Thursday, 18 May 2017

On Hell and Aldersgate - a sermon for the coming Sunday

At every main Sunday service we Anglicans are required to recite one of the creeds, generally either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. These days we do sometimes use other statements of faith instead, maybe the one used at baptisms or the one derived from Philippians chapter two. A creed is a statement of shared belief, and to stand and say the creed together expresses our fellowship as God’s people. But the Apostles’ Creed, which dates from the fourth century AD, was designed, like other creeds, to be also a test of faith, a statement of what you had to believe to be part of the Church; and if you couldn’t say and mean each and every word you were in a state of heresy.

So every phrase in the Creed is a precise and carefully judged statement of orthodox faith. Today I want to focus on one small segment which personally I always found really difficult when I was a boy in our church choir back home. And it is this: “He descended into hell.” The longer Nicene Creed we most often use at Communion doesn’t include this phrase; it simply says, “He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again”, in the version used in Common Worship.

But the Apostles’ Creed at morning and evening prayer says that Jesus descended into hell. The Biblical basis for this phrase seems in part to lie in a phrase from one of today’s set readings, the one from chapter three of the First Letter of Peter. In verses 18 to 20, Peter writes: “Christ suffered for our sins once and for all, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God; put to death in the body, he was brought to life in the spirit. In the spirit he also went and made his proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, those who had refused to obey in the past.” That last sentence, about making proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, is quite difficult to interpret, but as I read it I find myself asking - where else would spirits be imprisoned but in hell?

The first part of what Peter writes is clear enough: he tells us that Christ, the one who is just, has gained freedom for those who are unjust, in other words, us, fallen and sinful people. By living a righteous life and dying a righteous death, Jesus has  bridged the gap between the righteous God and us his unrighteous people. But then Peter goes on to address a question I’ve generally not thought to ask: where was Jesus, what was he doing, on the day between his burial and his resurrection, the day we call Holy Saturday? The Apostle’s Creed tells us Jesus descended into hell. And here, having written in verse 18 that Jesus “though put to death in the flesh, was “made alive in the Spirit” he goes on to say that in the spirit he made proclamation to the spirits in prison.

Through much of the Old Testament, when thinking about the place of the dead, the Bible speaks of Sheol, the pit, a shadowy place between existence and non-existence. But by the time of Jesus some Jews, the Pharisees for example, had a well-developed belief in life after death, although that wasn’t shared by other groups like the Sadducees. The early Church began to contrast heaven, to which the righteous dead would go, with Hades or hell, the place to which the unrighteous and disobedient would be sent. Peter in this reading uses the usual word for prison, rather than openly speaking of hell, but he surely does mean us to think of hell, for here is where those who persist in disobedience are held.

He tells us that Jesus “gave his proclamation” to those who’d refused to obey in the past; and then speaks about the time of Noah, and of the eight people, Noah and his wife, and his sons and their wives, who passed safely through the flood. For Peter this is a sign of the salvation we receive through baptism, by which we’re brought through water to safety. But it seems the dead are not excluded from the salvation offered to us. Reading on into chapter four and verse 6 Peter writes again that “the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like mortals, they might live in the spirit like God.”

To me this means that there are no limits to the reach of God’s love. The creeds of the Church affirm that only in Jesus do we find a power and a love that can conquer death itself. There’s no limit to what Jesus does for us, there’s no place he won’t go, as he seeks to change our hearts and bring us back to God. Peter tells how God’s righteous servant brings the unrighteous, both living and dead, back within the reach of God’s love, back within the bounds of its saving power. God’s boundless love, the triumph of his Son: this is not limited or conquered, not even by the powers of death and hell. Jesus said to Peter that on this rock he would build his church, to stand so sure that not even the gates of hell could prevail against it.

In a way I’ve always sat a little lightly to creeds. I’m happy to recite them and I believe in what they stand for, but I’m poetic rather than precise in the way I understand the words I say. “Now we see through a glass darkly”, Paul wrote. God is beyond our reach and sight, but we rejoice in the mystery of a love we see in Jesus, love that seeks us out and saves us. The centre of my faith is the relationship of love I’m offered: “What a friend we have in Jesus”, as the hymn puts it. Jesus is love divine, acting to change hearts and lives, acting without limit, going even to hell and back for us. There’s nothing he won’t do, and nothing in life or in death, on earth or even under the earth, can separate us from his love.
 
Methodists call this Sunday Aldersgate Sunday, the one before the 24th May, when John Wesley’s faith was transformed and his heart “strangely warmed” (as he described it) in a meeting room in Aldersgate Street, London. What was it that warmed his heart that day? Love, pure and simple, love that claims us, love that redeems us, love that sparks our love and enables our witness and service and praise, love without limit. It’s not what you believe that counts, nor is it even the list of good things you do. We are saved through grace, brought home by a love we don’t deserve, by the one who is love without limit, love without end.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Wasps

My Nature Notes article for the coming month . . .

“What is the point of wasps?” I was asked the other day. Well, on fine and warm spring days, queen wasps have been very visible this year. At our place, as fast as I’ve got rid of one another seems to have turned up, and generally they don’t seem to have been very well-tempered. So wasps are, at the very least, irritating; but the fact is, we’d miss them if they weren’t there.

You may be surprised to know that there are some 9,000 different species of wasp in the UK. Many of these are very small, some are highly specialised, most don’t sting, and you probably wouldn’t recognise a lot of them as wasps at all. The ones that cause us so much trouble are the so-called paper wasps of the family Vespidae, social wasps that build large paper nests and have nasty stings. The largest of these is of course the hornet, not unknown in these parts but not all that often seen, either. We are close to the northern edge of its UK distribution, though hornets are beginning to spread further north. Hornets are fairly docile unless their nest is threatened, but do have a very nasty sting if riled, and an individual hornet or wasp can sting more than once. Their nests are in fact quite small, with maybe 300 inhabitants, whereas the nests of the two best known species of ‘typical’ wasps, the common wasp and the German wasp, can grow to accommodate more than 10,000 individual wasps.

The queen wasps that are so annoying just now have hibernated through the winter and are looking for nest sites. She’ll also be urgently looking for food to build up her strength, and wasps are in fact important early season pollinators of flowers. Once the first eggs have been laid, the queen, then the emerging workers, will take insects and caterpillars to feed the young. In warm weather it can take little more than a week for an egg to develop into the adult wasp, in cooler temperatures the process may take three to four weeks. Estimates vary as to how many insects a wasp colony will take in a season - suffice to say it’s a lot. So wasps can be a force for good in many ways - annoying though they can be, they are in fact the gardener’s friend.

Wasps are mostly a problem when the nest is threatened. Wasps follow a linear flight path in and out of the nest, and if you happen to be in the way, they don’t like it. They have excellent vision, and sudden panicked movements on our part make us seem larger and more threatening, increasing the chance of attack. When a wasp stings, a pheromone is released that encourages other wasps to join in, particularly when the nest itself is threatened. But badgers will often destroy wasp nests, feeding on the grubs and clearly able to ignore the stings of defending adults.

A number of species of wasp new to the UK have arrived in recent years, among them the median wasp which is larger than native species, and has something of a reputation for aggression. Thankfully, this wasp is still fairly rare. But wasps form part of a balanced ecosystem, and, if we are kind to them and respect their space, for the most part they will do more good than harm.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Way, Truth and Life - a sermon on John 14.1-14

(To be preached this Sunday at Trelystan)

Our Gospel reading today may be one of the best known passages of the New Testament, not least because it’s read at many a funeral service. Significant words, but what are their context? We’re in that upper room where Jesus made secret arrangements to share a last supper, a Passover meal, with his disciples. And Jesus has washed their feet, something you’d expect the lowest servant to do. That must have been an uncomfortable moment: it should surely have been one of them who did it, not their teacher; but Jesus has set an example of service for them to follow.

He goes on to tell them that one of their own number will betray him; and at the end of the meal Judas leaves the room. It was night, John tells us bluntly; not just the darkness of evening, but the darkness of sin and chaos. Love one another, Jesus tells the remaining eleven. “I will follow you anywhere,” says Peter, “I will lay down my life for you.” But Jesus tells him, “Before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

And so this chapter begins, with the disciples feeling uneasy, embarrassed, disorientated. So Jesus starts by saying: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.”  These are words of comfort, and the disciples will need words like that. If they are disorientated now, how will they feel tomorrow, Good Friday? They can’t know as yet just how badly they’re going to fail their Lord. But Jesus, of course, does.

So there’s a message to take from this passage about our own failure; the ways in which we let Jesus down. Like the disciples, we let Jesus down. But he promises us as he promised them that despite our failure there is a place for us in his Father’s love. Jesus doesn’t measure us by our performance: in Ephesians chapter two Paul writes, “It is by grace that you are saved, through faith - and this is not your own doing, but the gift of God.” Jesus says here: “You know the way to the place where I am going.”  Not “You will know the way” but “You do know the way.”
 
You already know the way, Jesus tells the disciples. They’ve been with him a while now, they’ve heard his teaching, they’ve seen him at work. They should have learned something. But Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” I think Thomas was the sort of guy who asks the question everyone else is thinking, but no-one else dares ask. And in the lecture or class room you heave a sigh of relief and think, “Thank goodness someone asked!” Good job we’ve got Thomas with us! that’s probably what the others were thinking. And Jesus tells him (and us), “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.”

Words of comfort, but words also of truth and challenge. The way isn’t something we search for, it’s nothing to do with maps and satnavs, nor is there anything mystic about it. It’s not a matter of arcane knowledge, it’s about relationship. To know Jesus is to know the Father. In this person, in this human life, we can see the glory of divine love. And we have a place in that love. Jesus says he is the way; not a way, but the way, not a truth, but the truth. “No-one comes to the Father, except by me,” he says.

I sometimes feel uncomfortable about exclusive language: the way, as if there is no other way to goodness and God. While I am a Christian by conviction and choice, and not simply by chance, that doesn’t mean that I reject all other religious paths, all other ways of searching for God, as simply “wrong”. But for me the challenge of “I am the way, the truth, and the life” is a personal challenge, a challenge to me. I’ve no right to sit in judgement on anyone else, as to what relationship they have, or don’t have, with God. The challenge to me - and to you - is that we take to heart the example Jesus has set us, and the mark of his cross as the only place where our salvation is secured, where the burden of our failure, our sin, is lifted from us. So all that we do and say, the way we live, the decisions we make, should be a living witness to what God has done; to what he’s done in Jesus and in the story of the cross, and to what he has done and is doing in our own lives.

For me the challenge and call of these words is simple and direct: live in a way that shares the story of God’s love; live in a way that proclaims the good news that through faith in Jesus we can have a personal and loving relationship with the God we can call our Father. It is that simple; it is that straightforward; and it’s also that demanding.

But now Philip speaks up: “Show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” And Jesus replies, “You’ve been with me all this time, surely you get it by now. If you know me you know my Father. You’ve heard what I say, you’ve seen what I do. At the very least, believe in me on the basis of what your own eyes have seen, your own ears have heard."

I wonder how much of this the disciples took on board? Not very much, I should think, at the time. But later they will have realised that what Jesus was doing, what he was really saying to them was this: what’s about to happen is what needs to happen, what is supposed to happen. It may feel as though everything has gone wrong; it may feel as though all God’s plans have been wrecked. But no, that’s not how it is: in the events of these days God’s holy one is doing what he was sent to do. And in so doing he is blazing the way for his people, meeting the opposing forces head on. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” One of many great “I am” statements in which Jesus explicitly claims for himself the power and authority of his Father.

Finally, as we continue through the reading, we find Jesus saying, “You will do even greater things, because I am going to the Father,” and, “If you ask for anything in my name I will do it.” What huge promises these are! Anyone with faith that’s grounded in Jesus, and witnessed to in a relationship of prayer and praise will do even greater things than he did. Anything we ask for in his name we will receive. How can all of this be true? Here’s one way of interpreting and understanding these words that works for me.

We are in the service of the Kingdom. Jesus spoke a lot about the Kingdom. In fact, all he said and did proclaimed the Kingdom. The kingdom happens wherever God’s work is done, wherever his Lordship is proclaimed, wherever we truly commit ourselves to Jesus as our way, our truth and our life. In his earthly body Jesus was limited by space and time; his ministry was confined to Galilee and Judaea, pretty much. But his death and resurrection has freed him into all the world; and the work of his Church, which is the body of Christ in the world, will be to proclaim the Kingdom everywhere, to do and say Kingdom things across the whole world, in every land, in every language.

In this way Jesus is able to stretch around the world, changing hearts, helping people discover grace and freedom, healing ills, healing relationships, forgiving sin, restoring peace, feeding those who go hungry; as we share the story of what Christ has done in us, and show what he can do in others. And we are not alone in what we do, we are not unaided. What we pray for in his name we will receive.

Where we seek his mind, where we share his vision, where we are committed to his work of love, we shall receive what we need to be good witnesses, to be Kingdom people, to be his Easter people. And as we minister in his name our ministry is founded in this confident faith: that in the wonderful love he has for the world each one of us is known and treasured. There is a place prepared for us, for each and every one of the children of God. Amen.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Sheep and Shepherd

(A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter)

When I first came to minister in these parts, just over the border in what is now the Stiperstones group of parishes, a friend sent me a card to wish me well. On the envelope, under my address, he’d written “Enclosed: a picture of some of your new parishioners.” When I opened the envelope, I found the card to be a charming picture of rather a lot of sheep. And he was right of course: there were definitely more sheep than people in my new parishes, and I can recall more than one occasion on which my journey to church on a Sunday morning was delayed by sheep straying about on the road.

And only a few weeks ago I was coming over the Long Mountain from Marton towards Trelystan, on my way home from somewhere, when again there were sheep all over the road. Really, all I could do was to slowly drive towards them so I was herding them along the road. Thankfully nothing came in the other direction, so I had a clear run with them; and eventually they came across a track off to the side leading up to some farm, and scampered off up there. Was that home, I wondered - but I had no way of telling, and at least they were off the road and out of my way.

That wasn’t the best example of good shepherding, though of course they shouldn’t have been out there in the first place. But it was the best I could manage at the time. Walking down from Shelve towards White Grit on Good Friday, I was able to observe a shepherd working very well, with her dog, just a couple of fields away. Sheep are naturally prone to panic, and quick to follow each other in quite lunatic directions, so the shepherd needs to be tuned into that and thinking ahead if he, or in this case she, is going to keep the sheep safe and get them to where they need to be. I’m no judge, but it seemed to me that in this case shepherd and dog didn’t put a foot wrong. The sheep were safely and skilfully moved into a small holding area in the corner of the field where they could be securely penned in.

That was a good example of how we move sheep here. We drive them, we herd them. In the Middle East, on the other hand, sheep are by tradition led by their shepherd. On holiday in Greece I remember watching a man leading a small flock of fairly scruffy looking sheep to graze on salty pasture by the mouth of a little river. My attention had been drawn by the tinny sound of the bells worn by each sheep, but really it could have been a scene straight out of scripture. There’d have been no fields and fences up on the hills of Judaea or Galilee; flocks would mix on the hills, and sheep needed to know their own shepherd’s call.

Jesus spoke a lot about sheep; no surprise, since he used everyday things to illustrate his teaching, images to help those who heard him understand and remember his words. But the image of a shepherd is very Biblical. It’s often used in scripture of kings and leaders. When Moses knew his life was nearing its end, he called on God to appoint a leader for the people, so they’d not be “like a sheep without a shepherd”.

Most tellingly, the 23rd Psalm, a version of which we’ve just sung, has God himself as the shepherd who leads us into safe pasture, refreshes our souls, and is at our side even in the darkest and most desperate times of our lives. Prophets like Ezekiel contrasted the bad and careless shepherding provided by their leaders to the people of Israel with the good shepherding their Lord desired for them. Those who should have protected the sheep had instead exploited them and neglected them, leaving them scattered, helpless and unfed while they themselves grew fat and sleek. Judgement would fall upon those false shepherds, while the Lord himself would intervene to provide for the needs of his neglected and harrowed flock, restoring them to health.

These were images that would surely have been in the mind of Jesus when he talked about sheep and shepherds. But in truth, there were many examples of ‘bad shepherding’ in his own day, and there are still.

So where do we look, for shepherding and guidance? Whose are the voices we tune into, recognise, and follow? The people listening to Jesus knew well that though the sheep they cared for should recognise their own shepherd’s voice and follow only him, it didn’t always happen that way. Sheep got lost; sheep attached themselves to the wrong flock; and sheep were constantly at risk from dangerous predators and unscrupulous thieves.

Jesus warned them against the false shepherds of their own day: shepherds who cared more for their own needs than those of the flock in their care, leaders whom God had made responsible for the sheep of Israel, but who had instead exploited them and led them astray, abusing the trust placed in them. Hirelings, he called them, hirelings who care nothing for the flock.

I don’t think we need to look very far in today’s world to find examples of bad shepherding and false leading: political leaders who care more for dogma and power than for the real needs of real people; the dubious ethics and moralities peddled by the media and from within the so called celebrity culture of these times; the enthronement of Mammon in industry and commerce, and the idea that things are only worth what you can sell them for.

Thieves, Jesus calls them. Verse 10: “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy.” Some thieves may have a persuasive tongue and a sweet voice; their message may attract and seduce. It’s tempting to follow such shepherds, but all their promises turn out to be false, to be so much dust and ashes. Whereas Jesus says (continuing to read verse 10), “I have come that they may have life, and may have it in all its fullness.”

Jesus goes on to say, “I know my own, and my own know me.” They will recognize his voice, he tells us. Think of the sheep penned together at night. In the morning the shepherd comes to call his sheep out of that mixed flock, to lead them to find good pasture up on the hills. That’s the picture Jesus gives us.

And he goes on to say that his sheep won’t respond to the voice of another shepherd. How good are we really, I wonder, at picking out his voice from all the various siren calls of the world? We need help to do it well. I’ve been trying to learn some Welsh recently, but over Easter things got too busy, and I’ve had a few weeks off. It’s distressing to find just how quickly you lose touch, and things went rusty; I’ve got to get back to doing a bit every day, if I’m going to catch up and keep up. The same thing applies here. “Seven days without prayer make one weak” (that’s W E A K) as the church noticeboard poster puts it.

“I have come that they may have life,” says Jesus. A good shepherd knew what dangers faced the flock, and would be always ready to protect them. Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” When the sheep were up in the hills through the summer months, the mixed flocks would be brought into the safety of a fold for the night. Imagine a walled circle, with a single entrance, where the shepherds would sit on guard. Maybe just one shepherd would keep watch while the others got some kip. In that case the shepherd himself would lie across the doorway, to make sure none of the sheep strayed out of the safety of the fold, and no predators got in. So Jesus says of himself, “I am the gate of the sheepfold. Whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture”.

Mother Julian of Norwich, whose day it is tomorrow, would have well understood what the 23rd Psalm has to say about “walking in the shadow of death”. She wrote vividly about the testing and trials of her life, but goes on to say that “we are all mercifully enfolded in the gentleness of God, and in his kindness and goodwill.” In times of trouble and sadness, we are (she writes) “kept safe and sound by the merciful safeguarding of God, so we are not lost.” Such words connect into my image of Jesus as the true shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. He knows us more deeply than we know ourselves, calling us by name, seeking us out when we lose our way.

And through his death on the cross he has become for us the gate we could otherwise never find, the gate that leads us to be enfolded in the safety of eternal love, the gate that leads to the life promised in all abundance. The more we open our hearts to him in prayer and worship, the more time we take to reflect on his word, the more clearly we’ll hear his call, picking out and tuning into his voice, against the myriad voices of the world.

Some more words from Mother Julian: “We cannot know the blessed safety or our endless joy until we are filled with peace and love, that is to say, wholly pleased with God and with all his works and with all his judgements, and until we are in love and peace with ourselves and our fellow Christians and with all that God loves, as love would have it. And God’s goodness in us brings this about.”

So let us pray:
Merciful God, you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be our Good Shepherd, and in love for us to lay down his life and rise again, so opening the way into his eternal kingdom. Keep us always under his protection, fill our hearts with that love and peace that is your gift, and grant us grace to recognize his voice, to hear his call, and to follow in his steps. In his name we ask this, Jesus Christ, our Shepherd and Saviour and Lord. Amen.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Wheat that springeth green

To be preached at Middleton and Geuffordd . . .

The scientist and writer Isaac Asimov told the story of a long sea voyage during which a fellow passenger, a Mr Jones, became terribly seasick. On one occasion, as he was feeling particularly green and poorly in a corner of the lounge, one of the ship’s stewards came up to him, laid a hand kindly on his shoulder, and said, “I know you’re feeling really awful, sir, but don’t worry - no-one ever died of seasickness.” To which Mr Jones replied, “Oh no, please don’t say that! It’s only the blessed hope of dying that’s keeping me alive!”

Most of the really good resurrection stories are to be found in St John’s Gospel, but here today is the exception that proves that rule, the lovely story told by Luke of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and their encounter with Jesus. They may not have been quite as low and desperate as Mr Jones, but they were pretty downhearted. They may not have hoped for death, but they were resigned to it - not looking forward to much else.

How well they knew Jesus we don’t know, but they seem to have been on pretty good terms with Peter and the others, so it’s a fair assumption that they should have been able to recognise him. So why didn’t they, when he joined them on the road? One writer suggests that, walking due west toward the end of the day (as they were), maybe the sun was in their eyes; but I think there’s more to it than that. This not recognising Jesus is something that turns up again and again as we read the Easter Gospels.

We’ll come back to that, though. For now, let’s reflect on the fact that it’s while they were talking about him that Jesus came up and joined them. While they were talking about him. Do we talk enough about Jesus? To one another, and to others? It does seem to me that the more we talk about him, the more he figures in our lives, the more likely he is to meet with us on the road. “I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus in the Book of Revelation. But if we’re not talking about him, if he’s not in the forefront of our minds, then maybe we won’t hear that knock.

And when he did meet with them, what did he do? He explained things, he opened their minds to the truth. To the extent that their hearts burned within them, as they say later on. To be honest, you’d have thought they would have recognised him by this stage. Who else did they know who could expound God’s word with such freshness, such vision, such energy? Remember what people had said of him, back in Galilee? “He teaches in a new way, not like the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees.”

But anyway, they still didn’t recognise him. It’s almost as if he’s playing with them, in a gentle way, testing them as well as teaching them, rebuking them for their slowness as well as opening their minds. This not recognising Jesus, then. I think the Gospel writers want us to understand that there is something fundamentally different about Jesus now. He hasn’t returned to his old life, he hasn’t somehow escaped from death. Easter begins something new, not an escape from the inevitable, but its defeat. And yet he is the same man, recognised not from his face but from the scars he bears, or recognised (as we shall see) in the things he does.

But I think as well that none of us is very good at processing the unexpected. We form our picture, our theory of how the world works, of how the world should be, and things that don’t fit in with that get set aside, dismissed, maybe just not noticed at all. I cam across someone I know the other day, but not in a place either of us would visit very often. She was coming straight towards me along the street; I smiled, waved, said “Good morning!” - and she just walked straight past. A few steps further on, she stopped, turned, came back and said, “Oh! sorry! I didn’t expect to see you here!” What we don’t expect to see, we don’t see, or at least, not straight away. So do we expect to see Jesus? Or maybe I should ask, WHERE do we expect to see Jesus? In the everyday business of our everyday lives? In our work, in our friendships? Be sure, he is there, but maybe if we don’t expect to find him, we won’t be aware.

Perhaps we reserve Jesus to a place like this, with stone walls and pointy windows, and are not aware of him, not able to recognise him, anywhere else. Here’s a challenge for all of us, one that frankly I don’t manage to face up to all the time, but we should all be trying our best: to place Jesus at the centre, to see if we can recognise him in all kinds of unexpected places, in secular places as well as in the ones that are labelled and identified as holy. It’s the difference between religion being one of our hobbies or pastimes among others, and religion - or let’s say faith, it’s a better word - faith being the reason why we do all the other stuff.

The two disciples said to the man who had joined them, who as yet they hadn’t recognised, “Where have you been all this time? Everybody’s talking about what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. We had thought he was the one to save us, to set us free, but then it all went wrong, it all fell apart.” That was their assessment, the picture, the world view, by which they were living, that controlled how they saw things. So the man explained things to them, pointed them round towards a different way of seeing things - but still they didn’t recognise him.

Two things that changed things: something they did, something he did. They invited him in. “Don’t go on, far too late in the day, we’ve got room, stay here.” Basic hospitality, something very much prized in the Middle East, but there’s a simple and basic message in this story, that acts of kindness can often bring unexpected blessings. And the simple fact that we’re all moved by them must say something about how we should be, who we’re really programmed to be, with one another. The film of the runner last Sunday helping his fellow runner who could hardly stand get to the line and over it at the London Marathon has gone viral.

Then there’s what Jesus does: he breaks the bread, and their eyes are opened. He breaks the bread. Here at this table we are most specially aware of him, most specially able to receive from him, here we are received, blessed, equipped, fed - and sent out.

There are disclosure moments in life; sometimes people call them religious experiences. Moments when the world seems sharper, more focused, when we see more clearly, when we fell more deeply, moments when the penny drops, when we understand, when we see. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we use the same word “see” about both vision and understanding. In the resurrection stories, people failed to recognise Jesus because they hadn’t yet seen, understood, what had really happened. Every Eucharist should be a disclosure moment, for we’re not here just to remember, to look back, to hold a memorial service; no, the Greek word anamnesis which we translate as “remembrance” - do this in remembrance of me - actually means something much stronger, it’s about being in the presence of our Lord, being part of the supper he gives, in which he continues to be here among us, breaking the bread, here and now. Our risen Lord.

Our risen Lord, who assures us now as he told those disciples then, that love is come again, like wheat that springeth green - that love is victorious, is always victorious, is finally and completely victorious, over all that can enslave us, all that ties us down. The two disciples set out straight away, back to Jerusalem, to share the good news. That’s what happens when the penny drops, and when, instead of being resigned to death, we have seen what it means to live.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

More about the Pied Crow

Our "pied crow" (not the genuine article, but a carrion crow with white feathers on each wing) has become a very regular visitor, helping to sweep up after other visitors to our bird feeders. The other day our local nesting carrion crows (the pair that laid into a passing raven on Great Garden Birdwatch Day) spotted him and sailed rapidly into the attack, driving him down into the woodland below our garden. Next time we saw him one of his wings was looking very shabby: my guess is that the other crows' attacks focus particularly on the white feathers. He has a sad life, really.

The same route down into the wood was taken at high speed by a sparrow hawk on Sunday afternoon. I just happened to glance through the window, and it went past like a bullet. They are remarkably aerodynamic - this was a pretty solid bird, but it hurtled past, making slight adjustments to clear our back fence by what looked like a fraction of an inch, and then pass between the trees behind. I didn't see what it was chasing.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Enchanter's Nightshade



I walk the central aisle of this green cathedral,
to find you shining with shy but serious intent
where beech pillars stand tall on either side,
bearing arched canopies to preserve the stillness
of this natural nave, this dark and shaded holy place.
You are Circe the enchantress, quiet dealer in potions,
the only flower remaining on this July morning,
for July is the darkest time in the beech wood.
But nightshade you are, by name and nature
if not by family: nightshade and enchantress.
Anemone, celandine and bluebell, the flowers of the day
have vanished with the Spring, and the long night is yours alone.
Your white roots spread in secret through the gloom from
where your spikes of tiny flowers rise from a ring of hearts;
and while I stand quiet within this holy place
I know I am in your thrall.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Into All The World

I wonder where the disciples were gathered; all we’re told is that the doors were locked. They were vulnerable, and afraid. Was the room they were in the same room in which they’d eaten a last supper with Jesus just three days before? Was it the room in which he’d astounded them by rising from table and taking a towel and water, then kneeling to wash their feet?

His actions then had startled and shamed them. But Jesus had given them a lesson to learn, and a glimpse into their own future. He’d showed them just how they must take his message of love into the world. As their Servant-King he’d invited them to join him in the community of service. "This is my new commandment,” he said; “love one another as I have loved you.”

So perhaps they did return to that place after their Lord had been crucified. It was a secret location and therefore safe, and the shared memories of that last supper eaten with him might have been some comfort in their grief, a fragment to hold on to as their world fell apart.

John’s account of Easter begins with the visit of John himself and Peter to the tomb, how they found it empty and the grave clothes still there. Then comes the story of Mary Magdalene meeting with Jesus in the garden, and being given a message for the disciples. Imagine her rushing to them, bursting in on their fear and sorrow to exclaim, "I have seen the Lord.”

But their immediate reaction is confusion and uncertainty, not delight. They remain huddled together with the doors shut and locked, afraid of everything on the other side. They’re yet unable to understand the cross as anything other than defeat and the snatching away of all that they had dreamed of and hoped for; so of course they remain afraid of the forces that had killed Jesus, they remain afraid for their own lives, they still wonder how things could all have gone so wrong.

I don’t find it hard to imagine how the disciples felt. I’ve often enough done the same, locked myself in and the world out when I’ve felt sad or confused or threatened, when things have gone wrong, when something done or said has wounded me. And I’ve seen too many situations where grief hasn’t be set aside, where anger’s fuelled bitterness, where slights and grudges are allowed to fester. Times when we shut out even those who want to care and offer help, when friends can’t reach us.

Mary Magdalene’s words probably only added to the confusion the disciples felt. It was more than they could take. “Just what is going on?” they must have thought. Again, I can understand. The world around us often changes so fast it takes our breath away. We don’t understand, we can’t keep up; we’re tempted to hide away somewhere safe with our own little group, and not think too much about what’s going on outside. Was that where the disciples were on that Sunday evening?

Churches can themselves become safe havens. To a degree that’s fine. People should be able to find refuge in a church, after all. But I’ve known churches shut their doors a little too firmly. Let’s keep the world at bay, we’re tempted to think: the stuff we don’t like, the stuff we can’t process, the stuff that scares us. Churches like that tend to restrict their membership to people of like mind, with doors closed to anyone or anything that might challenge their doctrines. The doors were locked where the disciples were, but Jesus still joined them; hear what he said to them: “Peace be with you; as the Father sent me, so I send you.”

And he breathed his Spirit upon them. Jesus comes to us as he came to those first disciples. He’s unhindered by the walls we build around ourselves to keep others away and ourselves safe, he bypasses the doors we lock out of anger or anxiety, he breaks through our grief, our fear, our uncertainty.

And he does so as he did then, so he can speak peace to us and breathe peace into our anxious hearts. He comes bearing the marks of his suffering and death, bearing the wounds of the world, the wounds of our own grief and pain and sin. He is the one who died, the wounds are there for all to see, and yet these wounds are now transformed into new life.

Jesus shows the disciples the wounds in his hands and side, then repeats the words "Peace be with you." So they are twice blessed. And they saw - and we see with them - that the body of Christ, though risen, though alive for ever, still carries its wounds. And if the Church that takes his message into the world is (in Paul’s great image) the Body of Christ, it must also be marked with his wounds, as it engages with the need, the violence, the pain, the suffering of the world.

We are here today because the disciples did not stay in that safe and familiar room. They opened the doors, and Jesus sent them out into the world they feared, assuring them of his life, his strength, his vision, his presence. And so he sends us today, offering us the deep peace of his Holy Spirit, and lifting from us the power of fear, pains and grief, of shame and guilt to disable us and hold us captive. Jesus frees us so that he can send us to make a difference wherever we are, and to bring forgiveness and freedom to others in his name.

So let us pray:
Come to us, risen Lord Jesus, and send us out in faith to live and to share the good news of Easter. Fill us with the breath of your Holy Spirit, that we may breathe peace into fearful lives, love one another as we have been loved, welcome the stranger, make friends of enemies, and forgive the sins that bind others to the past; that we may serve those who need our care, and proclaim with joy the risen life that you offer to us, and through us to all the world. Amen.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Pied Crow

A pied crow has become a regular visitor to our garden of late. I should explain - there is a bird called a pied crow, common in Africa and also from time to time kept as a pet. It has a white neck and chest, and black head, back, wings and tail, and, although about the same size as our carrion crows, is I think better described as a small raven. The bird that visits us is a native carrion crow, but it has a substantial number of white feathers on each wing. It would look quite handsome, but is in fact a bit on the tatty side - very tatty in fact when we first saw it, with most of his tail feathers missing. He’s beginning to look a little more respectable now, but the very fact that he spends so much time prospecting around our feeders, something our nearby nesting crows never do, would suggest he’s been having a hard time.

The term for his condition, of white feathers instead of black, is leucism, which affects a wide range of common birds. Leucistic blackbirds are quite often seen, ranging from birds with just an occasional white feather to birds with only a few black feathers. No-one knows why blackbirds should display leucism more often than other species, though there is clearly a genetic elements here. Leucistic birds are not albinos, which are completely lacking in pigment - they partly lack the black pigment melanism. Other plumage abnormalities include melanism (extra black pigment, so darker plumage - this is often seen in pheasants), and less often, erythrism which is where  there are additional red pigments, and flavism with extra yellow pigment.

Do these plumage changes cause problems, I wondered, seeing how bedraggled our “pied crow” looked. Yes, is the answer, they can: having plumage that differs from the population 'norm' can give the wrong signals to other individuals, as well as perhaps making the bird more obvious and vulnerable to would-be predators. In addition, research suggests that feathers with reduced pigment may be less robust, wearing more quickly and reducing flight efficiency. They may also be less effective in insulating the bird against cold.

Unusual birds can often be attacked and driven off, and there are many instances of this happening to escaped cage birds, for example. But birds also habitually attack other species that are similar to them but differently plumaged; on these pages I’ve described how robins will attack dunnocks, and blue tits will drive away coal tits (this year, in fact, we have a particularly feisty blue tit using our nest box, and he will fly at almost any other birds that visits our feeders - I mention this because usually blue tits seem to be only one notch up from coal tits at the bottom of the pecking order).

Anyway, I think our visiting crow is most likely to have been attacked by fellow carrion crows spooked by his plumage irregularities. But he’s beginning to get quite feisty himself, the other day seeing off his more regularly pied relative, the magpie, with great promptness and efficiency.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Some you win, some you lose . . .

 A peacock at Powis Castle struts his stuff to a passing hen
How can she resist?
 I mean, this really is the business!
 Ahem . . . I'm over here!
 What do you mean, "I've got things to do"?
Oh well, other fish in the sea, I guess . . .

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Easter

“What do you enjoy most about Easter?” When I asked that question to children in primary school, their answers included the Easter bunny, chocolate eggs, spring flowers and catkins. Ann and I went with our grandchildren to Chirk Castle last week, where the staff were getting ready for the National Trust Cadbury’s Egg Hunt. You may have noticed there’s a word missing. And the Archbishop of York and the Prime Minister made headlines as they complained to Cadbury’s and the Trust about the missing word Easter.

Much as I hate to disagree with the great and good of our nation, I myself was not that bothered. And anyway, the big poster as we approached Chirk Castle said “Easter Fun - come and join our egg hunt!” - so the word Easter hasn’t entirely been lost. And anyway, if I’m asked what Easter bunnies and Easter eggs have to do with what the Christian festival of Easter, my answer has to be: not very much.

Of course, I like them both. What’s not to like? Rabbits and eggs are symbols of springtime and new life. And of course an egg looks a bit like a stone, but with life inside waiting to burst through the shell, so it can be a symbol for the tomb.

Having said that, egg hunts as a tradition may date from hundreds of years BC. And the name Easter may itself come from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. Springtime has long been a time for festival and celebration, and there might well be children probably be hunting for eggs in National Trust gardens even if the Christian Church had never existed.

The Jewish Passover was itself a spring festival, though of course it also celebrated the people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt. Easter as a Christian festival is celebrated in spring because it’s linked to the Passover. That’s also why the date on which it’s held varies from year to year.

The Bible tells us that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus took place at Passover. Passover begins on the 15th day of the month Nisan in the Jewish calendar which follows a lunar cycle. In fact Passover begins on the first full moon after the Spring equinox, this year 10th April. And Easter is celebrated on the Sunday morning following the start of the Passover.

Spring celebrations and traditions from pagan times were incorporated into the Christian festival of Easter, egg hunts included. But alongside all the springtime fun is the true story of a man put to death in a shameful and barbaric way. His followers were sad, defeated, crushed by what happened, preparing to go home. That was Friday; yet on Sunday and in the weeks that followed, these people came to believe, and to begin to tell the world that he was not dead.

Whatever the Easter story means to you, whether you believe it without question or are still weighing things up, let me spend some time reflecting on what happened that day and what it means to me. I’d like to home in on these three words as I do so: peace, purpose, and promise, and as I do so I’ll be quoting some verses from John’s Gospel, which is where the Easter story is most movingly presented.

So peace is my first word. John tells how in the evening of that first Easter Day, with the doors locked in the place where the disciples had gathered, Jesus came and stood among them. And the first words he spoke to them were “Peace be with you!” This peace is more than just a sense of calm and tranquillity; the Hebrew word shalom speaks of peace that includes wholeness, completeness, wellbeing, security, serenity and harmony of life - and at the heart of it all, peace with God. Today we are reconciled with the one who breathes life into the universe.

Sin is what separates us from God, and therefore from that true peace of heart that is shalom. In John we find this: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” Easter is about God putting things right. Jesus is more than just a good man and a fine teacher; he is the Saviour who frees us from the shackles of sin that we ourselves could never break. His cross lifts from us the weight of our sins, reopens the way back to God. Because he is risen and alive, we are restored to a peace with God that on our own we could never grasp.

And his life gives our life point and purpose. Jesus went on to say to his disciples on that first Easter Day: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. Where will he send them? Everywhere, into all the world. Life throws up big questions: “Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is the point, the purpose of me?” Science and philosophy can only take us so far; for the third question I look to Jesus. Here’s something St Paul wrote in chapter one of his Letter to the Colossians: “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation. Everything was created through him and for him.” In Jesus we are brought close to God. He lives and we live with him, as Easter people, with lives that have purpose and direction.

Easter gives purpose to this bit of life, but it adds to that the promise of eternal life. At the end of his account of the risen Christ John tells us he wrote these things so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”. To complete the quote I mentioned earlier, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.” In another verse from John, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it in all abundance.” Abundant life: not just long life, not just happy life - abundant life.

Jesus offers us a share in abundant life, in his resurrection life. When Peter and John ran to the tomb, they not only found it empty, they found the grave clothes still there. The sense of the Greek text is that the body had simply risen from them, leaving them behind. They were no longer needed. This isn’t a repeat of the resurrection of Lazarus, brought from his grave still wrapped in the grave clothes. This is not a return to the life that was; this is something new.

When Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus in the garden he gives her a message to take to the disciples: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” In those words Jesus plainly tells her that we have a share in what he was done, that we have the same relationship to God. He’d taught his disciples to pray “Our Father, who art in heaven.” At the Last Supper he’d startled them by saying of the bread and wine “This is my body; this is my blood.” But it’s now, at the empty tomb, that these words are proved to be true. This is not a one-off event, but a new beginning in which all who live by faith are promised a share.

Egg hunts, cartoon bunnies, spring catkins; Easter’s a great time with lots to enjoy, and I shall enjoy every bit of it. But at the heart of this service and as we share bread and wine we find the one thing that really matters. We find what is unique and fundamental about Easter, we find the corner stone of our faith. Our Lord is risen, he is risen indeed. Death is defeated, sin has lost its power to enslave us; in this blessed day the way is opened for us, into peace with God, into purpose for living, and into the promise of eternal life.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Secret Signs

(My sermon for Maundy Thursday)

In 1688, the year of what historians call the Glorious Revolution, our kingdom had two competing kings. James II, ousted and exiled; and William III, William of Orange, invited and installed by the will of parliament, along with his wife Mary II, the only time our nation has had both king and queen regnant. Not everyone was pleased to see James gone and William and Mary installed. And at dinner a man might propose or drink a toast to the king with his glass held over a jug of water; those who supported the Jacobite cause would know he was pledging loyalty not to the king in London but to the exiled James Stuart over the water. It was a secret sign that only those in the know would understand.

There are secret signs in the story of this week too. Jesus was being closely watched after his entry into Jerusalem. Things were always tense at the Passover, the festival which above all others fuelled the people’s longing for freedom, and for a new king in the line of David. They were looking for the Messiah, the one anointed by God and promised by the prophets. And now this Jesus had declared his hand by riding into the city on a donkey, as the prophet Zechariah had said Messiah would do.

Pontius Pilate and his officers would have been anxious men, in a city bursting with people ripe for revolt. And the chief priests and the supporters of the dynasty of Herod were worried too. It was in their interest to make sure things stayed calm. They were wise men who knew the score. A self-proclaimed messiah who stirred the people into revolt would in the end be no match for the might of Rome. The priests and the supporters of Herod’s sons who still ruled parts of his old kingdom all knew they could rely on the support of Rome only so long as they could keep and ensure the peace.

Jesus needed to tread carefully. He had deliberately provoked those in power. Crowds of pilgrims from Galilee had cheered him with cries of Hosanna as he entered the city. As soon as he got there he went to the Temple to reclaim it on behalf of the poor, the ordinary folk, the people for whom God had a special concern. Jesus was stirring a hornet’s nest, but he’d things still to do before his enemies could take him.

Jesus had arranged the donkey on which he rode into the city without involving the Twelve. Nor did they know about the room reserved, where he’d eat with them on the eve of the Passover. He told his disciples to look for a secret sign: a man carrying a water-jar, which was always women’s work. Follow him, he told them, and he’ll lead you to the place that’s been prepared. It was important that his enemies didn’t get him too soon. There was a meal to eat, the one we call the last supper.

So here’s the storyline for this week: a provincial rabbi, elevated to the status of messiah by the naive and gullible people of his province, comes unstuck like so many before him, once he comes face to face those whose might and authority a hick like him could never understand. He didn’t have the men, the ideas or the power to win a fight like that. Poor man, on to a loser from the word go. Sadly out of his depth.

Hick from Galilee perhaps, but the powers that be must have been worried by Jesus. So by the end of this week it would have been a cause of some satisfaction that they’d been able to dispose of him so quickly and slickly. But maybe they should have been a bit surprised too. And maybe the more savvy among them might have wondered whether there was more here than met the eye.

If they did, they were right. Of all the signs he could have chosen to declare himself as Messiah, Jesus chose a humble way. He chose to ride a donkey. And now as he eats supper with his disciples he deliberately takes on the role reserved for the most lowly servant. He washes their feet. In this he reveals the true nature of the kingship he claims. There were no servants in attendance, we can assume, since this was a secret meal, eaten as the opposing forces drew ever closer. Maybe the disciples had wondered which of them would have to undertake the menial task of washing the grime of the streets from the feet of their fellows. That Jesus did it will have shamed them; disciples were supposed to see to their teacher’s needs, not the other way round.

But Jesus didn’t do it to shame them, he did it to teach them. We’re all better taught by actions than by words. “Let the greatest among you become as the servant of all,” says Jesus. He shows us the royalty of suffering, he presents himself as the servant king. Riding a donkey into the city was no stunt; this is who he is: “I am among you as one who serves.”

So bread is blessed and broken, and wine is blessed and poured. Tonight we join those who shared that last supper, repeating as we do so the song of Palm Sunday: “Blest is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” This is my body, he says, this is my blood. At this table we’re linked in to his sacrifice, and joined in him to one another. Here we approach the cross on which our king is enthroned, proclaimed, revealed, to know him in the bread he shares. For the world the cross may speak of shame and death, but it is the greatest of all secret signs. As we open our hearts to his love, the place of death is raised up to be the shining symbol of victory and life.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Dry Bones

Dem bones, dem bones dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord. One of the recommended books when I was a theology student was “Can these dry bones live?” by the theologian and Methodist minister Frances Young. She was asking whether, and suggesting how, the dry bones of the word of God in scripture could be made to live again. How shall today’s Church preach the word of God in a way that will make sense and convert hearts: that was her theme.

But Frances Young took the dry bones image from the Old Testament, as this was one of the visions that came to the prophet Ezekiel. This vision was an assurance to him from God that however hopeless things might seem, all was not lost. God would save and restore his people. Things did seem hopeless; the kingdom of Israel was lost, the temple lay in ruins. The people had been taken from their homeland to be hardly better than slaves, slaves in a foreign land. It was as though they were dead; and yet God would restore them, he would bring them back to their own land.

This would happen, but only when the people had come to their senses, only when they’d come back to the Lord. They needed to lose their apathy and timidity, they needed to et back their confidence in the Lord’s power to heal and save. Though all their hopes were like dry bones on the desert sand, they were still the Lord’s people. Ezekiel’s hopeful message was of God longing for his people to turn back to him, longing for them once again to seek his righteousness and justice, longing to give them back a life and identity and homeland they had lost.

Can these dry bones live? Ezekiel’s vision was just that: a vision, a dream. But let’s turn to our long Gospel reading, for it tells of the raising of an actual dead man, Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha, friend to Jesus. Jesus wept at his tomb of Lazarus, and the crowd was moved by the obvious distress they saw in him. ‘He must have really loved him,’ they said. They were there to mourn, and they will have expected Jesus and his disciples to do the same. After all, they’d arrived too late to do anything else. Lazarus had been dead already for four days.

Jesus had delayed his coming. Lazarus is four days dead: long enough for death to be assured, and for the spirit to have moved on, to be no longer close to the body. No wonder Jesus wept. But having wept for his friend, he didn’t do what might have been expected. He didn’t give in to regret or despair; he didn’t join in with the mourners. This death was not a defeat but an opportunity, or so he told his disciples. In the love of God all is never lost, and Jesus is (as he declares) the way, and the truth, and the life.

That’s a promise and assurance that lies at the heart of all we do and believe as Christians. Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” Our faith and fellowship depend on these words. Ezekiel the prophet was given a vision of life. Paul the apostle preaches about life as God’s promise to those who live by faith. But life is made real in Jesus Christ. In him we find the truth, scripture is fulfilled in him, faith is rewarded in him. However hopeless our cause and condition may seem to be, our destiny is not dead bones but spirit, and freedom, and life.

So to live in Jesus means to never give up hope; to live in Jesus means always to expect the unexpected. Look at our empty pews this morning. People say that the church is in terminal decline, and we can certainly get to feel that way. Well, Lazarus had been in terminal decline, and those who came to mourn knew they were mourning a dead man. And they were, until Jesus got involved.

Let me suggest that what fundamentally matters is not the numbers we get in church, nor our status and wealth nor influence. These things are of some importance of course, but before everything else what truly matters is this: is Jesus on the scene? Is he at the heart of what we do? Is our church, small or large, alive in him? Alive in worship, alive in fellowship, alive in service? Is the love of God flowing here? Scripture says: seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him when he is near. The promise we find in prophets like Ezekiel, the promise we read in the letters of Paul, the promise confirmed in our Lord Jesus Christ is that when we do this in faith, God is with us, his Spirit transforms our fellowship and service.

Jesus leads Lazarus out of the tomb, and the Lazarus he brings out is still wrapped in his grave clothes. He is still mortal and fallible, he is still sinful and earth-bound. The Church, however Spirit-filled, however godly in intention, remains human, fallible, fragile and incomplete.  It doesn’t matter how much we love our church, and with what care we look after it, church alone can never bring salvation. On their own its liturgies and traditions are just so many dry bones; only Jesus can give life to the dry bones of our churches.

So our Passiontide challenge, as we turn towards the cross, is surely this: to commit ourselves afresh to Jesus as our way, our truth, and our life. To put him right at the heart of all we are and all we do - here in this safe and holy place, and also out there in our daily living as his Church dispersed into the world. For a Church with this faith will be light to the world and love to the loveless, in the name of Jesus who alone is life that is more than life, and love that is love for ever.

So can these dry bones live?  Yes, and they will: if we are living not for ourselves but for our Lord, knowing and confessing our own weakness, sinfulness and mortality, and open to the inbreathing power of his Spirit of peace and love.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Mothering

Today is Mothering Sunday, often called Mothers’ Day; for my nephew who manages a hotel, one of the busiest days in the year for their restaurant. My mother gets cross if I haven’t managed to find a card for her that says Mothering Sunday instead of Mother’s Day. She likes to keep to the traditional name, but it isn’t just that. Today isn’t just about being thankful for our own mums, whether they’re still with us or not, it also celebrates mothering in many different forms, our responsibility for one another, and the work we do to guide and protect one another, and the love we share.

Many of our best loved hymns celebrate God’s gift of love, and some of them we’ve sung this evening. St Paul’s wonderful words in I Corinthians 13 tell us that love is the best and most enduring thing we can possess; St John reminds us in several places that love is of the very nature of God; in 1 John 4 verse 16 we read “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” The word mothering speaks of a human love that reflects the love of God, a love that will cherish, nurture, build and transform.

Stafford is my home town, and my brother’s recently enrolled me in a Facebook site called “Stafford Remembered”. I’ve spent more time than I should at my computer keyboard lately looking over the fascinating old pictures posted there, and shared memories. Things from way back in my childhood became sharp in my mind as old photos triggered them. A picture of the old Stafford Market reminded me of a time when I can’t have been more than four years old. It was a Saturday, and I’d gone to town shopping with Mum. We were going into the market, through the arcade of shops in the old market entrance.

I was supposed to be holding on to the handle of my brother’s pushchair, but I let go. Town was fun, and I wanted to look around. Some of the windows in the arcade were very reflective - so I stopped to look at myself and pull a few ugly faces. Maybe if I made a really ugly face I might crack the window - Mum used to say that an ugly face would crack mirrors. But then I remembered Mum saying that if I pulled a horrible face I’d stick like that if the wind changed, so I stopped.

I stopped and looked around; and Mum and the pushchair with my brother in it were nowhere to be seen. And suddenly all the people around me seemed very big and strange. Ahead of me were the doors into the market hall. Mum must have gone in, but I couldn’t see her. It was all so crowded. I can still remember the feeling of panic, and I think I probably started to cry.

Whether Mum heard me crying or just noticed I wasn’t there I don’t know, but suddenly there she was. So I stopped crying, though I soon started again when Mum told me off. What she said was, “Don’t you ever go off again like that!” That seemed unfair when really she’d gone off and I'd stayed where I was! (Though I know what she meant.)

So there’s one memory of mothering. I’ve plenty of good memories of course: being cuddled and loved, getting presents, going to nice places, and things like being allowed to scrape out the mixing bowl when Mum made cakes on a weekend. But I do also remember getting into trouble and being told off when I was found out, and maybe being sent to bed early. And that is also mothering, because mothering involves both love and guidance, and guidance requires discipline and correction, from time to time at least. To love someone is to want the best for them, and that sometimes needs some hard words.

Tough love, I suppose. But mothering is also tough on the person doing it. It involves sacrifice; sometimes to provide for others you must do without yourself. One old man I used to visit years ago used to tell me how in hard times his mother would claim she’d already eaten at suppertime, when in fact she was doing without so that everyone else could have enough. Paul writes of love that “there is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance.”

So for me Mothering Sunday commemorates not only our actual mothers but all the ways in which we experience a love in our lives that conveys and reflects the love of God: a love that protects and provides, that nurtures and disciplines, that helps us to become ourselves, and that encourages us to grow, to discover and to dare. Love that is costly and sacrificial, that reaches our and gives what can hardly be afforded; and love that allows us to find our own wings, and to make our own way, that doesn’t imprison us, but sets us free.

The greatest of all symbols of love is the cross, for it is at the cross that Jesus shows us most fully what divine love is. The sacrifice he makes there both convicts us of our sin and liberates us from the sentence of death our sin brings upon us. On the cross Jesus gives all he has, all he is, and even as he hangs there dying he continues to care for those dearest to him.

Mothering Sunday is worth more than a card and a bunch of flowers. I’m so grateful to those who’ve mothered me over the years, not only my own Mum but many other special people. In their love I’ve been helped to discern and discover the love of God. I hope I can play my part in doing the same.

Random Thoughts

Yesterday nationally was a day of reflection on the events at Westminster earlier in the week, including the question of why it is that people should be radicalised into what is a perversion of the true tenets of Islam. For many, including the attacker last Wednesday, this radicalising process began in prison, something that needs to be more fully understood I think.  I find myself reflecting on this simple truth, though - that for every cruel and perverted act of terrorism there are hundreds of acts of heroism, self-sacrifice, simple kindness; and the reason by many of these go unreported is that this is so fundamental to what it is to be human that we more or less take them for granted.

The terrorist turned peacemaker Martin McGuinness has been laid to rest. This was a flawed man in many ways, and I can understand those who, like Lord Tebbitt, continue to mistrust him and his motives. But others who have met him and know him have noted the completeness of his conversion, the genuine closeness between him and Dr Ian Paisley in government, and his espousal of policies that have helped poor Protestant communities. Whatever his initial motivation, the peace process in Northern Ireland could not have begun without his active involvement, and for that we must be grateful, while hoping that from the present situation of political uncertainty in the province a new phase of collaborative government soon emerges.

Brexit will have an impact on that, of course, as on much else, and the trigger will be pulled by Mrs May next Wednesday. I remain firmly of the opinion that the UK should have remained in the EU, and angry that a simple vote after a deeply flawed campaign (on both sides, admittedly) will bring us out. My feelings now though are "let's just get on with it". I regret our disengagement, but it's not the end of the world. We now have to press on and find new ways of still being part of Europe, and of working creatively with the nations of the EU and those beyond. I have my doubts about the ability and competence of the present administration to achieve this, and am aware too that there are parties within the EU who will want to in some way "punish" the UK for leaving; but I hope and pray that goodwill and a constructive attitude will prevail - or at any rate, an honest assessment of the extent to which we and the EU still need each other.

On a lighter note, our garden was full of siskins this morning. We won't keep these delightful birds with us much longer, especially as the weather brightens and warms up, though one or two pairs will breed locally - we generally get a few young birds looking in through the summer. It's a real joy to see them, though they like most finches are messy eaters and leave quite a mess under our feeders.

I've been taking pictures of some of our spring flowers, so here's one to finish with . . .