Saturday, 18 May 2019

All You Need Is Love

Jesus said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Later, he went on to tell his disciples that “everyone will know you’re my people by the way you love each other.” The Beatles sang, in 1967, “All you need is love.”

To love one another sounds easy enough in theory, but it gets a bit more tricky when you come to actually do it. Where are the limits? Even loving our families, friends and neighbours isn’t always easy. Rifts and arguments can happen in the closest families, and even best friends can fall out; and that’s before we get to the stories of problem neighbours, and shared drives, new extensions, noisy parties or Leylandii hedges.

What Jesus actually said was this: “As I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So we are to love in the way that Jesus loves, to be like him in our loving. Jesus was quite blunt about it. He told the people: “You’ve heard it said that you should love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but what I say to you is this: love your enemy, and do good to those who hate you.”

That widens the boundaries quite a lot. The list of people we should love includes the postman and the dustman and the girl who delivers the paper, the person on the till in Tesco, the guy who just took the parking space you were aiming for, the person who cheated on you or told lies about you, the person whose different language or colour or faith you find uncomfortable or even threatening, and even those who make themselves your enemy by the nasty things they do. It’s not easy, but Jesus loves all these people, so we should too. And we have also to love ourselves. That isn’t always easy, either.

In John chapter 14, Jesus calls himself the way. Thomas had said to him, “We don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” and he replied, “I am the way; I am truth and life.” The very first Christians weren’t called Christians; they were called “Followers of the way”.
And to be true to Jesus, the Church isn’t a fixed thing so much as a movement: a movement of people doing their best to continue his work of transforming lives and changing the world for good. Jesus told the people that before anything else they should seek the kingdom of God.

And love is there at the heart of the kingdom. Think of the great chapter 13 of Paul’s First Letter to Corinth, which is all about love. This is what Paul wrote: “Love is patient and kind. “Love envies no-one, is never boastful, never conceited, never rude; love is never selfish, never quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs, takes no pleasure in the sins of others, but delights in the truth.” If you take the word “love” out of each place in that passage where you read it, and replace it with the name “Jesus”, you realise that Paul isn’t writing about the ideal of love, but the person of Jesus. What you can then do, of course, is to put your own name in, in place of the name of Jesus. That gives us something to aim at!

So maybe a true Christian is the person who dares to give a smile when others are all frowning, or the person who offers a helping hand to the guy everyone else is walking past. Jesus told people they should turn the other cheek, and walk the extra mile. The poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island.” We human beings live in connection with one another - that’s part of what makes us who we are. And even little choices in life can have a real impact. Think of those grouchy days when everyone seems to be frowning and unhelpful; on days like that it’s hard not to do the same. So if we’re following the Way of Love by smiling we’ll be out of step with the rest of the world, or that’s how it may feel.

But we need to be out of step; that’s the challenge. For if we choose to smile, that starts a ball rolling, and if we join everyone else in frowning, that does too. What we choose to do has an impact beyond ourselves, whether for better or for worse.

Christ’s Way of Love imagines a future in which all have what they need, and commits us to work for it: for every one of our neighbours to have enough to eat, and safe shelter, and good and warm clothes to wear, and something to smile about.

The fact that most people in this country do have these things is testimony to people in past ages who worked to make that happen, many of them because they were following Christ, following Christ’s Way of Love. We have what we have because people before us dared to care beyond themselves. The fact that many in the world still don’t have these things shows there’s still a way to travel.

Last week we asked the question “Where do we go from here?”, and Mark and Lizzie Hackney talked to us about mission. In reply, they didn’t actually say, “All you need is love” - but that’s what they meant. They challenged us to think about how each one of our churches can be a blessing for the communities we serve. If we are blessed (and we are), we should aim to share that blessing, and God’s love, as widely as we can.

That’s what Jesus called his friends to do, when he said, “As I have loved you, you are to love one another.” We could love in a way that excludes others and turns us into a holy huddle, but that’s not how Jesus loved. To love like Jesus is to love without limit and to love without precondition. That’s the mark of the love divine we sing about: it’s love that makes a difference, that lifts up, that opens doors, that heals. And that’s what the apostle John had in mind when he wrote: “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” He’s calling the people of Jesus to live and to share the love we find in Jesus, and if we’re doing that, we’re doing mission.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Mary's Gift

A sermon for Passion Sunday morning, based on John 12.1-8 :-

Today begins the season within a season that we call Passiontide - taking us from today, the 5th Sunday in Lent, through Holy Week to the cross and the tomb. Within these fourteen days there are many themes on which to reflect, many emotions with which we come into contact. That’s true even in the two readings we’ve heard this morning. Neither of them actually mentions the cross, but the cross stands at the heart of what each of them has to say. We hear Paul defending his Jewish credentials against those who it seems have been saying he’s a traitor to his Jewish faith. On the contrary, he says, I’ve found the answer to a question my faith as I once knew it could never answer. And that answer is Christ Jesus. We’ll come back to Paul the Pharisee, and what changed him, a bit later.

First let’s think about our Gospel reading, where Jesus is anointed with costly oil, and Judas is mightily offended by it. It’s a story of generous giving, it’s a story about love; and there’s perhaps a hint that those friends of Jesus at Bethany, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, knew more or suspected more about what lay ahead for Jesus than did his disciples.

The giving - and, more to the point, the receiving - of gifts can be a minefield in public service. Take these words from the guidelines regarding the Planning Inspectorate, for example. “It is an overarching principle that individuals working for the Inspectorate must adhere to the highest standards of public service. Dealing with offers of gifts, benefit or hospitality - if ever in doubt a polite but firm refusal is the right action.  The Civil Service Code states that Civil Servants must not accept gifts or hospitality or receive other benefits from anyone which might reasonably be seen to compromise their personal judgement or integrity.” Which might reasonably be seen by whom, I wonder? And when? What might seem an innocent act of friendship now might look very different with hindsight, especially where something goes wrong.

Anyway, the reasoning behind these kind of rules is clearly sensible: an expensive gift could be seen as a bribe even if it was just given out of friendship. And even then it could influence a decision. But suspicion regarding generous giving isn’t restricted to the Civil Service. All of us probably tend to look a bit askance at acts of open extravagance, of money or expensive gifts being thrown around. We might mistrust the impulse behind the gift, or feel at a loss because we’re not in a position to be equally lavish in response: either way it can leave us feeling uncomfortable. So even without John’s rather snide remarks about Judas being a thief, the extravagant giving of Mary, filling the whole house with perfume, might have left us as uncomfortable, were we there, as it did Judas.

Our Gospel story unfolds with a sense of tension in the air. Jerusalem was a dangerous place, and though the disciples were convinced Jesus was going there as Messiah, and therefore bound to win the day, they also knew it was going to be pretty tough.

The previous chapter in John’s Gospel tells the story of Lazarus raised from the dead. That story must have spread widely and quickly, and it won’t always have been heard gladly. There were those who wanted rid of this man before he stirred things up any more. Some among the Pharisees were plotting to have Jesus killed; they believed that if they didn’t stop him the Romans would destroy the nation itself. So maybe Mary knew enough to fear she might be about to lose her dearest friend.

Our Lenten journey takes us toward Jerusalem, week by week. That’s especially true this year; most of our readings come from Luke’s Gospel, and that journey to Jerusalem is one of Luke’s great themes. We know that Jerusalem will be a place of challenge and pain and ultimately of a terrible and degrading death. And now we’re near the end of the journey. Next week we’ll stand at the foot of the cross to see our Lord breathe his last. But we know how the story ends, so we’re already planning for Easter.

That wasn’t so for the people gathered at Bethany that night. The disciples had dreams of a military victory and thrones from which they would share in the government of Israel. But Mary perhaps could think only of death; and maybe this anointing was her last desperate attempt to hold on to Jesus. Of course we can’t know, and the story doesn’t tell us. But we do know that while Jesus had only a little time left of his earthly journey, and maybe Mary could sense that, what he was going to do in Jerusalem would prove God’s abundant grace and boundless love. This is the God who restores the hopeless, who makes rivers flow in the desert.

And - as Jesus’ response makes clear - Mary’s generous gift is itself a testimony to and a reflection of that wonderful abundant grace, the amazing grace of which John Newton sang. In this Gospel we see two contrasting ways of responding to the problems and challenges of life. Mary, in gratitude for her brother Lazarus’ life, but maybe also aware that Jesus will die in Jerusalem, gives with absurd generosity; and with abandonment too - see how she wipes his feet with her hair. The disciples would have been very disturbed to see such a flagrant declaration of love. It won’t only have been Judas who felt uncomfortable.

And meanwhile, just off the edge of the picture, we have the Pharisees, and others who joined them – and eventually, the Roman authorities too – responding in a way that’s all too familiar. They are privileged people who feel their power base to be under threat. So they do whatever they can to tighten their grip and reassert control. And if that requires a death, then so be it. The end, it seems, will justify any means to hand.

Mary’s way is to give all we’ve got; while the Pharisees and their allies aim to do whatever it takes to keep control. We instinctively label the Pharisees as the baddies, and it’s clear that John had it in for Judas when he set this story down; but, be honest: most of us, in a similar boat, might also opt for their way, and to do what we can to keep control.

We might even find ourselves agreeing with Judas. “It’s such a waste! Think how much good could have been done with all the money that oil cost!” And then of course there was Mary’s sensuous and abandoned behaviour: no respectable woman would wear her hair down in company, let alone use it in such a flagrant fashion.

And, as I’ve said, we may well feel discomforted by acts of excessive generosity. Our culture encourages us to take only measured risks, and of course, in many ways that’s wise. But our God has no use for cost-benefit analysis, he’s profligate in the generosity of his grace; we see his grace in Jesus, who calls us to be like he is and to do as he does: to take the risk: give without counting the cost, love one another as I love you.

And this seems to lead me back to Paul. In his former existence as a sincere and zealous Pharisee, Paul thought he was serving God by doing all he could to keep control, and by persecuting the followers of this dangerous man Jesus of Nazareth. He was getting it badly wrong, but he did what he did because he wanted to do what he thought God wanted. And by keeping control and working to fulfil every point of the Law, he thought he was getting it right.

He had to meet Jesus on the road to Damascus before he could see the truth, that ultimately those who aim to keep control lose it, and lose it for ever. Even the most zealous keeper of the Law will still fall short of the perfection of God; and those who live by the Law can only be judged by the Law.

That’s where Paul was until, as he put it, “Christ took hold of me.” He came to see that what happened on the cross begins a new story: a story of generous love, the love that’s mirrored in that lavish gift of perfumed oil that filled the house with fragrance. God’s love is like that, only much, much more. So may we embrace the impulse we usually deny, to give as abundantly as we can. We know how the story ends: God makes rivers flow in the driest desert. So shouldn’t we be kneeling with Mary in that perfumed room rather than standing with the Pharisees in their quest to keep control?

Entering Passiontide

A sermon for the evening of Passion Sunday, based on Luke 22.1-13 :-

As we enter the story of the Passion in St Luke’s Gospel, the tension is building. A number of factions among the Jews were anxious to silence Jesus, each one of them anxious to defend their rights and privileges, and scared to rock a boat captained by the Romans. The Pharisees with their emphasis on purity under the Law were scandalised that Jesus was happy to meet with people who were obvious sinners, even to party with them on occasion. He was undermining everything they stood for, and cheapening the Law of Moses, that’s how they saw it. The supporters of Herod, the dubiously Jewish tetrarch of Galilee, knew that if the Romans were ever to decide Herod was no longer able to keep order, he’d be out of power straight away. And the chief priests in the Temple needed to protect the fragile status quo of their city so as to make sure the Temple remained intact.

There were enemies on every side, but now also an enemy among Jesus’ own followers. Satan entered Judas Iscariot, John tells us. There are many theories about what motivated Judas. John’s Gospel presents him as a bad sort who stole from the common purse. But in that case why did Jesus tolerate him? Why had he called him in the first place? So had Judas had lost faith in Jesus, having presumed him to be what probably they all expected - a Messiah whose impact on Jerusalem would be political and military: a Messiah to remove the Romans and the Herods too, and restore the Kingdom of David. So why was nothing happening? Did Judas decide it was better to do a deal and then look elsewhere?

Or did he have a slightly different motive? Maybe it wasn’t that he’d lost faith in Jesus, but that he’d decided he needed to do something that would provoke Jesus into action; something to start the ball rolling. What better than to stage an attempt to arrest Jesus? Surely that would force him to fight back. That might explain his suicide. When the fight he’d hoped to provoke didn’t happen, Judas realised, too late, who Jesus really was.

We can’t know, we can only speculate. But when Jesus said of Judas, “It would be better for that man had he never been born” I don’t think he meant that in a condemnatory way; I believe his words were spoken with a huge depth of sadness. Jesus knew that when he came to his senses Judas would be loaded with a greater weight of grief than anyone could ever bear. And so it was.
With or without Judas, the forces of darkness were drawing ever closer. A feature of the Passiontide stories is the sense of arrangements being made in which the disciples themselves have no part. So who was arranging things, then? Who made sure people knew beforehand that a donkey was needed for the journey into the Holy City? Who made sure a room was made ready for the Passover supper to be prepared?

I have a theory. I think it was Mary and Martha. They lived just outside Jerusalem at Bethany and presumably knew people there. The disciples wouldn’t have, being Galileans. Mary and Martha were clearly very close to Jesus, added to which women might well attract less attention than men when arranging these things at a tense and dangerous time.

The story rings very true, anyway. The authorities wanted Jesus in custody, but they knew they’d no chance of making an arrest while Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people in the streets and squares of the city. They needed him to be in some quiet place, where there were as few supporters as possible to cause trouble or raise a hue and cry. Jesus himself chose that place, as we will see as we read the rest of the passion story. But in tonight’s reading Jesus needs a different quiet place, one his enemies won’t find, so that he can do this special thing - eat with his disciples the supper at which he’ll break bread and share wine using special and provocative words. words that join them and us to the cross. The disciples must look for a man carrying a water jar. That’s women’s work, not something you’d find a man doing. But he’s there and they follow him.

And when they enter the house he’s entered, they’re expected. They speak to the householder, who directs them to the room that’s been made ready. We don’t know who any these people were. Not the owners of the Palm Sunday donkey, nor the householder. People like to speculate: was the owner of the house Joseph of Arimathea, for example? But maybe it’s no-one we’ve heard of. What all of this does suggest is that, while most of the followers of Jesus were from Galilee, there was a Jerusalem network too. And surely one vital link was Mary and Martha.

When you read Luke’s account of the passion - or any of the others - what strikes you (what strikes me, anyway) is the amount of careful planning that’s gone into it all, in which Jesus is working closely with some trusted allies. They may not have known quite why they were doing what they did, and the disciples themselves seem almost blissfully unaware until the last moment: but Jesus himself was very deliberately poking a stick into the hornet’s nest of his enemies, forcing their hand almost - backing them into a corner from which they were pretty much bound to take the course of action they eventually did.

This is what he knew he must do, and the timing of it all was all as he arranged it. In other words, this is a deliberate act of sacrifice, not the sabotaging of his plans by others. Jesus knew by now what Judas was going to do, and he knew that the garden was the place where he would be taken. But before that he needed to do this vital and special thing that would connect his disciples in - connect us in too - to that sacrifice. A Passover meal, a celebration of God’s deliverance - at which he will say, “This is my body, do this in remembrance of me.” Only he can do this work, but he chooses to join us to what he alone can do. Soon the disciples will see their master a broken man, hauled away by unbeatable powers. Except that what really happened was the exact opposite of that. What we really see is Jesus choosing to do what he alone can do, while his enemies are mere pawns in that play.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Pollution, Plastic, Litter!

I was doing some litter picking not far from where I live the other day, and I came across this. I cleared what I could, but sadly this stream isn't accessible to the public, so I could only gather what I could reach over the fence . . .








Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Problem of Pain

Today’s Gospel reading is quite a difficult read right from the start. What are the events being talked about? It’s hard to be sure, though they’re clearly quite tragic. I’ve read a number of different theories, and the one that makes most sense to me is that both events - the murdered Galileans and the people killed when a tower fell on them - both events are linked to a project initiated by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate that aimed to improve the water supply to Jerusalem. That seems a very worthy initiative, and it was much needed, so you’d think it would have been popular with everyone.

But Pilate had decided to fund his project with money from the Temple treasury. I’m sure that seemed to him a sensible and practical way to do it. Jerusalem needed a water supply, so Jerusalem should pay for it. And since most of the money that came into the holy city ended up in the temple treasury, it surely made sense to use that money for this project.

But the people of the city, along with the many pilgrims who came to the Temple, were appalled at the thought of temple money being taken by the Romans. The Jewish equivalent of les gilets jaunes were soon out on the streets. Pilate’s response was to get his soldiers to mingle with the crowds in the disguise, so they could then deal with the trouble makers by falling on them with cudgels at a given signal. And that’s what they did, but with a vengeful violence that probably exceeded what Pilate had decreed. Still, no matter, order had been restored. And there would certainly have been Galilean pilgrims there. Maybe a group of them joined the protest, or maybe they were just there to make sacrifice, bystanders who got caught up in it all, with fatal consequences.

As for those killed when a tower fell: maybe they were Jews who’d taken Pilate’s penny (in other words, money from the temple) to work on the project. So when the tower fell on them and killed them that could have been seen as a just punishment from God for having received money stolen from his temple.

As people brought this news to Jesus, or asked him about it, were they pondering the question people have always asked, “Why did this tragedy happen to these people?” Did they think they knew the answer? What about the question behind that question: Why is there so much suffering in the world? Is suffering inextricably linked to the way we behave, the way we live our lives? But in that case, why do bad things happen to good people? Is all suffering caused by God? Should we think of suffering as a form of Divine punishment?

In his little book “The Problem of Pain”, one of our set books at college as I recall, C.S. Lewis looks at these questions and is forced to conclude that “The existence of suffering in a world created by a good and almighty God . . . is a fundamental theological dilemma and perhaps the most serious objection to the Christian religion.”  And it is, he’s right.

The people who came to Jesus had already come to a conclusion, I think, about those who died in these two disasters. They’d been punished, so they must have sinned, they must have transgressed. There was an obvious reason for the deaths of the eighteen people killed by the falling tower; and the Galileans? they too must have done something bad.

Many Christian scholars through the ages have tried to find a reasonable and logical answer to the problem of pain. At college, along with C.S. Lewis, we read Irenaeus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth and many besides. Lots of attempts to answer the problem of pain - but every one fell short, or so it seemed. And it’s not just a question for religious people. Everyone faces it, in all walks of life. We all know of good people to whom bad things have happened. Sometimes we can see a cause, sometimes we can identify someone to blame. But not always by any means. Suffering just happens; perhaps I can reduce the risk of suffering happening to me, but nothing I do will make completely immune from it.

We may come up with ideas like “Only the good die young,” even though that too is patently untrue. It’s certainly not a new question, as we see when we read the Old Testament Book of Job, Job’s so-called friends see the string of tragedies that befall Job himself, and all they can say is well-meaning but stupid things like, “You need to call on God, you should be praying harder” or “Things could be worse,” or even “God’s punishment is lighter than you deserve.”

The last seven or eight days have seen terrorist attacks, in New Zealand, in Holland . . . and we’re rightly distressed to read of the victims and their stories. “Why are these terrible thing happening to such innocent people?” we ask.

But when Jesus was asked to comment on the two tragedies in our Gospel this morning, he made it very clear to those who came to him that the people who died were neither better nor worse than other folk. Insofar as we’re all sinners, we all stand in some way under the same sentence of death.
And it isn’t that there’s a direct causal relationship between sin and suffering, that God chooses to zap us in response to our sin. It’s not that simple; and yet there is a link, for all that. Sin causes suffering.

Let Pilate’s actions stand for the injustices perpetrated by those in powerful places. The high-handedness of tyrants and dictators - though even those elected democratically can act in ways that prove unjust, uncaring or just plain foolish, and these things cause hurt. Destructive behaviour, misuse of power, feuding and vengeance seeking - these are things that happen at every level of human life. The greed that grabs and hoards without considering the other; the anger that lashes out before trying to understand: all of these do damage, all have consequences. And as Christian folk we need to be ready to speak out and act against all that causes suffering to others, and also to be aware of these things in ourselves.

And that thought takes me back to the story Jesus went on to tell. What’s the meaning of the parable of the fig tree? Why did Jesus tell that particular parable, and why is it placed here in Luke’s Gospel? Here’s what I think.

Most of us would prize fairness as a vital human value, and it’s the sense of things “not being fair” that underlies our questions and anxieties about the problem of pain. God should play fair, and it feels as though he isn’t. Fairness means we’re rewarded for doing good and punished when we do wrong. Fairness suggests that when we do really well, we might get a special pat on the back, or even a bonus. And those who get things badly wrong should be excluded, or get the sack.

In the story what the landowner says sums up what most of us think of as fairness: “Look! For three years I’ve been coming for fruit from my fig tree, and still there’s none. Get rid of it - why should it go on wasting my soil?”

But the gardener begs him to let it stay another year; he’ll dig round it and add manure. And then if it bears fruit, it can stay; if not, it can be cut down. We may well think of the owner of the vineyard as standing for God; but what if we read this parable with God instead as the gardener? If you do, it becomes the manifesto, if you like, of the God who doesn’t operate according to the standard concepts of fairness that we employ - and if he did any of us might be rooted out as not fruitful enough. Our God is the God of patient and faithful tending, and he looks on us with hopeful expectation.

All we have is the present moment, and tomorrow is never guaranteed; now is the time for us to work at being fruitful, now is the time to oppose what causes hurt and discord. But  there’s a word of good hope for us in the story of the fig tree: a promise that, though tragic things will happen, God is still tending his garden. He still works in and through his people to bring light and life, love and peace to a broken and sinful world. May he work that work in us. Amen.

Friday, 15 March 2019

The Imitation of Christ - a sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent

The two vacant posts in our Deanery have now been advertised. I hear there’s been some interest, so I’m waiting hopefully to see if that translates into actual applications. Candidates would be coming to look round the parishes around the end of this month, I believe. Hearing that reminded of the day when I came to look at the Minsterley Group (with four other candidates) before my appointment there in 1993. I had four interviews. The toughest of those was with the wardens, but the toughest question I think was one asked at my interview with the bishop and the archdeacon of Ludlow, who at that time were still separate people, Ian Griggs and John Saxbee. I think it was Bishop Ian who asked “How will you go about being a wholesome example to your people, as you promised at your ordination?” 

“Goodness, did I promise that?” was my first thought. But of course I had, as part of the liturgy. As I said the words in the service, was I really applying them to me and my family? But they did apply to me and my family, of course. Now my kids are great, but no more so than anyone else’s. Back then they were just as prone as any other kids to have tantrums at just the wrong time. And, for all my saintly persona, after a sleepless night worrying about my tax return or the loss of five people from the electoral roll, followed by twin daughters acting up as I tried to feed them breakfast, I found it hard to be sweetness and light in church on Sunday, or queuing at the bread shop for my Monday loaf.

Maybe if I’d had my fingers crossed behind my back as I made my ordination vows? Well, no: anyway, the fact is that being baptised and confirmed imposes the duty of setting a good example not only on me but on all of us. We should all be living a Christ like life. One of the main reasons given by those who feel they need an excuse not to come to church is that “People in church are no better than the rest of us,” or even, “Church is just full of hypocrites!” My response to that is usually to murmur that no, it’s not full, we can generally fit a few more in.

So - I know I don’t always set the great example of faith and service that I wish I did. If I re-read even my best intentioned sermons I can’t help but find something in them of “Do as I say, not as I do.” So whenever I read this morning’s first reading, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I’m a bit shocked by it. I find myself thinking “How dare Paul say that?” How can he say “Join in imitating me”? Was Paul’s ego getting out of hand? Wasn’t he setting himself up for a fall? Life’s full of people set on pedestals and looked up to, imitated, copied, who then turn out to have feet of clay or worse.

So why would Paul say that? Well, here’s a thought. One of my first jobs was sandblasting electronic components in a large factory. We needed to be quick to keep up with the production line, and every component needed to be thoroughly cleaned, so we had to be accurate. I’d been told how to do the job, but when I actually started to do it I was slow and not very accurate. But one of the older hands stepped in and showed me how he did it, and by copying him I became quite good, certainly able to keep up with the pace of the line.

Because the best sort of learning is learning by example; being not told but shown how to do it. And Paul knew this. It was vital that his friends at Philippi, one of the churches he was closest to and fondest of, should have an example to copy and to imitate. It’s never enough just to be told, far better to follow the habits and practices of someone who’s already doing it, someone further down the road of learning than you are. Paul wasn’t perfect, and he never claimed to be, but he’d got some experience of being a disciple. He was already doing his best to follow Jesus, to imitate Jesus. So when he says imitate me, he’s not saying “See how great and wonderful I am”, he’s saying, “Imitate me in imitating Jesus Christ.” Do as I do: be like Jesus.

None of us lead perfect lives: fact. To do better we need to choose our role models carefully. What, who, are the good examples to aim for? Paul was telling the Philippians that there was no better role model than the one he followed. Jesus Christ. Imitate him - for if the example we follow isn’t worth imitating, we’re losing the game right from the start. 

Understanding that reassures me greatly. Fulfilling my ordination promise isn’t about me being perfect, but it does need me to be serious about what I’m doing. Paul said to the Philippians: “Be like me in following Jesus.” So who can I look to, to help me to follow Jesus, and imitate him? Paul himself is I think a bit remote: there’s lots in his writing I find exciting, lots that challenges me, but his letters are set in a very different world from mine. But you see, that’s why Paul was offering himself as an example then - not because he was doing it so well, though he didn’t do so badly, but because he was there, they could see him, they knew him, and they could understand him. So it was easier for them to relate how Paul did it to their own lives.

So when I need an example of Christian living, I could look to some of the present-day heroes of the faith, people whose courage I’ve admired, albeit from afar. Archbishop Tutu, whom I did once meet. Maybe the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis towards the end of the Second World War. I’ve admired his courage, and been inspired by his writing. Or maybe people who write honestly today about their discipleship struggles, like Adrian Plass.

But I think Paul also wanted the Philippians (and us) to think about how we ourselves can be examples and teachers, beginning with each other here in church, but also within the witness of our daily lives. People know what we do on a Sunday, so they’re likely to judge us on that, and to expect something from us midweek that testifies to our Sunday faith. And what they get they get, be it for better or for worse.

That can’t help but be a crucial element in my life as a minister. Even without my Sunday robes, my collar identifies me. And without my collar a lot of people still know me. So I’m not just Bill, I’m Bill the Vicar, which makes me Bill who knows and shows what being a person of faith is about. And if in an off duty moment I say something intemperate or do something uncaring, that’s a black mark not only against me but against the Church. And a hindrance to the Church in mission.

Now to a degree that’s true for all of us. It’s not that people expect me, or you, or any church member, to be perfect, but they do expect, or should, these two important things: firstly, that we really are doing our best to be like Jesus. And secondly, that when we don’t get it right we’re aware of that - in other words, we’re penitent.

In fact sometimes the best witness we offer to Christ is what we do when we get it wrong. That even applied to St Paul. When he got things wrong, which he did, he did his best to put them right, and to learn from them. I don’t remember how I answered Bishop Ian’s question, but if it was asked again now I’d want to say something about honesty. People don’t expect perfection from Christians, though they’d be right to expect a certain standard of goodness and kindness. But they do expect honesty.

Isn’t it painful to watch politicians when they get things wrong? They twist and turn on the hook, making this or that excuse. It seems a rule in political life never to admit to a mistake. You never say sorry, unless you’re saying sorry for something you yourself had no part in. When we make mistakes, when we fall short of the example we know Jesus has set us, we should fess up, admit to it, and aim to put things right and put ourselves right too. That’s the kind of honesty that leads to trust and sharing, and that opens our doors to others. It’s the honesty that builds a caring community, and that makes others not only want to imitate us, but also - I think, I hope - to join us.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Temptation - a sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent

It’s not often I get to quote from  Mae West at the beginning of a sermon, but here’s something she’s supposed to have said: “I was as pure as the driven snow - until I drifted.” Oscar Wilde is also generally good for a quote, and he famously said that he could resist anything except temptation. And also this: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

Well, temptation is high on our agenda today, as Lent begins and we consider the specific temptations experienced by our Lord as out in the wilderness he prepared for his ministry. Would Jesus have agreed with Oscar Wilde? Would he have sympathized with Mae West? Now I’m going to say yes he would (even if a qualified yes) in both cases. But let’s first of all look at the temptations he himself faced and indeed resisted.

Luke goes into some detail as he tells the story; and we see that firstly, the devil encourages Jesus to turn the stones of the desert into loaves of bread. Since Jesus had spent forty days not eating, he was pretty hungry. That provided the opening, but this temptation wasn’t just about solving Jesus’ own immediate hunger. Think about how good it would be if you really could turn stones into bread! Think of the suffering you could relieve, the empty stomachs you could fill, wouldn’t that make for a happier and better world? And straight away we see something important about temptation; we’re not often tempted into doing things that are obviously bad. Yes, there are those little insidious temptations that say things like, “Everyone else is doing it,” and “No-one’s going to know,” but on the whole temptation isn’t so much about doing bad things as about doing things for the wrong reason, or allowing the wrong things to take charge of our lives.

Like the second temptation where the devil offers Jesus political power. All this I will give you, he says. Surely me having power is fine if I’m going to do good things with it? Many a dictator has started out that way. Jesus is offered the potential to do good on a huge scale. Who wouldn’t go for that? But Jesus didn’t.

And then lastly the devil prompts Jesus to put God himself to the test. And in the process, I suppose, to dazzle the people into believing in him. If Jesus leapt from the top of the Temple, so that the angels could save him just as promised in Scripture, wouldn’t every religious leader fall in line behind him? 

Not a single one of these temptations was in itself a bad thing. But what every one was really doing was enticing Jesus to take a short cut rather than the path of doing his Father’s will. To set his own agenda, and to go for quick gains rather than what he was truly called to do. The devil basically admits that’s what he’s about when he says, “Just bow down and worship me.” These temptations are about turning aside from the true path, knowing better than God, and letting the devil take charge. If you prefer you can say, instead of “the devil”, expediency, lust for power, worldly ambition - the same thing applies.

Mae West was as pure as the snow until she drifted. I think Jesus would have sympathised with her drifting. That’s what most of us do, drift into sin rather than openly choose to do bad stuff. We get tempted by plausible suggestions. It’s like when a telephone con man reels you gently in, playing with your hopes and fears,  before he tricks you into doing the stupid thing, parting with a shedload of money or handing over the details of your account. You’re knocked off course, and you may hardly realise it’s happened. And that’s what sin is, by the way. The Greek word is hamartia. It doesn’t mean doing bad, naughty things so much as missing the mark, being off course.

Would Jesus have agreed with Oscar Wilde? Not entirely, since he didn’t give in to temptation. But he’d have recognised the truth in Wilde’s point that a temptation resisted doesn’t then go away and leave you alone; it grows more persuasive till the itch to have or do what you’re not allowed is so strong you can think of nothing else. Best to give in, Oscar Wilde said. Better to have a firm and secure answer to it, Jesus would have said, I think.

The temptations of Jesus in the desert were not a one-off thing. Out there Jesus could face up to them, and find the words to answer them (which we’ll come back to in a minute). But not to conquer them completely: they weren’t going to go away. They’d be there all through his ministry. At the end of the story the devil didn’t give up and run off with his tail between his legs. No, he simply held back and kept his silence until an appropriate time.

The temptations would only disappear if he gave in to them. That was Oscar Wilde’s theory, anyway. But Wilde was wrong to think so. Temptation doesn’t disappear if you give in to it. It may seem that way, for a while, but what really happens is that it mutates and grows, it snares more of your life and becomes more deadly. There’s no way to appease temptation.

Finding the words to answer temptation; knowing what the words and the thoughts were that would guide his life; that’s what Jesus was doing in the desert. The devil tries his hardest, his damnedest I guess you’d have to say, but Jesus is always able to put him in his place and silence him. How? By always quoting scripture. It worries me that Christians often don’t know or use the Bible as well as we should. We may have to work at it, but all that we need is there.

And that’s why we always read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert on the first Sunday of Lent. He took forty days to prepare himself, to tune himself into his Father’s will, and to use the Scriptures to answer and to shut out the insidious but ultimately discordant voices of temptation. We’re given forty days to do the same; to be aware of those areas of our Christian living where we lack discipline and order and to get ourselves back into gear. And remember how temptation doesn’t go away, and how to exploits every weak point. We should be constantly on our guard, against the forces that seek to jostle or cajole or steer us away from the path of obedience to the Gospel and to our Lord, wanting to take first place in our hearts.

For me that makes Lent a holy and blessed time; in these forty days God gives us time to measure up to temptation, and to renew our awareness of his word, and to restore some discipline in our lives; to take stock, to be clear about where we’re headed, and to be better aware of his call, and ready to serve.

And we need it because we’ll always fail and fall short. But though no-one can earn their way to God, God offers us life as his gift to us. Jesus actually spent a lot of time with the sort of people holy folk turned away from, and he seemed to enjoy and value their company. So maybe Lent needs also to be a time to expand our circles of awareness. What God offers is for everyone, not just a few. There may be only a few here today, but remember that there’s no-one out there that God doesn’t love. And he wants them to know that, and he wants us to part of how they find that out.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, missing the mark, and the Greek word for repentance - in this Lenten season of repentance - is metanoia. Now metanoia means “to change one’s mind or heart,”  or, more precisely, “to go beyond the mind we have now.” Lent is a time for repentance, and so we should think seriously about temptation and sin, but we asked for more than just that. Metanoia is also about seeing things - the world, other people, ourselves - in a new way, seeing beyond what we think we know.

So, as well as countering temptation and adding discipline, Jesus was preparing himself for a ministry that was completely inclusive, that reached out to all. And we too should be using Lent to learn new things, and to grow as God’s people. Thy will be done, we pray, and those four words are a good theme for our keeping of Lent. Thy will be done in me, in us, here in this place, and in the day the Lord is giving us. So may our Lent be a time of change, growth, and of seeing in new ways, and of getting ready to go beyond where we are now.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Transfiguration - a sermon for next Sunday

Jesus went up onto a mountain to pray. I can understand that. Mountains can be very good places on which to pray. We’re not short of high places and superb views round here, and one thing I’m aiming to do this year is to hold some “Forest Church” type worship events where for at least part of the time we’re out in the open air, perhaps walking, even climbing. The midsummer service at Mitchell’s Fold will be one of these, and of course that’s been going now for many years. I’ve often turned the circle of us inside out at that service, so that instead of looking in at each other we’re looking out across the moors and the fields. The wide view you get up there is so full of inspiration.

On this occasion Jesus took Peter and James and John with him, and it’s what they saw there that forms our theme for today - along with, I guess, why they saw it. We sometimes speak of a mountain top experience, meaning those dramatic and special times when we feel specially close to God, and more intensely aware of his presence and power. As someone once said to me, “There are places, special holy places, where the sky just seems thinner.” Such dramatic encounters with God, though, are rare, even I think for very holy people, which I am not.

But the main theme of this story, the Transfiguration, isn’t about us having special mountain top experiences. It shows us Jesus revealed as he fully and truly is. Peter, James and John are witnesses on our behalf to a lifting of the veil, a look behind the curtain that normally remains firmly drawn.

Tired out, they’ve been asleep as Jesus was praying - but as they awake they see his face and his clothes shining with a light so bright they can hardly bear it. All the glory of God is shining in this man, and he’s speaking with two men who can only be the two great heroes of the faith who were believed not to have died but to have been taken up bodily into heaven, Moses and Elijah. They’re speaking about the departure Jesus is to accomplish in Jerusalem. The Greek word translated here as departure is exodos.

The Book of Exodus - same word - describes the departure of the people from Egypt, and their journey across the wilderness to find their promised land. It’s a story of salvation, and of    re-creation, and so is this new exodos. Jesus in Jerusalem will release his people from slavery - will release all people, everyone who turns to him, from our slavery to sin and death.

But as he does this, what the disciples will see is a man broken, lost, degraded, defeated, falling victim to his enemies. And that will test their faith to breaking point and beyond. That’s why Peter and the others are granted this mountain top experience. We call it the Transfiguration because that’s what it seemed like to them. But was it, really? This isn’t Jesus changed so much as their eyes and senses being opened, activated, so they see Jesus as he always is. For everything Jesus is and says and does shines with the glory of his Father.

Peter and James and John couldn’t really understand what they’d seen till Easter; until they finally became convinced that their Lord was risen, that death no longer enslaved him. But they needed to see it now, before everything happened that would need to happen. In a few weeks’ time we shall see these three once again asleep while Jesus is praying - but in the Garden of Gethsemane, where they wake from sleep to see their Master all too human, all too frail, so easily captured and taken.

On the mountain, see how Peter tries to hang on to the moment. He wants to make shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah - it’s such a special place, and there needs to be some kind of shrine. But before he can do anything there’s a voice from heaven: “This is my Son, my chosen.” And then everything is as it was before. The mountain was probably Mount Hermon, and today there is a church, and pilgrims stream to it. But the message of the voice to Peter and the others is that it’s not the place that’s special, but the person. Jesus, with whom they’ll travel on to Jerusalem.

Moses and Elijah were, as I’ve said, the two heroes who were supposed not to have died but to have been carried up to heaven. Moses represents the Law, Elijah the prophets, and we’re reminded that Jesus said: “Don’t imagine that I’ve come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” What Jesus will go on to do is to complete the work of salvation spoken of in the Law and the prophets. And only he can do this. He is abused and spat upon; he is broken and pierced on the cross at Calvary. And love divine changes our life and destiny for ever.

Before these events, Peter, James and John are given a glimpse of that love divine. They see how - as Paul would later write, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Jesus is not just a good teacher, he is God incarnate, God present with us, God not abandoning us to our failure and our sin.

I’ve been trying to remember whether, when Ann and I visited Mount Hermon some years ago, our visit include the Eucharist, the Holy Communion. We celebrated communion at many of the places we visited, but I’m not sure we did there. I do recall thinking that while there’s something special of course about standing in the actual place where Jesus himself might have stood, I might have felt closer to the actual experience of the Transfiguration on some lonely stretch of moorland (which is how I picture it in my head), rather than in a church busily filled with pilgrims who travel up the hill in noisy Mercedes taxis.

But even so, I’d want to say that there is a real connection for me between that single event, the Transfiguration and the Holy Communion we celebrate week by week, connecting us to the Last Supper Jesus ate with his disciples. At Holy Communion we meet together and we meet also with our Lord. As we break bread and share the cup of wine his glory is both hidden and revealed in these two ordinary things. And perhaps, like Peter and James and John, we see just for a moment beyond the veil.

But it’s a moment only, this meal that we share. It’s not a place we can stay. On the mountain top, the voice from heaven spoke, the cloud lifted, the glory was veiled again, and all was as it had been before. And as we read on in chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel we see how Jesus and his companions went back down the mountain and straight back into the busy hurly-burly of life and ministry, all the time keeping on the road to Jerusalem.

“Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord,” we shall say as this service closes. What we’re given, the glimpses we may have of God’s glory, the sense of his presence and love which perhaps is that bit more intense in one of those places where the sky is thinner, or perhaps the taste of his saving love and the sense of his presence as we kneel to receive communion - these moments are given to inspire and encourage the rest of our living. For us to use and share; to further enable us to tell his story and bear witness to his love. Neither the mountain top nor the altar of our churches are places to stay; they’re places we’re sent out from, with work to do.

So may we shine as his lights, who is the light unconquerable, the love divine and eternal, our Saviour and our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Stilling the Storm - a sermon for next Sunday

Based on Luke 8.22-25 :-

The Sea of Galilee is really a lake rather than a sea, but it’s a big lake, and very prone, I’m told, to sudden squalls and storms. The squall that sprang up in the story we’ve just heard must have been pretty bad. There were seasoned sailors in the boat, and they were very alarmed. But Jesus had fallen asleep.

It’s no surprise that Jesus should have been so tired. He’d had a tough couple of days of intensive ministry. But a wooden boat like that would have got pretty noisy as the storm raged, so I’m surprised it didn’t wake him. He must have been really exhausted. So the disciples had to wake him; I’m not sure that they expected him to do anything - I imagine they just wanted him to help them stop the boat from sinking, and to save himself if it did sink.

But what Jesus did do was to rebuke the wind and the sea, and the storm ceased: the air and the water were still. And the disciples are amazed - who wouldn’t be? “Who can this be?” they ask. “What kind of man is this, that he tells the wind and the waves what to do, and they do it?”

They were beginning to realise what the apostle John later wrote, in chapter 1 of his Gospel: that “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.” The man they already honoured as teacher and leader was more than just that. For he spoke with all the authority of the Creator God.

Jesus responded to the panic of his disciples by asking, “Where is your faith?” In other words, “With me in the boat, how could you think we wouldn’t get through?” Fair enough, but it’s all too easy to panic when things begin to look stormy and rough. Or to get depressed and downhearted: you should hear how we clergy moan when we get together. And yet surely, if we’re with the Lord and he’s with us, if we’re really his folk, we should never allow the world around us to control us, to get us down, make us afraid or leave us feeling that we’re lost. We’re with the Word of God.

This is what Paul wrote to the church in Philippi: “I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” Now Paul was in fact no stranger to storms and hardship, and there were certainly times when he was tested so hard he was tempted to give in; but in the end his faith and his sense of Christ’s presence kept him confident and hopeful whatever the storms around him.

When we find ourselves in times of trouble, we probably end up asking, “How could this be happening to me?” - or even, “How could God let this happen to me?” Reading this story we could ask why God allowed a storm to threaten his Messiah and those with him. But nowhere in scripture does it say that God’s servants will have things easy - not all the time, anyway. Scripture’s full of times when folk were on the verge of giving up, because life was getting too tough. Like when the people rebelled against Moses in the wilderness, or like Elijah, ready to accept death out in the desert, or Jeremiah on numerous occasions. And many more besides. There’s a hymn I used to enjoy singing as a child that includes the great lines “Mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented, torn asunder, slain with sword” - a setting of the list in Hebrews of those who in times past had been tested for their faith in God.

Faith provides a rock on which to stand, in which our faltering faith is built into the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is, as Paul and Peter both tell us, the chief corner stone. Our faith will be tested through the trials of life, but as Peter wrote, our faith is tested by fire so that God may be glorified. And he was writing to people who knew direct and outright persecution.

“Why me?” we ask when things go wrong. But do we also ask “Why me?” when things go well. Why have I received this blessing? How can I use it and share it? How can God use me? Whatever faces us in our lives, good or bad, if our eyes and hearts are fixed on God we can make use of what we have, and can continue in faith and hope. We may be earthbound, but Christ makes us citizens of heaven.

And faith isn’t static, it’s not an intellectual belief in God. In scripture faith always leads to action, faith causes things to happen. Jesus said, “Where is your faith?” to his disciples. That’s not just whether they believe enough - it’s are they committed to him, to service and action and witness and work in his name.

Do you remember the man who asked Jesus to heal his son? His disciples had had a go at doing it, but without success, while Jesus was away praying on the mountain. “Do you believe?” Jesus asked the man when he took over. In some translations he says, “Do you have faith?” “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief!” replies the man, in the King James version. A more modern translation has him saying “I have faith; help me where faith falls short.” That’s a prayer we all can and should be praying.

And there’s a message for us in the fact that the disciples, full of panic as they were, came and woke Jesus. They at least had enough faith to do that. Jesus rebuked them for the weakness of their faith, but nonetheless he stilled the storm. We don’t have to be superheroes of the faith in order to pray and know our prayers will be heard. We just have to do it. We don’t need special words, probably we don’t need much in the way of words at all, just to honestly present ourselves to the Lord. My faith may be something of a flickering candle, but when I come to God in prayer the bit of faith I have still finds a faithful response in him.

I say that with some feeling, because many of us as Christians feel vulnerable today. Our churches are small, much smaller than they used to be. Most of us are getting on a bit. It can maybe feel a bit too much like that boat, as the disciples desperately tried to bail the water out, only to find it flooding in faster than they could get rid of it. “Help us, Lord, we’re sinking!” we might well find ourselves praying. It’s easier to have a confident faith when we’re surrounded by people who think the same way; but it’s a lot harder when we’re only a few.

But if we’re in a position of trials and testing, it isn’t anywhere the Church hasn’t been before. We should neither panic or despair. What matters is not the strength of the storm around us, but the presence of our Lord with us. However small we are, however weak we may feel, have faith: the man whose teachings we follow is not just one teacher among many. He is the Word by whom all things were made. He stilled the storm on that lake, and he’ll see us through the storms of life. And though we will be tested and it will from time to time be tough, every time of testing is an opportunity to proclaim our faith and to bring glory to God’s name.

When our strength is weak and our nerve falters, help us, Lord, not to be controlled by the worldly forces around us but to have faith in you. Receive us and bless us, call us again to your service, and may we know the peace and calm of your unfailing love. Amen.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

On Being Blessed - a sermon for next Sunday.

(Luke 6.17-26)

The word “bless” is one we use a fair bit. “Bless you!” we say when someone sneezes. “Ah, bless!” we might say if we see something or someone cute, maybe if we see a little toddler taking his or her first steps. “Well, bless me!” we may say as a slightly old-fashioned expression of surprise. But what does it actually mean to be “blessed”?

In our Gospel reading this morning we heard Luke’s version of what in Matthew we call the Sermon on the Mount. The version in Luke’s Gospel is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain. We could discuss whether we have two accounts of the same event, or whether Jesus spoke on two occasions in similar vein. But in both accounts Jesus talks about the people who are blessed by God. In the version in Luke we heard today Jesus also mentions the people who are not blessed by God, and we’ll come to that later. But first, let’s think about what it means to be blessed.

The Greek word in the beatitudes that’s translated in English as blessed is Makarios. You may well recognise that word, if only because of Archbishop Makarios and Cypriot independence. His name meant “blessed”, even if our government didn’t think so at the time. Some modern translations translate makarios as “happy”, and that’s a reasonable translation of the Greek word, but I don’t think it goes far enough in this setting. Jesus is surely speaking about more than mere happiness - something about receiving God’s favour, being brought into his presence, knowing that we are accepted and have our place with him.

Mary, when in the Magnificat she says “all generations will call me blessed” uses the verb makarizo, which derives from makarios: all generations will recognize God’s presence with her, his choice of her, because of the child she bears. And God’s choice of her is because of the choice she has made. Mary said yes to what the angel asked of her. So we’re blessed when God recognises and affirms the godward choice we’ve made.

In our Gospel, those who are blessed have all made a choice for God; they’ve sacrificed material things or worldly status or happiness in order to serve him. That’s one reason why I’d want to say that makarios needs to mean more than just happy. We can be happy, for a while at least, with what we own or with our status or popularity. But those who are blessed have given up that kind of transient happiness for something more.

Or at any rate it’s not what they seek or value most, and mere happiness won’t replace the way of God and the worship of God in their lives. We can be happy whether or not we believe in God, and I guess most of us are, a lot of the time. But being blessed isn’t the same as being happy. Jesus never promised his disciples they’d be happy all the time. In fact he told them they’d need to take up their cross in order to follow him. But he did promise they’d be blessed by his Father.

Here’s what Paul writes in chapter 1 verse 3 of the Letter to the Ephesians: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places.’ That suggests that being blessed means we’re in some way participating in the divine nature. Elsewhere, Paul writes (Galatians chapter 3 verse 26): ‘in Christ Jesus you are all children of God, through faith.’ Jesus on Easter morning (John chapter 20 verse 17) sends Mary of Magdala to tell the disciples that he is ascending to ‘my Father and your Father.’ We’re blessed as brothers and sisters of Christ, our blessing makes us children of God. Whatever the world may throw at us, we can be sure of his accepting and redeeming love.

The quote from Ephesians used a different Greek word - not makarios, but eulogeo. Eulogeo is I think used more in scripture than makarios, in fact. Both words translate as the English word “blessed”, but there are different shades to their meaning. The tribute at a funeral service is sometimes called a eulogy, and this is the Greek word that eulogy comes from.

Of course, you don’t actually have to have died in order for someone to give a eulogy - a eulogy is in fact any speech of praise; and I might just mention that it’s a shame if we wait till they’re gone before we start praising people. It’s good that people know when they’re doing well; it’s good that people know when they are appreciated by others. Being British, we tend not to be too demonstrative; but sometimes we’re better at picking up on mistakes or sending letters of complaint than we are at praising or commending. Yet most of the time we’re treated well and there’s more good stuff than bad stuff in the world around us.

Anyway, to get back to my theme, eulogeo means blessed in the sense of being well spoken of, being recognised and affirmed by others. Another word for that might be worthy, like in the prayer that says: Lord, you are worthy to receive our praise and thanksgiving. And we know that our sin makes us unworthy, but we are made worthy by God’s grace and blessing.

Most services close with a benediction or blessing, and in many of our prayers we ask God to bless us. When we say “Bless me Lord” we’re asking God to speak well of us. If that sounds like a prayer for special treatment, look again at our Gospel reading. The people listed as blessed have all set aside earthly things and placed themselves in God’s hands. When we ask God’s blessing, that’s a purposeful thing: we’re only really ask God’s blessing when at the same time we’re offering ourselves to him. And his blessing is granted in our doing of his will, in our being light and hope and mercy for others, in our being channels in his name of love and peace.

After all, when God speaks his words are words of creation. Think of Genesis chapter 1: when God speaks, things come into being, creation happens, the world is made. To say “Bless me Lord,” is to ask for his word of re-creation in our lives, and for him to breathe his good purposes into us.

Matthew chapter 5 and Luke chapter 6 both list those who are blessed. But only Luke lists those who are not. Alas for you who are rich, he says. Alas for you who laugh. Now Jesus isn’t in fact condemning riches and happiness so much as short termism and short sightedness. It’s the people who don’t see beyond those transitory things who’ve put themselves outside God’s blessing. For God’s deep desire is to bless every single one of us. It was his word of blessing that brought all things into being. We push his blessing aside when we put our faith in transitory things, in the stuff that rots and rusts and gets moth eaten, and doesn’t pass the test of time.

To have those things may look good and feel good for a while, but in the end it’s a waste of our lives. I suppose the ultimate question at the heart of it all is: “Are we made for just this, the however many moments of our earthly lives, or are we made for more than this? Do we have the seeds of eternity within us?” You see, I think the people who are blessed are those who discern within themselves the seeds of eternity. They discover how God enriches us in blessing with a depth of joy - makarios - and speaks his affirming word into our hearts - eulogeo. To be blessed doesn’t mean we’re perfect, or that we get everything we want; it doesn’t mean we’re free of pain, or the life doesn’t continue to have it’s worries and troubles and struggles. Life goes on with all its messiness and uncertainty, but we are seeing beyond that. God’s blessing upon us requires that we first turn to him; but that blessing upon and within us makes us already citizens of heaven.

Friday, 8 February 2019

A Barn Owl by Day

We are so lucky to live in this part of the country - there’s so much variety in the landscape, with hills, woods, water, and a farming landscape with plenty of hedgerows and a fairly mixed agricultural economy. That doesn’t insulate us entirely from the big declines there have been in many formerly common farmland species. Turtle doves are no longer a feature of our summer landscape, for example, and birds like yellowhammer and corn bunting that I used to see easily I now have to hunt for.  The curlew’s call has ceased to be the reliable indicator of Spring that it used to be, and the winter flocks of lapwings, if seen at all, are much smaller than I remember them as a child.

But I was delighted the other day, driving up into Forden on the road from Chirbury, to have a really good and close view of a barn owl. It was late afternoon, but a very bright and sunny day, and the owl was just to my right, flying along the top of the hedge. This is something barn owls do a lot, and sadly quite a few are hot by vehicles. I recall standing for a long time outside the Halfway House pub on the Welshpool to Shrewsbury road, watching a barn owl drifting up and down the hedge on the other side of the road with solemn purpose.

But that was late at night, though under street lights. This was in bright sunshine, and the intricate patterning on its golden-buff back and wings was wonderfully visible. I was able to slow almost to the bird’s speed, there being nothing else on the road, and that allowed me to glance back at the distinctive heart-shaped face, which, like the underparts, is white. In fact the whole bird looks white when seen, say, in one’s headlights at night - and this, along with its shrieking cry which is uttered in flight, has given it a reputation as a bird of ill omen in folklore.

Like most owls, the barn owl is a night feeder, and you would think was plenty enough darkness at this time of the year, without the bird needing to hunt by day. However, we had had a touch of hard weather with some ice and snow, limiting the bird’s hunting options - and the breeding season starts quite early for barn owls. They can sometimes have two broods in the year, but they begin to breed in February or even earlier in a mild season, and it’s not impossible that this bird already had young to feed.

Barn owls feed mostly on voles, mice and rats, but will take other prey too. They do of course nest in barns and other buildings, but also in holes in trees or cliff sides. As with other birds of prey, the indigestible parts of their prey are egested as pellets, and examining these will give an idea of what the birds have been able to catch. The barn owl is found very widely in the world, and in most parts of the British Isles, but they are at risk from changes in the way we live and farm, and I’m glad to still see them fairly frequently in these parts.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Sermon for the 4th Sunday before Lent (proper 1)

Readings - I Corinthians 15.1-11, Luke 5.1-11 :-

Fear is an element in both our readings today. Paul, writing to the church he helped to found in Corinth, hints at the story we know from the Acts of the Apostles - how on the road to Damascus he encountered Jesus, and was blinded by that experience, but also changed - changed from the chief persecutor of the followers of Jesus into an apostle, into a teller of his story. And then in the Gospel we find Simon Peter terrified by the amazing haul of fishes he and his companions have brought up from the lake in response to what Jesus has told them to do. They’d fished all night without a catch, remember - and night is the time to fish, not a bright sunlit morning. His fearful response is to say - go, leave me, I’m a sinful man, I can’t cope with this.

Fear can paralyse us into doing nothing, keeping things as they are, refusing to change. Fear can persuade us that we can’t do it, that we’re not worthy of this or that responsibility, even that people won’t like us, or that what we say or do or offer will be rejected. Fear often works against reason, and it allows us to imagine only the possible bad outcomes as we look to the future. And although fear is actually a good thing, in that from our early days it helps keep us safe, if we allow fear to become our whole story, we’ll be trapped by it.

A phrase often used in church language but not much understood by the rest of the world is “the fear of the Lord.” God saves those who fear him, we say. The problem is that we tend to associate fear with cowering in terror, hiding under a rock, so fearing God translates in terms of fleeing from his wrath, hiding because he has the power to do terrible things to us. Because we’re not good enough, and never good enough, and he’s bound to punish us. Well, you can find something of that in the Old Testament, and maybe Peter’s response to Jesus is rather an Old Testament response. Peter recognises in Jesus the power of God. This man in his boat is not just a rabbi, he’s something so much more. And Peter is terrified. I’m not good enough for this, he realises.

So his reaction is to say, “Go, leave me!” It’s more than just uncomfortable to have God in his boat! But all through the Gospels we see how Jesus comes to where people are. And just as Jesus came to Simon Peter in his boat, and to so many others as he travelled and taught, so he comes to where we are; and yes, that can be uncomfortable, and yes, we can be very aware of our own deficiency, but he comes to call us, to enrol us, to ask us to do things. And he comes with love, he comes to change us, and to change the direction of our lives. I don’t know who first said this, but it’s a quote that’s often used: “God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way.”

To stay the same would be to go against what are baptized to be. To follow Jesus means not staying as we are, but growing in love, and accepting his challenge to live in a way that will help make the world around us a better place. It means responding to his love for us in the love we share and give and live. And we don’t have to be perfect in order for God to meet us and call us and use us - just willing as we are to drop our own baggage, to overcome our fears, and to say “yes” to his call to follow.

Peter and his friends did just that, once they’d brought their boats to shore, overflowing with the fish they’d caught. Luke tells us they followed him straight away. Jesus had told the fishermen that from now on they’d be catching people, not fish. And that they shouldn’t be afraid. The fish they’d caught were a sign of the blessing and the abundant mercies and the boundless love of God. As they set themselves to follow Jesus, the whole order of their lives had now changed, and even though things might get scary, even though there might be much in what lay ahead to make them afraid, they’d now be placing Jesus at the heart of every action or decision in their lives. They were replacing the fear that paralyses with the true “fear of the Lord” - which really means recognising God’s authority in our lives, placing him first, giving him honour in all that we do.

As Secretary of my local Rotary Club, I’m being bombarded at the moment with messages about making sure I’m using the right logo, because our corporate identity seems suddenly to have become really important. I’m getting some of the same from the Diocese as well, I have to say. Logos and straplines aim to establish identity, and to express common values and a shared ethic. That’s how business does it, and we’re all supposed to be getting more businesslike. Personally, I think too much emphasis on corporate identity can dampen individual flair and initiative.

But, having said that, I can also see how in business and more widely, it can be good to know clearly what your core values are. When major decisions have to be made about future policies or directions, it helps to ask “Will the outcome support our chosen core values?” - because if it won’t, then maybe those plans need to be changed. A clear sense of identity and purpose can make for clarity and consistency in planning, and that can help ensure that an organisation moves forward with energy and direction.

Applying that sort of ethos to Christian living, how might we, like Peter or Paul, place Jesus at the centre of our decision making and planning? I was always told to keep asking, “What Jesus would do?”, but maybe that’s not quite enough. I need also to ask, “What would Jesus have me do?” What is my list of values - and how do they square with the promises made at my baptism, or the list Paul gives us of the fruits of the spirit, or the “marks of mission” agreed by churches worldwide? These are values like aiming to serve Christ in all I do, being faithful to his example and word, proclaiming in what I say and do the gospel message of triumphant love in Jesus Christ; it has to do with meekness and  gentleness, with being a maker of peace, with being controlled in the way I see, act, respond. Do I really take these things as seriously as I should? Are they really at the centre of my life? And how would my life be different if they were?

At my collation service last September, I recall using the response, “I will, God being my helper”. To do it on my own won’t work - or to quote the old mission hymn “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way”. If I choose to follow Jesus, I’ll need God’s help to do it. There are too many other fears around, and the road ahead is unknown and full of challenge. To counter the fears that otherwise would tie me down, I need the fear of the Lord, I need to trust him as my Saviour.

So that’s my experience; my own preference might be to stay where it’s safe, to keep to what I know, to pull back from doing anything that might be scary, and to be much more aware of my limitations than my possibilities. In some areas of my life that very much continues to be the case. I am never going to get on a zip wire, for example, or do a parachute jump, and that’s that. But Jesus seems to have other plans for me than staying safe and settled. He insists on getting into my boat, no matter what. No matter whether I think I’m good enough, or able enough, or strong enough, no matter how great my fears might be. He says “Follow me” to all kinds of people, and he says it to me. Not just the once, but again and again: when I slip, when the fears take over, when I fall back or get discouraged, he says it again.

Jesus meets us where we are, and offers us his outstretched hand, calling us to travel with him into the unexpected, but meeting our fears with his grace, and inviting us to know his love and to share his love, as we follow.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Sermon at Candlemas . . .

Candlemas was actually yesterday, but the lectionary allows us to celebrate it today, so we will. It’s the last day of the Christmas - Epiphany season, and in fact it’s also one of the days people took to predict the end of winter. Here’s an old rhyme:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
If Candlemas be cloud and rain,
Winter be gone and not come again.

I’m sure that rhyme is the fruit of long years of observation and experience, so there'll be some truth in it. And if it reminds you vaguely of something else, that’s because February 2nd is also Groundhog Day in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the USA. If on that day a groundhog comes out and sees its own shadow, there’ll be six more weeks of winter; but if it can’t see its own shadow, that’s a sign that winter’s pretty much over. The custom probably came to Pennsylvania from Germany, where it referred to badgers rather than groundhogs. Whether it works as well in the USA as this side of the pond I couldn’t comment. But over here, bright and clear sunshine at the start of February can be a sign of a prevailing continental theme to the weather, so there’ll be low temperatures and sharp frosts. Cloudy conditions suggest that Atlantic weather systems are in charge, so we may have some mild south-westerlies bringing an early start to Spring.

Fat chance this year. And it’s not foolproof anyway, as another shrewd rhyme reminds us:
A farmer should on Candlemas day,
Have half his corn and half his hay.
In other words, make sure you’ve still got some fodder laid in, because no-one should never be fooled by an early splash of spring weather into thinking winter’s over and done with. It’s usually got a trick or two up its sleeve - like another Beast from the East, perhaps.

'Groundhog Day' for most people is perhaps more likely to remind them of the 1993 film than the Pennsylvanian custom. Bill Murray played a weatherman who seemed doomed to live Groundhog Day over and over again, until he found a sort of redemption. But what bearing has any of that on the Christian feast of Candlemas or the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple? Not a lot at first sight - but maybe there’s the sense of being on the crux of things; Candlemas is a watershed point in the Christian year. And we might also think of Christ the light of the world releasing us from a sort of Groundhog Day spiral of repeated failure and sin. Simeon and Anna in the Temple saw the sign that something new was about to begin: the winter of the people’s separation from God's mercy and love was over.

Only Luke out of the Gospel writers tells this story. Keeping the customs is one of his themes, and here Mary and Joseph are doing what law and custom require of them; as a first-born son their son is deemed to belong to the Lord, so they must bring him to the Temple, present him there, and buy him back with the sacrificial gift they offer in his stead. They brought the poor person's offering of a couple of pigeons or doves.

Surely every parent wonders at times like these, like a special birthday or a Christening: “What lies ahead for us as a family, what will our child grow up to be?” In the Temple that day were two people who could read the signs and tell the parents of this child. Like those unknown people who made up those old rhymes about the weather, Simeon and Anna had been around a long time; they had a wealth of experience, the harvest of years of watching, waiting and hoping. And now Simeon says: "Lord, now you can let your servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation." We sing his words as the Nunc Dimmitis at every service of Evening Prayer or Compline; and I think Luke set them down with that intention. This is a great canticle of faith, structured like one of the Psalms.

Candlemas has a pivotal role in the traditional Church calendar, as the end of the great Christmas season. My article in the magazine this month describes being in Krakow at a time when I thought Christmas was over, and finding that there it was still in full swing. But then Candlemas turns our thoughts from the gift of the Christ child to what it is that child will do; and by tradition it has been one of the days when we revisit our own baptism vows and are be re-presented to our Lord. 

A few years ago I attended a conference at which the then presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States was a keynote speaker. Her talk was quite compelling and moving, and part of her message was something that up till then hadn’t really occurred to me - that every time we come to the table at Holy Communion we are consciously remaking our baptism vows and placing them at the heart of our lives.

At one level I knew that was true. After all, Paul speaks about our being baptized into the death of Christ (and dying to our old selves so as to gain new life in him) - and the Holy Communion is our close encounter with that death. This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you . . . poured out for you, as one communion song puts it. Here we are consciously brought into the presence of our crucified Lord, brought to the foot of the cross, and to the sacrifice only he could make, once and for all.

But what I hadn’t considered was that my baptism vows are something I should be living every day. Maybe I’d thought of them more as one-off promises made once as an act of membership. But we are baptized into the death of Christ so we can receive his life and put that gift to use, and every act of Holy Communion remakes that connection. Let’s think a moment about those promises made at baptism, or made for us: we promise to repent of our sins, to renounce evil, and to turn to Christ.

I try to follow the rule of Francis of Assisi. I'm not all that good at being a Franciscan, but I do have a rule of life to guide me and help me structure and discipline my life as a Christian, and I think I'd do a lot less well as a Christian without it. I feel it's one way of taking those baptism promises seriously. My rule of life is my way of trying to follow the Lord, to present my life to him as an offering. And while a structured rule won't be for everyone, all of us should I think be constantly considering how best to offer ourselves to God.

And that must involve repenting of our sins: in other words, being honest about our failures and doing our best to correct them, and wanting to do better, to grow in holiness and obedience (and remembering that sin isn't just naughty things we do, more often it's all the good stuff we pass up on doing). Then renouncing evil: doing what we can to make the world a better place, by opposing the things that are bad, things like greed, selfishness, prejudice, injustice, hurtful actions and words -opposing these at three levels, if you like: within our own selves, within the places where we live and work, and within the wider world. And lastly, but most importantly, turning to Christ, because we won’t manage any of that on our own; to do all of this we need to be taking Christ as our example, depending on him as our Saviour, and coming regularly and prayerfully to him as our Friend.

Today Simeon speaks of the light to lighten the nations: Christ whose glory fills the skies. He could see that the long dark winter of our souls is over because this child is given; that the spring of God's mercy is newly begun, and all the world will share that light and mercy and saving love. That’s the story we’ll be following through the next few weeks of ordinary time, and then on into Lent, as we walk with our Lord the way of the cross. The message of today is simply this: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. For he did, and he does, and the child blessed by Simeon and marvelled over by Anna now calls me and you to shine with the light he brings, so all the world may see and know his love.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Only Justice

This year’s Week of Prayer is using material provided by the churches of Indonesia. And their theme has to do with justice. The word we heard from Deuteronomy tells us that justice is central to our life as God’s people. As the people of Israel learned how to live no longer as slaves but as a free people in the Promised Land to which God has brought them, they began to see that taking possession of the land was not the end of their pilgrimage, but a new beginning. Here in the land God had given them they were to live not as their own people but as his - to live as God commanded them to live. And justice lay at the heart of that: not the blind impartial justice of the figure above our law courts - but God’s justice: unashamedly partial and biased, but biased toward the poor, taking the part of the neediest, and those least able to speak or act for themselves.

In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus at the synagogue in his own town. Handed the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, he reads a passage that’s all about God’s justice, God’s promise of justice, God’s promise that someone would come to deal justly with the people in their need. And then he hands the scroll back and sits down, which is what a Jewish rabbi would do when he intended to teach or preach. That’s why every eye in the synagogue was upon him. And Jesus announces his ministry by telling them that God’s great call to justice was fulfilled in him. Justice is central to the life and ministry of Jesus, and justice is central to the ministry he entrusts to us.

So here we are praying for unity; how does justice relate to our prayer this week? Here’s a sentence from the Letter of James - chapter 2 and verse 17: “Faith, if it does not lead to action, is by itself a lifeless thing.” Both the readings we’ve heard tonight present our faith as it’s supposed to be, not an abstract playing with ideas, but something that has to be lived out in the real world as we find it: a world that’s so often crying out for the justice Deuteronomy and Isaiah and Jesus proclaim.

Injustice leads to fractured societies, broken relationships and vows, situations of abuse and exploitation. Sadly churches aren’t immune from this; divisions in the society around us can intrude into church life too, and churches can be tempted to take sides rather than being open to all who need healing and refuge. And, especially when we’re finding it a struggle just to keep going, stuff that divides us as Christians gets overlooked, gets excused, gets dumped, perhaps, into the “too difficult” box.

But only in unity can we be a force to change and transform the world’s injustice; only when we welcome and value each other will we offer a sure welcome to the stranger who comes to our doors. Here are some words from the great Swiss theologian of the last century, Karl Barth: 'We have no right at all to explain the multiplicity of the churches. We have to deal with it as we deal with sin, our own and that of others, we have to recognise it as a fact, and understand it as an impossible thing which has intruded itself, as a guilt which we must take upon ourselves     . . . We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce to its reality.'

Those are big and tough words, but true. Not to be united is sinful. And the divisions between denominations are not unalterable facts of life. I’m glad of the differences between us, how boring to be all the same - but I hate it when they become divisions. I’m glad when we try to outdo one another in doing good (I’m sure Paul said something along those lines), but I hate it when we just become competitive in a self-centred way. When I was in Telford, there were two chapels, both of them Methodist as it happens, that watched each other like hawks. Whatever one had, the other had to have better. You could throw a stone from one to the other, and it wouldn’t altogether surprise me if there were people who did. It was clear to us in the ecumenical team that either they had to unite and learn to love each other, or they would both close. And sadly, they both closed. Ultimately, for all their show of faith, what they had was built on sand.

Here are some telling words from Desmond Tutu: “Instead of separation and division, all distinctions make for a rich diversity to be celebrated for the sake of the unity that underlies them. We are different so that we can know our need of one another.”

We are different so that we can know our need of one another. Desmond Tutu was very aware that a divided church would always be too weak to struggle against the sin of apartheid in his beloved South Africa. Unity isn’t just a nice idea, it’s essential to our mission, our service, our action, our presentation of Christ.

That’s the point of this year’s theme: that praying for unity must be purposeful. We’re not doing it just out of a sense of duty or to feel a bit better; unity among Christians is something we need if the Gospel is to be heard and the world made whole. Only as we end our divisions and learn to value and approve and applaud one another within our company of pilgrims, only then can the Church become the advocate for justice and freedom and peace that our Lord is calling us to be. There’s much to be done, and it’s only in unity and fellowship that we can hope to counter the injustices around us. Ultimately, in our own strength we will fail; only in Christ will we win through.

Let me end with the closing verses of chapter 1 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “No place is left for any human pride in the presence of God. By God’s act you are in Christ Jesus; God has made him our wisdom, and in him we have our righteousness, our holiness, our liberation. Therefore, in the words of scripture, “If anyone must boast, let him boast of the Lord.”

The Wedding at Cana

It’s interesting that the first miracle Jesus performed happened at a wedding, even if it also seems that Jesus didn’t exactly plan it that way. A wedding in Jewish culture wasn’t just a great social occasion, it was also an image of the relationship between God and his people. A Jewish wedding, I should say, involved the whole community. The ceremony itself would take place late in the evening after a time of feasting. The father of the bride would take his daughter on his arm, and with the rest of the wedding party following, they’d parade through the village streets, and people would come from every house to bless the bride.

The procession would eventually arrive at the home of the groom, and that’s where the wedding itself took place - in the entrance way or the ante-room of the house, followed by festivities that lasted for days. The bride and groom would walk from the groom’s house accompanied by flaming torches, and attendants would walk with them through the streets holding a canopy above their heads. This would be a long walk, winding through all the village streets, giving everyone the chance to wish them well.

And then the couple would keep open house for a week, and they’d be treated like royalty. And all the refreshments for the week would be provided and paid for by the groom’s family. The wine especially was expected to flow freely.

But on this occasion, at some point within these days of  celebration, the wine had ceased to flow. This was more than an inconvenience. It was a social disaster of the first order!

We see Mary realize how seriously wrong things are. “They have no wine,” she said. Imagine the horror in her voice. Wine in Jewish tradition was a symbol of joy. The writer of Psalm 104 thanks God for “wine to gladden the heart of man”. And there is a rabbinical saying that “without wine there is no joy.” So you could say that at this wedding the joy had run out! And that would be more than embarrassing for the groom and his family.

John describes this first miracle as “a sign”. Like much else in his Gospel, it stands for things beyond itself. The lack of wine and of joy can stand for the emptiness of life without the saving love of the Lord. Whoever and wherever we are, there’ll be times in our lives when the wine runs out, times when there’s no sense of joy. That’s how life is. There are highs, but there are also lows. Bright and colourful turns to grey and dismal.

Anyway, Mary comes to Jesus to tell him of the problem, and she seems to have caught him on the hop - “It’s not my time, yet,” he replies. But she simply goes across to the servants, and tells them to do whatever he says. I love that! John seems to be saying that the Word of God was pushed into performing his first miracle by his mother. But Mary seems to have known from the beginning just what her firstborn son was born to do.

What Jesus does do is to turn to the stone pots filled with water for guests to wash their hands on arrival, something everyone would do as an act of ritual purification; to eat with unwashed hands would be disgraceful, to do that would be to defile the whole feast. These were not small pots, so Jesus turned the water in them into something like 180 gallons of wine.

John specifically mentions those water pots; and perhaps he wants us to contrast the imperfect external cleansing of the old rituals with the perfect sacrifice Jesus will offer to cleanse the heart and soul. Certainly the size of the pots and the huge quantity of wine stand as a sign of the abundance of God’s love. In this miracle Jesus doesn’t just meet the immediate need of the wedding party, he gives in overflowing abundance.

And this wasn’t just vin ordinaire. We see the steward at the feast remarking that the very best wine has been saved till now. Jesus doesn’t just produce something good enough to save the day. He transforms the water in those pots into the best wine the folk there had ever tasted.

So what we have here is a miracle of transformation of not just water into wine, but ordinary into extraordinary. And it stands as a sign because that’s what the whole ministry of Jesus will be. “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men;” that’s what he said to his disciples. Jesus is in the business of transformation, of changing lives, of changing people.

And God never gives just enough, he gives in abundance. Wine that was only water is poured out and shared, and everyone there is amazed at how splendid a wine it is. Usually you’d give people the best wine early on, because later on when people had had a fair bit to drink they’d be less bothered about how it tasted. So it surprised the steward, and others as well I should think. This miracle is a sign of grace. Grace is unexpected, it doesn’t stick to the rules, it doesn’t just dole out what we deserve.

And the Gospel of Jesus will be the story of grace. Grace can’t be measured out: it’s love that’s unearned, unmerited, and so freely given that there’s always more than enough to meet our needs. And nothing we do will ever diminish that love, for love is of the very nature of God. Love is how the world is made and you and I made as part of it. On the first Day of Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus were accused by some people of having got themselves drunk on the new wine, Pentecost being the grape harvest festival. But what had actually left them bubbling over with joy was an intense and personal realisation of God’s love, the Spirit of love coursing through them.

So Jesus is revealed as the bringer of joy, transforming lives, changing hearts. When the wine in our own lives runs out, we can turn to him. “Do what he tells you,” says Mary to the servants. So should we. Mary’s instruction led to a miracle that not only met the immediate need of the people there, but gave abundantly more. So in what ways are our lives lacking the joy only Christ can give? And how can we his Church be new wine to transform barren lives and joyless situations where we are today?