Saturday, 24 December 2016

Cribs and Carols

. . . a Christmas morning sermon :-

Many of us have enjoyed singing Christmas carols for a week or two now. Those of us in serious choirs will have been singing them for months. And at last here we are on the day itself, and in the church that must have one of the most interesting and unusual Christmas cribs around, thanks to Owen and to the inventiveness of his junior helpers.

Let’s reflect for a moment on the traditional Christmas crib, and the traditional Christmas carols. Carols like Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head; like silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright; or like  in the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.

For most of us I would guess our images of the Christmas story are formed as much by the carols we sing as by the story told by Matthew or Luke. Carols were the songs of the people, and Christmas carols help to move the story told by the gospel writers into the frosty landscape of an English winter.

Not every Christmas Day is frosty, and most are not snowy. This year the only record in danger is the one for the record high temperature. But the imagined extra details our Christmas carols, nativity plays and Christmas cribs provide help us to enter into the story of our Lord’s birth by making it a winter story. Like the shepherds and kings, we can be there too.

The very first Christmas crib is said to have been created by Francis of Assisi, to show the people of the village what the birth of Jesus really meant for them by bringing them to see the scene for themselves. This was in 1223 in Grecchio, in Italy.

Francis gave instructions for a stable to be prepared, with a manger full of hay, and an ox and ass standing by; and in the middle of his full size Christmas crib was an altar table, and the holy communion was celebrated at the heart of the Christmas story, with Francis himself assisting. We're told he read the Gospel with such devotion that many of those who came were moved to tears.

The tradition of the Christmas cribs springs from that event. Now they take many forms, though most don’t contain aliens or crocodiles, as I believe on occasions this one has. Most cribs remain quite traditional in terms of what they contain. But in fact the ox and the ass standing by date back to Francis' own imagining of the scene and not to the bible stories themselves.  Many cribs contain a camel, in fact there are quite a few in our crib at home; well, the Wise Men rode them, didn’t they? Or did they? In fact, camels aren't even hinted at in the bible story.  Shepherds, well they’re Biblical, but the Bible doesn’t mention them giving a lamb, or the shepherd boy plating a tune for the baby on his flute. They’re often in cribs though.

Crib figures vary. Some you see are finely detailed and in appropriate period costume; others wear medieval clothes, like in one of the nativity paintings of past ages; some crib figures are in modern dress to try to bring things up to date. I have some olive wood figures I bought in the Holy Land, and I like them because they don't have any clearly carved features. They are in a sense, everyman and everywoman, which to me is sort of the point of it all. Jesus was born in a particular place, and at a particular time in history, but he is not limited by place or history; he is for the whole world, a brother to all the world's children wherever they are.

Wherever and whoever we are, it’s good we can make ourselves part of the story of this birth. The child born in Bethlehem is God’s gift for not just the shepherds and the wise men, but us too: the sign of a love that is forever, the eternal light to shine in every darkness. So I’m happy we can imagine this child born in a Shropshire stable, and in an English winter.

For then we’ll be singing our carols not about him but to him; and as we praise him and pray to him, his light may be born anew in our hearts. The world is a dark enough place on the borders of 2017. But in the uncertainties of today the Prince of Peace is still born to dwell among us, and the Light of the World still shines.

Our cribs remind us also that this child is not born into privilege and worldly power. His parents are far from home and will soon become refugees; this child newborn has no settled and secure place. He’s born on the edge of things, he takes his chance. It’s the same with our hearts. He waits for us to say yes, he stands at the door and knocks, but only we can open it to him. Outside the door to many a human soul, he waits for us to want his love to catch flame within us.

So Christmas cribs remind us that Jesus belongs here as well as there, and now as well as then. They remind us that he comes to a humble place, and waits on us there. And the other thing we need to remember is this is only the beginning of the story.  The humble crib shows us what sort of gift the world is given, but the gift itself requires the journey on, is revealed in the man this child becomes. Today's child who seeks a place in our hearts is tomorrow's man, longing to light the darkness and melt the coldness of our world with the warmth of his saving love.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

What happened to the news, then?

One of the best news programmes on the BBC is the 30 minutes of "News from a global perspective" that begins the BBC4 schedule each evening. Except this week. This is not a week that's been short of "news from a global perspective", it seems to me. And it is, let us not forget, a working week. All week, Monday to Friday. Christmas is next Sunday, as I'm sure Auntie is aware.

But the remorseless spread of Christmas continues. There will be no BBC4 News next week, not just on the two designated bank holidays, but all week. I can just about accept that, after all, most people will be off work all week; but why no news this week, which is supposedly at least a normal working week? Are the sort of people who watch BBC4 so wedded to being entertained by the likes of Ray Mears, Alice Roberts and Jago Cooper that they've no time for news this week?  Do they really need an hour-long repeat of "Indian Hill Railways" in place of their update on a world in which this week seems depressingly normal in terms of terrorism, war, tragedy and political ineptitude? Or is it perhaps that the news staff are so busy this week attending pre-Christmas sherry parties that they have no time to gather and dispense the news?

I am surprised and a little depressed that the BBC, with its mission to "inform, educate and entertain" (words carefully placed in that order by Lord Reith), should be so quick to drop the news from what is supposed to be its most informative channel, for the spurious reason that "it's nearly Christmas".

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Night on Which Reindeer Fly (a sermon for Christmas)

To be preached at the Midnight Service at Chirbury . . .

Welcome as we celebrate this most special night of the year: the one on which we suspend all disbelief and are happy to believe the impossible. Welcome to the night when reindeer fly about in the sky, despite everything we know about the laws of physics, or, for that matter the habits of reindeer; the night when one fat guy dressed in red manages to deliver presents to homes all over the world, something Amazon requires thousands of poorly paid staff to achieve. For that matter, welcome to the night in which angels fill the sky to sing glory to God. Maybe we find that just as hard to believe. But tonight we do believe it, for the sake of the children, and maybe also for the sake of the child within ourselves.

So welcome to the night on which we dream of a better world. A world in which soldiers emerge from their trenches to embrace as friends and play a game of football. A world in which we can be children again, and innocent again, and our childhood world is sweet and peaceful and lovely, with angels and shepherds and kings, and a newborn child in a manger.

And then all too quickly it's gone. And the year’s gone too. We're back there in the grey winter world of jammed motorways and late trains, of colds and flu, of scraping frost off the car every morning, of dreading the next heating bill, and dreading too perhaps all the dire and dreadful things that 2017 seems likely to promise. In the grown-up world.

So very soon we’ll be packing away the tinsel and the lights, and with them the fairy tales and the legends and the carols and the Christmas pop songs, and the reindeer and fat jolly Santa and his hard working elves. And the dreams. And Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, and those angels that sang in the skies? Do we pack them away too? What if we didn’t, what if we stayed with them instead? After all, as a big sign I saw outside a church in Hereford reminded me last week, 'Jesus is the reason for the season'.

Now in one sense that’s not true. From the builders of Stonehenge onwards, people have wanted to do something at the winter solstice, to lighten up this darkest time of the year. Some of our familiar Christmas traditions may well go back almost to those times: the burning of yule logs, the way we deck our halls with holly and ivy - and mistletoe. We need something to cheer up the winter gloom. And our distant ancestors needed to carry out the rites that make sure the sun began his journey back to summer strength.

And that’s why we celebrate at Christmas a child who probably wasn’t in fact a Christmas baby. The Church simply took over the old pagan midwinter festival. And why not? We don’t know when Jesus was really born, but it feels right to celebrate him at this darkest time of the year, for we celebrate the one hailed in John’s Gospel as the Light of the World.

I can imagine the shepherds rubbing their eyes as the sky grew dark again after that vision of angels, and saying “Did we just see what we thought we saw, did we just hear what we thought we heard?”, as they looked down on the little town of Bethlehem. “Let’s go and see,” they said, and they could do that, but we can't. What can we do, then? How do we keep this child's birth as something real and true; as something more than the mix of stories and legends and fairy tales that are told and traded at Christmas?

We do so by looking beyond the birth itself. It’s a lovely story, but on its own it doesn’t mean much. It’s just a birth, just one more baby born into a cruel world. What makes this birth special is who this child is and what he is born among us to do. Of the four Gospel writers, only Matthew and Luke mention his birth in detail. But John speaks of the Word of God by whom all things were made being born among us. Divine love is made flesh, divine glory comes to dwell here on earth. So a manger in a humble stable contains the Word of God.

The simplicity and purity of the traditional Christmas story continues to catch our hearts, I think, for all the hype and commercial bustle of the modern version of the old midwinter festival. The child born in a stable refuses to be crowded out of the picture. If only it could always be like this, some part of us says, even when for the most part we’re all grown up and cynical and world-weary. But we know it can’t be. We have to grow up. And of course, this child does too.

I came across a little story about a man who was altogether cynical about religion. The story of Jesus being born among us had no meaning for him, he couldn’t see the point of it. Till one day a small bird got into the room where he was working. It fluttered about in increasing panic, risking all kinds of damage to itself as it crashed into furniture. He tried to shoo it out, opened windows, but nothing worked. Everything he did just seemed to work the bird up into a greater sense of panic. “If only I could be a bird,” he found himself thinking, “then I could lead it to safety.” And as he thought that, suddenly the penny dropped, and he understood.

The child of Bethlehem is born to lead us to safety, born to be our Saviour. Here is our God refusing to leave us as we are. At Bethlehem he takes the decisive, risky step only he can make; for he loves us even as we are, broken and sinful and imperfect, and he loves us too much to leave us like that. But it’s not the birth of a child but the man he becomes who will bring us salvation, and he will do it by the example of his life, by the challenge of his teaching; and by his death.

And here for me is what Christmas is or isn’t about. It can be just one night of magic, one anomalous day on which reindeer fly and stories have sweet happy endings, and the world is showered with stardust; it can be one day that’s a break from the grind and tedium and the general pointlessness of being human, before we launch ourselves into the January sales.

Or it can be the day that begins the story of salvation. The day that shows us how things are meant to be; a day that assures me that the Word of God is with us and will not abandon us, and that light really is stronger than darkness, that love really is stronger than hatred and sin, and that life really is stronger than death. Bethlehem may or may not have been silent and peaceful on holy night, probably in reality it was scruffy and noisy. However those shepherds found the place, what they saw was the Word of God incarnate among us.

A dog is not only for Christmas, we’re reminded by the sign in the back of many a car. Well, neither is faith only for Christmas. If you believe in the Baby, believe also in the man he grows up to be, and be prepared to follow him all the way to the cross on which he proves his love for you, for me, and even for those who ignore him or hate him.

Tonight he asks us not only to pause for a moment to see where he lies in a manger, but to invite him to take his place in our hearts and in our lives. He asks us to join ourselves to his love, to join him to be lights in the darkness of a world that is more than ever in need of light, and in need of love, and in need of peace. Peace may just be a one-day pious dream at Christmas, but it could be more than that: but only if we’re prepared to work for it and build it on foundations of care and concern, justice and love; and where better to start than by following the one born to be the Prince of peace?

Friday, 16 December 2016

Yes to God - a sermon for this Sunday

To be preached at Chirbury and Coedway . . .

Here we are on the last Sunday before Christmas, one week to go. I feel as though I’ve spent most of the month already singing carols, probably because I have been. That began with an Advent carol service three weeks ago at the Marsh Chapel, with the benefice choir singing; and plenty of opportunities since then for carol singing. One of the carols we sang at the Marsh was explicitly a carol for Mary, who is our theme on this last Sunday of Advent: “The Angel Gabriel from heaven came.” The words are I think by the Cornish parish priest Sabine Baring-Gould, and I find them most evocative. “The world will laud and magnify thy holy name, O highly favoured Lady, gloria!”

There was a time when Christmas carols were not sung until the day itself. Services of Nine Lessons and Carols were held on the Sunday after Christmas, and full churches were guaranteed. Now we say we simply won’t get folk in unless we do it before Christmas, and we’re probably right when we say that. But I was still quite surprised to find the Radio 4 broadcast service for last Sunday, the third in Advent, taking very much a Christmas theme, including singing the carol “Silent Night”.

I recall some years ago the Bishop of Leeds (then, I think, Bishop of Croydon), Nick Baines speaking about the reservations he has about 'Silent Night,' and other Christmas carols. After all, how silent would that night really have been? Israel and the lands around were almost as troubled then as they are now; even without the place being full for the census, there’d have been very few silent nights. Many of our carols and crib scenes paint far too peaceful and lovely a picture - or so he reckoned: Bethlehem that night would have been packed to the rafters, and its streets would have jangled with bad-tempered visitors, who'd been forced to be there. We should beware an over-sentimental view of Christmas.

I’ve had more than the usual number of religious Christmas cards this year, which is nice, but I do always think the stable looks far too neat and tinselly, and Mary seems far more serene and untroubled than I think she’d have really been. How clean and neat would a stable have been, attached as it was to an inn frequented by travellers who needed somewhere to bed down their animals? The picture I have is of two tired and rather frightened young people having to come to terms with parenthood in the most trying of circumstances.

Last Monday I was in the charming little church of St Catherine’s, Blackwell in Worcestershire, listening to the very smallest children in Blackwell School, among them my grandson, singing 'Away in a Manger.’ That includes the line 'Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes', and that one doesn’t quite ring true either. I imagine the  infant Jesus as just as likely to cry as any other baby. And yet I know what the writers of carols and the painters of crib scenes wanted to get across: that this is a special place, a special time, a special purpose. A special baby. For me, seeing the scruffiness and scariness of it all enhances that sense of special, rather than taking it away.  But I have to agree with everyone who's ever sung a carol and meant it that what we have here in Bethlehem is 'a great and mighty wonder'.  And it’s that sense of wonder that I find most important.

I’m having an email correspondence with a friend just now about the definition of Christian. I post my sermons on the web, and sometimes people comment, maybe seize on and argue some point I’ve made. My friend is a slightly more conservative Christian than me, and he feels there should be precise boundaries, clear instructions about what you say yes to, or no to, if you’re a Christian. Me, I’ll always have some reservations about those who seem to me to want too many i's dotted and t's crossed, whether they’re Christians or of any other faith. I like a bit of leeway and flexibility; without it I feel uncomfortable.

But he does have a point; of course there do have to be boundaries and definitions, or else anything goes. But religion is our human attempt to relate to the ultimate mystery and wonder of existence, of life and life's purpose, and of the creative power whom we call God; and surely at some point we have simply to stand in awe before what we cannot, on this side of the river, fully understand or define. At this season Christianity uniquely tells the story of the divine mystery and wonder coming to dwell among us, by means of a birth in a humble back street in an ordinary town. God whose love is the ground of our being takes flesh among us, freely accepting the dirty stable and the manger bed. The baby may or may not have cried, but if he did it wasn’t a cry of divine complaint, just the hunger cry of a helpless child. A great and mighty wonder: love not forcing its way into our world, but taking its chance.

But that's for next Sunday. This Sunday, the last of Advent, our focus is the beginning of that story. Mary, the young and innocent maiden who despite her fears, offers herself as the handmaid of the Lord. And we see that God incarnate among us is vulnerable in his coming not only to the crowded alleyways and backstreet stable of Bethlehem; he is also vulnerable to Mary's free will, for she could have said no.

The 'Yes' she did say makes her not only the God-bearer, to use an expression from the Orthodox Church - the means by which God is made incarnate among us - but also the blessed first among saints. We find in Mary’s offering an example of faithfulness, trust, response to God's call that should inspire and challenge us. God will never force his way into any human heart: in Nazareth, and in Bethlehem, and again wherever we are, he takes what chance we give him. But I think the test of whether I am his depends not on the things I believe, nor on the boundaries I remain within, but on the relationship I accept: my love responding to his love, my self responding to his call.

I'm glad to see that carols remain popular. Our grandchildren’s nativity play in Blackwell had mostly modern songs, but it was nice that “Away in a Manger” was still in. In Radio Times a couple of weeks ago Aled Jones was quoted as saying carols remained his favourite songs. That’s good, not least because traditional carols are songs of the people, designed to be sung not in cathedrals but out on the streets; and not by clerics and holy choirs but by wassailers around the houses, or, across the border, by parties at the plygain locked in church with maybe a barrel of good ale. Carols are subversive. Carollers sang about real things to do with their own lives as well as of silent nights in Bethlehem. Ultimately, the Gospel faith depends not on theologians, bishops, holy buildings and sacred liturgies but on ordinary people like Mary, who faced with the challenge of love, faced with God’s call to service, said “yes”.

In our celebration of this holy season, I hope we won't overlook either the scruffiness or the mystery of the first Christmas. This is a story with a real location, involving real and ordinary and often rather frightened and confused people. But people who, despite their fear, and despite not knowing all the story, or even probably very much of the story, still said 'Yes' to God. And where I agree, I’m sure, with my friend who debates these things with me, is that religious reductionism - religion-lite, if you like, religion hived off into a safe place on the edge of things, is no answer to the darkness of our modern world. To be a Christian is to encounter the Lord whose call to each one of us is personal and particular and real. And the Lord is here, his Spirit is with us, wherever the prayer is made, soul to soul, heart to heart: Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay.

Monday, 12 December 2016


My Nature Notes article for this month . . .

The rook is one of our commonest birds, and rooks are about all the year round, but they do seem rather more obvious at this time of the year. Partly that’s because our resident rooks are joined by visitors from the continent during the winter months, especially in colder years, but it’s also rooks gather in their nesting colonies long before most other birds are nesting. With the trees still bare, it makes counting our breeding rooks much easier than it can be for other birds: the bulky nests are very obvious high in the branches of tall trees.

Rooks are members of the crow family, and are distinguished from the similar-sized carrion crow by the bare grey face patch around the bill, and by the thigh feathers which look rather like scruffy trousers, as well as by their sociable habits. Rooks can form very large feeding flocks indeed at this time of the year, feeding on buried insects and insect larvae, with wireworms and leatherjackets among their favourites. These are found in greatest numbers in permanent pasture, and changes in farming practice have led to a reduction in the rook population in recent years, though it remains a common enough bird.

Rooks do cause some damage to crops, but to a degree that is balanced by their liking for insect pests. Rooks will often follow ploughs, walking behind to pick up exposed insects with a somewhat strutting gait. Rookeries are often close to human habitation, and can be noisy places as the colony gears up for another breeding season.

The nest is a bulky arrangement of sticks, many of which are apt to be stolen by neighbouring birds as the nest is being built. The male collects the materials and the female does the building, lining the cup with softer material including moss and wool. Sudden noisy and often argumentative flight displays are a feature of the nest building stage. Rooks lay up to five eggs, and the young birds are harder to distinguish from carrion crows than their parents, as they don’t at first have the bare patch around the bill; they do, however, have the scruffy trousers!

Rooks are found in every part of the UK, apart from some of the wilder parts of the far north of Scotland. I don’t see them in my garden (unlike carrion crows), but they’re never very far away, and fly over often enough to be a regular “score” on my garden bird list. Most of the rookeries I know around here are of small to moderate size, with between a dozen and say, fifty or sixty nests. Many are very old, with rooks present in a particular place for as long as any of the human residents can remember. And some colonies can develop to a remarkable size, with many thousands of nests counted in some long-established rookeries.

Rooks are among the birds shot as pests from time to time - and eaten: rook pie is a long-established country dish, usually made using young birds shot in May or June. I prefer the living bird, which for me is one of the sights and sounds which makes the countryside of Britain special.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Being Prophetic - a short sermon to be preached at Sarnau URC

What a strange man this John the Baptist was. The Bible tells of the voice that would cry in the wilderness, and people decided that John the Baptist was that man. He certainly lived out in the wilderness, in the desert, dressed in clothes made out of wild animal skins, and eating locusts, of all things, and wild honey.

That’s the sort of thing a prophet might do. Prophets tended to do strange things, that marked them out as different and unusual and special. People said that John the Baptist was a new prophet, like the prophets of the olden times. They called him the last of the prophets, for he had come to prepare the way for the Messiah.

What exactly is a prophet? Is it someone who predicts the future? Is a prophet the same thing as a fortune teller? Do prophets read tealeaves, or gaze into crystal balls, or study the stars? John the Baptist did none of those things. What he did do was to speak God’s word, and it was a word of warning and of instruction and challenge. Like the great prophets of the Old Testament, people like Jeremiah and Isaiah, he had a clear vision of what God was calling his people to do and to be. Like those great prophets old, John said: ‘It’s time to change. If you go on behaving like that, you will come under the judgement of God.’

What John told the people was that a lip-service religion wasn’t enough. God had to be at the heart of all they did. So he called on them to re-dedicate yourselves in God’s service by being baptized. And then to live life in a new way, with God right at the heart of everything they did. You have to do this right now, John told them, because something new is about to begin.

That’s what prophets do; they challenge us to listen, to learn, to repent and to change. These are people who know they have to speak God’s word, even though they might suffer themselves for doing so, even though they might not be heard gladly, even though they might be rejected. They knew God wanted his people to wake up, to come to their senses, to let his word change their hearts, and begin to change their world.

So do we still need prophets today? Do we need the Church to be prophetic? And if so, what does it mean for us? All sorts of people still try to predict the future - in think tanks and via focus groups, by analysing the signs, the stock market trends, the opinion polls. I do sometimes wonder whether any of this is much more use than reading tea leaves - and yet there are signs we should not turn away from, directions in human behaviour, in the way we treat each other, in the way we use or abuse the earth’s resources, in the way we welcome or reject our neighbour in need. There are those in our own faith and in other faiths who are prepared to twist things round and to misread their holy books so they serves our own selfish desires or fuel our fears. There are people who claim to be godly, but who in reality are no longer living as his people.

We believe in the God who creates and loves what he has made. We believe in the God of righteousness and justice. And we believe in the God who is like Jesus. To believe these things has consequences for the way we live our daily lives, particularly as in just two weeks time we celebrate what we believe to be a moment at which the whole course of history is changed: the birth among us of the Son of God, the one hailed by angels as the prince of peace.

A prophetic Church is one that will not reserve this baby for the happy safe tinsel setting of our greetings cards along with Santa’s sleigh and some chirpy robins, but speak seriously about what this child is born to do, what will happen to the man this child grows up to be. The Bethlehem crib is not in itself the story of Jesus; how can it be? Little babies, even this little baby, are just cute and lovely and a delight.

But some of the features of the story of this birth might encourage us to be prophetic, to be aware of what this child might be born to do. To begin with, he's not born in Jerusalem but in scruffy little Bethlehem next door. His parents are poor and far from home, home itself being distinctly unfashionable Nazareth up north in Galilee, not the sort of place a Messiah should come from. And once they've travelled to Bethlehem there's no safe place there for the child to be born, only a manger out in the stables to lay him down in. It's shepherds, men with no place in polite religious society, who are the first people to hear about him and come to see him. And before long the child and his parents will be refugees, driven to seek refuge in a foreign land. So who in our world today is this child identified with right from the start, we might ask? What is his real story, and where in our world might he want us to tell that story today?

Like John the Baptist, we know why this child was born, why he was born where he was, why he was born as he was. We know that this birth begins a story that involves rejection and plots and a show trial and eventually a death, a particularly tragic death. The Gospel of Jesus could be read as the account of an heroic failure, but really it's a love story, and it's a story to challenge us into love. The world needs to hear the whole truth from God’s prophetic Church, the full story and not just the tinselly bits of it. Things are too far gone in our confused world for us only to be saying nice things. Love is too important a thing for us to be overly worried about whether or not people will like us and approve of us as we speak out. Speak out and speak the truth, that's the challenge before us as we prepare for Christmas this and every year; it's not just one day on which to be nice and peaceful, but the never-ending story of our just and righteous and loving Lord, light born into the darkness of human suffering and pain. So dare to be prophets where prophets are needed. Strive for a better world; speak and live the word of God, be people of Jesus.

Christmas Present (a family service sermon for tomorrow)

Long, long ago, when I was a very small boy, I remember just how much I wanted one special present at Christmas. It was a farm set, it came with buildings and fences and model cows and sheep and horses, and a tractor and trailer. Every time we went past the toyshop window in town I would look at this farm set and tell Mum and Dad that I really hoped Santa Claus would bring me one of those. “You’ll have to wait and see,” my Mum and Dad told me, “and of course you’ll have to be very well behaved, because Santa doesn’t bring presents to little boys who are not well behaved.”

So I was very well behaved right through till Christmas Eve, hoping that Santa would bring me a farm set. I remember that I woke up very early on Christmas morning. It won’t have been light by then, it will only have been about 5 o’clock. Now my Dad was an organist and he had to play at the midnight service, so there was a firm rule that while we could get very quietly out of bed and look at what Santa had placed in our stockings, we were not allowed to go downstairs until after 7 o’clock to see what was under the Christmas tree by the fireplace in the lounge.

I sneaked out of bed and looked in my stocking. Santa had obviously been, and he’d left the usual stuff - there would have been a sugar mouse, a small orange, maybe something like a yo-yo, maybe a sensible present like some handkerchiefs. But they didn’t much interest me. What I wanted to know was, had he brought me the farm set.

So I did quite a naughty thing. I opened my bedroom door ever so quietly, and ever so quietly tiptoed along the landing and down the stairs. The tree looked lovely, all tinsel and different hangings, some shiny ones, some chocolate ones. In those days our Christmas tree didn’t get decorated until after we’d gone to bed on Christmas Eve.

In the fireplace was an empty plate that had held a mince pie for Santa, and an empty glass that had been filled with sherry. We’d left a carrot for the reindeer and that was gone too. And the tree itself was surrounded by presents, all nicely wrapped in Christmas paper. One looked quite promising; a big box that certainly looked large enough to have a farm set inside it. It had my name on it. Could it be? I had to check! So I peeled back just a little bit of the wrapping paper, and yes! I could see on the corner of the box the word “Farm”. Santa had brought me a farm set, just as I’d wanted.

Well, I carefully put the wrapping paper back, and back upstairs I went, and pretended to be asleep until 7 o’clock. And then as soon as it was 7 o’clock, I woke up my Mum and Dad, wished them a happy Christmas, and raced back downstairs. The Christmas tree still looked wonderful, and there were still lots of presents all piled around it, but one was missing. No box big enough to have a farm set inside it. No box that I knew had got a farm set inside it. Instead there was a message: “Because William sneaked downstairs long before he was supposed to, and peeked inside the wrapper to see what he had for Christmas, I’ve had to take it back. After all, I only bring presents for well-behaved boys - signed, Santa Claus.”

I was devastated. Or at least, I was for a moment or two, before I realised that Santa’s handwriting looked an awful lot like my brother’s. Yes, I hadn’t tiptoed quite quietly enough; he’d noticed me sneaking downstairs and decided to play a trick on me. Oh, how we laughed. And the present reappeared. That was the last Christmas we had my brother, by the way. We got rid of him in the next January sales. No, really I was making up that last bit. But it did take me a while to forgive him for his trick, even though I know we’re supposed to forgive people, brothers especially.

Maybe I’m getting a bit too old now to be waiting and longing for some particular Christmas present. These days I’m more likely to say “Surprise me!” when I’m asked what I’d like for Christmas. That probably means I get socks or gloves, rather than the wildlife holiday in Costa Rica that’s what I’d really like if money was no object and everything else worked out. But I hope we are all looking forward to Christmas itself with eager anticipation. That’s what Christians are supposed to do in Advent: to wait in eager anticipation for the gift, the special gift that comes to us and all the world at Christmas: the birth of a child who will be hailed as the Prince of Peace, the proof of God’s love for us, the coming of Jesus.

Our behaviour is important, if we dare to call ourselves Christians, if we think of ourselves as God’s people; and so Advent is a time of preparing, of sorting things out and getting things right. So that we can play our part in proclaiming this act of love; so that we can do well at letting the love of Jesus shine in our own lives, and from us into the dark places around us. But, whether we who wait for him are good or not so good, whether we’re eager or apathetic, the special child is born anyway: born despite our sin, born despite the world’s darkness, born not as a reward for our goodness but as God’s free gift to us for our salvation, born to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

This is the greatest of all Christmas presents; God gives himself to save us, gives himself because he loves us, dares to enter his own creation, quietly, humbly, lovingly, just as one of us. It’s all right to take a sneak peek at this beforehand; this gift is promised beforehand by the prophets. God wants us to confident of his love, he wants us to be looking forward in hope to what he will give. And the present we are given in Bethlehem, the child who is love incarnate born among us, is one that will never be taken away from us.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Good News is No News? (Sermon for Advent 2)

A sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Leighton :-

Good news is no news, or so they say in the newspaper trade. The more bad news and scandal you can pack in, the better your paper sells, or so it seems. Faced with so much bad news, we may think the whole world’s going down the drain. Maybe it is, though every generation seems to have thought the same; we’re not short of things to worry about: politics, climate, refugees, Brexit, you name it, there’s plenty to get us down. The weather’s no help at this time of the year: short days, long nights and icy roads. I can be quite depressed even before I even open my paper.

There’s nothing new in bad news. Woe, woe and thrice woe, remember the soothsayer in Frankie Howerd’s “Up Pompeii”? Real soothsayers may not have used those words to predict doom, but they’ve always been around, since long before there was ever a Daily Express.

There’s plenty of dire prediction from the prophets of the Old Testament. They were called to expose the misdeeds of the people, the leaders especially, and they didn’t pull any punches. But they were speaking the word of God, and while that was indeed a word of judgement and retribution, the prophets also spoke of restoration and redemption, of new beginnings and an age of peace.

So in our Old Testament reading this morning, Isaiah speaks of the new thing God will do, and the new leader he’ll send. The context is still one of warning and judgement. Isaiah has had plenty to say about God being full of righteous anger at his people’s misdeeds. Unless they mend their ways, he tells them, things will go badly. And yet they remain his people, he continues to love them, even though they’ve been disobedient and let him down. The nation will be destroyed and its people carried off into foreign lands, but a remnant will be saved. The people will suffer in exile, but one day they’ll return to their own land. The yoke will be broken from their neck, and they will come back home.

And so we come to the words we’ve heard this morning, the promise of a new beginning, and a new leader who will wear the belt of justice, and be girdled with truth. We read in these words a prophecy of God’s messiah, or Christ, the holy one he will send to change things for ever. That’s what Isaiah tells us; his words are apocalyptic, they are new age: he speaks of a different sort of world, in which the lion eats straw like a cow, in which a child can dance over the viper’s nest without fear of being bitten.

So where is this new world? We’re not there yet, if the newspapers are anything to go by. There’s still plenty of bad news to fill their pages. But God’s not abandoned his people. We heard also this morning part of Matthew’s version of the story of John the Baptist, the man sometimes called the last prophet. People believed John to be the forerunner promised by Isaiah, the one who would prepare the way for God’s new work of salvation. Remember that although  by this time the Jews were back in their own land and able to worship in their own temple, their land was now part of the empire of Rome; so that the people longed for deliverance, and for the restoration of the house of David.

So they flocked to hear John, but he had tough words for them - for they had to begin again. To put away all the bad stuff, and to be baptized as a sign of the new start they were making. Jews didn’t need to be baptized, they were born into their faith. Baptism was what someone who wasn’t a Jew would need to do as part of the process of becoming a Jew. So John was saying, “You’ve behaved as though you weren’t God’s people, so you’ve got to start again. And people got the message and were baptized in great numbers. But among them appeared some of the great and good of the people, the Pharisees and Saducees, two of the religious parties that dominated Jewish life. People looked up to these guys as godly and pious, but John didn’t. “What are you here for?” he demanded of them. Don’t imagine that your Jewish birth is all you need to be God’s people; prove by your deeds that you truly belong to him.

John also said, “I baptize with water; but the one God will send is going to baptize with fire.” Is that the fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? Or is it perhaps the refiner’s fire that purifies a precious metal by exposing and burning away all that is bad. A fire then of judgement. Judgement’s a constant Advent theme, from the Old Testament prophets to the warning words of John the Baptist, and of course of Jesus himself. We are warned that the time is short, and we need to get things right. That’s what the prophets of old said to the kings and priests and people; and that’s also God’s word for us at Advent, as we prepare ourselves in these short weeks to welcome our King: to sort out the stuff that gets in the way of God, that obscures our vision and drowns out his word.

We may be surrounded by a world of bad news, but we shouldn’t let it swamp us. There’s more good than bad in the world around us, there’s more good than bad in the people I meet. It just doesn’t make the news. Churches are rarely full, and for the most part never so on a Sunday, yet we are mostly surrounded by friends; and most people, whatever they may think about God, continue to believe in their own spiritual selves, and they’re not as far from God as they, and we, might believe. Jesus told his disciples that the fields were white for harvest; they still are.

And the message of the prophets is there is judgement but there is also salvation. God’s angered by our misdeeds and idleness, but he also loves all that he has made, even you and me. The world’s Christmas may be more about the John Lewis TV ad or the Christmas no. 1 than, say, midnight mass or carols from Kings; but the Child born in Bethlehem still makes his quiet entrance, in acts of care and self giving, even in the refugee camps, the desolation of inner cities or the ruins of Aleppo. The branch from the stock of Jesse, who with justice comes to save the poor. Our task is to share him and preach of him, not only in words and carols, but with whatever small deeds of love we can manage, each one a candle in the darkness to turn back the winter of sin.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Advent - a sermon for this Sunday

Today is the beginning of Advent, the first of the four Sundays of preparation before Christmas. By tradition it’s also the start of the new church year. Here in the northern hemisphere it’s also the darkest time of the year, so the annual countdown to Christmas is a time when we’re bound to find ourselves engaging with the great themes of light and darkness.

These are themes tackled by many an artist, many a composer. Not least among them is Haydn, whose great oratorio ‘Creation’ opens so dramatically with his setting of God’s first great sentence of command in creation: ‘Let there be light!’ Let there be light, says the Lord, on the first day of creation, Genesis chapter 1 - let there be light, and there was light. And God called the light day, and the darkness he called night.

In Genesis chapter 1 light is of the very essence of creation, it needs to be there before anything else can happen. The darkness before light is announced is uncreated disorder: in the new world that is made darkness will have its part, but it will be contained within clear limits, not to break clear of the bounds that have been set for it.

And a message repeated over and over in Scripture is that God’s people are to be children of light, children of the day, and to have no truck with deeds of darkness. But at this time of the year the light begins to seem weak and feeble, and the darkness around us gets really big and strong.

Light and darkness are great themes in the Gospel story as told by the apostle John, right from its very first verses. And the awfulness of darkness is made plain in his story of the eve of the crucifixion, a darkness Jesus must enter alone. As the Last Supper draws to its close, Judas gets up and slips furtively from the room. And as he leaves, John tells us in three words that ‘it was night’. And we know that the forces of chaos are mounting.

The cross is a place of new creation; by the cross we are newly created as God’s people, set free to serve him in a new way. There was darkness at noon, we’re told, on that first Good Friday; there was a deep and deadly darkness as Judas slipped from the room, and later in the Garden of Gethsemane as the guard arrived at dead of night to arrest him. This new creation will happen in the face of the terrifying reality of rampant, uncreated darkness.

We don’t cope well with the dark. And long before Christianity reached these islands our forebears had a deep and primaeval fear of darkness. They’d have been ready to believe the sun itself to be dying as the days grew shorter and colder. In pagan Rome the midwinter festival that early Christians took over to celebrate the birth of Jesus had been the feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, held just as the days began to lengthen again. In even earlier times maybe human sacrifices would have been made to appease the gods who were snatching away the light.

Now we’ve grown up, we understand the science, and those days are far behind us. But deep down we still hate the shortening days; our minds and bodies react to daylength in ways we can’t fully control. Darkness remains a persuasive metaphor for all that’s wrong and bad - all the stuff that hurts in our world. There’s bad news on the telly all the year round somewhere, but I know that I get more depressed by it when days are short and the nights are long.

We may not like to hear it, but bad news is my concern and yours, because as Christians we’re on the side of light. We’re to be light to the world, and what light does is contend with the darkness and overcome it. But unlike our Lord in whom there is no darkness, we have darkness and light mixed up inside ourselves. We strive to do good and be filled with light, but we’ve got our dark side, there are dark bits within the best of us. We need to face up to that: which is one reason why we don’t celebrate Easter without passing through Lent, or Christmas without these weeks of Advent.

For these weeks are given as a time for reflection and preparation - and in Advent especially to consider the reality of judgement. We know from Scripture we must account for our deeds. Speaking as someone who’s never good at getting ready for Christmas - shopping, card-writing, planning - I know how much I need Advent: not just to get all that stuff done, but more importantly to prepare myself spiritually, to welcome the child Jesus born in Bethlehem, and to be ready for his second coming in judgement.

Now while light is a good thing and something to celebrate, light can also be uncomfortable. It can be the light of judgement, light to expose the stuff we’d rather keep hidden. It can be the light that shines in the face of the one being interrogated, or the searchlight to pick us out as we try to sneak under the fence.

Christians differ in our understanding of the second coming of Jesus. For some it’s an event in future history, perhaps just around the corner; for others it’s a metaphor for what happens to each Christian individually at life’s close. But either way, it’s about being judged, which is something the Bible has a lot to say about. Jesus had a lot to say about being judged. We don’t like to be found out, but the Bible is clear on this: we shall be found out, that’s a promise, for we can hide nothing from God.

So the question I take into Advent is this: “How does what I give to Jesus compare with what I know he’s given me?” I need to be honest about my answer. As I prepare to celebrate the birth of the holy child at Bethlehem, I must also consider how I match up to the man that child became and his call to me to follow; how I match up to the cross on which he died, whose image I am called to bear. I’m called to be a child of the light; dare I live in light and rejoice in light and make light my home? Can I lose my fear of light exposing me, the real me being revealed? Advent is given to me and you as a time to set aside the works of darkness and to be clothed with light: may Christ our morning star dawn bright within us.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Christ the King - a sermon for this Sunday

In my old Sunday school Bible I’ve a lovely image of Jesus as a gentle Shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. I like it; it works for me: Jesus the Good Shepherd. I like to think of Jesus as my Shepherd, my Brother, my Friend, someone who’ll stay with me on life’s rocky roads. A couple of weeks back I was asked to take a funeral service and the family asked me to read ‘Footprints’: you remember the story I’m sure: the two sets of footprints along the beach, mine and Jesus walking with me - but at the tough times only one set, but not because he’d abandoned me - the prints were his, he was carrying me. Like the shepherd carrying his lost sheep back to rejoin the flock. I like to think of Jesus being there to lift me and carry me when things get tough.

But that’s not the image of Jesus I want to focus on this morning. For Anglicans like me who are hooked on church years and seasons,  today’s the last Sunday before Advent, which begins next week, and it’s kept as ‘Christ the King’ Sunday. So today’s image is Jesus the King. I wonder: if we were to take a vote on the most popular image of Jesus, or title for him, how high would ‘King’ be in the charts? Maybe not quite as high as Shepherd or Companion or Friend.

But King as a title for Jesus has good Biblical provenance; it’s there at the heart of the Gospels. I’m about to sing the part of Artaban, the Fourth Wise Man, in a choir piece for Christmas called ‘The Fourth Wise Man’, based on a story written by an American called Henry Van Dyke. Artaban, left behind when the other three wise men set out to find the new king whose birth was signalled in the stars, spends his whole life searching for the king. How and where he finds him, or is found by him, we’ll come back to later. Artaban may not be Biblical, but the other wise men are: Matthew’s Gospel begins with the birth of a king. Later it would be as a King that Jesus was dragged before Pilate, as a King that he was sent to death, with a crown of thorns placed on his head as soldiers knelt to offer mock obeisance. This man says he is King of the Jews, that’s what Pilate was told; and Jesus never denied the charge.

What does the word king mean to you? Someone at the top of their game, someone with authority, someone who can’t be beaten. Maybe Elvis as the King of Rock and Roll. Or those born into royalty, like William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Louis XIV of France, or Ivan the Terrible, or Peter the Great, Czars of Russia. These are people with immense power that they were ready to wield. These are people who could command and expect to be obeyed. People who could demand of others that they should die for the state or indeed for the throne. People who could throw their weight around big time. Of course, that includes the kings in our Bibles, like David or Solomon.

Pontius Pilate represented a kingdom of this sort, an empire, even, and an emperor who was almost godlike in his power. So when Jesus was presented to him as someone claiming to be a king, Pilate had to take it seriously. But Jesus told him: “My kingdom is not of this world.” The images of kingship the world provides us with don’t help us understand the kingship of Jesus.

Or indeed, the kingdom he came to proclaim. But here’s a poem I came across the other day, which might help:
     It is easy to trace a kingdom
     marked by a flag, a border, held by force of arms.
     It is easy to tell who has the power
in the kingdoms of this world.
     It is not so easy to see this kingdom,
     for here there are no borders,
no flags, no force of arms, no powers.
     There is only the realm of God, the truth of God, the word,
bounded by you and me, by us, and by the Lord.

So this is a kingdom different from the kingdoms of the world, defined not by pomp but by humility, not by acreage of land but by service and care. But within this kingdom the king himself still commands and seeks our obedience.

And maybe that’s a problem for us. If we think of Jesus as a king we have to admit that Kings give commands, and their subjects are supposed to obey those commands, to be loyal and true, and ready to serve without question. In ancient feudal societies the subjects of a king really belonged to him, just as the image of the king on a coin meant that that coin belonged to him, even if it happened to be in your pocket. That’s not such an easy or welcome image in this day and age. It might be asking too much of us. Humbler images of Jesus are nicer, so we don’t have to think too hard about his authority over us, so we don’t have to face that big question: Am I prepared to let someone other than myself be Lord of my life? Am I prepared to let this man be?

Jesus the Good Shepherd, or the Brother, Friend, Teacher, Healer, Companion, Saviour: these are all good and valid images of Jesus, and all of them convey some measure of his love and grace and gentleness. And yet perhaps are they all a bit too user-friendly and unchallenging? - an image of Jesus as our best friend, but not quite Jesus the unique and only Son of God. Celebrating Christ the King today is maybe quite important: we need to make sure we have in the Jesus mix (if you like) the authority of the King, the authority of the Holy One sent by God to rule his people.

Jesus is not an in your face King; he restores rather than limits our freedom. But he has authority. He told his disciples that if they loved him, they would listen to his voice and keep his commandments. As we live out our Christian faith, love is there centre stage, but obedience, the disciplined keeping of our Lord’s commands, is also vital to how we need to be. Jesus the King has real power and authority, he is more than worthy of our respect and obedience and service. But his is never the cruel and demanding power of a despot or tyrant - it’s the power of compelling love, love that draws us to find at the cross his throne, and there transforms us to bear fruits of sacrificial love in our lives, as we see his sacrifice, and his law is written on our hearts.

In the fanciful tale of the Fourth Wise Man, Artaban’s journey takes him to the cross, but he’s too late to use the last of his precious jewels to redeem Jesus and save him from his faith. All the other jewels he bought to present to the new king have been given to help or save or redeem people in need. As his own life ebbs away in what seems to him like abject failure, he is suddenly aware of Jesus speaking to him, and assuring him that in each person in need Artaban had met with his Lord, and in each act of kindness he had served the king. Echoes, of course, of the parable in Matthew’s Gospel of the sheep and the goats.

Faithful obedience can be tough; in the story, it was for Artaban. As it was in the true stories of those we remember as saints or heroes of the faith within Christian history. But they too met Jesus in the faces of the poor, the sick, the needy, those other folk rejected. If we love someone, and are dedicated to them, there’ll be times when we find ourselves doing things we don’t want and wouldn’t choose to do. When we make wedding vows in church we promise a commitment that is ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.’ We offer love to another person - in effect we give ourselves to them - but we also express our trust that they will do the same in return.

Kings on earth may be tyrants: demanding loyalty but giving nothing in return, except the threat of punishment. Jesus is not that kind of king. We serve him because his love meets our love - no, more than that, we serve him because his love precedes our love. He died for us while we still rejected him; and when we do turn to him and strive to live according to his will he meets our every effort with a fresh outpouring of grace. And it’s then that, as Jesus says over and over again in the gospels, the Kingdom of God is not far from us. So blessed be the name of Jesus, Shepherd, Friend, Brother, faithful Lord and Saviour, and great and wondrous King, now and for evermore. Amen.

Friday, 11 November 2016

All Shall Be Well - a sermon on the Gospel for this Sunday, Luke 21.5-19

(St Julian's, Norwich)

Many centuries ago a lady called Mother Julian of Norwich wrote of the vision God had given her - that 'all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.' I was reflecting on those words while out walking one day last week. It was a crisp autumn day, with a cold start to it, but in the open woodland I was walking through many of the leaves remained on the trees in a variety of autumn colours. And Mother Julian’s words just seemed to be right for the way I felt - words of quiet confidence and trust: "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

The world may not feel quite like that just now. This has been a strange year, and many of us feel much less certain now about the path ahead than we did at the start of the year. But Mother Julian knew darkness and uncertainty too; and yet she wrote those words (and much more besides about the goodness and constant love of her Lord). She was an anchoress or female hermit in medieval Norwich, and we don't know her real name for sure; perhaps she was Julian, which could be a female name then as well as a male one, but she could be called Mother Julian because St Julian's was the church in which she had her cell. At a time when she was dangerously ill and indeed near death she was given a series of visions of God's great tenderness and love, and she reflected on those visions for the rest of her life.

At this darkening time of the year, it can take us a while to adjust; I don’t much like the short days and dark nights, it can get me down, and most of us are not good with darkness. Of course, we can keep it at bay to a far greater degree than our forebears could, so much so that we could kid ourselves that we've got it all tamed and under control. But deep inside we know that’s not true, and the same fear of the dark that our ancestors knew still lurks within us. And yet back in those darker medieval times, long before electric lights, Mother Julian was able to say with serene confidence: "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Well, they were easy words to play with as I walked through the woods on a sunny morning, but I hope they’ll stay with me as things get darker. Which they will, of course. Leaves fall; the wind turns to the north, the sun retreats behind clouds, but all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. That’s the message, too, of today’s Gospel reading.

A good message to have in mind on Remembrance Sunday. Many years ago, but at just about this time of the year, I was privileged to meet with Desmond Tutu, and to hear him preach; and here are some words he famously wrote: "This we believe: that good is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate; that light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death." Those words arose out of a faith that sustained him through the years of apartheid in South Africa. They could just be a mantra, comforting but lacking real meaning - but to me the events of that man's life's journey prove otherwise, and they connect to the promise given to Mother Julian. For why is it that all shall be well? Because good is stronger than evil; because light is stronger than darkness.

In our service candles are lit on the altar table. There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." As soon as one small candle is lit in an dark room it immediately starts to drive back the darkness. And  once one candle has been lit, others can be lit from it, and the flame is passed on. You could just sit out the darkness and save your matches, but that’s not our way. Jesus said, "Shine as lights to the world," and as his people we’re called not only to light candles for ourselves, but to light them for others too, to be ready to pass the flame on.

Every candle lit in church is a statement that light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death. At Remembrance the focus of our prayer should be not just to pause at the memorial of those who died, but to ensure that their light is passed on.

We give thanks today for those who stood firm at the darkest times in defence of freedom - not only their own freedom but that of the world. “Nation will rise against nation,” said Jesus. The first great war of the last century was supposed to be the one that ended all wars, but in the event the world had a mere twenty years or so of fitful peace. And since then, war and violence continues, as it has throughout human history, and maybe now in more confusing, testing and dangerous ways than ever before. And yet that promise remains true: “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” - as we continue to trust in God, and as we continue to choose to live lives dedicated to his love, and as the cross continues to be our sign.

The word 'crucial' is rather overused in the modern world. All sorts of things are crucial, we're told, only to find them really of temporary and passing importance. But the word crucial really means “of the cross.” The lights we light on our altar bring us back to that most decisive event in human history, a drama played out in the shadows, far from the centres of power, on a dark day for the world. A man was put to death, though he’d done no wrong.  He hung there and died, though he could have saved himself. He was laid in a tomb, but three days later that tomb was empty.

That’s what draws me and lifts my heart at dark and testing times. That’s what lies at the heart of what we’re doing here today. The cross should be a threat and a curse, speaking only of defeat and disaster, but it's been made a sign of triumph, and as we look at it and pray before it we can know that love is stronger than hate, and life is stronger than death. That light is stronger than darkness. The apostle John calls Jesus the light of the world;  our humble candles reflect that light, a light to drive back the darkness of sin and death, to restore our hope, and to help us make sense of it all.

Mother Julian was dedicated to the cross; she had herself come close to the cross, and she'd felt there the radiance of the love offered for all the world to see: the power and beauty of a love for her, and for all the world, with no limits to its reach.

Whatever else we may have or hold or own in life, love is more precious; and it's the opportunities to receive love, to offer love, to share in love that make human existence worthwhile; anyone who settles for anything less than love is missing out.  This is the good news proclaimed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and celebrated by Mother Julian and Desmond Tutu and many other fellow pilgrims: love isn't just for here and now, fleeting moments to grasp while we can; it is for ever, it's what makes sense of us; and it's God's eternal desire and design for us. Even as we stand and remember, even as we look at the news bulletins and wonder and worry, even as the leaves fall and the sky darkens, even at the times of betrayal and hatred, “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Shine, be a light for the Light of the World, do something about the darkness, love, be strong, and pass your light on.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Peace - a sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Well. After one of the more interesting weeks of recent human history, what does the world look like and feel like on this Remembrance Sunday? The American Presidential election is I think just one more example, if a particularly compelling one, of a process that is under way in our world, and gathering pace. I refer to the end of the liberal consensus in western politics.

For the whole of my lifetime, it’s been true that for the most part there has been a fair measure of agreement across the main political parties in this and nearly all western democracies, regarding what one might call with a small “l” a liberal world-view. Thus, to take one example, Mr Cameron’s government, though Conservative and of the right, legalised gay marriage, and was able to find majority support for this quite widely across the political spectrum, the media and to a degree society in general. I say “to a degree” because what I call the liberal consensus makes it quite difficult for anyone to speak openly against it; there is a general view that (quote) “this is how the world should be, this is progress, and though you may find it uncomfortable, you need simply to accept that this is what ought to happen.”

This liberal consensus is breaking down. Maybe the silent majority has found its voice; maybe the new dimension that is social media - Facebook, Twitter and all the rest - is beginning to make a decisive difference in politics. Mr Trump may become cuddly, inclusive and even sensible once in the White House - but the forces that put him there have been released from their dormancy. In the UK any vote taken in Parliament would overwhelmingly have been in favour of remaining in the European Union; the voting population, or enough of them to matter, begged to differ. And the drift is to the left as well as to the right: most Labour MP’s wanted Mr Corbyn gone - but not the members of his party.

Why all this political stuff, you may be asking - and what relevance has it to Remembrance Sunday? For me, just this: that extremist forces and movements are growing in our world, and I for one no longer feel as safe or as certain about the future as I once did. Those we honour and remember today fought to preserve our freedom, and they fought with the hope in their hearts of peace, and a new beginning, and a better world. Many of them died with those hopes unfulfilled - but, for the most part, for all the mistakes that have been made, our history since those two great wars of the last century has been one of progress, greater understanding, shared prosperity and freedom.

These things are precious. They don’t just happen; they cost lives, lives we remember today. Freedom: that includes the freedom to believe different things, to express contrasting opinions, to vote in different directions. When the iron curtain was dismantled at the end of the 1980’s, the whole continent of Europe was able to share - for the first time - the standards of freedom, free speech and democracy that was so much at risk in 1939, and continued to be suppressed in the east under the sway of Stalin and his successors.

What worries me now is the rise of movements and tides of opinion that are anti-democratic, that are extremist in the sense that they permit no debate; the “I am right, therefore you are wrong” mentality. The political philosophy that in Hitler’s Germany became, “I am right, and if you don’t agree with me then you will have to be dealt with.” The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, imprisoned by the government of Adolf Hitler in 1937, famously said: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The greatest threat to a free and just and participative society is intolerance. We see it of course in militant Islam, and especially in the appalling crimes of the ISIS movement, which frankly bear no relation to the true teachings of the prophet Mohammed - but which continue to seduce and persuade young people from our own and other free western countries. Why that should happen is a question for another time, perhaps, but it’s clear that the people who recruit them are looking out for those who are disaffected, vulnerable, and idealistic, people whose minds can be twisted.

How do we fight intolerance, in the new and dangerous forms it takes today? The temptation is to become less and less tolerant ourselves, and perhaps that is what’s happening. But freedom and tolerance are what makes our society special; this is what the people we remember today fought to defend, to preserve and to build. It could be that by defending some spurious idea of national identity and wellbeing, we end up damaging and even destroying the real thing.

But why is any of this a topic for Christian sermonising, within a church service? I think because peace is a special word in the Bible, and in the teaching of Jesus; and peace in scripture is never just the fact that people aren’t fighting. Peace is about safety, about belonging, about justice, about family. Every man under his vine and his fig tree; swords beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Not peacekeepers - often that’s what our armed forces are required to do, to hold people apart, to keep the peace when anger and tension are simmering away underneath. And it’s a fine and important job, and we commend those who are doing that difficult and dangerous work today. But peacemaking is something that we’re to do all the time, not only when there is a threat or promise of war. It’s about building the values that hold us together, than celebrate diversity, that promote compassion and care.

When you look at the beatitudes, those verses at the beginning of chapter 5 in Matthew’s Gospel that begin with Jesus saying “Blessed” - “Blessed are the pure in heart . . .” and so forth - Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who live with others in mind, those who don’t grab for themselves but make room for others, which is what humility and meekness are all about.

What they are not about, though, is letting those who are intolerant and have selfish or evil intent just walk all over us. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; blessed are the peacemakers - those who are working and campaigning for a society built on foundations of justice - which in the Bible is never the blind justice of the law courts, but always a special care for those in most need of it - the poor, the marginalised, those who need support.

Though I’ve been a couple of times in some fairly scary places, I have never fought in a war. Neither have most of us here. I’m grateful for that. Not everything is well with the world I live in, but it is for the most part still a world where more good things happen than bad things, and where I can live in peace and know that my neighbours do too. Thank God for those whose sacrifice, not least on the field of battle, preserved and helped build that world. God preserve me from ever taking that world and its peace and freedom for granted. And God give me the vision and the courage not to leave the ongoing task of peacemaking to others or to defer it till tomorrow, but to accept my responsibility here and now and where I am to play my part in building kingdom values. To quote from the famous song written by Jill Jackson and Sy Miller in 1955: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Tuesday, 1 November 2016


The noise and the bustle
has all but stopped us in our tracks,
where we stand on shingle, looking out
across the great southern Pacific. Here
seabirds of many kinds skim the surfing waves,
crowding in earnest competition
for the abundant fish of these waters,
gift of the Humboldt Current.

It is early morning, and in a gentle drizzle
that belies the definition of this place
as desert coast, we lift our glasses
and count the pelicans. Where we stand
the air is still; all the sounds we hear
come from the crash and bustle of the coastline.
Near us, white egrets stalk in complete silence
the shallow water of a marshy lagoon,
and bright flycatchers branch-hop through the trees.
All of a sudden a kingfisher flashes past,
electric blue like the ones back home.

I am not in this place for long
and must make the most of my time here.
I need to get it all in, get it all down,
and make what I can of things.
So I have been here since dawn, with a busy day ahead,
places to visit, people to meet,
pictures to take. I am not really here for the birds.

Too soon we need to turn and walk away, leaving
the mad dash of wings up and down the strand
to continue with the turning tide.
We get into the car, rejoin the urban human bustle.
Everything here is moving at such a pace;
everywhere time is short, and growing shorter,
and every living thing is dying,
though we alone have the grace to know it.

Monday, 31 October 2016


Part of my new project, "An Alphabet of Flowers"

These leafless trees already resonate with birdsong,
and the April air is crystal cold and crystal clear,
with hardly a breath of wind. I can pick out robin,
great tit, the sudden shouted burst that is the wren;
and I am glad to hear my first chiffchaff of the year.

Yesterday, a late snowfall; here and there a dusting survives,
held in the shade; but I see also new leaves on honeysuckle,
and spring sweepings of celandine and golden saxifrage,
dotted with primroses that shine like pots of gold
where they are caught by the late afternoon sun.

New ferns uncurl their fronds between the tree roots,
and stars of blackthorn twinkle against an old fence.
Midges dance where I kneel to examine wood sorrel,
its flowers pale and delicate; above, a bank rises steeply,
with beneath the trees the rich green of new leaves.

Bluebells: too early yet, I know, to be in bloom,
especially this high on a Welsh border hill -
but I see a few spikes rising above the leaves, 
flowers still tightly budded against the April chill.
I walk on, disturbing a moorhen on the nearby pool.

And there, in a sheltered corner, a single splash of colour,
bright as the blue of my willow pattern service, 
to my eyes exotic as orchids. And the pioneer flowers
release to my prayerful stoop a first whiff of the scent 
that soon will bless all these woods with the spirit of Spring.

Another All Saints' Tide Sermon

(Which I shall be preaching next Sunday, d.v.)

I don’t know whether any of you have had occasion to drive through Llanfyllin of late. I’ve started to sing with a group that meets there for practice, so these days I drive through the town quite often. It’s an attractive little place and I quite like it, but for some reason unknown to me, it seems to feature some of the worst driving I’ve come across. It isn’t just me saying this. "I agree,” said one of my singing friends, as we compared notes. “The driving round here would try the patience of a saint."

Last Tuesday was All Saints' Day, when by tradition Christians remember the holy men and women of ages past who we sometimes dignify with the title “saint”. Wales is full of them, of course, and most places that begin with the word “Llan” honour a saint. There are the big saints of course, Llanfair honours St Mary, and Llanbedr St Peter; but many many others too, a lot of them only a name, we know nothing more about them. Llanfyllin itself recalls St Myllin, who may have founded the original church there in the 7th century. Nothing is known about him apart from his name, though he may be the same person as Moling, an Irish monk of noble descent who founded a monastery in County Carlow and died in the year 696. The town probably had fewer traffic issues back in those days. But anyway, talking about trying the patience of a saint, I might ask why should patience be the defining mark of a saint?

All Saints’ Day comes at a time of when nights have got suddenly darker. The clocks have gone back and the days are shorter anyway. Bonfires were being lit at this season of the year long before Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Our pagan forebears used to light them to drive back the darkness, and to counter the power of creatures of the night, real and imagined. An old friend of mine who is vicar of a parish in north Staffordshire always holds his bonfire on All Saints’ Day, with barbecue and fireworks, straight after the service in church: a nice idea, and very popular.

For I guess there’s a basic human need for celebration and laughter as the nights grow darker; maybe even for a bit of controlled scariness, if only to allay our fears of the real thing. These days we talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD for short, but it's nothing knew. Our ancestors also got anxious and depressed when the days grew shorter. So they lit bonfires; going right back, that may even be why long long ago they built Stonehenge.

But what's that got to do with saints, you may ask? Maybe just this: that when things are dark and dismal on our Christian pilgrimage through life, saints who've walked the same roads as us can be an inspiration and a strength. And it may well be their patience that inspires us: by which I mean that these were men and women who continued to trust in God even when all the world seemed to be against them. Jesus told his disciples that they should be lights to the world, like a city on a hilltop, or a lamp on a lampstand. So we can think of the saints as lights to guide us and to cheer us, and whose stories can help us to know how to do it in our turn. And it’s maybe a good time to reflect on saints when the nights draw in as November begins. For me, one message of All Saints' Day is that darkness doesn't have to have the last word.

Now if saints are lights to guide us, they are lights that shine with a light that’s not their own. What we admire in their lives of courage and witness and patient faith is the light of Christ. They shine because they are translucent to his love. They’re not supermen or superwomen; like us, they make mistakes, and don’t always get it right. But they did their best to follow. All Saints Day reminds us that we’re members of one great company of companions, pilgrims on the way, one church across and around the world, one church also across the ages of history, who live not to our own glory, but to the glory of God.

We’ve heard part of the Sermon on the Mount this morning. Jesus sitting to teach his disciples, and beginning with those wonderful and ringing phrases we call the Beatitudes. Blessed are you, he says, at the end of that list of blessings:  blessed are you when everyone reviles you, when everyone turns against you. For really, the whole of that list of blessings has patience at its heart. Whatever the world may throw at you and however dark it may get, we wait patiently for the glory of the Lord to be revealed, and we continue to trust in his love.

Patience is also the theme of the wonderful songs we call spirituals. The spirituals are some of the most moving and wonderful songs of faith, but they arise of course from the cruel realities of slavery in the American Deep South;  despite their chains those who first sang these songs were convinced that slaves though they were, God would deliver them and bring them to freedom. Like the people of Israel under Moses and Aaron; like the exiles in bondage in Babylon; like their Lord, laid in a tomb. So they sang songs of patience in suffering, songs for a people now in chains, but destined for freedom.

Patience, like silence, is a golden thing; but let’s not confuse the two. Patience and silence are not the same thing.  There's no Christian ministry of being a doormat; to wait patiently for the glory of God to be revealed might sound as though what we do is keep quiet and let the world trample over us. But that’s not it at all. For we are already citizens of the kingdom of God, and we are to shine usefully, like a lamp where it should be, on the lampstand, into the dark bits of our part of the world, making things better, challenging what’s wrong. The saints show us that, or many of them, when we learn their stories. They were patient, yes, but theirs was an active and militant patience.

Prayers in the old Prayer Book of 1662 begin with the bidding "Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church militant here in earth." Now Jesus said that the poor in spirit are blessed, the meek are blessed, the peacemakers are blessed. At first that might sound like people who are gentle and quiet, and who don’t rock the boat.

But think again: being poor in spirit is about knowing our need and our hunger for God; those who mourn are those who feel the pain of others as though it were their own; those who are meek are those who aren’t bragging about themselves or grabbing for themselves, but that doesn’t mean they stay quiet when God’s word needs to be spoken; and peacemaking isn’t about appeasing, keeping quiet about those who by their evil damage and exploit those around them, it’s about building bridges.

We are all saints. When Paul writes about saints in his letters he doesn’t mean anyone special, he means all the members of the churches to which he writes. Saints are militants, activists; saints care about those who by their neglect or their thoughtlessness or their greed harm others and place their own immortal souls in danger. Saints are searchers after justice, and challengers of injustice, for only then can they be makers of peace. Meekness and mildness are far removed from weakness and cowardice; the first are the marks of a church that is daring to be like Christ, the second of a church that would rather not be noticed.

The saints we recall at this season have been stamped with the seal of the Spirit, but so have we; they were called to serve and to witness; so are we. What is theirs is also ours. May we share their patience: when the way is dark and the task hard, may we like them have faith in the victory already won for us, and in Christ our Friend and Guide and Redeemer, who is already King, enthroned in glory.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

All Saints - a Sermon for Tomorrow

 . . . which I'll be preaching at Marton, for the Chirbury Group service :-

When I moved across the border into Wales at the end of 2003, I was told that I’d moved into the land of saints. And I surely had: all those Welsh place names that begin with Llan, meaning church (or, really, holy place), then go on to tell you whose Llan it is. And there are so many of them. There are Llanfair’s, of course, meaning Church of Mary. And quite a few Llanbedr's - meaning the Church of Peter. And some Llanddewi’s as well, named for the patron saint of Wales, David. But many more are named for more local and obscure saints, and in my new parishes these included Llandysilio, named for Tysilio, monk, hermit, founder of monasteries who at one time had a cell close to the present church alongside the old Roman road. And Llandrinio, recalling Trinio, who back in the sixth century was one of the band of monks who accompanied Cadfan from Bittany. Llandrinio is a very ancient church, and probably Trinio was the first to preach the Gospel there. Fragments of an ancient stone preaching cross survive within the church fabric.

Not all of these local Celtic saints ever became 'real saints' in the sense of having been properly canonised by the Catholic Church: Tysilio did, but not Trinio, I think. For him as for many others “saint” is a sort of honorary title, but Wales, with Cornwall and Brittany and other places on the Celtic fringe, has lots and lots of them. We know nothing or next to nothing about most of them: their achievements are known only to God, and have passed from human memory. But their names survive to tell us that here is where faith began, for the people of that place.

All Saints' Day honours all of these and more. Let’s reflect: what does it mean to be a saint? In Rome it requires proof - a demonstrably holy life and a number of attested miracles. What about us though - what do we need to counted as saints?

Being in the village hall today for our group service, I have to admit to one minor gripe as an All Saints tide preacher, and it’s this: the absence of stained glass. Because stained glass windows are an excellent prop for the All Saints tide preacher. If I were to ask for something that typifies a saint, you might well answer, “Haloes. Saints have haloes.” They do in stained glass windows, anyway, and in most forms of religious art. Maybe not in real life. Whatever a halo might be, it isn’t something  self-produced. We don't ignite our own halo by being somehow specially good or specially brave. The halo around a saint’s head in a stained glass window is the artist’s way of illustrating something given to him or her by God's. The halo tells us that this is a special person. But it doesn’t signify that he or she is a superhero made somehow from different stuff from ordinary folk like you or me. The point about saints is that they’re ordinary folk, not perfect, not impossibly righteous, but sinners and very conscious of their sin.

So what makes them special in the way we define as saintliness?  Stained glass provides a good example, for without light stained glass windows aren’t worth a second glance - but with the sun streaming through the best of them are absolutely amazing. My current favourite is the great window in the north transept of our cathedral, near the restored shrine of St Thomas Cantelupe. On a bright day it really glows. Which is exactly what we honour and admire in the saints - that they glow and shine - but not with their own light, but God's. Saints are those whose lives were specially translucent to the love of God, radiating from them into the world in special and individual patterns and colours, which are the particular achievements of each saintly life. Each saint we honour today is special and distinct, but all shine with God’s light and glorify him.

And of course we are all saints, since in the New Testament the word “saint” is used of every member of the church. We’re all called to be translucent to God, windows to his love. In past times stained glass windows were there not just to beautify but also to teach. And the 1928 Prayer Book describes the saints as having been 'lights to the world in their several generations', a call that all of us share. We are to shine as lights in the world, to be lights not hidden under a tub but placed somewhere useful, making a positive difference - as we let go of selfish desires and give ourselves and our lives to God.

And the saints we honour today stand as our friends and guides in this endeavour. They are examples of devotion, they encourage our discipleship; they are companions and fellow pilgrims - as we walk the road they travelled, they can help us find our way. We can be inspired by their stories of courage and compassion, we can learn from their love of God, their desire for justice, their humbleness and service of our neighbour, and their constancy in the face of persecution or ridicule; we find in the saints examples to challenge us, draw us, and teach us.

And do the saints pray for us, as many believe? I like to think of them cheering us on as we continue as pilgrims. They’ve completed the course we still travel, and as we honour them they are already part of the heavenly communion of prayer and praise. Jewish teachers would sit when there was something important to say; so Jesus sat on a hilltop to tell his friends that the poor in spirit are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Beautiful words, but words are all they are unless they become real in people's lives. Today we praise God for those who have lived those words, for saints in whom the love of Jesus shone in lives that were forgetful of self. May the same faith burn bright in our own lives, and may we travel faithfully with them.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

A sermon on the set readings for tomorrow . . .

When I read the Gospels, I often get a sense of the disciples finding it hard to understand, to keep up with Jesus as again and again he tells them things that challenge their childhood certainties. Today’s reading from Luke is a case in point.

A member of the ruling class comes to ask what seems to be a genuine question. He’s a man I think who’s been doing his best to the right things; he’s kept the law, said his prayers. But for all that he still feels he’s not done enough. So he comes to ask Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Note that word - inherit. Not what must I do to receive eternal life, but what must I do to deserve it, what must I do so that it can’t be denied me? You know the answer already, Jesus tells him - keep the law, and you will gain eternal life.

But the guy’s been doing that, yet somewhere deep inside he knows it’s not enough. So Jesus tells him: “Give it all away. Sell everything you have. Give the money to the poor. End up with nothing. Then come and follow me!” But he’s too rich to contemplate that. He might have gone along with a request to be a bit more generous; he might even have obeyed had Jesus said, “Give away half of what you own.” But he’s not prepared to give up owning things altogether. And he goes sadly away.
The disciples are thunderstruck. Remember, we’re talking about a well respected and good living man, whose wealth would have been generally understood as a sign of God’s approval. “Who can be saved?” ask those who’ve witnessed the exchange. Jesus is very blunt when he says: “It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” But it’s true; we may think we own stuff, but often the stuff ends up owning us. And this man’s riches had perhaps become a prison he couldn’t break out from.

We’re rich; maybe not quite as rich as we were a couple of months back, and we’ll be a little less rich still by this time next year, if the pound continues to fall and food and fuel go up in price. But that’ll still be a minor reduction in our overall richness, rather than a transition from rich to poor.

But that’s what Jesus asks of the rich man - a complete transition from rich to poor. It’s nonsense when you think about it. If everyone with money gave it all away to those who hadn’t got any, then they’d be rich, so then they’d also have to give it all away, presumably to those who first gad it. But then they’d have to give it all away again - well, you can see that if you follow Jesus’ instructions to their logical - or illogical - conclusion, you have an economy in a complete mess and a country full of beggars.

But let me go back to that word “inherit”, and indeed to the question “What must I do?”. Jesus answered the question he was asked, but it was the wrong question. The only way to inherit the kingdom would be to keep every last bit of God’s law. But we could only hope to do that if we gave up everything in our lives that might get in the way of our completely serving God.

Which can’t be done. As Jesus says to his disciples, “for mortals it is impossible.” We will always fall short. But Jesus goes on to say, “What for mortals is impossible is possible for God.” Jesus is speaking about grace - God’s loving and forgiving and generous response to our failure and helplessness. What we can never deserve or win by our own efforts God freely gives us. That’s the central message of Jesus to a people whose lives were dedicated to keeping the law, and in that way doing enough, becoming good enough to deserve heaven: that we are saved not by own efforts but only by God’s gracious act.

The sign of that was the cross. At this point Jesus and his disciples are still travelling to Jerusalem, and the disciples have no idea what will happen when they get there. But what will happen is that a sacrifice will be made that only Jesus could make, and it is made for our freedom.

And so this service of Holy Communion is also called eucharist - thanksgiving. Here we consciously join ourselves to the sacrifice made for us, by the one man who really did let go of absolutely everything, becoming in that instance the poorest and most degraded man on earth. And yet he has decided to be there, to make his determined way to the cross. On Calvary Jesus is both perfect sacrifice and perfect priest; and he showers us with the wealth he refuses to keep to himself.

I wonder whether the rich ruler who came to Jesus came to understand all this. I wonder whether he overcame his sadness and his fixation on his own wealth and position, to become what Jesus called him to be, a follower, a disciple. I hope he did, and if he did, his life and his understanding of life will have been turned round. He no longer has to earn his way into heaven; the way is already open, and his challenge, ours too, is to live lives of loving and sharing and healing and restoring thanksgiving, in which we share with the world the grace we have so richly received.

It would have been clearly understood back then, in a world where slavery was commonplace, that a person saved, redeemed by someone else would then owe his very life to that person, would essentially belong to them. This service not expresses our thanksgiving for Jesus, it is a statement each time we do it that we now belong to him. So the Christian life is a life of generosity and service, but not in order to gain or deserve anything - we “go in peace to love and serve the Lord” (to quote our closing words at this service) because of what he has freely given to us, and because now we belong to him, and in him are made richer than in our wildest dreams.