realize people’s resourcefulness in overcoming barriers to enable the most people to be blessed by this experience.
When I asked someone what was special about riding a bike, they said the sounds that you hear and the wind in your hair. As our bikes are blessed, so we are blessed by them, and by God through them. I wish all cyclists here, wind in your hair as you ride, and God’s Spirit in your heart as you bless the communities through which you ride.
Sunday after Trinity 12 September 2021
James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-end
Batting for Jesus’ Side
Making my tongue speak of lovely things, two beautiful experiences stand out for me from this past week. One was the privilege of leading collective worship at the infant school for the first time in eighteen months, with the children sat on the grass under the trees. We explored the meaning of friendship, what it means to be a friend, who a friend can be. The children explained being a friend is about helping each other, being kind to each other, loving each other, having fun together.
A good example of having fun together & another beautiful experience for me was fielding for the Graffham ladies cricket team practice last Thursday evening. The Graffham ladies have a single fixture in the year, playing West Wittering ladies. They are playing this actual match, as we speak. I blessed the stumps before I came, and if I go back later, there may be cake. On Thursday, anyone who arrived at the rec was welcome to join in. It didn’t matter whether or not you could bowl, or field, or throw or catch or hit the ball or are even female, and the players spanned six decades, almost. The manager was unfailingly encouraging, no matter how modest your contribution to the game. A hot air balloon glided across the evening sky, as we continued until light stopped play.
Occasions like this at the school and the rec are beautiful, because they are open, honest, serious, wholesome, simple, sound, true, and a real privilege to be part of. They anchor us, demonstrate our value to and appreciation of each other, build community. This are all too rare, though, in our world. In the complexity and challenges of life, people are forgetting how to live in this straightforward manner or simply don’t have the opportunity. People drift and get entangled in stresses like insects on a world-wide-web. Communication is complicated, serious matters trivialized, people resort to computer games or the internet to hide away from an alien society they find hard to face. The multitudes of kinds of negative experience in society today lead people to feel lost, unworthwhile, with little chance of being welcomed and included anywhere. This is a cross many in our world bear today.
Life in Jesus’ time must have had the merit of simplicity at least, but Jesus still finds opportunity to take people to task for getting their priorities back to front. For putting themselves first, while denying the truth about their society. If we are to take Jesus’ message seriously, we must accept the truth about our own – including the fact that while Graffham is honestly beautiful and rightly celebrated for it, it is more the exception than the rule. This privileged and often graced village we inhabit is not meant to be somewhere for us to hide away in. We should see it rather as a secure base from which to extend compassion and friendship beyond the boundaries which enclose and protect us, but should not hem us in. A resource to help us play our part in building a kind society elsewhere, where people can become known and valued and everyone can experience the blessings of friendship, kindness and mutual love. We can’t individually do this for everyone, probably. Just as we can’t all be world class cricketers, but we can do our bit. We are being challenged by our text today, to take up our bat and play for Jesus’ side. However uneven the odds of the match may seem, Jesus welcomes everyone onto his team, and promises an emphatic win. Howzat! Amen
St Giles Sunday 14 after Trinity 5 September 2021
James 2.1-10,14-17; Mark 7.24-end
I looked up the definition of the theme of my reflection today. It says: ‘An expression used to express agreement or to convey that something is proceeding or has proceeded satisfactorily; no problem’. Why use two words when nineteen will do? It would make an Aussie laugh! Well, here are a few more words on the subject from me, because the fact is the reading from James’ epistle this morning has caused a lot of worries in the church in the past, especially this part
‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and any one of you says to them, Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’
The trouble being – for the reformers in the sixteenth century in particular – if this is the case, how much ‘works’ is enough? How much good do you have to do, how much penitence do you have to show for your sinfulness, to be sure of God’s approval and therefore your salvation, your ‘rightness’ with God? There was much agonising over this, until the concept of justification by faith, not works, captured Luther’s mind and heart. The Protestant Church was born, and James’ epistle duly rejected by them as an ‘epistle of straw’, not worth the reading. For the Protestant reformers, salvation is a free gift from God. It cannot be earned, you just have to believe. So far from faith by itself being dead, it was only separated from works that faith could be alive. A few people took this literally and behaved very badly in result, thinking it didn’t matter what they did, they were going to be saved anyway. Others came to see ‘works’ as the result of salvation, not its cause, always offered in thankfulness and as a natural response to people’s needs.
Do we worry about our salvation today? Whether we do or not, we worry about a lot. That’s my concern, for the world we are living in and us here today. Because if justification by faith means salvation for us, the state of happiness that brings should be experienced in the present as well as in a heavenly future, whatever is happening around us. The world is quite miserable though, we are brought down by virus disruption and political turmoils and climate fears. I find myself, when I read the news, more anxious at the end of it than when I began. The 2021 Children Society report says children’s happiness is in an alarming state of decline. This is not good. If I say, we need to stop worrying though, it seems simplistic, as if it also means denying the potentially overwhelming problems in the world.
However, the bible says over and over, do not worry, do not fear. It doesn’t mean don’t be concerned about issues which confront us personally, or society as a whole – quite the opposite. It does mean, don’t be overwhelmed by them though. Don’t let them squash your spirit, whatever they are. The meeting between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman we have just heard was a faith encounter between three people, including the child. Two were pressing the boundaries of the meaning of faith. One, the daughter, was doing nothing – yet she was receiving faith’s healing power through grace. We are like the daughter, the recipients of God’s healing love. So we can live like it. Take every opportunity to be thankful for a weight lifted from us, that enables us to live in freedom and fullness of life, in any context. Turn the power that springs from that grace given to us, both the reality of it and our awareness of that reality, into an abundance of good activity that flows naturally from God’s heart of love in us.
Don’t then become anxious about this even. Oh no, I’ve got to be consciously thankful all the time, I’ve got to find good things to do to show how thankful I am. Don’t plan. Relax. Be open to God. Trust opportunities will come to you as they have come to you and be thankful that they have, and they will, and when they do. No worries.
Being Christian is as simple and astonishing as that. Amen
Sunday after Trinity 4 July 2021
2 Samuel 5.1-5,9-10 and Mark 6.1-13
Familiarity breeding contempt?
The marital relationships of senior members of the cabinet have been distracting us from, or perhaps been giving new meaning to, the affairs of state. Most recently, the separation of Michael Gove from his wife Sarah Vine. In explanation for her marriage breakdown, Sarah says,
‘The problem with the wife who has known you since way before you were king of the world is that she sees through your ‘façade’. She knows that, deep down inside, you are not the Master of the Universe you purport to be.’
I wonder if those hearing Jesus teaching in his hometown thought along the same lines? Who is he to be saying and doing all this? We know you too well, Jesus. We know where you came from. You can’t fool us.
You are not the Master of the Universe you purport to be.’
A case of familiarity breeding contempt, maybe? There’s less chance of a positive ministry with people who think like that about you. Are Jesus’ hearers contemptuous of him, like that? Or do they just think ordinary people, like Jesus is and they are, shouldn’t reach beyond themselves? Are they influenced by imposter syndrome, when a person thinks, ‘Who am I to be doing this?’ Imposter syndrome prevents a person from realising their true potential, with a too limited perception of entitlement to fulfil anything other than others’ narrow expectations of them. Were they thinking this, on Jesus’ behalf?
I guess we all think it at times, when we are facing a challenge that feels a bit too big for us. The difference between us overcoming our fears or not, is the support we receive when we need it, the confidence others have in us when ours becomes shaky. The confidence God has in us. There are lessons to be learned from this. One, don’t be intimidated by other people’s too narrow a perception of your potential. Two, don’t have too limited a perception of others either, narrowing their scope with your discouragement – which literally means to undermine someone’s courage – expressed or implied.
Ask yourself, do I feel discouraged or encouraged by others’ attitude to me? Are people encouraged or discouraged by my attitude to them?
How to become an encourager, though? Entrust yourself to God, entrust yourself to others. Jesus would have us open our eyes to what we can do and given half a chance, what others can do with the support we can give. Look at what the extraordinary ordinary man, the carpenter Jesus, the son of Mary ultimately did. Brought freedom to the world, including those narrow-minded gainsayers in his old hometown. Entrusting himself to God, seeing through his disciples façades – yet still entrusting himself to them, Jesus empowers them with authority to become effective against evil, warning them against inessential baggage, physical and psychological, which weighs down a person. If you find discouragement anywhere, from others or within yourself, just shake it off your feet, Jesus tells them.
Finding encouragement like that, we may discover it’s not just Jesus and those disciples doing wonderfully amazing things, it’s us as well. Amen
Sunday of Lent 21 March 2021 Beginning of Passiontide
Jeremiah 31.31-34; John 12.20-33
Seeing the Stations of the Cross
Of all the lessons we have been learning this past year, what it means to see people must be one of the most important. Not being able to see our loved ones face-to-face makes us realise all the more what opportunity we had to be close to them when we could. Family members have been unable to see loved ones living in care homes or in hospital, grandchildren unable to see grannies & grandpas. We all have important people in our lives we haven’t seen for so long. And we miss them, we miss knowing them and being known by them, in the direct way we took for granted before.
Those we can see, the people we bump into in the street – I don’t mean literally of course – I suppose you can’t bump into someone who is properly socially distancing – they feel that much more special. The privilege of enjoying someone else’s company, having their attentiveness, consideration in these brief encounters is brought home to us. We also see people in ways we never imagined before. I use ‘see’ rather loosely, for those we see on Zoom or Facetime or a streamed video. It’s only driven home that we are not really there when we click ‘end meeting’ and suddenly, we disappear. We can literally switch people off and on at will. It is scarily science fiction really. That’s what I would have thought not that many years ago. We are literally transitory beings now. We are not really there, not really with each other. Or are we?
If we can talk & listen & watch each other’s expressions. If we can be attentive to each other, isn’t that what it really means to see someone? And don’t we really need it? And don’t we understand better now that we do? Some Greeks in first century Palestine, where Jesus once invited disciples to ‘Come and see’, had something in mind when they were asking to see Jesus. In what way were they seeking to see him? And did they succeed? They prompted Jesus to know that his time had come. Not because he had been found by the Greeks, but because they were looking, looking for him. That is faith, looking and believing that you will find. So they did succeed, just by asking, God responds by establishing that promised new covenant relationship with his people.
The invitation to come and see extends to us too. It’s not a straightforward process, not just a matter of clicking on the link, not often anyway. It’s more like, as Paul says, seeing through a glass darkly now, and later face-to-face, I guess much like the difference between a person viewed in a Zoom gallery & then physically present with us again one day. It’s about seeking to perceive the reality of God, that God is, and who God is, and why and how God is God, for us. It’s about developing a relationship with Christ which is paradoxically not dependent on physical sight to experience the reality of his physical presence. That’s a big deal. It’s really our life’s work to seek to penetrate that reality more and more perceptively, who it is we are seeing and is seeing us too.
We have the Stations of the Cross in Graffham street just now, a wonderful opportunity to bring Christ into the community. You may see them as you go past. Do look our for them. I invite you to use the short reflections in the parish magazine or click on the link on the church website. Take time to look into them, to the one behind the screen as it were, the window they offer into our self-giving God who loves us so much that he gives himself for us. Who carries all the pain and suffering of the world, to set us free to gaze upon his face and see how precious we are in his sight. Once again this year we trace that terrifying and wonderful journey with him, as he traces ours.
Come and see. Amen
Fourth Sunday of Lent 14 March 2021
Col 3.12-17 / John 19.25b-27
Mothering Sunday: Kindness
We normally distribute Mothering Sunday posies of daffodils this Sunday. This year, they form the theme of our reflection instead. Graffham experienced something rather lovely last week. Daffodil posies were left all over the village as an act of random kindness. The message on each contained a note, ‘Kindness is a gift for everyone, free to give but priceless to receive’. What is this kindness? In the dictionary, kindness is defined as ‘The quality of being friendly, generous and considerate.’ It’s more I think – it’s to be friendly, generous and considerate to someone in need of friendship, generosity & consideration. In the context of all the difficulties we’ve been experiencing these past few weeks and months, that’s who the daffodil posies were surely intended for. It would be an unusual person so replete with blessings that they would turn a kindness away. For the most part, I’d say we have plenty of scope to appreciate any amount of friendly, generous, considerate kindness extended towards us. It lifts our spirits, reassures of our value to the one offering, even reconciles after division. Kindness can be a powerful restorer of relationship towards someone who fears they do not deserve such grace.
Offering kindness as that lovely person did last week, is always a choice; sometimes easy, sometimes immensely hard when unreciprocated yet offered anyway. Being kind can be the bravest, gentlest thing to, that yields the greatest solace, when freely offered. Its free expression is critical. Reluctant or enforced or begrudging kindness, if there is such a thing, liberates no-one. We have to be in an open, balanced frame of mind to offer kindness. We have to be strong in ourselves. Especially in the face of unkindness received.
Because as it can be offered, so it can be withheld. If we set our reflection alongside another event of the past week, that disturbing interview by Oprah Winfrey, we can see the damage a lack of kindness can do, the terrifying impact of holding tightly onto bitterness, on the one guarding it within themselves and those in the path of its expression. I must admit, I have been a bit angry about this interview. Then I made myself think, what about you? How many times have you refused to be kind to another person, just because you thought they had been unkind to you – when you weren’t strong enough to retain your composure and balance in the face of a perceived attempt to offend you? This interview has had the virtue of recalling me to the danger of this, if not let go. The greatest kindness is to offer it in response to an unkind act of word, to extend that grace in the face of a distressing offensive. As Christ modelled for us the day of his sacrifice, strong in himself with God’s strength. Then he yet found opportunity to offer his friend to his mother, and his mother to his friend, in all kindness to them both, and is still offering kindness to those who have not yet softened to him. I pray that Christ’s kindness will ultimately carry the day in our world, make us all people in whom his kindness is freely offered and pricelessly received. May Christ soften every heart and allow forgiveness to flow. Amen
Third Sunday of Lent 7 March 2021
1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22
Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.
Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread’. Do you know that line, remember where that’s come from? It was written by Alexander Pope, in a 1711 poem An Essay on Criticism. By contrast to his first statement, he says, ‘Distrustful sense with modest caution speaks.’ Pope is being perfectly rational in his thinking, rightly cautioning against speaking without careful thought. That’s something that I need to bear in mind. It’s a challenge, as what I’m asked to speak of today is a kind of foolishness surpassing wisdom, which might require foolishness on my part to try and work it out. So St Paul is setting quite a puzzle here. To help us, there is a 1940 song lyric which comes to mind, for those old enough to remember, from the original Pope poem, which repeats that line of his:
Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread, and so I come to you, my love, my heart above my head. Though I see the danger there, if there’s a chance for me, then I don’t care. Fools rush in where wise men never go, but wise men never fall in love so how are they to know? When we met, I felt my life begin, so open up your heart and let this fool rush in.
This is a song about impulsive, romantic love, where the heart rules the head. At heart however, it tells the Christian story, does it not? God is the fool rushing in, whose heartfelt love for the world leads Christ to offer the ultimate self-sacrifice on the cross, which all rational thought would consider a futile and pointless demonstration of failure. A sacrifice which provides us with a chance to meet God in Christ and receive new life, when responded to with apparent equal irrationality by those of us who are inspired to do so. What kind of life? A wise one or a foolish one? St Paul goes on to say in Corinthians:
Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong’
Which is how we have to know ourselves to be, foolish and weak. God’s self-revelation as a weak and apparently foolish thing shames those who make themselves their own ultimate authority. The Cross of Christ challenges us to understand that whereas an attitude of spiritual and physical self-sufficiency is doomed to failure, a true secure foundation to life comes only from that point of absolute humility and vulnerability. Having felt our life begin through this inexplicable wonderment leads us into a new kind of rationality, in which we entrust ourselves to God’s direction and submit to God’s will. It takes us along paths we did not expect and reveals truths that we otherwise – I like that word, otherwise – it must mean with another, in this case lesser, kind of wisdom – truths that otherwise, we would not know. Sometimes, it takes us down really difficult roads, but retaining the wisdom of God’s foolishness, holding on to the divine love Christ was inspired by and inspires by, we’re never in danger and will always come through.
I wear myself down sometimes, with feelings of inadequacy. I should give myself a good talking to! If accepting inherent weakness is the true foundation of faith, the springing-off point of life, it is surely good to be reminded of it now and again. Meeting Christ in our hearts, with mutual humility, allows us to sing ‘I felt my life begin’. St Paul would quite happily have sung this song I think, as an expression of his faith. So, when we’re feeling more than usually weak or foolish, we can sing and pray to God, ‘open up your heart and let this fool rush in’. Amen
Sunday of Lent 28 February 2021
Genesis 17.1-7,15-16 / Mark 8.31-end
Honouring the covenant
Last Sunday we reflected on God’s covenant with Noah, a solemn agreement in which Noah undertakes to be obedient to God, and God to preserve Noah from the flood – that deluge sweeping people away for their sinfulness. This Sunday, another covenant is being made. If Abram is blameless – that’s Abram’s commitment – he will become the ancestor of a multitude of nations. God will continue the covenant with Abram’s offspring, among whom kings will be numbered. Abram will become Abraham, his wife Sarai will become Sarah and bear a son. At which Abraham laughs and Sarah laughs that this should happen to two old people. So, God says to name the child Isaac, which means laughter. God is having a bit of fun here.
The covenant story has moved on. God won’t sweep people away for their sinfulness. God is now asking Abraham and his descendants to commit to being God’s blameless people. With circumcision a sign of that relationship being established for generation after generation. People could not fulfil that commandment however, or rather, do not know how to do so effectively. How does one become truly blameless? Enter the witness of Jesus, well-pleasing and obedient to God. He is teaching he will be rejected and killed – by the very representatives of Abraham’s descendants who made that covenant agreement – and rise again. Jesus resists Peter’s attempt to stop him saying this. Jesus says, those who want to follow him:
‘must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.’
On the face of it, one might be tempted to laugh again. How can losing your life be good news? For Jesus, and for ourselves? Understanding Jesus as the true, blameless descendant of Abraham and the divine Son of God, the relationship between God and human being perfectly expressed within one person, resolves the dilemma of inherent human sinfulness, preventing people’s honouring of the covenant – which Jesus fulfils. Jesus’ dying on the cross reveals God’s nature as an utterly self-giving servant, gathering up all human sinfulness in himself, offering himself as the one true sacrifice, a sacred gift, a means of communion with God. It is beautiful, good news for the world, whom God serves.
Our own cross, what is that – the difficulties of life we have to bear? Or through Christ, a sharing in Christ’s self-offering to the world through service, a sacred duty and honour transforming our attitude to personal difficulties, and also good news, therefore. Helping us respond to the present crisis, not with alarm, how dreadfully this is affecting us, how frightening, how limiting of our freedom all this is. Rather, what can Christ do to help, to continue to honour the covenant, through God’s grace, through me? Amen
First Sunday of Lent 21 February 2021
Genesis 9.8-17; Mark 1.9-15
Ordination with rainbow
On a dreary day in the summer of 1998, a friend’s ordination took place in Guildford Cathedral. Like a wedding, it’s always lovely for an ordination to be held in fine weather, so this was a shame. When the new priests emerged through the West Door though, there it was, a rainbow across the sky. A powerful sign to remind of God’s covenant, a mutual agreement with solemn commitment by both parties, not just a vague promise. In the covenant with Noah, Noah commits to be obedient to God, God to preserve Noah from the flood.
Flood is a natural disaster, it’s a terrifying concept for people, seeing their homes and landscapes, livelihoods, animals and themselves deluged. Flood overwhelms people. The real overwhelming for the people in Noah’s time however, was by sin. The earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence, all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. Flood symbolised this violence and corruption, which is what really swept them away. Noah was a righteous man however, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. This is why Noah, his family and all the creatures are preserved in a boat, a defence against the flood. The ark is the embodiment of faith really. After the waters recede, Noah builds an altar to the Lord, continuing to keep faith with God. And God does something remarkable. God alters his position, experiences a metanoia, a change of mind and heart. Having wiped the slate clean of the corrupt people of the earth this one time, God says in his heart, never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. Never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. While this is presented as a development within Godself, it’s more properly a development in people’s understanding, our own metanoia, our change of mind and heart about God. The true nature of God is revealed, not as mindlessly destructive if displeased and unappeased, instead compassionate of human weakness. This is an important insight to learn.
Through Noah, humanity is covenanting to be faithful. We will not fulfil our commitment. God however, will. Scripture will tell how God holds to the covenant despite humanity’s continuing failure, through the witness of another faithful human being well-pleasing and obedient to God, our Lord Jesus of Nazareth. The means and the sign of the ultimate resolution of God’s dilemma is the Cross, which led the ordinands into the cathedral on ordination day. The rainbow is the seal of that first agreement however, reminding the newly ordained priests of God’s unfailing faithfulness in their ministry, whatever God would ask of them or send them, and to their people, and to all people, for ever. In our own times, the rainbow, worthily signalling support for our NHS workers, all our key workers, continues to remind us of God’s commitment to remain faithful, to be with us, come what may. Amen
Sunday Next before Lent 14 February 2021
2 Kings 2.1-12; Mark 9.2-9
‘Climb ev’ry mountain, ford ev’ry stream, follow ev’ry rainbow till you find your dream’. I’m channelling my inner Julie Andrews here to convey the concept of a spiritual landscape. The bible often expresses spiritual highs and lows through physical highs and lows, it seems to me. Elijah holds fast to Elijah with tenacity and loyalty despite the relentless discouragement of those prophets. And is rewarded by a vision of Elijah being swept heavenwards in a chariot of fire, in a tremendous metaphor of spiritual power reaching above his head. In the transfiguration, it’s the physical feature of a mountain which represents the reaching up to spiritual heights as Jesus’ relationship with his father is made completely transparent there.
Correspondingly, the physical descent from a mountain represents the climbing down from a spiritual high place, first to a spiritually neutral zone. That’s where the crowds in the gospels often gather, vaguely looking for something, or spiritually non-committed or misdirected. Below this ambiguous place is a further falling down, a sinking into pits or beneath the waves, representing places of spiritual despair. It’s the continuum of heaven and hell really. In today’s Gospel mountaintop experience, unlike Jesus the disciples are only momentarily uplifted. They come down from this mountain and this vision fades from their minds, and they eventually plummet the depths of despair. Peter, standing high with Jesus on the mountain, will fall to a low point in the courtyard on the night of Jesus betrayal, abandoning Jesus as every disciples will. They must await the resurrection to regain the spiritual heights.
Every person can trace their own spiritual landscape, of hills and mountains representing times of spiritual strength in full awareness of God’s presence and support, neutral plains to wander in uncertainty or indifference, and pits representing our times of emptiness and despair, when we forget God’s love for us, or are sure God cannot have love for us or even that there is a God to have love or no love for us. Spiritual despair does not automatically arise from difficult situations people find themselves in, but they challenge people to the extent that they are often found together.
Whereabouts are we on such a contour map just now? I don’t want to imply everyone is in a low place, though we’re in such a challenging situation it’s understandable if we are. And we enter Lent this week, a time of self-examination and discipline to deliberately challenge ourselves, as if we needed any more testing than we have now. It sometimes feels as though it’s been Lent for a whole year. I think, we have to trust Lent though, as an opportunity to lift ourselves from the malaise of lockdown with real, serious reflection. It’s a time for the kind of spiritual tenacity Elisha showed. Though we may be travelling a long, and tense, and discouraging journey, we will not let go of the hope God extends of a positive outcome to uplift us, both as we travel and at our journey’s end. Amen
Second Sunday before Lent 7 February 2021
Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; John 1.1-14
Immersing in the Light
I was pleased to send a video ‘Rev Vivien’s 5 minutes’ to the infant school last week. It’s my virtual assembly. I introduced the story by saying my stories often come from the bible and they help us understand about God. They may be from before Jesus time, about Jesus, by Jesus, who was very good at helping us understand about God, or about Christians after Jesus’ time. My story this time was about Jesus, the presentation in the temple we were reflecting on last Sunday.
Today, we have been listening to two different parts of the bible, one from before Jesus time, and one written about Jesus, just after his time. That would be too simplistic a way of putting it for John though. He would say there is no before Jesus time or after Jesus time. That’s because John believes Jesus doesn’t help us understand about God from the outside looking in, but from the inside, from within God’s reality, and because God transcends time, so does Jesus.
In a story about C S Lewis I read last week, Lewis is in a dark tool shed on a bright sunny day. A beam of light is shining through a crack over the door and striking the floor. Lewis sits and observes the light beam with its floating flecks of dust. Then he moves into the light, to direct his own line of sight along the beam to the crack over the door, allowing him to view the world outside. Lewis travels from seeing the light to seeing what the light sees. John tells us, as Lewis also realises, that’s where Jesus stands. Jesus does not objectively view the illumination that is God, rather he immerses himself in that illumination, seeing what God sees, being who God is. And as I said before, because God transcends time, so does Jesus.
Just as white light contains all the colours of the spectrum God’s character is many faceted too, Some writers in the bible distinguish and separate these individual attributes of God, much as one might separate out blue or red or green in that light spectrum. So, we hear the writer of Proverbs highlighting God’s attribute of Wisdom, in such a way as to suggest Wisdom can be drawn out from God’s reality and allow God to delight in this particular aspect of Godself. In this case God’s wisdom is perceived in terms of a female figure. It’s a literary technique allowing the writer to develop reflection on God in the context of relationship.
John does the same in his Gospel when he highlights Word as an attribute of God, as ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. Word is made human in the person of Jesus Christ, with whom God is in relationship, which we discover in the Gospels is that of Father to Son.
We have a rough idea of what Wisdom means. Word is a bit trickier though, a complex philosophical concept translated from Logos in Greek containing dimensions of authority and creativity and much else besides. We hear in John, in the beginning was the Word. We hear in Genesis, and there’s no coincidence here, ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and spoke the Word, ‘let there be light’, and there was light, and God saw the light, that it was good. Creativity and authority and goodness. That is God, and that is Jesus too.
When we move from objective observation of the light to full engagement in it and immerse ourselves in Jesus – whom we know as our light from our reflection last week – when we enter his life, become part of God’s infinity, we see the light too, and crucially, that He is good. Amen
Feast of the Presentation in the Temple or Candlemas 31 January 2021
Malachi 2.1-5; Hebrews 2.14-end; Luke 2.22-35
Candlemas: revealing the bigger picture.
When we lived in Surrey, we used Epsom Downs racecourse for a variety of reasons unconnected with racing. A good place to walk or have lunch with friends in the Derby Arms, the venue of numerous proms attended by our children, and the location of a particular park bench with a great view, to sit and reflect on the bigger picture of life. I visualise Simeon on such a park bench on the temple mount, when the holy family arrives.
The presentation in the temple was a ritual whereby the first son of a family, consecrated to God, was essentially offered as a sacrifice – before doves or pigeons replacing him, allowed a child to return home safely with his family. I don’t know where Simeon was in his mind before Jesus arrives, except the inference he’s not yet quite at peace with himself, awaiting something to come. Once Simeon meets this baby in the temple, he gets it, his vision enlarges to fill the world. He realises salvation for all humanity will be delivered, alongside something of the pain this must entail. Although this is a lot to take in, Simeon is transformed, able to engage intently and perceptively with himself knowing he can die now in peace. Able to engage intently and compassionately with Mary acknowledging the heartache loving her child will bring. I notice Simeon does not engage directly with the Child in this account. Nothing is expressed by Simeon of his feelings concerning the suffering which is Jesus’ destiny also. Who would not have one’s heart filled with sadness at this? Yet, even in the context of the insight that comes to him, Simeon does not speak of it.
Simeon’s engagement with the child Jesus is on another level. I don’t think any doves or pigeons were needed to take Jesus’ place that day. Simeon offers Jesus as a sacrifice is offered, presaging the day when His sacrifice is complete. Simeon holds the child up to God in praise, as a gift for the world, as a medium for redemption. In doing so, Simeon holds God up in praise as a gift to the world. That’s something enormous to be holding up in your arms. To express warning to the child of what is to come in this context would be presumptuous. Insight of future suffering in order to bring about this hope for humankind imparted to Mary from Simeon can only have come from the child.
The dark context required for redemption tells us something essential about the nature of God and our need. The gospels preach the necessity of suffering before hope arrives. God does not wish people to suffer, a common misconception. Rather, God suffers alongside us, bringing light into the darkness itself, to defy it and show it can be overcome. That big picture of salvation made Simeon rejoice that day. It gives us, in the midst of our own dark, dreary & distressing time courage, hope, even peace too. Amen
Epiphany 3 Sunday 24 January 2021
Genesis 14.17-20; John 2.1-11
Turn us into wine
This week I was told some family members of a wedding couple very kindly went to France to buy a considerable amount of wine for a wedding. Then the country went into lockdown. Weddings couldn’t take place as planned. Everyone had to stay at home. including the family members with the stock of wine. They decided a bottle of that wine was just what they needed to lift their spirits. Over lockdown they drank all 40 bottles of it, a true story. Poor wedding couple, just like the ones at the wedding in Cana, now they have no wine. At Cana too, it had all been going so well, the bride and groom were the centre of attention, as they should be, with a crowd of guests like weddings here until recently used to be. If there are lots of guests at a wedding, it’s hard to notice them all, with some very much in the background. Maybe Jesus and his party were like those. Then it went wrong, and it all changed.
This is a pattern which reflects regular life. When all is going well for us, and confidence springs from everything being under control, we’re self-sufficient, a match for whatever life brings us. We think we have wine. We may feel little need to pay attention to matters of faith, like a guest at a wedding who is easy to ignore. When things go wrong though, when our preferred wine is soured, faith can move from the periphery to the forefront. We’re no longer equal to everything And when Christ responds to our need and doesn’t just put things back to normal but makes it so much better than it was before, we realise how blessed we have been. to have our life fulfilled by Christ’s central presence in it, in a way we hadn’t appreciated before.
Though how, when we inhabit a time when wine appears to be in such short supply? The story is really about our own transformation, which in times of trial, is a much better solution than draining the physical wine store. We bring Christ to the centre to turn us into wine for a world in need of hope, of joy, through awareness of its need and our ability to respond. It may be that our wedding couples, in facing their own particular challenges of who can marry and when are discovering a deeper understanding of who they are for each other and those around them. How marriage is a means of transformation, not so much of wine but of all who participate, witness and celebrate what is really happening here.
We bring to mind all wedding couples undergoing a marriage preparation here and everywhere, unlike anything they have been offered before. And pray that in doing so, recognising their dependence on God’s transforming love in times that are better and worse, their marriages may be a source of hope for others, and for them an outpouring of joy. And ask God to turn us too, witnesses of the greatest wedding feast of the lamb, into wine that fortifies us, and through us the world. Amen
Epiphany 2 Sunday 17 January 2021
Come and See
An extract from ‘Water into Wine’ by Stephen Verney, Darton Longman and Todd Ltd (1995)
The next day the first disciples begin to gather round the teacher. Some are attracted to him. One is told ‘Follow me’. Others are brought by their friends. One of these, Nathaniel, from Cana in Galilee, a village near to Nazareth, is reluctant. ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ he asks. ‘Come and see’, says his friend Philip. With these new companions Jesus prepares to return from the desert to begin his life’s work in Galilee, and he tells Nathaniel what they may expect to see. ‘Amen Amen I say to you [in John’s gospel, this is the form of words that Jesus uses to emphasise something of special importance] you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God going up and coming down upon the Son of Man.’
He is reminding them of the story, which they all knew from childhood, of Jacob’s dream. Jacob, the founding father of the people of Israel, was a devious character, who deceived his own father Isaac and cheated his brother Esau and had to flee away from home. Then he married, and proceeded to rob his father-in-law. But at the same time he was searching and longing to know God. He wrestled all night with an angel, and said. ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ It was such a man, daring to look into the depths and the heights within himself, who one night at a crisis in his life lay down in the desert to sleep. ‘He dreamt that he saw a ladder which rested on the ground, with its top reaching to heaven and the angels of God were going up and coming down upon it.’ The angels, God’s messengers, were carrying the earthiness of Jacob up to heaven, and were bringing the presence of God down to stand beside him and protect him on earth.
Now Jesus says to his followers: ‘You are going to see the reality of which our father Jacob dreamt. You will see heaven opened, and a ladder joining earth and heaven. I shall be that ladder, and upon me the angels will be going up and coming down….The angels will be going up from earth, ….lifting up to God the needs and the ego-centricity of humankind, and they will be coming down…, bringing to the world the mercy and the truth of God.
Jacob was in a bad way when he lay down in the desert to sleep. Nathaniel was cynical about the invitation Philip was offering. Neither was expecting something to change the trajectory and perspective of their lives just then. We know a bit about the unexpected changing us at the moment. We may understandably not see it as a good thing. It has power to change us for the good however. God is found in unexpected times and places, for those who allow themselves to overcome their despair, and come, and see. Amen
Baptism of Christ 10 January 2021
Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11
Baptism; New Year’s Day 2021
Casting our minds back ten days, at King Edward’s Bay near Tynemouth swimmers take to the freezing waters on New Year’s Eve. A photograph of this event shows two women sea bathing. Invigorating? That word doesn’t come close – these women are a picture of energy and excitement and joy in the freezing cold waters of the North Sea. They are a million miles away from the way many of us have been feeling recently, fed up of everything brought to us by coronavirus. I have no need to list this, you know. These two women are a part of that restricted world too, when they step out of the water into tier 4 or 5 or 6… The photo was only taken ten days ago. But in that moment, they are free, transcending what for most of us would be a cold unforgiving environment and turning it into a source of energy and life. Brrr or brrrilliant! If you have the courage to run into the waves.
Frankly, I have felt a bit discouraged after Christmas, rather tired and not that confident about some of the policy decisions intended to ensure our safety. Though to be fair I suppose it’s hard to get this right. I looked at this photo and thought, that’s how I want to feel. So I’m keeping this picture in mind, to remind me that if we don’t let a barrier defeat us, we open ourselves up to an extraordinary exhilaration of freedom and release. It’s a metaphor for redemption of course, a visual metaphor for the gift of the Holy Spirit, the baptismal experience, par excellence. It’s how we are all called to be.
Even if we don’t always feel the freedom this sacrament carries with it, it’s there, in the background, ready to burst out when the time is right, an exuberant, crashing wave of goodness and power, exemplified in the life and ministry of Christ. Knowing that helps us to continue in hope, for when true life takes us unawares in an explosion of joy saying, ‘You are forgiven, you are free’, no matter what challenging circumstances we find ourselves in. Amen
Feast of Epiphany 3 January 2021
Isaiah 60.1-6; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12
A gift for today.
One of the best gifts I remember being given was the 1000 best churches by Simon Jenkins. It felt so good to receive because it showed the giver knew me, my love for churches and how much I would enjoy exploring them with this book. One of the best gifts I remember giving was a pair of cufflinks made from two buttons off a GWR uniform found in my mother’s button box. I was really looking forward to giving it to this family member, because I knew they loved railways, it would connect them with my grandfather, whose railway uniform they came from, and be a surprise they weren’t expecting. It felt so good to give. We love to receive and give presents like that, because it means we know and are known, have others to value and are valued for ourselves. Love & are loved, really. We can’t always find inspiration, hit the spot with the presents we buy. Its great though, when we do.
Wise men from the East, where heaven lies, found it. They knew what to give the Christ-child. It’s why we love the story. These strange and exotic and wonderful people are representing us. They are demonstrating the existence of a relationship between humanity and God, in which people know, and are known by, value and are valued by God. Because to be a King, you have to be acknowledged as King by your people, symbolised in the gift of gold. To be a priest, you have to be acknowledged as a catalyst joining God and people, symbolised in the gift of incense. To be a sacrifice, you have to be acknowledged by people as their offering, offered for their sake, symbolised in the gift of myrrh.
The nativity, and the kings’, or wise men’s part in it, is a picture of heaven, in which that part is true of us as it is of them, and the Christ-child rejoices to be so known. Whereas the nativity, and the Christ-child’s part in it, is a picture of earth in which that knowledge and valuation is not yet true of us. Yet the Christ-child gifts himself to us, knowing and valuing us so. These two realities together combine to create a picture like no other, balancing the dilemma and the resolution of human frailty and divine love. Once we perceive this, heaven breaks through. Even in the depths of coronavirus despair, catching glimpses of this is a gift in itself, giving us hope to hold onto today. Amen
Christmas Day 2020
Do not be afraid 2
If we go back and back in time to the earliest depictions of the Nativity, carvings on Roman sarcophagi, what do we see? One kind of scene has the three kings bringing gifts to Mary sitting on a throne, a bit like a Roman emperor, with Jesus on her lap. The other kind of scene is the nativity itself. It shows the baby tightly wrapped, lying near the ground in a trough or a wicker basket. The ox and ass are always present, even when Mary or any other human being aren’t there. So the ox and the ass have always been really important. And we are honoured to have two of these animals with us today. Some people of the time thought the ox and ass instinctively recognised the divinity of the baby. Other theologians in those early days thought the animals represented different groups of people, the ox standing for the Jewish people and the ass for everybody else, none of whom understood, and needed to see for themselves. Those two interpretations reflect us a bit. Some of us instinctively recognising God in Jesus, others not so sure and needing to think about it all. It does mean though, when we listen to the poem about Eddi’s service with only the ox and ass coming in, we shouldn’t really think of it in terms of only. These were special visitors, who maybe understood, or were maybe coming to find out a bit more about the good news, which Eddi told them,
And he told the Ox of a Manger, And a Stall in Bethlehem, And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider That rode to Jerusalem.’
What of us, who have come here this Christmas Day, understanding or just exploring a bit? What’s our good news, our gospel for today? I’ll tell you. It’s four words, the beginning of the angel’s message, ‘Do Not Be Afraid.’ This isn’t just a throwaway line before the important bit for shepherds taken aback by some strange arrivals and needing reassurance. The good news causing joy for everyone, of the birth of the Christ-child means you do not have to be afraid, of anything, ever again. ‘Do not be afraid’ is the good news itself. The bible repeats it over and over again. ‘Not being afraid’ doesn’t mean you can be a bit reckless now. It’s quite the opposite, real courage is something carefully decided upon. ‘Not being afraid’ means nothing can diminish me now, nothing can compromise my capacity to live and be loving, nothing can inhibit me, nothing can threaten my peace, limit my kindness or respect. I can be brave, we can be brave in the face of adversity, any adversity, that of today, or of any day. Because that child in the manger, looked upon by the ox and ass could be. And because I know him, and call him Lord.
God bless you all in the coming weeks, keep safe, care for one another. Above all, ‘Do not be afraid’. Amen
Christmas Eve 2020
Seeds of hope
This is a pomegranate. When you break open a pomegranate open lots of beautiful bright sweet juicy seeds burst out. They have been growing around the Mediterranean for thousands of years. It’s a fruit steeped in symbolism, representing wisdom, fertility, regeneration in many religious cultures. In pagan Greek tradition, because Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds in Hades, she had to spend six months of every year there. Her mother Demeter’s grief led to autumn and winter & her joy at Persephone’s return to spring & summer each year. There’s a pomegranate too, in the hand of the Christ-child in paintings by Leonardo and Botticelli. In these paintings, the pomegranate represents resurrection, Christ’s bursting from the tomb, promising hope of renewal and life. A hope won through suffering and death, expressed by the sorrow in Mary’s eyes.
Although Christmas is a naturally joyful time for most people, suffering in all its shapes and forms is a present experience for many, every Christmas, and all the more poignantly experienced when others are full of excitement and joy. Making them more mindful of the difficult journey that lies ahead for Christ, the sorrow to be felt by his mother, and the pain in the world today that Christ came to save. This year though, we share a common suffering, the impact of the virus on us all, compounded by dismay that our familiar experience of a social Christmas has been snatched away. Much is being called out of us. More than we have in us to offer, we begin to wonder, as we are ‘locked down’ once again.
People need something secure to hold onto in troubled times, to carry us through. Something at the heart of Christmas, the celebration of a sacrificial life like no other, who travels a journey on our behalf from the manger to the cross and beyond to the empty tomb, that offers hope in the travelling, and fulfilment in the arrival. To break down the barriers that inhibit us, and ultimately releases in us an explosion of joy. In happy times we can feel that joy breaking in on us. We always want Christmas to feel like that. Sometimes, like now maybe, we feel we’re still very near the beginning of a long hard spiritual journey, with far to go. Knowing that journey has been well travelled before us, for us, provides reassurance we do have it in us to cope with the difficult road, see the journey of value in itself in changing us, and know the arrival is sure.
It’s good to be reminded of this just now. In the sweetness of the pomegranate inside its hard outer shell, the promise of the Nativity that ultimately, all shall be well. Amen
Advent 4 Sunday 20 December
Magnificat; Luke 1.26-38
Submitting in trust
Granny, said my granddaughter, if Jesus is God and God made the whole world, how could he be born as a baby in the world?
What should I say? A painter of the painting can paint himself into the painting if he likes. After all, God is God, God can do anything. But why would he do that? Why would he wish to enter the picture, enter the world in this way? With no man involved, just God and a woman told by an angel messenger of God’s plans for her. And why tell her anything? Why not simply let the woman discover she is carrying a child, even if she can’t work out how, and face the consequences? The baby could still be born and grow into adulthood and ministry just the same, all being well….or maybe not, given that women caught in adultery were stoned in those days, the child of a woman born outside wedlock, with that woman herself, might find survival itself uncertain. So was this information communicated to the woman & her betrothed to protect the child from harm? God could have provided a still simpler entry point instead, entered the world as the child of a respectable married woman whom no one would suspect was carrying the child of God, least of all herself. Why not choose that route? So why did God do it like this and why did anyone need to know?
If we read only Mark’s Gospel, where the story begins with the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry, or John’s which takes us back to the beginning of time, no-one would know. It would be as if the back story in Galilee and Bethlehem never took place. Matthew and Luke want us to know though, employing a technique we sometimes see at the beginning of a film or book or play, when we glimpse the end of the story and then have to go back to work through it again. It turns out it isn’t so much that God, the maker of the world, the painter of the painting, is painting himself in it, as making a pinprick to show another dimension behind it, a heavenly one we can enter. The messenger announcing to the woman that God lies within her, is challenging her to become that pinprick, a portal through which God’s light behind streams through. A portal works both ways. As God’s light shines through the portal into the world, that same tiny portal opens a way to enter heaven, the source of light where God is found. Through which the woman herself can pass, if she chooses, depending on her response. God ‘did it like this’, because the story is about Mary, as much as it is about the baby; Mary, the first, archetypal Christian who responds as she should, who submits in trust.
Submissiveness has been considered a desirable female quality through many generations and cultures, right up to our own time. Sometimes using Mary as a role model in the interests of a patriarchal society. Now women enjoy a more equal relationship with men. Female monarch, female prime minister, female Bishop of London, female Archbishop of Canterbury one day maybe. It was all a bit different then. Mary’s submission is ok though because it was in response to God’s submission. God’s life in the world, like any baby in its womb, totally dependent on her. In entering the world, God submits in trust as well, to humanity, through Mary. This will be more fully worked out when the child is born and grown. In responding equally obediently, Mary participates with God in an act of mutual submission which opens up a heavenly dimension to life. Therein lies hope. The end of the story will be good.
Matthew and Luke want to show us a glimpse of heaven on earth, salvation in miniature, mediated through Mary and the other figures in the story of the nativity. So they put the end of the story first, which shows earth submitting to heaven and heaven submitting to earth. When we draw close to Mary’s way of submission, not knowing what life will mean or have any reason to expect it will be to our advantage or even need it to be, we become part of God’s hope for humanity, pinpricks of light piercing the world until the day when light streams through every part of the picture God has made, and the portal becomes wide enough for all of us to passthrough. A hope to hold onto this Christmas time. Amen
Advent Sunday 29 November 2020
Isaiah 64.1-9; 1 Cor 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-end
A Serious Christmas
Here we stand beside the Advent wreath, symbol of expectant waiting for renewed hope promised by Christmas. Week by week, one by one we light the Advent candles as Christmas draws near. And in that waiting time, we prepare for the arrival of the true light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness does not overcome, expressed though the birth of the Christ-child. We do this by reflecting on our ways, on how we have been in the past, as individuals, as a society, and how that compares with how we should and could be, being honest about our shortcomings and selfishness. We do so mindful of how human plans and self-reliance can be disrupted now without notice, challenging us to respond in unusual and unexpected ways.
This year we live in dark times, dark because of the winter, the shortening of days, dark because of the continuing threat of the virus which has overturned our lives. It can bring us down, physically and emotionally. We’re holding out hope for a particular light to shine, a vaccine to restore our freedom to enjoy life together again. We’re working on it, hoping to pull ourselves out of this particular mire. The light we celebrate at Christmas however is one that shines despite the darkness. One which offers us an eternal quality of hope, a light which enables us to hold fast, to endure, to remain true despite the challenge we face, while we are facing it.
At present this Christmas, our government is offering us some light by way of a little respite to bring us cheer, the opportunity for three households to come together over five days to meet and enjoy one another’s company. To my mind, this permission is offering an uncertain hope. Perhaps the government fears it cannot avoid this, that people won’t cope otherwise, or won’t respect the tier restrictions that are set in place, anyway. It is accompanying this message with encouragements not to do so though, not to meet inside physically, to do so virtually or outdoors, wherever we can.
We need to attend to this message carefully. While the virus remains contagious, a need for vigilance remains. If keeping our distance is the most loving thing to do, if a special love is reserved for our families, our dear ones, it is best expressed by holding each other in our hearts and not our arms. True hope lies, where true light shines, in the sacrifices people willingly make to keep each other safe, and the comfort of knowing that someone who loves us is providing us with strength to carry us through. If our Advent reflection leads us to open our hearts to God more humbly, and to one another more steadfastly, our observance of this season will be well carried out.
We typically wish each other a happy Christmas each year. Through careful reflection on God’s sacrificial love and care for us, I wish us all, rather, a serious Christmas this year. Amen
Feast of Christ the King 22 November 2020
Psalm 95.1-7; Matthew 25.31-end
Wearing the crown
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 1
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