NOVEMBER 2020: 22-NOV, 15-NOV, 08-NOV, 01-NOV (All Souls), 01-NOV (All Saints)
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29 November 2020 to 20 December 2020 – No Sermons in Advent
22 November 2020 – Patronal Festival (St Edmund the Martyr)
Today the Church celebrates the feast of Christ the King, where we rejoice that Christ embodies the victory of good over evil, that his Kingdom is the whole universe, and that the kingdom of the world, and frankly, of the devil, is not a permanent one.
However, in this Church, dedicated to St Edmund, we also take the last Sunday of the church’s year to remember an earthly king: St Edmund, King of East Anglia and a martyr of the faith. I imagine the reason that he was chosen to be patron saint of our church was because our forebears wanted to maintain the link that Chingford had until recently with Essex, and indeed with its rural past as the very south-westerly point of East Anglia.
Our church building has a rural and traditional look to it, dressed as it is, in flint – the building material of the eastern counties – and it is perhaps appropriate that St Edmund looks out towards the foreign, urban lands of London and beyond, a saintly sentinel for the rural past that seems so alien to us now, but that always lays dormant under the concrete and steel of the twentieth century, ready to burst through in bloom if we just give it the slightest opportunity.
They say St Edmund is the original St George – a real emblem of England, who died for his people at the hands of a terrible and ruthless enemy. He’s now somewhat unfairly usurped by that possibly fictitious dragon-slayer, a saint who had little to do with England at all, in reality.
Today, for the sermon, you’re going to hear a story. This story is of St Edmund, part drawn from historical record, part from my own imagination.
This is the type of loose sermon that those who are very serious about their Bible study often detest, and I’m sure that, if some of our brethren from other churches heard it, they would howl at how unbiblical it is. But, I make no apologies for it. The reason we have saints is to see the work of God in others, and in the world. We can interpret the words of God in many ways, so I hope that you don’t mind doing things just a little differently this week.
So, if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.
They say that East Anglia has the greatest sunsets in all of this land that you now call Great Britain. The unrelenting flatness of the marsh provides a vista of many miles, birds wheel overhead and seagulls can be found far inland, sheltering from the storms of the North Sea. We grow many crops in East Anglia, but where I, King Edmund, stand, in Thetford, is the heart of the Brecklands – our Saxon word for the bad lands, a word that will remain with you in your twenty-first century, as you come for Center Parcs holidays in Elveden close-by to here. For you, these lands are full of forest, but for me and my kingdom of East Anglia, not much grows in these brecklands but scrub, and more recently, Viking invaders.
I have ruled East Anglia since the year of our Lord 855, when my father Alcmund died. I was just 14 when I ascended to the throne, as King of the Angles, King of all that area that you now call Norfolk, Suffolk, some of Cambridgeshire and much of Essex. A rag-tag and bobtail lot is what I inherited here– nothing like those people of the stock I came from, the Germans. My father was a German.
But these, Anglians, they were just farmers really – country boys and girls – with their accent as rounded and gentle as their land was flat. When I was crowned King, by Bishop Humbert of Elmham, at that church at Bures, a beautiful spot next to the River Stour which divides Suffolk from Essex, I vowed to be a good king – unlike so many of my forebears.
For unlike so many of them, I could read the Bible. When reading, I learnt of all the good and bad kings of Judah, and my goodness me, doesn’t the Bible provide examples of the many bad kings of Judah, eleven in fact. What I noticed about the good kings though, is that they seemed to have longer reigns than the bad: Uzziah reigned for 52 years; Josiah for 31; Jehosephat for 25. Whereas the bad king Jehoiakin only lasted 3 months before being deposed.
So, as 14 year-old Edmund, with all my life stretched out before me, when the bishop put the crown on my head, it seemed to me only sensible to be a good king. Because kingship is for life, and bad kings tend to end up losing their heads.
And I was a good king to East Anglia, in all those ways I’d learnt from the Bible. I kept the faith, I prayed to the one Lord, I encouraged the Church. But also, I helped the people, and I ran a tight ship – East Anglians of the twenty-first century still unearth the occasional coin from their gardens with my head on it: EDMUND REX AN they say, the AN being for Anglia, bearing as they do, the name of the one who brought peace and prosperity to these lands.
Stood there in the bad lands near Thetford though, at just the age of 28, I am forced to admit that maybe I did not read my Bible attentively enough. If I had thought that I could guarantee success and longevity, just by being a good King, I was incorrect. For, now I face the onslaught of the Viking hordes, who we call the heathen army. They have already swept through the north, through Mercia, and will soon make their winter camp right here in Thetford, 869AD. They have their eyes set on my kingdom, and the fate that awaits my people, the East Anglians, is one of serfdom and of fear.
My forces are not as strong as the mighty Vikings, and I know that I will die a martyr’s death, probably a few miles down the road, in the village of Hoxne, an incongruously pretty spot for a gruesome murder. As Ælfric of Eynsham later records in his book, ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’, the Vikings force their way into my Hall and they try to make me repent of my Christian faith. When I refuse, the Viking’s leader, Ivar the Boneless, beats me with rods and he ties me to a tree, whipping me, like they whipped Jesus Christ. And when I still refuse to renounce my faith, the Vikings decide to take pot-shots at me with arrows. Somehow I survive, but I still refuse to repent of my faith, so, tired of making me look like some strange human-porcupine with their arrows, they finally decapitate me.
Ironically of course, the sons of the very Vikings who murder me, will later venerate me as a saint. They carry my body to a town and name it after me, Bury St Edmund’s. Later, it becomes a city with a beautiful cathedral. But, on my way there, I rest at the simple wooden, Saxon church at Greensted in Essex – a place where twenty-first century people still go to see how we used to live. Perhaps it would have been more fitting if my body had stayed there.
Many strange stories will be written about me – about how a wolf protects my head, about many mysteries. I’ll leave you to wonder as to whether or not they are true. Before they venerated me, the Vikings destroyed almost all records of me and my people, in a kind of ancient ethnic-cleansing of culture. Most of what remained was just snippets, or conjecture.
But what is, or is not, true about my story, the story of St Edmund, there is a truth that will always remain, and it is one to which my death bears witness. “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” says Jesus. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. Tough stuff for anyone to get their head around, particularly a 28 year-old who knows he is going to die. But then again, I suppose that Jesus himself must’ve known that he too was going to die, even when he said those words, in a time closer to mine than my time is to yours. I hope you do not have to lose your life like I did, but maybe Jesus is asking you to sacrifice something for him.
I was Edmund, King of the Angles, with all the trappings that kingship gave me. As Edmund, King and Martyr, I follow Christ in losing my earthly life. But I never give up on the truth – that the love of Christ always wins in the end, even against the worst of enemies.
However much the Vikings destroyed of my heritage, I am still known today. Yet, even in your modern world, there are thousands of people who die for their faith, who are persecuted by others, and they too, refuse to let go of that truth of Christ. I doubt their histories will be recorded. I doubt they will be venerated as saints, like me. But, like me, their lives bear witness to the true King. So, on this, my day, when we also remember that Christ is King, that love wins, don’t just remember me, St Edmund. Instead, remember all those, before me and after me, who have fought against evil and who have died for the truth.
The King of love my shepherd is, his goodness faileth never, I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.
15 November 2020 – Second Sunday before Advent
Can you think for a moment about what might be the most challenging thing you have faced in your life? Was it challenging because it took you outside your comfort zone? Perhaps it was something you had never done before or involved something that you found particularly hard, even frightening.
How did it feel as you faced that challenge, was it risky in case it failed? Perhaps even more importantly how did you feel after you had faced the challenge, relieved, euphoric or perhaps a little of both. Life is a challenge and stretching ourselves, dealing with challenges can be both exciting and daunting; it will certainly develop us and help us to grow, but it can feel very risky at times.
What if I fail? Well, is that really a problem? We might feel embarrassed or awkward for while, but others might not even notice we were unable to complete the challenge. Did anyone get hurt? If not, we can put it down to experience, learn from it and move on. If it was only our pride that was hurt, then it was probably a risk worth taking, especially if we learn from it.
Yes, we need to weigh up the risks in anything we do, risk assessments are nothing new, even if the current pandemic has made them a byword. Part of our daily life is looking at risks and constantly assessing them.
Risk assessments don’t take away all the risk, they just help us to decide what are acceptable risks, and what are not. Challenges, as I say, are part of life, it is how we deal with them that counts.
We can choose never to take a risk, but then we will never know what we are capable of, whether we could have conquered our fears, and we will never know how well we might have done.
Our parable today might, at first glance, appear to be saying that God gives us a series of tests, of challenges, to pass, and if we pass then we get to the new kingdom. As I say that might be the lesson on first reading, but let’s look again, that is surely not what Jesus was teaching? Indeed it was the very opposite, his teaching was about thinking differently, being open to challenge, he was rebuking the leaders and saying this is not the way. Life with God isn’t about how many laws and rules you know and keep, God’s kingdom is about growing, and not wasting our gifts.
The parable of the talents is about just that, as we may be initially talking about monetary units, but in reality the importance is the use of our God given talents and abilities.
The first servants had taken what they were given and invested what they had, they had used them, they had taken a risk, but the final servant had wasted what he was given, He had been so paralysed by fear he had been unable to face the challenge.
God calls us to use our gifts wisely, be they financial or our abilities, and the ‘wicked’ servant had not done this. For Jesus this was like the Jewish leaders who had wasted their opportunities of fostering God’s kingdom. The ‘wicked’ servant did not take a risk – and in this we see parallels with those who choose not to live their lives by accepting the challenges that life offers.
Like the servant who was too fearful, even to leave the money with the bank, where it might just grow (and he with it) he literally buries it, like his head, in the ground, where it is safe, but nothing will happen. His talent will not see the light of day, will not benefit anyone. He was so concerned for his own wellbeing, looking after himself, that all was self-centred, and that is not what God wants us to do with our lives and our gifts.
We need to take the gifts and talents we have been given, and everyone has gifts and talents, to serve God in the most risky and challenging area of all – serving and loving God and our neighbour.
Being outside of our comfort zone, stretching and challenging ourselves can be risky, yet it brings growth in us as individuals, and in the community we live and work in.
This year in particular has probably been one of the most difficult and challenging for all of us, and yet all around I see examples of love and encouragement. Encourage one another and build up one another in good times and in difficult and challenging times. That is using our God given gifts wisely and well, it is loving God and loving others, and how blessed it is to give than to receive.
Jesus reminded his disciples many times that he came not to be served, but to serve, and that is the model and example he offers us to follow. It isn’t always easy, it is a challenge, but is it rewarding as we grow and broaden our horizons. Amen.
8 November 2020 – Third Sunday before Advent (Remembrance Sunday)
As we rightly remember the past, this day invites us to remember all those whose lives have been lost in conflict, not just those of the past, but in almost every year of the last century and this. This day calls us again to support those who have come through warfare and who bear its scars. Our presence here today says that they are not forgotten.
Remembrance is by no means only a soldier’s, a sailor’s, or an airman’s preserve. It encompasses all of us. It is the business of our loved ones, our families, our friends. Remembrance envelopes, enfolds and endures for our entire nation and all those who have served her over the hundreds of years which have passed, to the present and for the future. Remembrance is timeless, it is boundless. It is bearable and it is unbearable. It is for the known; it is for the unknown. It is for ‘them over there’; it is for all of us. It is national; it is personal. It is yours; it is mine.
This day should be regarded as a sign-post directing the paths of all nations towards peace, and reminding them of the awful sacrifice and inhumanity of war.
Realistically the omens for stopping war are not good. Inevitably wars will occur, if not necessarily on a global scale. They are likely to be more local, more focussed, arguably less geographically destructive, but invariably more devastating, potent, and lethal for those embroiled in the horror.
The work of redemption – bringing something good out of something awful – is hard. It requires honesty – the ability to face up to what has happened and its reality in an individual’s life, whether that is shown in some form of disability or trauma, or whether this is obvious or hidden (as might be the case with post-traumatic stress). Honesty and a harsh truthfulness are essential.
In addition, redemption requires courage and perseverance.
Today we are invited to contemplate at least two things. First, sadness, sympathy and respect for those who are directly scarred or involved in the tragedy of war. Second, shame and horror for what we have done to one another. Simultaneously, we are called to be co-workers with God in the building of his City on earth. Through our activities, concrete and creative, we set about to change the patterns of this world that have made, or perhaps still make, hatred and resentment, poverty and unemployment, war and death. We should not just pray for the coming of the City of God and contemplate the implications of its arrival – but actually take a significant part in the preparation of its foundation. We need to keep watch, stay focused, be prepared.
Our readings are about keeping watch, staying alert, preparing for God’s kingdom, for new beginnings. We are that part of the Church’s year called the Kingdom season. It is a time of celebration and encouragement by the examples of the saints who have gone before us; a time of thanksgiving before God for those whom we have known directly, those who gave us life or nurtured us in faith, and it is a time of memory.
And in all this we reflect on the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth. a kingdom that we need to keep watch for, to be alert because we don’t know when it will come, God’s timing is not the same as ours. We look for a kingdom that is unlike earthly kingdoms, which have been fought over, and where lives are lost, this is a kingdom where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. This the kingdom God promises and encourages us to keep watch for.
Today on Remembrance Sunday we explore the theme of memory, war and peace, loss and self-giving, memory and forgetting. We place our thoughts for those we have known and those we have not known, who have given either their lives, or given away the straightness of their limbs, in the service of our country; those who have done so in years past, those who do it now, and those who shall do it again in the years ahead.
We remember in order to learn, we remember because those who gave their lives did so that we might have life with all its freedoms. Yet those freedoms also bring responsibilities. Responsibility to use that freedom wisely, selflessly and for the good of all humanity. Responsibility to ensure that justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, and that is as true today as it was when the prophet Amos spoke to the Israelites centuries ago. We still have some way to go in order that God’s Kingdom may come here on earth.
As we remember those who have died for our freedoms, let us remind ourselves again of all that we have, and give thanks for their sacrifice.
When you go home tell them of us, and say for your tomorrow we gave our today. Amen.
1 November 2020 – All Souls’ Service
I think it is fair to say that this year has been like no other. We started the year much as any other year, but then everything changed and will be for some time.
Change is a constant in our lives, without change life stagnates, although I am sure I speak for many when I say that the pace of change this year has been faster than any of us could ever have anticipated. Some change has been good, other change is unwelcome, imposed, unsettling and thus very hard to deal with. And I know this second lockdown will be a real blow to many
When we lose someone, there is a massive change, we are changed, our lives are changed, life will never be the same as it was, it means a new beginning for those left. It is imposed, unsettling and again very hard to deal with, especially if the loss was unexpected, or like now when grieving has been so difficult.
But whilst our lives will be different, we do have the memories, the essence of the person who has gone remains with us. It may be in memories, it may be in a family likeness – of looks, or mannerisms, and thus life goes on, it regenerates, different on the outside, but inside we still have the person with us.
We have to continue in a new way of life, that may not be at all easy, but our readings stress not only that for everything there is a season, there is also hope. Hope in a God who will be with us, who will walk with us in our joys and our sorrows and hope at this time is something very important. We have not been able to mourn as we usually would, supporting one another has been difficult with restrictions on meeting and being with people, but grieving and mourning loss is an important part of the healing and moving forward in our lives.
Healing and moving forward is important, but loosing someone we care for is never easy, life will never be the same and even the memories can be too painful. One writer put it like this
‘The dearer and richer the memories, the more difficult the separation but gratitude converts the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are not endured as a thorn in the flesh but as a gift precious for its own sake.’ (Bonhoeffer)
A gift precious for its own sake, and that is a wonderful way to recall those we have lost, never forgetting them, as we move on in our lives. Moving on knowing that we are not alone, having those memories and God’s love, God’s presence to sustain us in all the difficult and dark times in the coming weeks and months.
We are still living in uncertain times, but we will be able to comfort one another again, we will see new life, we will go forward in our lives. In God there is always hope because there is a time and season for everything. Amen.
1 November 2020 – All Saints’ Sunday
Sometimes this year I have really tried to stop myself from including the dreaded coronavirus topic in sermons, because I think people would often prefer to hear about something else – anything else really, after all it seems to dominate everything we ever hear about at the moment. But, given the announcement last night that we are, once more, to lock down, I feel that it would be pretty tone-deaf to deliver a sermon today that was all sweetness and light about the saints, and how the glories of All Saints Day conquer the darkness of All Hallow’s Eve, no matter how true that statement is.
Indeed, apart from a few fireworks and the odd pumpkin, there wasn’t much trick-or-treating going on in Hurst Avenue last night. And although, throughout the week, I saw a few houses round about decorated in the now-usual orange and black colour-scheme of Halloween, it seems rather a more subdued affair this year than it has been of late. I guess it might be harder to make light of death and the underworld when the actual world is facing such loneliness and misery and indeed, perhaps facing its own fragility, even its own mortality.
But, nonetheless, today is a celebration, through the Saints, that life – real life, not just mortal, scientific existence – but actual being, you know: enjoying, feeling, worshipping, crying, loving: yes, today in All Saints day, is a celebration that all of that, which constitutes real life and, we believe, as Christians, goes beyond worldly existence, and indeed, all the way to heaven and to eternity, it’s a celebration that, all this, cannot be completely destroyed by the occasional miseries of human existence.
It’s tempting to think of all the saints as being a bit like textbook St Francis’s: mainly nice men, with halos, who are kind to people or animals, and who do nice things, or do great things. But, in reality, once all the hagiographies are stripped away, let’s face it, the people who we remember as the saints, are in many ways ordinary people, like you and me. And just to prove this, I thought I’d give you a run-down of some funny stories of the other side of the saints.
Let’s start with St Augustine – a very famous saint, and the church bases a lot of its theology on how Augustine understood Christianity, and his books are still widely read a thousand years later. But, you know, Augustine loved many women, very much: so much so that he once said: ‘God grant me the gift of chastity! But, don’t grant it quite yet!’
Then there’s St Jesús Malverde, not a saint officially recognised by the Catholic church, but don’t tell that to the people of Mexico, where Malverde is fervently prayed to by many, in a special shrine. Malverde was probably some kind of bandit in real life, and died in an epic shootout in 1909 with the law authorities, of the type that you mainly get to see in those 1960s spaghetti westerns that my dad loves. He’s even the patron saint of drug smugglers, would you believe.
And finally, there was St Genesius of Rome was an actor and comedian in the Roman Empire and he came to a bit of a sticky end, because basically he was probably the worst actor known to man. He was hired by the Roman Emperor to appear in a play that made fun of Christianity and, in some ways rather unfortunately for him, he was playing the part of a Christian in the play, and he was so convinced by his own part that he kind of went full-on method acting on it, and at the performance in front of the Emperor, he decided to stop the play, and convert to Christianity in real life on stage. Naturally, the Emperor wasn’t best pleased about this, and you can probably guess what happened afterwards to St Genesius.
So there you have it, a playboy, a bandit and well, an idiot really. And yet people around the world think these guys are so amazing that they qualify as saints! As special, as bless-ed people. What does Jesus say about it all? Well, today we hear a very famous part of Matthew’s Gospel: it’s part of the whole narrative of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says a great many things, but this part is known as The Beatitudes, where Jesus gives us a vision of who should be held up as bless-ed in this world: the poor in spirit; those that mourn; the weak; the merciful; the peacemakers. He’s not saying ‘this is how the world is’. No, far from it – the world was probably more violent and nasty in his time than even it is today in many ways. But he’s saying: do you want to be bless-ed? If so, look to these people. Look to the lowest. And look into your own heart – what can you do for them, because whatever you do for them, you do for me also? And for every weird and whacky story there is about someone celebrated as a saint today, there a hundred more about how these saints, these imperfect people, looked beyond their own selves, and did something amazing towards that world that Jesus shows us in the Beatitudes.
So, to return to the dreaded topic of Covid again. We find ourselves in really strange and difficult times. Once again, the church will have to close for worship for a while, although we understand that we may still be able to open for private prayer. Nobody knows when this will all be over. Now, when thinking about all this, this strange time of darkness and not knowing, someone sprung to my mind. He isn’t a saint, he’s still alive for one thing. But he certainly caught the attention of the world in the late 1980s, and he’s one of the few English Anglicans alive who really knows what is like to face terrible hardship in the name of faith. You may have guessed that I am talking about Terry Waite.
Waite worked for Robert Runcie who was Archbishop of Canterbury back then, and you may remember that, in 1987 Terry Waite went to Lebanon to negotiate with some terrorists for the release of hostages. Unfortunately, he himself was taken hostage. And he was held in captivity, mainly in solitary confinement, for 1,763 days. That’s almost five years, chained to the wall, no books, no letters, no people. He didn’t know whether he would live or die, whether he would see his family again or not. He was in a terrible kind of darkness, a darkness I hope none of us will ever experience. And, talking about his book, ‘Out of the Silence and the Solitude’, he recently said this about his time in captivity:
‘I was determined to keep hope alive. I was tortured and had a mock execution but no one had the power to capture me completely. My soul lay in the hands of God. I am not an overly “religious” person but my faith helped keep hope alive. Although I felt my life was being wasted, I got a unique opportunity to get to know myself better. When one is alone there is a tendency to become introspective. Every human who takes that inner journey will come across parts of their life of which they are not proud. This can throw some people into deep depression. I had to remember that we all have a negative side to our personality. I now realise it was one of the most formative and creative periods of my life. It is not all doom and gloom. Hard it certainly is but suffering need not destroy. Out of it, something creative and quite unexpected can emerge. Also, remember that although some may be physically alone you are never completely alone.’
This (Covid) crisis will bring out both the best and the worst in people. For the vast majority it will bring out the best. Be grateful that you have shelter, possessions, friends to talk to on the phone or online.
Today, many people will face fear and uncertainty. We don’t know what the future holds. Just keep hope alive. If we take sensible precautions, the vast majority of us will come through this experience. Life will never be the same again but let’s be determined to make it better not just for ourselves but for future generations.
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25 October 2020 – Last Sunday after Trinity (Bible Sunday)
You can image the scene in today’s gospel. You have a lot of holy joes all in one place – all from different traditions, all believing the same stuff but at the same time not believing it the same way, all holding to the same holy scriptures, and all cruising for a bruising.
Our gospel today is the tail-end of the story. Before this, Jesus had already had a run-in with the Sadducees, the old-style Jewish leaders who only held to the Torah, the law of Moses, and weren’t having of the new stuff that had come in during the hundreds of years that came after that. They particularly weren’t having any of this modern wishful nonsense (as they saw it) that somehow the dead could be resurrected and brought back to life. And so they had sought to trip Jesus up asking “well! exactly whose wife is a women who finds herself confronted by her seven ex husbands at the general resurrection”. “That will trip him up,” I’m sure they said or thought to themselves.
And after them, Jesus has a run-in with the closely-related sect the Boethusians. They were sure that they could tie him up in string, or – if not – get him to hang himself. Our gospel calls them Herodians, as they were quite close to the king and royal family. And so they decide he could be unveiled as some radical revolutionary by a simple but knotty question of “should we pay taxes to Caesar?”
And after them, the final run-in is that we hear today – with the Pharisees. The Pharisees who believed worship focussed in prayer and the study, interpretation and updating of scripture. And so quite cleverly they ask him “what is the most important of God’s laws, are some perhaps not so important in keeping?” But Jesus doesn’t fall for it, but instead does the same back to them. He totally takes Psalm 110 out of context, and tries to get them to agree – on the basis of six words (“The LORD said to my Lord”) – that the Messiah really didn’t have to be a descendant of David; in fact the Messiah could be simply a peasant with a broad accent from upt’ north with a penchant for annoying others within his religion.
Back and forth, verbally duelling over biblical interpretation, with trick questions to trap, to push forward their own ordered rigid certainties.
Now we had a choice today either to keep this as the Last Sunday after Trinity, or to keep it as Bible Sunday. If we had kept Bible Sunday, we would have had earnest Bible readings with the Gospel informing us that even if heaven and earth passed away, God’s Word never would; and an Epistle, commanding us to teach and admonish each other, and to sing psalms, and to let the Word of Christ dwell in us. If we had kept Bible Sunday, we would have had reading sheets for you to intently read as the reading was read to you.
But we didn’t, … and the readings we did have today (those for the Last Sunday after Trinity) perhaps provides us with a warning about how we view, use and fight over scripture.
We often hear after a scripture reading in church, the reader concluding with “This is the word of the Lord.” (I have to admit, it’s not something I use or support, but we can discuss that another time!) But it does raise the question of what do we mean by that – that the bible is the Word of God.
Too often the Bible is used as a straightjacket to confine faith. A reference book to flick through to find the right verse, the correct passage, to prove our point, to support our tradition, to build our theology, and to put others in their place.
Strangely, we often forget that the point and purpose of the Bible is God. God isn’t pressed on to the leaves of a book like some beautiful yet dead and desiccated butterfly or flower. God is not simply revealed in a book – God reveals God, and we see that in Jesus.
The Bible becomes the Word of God, if we encounter God within its stories: a God revealing himself as a God who wants to be with his people, revealing himself as Emmanuel – the God who is with us.
It is not just about words on a page. It is all about revelation – not about us cracking the code, or winkling it out, or codifying a creed, or even learning it all by rote. The bible should surprise us each time we hear its stories, they should be fresh, they shouldn’t be familiar but each time they should be a little strange to us, wrongfoot us, bring us up short. And if not … well! perhaps there’s a case that we can read the bible too often.
In Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, you may recall the statement that the Guide had “become the most successful publishing sensation to emerge from Ursa Minor, due in no small part to the appearance of the comforting words ‘DON’T PANIC!’ emblazoned in friendly lettering on the cover.” Perhaps sometimes we and others need a similar reassurance for the bible. ‘DON’T PANIC!’
Don’t get me wrong, the study, exposition, and interpretation of scripture gives great insightfulness and context and understanding of the texts we hear and read, and through these we may hear the word of God speaking to us. But on a more basic level, it is a story (written by many and told across centuries) of people encountering God in their lives, seeking to work out their relationship with him, in the chronicle of their histories, through their joys and celebrations, in confronting disasters and their sufferings, through fact and fiction, reality and hope. And we are invited to join them in companionship hearing the tales of their walk with God, uncomfortable and alien and strange as that might be for us, inspired in turn to tell our story as we also step forward in faith.
So next week, when reading sheets are back, decline one. Don’t feel you need to meticulously follow the text as it is read, as if somehow you need to check no error is made as it is read to you, or that by a careful reading it magically imbues a deeper meaning. Don’t panic! Enjoy! And just listen and encounter God in hearing a story told.
18 October 2020 – Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Today is the feast of St Luke, the author of the Third Gospel and of the Book of Acts, and possibly some of the other books of the New Testament as well, although this is disputed and I think we’ll leave that for the scholars to argue about because it doesn’t make much difference to what I want to talk to you about today. Unlike Matthew, Mark or Paul, St Luke wasn’t necessarily a Jew. In fact he was possibly a Gentile, or at least, a very liberal Jew who didn’t follow the strict holiness code of most Jews at the time. Matthew, of course, was one of the twelve disciples. Mark wasn’t, but he became friends with Peter when they were both in prison together and he probably wrote a lot of his Gospel from the recollections of Peter. Peter was of course a fisherman and his literacy levels would not probably have been very high, so Mark’s ability to write down what Peter was saying was probably very useful, And Mark’s Gospel is very short – probably because they were in prison and they were worried they were going to be put to death before they could get it finished, so it was short by necessity. But Luke is different. He is a doctor of medicine – he’s referred to by Paul as ‘the beloved physician’. He wrote his Gospel in Greek – the language of the cultured classes – and it is learn-ed Greek too. It’s a long Gospel, with lots of considered themes. It’s not got quite the same literary flair as St John’s Gospel, but it’s a pretty full account compared with most of the others. And St Luke’s Gospel is, of course, the gospel which every nativity story owes its belonging to. The only thing that Luke doesn’t have, is the wise men – they only appear in Matthew’s account.
So Luke wasn’t one of the twelve disciples and he probably didn’t know any of them either. In fact, he probably wasn’t even around in Jerusalem when Jesus was doing his thing. One of the reasons we have that particular Gospel reading today, where Jesus sends out seventy people to be his witnesses and apostles, is that there’s an old tradition that maybe one of those seventy people might have been St Luke. Well, it’s a nice idea, but it’s probably made up – we love to read the author into any text don’t we. I know Woody Allen always likes to have a cameo role in his films but I’m not sure that the Gospel writers had such big egos. I mean, in St Mark’s Gospel there’s a really entertaining little segment where a follower of Jesus is so amazed by the presence of the great man himself, that he forgets to put on any clothes and runs around naked, and lots of people have wondered whether that was actually St Mark himself, but we don’t have any evidence of that.
Anyhow, back to the hero of the day, St Luke. Now, St Luke might not have known Jesus personally or any of the twelve disciples, but he did have a really close relationship with St Paul and he accompanied him on many of his most dangerous missions. With Paul, he probably survived shipwreck, imprisonment and torture. And he lived long enough to write it all down in not only his wonderful Gospel, but probably the most action-packed book of the Bible: the Book of Acts. If you’re thinking about it in film terms: this is the sequel to the Gospel – the bit about ‘what did everyone do next?’ And much like Toy Story 2 and Paddington 2, it achieves something just as great as the original. I once did an exam and I got finished quite early – it’s one of those classic situations – if you’ve ever read the Adrian Mole books at one point he says ‘this English exam was so easy, I finished with an hour to spare’, perhaps little realising that you should probably use up all that time writing a better answer. But anyway, in this exam, I did have some time to spare at the end. When you’re just sitting there, it’s pretty boring and obviously you can’t look at a phone or any materials. Anyway, it was a scripture exam and the only thing I had on my desk was the Holy Bible so I thought – well, may as well give it a go – what have I got to lose?! Anyhow, I alighted on the Book of Acts and I found it so compelling – it’s just one adventure after another. If you ever have a spare 40 minutes, read it, it’s really interesting!
So St Luke, despite not actually knowing Jesus personally, and despite not having any recorded great moment of awakening like St Paul had on the road to Damascus, and despite probably also having quite a lot to lose – I mean, he was a doctor, a physician, a learned man. He wasn’t some fisherman, or some kind of extremist with a guilty conscience – dare I say – like St Paul. No, he was probably pretty respected in his society and he gave all that up, to face persecution and even death. Yes, we don’t know how exactly Luke died, in fact we don’t know how Paul died either, but it’s likely that they both travelled to Rome on their final trip and there, they are likely to have met their fate at the hands of Emperor Nero, who wasn’t too keen on these pesky upstarts called Christians.
So, why do we have this particular reading from Luke today then? Is it really the best the lectionary can do, to select from all of Luke’s Gospel, just a bit that isn’t probably about him at all, just so that people me can show off our Biblical skills and say to people ‘oh well, this is probably all just a fiction, he wasn’t there with Jesus really’?
Well, to answer this great theological question, I turn to one of the most significant Biblical scholars of the twenty first century. That is to say, I wish to turn to the great theological knowledge of a man called Justin Bieber. Now, you may have imagined that the car radio of a priest might well be tuned to something refined like Radio 4 or 3 even. But, I’ll let you into a secret. Priests are people too. And I’m afraid to say, that mine is tuned to Capital FM. And if you ever ring me on a withheld number don’t be surprised if yell ‘Capital give me the cash’ down the phone at you, in the hope of winning ten grand. It’s not happened yet.
Anyhow, Justin Bieber, the well known singer and teen heartthrob, has collaborated currently with another artiste called Chance The Rapper. If I ever meet Chance the Rapper, I would really like to ask him, in his passport is his middle name recorded as ‘The’? Who knows. Anyway, young Mr Bieber and his friend Mr C Rapper have produced a song called Holy, which has been Number 1 in the Charts for a few weeks now I think. This song employs a lot of religious metaphors and I’m not really sure whether it’s a statement of belief or not. But it does have a really good line that, whenever I hear it (and let’s face it, Capital Radio has a playlist as short as an ant’s leg, so I hear it quite often), yes whenever I hear these lyrics, I think: wow, that’s actually quite profound, thanks whoever it is that writes his songs. Because the lyric says: “I know we believe in God and I know God believes in us”.
We talk a lot about believing in God. That’s the point of faith, right? Right? Well, what if the point of faith is really, that God believes in us? That God loves us and believes in our worth so much that he sends his only Son to earth to show God’s forgiveness to us. That kind-of turns the whole thing on its head doesn’t it? I think St Luke really gets this – he shows his understanding of this in his journey with St Paul, because he gets that God believes in people and that is why he is willing to risk everything to share this message. He also shows it in his Gospel which, by the way, seeks to empower women and the poor far more actually than any of the other Gospels do. It might be a Gospel written by a clever man, but it’s not like John – it’s not a Gospel for the knowledgeable and the clever, it’s not just for people like a clever turn of phrase or a conundrum. No – it’s a Gospel for everyone. And to return to my original question: why did we have this Gospel reading where Jesus sends out all these people? Because as Jesus says, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” He doesn’t say “Go, but you know, be careful because I’m not totally sure you can do it. Maybe just do a bit.” No, quite the opposite! He says: “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” So Jesus is saying, this is going to be hard, but I believe in you. And whilst St Luke isn’t probably there when he says these words, it’s undeniable that, during his life, St Luke lives those words out, even unto death.
“I know we believe in God and I know God believes in us”. Not a bad strap line. God believes in you and in me. That doesn’t mean we get things right all the time. That doesn’t mean we can use God as a tool for our own arrogance, although we do sometimes. But it does mean that you are loved and believed in by your maker. Loved more than you can know. And that is indeed good news worth sharing. So, if you feel down or discouraged, keep repeating: “I know we believe in God and I know God believes in us”.
11 October 2020 – Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Choices (Matthew 22.1-14)
In those halcyon days when we could mix with large numbers of people were you a party person or not? Do you look forward to getting dressed up or do you prefer to curl up indoors with a good book or some music?
One of the biggest parties tends to be a wedding. Over the years they have got larger and larger and more and more expensive, with all the extras that are seen, at least by the wedding planners, as essential. With the current restrictions weddings are now much smaller, many have been cancelled, and in other cases couples are rediscovering what is really important about the marriage, which is the commitment to one another.
Our gospel today is about a party that surely is too good to miss but then it all goes horribly wrong, on an epic scale, and not because of the current pandemic! What is this all about, what is the real message that Jesus is giving?
The king, clearly God, is throwing a party, which we understand to mean the Kingdom of Heaven. His Son, the Promised One has arrived, but something is very wrong. The guests, God’s Chosen Ones, the Jewish people have not reacted positively to this invitation. The party guests invited are the religious professionals of the time, the very same religious professionals that were maliciously trying to make things difficult for Jesus; and no one comes to the party.
So the king, God, invites them again, look it’s all ready. Food has been prepared, God is saying, look this is my kingdom, my Son, heals, teaches, performs miracles, and the reaction? Lame excuses! God invites them into God’s kingdom, and they refused it!
Not only was this the wrong reaction, but then they abused and killed those who had brought the message! Jesus was clearly reminding them of the prophets that had come before him, warning of his coming. Throughout their history Israel’s leaders had got it wrong, and now they refused the party and did not want anything to do with it. The king’s reaction is to throw it open, not for those leaders, who have rejected God, but those from other parts of town. And they come in droves. Tax collectors, the blind, the lame, all those who thought they had been forgotten. So far so good, that is the kind of God we know. Open to all, we can relate to that. There is space for all of us, God has got room for all!
But wait, there is a twist in the tale. They sit down and the king notices someone not in their wedding suit. At first glance that may appear to be a trivial matter, after all at weddings today we still see someone who has not quite read the invitation and got the dress code wrong. Surely God accepts all? Well partly correct, because what we actually have is Jesus’ response, ‘many are called but few are chosen.’ So yes, we are all called, but it is our response that makes the difference. When a guest turns up wearing the wrong thing, it might be a mistake, or it might be a choice. A choice not to turn up in the right thing is actually a statement that says I am me, and I won’t be changed. And that is not the answer God is looking for.
It is popular today to view God as a loving and inclusive God who accepts all and protects us. Which is true, we often think of God as a parent who fulfils all those things. We are children of God, yet just as parents expect children to grow and develop, so God also wants us to grow up, to mature, to change, after all we can’t stay a child forever.
Change and growth is expected of us in our daily lives and change and growth are part of our relationship with God. God calls us into a relationship, and for that connection to inform our lives. And we know, that in all of our relationships there is an element of change, if there is not they stagnate.
People who we know and trust have something to say about the way we live, the way we are. They sometimes notice things we don’t and although we may not always thank them when they point out things in our lives that need to change, that is what good friends are for. Real friends are there not to agree with everything we do or say but sometimes, out of love, to challenge us.
And this relationship we have with God means that we are challenged, formed and then informed to make the right choices. And through it we grow. Jesus was all about transformation. When the blind and the lame came to him, he did not say, you are fine as you are, and they did not want to stay as they were, that was why they came to him. Prostitutes and extortioners came to him and he didn’t say you are fine as you are. His love reached them where they were but his love refused to let them stay as they were. He encouraged them to change and become the very best that they could. And that is not always easy, sometimes character forming and growing is painful, and we all know that. We can look back at own lives and identify those times when we were taken out of our comfort zone. And afterwards, sometimes a long time later, we can thank God for them.
We know Gods kingdom is open to all, yet few are chosen because they exclude themselves. If we are not open to learn how to live from God, if we are not ready to change and our lives do not reflect that – then we are making a clear statement. It does not matter what choices I make now, it will all work out alright in the end, but our parable is saying loud and clear, our choices do matter.
Some people make a conscious decision to reject God because they don’t think God exists, and then there are those who reject God because they are too busy, pursuing happiness in material things, and not worrying about the choices they make.
In our parable the man comes to the table just as he is, he makes no special effort even though the king has invited him. He is saying ‘’I will come as I am, God will accept me, on my terms,” and that is really missing the point about God’s transforming love.
God is, and always has been working in all our lives, and invites us to make the choice to be challenged and formed. That choice is not always easy, but when we arrive at the feast the party is certainly one to be part of. Amen.
4 October 2020 – Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
Does anyone have an apple tree in their garden? I have several and this apple comes from one of my trees.
Anyone know when the tree blooms? Quite right, Spring.
Why might that be an important time?
So that insects around to pollinate it and fruit can grow during the warm summer months.
How do trees know spring has arrived? They never make a mistake.
God has put a sort of clock inside them. Not one like this, but rather like a microscopic computer program – they are programmed to bloom.
Amazingly the tree is sensitive to the hours of daylight. It counts the hours of daylight to the accuracy of a few minutes.
When the daylight reaches exactly the right length, tiny signals tell the tree to start producing its flowers.
This ability in plants to respond to daylight hours has a long name, does any one know what it is?
Photoperiodism: photo for the light, periodism for the period or time, a very good word for scrabble.
What would happen without photoperiodism? No harvest, so it is very important that the seasons don’t get out of control. Without Springtime there would be no harvest.
At harvest time we recall that God decided upon the seasons and made sure the plants obeyed God’s rules. God created the plant kingdom with fantastic precision and skill, and gave us a responsibility to look after it.
Sometimes the seasons do go wrong and then the harvest is poor, so that is why we give thanks for a good harvest and remember that we need to look after this world and the climate to ensure that we continue to have good harvests and there is enough food for everyone to eat throughout the world.
Over the lockdown we all noticed the birdsong, the new growth of plants and the warmth of the sun, it was almost as if nature was looking after us. Of course the reason we noticed the birdsong was because the background noise of planes and cars was not drowning out the birds, the lack of traffic also allowed plants and insects to thrive, and the sun encouraged us outside to enjoy all of this, as well as ensuring the harvest could happen.
Yet our planet is at a tipping point if it is to survive. Plants and animals are becoming extinct, and sadly virusus could become more prevalent. We need to think about what we grow, what we eat, how we live our lives. Creation isn’t just for us, remember we have a responsibility to care for it in return, and if we don’t, not just nature, but we will be the losers.
The secular world often likes to state that the Church should not be political, but actually our Christian discipleship means we are called to speak out against injustice and poverty and that includes safeguarding the very creation that God made, which sustains us, but as I said also requires us to take responsibility for, so acting to make a difference now is not only important it is essential.
God has appointed us to go and bear fruit, to go out into the world living our lives in love and compassion, caring for one another, caring for ourselves and caring for God’s Creation.
At times this can all feel pretty daunting, can we really make a difference, and the answer is absolutely. It is also crucial that we remember that we don’t do this in our own strength but with the help of God and as our chant says,
In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful,
In the Lord, I will rejoice,
Look to God, do not be afraid
Lift up your voices the Lord is near.
Lift up your voices the Lord is near.
This year especially creation has helped us, not just with produce, but as a haven for our wellbeing. We have much to be thankful for, so let’s show our thanks in working to sustain and build up God’s wonderful creation. Amen.
SEPTEMBER 2020: 27-SEP, 20-SEP, 13-SEP, 06-SEP
PREVIOUS MONTHS: AUGUST 2020, JULY 2020, JUNE 2020, MAY 2020, APRIL 2020, MARCH 2020
27 September 2020 – Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
(Sermon by Guest preacher, The Revd Julia Sheffield)
20 September 2020 – Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
Who likes receiving gifts?
Who likes giving gifts?
Which gives you more pleasure?
The phrase God loves a cheerful giver is often used when we are encouraging financial giving, especially in the Church. As Paul reminds the Corinthians whoever sows sparingly will reap in the same manner, and whoever sows generously will reap generously. I am sure God does indeed love a cheerful and generous giver, as there is nothing worse than a gift given grudgingly. One almost feels like saying, if you feel that negative about giving a gift, of money or oneself, then don’t do it!
Giving generously requires us to be openhanded and open hearted. To give generously is to go beyond what is strictly necessary, be that in monetary terms, or of our time or our feelings.
Throughout his ministry Jesus stresses this generosity and is often saddened when those he meets feel unable to meet that request.
Thankfully generosity has been something we have seen a great deal of in recent months as individuals and groups have gone out of their way to help others, with money, food, advice and importantly time and thought for others. Some have equally found this difficult, not necessarily because they don’t want to give, but because of their own circumstances, yet for some there is an unwillingness to give because they see others as undeserving. And perhaps sometimes we do that too with our faith. God doesn’t love and care for those we think God ought to, those who have earned it, but for all. Instead of rejoicing that God loves us all, warts and all, deserving or not, is there sometimes a hint of resentment? After all we are deserving of that love aren’t we?
The Old Testament reading for today is the story of Jonah and his resentment with God. First, he runs away because he does not want to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s wrath, and then when he does go, God changes God’s mind. When the people, led by their king turn away from wrongdoing, God’s response is to forgive, and Jonah is resentful. God’s response is to remind Jonah that God cares for all, and why shouldn’t God have a change of mind, after all God cares for Jonah, so why not the people of Nineveh too? God’s love is generous and wide, not just for those who appear to deserve it, there’s a wideness in God’s mercy.
Yet like Jonah, how often do we blame God, or turn on God in anger when things in our life don’t go the way we want? We need to blame someone, something for our disappointment, and I am sure we have also been on the receiving end of projected anger and hurt from others too. At times like that generosity and compassion are the qualities needed, even if they may be hard to find.
Paul reminds the Philippians to live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, striving together, side by side. He knows it isn’t easy, hence the reminder. In our parable today of the workers in the vineyard we are again reminded about God’s generosity.
The first workers are happy with their wages, but what they resent is the generosity of the owner who pays the same wages to those who have joined at the end of the day. Why do they feel this way? Well it doesn’t seem fair does it, they had worked all day in the hot sun, unlike these late comers. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ asks the owner, and then goes to the heart of the matter, ‘or are you envious because I am generous?” Ah that is the question are you envious because I am generous?’ Are we envious when God is generous?
The owner gives from his heart, he doesn’t hold back, and that is hard for the workers to accept. Yet the message is, that is what God’s kingdom is like. God is full of compassion, slow to anger, of great goodness and rich in love, and that is what we are asked to be as well.
And when we are, then we truly show to the world the good news that Jesus taught. Give freely, generously because God gives to us in that same way, and loves a cheerful and generous giver.
There is a lovely hymn I would have chosen for today if we were singing, as it sums this all up, so instead I will read the chorus as Chris plays it
- He said ‘freely, freely you have received,
- freely, freely give.
- Go in my name, and because you believe
- others will know that I live.’
13 September 2020 – Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Today’s Gospel reading talks about forgiveness, and Jesus tells us to forgive infinitely, as we are forgiven infinitely by our Father in Heaven.
During the sermon, as a congregation we examined each of the following statements and decided which we thought were true of Christian forgiveness and which could not be said to be true.
- 1. Forgiveness is saying I wasn’t really hurt anyway
- 2. Forgiveness is telling someone that it is ok to hurt me
- 3. When I forgive someone we have to be friends again
- 4. Forgiveness is acknowledging the wrong so that it doesn’t affect me into the future
- 5. Forgiving someone is not holding on to the hurt, so that the relationship is not damaged
- 6. Everyone deserves to be forgiven because Jesus asks us to forgive others
- 7. Forgiveness is God at work in people
We understood forgiveness as being a difficult term to unpack and define, because it can look different depending upon circumstance.
Forgiveness is not about pretending something has not happened, or permission giving for ourselves to be abused. It is not about just moving on without dealing with pain and hurt.
Forgiveness can be extremely difficult, particularly in circumstances where deep wrongs have been committed. However, being unable to forgive can be bad for us – just like if we walked around with an irritating stone in our shoe, after a while that stone would cause us to limp – so it is with forgiveness too. If we don’t forgive, and we just hold on to our hurt, it can cause our own lives to be disfigured, because we walk around with our grievances all the time, and thus we’re not free.
The Christian Gospel’s central message is forgiveness – the forgiveness of God is a gift, freely given, to all humankind, and this is what is shown on the cross. We do not necessarily deserve forgiveness from anyone – it’s not a right that can be exerted over others, or over God, but it is God’s gift that we have to give on to others: ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us’.
6 September 2020 – Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
Today’s Gospel is five verses providing the church with a procedure for accepting and rejecting members. (1) Give them a personal warning, (2) have a conversation in the presence of some witnesses, (3) expel them. And this – particularly taken in isolation – will sound all a little unedifying, and really the only lesson it readily lends itself to is of the dangers of quoting odd scripture verses out of context.
So, let’s try and understand it a bit more. And to do this I need some help. First of all, we’ll pick on James, who read today’s gospel, and what we will do is to get him to read what we didn’t hear read to us. And I probably need a few others – any volunteers? Actually, the best placed and most knowledgeable people for this are the kids.
So first, James (as a minister of the church) please make amends (for the church having made this selection of verses) by reading what actually comes before the passage we heard today. And everyone else, don’t just dutifully hear the gospel, but listen with fresh ears to what it says. (Psst! It’s my own version…)
Who is the greatest? Unless you turn around and become like children, you’ll never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Humble yourself until you are like this child.
If you are attuned to this child you are attuned to me. But if you trip them up, well! it would be better to have a millstone strung around your neck and to be drowned in the depths of sea.
Whatever trips you up, get rid of it, no matter how important or inconvenient. Chop your hand off, chop your foot off, pluck your eye out.
If in your eyes you despise those you see as inferior, well watch out! where God is they have angels, and your contempt looks out from their eyes on to God.
Let’s say, someone had a hundred sheep and one got lost …
Actually, not quite so. That’s Luke’s nicey-nicey version, this sheep doesn’t get lost, in Matthew’s version this sheep saw his chance and ran for it.
Let’s say, someone had a hundred sheep and one escaped – purposefully going astray – and though there was a good chance it would never be seen again, the person eventually found it one day. And the joy that is felt … well, it actually comes from meeting with this one that rejected you rather than necessarily from those that obediently stayed put.
And then the story continues with the grievance procedure of (1) give them a personal warning, (2) have a conversation in the presence of some witnesses, (3) expel them.
So, before that grievance procedure, what we are presented with are observations about children and runaway sheep. So: in the light of that, I’ve got some questions for the kids. And they are not even hard. They are not questions to test whether you know things. They are questions to remind us adults of things we may have forgotten.
- What was the last exciting thing you did?
- What’s the best thing for having fun?
- Who do you love?
- What would you like to do that you’ve not done before?
- What would you like to know that you don’t know?
- What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve done?
And how about a few questions for the adults to see how much they know about the kids …
- If you were looking for a new job, which of these children would you go to for help?
- Thinking of something you wish to achieve in your life, which of these children is best placed to help you realise your ambitions?
- Which child is most valuable?
The kids were better with answering their questions, than the adults. And why is this? Well, the adults’ questions were a bit silly – a child can’t normally help us in our careers nor with our ambitions. In most cases, it is rather the child who needs things, who are dependent on adults – on their parents. At the time of Jesus, children had hardly any social or legal status, (parents put your hands over their ears) because in reality many of them didn’t survive. Though in them rested hope for the future – in providing for ageing parents, carrying on the family name – but as children they were seen as completely vulnerable.
But throughout the gospel, greatness is measured by smallness. In this passage children are referred to as “little ones” but this designation is also seen as appropriate to others not so young – to the outsider, to the rebellious, to the “sheep” who has strayed the course: “little ones” or rather “belittled ones.”
That grievance procedure has always been interpreted as a tool for dealing with community troublemakers, … and it could be. There are always many in the church – nationally and locally, now and even among Christ’s first disciples – who through years of service or hours of prayer or self-belief or self-delusion, believe they should be heard louder than others, that their beliefs or what they want or their way of doing things has more weight, that their needs and spirituality come before considerations of others in the church and wider communities. And on one level that’s ok, because the church is not a community of the perfect, and that’s why forgiveness should be the characteristic attitude of the church.
But this grievance procedure: what if it is more directed to the church itself. It is a protection for the “little ones” – for the ones the church “belittles”. In the wider passage, Christ warns his followers not to lead the little ones astray, not in terms of false teaching, but in withholding the love of God to them on the basis of us perceiving some unimportance or bad behaviour or wrong belief. The question that this passage poses is: does the sheep wander off because of the burden or (at least) the fault of the community?
The little one, the marginalised, the troublemaker, may not always be in the right, however no matter how unread, how bad, how heretical they are, no matter how small or insignificant, in the few numbers – even in an isolated two or three, we are told the real presence of Christ is there. For in Christ’s kingdom, not everyone who enters will necessarily live worthily in everyone’s eyes or in the precepts of scripture. Some will be weeds, and some will lack proper wedding garments, some will be runaway sheep who frankly are just bored with flock-mentality, but that is because the church is nothing more than an imperfect group of God’s people yet who all gathered together around Christ.
30 August 2020 – Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
One of our stained glass windows, the Storyteller window, contains figures from the book Alice in Wonderland. Most people know that story, less well known is the second part – Through the Looking Glass and what Alice did There, often shortened to Alice Through the Looking Glass.
In the first story Alice tumbles down a rabbit hole following the White Rabbit, and has many adventures, where little is as it seems. In the second she climbs through a mirror, and finds many of the same characters, but this time everything is reversed, including logic. It is a mirror image, so walking away actually brings you towards something. It takes a real resetting of one’s thinking to work with that, as you will know if you have tried doing something when looking in a mirror.
The topsy turvy world in which we are currently living can feel at times like living in the Alice stories, nothing is quite as we expect. The new ‘normal,’ as it is often referred to, is anything but the normal we have been used to. As James said last week, as we press the reset button we have an opportunity to rethink many aspects in our lives and in the Church.
Yet is this so new? Jesus in his teaching was setting the expected world upside down and back to front.
In our gospel, Peter has just recognised, and declared, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One the Jewish people were expecting. But whilst Jesus’ response was joy that Peter had been able to see this, he then tells the disciples not to say anything; hardly the act of the leader they thought him. He follows that up by telling them that he must die and be resurrected. This is not the expected, and Peter voices that when he says, ‘this must never happen to you.’ But Jesus knows this is how it has to be, this is the right way around, Peter is thinking in a logical, human way, and God’s way is different. The trouble is that we want God to do what we want, when we want, and as I have so often said it is God’s time that is paramount not ours, which is very topsy turvy for most of us, and, if we are honest, hard to accept. We have to trust and put ourselves in God’s hands, and accept that God does indeed know what is the best way.
As Paul so eloquently puts it in his letter to the Corinthians, knowledge will come to an end, for we know only in part, but when the complete comes the partial will come to an end. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. That mirror image which we struggle to see, will become clear and we will understand what Jesus was teaching, faith and hope are important, but it is love that is the way.
In our first reading today we hear that the mark of a true Christian is love. ‘Let love be genuine, hate evil, hold fast to what is good.’ Love one another, be patient in suffering and persevere in prayer. Now I don’t know about you, but those are pretty hefty ideals to live up to, and we won’t always. Our human frailties mean we won’t get it right every time, but when we fall God, in that loving way, is with us urging us to pick ourselves up and try again. Not for earthly gains, because what the world counts as great is fleeting and foolish, and what the world counts as folly is the true wisdom. What we are striving for is faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love. And in love we are often foolish because we are vulnerable. We offer our whole selves, and that love, that trust can be rejected or even abused. Yet without love we do not have true life.
At the end of her adventures through the looking glass Alice concludes ‘life, what is it but a dream?’ Jesus teaches us that life with God is never dull, it is often unexpected, but always worth it, because God knows us, loves us and walks with us, and that is life the right way round. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
23 August 2020 – Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
A few weeks ago I went to see my friend Jim. Jim is the vicar of a group of rural parishes in Lincolnshire and he and his wife and little son live in a lovely village not far from Skegness. It feels very remote there, and because the settlements there are so small, his parish actually includes 17 different villages, nine churches and 21 graveyards. The poor chap certainly has his work cut out. He told me that in many of the churches, there are just a few faithful people who attend and have done for years. Jim loves his job and the parishes know that they are very lucky to have such an energetic and imaginative person as their priest, but he does get frustrated with them. He said to me: “honestly, whenever I dare bring up the subject of God with these people, they say ‘we know you’re only doing your job, vicar, but that’s quite enough religion, thank you very much!” Especially in a church with a great deal of history, and in a church where there’s always something practical to worry about like which bit of the roof to fix next, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of what it’s all about.
As we return to church this morning for the first Sunday morning service we have held in this building in five months, it’s probably not a bad time to think a bit more closely about what it’s all about. In our readings this morning we hear quite a bit about what Church is all about. Jesus first of all says to Peter: ‘You are the rock on which I will build my Church!’. Now, if you’d never read any of the rest of the Bible and just heard Jesus saying those words to Peter, I wonder what you might assume Peter was like? If you only heard Jesus saying: ‘Peter, you are the rock!’ I’d imagine you would think of Peter as being sturdy, steadfast, dependable, strong, reliable. The strange thing is though, if you do read the rest of the Gospel of Matthew, or even if you just read to the end of this chapter, you’ll know that Peter wasn’t very sturdy, reliable or steadfast. In fact, in this very same conversation, on a little while later, Jesus actually calls Peter Satan because he’s gone so dramatically off track – he says ‘get away from me, Satan’! If we read further, we know that Peter is always mistakes, and even denies Jesus three times before the cock crows. So, Jesus is taking something of a risk, to put it mildly, in leaving the Church in the hands of St Peter.
The Catholic church and many Anglicans too, believe in apostolic succession. This doctrine is one that states that the responsibility for continuing the Church has been handed down by an unbroken link from St Peter, through every generation, to the current one. When I was ordained last year, it was quite a powerful and humbling thought that those people who had laid hands on my head to ordain me, would have been ordained themselves by others and so-on back in history with an unbroken chain, right back to the early church. Whether or not that’s historically accurate or not, I don’t know, but it’s certainly true that each generation is handed responsibility for keeping the faith, by the one before it. A former Archbishop of Canterbury warned only a couple of years ago that the Church is only one generation away from extinction. Well, that’s very true, but of course, it’s always only one generation away from extinction, and always has been. Jesus didn’t expect Peter to be perfect and Jesus doesn’t expect those who follow him now, those who have responsibility in his Church, to be perfect either. And by this, I’m talking just about priests and bishops, I’m talking about everybody here today and everybody not here today too. The responsibility of faith is shared among us all. That doesn’t mean we all need to be good preachers or intercessors, or whatever. In fact we hear from St Paul today that everyone has a different role to play in the Church and there’s no one role that is more important than another. In fact, if anything, the role of the servant, the person who quietly does things to help others behind the scenes, is the most important.
St Paul has an instruction for us as the Church today: do not conform to this world. Instead, present your bodies and be prepared to be changed, to be someone different. This language reminds a little of being in army. I probably wouldn’t have made a very good recruit to the British Army, as I wear glasses, I can’t shoot straight, I jump a mile in the air when there’s a loud noise, and I’ve got a slightly cheeky non-conformist streak which probably wouldn’t have endeared me to the Sergeant Major. But, I think, if you join an army, you’re required to present yourself, and be prepared to be changed and moulded into something different to what you might have been individually. Now, of course, I’m not saying that we should start being all militaristic, or that this means we shouldn’t be free thinkers, or that we should be brainwashed. Not at all! But what I mean, is that, being part of the Church should mean that we are prepared to let go of ourselves a bit. Let go of our love of the world a bit. And not be afraid, actually, to be known for being a bit different. Non-conformity in any culture is hard, but the good news is that we’re in great company. Because few people ever make a mark on the world for the better, merely just by following the crowd.
All this talk of the army reminds me that this week we celebrated the lives of William and Catherine Booth, who founded the Salvation Army in Victorian England. William Booth grew up as pawnbroker and through this he witnessed the terrible poverty of industrial Britain in the nineteenth century. He was determined to build a church which addressed the actual needs of the people he saw, so he left his job and, with his wife, they started up a mission in Whitechapel, which started just in a tent. That mission became the Salvation Army in 1878 and by the time William Booth died in 1912, it had expanded to 58 nations around the world, and is of course still going today and our good friend Kit is one of those who have indeed presented their bodies, in the words of St Paul, for service – to the poor and needy, working in some of Britain’s most deprived communities; helping homeless people; working with those who mental health struggles and all kinds of other good works. Salvationists might seem strange nowadays, with their uniforms, brass bands and ladies in skirts and caps playing tambourines, but I must admit to having very great respect for their understanding of what Church is, even though I don’t agree with everything they stand for. Salvationists do not take communion, because they believe that every act of service to others is a sacrament. That’s certainly a powerful thought. What’s more is that they do not care, and have never cared, whether others dismiss them as being different. What they do seem to care about very much, is how they honour God.
I don’t want you to all go off and join the Salvation Army though. Please don’t do that. What it might be worth remembering though, is that we in the Church of England, despite our slightly genteel image, we also have a huge capacity to think outside the box when it comes to understanding what Church is about: what it means to present our bodies for service. And it’s something we need to constantly be thinking about as individuals and here at St Edmund’s too. How are we going to be the rock that Jesus wants us to be? How are we going to present our bodies for service, whoever we are? What are we going to leave behind? How will we be transformed?
16 August 2020 – Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Some years back, a priest in the Episcopal Church of Scotland stood in his pulpit and quoted to his congregation the number of children that approximately die each year around the world of malnutrition, and from that he worked out how many on average die each minute each day. He looked out on the people gathered in his church, and pronounced that this was ‘damn well’ unacceptable. Except ‘damn well’ wasn’t exactly his choice of words; the intensifier he chose was just one word beginning with an “f”. He paused again and looked out at their shocked reaction, and then quietly posed the question of what had shocked them more: the statistic or his language.
A similar sermon could have been preached this week. Three months ago, everyone was doing everything they could, to help one another, with no cares for religion, class or background. This week we have seen people – men, women and children – in a state of acute desperation, risking their lives crossing the Channel in rubber dinghies, believing that Britain is a place of hope. And yet that empathy we saw back at the beginning of this pandemic now seems in short supply. These boatloads of fragile humanity are seen only as invaders, and – rather than prioritising saving lives – many seem more intent on punishing refugees and migrants, denying them the safety and security that we here take for granted in our everyday living. (Perhaps sermons should be peppered more frequently with profanities, if that makes us sit up and question.)
Now, our hymn today (at the start of our worship) comes from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, an advocate for the abolition of slavery. In it, he encourages us to translate our worship into care and concern for our fellow human beings. Today’s gospel informs us that it is the thoughts of our hearts, expressed in our words, and demonstrated in our actions, that can defile us as people. The words we use can open up a window on the biases, prejudices, and stereotypes we carry around inside of us.
It is therefore quite strange that this passage then quickly moves on to relate a story, in which Jesus’s use of the word “dog” to describe the child of a desperate foreign mother should make us feel somewhat uneasy. Despite, reassurances from preachers that its use was playful or humorous, it is difficult to hide from the fact that Jesus hardly had the soppy image of Ulises – my bundle of mischievous and fun-loving puppy-ness – in mind when this word (still used in the Middle East today as an ethnic slur) slipped out. It should shock us … and perhaps even cause us to interject with a profanity or two.
Admittedly, it is a difficult one, but despite the awkwardness of it, in a strange way it does (kind of) fit in with what the earlier part of the gospel is saying, by making Jesus himself a parable highlighting what the issue is.
Returning to the beginning of the passage, it starts with Jesus’s rather indelicate observation that surely whether food – that our bodies will ultimately poo out – is clean or unclean is hardly a particular worry for the Almighty. And as a consequence, despite his traditional Jewish upbringing, he effectively cancels out the whole of the Jewish kosher system and the dietary laws that defined what (and by extension, who) was and wasn’t fit and proper. Though committed to the traditional and familiar Jewish rites from his upbringing at home and in synagogue, he promptly discards them when they prevented practical human helpfulness.
In this first part of the passage, Jesus is addressing his native countryfolk, his fellow Jews, those who had supposedly signed up to these rules, to God’s covenant, but who were having difficulty in keeping it or preferring not to. He looks out on those about him, seen by others as careless and wicked people, and – instead of keeping them apart or easing and encouraging them back into the fold – with a lack of respect for moral standards, he just breaks down the barriers that create this separation.
This acceptance just as they are, of Jewish outcasts, of those who we feel should be like us but aren’t, later paves the way for the embrace of non-Jewish gentiles, as the gospel spreads out across a world of different cultures and beliefs. However, in the story of him meeting the Canaanite woman, (with little grace and much disparagement) Jesus seemingly forgets all he had taught just previously. And yet the tables are turned, as this woman – this outsider – demonstrates faith that surprises and challenges this Jewish Messiah. And this encounter sends him back into the Galilee, continuing to freely extend and offer the grace of God to all: no matter how weak, disappointing, degenerate, or sinful, in our eyes and to the eyes of others. This: no matter how different, even to those who do not share our background or worldview or moral compass.
And this is what we should take from this gospel. Salvation is of God not of us. We are not called to make everyone to be like us. As Tom Wright (the former Bishop of Durham) recently put it, “The church is not … simply a loose association of people who have all had similar spiritual experiences and so get together from time to time to encourage one another as they escape the world and look forward to going off somewhere else.” The church rather is called to be united in all its differences, and with “radical mutual welcome” become the sign to the watching world of a new creation, where rather than the blessed being separated and wondering off to a new Jerusalem, instead that new Jerusalem comes here on earth where God will dwell with all – diverse but united – across all traditional boundary lines we have drawn.
9 August 2020 – Ninth Sunday after Trinity
My dad used to love sailing. He got into it as a child because he was sent away to boarding school in Woodbridge in Suffolk and hated it, but he found solace in sailing with the Sea Scouts on the River Deben. He went on to build his own boats in our back garden, apparently even one in the living room before I was born, though goodness knows how he got it out once he’d finished it. As with most hobbies enjoyed by one’s parents, neither my brother nor I really got into it. He sailed his dinghies on the sea at Great Yarmouth and I went with him only a few times. One of the only times I can remember was when we went out on the sea in one of his friends’ boats.
All the boats were tiny – they weren’t yachts, they had no cabin and no keel, so if there was a wave, it was likely that you’d be tipped up into the sea. The name of the boat was a Wayfarer, a reasonably big boat for a dinghy. And my dad’s friend, who I’d not met before, was totally blind. It was a calm summer’s evening when I guess I must’ve been about twelve years old, and the three of us set off from the beach, running the boat into the water on the landing trolley, before jumping in from the shallows and setting off into the murky waters of the North Sea. Not long after we set off and got into the open water, the weather changed – it was still wonderfully sunny but there were strong winds. I was an inexperienced sailor and I found myself panicking as the boat rocked too and fro, with my dad and his friend loosening off the sails to try to keep the boat from capsizing. All the time, my dad’s friend was completely calm and in control, despite being completely blind, in a gale, on the North Sea, in a boat that could not have been more than 20 feet long. If I had been older I suppose I would’ve enquired of him once we were safely back on dry land, ‘what kept you so calm?’ After all, if we had capsized, it might have been pretty hard for us to have rescued him. Sadly, I didn’t have the courage to ask.
Nazareth is a reasonable way away from the sea. Although trip adviser says you can apparently now get there in 45 mins using the 431 bus, this option was not open to Jesus and I wonder when the first time was that he ever went in a boat. Maybe it is only when he first meets those of the disciples that are fishermen, that he is introduced to life afloat. Yet he seems pretty comfortable with the water – in addition to the reading we hear today, there is of course another account in Mark, where he falls asleep in the bottom of the boat, and is a bit grumpy when the disciples wake him up due to the storm. Anyhow, in today’s reading, Jesus actually stays on the side of the sea of Galilee, and tells the disciples to go over to the other side in the boat, whilst he finished up with the crowd and then went for a bit of alone time up the mountain. The passage doesn’t divulge how they all planned to meet up later – maybe they intended to come back for him, maybe he was going to walk round, although it’s a long way, or maybe he always intended to skate across the top of the water.
Anyway, the disciples head off in the boat. We can have a pretty good idea of what that boat looked like, because in 1986 during a drought, the remains of a first century fishing boat were actually discovered on the sea bed at Galilee, and it has been exhumed. It’s a small, shallow boat, about the same size in fact as that dinghy my dad and his friend took me out on that day. If it had all the twelve disciples in, it would’ve been very weighed down indeed. No wonder they got pretty scared when the storm started up! They were in a real mess, the storm was raging and they were a long way from land. I wonder whether not a few of them were thinking ‘if only we hadn’t decided to follow this Jesus character, we’d have been fine!’ Matthew, whose Gospel retells the story for us today, was probably wishing he’d just stayed being a tax collector Even the disciples who were the fisherman, so that’s Andrew, Peter, James and John, were maybe thinking, “if there were only the four of us, we could weather this storm no problem!” And just at that moment, they see what they think is a ghost on the water.
Maybe they think the ghost is an omen of their death, come to take them to a watery grave. The gospel records, they cry out in fear! But then Jesus speaks: “take heart, it is I! Don’t be afraid”. Note that the disciples don’t then all breathe a massive sigh of relief and go, “oh thank the Lord, it’s Jesus come to save us!” No, not at all. In fact they don’t seem to believe Jesus at all to start with, because even Peter is quite conditional in what he says. Peter says: “If it is you, Lord, command me to walk on the water”. He doesn’t believe that it’s Jesus – he’s looking for a sign.
But of-course then Jesus says: “ok then, walk on the water Peter – be my guest”. So Peter does, and everything goes ok for a while, he’s doing his own first century version of the jet ski or whatever, probably feeling pretty elated at the beginning. But then self-doubt starts creeping in, and he starts sinking. And he just can’t get rid of the self-doubt, it cripples him and it overcomes him, and he shouts out: “Jesus, save me!”, and of course at that moment, Jesus immediately does save him. The waters go calm. Everyone is ok. It’s like waking up from a terrible dream. And they all say to Jesus: “wow, you truly are the Son of God”.
So what’s the message here? Well, once Larkswood Pool is open again, I wouldn’t advise anyone to try physically walking on water. And likewise, I would fundamentally disagree with those Christians who use this passage and others similar to argue that the power of faith is what makes us physically better or stronger people, is what heals us, because then what would I say to the one who isn’t healed? “Oh, my brother, I’m sorry, you just didn’t have enough faith to get better?” No, belief in one’s own abilities isn’t really what this passage is about at all. What I think it speaks to is the nature of truth and of faith.
There are many people who argue that everything humans think about God is just our own opinion – there’s no way of knowing for sure whether Christianity has got it right or not. Sometimes it is tempting to start thinking that way ourselves. After all, we live amongst people of many faiths and none. However, with respect, I would gently suggest to you all that I don’t think, from a Christian viewpoint, we can say it is right to believe that everything we think we know about God is just our opinion. The whole point of the Gospel is that we do deal in truth, not just opinion. We believe that God is ultimate truth, a truth that cannot be changed, and that Jesus is the incarnation of that truth – Jesus is God’s way of making that truth known to us on earth. In this passage, we see that Jesus shows himself to be really God, to the disciples in the boat.
The problem is that, in daily life, in a country which has largely abandoned the idea of anything objective, in a place where worshipping a God who reveals himself to be true, seems to be laughable to many people, keeping the faith is hard. Just like Peter, it feels like we’re out of the boat, and in the water most of the time. It can feel like that as society, we’re flailing around in a sea of doubt. And it can feel like that as an individual too – sometimes, when we get out of the boat, or get pushed out by something in our lives, we get to a place where we’re really struggling to keep afloat, to keep our head above water. Sometimes we get to a place in our lives where things feel too much; where faith seems impossible; where the very idea of God or some deeper truth is just so distant from us that it seems either impossible to grasp hold of, or it just seems ridiculous.
The strange thing is that these times aren’t always the times when earthly things are going badly. Some of the times when I’ve felt furthest from God in my life have actually been the times when I’ve been riding high – where I’m doing ok – where I think I’m in control of my own destiny and there’s nothing gonna stop me now from whatever the next achievement is going to be. On the outside, people can look really successful in earthly ways, but maybe, in the words of Stevie Smith, they’re not waving but drowning.
If Peter had just carried on trying to walk on the water, despite his lack of faith, and had become further and further engulfed by the waves, but hadn’t cried out for help to Jesus, do you think that Jesus would still have saved him from drowning? Well, I’d have thought so. But there is a key sentence included here that says “Peter cried out: Lord save me!” I’m pretty sure this isn’t just added in for dramatic effect. Peter’s simple cry is a prayer to Jesus, and it’s one that we shouldn’t be too proud to pray ourselves, frequently. Because being saved isn’t a one-off thing where we can say to others ‘I’m saved, I’m alright Jack!’ It’s not a quick dunk in a pool and a party afterwards. Rather, it’s a lifelong journey across a sea of often choppy waters. It’s a slow journey of realisation of what we can understand of the nature of truth. As St Paul says, ‘now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face’. Sometimes we fall in the water. But the good news is that with Jesus, we can get back in the boat. And its at those times, when the waters engulf us, when the troubles of this world feel like they are drowning our spirit, our soul, its at those times when we do have that chance to grow spiritually, and to come closer to God.
2 August 2020 – Eighth Sunday after Trinity
Feeding the 5000
When she was a child, my youngest niece would preface many of her requests as I need, whatever it was. No, we said, you want, which is different to what you need. It was partly her learning the language, but also a clever way of expressing her wishes, they were necessary and thus important!
Wants can be persuasive! Comfort eating, yes I expect many of us have been doing this in recent months, or, perhaps, in the past, shopping as retail therapy, as examples of need over want. I need that chocolate, no I don’t, I want it because I am bored, fed up, you fill in the gap. Do I need that new item of clothing, or do I want it?
In most cases it is the latter; and then has that food or that purchase actually made you feel less bored, fed up or generally happier? Often not, chocolate just sets up a further sugar craving, and how often have you spent time and money on things that have actually felt good at the time, but afterwards you felt were not worth the time, effort or money?
Or perhaps you have watched someone you care for making those same mistakes, and longed to say, it’s not worth it. And because we love them, we want to pick up the pieces without saying. I told you so!
Separating wants and needs is part of recognising what is important – what gives us real satisfaction, what really feeds us. Perhaps one of the positives of this most unusual and challenging of years has been separating wants and needs. One statistic says that in recent months people are now putting more money into savings than for a many a year, not just because they have not had the opportunity to go out and spend, after all you can do most shopping on line, but because they have realised that much of what they thought was important, was not. The need has been for relationships, contact with others, and an understanding of one another’s hopes and fears.
Need is much deeper than want, a true need is something essential to our wellbeing; we need water for life, we need food to sustain us, we need a roof over our head for warmth and shelter, and we need human contact and relationships. These needs sustain our physical and to a certain extent our mental wellbeing.
Yet for our deeper physical and mental wellbeing, we also need spiritual wellbeing. We need to know that we are valued, that we are loved for who we are, not what we are. And for that there is hopefully friends and families, but also our relationship with God. God loves us, and longs for us to spend not just our money, but our time and love on things which are life giving. God wants us to be aware of our need for God’s love and power in our lives, and to come to God for that, because God’s love is always there and freely given to us, although there was a cost; the life of God’s Son lovingly given for us.
In our gospel the people from the surrounding towns and villages have travelled to find Jesus because they sensed he had something to say which they needed to hear. They knew their need of him and Jesus didn’t let them down. He was actually trying to be alone, to process the news that he had heard of the death of John the Baptist. Yet Jesus’ compassion reaches out to others at a time, even as he himself needs refreshment and comfort. Remember those in need never ask at a good time! Those in need always ask for more than we feel we have to give. Yet Jesus only asks us to use what we have, he will take care of the rest.
With the loaves and fishes he takes what is to hand, and it feeds 5000. Jesus uses what is around and it’s use outstrips our expectations. And when we allow Jesus to work in and through us, what we have to offer can be far more than we ever realised we had to offer.
Each of us is needy at some point, and each of us has the potential to reach out to others in need, and with God’s help to fulfil both our own needs and the needs of those we meet. We may not always feel that we have helped others, we may even feel rejected at times when we do reach out, but who knows what seeds have been sown. It is often the smallest action or word that can have the biggest impact. In our gospel it is a young boy with a small offering, but that offering feeds thousands.
And don’t forget to take care of yourself, we all need rest and time to process things; Jesus was by himself in a deserted place looking for inner peace, when the crowds descended on him. His compassion meant that he did not send them away until he had fed them – physically and spiritually, and then he took time for himself. In the verses that follow our gospel we are told that after feeding the crowd he immediately made the disciples get into the boat, dismissed the crowds, and went up by himself to pray, to meet his own need for spiritual replenishment.
It is an important point Jesus makes many times, that if we are to serve God in our service to others, we need to ensure that we too take care of our spiritual wellbeing with prayer and space. Sometimes ‘me time’ is not selfish but essential, so that we can return sustained and fed, ready to serve God in whatever way we are called to do. That time for spiritual nourishment is a true need, not just a want, so please do take the time to feed that need. Amen.
JULY 2020: 26-JUL, 19-JUL, 12-JUL, 05-JUL
PREVIOUS MONTHS: JUNE 2020, MAY 2020, APRIL 2020, MARCH 2020
26 July 2020 – Seventh Sunday after Trinity
The Weird Parables of Everyday Life
There is nothing like a good story. But then, when it comes to the parables of Jesus, actually most of them are nothing like a good story. There are loads of them. Apart from in the Gospel of John, Jesus seems to use them all the time. In Matthew’s gospel (which we are following this year) there are 24 of them, and that doesn’t include many of the big hitters, such as the Good Samaritan, Dives and Lazarus, and the Pharisee and the Publican, which number among 12 only recorded in Luke’s gospel.
Last week we had the Parable of the Tares (the Weeds), and the week before that the Parable of the Sower. And well-known as these two are, they aren’t your typical parable. There’s a lot of teaching and unpackaging that comes with them, and they end up more as allegories. But it is today’s gospel that provides us with a number of Jesus’s parables in perhaps their purest form.
A parable is little more than making a comparison, one of those moments when the thought in your head slips out with an “ohhh! do you know what? see that mustard plant over there, well that’s the kingdom of heaven, that is”. And really, they are little more than that. The details of a parable are by and large merely incidental, simply there just to add a bit of colour. And if the comparison does not really strike a chord with the audience, it often runs the risk of sounding merely like a random throw-away weird comment, and achieves little insight for many (as the gospels admit did happen from time to time).
I’m not sure if people remember Newman and Baddiel’s comedy sketches from the 1990s: ‘History Today’. In these, two elderly professors would trade schoolboy insults during an academic discussion show. For example, Rob Newman – playing Professor F.J. Lewis, Emeritus Professor of History at All Souls College Oxford (always the first to start the insults) – would say to his colleague, “Cliff erosion poses a great threat to many of our archaeological sites, with some shorelines receding at up to four inches a year…” and then turning to his colleague, he draws the comparison, “That’s how fast you run, that is. That’s you on sports day.” The comparison drives home the point being made, or rather (in these sketches) the insult being hurled.
Now, I don’t think Jesus used parables for comedic effect nor necessarily to insult his hearers … but who knows. The comparisons he makes, however, are not always obvious nor necessarily flattering. Much of the nuance is lost on us, as two thousand years separate us from the original context and setting of the gospels. For us, mustard provides a fabulous kick to elevate cheese-on-toast to the next level. But back then, mustard was a particularly invasive weed. For us, there’s not much that can top freshly-baked bread all warm and crusty with butter. Back then, if you wanted good bread, it had to be unleavened, and our communion bread still is – because (of course) yeast is a fungus, hence why it infests the whole of the flour.
So perhaps to hear these parables how Jesus’s first listeners may have heard them, we could slightly tweak them. So instead of the Parables of the grain of mustard-seed, of the leaven, of the treasure hid in the field, of the pearl of price, and of the net cast into the sea: we might have these.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like bindweed, that started to grow in a field, and though weak stemmed, its root is strong and at the end of the season the field was nothing but bindweed.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like mould that sprang up in the corner of a house, and when it spored it became toxic to all who lived there.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like an item mispriced in a shop, the error of which was noticed by a shopper, but who kept mum and put back all their gorceries, in order to obtain the unintentional bargain.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a designer dress, which someone saw, and went and sold everything they had and stole their children’s inheritance in order to buy the dress.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like parents who wanted a child, and so they created a family and selected the prettiest and evicted the rest.
(Hmm! And you may think all those just sound wrong, and misrepresent Jesus, but ask yourself how ethical is it to secretly bury someone else’s treasure in a cheap field and then buy the field to legally purloin the treasure you have hidden there. But then parables are there to pull us up, to shock, to make us think.)
However, in these slightly awkward parables of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven and its potential, lies everywhere – not just in the good and pious things in life, but in its very earthy, muddy, muckiness. All around us, there are suggestions and inklings of it, if only we open our eyes and see. The Kingdom of Heaven does not require the wisdom of Solomon to unpackage it; the Kingdom of Heaven simply requires us to see what lies in front of our face.
Power and strength and success and a flurry of heavenly trumpets will not always be the way that the Kingdom comes. For the Kingdom is very much like its Messiah – not a warrior king, fêted by all, with wealth and power and influence, but rather a peasant child of dubious parentage, who tramps through the world, embracing the rejected and rejected by the powerful, where success lies in the apparent failure of his death on a gibbet.
God’s Kingdom sneaks in from small and inauspicious beginnings, often spreading in somewhat socially unacceptable ways, and in spite of every failure and opposition, from hopeless beginnings God brings forth his Kingdom of Love and Justice. That Love and Justice for which we would do anything to achieve.
This week as you walk pass the shops, or as you look out of your window, or as you view your telly box, see the potential of viewing the Kingdom in the most unexpected, dare yourself to be challenged, and to steer away from what is comfortable, easy and trite. Don’t assume that the Kingdom has to be big and large and loud and brash and successful and Hallelujah-ish. Be open to surprise yourself by hints and possibilities of the Kingdom birthing and growing all around, in the least obvious things, and – without fear of embarrassment or the need to explain – find yourselves thinking aloud, “ohhh! of course: that thingamy-whatsit over there, strangely … that’s the Kingdom of God, that is!”
19 July 2020 – Sixth Sunday after Trinity
I don’t know whether it’s the time of year or what, but this is the second sermon in a row you will have heard on Zoom that includes a lot of gardening metaphors. In my defence it’s difficult to avoid them this week, because the passage we heard today was that of the sower who sows his good seed in a field, but that field also ultimately contains weeds. The good seed and the weeds grow together until it is time for the harvest. This could be said for many a garden, not least mine, where weeds and flowers seem to grow simultaneously, and often I’m not sure which is which.
The reason this the second week we have gardening metaphors, is because it’s the second week we’ve been looking at Matthew 13, which has a lot about the sower. Last week we heard that the sower sows on kinds of ground – rocky, thorny, on the path, some to get eaten by birds or, if he’d been sowing in Chingford, eaten by slugs, for they truly are the work of the devil in my garden. And this week we hear that the gardener is once again perhaps a little too generous in how he initially tends the plants. He doesn’t dig up the weeds, but only deals with them at the end.
Jesus is not known for willingly giving explanations for the parables he tells. As I’m sure you know, his normal modus operandi is to tell people a parable and leave them guessing as to what it means. Often, he gets a tad peeved when they just don’t get it. But here, there is an explanation given – the bad seed are the children of the evil one, to be thrown in the fiery furnace by the angels at the end of time.
There’s a type of sermon in the church that is known as ‘turn or burn’. That type of sermon is the kind you hear preached by people wearing placards at Hyde Park Corner. It was the favourite of the fiery protestant preachers of days of yore, and hasn’t quite gone out of fashion yet. It focusses on the need to turn to God and away from sin, or suffer the consequences in the long run. “Repent: the kingdom of God is at hand!” the preacher cries, and it depends quite a bit on the setting that preacher is in as to what people’s response might be. There is a temptation amongst some to laugh at these people preaching fire and damnation – they seem like extremists, and to be honest I would not feel comfortable giving you a message of ‘turn or burn’ today, or indeed any day, and I expect lots of other preachers would shy away from doing the same.
The reasons I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that are twofold. Firstly, the idea of Hell as a fiery furnace of never-ending torture is one that is often viewed today as being of another age. It simply doesn’t fit with what we understand God to be – loving and forgiving. Telling people that they will be tortured eternally if they don’t believe in our God seems frankly like a threat – and nobody truly comes to faith by being threatened. But, if we believe in heaven, it seems strange not to believe in hell in some form. It’s an act of denial to pick and choose the nice bits about Christianity and ignore the bits we find a bit uncomfortable, although, don’t worry, we all do that – it’s human nature. What is hell, then, if not a place of fiery damnation?
Maybe all that we can say about hell, is that it is a place ultimately without God. On earth, there is great suffering. I don’t know if anyone saw the terrible pictures this week of Uighur Muslims being rounded up in China, and put on trains, to be sent to camps. If you did, I guess like me, it might have reminded you of a time when similar hellish things were happening closer to home, in the concentration camps of Europe in the twentieth century. Humans are capable of terrible atrocities. But as much as God can seem distant to the many who suffer on earth, we believe as Christians that God walks alongside everyone on earth, and we are all ultimately loved. Maybe hell would be, to no longer be loved in that way.
But before I make you all depressed on this subject, let’s not forget that we also hear in the Bible that Jesus’s death conquers the powers of hell. Death has lost its sting, we hear. Evil does not win the day. Ultimately, love wins. Forgiveness wins – and the perfect forgiveness of God wins perfectly. So, maybe there is a place called hell, but there’s nobody in it. If there’s nobody in hell, that means that all the people that we categorise as evil in the world don’t go there. And in a way, that idea of hell is as disturbing to us all as any other, because frankly we quite like the idea that the Adolf Hitlers of this world will get their come-uppance after death. That people we find abhorrent, could ever be forgiven, even for the grossest crimes in the history of the world. That is a deeply challenging problem, one that I struggle with.
But the problem is what leads me on to my other point. I told that there are two reasons I’m not comfortable with the ‘turn or burn’ message, and this is the second. It’s just hypocritical to tell other people that if they don’t repent of their sins, they’re going to hell. Because that implies that we’re alright, we’re doing our thing in church, we’re ok with God and it’s all you lot down there who are the evil ones. This categorisation of people into wholly good and wholly evil is unhelpful. But more than that, it’s also heretical, because there’s nobody on earth who is without sin. We can’t really help it. We say our confession in our service and we’re forgiven, and then basically go back to our old ways again. The old prayer book doesn’t have the confession at the start of the service, but rather, just before communion. I think the idea was that you didn’t get a chance to sin again before you received communion!
So if we look at the parable that Jesus gives us of the sower who has a field of wheat and weeds, I think it’s probably not a good idea to see each sheave of wheat as representing a follower of God, and each weed as some miserable person who is full of sin and rejects God. Surely it chimes more with the rest of the message of Christianity, to see each one of us as the whole field, because everyone is a mix of good and bad. We are all a field of good crop, sown by God. But within that, inevitably, are the bad weeds. And if we’re not careful, the bad weeds choke out the good seed in ourselves. If we see the metaphor this way, then God’s angels are not performing a task of judgement on humanity by bundling up all the bad weeds and casting them into the fire, but actually an act of mercy on us all. Bundling up the bad in us, casting it out, leaving only the good. That is what forgiveness is. That is what the cross is.
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.
JUNE 2020: 28-JUN, 21-JUN, 14-JUN, 07-JUN
PREVIOUS MONTHS: MAY 2020, APRIL 2020, MARCH 2020
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)
MAY 2020: 31-MAY, 24-MAY, 21-MAY, 17-MAY, 10-MAY, 03-MAY
PREVIOUS MONTHS: APRIL 2020, MARCH 2020
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.
APRIL 2020: 26-APR, 19-APR, 12-APR, 05-APR
PREVIOUS MONTH: MARCH 2020
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.
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.
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