DECEMBER 2021: 25-DEC, 24-DEC, 19-DEC, 12-DEC, 05-DEC
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25 December 2021 – Christmas Morning
Many of our favourite carols have at their heart, peace, stillness and tranquillity. Yet the experience of so many is that Christmas today is anything but peaceful, still or tranquil!
If you have young children around you were no doubt woken at the crack of dawn or even earlier, and if you are entertaining there is probably much busyness in making sure all is prepared and ready.
One of those special quiet times at Christmas for me is after the Midnight service. The peace of the night is all around and I have the opportunity to sit and reflect on all that this special time means, and I value this Christmas Day service for its’ peace and stillness as we celebrate the joy of the Christ child here among us.
So much in today’s world is all rush and bustle and this one day may be the only opportunity some get before plunging back into life and work again on Boxing Day.
Yet would that first Christmas have been so peaceful as the carols lead us to believe? Somehow I doubt it. Bethlehem was busy, full of all those coming to register for the census. Mary and Joseph ended up in a stable because there was no room for them anywhere else. The stable wasn’t exactly a haven of peace with the cattle, and just as Mary had got her new born baby to sleep a crowd of shepherds arrive, and as for the host of angels and their songs of praise, well you get the picture.
And amidst the clamour Mary pondered and treasured all that she saw and heard, storing them in her heart, perhaps for a later time when she could try to understand what it all meant, and building memories as we all do.
The shepherds leave overwhelmed by what they have seen, returning to tend their sheep but with a new hope in their heart. In the quiet of the hills, and the night, they had time to pause and reflect on all they had seen and heard, and what it might mean, this was no ordinary night.
We too are encouraged to pause amongst all the noise and listen anew. During a recent dance on the programme Strictly Come Dancing, the music stopped…. as the dancers kept moving. It was not a technical hitch it was making the point, very movingly and powerfully, that one of the dancers has a hearing impairment and this silence was how her life was every day. She heard life in a different way, not necessarily in a negative way because of that hearing loss, but her space her context for hearing are different.
During the first lockdown in 2020 many noticed, perhaps for the first time in a long while, the healing benefits of the peace, the stillness and the lack of clamour. Now amongst all that is going on around us it is important to take time to once again stop and listen to that still small voice of calm, at the heart of which is God.
Take time, like Mary, to think about the familiar story, and what it, what God, might be saying to us. What can we find that speaks to us of new beginnings, of hope, of God with us?
All too soon we will be swept back into the noise and busyness of the world, so take a moment to stop… and listen to what the host of angels, the shepherds and all in that busy, noisy, familiar scene are saying to us today. Take a moment to pause and be with God as God is with us. Happy Christmas!
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
24 December 2021 – Christmas Night
So here we are, once again. Maybe you come every week to this church, maybe you come every year to Midnight Mass, or maybe this is even your first time here, or the first time in a long time. There are lots of reasons people decide to leave their homes at a late hour of the night, and travel through the cold, to find their parish church and come to this service – maybe it’s tradition, maybe we’ve always done it, maybe there’s something magical, almost ethereal about coming to church in the dark. Maybe you’ve had a difficult year for one reason or another, and you need somewhere to let this be raw, to lay it all out in front of God. Maybe you’ve just come out of the pub and it just seemed like a good thing to do. We all have our reasons, and we all bring with us the stuff of our lives – the worries, the pain, the joy, the thoughts about what we have omitted to buy from the supermarkets. This stuff has a tendency to interfere in our Christmases, almost more than any other time of year, and then we can of course feel guilty about not feeling Christmassy enough! For me this year, an emergency dental appointment earlier today brought my Christmas crashing down to reality – it’s hard to be festive when you’ve got a hole in a tooth and a hole in your bank balance to match!
In the story of the birth of Jesus, when the angel meets the shepherds, the shepherds are really afraid. You can imagine that an angel appearing is a bit of a scary event and quite often when they do appear in the Bible, they start by saying to whoever they are visiting: ‘now don’t be afraid’. This time, the angels tell the shepherds: “don’t be afraid, because we bring you news that will bring great joy to everyone”. And although St Luke records that the shepherds were amazed at what the angel said, and that they immediately left their flocks and went to Bethlehem to find the baby, it doesn’t actually say that they were immediately overjoyed. Amazed, yes. Overjoyed? No. Leaping about? No. But certainly, amazed and curious enough to find out more.
Amazed is not an inappropriate state of mind at the news of the angel. Because the birth of Jesus, if what we believe to be true about it, is indeed true, is without doubt the most amazing thing that has ever happened on earth. The coming to earth of God, the idea of the incarnation – that God becomes human, God becomes one of us – this idea is literally THE most radical thing, not only in Christianity, but dare I say, in any religion worldwide. And God doesn’t come to us as a king, as an emperor. Instead, he comes to us as a baby – a poor defenceless baby – born in the stable of an inn, to otherwise very normal people. If I were an illiterate shepherd, keeping sheep on a Bethlehem hillside all those years ago, I think I would have been amazed at this too, but almost disturbed by it at the same time – because it is, let’s face it, utterly strange and almost incomprehensible if you come across this as an adult for the first time. It’s only because we here have mainly grown up with this idea that we find it quite normal, in a funny way. And yet the shepherds are told that this idea should make them feel joyful, not puzzled.
Well, are they told that the IDEA should bring them joy? In my experience, PEOPLE tend to bring joy to others, not ideas. Maybe the shepherds were puzzled until they got to that stable, but surely when they opened the door and they saw Mary, Joseph, the baby and even, as tradition now provides, ‘the wee donkey’, when they saw them all, their confusion and fear must have turned to joy. Because what the angel had told them, had come true. They could see for themselves the small baby, and they fell down on their knees and worshipped him, just as three wise men would later do and countless billions have done ever since.
So, whether you are feeling festive or not today, whether life is bringing you more puzzles than it is answers, I would ask you to do one thing. Tonight, in this church, open that door in your soul, just like the shepherds did the stable door. You have heard the angel tell of what you will find inside – maybe you too will find God inside. He comes to all of us, just as he came to the earth: he comes to us and asks us to recognise him for who he is. God is the bringer of joy and gladness to the world, no matter what other terrible things are going on, no matter what sadness shall assail us, no evil and not even death will ever stamp out the good news of great joy that is given to you and to me, in Jesus Christ. We just need to look for it in ourselves and others, and when we find it we really need to treasure it, as Mary treasured the Christ child, because God knows this world can be a bleak and terrible place without hope and faith. All this is not some kind of overly sweet sentiment – indeed, it’s not something that’s easy to do at all, but we must try, if we’re to find life in all its fullness. So, this Christmas and in 2022, I wish you all true joy – that’s not to say, mirth at every corner, but certainly, I pray, may we all walk with the Christ Child at every turn. Happy Christmas.
19 December 2021 – Fourth Sunday of Advent
Last Christmas was the low point for me in the pandemic, when literally days before we were told that London was in another lockdown and we could not hold services in the building.
All my hopes and expectations were dashed – we had gone through so much and now family celebrations were reduced, and not to have the joy of sharing holy communion as we celebrated the birth of Christ just hit me. Of course it was all the other sadness and disappointments of the year, with broken hopes culminating in these further restrictions that made it such a low point, and so it was case of pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and we started back on zoom!
And indeed we thought this year it would all be different, and still this virus is affecting our lives in so many ways
Christmas perhaps more than any other time of year is about hope and expectations. Some of those expectations are often unattainable and unrealistic, and put us under unnecessary stress in trying to provide the perfect Christmas meal, the perfect setting, finding the the perfect presents. So let’s just stop for a moment and think about what is this all for, and what do we really hope for at this time.
Christmas for many is actually a very difficult time, with all the focus on families and having fun. Those who don’t have families, or have families living miles away, or have lost loved ones find this season especially hard, they feel left out and isolated. And even those with families can find the expectation of the perfect family Christmas falls far short of the schmaltzy adverts!
I often hear the comment that either people dread Christmas, or that it is all rather an anti-climax, after all it is just one day.
And if we think about that first Christmas it was anything but perfect. Mary was a young single woman expecting a child. She could have been ostracised and cast out of her community. Instead she goes to see her older cousin Elizabeth, herself awaiting an unexpected child promised by God. Together they celebrate, and in Mary’s song of praise she recognises that God is doing something new and unexpected. This new expectation is the hope for the future, it will change everything and turn the world upside down.
As we know the story continues to show the unexpected. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, the child is born in a lowly stable and the family is visited by shepherds told of the birth by the angels. A group from the east arrive with expensive and strange gifts and then the family have to flee from the anger of the puppet king, Herod, and live as refugees.
In the past two years all our security and plans have gone out the window. The constant change and uncertainty, even for those who enjoy both, have been difficult and tested even the most resilient.
Yet think again of Mary and Elizabeth, both thrown in to the unexpected, Elizabeth expecting a child late in her life after she has given up all hope of such an event; her husband struck dumb until the child is born, because he disbelieved God, and Mary facing the potential loss of status and community due to her unborn child. God was coming to make the world His home, coming into a broken a troubled world to be with us, now and always.
All the things that we long for, that we search for throughout the world, throughout our lives – love, security, peace, fulfilment, joy – all these things are to be found in God. God incarnate, God with us, now and always, in our joys and laughter and in our darkest times too.
God is preparing to come to us, in our own place, in whatever imperfect state that place may be. God will be with us in all we do, in all we are, and in all we need, even when we don’t know what any of those are.
Christmas may not be perfect, much of our life is not perfect, but they don’t have to be. Christmas is about opening ourselves up to the new hope that God offers, including embracing the sadness of loved ones physically absent from our lives, but always with us in our hearts and minds.
Christmas invites us to trust in God, God with us, and trust after such uncertain times can be hard, yet when we we open ourselves and trust in God’s new way, amazing things can happen.
Christmas is more than one day, and if that initial day isn’t perfect, or exactly as we hoped, don’t worry, that first Christmas was not as expected and far from perfect.
Although actually it was perfect. Whilst giving birth in a stable, far from home and family, visited by a strange assortment of people and fleeing into exile were probably not at all what Mary might have expected when she said yes to God, she trusted God then and in the years that followed as her son grew and continued to confound expectations.
God is a God of surprises, not just for Christmas, expect the unexpected and we won’t go far wrong.
This Christmas don’t wait for the expected, look towards the unexpected and the hope that God, the Light of the World is bringing into these dark times. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
12 December 2021 – Third Sunday of Advent
- Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, … The gates of the city shall never be shut by day – and there will be no night.
OK – so that wasn’t one of today’s readings; I am taking a few liberties here. But ‘when I were a lad,’ the traditional Advent themes were death, judgement, heaven and hell. On this the third Sunday in Advent – with its faded purple candle (or pink candle if you prefer) and Paul’s epistle to the Philippians invoking us to ‘rejoice!’ – the theme was heaven: slightly lighter than those three other Advent themes. But, of course, it still had the implication of death hanging over it, with us having to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil,’ in order to qualify for citizenship.
And that short passage from the Book of Revelation from which I quoted, is often used as a vision of heaven: the promise of a good place, somewhere better, for which we can hold out in hope. In imagining this utopia, we are provided with details of some of the fears of the Jews and of those first-century Christians. There was no more sea; there shall be no night. No more seaside holidays nor starry-lit romantic walks. For good as those are, for those who first heard this passage, the sea was both powerful and dangerous, it was cruel – affecting change, with its stormy winds and raging waters, and perilous to those who set out in voyage on it. And the night? It was equally minacious: a time that created anxiety, requiring more vigilance, resulting in people becoming more jumpy of noises and images, requiring them to be more alert of potential threats. For those beset by the storminess of life, and the darkness of experience, sea and night had no place in their utopian paradise.
In spite of all its twinkliness and garishness, Christmas is at its heart a dark season. Retreat a few centuries, and we would find our ancestors living in an agricultural economy, dependent on the sun for the success of each year’s harvest, which in turn impacted on their chances of survival through the deprivation and bitter cold of the long winter months. There was not only the physical threat of starvation if the harvest failed, but also the mental anguish of fear and boredom. Winter was a season of gathering darkness, and Christmas therefore was their response to the darkness that enveloped them at this time of year. “Afraid of the dark and the cold, they ate, drank and made merry; afraid of death, they partied to make fun of it.”
The world may have changed, and for many of us in our warm centrally-heated homes with our supermarket-delivered goods, the threat and fear of cold and starvation is not a daily worry or fear. But elsewhere in our global village, there are others for whom that struggle still continues. This month, the United Nations refugee agency warned that – as temperatures in Afghanistan begin to plunge below freezing: dropping maybe to minus 25 degrees Celsius – some 3.5 million Afghans forcibly displaced by conflict and war are ill-prepared to survive the bitter cold. But also, even here in Britain on our doorstep, there will be many who do not eat a sustaining meal, who lack adequate heating nor have a decent home.
This Advent we are exploring ‘Blue Christmas;’ an acknowledgement that against the relentless clamour of our modern Christmas celebrations with the crescendo of noise and expectation, and cultural demands for us to ‘Be happy!’ ‘Get shopping!’ ‘Make plans!’, we can often end up feeling alienated, disconnected or overwhelmed. And even more so for those who grieve; for those wounded by broken relationships and unfulfilled hopes; for those troubled in mind or in spirit: anxious, stressed, lonely or fearful; for those feeling trapped by depression or by dark thoughts; for those wearied by the festive clamour and who long for quiet, for peace, and stillness.
But, if on Christmas Day, we really listen to that familiar story of a child born in the night, the sheen of a fairy-tale reading is stripped bare: as we are confronted instead with the realities of darkness and hopelessness, with uncertainties and yearnings for things to be other than what and how they are. If we allow it, it speaks directly into our own losses, and griefs, and sadnesses, and worries. It is a tale of a child born in literal darkness, in a real world caught up in the messiness of its past and present time, populated by those ostracised as disreputable and dishonest, those castigated for breaching the social mores of the age, in a landscape of violence and tragedy, in a world that was lost, imperfect and broken.
We paint our pictures of heaven and yearn for the perfect utopian future to be with us now. But our faith is one that firmly roots us in our reality, it does not ask us nor allow us to pretend things are okay when they are not, it will not even give us all the answers that we desire or need. Yet through all the vicissitudes of life, its ups and downs, however unwelcome and unpleasant that can become, what it holds out is that God will always give us ‘God’. God will be present, and God is already at work: not far off but close, not immune from our experiences, but understanding of them, for God has been there, and God has been here.
In just over a week, at the solstice – in the morning of the twenty-first, we will wake to the shortest day, and in turn to the longest night. But it will then be about three days and three nights before we will begin to observe the sun shining for longer than it had the day before. And though still very much in the darkness of winter, it will be a small glimmer that another summer is on its way, a sign of hope: and it is in that third night, when hope resurrects, we remember that a child was born, in the squalor of hardship and destitution and distress, and in that darkness God gives us God.
05 December 2021 – Second Sunday of Advent
What do you have planned for Christmas? Looking forward to seeing family you couldn’t see last year or dreading it – your first Christmas without someone you lost during the pandemic. However you feel about Christmas, it’s a time of year when many people feel under a lot of pressure: pressure to get the right presents and food, and to be full of Christmas cheer; to see people before deadline – as if January isn’t a good time to see people too as they might be busy with social activities in the next few weeks or taking your kids to parties; articles in women’s magazines about best dress for Christmas party season. I don’t know about any of the other women here today but I am not going to any parties in the next few weeks where I’ll need to wear a posh frock: I’ll be going to my work Christmas party on Friday in a Christmas jumper.
It’s easy to think there is a right way to do Christmas and compare ourselves and feel we’re failing. If you don’t feel like you fit in anyway – if you don’t feel ‘normal’ – you might feel even more like an outsider at this time of year. Reasons why people might not feel like they fit in include:
- Widow or widower
- Part of a single parent family or gay
- Use a food bank
- Treated differently because of the colour of your skin or your accent.
Do you feel different? You might have felt ashamed of who you are. Shame is feeling like something is wrong with you. Guilt is when you’ve made a mistake and done something wrong. Shame can make people behave in some very strange and difficult ways. You might not feel like you can be yourself, and so learn to put up a front in public and it’s exhausting. It can be hard to be around someone who feels ashamed.
Some may find Christmas really difficult and stressful, and when going home to see family this time of year can simply reminded them of how they didn’t really feel like they fitted in. Over time, it may be possible to learn that the best way to enjoy the festive season is not too expect too much from it. Expecting to bicker with the family, and to feel a bit up and down, sometimes makes it easier to cope.
Our perfect Christmas comes from adverts or the fiction of Charles Dickens. But no-one is going to have a perfect Christmas because it doesn’t actually exist. It’s not like the first Christmas was perfect, either! I’m talking here about the secular Christmas of presents and wrapping paper and chocolate, not real Christmas story. We’re in Advent; a time of watching and waiting. In the weeks ahead – we will hear how the Holy Family was on the run, refugees who were tolerated by an inn keeper and only recognised by a small number of outsiders.
We’ve heard in our readings today how the Word of God came to John the Baptist in the wilderness. The poetry of valleys being filled, and the crooked being made straight, may sound like something out of a Marvel movie: a computer-animated vision of what the world could be like.
But how did people respond to John the Baptist at the time? He’s a bit strange: all that eating of locusts and honey, and asking people to repent. Couldn’t he come in for a normal meal? He was probably seen as an outsider. Perhaps some people heard John the Baptist preaching and couldn’t listen – he was different: not like us.
A question for us all to consider this week is: how do we as Christians deal with outsiders? Do we tolerate them, and make polite noises but not take the time to get to know the real person? Or do we take the time to really include people and see them as a child of God? After all, God judges us by how we treat people – by what we do, not what we say. Talk is cheap, actions can be what counts.
Those living with mental health can sometimes simply feel tolerated at times. People try to be kind and they mean well, but the person may nevertheless not feel understood. What we all want when we are struggling is empathy, not sympathy. Sympathy is about saying ‘there there’, almost patting people on head and maybe giving them a cup of tea. It has its place – better to be sympathetic than mean – but it won’t ever help someone feel included or valued. Empathy isn’t necessarily about being kind: it’s about trying to understand the other person’s perspective and help them feel understood, not judged. Even if we don’t understand someone or even like them very much, we can show them empathy. With the example of people crossing the Channel, we can have concerns about a housing crisis in the UK, and where more people will live and also show empathy for people so desperate they cross Channel in boat.
No-one can be empathetic to everyone they meet. Whether you are on a bike, in car or a van, it is hard to not to get annoyed by other road users. When cycling in London, I don’t always have much empathy for drivers who get too close. But when driving with James, we have argued about cyclists. And we’ll always get on better with some people than others. But if we really want to build the Kingdom of God in this church and in our daily lives, we have to start with the people we know and meet. We have to ask ourselves if we are letting our assumptions about what someone is like get in the way of truly understanding them. Are we letting our assumptions about what someone is like get in the way of truly understanding them?
If we can notice when we are doing it – and we all do it, it’s just human nature – who knows what God might be trying to tell us if only we would listen; who knows what gifts might come alive if we give people the space to talk about them.
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28 November 2021 – First Sunday of Advent
I wonder, do you have a favourite film? Christmas seems to be the time when we tend to re-watch old favourites: when I was a child, we didn’t have a video recorder so we had to wait patiently for the re-runs of such old favourites as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins, at Christmas. E.T. used to always be on too and, for some reason, the film Die Hard trilogy seems to have become associated with Christmas – I don’t know why, but then I’m not sure I know why a flying car or a singing nanny are especially Christmassy either.
Most of us love watching films and I know there are some of us here who get really into them. Andrew, for example, loves going to the National Theatre to watch some really weird art-house films, whilst Christine appreciates films for another reason – it’s a good chance to have a sleep (I think she’s said that about a few of my sermons too, over the years). Before films were invented, we humans enjoyed going to theatres, if were rich, and perhaps sitting around, telling each other stories, if we were poor. In many cultures around the world, a person who is a good story teller is widely revered, and stories have been passed down from generation to generation, no doubt adapting and changing to the needs of each new relater and receiver.
Why do we like stories? Why do we enjoy films? One of the reasons, I think, is because they offer us a very clear narrative arc. What’s a narrative arc? Well, stories tend to start with a bit of character development – we find out who the people are. Then, some of the characters have a problem – maybe they find themselves in peril, or set out on an adventure, or fall in love in difficult circumstances. Then the action goes up and down a bit – sometimes it looks like things are going to be resolved, sometimes it doesn’t – before, finally, things ARE resolved, and normally in fiction – they all come good at the end. Everything is neatly tied up and we can leave all the characters, after ninety minutes or so, knowing that the people in the film or the story that we identified most with, ended up happy, and those we didn’t like, got their just deserts.
Perhaps we like such stories and films because we feel that this is how life is really meant to be. That in a perfect world, this is how our lives would be. They would be kind-of neat: we would get to know people first before we are beset by any problems; we would be able to face our problems knowing that there are some clear choices that we could make that would lead to good outcomes; and at the end – as the final credits of our life roll – we will be able to look back on it all and think, yes! Everything turned out ok.
The problem is, life isn’t often like that at all. More often than not, our lives are kind-of messy. We don’t always get a chance to know people well before we find that we must deal with our problems together; we don’t have a clear narrative arc that runs through our life, bringing us at the end to some kind of resolution. Life is often really puzzling – things happen to us that don’t seem to correspond with how our parents taught us it would be. Sometimes we get unjustly lucky (and let’s face it, when we look at those people who died crossing the Channel this week, I’d say that everyone who lives in the UK legally has got pretty lucky), and sometimes we are struck down with particularly bad luck, and I can think of many in this congregation who have suffered more than their fair share of that in these last few years. Life can be very hard to navigate sometimes – you know, the thing that I find hardest in life is not making the wrong decision about something when I know there is a right and wrong decision to be made. No, more often than not, the thing I find hardest is just not knowing what the right decision is. Sometimes, you are faced with choices and we just don’t know.
The good thing is, and I think that this is a good time of the year to remember this, as we start Advent, we start the Church’s year afresh – the story of Jesus doesn’t conform to the traditional idea of a film, at all. In fact, Jesus’s story conforms far more to the mess of our own lives than it does to some great film. He was born in a complete muddle, he immediately had to flee as a refugee to Egypt, to escape being killed. His family got these incredible gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, which they then had to sell to help get them to Egypt. Once they came back, he spent 30 years in complete obscurity, as a carpenter with his dad, then suddenly he bursts onto the scene, performing miracles, getting followers, generally annoying the powers that be, until he gets murdered – and on the cross he cries out to his Father: it’s a cry not of triumph, but of pain and essentially a cry of ‘has it really come to this?’ And then, afterwards, his followers scatter, utterly dejected, only to reform and realise that Christ is risen from the dead! And then, after his ascension, they scatter once more, to every corner of the world.
Talk about ups and downs! Where’s the brilliant happy ending where everyone is happy ever after? Ok, Jesus gets resurrected but for the rest of their lives, most of the disciples face immense peril and painful ends to their lives as they spread the gospel. What about their families? Those they left behind? What happens to them? It’s not a simple happy ending at all – much like in our lives, things are left, well, a bit messy – unresolved – threads remaining untied.
We had our Christmas Bazaar this weekend. Always a jolly affair, we took a bit of a risk this year and had it in church instead of the hall. And, after a bit of a slow start, people came in and spent their money, and families took pictures in front of the tree and children played with the nativity set and people came into a church they may never ever have set foot in before. And, as we put away the chairs and tables at the end of yesterday, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a happy ending – a return to something pre-covid, a place where people were happy to congregate and make merry again. And yet, as I headed home into the night, the storm clouds were moving in and a great wind beset Chingford. And there came on the news the story that Omicron was here, and that our vaccines may not be able to give us protection. And my mind was cast back to the gloom of lockdowns, of a church empty or almost empty, of no singing, of no Christmas. The narrative arc isn’t simple – it swings wildly from positive to negative in the space of a few hours.
Be ready, Jesus says in today’s reading, for the end of the world. It’s a pretty odd thing for us to think about, unsettling and strange, conjuring up visions of crackpot preachers at Hyde Park Corner. Of people in tin-foil hats, of fallout shelters and hastily packed boxes of tinned foods. Yet, perhaps, in the weirdness and up-and-downness of our lives, we need to remember that, like in any good film, there is in fact a happy ending to all this. God is, I suppose, the director of the greatest and longest film ever made. The film doesn’t conform to conventional timescales, in fact it doesn’t even conform to time, because our hours, days and even years mean nothing much to God.
There’s that hymn ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’. Well, actually, God has already worked his purpose out, and everything has happened already and is simultaneously happening right now, so we don’t need to worry too much about this whole narrative arc thing because the director of the film of your life and mine, knows what he is doing. He may not always let us know every stage direction – in fact he loves us so much that he often lets us deviate a long way from the intended script – but he tells us to be ready for the ending. Be ready for the credits, even when you don’t know what is going on in your life. Even when the choices you make are not clear or even when you feel you have made bad choices. Even when you are riding high, then the next minute, you are in the gutter. Even when you are afraid for the future. Because, God says, ‘heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’. Don’t be scared at the apocalyptic language that God uses – because the good news for us is that, just like the best films – at the very last, when everything looks like it will fail – with Christ, actually things will be ok.
21 November 2021 – Patronal Festival
The Feast of Christ the King ends the Church’s year and is not supposed to be transferred or missed. Yet most years, like this year, the last Sunday before Advent coincides with our Patronal Festival of Edmund, King and Martyr.
So this year I thought I would look at the similarities in the two festivals and where they diverge.
Both Jesus and Edmund were standing up for righteousness, both were killed for their beliefs, and both were killed for political reasons. But at this point they clearly diverge.
Edmund is king of an earthly kingdom, Jesus, whilst he received homage as a king at his birth from the Wise Men and is crucified as a king in opposition to Caesar, rules over a completely different kingdom.
Edmund was King of the East Angles, he was legitimately, as much as any were in those times, the ruler of the area, yet the raiding Vikings wanted to overthrow him and when he refused, to be their vassal, defending his people and his faith, they made a number of attempts to kill him, finally succeeding and usurping his throne and authority. Yet it is he who is remembered, indeed was originally the Patron Saint of England, not the unnamed invaders. He is remembered for his bravery and his unswerving faith in God.
Pilate asks Jesus, when he is brought before him, are you a king? Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? replies Jesus, who is very aware this is a political question, and a very dangerous one too. Pilate, a canny politician himself, and who had no intention of being thought anyone’s puppet, responds by saying am I a Jew? Pilate can only understand earthly power, earthly authority – in his world Caesar was both ruler and god. The two were intrinsically linked, and the link was power and dominion, but this power and rule could only be transitory, it would come to an end with the death of Caesar, and thus any opposition to that rule would be dealt with and put down ruthlessly. Pilate was scared as well as canny so he gave into the pressure to have Jesus put to death. The notice – King of the Jews was a warning to any who might think of opposing Roman rule in the future.
Yet as we know Pilate, and those who plotted against Jesus, did not succeed in ending his reign, because after three days he rose from the dead and his Kingdom, God’s Kingdom continues.
That which is of humanity is destined to fail, ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, humanity has failed, because human authority is not everlasting.
God’s dominion however is everlasting, it will not pass away. God’s Kingdom, which the Feast of Christ the King celebrates, is about the everlasting Kingdom of God. The kingdom where it is the power of love and righteousness that is the key. The ascended Christ has been revealed to be Lord of earth and heaven, and our prayer is that God’s Kingdom will be seen finally in all its fullness. But in that kingdom all will not be goodness, not until humanity turns away, repents, from all that is rotten, all that is evil in the world, and there is a long way to go before that is realised.
Edmund lived over 1000 years ago, standing up for righteousness and justice, and still all this time later humanity has not taken on the lessons of God’s power and love.
Love is patient, love is kind, it is never boastful or rude and does not insist on its’ own way, Paul tells the Corinthians. Love never comes to an end, but it cfan certainly be tested, as in our daily lives we are challenged. Yet when we face those challenges, when love is tested, we often find ourselves stronger and more certain of the right way forward.
Edmund, King and Martyr, who we celebrate today, was tested and challenged and ultimately gave his life for what he believed in. That belief was not about his earthly power, but his faith in God, and we celebrate him as king and martyr, one who gave his life for God, not personal gain.
Christ the King, who we also celebrate today, was tested and challenged, and also gave his life, not for gain but for us. His life was given for us, to bring us to that at-one-ment with God and all that God brings into our lives.
We will face challenges, we will be tested and yes even our faith may well be tested, but God is always there, listening, supporting, loving and waiting for us to turn again to God.
So the Feast of Christ the King and the Feast of St Edmund, King and Martyr have some similarities but the crucial difference is that Edmund gave his life for God, and Jesus gave his life for us.
That is an immense challenge for us to live up to, but we do not do this alone. Just as Edmund faced his persecutors in the belief that God was with him, so too we can face our challenges in the knowledge that God is with us, yesterday, today and forever. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
14 November 2021 – Remembrance Sunday
- In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
So wrote John McCrae, the physician and war poet, in 1915. By the time he died, from pneumonia, still in France in 1918, the poem had become so popular in his native Canada that it was being used as a propaganda tool to encourage recruitment of soldiers to the War. This was also the case in Britain where, by then, enthusiasm for the conflict had long since evaporated and recruits were hard to find. McRae wrote this poem after having officiated at the funeral of a friend, who had been killed in the Second Battle of Ypres. This was the first time that the Germans had used poison gas on British troops and many died terrible deaths, gasping for breath as the heavy gas refused to leave their lungs and stopped oxygen from getting through. It is perhaps easy to mock the slightly jingoistic quality of this poem nowadays – where we can see the full pointlessness really of the First World War, but perhaps if your friend had been killed by poison gas, you too would be exhorting others to take up the quarrel, to defeat these people who had committed such crimes.
Whatever you think of McRae’s poem, however, the poppy has become synonymous with the First World War, and with Remembrance generally. Nowadays we not only have the lapel poppy, but also large plastic ones which appear on people’s cars and around the lampposts on the Mount. You can wear a white one if you wish too, to symbolise peace. Poppies do not normally grow in large numbers in Flanders fields, I am told. It was just that the particular conditions of mud and vandalism wrought to human and animal bodies alike in that War meant that they did grow, and they reminded many of the men of the cornfields at home, because in the days before pesticides, of course many wildflowers would grow in the fields. The French have the cornflower instead for remembrance, for much the same reason.
In researching this sermon, it surprised me to learn that many troops kept gardens behind the front line in the War. Whilst periods of fighting were intense, they were also often very short, and there was much down-time, with little else to do. Packets of seeds were often sent from home and, by 1918, it is said that the British Army in France was entirely self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables as a result of the gardening proficiency of the men. But it was the flower gardens which apparently were their greatest delight. It is incredible to think that, amidst the horrors, these men who were required to spend their days shooting machine guns at each other, they walked among the gardens, tending their beds of annuals. I suppose if all around you is carnage and death, the garden is at least controllable, and the flower a thing of rare beauty amidst extreme anguish and ugliness.
‘Not one stone will be left on another’ Jesus tells his followers, when they are in another garden, this one on the Mount of Olives. Those who fought in the First War, and had seen – for the first time – not one stone left on another – might well have been forgiven for wondering whether this was Armageddon, although to be honest, one’s chances of survival were so slim that maybe it didn’t really matter either way. ‘Do not fear wars or rumours of wars’ Jesus tells his disciples – ‘this must take place’. An odd thing for the peace-loving Jesus to say, do you not think?
There can be a tendency by the powerful of the world to twist the words of Jesus to suit their own ends. Jesus says war is inevitable, they say, so this means that war is acceptable. Well, no. That’s like saying sin is inevitable, so it is ok for me to do whatever I like. In reality, the nature of humanity is such that we do not love each other as we should. It is such that terrible atrocities have occurred on our watch, and still do to this day. But that does not give us licence to shrug our shoulders and walk away, saying “nobody’s perfect”. In being called by Jesus to love God and love our neighbour, the central tenets of our faith, we are called back to the garden of delight, not towards the casting out into darkness of all hell, that hell a glimpse of which the soldiers witnessed all those years ago. The original garden was one of perfection, of Eden, a place where God and man could walk together. And Jesus shows us the way back there, but its clear that we do have a choice, and it’s not just about worshipping, it’s about how our worship informs how we act towards each other.
In the twentieth century, the world learnt how to create hell on such a large scale that in some ways humanity had a kind of reckoning with itself. We learnt how to completely destroy ourselves. And we are still at this moment in our history really – a crucial turning point. Will we heed the words of Christ? Will we foreswear our foolish ways? Will we learn the lessons of the past? Or are we doomed to always repeat ad nauseam, edging ever onwards towards the catastrophic climax that will lead to hell, whether on this earth or in another place. Ultimately, this choice is ours to make.
That would be a rather bleak place to leave it for today wouldn’t it, so let’s return to the poppy. In the autumn the petals fall and the seeds are cast far and wide on the wings of the wind. Both the poppy and the wind are God’s, as much as we are His. Like the poppy, let us bend to do God’s will and scatter our goodness far and wide. Let us mourn the dead, let us look after everyone and everything living, in the knowledge that it is all so precious, to ourselves and to God.
7 November 2021 – Third Sunday before Advent
All this year, we have been following the gospel according to Mark, and (now as we enter November coming to the end of the church’s year with the Kingdom season) we come back full circle to the beginning of his story. Unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke (written later), Mark isn’t particularly interested in providing us with the backstory of Jesus – there’s nothing about his earlier life, there’s no birth stories. Our gospel today starts fourteen verses into gospel, and in the thirteen verses before, Mark has already covered quite a bit of ground. In these few verses, John the Baptist has been introduced and quickly removed from the scene, but his fleeting appearance was long enough for him to baptise Jesus, who having been named as God’s beloved son, is sent scurrying off into the desert. In today’s reading, Jesus re-emerges walking into the Galilee, walking into history, walking into the lives of fishermen working by the shore of the sea.
The piece of music Chris played after the Gospel today was a song I sang when I was a young boy in the Good Shepherd Sunday School.
- I will make you fishers of men,
fishers of men, fishers of men.
I will make you fishers of men,
if you follow me.
If you follow me,
if you follow me,
I will make you fishers of men,
if you follow me.
And as you will notice, there are not really many words in this song. And to be honest, the song matches the reading we heard, which also very light on detail. In this short vignette of the calling of the first disciples, Jesus calls across to them, and they follow. The story doesn’t tell us whether these fishermen had known Jesus previously, whether they were expecting and awaiting his call to leave, or whether this was a chance encounter, with life-changing decisions made on the spur of the moment. And the story glosses over the potential impact of this happening on those caught up in it.
In first-century Palestine, the fishing industry comprised mainly of poor families living on subsistence levels. Yes, there were some who were wealthy and powerful, but it was a hard life both in terms of the labour involved (it was difficult work: working all year round, in all weathers, long hours, often at night) and in terms of rewards (often fishermen would find themselves exploited particularly with the commercialisation of fishing at the time, through fishing licenses, taxes on the fish they landed and tolls when transporting them to market). They didn’t necessarily even own the boats they used, but often these belonged to the brokers, who controlled the fishing ports and leased them to those who worked at sea.
As we heard in one of the few small details in today’s story, even when not at sea, much of their time and their lives were spent making nets from flax, or mending them, cleaning and drying them every day to stop them rotting and wearing out. This was time-consuming and constant work: some of these nets were large, such as seines (drag-nets) which could each be up to a couple of hundred feet long. Because of all this, fishing was very much a family-concern, with relatives all working together to share the burdens and to support each other. So, to lose the sons, the younger members of the team – even if that was allowing them to take a year out, a sabbatical, to follow this new Messiah – was a costly decision. It would likely split the family: we hear that John and James’s father Zebedee is left behind in the boat, and other members may have been uprooted from their homes, becoming part of the entourage of Jesus. (At certain later parts of the story the mother of James and John appears including, at some distance from her home, in Jerusalem witnessing the crucifixion). And of course, there was a financial cost, as minus free family labour the father left behind would be more reliant on hired labour.
Discipleship was a costly and disruptive affair not only for those called but also for those impacted upon by their decision, and the disciples would be painfully aware of that reality. But it lay not only in the impact on lives but also in terms of outlook and belief.
If we turn to our first reading today, we encounter the slightly pantomimesque and quite subversive tale of Jonah – perhaps the most disobedient or rebellious of God’s prophets in the Old Testament, and with a particularly bad attitude: mean, sulky, and kind of downright nasty. We only got part of the story today but in a nutshell the full story tells of how God calls Jonah to go and preach against Israel’s bitter enemy, the evil and unjust Assyrian Empire, deep in its heart: in its capital city of Nineveh. And having heard the call, Jonah promptly runs off in the opposite direction to get as far away from Nineveh as possible, chartering a ship and fleeing across the sea. God (of course) is unimpressed and sends a storm, which is where the part of the story you may be more familiar with – Jonah and the Whale – kicks in. Swallowed by the whale, the huge fish vomits the prophet back up on dry land and God calls him again to go to Nineveh. And surprisingly this time he does, and he tells them in the city (in as little detail as possible) that they were going to be punished. But there’s a twist in the story, as the people of Nineveh – these evil, ungodly people in Jonah’s eyes – repent, and (worse than that for Jonah) God himself repents, he has a mind-change, he decides actually he won’t destroy the city. And Jonah goes mental, he harangues God in prayer, telling him that this was exactly why he ran away in the first place as he knew God couldn’t be relied on to see the job through but that, in the end, he would slide back into being merciful, annoyingly allowing his compassionate side to come out and to forgive the horrible Ninevites. And as the story plays out God confronts the angry prophet and challenges his anger, but Jonah just has none of it, God is wrong, Jonah’s anger is quite justifiable, and he challenges God to kill him as he particularly doesn’t like this weak God who didn’t act how he expected him to act. And that’s how the story ends: Jonah in a sulk, and God asking him permission to show mercy to his enemies. The whole story is very much a satire, and a rather peculiar one to boot.
These two stories – the gospel and this Old Testament tale – are quite different, but both show the challenges of God’s calling. The challenge for the first disciples is that, in following the Messiah who will turn the world upside down, their own worlds will also be upturned, flipped and unsettled. The life of a disciple isn’t a comfortable option: a Sunday hour, to feed a spiritual hunger, to buy into a promotion scheme that pays dividends in a reward after death. The ‘good news’ is not somewhere further down the line, the ‘good news’ is now and here and present, and requiring us to respond now, to act now, to do now.
And the challenge for Jonah, is also that, in turning the world upside down, our own worlds and how we view them are also upturned, wrong-footed, and embarrassed. Nothing irritates religious people more than “the abounding, annoying mercy of God” which often irks and fuels self-righteousness. The ‘good news’ requires us not only to step up to the mark in terms of action, but also in challenging our own prejudices and certitudes.
‘And Jesus went into Galilee, shouting “Good news! The time is now, God’s kingdom is in touching distance, change your purpose, change your thinking.”’ Don’t cling to certainties, but trust with all the uncertainty that brings. And that challenge is ours as well. How does Jesus’s cry of “Good news!” shake us out of our safe places, out of our ‘business as usual’ comfort, what might be the jobs we are being called to that we would rather not do, the issues that we would rather not face, the messages we would rather not deliver? Jesus calls us to repent, to change our minds, to change what we are about. It is not about the comfort of faith, it is rather all about being open to the challenges of our calling.
OCTOBER 2021: 31-OCT (All Souls), 31-OCT (All Saints), 24-OCT, 17-OCT, 10-OCT, 03-OCT
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31 October 2021 – All Souls’ Service
They say that death is the most difficult fact of life that we must bear, and yet all too often in today’s world our society, it seems, isn’t very interested in death. In past centuries, and even today in culture other to our own, the mourning of a loved one might take weeks or even months. Queen Victoria wore black clothes for years after the death of her husband, for instance, but it seems like nowadays we are almost expected to be jolly, to pick ourselves by the bootstraps and to carry on, for the sake of everyone else but ourselves. Perhaps this strange denial of people’s need to mourn is something that we need to be wary of.
C S Lewis, who wrote The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, amongst many other books, said on the death of his wife: “An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet….“. Sometimes, when we are grieving, it seems like we must bear a double burden – of carrying our own pain, but also being conscious not to be a burden on others. Maybe you have sometimes felt like this – felt the need to put on your best face, so as not to be thought badly of. Yet when you return home, the face comes off and the feelings of loss and of loneliness return.
If that resonates with you at all, please know that you are not alone. Here, you are among people who, day by day, live with those same thoughts, that same ache and emptiness where a loved one once was. That feeling of loneliness when we are bereaved need not be compounded by a feeling that you alone are somehow doing this badly, somehow not coping. Unlike the poem says – death is not nothing at all, not really. It is something that deeply affects us, when we lose someone who has been part of us. And actually, to miss someone very much indeed is a perfectly understandable and natural emotion. Why should missing that person be an emotion that disappears the day after a funeral? After all, it would have been a strange relationship or friendship indeed if those thoughts did just disappear overnight, or ever, even.
Over the decades, this particular building has witnessed the joys and sorrows of generations of Chingford folk. And now, it is a place where you can be safe to express your emotions, knowing that you are among friends; a special and sacred space where people can feel, not only that they are safe to mourn, but sometimes, where they feel that they can even be closer once again to those that they love who have gone before.
But this building is also about thanksgiving. Being thankful is not always easy in life – in fact it takes a lot of practice in a world that mainly teaches us to always want more than what we’ve got. Being thankful can be doubly difficult when we are in pain or when we are sorrowful, but I suggest to you that today might be a good day to also be thankful for that person or people you came here to remember, thankful for all that they did in their lives, for who they were, for what part of your soul they touched. Because thanksgiving isn’t about forced jollity, it’s not about putting on a brave face. Rather, it’s about acknowledging that we are blessed by each other, and having had people in our lives, even if not for our whole lives, that we loved, or that loved us in whatever way, is cause to be thankful, and to know that – when it is our time to go – others will feel the same way of us.
You are not alone in how you feel, no matter how lonely grief can feel. The world is not one happy carefree place that is going on without you – rather, it is a planet of people, all struggling with their own troubles. Don’t feel you should not be sad, but rather let your mourning, your sadness at your loss, also be tinged with a sense of thanksgiving for that person’s life, a sense of thankfulness that they helped make you who you are.
31 October 2021 – All Saints’ Sunday
Those of you who attended St Edmund’s Church on All Saints Day two years ago may remember that I got you to write down a nomination for your favourite saint. We had over fifty nominations, and they were many and varied. Because of course, I didn’t ask people to choose their favourite from a list of those famous holies that the Anglican or Catholic church call saints, like St Mary or St Francis, but rather, I asked you to choose from everyone in history – who you would like to canonise.
As I say, the responses were diverse – ranging from fairly traditional choices, through to people from this parish now dead, who gave a lifetime of service to Chingford, to close friends and even family members who had helped people through difficult times. Two years seems a long time ago now, given all that we’ve been through since. I wonder whether the past years and all the chaos and misery we have seen has given you cause for any new nominations for saints? Maybe if we repeated the exercise today, some more names would be added to the list.
The responses you gave two years ago made me think hard about the nature of sainthood, and I’ve been wondering about it on and off ever since. The Catholic half of the Church of England seem to love celebrating saints’ days, whilst the evangelical half seem to eschew the whole idea of sainthood as being something rather suspicious and unbiblical. So, what is the point of sainthood and what is it that makes us see saintly characteristics in the lives of others?
I seem to have preached on All Saints quite a lot, because in my sermon one year ago, I think we saw that not every saint is exactly a perfect person. In fact, I’d argue no saint is a perfect person – only Jesus is perfect. So, if we’re not trying to make out that these people that we call saints are perfect, what are we trying to say about them?
In trying to work this out, I turned to this week’s gospel reading. In it, we have Jesus visited by Mary, of Mary and Martha fame. Her brother, Lazarus, has died, and she says directly to Jesus – if you had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. And Jesus is perhaps a little stunned at this. It doesn’t record that he has any answer for Mary’s accusation at all – I fact it says that he was greatly disturbed by the news of his friend’s death, and maybe also disturbed by the fact that Mary literally says to him, you should have been there for him. What he asks, is: ‘where is Lazarus’. And he goes to the cave where Lazarus’s grave is, and where the body lays. The King James Version of the Bible, which we tend not to use so much these days, is pretty direct about how long Lazarus has already been dead – it has Martha remark that “the body already stinketh”. He had been dead four days. And Jesus says to the Father, “thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me, but I say this for the sake of the crowd who are judging me, and indeed judging you”. He orders Lazarus to come out of the grave, and the rest – as they say – is history.
What has this to do with what makes a saint, I hear you ask? Does this mean the curate is saying Jesus is a saint, or Lazarus is a saint? Well, no, I’m not saying that. Jesus is not a saint because he’s God, and we don’t really know that much about Lazarus, certainly not enough to give him any saintly characteristics. So what am I saying? Well, let’s go back to those words that Jesus says: ‘Father, I thank you for listening to me, and I know that you always listen to me’. In this sentence is the summation of faith that I think we might say that everyone who is truly recognised as a saint has in abundance. Saints are often recognised for their good works, yes, but even more so they are recognised for the fact that these works are grounded in a kind of serenity that comes from knowing that they are loved and listened to in prayer by Almighty God. This serenity can’t be faked, because it is often tested in the most awful of circumstances imaginable, and in the true saints it is not found wanting. There is a peacefulness about those who really do walk with God – that whatever life has to throw at them, they know they are not alone.
That isn’t to say the saints have perfect faith: I’m sure they don’t, and even Jesus himself had moments where he was worried, where he was tempted, where he wondered where God was in the midst of all the mess and the fear. But with the saints, ultimately, there is a sense in which the boundaries between life and death become blurred because there is always that quiet confidence that, even if I die, it will be alright.
It’s not by some random assignation that we celebrate All Saints the day after we celebrate All Souls. On All Souls, we remember the dead, and we cannot forget that amidst all of life, death is not far away. These last few years have taught us that we are more vulnerable than we like to think. And in the longer term, the very life and death of the planet we live on is being discussed as an urgent matter at the COP26 conference in Glasgow this week. Yet, whilst we must face death, decay and change, as humans, we need to remember that in the midst of death, life breaks forth. We may not be able to raise Lazarus from his tomb, but in Christianity we do have a faith that literally looks death in the face and rebukes it: ‘Oh death, where is thy sting?’ St Paul asks confidently in Corinthians, ‘Oh grave, where thy victory?’
So, what is a saint? Are they just a really good person? No, I say, there is something else about true saints – and that is a contentment with the fact that this world and the next world are not completely separate. For saints, the next world is as much at hand as this one, and because of that they can face the difficulties and temptations of this world with no fear. These are human beings just like you and me, but we need to look to their faith – faith that could move mountains – to see where we need to aim. So yes, we need to do good and be good, if you’ll pardon the childish expression, but we also need to kindle our inner life, our spiritual life. We need to sort out what really matters in life, and we need to be brave, we need to look death in the face and ask with full confidence of the knowledge of the resurrection, “where really, oh death, is your victory?”
24 October 2021 – Last Sunday after Trinity
Needs and Wants
‘I need!’ No, you want or would like, is a conversation we often have with the young, and sometimes not so young, children. As their vocabulary increases so they come to understand the difference between need and want, and then perhaps want becomes the overriding demand!
A need is necessary, a want is something we desire, and there can be a real danger that too often we confuse the two. A want can very much be part of a need, but not always. We may not actually be clear on what is actually necessary in our lives, and what is a desire.
Over the years a tool I have used to discern the difference is called Action Learning. As the name suggest one learns by action. One person brings a concern to the small group, who each in turn ask questions about the issue. Importantly they do not offer advice or solutions, because that advice or solution is their answer not that of the person who has come with the issue. Instead, they pose questions which enable the presenter to work out the solution themselves. It is a very powerful tool, and many a time I have seen that light bulb moment, the enlightenment and sometimes the transformation, when the presenter realises that what they thought was the issue Is not the case; it is something completely different. Now they can unlock the way forward, and what they need is clear.
In a similar way our gospel today seeks to clarify needs and wants. Bartimaeus is blind, and as such is begging by the roadside. When he hears Jesus is close by he calls out. What exactly is he calling for? In the Greek mercy can mean charity, but his call is not for money, as it might seem, after all he is begging; his call is for something deeper. He wants compassion or forgiveness for his suffering, for such was illness or infirmity seen.
But Jesus hears beyond that and asks Bartimaeus ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ What is your wish, what is your desire? And the reply? ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ We tend to hear the words let me see again, but the preface is important. My teacher, my rabbi. Jesus understands that the blind man’s need is not just for physical sight, but a need to be seen, to be valued, which Bartimaeus believes his blindness has taken away from him.
Jesus sees in him a need to be the faithful disciple that Bartimaeus does not think he can be in his present condition, something he has not voiced even to himself. Jesus recognises that need and in asking him the question enables Bartimaeus to find what he desires and what he needs.
Jesus responds by saying ‘Go, your faith has made you well’ and Bartimaeus understands that he is worthy, that his faith is up to the task of following God. And is that perhaps us at times, we feel unworthy, not up to the task of being a follower of God?
In his earthly life Jesus looked at people, called and recognised their true needs. Jesus as intercessor continues to do that, not in a passive passing on of requests, but as a genuine gateway between what we think we need, and what God call us into.
When faced with challenges in our lives, is our first reaction I am up to this, or do we question our ability, our resilience, our worthiness? Do we think in our daily lives of what we want, or of what we truly need. Sometimes it is far easier, and more comfortable even, I would suggest, to think of our immediate desires, our material requirements, than to look at what we really need in our lives. Of course we need food, water and shelter, but beyond those needs, those necessities, what then actually sustains you, what gives you a feeling of worth, and what enables you to grow?
God wants and desires us to understand those needs, as God asks us what do you want me to do for you? And when we answer it is those deep seated needs, the ones we haven’t necessarily recognised or asked ourselves about that God calls us to reflect on.
In our prayers are we focusing on the day to day, important thought that may be, or are we looking wider and deeper? Bartimaeus called Jesus, he grasped the moment to ask for help in understanding what it was he truly wanted and needed. He asked for his sight to be restored, perhaps indicating that he had physical sight previously, but Jesus saw beyond that initial request to the deeper search by Bartimaeus as to who he really was. Looking inward at ourselves and asking the question who am I, who do I want to be is how we grow, how we find the self that God sees and wants us to discover. Others may already have seen something in us, that we have not, and may be able to help us to discover our deeper self, but ultimately it is ourself who will understand as we reflect on that constant question from God, what do you want me to do for you?
So what do you need God to do in your lives? Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
17 October 2021 – Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
It is good to be worshipping together at the beginning of One World Week, as we consider what we can do together to further God’s Kingdom throughout the world.
In 2016, in celebration of the Queen’s 90th Birthday, a book was released entitled ‘The Servant Queen’ and then in smaller print beneath, ‘and the King she serves’.
At the coronation in 1953, the Queen made promises to serve the country, amongst other things. She has an entourage of people to help her in her role, but she openly admits that her life has been one of service to our nation.
In spite of all she has been through, the ups and downs of family life, the deaths of her mother, sister and husband, all within the last 21 years, the fire at Windsor Castle, and all that she has had to contend with, she has navigated a steady course, enabling the stability of the country, and continuing to serve the British people.
One of the most poignant acts of service carried out by Her Majesty, is the distribution of the Maundy money to those nominated to receive it, in recognition of their services to local churches or community. Up until 1730, the Monarch did wash the feet of recipients on Maundy Thursday, but since then, a gift of money has been made instead.
Our readings today focus on Jesus as a servant. The passage from Isaiah 53 speaks of Jesus as the suffering servant. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would come, 680 years before it happened, and that he would suffer for what he stood for, giving his life as a ransom for many.
Of course, we are 2020 years on the other side of BC/AD and we can look back and see how all this came true. We read of Jesus’ life and of all that he did both in the gospel of Mark and also from the author of the Book of Hebrews.
Jesus did suffer through his trial, arrest and death on the cross, but thankfully overcame all at the resurrection. In the lesson from the book of Hebrews, Jesus is referred to as the High Priest. He was very down to earth, lived among the people, dressing as they did and facing the everyday challenges that confront us all.
If we want to be a servant of Christ, the role carries with it both prestige and obedience. As I look at the disciples, James and John, they made a huge assumption in asking Jesus if they could sit at his right and his left in glory. In Matthew’s gospel, it is their mother who makes this request of Jesus, but the intimation is the same. James and John were seeking a special favour in the heavenly kingdom.
You can imagine how angry the other disciples must have been when they discovered the request made by the two brothers. They were probably incensed, after all, what was it that was special about James and John which they did not have?
It is not our achievements in life that will be rewarded but our faithfulness. As Judith Dimond writes, ‘We will be saved by grace, not by competition’. Mother Teresa said that God doe not call us to be successful, but to be faithful. She gave a life of service to the poor and destitute of Calcutta. If anyone knows how to be the servant of all, it is Mother, or should I now say, Saint Teresa.
There will be no table in heaven where the elite will sit, and another one in a lesser location for the poor and the unloved. Jesus dismantled the value systems of the world and does not need us to reintroduce them.
Twenty years ago, I worked as a Chaplain in a Detention Centre, a place where people coming in to the country without the right papers would go while their application was considered. One day, as I was walking through the compound, a tall fellow, a detainee approached me and said, ‘You ain’t a real Priest. If you were, you would be able to get me into the United Kingdom’. In a polite but firm voice I responded, ‘The only kingdom that I can point you towards is the Kingdom of Heaven’.
The words that spoke most profoundly to me from all the readings we heard today, were those from Mark’s gospel, chapter 10 verse 43, ‘Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be slave of all’. This means sometimes having to cope with the unkempt and unruly, the drunk and disorderly, the drug addict, those who have committed crimes, the dishonest and the unlovely, as well as everyone alongside whom it is easy to journey.
The word ‘deacon’ comes from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘ servant, waiting-person, minister’. Within both the Anglican and Methodist churches, we have those who are called deacons and ministers, whose role is one of service. But we each belong to the ministry of all believers and in a sense we are all servants of the great High Priest whom we hold in such high esteem.
The Queen holds one of the highest, if not the highest position in the Land, and yet, she does not crave the limelight. By her example, she shows us how to treat one another. In many of her speeches to the nation, she mentions the impact her faith has had on her life, and what being a Christian means to her. The servant Queen speaks of the King she serves and of the importance he retains in her life.
May God continue to guide us in all that we do for him, and in the words from the Methodist Covenant service , both when ‘we are exalted for him or laid low for him’. And may God sustain us, as he sustained his own Son, Jesus, to be obedient and faithful to our life’s end. Amen.
Hilary Cheng (Minister: South Chingford Methodist Church)
10 October 2021 – Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
It seems like, in these few weeks towards the end of the church’s year when we’ve been reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is giving us some pretty harsh stuff. If you remember last week there was some pretty hard stuff on divorce, and then this week there is hard stuff on money and your life, and other things we build up and at times hold dear.
I’m going to give you a little portrait of three different people who I’ve had cause to speak to or interact with this week – none of whom (you’ll be relieved to learn) you know.
Let’s call the first one Person ‘A’, a friend of mine. Do you have some friends who – though they will always be your friends – still annoy you a bit? You could always ring their neck a little bit, though they are still your mate. ‘A’ is a very ambitious man; and everything he does is sort of brown-nosing someone else, because he’s always got his eye on the next job. This week he got an extremely good job – one that almost no-one else would think possible to get for his level of experience. And for this week, he’ll be happy. But I bet you (for anything you like) that at the beginning of next week, he will begin to start thinking about his next job. And he will start brown-nosing for that next job in two-and-a-half years’ time. Some people are just like that (aren’t they) – we’re all a bit like that sometimes: we always want the next thing in life. And there’s a sense in which, if you were very, very ambitious, you are never very happy, because whatever you’ve got it is never enough. I think sometimes in life, those people end up most disappointed, even though on the surface they’ve been the most successful.
I wonder actually if the man in the reading was a bit like ‘A.’ He had got everything, and lived a very pious life, done everything according to the laws, he had got his wealth, and he met Jesus on this road. In some translations, it’s on the road to nowhere. We don’t know where Jesus is going. I wonder if that’s an interesting point, because this man is also on this road. Despite all he’s got, he is on the road to nowhere. And Jesus meets him there.
The bits of this reading that people always remember (of course) are the bits where Jesus says ‘all right, you’ve done all that – sell all your stuff, sell all your possessions, go on.’ What people don’t always remember is Jesus looking on this man with love. It says that, and this very important because we have to remember that, though this is a huge challenge to us all and though we have different levels of riches, we are all comparatively rich in this country. Jesus looks on us, even in our failures, in love.
My second pen portrait is a lady named ‘B’. ‘B’ is now in her 90s, and I’ve known her all my life. ‘B’ was my mum’s Sunday School teacher, about 60 years ago. ‘B’ lives in the same council house that she’s lived in since she was married in 1951. She lives in the same village that she’s lived in since she was born. With some houses, you can tell exactly when they were decorated because they are of that era. With ‘B’’s house you can’t, because everything is so sparsely decorated and so sparsely furnished because she never had much money. She has a garden full of flowers and vegetables. Her husband was a road sweeper and was killed whilst sweeping the road by a car when her children were young. She didn’t remarry, she was left to survive and bring up the children: which she did exceptionally well – on almost no money at all, only a small widow’s pension.
I remember going to a big party in the village where she lived – a lovely place just outside Chelmsford. There are a lot of London commuters there and the houses are now worth a lot of money. We went to this party of people who were leaving, a rather unlikely party for ‘B’ to be at with champagne and swimming pool and goodness knows what else. And I said to her, ‘Gosh, look at this – it’s amazing.’ And she said to me, ‘Yes, but it’s about being happy with what you’ve got, isn’t it?’ It makes you think: (if someone can live their life with almost nothing in a place of such wealth and (despite she lost her husband so young in life) what a witness! What a witness that is in that community.
The third pen portrait is ‘C’. ‘C’ is someone I got to know when I spent some time in Marsabit in Kenya, which is (as you are probably bored of me telling you) the diocese Chelmsford is linked with. Marsabit is a place which is in the desert. The Chalbi desert is not far from Ethiopian border and the Somalian border. It is a fairly lawless place, there are a lot of Islamic fundamentalists who come over from the border with Somalia. There is also inter-tribal warfare; the four main tribes all of which pretty much hate each other’s guts. There is constant fighting.
‘C’ is a member of the Anglican church there. He didn’t have much of an education but he did well for himself and he managed to get a job – quite a well-paid job – with the county government in Marsabit, He started his job and he was good at it, but unfortunately (due to the tribal warfare) anyone from his tribe who was good at their job never got paid and eventually got dismissed. So, after eight months of working there for no money, patiently waiting for his salary, he found himself out of a job. He’s been out of his job now for four or five years, but he never quite gave up the hope that he would get justice. I’m pleased to say that, in this past week, his court case finally came and the judge ruled that he had been unfairly dismissed. He ruled that the county government had to pay him, not only for the months he had worked but for all of the five years since he had been dismissed. After this time of great worry and strife, wondering how he would get his children through school (which is very expensive there), his wife is disabled, he has now got his job back. The problem is he became a priest in the meantime.
So, what does this reading say to him? There is great shortage of clergy in that part of the world. He is now a priest, he is doing a job as a Vicar, that pays him a quarter of what he might get from the county government. This is a country where people can’t really afford not to take a better job if it is given to them. What does Jesus say to ‘C’? Does he say ‘sell your things’? ‘You’re a Vicar, don’t take the job at county government’? ‘Don’t be able to afford health care or school for your children’? I don’t have answers for that. Although, it’s worth remembering that the original disciples were probably in a situation more like ‘C’ or ‘B’ than they are in the situation of me or you or ‘A’.
What do we make of this? One thing that jumps out at me from this reading (other than the phrase I was talking about earlier) is that the man went away grieving. I suppose, I’ve always imagined that he went away grieving because Jesus asked him to do something (‘sell all your possessions’) and he couldn’t do it. It was too much for him. But what if actually he went away grieving because he had decided to do it. Maybe, actually, he thought ‘you know what, I will do it.’ Sometimes when we chose to do something that is right, we don’t get that happy feeling inside.
We are taught that, if you do the right thing, you will feel really good. But part of growing up is knowing that doesn’t always happen, and sometimes doing the right thing is incredibly difficult and it will leave us with grief. If you need to leave everything behind, as some of you may have in life, it isn’t going to make you feel righteous and happy necessarily. It’s going to cause you grief. And the second part of growing up is knowing sometimes there isn’t a decision A that is obviously right and a decision B that is obviously wrong. There are various shades of grey, and sometimes knowing what is right in a situation and knowing what is wrong in a situation is not clear cut. That is one of the clear challenges of living our faith. We do not always know what to do. ‘What would Jesus do?’ the Evangelicals ask us, and to their question I sometimes would answer ‘I don’t know.’
To unpackage this reading, we have to look at it in our own situation, and maybe as Christmas is just around the corner remember that the verse from that well-known Christmas carol,
- What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Give your heart. What does that mean for you? Perhaps it does mean selling all your stuff. Perhaps it means doing the right thing in a situation where you know it will grieve you to do so. Maybe it means letting go of something that has grieved you in the past. Maybe it means forgiving somebody. Maybe it means starting afresh. Maybe it means trying something new. Maybe it means getting to know the person next to you in church, or behind you. Maybe it means praying. Maybe it means coming each week to this place. Maybe it means getting involved more. It’s a challenge giving your heart. It’s not something you do because it means you don’t have to do anything else, because giving your heart is giving your everything.
3 October 2021 – Animal Welfare Sunday (Last Sunday in Creation Season)
So! one day, God created the world. It was earth, and that’s all it was ‘earth’, hard and lifeless, ground, a base with nothing on it at all. It was so dry that there weren’t even any shrubs let alone any grass, but then again it was only the start and there hadn’t even been any rain. But, of course, that would change; and over the hard lifeless rock a mist ascended enveloping it, and its vapours watered the whole dry land. And God got to work, pottering around. He scooped up the dampened soil, and from the muddy clay he squeezed a ruddy human into shape. And with a puff, he blew hard into the nose holes of the human, and God’s breath entered into him and it gave him life.
Next, God enclosed some of the land and busily began to plant a pleasure garden in that same muddy clay from which the human was made, and – when done – popped the human in it. And the garden was not only beautiful but practical as well, full of trees for his every need, with rivers for water, and minerals for healing and adornment. But the human was there alone by himself, and God could see that really wasn’t particularly good. And so, he created animal after animal, bird after bird, and brought each in turn to the human, as other living creations to live with and to be with him. But each time the human rejected the creation, and gave it another name than his own, until one day God realised that the human would only be content with himself and so placing him in a stupor he tore off part of him and created yet another human.
First things first: let me introduce my fellow preacher this morning. Many of you may already know Ulises – or Uli – as he was a regular congregant at our 10 o’clock Sunday services before lockdown. He’s only 2 years and 9 months, and was a rescue dog from Murcia in Spain. He had been on the streets, and was found in a car park. We are not sure if he escaped or was abandoned. The sad fact is many dogs are dumped by their owners in the countryside to die of thirst and hunger, and – like many dogs in that position – he is likely to have ended up in a steel cage in a municipal pound (these often called ‘killing stations’) destined to be put down. Fortunately, however, Uli ended up at the Refugio del Viento (the Refuge from the Wind) in Totana, and eventually (after some time) a family came forward and fell in love with this scruffy terrier/pointer mixed breed, and here he is, having arrived in the UK exactly two years ago. His given name is perhaps well chosen – Ulysses: the Trojan War hero who undertook a long protracted journey, facing temptations and danger, as he searched for a place he called home. A ‘cartoon dog’ (as other Chase Lane park dog walkers affectionately refer to him): not a prissy thoroughbred or one of the current high-demand must-have breeds, but a mongrel – a unique mixed breed, the result more of natural selection rather than human intervention. Now, Uli hasn’t yet been authorised by the Bishop for preaching, and so I’m doing the wordy bit but he is doing the more important job of putting flesh on those words… “Preach and, if necessary, use words,” as said (purportedly) by Francis of Assisi, who died 795 years ago today.
So let’s catch up on this last month: since the beginning of September, we have been keeping Creation Season. This gives us an opportunity to consider our impact on God’s creation, of which we are but a part. We have considered how our planet is on the verge of a climate catastrophe; how humankind itself is trashing this great gift of God; how the dynamics of power and the call to vulnerability come into play; how the precariousness of life and harvest failure requires us to think of our right relationship with God in prayer. Confronted by the crisis we face, the language we hear is still very much anthropocentric – human-centred. The crisis is seen as the horror of our extinction; the potential of not being able to pass the world on to our children and their children in turn; constraints and limitations imposed on to our expectations and demands, citing our rights to live and do as we please. And even with the recent pandemic having provided opportunity to pause, reflect, and to readjust our priorities – now that the immediate crisis is subsiding, we are rushing back to the former normality of putting ourselves first (“me, mine and my folk”) rather than our collective society and the wider environment and created order.
The lesson John read for us today is the second (and – most likely – the oldest) version of the two creation stories in Genesis. The two stories are quite different. The first one – the one we hear most often – is well crafted, ordered, with symmetry in its telling, God calling forth creation by his word, across six days of activity, marvelling each day at how good it was, culminating with humankind made in God’s image: stewards of all God’s good creation. So good, that on the seventh day, there really wasn’t anything to do, apart from break and rest: for creation was complete, creation was very good. And then there is this second account that we heard today: busy and mucky. Creation (not called into being by the word of God commanding it to be but) by God labouring and toiling with his hands, tearing the dust and clay from the ground. The clay from which humankind was moulded, is the same clay in which the garden is planted and from which trees and plants grow, the same clay from which the animals and birds were also formed. In this version, humankind is not created with dominance over the rest of creation, but rather all that God creates has a common origin, and has a mutual and equal purpose. In this version, the creation of a first human – alone and disconnected – is not good, and in the creation of animals and birds God sees these as suitable companions, helpers and partners for his first creation of humankind.
Too often when we think of St Francis, it is a stereotype we call up: some mediaeval, male version of Disney’s Snow White, attended by an entourage of birds and animals, very cutesy, gladdening the heart, and with the expectation that at any moment it will all break into a song. But Francis wasn’t sentimental, instead Francis was unapologetically radical. He preached – that message from the first Creation story – that the world was created good, but combined with that a deep sense of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all creation, with which we are confronted in the second Creation story. Not only was the whole of creation the work of the hand of God, but also God was reflected in the whole of creation, in all of nature. Francis celebrated the presence of God through the natural world: celebrating the kinship, the equal relationship of all ‘creatures’ – human and non human, animate and inanimate.
We heard and sang about this in our Gradual hymn, Laudato si’, based on a poem by Francis of Assisi; the poem on which the hymn ‘All creatures of our God and King’ is also based. In the poem, Francis gives thanks to God for the whole of creation. Not just God’s human creation, nor just animals or living things, but everything God has made. He sees the whole of creation, everything, as being of God, born out of the same creative love. He invokes Sir Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Sister Mother Earth. And before we get too comfortable, and read this as some twee theology, the dying Francis also throws in to this song of praise our Sister Death, itself an irreducible part of creation.
It takes seriously a theology of creation which sees all things, living and lifeless, animate and inanimate, as being of God, mutually reflecting God, everything brother and sister together, all children of the same creative God: a community of creation brought into being out of his love. So we are not in control, creation was not made for us, creation rather was an act of love created for God’s own purposes. Unlike the classic Disney cartoons, where at key moments everyone does (irritatingly) break into song, for Francis the whole of creation is a song in itself – the life, the being, the existence of every part being the praise of the God who made it.
The current pope – Pope Francis, who chose that papal name specifically in honour of Assisi’s saint – writing in 2015 in an encyclical which he titled Laudato si’, said that the life and vision of St Francis was ‘a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.’
God is the source of my life and my being, of your life and your being, of Uli’s life and Uli’s being. And that understanding, that the fullness of God is expressed in all of creation, and not just for the benefit of humankind, requires us to consider how we view our fellow brothers and sisters of creation: how we treat animals as commodities for food, clothing, medical research, ‘sport’ and entertainment; how we exploit nature as simply tools and resources for our benefit; how by making creation simply a human-focussed concern, humanity risks itself becoming an idol, a blasphemy, dethroning God in our depredation of his creation.
The second Creation story, unlike the first, does not claim that we are created in the image of God, but rather (as the story continues) through wiliness and deception humankind steals the likeness of God, risking creation by seeking to place himself above it, making himself a god, and in doing so he loses it all and loses his place in paradise.
- … created animal after animal, bird after bird, and brought each in turn to the human, as other living creations to live with and to be with him. But each time the human rejected the creation, the human would only be content with himself.
Colin Setchfield & Ulises the dog
SEPTEMBER 2021: 26-SEP, 19-SEP, 12-SEP, 05-SEP
PREVIOUS MONTHS: AUG, JUL, JUN, MAY, APRIL, MARCH, FEBRUARY, JANUARY
PREVIOUS YEARS: 2020
26 SEPTEMBER 2021 – Harvest Thanksgiving (Fourth Sunday in Creation Season)
Harvest Festival is one of those times when I feel that there is a chance for us to be genuinely connected with our ancestors, wherever they happened to live in the world. It is a festival of thanksgiving to God for the harvest, but I think in times gone by it was probably a festival that expressed communities’ considerable relief that there would be enough food to see them through for another year. Whereas we live in an age of relative plenty and all-year-round availability – where, if I want tangerines in January or Blackberries in June, I can go to Sainsbury’s and they’ll be there – this is obviously a very modern invention, one new enough that even some people here will remember a world where this wasn’t the case. And in the past, times of the year where there was nothing ready to harvest would have meant trying to survive on whatever one had left – much of it stale, mouldy or half-rotted. This was, I would imagine, a pretty miserable existence. Imagine the joy, therefore, of biting into some fresh fruit or vegetables as soon as they had been harvested! After months of just surviving, you had the opportunity to taste richness again.
Harvest time was also the hardest time of the year for labourers. It is the root of why our school holidays are set as they are, with the children being released from school in the summer to help with getting the harvest in, and then returning to school in September once most of the hard work had been done. In the days before farm machinery, most people worked on the land and what hard work it was. Nowadays, those parts of agriculture that can’t be mechanised, really struggle to find labourers because the work is so back breaking. Did anyone see on the news this last week, farmers in the UK offering up to £30 an hour for broccoli pickers? Given that it’s pretty unskilled labour, that’s a sure sign that the work is physically hard indeed by modern standards. Once the harvest was gathered in, in previous centuries, there would be great joy and the Lord of the Manor would host huge parties, held in the same barns that stored the food. First-fruits and tenths would be paid, that is, the proportion of the income from the harvest that was given to the Church, and this was used to pay for the minister and also to provide for the poor people of the parish, who were dependent on this for survival.
So, I’d imagine, the celebration of harvest festival in churches was far more heartfelt than any other service in the whole year. It was a celebration of genuine thankfulness and relief, and in many parts of the world less fortunate than ourselves, where there is still huge reliance on the land for immediate survival, it still is such a celebration. Of course, what we tend to ignore is that we too are completely dependent on the land for our survival too – just because our food comes in a packet or can doesn’t mean it wasn’t produced by the earth’s goodness, and many of our modern environmental problems seem to stem from our society forgetting that we are dependent on the land for our own survival, as much as any other species is, and as much as those poor starving people are in far off lands that we see on our tv’s and feel sorry for. In reality, we are only ever a hair’s breadth away from being those people, because if the world’s harvest was to fail, those people would be us too. So, our harvest festival, with its tins of beans, may not be quite such a meaningful celebration as that of them who have actually undertaken the harvest with their bare hands, but perhaps we need to make it more important than it has become – because without the harvest, we would simply not be here. It’s a celebration of the sustenance of human and animal life, as much as anything else, and a recognition that such life is in fact extremely precarious, and reliant on a very specific set of things happening every year, which we upset and tamper with at our extreme peril.
How does this tie in with today’s gospel reading, then, where Jesus tells us al not to worry? I’ve just spent five minutes telling you that people have indeed worried about, and then given thanks for, the harvest since time immemorial. And then, here’s Jesus saying don’t worry. What’s he on about? I guess it’s alright for him – he can create wine from water and multiply loaves and fishes, so perhaps the harvest is a little bit less important for someone who can do that. But humans do have things to worry about – isn’t it a bit insensitive of Jesus to tell us all not to worry? Isn’t it a failure of empathy with humankind? Isn’t it a bit blasé of him? After all, when someone tells me not to worry about something that I’m obviously worried about, it’s probably the most unhelpful comment in the moment that I could imagine. Because if you’re worried about something, someone simply saying “don’t worry about it” doesn’t do anything to solve the problem, and also makes you feel bad for worrying. So what is Jesus on about here?
I think to find the answer to this it might be good to look at a time when Jesus himself was worried – and the only time I can really think about, was when he was with the disciples in the Garden, before he was arrested. He knew what was going to happen to him and it’s clear that he was indeed worried about it. He prayed to his Father and said ‘take this cup away from me’, pleading with God to find another way to do this, that didn’t involve him ending his life. But there was no other way, and after Jesus was arrested we see him stiffening in his resolve. He goes before high priests and the governor and in his responses to Pontius Pilate, and we see – in Jesus’s dignified responses to Pilate’s questions – a man who is at one with God. Of course, being Jesus, a man who is more than at one with God.
What does this tell us about what Jesus is saying when he says not to worry? I think the answer is, we need to take things to God in prayer more than we often do. It’s very tempting to skip prayer, I know this even in my own life as a priest. Sometimes the things that worry us go round and round and round in our head and it’s almost like there’s no extra space at all for prayer or anything else. Our worries can consume us, and when anything consumes anyone, it tends to block out the light. It’s like we slowly go into the darkness, and we end up sitting in the darkness, unable to see the way ahead. When we’re in the darkness, we can end up treating others badly because we feel bad about ourselves, and we end up more alone than we should be. Without that light to lead us out of the darkness, we become lost. But the point of prayer is really to open up that chink of light again. That chink might be a very small chink at first, but in a pitch-black space, you only need a tiny chink of light to start finding your way around. Prayer doesn’t always bring the daylight back – but it does give that all important chink of light. It provides a space in between our worries, for breath, for respite, for a problem shared, sometimes a problem halved. Prayer can be on your own or with other people if you like. And if it is a regular thing in your life, it’s amazing what power and strength it can bring people.
It’s amazing to think that, in our country of plentiful harvest, where few are really hungry compared with elsewhere in the world, we have more people with poor mental health than ever before. Over half our young people are worried sick about the state of the world, the climate crisis and many other ecological issues. Birth rates in this country and others are dropping as people struggle to bring children into a world where they worry about the future and feel they don’t have enough to provide them with. I genuinely wonder whether the decline of faith in society and the increase in worry, stress and mental health problems have something to do with each other. Faith in God has been scientifically shown to bring mental health benefits. Did you know that churchgoers are on average more content and happy than average? Perhaps it’s because we worship a God who we know loves us, and wants us to live full and happy lives. Maybe that doesn’t mean we always get what we want. Maybe that doesn’t mean that we can just go about without a care, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attend to the problems in our societies, but I think it might just be because we know about that all-important chink of light.
19 SEPTEMBER 2021 – Third Sunday in Creation Season
Who has power? How do we define power?
Power includes the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way, perhaps because of wealth, or position; and is also the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events.
Such power may again come from wealth or status or sheer force of might, but true and lasting power is far more than any of those things. To make a lasting difference one has to take others with you, and that is not necessarily achieved by any of the above.
I was listening to the sermon from Bishop Guli, our new Bishop of Chelmsford, at her Welcoming service, and one of the things she said was that she did not have power by herself. Now as the bishop of one of the largest dioceses in the Church of England, with a seat in Parliament in the House of Lords, that may sound surprising. But she was recognising that power, and the change it can bring, only comes about through communication, trust and relationship. Not by imposition.
There are many subtle ways one can influence. The Queen, by definition of her role, has a position of power, at least in our (unwritten) Constitution, yet she recognises that she has to be seen in order to retain that power. Diminutive in stature she ensures that she is seen through an interesting, and subtle, choice; she wears bright vibrant colours, so you certainly can’t miss her in a crowd!
In my former career it was important to influence meetings, real Yes Minister for those of you old enough to remember that satirical and very true comedy, and where one sat was crucial to that. If you were next to the person chairing the meeting you had the opportunity to guide them, otherwise you made sure you sat in direct eyeline so that you had the opportunity to catch the Chairman’s eye and make your point. Dress again was important, something that made you stand out from the crowd, it wasn’t called power dressing for nothing. Subtle, but telling ways of exercising power.
Jesus knew well the importance of power, he talked, on more than one occasion, about not putting oneself forward. Don’t sit in the highest place, he said, in case you are demoted – wait to be moved to a higher place. And sometimes we don’t want to be in the spotlight. At an occasion recently I knew I might need to make a discrete exit to catch the last train (engineering works on our line again) so I asked to be seated where I could do that without drawing attention to myself. During that same event I also had some fascinating conversations about how we value individuals not for who they are but what they are. Their role is what defines them in the eyes of many and when that role goes or is taken away, the person can feel of little, or no worth or value. It is why redundancy is so hard, it isn’t just the financial loss, but the loss of status and power, of who the person is.
Sadly it is also true that those who we need most at times in our lives often get overlooked and seen as powerless. During the first lockdown we clapped for carers, the ones on the bottom rung in society when it comes to power. And now is society actually prepared to really support them, to really see them and recognise their importance with respect for their role not just when we need them. One of the residents in Parkview House always asks that we include all the carers in our prayer when James or I take a service there. She recognises their worth and wants us all to recognise their value.
And in our gospel today even the disciples are playing the power game. Jesus has taken them away to teach them, yet they are not listening, but arguing who amongst them is the greatest. This is a period just after Peter, James and John have been taken by Jesus to the mountain, where before their eyes his true glory and power is revealed to them in the Transfiguration. So are they the greatest as they had the privilege of sharing this moment? They return to the others who had tried to heal a child, but could not. Had they failed the power test? And a little later James and John will ask for special permission to sit either side of Jesus – positions of power just as I mentioned earlier about being next to the chair person in a meeting. Are they actually hearing what Jesus is teaching them, do they understand at all?
They are looking at earthly power, Jesus’ teaching is just not getting through. True wisdom is not about envy and power, it is about listening and submitting ourselves and our lives to God. ‘You do not receive because you ask wrongly. Submit yourself to God’ is what we hear in the letter of James, this is what Jesus is trying to get them to understand.
Real power is not in wealth and status, but in wisdom, in understanding God’s plan for us as individuals and for God‘s Creation. It is about thinking of, and working with, others; others perhaps who have less obvious ability to make change, but nevertheless have something to offer. It is about communication, trust and relationship.
So what is the power that Jesus speaks of? Well into the disciples’ discussion about who is the greatest, he brings a small child. One with the least power and authority and tells them that in welcoming the vulnerable and the overlooked, they are actually welcoming God. God who became incarnate, not as a powerful leader of a nation, but as a child.
God who emptied himself of all power and lived amongst the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, and who is still found there. God who on the cross was vulnerable, alone and in pain, and therefore knows our pain and walks alongside. God who walks alongside, sometimes in silence because that pain is so hard, and comforts us. And through that pain we ‘come to understand that our strength lies in how we accept our weakness, in how we are at our lowest ebb.’ Not my words but those of our new Bishop Guli Francis-Dehqani. But words that resonate with me both from my own experience and I am sure with many of you too.
She goes on to say that ‘it is not until we are wounded and hurt that we discover what is really within us, whether it is a capacity for hate or love, fear or hope.’ In other words when we are at our most vulnerable is when we can see ourselves most clearly. This from a woman who lost her brother, kidnapped and murdered in Iran, and at 14 fled her homeland as a refugee.
Vulnerability is power, it allows us to see ourselves clearly and to build upon that, the vulnerability of a child. You do not receive because you ask wrongly, submit yourself to God – be vulnerable, be open to God working in and through you, and that is where the power is. Be vulnerable and open to God and see what happens. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
 Cries for a Lost Homeland – Guli Francis-Dehqani
12 SEPTEMBER 2021 – Second Sunday in Creation Season
Creation: ‘Who Do You Say I Am?’
This is the third time I have preached on this text and each time I have struggled a bit to find the right words to say. It is a hard one. Jesus gets cross with Peter, and calls him Satan, merely for not grasping the true nature of who Jesus is. But of course, Jesus doesn’t really say who he is here – he leaves it up to the disciples to try to figure it out, in the knowledge of course that one day they really will know. When the disciples ask Jesus who he is, Jesus responds by turning the question back at them: ‘Who do you say I am?’ This seems a bit unfair, but maybe as much as Jesus is challenging them to think about what his purpose is on this earth, he is also challenging them to think about who they are too. Not just ‘who do you say I am?’ but also ‘if I, Jesus, am who you think I am, what does that make you?’ ‘Who do you say you are?’
This is a difficult question for anyone – working out who we are, not just on a personal level, but who we are in connection with others in our species, and who we are in relation to everything else on this earth – who are we in connection with other creatures? Who are we in relation to the air and the soil and the sea? Peter for one, had a crisis of confidence in who he was after Jesus died – and of course we’ve heard today that Jesus predicts this: you will betray me three times before the cock crows, and of course Peter can’t believe he would ever do this, but we all know what happens, we all know it comes true. It takes a while for Peter to really understand who he is in himself, in relation to Jesus and in relation to the world. And, when Peter finally does get it – when Peter finally does get that he needs to be comfortable with who Jesus has called him to be – he understands that this has some fundamental implications for how he has to live his life, and that this involves doing some things that might not benefit himself.
In pondering all of this, this week, I also came across an article written by a man called Revd Joshua Penduck. He is a leading evangelical in the Church of England, and perhaps doesn’t always write things that I would agree with, but the article he wrote this week, I thought addressed this crucial question of who we say we are in a way that really spoke to me. At the risk of being accused of stealing a sermon off someone else, I’m going to share a bit of it with you. So, he writes:
So this brings us back to that question I read into what Jesus was saying to Peter: that who we say Jesus is, or ‘our faith’, should play a big part in who we say we are too. We are people who have been gifted this world – and any notion that God or Heaven will somehow save us from the world, or that the second coming will be some kind of last train outta here, is a misunderstanding. Love the place you’re in. Love this earth as God’s immense gift to you and to every creature. The animals and the bacteria and everything aren’t things for us to trash – that’s not who we truly are – because they are part of who we are too.
5 SEPTEMBER 2021 – Climate Sunday (First Sunday in Creation Season)
This month we are celebrating Creation in its widest sense, and today we are focusing on our climate.
As I said in our latest magazine, climate change has certainly been high on the agenda this year, not least with the extremes of weather we have seen around the world. Record high temperatures in Europe; wildfires in north America and Europe, and flooding both here and abroad, have made the point that this is not something affecting countries and continents far away from us, but here and now and on our doorstep. This is not a matter that can be ignored if life is to be sustained
The latest report on Climate Change issued on 9 August, stated that this is now code red for humanity, in other words, if for no other reason than our own preservation, humanity needs to act now.
Sea levels are rising around the world; the ice caps are melting raising sea levels, and that also means the ice cannot reflect back the sun, so the water warms further and more ice melts. Extreme heat is more prevalent, a sure sign of global warming. This in turn is leading to more wildfires and loss of habitat, such as trees, which absorb the gases that warm our planet.
Equally extreme rainfall, which causes flooding, rather than watering the ground and producing growth, is also causing further devastation with land erosion, and all this is preventable.
Climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying and it is down to us. It is not just something for far distant countries, it affects us all. Nearly all our schools in London are either adjacent to, or one walks through, toxic fumes from roads; try standing in the traffic island at The Mount, to see what I mean!
We need to act and the good news is that scientists are more certain about what will work. It isn’t just about fossil fuels, but agricultural methods as well, including the deforestation of land for pasture, and methane gases produced by farming.
Our eco system is a fragile thing, we are the only planet in our galaxy that has the right conditions for humanity to live, and yet we are destroying it.
In the Bible we see many examples of God regretting the creation of humanity, and yet each time God forgives and offers the human race another chance. But those chances are running out, as we have responsibilities to this world. Many talk of their rights, but rights come with responsibilities, not just for ourselves, but to those around us and for the future.
We are called by God to be creative, to make, to reclaim and to sustain, and that is the responsibility of each one of us. Stewardship of our world is for many part of their faith, and for us as Anglicans, the 5th Mark of Mission is ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’
In Genesis we hear that God created humanity and God instructed us to care for it, and as part of our mission here at St Edmund’s we have worked to become an Animal Friendly Church, not using products tested on, or harmful to animals, and supporting the work of Christian Aid working in countries devasted by the lack of natural resources.
Our most recent activity, along with our friends at At Andrew’s and St Anne’s is to embrace the Eco-Church ethos. We have currently achieved the bronze award, but if we are to meet the silver and ultimately gold awards it will take action by each one of. It may often seem that as individuals we can do little, but each one thing adds up, so that collectively we make a difference. Our stewardship of God’s creation is not just an optional extra, or a modern day approach to the current environmental crisis, but a genuine return to understanding God’s requirement that we care for Gd’s creation. Today we will be planting a plant, and that may seem a small thing, but it is a sign of our intentions, of wanting to make a difference, to learn more and to ensure that each one of us can take action in our daily lives. It is about the conversations to look at what we can do as individuals and as a church. Our diocese has an Environmental Policy and James is the lead on this with one of the Archdeacons, so at St Edmund’s we are well placed to know what is going on and to contribute to the change needed, especially in becoming carbon neutral
In our gospel today there are many labourers in the vineyard, some have been there all day, others arrive at the last hour. Those who have strived all day are resentful of the latecomers, especially when it comes to their wages, but the owner points out that he can be generous with what is his. So too with our response to all of God’s creation, whether we were there first or last, the important thing is that we come, that we act.
God is generous, God encourages us, but God also requires us to act. The responsibility for our survival is ours, we cannot keep ignoring what is happening to our planet because there is no second Earth.
God created humanity after all the other areas of life, God created us last, yet we must take the lead, be the first in safeguarding Creation.
The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, and if we do not take that lead, then Creation, which we celebrate this month, will cease to exist.
We have the opportunity, like the owner of the vineyard, to take radical action to turn things around. God is generous, God is encouraging, but we have to take our responsibilities seriously. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
AUGUST 2021: 29-AUG, 22-AUG, 15-AUG, 08-AUG, 01-AUG
PREVIOUS MONTHS: JUL, JUN, MAY, APRIL, MARCH, FEBRUARY, JANUARY
PREVIOUS YEARS: 2020
29 AUGUST 2021 – Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
Today’s hymn, at the Offertory, is ‘Let love be real’; not that it started off as a hymn. It first appeared in 1995 as a love song in Exodus the musical, written by Michael Forster with music by (the late) Christopher Tambling. In fact, the tune – to which it is sung in the musical – is the piece Chris played on the organ after the Gospel today.
In the musical, Moses’s elder sister Miriam and her husband Reuben find themselves on the verge of splitting up, and ‘Let love be real’ is their reconciliation song. It comes as Miriam pleads to her husband to stop pretending to be someone he’s not, and for them to accept each other just as they are. The repeating last lines of the song are
‘Still be my friend, my critic and my lover,
don’t make me change,
don’t make me strange,
but let me grow.’
As the author later said, the values in this song were ones he had learned from his parents at home – a balance between unconditional love and safe boundaries.
Sometime later, this romantic love-song was tweaked and published as a hymn, with those repeating final lines changed to
‘As God loves us, so let us love each other,
with no demands,
just open hands
and space to grow.’
The words we will sing, in The Children’s Hymn Book, are in the original form. We also sang it back in May 2018, that time as the Gradual hymn (before the Gospel), when the then Bishop of Barking – the recently-retired Peter Hill – was presiding and preaching. And before he preached, he took time to criticise those words of ‘Don’t make me change, don’t make me strange, but let me grow’ – arguing that Christianity was all about changing people.
And we can see why the Bishop may have said that, and why some felt the words of the love song needed changing in order to become a Christian hymn. In the church, we often hear phrases, taken from scripture, such as being ‘born again’, to ‘deny yourself’, to ‘put off your old self’; allowing our old self to be ‘crucified’, ‘putting to death what is earthly in you’, transitioning from being a ‘sinner’ into a ‘saint’, to become a ‘new person’ or a ‘new creation’.
With those phrases ringing in our ears – and taken with today’s readings with their emphases on diligently keep to the rules and laws, ridding ourselves of ‘all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness’, and locating evil intentions deep within our hearts – perhaps that innocuous ‘don’t make me change’ may sound wrong. But is it?
Think of the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. His ministry was based on accepting people. Where others created boundaries based on culture or status, or where they formed judgements based on how far people fell short in their often-unrealistic expectations, Jesus pushed past those artificial constructs and simply acts out of an accepting love. He touches the people you shouldn’t touch, he eats with people who you shouldn’t socialise with, he visits the homes of those you shouldn’t be seen with, he washes the feet of those whose paths are journeys of treachery and danger.
Roman collaborators, prostitutes, lepers, soldiers with catamites in tow, the mentally ill, those tormented by demons: all these outcasts were never cast out far enough for Jesus to not go out and meet them in their imposed social exclusion zones. And yet again and again in the gospels we find the religious, the pious, the god-botherers, quite at odds with this approach.
Look again at our readings today, and perhaps the first thing that we should note is that, in Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing ‘God’s chosen people’, as is the author of the Epistle of James, who writes to ‘the twelve tribes scattered abroad.’ And in the Gospel, Jesus’s criticism is reserved for the religious leaders of the people: those who preserved the scripture, interpreted it and helped the people to adapt and apply it to their everyday lives. It is not the irreligious that are singled out, it is the religious. It is those seeking to make holiness ‘special’ and to make piety ‘particular’.
Jesus does not just stand at a distance showing a sympathy – ‘feelings’ – for their condition or exclusion, nor does he enter into a commentary on it; but instead, he has active compassion (‘compassion’ in the original meaning of that word: ‘com’ ‘passion’ – he enters into their suffering), he ‘suffers together’ with them. Whereas the religious folk in the gospels seek to pull themselves closer to God by pushing others further away from God (as they call us to become holy by casting aside the ‘taints’ and ‘uncleannesses’ of our human nature), the God we see in Jesus is a God that becomes human, and calls us to be God-like by being human too.
Jarel Robinson-Brown – the curate at St Botolph’s where I work – writes in his recent book, that the God we meet in Jesus is a ‘God who made us just as we are, and who loved us into being, the God who, from our first breath to our last, cradles us in a loving and accepting embrace.’
And that is the type of godliness we are called to, not a judgemental piety or purity, but rather to be promiscuous in our loving – a love that is indiscriminate: undiscriminating, without distinction. There’s an admonishing quote from the Catholic writer Thomas Merton: ‘The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves [that] we find in them.’
God is not a business. The love of God is not transactional. God does not love us with strings attached. God loves me, and God loves you, not in spite of our humanity but because we are human. In the gospel, Jesus’s dirty disciples – scoffing food and stuffing their faces with unwashed hands – calls out the lie that cleanliness is next to godliness. We believe in incarnation: in a God enmeshed in the dirt of our compromised human existence, taking on ‘impurity with impunity’, whose voice still echoes to all his creation reassuring it – reaffirming it – ‘you are “good”’.
God seeks the best from us: but that ‘best’ is from the ‘us’ he created. He does not call us not to be ‘us’. One final quote (this time from Desmond Tutu): ‘God loves us with a love [that says] … “I love you and there is nothing you can do to make me love you more because I already love you perfectly. … There is nothing you can do to make me love you less.”’
In the musical, Miriam pleads to her husband not pretend to be someone, something, he wasn’t – just to be true to himself, who he is – and to allow love not to be confining but to ‘let love be real.’
‘Don’t make me change,
don’t make me strange,
but let me grow.’
22 AUGUST 2021 – Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Another week dedicated to John Chapter 6 and the living bread makes me feel a little bit like a child at a carvery, who puts too much on their plate, only for someone (normally a grandmother, for they are very good at this) telling them that they won’t be allowed pudding unless they eat all their first course, and never mind if their eyes were bigger than their tummy!
In today’s passage Jesus talks about forever. He says, whoever eats this bread will live in me, and I will live in them, and they will live forever. And that is what we believe – that when we die, there is something else: some people call it heaven, others are perhaps more cagey about exactly what the afterlife is, but ultimately we believe that what Jesus is saying here, is hugely significant: that there is more to life than just the finite, more to life than just what we know, here and now.
A lot of human success is built on what you might call hubris, or arrogance. This week, we have seen what happens when a country invades another in order to effect regime change, then stays for twenty years, in the hope of effecting that change, only to withdraw as quickly as they came in. That country to have been invaded was of course, Afghanistan, and the countries who did the invading were the US and the UK, amongst others. In 2007, perhaps at the height of the belief that the USA held all the answers for how we should all live, the US postal service created a postage stamp, which had a picture of the Statue of Liberty on it, and just one word: ‘Forever’. Now, whatever the rights and wrongs of American intervention around the world are, they are probably best left out of a sermon: there are many different views on it and I would say it is very difficult for any Christian to discern one view that we could say is definitely the Christian one to take, on whether it is ever right to invade another country. I’m not getting into that here, suffice to say that the loss of life we have seen, and the horrors that await the Afghan people today are worthy of our prayers and much more.
What I would like to dwell on, just for a minute, however, is that postage stamp. The one of the Statue of Liberty, the one that says: ‘Forever’. I hope Mrs Betty Walters doesn’t mind me singling her out, as one of the more mature members of the congregation. She has been in this parish a long time, and has seen many changes during her lifetime, as indeed have many others. I believe Betty was born not long after our dear Queen Elizabeth. In her lifetime she has seen the dawn of the Third Reich, an empire of evil which was intended to last a thousand years – practically forever, in human terms. By the time she was of adult age, she had also seen it fall. I’m not saying Betty was solely responsible for the demise of Herr Hitler you understand, although no doubt she played her part! She was born only a decade or so after Lenin and his brand of Bolsheviks had taken control of Russia, and by the time she met retirement age, she had seen the fall of the same empire. And during her retirement she has seen the age of what was meant to be ‘the end of history’: where the USA’s way of doing things was meant to have conquered everything, yet now I think most of us would laugh at that idea, looking round the world. All this, in just one lifetime.
My point is, nothing on earth lasts forever, and particularly no empire made by man or by woman. Yet, all the time we humans fall into the trap of thinking it will. We build something up, we tend to worship it – whether that is a golden calf, an idea or set of ideas, our hatreds and blame of a social group, or just the act of amassing a lot of cold hard cash. Yes, examples abound throughout human history of all these false Gods, but none have lasted forever. The only thing that seems to outlast everything else, in fact, is faith in the actual God – God of righteousness and love. Perhaps those who say there is no God, might do well to reflect on that.
Abiding in Jesus, eating of his bread, plainly doesn’t make any of us perfect people. History has shown that. And we need to always check ourselves if we think that coming here and taking communion will do that. You don’t go out of here perfect, and neither do I. What we do, when we eat this bread, is partake in the timeless. Of course, the act of taking communion has itself been around only as long as Christianity – and in the sense of the ancientness of the world, that’s just a twinkling of an eye. But, what the meaning is behind the act – what the meaning is behind sharing the bread and the wine – that is truly timeless. Because in doing these things, we are partaking in God: we are recognising that there is something within us that is not just ours to horde and to keep, there is something in us that is calling out for a connection with the timelessness of God, and this is what unites us.
Call it what you will – a religious experience, an out-of-body experience, dwelling in Jesus and meeting Him through the Holy Spirit. These are not just superficial or therapeutic words, designed to give us a nice, fuzzy feeling, to make us go out of here feeling great. They’re about jolting us awake again from our human complacency, they’re about saying “wake up to the one thing that actually does last forever”.
15 AUGUST 2021 – The Blessed Virgin Mary
One of the things I know many of you have missed in our worship has been singing as a congregation. On zoom we could not sing together because the technology did not enable it, but it was good to see others singing along when we were each singing on our own.
Singing, especially singing with others is part of how we express our praise and joy in our worship and without that singing some of the joy was not there, so the past weeks with the congregational singing has been wonderful.
I went to a church secondary schools which was linked to Southwark cathedral, so we had an annual service at the cathedral, and because it is so vast it sounds like you are the only one singing, and consequently you reduce the volume. So our music teacher used to make us practise with our fingers in our ears so we got used to that singing alone feeling, try it and see how much the volume of your singing reduces. Years later I was in a large choir in Brentwood cathedral, and the acoustic there means a sound delay of a few seconds, so if you are listening to the other parts waiting for your cue, rather than counting the timing and watching the conductor, you can find yourself completely off for your part!
Yes singing is something we can all enjoy whether you have a good voice or are tone deaf.
Singing has been restricted during the pandemic because as we sing we expel air and droplets and can thus spread this airbourne virus, but these restrictions have done more than just that. Singing is good for us on so many levels, it helps our breathing, our mental wellbeing and it makes us feel alive, so without singing a large part of that joy has not been there.
As you may gather, I enjoy singing, on my own and with others, and it does bring great joy. And joy has been in short supply in recent times, and it is something we need to recapture. The feeling that life is exciting and worthwhile, that anything is possible, and with God anything is possible. Hilda, earlier this month, reminded us that it is belief in God, our relationship with God that is a key to our happiness.
In the Bible singing is not just praise but expresses a sense of joy and thanks to God. After the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea to escape the pursuing Egyptians, Moses and the people break into song recounting all that God has done for His people, and the refrain ‘Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously’ is taken up and echoed by Moses’ sister-in-law Miriam.
Mary on her visit to her cousin Elizabeth feels the child within her move and is herself moved to sing God’s praises. Unlike the Song of Moses and Miriam which is a song of thanks for keeping the people safe, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat, is a song indicating that God is there supporting those overlooked by society – the weak, the lowly, the hungry, because God remembers all God’s people.
Mary recognises all that in her song of praise. She did not ask to be the mother of God’s Son, indeed this role is one that will bring her much heartache as well as joy. Yet she believes and trusts in God and knows that with God anything is possible, whoever we are.
I have a card sent to me by a friend, and it has a picture of an angel flying upward to the stars. The wording says “Anything is possible: so she grew wings and flew like an angel to the stars.’ Lovely you might think, encouraging even, but this is an Edward Monkton card and they always have another message. So, in smaller writing it says, ‘she didn’t know the back of her dress was tucked into her knickers, but hey you can’t have it all!’
The implication being that we may have great expectations but something will bring us back down to earth with a bump. Now that is rather a negative view, so another way to look at it is, keep a sense of humour, of fun and joy in all that we do, because life can be too serious at times.
And perhaps with God we can have it all, not in an earthly sense of achievement , but in the things that really matter such as love and relationships, and that is part of Mary’s joy. Even if we do make mistakes, even when we aren’t perfect, God still loves us, God still encourages us and even uses us for God’s purposes.
Mary recognised that, she wasn’t perfect, the role she had been given wasn’t easy, and wouldn’t be easy, but with God, anything is possible. It takes faith, it takes belief in ourselves and what God asks us to do, but we don’t do God’s work in our own strength alone, but in God’s because we can call upon God as Abba, Father, as we are all God’s children.
God called Mary, a young woman, which meant for her time an insignificant, lowly and thus overlooked individual, for the almighty role of being the mother of God. In doing so God underlines yet again that it is not those with the most power, the most wealth or the most influence who are any more important than the lowly, the overlooked or the marginalised. God is there for all, anything is possible and that is our reason now and always for joy.
Rejoice in God, believe in God, trust in God and anything is possible, and even if your dress is tucked in where it shouldn’t be, spread your wings and fly to the stars, because God is in this. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
8 AUGUST 2021 – Tenth Sunday after Trinity
1 Kings and Elijah Generally
There is a line in today’s Gospel which reads ‘give us thus bread always’. At this time of the year, the long summer months after Trinity where it feels like the lectionary has nowhere to go, so it lingers around the Sermon on the Mount for what seems like weeks on end, it does seem like it wants to give us the bread always – and preachers occasionally run out of new ideas to explore on Jesus as the bread of life. The benefit of the time in the church’s year when there isn’t all that much going on in terms of Jesus’s life – or death – is that it gives us the chance to explore some other parts of the Bible that we don’t much look at otherwise.
Every Sunday we have a passage of scripture from the Old Testament – our first lesson. This is read and then largely ignored by most churches, although notably we heard from Colin on the life of Job not long ago. The Old Testament comprises about two thirds of the Bible – it’s really long. It has most of the best Bible stories: I mean, where would we be without Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath, the list goes on. It has a great deal of blood and gore. And it has a God that occasionally appears irrational, angry and sadistic. This is probably the reason that we tend to avoid talking about it too much – because we don’t really know how to handle it, we don’t know what to make of it, and much of it doesn’t appear to gel very well with what we hear about God the Father through Jesus in the New Testament.
I got interested in the Old Testament during my time in Marsabit, in Kenya. This is the link diocese for Chelmsford and it is a wild place, a town in the desert, far from anywhere. When I was there, a small civil war had just started and bandits roamed the area. It was quite scary at times, particularly at night and I often wondered what would happen to me if I got injured, as having seen the hospital, I think I would have rather taken my chances at home. The Anglicans in Marsabit paid particular attention to the Old Testament – they loved to preach on it, they loved to hear the stories, in fact they paid more attention to it than to the Gospels sometimes, I felt. I’m not sure that’s completely a good thing, but the reason they did it was because they could really relate to the world of the Old Testament: a world which was very much about agriculture, about the land, and – particularly during that time of civi war which unfortunately remains unresolved – about places ransacked and made desolate by marauding tribes. This is Old Testament stuff, and of course our lives don’t quite reflect these realities, at least not at the moment: I who knows what will happen in the future. So what should we make of it?
I think the answer is that Jesus came as the New Covenant. He makes everything new and this means we have a new understanding of God. We understand God as being the source of love, of perfect love, and that the horrors of the Old Testament are no longer necessary, that terrors are no longer attributed to an angry God. And therefore, we tend to look to the Gospels as our inspiration for who and what God is. This is fine and indeed, I would suggest, the right thing to do. But as the saying goes, you can’t understand where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from. One thing that we seem to be losing in the Church, particularly with the loss of a large amount of children attending Sunday School, is a fairly well-worked out understanding of what those Old Testament stories are about, and how they are linked together. I learnt most of them from picture books as a child, maybe some of you did too. They make good stories, and we should study them, we should take them seriously, if not always completely literally. So let’s take a closer look today at one person in the Old Testament. Elijah.
Elijah is a very important prophet in the Old Testament. He is ranked up there with Moses and he appears later at the Transfiguration, with Jesus, a feast which churches tend to actually keep this week. Elijah is around at the time of King Ahab. They say all political careers end in failure but King Ahab definitely gets a pretty bad rep in the Old Testament. The Jewish people tended to divide their kings retrospectively into good kings and bad kings. Solomon? Good king. Ahab? Bad king. Very bad king. Ironically though, if you actually look at the history behind the Old Testament, it was Ahab who was the first King to really rule over Israel as a nation – David and Solomon, although they’re called kings, were really probably not much more than exalted hill country chiefs, they didn’t have masses of power. But Ahab was evidently a shrewd political operator, and he amassed a significant kingdom, far bigger and richer than its Judah. In fact, so much bigger and richer that the Assyrians, who were their next door neighbours, started to get a bit envious and – as we know – this ultimately didn’t end well for Israel: the Assyrians eventually attacked and occupied the city and took the people into slavery again, much as Egypt had done many centuries before. If you want to read more about that, read the Book of Lamentations: it’s very short, only five chapters, and if you read it, perhaps imagine you are one of the people in modern times who has suffered when another state has bombed you out of your home, and you are forced to flee, as an asylum seeker.
But anyway, back to the glory days of Israel. This is long after Moses led his people to the promised land, long after David and Solomon, and King Ahab is on the throne. Ahab seemed like a fairly nasty piece of work himself but it was his wife, Jezebel, that gets most of the Old Testament’s ire. She is not a Jew, but a worshipper of Ba’al, and erects an altar to Ba’al and has a lot of priests of Ba’al around her. Elijah, a prophet of God, is summoned to tell Jezebel and Ahab that this is not a good idea, and that Ba’al isn’t actually a real God – and to warn them that they need to repent and worship the one true God. Needless to say, this goes down pretty badly in the palace, and Elijah beats a hasty retreat, fearing for his life. A little later, there is another confrontation about Ba’al worship, where Elijah says to the priests of Ba’al, ok, let’s test the actual God against your false God, Ba’al. Let’s build two altars, one to Yahweh, and the other to Ba’al, and we’ll get two bullocks and we’ll see which God sends down fire on the bullock on their altar, to show that God accepted the sacrifice. So they get the altars ready and Elijah is a pretty good sport – he even allows the Ba’al priests to pour a load of water over his bullock, to try to make sure it can’t be set on fire. But of course, the Ba’al priests do their rituals and nothing happens, and – so the story goes – Elijah is confident in God’s power, and suddenly there is a burst fire and God’s bullock is consumed.
Elijah is not making himself popular in Israel. Jezebel hates him, and wants him dead. And this does not get any better when King Ahab sets his sight on a garden belonging to a man called Naboth. Naboth doesn’t want to sell his garden, so Jezebel convinces Ahab to kill Naboth and get the garden. After this sad story is complete, up pops Elijah once again to tell them that they have done a bad thing, and that they will both die at violent hands. This prophecy comes true, and that is the end of Ahab and Jezebel, only to be replaced by his son Ahaziah. Not the sharpest tool in the box, he manages to die by falling off a balcony.
So because Elijah tends to live a life of telling the truth to power, of being really quite unpopular frankly, he lives a lot of the time in the wilderness, in hiding really. And because at this time, there was a very long drought, which was also prophesied by him, life was very hard for those who did not have resources. There’s a story about when he’s hiding in the desert, and he comes across a widow and all she has is a small amout of oil and some grains. And she thinks she and her son are going to die, and Elijah says make some bread with that, and feed me, and you will have enough to last until rain comes again. Elijah lives hand to mouth, he lives on his wits and he is sustained by faith. But even he gets depressed sometimes. He sometimes feels like he is the only person left in the kingdom that believes in righteousness, who believes in the right things. Interestingly, when he does start believing that, God comes to him and comforts him, and actually God shows him that there are others who believe the same as him – there are others who can help him, who can build him up.
What can we take from his experience? Whilst our lives are very different to Elijah’s, I think the challenges of remaining true to what we believe in the face of obvious wrongdoing, those challenges never really change. Throughout history you have the same depressing story – people with power not using it responsibly, not using it for the good of others but instead using it to enrich themselves, to steal and to be corrupt. We may have democracy these days, but I think we can all agree that it seems like in recent years, many of those in power seem to be able to get away with doing things that they shouldn’t. It takes a lot of guts to stand against this, and even more guts in places around the world where you risk imprisonment or even worse for doing so. And even in our own lives, even in the minutae of life, it is very easy to say “I know this isn’t really right, but, hey, everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” We’re all guilty of that at times, it’s human nature. But, great strides are made by those who are able to stick to their principles, even when the immediate cost is large. And, just like God came to Elijah to show him that he wasn’t alone, we need to know we’re not alone either – we’ve got each other and we’ve got God.
Elijah could have presumably had a relatively easy life if he’d just kept his mouth shut. He could have had his beliefs and let Jezebel and the Ba’al priests do their thing. But Elijah knew that he was called to something better than just a quiet acceptance of the wrongdoing that was happening around him. He probably knew it wouldn’t end well, but it was something he had to do anyway. We see his like, rarely. Sometimes such people are seen as annoying, or even made fun of. But we need them – they are our moral leaders. We need God’s people to speak the truth to power.
1 AUGUST 2021 – Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Jesus, the Life Giving Bread
Apparently, when John Calvin was asked to explain the Eucharist, he said that he would rather experience it than understand it.
So let me put a question to you. What is the work of God? Don’t look back at the reading, just try to answer honestly. If an alien came to earth and observed your life, and based on their observations they had to write an essay about the work of God, what do you think they would say?
The work of God is:
- To watch a good Korean drama on Netflix with a glass of wine?
- To take what you can get, life’s short anyway?
- To write a letter to the newspaper when you agree or disagree with an editorial?
- To be a good partner to your spouse? To be a good child to your parent, or parent to your children?
- To be a good employee or a good employer?
- To give to charity or to make the world a better place?
Ok, let’s park that thought for a second.
ONTO OUR GOSPEL PASSAGE THIS MORNING: John 6:24-35
In our Gospel reading this morning, after the feeding of the five thousand the disciples get in the boat and cross the lake to go over to Capernaum.
Meanwhile, people are looking for Jesus back there where they have come from. As soon as the crowds realise that Jesus is also no longer there, they quickly get into boats and head for Capernaum. Sounds like a game of hide and seek doesn’t it!
But Jesus wasn’t playing a game – he was on God’s mission. The people wanted a Jesus who moved according to their own agenda, but Jesus was moving on God’s agenda. Back there on the other side of the lake they had been so impressed with him that they even tried to make him king, but instead, Jesus tried to get away!
When they finally catch up with him, Jesus doesn’t seem angry with them, but he is definitely trying to make them look beyond lunchtime. His main point to them and to us is, ‘make sure you have the right priorities’.
In a series of short exchanges, Jesus leads them to a new and deeper understanding of the miracle of the loaves and fish. To open their eyes as to who he really is, about his mission, and about God.
Question: when you listened to the Gospel reading this morning – did you feel – great story! – ‘I totally get that’, or did it leave you with more questions? I put my hand up for the second group.
In John’s Gospel, we see a lot of Jesus’ conversations leading to confusion, or division and sometimes hostility. Why, because Jesus is trying to reveal a difficult and countercultural truth. When we read these difficult passages, we might feel we have to understand everything completely before we start to believe, but the trouble with that approach is that God is bigger than anything we can understand. A bit like the crowd, sometimes we read complex or difficult passages in the bible and go away with sad hearts. Even the disciples of Jesus don’t get it most of the time; and John Calvin struggled to explain it. So, if you didn’t get it at the first reading, don’t worry, you’re in good company.
It’s a demanding conversation, Jesus wants to stretch them, to help them and us come to a more mature and more helpful understanding of God. What Jesus is trying to get them to see is that man does not live by bread alone. As we all know too well – you can eat as much physical food as you can but after a while you will be hungry again. Jesus wants them and us to focus on the spiritual, because it’s the spiritual that sustains the physical, and not the other way round. He says 27 ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’
This phrase ‘the food or bread that endures’ comes from the biblical account of the wilderness feeding of Israel with manna that we read about in Exodus, where we are told that the manna did not endure but spoiled or perished if anyone tried to keep it overnight.
When God provided the manna in the desert, he instructed the Israelites to take only what they needed for that day. I think we can all appreciate how difficult it is to rely on God during an unexpected incident or a crisis. Instead of trusting God to provide tomorrow just as he had today, some of them hoarded it like loo roll during the pandemic.
And talking about trusting God to provide, I am one of those who couldn’t work for twelve months. Some of you might know that when I am not working self-supported as a priest, I work as a nurse practitioner. So when I realised I wouldn’t be able to work for some time I admit I really panicked at first. I had no choice but to trust in God. But then when I started seeing how God was taking care of everything, I was humbled. Even since I’ve gone back to work, I’ve still had to learn and re-learn it. Jesus wants all of us to know that God is enough, he urges us to trust him. That’s where true security is found. To live for God today and not worry about tomorrow.
The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered ‘Man sacrifices his health in order to make money; then he sacrifices his money in order to recuperate his health. Then he is so anxious about the future that he doesn’t enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as though he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.’
The Dalai Lama is talking about being present in each moment, enjoying your life, and not letting fear or worry about tomorrow rob you of quality of life. He is talking about doing things for the right reasons and having the right priorities. In a Christian sense we can use Jesus’ words in Matthew ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.’ This again is talking about putting Jesus in charge of our life and trusting that he can handle it better than us.
So, going back to our earlier question on works we can do to please God: In verse 29 Jesus says – there’s not a lot of stuff you have to do, just one “stuff” …
… “believe in him whom he has sent.”
Jesus is the one who does the works; they are his food. All we have to do is believe in Jesus as the one God sent. This is a hard saying, because it will need a change of heart. Netflix K-dramas and meals with friends and charitable donations are all great, but our primary mission is to believe in Jesus.
But even with all the explanation, the people still don’t get it. A bit like Nicodemus who needed intellectual satisfaction, these people have an obstacle before they will believe, they want Jesus to perform another miracle. Do you know what I think? Jesus would have to keep them entertained with miracle after miracle in order to sustain their belief. Jesus said to Thomas, ‘blessed are those who believe without seeing’. In God’s economy, we believe first, and then we see our beliefs realised.
Yes of course, there is nothing wrong with asking God for a miracle, and sometimes God gives us miracles. And don’t get me wrong, food is also very important, I love my food. Our physical lives are given by God, and they are beautiful and special, but they are secondary compared to our relationship with God himself.
You could get the best health, all the wealth and status in the world, but without Jesus there would still be a nagging sense that something is still missing and you’re still unfulfilled.
The point that Jesus is making is that life is much more than physical existence. There is another food, a food that endures to eternal life. Jesus is repeating what he told the Samaritan woman when he said, ‘the water I give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’
Sadly, these guys are too slow to get it – they are so fixated on bread! When he tells them that the bread he is talking about is ‘the bread of God that gives life to the world’…like the Samaritan woman who thought Jesus was talking about physical water, they think – that’s even better – a daily supply of Baguette or Kingsmill – that’s great! Give us this bread then Jesus, and we can cancel our weekly Morrison’s delivery. Don’t get me wrong, I love bread. But there’s more to this life!
And finally verse 35 resolves the mystery in one of the dramatic “I Am” sayings of this Gospel. Jesus says: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ He vows not just to satisfy hunger, but thirst too.
The bread which endures is Jesus himself, whom the Father gives out of his love — for you and for me — for all who will believe. Until we understand this, we may be fed with physical food, but there’ll be a deep hunger in us which will never be satisfied. Jesus alone can satisfy our spiritual hunger. In him alone our restless souls find rest. Jesus said, ‘I have come that you might have life and life in abundance’.
My question to you is, what do you really hunger and thirst for? What do you spend most of your time going after?
Father God, help us to believe in Jesus as the one you sent.
Hilda Gilbert (Associate Priest: St Andrew, Walthamstow)
JULY 2021: 25-JUL, 18-JUL, 11-JUL, 04-JUL
PREVIOUS MONTHS: JUN, MAY, APRIL, MARCH, FEBRUARY, JANUARY
PREVIOUS YEARS: 2020
25 JULY 2021 – James the Apostle
Now! I don’t drive. But if like Charles and Raluca, I was travelling from Yalding to Chingford this morning, I guess that there would be various alternative routes from which I could select. I assume the most obvious one is coming on the M25 most of the way, maybe veering off on to the A13 to take the North Circular, or of course I might have bombed down the A2 to the Blackwall tunnel. But no matter which option, I would have started off at the same place (Yalding), and assuming everything went well and as intended, – and I didn’t change my mind about what I wanted to do today, – I would have ended up at the destination I needed to get to, i.e. here.
The shorter route wouldn’t have necessarily been the quickest. And the longest may actually (despite that) have proved to have been the cheapest. But in the end, whatever considerations I weighed into my decision, whichever journey I might have selected: ultimately it may have proved to have been, perhaps, not the best one after all – for who knows what construction projects, traffic or weather issues might have unexpectedly scuppered all my best laid plans. (And, of course, who knows what I might have seen, experienced or found if, on a whim, I went off route, and simply took time to ‘stop and smell the roses.’)
Our destination of course is the point of any journey, there needs to be an end point, when our journey finishes even if that’s returning back home. But we often hear and see the sentiment (coined, I believe, by the American essayist Waldo Emerson) that “Life is a journey, not a destination.” It reminds us that outcomes, goals and purposes aren’t always the be-all and end-all.
One example of that adage, for me, was in 1994 (at least I think it was), when I was younger, fitter, and thinner: I trekked the Sinai desert. It was a really special experience. There were just five of us: two couples who I hadn’t met before, and me (who the others called ‘James’ for the duration, as I couldn’t be bothered to correct an administrative error listing me by my middle name); as well as an Israeli guide, two Bedouin – plus camels. This was before the Sinai trail – Egypt’s first long-distance hiking route – was established. We started out from Nuweiba, a port on the Red Sea, and headed out into the wilderness of the desert: no paths, no signposts, no tourist facilities, just miles and miles of sand stretching out to the horizon, trusting in the camellers’ knowledge that had been passed down across the generations.
We walked, we ate, we slept. Sometimes we walked in a group; sometimes we split up, walking in isolation but always ensuring the others could still be seen as small human pinpricks on the horizon. We pegged out our tents, and slept with the camel, or if there were threats of flash flooding at night, we’d take turns with one of us climbing the wadi and keeping watch. Stuffed vine leaves became my breakfast, lunch and supper. (For once the Bedouin learned the sole vegetarian in the group could eat those, two large tins were purchased at the start; they thought “sorted!” I thought “Yech!”) And after eating we found a convenient dune as, in turn, each of us waited for the wisp of smoke from burning toilet paper which indicated the next person’s turn … of course, as well as removing toiletry litter. Our destination was mount Sinai with the intention of watching the sun rise from its peak.
We arrived at St Catherine at the foot of mountain, only to be confronted by people, lots of people: lots of people who hadn’t trekked or walked; people who had bussed in; people who were there for a purpose. It was only when a rather rude German guy asked us to stop talking, before his large group broke into extended and rather unnecessary hymn singing, it suddenly dawned on me that this final intimate moonlit experience would actually be a rather large, noisy and religious affair. We went to bed, we unset our alarm clocks, we did not go up the mountain. The experience of the journey – rather the attainment of the destination – had become the important thing.
Today, we are keeping the Feast of St James. An apostle very much associated with pilgrimage. The Camino de Santiago – or the Way of St James – in Spain attracts more than 200,000 pilgrims a year; the whole length is around 500 miles long, and it definitely has a destination: as it traditionally ends at St James’s Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. For this reason, St James – when depicted in stained glass or in paintings – is often seen as a pilgrim, with a walking staff and wide-brimmed pilgrim’s hat, often with a scallop shell tucked into its front brim.
But let’s think a little more about what we know about James. In the Bible, there are a number of Jameses to contend with: the son of Alphaeus, the brother of Judas, even Jesus has a brother named James. Our St James – the son of Zebedee and brother of John – is often called St James the Greater to distinguish him from these others. Greatness appears to be something that both he and his brother aspired to – or, in today’s telling of the story from the Gospel of Matthew – something that their pushy mother wanted for her boys. (We picture Jesus wandering around with 12 disciples in tow, but in reality there would have been a whole entourage of displaced family members and dependents whose lives had also been upturned when the family breadwinner decided to leave everything behind, and included among these extras were nagging mothers keen to ensure their sons found alternative ways to support their nearest and dearest.)
And James does (kind of) attain “greatness” – he becomes one of the key apostles – one of the big three: Peter, James and John. Whereas the other apostles fade into the background, it is James and the other two who form an “inner circle”. It was they who witnessed Jesus’s greatest moments of glory and his darkest trials. They were eyewitnesses of his transfiguration; they were present when Jairus’s daughter was raised from death; they accompanied him as he prayed in Gethsemane. But of the three of them, just as the early church starts to take off and starts to grow and argue among itself, just as they start to be noticed and find themselves a new name the Chrestians (or Christians), James comes a cropper. With this fresh new expression of Judaism taking hold, King Herod Agrippa (seen by some as a messiah figure) decided he wasn’t having any of this, and James was despatched with a sword silencing once and for all this vociferous firebrand. And the greatness that may have been his, as the church grew and spread, actually attaches itself to one of those lesser Jameses instead – Jesus’s brother – who takes over leadership in the Jerusalem Church.
So, the great Spanish pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is a little strange. James dies early on, before the church ever reached Spain. Despite later legends trying to link the Apostle James to this far distant reach of the Roman empire, the Roman Catholic church no longer speaks of the pilgrimage in terms of a tomb or relics of James but simply that the pilgrimage is linked to his memory. The destination isn’t really what the pilgrims image it to be. It is almost a “what-might-have-been” if James had lived, and travelled the known world taking the gospel with him. But the journey he travelled witnessing the ministry of Jesus and the formation of the early church was cut short; his destination was different to expectation (as Jesus had forewarned both him and his mother), but the journey he travelled was still great.
This morning, Maya and her brother St James have journeyed here with their parents, godparents and friends for baptism. Its definition as a rite of “passage” highlights baptism is part of a journeying, a pilgrimaging. The Church of England has always christened children: the further you go back, the younger the child was. I am old; when I was christened in the font of this church, I was only 86 days old. My mother (back there in the Churchwardens’ pew) – considerably older – was only 16 days old when she was christened at St Peter’s in Bethnal Green. But go back to the middle ages, and there would be no or little delay in bringing children to the church, even on the day of birth.
There is something of that adage “Life is a journey, not a destination” about this understanding of baptism. Most journeys tend to be in the company of others: be that in a car travelling from Kent to Chingford; trekking with virtual strangers across a barren desert; one of thousands making pilgrimage in Spain; a ragtag band of disgruntled displaced families dragging themselves around after a Messiah. So in baptism, children journey in the company of others, surrounded by their parents (representing family) and godparents (representing the wider community), as well as this congregation (representing the whole church); and each of those groups of companions will be important in their journey going forward.
Baptism itself is not about us choosing God; us having a eureka moment, when we feel ready to make a profession of faith, and the church opens its arms saying, “well, on that basis then: you’re one of us!” Rather it is about God choosing us. Not the destination of a journey to faith, but the start of that journey, a journey not “to God” but a journey “with God”.
In baptism, we remember that whatever the hopes and aspirations that we have for these children, God chooses these children, and all children, and us, as they and as we are, as they and as we will become, as they and as we will be. God does not stand at the finishing line, with stopwatch in hand and rule book in the other; God is not the destination, but God is our fellow-traveller, and – wherever our life-journey takes us – it is the journey that matters: for it is a journey with God, and God is there in journeying.
18 JULY 2021 – Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Do you ever get an idea into your head about something you are going to do, and it goes round and round in your head and somehow each time it goes round, it gets amplified? This happens to me quite a lot, in fact I think I have a bit of an obsessive personality in this manner – a bit like Mr Toad in the Wind in the Willows who, if you remember, goes through various obsessions, he gets a gypsy caravan, then a boat and then, last but not least, a motor car, all of which might have been seen as the early 20th century equivalent of boys toys, although for Mr Toad, each new idea casts the last one out, in the way that is only available to the very rich. Well, it may not surprise you to learn that, unlike Mr Toad, I’m not very rich. However, a few months ago, I hit on what seemed like a great idea. I had a little bit of money in my pocket and I had been talking to Pam who had been telling me all about the lovely times she and her husband had enjoyed on their boat, and I thought, well, what could be nicer than spending some time sailing on the rivers and broads of Norfolk where I am of course, from. I decided I would buy a boat.
So I talked to my dad who has sailed a lot, and in the way that dads often do, he sort-of sucked his teeth and said he didn’t think it was a very good idea. And in the way that sons often do, I completely ignored him and I spent my savings on a somewhat old and decrepit boat. I’m happy to say that dad has come round to the idea since, and has even painted some of the deck for me. But the boat had a bit of a problem in that, although it is very much a sailing boat, it needs a little motor to power it down the stretches of water which are too narrow to sail or when the wind drops. These motors are quite expensive, it turns out, so as I had some leave owing to me from last year, I thought I would sort-of cash it in and for the last couple of weeks I have been on leave, but also working, as a teacher on a summer school, to earn a little extra cash to pay for this wretched motor.
To be honest, I’d slightly forgotten how hard work teaching is. The students are far more demanding than your good selves. If I preach a mediocre sermon, the good people of St Edmund’s are at least polite enough not to start throwing things at each other or getting their phones out, or asking to go to the toilet and then spending the next thirty minutes out of class. The good people of St Edmund’s don’t turn essays in each week that need marking. The good people of St Edmund’s tend to even laugh at some of my jokes, even if more out of politeness than genuine mirth. Not so with students, they are a much tougher crowd.
So these weeks have been very busy and quite stressful, perhaps a bit too busy and stressful, and I have only myself to blame. And when I read today’s Gospel, from Mark, which includes not only boats, but also the line “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat”, I must admit that I stopped for a minute to think about whether God might be trying to say something to me about my own actions.
I love being busy. I genuinely love it. I am really bad at taking time off and I always need a project. If I’m honest, my work gives me a sense of satisfaction that pretty much no leisure activity can. I think somewhere along the line I imbibed that rather Victorian idea that the devil makes work for idle hands, and I took it to heart. I think I often believe that my own self-worth is bound up with my productivity – how much I have achieved, how much have I got through. In my first job, as a lawyer, we had to charge our time to the various cases that we were working on in six minute units – so ten for every hour. And we were expected to achieve six billable hours per day. This sounds easy but is actually really hard to do, because – as anyone who has worked here will know – quite a bit of the working day is actually spent on tidying up, thinking about stuff, posting letters and lots of other tasks that you can’t charge anyone for. But for someone like me, it was a great challenge – and if I hadn’t done my chargeable hours, I would stay and get them done. This is what the world demands from us – that we need to earn our keep, we need to fulfil our role, hit our targets. Because if we don’t… well, if we don’t, we’re kind of a failure, aren’t we?
The crowd who Jesus saw that day were so busy that they didn’t have time even to eat. Well, we probably all have felt like that at some point, whether it is through paid work or our family and caring commitments. I must admit that the Greggs here gets a lot of trade from me! It’s exactly 400 steps from my house, and I am a big fan of their vegan sausage rolls, only a £1. But, and it’s a shame that they don’t allow us to hear the full reading today, what we hear here is actually the forerunner to the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus sees that they don’t have time to prepare anything to eat, so he feeds them. He takes the offering of the young boy – five loaves, two fishes, and he feeds them all. The strange thing is though, that he doesn’t just feed them food that day. Because this is part of the great Sermon on the Mount narrative. This is where Jesus gives the five thousand people way more than just food. He teaches them to love one another, he teaches the to love God, he gives them the Lord’s Prayer and so much more. He feeds them spiritually, in a way that will sustain them far longer than their share of bread and fish ever will.
When I’m very busy, I find I often don’t have much time to think, to ponder on the meaning of life, on the nature of God. I wouldn’t be a great mystic and don’t expect too many lengthy religious publications out of me. For me, it tends to be the still moments where I do sense that ‘still small voice of calm’, it’s when I am relaxed that I perhaps do have more of a chance to reflect on what God might be saying to me about my life. I wonder whether it is the same for you? Do you have moments in your life for calm and stillness, or is it all busy-ness? My problem is that I don’t often relish the calmness, I don’t always welcome the times of stillness. Perhaps I am sometimes too caught up in my own plans to want to be spiritually fed.
So my challenge to myself is always, make space to listen to God. Make space to be fed spiritually. The school where I have been teaching is in fact a Quaker school, and as many of you will know, Quakers build so much of their spirituality around times of quiet – of stillness. Stillness isn’t something the modern world encourages – we’re all pressured to be busy, busy, busy. But sitting in the Quaker Meeting House next to the school, I have been reminded of the need to be still. And maybe to listen more carefully to the wisdom of those who have taken the time to be still in their lives. Jesus doesn’t demand of us that we spend our lives not doing anything – I fact, I’m pretty sure he does want us to be active in so many good ways. But our activity needs to be tempered by reflection. So my challenge to myself is, be more reflective. And my challenge is also, listen to the wisdom of the elderly, to those who have experienced so much in life and who now have that time to spiritually reflect. There are some in this congregation even from whom I could learn much. Maybe it’s a challenge you can take up for yourself too. Take a little more time to reflect. Take a little more time to be spiritually fed. And encourage our young people, who have it harder than anyone with all the pressure these days to be successful and to do, do, do. Let’s encourage in them a spirit of reflection too. Maybe if we all do this, we might find it makes our actions, our busy-ness, more meaningful.
11 JULY 2021 – Dedication Festival
Of all the Bible stories in the Gospels, the story of the beheading of John the Baptist is probably the most Shakespearean in its outlook. Here we have a proud, unfaithful king, a vengeful wife, a subservient, perhaps slightly naïve, daughter and of course, a righteous victim, and in the course of a few verses, we hear the awful story – the Passion of John the Baptist if you lie: how he met his grizzly end.
Our story starts not with John the Baptist, but actually after his death, where Herod hears of what Jesus is doing and saying, and Herod has this powerful flashback – he says ‘this Jesus is the reincarnation of John the Baptist, who I killed – he’s come back from the dead!’ We don’t know how Herod said this, whether he said it in anger, or fear, or joy. I’d imagine though, that it was probably with a mix of emotions, because – as the story shows – even though Herod did kill John, he didn’t really want to. So maybe there was a bit of guilt inherent in what Herod was saying. Maybe he was a bit haunted by the fact that he had killed John.
When someone speaks of Herod, we normally think of Herod the Great, the King who famously ordered the babies to be killed to make sure that the rumoured messiah would not grow up to become a threat to him. Herod the Great was certainly a nasty piece of work, and it was him who caused Jesus and his family to flee to exile in Egypt when he was still a baby. However, nobody could have called Herod the Great a spineless ruler. Indeed, he was the only ruler of Israel ever to be allowed by the Romans to use the title of King, such was their respect for him. However, by the time Jesus and John have both grown to be men, Herod the Great has died and his son, Herod Antipas has taken over. This story is about Herod Antipas, a ruler who the Romans did not greatly respect, to put it bluntly. When he went to Rome to ask the Emperor for permission to be called King of Israel, the Emperor laughed at him and then had him chased out of the country, such was their lack of respect for him.
So Herod Antipas was very much a puppet of the Empire. He didn’t have much power and he couldn’t afford to upset Rome, lest his riches be taken away. And as with many who are actually not very effective rulers, even in our modern world, as with many who secretly doubt that they are ‘up to the job’, Herod Antipas shows just how unprincipled he is in today’s story. Mark records that Herod feared and respected John, because John the Baptist was able to occasionally tell Herod some hard truths, that every leader has to hear occasionally. John wasn’t afraid to stand up to the authorities, to stand up to power, much in the same way that Jesus would go on to do. And Herod, it is said, enjoyed listening to John, he fascinated him and no-doubt gave Herod the occasional glimpse of the better ban that Herod could no doubt have been. It says that this greatly perplexed Herod, it made him think.
Yet, Herod’s wife had quite a vendetta against John the Baptist, principally because John had once again spoken the truth to power. Herod had married his brother’s wife and John said it wasn’t right that he had done that, presumably when his brother was still alive. One imagines that Herod’s wife, who was called Herodias, was quite keen to be married to the de-facto King (although remember, he never got to call himself king) and she didn’t want some random upstart commoner telling her or her new husband that they had done something wrong. So, she had Herod put John in prison. Herod went along with this, presumably because it kept his wife happy and of course gave him easy access to John’s wisdom, but also allowed him to keep John under control.
But then we come to the night of the party, the night that sealed John the Baptist’s fate. Many famous and important guests attended. There was a lot of music and food and wine consumed, and then the entertainment started. And tonight’s entertainment was to be provided by Herod’s daughter, who is also confusingly called Herodias. I don’t know whether in your house you sometimes have issues with post if two of you have the same surname and the same initial, but I’d imagine the Antipas family would have had a terrible time sorting their mail, what with a Herod and two Herodiases in the same family.
Anyhow, it turns out that Herodias junior, ie. Herod’s daughter, along with her troop of friends, are quite bewitching dancers and no doubt greatly pleased all the invited guests. And Herod, who let’s remember does not have huge amounts of inner self-worth, is very pleased that his daughter is giving him some reflected glory, and he says to her ‘well done! You can have anything you want, up to half my kingdom!’ Now, young Herodias is still a girl and she doesn’t really know what to ask for, so she talks to her mum about it. And of course, in true Lady Macbeth style, her mum, Herodias senior, thinks – now’s my chance to get rid of John the Baptist! If I get her to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a plate, he’s going to look pretty stupid in front of all these influential people if he doesn’t go through with it.
Don’t forget that, up until now, Herod had relied on John and saw him as a righteous and holy man. Yet, when faced with the crowd who only cared about the fact that he had promised the young lady whatever she wanted, he gave in pretty easily, and thus this sealed the fate of John the Baptist.
At this point, where John the Baptist’s head is brought in to show Herod has kept his word, it seems like the world of corruption, lust and power has won. A spineless man was prepared to sacrifice the life of someone else, for the sake of not risking looking like a fool. And not just anyone else either, but the life of someone he had respected, someone who had lived a holy and righteous life.
When you put it in this way, it might be ringing a few bells in your head. Because of course this isn’t the only story in the Bible where someone is prepared to sacrifice the life of a good person for fear of unpopularity. In fact it’s not even the only story in Mark’s Gospel where this is the case. Because that’s also the story of Jesus. Pontius Pilate basically does exactly the same. He doesn’t really see any reason why Jesus should be put to death, but you know, he doesn’t want to make a fuss, he doesn’t want to risk people starting to get a bit uppity in this small and insignificant part of the Empire that he had been posted to. He was probably looking forward to kicking back in his villa with a pension of a few denarii, he wasn’t going to create trouble for himself, even if it meant an innocent man was going to die.
Today is the anniversary of this church’s founding. As we have a commemoration of the inception of the church community and another of the building, and various other things too, I must confess I get a little bit confused as to which one is which and as I am writing this a couple of beers down in a pub beer garden, unfortunately I don’t have the papers on me to check which today is. But as I look at this building, I often remember that it was built in 1939, just before we went to war against a regime which was the embodiment of evil. Evil always exists in the world and to deny it is also to deny Christ. But, the bigger problem is that people see evil but they can’t be bothered to cause any difficulty for themselves in calling it out. They see a small injustice happening and they don’t want to look unpopular by making a fuss. And so, that small injustice is let go and those who are genuinely filled with this evil tend to get emboldened to see how much more they can get away with.
People like Adolf Hitler don’t get to be in power overnight. Before 1933 Germany was a pleasant social democracy, albeit one that had a lot of financial and social problems hanging over them from the First World War. What people like the Nazis do, is they chip away bit by bit, and they rely on otherwise good people just letting things go, because they don’t want to cause trouble for themselves.
Friends, just because this church now looks old, do not think for a second that these battles were won once and for all in the skies above Britain and the beaches of Normandy 80 or so years ago. Unfortunately, we always have to be on our guard against hatred and frankly, against the devil. Whether you believe the devil is some little red bloke with a tail, or whether – like me – you believe that the devil is in fact something far more sinister than that, our job as Christians is not to be the people who are too comfortable with ourselves to risk unpopularity. Our job is in fact to speak out. To speak up for truth. Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate are the ideal anti-Christians. They are spineless and completely unconcerned that innocent people are killed. In every way, we have to seek to be the opposite, even though that can be hard and although it can make us unpopular.
As a note of hope, though, I just want to end back where I began, at the start of this story. Herod hearing about Jesus and saying ‘it’s John come back from the dead!’ I like to think that, maybe, Herod secretly hoped that it really was John come back from the dead. Because almost always in life, we humans seek redemption eventually. Whatever bad we do, eventually we want to put things right. We want a second chance. And of-course the fundamental point of Christianity is that there is always a second chance. God is the God of second chances. And we all recognise that’s a great thing for ourselves. Perhaps the greater challenge is recognising that God is probably also the God of second chances for Pontius Pilate, and for Herod and Herodias too.
4 JULY 2021 – Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Listening to God
One of the things I have missed in the last 2 years is taking a retreat, time to step away from daily life and reflect. I have undertaken a few online retreats, which have been good, as one is joining with others, albeit remotely, at the same time to worship and listen to the sessions and then taking individual time out to reflect on the reflections offered, before coming back together online. But unless one literally goes away there are still the interruptions from phone calls etc.
A retreat, as the name suggests, should be an opportunity to literally step back from our daily doing and allow ourselves time to just be, and that is not really possible without going away from all the daily distractions in our lives.
In the past I have tended to go to places where there was little or no phone or email signal, to take time to reflect on what was happening with my relationship with God. There were others around and we shared our thoughts and what this all meant for us as individuals. It was a time to look at perspective and perhaps adjust those perspectives; and one of the ways to do this was using a time of reflection known as the Examen Prayer.
This prayer is more of an opportunity to pause and to take time, preferably each day to think about 2 things, what am I most grateful for in the day and what am I least grateful for. To offer each of those things to God in prayer, to leave them with God either as something positive or something needing attention, and the emphasis is on holding onto what gives us life. It is not about how we measure up, so much as what feeds us, what nourishes us, and also what drains us, and then we wait and listen.
And the listening is the key. God is rather used to people not listening, especially if we don’t want to hear! Try asking a child to tidy their room or eat their vegetables and they can become extremely hard of hearing; but mention an ice cream or other treat, and they can hear that two streets away. And of course it isn’t just children who have selective hearing!
God knows the Israelites, God’s Chosen People won’t listen when God sends the prophet Ezekiel, one who speaks God’s word, amongst them. After all they have not listened so many times before, they are rebellious, says God, but whether they refuse to hear God or not, God is determined they will know God has spoken.
In Nazareth, his hometown, the locals will not listen to Jesus, who does he think he is, being the general viewpoint? And of course we can feel that frustration too when advice we have given is ignored or treated with disdain by those closest to us, only for them to accept it from someone else. If God is ignored, why should we be surprised when our words fall on deaf ears. Yet God always listens and God always hears. If we ignore God, God doesn’t ignore us, but waits, patiently, for us to listen and to invite God back into our lives.
As Jesus sends out the disciples, he tells them to travel light, and to go in pairs, for support perhaps when times get tough and they are derided and ignored, and then to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again. And if no one will listen, then shake the dust off your feet and move on. In other words, Jesus tells them, move on as others will listen, and sometimes we too have to just move on, and leave the rest to God. Jesus could do little in Nazareth as the locals would not listen or have faith, so he moved on and left it to God.
Accepting when we can’t do things alone is a strength not a weakness, and the disciples too are encouraged to remember this, and if together they still can’t inspire, then move on to those who will listen.
When we offer to God those things we are grateful for, it is in thanks and recognition that we did things not just in our own strength, but with God’s help. Remembering to say thank you and to recognise with gratitude what has been good in our day or week is both positive and life affirming.
Equally to recognise what has not been good enables us to address what may need attention, to face the challenges, or indeed to say this is not what I should be doing, or will not work, to metaphorically shake the dust from our feet.
To take time to reflect on what we are grateful for, and give thanks, and to also think about what has been difficult, and for which we are less grateful are important points in our faith journey and in life generally.
Taking time to listen to God, be it on a retreat, in the quiet of the early morning or late evening, helps us to see what is happening in our lives, and to invite God to be with us in both the positives and the challenges. Often those very challenges are the very time when we grow with God and in ourselves, even though we may not either see that or be grateful for the difficulty at the time!
Pick yourself up, dust yourself down and with God with you, start all over again; as with God nothing is impossible. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
JUNE 2021: 27-JUN, 20-JUN,13-JUN, 06-JUN
PREVIOUS MONTHS: MAY, APRIL, MARCH, FEBRUARY, JANUARY
PREVIOUS YEARS: 2020
27 JUNE 2021 – Fourth Sunday after Trinity
I was born in July 1985 and when I was four years old, my grandparents gave me a cheap plastic globe. This was of great interest to the four-year old me, and I remember my mum pointing out Great Britain, which of course seems pretty tiny when set alongside everything else on our great and wonderful sphere of a planet. She also pointed out the countries of West Germany and East Germany, and a great blob which took up a huge amount of space, with just four initials spanning the space: USSR. Little did either of us know at the time, that within the space of a year and a half, this globe would become significantly out of date. No doubt many of you here will remember far better than I do, the jubilant scenes when the Berlin Wall came down and the period of great uncertainty, yet also of hope, that followed, as every oppressive regime in eastern Europe and beyond came tumbling down. I’ll leave it up to your own politics as to whether the regimes of Mr Putin etc, that have grown up afterwards, are better or worse than what was before. But perhaps, like me, one of your abiding memories of this period was after the fall of Ceaușescu, the leader of one of the most oppressive regimes of them all, in Romania.
You might remember that Nicolai Ceaușescu presided over a system which led to many young children being abandoned by their families, who often did not have enough food to feed them. These children ended up in orphanages across Romania, where they were largely forgotten about. We barely have any orphanages in this country any more. Most looked-after children are in foster care these days, and children’s homes are becoming things of the past in the UK, and unfortunately only now are we hearing about the tragic ways in which children were treated in some of them in the past, even in this country. However, conditions in the Romanian orphanages were so tragic and upsetting as to be unimaginable. Maybe some of you remember the children’s tv programme called Blue Peter, where the presenter Yvette Fielding visited these places, and the images she brought back were shocking. Children who lay in huge dormitories all day, half-starved of food and entirely starved of love. They were shown no visible signs of affection by the adults meant to care for them. They were not even taught to speak. They were never touched. In any meaningful way, they were treated as subhuman by a regime that seemed barely human itself.
This is a distressing topic and people wanted to help. Bring and buy sales were held up and down the country. Christmas boxes were sent, and still are. People were rightly outraged and their hearts went out to these poor children. But, as much as help was – finally – forthcoming, unfortunately a great deal of damage had been done, and much of it was irreparable. Psychologists used to wonder whether children who were deprived of human contact would become socialised, whether they would be able to function in the world. Unfortunately, the orphans of Romania provided the ghoulish answer to an experiment that could never have actually taken place, because sadly many of those children were so profoundly affected by this lack of human contact, that they never did learn to communicate, or to show the full range of human emotions. Even today, now they are perhaps in their thirties and forties, many of the survivors of this time need constant care, so profoundly affected were they.
Touch matters. Human connection matters very greatly in this world, and its something that I hope we have come to look on with a new sense of its preciousness, over the time that we have been deprived of much of it due to the pandemic. Without a sense of relationship to others, we do not have a true sense of ourselves. No man is an island, no matter how often we try to be, and no matter how often the world seeks to make us so.
It’s clear that Jesus understands this. The reading we hear today from Mark concerns two healings, with all the questions and problems that they raise for us – why are some healed and some not, being the biggy, if you like. But we have heard much on this difficult subject over the last eighteen months and today I would like to go elsewhere with this instead, if I may. I want to concentrate on something good, something we give each other, something that comes from the Holy Spirit, something that is Christ-like. That is the gift of human contact, the gift of touch – not just physical touch but of being touched, that sort-of old-fashioned phrase to note when we have been moved by another, when somehow our contact with other humans makes us, us.
Both the healings we see in Mark’s Gospel today actually involve physical touch. The woman who had been suffering for twelve years, touched Jesus. In fact she touched his clothes, but he obviously felt it, and he turned round and asked “who touched me?” I can only imagine he didn’t say it in an angry way, but more of an inquisitive way, but suddenly everything went quiet – there was an obvious tension in the space, before the woman came forward and said “it was me”. And the other story, where Jesus goes into Jairus’s house and he touches his daughter’s hand, and raises her. Jesus was about 32 at the time and had probably spent at least fifteen years helping his dad in their carpentry business. I doubt Joseph and Jesus spent their time in cabinet making. More probably they were building structures for people, mending carts and making gates. Jesus’s hands would probably have not felt like those of an angel. They would have been rough and callused from years of holding tools, and may have borne the splinters and wounds of carrying large loads of wood. Yet those rough hands were enough to bring back the dead. Those hands were enough to touch the leper and to wash the disciples’ feet too.
What should we take from this, then? That it’s our Christian duty to go round and touch everyone on the street? Well, don’t do that. Unwanted physical touching has become recognised for what it is, and deservedly so. But what I’m trying to say is that we need to touch each other’s lives, in the community in which we live. It really concerns me, as a minister and as a Christian, that our society in this country is becoming more and more insular. We are great at thinking up new ways to be less social, to spend more time in front of our screens, more time at work, more time in our homes, more time focussed on ourselves, and less time in building meaningful relationships with others outside our immediate spheres. This has been a creeping thing over the last hundred years and yes, some of it has brought pleasure, but look around you – are people happier now than they have ever been? They might be better off financially, but are they actually happier? We seem to have got whole generations of people who barely know their neighbours; whole generations of people suffering from mental health issues through stress and through lack of meaningful connections. And I think we have so many people who have been taught the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
Think back through your lives and think of the social sphere – think of the organisations and clubs and churches and societies of your past and compare them with today. Ask yourself, as we have become richer and better educated, have we got better at being with each other, or have we got worse? Because, it seems to me that our social structures and the way we view each other, are breaking under a seeming never-ending tide of individualism, that at first seems really alluring, but really can be the devil’s own work.
We must not forget how to touch each other’s lives, how to interact with people who don’t think exactly like us, who aren’t exactly the same as us. We mustn’t forget how to live alongside people and how to find joy in the imperfect nature of other humans, not just our own families.
This common life, this shared experience, is what makes us human. And it’s what brings healing, not of the physical kind, but of an equally important kind. When a wound heals, the substances around the wound grow, and they become stronger. And it’s the same with people. When disagreements are sorted out, when fractures in society are mended rather than exacerbated, people grow too.
This sermon isn’t meant to be one of those weak things that you hear from preachers sometimes about being nice to each other. Jesus wasn’t always very nice, in the most common sense of the word. This isn’t about ‘oh if only we could all just get along’. No, this about something more fundamental, that we seem to be losing. It’s about being prepared to make the effort in life, to touch other people’s lives with our own gifts, to interact and form communities. This is what the Church is, or I think it is what it could be. Jesus didn’t tell us to go and sit in our homes and enjoy the trappings of a reasonably nice life, as much as I love doing all that. Instead he prepared a meal and said do this – ie. eat, drink, laugh, cry, be merry, talk to each other, annoy each other, make each other laugh, touch each other, know each other – do all this, he said, in remembrance of me. As our world deals with everything we must deal with, as a Church we have to spread that message. As Christians, we truly are in this together, so we must act like people of hope: people that can show others the immense value of being touched.
20 JUNE 2021 – Third Sunday after Trinity
So, who actually can recount the whole story of Job?
This morning, we got eleven verses of it. But in the book of Job there 42 chapters or (if you prefer) there’s 1,070 verses. We have a three-year cycle of Sunday readings, but if you were waiting to hear the story of Job at our Sunday services, you will only get these 11 verses this year, 4½ verses in November next year, and nothing at all in the year after that. So, across each three-year cycle, you’ll only get a disjointed measly 1½% of the book. No wonder why people don’t really know the story.
And it is a real shame, as it is one of the oldest stories in the Bible and, as one person put it (some years back), it is “one of the most sophisticated and mind-bending literary works in the Bible … raising questions about God’s character and the meaning of human suffering.”
So, how about it? Let’s do something we’re not supposed to do – let’s tell the whole story.
Now, are we sitting comfortably? Yes? (That’s good, for the story itself might not be so comfortable in itself.)
One day the whole court of heaven came together, all the heavenly executive with all their responsibilities and roles, including the Satan (– heaven’s prosecuting attorney), who reported on what he’d been up to and how things were going. And God asked him, “oh! you must have come across Job then; what did you make of him?” Now, God and everyone knew that Job was righteous and good, and God said so: in front of everyone. But the Satan responded, “well, yes, kind of – but does Job really love you? Does he?! Or does he just like the good life you allow him to live? Is he only good because he knows you will reward him? Might he just be working the system to get what he wants? Of course, it would be easy enough to test that out: see how he responds if life does not go the way he would wish.” And God says, “hmm! ok – let’s try it out.” And in the devastating experiments that follow, Job loses everything and everyone, his livelihood is stolen, and all his workers and all his family are killed. And yet despite all his suffering, Job still praises God – well at least the first two chapters he does. But remember there’s 42 chapters in the book, and by chapter 3 understandably Job is a bit of a broken man. There is, however, help at hand, for some of his friends pop by … but then again it all depends on how you define “help.”
Across the next 34 chapters, Job and his friends engage in some type of “Poetry Off”: his friends suggesting that really he must have done something quite bad (even if he wasn’t aware of it) to have had such misfortune. Job is unable to recall anything particularly wicked, but he has these his friends ever-so helpfully close to hand, who begin to make lists of the type of hypothetical sins which he probably was guilty of – even though he might think he wasn’t. But in all of it, Job knows and protest his innocence, and eventually he begins to doubt God’s goodness and demands God to come and explain himself, accusing God of being unfair and corrupt.
And this is where our reading today comes in. God comes (in a great storm cloud), and tells Job to “shut it!” Now of course God’s not going to admit to having being in cahoots with the Satan in bringing all these calamities upon Job’s head. No! instead he takes Job off on a virtual tour of the universe, showing how great and expansive it all is, beyond anything that Job could manage or control or understand, but which God knows intimately and interacts with the whole of its complexity.
Job sees things as a human from a human perspective, God sees the full wider perspective.
There are the Leviathan and Behemoth, to Job and the human race fearsome and dangerous beasts, that kill and challenge and harm; but to God, they are not evil but part of the good world of his creation – a world that is God’s and not ours, it is a wild creation in which God delights. And all of it is spoken of as of the wisdom of God.
And then at the end of the story, (well) there’s no neat conclusion as such. Job still doesn’t know why he suffered, but rather he is drawn out of himself and left in a position of humility, understanding his position in creation, in the context of a much wider ecology: he is but one creature in “a web of inter-related creations.”
And, unexpectedly, he receives double back all of that which he had lost. But importantly, just as in losing it in the first place wasn’t a punishment, so his restitution is also not a reward. It is just: “such is life” – a life of ups and downs, joys and sadnesses, normality and unexpectedness – but (all such life) underpinned by the wisdom of God.
So, what can we take away from this strange story? Throughout the passage, Job struggles to understand why God allows the hardship he has suffered, why God is so remote and “disconcerned” with his lot. But when God does speak in the passage that we heard today, and discloses the divine creative genius, there is a reminder that actually God has been there throughout the whole of the story.
The story throws a spotlight on how we view God. It challenges our desires for a Santa-God, who we need to obey and impress, who busily keeps making his lists (checking them twice), in his determination to find out who’s naughty and nice. It also challenges our desires for a genie-God, who can be summoned up and cajoled into action, making things a bit nicer or happier or more comfortable, simply by us doing the right thing or saying the right words.
No! the Book of Job is having none of that, and would strongly call out the lie of the prosperity theology preached by some churches even today that financial blessing and physical well-being are always God’s will.
The God that the Book of Job presents to us is a God of all creation, animate and inanimate, of life and of non life: a God who calls us to glimpse beyond our own provisional, limited and self-interested human perspectives. A God who challenges our arrogance, calling us to see the deep textures within creation and its endlessly permutated variety, even if some of that may seem (from our own self-focussed perspective) as dark and disordered.
Job’s God is the Lord of Creation in all its realness and harshness: a God who will not pluck us out of reality, but a God who, as in our Gospel today, is there in the boat with us when the storms of life hit, and continues to be there with us until the storms pass or whatever outcome might come.
This is a God of the realities of life, and not a storybook deity of artificial happy endings. This is a God who, as we stumble in the dark valley of death, doesn’t shine a light to guide us out, but who scurries down into the ravine and walks alongside us in the darkness. This is a real God not a wishful God, – and, as such, (because of all this, even though it means we do not have any special consideration over and above the rest of creation of which we are simply part,) Job’s God is truly a God whom we can trust.
13 JUNE 2021 – Second Sunday after Trinity
I understand that government leaders, indeed behavioural scientists were most unsure whether people would keep to the lockdown stipulations. We are fortunate in that we are used to freedom of movement, we are not usually told what to do by a government of military figures, so such instructions are not what we are used to.
Yet as we have seen the vast majority have kept to the rules, most probably because they were for the good of everyone, and that not only makes sense, but is about caring for others. As we have had more of our usual freedoms restored we have come to appreciate how important they are, and also to give thanks for even the smallest new experience. One of our local schools has been on trips this past week – to the local parks- and they were so excited because it was different and fun again.
Often when we are told not to do something it becomes a real incentive to do that very thing, just think about when you have pledged to give something up how you crave to do or eat that very thing. It can be good to challenge, but equally there are times when it not the responsible thing to do. To have broken the lockdown rules would not have been a responsible action, but when we are told we can’t do something which restricts us growing as a person then we should challenge.
I spoke the other week of accessibility and how people were, and are, held back because of perception and prejudice, that say we can’t do something because of our gender, ethnicity, disability, of just who we are. Those are areas where we should challenge.
Sadly many in society still want us to conform to what others expect or label us, sometimes just because they have never seen such an individual in that role, but sometimes because they feel such an individual should not be in that role. Those perceptions need challenging; as the song goes – walk tall, walk straight and look the world right in the eye. For those who know the rest of the lyrics, you will know the individual has taken wrong turns in their life, but again that should not prevent there being new beginnings.
Today we hear about many ways that God builds up those who have faith and want to walk tall and straight.
The people of Israel have faced many challenges, and feel lost, but Ezekiel tells them God will build them up, just like a tall tree that bears fruit.
Paul reminds the early Church to be confident and walk in faith, and not judge by what they perceive. God’s way is a new way, and now the aim is to please God and know that all can be reconciled with God, no matter who they are, of have been. This is about changing the standards of judgement because God seeks to bring people in, not keep them out, something the Church even now needs to remember. This is God’s Church, and God challenges us and our ideas of power.
The mustard seed is one of the smallest of seeds, yet grows into a tree tall enough for birds to nest in, and to provide shelter. And that seed grows by God’s doing – all growth comes from God, and whilst God’s kingdom may start small it grows and becomes something so much larger.
Whenever we sow the seeds of God’s love in someone’s heart, we don’t know where that will go, but God will continue that growth.
In each one of us a little seed has been planted, and as we open ourselves up to the possibility of God being real and active in our lives, our faith grows. At one time it may put on a real spurt of growth at others it may lie dormant for a while until something again kickstarts the growth.
So how is the kingdom of God growing in you?
Is it a tiny seed, full of hope seeking out further challenges and growth? Has it just started to sprout – putting out roots and shoots, or is something holding you back? Are you holding yourself back from that closer relationship with God?
Our faith is about being the best that we can, with God’s help. So don’t conform to what others expect or label or indeed try to limit you to.
Walk tall, walk straight and with the confidence of faith, and God‘s faith in you, look the world right in the eye and know that with God’s help all things are possible; if not always easy, expected or, even at times, comfortable! Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
6 JUNE 2021 – First Sunday after Trinity
Unity and Wholeness
The artist, Andy Warhol, famously said that everyone wants to be famous, at least for a short period, 15 minutes was his timespan. The rise of social media and self-publicity would seem to bear this out, and yet is fame so wonderful especially if you cannot just turn it off after those 15 minutes?
Many think they want the attention and adulation, and then find that there is also another side to the fame they have craved, namely envy, bitterness and downright abuse from others. Fame may have some positives, but it can also has a lot of negatives, with unrealistic expectations on all sides.
Our gospel might well stand as an example of a sudden rise to fame and all that it brings. Jesus has been busy healing, preaching, answering questions about the Jewish Law, often from those who should know the answers, and now appointing the 12 disciples. This is certainly a man in a hurry, a man of action not just words, and his fame goes before him. Many are seeking him out, for healing for themselves or friends, for his teaching, perhaps out of curiosity, and already this is causing worry and division amongst his family, who are concerned for his wellbeing. It is also causing consternation amongst the religious authorities who see Jesus as a threat. In other words this man is certainly stirring things up.
His family’s concern is perhaps not surprising; Jesus has started his ministry just as John the Baptist has been arrested, also for speaking out. These are dangerous and volatile times. There is division and dissent, and Jesus seems to be putting himself in danger.
The religious authorities try to say that he is dangerous and a fake. They know that power such as Jesus has shown can only come from God, or the Devil, and as this teaching does not conform to their understanding of the scriptures, they state it must be of the Devil. But Jesus has only done good things, healing and teaching, hardly the work of the evil one, that would be division indeed, and that answer only irritates them further.
It is at this point that his family again come to him, perhaps to remonstrate, perhaps to call him home. Yet Jesus not only ignores their pleas, he takes the opportunity to state that all who understand and do the will of God are his family. If he wanted to cause dissent and division amongst the religious authorities this was hardly going to placate them, or his family. Because Jesus was saying that this is the good news of God’s kingdom, that all who are believers are welcome, not just those who say and do the right thing.
This is about restoring the children of God, descendants of those who first disobeyed, ate the forbidden fruit and were divided from God. This is about new beginnings and overcoming division and dissent.
Marks’ gospel is about actions, it is the shortest of the 4 gospels, and focuses on Jesus living out God’s word, and if those actions are rejected, as here by the scribes, then that is wilfully rejecting God. Evil does not work against itself, says Jesus, that way lies defeat, and so if those who hear reject him and his actions, they reject God, and perpetuate division, which is not God’s way.
God is about unity, wholeness and integration, indeed the very essence of the Trinity –God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
God is about encouraging us to look at ourselves and our lives, and to act upon what brings unity, wholeness and integration, not division and separate-ness.
God is about community – being together and supporting one another, and this recent year of separation and lack of contact with family and friends has only served to underline the importance of such contact and unity in our lives.
Adam and Eve disobeyed God and caused the initial separation from God and between themselves, and that continued with division between their sons, Cain and Abel. Living in faith by words and action brings us back into community with one another and with God.
Jesus will go on from this point in his ministry to continue healing and teaching of God’s uniting love, if only humanity will listen. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Whenever we listen and act upon God’s word, we are part of that united and integrated family in God’s kingdom. Division is not God’s plan, wholeness, unity and integration are God’s plan, yesterday, today and forever. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
MAY 2021: 30-MAY, 23-MAY, 16-MAY, 09-MAY, 02-MAY
PREVIOUS MONTHS: APRIL, MARCH, FEBRUARY, JANUARY
PREVIOUS YEARS: 2020
30 MAY 2021 – Trinity Sunday
The Trinity is not the easiest of doctrines on which to preach, let alone explain. An example of this occurred yesterday when (as one person coined it) “a good Trinitarian theology kerfuffle” erupted on twitter, when the Church of England publicised this morning’s live streamed service with the tagline “God is revealed through the Trinity”. The use of that word ‘through’ caused an outcry, mainly from clergy who pointed out that this wasn’t terribly theological. The Church of England found itself in a similar position to (say) a person realising half way through their sermon that the analogy they were using that the Trinity is a bit like a three-leaf clover is actually a tad heretical. And so, stood in this pulpit on this Trinity Sunday, perhaps I should approach this sermon with trepidation or at least try a different angle.
Today’s reading came from John’s gospel. This gospel is presumed to be written much later than the others, possibly up to 70 years after the death of Jesus. By this time, Christianity had spread across the Roman empire, but was still relatively small – maybe less than 10 thousand people.
Church tradition, like an Agatha Christie mystery, kills off the 12 close friends of Jesus in a catalogue of ever increasing gruesome and violent methods. (Of course, it might just simply be that, by the time John was written, none was likely to still be around: as each would have been terribly, terribly old at that point.)
But perhaps it is not so surprising, therefore, that we find that some of the apostles remembered in the earlier gospels are missing from John’s account, particularly those who were little more than names on the end of a list – Thaddaeus, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot. But also, others like Bartholomew, and Matthew the tax collector are conspicuous by their absence.
Instead, John introduces some new names and faces into the stories. In fact, there’s a trinity of them – Lazarus, Nathanael, and (from today’s gospel) Nicodemus. The three stories of Lazarus, Nathanael, and Nicodemus are all very different, but there is something within them that is common. And that is something about our understanding of Jesus, our understanding of God, and that ‘something’ is a bit of a warning.
Let’s just quickly recap on a little bit of each story.
So first, in the earlier gospels, we have already heard of the sisters Martha and Mary, but in John they get a brother named Lazarus, a rather ill brother (as it transpires). Fortunately, of course Jesus is a well-known healer; unfortunately, however, Jesus is also a bit of a dilly-dallier. His: “oh! there’s no rush it’s not as though he’s going to die,” as it happened proved a little ill-judged. And Lazarus is then only raised, once the reality of death and the human emotion of grief have been confronted. (But let’s park that story there for the moment.)
Then there’s Nathanael, who appears to be a friend or acquaintance of the disciple Philip, who goes searching him out, excitedly reporting that “after years and years of waiting for the Messiah, you’ll never guess what: … we’ve found the Messiah!” And Nathanael – well any excitement he might have had, dissipates quite quickly, as his friend (from Bethsaida – not really a place one would expect the Messiah popping up) admits – even worse – that this “Messiah” came from some miserable little suburb of Sepphoris. (That’s Sepphoris: the posh resort of the rich and influential, of the nouveaux riches, the cosmopolitan capital of Galilee – the Galilee that was always throwing up troublemakers with grandiose claims.) And Philip’s sceptical friend responds, “meh! Nazareth, Nazareth, are you joking me?” (But again, let’s also park that story.)
And then there’s Nicodemus, who we meet in today’s gospel. Just prior to this, Jesus had been creating a bit of a commotion in the temple, disrupting the functioning of it, by overturning the currency exchange stalls that enabled tourists to pay their temple tax and, with whip in hand, causing a stampede of the livestock stabled there for the animal sacrifices. And it is later, following this, in the darkened alleyways of heaving night-time Jerusalem that this Nicodemus – this respectable member of Jewish society, learnèd and spiritual, who sat on their supreme court – lurks in the shadows and, as Jesus passes, he waylays him with the sudden “We know you are a teacher from God” spoken in hush tones. There seems in my hearing of it, a slight smugness in this opening remark – “I know God, you know God, we are both clever men, we’ve studied theology, let’s talk equal to equal.” But if there was any smugness or self-satisfaction, Jesus is having none of it, and pulls the rug from under Nicodemus.
The three stories in different ways, wrong-foots each of these characters and wrong-foots us: be that in Jesus not acting in the way we expect of God, or not conforming to the image we paint of God. To use the title of Gerard Hughes’s book from 1985, what we are confronted with in these stories, rather than a comforting God acting in accordance with our assumptions, is a God of surprises. We see a God that is not confined or limited to what we have determined a God should be, but a God who is bigger than our smallnesses, walks beyond our perimeters, and whose love extends further than any constraints we set.
Jesus says to Nicodemus in our Gospel today: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” We are called to start over, with a life, energy and vision beyond ourselves. Not to limit ourselves, looking out from the safe spaces where we stand, but open to the wideness of God’s love and mercy over and above, extending further than our own imaginings and tolerances.
To get over ourselves! For as the gospel puts it, God so loved the world and not just us, that he sent his Son to the whole world and through love to save even that which we often seek to condemn.
So this Trinity Sunday (and as we enter into the ongoing Sundays after Trinity), let us keep in check how we limit God by making God personal to us and our needs, our agenda, our preferences, and our prejudices. And instead, to stop being safe, to free God to be God, and to be open to be surprised and changed.
23 MAY 2021 – Pentecost (Whitsunday)
Both of our first two readings are very familiar, and perhaps because of that we may not always really hear what is being said.
The Old Testament reading, of the dry bones, paints a picture of dry and dusty bones given new life, it is a metaphor for the people of Israel starting again, and there is an urgency and an excitement that we can overlook in the familiar words.
Our second reading from Acts has that list of place names that anyone reading them looks at, and thinks help, let‘s get through this as best we can! And as listeners we are willing the reader to do just that. Again, do we really feel the excitement, the energy, and the sheer amazement of what is happening? This is about change, change of no small measure and change can be unsettling.
As people who speak English, even if not as our first language, we are spoilt in that, with very few exceptions, wherever we go in the world we can make ourselves understood and understand others. But on those occasions when we can’t how does that make us feel? Frustrated, excluded perhaps, and yet that is what so many people have every day of their lives. They are overlooked, ignored or seen as other, not worthy of attention or worse their lives do not matter.
In the Bible the affect it has on some who hear the disciples is to dismiss them and assume they are drunk, they are not worth listening to. Those people have missed the point. These local men are speaking so that all can understand, that in itself is overlooked, but what is even clearer is that those who dismiss the disciples do so because they don’t like what is being said as it challenges them. It challenges them because it turns around their stereotypes, their presuppositions that only one group of people matter. It says there is another way, dreams and prophesies will bear fruit, there is another way. There is God’s way, and that way is inclusive and welcoming of all. As Martin Luther King so eloquently put it, I have a dream, and his dream was of inclusion for all.
Yet are we inclusive and welcoming of all? Because the reality us that each one of us will make assumptions and stereotype individuals, perhaps inadvertently, or through lack of knowledge, and those assumptions will make a difference to how we react to others, just as it did in 1st century Palestine. Knowing that we make such assumptions is important if we are to truly welcome others as God welcomes each one of us.
So let’s think for a moment about the judgements and assumptions we make and what they are based on. How people dress, how they look, how they speak will all impact our response. I don’t know if people dress to impress now for a job interview, it always used to amuse me that someone you saw every day in the office in casual wear, suddenly would appear in a smart suit, ah an interview we would all say! And as the person walks into the room for the interview first impressions, as with every other first encounter, count, they affect what follows.
We all make judgements the importance is to know why and how we make those calls., and at times to challenge them, especially when they are unjust.
It is within my lifetime, and many of yours, that women were not allowed to have a bank account in their own name or were excluded from certain jobs, they were expected to fulfil certain roles such as homemaker, not take on say a civil engineering project. I attended many a meeting, where the expectation was that I was there to make the tea. No, I was there to chair the meeting.
It is in my lifetime that you could be refused a property, or a job, if your skin colour was not white. It is in my lifetime that a disability meant you could not access many opportunities. It is in my lifetime that you could be arrested just for being true to yourself. And sadly all of those are still true in many ways. Try accessing public transport, especially the underground, if you have mobility difficulties. We have a sound system here in church, but not all public places do cater for the hearing impaired. A male colleague is usually assumed to have seniority compared to me, and if you are not white then you will know only too well the difficulties and pain I can only begin to imagine.
There are so many ways that people are excluded, are made to feel ‘other,’ and it is important that we take time to find out who each person is, not just what we see, but who each one of us is, because we are all more than we appear at first, and we are all made in the image of God. I mentioned the other week that at a PCC meeting we had discovered hidden talents amongst our membership, and if we are to truly witness to all of God‘s Kingdom then we need all of those skills and talents, and for no one to feel excluded.
The first Pentecost was an opportunity to welcome everyone in all their diversity, and here we want to celebrate our diversity with the wonderful array of cultures and backgrounds that we have here at St Edmund’s. And yet I am conscious that we can always do more to ensure all feel included and part of what God is calling us all to do.
In the Trinity the Holy Spirit tends to be seen as non-gender specific, as politically current. Yet the power we see and hear in all our readings today from the Spirit hardly fits that, the Holy Spirit comes to prove conclusively that the world has got most of its judgment skewed. The world judged Jesus as mad and dangerous, as other, and condemed him to death. The Holy Spirit comes to show Jesus was right, his message of inclusion for all is God’s way, and we are called to witness to that. The Spirit comes to enable us to speak of that truth, to have the courage to start conversations about what makes some feel included, and others excluded. If we don’t ask how others feel, and genuinely listen to their reply; or speak of our own experiences we will continue to exclude, and that is not God’s way.
A current slogan, aimed at mental wellbeing, but I would suggest for all our wellbeing, is that it’s good to talk.
It is good and important that we talk about the things that exclude, it isn’t comfortable, but it is essential if we are to live out God’s message of welcome for all. Conversations can be an agent for change, so let’s talk and importantly listen, even when it is uncomfortable. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
09 MAY 2021 – Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after Ascension Day)
Christian Aid 2021
This week is Christian Aid Week and this year the theme of water runs through the Week, stories from Kenya – both a lack of water and a destructive abundance of it. Drought and flood are part of the climate chaos and the associated erratic weather patterns being experienced by communities in Kenya. These communities depend on a reliable water supply for their livestock and livelihood.
So here are 2 different stories about how this is affecting everyday lives in Kenya. Rose is caught in a cycle of climate chaos. From severe drought to flooding, extreme weather robs her of what she needs to survive: a reliable source of water. Without water, every day is a struggle. Without water, Rose is thirsty and hungry. This is her climate crisis.
‘When I was a young girl, there was plenty of food,’ Rose says.
Now, the rains are totally unreliable. The climate crisis has galvanised extreme weather and Rose’s community are feeling the brunt of it. For months at a time, Rose lives with drought.
‘I often feel hungry,’ Rose says. ‘Because of climate change, I worry a lot about food. I pray to God that the rainfall will become normal like it used to be.’
In recent years, the drought has been so bad that it’s caused a hunger crisis. Crops wither and die. Rivers run dry. People struggle to survive.
Rose strives to provide for her grandchildren who live with her. She does all she can to give them happy childhoods, but the climate crisis is driving her to the brink.
In times of drought, Rose sets out on a long and dangerous journey every morning to collect water for her family. She walks on an empty stomach.
‘We have to walk long distances. We are suffering,’ Rose said.
While she walks, her stomach gives her stabbing pains. She feels weary under the hot sun. But if she gives up, her grandchildren will suffer hunger and thirst.
With a dam full of water, Rose would be free from her long, painful journeys. She’d have time to grow fresh vegetables for her family to eat. And she could see her grandchildren grow up and live life in all its fullness.
Florence is full of life, love and laughter. The women in her farming group look up to her. She’s courageous, kind – a survivor.
A few years ago, her husband died, leaving her a widow. At that time, she had no water to grow crops. Her children were hungry. She had to walk for hours on dangerous journeys to collect water. ‘Life was miserable,’ she told us.
But things have changed for Florence. Next to her farm, Florence is proud to show visitors something remarkable – a dam, full of fresh water.
It’s thanks to your donations that Florence and her community have built this water dam, just a short walk away from her village.
With this dam, Florence can grow tomatoes, onions and chillies on her farm. With this dam, her children can eat healthy, nutritious vegetables. It’s her source of life and joy.
Florence also uses the water from the dam to keep bees. She sells the rich, golden honey for cash at the market. Now, Florence is reaping a good life for herself and her family.
The dam gives Florence strength to withstand even the most unpredictable weather. It’s a reliable water source, whether she faces long drought or relentless rainstorms.
Sadly, millions of people in Kenya are desperately struggling to survive climate chaos. This year’s Bishop’s appeal was about supporting our linked diocese in Marsabit in Kenya to empower communities to enable them to have businesses and livelihoods just as we see with Florence.
In our gospel today Jesus is praying for his friends just before he is arrested and killed. His parting instructions were those we heard last week on abiding in his love, and now he offers them to God in prayer. He knows that they are going to need each other to get through. Their love for one another and their sacrificial giving for their friends will strengthen them to endure. It is not duty, obligation or command that will enable them to remain faithful and bear lasting fruit. It is love, friendship and joy.
Love, friendship and joy is what we hope lies at the heart of our experience of Christian Aid Week. We hope that it is our love for one another that inspires our generous giving. That it is our friendship with communities we get to know through the stories of Rose and Florence and our diocesan links with Marsabit that motivates us to sacrificial acts of solidarity. And it through our generous giving and sacrificial actions that we bear lasting fruit and know complete joy.
I spoke a few weeks ago of action not words being at the heart of our discipleship. As we reflect on these stories of Rose and Florence, of hardship and transformation we pray that our giving may enable them to face the future with strength, as well as our personal actions on climate change ensuring a future for us all and the generations to come. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
09 MAY 2021 – Sixth Sunday of Easter
Love and trust have been very much the themes of the last few weeks, and this week is no different.
They often say that each preacher only has one good sermon in them, and I can attest to the fact that many of mine have at their heart love. The love of God for us. Our love for God, and love for one another. But then in all fairness that was always at the heart of Jesus’ preaching too, and nowhere more so than in these words to his disciples just before he is arrested. He is most urgent about the instructions to love God and to love one another. This, he says, is what he chose them to do, and to go out and share that love, not just with one another, but with everyone they meet.
Hang on though, what if your experience of love has not been good? A relationship that has failed, the lack of love from those you expected love from, even worse betrayal of the trust you placed in that person by giving them your love.
This week I read another sad story of a woman, who had been scammed out of a considerable amount of money by a man she trusted, the so called romance scam, and I take my hat off to her for being so brave to tell of this betrayal. She had met the person on line and believed they shared many interests in common. She trusted him, and when he asked her for money, because he said his life was at risk, she gave it. As she said she felt a little unsure, but did not want to put someone’s life at risk. She trusted because she loved, and that trust, that love was betrayed. Now we might say, that wouldn’t happen to me, but it can, because caring, loving makes us vulnerable, and we can be badly hurt.
And yet loving also gives us joy and happiness – sharing our lives, our hopes, our fears with a dear friend or a partner is truly a wonderful thing. It makes us feel good too when we share with others and knowing in return that we are special to that other person.
And God chooses to love each one of us too, to care for us, support us, guide us and just be there in times of laughter and sadness. God chooses every one of us, each of us matters, each of us is important, not because of our status or anything we do, but just because God is love.
Love does bring out the best in everyone. When we love we want to put that person before us. Jesus even goes as far as to suggest that a friend may give up their life for another, and that is loving indeed.
A true friend is indeed a real blessing, someone who is honest with us, and we with them, one who shares in what is important to us, one who you know you can count on in difficult, as well as good times, is someone to be treasured. We love our friends for who they are, not what they are, and Peter comes to the realisation that that is God’s way. God shows no preferences, but welcomes all who want to know and love God. The snippet of the reading from Acts comes after Peter has met Cornelius and his family, non -Jews, non- circumcised, not part of the Chosen People. Yet they are, because God has, and does, choose everyone who wants to come to God.
In return we are asked to love God, and one another because God chooses us to go and share that love with others, and in that we bear much fruit. Those fruits I mentioned last week of kindness, patience, joy and love. Although we are commanded to do this, we are called not as servants but as friends, friends who care because they are friends, not servants.
So maybe I have only got one sermon, but if that sermon is about how love can transform us, then I will keep preaching about love, encouraging each one of us to reflect on what that means in our lives.
We are people chosen by God, so how can we show that love in the world, how can we serve God, not as a servant, but as a friend? As members of God’s Church here on earth what talents and skills can we bring to St Edmund’s and our community to ensure that both we and God’s Church flourish. We have many skills amongst our church family, as we discovered recently at the PCC meeting when talking about this, but often they are hidden, left at the door as you come to worship. As we seek to rebuild our community after so many months apart what can each one of us offer in our skills and talents to move that forward? Jesus did not ask only one of those early disciples to share God’s love in the world, he asked them all, as he asks all of us. So talk to one another now and in the weeks to come and discover the talents we have here at St Edmund’s to serve God
You did not choose me, but I chose you, and what has God chosen you to do? Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
02 MAY 2021 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
I’m sure you all know the song, “This Little Light of Mine.” We use it with Little Edmundos and while we do, we hold up a t-light light and shine it all around.
What’s wrong? My light isn’t shining.
Oh, the problem is, my light isn’t plugged in with a battery.
Now that we’re plugged in, let’s try it again.
That was much better with the lamp shining brightly. It’s pretty hard for a light to shine when it isn’t connected to the power source. Actually, it’s not just hard; it’s impossible!
In recent months staying connected has been more important than ever, and we have needed to look at lots of ways to do this, through our phones, letters or the computer. That connection has enabled us to share our highs and lows, our hopes and fears with those we care for. It has meant we could still be there for those who needed us, and they could be there for us. But the important thing is that however we keep in touch, that we actually do reach out. If we don’t relationships fade and die.
And that is what our gospel reminds us. Jesus told His disciples a story to help them understand why it’s important to stay connected to Him. But He didn’t use conventional examples. In His example there was a grapevine, a plant with a lot of branches growing out from it. The branches have fruit on them and that fruit is the grapes.
But think about a branch that’s been broken off of a tree or a vine. What happens to it? It withers up and dies. It can’t ever have fruit on it again; it’s not good for anything except firewood.
Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me, you will have much fruit, but apart from me, you can do nothing.” Jesus wants us to produce fruit. Good fruit, like kindness, generosity, and faithfulness. Most of all, He wants us to love others as He has loved us.
But we can’t do it on our own. Just as the lamp must be plugged in before its light can shine, and that contact with others must be maintained, so the branches must be connected to the vine before they can produce fruit, and you and I must stay connected to God to produce the good fruit that God expects of us.
Now whilst the extension lead, phone, computer and a letter are all good ways to stay in touch with one another, how can we do that with God? As John reminds us how can we love the unseen, God, if we can’t keep in touch and love the ones we can?
Well a good start is always prayer, and I know that seems a very simplistic but at the same time often difficult thing to say. After all it can feel very much like a one way conversation, in fact no conversation at all. And it is then that we need to take the space to remain in God, remain connected to that branch, and wait. The vine does not produce fruit overnight, it takes time, patience and nurturing to produce good grapes, and so it is with our relationship with God.
Our first reading tells us of the meeting between Philip and an unnamed Ethiopian official. This man is reading the Book of Isaiah when Philip joins him. Philip falls into conversation, or so it appears, although actually he has been sent by God, and ask the man what he is reading and if he understands the content. The reply is an honest one, how can I understand it without guidance? We too need help and guidance to understand many things in our lives as we grow, and our faith is no different.
I am often perplexed by those who stand on street corners giving out Bibles and other scriptures to passers by. I am sure they hope that, like the unnamed Ethiopian, they will read and turn to someone for guidance, but it always seems a rather haphazard way to go about introducing others to the love of God. As I said last week actions often speak louder than words. Philip taking time to be with the person he meets on the road, and after that taking time to spread the good news wherever the Holy Spirit led him, is about action. Yes, he is using words, but it is the time he takes, to stop and listen, to answer the questions that provides the opportunity.
Time to be connected, time to stay connected to one another and to God is what enables us to flourish. Without a connection the light will not work, without our connection to God our faith will wither. When we are part of the true vine we can bear much fruit, those fruits of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and faithfulness. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
APRIL 2021: 25-APR, 18-APR, 11-APR, 04-APR, 01-APR
PREVIOUS MONTHS: MARCH, FEBRUARY, JANUARY
PREVIOUS YEARS: 2020
25 April 2021 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
The Duke of Edinburgh was a part of the Royal Family and thus this nation and indeed wider afield in the Commonwealth, for over 70 years. Much has been written about his support for the Queen and his public service, and for someone in the public eye for so long it would seem there could be nothing new to be said.
Yet some words from the Countess of Wessex struck me as interesting. Married to Prince Edward, she will have known Prince Philip publicly and privately for over 20 years, and yet she said, ‘I have learnt things about him I did not know.’
His actions sometimes spoke more than his words; he was famously a man who did not like unnecessary fuss and time wasting, preferring to get on with matters rather than debate them at length.
And action, rather than words, is very much the theme of our readings today. Peter and John have healed a man, who had for years lain within the Temple precincts, and were speaking to the crowds of the resurrection of Jesus, when they are arrested by the Sadducees, a group who did not accept resurrection or the coming of the Promised Messiah. They were a very conservative group relying on the Jewish Law and were responsible for the Temple and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Governing body.
When Peter and John are brought before these rulers and elders, it is not their words, but their actions they are questioned about. This man, who had been begging in the temple area, was standing hale and hearty, and his cure was seen as a notable sign. The authorities did not want their authority undermined and could not ignore the active healing that had taken place. Words they could counter, this action they could not as it spoke of God and God’s commandments. This action really mattered and spoke.it was an act of love.
Love, real love, is expressed in actions not words, John tells his readers, and it is the main commandment from God, and endorsed by Jesus. Love God, love one another, and love is not about the words, but how that translates into action. Show me, words are easy, but living them out is another thing entirely. Putting another person before ourselves is a real sign of our care and love, and if we can’t do that for a person we can see, how can we do that for God who we cannot see John tells us elsewhere.
And the Good Shepherd does exactly that. The sheep know he is to be trusted, this is the one who feeds them, who protects them, who does not let them be scattered and attacked by wolves and other predators. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, and his sheep know him. His actions, his practical care means they will follow him and stay as one flock, and in that way not just survive but thrive.
We are called to trust in God, the one who loves us, and who will feed and nurture us, who will encourage us, and enable us to thrive when we abide in God’s love. And abiding in that love means loving and caring for others. Reaching out to the person who is lonely, and you don’t have to be on your own to be lonely. It is really listening to others when they say, I am fine, but their eyes tell us a different story, it is going for a walk with the person who is worried about being outside, and having a chat about nothing in particular, but just allowing God, through the Holy Spirit, to work in and through us.
Sometimes it is the apparently smallest action, at the right time, that can mean the most to someone who is in a dark and difficult place. Don’t just say you will call, take the time to do it, and you will both gain something from it.
As a church we are a community and taking time to care for one another is a part of being Church. Ironically the past year, with lockdowns has meant many have come to see how important human contact is. Zoom has meant we have spent more time talking and getting to know another, and because we have missed that real contact, let’s make sure we don’t lose that. People in the street, in the shops, on public transport, take time to speak – there is a sense of real community, of acknowledgment of one another as individuals.
The actions of reaching out mean more than the actual words, the recognition of others, the valuing of others, the love for others is what matters. And the last year has very much shown the need to value and care for everyone, no matter who they are.
It has been a difficult year in so many ways, yet the actions of many have been the real positive. As we go forward, let us not return to the former normal, ignoring others, but let us once again show, in our actions as well as our words, the care, compassion and love that our Good Shepherd calls us to. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
18 April 2021 – Third Sunday of Easter
The Easter stories begin with the disappearance of Jesus, with an empty tomb, an unsuccessful search for his body, and the witnesses overcome with fear and amazement. But thereafter, the Easter stories are all about the (re-)appearance of the risen Christ.
And the risen Christ is a bit of a jack-in-a-box character: popping up unexpectedly, unrecognised, suddenly appearing, suddenly disappearing, raising questions and doubts in those who see him.
Today’s Gospel (found in Luke’s version) is one of those instances. We too, like Jesus, have jumped into the story mid-flow. We gate-crash the disciples who are back in the city all together (we’re not quite sure exactly where), but – unlike John’s story last week – there’s no mention of them timidly hiding in a locked room. In fact, they’ve been out and about. Two of the disciples – Cleopas (you know: the one whom we’ve never heard of previously and whom we never hear of again) and another one (who doesn’t even have a name) – have just returned hotfoot back to the city. They had only just left and got to a village – roughly the same distance as between London and Chingford – when they had turned on their heels.
They had recounted what happened to them on the road and at Emmaus, only to have their exciting news dampened by the others responding “oh yes! Peter’s seen him as well.” Apart from the disciples sharing this news, the gospel had not previously disclosed this to us (the readers). All that had been shared is that Peter had gone to the tomb, popped his head in, seen it was empty, and then decided to go home. (Whimsically, I imagine Peter stood there, slightly smug, content that his position as top-dog was still unassailed by these “also-ran” disciples, who had run back from Emmaus.)
But, in common with other appearance stories of the risen Christ, there are key messages here for us today. They provide us with a glimpse of a God who meets us where we are, and how we are. And that is no matter how important or unimportant we might – secretly and overtly – think we are, or how others might view us. Whether we are the prince of apostles (espying the risen Christ as we walk home but with not much of a story to tell), or forgettable and forgotten bit-players (with a big story to tell but overlooked), the risen Christ appears in our lives and God’s presence is close. And that is in the streets that we walk, in the places where we gather, in the stories that we tell, and in the lives that we share.
This is no airy-fairy, reality-denying wishful thinking, these appearance stories go out of their way to embed resurrection in real life. In this gospel story, the risen Christ denies that this is all something very spiritual. His disciples assume that this Jesus who had disappeared from the tomb, who had died on the cross, was a ghost. But no! he is not a spirit, and that point is slightly laboured in a bit of a crass way,
Look at my hands,
Look at my feet,
Give me some fish
And watch me eat.
The risen Christ does the same type of things that we normally do with our bodies – we and he can occupy space physically, walk, talk, eat, touch and be touched. A little bit like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, Christ materialises in our real situations – a happening, an event: the risen Christ becomes a fact; our faith in God becomes concretised in our lives, in our realities.
This week, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in conversation with theologian Paula Gooder, said of the Resurrection that it “is not a happy ending. Jesus doesn’t just miraculously come down from the cross. He really dies. He enters into the dark pit of our loneliness, our abandonment and that’s crucial. It’s there that God remains at work.”
The risen Christ is no Jacob Marley’s ghost. He is no ghostly apparition that keeps popping up with instructions for his friends on how to escape this ghastly world. There is no introspection here. Often faith is spoken of or seen individualistically, that somehow I can do God on my own: that I can be spiritual rather than religious, that faith is personal rather than shared, that somehow it’s little more than an itch that needs to be scratched, or (euphemistically) personal stimulation for spiritual pleasure.
The tomb is empty – not because a dead Messiah has been vindicated with an assumption up out of this world into some far-flung distant heavenly sphere. The tomb is empty – because God continues being incarnate. He is resurrected … he is present around a table, he is present on the sea shore, he is present even in a locked room. He is met by the grief-stricken woman railing at the gardener pottering around with flowers in his trug, he is met in the stranger on the road exchanging the news of the day, he is met in the picnicker on the shoreline as he turns the fish he is cooking on the fire.
And the risen Christ calls all of these people out of their inward individual focusses and sorrows and hang-ups and needs and doubts and wishes and wants and hopes and frustrations; and by speech, and touch, and sharing food, he calls them – and he calls us – into community, to be incarnate ourselves in this world: where we are and how we are. For the risen Christ is the incarnate God who saves us not from our reality – but who enters and joins us there. For we are all in it together. Now is eternal life. These are the courts of heaven. We are resurrection people.
11 April 2021 – Second Sunday of Easter
Do Not Doubt but Believe
The last year has certainly been a testing one, and the death of the Duke of Edinburgh has overlaid a new loss. There have been new things to learn, new ways of doing things, including being Church, are we up to all of these new challenges, indeed do we always want to take on the challenges?
Well life is about change and taking on and learning new ways, so we have tried, still perhaps not sure but aiming to do the best – approaching the task with some trepidation and doubt but buoyed up by other’s faith in us – we can’t let them down.
And this is what Jesus says to his disciples as he appears to them for the first time after his resurrection. His first words are not ones of rebuke, as well they might be, after they all deserted him; no his first words are a greeting. ‘Peace be with you.’ A normal enough greeting, and one he has used before, everything is fine, he seems to say, even though everything has changed, and his followers are no doubt terrified and thoroughly confused.
They are in a locked room, and yet Jesus is with them, he was dead and yet he is with them, not a ghost, but the risen Jesus, the same and yet not the same.
Then he really shakes them. “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” He has a job for them to do and no ordinary task at that. He knows they will need support, so adds, “receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But hang on, only God can forgive sins, this is not something they can do. Exactly, they can only do this with humility, and most importantly with God working in and through them by the Holy Spirit. “Just as the father has sent me, so I am sending you,’ says Jesus.
Not to duplicate his teaching but to implement it. Humility and trust are needed, because Jesus isn’t asking them if they want this task, he is telling them, commanding them even.
At their last supper together he had commanded them to love one another, just as he had loved them, and now he is telling them to go out and put this command into practice.
Thomas returns and they tell him of Jesus’ command, but he isn’t sure, he doubts. But is his doubt that Jesus is risen, was he also absent earlier that day when Mary Magdalene had returned from the tomb and told the disciples that Jesus had risen and spoken to her? Or is his doubt about doing the task that Jesus has given to his followers? Probably the two are intrinsically linked, and when Jesus returns the following week he invites Thomas to see and believe. Do not doubt but believe. He understands the uncertainty, he encourages the searching and the seeking after answers.
Thomas’ reply is to acknowledge Jesus as ‘My Lord and my God.’ He has not only gone beyond doubt, he is the first in this post resurrection time to acknowledge Jesus as his Lord. He sees and believes; just as John did at the tomb, although for John he did not need the presence of Jesus to believe, it was his absence, the absence of his body that enables John to believe.
For all of us there will be a different path to faith, and Jesus encourages Thomas to explore those doubts, so that he can go forward and undertake the tasks that Jesus is calling him to. Jesus encourages us to explore our doubts and challenges, because Jesus joins disbelievers on their journey, and accepts and rejoices in their questions, encouraging us all through the doubts and the fears to progress in faith.
He encourages us to have the courage to trust and doubt, to risk because of our rooted knowledge that God accepts and loves us; is prepared to persevere with us, to find the vulnerable child of God.
Jesus sees past our doubt and seeks us out, just as he sought out the lost sheep, as he sought out Thomas and later Peter to assure them that despite their failings, their weaknesses, he loved and accepted them.
Faith is not our faith in God, but God’s faith in us. God is always willing to engage. We are fully known by God, our good points and our less good, our strengths and the things that challenge us. Our journey of faith is worth taking because God seeks us out. God has counted and knows every hair on our head, God journeys with us through our faith and our doubt, our joy and our sadness.
‘Do not doubt but believe’ is Jesus’ message to all who follow – believe in me, believe in yourself that you can share all that you believe. It doesn’t need clever words, it needs words and actions from the heart, of love, care, compassion and empathy. It needs a wanting to share all that God offers to all. To all that God offers to those who know Christ and want to know him more, and to those who have yet to know him, and those who have yet to overcome their doubts and fears.
Recently I heard the following, and it struck a chord. We may not know where God is leading us, we may not need to know, all we do need to know is that God knows where God is leading us, and that is faith, and at a time of change that is our foundation, our rock.
Doubts and fears are part of learning, part of our questioning, of growing in faith. Our faith is that God does know, God will be there. We will get things wrong, we will need to try again, and each time God will be there, God will be leading us. Do not doubt but believe, because God is there with arms open wide waiting for us. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
4 April 2021 – Easter Day
Easter Day should be the easiest sermon of the year to write. Everyone has heard the story before, the empty tomb, discovered by Mary Magdalene, the weird running race between Peter and John to get to the tomb first. This race is won by John, but as he is also the one telling us the story, I guess he gets to say what he likes about who was a faster runner. The wrappings laying there. The men going home again, mainly rather bewildered. Then Jesus appearing to Mary, who was still there, crying. Yes, this sermon should be easy to write – because you are all meant to know how this one ends – we’re all meant to know the significance of this story – it’s the basis of the Christian faith.
Yet, I think because we preachers are always looking for an angle, to make the story interesting, to get people thinking in a way that is a bit out of the ordinary, because of that – it can be hard to write a sermon when the story is this one – when the story is just so stark and obvious really. Here we are on Easter Day – the church is literally as full as it can be in these circumstances; it is beautifully decorated with lilies and swept and polished within an inch of its life by a wonderful team yesterday. Here we are, once again, to worship God, whose Son literally rose from the dead, here we are to hear once again, this simple yet utterly strange message – that this man Jesus’s death has complete, earth shattering implications for our own lives. And to think about that is as hard as it is to preach about it.
I’m not much of a minimalist, as anyone who has been to my house will have found out. At the best of times, it tends to looks like a low-grade antiques shop that has just had a large delivery of stock. But I can see how decluttering could be quite an attractive proposition. There is definitely something about empty space that is calming. There’s something about empty space that is relaxing. There’s something about empty space that is pure. A mirrored lake. A vast blue sky. A white room. Silence. A blank slate. The emptiness of that tomb, when Peter and John arrive, is not what they would have expected after having witnessed Jesus’s death barely a couple of days before. But it is what they find. And, just as we have problems with thinking about the immensity of the meaning of the empty tomb for our lives, Peter and John have problems processing it too. What do they do? They just go home. They don’t stick around. John doesn’t record them having a conversation about it. They evidently decide there’s much to be done, they’re a bit tired after having ran all the way there, so they toddle back off.
The only person that sticks around is Mary Magdalene, who is in the garden, crying. She doesn’t understand what is going on either. And she doesn’t recognise Jesus at first. In fact she only recognises the gardener for who he really is, when Jesus says her name. “Mary”. And in that minute, Mary seems to just get it.
Today should be a joyful day. We’re back in church. We’re able to see each other again. There’s been some nice weather this week. The loneliness of our winter of discontent seems to be fading a little, with hope of a less bleak future for many now a real possibility. But, for most of us, that emptiness of the tomb – the emptiness of the cross even – is something that we will celebrate today with a slight bewilderment, and then – like Peter and John – we’ll probably just go home. Life goes on, right? There’s the lunch to cook.
The thing about the empty tomb though, is that the minimalism of it, the bareness of it, doesn’t signify the end of anything. It’s not a time for a sigh of relief, where we can all just go home and think ‘ah, that’s nice, Jesus is risen, alleluia’. When we declutter anything in our lives, we’re never really doing it to mark the end of the story – we’re doing it to prepare ourselves for the next thing. And when we wipe the slate clean in our lives, or when we wipe the slate clean in how we think about somebody else, when we forgive them, we’re not doing it as a final act – we’re doing it because we want to move forward.
I think perhaps Peter and John don’t really understand this when they’re at the tomb. They don’t see the significance. But perhaps Mary Magdalene does, after all she sticks around. Maybe she sort-of knows, even before she sees the gardener, that this isn’t the end of the story. As I said, she doesn’t recognise Jesus at first, it’s only when he says her name that she does. But if she’d just gone home, gone about her daily business, like Peter and John did, she would never have heard her name being called, she would never have seen the risen Jesus. No, she stayed there, and in her grief, she realised she wasn’t alone.
I think probably most of us here have a sense of the need to muddle through and make the best of things most of the time. We have people in our lives that we need to be strong for. We know that things aren’t perfect, and that we have to have some resilience. However, it’s when there is a stark emptiness in our lives. When someone we really love is no longer there. Where that emptiness about making a nice minimalist home, but where its an enforced emptiness – where the person or people in our life are no longer there, where that busy-ness used to be and no longer is, when we’re at our most vulnerable. These are the times when I think we change the most, and when we’re open to God the most too. When things are going just fine thank you, we often don’t pay spiritual matters much attention. Its when things go wrong, that we perhaps think a little more about these things.
And this year, maybe more than any other, so many known to us here, many of you here today, will have experienced that emptiness… sadness, loneliness, loss. And you will, no doubt, have experienced these feelings, not as some kind of neat ending, but as an ongoing blankness, and ongoing process of emptiness. But, if there was ever a day where emptiness signifies something more than just loss, it’s Easter Day. Because today of all days, we celebrate that death, and that loss, is not the end. The death has no ultimate power over you, over me, over anyone. And we come to worship the God who we believe loved us into life and who loves us beyond life. Who calls us by our name, who knows us more than we know ourselves.
And this God, whom we worship, and who no doubt so many out there these days probably think we’re crazy for so-doing, does not want us to just go home and put the dinner on. The actions of Christ when he talked to Mary in the garden, when he talked to her at her lowest point, when he talked to her in her grief, suggest that God calls us at the most bleak of times. He calls us to wipe the slate clean, to start again. He calls us not to just go home, carry on like nothing has happened. But, in fact, to change who we are and what we do. It’s a massive challenge. It’s a challenge we need reminding of constantly. But it is what our faith should be about. So when you say “he is risen indeed, alleluia”, and you smile, and you feel good – remember, this isn’t where the credits start rolling and the music starts playing: because actually the film has only just begun, and – guess what – you’re in the starring role now.
1 April 2021 – Reflection: Maundy Thursday
One of the advantages I have living in the vicarage is that I alone can see the real beauty of one of our stained glass windows. When the lights are on in the church they shine out through the window in the Lady Chapel illuminating the picture of Christ on the Cross.
It is a sight I have missed this past year, as it usually means the brass band are practising in the church. The other evening Colin was in the church filming The Watch for Maundy Thursday, and the lights from the candles lit up the window yet again. The rich colours piercing the darkness are visible only from 2 windows in the vicarage, and are hidden from anyone else, a true privilege, yet also an opportunity lost to shine that light out into the world. A world that more than many a year is in need of hope and light as we inch forward out of the darkness of the last few months, and ask, are we nearly there?
Are we nearly there yet?
Any parent will recognise that question, usually asked within 5 minutes of setting out on a journey. If the journey is a long one the question will certainly have lost its sparkle by the time you finally arrive and your destination comes into view.
As one who has always lived in the city, that first sight of the sea, as you come over the last hill is always something special to behold, we are there it says and indeed water does have a very calming effect, one that makes us take time to pause and reflect.
Reflecting on the past year it has constantly felt rather like a never ending journey, as we watched the graphs telling us of the growth in infections and sadly deaths, then thankfully the reduction in deaths, hospital admissions and infections. And now as we come to the further stages in the easing of another lockdown we are asking again are we nearly there yet?
Each time we appear to turn a corner another obstacle arises, and even the most resilient person is left wondering, where is the destination, will we ever find it?
The first Holy Week, must have felt rather like such a roller coaster. On Palm Sunday Jesus was welcomed as the Promised One, his friends, who have often wondered where this journey was heading, could see some destination, yet within days it all ends, in apparent failure, on a cross. From hope to despair, from light to dark, this wasn’t the expected ending. And then the first light of dawn on the Sabbath and despair turns to joy. They are there, and we are nearly there too.
In Holy Week we are still travelling, we know that after the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the darkness of Good Friday, the emptiness of Saturday we will share the light of Easter together, and this year not on a screen. We will have the joy of sharing Communion together again for the first time in months, and that feels special.
We aren’t there yet, there is still a road to travel, yet whilst the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to those of us who are being saved it is the power of Christ.
The light is shining in the darkness, through the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, we are nearly there, despair can once again turn to hope. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
MARCH 2021: 31-MAR, 30-MAR, 29-MAR, 21-MAR, 14-MAR, 07-MAR
PREVIOUS MONTHS: FEBRUARY, JANUARY
31 March 2021 – Reflection: Wednesday in Holy Week
On Psalm 23
I enter the darkness of death, and yet I will not fear that destruction, for you are even there with me in that deep ravine. And, with your protection, I am consoled.
It was 2001, and with six days to the General Election, my father died. Not that I knew that when I received the call. He had collapsed in the garden. So rather than the agents’ meeting at the Town Hall that I had in my diary, instead I was sat on the train heading across London to the hospital: leaving behind all that had been planned for that day, and (as it happened) for the days and weeks and months to come. As I sat staring out of the window passing through the glass and steel landscape of Docklands, I feared the worst. And then – all I recall was being at the hospital, left alone in front of a whiteboard in the empty area to where the nurse had rushed me – and where she had there left me without explanation. I looked at the names of the patients written on the board, and my father’s name was not there.
Even in the darkest valley, with death’s shadow sweeping over me – even then my fears are quelled because you are there at my side.
Just over 40 days ago, as we entered Lent, the words “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return” were addressed to us, confronting us with our mortality. It isn’t something we often wish to be reminded of – that, at some time to come, others will meet together and we will no longer be there.
There are only few with us this evening, and strangely for many in our church, and elsewhere, Holy Week will pass without coming together to confront Good Friday and the pain of crucifixion; for most, they jump from Hosanna to Alleluia.
But even the Church – which in this year has been following Mark’s telling of the gospel – will change tack and deflect to John’s Gospel, shielding us from the tragic and inescapable death scene that Mark paints. Rather than a Christ begging to be released from his fate and crying out in anguish to his Father asking why he has deserted him, John’s Christ will somehow be calmly in control while hanging on the cross, as he arranges guardian responsibilities for his mother. Rather than the harrowing death scream from the cross, there is a final “It’s all done” as the final fulfilment of scripture is ticked off.
And yet, Good Friday is necessary. Easter will come – but not yet. And even then, in the end, Mark leaves us only with a lonely burial and scared women fleeing an empty tomb screaming in fear, severed mid sentence as words fail: the raw emotions as we stare death in the face. This is what the carols we sing at Christmas points us to. The incarnation is not just a child being born, pushed out of his mother, gasping for his first breaths. The incarnation is also the end, as the struggling body on the gibbet sags and the final breath is exhaled.
The darkness does not overwhelm me, because you are present there with me. And in the night of fear, when I stumble and fall, you also walk my journey.
Good Friday – the day God dies – cannot be sidestepped. The incarnation does not simply hang by the tinsel thread of Christmas. It is impaled by nails on the cross. This is a real life. This is a real death. This is a real incarnation. When we recite in our creed, that Christ descended into hell, he steps into our grave. The pain, and the sorrow, and the emptiness remain, but even in that darkness, in that death, in that unremembered land, the dark valley in which we stumble, God is incarnate.
I enter the darkness of death, and yet I will not fear that destruction, for you are even there with me in that deep ravine. And, with your protection, I am consoled.
30 March 2021 – Reflection: Tuesday in Holy Week
O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
To undertake the journey of Holy Week is to undertake many simultaneous journeys. It is, perhaps most obviously, the journey of a group of people, firstly into Jerusalem, to be greeted by admiring crowds. Thence to Bethany – where their leader curses a fig tree, after which it is back to Jerusalem again – where Jesus effectively seals his fate, overturning tables at the Temple, and is then tested by all and sundry – pharisees, sadducees and scribes. They then return to Bethany, where – at the house of Simon the Leper – a woman pours perfume over Jesus’s head, to much indignation from the twelve. A furtive journey back to the city follows for one of the twelve, who betrays Jesus to his haters. Afterwards, for them all, to the upper room in the city for the final meal, and thence to the garden in Gethsemane, from where Jesus is arrested and taken to the Chief Priests, then to Pilate, and to the Palace where Jesus was tortured. After this, Christ’s last human journey is recorded – to Gologotha.
As well as the physical journey, it is also a journey of the emotions – for Jesus, for his disciples, for the people of Jerusalem. A journey that starts in triumph, a sense of hubris, a wave of positive emotion for all, yet ends in scorn, death and, until Easter Sunday, a sense of complete failure. Here we see Jesus the conquering hero become Jesus the bitter disappointment. Here we see the disciples go from loyal supporters to a mixture of betrayers, deniers and hiders-away. Here we see the people of Jerusalem fickly changing their allegiance, from supporters of Christ’s reign, to supporters of his death. And all in one short week.
Yes, Holy Week is short. But journeys into darkness sometimes are, and they can take one by surprise. In 1930, few would have predicted the Holocaust. In 2010, few would have predicted Trump. In 2019, few would have predicted Corona, to take but a few modern examples.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Journeys into darkness seem to often be accompanied by a sense of loss: loss of hope and of faith in the truth. Our modern society does not value truth as an absolute: at best, this is because we have a genuine desire to accommodate the points of view of others and recognise that we do not always have the right answers, at worst this is a cynical ploy to exploit the fears and grievances of others, by constantly feeding them lies. As we see how easily the crowds are set against Jesus, we remember the need to hold fast to the truth, and to challenge injustice. As we hear Pontius Pilate say “what is truth?” we must remember that the ultimate truth is the basis of our faith. And as we travel through the darkness of despair, of failure and danger, with Jesus and the disciples, let us remember that there is ultimate hope, too.
Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
29 March 2021 – Reflection: Monday in Holy Week
Jeremiah 31.13: I will turn their mourning into joy, I will console and gladden them after their sorrow.
As we go through Holy Week, we remember the suffering our Lord Jesus Christ went through. We also remember the heartbreak and suffering many people all over the world have gone through because of the pandemic.
We can only imagine what Jesus must have felt as the time came to enter into His Passion. Was he grieving over the friendships he had made and was now to leave behind. Did he feel completely alone knowing that even His Apostles could not accept why he had to die and not fully grasp the value of his death until much later. On the cross He called out “Father, why have you forsaken me”?
Jesus may have found comfort in the Prophet’s words “I will turn their mourning into joy”. He knew that the suffering he was to endure was necessary for the joy of the Resurrection. Even so, because of his humanity, He did not want to undergo the torment that he had to go through.
Just like the Apostles, we don’t realise what God is doing in our lives and what plans he has for us. We can’t always see His great love and the fulfilment of his promises for us in our times of despair, upheaval and turmoil. Jeremiah reminds us, however, that Joy comes in the morning and light after darkness and it is because of this that we believe and rejoice in the resurrection.
28 March 2021 – Palm Sunday
21 March 2021 – Fifth Sunday of Lent (Passion Sunday)
“We want to see Jesus.”
There was excitement; they had been looking forward to this: a special trip, a special destination, a special festival, and (more so) a special person was there. The rumours had gone round, … apparently a dead man had been raised. Those who had heard about it, and (more so) had also heard that he was headed to the City, streamed out in numbers. This was something to tell the kids and grandchildren. The Greek guys had clocked, that Jewish or not, there were some decidedly Greek-sounding names among his entourage – Philippos (Philip) and Andreas (Andrew) – that was their way in. Unbelievably, this was doable, this looked like it really was going to happen. They clutched their autograph books, watched the two disciples step forward and whisper in his ear, and they waited excitedly for the magic to happen. But …
SPOILER ALERT! This isn’t going to end well. Except – of course – that, in itself, isn’t much of a spoiler. Though (in the story) the Greeks stand there hopping from foot to foot and grinning like Cheshire cats – John’s Gospel pulls us into that conversation between Jesus and these two disciples: that strange conversation about seeds and soil, of new beginnings and new life. But – a new world, new possibilities, the glorification of God, that is only realised through death and loss and hate. As Jesus acknowledges, it is something no rational person would court or seek out, but rather something to ignore, to sidestep, to avoid at all costs. For in two weeks, he will be killed, the status quo will win – as its governor taunts him, laughing at his truth, publicly torturing him so that he and the hopes he inspires dies: slowly and painfully.
“We want to see Jesus.”
Who knows why these Greeks were so intent on seeing Jesus? The story doesn’t tell us. Perhaps they were simply hoping to see the celebrity of the hour. Perhaps, to schmooz their way into a minor role in the telling his story. (And minor it is.) But their request to see him – not to touch, not to speak to nor learn about, but to see, to perceive, to become acquainted with, to witness, this is key for where this story is leading us.
Unlike the other gospels, in relaying the final days of Jesus’s life, John has four long chapters of discourses, between the last supper and Jesus’s betrayal and arrest, – a huge outpouring of theology as Jesus bids farewell to his disciples. Jesus is in anguish for what lies ahead for them, and he seeks to comfort them in the distress that they will face. But important though words are and theology is, those few brief words of these Greeks echo and cut through it. They want to understand better. It’s not that they don’t want to hear, but rather that they want to see.
“We want to see Jesus.”
I’m not that very good with musicals. My family went to see many when I was young, and I could just never understand why the telling of a story had to be constantly interrupted by singing. I don’t think I ever saw ‘My Fair Lady’ on stage, but definitely saw the film on telly. My mother actually saw it on stage, when it opened with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews; she was there with the Queen Mother – well actually with her best friend June (the Queen Mother was sat somewhere quite separately from them).
Now in Act 2 of that musical, the character Eliza Doolittle (again!) breaks into song when her suitor Freddy tells her of his love for her. She doesn’t particularly reciprocate, but rather launches into the song ‘Show Me’, singing:
Words! Words! Words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
first from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above; if you’re in love,
Show me! Tell me no dreams
filled with desire. If you’re on fire,
“We want to see Jesus.”
As we enter Passiontide, the Greeks’ request is answered. The Holy Week that approaches provides us with the uncomfortable sight of Jesus and a love that is played out before their eyes and before our eyes. They and we see the paradox of a God who dies. Who confronted by violence and contempt and hatred, does not flinch in taking it all, and becomes as one in solidarity with all who are victims or scapegoats or who are sacrificed in life. A love that – when words are no longer enough – shows itself; a stretched-out God who hangs as a naked dying and dead man exposed to our view, displayed without apology, without comment – the Word without words. And we see what love looks like.
“We want to see Jesus.”
It is a request that is also asked of us and the church. Words! Words! Words! as Eliza Doolittle’s pleads: don’t talk about love, “show me.” Of course, the problem with that is it forces us out into the unknown, to be vulnerable, to risk rejection and to be broken. It calls us to be a humble church, to divest ourselves of our strength and our power and our certainties. But it calls us to be God-like, to be exposed, to extend our arms, to enter the darkness; to shut up and trust, rather, that we in some small way will mirror that love of God that was seen on the cross, in fulfilment of the Greeks’ request “to see Jesus.”
14 March 2021 – Mothering Sunday
The last year has brought challenges for many businesses, but also great innovation. If you are a mum, this might have been brought home to you this Mother’s Day, as the number of special Lockdown Mother’s Day 2021 cards available is numerous. I bought my mum one with a picture of two people in full protective clothing, self-distancing between a bedraggled bunch of flowers that had fallen to the floor. The caption reads: “Sorry Mum, bad throw”.
Of all days, today is a day when perhaps we think about our family relationships more than any other. Within today is wrapped up feelings of gratitude, warmth and love. For many there will be sadness that the mother figures in their lives have passed away, and we think particularly of Pat Fry’s family in this regard at present, as they mourn her loss. And for others there will be a mix of emotions, not all of them pleasant. Pope Francis, addressing a Catholic conference on the family in 2015, said “in the family there are always problems. You get the plate smashing. And I won’t even start to talk about mothers-in-law!” A roar of laughter went round the packed stadium, and one sensed a degree of relief amongst the crowd – that not even the Pope expects families to be perfect.
You don’t choose your family, it is a strange amalgam of people that you may share DNA with, but for some it can feel like you don’t share much else with them. For some, care for children, care for a family, is their vocation, for some it comes naturally. For others, it is the hardest and least joyous thing they have ever had to do. For some, it is something that is longed for and never comes. For others, it happens by accident, perhaps not in the best of circumstances. And for some, their family is unknown – a mystery of pain, the hurt of rejection teamed with curious thoughts of “what if?” and “if only”.
Thankfully, most families can find some joys to celebrate, some good memories to cling to. If you have a family full of good memories, be thankful for your good fortune and grateful to those who put in the effort to make it that way. This is the stuff of dreams, and indeed it tends to be what the greetings card manufacturers trade off. Yet, it would be a strange family who had no skeletons in the closet, no arguments, no resentments and no hurt. Jesus’s own family was by no means perfect. He himself was of course born in less than perfect circumstances, and his family immediately became refugees, fleeing to Egypt. Goodness knows what an emotional strain that must have put on Mary and Joseph’s relationship. And later, through snippets of the Gospels, we begin to understand that Jesus’s special nature – perhaps his precociousness – might not have meant he had an easy time of it as a child. In fact, he says, he has come to turn parent against child, bringing not peace but a sword. A psychotherapist would have a field day with that, wouldn’t they. Mind you, if the therapist asked Jesus “tell me about your father”, like therapists always seem to do in films, I’m not quite sure what kind of an answer they would have got!
We see, too, in Mark 6, where Jesus is back close to home, and people say “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t His sisters here with us as well?” And they took offense at Him. Then Jesus said to them: “Only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own household is a prophet without honour.”
Jesus sounds like he is rather bitter towards his brothers and sisters. Maybe they didn’t quite see him for what he was. Being the oldest child can be a burden, especially if you happen to also be the Son of God, I guess.
They say that a mother cannot be happier than her least happy child, no matter how old that child is. So for Mary it must have been hugely difficult to see her oldest Son go out into the world and, in a very short time really, make quite a lot of powerful enemies. They say that the British like to build our celebrities up before we knock them down. But reading the Bible it seems like we got this habit from first century Palestine. For Mary, to see Jesus achieve huge fame and, within a matter of a week from when he was being waved into Jerusalem, to see him imprisoned and terribly tortured, and then to see him brutally murdered, must have been beyond awful. The hurt that she must have felt, standing at the foot of the cross, is indescribable. Because, of course, when we stand at the foot of the cross, it is a symbol of hope, but when Jesus was on the cross, it would be the equivalent of watching your child slowly drowning, and being able to do nothing whatsoever about it. How she found the strength I do not know.
There is a tendency to read the Gospels now and perhaps not grasp the uncertainty and fear of the time. We know the end of the story before we start, and there is ultimately a happy ending. The Gospel of John makes sure we know the end of the story before we start, because it starts with basically a nice little run down of who Jesus is and what’s going to happen. But if you were to come to the story for the first time, you’d never heard anything about Christianity before, and maybe you read the Gospel of Mark instead, and you didn’t skip to the end, how would you empathise with poor Mary – consumed no doubt with fear and maybe guilt too. Maybe she felt “if only I had guided him better, he wouldn’t have struck out on this terrible path that led him to be killed”. “Maybe I built him up too much, maybe I told him he could achieve everything for the Kingdom of Israel, maybe I have caused this to him”. And of course, whereas in John’s Gospel, Jesus calmly tells everyone from the cross that he is going to his Father, and then promptly dies, in Mark’s Gospel Jesus really dies a complete failure. He shouts out “Father why have you forsaken me?” He dies with a sense of doubt about his mission.
Where am I going with all this? Well, I would say first that, if you have a happy family, that is a good and wonderful thing, a brilliant gift that you will have no doubt had to work hard to achieve. Families require give and take, they require love and sacrifice. Celebrate that today if you can. But if your family is less than perfect, if it encompasses broken relationships, grievances that have rattled on for years, hurt and betrayal, then do not feel you are alone. Jesus’s own family encompassed many of those things too. Some people who are more Catholic than I, like to think of the Virgin Mary a some kind of perfect person – a saint in the caricature way that suggests she was meek, mild and never set a foot wrong. I like to think of her instead as a real mother – someone who bore the pain and grief of her family, of all the difficulties she encountered, of the probably stress between her children, of seeing her firstborn son killed – she saw all this, yet she did not give up hope. So, if your family is grieving or broken, don’t give up hope that you can love. Don’t give up hope and think you are in any way worthless or unworthy of being loved. Because that is in fact the central message of Christianity, and its why we are all here today. It’s because we believe that, out of the grottiest and most miserable and depressing of circumstances, love wins.
7 March 2021 – Third Sunday of Lent
Hope in God
When people tell me that Jesus was meek and mild, I ask them if they have actually read the Bible, as whilst Jesus was very human in his emotions, meek and mild was not a characteristic one sees much in evidence. Quiet, stoic, prayerful, caring, passionate, and yes sometimes very angry are much more the Jesus we see in the gospels. He cares and his anger is directed at those who should know better, and at injustice and misinterpretation of who God is. He has a purpose to his life and ministry, and meek and mild is not going to bring that about.
Order out of chaos might be an interpretation of our opening reading today, and Jesus himself often referred to the 10 commandments, but then our epistle, where Paul appears at his most contradictory, and the gospel where Jesus is overturning the tables in the Temple are hardly order out of chaos.
But whilst seemingly opposites, perhaps they are all pointing to the building of community, God’s community and our relationship within that.
In Exodus Moses has returned from the mountain bringing with him God’s Law, God’s commandments. The people were a nomadic race, wandering in the wilderness having left Egypt. They have been promised a new life, and a new land as God’s Chosen People, and these are the rules for living in community. They are good laws for a people who are to settle down, and yet they are also so much more than that.
The preface to all the commandments is that the people are to rely solely on one God, to turn away from the religious idolatry of the peoples in the surrounding lands with their many gods and religious practices.
God first and last, God in all things – in worship, in how they live their lives, how they treat others, and many times, when asked about how to live a good life, Jesus refers to the commandments, yet always stressing that the most important is to love God and one another. Of course, as we know, God’s Chosen People, those whom God had called out of slavery in Egypt, turned away from God, time and time again, indeed almost as soon as the Law was given to Moses they broke it, and he has to intercede on their behalf again with God.
Paul is clear that God has a new way to repair the relationship, the community with God and humanity through the death of Jesus on a cross, and that certainly seems like foolishness.
A cross, the sign of failure as it would have been seen, a cross that was the sign of oppression. This is foolishness indeed, and yes it is, if one looks at it through the eyes of the Roman authorities who used it for punishment and to deter opposition, or the religious leaders who, whilst looking for the promised Messiah, had failed to recognise him in the figure dying on the cross.
But if we see it as foolishness, we are in danger of judging from a human perspective and not God’s. In dying Jesus gave himself, in love, and perhaps at that point meekly and mildly, that God’s people might return to that community which trust and reliance on God promises.
But remember this is the same Jesus who had overturned the tables in the temple, not meekly, but in anger because the people had returned to religious idolatry, relying on laws and rituals rather than trusting God, listening to God and building up one another. This is not foolishness, this is not meekly submitting, this death has a purpose.
Rules and rituals in themselves are not necessarily wrong, but if there is nothing behind them then they are worthless. It is the trust in God, one God, who gives to us all that we need, that is important. That is not to say that life will be easy and plain sailing, there may indeed be hardships, challenges and pain along the way. Yet as Paul tells his listeners at other times “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5.3&4)
And our hope comes when we trust in God, and when we turn to God we will find comfort, and strength. When in the midst of a really dark time that may indeed be hard, and God knows that. Those are the times when we may hold onto the rituals and pray that we can pray as we feel distant from God. And if we hold on and look for the calm, the order amidst the chaos God will be there.
The cross is not foolishness to those who understand that it was on that cross that Jesus died, not meekly, but passionately caring for us, that we might return to God, that we might trust God with all the joys and the challenges of our lives, that we might indeed be saved from a life without hope. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
28 February 2021 – Second Sunday of Lent
It may surprise you to learn that I am not a great jewellery wearer! There are some male clergy in our diocese who go in for pierced ears or large rings, and these days lots of younger people have tattoos of course. But this is not for me. The one ring I had I managed to lose, and to be honest wasn’t too worried as it looked a bit stupid on me anyway. But I was given a silver cross on my ordination, with a precious stone in the middle. I think the cross belonged to someone from my family a long while ago, and to be honest it isn’t the nicest piece I’ve ever seen. It is large and a bit old-fashioned, and were I to wear it around my neck, it would look a bit like I was trying to be one of those Greek orthodox bishops with their big pectoral crosses. But it did make me think about how often we see the image of the cross around the place, often in the most unlikely places.
We see the cross in our lettering, in the shapes of our buildings, our signage; and of course around the necks of many, either in a meaningful or perhaps an ironic fashion. A cross is about the most simple form of picture one can make other than a straight line. It is the picture that people who have never picked up a pen before can make. There is a reason that those who had not learnt to write were asked to sign with the sign of the cross. And in many ways, the cross as a religious symbol has become so ubiquitous, so utterly everywhere, as to become a little meaningless to many. If people see a cross they might think Christian or church. Do people really think: ‘this is a symbol of torture used by a repressive regime?’
Churches in the protestant world tend to omit the picture of the crucified Jesus from their crosses: protestant crosses are empty on purpose – not because they deny that Jesus died, but that they want to focus on the fact of the resurrection – that there is hope beyond the death of Christ – there is triumph over the grave, over the repression of the torture, over the devil. This is perfectly reasonable – it is, after all the basis of our faith. But this week I think our reading directs us to focus more closely on what some might see as the Catholic cross – the crucifix, with Christ still on it.
In today’s gospel we see Jesus rebuke Peter for misunderstanding his nature. This reading comes straight after Jesus asks Peter “who do you say I am?” and Peter replies, “well, you’re the Messiah”. And then this odd response from Jesus: “don’t tell anyone this”. That must’ve been so strange for the disciples. I think they could have been forgiven for wondering what they were doing – they’d given up their steady jobs as fisherman, etc, to follow a man they presumably thought was going to lead their people to great things, and he’d been going along healing a load of people, prophesying, and basically doing all the expected stuff, and then when things were going ok, when they were beginning to get an understanding, or so they thought, of who this Messiah actually was, he says to them – don’t tell anyone about me, or at least, not yet! I mean, they might have asked, what’s the point?
After this Jesus warns them that he will undergo great suffering, and this is evidently too much for Peter, because Peter takes Jesus aside and has a quiet word. The Bible doesn’t record what exactly Peter’s words were, but one can only imagine that it might have been something like: “come on Jesus, go easy on the whole suffering and dying stuff – you’re going to discourage everyone. Give us a bit of hope!” Jesus’s initial angry response to Peter: “get behind me, Satan!” comes as a shock to us, and no doubt wasn’t the best received by him. But it does speak as a warning to us all today, against assuming we know exactly what or who Jesus is.
And in Lent, we are at the very position, or at least perhaps we should be, of the disciples in this passage in Mark. We have heard of the work of Christ in his life, we look to his birth, to the forming of his team, we see the compassion and love he showed in his life, and of course we also know how the story ends – and that ultimately it’s a good ending, the ultimate in happy endings: we know that, ultimately, love wins, that God wins. But, just like Jesus does here, we are invited during Lent to sit with the uncomfortableness of the cross. And we dwell with this passage where we are invited to take up our cross and walk with God, whatever that cross might look like in our own lives. This does not mean we should all wear little jewellery crosses around our necks, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and I am sure many of us do. What it is about is growing an understanding through life that the ‘Good News’ is not the same things as the ‘Feelgood News’. That Christianity isn’t about feeling a permanent high, neither is it of course about feeling a permanent low and we always have to be careful not to be too miserable about life, that would be awful.
But what it is, what faith is, what our cross is really, is something that you carry with you so permanently that it utterly becomes part of you. It weighs on you, like it should do. We shouldn’t carry faith lightly, or pick it up and put it down when we want to. It’s not something we can buy and sell, and it’s something we can choose to ignore and let’s face it, we all do sometimes, and I absolutely include myself – I would be a total hypocrite if I didn’t. None of us has a perfect journey with faith, none of us a perfect journey with the cross. But what a life of faith looks like, I think, what a true journey with the cross looks like, is a life lived in the wondering of that question that Jesus asks Peter: “who do you say I am?” And that question can be asked both ways by us: who am I? That’s a question we all ask ourselves subconsciously all the time. Our lives are about living with ourselves, changing, adapting, loving other people, relating to our soul and to others. But also, a life of faith is about asking “who do I say God is?” What do I understand myself to be in the face of God? These are not easy questions to answer and they take a lifetime of travelling with the cross, in order to answer. But making that journey is worthwhile.
Sometimes the travelling on a long is hard, sometimes we take the wrong direction, we lose the map, the sat-nav is faulty. But often journeys can be revelatory too – they can be fun, we can meet people along the way that help us, that make us grow as people. And here in today’s gospel are the disciples at the start of their journey, really. They are taking up their cross and walking with Christ, learning about themselves and learning about God. Anyone who thinks they know exactly what God is, or thinks they can tell God how to behave, like Peter tried to here, is on a journey to nowhere. But those who are open for a journey of listening, of meeting people who might challenge them, those who are open to making sacrifices along the way, to discovering more about who they are, those who are open to growing as people, to living, laughing, mourning and crying with others; open to praying to God even though they don’t necessarily know what to say. Those seem to me, to be the people Jesus is talking to here, and he’s talking to you. He’s challenging you too: are you going to take up your cross, whoever you are, whatever that looks like for you? Are you going to listen? Are you going to learn? Are you going to grow?
21 February 2021 – First Sunday in Lent
During Lent we are encouraged to look again at our lives and our relationship with God, and this year, with much that is still challenging and unknown, the theme of our Lent reflections, is ReBuilding Community.
So much of the past year has been about distance – physical and mental – from those whom we love and from the things that make up our day to day lives. As we start to rebuild those aspects of our lives, now is also a good time to be thinking about what we want society and our community to look like.
At theological college one of the assignments we had to look at was the phrase ‘there is no such thing as society.’ This work was set against a background of the materialistic and individualist role that had grown since the 1980s, encouraging a ‘me’ society.’ Volunteering, especially by the younger generations, was seen as valueless, all that counted was material wealth and self. One positive thing the pandemic has shown is who and what we really value – family, friends, relationships, carers in the widest sense; those helping others have become beacons in a dark world. Yes there are still those who think only of themselves, especially in their disregard of rules designed to protect the most vulnerable, but most have seen how important relationships, kindness and compassion are.
In recent years it has been necessary to employ people to help communities rebuild themselves and rediscover community and society, yet in less than a year a very nasty virus has done more to rebuild community than decades of government direction.
Society in its widest sense is a collection of individuals, but what pulls us together is that we are made to be relational, we are not individual islands, and it has taken this global pandemic to underscore that interdependence. Nature has stopped the planet in its tracks reminding us that we have a wider responsibility than just ourselves, this planet that gives us life and sustains us, can also turn on us.
An advertisement recently, for all of all things, a car, says that humans have learned that nature won’t change we have to evolve to survive, and let us hope we are actually taking that to heart. God created heaven and earth, God created all living creatures and gave humanity a crucial stewardship role, which we have not lived up to.
The story of Noah and the flood is very early in the Bible, in our story, and no sooner had God created humanity than God was regretting it. The flood was to be a new beginning and the covenant God makes after the flood, is not just with Noah and his family, but ‘every living creature that is with you.’ God is going back to creation and underlining the interdependence of humanity and all creation.
We work best when as individuals, we recognise we are dependent on treating our planet wisely, and on one another. In the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit or Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer we have the epitome of community, interdependent and co-eternal. And when we celebrate the Eucharist, the very essence of community and unity, we recall that it is also through the brokenness of Christ for us, that we come together. One of the things I have missed most during the last year, has been the opportunity to share in that special thanksgiving of community and relationship which we call Holy Communion.
Successful society is about interdependence, not individuals, and the Anglican Church’s parish system underlines the Church’s responsibility for all people within our local community, not just those who come through our doors, important though they are, but everyone.
In Lent we turn towards the cross and the ultimate act of an individual for the good of all others. Jesus died on the cross to bring us all back into communion with God; in love he died, that the broken relationship between God, and God’s creation could be renewed.
In our service today we recall the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love our neighbour, and in all that we are building, and rebuilding community. The hope for healing in our world comes because we are relational beings, with God and with one another.
Repent and believe in the good news is the message in Mark, or to put it another way, turn and believe in the new, God’s kingdom here on earth, a new community.
As we emerge from a year of restrictions and challenges, this Lent is an opportunity to reflect on what our communities local and beyond can look like, how we will look as Church both locally and beyond. We have the chance, just like Noah and all creation after the flood to start in new and better ways. Ways that protect this planet which gives us life and allows us not just to survive but to thrive, as we evolve to work with it.
Over the last year we have learnt new things about ourselves and who and what are important. As we rebuild now is an opportunity to work together so that all can thrive, the marginalised, those who feel unloved or overlooked, and in that we can believe in the good news that is God’s kingdom here on earth, the ultimate community. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
17 February 2021 – Ash Wednesday
This Ash Wednesday, as we continue in another lockdown, with much of life on hold and feeling like a constant penance I would like to encourage us to think about Lent in a different way this year.
Lent can indeed be seen as a dry and sparse season of the church’s year, yet it can really be a time of growth, not just as Spring approaches, but in our spiritual lives. And this year perhaps more than many a year we need to be thinking about growth, and renewal. I came across a new word the other day, ‘respair.’ It means to have hope again after a period of despair, and to me that is a wonderful thought after the recent dark and difficult months. However positive a person one is, the last year and it seems the last months in particular have been very hard for everyone. We need time to regroup and to heal.
Lent is a healing time, a time to reflect, to get our lives with God in order – hence the sparseness so as not to deflect our focus; it is a time to look closely at ourselves, and our actions.
The themes of Lent are
- facing ourselves
Renewal in our faith, as we prepare to renew our vows of baptism, which we include in our Easter Day worship.
Reconciliation, as we ask God’s forgiveness for what is wrong in our lives. forgiveness for the many ways in which we sin, we don’t get it right; and facing ourselves as we really are, but we don’t do this alone, Christ is with us in all that we do.
Being on our own, with our thoughts can be daunting, challenging and yes feel as if we are in a desert – with no direction and no refreshment. Yet those times can also be when we really get some insight into ourselves and our faith. The Desert Fathers – those who spent months/years alone in the desert – understood this. When we strip away the clutter of our lives, the clamour of the world, then we can really hear God, we can really see ourselves, and what needs to be healed, renewed and reinvigorated in that relationship with God and with one another.
Now this may all sound a little too dour, and rather like yet another extension of the way we have been living our lives in lockdown, the last thing we want is more introspection, more inward looking.
Yet Lent does not have to be about giving something up, although that may help us focus on our thoughts; Lent is a time of renewal, of turning around with God and beginning again. So why not, this Lent, take up something that brings you joy and renewal. Something that improves one’s self and wellbeing, and when those are balanced it improves our relationship with others and with God.
Penitence can be seen as a negative, when really it is about starting again, about new life after leaving behind the old life. It is not about making ourselves so miserable that we can see no joy in life.
At present we need respair, that hope again after despair, more than ever before. So what will, in the weeks leading up to Easter enable you to feel renewed and reinvigorated in your day to day life and with God?
Whatever it is I encourage you to follow that, to use this healing time of Lent, so that we arrive at Easter in joy and hope. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
14 February 2021 – Sunday next before Lent
When you left school did you know exactly what you wanted to do? And did you do it?
Some people have their futures defined for them from their birth, such as royalty, although our present Queen’s father was not expecting to be King, that role was destined for his elder brother. Some have followed in parent’s footsteps, or perhaps because it was the only future in their area, such as mining in the Welsh valleys and the north east of England. And others struck out into the unknown for a future far away from where they were born and all that they knew.
So back to my question did you know what you wanted to do? Interestingly even if you did, is it what you are doing now, or expected to do in your life?
When I left school, girls weren’t supposed to have careers, after all we would settle down, get married and have children – yes one question at one of my university interviews was exactly that! Not surprisingly, given my rather frosty answer, I did not get a place at Bath university! One sincerely hopes they have moved on since then. At my school, we were encouraged to think of careers, which was most unusual, but even so you either took A levels and went to university to be a teacher, or in my case my intention was to be a solicitor; or you had secretarial training. I am very pleased to say we have come a long way since then, and women, as well as men can, and do, have exciting and varied careers.
Yet the days of staying in one job for the whole of one’s working life are long gone. Indeed as we live to greater ages, a working life is getting longer each year, and most people will be working until they are at least 70.
Many tend to think of what they do as a job – some are more enjoyable than others, yet few would speak of their working life as a vocation or calling. Vocations are thought of as something worthy or requiring dedication, but I would suggest that something that takes up so much of our lives does require dedication, whatever it is. As Christians we are called to show God in all we do, and our working lives are an enormous part of what, and who, we are, so are we not called, to show the light of Christ in all we do? In other words we all have a vocation.
Sometimes what we are called to do is very clear. Elisha was called by God, through Elijah, and had been following Elijah as his teacher. Now as Elijah comes towards the end of his life the prophets around are asking Elisha how he feels about the coming loss of his teacher. Elisha knows his life is about to change and he wants to make sure that he is fully equipped to face the future, even though he has no idea what it holds. Elisha wants to be not just as good as Elijah, but even better in his role as a prophet of the Lord, and his request is granted. He, and he alone, witnesses Elijah taken up into heaven. Whilst the other prophets are still watching, only Elisha sees the vision, it is as Elijah promised a confirmation of his calling, his vocation.
Now Elisha was very clear about is role and what God was calling him to do, but Jesus’ disciples can be forgiven for being somewhat confused. Jesus called them to follow him, and now in the Transfiguration they, like Elisha, have been given a very clear vision, which only they see, which confirms that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One. But what they are called to do is not so clear, in fact it seems rather contradictory. Listen to Christ, follow him, and they will know is the answer they receive. They do as they are bid even though it takes them a long time to work out quite what they are to do, in fact they don’t fully understand it until after Jesus has left them.
Paul can sympathise. He knows that the gospel is baffling to many, a theme he returns to many times in his letters to the early Church, yet he trusts because, he says, we ‘do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as slaves for Jesus’ sake.’ In other words we are called to listen and trust, and God will show us the way.
Now I would suggest that such apparent inactivity is rarely easy for any of us, we want to control our own lives, perhaps another reason the current restrictions on our lives can chafe. Yet really listening is actually very hard to do. I always recall a friend at theological college saying she had argued long and hard with God about entering ministry, this was not in her plans at all, but it was in God’s.
Both Sarah and Abraham laughed at God when told they would have their longed for son so late in life. I am sure all of us can recall times when we have either argued with God or laughed at thoughts which seem preposterous and yet? Take time, really listen, pray and trust because God does have a plan for each of us, although sometimes it can take a while for that plan to be understood and accepted by us, and indeed come into being. After all this is God’s time, not ours, and occasionally we can be stubborn in resisting that plan. Not me God, we say, I can’t do that.
But if the plan is God’s it will be right, and when we accept God’s plan, God’s call we will know it is right because we will feel that peace that passes all understanding, when we turn and say, yes God here I am, send me. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
7 February 2021 – Second Sunday before Lent (Sexagesima)
On 31 January last year, the Department of Health confirmed that two members of the same family in the north of England tested positive for novel coronavirus (2019-nCov). The press notice went on to state “The current evidence is that most cases appear to be mild.”
Last Sunday, was the first anniversary of COVID-19 being detected in the UK. The year has turned, another cycle, and here we are still in lockdown.
In the church, last Sunday, we kept Candlemas. And as we did last year, and in years before, we lit candles as the last vestiges of Christmas were buried and – as we held our faint flickering flames – Lesley prayed that we “may have the darkness of our souls dispelled” as we turned from Christ’s birth to his passion.
The church’s year is an annual repeating cycle of seasons and festivals; it is (to quote the Church) an annual cycle of “Christian memory-making”, in which we remember Christ’s life, death and resurrection, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we recall the ministry of those who have gone before us. And through this memory-making, the past comes into the present, informing it, shaping it, but also pushing it forwards.
If we look at it more specifically, we see that the Church year is made up of two major festivals – a winter festival of Christmas, and a spring festival of Easter, with a season immediately preceding each of those – Advent and Lent. But together that only accounts for 12 out of the 52 Sundays of the year. When I was young, the remainder of the Sundays were what is often now in the church called ‘Ordinary Time’. We often think of the word ‘Ordinary’ meaning not special; but ‘ordinary’ – similar to ‘order’ and ‘ordinal numbers’ – in its true meaning relates to arranging things one after another to create flow, movement, progress, sequence.
And so when I was young, Christmas lasted 12 days and was put back in its box with all its decorations and merry-making on the twelve night. Easter was shorter, (like the rising of Christ) a three-day period of: Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Easter Tuesday – by which day most of the crème eggs really should have been consumed. And then, apart from the seasons of Advent and Lent, (though with occasional high days and holidays) the church counted down the Sundays until the next festival – Sundays after Epiphany, Sundays after Easter, Sundays after Trinity.
Except, just before Lent, there were three pre-Lent Sundays – the ‘-gesimas’: Septuagesima (which would have been last week), Sexagesima (this week), and Quinquagesima (next week). They weren’t a season in their own right, but stepping stones or staging posts as people readied themselves for the strictures and discipline of Lent. As Lent loomed, the Church got people ready for it – Alleluias and Gloria were out (no longer sung) and the Lenten colour of purple was pre-empted. These three Sundays got people ready, put them in the right mind frame in readiness for Lent, without the hardship of fasting, and sackcloth and ashes. (Of course, that was then, not now, as a lot of that has been lost in more recent changes in the church calendar.)
But though a lot of that was concerning an annual cycle and repetition, the purpose was memory making: moving forward, taking the past into the future, learning from it, being challenged by it, and changing.
Now, in America, at Candlemas and around the feast, you will hear many sermons preached referencing the 1993 film ‘Groundhog Day,’ in which a rather egocentric weatherman finds himself – for no apparent reason – stuck in time, forced to experience the same day of his life over and over and over again. (Groundhog Day like Candlemas was marked this week on 2 February.) And particularly over this past year, with lockdown, as days merge into weeks and weeks into months, people have found a resonance in this film. Many have used the film title as a way of speaking about the despair, anger and frustrations they feel, finding themselves trapped in the same routine.
In the film, the central character finds himself constantly living the same day, (according to the film’s director) for up to 10 years or so – though it is said that the original plan was to make that 10,000 years. However, the point is: Bill Murray’s character desperately wants to move forward past Groundhog Day into tomorrow; but for him, that tomorrow is only the change of a calendar date – not a change in him or his behaviour or outlook. He wishes to carry on cruising through life as the same Phil Connors of yesterday and the day before and the day before that.
At the beginning of the first lockdown, there was a hope or yearning that, once restrictions were lifted, life would resume – not necessarily life as we had known it, but rather a life that was better, kinder, more humane. A healthy life – where the health of the human species was seen in the context of the health of the planet. A life more at one with creation; a living that provides space and opportunity for nature to rebound; a respect for other species, which also respects and protect us against the diseases that transcend species boundaries; a vision that sees the harm that our hyper-connectivity and pollution brings.
But a year on, particularly with the hope held out by the vaccines, there seems a growing change in attitude that – rather than learning from the cycle, and pursuing change – the vaccination programme will simply mean that this past year, this lockdown, is seen as but an aberration that will pass, allowing us to resume our yester-selves, our yester-lives, our yester-pursuits. And we impatiently push to return to what we were, back to the familiar and the comfortable, as we clamour to return to business as usual, travel as usual, church as usual.
Our three readings today, all took us back to the moment of Creation, to a dead time before anything was, when the power of God breathed out and flooded existence with the eternal light of his glory. And as our Proverbs reading tells us, in that act of Creation, participating in the birthing of life itself, was Wisdom, who – in the midst of the chaos, and despite the dangers and fears – (well as our reading says) ‘rejoiced’. But that really doesn’t do justice to the original Hebrew, which paints Wisdom gamboling like a “giggling, joyful little girl” who laughs and delights to see the joy and awe of Creation unfolding. And in the heart of the varied stories of Creation, Wisdom calls out to us, lures us, to also find ways to be created creative co-creators who actively work in restoring Creation.
The cycles of our lives, and of our church seasons, calls us to move forward: to learn, to be challenged, to change. Whatever havoc we encounter in our neatly constructed lives, it is not the comfort of the familiar we are called to, but the challenge of rebirth and new life, of learning and wisdom, of stepping forward into the unknown and the new, and giggling at the delight we find in that new Creation. To let go of our insatiable desire to control; to break the bonds of our backward-looking Groundhog Days; not to bring our dead yesterdays back to life, but to turn our ongoing today into our brand-new changed tomorrow.
31 January 2021 – The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)
A friend of mine in Kenya often sends me a few messages on Whats App each week. He lives in a particularly dangerous and remote part of the country, and his messages often contain details of life and sadly, death, among his friends and neighbours, not least this past year. Just as we are here, their churches have been closed, but were then reopened, he told me, for anyone who was over ten years old but under 65. I jokingly remarked to him that, if that was the case in the Church of England, it would mean most of our congregations would not be able to attend, but I’m not sure he got the joke.
Our Church is fortunate in that we have a ranges of ages here, but I have been to many churches with mainly elderly congregations, and its lovely to see them come alive when children also come to church. There tends to be a strange bond between children and those of the oldest generations, that seems to transcend the occasional arguments and whatever that can come between children and parents. I think my own grandparents shaped me, and maybe you have had people much older than you in your own lives, that have given you much of who you are today.
One facet of our Gospel reading today, Candlemas, is that of waiting and watching, the coming of the new recognised only by the very old, those who have grown wise through patience, indeed through the passage of life.
Of-course Simeon and Anna were not Jesus’s grandparents, but they were old. And Jesus at this point, where he was presented in the temple, was still a young child. Anna, we are told, was 84 and seldom left the temple. I imagine as praying, she might have kept the temple looking spic and span, do the cleaning – a bit like Doris does for us. She faithfully comes every week to clean, and I think Anna is like that in the temple too – she always there, always faithful, always waiting. She didn’t have an easy life – married for only seven years before she was widowed: with how many children to bring up on her own, it doesn’t say, but I can imagine it would not have been easy for her to do so. And Simeon – we don’t know his age, but he’s reported to be devout, a man on whom the Holy Spirit rested. That’s quite an accolade isn’t it? A man who had spent his whole life looking forward to the consolation of Israel – looking forward to when his country could be free again.
In recent years, the world has got used to having old leaders again. During the nineties we went through a spate of youngsters didn’t we, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and many others from their generation. But now we’ve had two US presidents start their terms of office in their 70s, and Joe Biden will, God willing, celebrate his 80th birthday in just two years’ time, although of course he has nothing on our own Queen, who is still working hard in her mid-90s. But for me, the ultimate old and wise, patient and gracious leader of a nation will always be, Nelson Mandela.
As I’m sure you know, Mandela was imprisoned aged 44 by the Verwoert-led apartheid government in his country of South Africa, his sentence having been originally one of death, commuted to life imprisonment. He then spent the next 27 years in a variety of prisons, before President de Klerk, seeing the writing was on the wall for apartheid, finally released him. The by-then ageing Mandela went on, of course, to become President of the new South Africa, and he and de Klerk notably, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Unlike Mandela, the Biblical Simeon did not have a life of imprisonment, but – just like Mandela – Simeon never gave up the hope of the liberation of his people, in a country which was of course at that time ruled by the Romans.
I think it’s hard for most of us to really understand what that feeling of ultimate patience must be like – whether its Simeon and Anna, waiting their whole lives for freedom from the Romans, or Mandela, waiting all those years for freedom from apartheid. Our resolve may have been tested this year, but realistically few of us will have had to summon those reserves of strength and hope required to last for that length of time, to not give in to despondency, to not give up hope. It is tempting for those in the West to think that after 1945, things have basically been ok, but that’s not the rest of the world’s experience. It is depressing to think that, despite all the history between then and now, despite even Mandela, there millions around the world still in those situations today: waiting for freedom for their people. For example, it doesn’t take much research to see what China is doing to its minority populations – concentration camps masquerading as ‘re-education centres’ and to his credit, Iain Duncan Smith has spoken out a great deal on this recently. Or to see what is going in Hong Kong – and the many Hong Kong residents, who were of course once British subjects, now trying to flee. Will we make them welcome, I wonder?
Simeon and Anna recognise something in the baby Jesus that his parents cannot yet see properly, despite an angel appearing to both Joseph and Mary before his birth. I suppose in Jesus’s parents’ defence, if an angel and then shepherds and kings came to visit most people, they might question their own judgement after a while. But Anna and Simeon had been waiting a long time, waiting their whole lives, for this moment – and, just as they prepare to bow out of their own earthly existence, their recognition of who Jesus is, has made them pretty-much immortal, gaining them a place in the Gospels. Simeon’s words, ‘Lord let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ have been immortalised by the Church in the Nunc Dimittis, sung or said every day by many.
So, this Candlemas day, when we light candles in a dark world, when we look for some sign of spring, of a flourishing of the earth, of joy come again, and we simultaneously turn finally away from the stable and the crib, and towards calvary, remember those who watch and wait. Remember those for whom hope is not a balm, for whom hope is not the act of lighting a candle, but that of hard work and perseverance in the face of years and seemingly endless years of failure, repression or subjugation. And let us pray this Candlemas day, not just for ourselves and our various situations, as valid as they are, but for those whose suffering is happening right this minute, around the world – pray that hope is at hand, that God is with them in their suffering. Pray that their eyes too, will see salvation.
And as the season turns with a view towards Easter, I leave the last words to Mandela himself. He said this:
The festival of Easter marks the rebirth of the resurrected Messiah, who without arms, without soldiers, without police and covert special forces, without hit squads or bands of vigilantes, overcame the mightiest state during his time. This great festival of rejoicing marks the victory of the forces of life over death, of hope over despair. We pray with you for the blessings of peace! We pray with you for the blessings of love! We pray with you for the blessings of freedom!
24 January 2021 – Third Sunday of Epiphany
In the past year we have faced many challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to be careful about our own health, taking precautions such as washing hands and wearing facemasks and maintaining social distance. Some have been ill or have lost someone close. Meanwhile the working lives of many have been disrupted and families kept apart, often at huge personal cost. Perhaps it has made us all more anxious about our health and more aware of our vulnerability.
At the same time church buildings, which have always been places of sanctuary, have been closed and worship has been taking place online. Opportunities to worship and pray together have been seriously curtailed. We may well be feeling a sense of isolation from God as well as our neighbour.
Like you I have really missed celebrating Holy Communion particularly at those most special times in the Church year, Easter and Christmas. When we had to cancel our Christmas services that was a particularly low point for me. We had missed being together to share the Eucharist at Easter, and now Christmas was not to happen either, and our spiritual well-being is as important as our physical well-being. But we found a way of being Church and celebrating together albeit without sharing the Communion, the marriage supper of the Lamb as Revelations puts it.
Since March 2020 we have indeed missed many things, especially celebrations with their chance to be together with those we care for, and therefore it is perhaps ironic that our reading today references the wedding at Cana. Weddings have certainly been few and far between! The innovation shown by many who have gone ahead with reduced, or last minute weddings has been lovely, and perhaps it has really focused the participants on why they are getting married rather than all the fuss around the day, that has certainly been one of the things said by many.
The periods of lockdown that we have lived through have caused us to take a step back to think again about our priorities and the things and people that we value, that make our lives whole. The long periods of absence from extended family and friends, and the inability to share a meal together or celebrate a birthday or a wedding, are examples of this.
When it comes to our spiritual life, what is it that is most important for our well-being? As Church life was to a large extent paused for the first time for most people, what does it mean to be part of the one Church, the Body of Christ when all we see of our sisters and brothers are on the screen of a laptop?
The ancient rhythm of prayer found in many religious orders and their traditions teach us that when we pray, we pray not just on our own or with those who share the same physical space, but with the whole Church, the Body of Christ, of Christians in other places and in different times. And one of the joys of zoom has been that we are able to pray together, led each week by a different voice.
This rhythm of prayer, with its traditional forms of structure, hymns and psalms and perhaps most importantly, silence, might well be an important gift from the ancient Church to the Church of today struggling with pandemics and lockdowns and more widely with some of the serious challenges that our world faces, most particularly climate change, racism and poverty.
This tradition of prayer and spirituality invites us into shared prayer and silence together, surely a most precious gift in troubled times. This week is celebrated as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the theme this year is Abide in Christ, and for many years we have also joined at this time with our friends at New Rd Methodists for their Covenant Service, and again all this is now on hold. Yet we can still take that time to pray to simply “be” and to abide in Christ, who carries us and accompanies us.
Knowing that we don’t face these challenges alone, that God walks with us, abides with us, can be both a comfort and a source of strength. Leave your concerns with me, abide with me, abide in my love Jesus commands his disciples, including each one of us.
Abide, rest in Christ, so that we are nourished and strengthened for the challenges ahead.
Celebrations will return, we will be able to share meals with friends and family, we will share in the Eucharist again, we will meet with our friends at St Andrew’s, St Anne’s and New Rd. We will finally be able to hold the postponed baptisms and weddings!
For now, abide in Christ. Always. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
17 January 2021 – Second Sunday of Epiphany
As you probably know, the readings that we hear on Sundays follow a three-year pattern, with each of the three years being assigned one gospel, first Matthew, then Mark, then Luke. We’re in Year B at the moment so most weeks our Gospel is from Mark at the moment. I suppose the compilers of the lectionary could have made a four year one, but instead they decided to save up the Gospel of John and drop bits of it in throughout the three years, presumably to give us something a bit different. Because John’s gospel is very different to the other three. It’s maybe a bit more of a philosophical attempt to explain what Jesus was all about, rather than a record of the events of his life. In fact, after the famous prologue which we hear at Christmas – you know, the ‘In the beginning was the word…’ bit – this reading we had today is pretty much where John picks up the story of Jesus. He’s a fully grown man and he’s assembling his team, his disciples.
And we pick this up today with Philip, who evidently knew Andrew and Peter, he was from Bethsaida where they had also originated from, although we know that by the time they got to know Jesus, they were fishing out of Capernaum, across the water of the Sea of Galilee. John doesn’t really record what happened to make Philip follow Jesus, but obviously he had a massive effect on Philip, because the next thing we hear is Philip saying to this man Nathaniel, who he knows, “we’ve found the person who Moses wrote about, and its this guy Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth”. Now, I’ve not been to Israel and I understand nowadays Nazareth is a pretty big town, but back in the day it was a tiny, and pretty inconsequential village. Other than connected with Jesus, I’m not sure it ever comes up, I don’t think it’s mentioned once in the Old Testament. It’s a nothingy place.
And Nathaniel, who by the way we don’t hear about in any of the other Gospels, although he’s probably the guy who Matthew Mark and Luke call Bartholomew, because Bartholomew just means the ‘Son of Tholomew’, so this guy whose real name is probably Nathaniel son of Tholomew, pretty much laughs at Philip doesn’t he. He says “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I guess if the Jewish people of the time were going to pinpoint a likely home of the messiah, Nazareth would not have been top of the list. And all Philip says is, “Come and see!” you know, “come and be the judge for yourself”.
And so Nathaniel goes to meet Jesus, and it seems like Jesus knows him already, even though they’ve never met before. And Nathaniel is puzzled and says “how do you know me?” and Jesus answers, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree, before Philip had even talked to you”. It’s like Jesus had picked this Nathaniel out, and had known all along that he would be one of his followers, that he had known all along that Philip would talk to him, and had known all along that Nathaniel would respond. And of course, Nathaniel is understandably pretty amazed by this, but Jesus basically says: “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. “No Nathaniel, you will get to see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”.
Now, why did Jesus use that particular turn of phrase – the angels ascending and descending, it makes them sound like they’re in some kind of lift, going up to the heavenly boardroom, where Jesus is sitting at God the Father’s right hand. But it might also remind you of that Old Testament story of Jacob’s ladder, because of course Jacob had that very same vision – the angels going up and down from earth to heaven. Maybe what Jesus is suggesting to Nathaniel is that he will get to know far more about God than even those Old Testament prophets that Nathaniel would have heard about in the synagogue.
So what’s this got to do with us in 21st Century Britain, then? Are we all meant to dream dreams and have visions of angels in great glass elevators, or climbing ladders, perhaps with their buckets and mops to do the first-floor windows of heaven? I don’t think so somehow. But I think there is something in this of great importance to us as Christians.
I think most clergy end up repeating their sermons at some point in their life, but I’m afraid that point has come pretty early on for me, because I’m sure I have said what I am going to say to you, before. But, in my defence, it is important and worth repeating, and repeating often actually. Being a Christian isn’t about one moment in life when it all suddenly clicks into place. I mean, maybe you have had a moment like that and if indeed you have, I would never want to diminish that. Maybe there has been a moment where like Nathaniel, you have effectively said “Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God”. But, what Jesus says back to Nathaniel, is: “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. In other words, a Christian faith isn’t about a kind of philosophical eureka moment where everything afterwards is going to be just rosy because we’ve got all the answers.
No, God knows us before we knew him – he created us, and he sees us under the fig tree if you like, he spots us there before we recognise him. But recognising God is only the starting point of faith, it’s not the end. For Nathaniel, that moment was the start of his journey with Jesus, and just as with our journeys, his was a tough one, and no doubt with many rocks on the road, many times when he probably doubted Jesus, when maybe he hid from Jesus, when he denied Jesus. And, you know, that’s the same for us isn’t it.
The road through life is rocky and for most of us, it’s rockier than normal at the moment. For many people, these last months have caused us misery, loneliness, and of course real loss. And when you’re going through tough times, a faith that is only based around some kind of philosophical understanding might not get you very far. Because our faith is built up and knocked down by our experience through life. It’s built up and – sadly – knocked down at times by the people that we meet, that we interact with. It’s built up and – sadly – knocked down at times by the Church. Yes, this faith of ours isn’t some intellectual exercise – we learn more about what God is by walking with Him as best we can, through our lives.
And sometimes it is difficult when you are going through Hell, to see where God is in your life. Sometimes it feels like there cannot be such a thing as God because you feel abandoned. And if that is or has been you, do not feel ashamed because you’re in good company. On the cross, Jesus cries out to God the Father “why have you forsaken me?”, “God where the Hell are you?” But if that is you, don’t forget that the story had a happy ending. Resurrection happened. And resurrection happens all the time in people’s lives. Things can and do get better. People forgive. People grow. People learn to love again. Things heal. And with perspective, sometimes we can look back and see the action of God.
So, in some senses, no, we ain’t seen nothing yet. We don’t know God in the way that we will face to face. But our journey should be one of discovery and of the growth of a relationship of love, and I pray that we as a congregation, as we travel on that journey ourselves, will also grow in our relationship of love for one another, as He loves us.
10 January 2021 – The Baptism of Christ
Many years ago I was at the Building Research Establishment, and we were in an enormous room which is totally soundproofed and pitch dark – there is nothing, no sound, no sight, it was as close to nothing as we can imagine, and it was completely disorientating. We knew we could get out to the light and the sound, but that nothingness, as you can see, made a lasting impression on me.
We cannot imagine nothing, nature abhors a vacuum, and we try to fill that emptiness, yet in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, there was nothing, and the writer of Genesis is trying to convey that emptiness, that nothingness, and words struggle to convey that unimaginable picture.
Then the Spirit of God moved over the earth and said ‘let there be light,’ and at once God begins to make sense out of the world, this we can begin, only begin mind you, to follow. God talks to the world, even before it can understand what is said, and thus God brings the world , us included, into community with God.
Our Christmas readings have all, in various ways, reminded us of the new beginning of life – literally with the birth of a child in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, John takes us back to the Creation with the words, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ And now with Mark, the earliest of the gospels, we have no child, but still a new beginning, a baptism.
In the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Mark tells us, Jesus comes to be baptised by John the Baptist. He did not need to be baptised, in the sense that John was baptising, for repentance, to turn around and start again. Jesus came to fulfil the new beginning of the promise of community with God for all.
Just as at creation the Spirit moves and signals God’s presence, we are invited to turn from nothing, from existing, to a life fully lived with God. We are called out, made special by our relationship with God, and our baptism is the beginning of that lifelong journey.
The Ephesians, that Paul meets, have been baptised, but don’t yet fully understand what this means, what they exist for. Paul knows they are waiting to understand God‘s purpose for them, to love and be loved, to be part of God’s community.
Throughout the baptism service there are many signs and symbols of that new life with God. The font is traditionally at the back of the church symbolising the start of our journey into knowing God. We are marked with the sign of the cross, the badge of faith, in oil to anoint us as marked out, and in water. We are cleansed in the waters of new birth, dying to our old life, and rising to new life with God. And finally we are given a candle as a sign of new life, and of Jesus conquering the darkness. With this candle we are encouraged to shine as light in the world. Just as Jesus was shown, manifested to the visitors at the Epiphany, so we are called to reveal Christ to the world, in our lives and our actions.
When God created the world, God saw that it was good. When Jesus was baptised God saw that it was good, when we turn to God, even when we have been absent for whatever reason, God sees that it is good, and welcomes us with open arms.
These are dark and difficult times, and at times the light is hard to find, so let us recall that through our baptism, we have received the light of Christ. We are not trapped in the darkness, we can walk in God’s light all the days of our life, and importantly as well shine for others to see that light. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
3 January 2021 – The Epiphany
Arise shine your light has come.
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid.
Well we have passed the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and gradually the days will lengthen and be brighter, and the start of a new year also brings new hopes and probably new challenges. This year, more than many a year past, we are certainly looking for that hope and light in the darkness, and that darkness is not just a physical one. We are more than ever looking for direction and guidance.
And today, the Epiphany, we look for that dawning, that new beginning with a realisation that the world can be different. Difficulties can, and will, pass, we will be able to live our lives again, we will be with people we love and care for again, yet life will be different. We will have been changed by the events of the past year, just as we always are, as life brings new experiences, some good, some not so good. And as we look to the future what will guide us?
Well, I have 3 possible guides – a star, a Sat Nav and a globe.
The Wise men followed a star – they had consulted their charts and maps, and knew this star meant something special. It foretold of a new king, not just an earthly king, but a king who would bring heaven and earth together. So they packed, including some precious gifts worthy of a king and followed the star. They had faith in the guidance of the star and what it promised.
A sat nav is the modern equivalent to following the stars and the charts and it doesn’t matter if the night sky is clear or cloudy, generally this technology is failsafe, so we trust it. Mind you having followed mine recently down some very narrow lanes, which did reach the destination, but gave me some pretty hairy moments, trust is still needed.
But why the globe? Well, it can show us where the Wise Men came from, and the journey they took, modern day Iraq and Iran to Palestine, a difficult journey then and still now as it passes through war zones. It also shows us that Palestine is very strategically placed to take the news of this new king, north, south, east and west, to spread the good news.
So, the globe is all of those things, but it also shows that God, through Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Wise Men, was revealing himself to all nations. The Wise Men were not Jewish, they were not looking for the Promised Messiah, yet they travelled to find this new and different king. They had to travel a long distance to worship the baby, and they brought presents that recognised this child was very different. Gold for a king; frankincense for a deity and myrrh because Jesus was anointed, marked out as special. And they too were special, called by God, as God calls all peoples to know God. You don’t have to pass exams, or have the right answers, or the right family background to know God.
The Wise Men brought precious gifts, gifts fit for a king, and we too can bring precious gifts – our skills, the things we are gifted with, ourselves, our lives, and we can offer them to God to use as God will, to be guided as God will.
God reveals himself/herself to us all, and God does show us the way – the way, the truth and the life. Not with stars or sat navs, although following God may well turn our world upside down. Our lives may not be the same again.
When God came into the world to live amongst us, life afterwards was not the same for Mary or Joseph, the shepherds or the Wise Men.
As God again reveals God’s love for us, will our lives be turned upside down, will we find a new way of living and being, and will we trust ourselves to God to find that new way? Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
© 2021 St Edmund, Chingford