Saturday, 30 January 2016


A little poem that I've been working on for some time. I think I can leave it now :-

It is still light outside,
for the summer is not yet done with;
the sun splashes gold against the closed curtains.

Having played with every toy, and played again,
and having asked and answered so many questions,
and having completed an experimentation
with dancing, climbing, tumbling, sitting, falling,

having run through the day
they have outrun the sun into night-time,
child, and mother too.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016


A poem I've been working on for several years . . .

Maurice is standing where he can see the road;
Maurice keeps alert, likes to see what may be coming.
He does not want to be taken by surprise.

The day, as ever, is a hot one;  for a while
Maurice studies the shimmering poles that stand in line along the road,
each one topped by its football nest of swallows.
A few of the birds are sitting along the wires;
their long tail feathers twist and trail as they jostle for places,
but nothing else is moving at all.

Maurice lifts the cigar from the front pocket
of his dusty jacket, sniffs it and taps it,
returns it to its place.
It is not yet time for cigars.  There is a little shade
where he is standing, but even so
he fans himself briefly with his denim cap
before covering again his thinning hair.

From behind him, a sudden cough: some kind of machine.
Maurice looks round, but there is nothing to see.  He knows that
over on the other side of the hill
Marco’s men will be harvesting the tobacco,
and hanging the yellowing leaves to dry;  while,
stretched out ahead of him into the haze,
the road he has come to watch remains empty.

Maurice waits a while longer, kicking his boots against a stone.
Most days he comes to stand here, hoping to see
that red cloud of dust,
something riding the dirt road towards him.
Nothing much ever comes out this far,
just now and again a car, a truck, a pick-up; maybe Father Elias
with the minibus from the Parish House.

Each sudden and seldom plume of dust
is a lift and a catch to his heart,
and always he is disappointed, and still, and yet, he waits,
waits for the son to whom, all those years ago,
he waved a good-bye and blessing, waits for
his smiling prodigal boy who left this dry land
to tread the golden sidewalks of the city.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

On Being One Body

My sermon for tomorrow :-

I’ve been out buying new clothes, Ann having informed me that half the contents of my wardrobe were on their way to the skip. Optimistically I bought new clothes the same size as my old clothes. Post-Christmas, my body could be a bit trimmer than it seems to be, and I need to get a bit more fit.

When I watch a great athlete in action I can’t help but be amazed at their grace and co-ordination. Joints and muscles, all the different components of the human body, are working together in an effective and beautiful harmony. It’s not been like that for me, so far. All the different components of my body seem to be working against each other, and I have aches and pains all over. It’ll get better I’m sure, but just now my body is not a well-oiled machine, it’s more like a sackful of old worn-out bits.

Paul describes the Church as a single body with its many limbs and organs. This is one of his great images, a helpful and challenging way of understanding this thing called “church”. In fact, the church he was writing to in Corinth was more like my body just now than what the Church ought to be. Its members weren’t co-operating with each other, instead they were fractious and argumentative.

Paul wasn’t happy with them, therefore. A disunited church can’t bear a good witness to Christ. So Paul wrote to tell them to get their act together, but as he wrote he found these words that are a high point in his writing. His very finest words, about love, are in the next chapter, but first we have this great image: the Church is the body of Christ.

So each one of us is a limb or organ of that body. And therefore no-one is complete as a Christian without the rest of the body; and every individual member should be supporting the whole body; as members of Christ we have a responsibility for one another and to the whole body.

If we think of church as a building to come to, say prayers at and then go home from, or as an organisation we pay our subs to, this isn’t how Paul saw it. Church is who we are together; and what we are is the body of Christ.

The parts of my body are rebelling just now at my new attempts to get fit. But there are other times when parts of a body just stop working as they should, and maybe the owner of that body lands up in hospital. What's true for an individual human body is true as well for the individual church. Our churches should be lively, attractive, warm and loving places, where God’s word is actively lived, but I’ve known too many that have become unhappy, argumentative, divided. A person looking for faith and meaning there won’t find much to help them.

What about the Church with a capital C, nationwide or worldwide. We’re in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity just now. Sadly, we don’t have Christian unity; if we had we wouldn't need the week. The body of Christ finds a variety of expression and tradition and practice, and that’s fine. Our faith crosses many boundaries of geography and culture, and it's by no means the end of the world if we don't all sing the same hymns. But I do pray for unity of purpose and community, and that we recognise each other as sisters and brothers, as fellow pilgrims, sharing one Lord, one faith, one baptism, the vital essentials of faith that bond us together.

Even within our own denomination, the Anglican Communion, there’s disagreement and tension. Here’s what the Archbishop of Canterbury, said to the gathered primates of the Anglican Communion the other week: “We so easily take our divisions as normal, but they are in fact an obscenity, a denial of Christ’s call and equipping of the Church . . . the world does not see the spiritual Church but a divided and wounded body.” Strong words which we really do need to hear and take on board.

Conservatives might respond that we can only have unity when those who need to repent of their liberal errors and join them in believing the true Gospel. Liberals might say that unity depends on a spirit of tolerance that accepts diversity and makes space for minorities. We all read the same scripture, but there are some deep divisions as regards interpretation and practice. How do we deal with that? It may be hard and uncomfortable, but the Church has to work at being united in spirit and purpose even when we don’t always agree. As Archbishop Justin went on to say: “There has never been a time when the Church was one in view, but it has often been one in heart.”

Paul’s great image of the Body of Christ challenges the Church at every level, local, national, international. It challenges the divisions between denominations, and the divisions within denominations. And it challenges us to be more aware of our responsibility for one another in each local fellowship and congregation.

We need the same discipline in the Church, as I need as regards getting my own human body fit. For we need to be pulling our weight as the body of Christ in mission. I’m personally challenged here, as a minister; after all, I'm quite an old fashioned priest, and therefore something of a one man band. But a Church growing as the Body of Christ needs a new sharing of ministry, a willingness to recognise the ministry of others, and a commitment to enable that ministry.

In First Peter we read that the Church is to be a kingdom of priests, in other words we all have an investment in ministry. We need that if the Body is to thrive and grow. Every part of the body is important, including the parts which are thought of as lowly and humble. And maybe some of the parts that are sure of their own importance need to learn a bit of humility.

Jesus himself told his disciples he was among them as one who served, and that the greatest among them should learn to be the servant of all. A Church whose members are serving each other, and are compassionate and caring towards one another, is a body that is straight away Christ-like. Where service is central to the ethos of the church, then service is what the church will be doing in the world. Such a church will be a healing Church, a compassionate Church, and a welcoming Church. As we re-learn what it means to be one active body together, we become more attractive to those who are searching for God, including those who don’t yet realise that’s what they’re doing. They’ll want to know more of what we are about; and if we are one Body, with limbs and organs in place and harmonious and supporting each other, then those who look will see not us, but our Lord.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Plants Can't Come In From The Cold . . .

My "Nature Notes" column for the month :-

If you had to spend even a day or so standing outside your house without moving, and without any clothes, at this time of the year, I wonder how long you’d last? Plants have to do it all winter long. The mild weather before Christmas encouraged spring flowers like celandines and even daffodils to flower, while some of last summer’s wayside flowers, for example yarrow and hogweed, could still be found along the hedgebanks. But since then, we’ve had something more like winter - so how do our countryside and garden plants cope?

Frost and cold can be pretty bad for a plant. Ice crystals forming inside the plant’s cells can cause an expansion that quite simply bursts them open. Water freezing between the cells will effectively dessicate the plant, drying it out. Alongside this, the cold leads to a decrease in enzyme activity and affects the way membranes and channels work, and this too can cause severe harm to the plant.

Some plants do simply die, of course. Annual plants survive only the one year; once their seeds are set they die, and it’s the seed that will ensure the continuation of the species over winter. Perennial plants do survive winter, but the exposed plant above ground may well not. Many such plants will have underground storage organs: tubers (e.g. potatoes), or tap roots (e.g. carrots, parsnips - and dandelions). Others have tangled networks of underground roots (e.g. stinging nettles), or produce bulbils, bulbs and corms (e.g. celandines, onions, daffodils or crocus). Food reserves are built up through the summer and autumn, and these sustain the plant in winter, and when spring comes are used to grow new leaves and shoots above ground. Perennial plants can do this year after year, though of course they will often also produce large numbers of seeds each year.

But some cold-tolerant plants can survive freezing temperatures. There are several ways in which they do this. A decent layer of snow can itself help to insulate the plants beneath it, while trees and other woody plants are protected by the bark and the woody outer layers beneath it. That’s rather like lagging your water pipes. The leaves and needles of evergreen trees have a waxy layer that helps protect them.

Some plants accumulate solutes like sucrose in their cells. This tends to build up naturally in response to the shortening of days, and will depress the freezing point of water, rather like the salt and grit on our roads. This is effective down to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. There are also “antifreeze” proteins that can help prevent ice crystals forming in the spaces between cells, and so-called “dehydrins”, proteins that bind water molecules and help stabilize cell membranes. Plants may need to experience several days of cold weather before a freeze for these to be produced, so even hardy plants may be damaged by a sudden sharp freeze. But even plants that seem wrecked by winter can still rejuvenate from buds at or below ground level, when spring at last returns.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Water into Wine

A sermon to be preached tomorrow, Epiphany 2 :-

The last wedding in our family was our own daughter’s in the September before last, but this year we’ve two nephews and a niece planning weddings, and hints of another nephew thinking along the same lines - so there’s a bit of a buzz in the air in our family.  Weddings these days are something of an industry in themselves. I’m sure I heard someone the other day on the TV talking about doing an apprenticeship as a wedding planner. Goodness, I thought, there’ll be a degree course in it before long. Perhaps there already is.

Of the three weddings we’ve got on the go, two I know nothing about as yet, except for the odd hint on Facebook. The one I do know about, the reception will be at Slater’s Country Inn at Baldwin’s Gate which is between Shrewsbury and Newcastle-under-Lyme. I'd be very surprised if the wine ran out there, and I can’t imagine my niece Vicki letting it happen. For us, wine's essential at a wedding, at the meal itself and for the toasts afterwards; and at a traditional Jewish wedding, wine would be just as important, if not more so. One rabbinical saying tells us that "without wine there is no joy."  Not that folk would get plastered - drunkenness, in fact, would have been a great disgrace at a Jewish wedding;  but it would have been just as much a disgrace if the wedding host fell short in the hospitality he offered to his guests.

So there would need to be plenty of wine on hand. So the story we’ve heard this morning begins with something of a tragedy. There’s a wedding, and the wine has given out. There may have been a miscalculation as regards numbers (maybe even caused by the friends of Jesus, arriving unannounced or hastily invited at the last minute). Maybe some of the wine had turned out to be too sour to use. Whatever the reason, things had gone badly wrong, so much so that Mary turned to her son and said to him, "Do something!"

And there our story begins. In fact, the reply Jesus gave his mother may seem to our ears rather harsh and discourteous. While we have only the written words, and can’t hear the tone of his voice, Jesus seems to be saying something like: "I should not be doing this yet!  The time is not yet right!"  But maybe the time was right, after all.

Certainly, Mary has faith enough in her son simply to say to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."  And so it is that we witness one of the events of Epiphany; one of the decisive acts that display Jesus for who he is - not just Jesus the son of Joseph the carpenter, but Jesus the Christ, for those with the eyes to see it.

For those of a puritan turn of mind, it's worth noting that this first miracle of Jesus took place at a social do, with the aim of making the party go with more of a swing than it might have otherwise. Jesus, it seems, enjoyed a good party.  But a wedding was in any case a good symbolic setting for this miracle. Prophets like Hosea and Isaiah used wedding language to speak of the relationship between Israel and her God - the Covenant made with Moses when the law was given formed a relationship as mutually close and strong as when a wife is joined to her husband. The same image is used in the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation and in the letters of St Paul: there is a New Covenant made through Jesus, and the Church is the new Israel, spoken of as the Bride of Christ.

When John tells a story every detail tends to have a meaning beyond itself. There were six big old water jars, intended for the purification required by the Law of Moses. Do they represent the old Covenant? There were six of them, which is in Scripture an imperfect or unfinished number: does John want us to think about the imperfection of the old Law?

Scholars through the years have played about with this passage in such a way. Whether or not we try to find a message in each little facet of this story, there’s certainly a message in the story as a whole about the transformation of the old law, the old relationship with God. There’s something new beginning, here and now, in the man Jesus of Nazareth. What was merely water is being turned to wine. Maybe water represents the baptism of John, who said:  "There’s one among you who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire", while the new wine is a sign of Pentecost and of the fiery Spirit of God.

Where I certainly do find meaning is in the sheer amount of water that was changed into wine that day. Those jars of water would have contained something not far short of two hundred gallons. Turned to wine, that would have been enough for the wedding of a king. So this is by no means a half-hearted miracle, and we’re given a sign we can’t ignore of the liberality of God's grace. God's gifts of love, forgiveness, redemption, spiritual renewal are freely offered, are showered upon us, are certainly not rationed out. And we discover that there's no need on earth that can exhaust what God has to give, and that’s because what God gives is himself.

And all this took place in Cana, a place so small and unimportant that today no-one can be completely sure where it actually was. But in that little town the world was given a sign - a revelation - that in Jesus what was imperfect will be made perfect, and that in him there is grace unlimited, super- abundant grace, grace enough for every need. Grace given for everyone, not restricted to holy and special places, but ours wherever we meet in fellowship and service and celebration. I’m sure this is what John wants to tell us as he shares this story, and it's a good thing to hear as we come to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

That week begins tomorrow, and encourages us to remember that whatever our differences as Christians, the God we worship and serve is one and the same: our generous and gracious Lord. We all share in the outpouring of his grace, and he calls on us to act graciously and generously together in his world. Only in our unity of purpose, and praise, and compassion, and care can the Gospel of our Lord be truly proclaimed.

For wherever Jesus went in life, and in all the things he did and said, it was like water turning into wine. That was so then, and it remains so today. If we invite Jesus into our hearts, remembering those simple words of Mary his Mother, "Do whatever he tells you," we too can be changed, transformed and renewed, like water into wine. The marks of a Church that’s doing this will be, I’m sure, generosity and joy, and these things are infectious: they spur people on, and they invite people in. Just imagine, if Jesus had performed a small and private miracle, ensuring there was just enough new wine for himself and his mates. But that’s not his way, not can it be ours. Our job is to be new wine for the world, and to give without expecting return or reward, but just because people need what we have.

Without wine there is no joy, said the rabbis. Jesus promises us, as he promised the people of Cana, that the new wine of his Spirit, the new wine of his abundant gifting, will be the source and well-spring of a deep and holy joy which is for us in fellowship and witness, and for the world in which he calls us to serve with a generosity that reflects and teaches his own.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Summons to Praise

(Based on Psalm 150)

Praise God in his holy places;
stars of heaven, your voices raise:
come, sing his mighty works of power,
and his surpassing greatness praise.

Praise God with the sounding trumpet,
praise him in the harp’s sweet lay,
the timbrel beating for the dance,
and strings and pipe in tuneful play.

Praise him in the crash of cymbals,
and in each resounding chord
let everything with life and breath
give praise to God, come praise the Lord.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Epiphany Sermon

Preached last night at Leighton . . .

Despite the best efforts of modern-day astronomers, we can probably never know exactly what it was that the wise men saw in the east, or at its rising, that persuaded them to set out and try to find a new king?  Matthew tells us that the star, whatever it was, not only started them off on their journey, but accompanied them at its close, going before them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, till it stood over the place where Jesus lay. This is rather unusual behaviour for a star, so it may well be a bit of poetic licence on Matthew’s part. Still, omens were important, and a new light in the heavens would be bound to stand for something beyond itself, some special new event in the world, in this case the birth of a king.

Light is vital to our lives. Human beings see better in the dark than we might imagine, but only once we’ve managed to adjust. The eyes of a cat instantly adjust when it goes from a light place into a dark one, so it can see straight away. Our eyes take much longer to get used to the dark. Other senses like hearing and smell are nothing like as finely tuned in us as in cats, so we're not good in the dark. When we go out at night we need to take a light with us, especially out here in the countryside.

Light is vital to our lives, and light hailed Jesus as a King. A new star brought the news to those who could read the sky.  Not only that, this child is himself light, and will be hailed as the Light of the World. And the whole season of Epiphany in the church year, beginning with the story of the wise men who followed a star, is the story of how that light is revealed to the world. This is no ordinary child, this is no ordinary man, this is the Light of the World, the saving love of God made flesh and dwelling among us.

We use different kinds of lights for different purposes. For a big sports event we switch on floodlights. We’ll need a good beam from our headlamps when we're driving, but we’ll need to dip it when someone else approaches. Walking in the dark or searching for things in my shed I’ll take a torch or maybe a lantern, and over my desk as I wrote this I had my trusty anglepoise lamp. In the lounge a standard lamp can either be a softer alternative to the main lights, or a supplement if I need extra light to read. For a romantic dinner perhaps I’d switch out the main lights and just use candles.
So what kind of light is the Light of the world?  First of all he's a revealing light. As the days just begin to lengthen, and on the rare occasions when we actually get some sunlight through our windows, we start to think about spring cleaning. Why? The light shows up the dust and the untidy bits, and we realise there’s stuff we need to do something about. That’s the kind of light we get from Jesus. There’s a point in the Gospels - the disciples have just pulled in an amazing catch of fish, at Jesus’ instructions - when Peter says to Jesus, “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” It can get like that, having Jesus around. We can’t hide our sin it stands revealed, the bits we'd like to forget about, the bits we’d like no-one to see. Next to him, we see we’re less than we should be.

But secondly, like the star itself, the Light of the World is also a guiding light. I'm often very glad to have a torch or a lantern with me out here, but being a bit of a townie, I don’t always remember to bring one, and how grateful I am then to follow someone else who’s got one. Jesus says to us, "Follow me," and he promises us the light we'll need to guide our way when we do, just as he did his first disciples. As a teacher, an example and a friend he was there to guide the way for Peter and the others. And he makes the same promises to us.

And his will be a good light to follow, for the Light of the world is not only a revealing light and a guiding light, he is also a saving light. He is like the lighthouse whose clear beam keeps the ship away from dangerous rocks, seeking to save us from the wrong things in our lives, calling us home to God.  Along a given coastline each lighthouse flashes its own distinct pattern of light, so the navigator can know exactly where his ship is, what dangers lie ahead, and what course he should steer. Each light is unique and identifiable. The light of Christ is unique in a special way, for only he can deliver us from the peril of sin, and the power of evil; he alone can steer us safely into the safe waters of the kingdom.

I wonder how much of this the magi could tell from what they saw in the night sky? Or did they understand the birth of this king only in human terms? The gifts they brought might suggest a deeper understanding. Gold in its purity stands for that refining and revealing light that exposes impurity; the  frankincense for a priest represents the guiding role of the priest who is pontifex or bridge-maker - in other words, the work of a priest is to show us the way to God and to speak God's word among us; and myrrh, the third gift, is a sign of sacrifice, so myrrh surely must stand for the saving work that only God’s chosen one can perform, as he journeys from the manger to the cross. Matthew will have understood these gifts in that way, even if the kings themselves didn’t. But I think they did: the new star raised in the heavens had led them to a light never before kindled, which is divine love born to be with us and one of us, and born for our safety and our true homing, and for the salvation of the world.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

On Baptism

A sermon prepared for next Sunday . . .

Among the various Christian denominations there’s a variety of opinion and practice as regards baptism. In the Church of England many people are baptized as infants; in some other denominations infants are never baptized. Who’s right? The scriptural record is less than completely clear on baptism. Most people were baptized as adults, but it's hard to argue from scripture that infants were never baptized. If the head of a household was baptized, all his family would be too, old and young, slaves and servants as well. That's culturally very different from life today, and in itself a reminder of the role of popular culture in baptism as a rite of passage.

Things continue to change. Infant baptisms today can be very big affairs with a lot of invited guests; but when my children were christened thirty or so years ago most baptisms were much smaller affairs attended only by close family and friends.

Many Church of England ministers feel some disquiet regarding baptism policy, in that many of those who come asking for their children to be baptized seem to want to make little or no faith commitment. But that’s not true across the board; many parents do take it seriously, even if they’re not regular church attenders Sunday by Sunday. So how can I tell the difference, and where should I draw the line? Do I perhaps insist that a family attends church a particular number of times, or is that just getting people to jump through hoops? Our Church of England is a church with fuzzy edges: it's hard to define who's a member and who isn’t, or even whether we can speak of membership of the church at all.

As a Christian minister I always wanted to keep the door open to everyone, but I also made the most of the opportunity each baptism request provided for pastoral contact, and did my best to provide good and straightforward instruction on what being part of the church required of the baptized child, and what the responsibilities were of parents and godparents.

But I still always felt some disquiet: was I selling too cheaply what is after all one of the great sacraments of my Church?  Was I requiring too little of people who, whether they really know it or not, are - when they ask for baptism - making a big faith decision for their child?

In our church infant baptism is only part of the process of Christian initiation, of course: confirmation is the other part, and parents and godparents are instructed to prepare the child to come in due course to be confirmed. Most baptized children don’t go on to be confirmed, though, sadly. And even when they do, how well does the system really work? Some people cynically call confirmation 'the church's leaving ceremony', as being the last hoop a young person has to jump through before abandoning the church for keeps.

Today we think about the baptism of Jesus: so what does his baptism have to say about our own baptism and the way we do baptism within our churches? Two things for starters: firstly, Jesus didn't need to be baptized but went to be baptized anyway; and secondly, while Jesus didn't baptize people himself, he did instruct his disciples to do it.

I mentioned the 'process' of Christian initiation a moment ago, and I’d like to say a bit more about that, because I’ve always wanted to think of baptism as beginning a process rather than being an event in itself. For me the event we call baptism begins a process of becoming a child of God, and that process is lifelong. Baptism is a sign of repentance, the water reminds us that God promises to wash away all the bad stuff that separates us from him. When John was baptizing, Jesus partook of that gift of washing, although he didn’t need to, and in doing that he identified himself with all who are searching for goodness and God. As he’s baptized Jesus assures us that the God he calls Father is our Father too.

The washing of baptism is the visible sign of an ongoing relationship of grace. Sin is still sin and still deadly, but the power of sin to enslave and condemn us has been broken forever. So even as sinners we have the right to call God our Father; Jesus alone has opened that way to us. The sacramental event of baptism is a sign and symbol of this dynamic process, in which the relationship I have with God as his child is being constantly refreshed and renewed.

But baptism isn’t just about our deliverance from the sin’s deadening impact, there’s something more. It's also about being commissioned into service, and that’s what it was for Jesus. After his baptism he came up out of the water, to be met by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and hailed by a voice of acclamation and approval; and so the process began, with a time of trial and testing in the wilderness, that would begin his ministry.

For us too baptism begins a process of discovering what God wants us to be and to do for him in the world. In other words, baptism and vocation are closely linked. I used to edit the Diocesan Prayer Diary some years ago, and prayer biddings came my way from other Anglican provinces around the world: I was struck by how often these prayer biddings referred to "living out our baptism call and vocation". We don’t very often talk like that in the Church of England. But I think we probably should: it’s in baptism that we’re commissioned to service and ministry.

So when I think about how the Church does baptism today, for me the debate isn't so much about infant baptism versus believer's baptism, as about process versus event. If we think of baptism only as an event without thinking about the process it begins, we end up making baptism much less central to the life of the individual Christian and of the Church than it should be.

For baptism isn't just a staging post on life's journey, it’s much more than that. It’s an initiation, it’s the start of a dynamic relationship with the living God, it’s the beginning of my response to God’s call, a call that’s personal and special to me - personal and special also to each of you. So I don’t so much think about having been baptized as that I’m living in baptism - and as such I’m being washed and cleansed, and called and commissioned, on a daily basis.

There are times in the Church year like Candlemas and Easter, when we may be formally called on to renew our baptism vows; but I think that in all our worship, Sunday by Sunday, we should come to God’s table as people who are living out our baptism commitment to him. We’re here to praise God for his abundant grace, and to renew that commitment as we re-focus our lives on Christ and re-centre ourselves on his love. As we receive the bread and wine of Communion at our Lord’s table, it’s like a new baptismal experience in which his call and claim upon us expressed in our baptism is renewed, and in which we offer ourselves to him afresh.

I’d like us to recognize this more fully as a Church, for as we become more alive ourselves to what baptism means for us as a continuing process, what it provides for us and draws us into, and as we become more seriously baptismal as a Church in our sense of how we relate to God and how he calls us in mission, we’ll be all the more able to bring others to receive themselves the grace God constantly offers them, and to respond as we have done to the call and claim of his love.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

A Sermon for Christmas 2

Here we stand on the third day of a new year. The glasses have been raised, the fireworks set off, the remaining bits of turkey fricasseed or curried; so what’s next? This new start on New Year’s Day is an entirely artificial thing, really. New years could begin at any time, and indeed do, with most of the world’s great faiths having their own measurement of time. I seem to think that Christians started their year on 25th March at one time, the feast of the Annunciation to Mary. The New Year as we have it, globally, is a sort of left over from the Roman Empire, and some of the months of our year commemorate old Roman gods. One of those is January, named for the god Janus, a household god who was the protector of gates and doorways. Janus is depicted with two faces, one looking into the past, and the other into the future.

However artificial the distinction between one year and the next, it does give us an opportunity to reflect on the past and to plan for the future. For some of us, it’s enough to know that a bad year is over at last, and maybe there’ll be a better one this time, but some of us at least will make New Year resolutions.

I’m not particularly good at keeping the resolutions I make, though I’ve made it as far as March, on occasions. But there is something else I’ll be doing this New Year. I became a member of the 3rd Order of the Society of St Francis when I was training for ordination, so I’ve been a Franciscan throughout my ministry as a priest. Francis organised his followers into an order of friars minor, or little brothers - what we call the First Order. Prompted by St Clare, he then formed a Second enclosed Order for women; these are sometimes called the Poor Clares, and there’s a Roman Catholic community of Poor Clares near the lakeside at Ellesmere. But he also formed a third order, for those who wished to dedicate their lives, but who couldn’t completely give up their old life.

That might be because of work or family commitments, obviously in many cases because they were married; or it could just be that someone felt a real call, but a call to add something to their present way of life, rather than give it all up and begin something else. Members of this Third Order - some clergy, some lay folk - live according to a rule of life just as monks and nuns do, except their rule isn’t a standard rule adopted by a community, but their own rule, devised to reflect their own situation; this rule will of course be based on the principles laid down by Francis, and it needs to be accepted by the society and reviewed by a spiritual director - but it’s something particular and special to that person.

So one thing I’ll be doing this New Year is to look at my own rule of life, and what it requires of me. Is it relevant to me as I am now, at the beginning of 2016? Does it fully address the responsibilities I have, the opportunities I have, the work I do? Will it help me to minister better, to represent Christ better, to speak of him and work for him better, where I am? I need my rule of life to stretch me - it won’t be too much of a doddle to keep; but I also need it to be keep-able, for a rule of life I keep failing to achieve is only going to depress and dishearten me, to no good effect.
I’ll be seeing my spiritual director in a couple of weeks’ time, so I’ll take my ideas to him, and see what he has to say. He’s an old friend, but a new spiritual director - to me, though he’s had many years experience elsewhere. He’s already said a few very perceptive and challenging things about my existing rule, so I think he and I will work together well. He’s especially going to challenge me on the issue of relevance, I think. After all, it doesn’t matter how holy my rule of life makes me feel, what it’s really for is to help me to serve Jesus, and minister Jesus, as well as I can where I am.

And I hope our New Year’s resolutions will do the same, when we make them as Christians. Don’t worry if you haven’t done that yet. My resolutions always start on the first Monday of the New Year, or even the Feast of the Epiphany, not on New Year’s Day itself; till then there’s just too much Christmas stuff left to use up! But be utilitarian in your resolution-making; by all means aim to lose weight or do more walking, or whatever else might be your personal target, but include at least one resolution that looks outward at others, and helps you serve Jesus better where you are.

We read in this morning’s Gospel that we have the right, we have been given the right, to become children of God. Last Friday the Church marked the Naming of Jesus as well as celebrating New Year’s Day. The child was circumcised on the eighth day, and named then as well - Jesus, or Jeshua, the name given by the angel. The name means “Saviour”, or perhaps “God’s Salvation.” And this child of God, this only Son of God, divine Word made flesh, in John’s words, invites us to join him as children of God.

Our own baptism began in us what is a lifelong process of becoming. John wrote that we have the right to become children of God, and that this is the work of God within us, the work of the Spirit. Discipleship is a journey of becoming what God has always meant us to be, growing into the full stature of Christ, as St Paul I think expresses it. Such artificial divisions of time as the New Year, and for that matter the various occasions and festivals of the Christian year, they can help us to grow and develop as God’s children, for we can use them as staging points, as times when we review where we are, times when we make a new commitment. We may be tempted to cancel the resolutions we make the first time we fail. But we shouldn’t. It’s perfectly all right to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start over.

That’s why there’s a prayer of confession at this and every Christian service. We don’t have to be perfect to be here; we come as folk who mess up sometimes but are resolved to keep trying. Nelson Mandela once said his definition of a saint was a sinner who keeps on trying. Amen to that. Central to my rule of life is how I handle failure; what happens when I don’t match up even to my own expectations of me, let alone God’s. Fundamental to that is that I’m not on my own as a member of that community of people who are becoming children of God. As a Franciscan I’m part of a particular organisation and family within the Church as well as being part of the Church itself. But more than that, when I resolve to be more like Jesus, he himself promises to meet me in that resolve. I believe that to be true, and more to the point I’m living proof of it, not because I’m all that good, but because I’m here at all. And with that thought in mind, may we go forward into 2016, into the year of our Lord 2016, with gratitude and expectation and hope, and with the sign of faith. Amen.

Friday, 1 January 2016

The last of the mild weather?

Yesterday may have been the last of the mild weather that has broken all records through December. Certainly we began the New Year here with a dusting of frost. But it's worth noting the wealth of wild flowers I found in bloom when out collecting litter in our local streets yesterday. The first to strike me was a Welsh poppy, well out of season, but since that was probably an escape from a nearby garden I shouldn't take it too seriously, perhaps. Lawns and odd patches of grassland were well studded with daisies, though they will of course take advantage of a spell of decent weather at almost any time of the year. Still, there were also a few celandines, and they really are ahead of the game. Quite a few of the late flowerers from last year are still going too, among them yarrow, hogweed, cat's ear and even a few buttercups! Hogweed does linger on into the winter, given a bit of shelter, but the abundance of winter flowering this year is highly unusual. In places, hawthorn is still retaining a fair few leaves, and in others, hazel catkins are well out and there are leaves appearing on elder and honeysuckle. I predict a hard January . . . let's see if I'm right, and what it will do!