Sunday, 21 September 2014


A reflection prepared for today, the feast day of Matthew the Apostle :-

Today the Church honours the apostle Matthew, whose name is attached to the first of the four Gospels. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew we know was written by a later hand, but in part it probably depends on sayings and stories of Jesus that we’re told were assembled by Matthew, and then expounded by others.

There was no need for a written account of the life and teachings of Jesus when the Church was very new – not least because the first followers of our Lord expected the day of judgement would arrive at any moment. They were already in the last days. But as the Church grew, and time went on, and those who led the church in each place hadn’t necessarily known or heard Jesus themselves, that it became important to write things down.

Matthew should no doubt be honoured for his part in beginning the work of assembling the written Gospels, but today I’d like to concentrate on Matthew the disciple rather than Matthew the evangelist. Like Peter, Andrew, James and John, he wasn’t an obvious candidate. To be honest, he was a much less obvious candidate than the other four, now that I come to think of it. They were fishermen, an honourable enough occupation; he was a tax collector, and no-one likes them, do they?

Now I’ve known a few tax collectors fairly well, and all the ones I’ve known have been really nice people. And I have a fairly positive feeling about paying my taxes, because that’s part of how we ensure a society in which all members can find a level of provision and care and have the chance to live together in peace. Although that’s not to say I agree with everything the government chooses to do with the money it takes from me.

But at least it is my government, and if I don’t like what it does, then every five years or so I get the chance to cast my vote and maybe effect a change. Tax collectors at the time of Jesus were working for a government that was imposed on the people from outside, and which was hostile or at best dismissive of their faith and therefore their law. Israel had been a free kingdom with kings of the line of David; but now they were part of the Empire of Rome, and that’s where their taxes went, and that’s who the tax collectors who received their taxes worked for.

You could make a good living as a tax collector. You could in fact pretty much collect as much as you liked, provided you remitted to the Roman exchequer the amount the Romans had assessed. So really you had permission from the authorities to be extortionate; the downside of that was that anyone who took the job was going to be hated by his own people, and treated with suspicion and contempt. By definition a tax collector was likely to be a man who cared more for money and for the trappings of wealth than he cared for community or friends or even family. And since his hands were fatally tainted by being in league with the godless Romans, no man of religion, no priest or Pharisee, would have anything at all to do with a tax collector.

But Jesus did. In the Gospel stories we find Jesus quite deliberately meeting with tax collectors, eating at their tables, and treating them as though they hadn’t completely and utterly excluded themselves from God’s favour. You’ll remember the story of little Zaccheus, the tax collector who climbed up a tree to see Jesus over the heads of the crowd. Jesus called him down and invited himself to have tea at Zaccheus’ house. You’ll remember too the anger of the Pharisees when they saw this rabbi, teacher, sitting to eat with tax collectors.

I suppose Matthew – or Levi as he would have been then – must have been at such an event. Or maybe like Zaccheus he’d been jostled by the crowd as he strained to hear what Jesus had to say out on the streets. And then one day Jesus called him, there as he was sitting at his seat of custom, doing his books, collecting and counting the money. Why would Jesus call a tax collector, though? Why would Jesus want someone like that? What would Jesus expect to do with him?

Jesus called Matthew for the same reason that he called Peter and the others; because he could see that Matthew was ready to follow. That’s exactly what he did: he left his seat straight away, and didn’t hesitate for a moment. Then as now, for Jesus qualifications or status or suitability (in the way that society might assess it) – these things aren’t important in a disciple . . . the important thing is that they’re ready to follow, ready to listen, ready to learn.

The words of the traditional collect for St Matthew’s day speak of Jesus calling Matthew “from the selfish pursuit of gain”. So we’re talking about a life turned upside down, and a radical changing of priorities. Matthew’s good life as a tax collector had turned out not to be good after all. He might have thought money would compensate for the rejection and abuse and cold shoulders – but I think he’d found that however much money you got, and however much money you spent, there was an empty space in the middle of him that mere money could never fill. A God shaped space, if you like.

So Levi became a disciple, left his old life, left his money behind, I suppose, started afresh. And from being Levi, which means “attached” or “pledged”, he became Matthew, which means “gift of God”.

I think that at the point of Jesus’ call to him, Matthew had come to realise the truth of that simple but profound statement, attributed among others to William Ruskin, that “he who gives God second place in life gives him no place.” If our priorities are wrong, whoever and wherever we are, the God shaped slot remains empty and unfilled, and, however rich we may like to think we may be, we are in fact fatally poor.

But here for me is the crux of the matter, and here’s why the story of Matthew matters to me, and not only to the bankers of Canary Wharf or the City of London: let me put it as a question – what’s the difference between Matthew the tax collector and the Pharisees and priests who were so quick to condemn Jesus for spending time with Matthew and his like?

Here’s an immediate and obvious difference. Matthew had chosen money, and the Pharisees had chosen religion. But that’s a bit of red herring, not least because religion and faith are not necessarily the same thing. Religion can in fact become as much of a self-seeking thing as any pursuit of wealth or power. Just look at the amount of misery and conflict religion causes in our world today. Do you imagine God wants any of that? Do you imagine God is calling people into any of that?

The difference between Matthew and the Pharisees, the difference that matters, is this: Matthew knew he needed to be saved and repaired and healed by God. The Pharisees didn’t. And for us too, as for Matthew, we are here gathered today not because we’re good enough, not because we’re sorted out and are getting it all right, but because we know we need God to fix us, and that there is inside me and you a God-shaped hole that only the love of Jesus can fill. And he knows that, which is why he calls me and you as he called Matthew that day, to put him first, to leave the other stuff behind, and to follow.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Mr Twistleton and the Football

A Sunday talk to tie in with this week's CL readings . . .

Mr Twistleton was in his favourite place: in his own back garden, on his sun lounger, good book, cold drink, lovely sunny afternoon. It would have been absolutely perfect had it not been for the thump, thump, thump from next door. Those blasted children were out there again, playing with a ball. Mr Twistleton tried to put the sound out of his head, but he didn’t find it easy.

And then it happened. Just as Mr T had managed to close his eyes, the ball sailed over the wall and landed straight on his stomach. Mr Twistleton got up and grabbed it. He was not best pleased. “Really sorry, Mr Twistleton,” came a young voice. “Can we have our ball . . .” “NO, you may not!” Mr Twistleton responded. “It’s on my property, so it IS my property!” And he stomped off into the house with it, opened the cupboard under the stairs, flung the ball inside and slammed the door on it.

Fine minutes later, he was back outside, lying once again on his sun lounger, and this time there were no noises from next door to stop him drifting off to sleep.  He’d had quite a snooze when, rat-a-tat, he was woken by a peremptory knock on his front door. He got up, went to the door, and there stood a postman. “You need to sign for this, sir. Important letter.” It did look important, too. Large, brown, well-stuffed, and marked ‘Department of Revenue and Customs’.

Mr Twistleton’s heart sank. He had been a little worried about his tax return. He opened the letter to find he was wrong to be a little worried; he should have been a whole LOT worried. There were sheets and sheets, all filled with figures in red ink. “How on earth did I come to owe this much?” Mr Twistleton wondered. “And how on earth am I going to pay it?”

He hadn’t been wondering that for very long when there came another knock on his door. The postman’s knock had been peremptory. This knock was merely brutal. He opened the door to find a smallish man there in a black jacket, pinstriped trousers, bowler hat, briefcase marked ‘DRC’. Perhaps the man wasn’t really that small - he just looked it, compared to the two immense guys stood either side of him. They didn’t look very friendly.

“Good afternoon, Mr Twistleton,” said the man in the middle. “My, er, friends and I felt we should call to discuss your account with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and to see if we can’t work out together some way of - er - settling your outstanding balance with us.”

“But it’s only just arrived,” said Mr Twistleton anxiously. “I’ve only just this minute seen the figures. Surely you can give me some time to get things organised?”

“Oh, I hardly think so,” said the man from the ministry. “After all, this is a debt built up over quite some time, and, well, frankly, sir, when we’re talking this sort of money, we do feel it’s best to come to an early and swift arrangement.” Mr Twistleton noticed that one of the bailiffs seemed somehow to have acquired a baseball bat, which he was smacking in a meaningful way into the huge palm of his other hand.

Mr Twistleton fell to his knees. “Oh, please, please, please, please just give me a bit of time, sirs. I’ll do anything, I’ll work every hour I can, I’ll scrub floors, just give me time, I’ll pay it all, I really will . . .” His voice tailed away. “If you scrubbed floors for fifty years you wouldn’t raise enough to pay off this amount,” said the revenue man. “But I hate to see a grown man cry . . .

“Tell you what. I’ll let you off. It’ll be as though this bill never existed. You tear up your copy. I’ll tear up mine. Clean slate; start again. How’s that?”

Mr Twistleton could hardly believe his ears. “Thank you” hardly seemed enough of a reply - but, before he could say anything, the door under the stairs edged open, and a ball tumbled out, bounced a couple of times, and rolled down the hallway to rest at the feet of the man from the ministry. He looked down, and picked it up. “Is this your ball, sir?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Mr Twistleton, “er - I mean no, er yes, er no, er.” “Doesn’t this ball actually belong to the children next door? Oh dear. That puts rather a different complexion on things. It’s difficult to see how we can let you off, after all.” The two minders stepped forward purposefully, both of them now with baseball bats in hand, and that’s when . . .

. . . a second ball sailed over the wall, landed like the first on Mr Twistleton’s stomach, this time knocking him off his sun lounger and waking him up. There was a sort of horrified silence from the other side of the wall.

Then a rather frightened voice said, “Sorry again, Mr Twistleton! But can we please have our ball back, if we promise to be really extra specially careful from now on?” “Of course you may, both of them, of course,” Mr T replied - much to their surprise, but then of course, they didn’t know about his dream.

There’s a simple message from that story, as there is in the story Jesus told in this morning’s Gospel. Christians should live generously and graciously.

We’ve been let off a mountain of debt, more than we could ever pay. We who deserve death have been promised life, we who deserve the pains of hell have been promised the joys of heaven. We are saved by grace and by the generosity of our Father God; as his people we should be generous to one another and we should live generously in his world. Day by day we pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray those words. Our task in mission and service is to make sure that we also live them. Amen.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Winter Visitors

My 'Nature Notes' piece for local community magazines . . .

Birds face a struggle to survive the rigours of a British winter. The darker days mean there is less daylight in which to find food, and frost and snow (and last winter, floods) can make vital feeding areas inaccessible. Our native species will spend the autumn building up their fat reserves to help cope, while many other birds, as I mentioned last month, will have headed south. But winters further north and east are much harder than ours, so many birds are also arriving at this time of the year.

Many water birds spend their winter here, including huge numbers of geese and arctic swans, mostly heading for coastal mudflats and marshlands. The wild geese we’re likely to see overhead are not migrating - they are the Canada geese that are here all year round, though in their native North America they do migrate. But numbers of winter ducks may be found in suitable places like Llyn Coed y Dinas, with the wigeon, with its distinctive whistling call, a particular favourite of mine. I’ll write more about ducks and other water birds next time.

Many winter garden birds are extras to our resident species: blackbirds and song thrushes, robins and starlings in our gardens are all augmented by visitors from abroad, from Scandinavia and as far east as Siberia. With them come birds that are special to winter, like the two winter thrushes: redwings, slightly smaller than a song thrush and with an orange flash on its flanks, and the larger fieldfare, elegant in grey and brown, and often in large noisy flocks. Redwings will come to gardens, taking yew berries but happy also to sample chopped up apples - why not leave a few on your lawn? Fieldfares are more typical of open fields, especially where a field has been newly manured, with plenty of worms and insects to find.

A colourful and unusual visitor is the waxwing, more likely to be found on the eastern side of the country, but occurring anywhere in harder weather. They love berries, and can often be found in such places as supermarket car parks, where berry-bearing bushes have often been planted. Finches flock together in the winter, the flock giving a better chance to find food and some protection for each individual bird from predators. Winter visitors like bramblings will join our native finches; this is a finch closely related to the chaffinch, but more robust-looking and with a distinctive white rump visible as it flies. Siskins and redpolls move down from wilder areas into our gardens, where they often flock with goldfinches. The male siskin, about the size of a blue tit, is an attractive bird in yellow and green with a black cap. 

One summer warbler, the blackcap, has started to be seen in Britain through the winter, visiting bird tables. These may well not be the birds that were here in the summer, but continental birds coming in. The male is easy to identify with its black cap,  while the female has a brown cap.  Our smallest British bird, the goldcrest, will also move into gardens in winter, from the conifer plantations that are its preferred habitat, to join tits in feeding from suet balls. Its close relative the firecrest is a winter visitor, but not I think to be found this far north.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

I just hope his name is Gordon . . .

I turned up at the church at the right time for the meeting. Well, to be honest, a minute or two late, but I like a stylishly late entrance - it helps maintain the illusion of a busy man just managing to fit everything in. I could see Gordon outside, back to me, scanning the noticeboards, so, although it did seem awfully quiet, I presumed his wife was inside along with everyone else. "Evening, Gordon!" I said cheerily, and in I went, only to find an empty room. There were, however, noises coming from the smaller meeting room off, and as I walked towards the door a head popped round it. Sadly, not one I recognised. "Are you looking for us?"

Inside the room there indeed was Gordon's wife, but with a completely different set of people from the ones I'd expected, and obviously a completely different meeting. I had the right day, and (almost) the right time, but I was a week early, not having properly read the instructions sent to me. I made some comment about having seen Gordon outside. "I hope not," came the reply, "I left him at home, doing the dishes." There was much hilarity at my confusion, and I retreated to lick my wounds, and reflect that at least my foolishness had brightened up what might have been a boring meeting.

Back outside, I could see "Gordon" further down the street, looking now into an estate agent's window. I headed towards him, he turned round, and from the front, proved to be a complete stranger who looked a bit like Gordon from behind. Oh well. I can only hope his name was Gordon, too.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Making Up

An address given yesterday at Middleton and Trelystan (Chirbury Group) :-

How many people here have got brothers? Sisters? I have the fortune or the misfortune (I’ve used both words at different times) to be part of quite a large family, the eldest in fact of five brothers, plus one little sister who is the youngest of any of us. Fortune? Well, we don’t live in each others’ pockets, but we do know where we belong, and we’re all of us there for each other when help is needed. I can think of a couple of times in my life when I’d have been sunk without my brothers and sister, and I’m pretty sure each and every one of them could say the same.

Misfortune? Oh well, you know what they say – you can choose your friends but you get what you’re given as regards family. We’re all very different. We don’t vote the same way, we don’t go out to the same places, we don’t necessarily agree on a whole range of stuff. And sometimes, just sometimes, a couple of us might have a real falling-out.

To be honest, I can’t remember too many of those – or at least, not since we were very young children. But it isn’t so much how often they happen, these arguments and spats, it’s what you do with them. And what happens when it doesn’t get sorted out.  There’s someone I know quite well who hasn’t spoken to her sister in twenty years. I can’t comment on that, because I don’t know what caused the split and therefore I can’t begin to guess at why it’s never been resolved – except that I can say, with a fair degree of confidence, that I can’t imagine that happening within my own immediate family. To be frank, I just don’t think that any of us could keep it up.

The Gospel reading this morning is quite a tough one, about relationships and what we should do when they get thorny and difficult. Jesus speaks about what to do “if your brother sins against you”. Of course, we’re not just talking about blood brothers (or sisters) here: when I pray I call God “Our Father”, and to do that instantly turns everyone else who prays the same prayer into my brother and my sister. And every argument or disagreement between us into a family matter. And arguments will happen - so what should we do about them when they do?

This is important I think, because our faith is proved and witnessed to not in how we behave when things are going well and the world is bright and cheerful, but in how we behave when things are going wrong. Jesus knew that as well as anyone. Don’t you get the impression that that band of men he called to be his disciples could be a pretty argumentative bunch from time to time?

Anyway, here, based on this morning’s Gospel, are some clues as to how we, as disciples in our turn of the Lord Jesus Christ, can deal effectively with the problems and issues and slights that happen from time to time. Say you do something to me that miffs me and annoys me, or maybe gets me into trouble, and I think it’s wrong. What should I be doing about it?

Well, first of all I do need to do something, and not just let it lie. When you let things lie they fester. I could end up brooding about things in such a way that something that on its own probably shouldn’t be all that important starts to take over my life. And not only mine: unresolved issues lead to a toxic environment in which constructive working together becomes impossible.
And I need I think quite deliberately to put my complaint into words; sometimes that in itself can expose a grievance for what it often is, not so big and bad that it can’t be resolved. Otherwise I could get things out of balance, so that someone’s clumsy action or thoughtless word gets to feel like a personal attack.

But if I do feel wronged by someone, I guess it would be good to be able to talk things over, face to face. That might not be easy of course, so someone else may need to perform the service of preparing the way beforehand. I remember on one occasion inviting two people round who I knew needed to sort something out between them, preparing the way a bit with each of them, but then on the day just leaving them there together while I went to make a cup of coffee. I confess that I did wonder whether world war three might break out – but it didn’t.

I’m a great writer of letters of complaint (I do also write letters of praise and thanks, by the way, I’m not quite in the Victor Meldrew camp). But while letters of complaint can be very effective when written to companies and corporations, I don’t think they’re a good idea between individuals - not if what you want to do is to make friends again, anyway. I think positions can become entrenched and attitudes hardened when set down on paper – though sometimes a generous and apologetic card can work wonders.

Perhaps though nothing at this stage is working wonders, and the problem isn’t sorted. Jesus in this morning’s reading says that then we should take two or three witnesses along with us. If that sounds like escalating things, Jesus I think is reminding his disciples of the Jewish Law in Deuteronomy chapter 19, verse 15.

We read there that a charge of misdemeanour can’t be sustained on the evidence of one person; two or three further witnesses are required. Having said that, the witnesses aren’t there as a sort of legal heavy mob to make sure the charges are proved – I don’t think so, anyway. Extra people can defuse tension and enable reconciliation. So I’d not want to be taking along two or three barrack-room lawyers (or real ones for that matter) – not if I really want to set things right. Better to have with me two or three wise and kind and clear sighted people who maybe just by being there can help two people at odds really to listen to each other and find some common ground. Like ACAS when the management and the unions are at odds, or like the hard but honest friend who can say, “Do you really see what you’re doing here, not just to yourselves, but to the rest of us as well?”

For make no mistake, if left untreated and unresolved an issue between two people may very well end up poisoning the whole well. I can think of churches I’ve known that were turned into toxic places by things left unresolved, in one case by an event that happened more than thirty years before. A stranger coming into that church would quickly have felt uneasy there, and that there was something in the air. Not surprisingly, that church was in a very poor way.

So Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that if the matter can’t be sorted out face to face or with the help of others, then it becomes a matter for the whole fellowship. Some fallings-out end up with lawyers and in the courts, but what does that ever achieve? Legal proceedings may settle an issue, but they don’t restore unity; whereas a caring and prayerful Church, with Christian prayer, fellowship and love just might be able to bring people back together.

There’s a lot more I could be saying, but I’ll make just two more points before I close. The first is a scriptural comment. To properly understand this quite hard passage of scripture we need to see it in context. It immediately follows the story of the lost sheep. Remember? The ninety-nine are left, and the Good Shepherd goes to find the one that’s lost. This passage isn’t about dealing with trouble-makers but finding and restoring the lost, and keeping the whole flock together. It’s about staying family in difficult times. This is such an important point: Jesus isn’t instructing us in how to deal with a situation, but how to save a soul; and unless that’s what we want to do when we engage with a situation of hurt or breakdown in the church, we’re likely to fail, for we’re not seeing or acting with the mind of Christ.

And the last thing is very much from my own experience: none of us is perfect, and where I have an issue with someone else I need to look hard at myself as well as at the other chap. If I go in believing that all the fault’s on the other side and none rests with me I’m going to get things wrong. I can think of times when an unkind word or action directed against me was actually sparked by something I’d done or said without realising or understanding the hurt I’d caused. I can’t often stand easily on the moral high ground! I think that’s the saving grace in my own family, that stops our arguments becoming feuds and keeps us talking: we’re all pretty self-aware. And so we need to be as Christians – if we’re self-aware and Christ-aware, and seriously in the business of wanting souls to be saved, then God will be able to use us graciously, and we’ll be good at being his family. Amen.

Saturday, 6 September 2014


Lots of insects around at present, following our really rather good summer (even if the past few weeks have been a little less so). These turned up on our back porch this morning, and I think they are oak bush crickets. They are quite slimly built, and are a uniform bright green colour, with a distinctive brown mark on the thorax. We have plenty of oak trees nearby, of course, and these are insects that fly readily and are attracted to lights at night.

I think they are rather attractive little beasts, and I particularly love their long antennae, which are in fact more than the length of the body.