19 July 2020 – Sixth Sunday after Trinity
This coming Sunday’s sermon will be uploaded here after our online service on 19 July
12 July 2020 – Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Parable of the Sower
Today we have one of the better known parables, the parable of the sower, and indeed this is represented in one of the stained glass windows in our church building. This parable is perhaps even more appropriate this year given how many people have taken up growing their own vegetables or gardening for the first time.
How one prepares the soil, indeed the type of soil, makes a real difference, the heavy clay in this area is not ideal for growing many plants, although others thrive. Then we need to think about the amount of water, the sunlight, and battling the weeds, which seem to grow much quicker than the plant itself. I know a weed is only a plant in the wrong place, but weeds that strangle the plants are most definitely in the wrong place and not wanted thank you! And on first hearing our parable today it seems to be a basic lesson on how to get the best out of what one sows, in this case, the word of God; but hold on a moment nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems in the Bible. Jesus’ parables are like a maze, designed to challenge the listener to work out the message, but sometimes the hearer gets lost, and needs a helping hand to find the way forward.
Have you visited a maze? Not just one of those mown into a wild meadow but a full blown maze with high hedges such as that at Hampton Court? They are very cunning, designed to mislead you so that what you thought was a straightforward route to the centre of the maze turns out to be anything but.
Venice is one of my favourite places, and that is rather like that too. The canals look straightforward, running in basically straight lines, but when you try to go from A to B you find that you come up against a dead end in the form of a canal or channel, which you cannot cross without finding a bridge.
And perhaps at the moment more than at any other time we feel rather as if we are in a maze, we take one turning and then find that the way forward is closed down with restrictions and social distancing.
When we are lost we need direction, and in the parables Jesus is pointing the way forward towards God’s Kingdom. It is not complicated, but it is not the expected, and it requires us to take action.
It is not about God imposing God’s Kingdom, but in us seeking it, finding it. I love that hymn Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, sadly we can’t use it on this zoom platform because of the licensing rules, but the essence of the message is ask, seek and you will find. God is waiting for us to act, to repent, to turnaround and find our way to the heart of the maze, to the heart of God, and that may require us to think carefully about our directions.
So, as Jesus says, his followers need to listen to his word, as we need to listen. Words are powerful, that is why it is important to use the right words, and to ensure that they are not just heard, but understood by the hearer.
When he is asked, Jesus explains to his disciples what he is saying, and for others who are feeling lost, he tells them to listen carefully. When they, when we are stuck, stop and listen, don’t rush headlong into the unknown.
This week Bishop Peter, in his weekly reflection, told of an ancient story where all was rush and haste, and those who wished to slow down, stated to the one who wanted to push ahead, “you are going too fast, we are waiting for our souls to catch us up.’
That idea that sometimes we rush around so much we leave our souls, our very essence behind, really struck a chord with me, as so often we can feel that we need to be constantly ‘doing’ in order to prove our worth. In recent months, like everyone else, I have had to find new ways of doing things, new ways of being, and at times it has been a challenge. We have all been forced to stop and just be, and it is important that we continue to take time, and to allow our souls to catch up with where we are, and where we might be as we move towards God’s Kingdom.
As we emerge from many of the pandemic restrictions there is the danger that in our haste to return to ‘normal,’ whatever that may be, we lose what we have learned about taking time to be still, taking time to stop and listen to God, to try and work out what God is saying to each one of us in our lives. And then when we have understood to act on what we have learned.
And when we are not certain of the way, let us take time to listen to what God is saying, after all Jesus is The Way, The Truth and The Life, so we can do no better than listen and then act on what we hear. Amen.
5 July 2020 – Dedication Festival
Today is the 81st anniversary of the building of St Edmund’s church as we know it today. Conveniently, it is also the first anniversary of my arrival at St Edmund’s and I remember well what a joyous service and sumptuous spread we enjoyed this time last year. That all seems like a long time ago now, far longer than just a year ago – but then, our current situation makes everything normal seem like a long time ago. And even though many of us now find ourselves easing our front doors open, tentatively visiting friends, returning to work – some gladly, some reluctantly – even though all this is now happening, it feels like we genuinely are living through a change – maybe a change to a different age.
Yes, when we celebrated the 80th birthday of our building last year, little did we know how much our lives would be altered in a year’s time. Just as pretty much every person throughout history has done, we all assumed our daily lives would stay about the same in 2020 as they had been in 2019 – well, how wrong could we be?! Likewise, I expect that the builders who completed our church in July 1939 could not have imagined that, within just a couple of years, the new building would have its windows blown out by enemy bombing, or that members of this parish would be sent to fight and, in some cases, to die in World War 2.
The Church of England is the custodian of a lot of pretty ancient buildings. They may look quite similar to our church, but they were built 8 or 900 years ago. These can be something of a beautiful burden and these days, I think the Church probably wishes it had a few less of them. When you worship in such a building, there is undoubtedly a feeling of awe at the strength of continuity of worship that has carried on through the ages in that place – through the Black Death; through the Reformation; through the Civil War; through the Industrial Revolution; through so many individual tragedies and joys, prayers and praises, so as to be almost unimaginable in their number.
Our church and our community is not an ancient one. South Chingford as we know it was formed very much of the twentieth century, and our building, whilst in some ways designed to look traditional, is no older than the housing around it. Last year I was talking to a family friend and it so happened that his father had actually been the owner of Normanshire Farm – his family had given the land for this church to be built. It seems strange in a way for those in my generation to think that there are people in our community who can remember a time before our church was built. Does this mean that our building is less valuable than all those ancient churches, then? I would argue, not at all. Our church of St Edmund’s has a different power. It has the power of living memory. There is power in the fact that we have living links to those who built this place, who raised funds for it, who went without, so that it could be created. There is power in the fact that people loved God so much that they created this building as a beautiful gift, a gift designed to be shared by Him and by the people of this parish. And it is a building that has clearly shown this love ever since. But a building only reflects the love of God if the people themselves reflect that love – otherwise the building’s just an empty husk, a gilded cage – at best a museum piece, at worst a temple to all kind of things that detract from the worship of God, just as we heard in our reading today. In that reading, Jesus says: ‘my Father’s house shall be a house of prayer.’
For a church to be a house of prayer does not mean churches must be hushed places of reverence, although sometimes they might be. To be a house of prayer does not mean that those within a church should all be earnest and perpetually serious, although of course churches should be serious about their purpose. To be a house of prayer does not mean that churches must be socially distanced from reality, although at the moment we must keep two metres apart. No, to be a house of prayer, means that the church must be a place where people can come to share all those things which make them joyful in life and which make them deeply sad in life. The church is a place where all those internal elements that make us uncomfortable about ourselves; all those questions we have that we cannot find answers to, can be brought to God. The church is a place for rejoicing; for mourning; for questioning; for debating. The church is a place for forgiving and for seeking forgiveness; for teaching and for learning; for creating; for making friends; for loving others and occasionally, perhaps even for sleeping – but only during my sermons. So, the question is, how do we work to make sure our church can be all of those things (apart from maybe the sleeping)?
In trying to answer that, I think it might be an idea to look at what the we’re doing as a church right now, and also to look back at what the first ever worshipping community of St Edmund’s did. Before our church building was built, St Edmund’s Church met in what is now the church halls, which were constructed some thirty years before the church was. And before the halls were built, the worshipping community of St Edmund’s actually started meeting in an old bicycle shop on the Mount, long before the current shopping parade was erected. I imagine that this shop had to be carefully cleared of cycle frames; tyres; spare spokes; bells; saddles and much other paraphernalia each Saturday evening, and thoroughly swept so that the congregation could meet and worship God. I expect it was a church of very ordinary people – no doubt all the wealthy folk of Chingford lived up the top of the hill and went to St Peter and St Paul’s, because the Old Church would have been in ruins at that point. So, the first St Edmund’s was humble and maybe a bit ramshackle. But it was a church that grew, that had a real ministry to this parish, and a church that had ambition in the Gospel.
It strikes me that, in our current ‘Zoom’ church, to some extent we have gone back to being rather like the church in the bicycle shop. Our worship space may not be a dusty room full of bike parts – but it is the internet, the same space that has redefined commerce and our world in the 21st Century. Our worship has been deprived of the richness and all the trappings that we normally find in our church, and has been something of a leveller, where we clergy are just a face somewhere on a screen, among everyone else. We have had no beautiful building to worship in: all we’ve got to see the love of God, is each other’s faces. And whilst our time back in the bicycle shop of Zoom has been inconvenient and painful in many ways, I suggest that we need to take some good things away from our experience too, as our church begins to gently re-open. We are fortunate that, unlike more than a century ago, we do not need to build a new church building. But the task of building the church itself – building the people of the church – is one that never stops, because churches who stop building, start falling down. If we forget that it is indeed our mission to encourage more people from our local area to join us; if we think it is all just about our little group and that’ll do; then we’ll start to diminish, both in our spiritual life and in our numbers. Let’s hope that our time back in the bicycle shop of Zoom makes us thankful, both of the opportunity to meet together again in person at long last, but also for the potential to be real living stones in our new age, whatever that age may look like.
- Thy hand, O God, has guided thy flock, from age to age;
the wondrous tale is written, full clear, on every page;
our fathers owned thy goodness, and we their deeds record;
and both of this bear witness: one Church, one faith, one Lord.
And we, shall we be faithless? Shall hearts fail, hands hang down?
Shall we evade the conflict, and cast away our crown?
Not so: in God’s deep counsels some better thing is stored;
we will maintain, unflinching, one Church, one faith, one Lord.
28 June 2020 – Third Sunday after Trinity
How welcome do you feel when you visit certain venues?
Well it can depend on whether you know people there, or you are a paying guest, but how we welcome those we meet is one of the most important things we can do both as humans and in showing God’s love to all.
Last week James spoke of our Christian response to the abuse of power, and one of the biggest ways we can do this is to show a real welcome to those we meet. Welcome is the opposite to rejection, it says you are important, you matter, and that is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.
Today’s gospel reading in fact follows on from those difficult challenges in last week’s reading, and in my Bible today’s reading is subtitled ‘rewards,’ but this is not about recognition or financial reward, this is about the reward of knowing that we do God’s will, we do what Jesus asks of us.
On a number of occasions Jesus rightly chastises those who do things only for show, and in most cases those he criticises are in positions of power and authority, and this, he implies is an abuse of their position and power. Like the leader who invited him for a meal, but didn’t wash his feet, the sign of true hospitality; and who then showed no welcome to the woman who did wash his feet with her tears and dried his feet with her hair, because she was the wrong sort.
The religious leaders were annoyed with Jesus for showing welcome to the outsider, the leper, the tax collector, the foreigner.
But that is exactly Jesus’ point – God’s kingdom, which we pray for here on earth as in heaven, is to be a place of welcome for all. Not just for the ones who seem to fit.
The early disciples mistook that too. Peter would not see a role for the non Jews, the Gentiles, until he had a dream, a vision, where he understood that God’s welcome shows no partiality, it was, and is, for all, of whatever background. And yet still we forget that.
So why do we welcome some and not others? The reality is we make judgments based on preconceived ideas, but we should not judge by position, or outward appearances, be that dress or appearance, it is the person inside we need to know, and we can only do that if we welcome that person. God looks at each of us on the inside, not the outside. God looks at our thoughts, our actions, our deeds. God looks at who we are, not what we are
Does our welcome go beyond the superficial smile that does not reach the eyes, we all know the social welcome! Eyes and expressions are important, they show our real emotions and feelings, and now with the increasing use of face coverings hiding our mouth, our smiles, we need to show our welcome with our whole selves.
One of the real positives of our zoom services has been the opportunity to get to know one another by name, to greet one another, and perhaps some of that has come about because we are in our own settings, our own homes, so we feel less formal, so despite it being a virtual service I feel real warmth amongst us all, and we have never been an unwelcoming congregation!
Unlike some I have visited! Some of you will have heard me speak before of 2 churches I visited in Lincolnshire one Easter, just before I was ordained. At the first, I was ignored, not greeted, not welcomed, so I left, I could not worship God in a place where neither God, or I, seemed welcome, it was all show. This meant that by the time I reached the second church, the service had already started. The door was heavy and each pew had a door to it, so needless to say I made rather an entrance! The congregation was small, but everyone turned and smiled, the priest asked my name, I felt truly welcomed, and as you can see that experience has stayed with me. That place showed a very positive welcome, but how many, having received a non welcome at the first church would have bothered to go to another?
Never underestimate the power of a smile, a genuine welcome. We might be busy, yet acknowledging someone, saying you will return, and remembering to do so, who knows what impact that has? Yet not doing so, will absolutely ensure the person feels rejected, even if that was not the intention, especially if they have faced rejection before through gender, race or sexuality.
When we welcome someone we are welcoming God, and when we do not welcome them we are rejecting God and God’s love for all. God created each one of us as unique individuals, and unique means there is no one like each one of us. Everyone has a contribution to make to the world, and each one is loved and welcomed by God, our role is to show that love and welcome to all we meet, not for reward, not for show, but because that is what God’s kingdom is all about. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
21 June 2020 – Second Sunday after Trinity
When anyone prepares a sermon for a service, the process is such that you read the lessons appointed beforehand. If you’re organised (like Lesley or Colin) you probably read them a long way beforehand. If you’re like me, you probably read them the day before. Either way, you have to sit and think about the readings for a while before you start to write, and when I do this, it often strikes me how appropriate one of the readings is for a particular situation, at a particular time. Maybe this is sometimes coincidence. Maybe sometimes it’s because something’s playing on my mind and I then just read it into the text. Maybe it’s because the Gospel is indeed applicable to many situations. Maybe it’s the hand of God, who am I to say? But I must say, I had that feeling very strongly this week, and particularly with regard to the Gospel reading from Matthew 10.
This reading that we hear today is a difficult one for people who like to pretend that Jesus is like the chap we see on the stained-glass windows. We’re all guilty occasionally of thinking about Jesus as a kind of meek and mild person who talks about love in ways that makes love also turn into something meek and mild. But actually, the records of what we hear him say can totally contradict this view. It would appear from the Gospels that Jesus wasn’t one of those people who stop to think about every course of action and then calculate the most sensible thing to do. No, not at all! Jesus seems to me to be one of those people who is really emotional – he gets angry, he frequently gets fed up and lets it be known, going off in a huff. He goes in for a bit of criminal damage in the Temple when he doesn’t like what the money changers are doing. And here he talks about not coming to bring peace, but a sword.
This can all seem a bit odd, a bit hypocritical in fact, if it’s set alongside the fact that Jesus also told his followers to love their enemies; to ‘turn the other cheek’; literally to take a beating rather than lash out. Why is Jesus allowed to get angry and overturn tables yet his followers all have to be, in the words of George Bush, ‘peace loving surrender monkeys’? Both the peaceful and the less peaceful parts of the Bible have understandably been used to justify various stances over the years. But, as usual, the answer is, I think, fairly nuanced and difficult.
Understanding what the Christian response to injustice and abuse of power should be, is not always an easy thing to do. It’s always the way, that our worldly leaders will tell Christians that the Church should stay out of politics, but in truth this is impossible to do for Christians – who are the Church, after all. Everything in the Bible is political. Loving your neighbour is hugely political. Jesus was crucified for political reasons – he was a massive threat to the occupying forces, who were worried that the Jews would flock to him and overthrow the Romans. And whilst in this country, I don’t think clergy should use their privileged positions to tell people to vote for the Tories or for Labour, for example, we all as Christians have a duty to our faith to act on its main teachings at all times.
Modern translations of the Bible are often very good, but I do have a few issues with how they change certain words, so as to be less offensive. In many translations, Matthew 10: 24 gets changed from ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master’, to ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a servant above the master’. Maybe the translators thought the word slave was too offensive. But we cannot learn from the great injustices of the past by pretending that slavery did not exist and in fact still exists in some forms today. And what Jesus is plainly saying here, is not: ‘get back into your place, slave!’. No. He goes on to say: ‘It is enough for the slave to be like the master’. He also goes on to say ‘even the hairs on your head are counted’. So in this collection of sayings of Jesus, that Matthew conveniently brings together, Jesus – to me – is saying that everyone is equal before the Lord – from the person that the world sees as the lowest, to the person who the world sees as the highest. And he also says that nothing is covered up now that won’t one day be uncovered. No injustice today will remain as it is forever.
My friends, we are living in strange times. But we are also living in dangerous times. Maybe we always have, but right now it seems to me like the powers of evil in this world seem to be once more on the rise. Speaking frankly, I think we’ve see this in America in recent weeks, where the power of one group of people is used to systemically deny rights to another group of people, because of the colour of their skin. We see it in China, where the power of a small group of people dictates the lives of many others and stifles the freedom of so many, even as far as keeping people in concentration camps. A million people are in concentration camps in China right at this moment. And these are just the things that are brought to our attention in the news. What we don’t see is the terrible injustices meted out to people, particularly our brothers and sisters in Africa and parts of Asia and South America, every single day, through their terrible poverty.
What kind of world do we live in where, a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated sending another rocket into space, but where a billion people don’t have enough to eat, yet the earth produces more food than we need? Where we create artificial life forms using technology but we lock people up because of their background or religious beliefs? When you look at these truths, sometimes you wonder, where is the Christianity in our world? There are literally more than a billion of us on this earth who call ourselves Christians – why can we not be bothered to love our neighbour enough to even ensure they have enough to eat? If Jesus came back tomorrow, maybe he would ask where our swords are? Where is our anger? Maybe he would ask why we are so comfortable with the world as it is?
As you may have read, part of my job is now as the diocese’s Environmental Officer. This last week I have been busy creating a detailed plan for how we as a diocese can cut our carbon emissions to zero by 2030. It has dawned on me that this task will be difficult and complex, and this is just for one diocese in the Church of England, let alone for a nation, or for the world. As humans, we are embedded in a culture of sinfulness that is causing great destruction on this earth, but not only to our other humans. Jesus says in Matthew 10 that we are of more value than many sparrows, and maybe this does imply a kind of order of worth with humanity at the top and the rest of creation somehow below, but he also says ‘not one of the sparrows will fall to the ground apart from God’. We cannot use humanity’s privileged position on this earth just to do what we like with it, and we cannot use some parts of humanity’s privileged position over other parts of humanity to just do what we like with them.
We humans have been given huge power by God. Power to make up our own minds. Power to interpret morality and to act on it. Power to create and to destroy. Power to innovate and to improve our lot. Powers of empathy and love for those who are unlike us. Humans have been given more of Godself than any other creature. But with such powers comes responsibility to the weak. Responsibility to other living creatures. Responsibility to all of creation, not to use our power for bad and selfish reasons. So, I think Jesus might be saying here that peace is good, but real peace is only to be found where there is also justice for all. Because peace without justice only benefits those who are on top. The Romans wanted peace, because it benefitted them. And what they got wasn’t a war, but a movement – a movement of joy and faith in something better. A movement where people used their God-given capacities for good. I cannot stress this enough – this is our calling, as Christians. It’s not to be comfortable in our own skin, but to be a force for good. So I encourage you, to think about what picking up your sword really means in your context. What is it that you can do, to work against the injustices of our society? You might feel old, or feel powerless, but you are a relatively wealthy person in Britain in the 21st Century. If you don’t have some power in this world, nobody does. And don’t just think about it. You’ve got to do it too. Because that, my friends, is love.
14 June 2020 – First Sunday after Trinity
Today’s gospel is rather long, and so the Church of England allows for only half of it to be read. And that is the first half – the more upbeat part of the reading. In this half, the disciples are transformed, from an eager (but often feckless) band of disappointments: doing little more than just following Jesus around or being in the background or misunderstanding him or on the whole getting things wrong. In this passage, they are sent out by themselves to do something. And you can tell that they have come into their own, as they are not just ‘The Twelve’ but they are named individuals.
Nice! that is all well and good. And so, we are encouraged to leave the reading on a high, halfway through. To do – what the Church often does – and follow old Bing Crosby’s advice, “You’ve got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive, ee-lim-in-ate the negative.” In printed church service books, the verses in the second half are square-bracketed off. The implication is “best not carry on, it’s less edifying, and is there only if you really must.” For these verses speak of the rejection that The Twelve are likely to encounter and difficulties they will face.
The problem, of course, in simply accentuating the positive, latching on to the affirmative, is that it really isn’t very honest. We live in a real world and not in a disneyfied version of it.
There is an honesty in today’s gospel taken as a whole. Jesus remarks that the ‘harvest is plenteous.’ He warns The Twelve that the task lying ahead is vast and – worse still – that workers for the task are frankly too few. This isn’t some new beginning; harvest is the end of the season, this is a frantic rush because time is tight. The master of the harvest has seemingly failed in his job, and Jesus tells them: if they can see the need then they should be champing at the bit – begging and pleading with this master to rouse himself and to eject workers out into the fields. But the implication given is sadly the task is too great for them, too great for us. There is little time, everything has been left too late, and the action needed should have been started and done well before now. Jesus tells them pointedly that they will run out of time before the task in hand is completed. The Son of Man will return while they are still busy out in the field.
The second part (rather than being negative) instead perhaps shows a healthy dose of realism. In the light of the task in hand, in the light of tardiness in taking action so far, grand gestures and grandiose crusades are not what are required. Jesus’s instruction to the Twelve is that they should forget about going to the gentiles, even to the Samaritans, don’t pack a night bag, don’t take a spare set of shoes – a second coat, don’t calculate what you might need for spending. This isn’t a long game. This is “get moving now”: tackle it where you are, in your homes, in your neighbourhoods, in the communities in which you live and move. Do the right thing, even if that is not popular. Brother will clash with brother, fathers with sons, and children with parents, because we are called to action here where we are, where our parents, our children, our siblings live. It’s so much easier to disturb those you don’t know, those who live farther away.
And what is this task? This task that risks the Twelve and us being seen as acting illegally, being hauled before the authorities, being criminalised. Well, there’s little point in preaching God’s righteousness, unless we act on the demands of God’s righteousness in practice. As this gospel puts it, the job is
- “Cure the sick,
raise the dead,
cleanse the lepers,
cast out demons.”
- Stand by and wait upon the powerless, those without strength.
Arouse, recall back to life, the destitute whose lives have been robbed of all living, of all meaning, of all pleasure.
Renew and liberate those who are shunned and excluded.
Throw off the structures and powers that make others powerless, that demonise their difference.
Perhaps recent events should be seen in this light. Where there is division, our task is to bring restoration; where there is inequality, justice; where there is powerlessness, we are tasked to lift up the broken hearted; where there is damage, healing.
This gospel tells us look at the task in hand: to look at our lives, within our own communities, within our own churches, and commit to live out God’s kingdom of equality and justice. To recognise that the time for action is now; to acknowledge our own inaction and complicity; to break our silence; not to fear or to be limited by the enormity of the task; to risk rejection and failure; to see it not as a task to be done, but rather a task we need to be doing.
7 June 2020 – Trinity Sunday
What is one of the most difficult things you have been asked to do in your life?
For all of us there will have been life changing decisions where we questioned what we had to do and was it the right thing. Currently living in lockdown and deciding when to emerge, especially if you have been shielding may well be a current difficult one; working out how to be Church when we can’t open the buildings has been a challenge and defining and explaining the Trinity is certainly not an easy one.
Anything that is not easy can be a real challenge, yet it is through such difficulties, and how we deal with them, that we grow and develop.
Jesus instructed his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. That was certainly not an easy one. He knew what he was asking was not a walk in the park, so he added that they go and do this in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in other words the three in one, the Trinity. In this he reminds them, and all of us, that whenever we do what God calls us to do, we do not do it alone, but with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And to underline even further that they are not alone he says, ‘remember, I am with you, to the end of the age.’
Now isn’t one of the reasons the lockdown has been so difficult is that we can’t be with others in person, virtual presence, like today on zoom, video calls or telephone calls are better than nothing, but they are not the same as being with someone in person, because we are relational people, we thrive on being with those we care for. I was talking to a friend about her recent Eid celebrations, and she said that whilst they had been together via zoom, it was not the same as being together in person, especially as they are also mourning the loss of her mother who died very recently, and I am sure we can all identify with her, having celebrated Easter virtually.
It is relationship that is important in all of this, and the Trinity above all is about relationship, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the one God, three in one, in relationship with us, God’s people
Sometimes we expect God to be able to fit into our mindset. We start to think about God, and say things like, but how can God possibly be able to hear us all praying at once? Rather like zoom if we all try to speak at once, it does not work, and of course that is what we mean when we ask those questions, because what we mean is that we know humans can’t hear everyone at once, so how can God?
Where was God before there was God? We think God must have had a beginning because everything does, yet God was in the beginning, was the beginning, and before the beginning, God was. If your brain is not hurting trying to get a handle on that one, then well done!
Our minds cannot encompass that God is much bigger and deeper and wider than a human being can ever be. God is so great that God will always be full of wonderful mystery, we cannot fully comprehend it, and if we try, as I said, our brain hurts! So does that mean we can’t really know God at all? Well no.
Just because God is God and we are not, we are human, does not mean we cannot have a relationship with God. We can talk to God, be with God, in our prayers, and we know that God is the one we can trust in everything, because God will never let us down. We have been given a lifetime to get to know God really well and live us God calls us to do.
Sometimes we waste that time, and sometimes we suddenly realise that nothing is as important as our relationship with God. Sometimes we don’t feel able to tell others of our love for God, perhaps we feel embarrassed, but saying we have a deep personal relationship with God is not something to hide, or feel we are forcing upon others. Wouldn’t you tell those around you of another deep and loving relationship and the joy it brings you?
God is the creator of our universe and of us all. As Jesus he came to live amongst us and ultimately to die for us, because he loves us so much; and as the Holy Spirit is with us to strengthen and sustain us.
How could we possibly ever expect to completely understand all of that? So don’t try to define God, because God is so big that we can never contain God in a box and say, that is it now I understand it all.
What God asks us to grasp is that God created us, God loves us and God will sustain us, and that I would suggest is not easy to accept, but is something truly wonderful and worth telling others of.
God gave us life through Christ, Jesus gave himself for us, and God shares everything through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And if we find it hard to do that, think of the prayer we often use to one another as a blessing, the grace, our prayer for everyone.
The grace, of the Lord Jesus Christ;
the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
be with you and remain with you always Amen
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
31 May 2020 – Pentecost (Whitsunday)
Here we are on the day of Pentecost, when all the followers of Jesus were gathered in a room and suddenly there was a huge gust of wind, and forked tongues of fire were seen, and suddenly everyone started speaking in different languages. You would be forgiven for thinking that the gathered crowd had been at the bottle but Peter says, no, it’s only nine in the morning so they couldn’t be drunk. Given that Peter had evidently never seen anyone drunk at nine in the morning, he obviously hadn’t ever been down the side of our church hall. Instead, Peter quotes the book of Joel in saying some fairly frightening things will happen – blood and fire, smoky mist, young and old dreaming dreams and prophesying. If I’d suspected he was drunk before I heard that speech, I might definitely think he was drunk afterwards. I’d imagine that many of the crowd of Jews who had assembled outside the house felt a little left-out that they had not been invited to the party, because it seemed like a pretty good one.
And like all good parties, this one has party bags for the disciples to take home. Well, not actual party bags, but at least some gifts of the Holy Spirit which are intended to last longer than a party popper and a bit of cake. The apostles find themselves able to communicate widely with those that they meet and, maybe along with the gift of language, they find they receive the gift of greater understanding of the differences between them and other people. Because these gifts are not just given to the apostles for their own enjoyment, but rather as tools that they will need to use in their future ministry. Those of you who have been following along the readings from Acts during the past few weeks might be a little confused – because here we have of course jumped backwards again to the start of the ministry of the apostles, before Paul comes on the scene. They are little-known and as yet haven’t had much success in spreading the word, and this receiving of the Spirit is the key moment for them. It’s almost like a graduation ceremony. They’ve been training with Jesus for up to three years, but now he’s ascended to heaven and the job is very much theirs.
It is often said that Pentecost is the church’s true birthday. And like us all, after we get to a certain age, birthdays can feel like a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s nice to be made a fuss of, if that happens, but if you’re me at least, sometimes it can be questionable whether I’m a year wiser as well as a year older. Perhaps the same can be said of the Church. We’ve had over two-thousand years of trying to be the Body of Christ on earth, during which time we’ve mostly failed pretty badly. Have we got much wiser as we’ve grown older? Have we learnt from the mistakes of people who have gone before us, or are we just doomed to repeat the same issues of the past? The truth is that, for anyone, become wiser requires a good deal of self-perception. Nobody learns from their mistakes if they don’t have the humility to look at themselves occasionally and think ‘maybe I ought to have done that differently’. And just as we need to be self-aware on an individual level, we have to do the same thing when we’re in groups.
Some of you might remember that in 2011 there were riots across London and several other major cities. There has been a lot in the news since 2011 and it has faded a little from collective memory, but at the time there was a lot of concern about what motivated the riots. People smashed and looted shops and burned businesses to the ground. A John Lewis was vandalised on the grounds that it was an oppressor of the poor, which is kind-of ironic given that John Lewis is one of the very few shops that’s as workers’ co-operative. All kinds of criminal behaviour occurred and, when the offenders were brought to court, everyone was shocked that many of them weren’t poor or marginalised – one of them was even the daughter of a High Court Judge. A lot of psychological study was done on why this happened. Why do people do crazy and terrible things when they are in a group, but they wouldn’t do those things if they were on their own?
What the psychologists said was that people feel less responsible in a group. They become less of an individual and feel like they can get away with more. Maybe sometimes a kind of new, bad, morality takes over when they are in a group. Maybe you have been on the receiving end of such behaviour. School bullies spring to mind, they tend to work in groups. And even in the workplace and sometimes in churches, similar behaviour can occur. Social media is a terrible place for this too – people can hide behind their anonymity and people’s harsh behaviour has tragically ended up with others being driven to self-harm or even suicide. The other problem with being in these groups is that, if you’re just surrounded by people who think like you, you tend to stop listening to people who don’t. And that can happen in churches too, although I actually do think that one thing we’re mostly quite good at as Anglicans is living with our differences.
So perhaps at Pentecost what the followers of Jesus received was the gift of communication. Not just language, but empathy and a desire to understand. Effective communication is a two-way street, it involves listening as much as it does talking. Because you don’t get much respect for your opinions, if you’re not prepared to engage with others. And this two-way communication and understanding is something that you see the apostles getting much better at after Jesus leaves them. In the gospels, the disciples often don’t listen; they often argue; they often dismiss other people as not important, and it falls to Jesus to remind them of why they are wrong. Yet, after Jesus ascends to heaven, the apostles find their feet – and with their confidence also comes a willingness to engage.
This, my friends, is the place where we also have to be. We are a group and groups are good things, but we must always be on our guard in case we lose our ability for two-way communication, and we lose our ability to stand back and self-reflect: was that thing I said helpful? Was it kind? Did I just say it for laughs, at the expense of someone else? I’m guilty of that. Could I have done that better? Do I need to re-examine how I see this issue or this person? That’s how you grow wiser. That’s also how you grow more faithful. So yes, we need tongues of fire – but we also need listening skills too.
24 May 2020 – Seventh Sunday of Easter
How long, O Lord?
How long, O Lord, is this the time?
Do you sometimes think that God’s watch is rather slow? Perhaps the point is that we sometimes see a problem, or even a solution, – although far more people can point out a need than an effective answer – quicker than God appears to. One is tempted to think that our impatience is a product of our ‘instant’ society, whether it is for instant coffee, instant response to emails or anything else, but perhaps it has always been a human characteristic since time began. The anguished, “how long, O Lord?” is not a new cry, although anxiety and pain come afresh to anyone in a place or problem where, something needs doing, and needs doing now. We want to fix whatever the problem is, and sometimes we can’t.
What do we do when nothing seems to be happening, and the situation is getting no better? Well we do all we humanly and reasonably can ourselves to put things right, and then we have to wait! It may be hard to do that, but actually that is what we see throughout the scriptures. Joseph, in prison on false charges, waited for two years; Moses spent years in the wilderness before God‘s call became clear; Paul had several years between conversion and action; even Jesus had 30 years of preparation. It isn’t that God’s watch is slow, or that our watches are fast, but that God’s time is different in nature.
And what about our prayers, are they about timeliness? Is it all our requests, and when they don’t appear to be answered we give up? I have a rhythm of prayer around the Daily Offices of saying Morning and Evening Prayer. The repetition of the familiar phrases and the daily scripture have a rhythm that help sets the pattern of the day. Sometimes, I must admit, it can feel a little mechanical, albeit soothing at times of anxiety, but at others a phrase or line of scripture can jump out and speak to me.
For most people prayer is not easy, and in the current uncertain times they may be even more confused and jumbled, as we try to work out what we are praying for. There will be prayers for those leading the nations, for the scientists, the medical staff, the frontline workers, the elderly and the vulnerable, those concerned for their livelihoods, our own loved ones, those we have been asked to pray for. The list is long and it may feel rather as if we present to God all our hopes and fears and say, right, you get on with it, and I will be back with some more demands later!
Yet in those prayers are we giving God a chance to get a word in? We need to stop and listen to God, and God can speak at the oddest times and in the strangest places. That word, that answer, may come in the middle of the night, or sitting peacefully in the garden, or a quiet place that is our own space; or it may come on a noisy bus or train journey. At such a time we may find a line from a psalm come to us, those hymns of praise, thanksgiving and lament that have echoed down the years.
One of my favourites is Psalm 122 which says:
I lift up my eyes to the hills-from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.
It is wonderfully reassuring that God is with us, even when we cannot feel God’s presence. Another psalm that speaks to me is Psalm 139 which reminds us that God knows us, and knows what we want to say, even before we say it. We don’t need fancy or special words, we just need to open our hearts to God.
Taking that time to be with God, can bring moments of great calm, even amongst the noise and the busyness. The waiting itself, waiting for God to speak to us, once we get past our own impatience, is part of the learning, of the understanding of what God has to say.
While we wait, even when nothing seems to be happening, God is preparing the ground. It may take God a week (in our time) or a year, or a century. It may be cold comfort in the moment of distress, when we want action NOW, but it is God who acts; and a God who acts when God is ready, something Job learnt after all his trials and tribulations.
The waiting is often an integral part of the plan, which couldn’t mature otherwise. It may mean a ‘pet’ project seems to fail, or that life has to change direction, but so be it. Our effectiveness as followers of Christ comes from the quality of our being, and how we react to the waiting and to the acceptance of God’s timing.
God is with us, yesterday, today and forever; God will answer and God will speak, are we listening? Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
21 May 2020 – Ascension Day
When I was selected for training as a priest, one of my then staff, who knew I had been going through the discernment process, as the selection is called, asked me what this actually meant. My reply was that is was the end of the beginning, as now began the training and the next steps. It was about to be a complete change in all that had been part of my life up until then.
And to some extent we might say that about Ascension Day. The disciples had been with Jesus for a relatively short period, around 3 years, and already their lives had changed, but now as he leaves them and returns to his father in heaven their world is about to change again, and this time without the actual presence and leadership of Jesus. He has left them with instructions, but told them to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them and strengthen them for the work ahead. There is no time given, it is all uncertainty, all they know is that it will be different again, more change.
Change is one of the biggest causes of stress, and this week is actually Mental Health Awareness week, and given the pace of change we have all had to deal with in recent weeks and months it would not be surprising if levels of stress were through the roof, even for those who thrive on change.
We have had constant change, uncertainty, for some more than others with fears about work and livelihoods; new challenges with new ways of working or home schooling, and all this against a background of concern for others and in many cases isolated from those we love and care for. As Jesus left his friends he left them with all these concerns and more, and his words to them in waiting upon the Holy Spirit are as true for us, as they were for those first disciples.
Change can be frightening as we seek to adjust to it and we often underestimate the effects that change has on people. Why do we get such a negative response to a new idea? Because the threat feels real and people have to adjust to the change, and when it is fast and imposed that is not easy.
Deeper down there is a need to relate change to what we know and to what makes us feel anchored. New experience needs to relate to present experience, when it is so far out of our comfort zone is feels incomprehensible.
Change can also engender fear, when all of the things we are used to, have been taken away, indeed one of the most stressful forms of change is imposed change, because it is one that we do not control, and as humans we like control!
At such times we need to stop, to take time to reflect, perhaps offer our concerns to God, and pray for the strength that the Holy Spirit will give us to take the next steps, because we are far more resilient than we know, especially when we know that we do not take those steps alone but with God walking alongside us.
The theme of this week’s Mental Awareness is kindness. At a time of upheaval and uncertainty kindness is crucial, kindness to one another and also to ourselves. If the technology does not work, we will find a way, if the home schooling is not perfect, well you are not a teacher, so in all of this be kind to yourself and give yourself a pat on the back for doing what you can.
A smile or a kind word goes such a long way, the person receiving that word might have had a really difficult day and your smile or kind word, might just lift their spirits and help them to take the next step in their day.
God never leaves us alone to face life, sometimes life can feel very lonely, but we are not alone. We are held and loved by God, so be kind, take a deep breath and take that next step, with God.
So I am going to finish with a poem from one of my favourite poets, Ann Lewin who so often sums up so succinctly my thoughts [Perspective]. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
17 May 2020 – Sixth Sunday of Easter
St Paul always seems to have a knack of getting himself in and out of trouble again. A clever little so-and-so, Paul could talk his way out of pretty much anything, and his skills were put to the test in today’s reading from Acts. He’s preaching in Athens and the people there first of all say ‘who is this babbler?’, but then it gets a bit serious because they bring him before the Areopagus. The Areopagus is a very large stone, on the outskirts of Athens, and in ancient times it was like a very senior ranking court – it heard cases of murder, of wounding, of arson, and religious matters. Apparently, it also heard cases regarding olive trees – I can only assume that these were of great value to the Ancient Greeks. So basically, Paul was before a court and he needed to think on his feet, if he was going to keep out of trouble.
The Athenians are of course, Greeks, and at this time they worship the Greek gods. Of course, Paul realises that, and if he was to come along and tell the court that they were completely on the wrong track in worshipping all these gods, he was going to be in a lot of trouble, so instead he has a flash of inspiration. He remembers one of the statues that he’s seen in the streets of Athens, and this statue was marked as being the unknown God. Aha! Paul says. Here you go, Greeks. You know that God you were worshipping that you never knew anything about? Well, that’s our God – and what’s more, that God is the actual God because he’s not made from human hands, and he’s the one that made heaven and earth.
The bit after today’s reading, says that some of the people at the Areopagus scoffed and dismissed all Paul’s talk of resurrection from the dead as the ramblings of an incoherent idiot, but in verse 34 it also says that some who were there that day, did believe Paul. In fact, a couple of them become significantly prominent believers to be mentioned by name: Dionysius and Damaris. Presumably, for those who believed, the God that they had previously understood to be unknown, could now be known to them, through what Paul preached to them about the nature of Jesus. And indeed, the same goes for us today: we see the incarnational figure of Jesus as a revelation of the nature of God. In other words, God being on earth as Jesus, helps us to understand something of what God is like. Belief in this way is a kind of mental process, a series of decisions, or maybe – even – a dramatic moment of conversion, like Paul himself had, or a moment of feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit, like those present had at the day of Pentecost.
But if we see our faith as just something that is mental – something that is a decision, the same as anything else in life – I think we miss much of what faith really is. I think I’ve quoted the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, before in my sermons and perhaps I’m skating on thin ice a bit in doing so as he actually became an atheist in later life, but I think what he says about faith is nonetheless very profound. He says that doubt is not the opposite of faith. In fact, knowledge is the opposite of faith. If I know something to be scientifically true, then it requires no great act of faith in order to believe it to be true. Yet, when I have doubt and despair, when I find the world against me, when – like the people of the Areopagus – I am dismissed as a babbler; not even a dangerous babbler, just one of those harmless non-entity types of babbler; that is when I need to have faith.
Fortunately, Jesus seems to understand this completely. And in the passage we hear from John’s gospel today he has an answer for the questions we have for him. Basically, John tells us that a man called Judas – in brackets – not Iscariot (there are two Judases, and John wants us to know that here he’s talking about the nice Judas, and I think John kind of wants us to put ourselves in this man’s shoes here, like he’s asking his questions on behalf of every Christian through the ages). So Judas asks Jesus: but how will we know the Father? How will we know this unknown God? How will he reveal himself to us and yet not to the world? Jesus answers him by basically saying: hmm, good questions Judas, yes it’s not going to be all that easy, but when you are doubtful, when you don’t understand, when you feel God is unknown, you’ve essentially got to just – keep – doing – the thing.
If you love me, keep my commandments. He says. If you keep my words, if you do as I’ve said: loving each other and loving God, even when you don’t understand what’s going on, that is enough. Nobody is expected to understand the mind of God – indeed, I’d say – beware of anyone, ordained or not, who claims to understand the mind of God, because they’re normally either mad, or trying to con you out of something. If we did understand the mind of God, then we’d be God. And humans, we really love to try and understand things – that’s what our idea what of progress is, so it’s really hard and counter cultural to follow this faith of ours that says, sometimes you are not going to understand why some things happen, and you’ve just got to keep doing the thing – you’ve got to keep faith, without having all the knowledge, because nobody does have that knowledge.
That’s a big part of why we come to church too – church services might occasionally be moments of great spiritual awakening and if that’s been the case for you – brilliant – but more often they can also be places where we all come and we just do the thing: we say the prayers, we sing the hymns, we receive communion. Sometimes we might not listen to the sermon. Maybe that’s even today. Sometimes we might not be paying attention in the prayers. Sometimes, we might be in pain, physical or mental; we might be desperate or we might be angry; we might feel guilty or we might just feel numb. Sometimes, just keeping going – keeping the rhythm – is what keeping the faith is all about.
So, maybe you did have a St Paul experience in your own life, a huge moment of decision when you understood the nature of the Christian faith to be real and true, and that you felt you really knew God. If that is you, then, congratulations – I’m a little envious, if truth be told. However, it may be that you have never had such a moment of personal revelation. Maybe, like me, you grew up in the faith and your own understanding of the nature of God is a bit of a slow burner. Maybe, your understanding of your faith waxes and wanes. Maybe, sometimes, God seems so unknowable that he might as well be the ‘unknown God’ on that statue in Athens, that Paul used to get himself out of trouble two thousand years ago. If that’s you, I implore you: do not feel inadequate in the face of those who tell you that they have had a great moment of conversion. Never feel that you are less loved by God, for not having met Him in such a dramatic way.
If you are going through bad times. If you find that your faith fails you at times, Jesus says here, don’t worry. Just keep going. Keep the rhythm of faith. Live with the questions you have, don’t go mad trying to find answers to the unanswerable randomness of life, of love, of death, of eternal life. A relationship with God is just as much about the doing as it is the knowing. And like most relationships, it’s the still small voice which tends to be more memorable than the huge moments of passion. I think the late great Mama Cass probably says it best in her song ‘It’s getting better every day’. Now, some of the lyrics don’t quite fit what I’m trying to say, I mean, I’m not sure I’d ever describe a relationship with God as being ‘warm and wilder’, or even as ‘getting better every day’ to be honest. But, if the technology allows this to work, you can have a listen and see what you think.
10 May 2020 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
What if Easter is not simply the culmination of the gospel story, is not the tying up of loose ends, the disclosure of the answer to everything? What if Easter is more of an in-between story, a lockdown story?
- A story of how broken, scared, hiding disciples who had betrayed, denied, and forsook Christ, moved forward as empowered, confident, outward-facing apostles who preached, served, and died for him.
- A story of how disciples wanting their Lord and Master back, and yet daring not to hope or believe that he was there in the burial garden, in their hidey holes, as they walked on the road, as they laboured in their work, emerged as post-ascension apostles where they not only believed but lived their lives in the knowledge that he was there, even if not seen nor physically present.
Our gospel today, relates words of Jesus to his followers shortly before his death. But they equally could sound a little like words the risen Christ might have said to the locked-down disciples, confined, and confronting the fact that what they had taken as normal no longer held.
On face value, I’m not sure how reassuring is his promise of “in my Father’s house are many rooms”, particularly if we read that as some statement about life after death. Many of us in lockdown are already getting tired of confinement to our room or house after only seven weeks, let alone the prospect of facing that for all eternity.
But this passage – so often used at funerals – really isn’t about a post-death experience but rather about a new-now reality. The Greek of the passage speaks of the home of the Father, and that where the Father has home many may remain or abide. It’s less about place, and more about relationship. A house is an important structure for a home, but it is relationships that makes where we are at home – be that physically, mentally, spiritually.
Unlike our lockdown, this home with God isn’t static. The passage also speaks of Jesus going and being gone, as well as paradoxically coming and taking us along with him. It is language that seems to echo the various resurrection appearance stories. The stories that speak of how the bereft disciples feel themselves to be Jesus-less; then Jesus appears and they are reassured; and then he is no longer there but their knowledge of his presence remains.
Visibly there or visibly absent, physically there or physically gone, Christ is risen among them, he abides with them. And he abides in God and God in him, and in this abiding – this remaining together, this relationship, this relating – is where God’s heaven, where God’s home, is. This: despite all the change, and movement, and uncertainty, wherever we are – in lockdown or released back into the great outdoors.
It is tempting for the Church to use Easter to lockdown faith, to see our risen life with Christ as some end point, some conclusion, an accomplishment. But Jesus tells us that he is “the Way and the Truth and the Life”. A way is a journey, a movement, a change from where we are to where we might be. A truth is an openness, a disclosure, a change from drowsy acceptance to challenging exploration. A life is full of vitality, animation, it is active and rigorous.
Easter is a story told in lockdown, but it is a story that breaks lockdowns. It calls us out of the exclusive rooms and safe places of our lives and belief, and pushes us on, continuously, unrestingly. Our faith is not a personal concern, a one-to-one with God, that can be done in isolation to the advancement of our own piety and spiritual self-gratification. Easter tells us that relationship is key, that worship and knowledge of God, of the risen Christ, can only be done in relationship with others. As Jesus says, “not yet one is coming towards the Father if they do not [also] come through me.” Relationship with God is predicated on our relationship with others.
Easter calls us out of our lockdowns, our isolation, the privatisation of our lives and beliefs. It calls us to step out into a different world, where “normal” no longer exists, to realise the journey goes on: that Easter is not the end, but rather Easter is a never-ending story. It calls us to change – no longer just followers, but stepping out (even if not physically at present) as apostles sent forth into the new ever-moving and changing reality facing us.
3 May 2020 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
It’s normal practice in the mainstream of the Church of England for the preacher to choose the Gospel reading to preach on. After all, of the three readings in a normal communion service, that one is seen as the most important – it recounts the story and the teachings of Jesus. However, after Easter, in addition to the Gospel, we are treated to a series of other readings from the Book of Acts. If there’s one book of the New Testament that really rates as a good read, it’s the Book of Acts. Written by Luke as a kind of sequel to his gospel, Acts basically details what the apostles did next. It introduces us to Paul and goes through all the pretty awful things he does to the early Christians, before getting on – in Chapter 7 – to his pretty dramatic conversion to Christianity, and it goes on to tell us all about the many perilous situations he and the other apostles get into and often get out of again.
Acts also gives us a lot of historical information about what the early church was really like – what was it like to be one of the first ever Christians? I think the ultimate answer to that is, being one of the early Christians was never boring! It was often exhilarating, often dangerous, and sometimes involved immense disagreements and rows, which sometimes remind us today of that – in that way at least – not much seems to have changed.
The book records that the early church was also extremely successful. It grew from about 150 worshippers to around 3000 as a result of just one sermon. I think most preachers today would be pretty envious of those statistics. They were a pretty radical lot, and many decided to completely share their possessions and wealth with each other as a sign of their brother and sisterhood in Christ. This is an ideal that many have sought to emulate since, and even today monks and nuns do not have individual possessions. I’m sure many of you know Kit, who used to worship at St Edmund’s, and who has recently gone to train to be a captain in the Salvation Army. Kit was required to sell his home and give that money to the Salvation Army, in return for his training and his job – that’s an amazing act of faith. I wonder how many clergy in the Church of England there’d be if we were called to do the same? At least one less, speaking personally!
There was still a major crossover with Judaism at this very early point in the church’s history. The early worshippers were worshipping in the Jewish temple, because they considered themselves to be Jews who realised that their saviour had arrived. We hear today: ‘day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts’. So we see from today’s reading that the worshippers in the early church were able to worship in buildings together, and worship at home too. They could come together, ad find God at home, in the form of shared meals and expressions of thankfulness.
At the moment, our own temples, we call them churches of course, are closed to everyone, clergy included. This has been a choice that has been heavily criticised by some, particularly some vicars in other churches, who think it’s dreadfully unfair that they shouldn’t be let in. But, most of us realise that it has to be this way to stay safe, and for everyone – vicars included – to be able to share in the feelings of loss that we all have, at not being able to come together in the space that we set aside as being a special place, a holy place, that is – our building of St Edmund’s Church. People have lots of opinions as to whether a building really matters when you’re worshipping God. Ultimately, we probably ought to concede that it isn’t vital. After all, we’re meeting online and on the telephone, and there have been so many good things that have come out of that – people have been able to join us from all round the world, and whilst our numbers have fluctuated, the general trend has been going up. We have heard from people who we’ve not seen before, and heard more from people who have been quiet before, and I praise God for that. But equally, we humans like to create holy spaces, and we miss them when we cannot have access to them.
There’s a beautiful spot at St Edmund’s which gets the afternoon sun. It’s just behind the organ in the Lady Chapel. The nave of St Edmund’s doesn’t always feel very sunny to me, although it has a big southerly window, but that little point in the Lady Chapel sometimes feels wonderfully serene and prayerful. You can see the trees out of the clear glass in the window, and the soft red brick of the church hall blends with the leaves and the blue of the chairs, and the white of the walls. It’s a peaceful and prayerful space – more peaceful and prayerful than I am able to create in my own home, even though I live alone. Do I miss that? Yes, of course I do. And I’m sure, like me, many of you miss your own special spaces, and the individual conversations and friendships that we have as members of our churches, that can’t be fully lived-out in a telephone call or a video conference. It can be difficult for faith to grow in such circumstances, and although our Zoom services can be uplifting, sometimes I find it’s really strange when they end – and I’m abruptly back in my spare bedroom. There’s no winding down afterwards, no walk home, no clearing away after coffee – it’s just, oh right, yeah, I’m back staring at a blank laptop screen now.
We’re all doing our best to be church to each other at the moment, but it’s important to remember that there is a balance to be had in what makes a church and what makes a Christian, and I think the whole point of the building being closed at the moment brings this challenge to us in lots of ways that the early church was faced with too. Part of this is individual – ultimately it’s up to us, to read the Bible, to pray, to genuinely question and think about our faith, to sometimes change our mind on things, and to realise when we’ve been wrong. This individual element of our faith has been emphasised by protestants from the invention of Protestantism. But equally, there is a deep social element to Christianity. There is a need to be together, to respect the community, to understand that a deep part of our spirituality and what makes us, us, is bound up in our relationship with each other. That element of our faith has historically been emphasised by the Catholics.
As with lots of things in the Church, much of the shouting has been done at either end of the scale, and not a little blood has been shed between protestants and Catholics too, as we are only too aware from our own nation’s troubled history in Northern Ireland. However, the reality is that Jesus gave us two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. He didn’t say “here’s two commandments, choose whichever one you like the sound of more, or choose the one which better fits your politics”. No, instead he said “on these TWO commandments, hangs all the law and the prophets”. There are individual and social demands of every Christian. Both are equally important. And we see from the early church that both were important – a sense of togetherness in the temple and individual thankfulness and praise at home.
And in this time of coronavirus, where we face new challenges to how we live out our faith, we can’t leave it at simply having a Zoom service each week. The Church has come into our houses and into our lives down the telephone wires. But it also needs to be in our hearts all week too. It needs to be in how we treat each other, whether we’re living with them, or looking out for them; whether we’re caring for them or even disagreeing with them online, maybe especially the ones we disagree with or find it hard to live with. The Church has to be in us in how we look at our own faith in these times, and in our actions too. Will the Lord add to our number? Well, the Zoom statistics are looking good. But the real proof of the pudding is in the eating.
26 April 2020 – Third Sunday of Easter
The Road to Emmaus
So what is sustaining you and giving you life at present? We hear a lot of negatives and much sad news of those who have lost jobs, are struggling financially or who have lost loved ones, so it may seem strange to ask what is sustaining you. Yet I am sure that each one of us will have something that has been lifegiving at present.
The beauty of nature around us, the birdsong we can hear, the kind word from
another person are all important at this time, and I have been really uplifted by the new connections that we are having with those around us, both here within St Edmund’s and in the wider community.
One of the opportunities I have taken was to have a Quiet Day at Home on Bank
Holiday Monday. You might ask what was that, aren’t you at home every day? Well a Quiet Day is a directed time of prayer and reflection, and I had been invited to take part in an online retreat reflecting on the Spanish Mystics, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who lived in the latter part of the 16th century. The day was, like so many things now, an experiment in such a retreat. It was a mixture of live input from the leaders in a video link, and part time to reflect on what we had hear in pre-recorded sessions. Putting aside time to listen, pray and reflect was both sustaining and up lifting, not least knowing that others around the world were all taking part at the same time, and one of the passages we reflected on was today’s gospel the road to Emmaus.
This reading speaks of another of the appearances of Jesus to his followers after his resurrection; and like so many of those appearances, it is not obvious to those he walks with that this is indeed the risen Christ.
At the tomb the disciples find it empty and go home, then they gather together to reflect, and probably pray, about what they have seen. Mary Magdalene, when she meets Jesus mistakes him for the gardener, until he speaks to her name, and the couple on the Emmaus road, probably the husband and wife, Simon and Cleopas, so no need for social distancing as they walked, only recognise Jesus after he has taught them and breaks bread with them.
All need time to pause, to reflect before they act. Once Mary recognises Jesus she runs to tell the others; when Simon and Cleopas realise who has been walking with them, they return the 7 miles or so to Jerusalem to share their news.
They reflect and then they act, head and heart coming together as they understand that everything they have seen and heard points to Jesus as the Promised One, and his saving love.
During the Quiet Day I had time to reflect, to pray, to focus and to find what is life giving at this time, and as we considered the Road to Emmaus reading, and how it turned thinking and lives upside down, was to reflect on how we embrace this new way of living in lockdown, and still thrive. So I offer some of the thoughts that came from that day, including the thoughts of a nun within the Carmelite Order, for living an enclosed life.
- Embrace this new situation – we choose to stay at home for the greater
good, this is about our mental attitude
- Search for the inner peace, the inner resources, peace and creativity we
didn’t know was there before because we have been living lives that are too
- Take time to know yourself – how you respond to pressures, affirmation,
encouragement or broken expectations. Do not let fear, or sadness, or
pessimism take the best of you. Instead, when a particular thought is not
lifegiving, get rid of it. Instead, try to hold onto those things that give you
peace, joy and life.
- Practice kindness, patience, love and self-control with those you share space
- Use your time wisely – have a routine that gives you a sense of rhythm and
purpose – I have always tended to have a routine, but now it is new, I have
not had so many opportunities to talk to everyone before, and I have never
been so good at setting aside time for regular exercise!
- Expand your horizons – try something new that stimulates you, perhaps try something new in your spiritual journey, maybe saying Morning or Evening Prayer, knowing that you are part of a wider circle of prayer. Or perhaps having a Quiet Day at Home with prayer and reflections.
- Don’t overdose on the news or negatives, try and play some happy music, move with the music, dancing is a deeply healing activity.
- You are not isolated – you may be on your own, but you/we are no alone. We
can connect with family and friends by video calling, the telephone, an email
or letter, and just as the disciples found on the Emmaus Road, we are
walking this with God too.
- Take time to reflect and connect with God, on what you are learning about yourself in this new situation.
- Pray – prayer underpins all of the above. Let prayer sustain you and what
you are doing during these challenging times; and let our prayer sustain
those who are working so hard to keep us safe and well, as well as those in
the frontline services. As Theresa of Avila wrote, let nothing disturb, let
nothing frighten you, everything will pass, only God remains, only God
Allowing ourselves to ‘be,’ rather than always ‘doing’ is a gift of this unusual time. We have time to do many of those things we promised ourselves we would do some time, in that spare time future. We have time to discover things about ourselves we like, and equally things we don’t like and need to change.
As our Collect today says, let us have knowledge of God’s presence within, that we may be strengthened and sustained, as we walk this road of discovery, not alone, but with God. Amen.
19 April 2020 – Second Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday)
This Sunday after Easter is often known as Low Sunday. It’s traditionally been a time of rest for those who normally have lots to do in church. In mediaeval times, even the music written for the week would be sparse and perhaps rather easy too, to allow the normal musicians to have a week off. In more modern times, it’s a favourite week for clergy holidays. This year, clergy, as with everyone else, are somewhat limited in their choice of holiday destinations: they could stay at a nice B and B in the utility room or perhaps self-cater in the garage, but that’s about it. With the strangeness of Easter this year being added to the mix, there doesn’t feel much of a difference between this Sunday and last, and perhaps there also didn’t feel much of a difference this year between the joy of Easter and the solemnness of Lent.
This Sunday addresses the doubt of Thomas, the disciple who could not believe the resurrection until he had seen it with his own eyes. Before we get too judgemental about Thomas, remember that the first person who saw the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene, also did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until she saw him in the garden. Thomas echoes the reasonable response of most people, then and now, when told that someone had risen from the dead: I’ll believe it when I see it.
If anything, people now are far more like Thomas than they were two thousand years ago. Ok, you have a few oddballs who are willing to swallow every conspiracy theory going. For example, unbelievable as it is, there are some who, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, still believe that the world is flat. The Flat Earth Society is a real thing, although they got into trouble with their members for once advertising they were so popular that they had members ‘all around the globe’ – thus slightly defeating the object of a flat earth society. Recently, we have seen evidence of people in the UK vandalising mobile phone towers because of a ridiculous conspiracy theory that they are responsible for the spread of coronavirus. Yet, for most people, we like to think that we are educated and we know things to be true because they are based on evidence. Scientific evidence has got the human race a long way. It’s the way that we build on the knowledge of previous generations. It gave us tools, it gave us farming, it gave us energy, it gave us medicine, it gave us mastery of the world. They say knowledge is power, and ultimately, particularly through the twentieth century, it began to give humanity a feeling that humans themselves were all powerful. We were living longer, getting richer, working less, playing more, having more, eating more, travelling more, but equally unaware for much of the time that we were also destroying our world, and leaving other species less and less space in which to live and thrive. Equally, we in the wealthiest countries became less faithful. After all, where is the need for faith, when you have the power?
For so many of us, the current coronavirus crisis is the most uncertain time we have experienced in our lives. Although we may have not been ill ourselves, we have touched by the sudden and unexpected deaths of those close to us and for the first time in our lives perhaps, we are genuinely uncertain about what the world will be like in the future. Will we ever go back to what we thought was ‘normal’ before? Someone asked me ‘do you think this has been sent by God to punish us?’ and the answer to that, in my opinion is ‘no’. After all, it’s a strange and capricious God who kills my friend to punish me. But I do think this virus will perhaps change the basis of people’s faith. Everyone has a faith, it’s just a question of where it lies. Does our faith lie within the power of humanity’s knowledge, or does it lie in the trust of God? I wonder whether this might help people remember that there is weakness and fallibility in humanity. That we are not little Gods. That ultimately, we are dust and to dust we shall return.
They say that faith is a mystery of the heart that the mind wants to solve. Thomas wants to solve the mystery of his own faith and doubt, and he is lucky that he has the proof in front of him. He’s lucky too that Christ, like a good doctor, knows those in his care individually. And he does not shame Thomas for his doubt, in fact he shows him his wounds and helps him to believe. Faith in God isn’t easy, and it is full of doubt for everyone. But doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Knowledge is the opposite of faith. If you know something to be true, you don’t need faith in it. However, if you doubt something, then you really need faith to sustain the hope that it is true.
Christians are called to be more like Christ. It is my prayer that, in this world of knowledge, and indeed of doubt, we can really display what faith is to people who have recently lost what they thought was absolute knowledge in how the world is. My prayer is that we can be people who can reach for something deeper than worldly knowledge to help us through these difficult times. And, like Jesus says to his disciples, ‘blessed are those that have not seen me, yet have come to believe’.
12 April 2020 – Easter Day
Do not be afraid, the angel at the tomb tells the women; do not be afraid Jesus tells the disciples as he meets with them. Do not be afraid he tells us at this time of great change and uncertainty. But fear is a very tangible feeling at present, amongst so much uncertainty and change.
Change can be one of the most difficult and stressful things to deal with, and my goodness we have had a lot to deal with in recent weeks. Lives turned not just upside own, but inside out, and back to front, and fear will have been, and still is, a very real emotion at present. Hope and joy are difficult to find.
Yet Easter is a time of hope and joy, it celebrates a new beginning, and perhaps this year, more than any other, certainly in most people’s living memory, we need to hold on to that hope and joy; the real hope we have in God.
Our faith does not mean that there will not be pain and suffering, but it does mean we are not facing this alone. We are reminded so often in the scripture that everything we do, we do with, and in the strength of God. Not always easy to hold on to when the night seems very long and dark; but the night does end, the new dawn arrives, not always as we expect, for some that new dawn may be in a different place, yet in all the darkness there is God.
The three days from the darkness of Good Friday to that first Sabbath when the tomb was bare, must have seemed an eternity to Jesus’ friends and family. Our three week lockdown is unlikely to end immediately, and certainly not on Easter Day, but Easter after all is not one day either, there are 40 days in the Easter season.
In these few weeks we have seen great loss, hardship and pain, and we have also seen much positive change. People are talking to one another, they are listening, they are helping others in so many ways. We are all finding new ways to be hopeful because this will end. ‘We will all be changed,” says Paul. (1 Corinthians 15.51) If you have not read this chapter (Chapter 15) in his letter to the Corinthians about the resurrection of Christ, I encourage you to do so, as it reminds us change happens, change is necessary for growth and new beginnings.
Easter is God’s great act of putting right the relationship with the human race, and relationships are about emotions and feelings, such as fear but also hope and joy. In giving Jesus, God offers us a new way of living, of being, and in Jesus’ death and resurrection we have God’s healing of all that is wrong between God and humanity. God offers us protection, God offers us salvation, God offers us God. God offers us love.
God offered this through Jesus Christ. Jesus who felt emotions of anger, peace, joy, hope, despair, grief and above all love. On the day he was tried and put to death, on a cross, the death of a criminal, a painful, lingering death, the world felt empty and hopeless to those who cared about him. So imagine that early morning as the two women, the two Mary’s, who have watched Jesus die, go to the stone tomb to anoint his dead body.
It is dark, the sun is just coming up; all is quiet, just as all around us the world is quiet now, they are quiet, wrapped up in their own thoughts – empty, hopeless.
Then the earth literally starts to move, it shakes, they are terrified.
They look up – the heavy stone across the tomb has been rolled back – there is
someone standing there, not the guards, they are cowering in fear – this is a
messenger who tells them that Jesus is not there; they can see the tomb is empty, what is going on? Even the body of their dear friend has gone, is there no end to this sadness. He is risen, they are told, don’t be afraid, go and tell his disciples he will meet them in Galilee. They look; fearful yet now hopeful, can this really be? The emptiness of the tomb is now a sign of hope, all is not lost, and as this starts to sink in, Jesus is there. He greets them. And he tells them not to be afraid, but go and tell his friends, he will be with them.
The times we are living through are uncertain, they are stressful, and we need to acknowledge that; yet they are also hopeful as we see the best of humanity and a rediscovery of relationships.
The resurrection was and is a new beginning, a new beginning of God’s love for
humanity. In the coming weeks we will hear the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus who find an apparent stranger walking with them. This is no stranger, this is Jesus, who walked with them and walks with us now, we do not walk alone.
And as the famous writer Julian of Norwich said, and she lived through a number of years of poor health, during which she came to know God better; ‘And I saw for certain, both here and elsewhere, that before ever he made us, God loved us; and God’s love never slackens and never will. In this love all his works have been done, and in this love our life is everlasting.’
Do not be afraid! Amen.
5 April 2020 – Palm Sunday
This Sunday we should be processing into church singing All glory, laud and honour, as we recall Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, hailed as the Promised One from God.
All glory, laud, and honour
to thee, Redeemer, King,
to whom the lips of children
made sweet Hosannas ring.
Thou art the King of Israel,
thou David’s royal Son,
who in the Lord’s name comest,
the King and blessèd One.
The company of angels
are praising thee on high,
and mortal men and all things
created make reply.
The people of the Hebrews
with palms before thee went;
our praise and prayer and anthems
before thee we present.
To thee before thy Passion
they sang their hymns of praise;
to thee now high exalted
our melody we raise.
Thou didst accept their praises;
accept the prayers we bring,
who in all good delightest,
thou good and gracious King.
Instead we will be walking around our living rooms as we remember the excitement and acclamation that turned within days to sorrow and despair. And perhaps that mirrors where we are too with the rapid changes in all our lives due to the coronavirus.
We had just begun a new year, indeed a new decade, with hopes and ideas, and now everything has changed; all our plans, all our certainties are up in the air. There is fear and stress and most definitely uncertainty.
And yet not all is uncertain. We have a sure and certain hope in God, and God’s love, even though at times it may be hard to see that at present. I am already being asked where is God in all that we see around us? And God is with us – in those reaching out to others, perhaps people they had never spoken to before. In those volunteering, or praying for others; in the doctors, nurses, care staff, key workers and all those selflessly giving their time, and sometimes even their lives, for others. Loving our neighbour in the widest sense is much in evidence.
Holy Week and Easter will be very different this year without the opportunities to worship that we usually share. Yet this can be a chance to take a step back from everything and to spend time reading and reflecting on Jesus’ journey to the cross. The journey from acclamation and welcome at the start of the week to betrayal and denial a few days later. This is an opportunity to explore who we are and our relationship to the God who loves us. The God who loves us so much that Jesus opened wide his arms on the cross in love and welcome.
In the midst of darkness and anxiety we can identify anew with those first disciples, who thought that with his entry into Jerusalem Jesus’ teaching had finally born fruit, only to find everything crashing down around them on the day we call Good Friday.
The emptiness of Easter Saturday will be particularly poignant this year, yet even in the prolonged Holy Saturday of emptiness that we find ourselves in, there is always hope. God, whose nature is mercy, sent His Son, who experienced the fullness of our own human suffering, and makes all things new.
And speaking of new I am going to suggest that during Holy Week we each take time to prepare our own Easter Garden, our own garden of hope. Some may be able to collect leaves, grass or plants on walks (don’t pull up the bluebells!) of from their garden, for others it may be from pictures, toys or cards, but however we do it, , let us focus on hope, and let us prepare that garden to greet the risen Christ the hope for us all on Easter Day.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: 29 March 2020 – Fifth Sunday of Lent (Passion Sunday)
This Sunday British Summer time begins, and in the Church calendar we begin Passiontide and our journey towards Holy Week and Easter, but in circumstances that none of us have faced before.
Many, I know, will be struggling with the social isolation, fear and uncertainty of the current pandemic, and sadly we lost Geoff Walker this week. Never have we needed one another more. We are finding new and varied ways of keeping in touch, and technology has an enormous part to play in that, as well as a good old-fashioned phone call. The positive of all this is that we have time to talk rather than just a brief salutation in passing.
Establishing a routine for our changed daily lives is key, as is giving ourselves space. If you are working from home for the first time, or home schooling, don’t be too hard on yourself and take time to look up. Be aware of the moment, the warmth of the sun, the smell of the blossom, the sound of birdsong, which without the hum of traffic or planes overhead, has been wonderful
Take one day at a time, and try to be the best you can, without expecting yourself to be able to do everything in this new and changed world; be kind and compassionate, slow down. Helping others in whatever way, can help us too, resisting fear and building up community – love God and love your neighbour.
At Passiontide, one of the hymns we often sing is one written by Isaac Watts, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Isaacs wanted his hymns to be singable and for people to have a passionate response to them.
When I survey the wond’rous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory dy’d,
My richest Gain I count but Loss,
And pour Contempt on all my Pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the Death of Christ my God:
All the vain Things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his Blood.
See from his Head, his Hands, his Feet,
Sorrow and Love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such Love and Sorrow meet?
Or Thorns compose so rich a Crown?
His dying Crimson, like a Robe,
Spreads o’er his Body on the Tree;
Then am I dead to all the Globe,
And all the Globe is dead to me.
Were the whole Realm of Nature mine,
That were a Present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my Soul, my Life, my All.
The journey to the cross is about broken dreams, hopes dashed, fear and betrayal. Jesus suffers all that humanity can throw at him, and on the cross dies. But as we know that isn’t the end, and more of that in the coming weeks.
Presently the world is hurting. There are worries, fears and concerns. Yet we know this time will come to an end, that during this difficult time we will learn new things, new ways of working and being community. New relationships are already being built and perhaps we are actually talking more with one another, because we have the time.
Our readings today are about hope and new beginnings, and both are essential for us to flourish, and are what we look towards as we give thanks to those working to keep us all safe and well. The display of support on Thursday evening was truly moving and uplifting.
So as we begin a new week, let us join together in our prayers for today
Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen
Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us
that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters
we do also for you:
give us the will to be the servant of others
as you were the servant of all,
and gave up your life and died for us,
but are alive and reign, now and for ever. Amen
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: 22 March 2020 – Mothering Sunday
This Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent is known as Mothering Sunday, a time when
traditionally people returned to their Mother Church, and their families.
Sadly this year we have been unable to worship together, and many of you will not be able to visit parents, or receive visitors with the guidance on social isolation. We are unlikely to be able to worship together for some time although the church will be open for private prayer, with the safety measures in place, at the times already detailed. However, we will keep in touch with our weekly sheets and our website, and with hard copies for those unable to access the web. Arrangements may of course change as government advice changes.
We have also added a section on Worship Resources to our website. This includes links to worship resources, live streaming of services and an order for Spiritual Worship which you may like to use until we are able to share the Eucharist again together.
We are in uncertain and uncharted times, and our faith, our love and care for one another as children of God will be very important in the coming days and weeks. Reaching out to others, talking by phone, email or in person – allowing for the proper social distancing – will be essential for all our wellbeing.
Our reading from Colossians today particularly reminds us of this, as we clothe
ourselves with compassion, kindness and above all patience.
James and I will continue to hold you all in our prayers, as I am sure you will hold one another, and we will continue to be a presence in and around our community.
Do keep in touch, communications have never been so important.
This Sunday evening the Church has called for a National Day of Prayer and we will pray for those who are sick or anxious and those working in our Health Service and the emergency services. As part of that we are encouraging everyone to place a lighted candle in their window at 7pm as a sign of solidarity and hope in the light of Christ that can never be extinguished.
I will be lighting candles in the church at that time, so please join with me in your home by lighting a candle in your window and saying a prayer at 7pm.
The Church is not the building it is all of us, so keep well and shine as Christ’s light in this dark world.
© 2020 St Edmund, Chingford