Monday, 15 October 2018

A sermon preached last Sunday . . .

. . . at Marton and Trelystan:

Last week scientists warned the world’s nations that we need to act now to reduce our use of the world’s resources. If we don’t the predicted rise in the world’s average temperature will be more than we can sustain. The week before that, the BBC showed a highly disturbing film about plastic clogging rivers and estuaries; soon it will be followed by a “Blue Planet Live” programme one focus of which will be the way the plastic we throw away is polluting our seas. But can we live without plastic? We seem to have forgotten how to, while governments either don’t dare or don’t care to do enough. And some governments, those of the USA and Australia to name two, seem to be blatantly stopping their ears to what most scientists are saying. They’d rather believe their own chosen false prophets instead.

It’s tragic; we own so much, we have so much power, but the things we possess end up controlling us, and the planet suffers and our future is at risk. This is how Jesus put it: “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” His disciples would have been surprised and shocked to hear that. They would have believed - as most people did in those days - that to be rich was a sign of God’s blessing. A rich man who kept the law and attended synagogue and made the right sacrifices at the temple was just about as close to perfect in God’s sight as you could get.

So in astonishment the disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” Ten days ago the Church celebrated Francis of Assisi. Francis was brought up in a very comfortable and well-to-do home, and he was heir to his father’s very successful business. He had dreams of being a knight, a man of chivalry. But then his life changed; and he began to take seriously those words of Jesus about selling your possessions, giving to the poor, and following him. He seemed to hear God calling him in a special way. So he gave up his rich and privileged lifestyle, to serve sister poverty instead. He determined to spend his life on the open road as a little brother to anyone in need, in imitation of his Lord. And as his life drew to a close he received the stigmata, the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, a tangible symbol of his devotion to Christ.

Even Francis, though, knew his attempt at a good life to be a pale reflection of that of his Lord. Other people might praise him, but he knew himself to be a sinner and unworthy, despite it all. He’d made himself poor, but even the most humble possession could still get in the way of his service of his Lord. And if even a famous saint like Francis was really still a sinner, what chance for the rest of us?

The answer Jesus gave to his stunned disciples was this: “No chance at all.” No chance at all if you mean to trust to your own efforts, if you want to make it on your own. We can try to be good, we can aim to be like Jesus, but we can never match the example he sets us of love and humility and service.

But while Jesus said to his disciples, “For mortals it is impossible” he went on to say, “But all things are possible for God.” God makes the impossible possible. We call this grace, which is a short way of saying “the saving, healing and forgiving and totally undeserved love of God.” God meets us in our weakness, our uncertainty, our failure and our sin, and he welcomes us as though we were strong and pure and clean. God accepts the unworthy offerings we bring, and he counts them as worthy.

It’s like when I’m visiting a foreign country. Like most British people, I’m no good at foreign languages; but myself, I’ll always want to have a go. And what I find is that though my attempt at French or German or Spanish may be mangled and messy and hard to follow, the French or German or Spanish person to whom I’m speaking (or trying to speak) is often really pleased that I’ve at least made the effort. Often their English puts to shame my attempt to speak their language, but they’re still glad I’ve tried. People I've tried to speak to have respected the fact that I’ve made the effort; they’ve met me in my messiness and incompleteness. Though they’ll probably have had a bit of a laugh as well.

Now, you see, I think that’s how God relates to us. We don’t get everything right, but if we're trying to do our best he rejoices in that, and meets us in the attempt we make. We may sometimes go badly wrong and really let him down; but even then, if we wake up to what we’ve done or failed to do and if we’re sorry and turn back to him, he’s gracious and ready to forgive. We can make ourselves quite unlovable, yet still God loves us, like the father of the prodigal son in the story who spent every day watching from the rooftop. The cross in our church and the cross marked on us at our baptism is our sign of a love that is forever, a love which is for all.

But we make smaller gods for ourselves, and they take us over. Things like money, power, popularity, position and status that trap us and turn our hearts and tie us to the earth. Money isn’t itself wrong, and Jesus never said it was, even when he talked about the camel and the eye of the needle. Nor does the Bible say that money is the root of all evil; what St Paul wrote to Timothy was that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” That’s what happens when we get our focus wrong. Things we own can be dangerous; if we don’t watch out, they trap us and take us over. And the more things we own, the more chances we have to get trapped. The easier our lives, the less likely we are to think we have any need of God. Debbie said something similar in her harvest sermon the other day. Graham Norton was quoted recently as wondering why it is that people who are far too rich to ever need to think about where their next penny is coming from spend so much time and effort avoiding paying taxes when, as he put it, that should be their privilege and their duty.

Disciples of Jesus know that worldly things, like money and power and possessions, are both danger and opportunity. They’re a mortal danger if we let them take the place of God. But if we really are seeking God’s kingdom before anything else, our possessions become something to use in God’s name - to change lives, to help our neighbour. But only if we’re ready to see as our Lord sees; for those who seek the kingdom of God, all that we are and have and own is his.

Friday, 12 October 2018

I didn't post last Sunday's sermon . . .

. . . so here it is (preached at Leighton and Chirbury):

Those who study the gospels sometimes debate whether a particular event or saying is completely authentic, or has perhaps been added by the gospel writer or even by a later hand. This is because the gospels as we have them were not written down as it all happened, but much later. The four gospels we have differ from each other in style, and sometimes in content too. All of them though were based on, perhaps some earlier written records, but certainly also oral records - stories and teachings passed on by word of mouth.

When these sorts of academic debates take place, one rule of thumb often applied is that the more difficult teachings are more likely to be genuine. That means something hard to understand - because if something’s hard to understand, it’s more likely to be changed to make it easier to understand than the other way round. And also things that are hard to take, the tough sayings, because surely the natural instinct might be to soften them.

If that rule of thumb works - and of course the professors argue about that too - but if it does, then the teaching in today’s gospel is very likely to be straight from the mouth of our Lord. It’s tough and uncompromising, and quite possibly hard to take.

Over the years the Church has interpreted these words of Jesus as allowing and encouraging it to take a very firm and hard view of marriage, as indissoluble; so that those who had had a marriage end in divorce, or even, like my aunt, having been widowed and having then met and married a man whose own previous marriage had ended in divorce, were (a) told that they could not marry in church, and (b) in my aunt’s case, might well be told that they could no longer receive communion in church. As a good Catholic, my aunt, who died two years ago at the age of 99, for many years attended church regularly which for her meant daily, and always had to remain in her seat when others went forward to receive communion. Until her second husband died, when as a respectable widow she was allowed back into full communion.

While I have nothing but praise for my aunt’s faith and obedience, I can’t find it in me to praise or even sympathize with the Church. The Church had got it wrong. The Church was, I consider, being quite un-Christlike. And indeed the Church was, and often still is, misunderstanding the reason why Jesus gave this hard teaching on marriage (and indeed on other things too).

Jesus loved sinners. In fact it would seem that a lot of the time he got on much better with sinners than he did with good and holy people. Now that’s not to say that he didn’t take sin seriously. He took it very seriously indeed. Sin is fatal; sin, to be clear, will be the death of you. And me.

But Jesus also took forgiveness seriously; and grace, which is love without strings, loved offered to us without our needing to merit it. That’s what he preached to the sinners, and they listened and responded. That’s what he wanted to preach to the good and godly folk too - but they didn’t think they needed to hear him.

So think of the response of Jesus to that question about marriage as shock tactics. He wanted to break through that shell of self-righteousness that was preventing the Pharisees and folk like that from hearing his message. They didn’t hear because they didn’t think they needed to hear. They were all right.

“I live a good life,” people say to me, more often than you’d think. It’s a defence mechanism, I think, in case I might otherwise seek to convert them or persuade them to come to church. They sometimes go on to tell me that they don’t need to come to church because they can be quite good enough without it, and anyway church is full of people who think they’re good enough when they’re not really, or at least no better than the rest of us. No, it’s not full, I’m tempted to reply - we’ve still got room. But anyway, that’s the wrong idea about what church is for, and probably the wrong idea about what goodness is, as well.

We don’t come to church because it looks good, I hope not anyway. We don’t come to church because we feel we’re good enough to be here. I come to church because I’m not good enough - I’ll come back to that thought in a minute. We certainly don’t come to church in order to rack up celestial Brownie points that will help us slip more easily into heaven.

No. We’re here to say thank you, especially at this service of the Eucharist, because that’s what Eucharist means - thanksgiving. We’re here because we’re not good enough, and yet although we’re not good enough, God still loves us and calls us his children. We’re here because though we sin, we have a forgiving and healing Father. And we’re here to commit ourselves to take that forgiving love to heart, and to make it part of our own lives, and as a thank offering to share with our neighbours something of what we have received from God.

To his questioners Jesus was saying this: God’s law cannot be watered down: what’s wrong is wrong is wrong. And, as we’re reminded elsewhere in the New Testament, to break one small piece of God’s law is to break all of it. It all belongs together: you take it all, or you take none of it. Jesus didn’t want to belittle or condemn the Pharisees and their like - but he did want to convince them that they too, even they, were sinners. We all stand under God’s judgement, we’re all in need of his grace. Until they accepted and understood that, he couldn’t reach them.

Historically we in the Church have interpreted today’s gospel as implying God’s special condemnation of those who happen to make a bad marriage. And following that line we end up saying to those who’ve made a good marriage second time round that that doesn’t count, for God still rules you out of his favour because you’ve broken the rules. But does that really sound to you like what Jesus would say? Not to me it doesn’t. What Jesus is saying is this: Yes, you’ve sinned. All kinds of people, even people trying hard to be good, end up sinning, in all kinds of ways.

To sin is to miss the mark, to fall short, to break the rules. And somewhere or other, we all do it. We all fail to be what we could be, or should be. But, Jesus goes on to say: God loves sinners; he meets their failure with his grace; he cancels out our wrong with his love. That’s why we’re marked with the sign of the cross. That cross says: I’m not worthy, but Jesus has made me worthy, by his love, by his sacrifice, by his cross.

And so Jesus places a child in front of his disciples, and he tells them, “You can’t enter the kingdom of God unless you come like a small child.” What in particular about a small child is so important? The innocence of a small child, perhaps? But no, we’ve grown up, we know about the world, we’ve been there, done that. We’re not innocent, like it or not. Can’t go back there.

But I believe what Jesus is pointing to is dependence. A child knows it needs someone to care for it, someone to look after it, someone to give it a name and a place. It can’t cope on its own. I say “it” by the way not just to be gender inclusive, but because in the Greek of the New Testament teknon, meaning a child, is a neuter word. In the thinking of the time, a child did not exist as a separate entity, not until adulthood. A child belonged to its parents, was the possession of its parents, far more completely than in today’s thinking.

So to come to the kingdom like a child is to come knowing we are nothing without God. We are his possession, we belong to him. Without what he alone can give us, we are nowhere; we have no name, no purpose, no destiny. But God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. And with Christ and in Christ and through Christ, to borrow a phrase from the communion prayer, all that we need is ours.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Yesterday's sermon . . .

 . . . at Chirbury, we celebrated both Michaelmas and Harvest:

So, here we are in "Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness", as the poet John Keats wrote. And it’s also the season of Harvest Festivals and this weekend the great feast of St Michael and All Angels - Michael’s Mass, or Michaelmas.

Michael the Archangel was credited with having led God’s army in driving out Satan and his followers from Heaven. His feast day yesterday, 29th September, comes not long after the Autumn Equinox, so by now the days are shorter than the nights, and they’ll go on getting shorter. The shortening (or in spring, the lengthening) of days happens at a much greater pace around the equinoxes, and since in the popular thought of past times there was always a link between darkness and evil, people would be praying earnestly through the autumn to be protected from evil. Since Michael was seen as one of the great protectors, Michaelmas was one of the times for such prayer.

But Michaelmas is significant in the secular world too. It’s a quarter day, so therefore a hiring day, a day for the transaction of land and property, and one of the days when rents were paid. And Michaelmas begins one of the four legal terms in the year when the courts of the land sit in judgement.

And at about the time of Michaelmas the “Harvest Home” would be happening too. Harvest home was completely a secular affair until it began to transmute into the harvest festivals we now know maybe a century and a half ago. The harvest home originally was just a big party to celebrate the crop brought in, and the fact that the hard labour of harvesting was over. Back in the days when if there wasn’t enough food in the barn someone was going to go hungry, both harvest home and Michaelmas celebrated being safe and secure, ready for the dark and cold of winter. I suspect the main tradition of the old harvest home was the drinking of lots of rough cider. But there seem to have been quite a few old traditions connected to Michaelmas.

One such tradition was the Michaelmas Goose, which would have been well fattened from the stubble left in the fields at harvest, and then kept to be eaten as winter food. Goose Fairs were commonly held on or around Michaelmas Day, one of the greatest being the Nottingham Goose Fair that still takes place today.

I was always told not to pick blackberries after Michaelmas, because the Devil would have spat on them and spoiled them. I think originally that would have been the old Michaelmas Day of October 10th, because 29th September seems too early to stop. And sometimes people say St Luke’s Day instead, which is 18th October. By this time of the year blackberries are getting past their best, and they don’t have the lusciousness and flavour of the fruit in late summer. But maybe these days we wouldn’t feel the need to blame the devil!

St Michael is also, I’m told, one of the several patron saints of horses and horsemen, and there was a Scottish tradition of horse races on Michaelmas Day. It seems as well that at Michaelmas you could lawfully borrow your neighbour’s horse without needing his consent, and ride it for the day, provided the horse was safely returned before daybreak! You can see how important the cult of Michael was in medieval times from the impressive number of causes of which he’s regarded as patron - chivalry, soldiers, police, paramedics and firefighters. Some regard him as a patron of the sea, of those who are living with illness, and of grocers; and he is the patron saint of Germany.

It would have helped my sermon theme if Michael had also been the patron of farmers, but alas, no. That honour goes to St Isidore, of whom I confess I know almost nothing. But the wealth of old traditions from this time of the year reminds us how such traditions used to rule people’s lives. Now mostly they’re fading from memory, to be remembered only by antiquarian enthusiasts.

And that starts me worrying that maybe harvest festival’s one of those old traditions whose time really is done, and in the end it’s bound to fade away. Could church itself be numbered among the fading traditions? This building was built to last, like the faith it was built to proclaim. But has it really had its day?

When we look back, we see lots of interesting and colourful old traditions, nice to remember but hardly relevant today. What about when we look forward? Maybe we don’t see anything very much, no clear road ahead, no secure future. We find ourselves saying, “Wouldn’t it be great to go back to how things used to be!” I say that myself.

Harvest is a time when memories are at their strongest - and I remember full pews and mighty choirs, processions through the streets, and a well supported church brimming with confidence. It’s amazing what memories can be conjured up by the smell of chrysanthemums or a verse of “We plough the fields”. Some of them may even be true.

My memory’s also triggered by Michaelmas Daisies. Everyone used to have them in their gardens, though I don’t see quite so many these days. Being late flowering plants that would stay in flower right through till the frosts, they were a welcome splash of autumn colour, as this old verse reminds us:
The Michaelmas Daisies, among deed weeds  /  bloom for Saint Michael’s valorous deeds, and seems the last of flowers that stood,  /  till the feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude.

Simon and Jude’s day is 28th October, by the way. Another thing  we’ve lost, I suppose. Now we’ve got things all around us to tell us the time and the date, watches, phones, even cookers and washing machines - we no longer need to look at the sun, and no-one these days measures the date in saints’ days.

But we can’t go back to the past, whether real or fondly imagined. Perhaps we wouldn’t want to go back to the real past, anyway. The world’s moved on, and we’ve only one direction of travel. And, if you’re wondering, I don’t believe that either harvest festival or the church itself is no longer relevant.

In fact I believe the exact opposite. Harvest festival is if anything more important, and Church should be. Harvest reminds me that there’s a God-shaped piece in all of us; we’re not really complete without it. A previous Archbishop of Canterbury - I forget which - once said, “A nation that loses its faith loses its soul.” And by soul I think he meant its raison d’etre, its direction and purpose, its identity.

The harvest isn’t mine to do what I want with - to hoard, stash away, defend from all comers, without any thought for others. That’s a harvest message we need to hear. It’s not my harvest, it’s God’s. The fruits of the earth are at best a co-operative venture; we can only use what’s given us. Harvest festival tells us that, and reminds us that we ourselves should be God’s harvest, fruitful in our care for each other and for the land, fruitful in the praise and service we offer our Lord.

Tradition has an important part to play, and I’m glad that harvest reminds us where we come from, our roots and heritage. Without the labours of our forbears, we’d not be here. Without our care, there is no future harvest. Everything links together.

Harvest festival celebrates the greatest of Givers - God who creates, God who holds all things in being. His church should be a giving church. We call Jesus the man for others; and we should be a church for others. From great cathedrals to the smallest country church we are here to serve, to be community minded and world minded. Michael is celebrated as God’s warrior; may we be warriors too - not holding back or hiding our faith, but living it boldly and generously and lovingly, in the name of Christ.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Earth to earth

(A poem)

In this shaded corner,
sheltered from the breeze,
with stone walls rising, trees to shade,
and the midday bells to comfort us
we stand in the soft sunshine
near where earth has been moved,
to hear again the familiar psalm, the Gospel words.
Uncomfortable in their unfamiliar suits and ties,
the men stand silently together, and
no-one catches anyone’s eye;
they stand together like watchmen, while
the words are said, and the earth is thrown,
and then it is over.
And now people are speaking,
with animated quietness,
inspecting the flowers, and sharing
their handshakes, hugs and tears.
Somewhere a robin is singing.
There is a rightness to this long day’s end,
a rightness expressed in stone and soil and solemn words,
and today all those words are true,
as those who are standing find themselves
believing what they normally might not believe,
believing if only for this moment, under those age old walls.
The faith of past times still has its power,
and is still a comfort, still a strength.
Late bees are buzzing in the ivy blossom
by the gate to which we make our way,
to leave her nestled by liturgy and memories and prayers
in this place where she sleeps in the earth.
And her soul perhaps will fly.

Monday, 24 September 2018

A Harvest Hymn

When singing with Guilsfield Singers earlier this year, we commemorated the centenary of the untimely death of the Welsh composer Morfydd Owen by singing some of her work. This included a hymn tune named "William", to quite an unusual metre. The words we sang were in Welsh, and I looked without success for some English words that might fit. So I wrote this short Harvest hymn, which was sung by our small choir at Harvest Festival at The Marsh last night, and will be sung again at Chirbury this coming Sunday (10 am, if anyone's interested).

To God our harvest hymns we raise,
in adoration and with heartfelt praise.
For all his gifts, his blessings sweet,
bestowed by him with open hand,
let song be sung across the land,
across the land.

Thus may we praise our Lord and King,
not only with the harvest songs we sing,
but, as our sharing of his grace
reflects his generosity,
may we in turn a blessing be,
a blessing be.

Whoever receives one such

Last Sunday Ann and I attended the main Sunday communion service at the cathedral church of St James in Toronto, which we were pleased to find was actually the nearest Anglican church to our hotel. The service was one of five that day in the cathedral, one of which will have been in Mandarin Chinese in what is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. I would estimate the congregation to be in excess of 250, for what was quite a traditional service, led by the cathedral’s fine organ and good professional choir.

It was a very hot day and all the doors were open. Two giant fans did their best to keep the place cool, but they weren’t enough. Inevitably, the sounds of the city permeated the service. The choir sang a lovely communion setting by Josef Rheinberger, and as they sang the Kyrie Eleison I realised I could hear sirens from an emergency vehicle, probably a police car, somewhere near. For a while as choir sang the central part of the Kyrie, the power of their voices drowned out the siren; then, as they sang the quieter closing bars, I could hear it again - not intrusively, just somewhere in the background, but a telling reminder of the real life to which all us at worship must return.

Two days earlier, on our last day with our Rotary hosts Bill and Marjorie in Simcoe, they took us on a bit of a church crawl, starting with their own Anglican church of Holy Trinity, Simcoe and then visiting two early colonial churches, one in the little village of Vittoria, and a second down by the side of Lake Erie at Port Ryerse. It would be hard to imagine a more peaceful and lovely place, and not surprisingly many city people have holiday homes in the area, to which they can make their escape.

The church, however, was built as a memorial church after war. Port Ryerse bears the name of its founder, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ryerse, who fought on the British side as an Empire Loyalist in the American War of Independence, and was granted land there in 1794 by the British government.
He settled down to farm there and built a mill. But war hadn’t finished with him. War between the USA and Britain began in 1812, and American troops invaded the area and, among other things, burnt down the mill. That war ended with the 1814 Treaty of Ghent and today you’d not think that anything violent had ever happened in or around the peaceful church and churchyard of Port Ryerse.

But it has. Whatever peaceful refuges we may find or make for ourselves, there’s no escaping the struggles of life or the reality of death. Jesus spoke plainly to his disciples about his own death, as we read in this morning’s Gospel, but they refused to hear and failed to understand. They’d signed up with the promised Messiah; they weren’t expecting struggle or pain but an easy victory and royal thrones. And they even started falling out among themselves about which of them deserved the best place.

Jesus, having overheard their discussions, was gentle with them, but uncompromising. If any of you want to be first, he told them, you must make yourself last and be the servant of all. James is equally uncompromising in our first reading when he talks about the wisdom that was so greatly prized in those days. Gnostic religions promised their adherents that gnosis, secret knowledge, would be for them a source of power and status - but that in itself became a cause for rivalry and argument, as people jostled for place and position.

Nothing much has changed, it would seem. The world’s still hooked on power and full of rivalry. Church should offer a different way, but even churches can become places of rivalry and jealousy, where petty arguments turn into feuds and petty positions of influence are fiercely guarded. A lot of damage can be done by the desire of people to be big fish in small ponds. So even in our churches we need to be self aware and community aware.

Wherever we find refuge or however much we learn, none of it has any value unless we put it to use. That’s the lesson both of Jesus and of James.

Toronto is a wealthy, busy and bustling city, the largest city in Canada and its financial capital. On a clear day, its skyscrapers, topped by the CN Tower, can be seen from the other side of the lake at Niagara. But I was very uncomfortably aware during our visit of the sheer number of down and outs and beggars on the streets. In a community of winners there are bound to be losers, and some of them had lost everything. Not far from our hotel was an army barracks. Outside the gates, a motley group of men were settled with bottles and cans. Perhaps they were ex-military themselves, and not coping with civilian life.

They become non-persons. After a while you don’t see them, don’t hear their voices or read the signs saying “Anything will help” or “Stranded”. When a problem is too big and scary, our sense of helplessness turns into apathy. After a storm, thousands of starfish were washed up and stranded on the beach. A little girl, out for a morning walk with her dad, started to pick a few up and throw them back into the sea. “You’re wasting your time,” said her father. “There are too many. You won’t make any difference!” “But I did make a difference to that one!” replied his daughter, as she threw another back into the sea.

There was a man lying on the sidewalk, and two other men seemed to be going through his pockets. My first thought was that I was witnessing a mugging, then I realised the two were Salvation Army workers, looking I guess for any medical information to help them get the right treatment. The hostel they ran was close by, and it looked busy. Faith is pointless unless it leads to action; knowledge and wisdom are pointless unless they make us better people; the one who desires to be first must make himself last.

Faith is never really about me and God. It’s always about me and you. Me and all the different yous I encounter in this jumbled and often scary world. It’s proved in what I do for others, or what I don’t do. Where will I meet Jesus this week? Where will you? Jesus today might well have set not a child, but a homeless person in stinking rags in front of the disciples, when he said, “Whoever receives one such, receives me.”

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Living in the Kingdom - a Harvest Sermon

(Preached today at The Marsh Chapel)

At the very beginning of the Bible we can read about the creation of the world, of everything, of all the things we see. Now I’m a scientist, and as a scientist I can see that Genesis chapter 1 is not a scientific text. It wasn’t written to tell us how God creates, but it does have something absolutely vital to say about why God creates. And what we see, God also sees, so in Genesis chapter 1 verse 31 we read this: “God looked upon all that he had made, and behold, it was very good”.

In Toronto last weekend we saw the CN Tower, and of course we went up it. You have to. The view from the top is amazing: in the one direction, the great swathe of urban Toronto packed with skyscrapers; in the other the blue of Lake Ontario, and the green of the harbour islands. You can even stand on a glass floor and look straight down. There’s something a bit god-like about being up there able to see all the world around, or there might be were it not for the hundreds of other folk up there with you.

Certainly while I was up there I did reflect on God looking down on his creation, if only because I knew that when I got back to the UK I’d be straight into harvest festivals. And there seemed a metaphor in the cityscape in the one direction, and the lake with its green islands in the other: the soft edges and natural beauty of the lake, the hard edged brutalism of the city.

A reminder that we human beings certainly stamp our mark on God’s beautiful world! And often not in a good way. A week earlier, we were in Niagara Falls. The Falls themselves retain their natural beauty, grandeur and power, as does much of the ravine and river below the falls, but the town alongside the falls is just a crazy Blackpool Pleasure Beach sort of place, with rides, casinos, fun palaces, motels, bars and Tim Horton’s coffee shops. Elsewhere in the world, plastic pollutes our oceans, species become extinct, the protective ozone layer gets dangerously thin, and we hurl tons of explosive metal at one another. What a mess we’re making!

But although we mess up God doesn’t abandon us. In a way that’s something that lies at the heart of harvest festival. The ancient people of Israel brought the first fruits of the harvest to the temple as a thank offering to the Lord and also to remind themselves that, as Psalm 24 puts it, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof.”

Our God is the God of love, the God who is like Jesus. We see in Jesus God’s love in a human life and in a human death. And he says to us, “If you truly are my disciples, you must love one another.” A disciple is someone who learns, someone who follows and listens and learns. From Jesus we can learn how God wants us to live in his world, and to behave towards one another.

So in our Bible Reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about food and clothes, stuff like that. We do worry about these things of course, and we’re encouraged to worry about these things by the adverts, by magazine articles, by peer pressure too. We live in a very commercial and materialistic society, which no longer really questions why fashions need to change in clothes and decor and food, and why cars and other machines have to be constantly updated and new models produced.

At first sight we might wonder just what Jesus is really saying here. It surely doesn’t work to be like the birds of the air, the flowers in the field! If we don’t work we don’t earn; and if we don’t then starve, we’ll find it hard to get by. It doesn’t seem right to sit back and do nothing, hoping for God to sort it all out for us. Isn’t that the exact opposite of what harvest festivals celebrate? Haven’t we come here to say thank you for the fruits not just of what God gives but what we work for, and to remember and pray for all who work on the land? But of course, when you look more closely at what Jesus says, he’s not advocating idleness. What he is saying is - get your priorities right: work for God, don’t just worry about yourself.

Jesus talks about that as living in God’s Kingdom. That’s what happens when people live and work for God and not just for their own ends. And Harvest is a kingdom festival, in which we give thanks for all that God provides, not only by singing the harvest songs and praying the harvest prayers, but also by committing ourselves to work for God, to live in his kingdom here where we are, here where we work, here where we live.

We are the body of Christ, so Paul the Apostle tells us; and as the body of Christ we’re called to welcome God’s kingdom and to live in it. How shall we do that? Here are some suggestions: we should buy locally, know where what we buy comes from; buy Fair Trade, choose goods that give a fair return for those who make them. Be aware of what we’re using, recycling as much as we can, take what steps we can to care for God’s world. Take seriously the command, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” but widen as much and as far as we can our image of where and who our neighbour is. Make our footprint on this planet as small as we can, with others and future generations in mind.

We’re a small country church, and even at harvest there’s not all that many of us here. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do, and small can be beautiful. The small change I save in a Water Aid box, and send off every so often to help Water Aid do what it does, since dirty water and poor sanitation are a major cause of disease and infant and child mortality in our world. It’s only a bit, it’ll hardly do anything on its own, but added to all the other bits and boxes other people send it can help make sure a big work is done.

God’s been so good to us, so we need not only to be saying thank you but also to live in a thankful way. We are blessed by God: so we ourselves should be a blessing - a blessing to the planet, and a blessing to the people and other creatures we share our planet with. For the best thing to do with a blessing is to pass it on!

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Mist Nets and Banding

My nature notes column for October . . .

I’ve spent a fair chunk of the last month in Canada, so these notes may be briefer than usual! But one of the things we did while there was to visit a bird observatory on a promontory (Long Point) projecting into Lake Erie - a great place for seasonal migrants - where birds caught in mist nets were assessed and measured and ringed, or banded as they say there.

Identified too, of course - easy for them, not for me. Almost every Canadian bird (except the geese!) was new and strange, though most of them were common enough really. Mist nets were draped at various points in the wooded reserve - these are very fine nets, and birds fly into them and get caught and tangled. It can be hard to release them sometimes, but the guys there were very gentle, patient and nimble fingered, making sure the birds came to no harm.

The birds caught were then placed into soft bags with drawstrings, and would be comfortable and quiet in these bags for up to two hours, though generally they wouldn’t need to be so long. The only exception to this was the ruby-throated humming bird, the only humming bird to be commonly seen that far north. They need special treatment, and certainly couldn’t cope with two hours in a bag, so are checked over and quickly released.

The birds in bags are taken to a small laboratory where they are identified, recorded and measured and weighed. The weighing machine requires the bird to be sort of stuffed head first into a tube on the scales, not very elegant but they don’t seem to mind too much. Within this process they will also be ringed or banded if they haven’t been already. If they already have a ring, then those details are noted. Finally the bird drops down a little hatch into a space from which it can  thankfully fly away.

Birds caught while I was there included black-and-white warbler, American redstart, field sparrow, black-capped chickadee, magnolia warbler and Swainson’s thrush - plus a catbird which was the only one to be at all vocal - and the humming bird I mentioned earlier. All were safely released.

Work like this goes on all round the world, and helps us understand the migration of birds, their habits and seasonal or year by year variations in numbers. The more we understand, the better we can offer protection and support to our precious bird populations. Of course, no-one is allowed to use mist nets and other bird trapping equipment without special licence and full instruction, and the information gained is shared openly and fully. I felt privileged to have been able to see this important work, and to see a few of the local birds at close quarters.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Grace, Faith and Works

A sermon for next Sunday, based on verses from James 2 and Mark 7 :-

It’s interesting, looking at our readings today, that on the one hand James makes a point of counselling against members of the Church discriminating against one kind of person and another, while in our reading from Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus seeming to do exactly that, in not only refusing to hear the pleas of the Syrophoenician woman but also effectively calling her a dog.

Some people think that Jesus really did believe at that point that his mission was to his own people the Jews alone, and that the simple and profound faith of the woman changed his mind, opened his eyes. Others see Jesus is playing a part, doing and saying what those around him would have expected from a rabbi, while at the same time provoking a response of faith from the woman. That’s the reading I prefer, but the facts are simple and straightforward however you interpret them - Jesus turns the woman away, or seeks to; she refuses to be so turned, and in so doing she reveals a depth of faith that was inspirational in itself. Her daughter was healed, and healed because of the faith she showed.

Let me look at three things a little more closely. Firstly, the faith of the woman: she was not a Jew, and there’s nothing particular here to suggest she was even on the fringes, as some were, of the Jewish faith. This was a part of the land where Jews lived side by side with a majority gentile, or non-Jewish population. The Jews of that region were themselves rather looked down on by their compatriots in more homogenous areas like Judaea. Her faith was simple, profound, direct: and it was first and foremost formed from her devotion to her sick daughter, and her determination to do whatever she could to save her; added to that was an equal determination that if this man could help, if he had the power to help, her status as Jew or gentile should have no bearing on it. The dogs get their share of the family meal: God’s grace is not so limited that those on the outside can’t share in it.

Her answer was clever, but it was also challenging. Why should someone in need be ignored just because they don’t look like me, or don’t worship with me, or don’t speak the same language as me? Every person is made in the image of God; rich or poor, gentile of Jew, we share a common humanity. If God were to ignore that and be partial, he would be less than himself.

So secondly, our faith, and where it leads us. Paul makes great play of telling his readers that we are saved by grace and not by works. Charles Wesley’s great moment of conversion came about as the result of his coming to realise that his attempts to be good enough to please God were doomed to failure. We don’t need to be good enough, there is no points tally that qualifies us for admission to heaven. The Church is not a community of the perfect, but a school for sinners.

But the Epistle of James is a necessary antidote to that, or should I say, to a distorted understanding of what Paul says. Paul himself of course took issue with those who thought that being saved by grace meant that for us “anything goes”. That’s a heresy that does rear its head again and again in Christian history, and among some of the cults that distort the faith today - that within the community of those who are saved and therefore made perfect, anything is permissible.

Not so, says James. We may be saved by our faith and by God’s grace, rather than by the works we do, but any faith that does not lead to good works and does not reveal itself in good works is not real faith. Having just taken over as minister of a group of six churches, I am challenging all my churches to find one new way in which they can serve and be useful to the community in which they are set.
It’s good that we should be disturbed by the bad things that happen to those around us, our neighbour who is hungry, or living in poverty, or ill, or afraid, or lonely, or struggling with life in whatever way. It’s good that we pray for them.

But it isn’t good if we then sit back and do nothing other than hope that something good will come their way, or that maybe someone else somewhere will help them. We have to act on our faith and on our awareness of their need, or else that faith isn’t real. Our call is the imitation of Christ - to be as like him as we can be. Teresa of Avila famously said “Christ has no body on earth but yours - yours are the hands with which he is to bless.” The healings in that reading from Mark show how Jesus responded to need. I love the practical details in the story of the healing of a deaf man; we need to be practical too, in our response to our neighbour’s need, and in our understanding of who our neighbour actually is.

The third thing to mention is the response of Jesus to our faith. Whether he deliberately provoked her statement or not, the response of Jesus to the faith of the Syrophoenician woman was direct and complete; and she arrived home to find her daughter well. Jesus meets our faith with his, and when we commit ourselves to work for him - or I should better say to work with him - he will support and enable that work. “The Spirit of truth lead you into all truth, give you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and to proclaim the word and works of God,” in the words of a prayer of blessing at Pentecost.

Ruth and Tom are neighbours of mine who, having been members of the Baptist Church have started what they call the family church in the town, joined by quite a number of other parents with young children. The other day Ruth was telling me that they’re running out of space in the hall they presently rent, and are looking for somewhere larger. “We think we’ve found somewhere,” she told me, “but we need to be sure it is what God wants for us.” I can understand that. We of all people should not rush hastily into doing things and deciding things when we haven’t spent time in prayer, for we do need to be sure that his will is at the heart of our deciding.

But nor should we ever allow that to become an excuse for inaction or for half-heartedness. The short cut to action is - as James tells us - the commandments, or in fact the summary of the Law. It’s clear that loving God is worked out in loving our neighbour; loving our neighbour as ourself. And what makes someone our neighbour? Not geographical proximity, not fellow feeling, not the fact that they dress or pray or vote the same way as us. What makes someone our neighbour is that they need our help, and we have the capacity to give it. My neighbour in this definition is the person in my power, by whatever tiny amount, because I can choose whether or not to respond to my neighbour’s need. And their welfare is influenced and affected by the choice I make.

When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbour?” he responded by telling a story, which I don’t need to tell today, because you all know the story of the Good Samaritan. But I will end with the words Jesus ended with: “Go, and do likewise.” Amen.

The ministry begins . . .

Well, today has been my first day as Rector of the Chirbury Group. I am well past the first flush of youth, and my contract is "Sunday plus two days" (or is that "Sunday plus the equivalent of two days", whatever that may mean?), so I am clearly the cut-price option. But I'm looking forward to the challenge, and if perhaps I managed to feel a little blase about the service of collation and installation that took place last night at St Michael's, Chirbury, the reality of it was in fact quite moving.

The service ran very smoothly for the most part, but I had something of a presentiment that the bit where I ring the church bell could be a problem. Don't imagine that I am gifted with second sight, bells and me have a long history of somehow not getting on together, much as I love the sound of church bells! Having been led to the church door, I next had to pull the long rope attached - I assumed - to an appropriate rope in the ringing chamber, to toll the bell. There is a tradition that the number of times it rings represents the number of years the new incumbent will stay in the parish.

Unfortunately, it failed to ring at all. In fact, it didn't feel really as though it was actually attached to anything. I pulled harder, but nothing happened. Perhaps I shouldn't at this point have asked my churchwarden Tony to come and help me, but I did, and he came. And two of us pulling together were enough . . . to break the rope! I wonder what that might presage?

All the bells had been left "up" by the ringers, and the rope down to the porch was not attached to a bell rope, but presumably to whatever it's fixed to when not so attached. Tony went haring up the tower steps to fetch a handbell, which I managed to ring five times (counted with care) . . .

It was a lovely service, and I was pleased to see lots of friends from all over the place, and to have received some kind messages from friends unable to come. Unusually, I then announced my absence from the parishes for the next two Sundays! The holiday is fixed already, and can't be changed, and I invited any of the congregation who is able to join me at Grace United Church, Port Dover, Ontario at 11 am on Sunday 9th to be there!

There were fabulous refreshments (or so I'm told - a new incumbent doesn't get to see too many of them, because too many people want to talk to him!). A picture was taken - several in fact, of Bishop Alistair and I looking at the broken bell rope: I expect one will come my way at some point.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Sunday . . .

Heavy rain and a bank holiday weekend - even so, fairly pleasing numbers in my churches this morning. The rain had slackened by the afternoon, which was just as well, as I was due to go to the Steam Festival near Shrewsbury, where I was leading the annual service. This normally takes place in the ring, with steam vehicles, but not this year as everywhere was far too muddy. But I had a great afternoon looking at vintage vehicles, some static and some working, meeting a few old friends and revisiting some childhood memories too. The reading I chose and my short address follows (and we raised £42 for the Severn Hospice) . . .


WHEN Jesus had finished addressing the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a servant whom he valued highly, but the servant was ill and near to death. Hearing about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to ask him to come and save his servant’s life.  They approached Jesus and made an urgent appeal to him: ‘He deserves this favour from you,’ they said, ‘for he is a friend of our nation and it is he who built us our synagogue.’  Jesus went with them; but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends with this message: ‘Do not trouble further, sir; I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, and that is why I did not presume to approach you in person. But say the word and my servant will be cured. I know, for I am myself under orders, with soldiers under me. I say to one, “Go,” and he goes; to another, “Come here,” and he comes; and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this, he was astonished, and, turning to the crowd that was following him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When the messengers returned to the house, they found the servant in good health.

The reading partly I chose provides a good example of what it means to have faith. The centurion was so confident that what Jesus ordered would happen that he sent his servants to turn Jesus back; he didn’t need to enter the house, his word would be enough. As a non-Jew, the centurion felt he was unworthy to have a Jewish rabbi enter his house. But as an officer in the Roman army he knew all about giving orders, and he knew that once given, any order he gave would be obeyed.

And the reading also reminds me that there’s a sense in which the machine age has potentially turned us all into officers. The machinery we celebrate at this fair greatly empowered its new owners. For the most part, it did in the end also empower and ease the lives of the workers. But perhaps we’ve lost touch with the wonder of that these days.

After all, this is how we live today. We walk into a room, flick a switch, and the room’s lit up straight away. We sit down, pick up the remote, point and press, and immediately we’re watching Corrie or East Enders, or maybe University Challenge or Mastermind if you prefer. And when I sat at my desk to write this, I didn’t need a pen, thanks to the wonders of Microsoft Word.

Technology gives us an easy life, but we no longer see the workings or understand the process, and that’s a shame. Now that everything’s digital, you press a button and you’re really not always sure what will happen. Microsoft Word is a good example of that, Mr Gates: I press a button, and a poster prints with the border only half the size it should be. That’s not how it was on the screen, and I’ve no way of knowing what glitch in the machinery caused it to happen.

But that’s my problem. Here you have real machines, and the workings are very visible. You pull a lever, turn a wheel, and a whole army is at your disposal, with the different components working together, supporting, controlling and  co-ordinating with each other, making you the possessor of power. Steam especially has that sense of being alive about it, which is why it continues to thrill those who’re easily bored by boxes filled with microchips.

The apostle Paul came up with the great image of the Church as the body of Christ, each part working in harmony, making its own distinct and special contribution, under the control of Christ as the head. If only Paul had seen a traction engine - I feel sure that would have been his image instead: each part in good fettle, doing what it should, under the control of Christ as the driver. The Church as a machine, achieving what it needs to because every part is working well.

Of course, even the best machines do break down; for that matter even the best armies will probably have the occasional grumbling or rebellious soldier. But just as the Roman centurion naturally understood the authority of Jesus, so should we who have machines at our disposal. We give the command, and it is done. And of course, our making of machines is our creative response to the creative power that made us.

And when he gives the command? Well, every part of the complex machine that is us needs to be working well, needs to be taking orders. Each part needs to be in the right place, doing the right job. Machines don’t work if you replace one part with a totally different one. If things aren’t working as they should, the machine will lose power, and it’ll maybe break down altogether. So if we’re serious about being God’s people, we need to be a well-oiled machine, which is not, by the way, a reference to the beer tent; we need to hear and obey the orders given, to respond as we should to the pull of lever or the turn of the wheel; we need to know our place and play our part, so that, in all of his people together, God’s will is done. Amen.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

A sermon for Trinity 13

Tomorrow I'm preaching at Leighton and Marton. I'm also due to be going to take the Sunday service at the Shrewsbury Steam Fair, but that's looking a bit doubtful at present - I've seen the weather forecast for tomorrow, and it doesn't look good.

Anyway, here is my address at the morning services, based on Ephesians 6.10-20 and John 6.56-69:

“From that time on, many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

Having based last week’s sermon on the first line of a hymn, today I found myself with a song by the Eagles in mind, as I started to think about what to say. I’ve always liked the Eagles. Many of their songs are thoughtful and a few are quite challenging; often they have something to say, and they make good music.

Air guitarists (real ones too, I guess) may go for ‘Hotel California’, but the song in my mind was ‘New Kid in Town’. It’s a song about the being the latest thing; the kid who, having just arrived, is an overnight sensation, the guy they all want to know.  Malcolm became an instant celebrity in my school. He arrived out of nowhere part way through our first year;  his dad was in the RAF, so he’d seen quite a bit of the world - Germany, Cyprus, even Singapore. For a while he was a shining light in our little school (and, all these years later, we’re still friends).

But as that Eagles song goes on to say, being the new kid in town only lasts until the next new kid arrives. And when that happens you may find that just as quickly you’re forgotten, once there’s a new latest thing, a new star to rave about.

That’s life, I guess. Things come into fashion and then they go out of fashion again; crazes spring up, for a while everybody’s doing it, then they burn out and the next latest thing takes over. People too come into favour and then go out again. Boris is always doing it. The charts are littered with one hit wonders, and you get sporting heroes who for a moment or two can do no wrong, then turn out to have feet of clay. Today’s society like none before seems obsessed with celebrities, people very often famous mostly just for being famous, followed on Twitter by thousands, and then just as quickly dumped.

But as we found in our Gospel reading, even some of the disciples of Jesus walked out on him. After this point in the story they no longer went about with him. Why was that? The celebrity culture of their day, perhaps. Now that Jesus was no longer new and fascinating, it was no longer trendy to be seen with him. After a while the latest thing starts to seem a bit tarnished. Maybe other rabbis were around, with more interesting stories to tell.

Or possibly less challenging things to say. One reason why people had started to walk away was that they were beginning to find the things Jesus was saying difficult to take. Some of his words sounded quite shocking. Maybe they’d started to feel he was demanding too much; maybe they were worried about the way he seemed to be offending some of the religious leaders of the day. Not only was it no longer trendy to be seen with Jesus, it was perhaps beginning to feel not all that safe, as Jesus began to ask more than some were ready to give, and to challenge things they weren’t prepared to change.

Perhaps they’d been following their own idea of what the Messiah should be and how he should behave. They couldn’t cope with the real Jesus, who said difficult things, and made big demands, and wasn’t always comfortable or safe to be seen out with. There are times in life when you have to stand up and be counted, and there were some among his followers who weren’t up for that.

Church used to be much more popular, and certainly more secure in its place in society, than it is now. I think we’ll all agree about that. I remember how as a little boy at evening service I couldn’t see up the church because the pews in front of me were all full of big grown-up people. That was probably harvest festival, but even so, people went to church in a way they now don’t.

Things change. And while there are times when everyone’s happy to hear what we believe and say as Christians and churchfolk, we shouldn’t let it go to our heads, because there’ll also be times when no-one wants to know us, and when people make fun of us, or worse. It’s when things are not so good that you find out who your real friends are. It’s when the road gets tough that you need people with some stickability about them. That’s the point we reach in today’s Gospel. The real friends of Jesus, his real disciples, were the ones that stayed with him when others turned against him. The ones that were more than fair weather friends, and who weren’t there just so that a bit of his celebrity would rub off on them.

Stickability was much needed in the early days of the Church. Things were often tough. St Paul wrote many of his letters, including his Letter to the Ephesians, to people who knew what it was like to face opposition and even persecution. Today we’ve heard from the closing chapter of Ephesians, and as he wrote Paul clearly had in mind the very effective armour with which a Roman soldier was kitted out. So he instructed his readers to put on the whole armour of God.

That’s how we’ll stand firm against the wiles of the devil, says Paul. By taking the armour of truth, righteousness, faith and peace. This is the armour we take when we choose to live in an honest, open, scriptural and loving way, when we’re looking to the power of the Holy Spirit, when we’re bonded by the Spirit in fellowship together, when we’re firmly joined to the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The fundamental base for this is prayer. Paul writes that we need to be watchful and alert as we pray, looking out for whatever temptations might lead us astray, taking account of the troubles, needs, challenges, opportunities that face us in our daily lives.

Bishop Alistair quizzed me about my prayer life when I was interviewed. If I’m honest I don’t find prayer easy, and I hugely admire those people I’ve met who’ve been deep and natural prayers. But I do know how necessary it is to all I do as a priest and indeed as a Christian, and I need the discipline of regular prayer. But it isn’t so much about keeping monastic hours of prayer or using the right words. It’s about being deliberately and faithfully open to God’s presence. Words, in fact, can sometimes get in the way. Any discipline of prayer needs to make space so we hear what God might be saying to us.

Paul talks about praying at all times. In monasteries, as well as the hours of formal prayer, everything done is done prayerfully – from reading the scriptures to greeting guests to cleaning the kitchen to digging the monastery garden. It’s all done to the glory of God, offered to him, in all that is done, God’s help and direction and presence is sought. For “to pray is to work, and to work is to pray,” as the saying goes.

My prayer can be a matter of "new kid on the block” enthusiasm, I'm afraid, in that I take it up with great gusto, and for a while I get a lot out of it, but then as perhaps it begins to feel burdensome and difficult, or squeezed out of my schedule by other stuff, I start finding excuses to miss. In other words, it can easily go the same way as all those other things I try to do: that course of study or healthy diet, or all those New Year resolutions - it becomes one more thing I enthusiastically start but don’t keep on with as I should.

But I shouldn't give up; prayer is not an optional extra, it's the vital heart of the thing. Having the whole armour of Christ requires us to build our lives around a discipline of prayer. The soldier doesn’t don his battle armour only when he feels like it, or give up on it when other more interesting things come along. He just does it, for he knows his life depends on it. Our best efforts may fall short, and we can be fickle and half-hearted in our allegiance. But God is never less than whole-hearted with us. His love for us never fails, and we can trust in that love; it's a love in which each one of us is personally known and treasured. That's what I believe anyway. And so with Peter I say: “Lord, to whom else can we go?  You have the words of life.”

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Nature Notes - Song Thrush

Out for a stroll a few weeks back, I came across a table bearing slices of cake, neatly wrapped and priced, with an honesty box for hungry walkers. I decided I fitted that category, so I stopped, paid my money, and enjoyed a very good and generously cut slice of home-made sponge. While I stopped to eat, the peace was disturbed by an insistent tapping sound.

A little bit of quiet delving revealed the origin. A song thrush was working at his anvil. “Anvil” is the name often given to stones selected by song thrushes to bash snails against, so that the shells are broken and the bird can eat the contents. I’m not sure whether it quite counts as “using a tool”, which is something some birds do, in the crow family especially, but a thrush will often have its favourite anvil stone, and if you find one it may well be surrounded by lots of bits of broken shell.

A large pebble I brought home from a childhood holiday and placed in my own little garden plot (I and my brothers each had one) was, to my delight, taken over by a local song thrush. Finding the one on my walk took me right back to those days.

Song thrushes were commoner then, though they never were as common as their relative the blackbird. Today there would be about five million breeding pairs of blackbirds in the UK, and maybe a little over one million pairs of song thrushes. A decline of more than 50% in the numbers of song thrushes in little more than 25 years has caused some concern, but more recently there has been a slight recovery.

Song thrushes are a little bit smaller than a blackbird. They are birds of mostly larger gardens, parks, woodlands and well-grown hedgerows. Song thrushes like plenty of trees around and are seldom very far from cover. The sexes are alike, and they have a distinctive speckled front, plain brown back and wings, and orange on the underwing, though this is only briefly visible in flight.

Though famous for its song, usually delivered from a prominent position perhaps near the top of a small tree or bush, for me the song isn’t as inventive or attractive as that of the blackbird. It consists of short phrases which are repeated several times. Like most songbirds, it sings through the spring into early summer, but it will sing a bit in the autumn and through the winter too, though not as much as its larger relative the mistle thrush. It will sing quite late into the evening.

As well as snails, song thrushes eat worms and many kinds of insect, as well as berries and other fruits. They nest in trees and shrubs, well concealed, where three to five chicks are raised. They are semi-migratory, and the song thrush you see in the winter might not be the same as your summer resident. They remain one of my personal favourites!

Sunday, 19 August 2018

A sermon for today . . .

. . . based on verses from Ephesians 5, and "Servant Song" :-

Our readings this morning touch on faith and practice, and I want to think a little about the reading from Ephesians. Much of this Letter centres on how Christians should live together in fellowship, and it’s important stuff I think. However good we are at important things like  maintaining our buildings, paying our parish offer and being good at worship - and they’re all really important - they come second to the call to be in fellowship: fellowship with Christ, and fellowship together as his people. One of my favourite hymns begins with the line “Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you.” Let’s use that line as a way in to thinking about Christian fellowship.

The first two words are brother, sister. And I’m reminded that the very first message Jesus sent to his disciples on the morning of the first Easter Day called them his brothers. And he told Mary Magdalene to tell them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

In the car the other lunchtime I found myself listening to “Call You and Yours” on Radio 4, and feeling rather sad as so many people called in to talk about splits and rifts and divisions within their families. In my family we’re always falling out, but we always just as quickly fall back in again, and woe betide anyone else who might attack or smear or threaten any one of us. But there are serious splits in maybe five percent of families in the UK, and that translates as several million people. So in our human families we don’t always get on together as well as we might; what about the family of God?

Sadly, churches are made up of human beings, and as much at risk of splits and dissentions as any other human organisation. But it’s a shame when that happens, because fellowship is fundamental to our call. And in God’s family, our relationships should take their cue from him. Paul said to the Ephesians: “As children of God, aim to be as like him as you can.” How can we mere mortals aim to be like God? By trying our best to be like Jesus.

So the first line of that hymn, the Servant Song as it’s known, goes on to say, “Let me as Christ to you.” Being Christ-like together surely means being humble, patient, forgiving, helpful, supportive, caring, all the things we see in Jesus when we read the Gospels. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” he wasn’t just saying literally walk behind me along the road, he was also saying learn from me, follow the things I do.

Blessed are the meek, said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But being meek doesn’t mean being a soft touch. There’s no Christian ministry of being a doormat, as I’ve said many a time before in sermons. People who follow Jesus know from him what we stand for, and if we’re truly following him we’ll be firm in our support for what’s good and right in the world, and equally firm in our opposition to the things that do damage, and to everything that’s unfair and unloving.

To say that takes me to the middle bit of that first line of our hymn, which is the four words: “Let me serve you.” Serving is the “why” of our fellowship. That’s what takes us, or should, from being a comfortable holy huddle, happy together without much regard for what goes on outside, to being something more world aware, more apostolic, hard-working. I believe that the God I serve and worship is offering himself as Father to every person, whoever and wherever they may be. I believe that we’re all his family, if we choose to be. And I believe that even when people turn their back and walk away he still loves them. I love the picture Jesus gives us of the father watching from the rooftop for his prodigal child to return. Christ loves people like me, but he loves people who aren’t very much like me too.

So our fellowship should be purposeful and outward-looking. And for me, the test of a Church isn’t how many people are in the pews or on the electoral roll or the list of regular givers; nor how lively and joyful our worship is.

Don’t get me wrong: as our church grows, and our giving grows, and our worship grows in spiritual strength and beauty, I’ll be the first to rejoice. But the main test of whether we’re getting it right is that we’re asking things like “How can we serve the people here? How can we help make a positive difference to this community? How can we make our bit of the world a better place?”

Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was gunned down as he said mass in his cathedral. I’ve taken a quote from him as my thought for the week, and I’ll read some of it now: “Every effort to better society . . . is an effort God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.”

Archbishop Romero was of course ministering in a part of the world where monstrous injustices were being done by the ruling powers. But even in our own peaceful and fairly comfortable communities there are things we can do, things that need doing. Things that could be better, people who need a bit of help or light or comfort in their lives. We may be few in number, weak in resources and maybe very aware of our own smallness - but even the tiniest Christian congregation has the privilege and call to pray together for the whole community. That means those who’d like to be here but can’t be, those who get distracted and never make it, right across to those who have no time for either church or God. Remember that God loves every single one of them.

At our communion service, and often at other services too, we’re sent out with words like “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.” God calls us together in worship, but then God sends us out into the world, and he sends us, as the response at communion puts it “In the name of Christ. Amen.” I hope our worship helps bond us in fellowship and lift us in spirit, but it’s also given us to use, given so we can be made useful, together, to God. And can I just say now that all that I’ve said this morning will be my theme, God willing, throughout my ministry here: “Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you.”

A sermon from last Sunday (12th August)

Based on Hebrews 12.1-17 and Luke 12.32-40 :-

“Have no fear, little flock.” Those of us with a clear memory, if only from childhood, of the Church as well-attended, strong and self-assured can often find ourselves (a) very aware of our present smallness, and (b) as a result, maybe a bit depressed and even fearful. For me, as a country vicar these days, with a congregation of a dozen or so in a church built to seat hundreds, it’s all too clear that the established Church isn’t what it was.

But those words of Jesus remind me that the Church started small, and on the edge of things, and maybe even fearfully, since there was plenty of opposition. The disciples needed those words of encouragement. While now being small when once we were large does bring its own problems and issues, not least how I deal with a grade one listed monstrosity (sorry, with a valuable part of our historical and architectural heritage), we shouldn’t be afraid of being small, for much of what Jesus said and other folk wrote in New Testament scripture was addressed to small people, in small groups.

Though I could ask, how small are we really? For the beginning of our reading from Hebrews describes us as being part of a very great company. In the previous chapter, the writer of Hebrews lists some of the people who, in Old Testament times, had lived by faith in God. All these “won God’s approval by their faith.” And we live out our faith in company with them; when we sing to God, our songs join in with a great chorus of the praise of saints and angels.

But I’ll accept it often doesn’t feel like that, here on the ground. We’re small, we know we’re smaller than we used to be, and to be honest, for the most part we seem to be getting on a bit. We can have an uncomfortable sense of the world having moved on somewhere else, leaving us behind. And there is some truth in that.

To be the faithful remnant is a very Biblical calling, but it won’t always feel all that comfortable, especially when much of the media seems biased against religion, and churches and chapels making an easy target for those who want to criticise or poke fun. It is, of course, much easier to criticise the Church than to go after other faiths. If instead of comparing burkas to pillar boxes, Boris Johnson had made fun of the robes worn by (say) nuns or monks, would there have been even a fraction of the protest and kerfuffle? I think not.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written to a church familiar with opposition and persecution, and so to people who perhaps were asking, “Why is God allowing this to happen to us?” Its writer speaks about the need for discipline, and also reminds them that the cross is our sign. From those for whom much has been given, much will be expected.

And he encourages them to “Aim at peace with everyone.” Paul has similar things to say in his letters, while, in our reading from Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus instructing his disciples to be ready for action, always on the watch. Small and vulnerable groups of people, in testing times, are being told to offer peace to friend and enemy alike, and to be alive to every opportunity for service and witness.

In this way, says Jesus, “Provide yourselves with purses that won’t wear out.” The way of the world is not to be our way. To be honest, I worry more about the Church when it’s big and rich and influential than when it’s small. A rich and powerful Church is tempted to be conformed to the ways of the world, to be more concerned with its own standing and prestige than with the Gospel call to humble service. It won’t find it easy to aim at peace with everyone, it can throw its political weight around, and it can even be itself a source of oppression.

Back Boris Johnson’s comment about the burka; support came from the slightly unexpected source (to me anyway) of Rowan Atkinson. Old Blackadder has played a few vicars in his time, and he caused a bit of a stir with his portrayal of the Archbishop of Canterbury not long ago. I rather think he used to be a churchgoer, but he does seem to have put those days behind him. This is what he said about vicars. ‘I used to think that the vicars I played, or the exaggerated sketches that were written about clerics, were unreasonable satires on well-meaning individuals, but actually, so many of the clerics that I've met, particularly the Church of England clerics, are people of such extraordinary smugness and arrogance and conceitedness who are extraordinarily presumptuous about the significance of their position in society.’

Well, though I don’t recognise in those words most of the vicars and ministers I’ve known through the years, I can’t say he’s completely wrong. I have known, or known of, a few vain and pompous churchmen. But I quote Atkinson’s words to make the point that loss of status and position may not altogether be a bad thing. There are plenty of examples of bloated, corrupt and cruel churches when you read your church history. Plenty of damage done. But you also see that where faith has really been lived and preached, it’s often been on the edges of things and in situations of vulnerability and smallness. I think of Francis of Assisi, I think of some of the Celtic saints who brought the faith to these islands, I think of  John and Charles Wesley; William Williams, the author of “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah” was another. He started off in the church, but gave that ministry up to be a travelling preacher. And the crowds flocked to hear him.

Here are two important things: firstly, the truth is still the truth even if most people refuse to accept it. And history shows us how the Gospel truth remains alive even when the Church itself becomes corrupt and lazy.

And we are in the service of the truth. So, secondly, how does, how should the truth we serve affect us? Someone who thinks they know the truth when other folk don’t could be smug and self-satisfied, and liable to look down on others. But that’s not what this truth does to us if we really know it. The truth we know and hold is the truth of the cross, the truth of the love that holds nothing back, that gives everything, that lays it all down. This is a truth that convicts us, exposing our sin and frailty, that we’d like to hide away but can’t.

It was this truth that strangely warmed Charles Wesley’s heart, as he came to see that he’d nothing of his own to be proud about. Like Paul, he could boast only about Jesus Christ, and him crucified. But he also knew that despite his own deficiency he was known and treasured and loved, claimed by grace. And there’s grace enough for everyone, the amazing grace of which John Newton wrote: “I once was lost, but now I’m found.”

And this truth will naturally lead us to be at peace with all. For there’s no-one to whom the offer of grace is denied. We who know the truth have the obligation to live that truth with humility and generosity. We serve and follow the Man for others: our highest aim is to be as like him as we can be. We may be small, but we’re still called by him to be in the business of “fishing for people.” We may be weak, but we have access to our Lord in prayer, and his Spirit is with us. And we’re surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses; our humble attempts at praise are joined with theirs.

The kingdom is everywhere and anywhere that God is praised and served and witnessed to. “Have no fear, little flock. Your Father has chosen to give you the kingdom.” That kingdom is witnessed to not by what we have, but what we give; not in status and worldly approval but in humility; in the sharing of peace and the outreach of a hand; and through amazing grace.


I've missed posting a weekly sermon over the past couple, not because I haven't preached, but because I just haven't quite got round to it! We are in the final run-up to my collation and installation service (i.e. the service at which I am formally made incumbent of the group of parishes in which I have been ministering on a semi-formal basis since the start of the year). That takes place at St Michael's Church, Chirbury, Shropshire on Tuesday 4th September at 7 pm.

But meanwhile parish life goes on, and - bearing in mind that I am supposed to be giving Sunday and the equivalent of two days each week - it certainly fills up all the time available, and a bit more. Last week that included the wedding of Mark and Aimie at Trelystan, one of my churches which is situated in a field on the top of the Long Mountain, just a short way into the Welsh side of the national boundary between England and Wales. There were eighteen bridesmaids, which beats my previous record of eight by some distance! They and the bride (and the bride's mother) all arrived sitting on straw bales on a trailer towed by a John Deere tractor. They were making more noise than the tractor. A very enjoyable occasion, even if Aimie and her entourage were a little late arriving! I wish them well!

In between parish duties, I set up sound relay systems for events, often for funerals where the congregation is likely to overflow the church or chapel. We had one such on Saturday at Kerry, piping the service out from the little Baptist chapel there into the beer garden of the Kerry Lamb pub just behind the chapel (there's a door from chapel to beer garden, which struck me as novel). We had maybe thirty or more outside. There was, however, a wedding at the same time at the parish church not far away. We'd been asked to keep the volume down so as not to disturb the wedding; in fact, as the wind was blowing from the church to us, the problem was more the other way round! But I think we managed to balance things fairly well.

Anyway, I shall post two sermons - one I preached last Sunday evening at Newtown Methodist Church, and the other today at my church at Leighton, and also (slightly amended) at the wonderful little Methodist chapel at Pentre Llifior, between Berriew and Bettws Cedewain, a place full of history and well worth a visit, but with a lively and very outward looking congregation.

Monday, 6 August 2018


A few words penned for tonight's Taize service at Trelystan, on the Long Mountain . . .

Here we are in a fairly high place, on the traditional day when the Church remembers and celebrates that strange event called the Transfiguration, that happened in a high place. In scripture, hills and mountains are often holy and special places, and Jesus often went up onto a hillside to pray. On this occasion he took Peter and James and John with him, and they saw him transfigured, shining with a dazzling whiteness. With him are the two great heroes of the Jewish faith, both of whom were recorded as having not died, but been taken up bodily into heaven.

What really happened up there? All we can really say is that it was something special, remarkable, and very strange. And just a fleeting glimpse: after a moment Jesus was just Jesus again; and they had to go back down the mountain, back into the rough and tumble of life at ground level. They were headed for Jerusalem, and Moses and Elijah had been talking with Jesus about what he would be in Jerusalem to do. I don’t suppose very much of what the three disciples had seen made very much sense - not then. When everything seemed to go wrong in Jerusalem they were as shattered and fearful as any of the others. Later, in the light of Easter, they would come to understand more clearly, but there was a lot they would have to go through first.

“Now we see through a glass darkly,” wrote St Paul in chapter 13 of I Corinthians. “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.” I have a habit on these warm sunny days of wearing my clip on sun glasses, forgetting to take them off when I go inside, and then wondering why everything around me’s so dull. Now we see through a glass darkly. I think that’s true, generally, in life. We don’t see or understand everything there is to see. So was Jesus really transformed and transfigured on the mountain, or was it that the three disciples were suddenly able to see him as he always really is? Did scales somehow fall from their eyes - or maybe from their minds - that for most of us, most of the time are firmly held in place?

Theologians - and psychologists - talk about “disclosure moments” - times when the penny drops, times when we suddenly come to understand something that up till then was closed off from us, times when we see the world around us with a new and discerning clarity. For some it could be the moment of being brought to faith; for some it could be the discovery of a particular call, a decision made, a direction set for future travel; or it could be a sense of profound and unfailing peace to help bring us through a difficult or sad or testing time in our life’s journey. It can happen during prayer or on a retreat; or it could be sparked off just by something someone says, or the particular words or tune of a song; it could be the view from a mountain-top, for they always are special places; it could be a great cathedral or abbey. But it could be anywhere, and maybe just out of the blue; it can’t be planned for or generated, it just happens.

Or at any rate that’s my experience: they happen, they’re real, and they’re precious but brief and momentary things, that won’t necessarily change the whole course of a life. Though sometimes, for some people, they may do. For me the disclosure moment or religious experience has usually been mostly a bit of a nudge. But to me it seems that these moments are always given for a purpose: maybe to correct me, maybe to confirm a call, or to restore my confidence and faith. But not just to make me feel good - what we’re given we’re given to use and to share.

And so it was for the disciples that day: what happened on that mountain, when they saw for a moment the truth of Jesus the Son of God - this was part of the process of formation that would turn them from being disciples - learners and followers - into apostles: into those sent to share the message, and to lead the way. “This is my Son, my beloved,” said the voice they heard. “Listen to him.” And so must we, for we share their call to sing God’s praise and share God’s glory not just in the special moments but in every part of our lives.

Friday, 27 July 2018


Travelling by road in my parishes has been interesting, to say the least, over the past few months. Potholes have been opened up in roads in every part of the land, due to a combination of poor investment in road maintenance and last winter's seriously wintry conditions.

My patch straddles two counties. Powys did temporary fills fairly quickly, and since then have done quite an impressive amount of resurfacing, in our area anyway (maybe we're just lucky, and other parts of the county haven't fared so well, I don't know).

Shropshire, however, seems to have done very little temporary filling. Many months ago, people came out and painted yellow lines around the worst of the potholes. Then, it seems, they sat back and waited for the pothole fairies to come and fill the holes, which of course, they didn't. Later, as new holes had appeared, people came out and painted white lines round these ones. And I think they had another go with the yellow paint after that. Drivers had resorted in some cases to driving down the middle of the road, while others swerved violently from side to side. The holes, for most part, remained unfilled.

My own personal bill came to £250, or thereabouts - the cost of two tyres. The first of these was damaged - I think - by a very deep pothole on the main A490 near Chirbury. I can't be sure, as I only observed the problem a few days later - seeing a bulge in the sidewall as I washed the car. By then, Shropshire Council had (somewhat surprisingly) filled that particular hole!

The second one went in a more spectacular way, on the lane between Chirbury and Priestweston. A huge hole has opened in the lane a little way short of Priestweston village, largely due to the heavy rainstorms we've had. A culvert has collapsed, it seems. I swerved to my right to avoid it. Many previous drivers had done the same, resulting in the erosion of the verge on that side, leaving some nasty rocks projecting out. One of those pierced my sidewall, there was a loud bang and I limped into the village, fortunately finding a safe place to put the car, and a parishioner with a phone to call the AA.

My car does not carry a spare wheel, and the stuff they give you to repair a tyre stood no chance with this sort of tear. The AA man, bless him, managed after several tries to close the gap with a nut and bolt, closing onto large washers on the inner and outer wall. He then accompanied me on my slow journey home, re-inflating the tyre on three occasions as we found places to stop. I could have been waiting many hours for a flatbed truck otherwise!

Our local County Councillor, Heather, organised a public meeting earlier this week at Priestweston Village Hall to test public opinion on the pothole situation - particularly as the Council's response to complaints and claims regarding "the big hole" has been to close the road, which is the main route into one of the less easily accessible villages on my patch. It is still passable, with care, as I proved the other day - but of course if any further damage had been caused I would have had no claim. Not that I have claimed - I was going to replace that tyre anyway by the end of the summer. I just want them to get on and fill the holes.

The senior officer who attended the meeting had to endure some stick; but he made promises that the work on most potholes would be completed within two weeks or so (a new machine has been hired in, and it will be based in our part of the county). Re-opening the road to Chirbury will take longer, because the culvert will require extra work. The best he could promise there was that work should be under way during August. We'll see. It's also worrying that substantial amounts of money have had to be diverted from the already shrinking fund for capital projects, to enable this work to be done. The pothole scourge is partly the result of inadequate capital investment, after all.

But it's clear that things need to be done better than they have been. It's certainly not clear to me why the people filling the holes should not themselves be allowed to identify what holes need filling, for example. And comments like "I can't fill that one, it's not on my list," are just ludicrous.  Meanwhile, the summer heat (combined with passage of heavy vehicles) has started to do serious damage to the road surface in some places, while holes that have been there since January remain unfilled.

I should mention that Powys apparently has the worst maintained roads in Wales . . . but on my patch they're better than the Shropshire roads.