Tuesday, 12 December 2017

John the Baptist (2)

A sermon based on the one I didn't get to preach last Sunday, because of all the snow . . .

“The Lord has robed me in deliverance and arrayed me in victory, like a bridegroom with his garland, or a bride decked in her jewels. As the earth puts forth her blossom or plants in the garden burst into flower, so will the Lord God make his victory and renown blossom before all the nations.” So writes the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading, words written at the time of the people’s return to their own land, and to Jerusalem. As he sets his people free God’s greatness and glory is displayed for all the world to see.

Then in today’s Gospel we’ve read about John the Baptist, the man sent to prepare the way for another new act of deliverance: the promised Messiah. “He was not the light,” says John the Apostle carefully, “but he came to bear witness to the light.” Only Luke tells us anything about the origins of John the Baptist; and for most of those who heard him, this new prophet must have pretty much appeared out of nowhere. But they came out into the desert in great numbers to hear him. By the strangeness of his clothing and lifestyle and the urgency of his message, they could tell that here at last was a true prophet like the prophets of old.

The great prophets like Isaiah continued to be treasured and studied carefully, and in their words people found clues pointing to the thing that God was about to do among them: the Messiah, God's anointed servant, would be coming soon to liberate his people. And in John, living in the desert, dressed roughly in camel skin, and eating locusts and wild honey, they suddenly had among them once again a man who lived and looked and sounded like a real prophet. And people must have wondered whether he was more than just a propjet. Could this man be the Messiah?

But John answered that question with a firm no. He told them that he’d come to prepare the way for one the strap of whose sandal he was not worthy to unloose. That would be a menial slave’s job, by the way. “I am less than his slave,” John was saying.

But he also had a stern warning for the people: you believe that God is about to do a new thing. Well, it’s about to happen, and you need to be ready. That’s the same message that Isaiah and the other great prophets of the Old Testament had for the people of their day: this is urgent, they said: turn away from a life that makes God angry and start again: take his commandments to heart, make yourselves ready to meet him.

Their words contained as much challenge as comfort. Those who came out to hear John believed that their birth as Jews was itself enough to make them God's people. But John told them they were wrong to think that way. To really be God’s people, they must to live as God wants them to: obedient, faithful, righteous, just: and the time is short, John told them, so take your chance and do it now - begin again, repent, turn away from your old lives, and truly write his law on your hearts: the commandments that for too long you've been watering down, adjusting to fit your own needs.

So John like Isaiah before him had good news to offer, but that good news came with a challenge. And John baptized people, as if they were not already Jews by birth. This baptism restored their status as God’s own people, and showed their true commitment to begin again. If you’ve ever been to the Jordan, by the way, you’ll know that it’s not one of the world’s great rivers. It’s not the holy Ganges or the royal Nile, it’s not really a match even for the Thames or the Severn. But it was enough to be baptized in; and those who took John's words to heart went into its water to wash their old and sinful self away, and start afresh.

How come John made such an impact? Well, the time was right, the people were longing for change, yearning for freedom. John looked the part and lived the part, and for people tired of hearing the second hand preaching of the priests, he spoke with an authentic voice. And it wasn’t only his words: his whole life was a critique of the status quo; a cry of protest and a call to judgement.

So John I guess was telling people something that in their heart of hearts they already knew, his call was one that in the depths of their souls they’d already heard. So here’s a thought as regards the mission of the Church today. How do we click with what people are already hoping for, and dreaming of? Do we need to be saying and doing different things? Or is mission more about living the faith we proclaim and keeping on doing that, and there’ll come a point when the time is right? However we answer that, John’s call to us is to be much more than a Sunday Church.

Now John’s was a voice in the wilderness, and we may often think that ours is too. But things were different then. The desert land between Judaea and the Dead Sea is a barren and inhospitable place - but deserts have a positive role in Hebrew thought. The desert is where a person goes to seriously engage with God, leaving the distractions and comforts of life behind. And prophetic voices often come out of the desert.

John the Baptist was a humble man who claimed nothing for himself. That must have impressed the people: they were getting tired of the religious teachers of their day, folk who held high status and made a good living. I am nothing, just the messenger, said John. I think the Church is most effective in mission when it’s most forgetful of itself.

But those who reject our call to faith will often claim that religion has been the cause of so much of the bad stuff in human history: war, suffering, divided societies. That’s often been true, and too often still we can see religion doing damage in the world, offending against the very God in whose name and with whose authority it claims to be acting and speaking. There is far too much bad religion around. But John the Baptist was not selling religion. He wasn’t converting people to religion. He’d no need to do that, for these were already religious folk.

What John wanted and needed to do was to convert their religion into faith. These were people who still did all the religious things, but they’d lost touch with God. I’m sure that’s why John didn’t minister in places like synagogues or shrines or indeed the temple itself. People taught and discussed and debated religion in places like that, but John had a different task. He was there to prepare the way, not to debate about God, but to speak for God. To speak God’s own urgent word, to renew people’s lives.

Words like reform, reformation, renewal, revival are scattered through the history of our faith, along with names like Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Billy Graham. Why so much reform and revival? Because religion needs constant conversion, so it doesn't get sidetracked into existing for its own sake or serving its own hierarchy or the powers that be. And through history, mission happens when revival happens. Mission to those outside the Church begins with mission to those inside it.

So we should never get too comfortable with how we are now, nor too much at ease with the way the world around us does things, or indeed with our own selves. Advent is one of the times when we’re challenged to think things out afresh, to tune into God, to re-create ourselves. John said to the people then: get ready, for the King is on his way; and that prophetic message is just as vital, just as challenging, just as necessary, for the Church today.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Starlings

My "Nature Notes" for January - a second go at writing about one of my favourite birds . . .

I’ve written about starlings before, but the other day a friend was showing me some great pictures of a winter murmuration of starlings around the pier at Aberystwyth, and that has persuaded me to write about them again. Starlings were an everyday part of our lives when I was a child. Our back garden was always full of them, and you heard them singing every day from the housetops. Where we are now, however, we hardly ever see them. For the most part we might just see a little flight pass over, or notice one briefly perch on a neighbouring roof or aerial.

I used to love the sound of our back garden starlings, because they are natural mimics. They will imitate other birds, but often include other noises too. They are quick-witted in other ways too, and able to exploit a wide variety of food sources, though they are basically insect-eaters. In the late summer we do sometimes get a family group of starlings at our garden feeders. They’ve never visited for more than a couple of days, but in that time they do tend to take over; every other bird gets pushed out when a squad of starlings arrives.

Starlings might be the “other garden black bird” - except that their glossy coats are not really black, but have a sheen almost like oil on a puddle, with glints of many colours. In the winter though, their plumage is duller, more matt, and very spotty. Their narrow bills, yellow in summer, are now black. That is a good insect-eating bill, though, designed for probing and stabbing.

Starlings love lawns, and one factor in the decline in the starling population maybe that there aren’t as many garden lawns around; and maybe our homes and gardens are just to tidy for this naturally hole-nesting bird. They are still common, but a lot less common than when I was a child. And declining numbers of common birds should concern us just as much as the disappearance of rare ones. Starlings are also country birds, and impacted by changes in agricultural practice and land use.

At this time of the year, continental starlings join our native birds, so there are many more to be seen, especially in the places (like Aberystwyth) where murmurations are common. Towards the end of the day, starlings gather together in great flocks that behave rather like the flocks of  wading birds like dunlin. I sometimes think that starlings resemble them more than they do the robins and tits and blackbirds with which they share our gardens.

These great flocks of starlings can look almost more like clouds or smoke than a flock of birds. Predators like sparrow hawks may be attracted to these flocks, but in fact the individual bird is much safer within a murmuration than it would be on its own. The hawk finds it hard to focus on any one bird, and will be confused by the constant changes of direction. And eventually the cloud settles down, and the starlings roost safely together. Tykes they may be, but our lives would be much poorer, I think, without starlings.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Prophets and John - for Advent 2

Comfort, comfort ye my people. Words from the first reading, Isaiah chapter 40. The Lord is about to act to save and restore his people. Their long years of exile and suffering are over. Isaiah was writing at the time that Israel was restored, and the people were allowed to return and to rebuild Jerusalem; but his words have also been taken as looking forward to the promised Messiah, or Christ.

But as we read on into today’s Gospel our focus settles on the strange figure of John the Baptist, and there seems to be little about comfort in what he has to say.  Only Luke tells us anything about where John come from - Luke tells us that John was the son of a temple priest called Zechariah, and that John’s mother Elizabeth was a kinswoman of Mary the mother of Jesus. The other Gospels say next to nothing about John’s origins, and so far as those who came to hear John preach were concerned, this new prophet had appeared pretty much out of nowhere.

Isaiah and the other great prophets of old were treasured and carefully studied: their words spoke of a new thing that God was about to do: the Messiah, God's anointed servant, would come to liberate his people. But since those days the prophetic voice had vanished from the land, and there'd been no real prophets for centuries. Until John. John, living in the desert, dressed roughly in camel skin, and eating locusts and wild honey, was a man who lived and looked and sounded like a real prophet. And could he be more than that, the people must have wondered? Could this man be the Messiah?

But John answered their questions with a firm no. He had come only to prepare the way, he told them. But be sure that God is about to do a new thing among you, and you need to be ready for that. And here the message of John matches very well the theme we find again and again as we read the great prophets of old. For the most part, there is little comfort in what they have to say.

The word of the prophets is more often challenge than comfort. You believe your birth makes you God's people, but you're wrong. That’s what John told those who came out to hear him, and it’s a constant theme of the Old Testament prophets. You think you’re God’s people, but to really be God's people you have to live in God's way - and you’ve not been doing that. Time is short, and you need to change: begin again, repent and turn away from your old lives - take to heart the commandments you've watered down and adapted to fit your own needs.

So John was a new prophetic voice, giving good news, yes, but with a challenge attached, an urgent call for change. If you’ve ever been to the River Jordan, you’ll know that it’s no great water-course like the Ganges or the Nile, sacred rivers to other faiths. In fact it hardly even matches the Thames or the Severn. In places it's hardly more than a marshy stream - but it was enough. It was  enough for baptism. And those who took John's words to heart went into that water to wash away their old and sinful selves, and to declare that here and now they were turning back to God.

So how was it that John made such an impact? Well, the time was right, and the people were longing for change, and itching for freedom. John looked like a prophet, and lived like a prophet, and, yes, no doubt some of the people who came to hear him were there as much for the spectacle, the novelty as anything else; but there were many who’d longed to hear a new voice of prophecy, and a new call from God.

And, more than that, John was the fact that this man clearly lived the message he preached. People were tired of hearing the second hand preaching of the priests, and John's was an authentic voice: not only his words but his whole life spoke of protest, judgement, and God's urgent call to repentance. He was telling the people something that in their heart of hearts they already knew, a call that in the depths of their souls they’d already heard.

And his was a voice in the wilderness. Today that would mean a voice no-one heard, but things were different then. The limestone desert between Judaea and the Dead Sea is one of the most hostile and inhospitable places in the world, but in Hebrew thought the desert is a positive place. This is where you go to seriously engage with God, leaving behind the distractions and comforts of life. Where else would you expect to hear God’s prophet speaking God’s word?

And the humility of John would have impressed those who were tired of the religious teachers of their day. They could make a good living, and gain high status in society - compare that to John who was seeking nothing for himself. I am only the messenger, he told them. Among you is one the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. To fasten or unfasten shoes was a slave's duty; so John was saying 'I am less than a slave, compared to the one God is sending to you.'

Those who have no time for faith in God often point to the fact that religion was been the cause of more human war and suffering than almost anything else. Sadly that’s often been true. And far too often still we find religion offending against the very God in whose name and with whose authority it claims to speak.

But John the Baptist was not converting people to religion. He didn’t need to do that, for they were already religious folk. Their problem was that their religion had lost touch with God.  So John's task wasn’t to make them religious but to convert their religion. To do that John moved away from the expected religious places synagogues and shrines, the temple, the places where people taught and discussed and debated. For John had come to speak for God, and not about God. His words sprang directly from God, and not from a religious system of doctrine that might claim to have God locked inside it.

Words like reform, reformation, renewal, revival are scattered through the history of our faith, along with names like Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Billy Graham. Why so much reform and revival? Because religion needs constant conversion, so it doesn't get sidetracked into existing for its own sake or serving its own hierarchy or the powers that be. And because we should never be too comfortable with where we are and how we do things, or at ease with the things that are wrong and harmful and unjust in the world around us, or indeed within ourselves. That’s what Advent is for: fresh thinking, tuning into God, re-creating ourselves. Prepare yourself, for the King is coming, said John the Baptist to those people then; a prophetic message that’s just as vital, just as challenging, just as necessary, when we hear it now.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Light a Candle - sermon for Advent 1

Last Saturday I was doing a stint as day chaplain at Hereford Cathedral. I like to go down there from time to time and just spend a day wandering about, chatting to visitors and doing my best to answer the questions they have, and saying prayers every hour on the hour. And having a nose round the Cathedral shop, where last Saturday I found they had some “real Advent calendars” - others are available, but these are the real ones. What makes them real? Fairtrade chocolate for a start, but also the Christmas story, told in the windows you open, and also in a little booklet that comes with it. They’ve got them in Tesco as well, if you’re interested.

I bought three, one for each grandchild, though we do expect a fourth to have arrived by Christmas. Mind you, he’ll not need any chocolate just yet. So I went from Hereford to Bromsgrove, where Evie and Alex and Ben live, and presented them with their Advent calendars as well as managing to cadge a bit of their evening meal. They were busy learning Christmas songs for their school nativity play, including this one which I knew. It goes:

"Light a candle in your window, let the night know that you care,
Light a candle in the window, it may guide the Christ child there."

As well as Advent calendars, we also always gave the children in my church when my own kids were the age of my grandchildren now, Advent candles. They were marked with dates down the side of the candle, along with some festive holly leaves, and you lit the candle each day and let it burn down to tomorrow’s date. Another way of counting down the four weeks of Advent. Well, we say four weeks but in fact it’s four Sundays. Today is as late as the season of Advent can start, because this year Christmas Eve and the last Sunday of Advent are one and the same, and Advent is just three weeks and a day.

But I do rather like candles. Candles can be found more in chapels these days than they used to be, but they are of course much more church than chapel, and high church at that. We have lots at the cathedral of course, quite a few points in the cathedral where people can light candles as a focus for prayer, and maybe to remember someone, and people do that in great numbers. Two weeks ago we had a baptism at one of the churches I help at, and we gave a lighted candle to the newly baptized child - or in fact to her older brother to hold for her - while we prayed that she would “shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God.” Candles used in this way become signs of new life, hope, new beginnings. On the altar or communion table of a church candles are used as symbols of holiness and prayer, and signs of blessing. But we use candles in plenty of other places too. On the dinner table, for example, where candles can stand for fellowship, friendship, family - and, of course, romance.

But it's when we get power cuts that any candles we might have really come into their own. Till then they’ve been a delightful optional extra, but suddenly they become essential. I hope you've been stocking up, as my sixth sense tells me this is going to be a long winter, and power cuts are generally part of the package. 

There's a click, and suddenly it's all gone dark. "I'm a Celebrity, get me out of here" has vanished from your TV screen, the joint remains half-roasted in your oven (I speak here for those like me who lack an Aga). Even if you’re not electrically heated you’re in trouble, because the pump on the central heating has stopped. We scrabble to find a match, and to find a candle and a saucer to stand it on; but then at least we've got enough light to do something: in my case to find the basket of logs, so that we can get the burner lit and heat as much of the house as we can reach. We've got a fair few logs I think, and if we do run out then we start chopping up the furniture.

Usually the power isn’t off all that long. But sometimes it is. Thank goodness we had some candles in, we say. We don’t manage very well without light, but even the fragile light of a single candle is enough light to roll back the darkness and keep us sane. 

Many churches and chapels these days have Advent candle rings: four candles (no jokes please) round the ring to count down the Sundays to Christmas, and one in the centre for the Christ child himself. Each candle around the ring represents one component of the narrative of Advent: the scriptures themselves; the great prophets who foretold the new things God would do; John the Baptist, the forerunner who prepared the way; and Mary’s obedient yes to the angel’s message to her. For me the candles of the Advent ring are a reminder that the spiritual countdown to Christmas is every bit as important as all the other things we dash about to do. More important, really: for the season of Advent isn’t only about getting ready to celebrate the first coming of Jesus, the baby in Bethlehem - it’s also a chance to think about his second coming, and to reflect on the theme of judgement and the ultimate sorting out of things.

Is it fair to say that Christians these days don’t seem to think as much about judgement as maybe our forbears did in the days of fire and brimstone sermons? Or for that matter, going further back, the sort of New Testament congregations that Paul was writing to. Since those early year another two thousand have rolled round, and they seem to keep rolling. In the first century Paul and Peter were writing to churches whose members expected that second coming almost any day. They believed they were living in the last days. I don’t know how confident you are about the state of the world today: there’s plenty to worry about - global warming, nuclear accidents, terrorist attacks or maybe a rogue asteroid, but the last judgement as prophesied in scripture is not usually uppermost in our minds.

Candles could remind us just how dark a place the world can be. Candles are often a sign of love, but those who light candles of love - especially in the troubled places and situations of our world - often make themselves vulnerable, a target even. Candles at Advent can remind us that God - who is love - makes himself vulnerable among us as the child newborn whose praises we’ll be singing three weeks from now. Jesus is hailed as the King of Love.  But remember, he is also the King of justice and righteousness, and we and the world stand under his judgement.

Light a candle in the window, let the night know that you care, goes the carol my grandchildren are learning. At the Millennium we handed out candles to every member of our church in Minsterley, as did people in churches and chapels up and down the land: what was asked that as the year 200 dawned there should be a candle lit in every Christian window. It was I think one of those occasions when those of us who’re often meeting in very small groups in our own church or chapel are reminded just what a lot of us there really are.

The reason Christmas is celebrated at this time of the year is that this is the darkest time, this is the time when the world is in most need of light. We don’t know when Jesus was actually born, but now is a good time to celebrate him: as light kindled in the depths of winter; as light when the world seems uncaring and cruel, as light when life seems futile and hope goes begging. When we light a candle we don’t usually stop at one (especially if there’s a power cut); from the first light we light more. And from  the light of Christ many lights of love have been lit and are lit still, and the darkness is driven back, and the night does know that we care. What do these lights consist of? Acts of love and charity, of compassion and care, work to heal and restore and build bridges of peace, to seek out the lost and raise up the fallen. Acts in which we imitate and pass on the love of our Lord.

When you use one candle to light another, and so on so that many are lit, sometimes you’ll look back to see that the original candle has gone out. It’s done its job, and other lights must now carry the work on. We look back and give thanks for those whose lights, whose Christian witness and teaching, have helped to start us burning. But the light that starts it all, the light first lit among us at Bethlehem, that light, once lit, burns for ever. That love, once revealed, lasts for ever. That hand once raised to bless, is a continual and forever blessing for our world.

The child born as a new light is also the King for whom we wait, who promises to come to us and comes in judgement, so that we will one day answer before him. When he comes, how will he find us? How will he find the Church that bears his name? Will we be sleepy and forgetful, will our candles be burning low and guttering out? Or will we be found alert and watchful, caring, compassionate, passing on the flame: with care and courage and prayer, and with a faith that isn’t just a Sunday faith, lighting new candles to reflect and share his love?

Monday, 27 November 2017

This year's Christmas poem

Written after hearing the band my daughter plays with doing "Sleigh Ride", albeit in a warm and comfortable church . . . and with the Church of England's 2017 Christmas campaign "God With Us" in mind.

Christmas again, and tinsel lights are glittering everywhere;
a band is playing “Sleigh Ride” to the shoppers in the square.
The sound of money changing hands, the rush to get things done
when body clocks are slowing in the absence of the sun,
and Christmas pop charts, TV ads, that toy we have to buy:
a time of high anxiety, it’s easy to see why
so many of us dread it, or we feel it’s worn us out;
it’s so much fuss for just one day - just what’s it all about?

It’s not about the cash tills, it’s not even Santa’s cave
where kids are given trinkets when they promise to behave;
a world away from city streets, and under eastern skies
the tales are told of angel song, a star seen at its rise,
and shepherds and astrologers brought to a humble place,
to find to their amazement there the dawn of saving grace,
a child laid in a manger bed, with love-light in his eyes,
and as they kneel they see the tears of joy that Mary cries.

So open ears, dear Lord, to hear beyond the noise we make,
the quiet song of love that greets the Child born for our sake:
in Bethlehem, a brighter light than all our lamps can give -
our one and only Saviour, who is born that we might live.
God-with-us lives among us, comes to teach and to befriend,
to heal, to call disciples, and to love us to the end.
So when the shopping’s finished, and the holly decks the hall,
thank God that by his love is born the greatest gift of all.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

A Sermon for this Sunday "Christ the King"

I was sitting on the top deck of a number 26 London bus, travelling west towards Waterloo, and idly gazing, as you do, into the office windows we passed. It was late in the afternoon, and people were just finishing their working day. In the offices I passed I could see people still busy at computer keyboards, or delving into filing cabinets, talking on the phone, feeding paper into printers. And then all of a sudden the scene changed: the rooms changed from functional office spaces designed for people to work in, to something much more immense and sumptuous. One room I looked into had a great shining ceiling that looked as though it was inlaid with mother of pearl. It was an office of some sort, but not one that needed any desks; instead, it held a suite of very comfortable armchairs, with occasional tables and some swish art deco style lamps. And, if I remember rightly, a palm tree. These offices were very different.

My bus had entered Threadneedle Street, or somewhere very close to it. We were now in the financial heart of London, and these offices weren’t so much about efficiency and functionality as about status, achievement and power. I wonder whether they’ll be quite so grand post-Brexit?

Royalty is our theme today. The last Sunday before Advent is often used to celebrate Christ the King. And you don’t find kings in the ordinary and humdrum places of this world, like offices filled with desks and photocopiers and computer terminals. But you might find one in the other offices I passed. Kings are about status, opulent palaces and demonstrations of power.

These offices in the financial quarter were certainly palatial in style, and all very grand indeed. I’m reminded that in one of the churches I used to serve we had a statue of Jesus in which he was crowned, richly robed, and seated on a throne, looking every inch the traditional image of a king. And he is, of course. He is King and Lord, the one before whom every knee shall bow. But he’s no need of the trappings of kingship that the world holds so dear.

Since this particular church was a bit high church, it had quite a few statues, and it also had a quite lovely painting, Victorian I think, of Jesus wearing a crown. But this was a crown of thorns: Jesus hanging from the cross, not seated on a throne. The cross is his true throne: here’s where his kingship is proved, here’s where he displays his kingly power. That’s the story of the Gospel passage I read: while the kings of the earth provide themselves with trappings and effects that make them look special and powerful and maybe even divine, Jesus is recognised and affirmed as king when he is least powerful in human terms. When he has no power, not even the power to stay alive.

The mystique and specialness of earthly rulers is for the most part smoke and mirrors. In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe went in an instant from the revered father of his nation to a man the crowds of protestors couldn’t wait to see the back of. As this week we celebrated the seventy years of our own Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip, we might remind ourselves that the fact that she is loved and respected even by many who don’t really support the monarchy has more to do with the genuineness of her as a person than it has to do with the bling of royalty. If anything, as the mystique of royalty has faded, her popularity has grown.

She also has a deep and sincere Christian faith, and, I believe, a genuinely humble heart. As should all of us who follow the King who was crucified, for his cross provides for us a model of kingship. Throughout the Gospels he told stories of the Kingdom. When we think of kingdoms, we tend to think of countries, nations, borders, geographical things. Kingdoms may be acquired by conquest, kings have dominion and build empires; we of all nations know that, since when I was at school most of the world seemed still to be coloured pink on our maps. But Jesus doesn’t talk about that sort of kingdom; the Kingdom he proclaims has no borders or boundaries; it isn’t limited to any one nation or people, but is open to all.

For the Kingdom of God is found whenever and wherever people make him their King, whenever and wherever they acknowledge him as Lord. And that means that this kingdom is being built, offered and shared in many different places - places where people are listening to the word of God and taking that word seriously as they choose how to live. Wherever people do his will, share his love, praise his name. But we also pray “thy Kingdom come.” It is not yet complete; the Kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Now as we serve our King, but not yet as we wait for its promised fulfilment, when at last all things are gathered up in him.

The Kingdom, then, is both good news now and also future promise. But it does need to be good news now, or our words about future promise will ring very hollow. So where will we find it? There’s no need for a palace: the Kingdom of God may well be being built in a street of suburban semis, or in the mud huts of an African village or the lean-to shacks of a Brazilian favela. Perhaps our King is building his palace in a line of refugee tents somewhere out in the desert, perhaps our King is joining the queue at the soup kitchen in some cold northern city. For wherever people are doing his will, he promises to be with us.

At the time I took that particular bus journey I was working for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG). If that sounds a rather quaint and old-fashioned name that’s because it is: the Society was founded in 1701 by an Anglican clergyman called Thomas Bray, who happened to be born not far from here near Chirbury and was educated at Oswestry School. So for over three hundred years the society he founded has been propagating the Gospel. These days the society has changed its name to United Society, Partners in the Gospel - more modern perhaps, and easier to understand, but I’d like to stick with that world propagation. Propagation suggests that mission’s about rooting and earthing the Gospel, so that wherever we do it, it flowers and fruits in ways appropriate to the soil of that place. 

Those words, “thy kingdom come” aren’t only what we hope for, but also what we commit ourselves to work for. While I was working at USPG I heard so many amazing stories. Like the work of the Delhi Brotherhood with street children in the bustling capital of India. With children who live their whole life on the streets; all they have is what they earn there. They need safe sleeping places, they need training and life skills, and drop in centres to bring in children who often aren’t very reachable and may have a deep distrust of authority and organisation. Why do these people care when others just walk past? Because they know that the King we serve had no place to lay his own head, and they know how he loved the lowly and the childlike in spirit. So his kingship is being proclaimed on the streets and among the children of India.

A young girl came to speak to us after working for six months in South Africa, where HIV and AIDS has had such a devastating impact on communities and families. Many people there still won’t admit to the scale of the problem of HIV, but it’s big and nasty and made bigger and nastier by ignorance and poverty. People need healing and therapy, and they also need care and affection, and advice and education. The girl who spoke to us had decided to train as a nurse so she could go back out there; that’s what she felt God was calling her to do, she told us. Our king sets his throne in the place of suffering and proclaims his reign among the sick and the broken. And today his kingdom is acclaimed in the places where HIV and AIDS rip families and communities apart, and among people no-one else gives space to. 

Those were two stories out of many. I myself visited a project in Brazil that was working with people who, in a favela or shanty town, were rubbish collectors, making a precarious living out of recycling plastic and paper. The Church was helping them form a co-operative and start a depot a bit like the one at Cae Post, so they could make a better and more secure living, and not be exploited by the traders with whom they had to deal.

Jesus stands with those in our world who are exploited, ill-used, cheated - and he hopes too to change the hearts and minds of those who do the cheating. He isn’t a king who gives orders from somewhere remote and on high. When we roll our sleeves up and get on with it, his sleeves are rolled up too. 

Wherever the Kingdom is found, its language and currency are the same. The currency of the Kingdom is love, and the language of the Kingdom speaks words of compassion and care. All of the stories I heard began in the same way, it seemed to me: with people who were feeling the pain of their sisters and brothers, and wanted to respond. Jesus on the cross shared our human pain, and in that pain he reached out in compassion to the robber crucified next to him, and prayed forgiveness for those who had nailed him there.

That love, offered for us, requires something of us. But what can we do, you and I, here and now, to serve our King and proclaim his Kingdom? I know that from this church you give generous support to the mission and aid work of Christians around the world. And in every act of worship we pledge our allegiance to Christ our King, the source for us of leadership and authority, and the fount of justice. And our world cries out for justice, the Gospel justice, the justice of the prophets: justice with a bias to the poor, justice that springs from righteousness and compassion, and that seeks to heal and to restore.

The thrones and palaces of this world convey the message ‘All this belongs to me.’ But in the end all that stuff is dust and ashes. The throne of Jesus, which is the cross of Calvary, has a very different message. It says, ‘All this I have given for you.’ We have been given so much by our king, so how can we hold back from giving in his name and in his service? Giving so that our sister and our brother may truly know the good news of God’s love, the healing touch of God’s hand, and the transforming power of God’s justice? 

May I close with a short prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you that you lift me up and call me forward, and for the many blessings with which you enrich my life. Help me to see in every human being my sister and my brother, for all are made in God’s image and by his love. Grant me strength and vision to live in and by the light of that love; and help me, Lord, never to forget that each person I meet is, like me, the child of a king. Amen.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Flight of the Stone

(a poem)

It is a truth self evident that
stones do not fly.  They may roll around a bit,
they pile up to make cairns,
or even mountains, but they
do not fly. Or at least,
not on their own.

Stones do not have wings.
Birds have wings, as do butterflies.
Angels are supposed to have wings,
though none were visible on the angels I’ve met.
Bats, moths, mosquitoes, night flying things  -
these all have wings. Stones do not.

Stones may fly up from the mouth
of a volcano, or perhaps bowl along at the breath
of a hurricane wind. But mostly
stones fly when people throw them.
And that’s all right when they are (say)
skimming stones from the beach.

But in general, I think,
people throw stones to hurt
other people, to drive them away,
to shut them up. Pity the poor stone,
which is not in any way malevolent, and
just wants to lie there, maybe roll around a bit.

Here is a stone: thousands of years have
made it what it now is: see the streaks of colour,
feel its smoothness, let it lie in your hand.
And then place it reverently down
where it will be pleased to sit. Respect it, and
don’t make it fly.

Friday, 17 November 2017

A Sermon for the Sunday ahead . . .

I don’t intend to speak for very long, but I’d like to say a word or two, reflecting on the very last verse of the Gospel reading we’ve just heard: “As for that useless servant, throw him out into the dark, where there’ll be wailing and grinding of teeth!”

There used to be a great tradition, in chapel more than church I think, of the fire and brimstone sermon that majored on the themes of judgement and wrath. The story’s told of one preacher who was thundering from his pulpit about the grinding of teeth on the day of judgement, only to overhear one old boy remark to the person next to him that he’d be all right, since he no longer had any teeth. “On the day of judgement,” roared the preacher, “teeth will be provided!”

Seriously, though, today’s Gospel reading is one of many stories where Jesus speaks about how we will be accountable for what we’ve done with what we were given. The servant in the story is described as useless, and he’s punished for it. Followers of Jesus are supposed to be useful.

In what way useful? The first two guys in the story proved their usefulness by their wise investment of what they’d been given. So more is required of Christian folk than keeping out of trouble and not doing anyone any harm. We’re supposed to be enriching the world around us, making our bit of the world a brighter and better and more loving place - through positive action, through noticing what needs doing and getting on and doing it, and by encouraging and enthusing and mobilising others to share the same task. Jesus himself talks about going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, in other words doing more, and going further, than the expected norm.

Christians should be yes people, and it’s a shame that so often the Church seems to prefer to say no. If we’re following Jesus then like him we’re in the business of loving our neighbour as ourselves: which means opening hearts, not closing minds.

In the story the useless servant didn’t really do anything wrong. Maybe that was the problem: he was scared of ever doing anything wrong. So in the end he didn’t do anything. His boss got his money back, and maybe he might have been glad of that, but he wasn’t. That talent was there to be used, not buried. We only get one shot at this; we need to be getting it right.

So today we have a Christening. The Church prefers to say baptism, but let’s stick with Christening, because Christening means being named in Christ. Joining his band of folk. Now Poppy won’t know too much about that as yet; so her parents and godparents - and, to a degree, the rest of us too - are taking a responsibility upon ourselves as she comes to the font: a responsibility for her, to teach her, to encourage her, to set her an example of how to use well and fruitfully this amazing gift we have called life. How to be lovingly and usefully Christian in the way we live.

Now those of you who don’t come to church all that often may possibly go out of church today saying, “Hey, I quite enjoyed that! Maybe I’ll pop along to my local church - maybe to this church - at Christmas and see how I get on.” If so, alleluia, and you’ll be warmly welcomed. But maybe more importantly, if you go away thinking, “How can my life do more good than it has been doing?” then I’ll be happy and I think our Lord will too. I’m sure he’s pleased to see busy, well-filled churches where songs of praise are being sung; but what really gladdens his heart is when that praise, and that spirit, is taken out into our everyday lives too; when we’re investing the talents he gives us in making sure good things are happening in the world around us.

Many centuries ago the prophet Micah wrote: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” That hasn’t changed, and the world still needs justice and kindness and love. That’s the way of life and the world view we’re commissioned into when we’re Christened. That’s what’s on offer for Poppy today.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Peter and the Fish

(A poem in progress)



Peter stands at the wall.
He is watching the fish, brown trout,
dipping in and out of the deep pool
by the bridge. Their constant movement
and the splash of the water
pleases him. Willow leaves, burnt and brown,
float on the stream. Only a few
still adhere to the branches.
It’s November, a dull grey day
though not too cold. Peter comes here most days,
buys a pie from the shop just over the bridge,
stands at the wall, watching.
Sometimes there are no fish,
but in his mind he still sees them,
loves the constant interplay
of their twisting bodies, how they curve
through the water. He, bent and twisted,
envies their freedom, as he leans as usual
on the shorter of the two sticks he uses.
Thirty years those sticks have brought him to this wall,
rain and shine, rain and shine. Now, though,
a murmuring voice somewhere deep inside
is telling him there will not be many more
days like this. Soon the brown trout will ply
their cold splashy water unwatched,
unloved, and uncaring, in a world that is
just the same, only not remarked upon.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Remembrance - a sermon for next Sunday

(I shall be preaching at Leighton and Middletown)

President George W. Bush, when American troops were first sent into Afghanistan, said: “This war is being fought in the defence of civilization itself”. That kind of language has been used since then by many a politician, as campaigns have been pursued against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and more recently Daesh or Isis. 

And it would probably find an echo in the recruitment videos of Isis and its supporters. For these people “civilization” is exactly what they choose to fight against. They’ve no time for the excesses of personal freedom as practised in the west - they see it as a threat to the austere and puritan form of Islam that they claim is the only true faith. But in reality even fundamentalist Muslims have found themselves sickened and appalled by the depraved violence, mass murders even, meted out in the so-called Caliphate. None of this finds any justification in the Koran. These are sick and bad people.

But this sad admission has to be made: religion plays a significant role in the violence that scars our modern world. Indeed, religion has been a cause of war and conflict throughout recorded history. Today Muslim minorities face persecution and often violence in Myanmar, in some parts of India, in parts of the Philippines. In other places Christians are the minority and Muslims the oppressors. In Sri Lanka, Buddhists and Hindus fought for many long years. Within Islam immense atrocities are carried out by Shia against Sunni, Sunni against Shia. In Christian Northern Ireland Catholics fought Protestants, and in the former Yugoslavia the Orthodox Christian Serbians fought the Catholic Croats.

And yet for the most part all of those religions claim to be, and at their best strive to be, peaceable. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers: God will call them his children.” And great thinkers and teachers in other faiths would surely say the same.

The wars that continue to be mostly in our minds on this day, the Great War of a hundred years ago, and the Second World War that followed so soon after it, were not primarily religious wars; but even there religion played its part, as did the cult of personality which inspired a pseudo-religious fervour in those who came close to worshipping Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. Most religions preach humility as something to be prized; how is it then that religion or something that looks and feels a lot like religion so often becomes a means of making one race or culture or nation over others superior over others?

Today we remember the victims of human violence and madness and greed, and of those who grab at power. And we honour the memory of those who have at crucial times in the history of our land and of the world stood firm in the cause of freedom against the cruelties of dictators and despots and against the false ideologies and religions that seek to exploit, to dominate, to imprison. We think of those who’re still suffering today, in the wars that continue, in terrorist attacks, in divided communities, and in the sort of act of mindless terror that we saw last Sunday in the United States.

Freedom is a key word in what we do today. Freedom that’s not just for me but for you as well, whoever and wherever you may be. In two world wars and at many times since the men and women of our armed services, support services, and in civilian life too, have campaigned and fought and striven and died in defence of freedom; sometimes the world around them was looking very dark and desperate indeed. We honour them all, and we honour too those who continue to serve today in the defence of freedom. And we have stood in silence to remember those who made the ‘final sacrifice’ in defence of their nation and of the free world.

Here is where I stand. War is always wrong in itself, as is any form of violence. But war is sometimes necessary. When we appease a warmonger, when we kowtow to those whose hearts are filled with violence, or turn a blind eye to those who seek to dominate and abuse others, we in the end conspire with them, in fact we support them. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, indeed, but peace can never be made by appeasing evil. To avoid war is a good and noble aim, but there comes a time in life when the line has to be crossed: when those who do evil must be confronted, at whatever cost, or our freedom is lost. That was true in 1939 and it continues to be true today.

We dwell in a free land; may we never take that freedom for granted. Today reminds us how much that freedom cost. And not just freedom for ourselves. To fight in defence of our own freedom without thinking of our neighbour is hard to defend from a Christian standpoint. If war can ever be described as ‘just’, then we fight not just for our own freedom but for our neighbour’s freedom too.

I began by quoting George W. Bush: he used the word civilization to define what that war was being fought to defend. Civilization: we need to think a bit about that word. It means more than just ‘our sophisticated and comfortable way of life’. It’s about more than technological gadgetry, it’s about more than our right to live how we choose. Much more. Civilization happens when we recognize one another as family, as sisters and brothers. Civilization is expressed in vision, caring and culture, in a sense of duty and purpose, in knowing we belong together. It’s expressed in the peace that in the Bible is called shalom: peace built on a foundation of justice and righteousness and truth, peace that gives honour to God. True religion teaches the ways of peace, True religion should be the spring of civilization. 

Whereas false religion, religion misused, is not only hateful and hurtful but ultimately godless. We believe that God is love, and any religion that teaches and inspires hate denies the God it claims to serve. I want no part in that. True religion isn’t just the badge we wear but the life we live: life in relationship with God.

The life we live: we can’t defend peace or freedom or civilization by treating them as ideas static things, however important. We need truly to live the freedom we preach, and that may involve us in change and even sacrifice, so we make space for our neighbour too to share in the peace and freedom we enjoy. Those who came back from the trenches of the Great War or who celebrated VE or VJ Day in 1945 did so dreaming of a new and better world. Some of those dreams came true, but many were dashed or lost. Our modern world is an uncertain and often scary place; in it we need still to dream, to retain the vision of a better world, and more than that, to build and to work for and to defend a freedom that all may share.

As today we remember the sacrifice of comrades and fellows and forebears, may we also have in mind the sacrifice that lies at the heart of all we do in church: the sacrifice of our Lord Christ on the cross of Calvary. If it’s civilization we’re defending in this dark and uncertain hour, then may that civilization rest on the very firmest of foundations, on the divine love revealed to the world in the cross of Christ. Christ Jesus died that all might live; from the cross he forgave even those who nailed him there. True civilization requires of us that same self-giving love: love without limit, love from which springs a true and eternal peace. We and all the world stand within the sweep of that wondrous and eternal love, love that seeks to make its home in your heart and in mine. Amen.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

A Funeral Poem

Don’t cry too much for me, though I have gone to that good night;
the gate stood open, I passed through; don’t grieve my soul’s last flight.
A new day dawns on lofty hills, the sun glints through the trees,
and calling birds rise up to chase along the gentle breeze.
I walked the lanes and worked the fields for all those many years,
and now in peace I’ll take my rest. Don’t shed too many tears,
but celebrate the love we shared, the bright and happy days,
the sweet songs of the summer, the sun’s soft evening rays.
It’s autumn now: my leaf has drifted down from life’s great tree,
but soon will come the spring, so do not grieve, my soul is free.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

All Souls - sermon at the requiem.

Every year I dread the fall of leaves in autumn, partly because our garden’s not short on trees, so there’ll be lots for me to sweep. But also because I don’t like winter, and the dark nights and cold days, and the stark and leafless winter trees.

So our ancestors planted yew trees in holy places, and they brought evergreen boughs into their homes for a midwinter festival, and we still do that at Christmas. As a child I used to collect sticky buds in the middle of winter: put them in a jam jar of water on the kitchen windowsill and they'll sprout new leaves to give a little taste of spring long before we get the real thing. Or you can buy your little pots of hyacinths or mini-daffodils in Charlie's or Tesco to do the same.

One winter we had a week on Madeira, where most of the trees are green all year round; but in a mountain valley we came across a grove of chestnut trees that were leafless and bare. Our guide assured us anxiously that they weren't really dead, and they’d get new leaves in spring. I think he didn’t know that at home most of our trees are deciduous, and look kind of dead all winter.

They only look dead though. Each tiny hard bud on each black winter twig re-tells the story of Easter. Each one contains new life - all the loveliness of spring hidden away but waiting to emerge. As the nights drawn in, autumn may feel like the end of things, but really the year’s circling round to a new bright beginning that will come, however dark it is just now.

Our lives too have their circles and cycles, as we move round the year, marking seasons, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Every year’s a circle, from Christmas and New Year to Easter, to another birthday, to the summer hols, to harvest and Bonfire Night, and round to Easter and New Year again. 

Except that it isn’t, not really. In this service we admit to the truth, that as the years turn there are endings as well as beginnings, and there are partings of the way. One of our prayers includes the phrase "those whom we love but see no longer". For some of us that parting of the way may be very recent, for others perhaps many years have gone by; but we’re united here by that phrase. We still love, even though we see no longer.

As physical beings, we’re made literally out of stardust. Trust me on this, I’m a scientist, that’s where the stuff that makes us comes from. And one day our physical selves will be recycled. Fact. When I'm done with it, the atoms and molecules that make up me will go on to make up something else. 

That’s part of the story of you and me, and what it means to be human. But it’s not the whole story; I don’t think so, anyway. I don't think that you can put all there is to say about human life into atoms and molecules. We're more than the sum of our parts: there’s things about us, like humour, personality, skill, emotion, character and most of all love, that I want to talk about in terms not of atoms and molecules but of spirit. Ask me if my physical death will switch that off, the spiritual me, and I have to say no, I don't believe it will.

Here’s what I think. Like those bare winter twigs that contain the promise of spring, I believe that every human self contains the possibility of forever. And here’s why I think it: because I read in the Bible that folk like me and you are made in the image of God. And also because the very fact that we do go on loving those whom we see no longer helps me believe that love is stronger than death. Now even at its very best our human love is only a faint reflection of the love divine we sing about: and that’s the love I trust in: love that created us, love that came to meet us and claim us and redeem us in the man Jesus, the man we call Christ, the Son of God. That’s what I believe, and that’s why I’m here.

Tonight you and I have an opportunity to remember, and as we remember, also to celebrate and affirm the love we go on feeling, for some of us maybe as still quite painful. And we’re not doing this in an attempt to hang on to something that’s slipping away from us. We’re doling it because the memories we have and the love we feel, these are important, and they remain part of us, and it’s right that they should. And the candles we light tonight we light both as a way of remembering and also as a sign of hope.

Hope in what? Hope, I say, in the flow of life that’s without limit, hope in the eternally creative love of God. Hope also in the cross, our sign of a love that’s stronger than any enemy, that has defeated that last and greatest enemy that we call death. Jesus tells us that we, you and me, have a place in that love.

Elsewhere in scripture we read that perfect love casts out fear. If I look at the black skeletons of trees on the windy hillsides, if I’m honest I still feel a bit of that fear our primitive forbears felt at this time of year. They built bonfires and festooned their homes with evergreen branches to bring back the spring. But I don’t need to, because I believe and trust in the love of God.

So tonight we remember some special people, we acknowledge the spaces they've left in our lives, and we also commend them to God’s love, the love that surrounds and sustains us in this life and welcomes us home when this life is over. I believe that each human life is a unique and special spark of the love of God. I believe that those who are special to us are also special to him. We go on loving, and so does he, and his is the perfect love that casts out fear, love stronger than death, love which says: 'I am come that they may have life, and may have it in all abundance.' 

November is a dark time, but we already have the promise of spring. Our God is God not of the dead but of the living; and his love has already ended the power of death to hold us.

All Saints - a sermon for this coming Sunday

Last Saturday I was in Hereford Cathedral, dressed in my black cassock with red buttons, to do a day’s chaplaincy there. What I do is just wander round chatting to people, sometimes praying with them or helping them find space to pray, maybe hearing stories they feel they need to tell, often talking about the building and its history, and doing my best to answer the questions people have. It’s an enjoyable way to spend the day, in a building I love. I have a bit of a thing about stained glass: and later on I’ll mention a couple of my favourite windows.

But one thing I don’t enjoy quite as much as I’d like to is my drive down there. Ideally I’d drive to Craven Arms, park up and take the train, but there isn’t one that really suits, so mostly I do end up taking the A49 all the way down. “It would try the patience of a saint, the A49,” one of the cathedral guides remarked, when I told her about my journey. I had to agree. I like driving, but I don’t much like the A49. But it did start me wondering why patience should be the defining feature of sainthood.

All Saints' Day was last Wednesday. Its old name is All Hallow's, but these days it’s only the eve of All Hallows that gets much public recognition, and then more as the pagan festival Halloween, or as an excuse for a bit of a fright night. The shops are full of gory outfits. But the name Halloween just means the evening before All Saints’ Day. Centuries ago the Church seized on the pagan festivities of this time of year and turned them into Christian ones, remembering the company of saints and the lights of heaven.

All of this happens as the nights get longer and the days shorter, something that’s exacerbated these days by us having to turn our clocks back an hour. Fires were lit at this season to drive back the gathering dark long before Catesby and Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. It goes back so far into pagan times that it precedes the written word and the beginnings of history.

A vicar I know in a rather high church city parish still holds a solemn evening mass on All Saints' Day which he follows with a bonfire, fireworks, hot dogs and a general knees-up in the church hall and the vicarage garden. It’s his way of claiming back for the faith the November 5th fireworks events he rather disapproves of; but it’s also his recognition of a basic need for celebration and laughter as the nights grow darker that we all share, almost whatever we believe. And maybe we do also need a bit of controlled scariness, if only to allay our fears of the real thing.

These days we may talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD - our inability to cope with all that darkness, the way we get depressed when the clocks go back: but I guess that's just the modern equivalent of fears that are primeval, the same fears that led our ancestors to light bonfires and maybe also to build places like Stonehenge.

But what's that got to do with saints, you may ask? Well, in part no more than this: that when things get dark and dismal on our Christian pilgrimage through life, then the stories of saints who've walked the same roads and stood the same tests or worse can give us inspiration and strength. And is it their patience that inspires us? Well, yes, it may well be. The patience of saints is praiseworthy: we remember them as people who continued to trust in God even when all the world seemed to be against them. So we can think of saints as lights to guide us and to cheer us, and what better time to do that than November, when the mists fall and the frosts form and the nights draw in with a vengeance. For the message of All Saints' Day is this: the darkness may be tough and scary, but it doesn't have the last word.

But if saints are lights to guide us, they’re lights that shine with a reflected light, a light that is not their own. And that brings me back to the stained glass windows I love at Hereford Cathedral - and here as well, come to that.

One of my previous churches has a great west window filled with apostles and prophets, whose robes and faces and haloes really shine out when the sun comes through. Mostly, I took morning services and the window was rather dark and even quite dismal on a dull day. Obviously I’m standing at the east end of the church facing the congregation, and the great window behind them. But if we did have an evening service, especially if the sun was just at the right angle, the saints and holy folk in the window shone out with enormous splendour. But only because they were translucent to the sun. The saints we honour at All Saints’ Tide were men and women whose lives were translucent to the glory of God. Their lives tell the story not of their own greatness, but of his.

Blessed are you, said Jesus; blessed are you when everyone reviles you, when the whole world seems to turn against you. This list of blessings has patience - or fortitude, perseverance, endurance - right at its heart. Singing as I do in a male voice choir, I see that the same patience is the theme of those wonderful songs we sing so many of: the spirituals that rose from the experience of slavery and suffering in the American Deep South. These were people who despite their chains were convinced by the word of God that slaves though they were, they would find freedom: freedom was what God wanted for them, freedom was their destiny. And the songs that arose from their experience of slavery still have relevance and meaning. In them we find a freedom message all can share, of a light to lighten all darkness, and a love to banish all fear.

Silence is golden, sang the Tremeloes, back in 1967. So it is; but patience and silence are two different things. The reason I say that is to make clear that there is no Christian ministry of the doormat. The patience of saints wasn’t about letting the whole world trample over them. Hymns like "Stand up, stand up for Jesus" and "Onward, Christian soldiers" remind us that the patience of the saints is purposeful, faithful, militant even.

Let’s reflect on that word militant. The old Book of Common Prayer of 1662 begins the prayer of intercession in the Holy Communion service with these words: "Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church, militant here in earth." Militant here in earth. But Jesus says blessed are the meek, the mild, the peacemakers; surely those who follow him should be gentle and patient? Surely Christians shouldn’t rock the boat?

Well, we should be meek and mild, certainly. Meekness and mildness though has to do with what lies at the heart of our Gospel call: love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. But that’s not the same thing as appeasing, ignoring or keeping quiet about those who by their evil do damage and exploit those around them; it’s not the same thing as turning a blind eye to those who by their neglect, their thoughtlessness, their greed are placing their own immortal souls in danger. I remember a preacher on Remembrance Sunday once pointing out the difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking. Peacekeeping may stop the guns from firing, but peacemaking requires more of us that that. Peacemakers though are militant, by which I mean aware, involved, sleeves rolled up: searchers after justice, challengers of injustice. Blessed are the peacemakers, says our Lord. Never confuse meekness and mildness with weakness or cowardice; the first are marks of a church that dares to be Christ-like, the second of a church that’s content to remain invisible. And which of these do we honour in the saints?

One of the traditional prayers of the Church includes this plea: "Grant us a patient faith in time of darkness, and strengthen our hearts by the knowledge of your love." That’s a good prayer for this season. And it’s good to honour the saints, and here’s why: we don’t honour them as alternatives to Christ, as somehow specially holy in their own right or by their own efforts. No, we honour them for the ways in which they lead us to Christ, and for a holiness in their lives that they received from him.

Saints aren't supermen or superwomen, they are fellow pilgrims, people who were themselves very aware of their own frailties and failings. We may honour them as great teachers, inspired thinkers, maybe as heroic martyrs, maybe as devoted pastors, but what we really honour is their openness to the love of Christ, and the ways in which they shone with his light.

Among my favourite stained glass in Hereford Cathedral is a group of four small windows that recall the life of Thomas Traherne, a parish priest and poet and spiritual thinker who was born and brought up in Herefordshire. It was installed in 2007 and created by Tom Denny, whose stained glass work is quite distinctive. These windows tell the story of his faith in a remarkable and attractive way. They’re quite different from any of the other windows in the cathedral. And that says something important to me about sainthood and discipleship: the way we shine is different, particular, it depends on who and where we are. But what makes us shine is always the same. We shine because of the light of Christ, we shine to share his love.

So let’s honour the saints of every age as our companions on the way, and as sisters and brothers in Christ. And at All Saints’ Tide let’s remember that we are all saints. That’s the word used by Paul when he writes about, and when he writes to, Christian believers. The saints of ages past have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit, but so have we: the promise given to them is also ours.  So may we too have the patience of a saint: when the way ahead is tough, and the sky is dark, and the task before us hard, may we too remember that the victory is already won; our Lord Christ is our King already, enthroned in the heights of heaven, and with us as we serve him and follow him today.

Monday, 30 October 2017

A poem written for my Mother's funeral

My Lord, I give you thanks that I have lived
to taste the cold clear air of dawning day,
to hear the thousand notes of singing birds,
to smell the sweetness of the new-mown hay.
I thank you, Lord, that I have travelled far,
I thank you for the friends made on the way,
for mountains, valleys, glimpses of the sea,
for every welcome place where I could stay.

The memories come tumbling down the years,
of family, of children at their play,
of easy times and hard, of lessons learned,
of drifting autumn leaves, the scent of may,
of summers on the beach, the soft wet sand,
the beat of winter waves and tang of spray,
and every turning year new things to find,
new books to read, new thrilling words to say.

I thank you, Lord, for every touch of love,
for sad goodbyes, when loved ones went away,
for every lift of heart, for every pain,
the sunny skies of June, November’s grey.
For strength that saw me through the rainy times,
for joys received and shared, each happy day;
and now the sunset; may my journey on
be truly journey home: for this I pray.

Thomas - a poem:

He is standing in a shaft of sunlight,
and I see that light not only falls upon him
but burns also within him, is kindled there
and is flooding through him:
he has become part of the light.
I see his face, his eyes, startled, wondering,
trace his outstretched arms, his open hands.
“All that is mine is yours, as you are mine” -
so speaks a voice from somewhere soul-deep inside him,
or else from the unimaginable heights
of the endless universe, where stars spin as they burn.

He has stopped on the road he was walking;
now, standing in the middle of the rutted track,
having raised his eyes, he brings them down again,
shamed perhaps by his road-worn, scribbled clothes.
Behind him, the distant city clusters around its cathedral.
I see the tower, imagine the faraway chime of bells.
It is the call to vespers;
and now the light upon him fades, and the road
once more is claimed by cloud and shadows.
He is, after all, still made of dust.

And yet he is no longer the possession of dust,
nor is that dust his destiny:
for what was new kindled within him shines still,
his heart is light and fire and love.
“In my Father’s house are many rooms” -
that promise which is now and always true:
“my child, I go to prepare a place for you.”
The light that is before us is sure, will burn for ever,
and he, and I, are gifted a place in that light,
in that welcome light, where we are known and loved:
with new faith and courage
and into the darkening shades of evening
we will walk on.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Another Harvest Sermon

My last of the year . . .

Deuteronomy 26  /  Luke 12

What I want to do this morning is to tell you about the woman whose face appears on your readings sheet. Her name I don’t know, but long after I met her I called her Angela in a poem I wrote about her. In fact, her story in my poem was only partly her own story, it was more a combination of the stories of different people in the place where she lived.



I was in Brazil, in the deep south of Brazil, what is known as the Rio Grande de Sul, and in the old imperial city of Pelotas. Pelotas is a city that still possesses traces of its ancient grandeur; it has some fine houses and a palace, two cathedrals, and three universities. But Angela, we’ll call her that, lived with her family and the other families around her in a very different Pelotas. Their world was the favela.

I was there maybe fifteen years ago. I’d been attending a conference in the busy city of Porto Allegre, some way to the north, as a guest of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil. The Bishop of Pelotas was one of the other guests, and he invited me to visit his diocese. I saw the old palace, and visited the Anglican Cathedral, and I remember spending some time in a rather fine coffee shop with cakes the equal of any in the world. But I did also visit the world Angela inhabited. The favela where she lived was known as Anglo; Anglo because it was located in the ruinous grounds of what used to be the Anglo-American Salt Beef Packing Company. There’s no great call these days for salt beef.

The favela consists of shacks not unlike a rather poorly constructed garden shed. But each shed contains a family. Dirt tracks run through, and to gain access from the track to the compound of a particular dwelling you have to cross an open sewer. Everywhere was very dusty, rather smelly too.
Anglo has been there for quite a while. Here and there one or two of the shacks had become small villas constructed from breeze blocks and painted pink. And a few of the dusty tracks had the occasional lamp on a post. Later in my visit I saw a newer camp, on some waste ground near the centre of the city and much more vulnerable to being cleared away by the authorities; and there people were living in what were little more than tents.

But don’t imagine that the people in Anglo were anything other than dirt poor. Maybe a lucky few were doing better, but most, like Angela, were just scraping by at best. What did they do? Angela showed me her cart. It’s in the picture. She walked the streets with this cart collecting rubbish, plastic mostly but cans and things as well. I saw them sorted and piled along one side of her small yard. Plastic bottle tops were especially prized, she told me (through my interpreter, a Swiss girl doing a mission placement there). You got the best price for bottle tops.

But the deacon at the little church there told me they didn’t get much of a price for anything; that was the problem. In Brazil everything that can be recycled is recycled, and it’s the poor that do it. But people in Anglo had to sell to the traders who came round and collect, maybe once a week, once a fortnight. They’d never quite know when the traders would come, and they’d no choice but to accept what the traders offered them. Angela had a pile of rubbish, sorted and ready for the trader, but no-one had come, and that day she’d no money to feed her children. The church had a soup kitchen that day; without it, they wouldn’t have eaten, she said. And just the day before I’d been eating cream cakes with an excellent coffee or two without a care in the world. 

I went to the soup kitchen, and met Angela again there. The place was crowded. Mission hymns were sung, joyfully if not all that tunefully. And soup was ladled out into the plastic bowls and tubs the women brought, and bread and cabbages were handed out too.

Everyone there was pretty much in the same boat. They were all living on the edge, at risk, constantly, from petty crime, from exploitation by traders who rip them off, from disease, those open drains didn’t look or smell all that healthy, and from the city fathers who might just decide to tidy things up by bulldozing the favela and kicking them all out.

The soup kitchen was one project, but the church there wanted to do more. It hoped to buy and secure the old Anglo site: some of the old buildings could be used to set up a co-operative to sort, process and bale the waste the folk of Anglo collected. Then they could sell it directly to the big recycling firms and not have to rely on the traders who turned up when they felt like it, offered poor rates and probably also cheated on the scales. I hope that by now they’ve managed to do that. Angela’s children won’t be far off grown up by now. Will they still be as poor as she was? What do they have to look forward to?

Why tell that story at harvest festival? Look at the labels on the things in your kitchen cupboards and fridges, how many different countries are represented. We thank God for harvest today here in Leighton, but harvest is worldwide. More than once in Brazil I came face to face with the contrast between immense wealth and abject poverty. My visit to Anglo was one of those occasions.

In the Old Testament there are many stories of people on the move, not least the people of Israel in the book Exodus being led through the desert by Moses. They journeyed from slavery in Egypt to find a new land, the land promised to them by God, that would flow with milk and honey. I don’t know how Angela ended up in the favela, where she’d come from; maybe like so many she’d travelled in from the country hoping the city would give her and her children a better life. The people of Israel, on the run from Egypt, spent forty years in the desert. How long would Angela be in the desert of the favela?

The people of Israel reached the land God promised them; all they had to do was to cross the Jordan to enter a wonderful place, with fertile soil in which they could grow all they wanted. But before they crossed that river to enter the land, Moses told them they must never forget what they used to be, that they’d wandered in the desert, desperate for food and water, that they’d been slaves in Egypt. And they must never forget that it was God who’d brought them safely to the land they now held; so they must offer thanks, but more than that they must live thankfully.

Our harvest festival is a time to remember that, as one of the Psalms puts it, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof; the round world and all that dwell therein.” Jesus says, “Consider the lilies; consider the ravens. Seek God’s kingdom above all else, and he will make sure you have what you need.” We thank God for all that’s good in our land and in our lives, but harvest brings responsibility as well as blessing. We honour the giver of our harvest when we use what he gives us according to his mind, and in a way that reflects his love. When we seek his kingdom.

God gives us a rich and beautiful world to share, but we can get depressed, or I can anyway, at all the bad news that comes our way, every bulletin is full of it. And the problems and sadnesses and inequalities of our world can sometimes - often - seem so big, so intractable, so unchangeable that we might just end up believing there’s nothing to be done. I think the church in Pelotas proved to me that day that I’d be wrong to think that. We may only be able to do small things like that soup kitchen, but lots of small things added together make a big thing. Harvest is there to be shared and used, not hoarded up. And every small act of sharing moves us all just a step or two closer to the promised land.

The King's Feast

Sermon notes for this Sunday . . .

Matthew 22.1-14 (Trinity 18, Proper 23 year A)

Don’t you think it slightly strange, in the Gospel story we’ve just heard, that a poor guy plucked from the street to attend the king’s wedding feast should then be bound and flung out for not having the right clothes on? How many street beggars or Big Issue sellers do you think would be in possession of suitable attire for a posh wedding?

We’ll return to him later. But all in all, this is quite a strange parable. It’s one thing to turn down an invitation to a wedding, but it’s a bit over-the-top to actually kill the messengers who bring it, don’t you think? Particularly since the king in the parable was the sort of despot who’d burn down your entire town in response. They’d have been well advised to say yes to a man like that, even if they had had other plans for the day of his party.

I think Matthew gets a bit more stark and even bloodthirsty than the other Gospel writers when he re-tells the stories of Jesus; Matthew also groups the stories together, so some commentators think that here we’ve two quite different stories joined together, the one about the wedding feast being populated by people gathered in from the highways and byways, after those first invited failed to respond, together with a second story about a man coming to a wedding without the proper clothes and being punished for it.

But, separately or together, they’re stories we should take seriously, and the theme of both is judgement: God invites us to a feast he’s prepared, a salvation feast, but woe betide us if we pass up on that invitation. Sometimes we soft-pedal the judgement side of the Gospel, but we shouldn’t. God is love, and his love seeks to include us all, desires to leave no-one out. But God is also the righteous judge who is angered by our rejection and our misdeeds; and his wrath is to be feared.

“The Christian Church is a revolutionary movement that became an institution - discuss.” That might have been a question in one of my papers at theological college, but was in fact a headline in last week’s Church Times. Jesus came with a revolutionary message, and here he targets those for whom the system and the ritual have become more important than God. The priests with their ritual and sacrifice, and the Pharisees with their purity and piety: these two groups had between them created a godless religion.

Let me explain. They professed belief in God, they prayed to him and offered their sacrifices; but really they’d relegated God himself to be just one component in a system that didn’t really need him. As long as they did all the right things God had to let them in: they’d racked up enough points, they’d earned their place.

That’s what they thought, anyway. In the story Jesus told there were people who expected to be invited to the king’s banquet; it was what their social standing deserved. And they also thought it perfectly OK not to go, if it spoiled the routine of their tidy little lives. In the story the king deals very harshly with their disrespect.

In the previous chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we’ve already heard Jesus tell the Pharisees and priests that (quote) “tax gatherers and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Instead of serving God, he told them, and responding to God’s call, they’d been serving only themselves.
So what has the Church done with the revolutionary message of the Gospel? Are we looking to change minds and hearts and lives, are we looking to change the world, or have we become institutionalised? The problem with institutions is that they become hierarchical, bureaucratic and self-serving.

It’s a truth proved time and time again in all kinds of organisations and institutions, that what should be serving and encouraging and enriching the local groups and ordinary members, can end up taking from them rather than giving to them. The organisation itself becomes more important than its aims, and its structures seek to be served rather than offer service, end up impoverishing rather than enriching. The aim of the Church is to teach, preach, proclaim and live the kingdom, to share and show God’s love and to acknowledge him as king. Not to spend as much time as we do just keeping the show on the road.

Sorry - bit of a bee in my bonnet, I guess. But I’m reminded of a company someone I know used to worked for. When they did a programme of restructuring they managed to cut out a whole tier of management without anyone really noticing. They’d got more management than they needed, because one thing managers are good at doing is creating more managers and building little empires.

Let me get back to the man I started with, that poor guy plucked from the gutter and then thrown back again because he hasn’t got the right clothes? “Tax gatherers and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom ahead of you,” said Jesus - but only if they’ve listened, obeyed, responded, made changes. Only if they’re wearing the right clothes.

Here’s a thought. What if the king, knowing that people pulled in off the street aren’t going to have much to wear, had put out suits of wedding clothes for them all? Wouldn’t that be a kind and kingly gesture? And isn’t that what our gracious God does do? When we turn to God we’re clothed with his love. So maybe this man was punished not for not having a wedding suit in his wardrobe at home (and maybe not having a wardrobe, or even a home), but for not having bothered to wear the wedding clothes that had been provided for him.

In other words, for being the person who comes to church but then falls away or maybe departs in a huff because they can’t be top dog; or the person who’s happy to be known as a churchgoer, but who fails to allow Jesus into the rest of his life, whose everyday activities don’t reflect the kingdom principles he hears about on a Sunday. I know that sometimes I am that person, and that’s why I’m here. So often my Sunday praise and fervour doesn’t get properly connected in to my weekday life; it’s something I need always to be working on.

Tax gatherers and prostitutes and all kinds of folk from the highways and byways of life get invited to the kingdom feast of our Lord. They’re welcomed in, they’re commanded to come in. It’s a revolutionary party, it’s a beggars’ banquet, in which all the established principles get turned upside down. Except this one: you don’t come as you are, you come attired in the robes that the king is giving you, the ones bearing the sign of the cross, a cross to be worn not only on the outside of us but in the deep and secret places of our hearts.

To do less than that is to cheat on God and to disrespect his generous and saving grace. It’s not only the obvious targets, like the priests and Pharisees to whom Jesus told his story, who stand under judgement. It’s all of us.

Nature Notes

My offering for local community magazines for the month ahead . . .

Another Autumn Walk

After last month’s foray, a rather shorter walk this month, which I made along the canal towpath on a very wet day in early October, walking home from Coed y Dinas. It wasn’t a cold day, and the breeze was light, but the rain was quite heavy at times and the light wasn’t all that good.

But there was still plenty to see, beginning with a pair of swans and their well grown cygnets on the pool formed out of the old route of the canal. I wonder if these were the same birds I saw at the lock at Berriew on the walk I described last month. They may have been, but there are always several pairs along this part of the canal. These were being quite busy in the rain, up-ending themselves to dabble deep down into the water with their long necks. Swans feed mostly on underwater vegetation, but they don’t mind supplementing that with water insects and other invertebrates, frogs and even small fish should these come to hand, or rather beak.

A moorhen dashed jerkily past in front of the reeds, but either didn’t notice me or wasn’t too bothered at the sight of me. This is one of our commonest water-birds, found pretty much everywhere in Britain, and happy to live on smaller ponds than its relative the coot. Its red bill with a yellow tip is distinctive, as is its jerky, flicking motion when swimming or walking. Like the coot it has lobed toes rather than fully webbed feet. Well-grown juveniles are dull brown and lack the red beak; I saw a couple a little further on as I walked.

Not many insects fly when there’s heavy rain, but a large dragonfly came across just in front of me, close enough for me to hear the rustle of its wings, as I left the pool to walk the canal towpath proper. Maybe I’d disturbed it from its resting place. A surprising number of plants were still in flower along the towpath, including my personal favourite, meadowsweet. The towpath equivalent of the “Chelsea chop” designed to bring on a second showing of flowers in your garden is the midsummer mow along the canal, which guarantees a late flush of flowers from meadowsweet and others. The scent is lovely, but I wasn’t going to stop and sniff in the rain. The same scent, incidentally, is present in the leaves and other green parts - not as strongly, but scrunch up a leaf and sniff it and you’ll get a hint of it. Other plants in flower included low-growing speedwells, a pleasing blue, and the yellow of creeping Jenny, not a wild plant, so I suspect garden soil must have been used to build up the bank here during restoration.

A couple of herons passed over, and I could hear a buzzard mew, but the highlight of my walk had to be a sparrowhawk drifting across the fields used for the country and western weekend and other events. I say drifting, for it wasn’t going at any great speed, but this was quite a purposeful drift: a few wing beats, a glide, a few wing beats again, keeping its eyes open for any opportunity. The short wings and long tail are typical; the wings have a rounder shape than the kestrel. This hawk is a superbly adapted and deadly hunter, and always, for me, a delight to see.