Friday, 18 August 2017

Private Ward

There was always someone there to pick up the tab,
always someone to invite you across,
to share one with you, order the next,
go on with you to wherever was next,
to carry you home.
There was always someone there to overcome
your best intentions, to subvert
your attempts at discipline, to encourage those deep desires
you hated and cried over
but could never escape.

Now the bright lights are dimmed, the music no longer plays;
under subdued fluorescents
the bedside machines with their steady beep
measure out the minutes into hours.

There was always someone there,
but now there is no-one,
only the efficient nurses, and the one gentle soul
who had done most of her crying long before tonight,
and yet somehow still cares, cannot cease to care,
sees still under the tangle of lines and drips the used-to-be,
the original untouched soul,
the open smile that stole her heart,
the hopeful days.

And when the machines stop, it will be her hand
that will touch and close your tired eyes. 

Flesh and Blood

A sermon based on the 2nd service Gospel for Trinity 10, John 6.51-58 :-

I want to focus tonight on the reading we’ve just heard, from St John’s Gospel. It’s quite blunt, sometimes uncomfortably so for our modern ears. Jesus talks about “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood . . .” At the service of holy communion many of us if not all of us will regularly gather to eat a pinch of bread and to drink the wine, and we hear words like “The body of Christ, broken for you.” And indeed, regular attendance at the Holy Communion was an absolute fundamental for John and Charles Wesley, and is rightly therefore a central part of Methodist practice today. But somehow what Jesus says here seems altogether more stark, more blunt, more shocking, than our usual gentle celebrations of communion.

The saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is only needed because it isn’t true. Words can hurt and they do. Words can shock and they do. Words are powerful things. They can inform us and cheer us, but they can also challenge us or even appal us.

But we can also use words to massage the truth away, to cover over difficult things, or just to get people off our backs. Simple example: “How are you?” “Fine, thanks!” “Sh’mae?” “Da iawn, diolch!” Now that could be true; but it isn’t always. And while I can think of one or two people to whom I daren’t say “How are you?” because they’ll start telling me and I’ll still be there an hour later - on the whole I’d rather people were truthful than just polite (or politely dismissive). Sh’mae? Ah, wedi blino; or, as my old granddad used to say, “To be honest, I’m - (word I really can’t use in chapel)”

I passed a friend in the street the other day, and he asked, “How are you?” “Fine,” I replied, but I mustn’t have looked it (to be honest, it was a bit of a heavy day). He looked at me and commented, “Who are you trying to convince - me or yourself?”

In one sense I was fine. I was on time, I had a lot of things to do, but I was pretty much up to speed, meeting the deadlines, fulfilling the commitments, getting it all done. But inside I wasn’t so fine. I was like the toy rabbit that doesn’t have the Duracell battery in the advert, beginning to slow up and run down, getting a bit tired.

So, what will recharge my battery? What works for you when you get run down? Actually, on that day, an honest and perceptive response to my slightly dishonest answer was part of what helped. We went off and had a coffee and a chat, and my schedule slipped a bit but it didn’t matter. When I restarted my chores for the day I was in a better place, things were better inside me.

Someone said, “Life is something that happens to you while you’re making other plans.” It can certainly often feel that way. In the tough words of this evening’s Gospel reading, Jesus is talking about life, not as something that happens to you, but as something that is within you. And there is a difference. When I said I was fine to my friend that day I was doing life OK, I was getting through it. But my time out with him and the coffee and chat we shared helped rekindle life within me. Friendship does that. The times when someone is perceptive and caring enough to not take our throwaway and dismissive responses at face value.

“My flesh is real food; my blood is real drink,” says Jesus, and the bluntness of his words can seem quite shocking. Maybe they might have been less shocking then, but actually I think Jesus did mean to shock, to startle anyway. He is saying to those who hear him (and to us): “What about the life within you? How is it being sustained? How is it being fed? How real is it?” Indeed, further than that, even: “Is there life within you?”

And all this stuff about “my flesh” and “my blood” means we can’t simply brush him off with a “Da iawn, diolch” kind of answer - “I’m fine” “I’m good”. He pushes us to admit to the hunger within us, to admit to our need for the life with which Jesus seeks to gift us, the food with which he seeks to feed us.

So he says, “Eat me. Drink me.” And he tells us that this is the only way we ever have real life within us; he’s quite clear and blunt about it. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink: in other words, any other source of sustenance is not enough. It will leave us unresourced, empty and hollow, lacking in life. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.” Challenging words that we need to take seriously.

This is about holy communion, but it isn’t just about holy communion. Holy communion as a physical receiving of bread and wine as body and blood is in part - whatever we believe about what happens to or within the bread and the wine - it is in part representational. Terry Waite when held captive in Beirut for all that time was not able physically to receive communion - and yet he still felt within himself the resourcing of the body and blood of Christ.

It is about being intimately connected with Christ, seeking his presence in prayer, in meditation, making time for him in the busyness of our day. This isn’t something just for monks and nuns or other people like that who spend all their time in holy places and doing holy things. But it is I think about saying to Jesus, “I want you to be part of all that I am and all that I do; I want there to be no part of my life that is not enriched by your presence.”

Have I ever managed to pray a prayer like that and completely mean it? I suppose not; however much I may want to make Jesus the centre of my life, there are still bits of who I am that I sort of shut away into cupboards and don’t let him in there. Most of us spend a fair amount of time, energy, and prayer trying to create and possess the life we want. But as the words in the annual covenant service remind us, “Sometimes we may please both you and ourselves, but at other times we cannot please you except by denying ourselves.” That prayer, by the way, is a wonderful expression of what I’m trying to preach about, and I hope you don’t only pray it once a year. We’ll end this sermon with it.

For here’s the truth of my life. In spite of all my best efforts, I still end up - yes, living, yes, doing all right, but really less than fully alive. The outside and inside of who I am don’t match up. “Is this all there is?” I can find myself asking.

Jesus offers me treatment for my condition of not being fully alive, of not being sure where I belong; he offers me food for my hunger. The message for today is this: Our destiny is life in Christ, not death in the wilderness. Think of the flesh and blood of Christ as medicine that saves those who otherwise are lost, “the medicine of immortality” in the words of Saint Ignatius. And like most medicines, we need to take it in a disciplined way, we need a daily dose.

Jesus today seeks to awaken us to a hunger we too often deny we have, to our fundamental need for what only he can give. To eat his flesh and drink his blood is to open our lives to his: to consume his life so that he can consume and change ours; to eat and digest the love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, that are the marks of his life, and that spring from the relationship with the Father that he now opens to us. And if Christ lives in us we can bring his life to the world.

The Covenant Prayer :-

Lord God, I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you;
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me having nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

Persistent faith, loving response

A sermon based on the Gospel for Trinity 10 (Matthew 15:21-28)

Martin Luther King wrote that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Last weekend the painful and tragic events at Charlottesville, Virginia (and the strange silence on that subject from the usually freely tweeting President Donald Trump) were a reminder of the deep divisions that continue to exist in America (and in many other places too). At least one white supremacist marcher was carrying a flag emblazoned with the Nazi swastika. One picture I saw showed the right wing marchers being protected by a black city policeman - somewhat ironic, I thought.

Alas, there’s nothing new about race discrimination or race  supremacy. The gospel story we’ve just heard introduces a woman of Canaanite extraction; the sort of person Jesus should have had nothing to do with - a foreigner, an outsider. And to begin with Jesus did seem reluctant to deal with her.
Some commentators suggest that indeed, Jesus didn’t want to have anything to do with this non-Jew. They see this event as a pivotal moment: meeting this foreign woman persuaded Jesus that his mission should not be just to Israel.

I don’t actually buy that. I’m more inclined to think that Jesus was testing both the disciples and the woman herself by speaking and behaving in the way they would have expected him to as a Jewish rabbi. It was the disciples, after all, who’d originally wanted to send the Canaanite woman away; the way I read the story, Jesus played along with that in order to open their eyes and change their minds.

Religion has been as ready to raise barriers and set exclusion zones as any other sphere of human activity. Jesus I think wanted his disciples to realise how wrong we are - how wrong they were that day - to erect barriers that close off the way of salvation; and yet we still do it: barriers of culture, gender and social status; barriers also of race.

In our Old Testament reading Isaiah called the Jerusalem Temple a house of prayer for all nations. The prophet had urged the Israelites to live just and faithful lives that would honour God. But then he went on to say that the foreigners among them who did the same would also find favour with God. Now the prophecies of Isaiah were important to Jesus; he would have known this passage well.

And that’s why I think that in his dismissive words to the woman he was playing the part of the traditional rabbi in order to provoke her to declare her faith. But his words about it being unfair to throw the children’ bread to the dogs do show just how real were the barriers between Jew and non-Jew. Such barriers are often never really thought about or challenged; it’s just how it is. To compare the woman to a dog is a familiar ploy: the person different from us dismissed as less than we are, as subhuman, like in wartime propaganda.

What were the barriers that would keep a woman like this from receiving from a Jewish rabbi the help she sought? Firstly and most obviously, nationality; she wasn’t a Jew, and therefore had no business turning to a Jewish teacher for help. She didn’t belong there because she was a foreigner.
Secondly, she was a woman, and no woman had the right to approach a rabbi uninvited. Jesus in fact had close friendships with many women, who supported him as he travelled and taught - but this Syrophoenician woman couldn’t know that. She didn’t belong there because she was female, but she was there all the same, having crossed a substantial boundary.

And there were other barriers: the barrier of silence, for example. Jesus to begin with seemed prepared simply to ignore the woman, to act as though she wasn’t there - probably to provoke a response from the disciples. The disciples did respond, and their attitude of scorn and rejection, repugnance even, was a further barrier. “Send her away,” they demanded.

The woman’s persistence is admirable and amazing. She fell on her knees before Jesus to ask for help, and he just insulted her, or so it seems. Would I have put up with that sort of treatment, I wonder, or would I have walked out in disgust, and maybe gone on to badmouth Jesus to my friends: “Just as bad as any other rabbi, they’re all the same.” But she didn’t do that; she persisted despite all those barriers. Why? Because only this man could give the healing her daughter needed so much. She wasn’t a Jew, but she’d seen something in Jesus, or heard something about him, that convinced her that this man really was the Messiah the Jews were expecting.

So this is a story about overcoming barriers; about overcoming the barriers that prevent both others and ourselves from being healed, from being made whole. She held firm to her faith despite the barriers raised against her, the rejection and the insults; and in the end she was heard, and her daughter healed. Jesus praised her faith: not her persistence and her cleverness, but her faith, by which I think he means both her faith in his own power to heal, and her faithful commitment to her daughter who needed that healing.

True faith enables us to take courage and find purpose. We might think that a busy and active church that’s doing lots of things is a good example of what it means to be faithful and successful. And that could be the case; but it depends who sets the agenda: what’s being done, and why. What we do needs to be based in what we pray, in our seeking of God’s will.

But a prayerful faith will always lead to action; it turns us outward, to see what needs doing, who needs healing, where the love of Christ needs to be shown and shared. The woman’s faith in Jesus and her faithful response to daughter’s need - these  overrode everything else, and gave her the energy and will and courage to persist in the face of opposition.

So I take two messages from this story: firstly, it tells me that everyone counts. God is not my God or your God but the world’s God; not the God of one sort of people but of every people. “A light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”, as the Nunc Dimmitis puts it. So religion should not erect barriers. When it does it’s not true to the God whose desire is that all peoples should know his just and gentle rule; true religion breaks down barriers. Our mission is to be like Jesus, to let his love flow with good purpose in our lives, crossing boundaries, and healing hurts wherever those hurts may be.

And secondly it tells me that in our faithful response to God we’d do well to follow this woman’s example; we should be bold and inventive on behalf of those who need someone to speak up for them, to work for them, to bring them healing, and we should stick to that task no matter what. Our God is life and love and goodness: his life is stronger than the mightiest enemy which is death; his love is greater than the highest wall of prejudice or the most stubborn barrier of ignorance; his goodness knows no human boundaries or limits, but is offered to all.

The disciples that day had wanted and expected Jesus to turn the woman out; but he went against their expectations and the religious norms of his time, to the extent that he praised her faith. The woman could well have given up and gone, but she refused to budge, she stayed strong in faith and in her commitment to her daughter. In both Jesus and the woman who sought his help we’re set an example of what it means to stand firm in the cause of justice: real justice, not an idea or a system but decisive action to change lives for the better. May we take to heart ourselves what we find in them.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Walking on Water

Whenever I read the story of Peter walking on the water, I’m reminded of the Roadrunner cartoons I used to watch on the box, still do when I can find one; and Wile E Coyote running over the edge of the cliff. He runs off the cliff and comes to a halt, and you see him standing there in the air. Then he looks down, and it’s only when he looks down that he begins to fall.

Thinking about cliffs, do you recall this story about a man who fell off the top of a cliff? There he is, falling; but as he falls he manages to grab hold of a branch sticking out from the cliff face. “If there’s anyone up there, please help me, save me!" he shouts. And to his amazement a voice from heaven sounds: "Hear I am, my son, here I am. Do you believe in me? Do you really want me to help you?"
“Oh yes, Lord,” says the man, “I believe in you, more than I can say. And I so much want you to help me!” “Right then," says God, “Just let go of the branch. That’s all you have to do. Don’t worry, I’ll catch you!"

"What?" cries the man, somewhat aghast. And God says again, “Don’t worry, my son. Have faith. Just let go of that branch you're holding on to, and I'll save you. All you have to do is to trust me." The man pauses for a moment, reflects on what he’s just heard, gulps a bit, and shouts out, "Is there anyone else up there?"

We may not fall off too many cliffs, but as Christians and indeed just as human beings we know we’re going to face some difficult and testing times now and again. How might faith help us get through the hard times and weather the storms?

Last week’s set Gospel reading told the story of Jesus using a couple of little fish and a handful of barley loaves to feed a hungry crowd of five thousand and more out in the wilderness. And one important message I can draw from that story is that with God, all things are possible.

The disciples were there and saw what happened, but did they grasp the message? If they did, they pretty soon forgot it. The story we heard today follows immediately on from the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Having sent the crowd away, Jesus told the disciples to cross by boat to the other side of the lake, where he himself would join them later.

And some of them at least were good sailors who knew the lake well, with its reputation for sudden storms. A storm rose up, and they were struggling to make headway. They were probably beginning to feel alarmed. But why were they out there in the middle of the lake? Because that’s where Jesus had told them to go. And a message I might take from that is that for any of us, to follow Jesus won’t always be smooth sailing. Disciples sometimes have to face stormy weather.

So here we are with the disciples on the stormy lake; and see, Jesus walking to them on the water. They think he's a ghost or something, but Jesus calls out, "Take heart, it’s me, don’t be afraid." And it’s Peter, impetuous Peter who shouts back, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water." Jesus replies, “Come on then.”

And that takes us to the Wile E Coyote moment, if you like. One minute Peter is actually walking on the water, the next he’s realised just what he’s doing and how impossible it is, he looks at the wind and the waves, and straightaway he’s sinking. Walking on water is impossible; but so was feeding five thousand people with a few loaves and fish. I think of these miracles as acted-out parables: the miracle of feeding is a parable of the generosity of God; the stilling of the storm shows how all the creative power of God rests in this man Jesus (as does his walking on the waves). And when Peter panics and starts to sink? A parable, surely, of God’s saving grace: when we’re confronted by what’s beyond our strength, ability and control, God hears our cry for help.

Peter’s cry was heard, and Jesus reached out, grabbed hold of him and helped him get back to the boat. And at this point the storm is stilled, and the disciples are so filled with awe and fear that to a man they fall to their knees.

We find this story told in different ways in the Gospels, though only Matthew speaks of Peter walking on the water. What can we take from it, as Christian disciples here and now? As we travel through life, however surely and faithfully we follow as disciples of Jesus, there’ll be stormy and difficult times, there’ll be challenges, it won’t always be easy. And we discover that (a) we can’t do it alone, we can’t rely only on our own resources and abilities. But (b) alongside that we can set the promise Jesus gives us: "Without me you can do nothing - but with God, all things are possible."

Living the life of faith isn’t easy. Like the man hanging onto that branch, we can find ourselves unwilling to let go, unsure about trusting, hoping for an easier, safer solution than the one God seems to be offering. Or like the disciples in the boat or Peter on the water, we can find we’re focusing on the storms that rage around us, filled with doubts and fears when our focus should be on the one who is Master of the winds and waves, in whom we see all the creative power of the Father.

I’ve got a little card in one of my books at home that just says “Let go, and let God.” Let go of what? I think, of my own anxieties and fears, my dependencies on unreliable sources of help, my trust in things that don’t last, like worldly fame, worldly possessions, worldly measures of success. And let God what? I think, let God help me, heal me, guide me. It’s about me accepting the blessings he offers, it’s about me letting God make of me what he wants of me. Most importantly, it’s about me letting God use me. It’s not just about me, my own life, my own security: there’s a world out there to be saved. So it’s about mission, sharing the word, sharing the love.

As God's people, day by day we’re faced with new opportunities to let go and let God. To let God’s will be done where we are. And each opportunity brings with it the temptation to doubt and falter, to focus on the waves and how big they are, and how small we are. But we’re called to the service of Christ who stilled the storm; we can trust in him. We’re called to the service of Christ who fed the multitude; he will sustain us. We’re called to the service of Christ who reached out to Peter in his fear; we can call on him and know we’ll be heard. Where Christ sends us he also resources us; where Christ sends us he also goes himself.

That takes me back to that guy hanging on his branch - yes, he’s still there, still hanging on. Like him, we may not always like the answer we get when we cry out. Faith is a risky endeavour, and there’ll always be times when the task seems too much for us, our strength seems too little, the road seems too steep and long. But in faith we offer ourselves to be used and to be useful in God’s service, and in return our Lord promises us that he, and he alone is our life, our hope and our salvation. Today Christ is saying to us, “Centre all that you are and have on me. Give me first place in your life. Accept my challenge, so that my love can flow through you into this needy world.” Or, to reduce that down to the two words he said to Peter and Andrew, and James and John, and the rest: “Follow me.”

Saturday, 5 August 2017

A Small Escape

Music is playing somewhere not too far away;
I am walking downhill, on paving slabs a little uneven
and greasy after rain - I need to watch my step.

I need to watch my step. I am alone here
and do not speak the language. I’m not sure
why I came out at all - no, that’s not true,
I came out to find some space, to mend my head,
to get my spirit right, something like that.

We are being well looked after, but sometimes
I need not to have everything provided, organised,
timetabled. So tonight, in the cool evening air,
after an afternoon of gentle rain, I am walking
the streets of a city I do not know, with no particular
destination, just a mental cotton string I am unwinding
and stretching back, for when I retrace my steps.

I should be careful of my steps. They echo
in the stone walls, and up and down the side alleys.
It is growing quickly dark, and there’s no-one much around.
But I do not feel unsafe; this city has been a welcoming place,
despite the challenge of its otherness.
I do not speak the language, but I find I can translate
most of what the street signs and the hoardings tell me.

The garage is a busy oasis of noise in the quiet streets.
I buy crisps and a cola; the lady in the kiosk smiles
and wishes me something in Portuguese.
“Obrigado. Boa noite!” I say, and she laughs,
a happy laugh like bells, a laugh that says, “Well tried!”

Time to retrace my steps. The cotton leads me home,
leads me to my temporary lodgings, anyway,
and I eat my crisps and drink my cola as I walk.
There’s a soap opera on TV, and no-one much has missed me.
“Been out?” asks the American girl, looking up;
“A bit of fresh air,” I tell her. And a little laughter, I might have said:
a little laughter to lift and refresh me, as I wait to see
what we’ll be organised to do tomorrow.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Transfiguration

My sermon for Welshpool Methodist Church this Sunday (a shorter version will be preached at Holy Trinity, Leighton) :-

Words from William Wordsworth, “Lines Above Tintern Abbey”:

I have learned
to look on nature, not as in the hour
of thoughtless youth; but hearing often-times
the still, sad music of humanity,
nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
to chasten or subdue. And I have felt
a presence that disturbs me with the joy
of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime
of something far more deeply interfused,
whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
and the round ocean and the living air,
and the blue sky and in the mind of man:
a motion and a spirit that impels
all thinking things, all objects of all thought,
and rolls through all things.

I love those words of poetry. I don’t completely understand them, but that’s all right, I think. Poetry’s often an attempt to put into words experiences beyond words, and that’s the feeling I get from these lines. I’m happy to live with an element of mystery: not everything has to be understood and measured, and sometimes the best experiences are right on the edge of what we can describe, or even beyond words altogether.

Keith might not agree. Keith’s a teacher friend of mine: a teacher of mathematics as it happens. Maths never was my subject, so his enthusiasm for maths is a bit of a mystery to me. He likes things to be precise and organised, and gets quite cross if for any reason they’re not. But one thing I can understand is his enthusiasm for teaching: why, through thick and thin, he’s been teaching all his adult life. “It must be pretty boring a lot of the time being a teacher,” I suggested to him once. “And it must be especially frustrating when you get people like me in your class, who just don’t get maths!”

Well, yes, he replied, of course being a teacher can be boring and frustrating. But what I live for, he said, what keeps me teaching are those moments when I see the penny drop, those moments when I see the scales falling from someone’s eyes. I get such a buzz, he said, when suddenly someone gets it, and it’s such a good feeling to know that I’ve helped them to get it.

I’m sure that in life we all have them: those moments when the penny drops, and we see things that bit more clearly, understand that bit more deeply. Times like that are sometimes called disclosure moments.

And among these disclosure moments are what we could call religious experiences, though maybe spiritual experiences would be better, since it would seem they’re by no means limited to conventionally religious people. They don’t just happen in the church or temple or mosque; but they’re moments when we not only see more clearly and understand more deeply, but also feel more profoundly, moments when we’re somehow specially sensitive to our surroundings and to ourselves: times when a story told, or a piece of music we hear, or maybe just the view from some hillside, just moves us. Times perhaps when tears spring unbidden to our eyes.

There’s a programme called “Something Understood” broadcast weekly on BBC Radio 4. I confess I don’t hear it as often as I should, but I’m often moved and impressed when I do get to hear it. Each programme takes a particular spiritual theme, and then explores it through speech, music, prose, and poetry. Quite often I find it not only moving but challenging. It’s not confined to any one conventional religious creed; more the sense many of us have that there’s more to being me, to being you, to being human, more to feel and understand and further to travel, than we usually grasp.

So, the story we’ve heard this morning: Jesus went up a mountain to pray, and on this occasion he took with him the three closest of his disciples - Peter, and the brothers James and John. We’ve heard their attempt to describe what happened there, what they saw, what they heard. Like Wordsworth’s poem, it was I guess an attempt to describe something that was really beyond words: a brightness that dazzled them. So was it that Jesus somehow changed before their eyes? Or were they really seeing what had always been there, except that up till then their sight had been dulled, they couldn’t see it?

The second of those, surely. One of my favourite poems is about the Transfiguration. It’s by the Orkney poet Edwin Muir, who isn’t read these days as much as he should be. In his poem the disciple says:

Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
one glory of the everlasting world
perpetually at work, though never seen
since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
and nowhere?

In other words, what for a moment they’d seen was how it always is, or at least, how it always will be. Sin and short-termist self-interest dulls our vision. But for a moment Peter and James and John had seen what was always there and always true; their Lord infused with all the glory of his Father, just at the moment when he set his face to Jerusalem to take the road to the cross. Jesus knew what the disciples couldn’t know: that in Jerusalem there was a battle to be fought, a victory to be won, a purpose to be completed - the battle, and the ultimate purpose, the liberation of those held in slavery. For a moment the disciples saw it all, even if they couldn’t yet comprehend what they were seeing; just for a moment, then the light faded, and all was as before. Edwin Muir again :-

Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
it might have held for ever! But the world
rolled back into its place, and we are here,
and all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
as if it had never stirred; no human voice
is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
to itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
and blossoms for itself while time runs on.

And back down the hill go Jesus and his disciples: back into the world of time and tide, back to the world of scruffy and frustrating ordinariness: of challenge and pain and suffering and things not being how we want them to be.

But it’s in that world, in this world, that the kingdom has to be proclaimed; here is where the work needs to be done, here is where our love and care and compassion in the name of Christ is needed to make a difference, to win hearts and to save lives. And mission and ministry and witness is sometimes going to be a hard slog, is sometimes  going to feel like too much for us. Things will get us down. But just now and then in all the struggle and the greyness we get a glimpse of the glory, a spark of angel-light, a sense of the eternal reality hidden from us.

That’s how I find things to be anyway. I’m glad of those moments when I just know God’s presence, when I feel the warmth of his love, when I glimpse the light of his glory. I can’t conjure them up; usually they happen as a surprise, they catch me unawares. It might be when I’m praying somewhere quietly, it might happen  when I read or hear a story of quiet heroism or loving care; it might be music that does it, or light through stained glass, or birdsong, or a rising or setting sun; sometimes it’s just that I’ve experienced someone’s kindness or patience or forgiveness.

It can happen of course when I read the Bible; I’m amazed and delighted when a story I’ve read a hundred times before suddenly it strikes me in a new way, and maybe when I read it I sense God’s particular call to me.

I wonder whether like my friend Keith the teacher, God’s waiting for moments like that and loving to see them when they happen. When the penny drops, and when something of his love breaks through in a new way. When we get a glimpse of the great and eternal truth: that we’re already known and loved, that we’re already held safe and sure in a love that is forever, that is beyond this transient world of time and stuff. That the victory is already won, and we have a part and a share in that victory. And that love is what we are made of and what we are made for: the point and purpose of our lives and our destination at life’s end.

[May God’s holy name be praised in our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Church which proclaims and shares his love, now and to the end of the age. Amen.]

Friday, 28 July 2017

Goldfinches

I recall visiting a friend some twenty-five years ago when we lived in north Staffordshire, and being delighted to see goldfinches visiting the feeders in her garden. We saw goldfinches feeding on thistle heads in the fields opposite our home, but I had never known them come to garden feeders: this was something new.

Now, it’s pretty commonplace, and goldfinches are a very familiar sight in our garden and in most gardens, sometimes in substantial numbers. They are beautiful birds, and continue to be quite a popular cage bird. They are a soft beige in colour with black on the wings and tail, a red face and white, then black behind it on the head, and of course that glorious golden streak all across the wings when spread. They are smallish finches, able delicately to pick out the seeds they love, moving in small flocks known as “charms”.


Goldfinches and Siskins at our garden feeders.

Just now there will still be some birds in juvenile plumage. They are much plainer, without the colourful head and the buff streaks in their beige-brown plumage - but still with that bright gold wing bar opening to a streak across the wings.

These are birds that really do twitter: briefly as a contact call when they’re moving about, and in an extended form as the song in Spring. They are not always charming to each other, though, and when two birds compete, a deeper, argumentative tone is used, and the birds really do seem to be swearing at each other!

Male and female birds are identical in plumage, and they are with us all year round, found pretty much throughout the UK, though absent from the very far north. Goldfinches may move south in Winter, but most of them don’t, especially now they’ve become accustomed to bird tables. I recall buying nyjer seed and placing seeds into old teasel heads as a ploy to attract goldfinches into my garden. There’s no need to do that now, and, though nyjer seed is recommended as a favourite food for goldfinches, in my experience they use it wastefully and on the whole prefer the sunflower kernels I put out.

Goldfinches are tree nesters, generally in the higher branches of smaller trees or grown-up hedges. The nest is neat and quite delicately constructed, and well hidden. Goldfinches love thistles, and quite often thistledown is included in the construction of the nest. They lay four to six eggs.

Many seed-eating birds have declined substantially in recent years, partly due to changes in farming practice. These include, for example, yellowhammers and corn buntings. But goldfinches, aided by their move into gardens, have increased in numbers in the UK by about 80% over the past twenty or so years, to become one of our top ten garden birds in the annual surveys. It’s good to see such an attractive bird doing well.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Mustard Seed & Yeast

My sermon for next Sunday . . .




I’ve brought with me this morning two small packets which link in to this morning’s Gospel reading. A packet of seeds, first of all, and also a packet of yeast. These two packets are both fairly small, fairly anonymous really; if I put them on a shelf in my kitchen or maybe my garden shed they’ll blend in with all the other stuff and you might easily walk past and not notice them. But there’s something quite special about them - well, a few things in fact. I’ve already said they are both related to the Gospel reading, so that’s the first special thing: Jesus used each of them as a way to describe what the kingdom of God is like. And we’ll think a bit more about that in a moment.

But the second thing about them is that each of these packets contains something that is alive, even if it doesn’t at first glance look alive. Neither yeast powder nor mustard seeds actually look all that wonderful when you empty them out of the packet; they’re in fact both dormant. But there is life in both of them. And living things are different from non-living things in that they can change and develop and grow.

And there’s a third thing about the yeast and the mustard seeds, the main reason why Jesus used them to speak about the kingdom. Smallness: they’re both very small. If a bit of yeast powder or a mustard seed or two happened to be lying about somewhere you happened to be you’d either not notice it at all, or else perhaps you’d quickly sweep it away. But Jesus said that this is what the kingdom of God is like: the kingdom is like a mustard seed, the kingdom is like yeast.

So what did he mean? He said: the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; and the smallest of all seeds grew up to become something almost the size of a tree. Birds could even come and make nests in its branches.

I doubt the mustard seeds in this packet would actually grow that high, but you only need a single seed to begin quite a process of growing and spreading. Mustard grows quickly, and it’s prolific in setting seed, and that seed grows readily in its turn. Once it’s out and about, it’ll spread into every possible place, even the cracks and crannies. I love to see plants growing informally. We’ve got paved areas in our garden that we don’t really need to walk on, so I’ve invited plants to spread into the cracks and fill the spaces - not mustard, that would just be silly, it’s not pretty enough - but things like campanula, Mexican daisies, red valerian, upright yellow sorrel, lady’s mantle, wild strawberries - and it’s almost all self-set: I’ve just started it off and let it spread.

And that’s what the kingdom of God is like. It’s not about being big or important, but making the most of our chances, exploiting the cracks and crannies. When we sow seeds of the kingdom, they spread. You may have heard of “random acts of kindness” - people doing unexpected nice things that benefit others, like the lady I heard about who when she drives over a toll bridge each day always pays for the car behind her as well as her own; or the man who on his way to work on the London Underground whistles “Happy Birthday” fairly quietly, and, if anyone turns round, wishes them a happy birthday. He’s usually right, and when he isn’t, there’s still a smile and a little bright spot in someone’s day. A friend of mine whistles hymn tunes in his local Sainsbury’s while he’s shopping, and it leads him into all kinds of conversations. If we embrace the kingdom then it’s amazing how it can spread.

And then there’s the yeast: just a little pinch of dust, but if you wake it up with a bit of water and mix it with flour and a bit of salt and sugar it becomes the means by which bread is made. A pinch of dust enables things to happen that otherwise couldn’t.

So Jesus said: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."  The kingdom of God, in other words, is something small and hidden that grows to have a huge effect on the world.

Seed that grows and spreads, and that also as it grows provides shelter and sustenance; yeast that works in secret to make a profound and positive change: two important ways to understand the Kingdom. It’s not about big projects. We can find ourselves saying, “What can we do? Our churches are so weak, and we are so few!” But I think that’s where the kingdom works best: it’s all about seeds and yeast grains - those small things, small actions, that added together make a big difference, and a better world.

Provided that - well, let’s add a third image of the kingdom, also from this morning’s Gospel: Jesus also talked about the jewel that was so precious and so beautiful that a man sold all he had in order to buy it. The kingdom is built out of small things, little acts of kindness done by ordinary folk like you and me, provided we’re really seriously putting God first in our lives, and building all we do on him. Remember how Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it produces a rich harvest.” The mustard seed does nothing else but produce the plant that grows and gives shelter. The pinch of yeast does nothing else but leaven the bread mixture and enable it to rise.

When people love God and dedicate their lives to him, and learn to see the world through his loving eyes, great things can happen. Little acts of kindness add together and generate new ones, to become a kingdom movement. There’s life in these two packets of mustard seeds and yeast. But if they’re just left on the shelf, that life will fade and die. Let’s not let that happen. Let’s be lively and useful in God’s service.


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Death of a Crow

. . . or probable death, anyway. I last wrote on I think June 2nd about the crow with white wing feathers who had taken to visiting our garden regularly. We would see him every day, skulking in the undergrowth and making quick forays onto our lawn. He was a weak flyer, and would hop from branch to branch to climb back to a safe height in the tree.

Crow has disappeared, it's a couple of weeks since we last saw him. My guess has to be that something has got him. He can't have been in very good health; even when we put food out specially for him, most of it was taken by other birds, before Crow dared make his way out of cover. We saw him attacked by a cat once, and he saw the beast off without too much difficulty - he could be quite feisty when roused, and that beak's a nasty weapon - but maybe another of the local cats got lucky.

What is probably more likely is that he has been driven off by the other local crows. I say this because his disappearance from our garden coincided with the arrival of some boisterous young crows, the product I assume of the nest not too far away in the wood. It's clear that crows will attack one of their own species that is somehow different from the norm, and we have seen it happen to our Crow earlier in the season. Whether it is the white feathers or something else about his behaviour that triggers the attack I don't know, but the world of nature can be cruel to our eyes. All I can say is that I'm sad that he's no longer with us.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Falco peregrinus

On a silver grey day, in a strange
light reflected from summer raindrops,
with the paths all puddles, and my
rose blooms ruined, petals plastered together,
I am sitting well out of the breeze
and just out of the rain,
listening to a murder of argumentative crows.
It feels as though summer is in retreat
under a sky well-clothed,
thoroughly muffled up in nimbus.
The swifts have not yet headed south,
though they’ll not be long, I fancy.
They are low fliers today:
I watch them skim the roofs and treetops;
a lone starling perches on a chimney pot,
fluffs out his feathers sadly.
Behind me our elm tree is dying, like
autumn come too soon with the rain:
after thirty years and thirty feet of growth
the beetle and the fungus have beaten it,
and I am in mourning for its shrivelled leaves.
Well, there’s nothing to do out here,
time for a coffee, perhaps; time, too, it would seem,
for another argumentative burst
from our local crows. But something else, too -
a shape that speeds across above them,
soars upwards, then with near-closed wings
powers down, levels out, travels on,
a true master of even this sodden air:
a young peregrine tests his wings in the rain,
and takes with him as he flies on
a beat or two of my heart.

Weeds - a sermon for this Sunday

To be preached at Corndon Marsh :-



Today we’ve heard Jesus talking about weeds. If we think of the world as God’s field, the ground in which he plants, we might wonder why it’s not all good, and why there are weeds growing in the crop.

The disciples probably did, like the servants in the story who were worried about the weeds that disfigured their master’s crop of good wheat and looked set to spoil his harvest. Why do weeds always seem to grow so much faster than the things you want to grow? As a gardener I know I won’t get a decent crop unless I keep myself busy with the hoe; left alone, rank weeds soon outgrow the crop plants; and they soon shade them out and out-compete for water and nutrients.

Sometimes I’ve left it too long, and though I might do my best to salvage what I can, often the weeds have got so many and so big that it’s hard to pull them out without dislodging the roots of the crop plants. In that case I’m better off leaving them be, though I might chop them off a bit. Like the farmer in the story: and the weeds in the story were darnel, a sort of rye grass that’s hard to tell apart from the growing wheat, so his men might very easily have pulled up the wrong plants.

What’s the point of the story? Well, Jesus is saying that we do have to accept that the world we’re living in will contain both good and bad, and that’s how it remains, this side of harvest. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be actively trying to make things better. Jesus makes that clear in lots of the other stories he told, like the parable of the Good Samaritan - so we know that Christians should always be ready to respond and reach out when people are getting hurt. We’re supposed to be proclaiming God’s kingdom, and we do that not by talking about it but by living in it: the kingdom happens when God’s way of love is being actively and courageously lived, and in however small a way healing hurts, driving back darkness, and challenging injustice, lack of care, and the abuse of power.

When we pray “thy kingdom come” as we do when we say the Lord’s Prayer, that’s not just we asking God to make things better, but we committing ourselves to be part of that. But in telling this story Jesus also wants us to know that even though as we look at the world around us now and see so much bad stuff - and we do: harm being done, wrong sometimes being rewarded (or that’s how it seems) -  even though things may seem very dark and evil, we shouldn’t lose faith. We can see weeds among the wheat, but it’s not yet harvest time. That harvest will be made when the time is right. While the crop grows the weeds will grow with it, but at harvest all will be set right. Meanwhile, God is biding his time.

As we wait for harvest we can see that things aren’t how God wants them to be, and we might ask why it is that a good and loving God lets horrible weeds grow in his garden? That’s not an easy question, but it has something to do with free will, and with love. God’s way is the way of love, and for love to happen, there has to be the freedom not to love.

Three things, though: firstly, as I look at the world and as I meet people I see more that’s good than I do bad. So we should never let our world view be distorted by the fact that bad news makes for bigger headlines. There are weeds, and some of those weeds may seem pretty big and nasty, but the good wheat is still there and it’s still growing.

Secondly, on a personal level maybe I’m glad that God’s not been too quick to hoe out all the weeds; sometimes, if I’m honest, I’m more of a weed than a fruitful crop, as I think of things I’ve done that I’d have been better not doing, and things I’ve not done that I should have done: chances I’ve missed to be fruitful in God’s service, times when I’ve been a useless weed, and not fruitful at all. So while I’ve got the time, I’m glad that God’s allowing me the chance to do better, and I need make sure I make the most of that chance.

And thirdly, some of the weeds in our world may not stay weeds. There’s always hope of change; I’ve heard some moving and amazing stories of people whose lives were transformed by an encounter with Christ, people who’ve turned from darkness to embrace the light. How do people encounter Christ? Sometimes very directly, but most often by finding in other people examples of Christian love, compassion and care that offer hope and challenge the old certainties of their lives. God lets the weeds stay in his field because while there’s life, there’s hope. The most unlikely, the most degraded people may yet turn and bear fruit. And even in the most hurtful places of our world there are heroic acts of love.

The story of the weeds promises that in God’s time a harvest is being prepared: meanwhile our task is to be a good harvest ourselves, and to encourage and bring in the harvest God desires of his world. In this service of Holy Communion, we recall the last meal Jesus ate with his disciples, at a time when evil seemed to be closing in. Next day the disciples saw what must have seemed like the final triumph of evil, as their Lord hung dying on a cross. But their minds were turned to believe as we believe that what actually took place on that cross was the great confrontation between love and evil, and in that crucial encounter love proved stronger. At the cross, death is turned to life, and we - despite our sin - are saved.

We are Easter people, following those first disciples who saw their Lord not only dying, but then newly alive. They and we are called by him afresh to be witnesses to the world of a love that we know has won the victory. So the heart of our Christian faith when we think about the existence of evil in our world is this: that the fundamental victory is already won. The cross at our altar assures us that the harvest will be brought in; and meanwhile this is true - that love is stronger than hatred, good is stronger than evil, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Caterpillars

My nature notes column . . .


The other day my son in London sent me a rather good photo of a caterpillar: clearly a moth or butterfly caterpillar (I suspect the former), with a black head and a body in two shades of green, striped along the length of the body and a bit mottled too, and with hairy tufts, not great big ones, but clearly there, of a slightly orange colour.

To be honest, at first it looked a bit like the larva of a cabbage white, but it was on a twig, not a cabbage. Identifying what plant a caterpillar is on is a major step in identifying the caterpillar. On being told it was a beech tree, I was able fairly quickly to name it as the larva of the buff tip moth. There are huge numbers of caterpillars about through a British spring and summer; some are unmistakeable - the monstrous elephant hawk moth, for example, that you may find on a willow herb or a fuschia, or the little yellow and black mobile Wolves’ scarves that are cinnabar moth caterpillars, on groundsel or ragwort. Others are harder to spot, harder to identify.

But some caterpillars are found in such immense numbers you can’t ignore them. Processionary moth caterpillars will take over a complete hedgerow bush, covering the bush with protective silk. Large and small whites will decimate your cabbages or perhaps your nasturtiums. All caterpillars are basically eating machines, and - given a good supply of their food plant - they can increase in size very rapidly, shedding their skins on a regular basis as they do so. That in itself can make caterpillar identification difficult, as different caterpillar instars can vary in colour and pattern. When the caterpillar’s food plant is also yours, you have a problem!

Caterpillars, though, are also very nutritious food themselves, for birds especially but also for other small animals. They are fat and juicy - not much fun if one turns up in your salad, but ideal for a nest of growing blue tits.  It’s probably just as well that such a lot get eaten, but obviously it’s not good for the caterpillar, and many have developed strategies for self preservation. I’ve already mentioned the elephant hawk moth caterpillar; this is one of our largest caterpillars, but it is able when approached to make itself look even larger and quite threatening, and that will see off most possible predators. And those stripy cinnabar moth caterpillars are dressed up in bright colours to advertise the fact that they are not good eating.  As farmers know well, ragwort is a poisonous plant, and the caterpillars are able to absorb that poison. They’re not affected by it themselves, but instead are able to make use of it as a protection.

Other caterpillars have to rely on not being seen. They may be coloured to resemble the food plant on which they live, for example. Or there is the peppered moth, whose caterpillar is so like a twig you just don’t see it. Others may spin webs, as mentioned above, to protect themselves. Smooth caterpillars are nicer to eat than hairy ones, so the “woolly bears” that will grow into tiger moths are reasonably safe. And caterpillars may have urticating hairs, that release nasty chemicals. It’s good that some larvae at least get through, to appear as (often) beautiful flying adults!

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Science Fiction (poem)



We have a problem.
There is an issue as regards the light:
it seems to be fading.
Audio quality also: we seem to be losing you.

Butterflies sparkle between the branches,
bees hum across the floral beds,
birds sing brightly from the woodland tops,
it’s a busy day down here.

And we’re all feeling all right,
secure in our factor thirty-five,
kept in touch with it all by our smart phones and i-pads;
the hamburgers sizzle as the Pimm’s is poured.

A single dead leaf drifts across unnoticed,
finding a quiet corner in which to disintegrate;
somewhere out of range the ice is melting too quickly,
somewhere out of sight the soil is losing its goodness.

The small boat lurches as the great sea turtle is hauled aboard;
expertly the plastic shroud about its head is removed,
gently the turtle is released, and swims away.
One more saved (for now); but how many lost?

Our planet’s health is measured in the oceans;
the wealth of the land is dumped into their waters,
with fatal consequences for tiny creatures we don’t think about;
but we need them, we depend on them.

Meanwhile, the truth is lost in a digital Babel,
swamped by fake news and manufactured sensation,
twisted by extremism, bloated into entertainment,
individualised out of existence.

For now,  butterflies sparkle between the branches,
bees hum across the floral beds,
birds sing brightly from the woodland tops,
it’s still a busy day, and we are still all right.

But somewhere someone might be saying,
“Earth, we have a problem;
you are no longer coming through as you should.
We think we’re losing you.”

Monday, 10 July 2017

Voice of Creation (a service at the Flower Festival at Pentre Llifior)

Introduction - Kindle within us, Lord, the flame of love and the song of praise; may we shine in your temple, may light be shared among us, and may our voices lift in song together with the music of all creation.  Amen.

Hymn - Great is thy faithfulness

Opening Prayers 

Father God, we gather here before you
to praise you as the creator and source of all that is. 
Out of your love the universe was born. 
From the formless dark your word brought forth light and order
and myriad forms of life; and you saw that all you had made was good.
We praise you that you have placed this world into our stewarding hands:
help us to be worthy of that trust: to find your Spirit within what you have made,
and to discern your calling voice within the circles and cycles of creation.
Disturb and challenge us, that we may take thought for the work of your hands,
and be ready to serve our sisters and brothers, our neighbours in their need.
For it is your will that we should nourish and protect the earth and its diversity of life,
and share and use well the gifts we have from you, in Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Hymn - Brother, sister, let me serve you.

Reading (Isaiah 55:12-56:1, NIV)      

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briars the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed. This is what the Lord says: ‘Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.’

Reflection

Within and around this place of worship, built to the glory of God,
we find that glory expressed in many ways: in the beauty of flowers,
in the grandeur of the landscape, and in the living world of plants and creatures.
It is good to take time to be still and attentive, and to know God in all that he has made,
to tune ourselves in to the rhythms of life and growth and the turning seasons,  
in sun and rain, in the sown seed and the fruitful crop, in life’s beginnings and endings;
may our reflections lead us into deeper wisdom and clearer vision,
and may we learn to dance with the Spirit in the joy of God’s creation.

Hymn - Dear Lord and Father of mankind.

Reading (Deuteronomy 11: 13-15 NIV)

If you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today - to love the Lord your God and to
serve him with all your heart and with all your soul - then I will send rain on your land in its
season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil.
I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

Reflection

In Genesis we find the instruction, “Fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion . . .” But - and there is a but - where we go out of step with the Creator, where in the way we use the resources of the world around us we do so as owners rather than as stewards, then the whole balance of creation is disturbed. The great prophets of the Old Testament knew this, and warned the people, and their priests and kings, accordingly. What about today? We understand so much more about ecosystems, how our living planet works, what keeps things in balance. Scientists warn us that this balance is at risk - are they the new prophets? We need to find ways of using this good earth without using in up; we need to realise the impact of such things as greed, envy, malice, on that essential balance.
                                                           
Hymn - God in his love for us lent us this planet

Reading (in part adapted from “Lord of Creation” by Brendan O’Malley)

Generations of stars have created an inheritance of heavy atoms that are bequeathed to us. The carbon atoms that make up the ink of the words that I am reading now, the oxygen atoms that we are breathing, the calcium in our bones and the iron in our blood: all of these are products of stars. In her song “Woodstock”, Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” We are recycled stardust, although our living, breathing, thinking selves are greater than the mere sum of our particles. The constantly creating divine movement of God is within all moving things of the universe, and we are an integral part of the dance of the whole cosmic order. Creation happens around us. The 14th century Christian thinker and writer Meister Eckhart said, “God is creating the entire universe fully and totally in this present, now.” The voice of the cosmic Christ calls to us through the hidden beauty present in creation, calling us to be creative ourselves. We who are made “in the image and likeness of God” are called to contemplate God as love, shining out in all creation, and to love and serve him in return.

Hymn - Jesu, lover of my soul

Reading (Luke 12.22-34)

To his disciples Jesus said, ‘Do not worry about food to keep you alive or clothes to cover your body. Life is more than food, the body more than clothes. Think of the ravens: they neither sow nor reap; they have no storehouse or barn; yet God feeds them. You are worth far more than the birds! Can anxious thought add a day to your life?  If, then, you cannot do even a very little thing, why worry about the rest?


‘Think of the lilies: they neither spin nor weave; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendour was not attired like one of them. If that is how God clothes the grass, which is growing in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown on the stove, how much more will he clothe you! How little faith you have! Do not set your minds on what you are to eat or drink; do not be anxious. These are all things that occupy the minds of the Gentiles, but your Father knows that you need them. No, set your minds on his kingdom, and the rest will come to you as well.

‘Have no fear, little flock; for your Father has chosen to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity. Provide for yourselves purses that do not wear out, and never-failing treasure in heaven, where no thief can get near it, no moth destroy it. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Hymn - Make me a channel of your peace

Reflection and Prayers

The hymn we’ve just sung is based on a “Prayer of St Francis”, written probably in the 19th century, and therefore not Francis of Assisi’s own composition, but very true to his beliefs and teaching. He took very seriously the call to “holy poverty”, and gave away all he had so that he could be completely focused on serving his Lord. Not all of us are called in that way, but we do all share a call to be devoted to the kingdom of God above all other things, not as a spare time interest or hobby, not as something we might get round to doing once we’ve sorted out all the other stuff, but as the first priority in our lives, the first thing on our list. Jesus promises us in the reading we’ve just heard, that if we set our minds on God’s kingdom, we will find we have what we need for the task. Let us for a while be still and prayerful:

Some words from the Salvadorian martyr Oscar Romero:

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said;
no prayer fully expresses our faith;
no confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the Church's mission,
no set goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay the foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something and do it well.
It may be incomplete, but is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are the workers, not the master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are the prophets of a future not our own.

Two Kingdom prayers:

Almighty God, you teach us by reason that all the riches of the world are made by you for our common use, and that by nature not one of them belongs to one human being more than to another; direct us, we pray, in obedience to your will, that all things may serve all people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it:
a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;
a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect;
a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.
Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Reflect on these words from the Prophecy of Isaiah:

This is the fast that pleases me, says the Lord: to break unjust fetters, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor. If you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word, if you give your bread to the hungry and relief to the oppressed, your light will rise in the darkness.

Hymn - To God be the glory

Blessing


The Lord grant us beauty to delight us, light to guide us, courage to support us, love to unite us, and his voice to call us on in service and in praise, now and always. And the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore. Amen.

Sowing the Seed (Eight out of Ten Cats)

A sermon for Sunday 16th July, Proper 10 Year A :-

Eight out of ten cats prefer Whiskas, according to the advertising tagline. When we had a cat it always refused to eat Whiskas, so was in the other twenty percent, or so we thought. That suited us, because the other brands were usually cheaper. Later we discovered that our cat also visited someone down the road, and when there he would only eat Whiskas. All of which suggests to me that any survey of the eating preferences of animals, and certainly of cats, is probably a waste of time.

But scientists at Cornell University have been working on a project to classify pet cats according to personality (I’m amazed at what people in America will study). Some cats are active go-ahead mousers, while others are idle, sofa-loving loungers. Knowing the personality types of a cat will apparently allow it to be matched with an owner of appropriate personality type, so there’ll be fewer cats ending up in shelters or out on the street because things haven’t worked out at home.

That’s the idea, anyway. Dream on, I say. I’m sure cats do have personalities, but to devise tests that categorise then into personality types seems to me pretty pointless. Then again, at one time I’d have been equally sceptical about classifying people by personality type. But when I was Vicar of Minsterley, all the clergy of this deanery went to do a Myers-Briggs personality type indicator test. Myers and Briggs were American psychologists, mother and daughter I think, in the tradition of Carl Jung. To my surprise I found it quite useful, something of a revelation even. It helped me understand why I get on with some people, but find it hard to relate to others. It helped me understand why some things wear me out, and other things energise me. And I think it helped us work together better as a deanery team, or at least, when we weren’t working together all that well, it helped us to understand why!

Jesus knew about the way people differ, and the story we heard this morning, the Parable of the Sower, makes that clear. It’s a very well-known parable, and our Gospel reading also included the interpretation Jesus gave for his disciples, in which we find different kinds of people responding to the Gospel in different ways. Some don’t understand at all, and the word can’t begin to grow in them and is snatched away; some are full of initial enthusiasm, but then quickly lose it; in some life’s troubles and cares, and other stuff that gets in the way, like power, possessions, ambition, status: this chokes the word and it dies; but also: some seed grows well and is fruitful.

So what kind of soil am I, what kind of soil are you? How do we respond to the seed sown into our life? That’s a good and challenging question: we can all do things that make us more receptive, better and more fertile ground, for that seed which is the word of God. Last year I put some runner beans in for a friend; cleared the ground, put up the canes, planted the young beans, then left it for him. A month or so later I called by to find that they’d not been watered or weeded, and though some beans were still there, they were weak and getting crowded out by all sorts of rank weeds. In our own lives, for the word of God to grow and be fruitful, constant attention is needed.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason, or even the main reason, why Jesus told this story. It isn’t called the parable of the seed, or even the parable of the soil; we call it the parable of the sower, and with good reason. It’s addressed to us as sowers, as people with a job to do. We who believe have been equipped with seed which we’re supposed to be sowing. The Gospel is ours not to keep to ourselves but to share, seed to spread around; but how do we feel if the seed doesn’t take, if our efforts are all in vain?

I know how I felt when I looked at those beans I’d planted for my friend. I was annoyed and disillusioned. I shan’t do that again, I thought. But, as any farmer or gardener knows, some seed’s bound to fall in places where it simply won’t thrive. Not every seed grows well, even in the best of seasons. The people Jesus was speaking to will have known the scene well: thin soil and rocky ground, and seed either sown by hand or let sprinkle from a hole in a sack as it was carried. This seed wasn’t placed carefully into tilled and prepared ground, it was left to take its chance in the ground as it was.

Our job (our apostolic job) is to share the faith we have, to sow the seed God gives. Some of it will land on the hard paths and the rocky ground and in the thickets of folk’s lives; maybe its growth won’t be as much impeded by weeds and thorns as we fear, and maybe the soil here and there will be a bit better and deeper than we first think. But not all the seed will grow.

The care we take in sowing helps, of course. The witness we offer in our own daily lives to the love of Christ. The outreach we make, not by clever preaching or ostentatious piety, but in offering help, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to support, a word to cheer or soothe or encourage. That, more than anything else, is how we sow the Gospel seed. And, yes, the better we sow it, the more will grow.

But not everyone will hear and receive the message we bear; not all the seed we sow will grow. Jesus gives us this message: “Don’t let that discourage you. Don’t give up on the job when it doesn’t always work, when not every seed grows.” Elsewhere, Paul writes about one person sowing, and another person harvesting. As sowers of seed, we may not always see what happens to the seed we sow: some of it takes a long time to germinate. A vicar I knew went back to his old parish and was surprised to find as churchwarden a lady who’d been quite scathing about church when he’d been vicar; and more surprised when she told him it’d been something he’d said that had begun her journey to faith.

So should we concentrate our efforts on the good soil, the best prospects, and ignore the rest? I took part in a mission campaign many years ago now, in which the team that came in only visited the best prospects, the homes where we thought there would be a response. But which were those best prospects? Before they came we visited every home in the parish to start a conversation and test the ground. We felt it was vital to start everywhere, and some of the “good prospects” we offered the mission team to visit were by no means where we’d have expected if we’d just selected by, say, postcode. God doesn’t discriminate between the good and the bad ground when he goes out to sow. He accepts that some seed will be snatched away, that some of it grows up fast and then withers, and that some gets choked by weeds; and he sows anyway. So should we.

God wants us to sow the word of his love as generously as he does, and to hope and pray for harvest even when we might not think there’s much chance for it, when maybe the ground around all looks barren. For in God there’s always hope of harvest, and we should never discriminate as we sow his word. People are different; not all will hear, not all will respond, and those who do may not all respond in the same way or at the same speed, which is what Jesus is saying when he talks about the fruitful bearing some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. But if we don’t sow the seed, however unpromising the ground might look then none of it will grow. While if we do sow, who can tell what God will help to happen?