Saturday, 26 March 2016

Watching the Cars

A poem reflecting on my visit to Pelotas, Brazil some years ago . . .

My first impressions are of long departed glory,
of peeling paint and shabby doorways,
grass growing between the cobbles
on the side streets. Once
there was imperial majesty in this city;
a touch of that ancient splendour lingers on, here and there.

The main streets are busy enough:
trucks and buses snort and roar, as the
soft drink sellers and windscreen cleaners
dodge between them at the traffic lights.
I stand awhile in the midday sun
watching the cars. She too
is watching the cars,
a lady of uncertain years and layers of shabby dress,
bent-backed and bustling.
But she has the badge,
the authority to do what she does.
The papers in the plastic wallet
on its lanyard around her neck
permit her, or so it seems,
to stop the world in its tracks. So,
arms flailing, she halts a snarling and wheezing bus,
then guides a driver out of his parking space,
a space he will have entered only at her discretion.
A little money changes hands; dust rises.
And the world begins to move again.

I think the parking here is free, but surely
no-one would dare to park unaided
or leave their car unprotected. After all,
she has the badge,
the authority to do what she does,
the monopoly of parking in this square.
The vehicles continue to circulate in a haze of dust and oil;
I buy a bottle from the soft-drink seller by the lights
and search for shade under the shabby balconies.
In the fragile economy of this decaying city,
she holds on to her one small part, her toe-hold on the ladder,
the papers that permit her to spend her days
watching the cars.

My Sermon for Easter Day

It’s spring, whatever the weather might be doing. We have passed the equinox, the clocks have gone forward, and it’s spring.  And with spring come daffodils, and birdsong, and butterflies. There’ve been a few about already, small tortoiseshells and peacocks mostly.  These are butterflies that overwinter as adults, and sometimes we find them fluttering against our windows on warm days in winter. Now they’re seriously beginning to get out and about.

And soon we’ll begin to get some of the butterflies that overwinter as a pupa, and in a chrysalis. This is the stage between caterpillar and adult. Some of these butterflies aren’t as popular or welcome as small tortoiseshells and peacocks - one of them is the cabbage white. But it’s a small miracle when the dry, dead looking chrysalis splits open to allow a new and pristine butterfly to emerge and to fly. Not surprisingly, the imagery of chrysalis and butterfly is often used by preachers on Easter Day, and this address is no exception.

There’s clearly something chrysalis-like about the empty tomb attended by Mary Magdalene, and by Peter and John: when they get there they find just the shell remaining. The body that had been placed there has been triumphantly and wondrously released.  And the fact that the graveclothes and the linen cloth left inside the tomb - here is a sign that something new is happening here. Jesus did not come back to life on Easter Day. That’s what Lazarus did when Jesus brought him out of the tomb. Do you remember, he was still wearing his grave clothes, brought back to earthly life, to die again some day. Easter is different from that and new: Jesus is alive in a new way, Jesus has moved forward into a new dimension of living.

The chrysalis from which a butterfly will emerge seems to be dead, but inside it contains life. That’s true also for the other great Easter symbol, the egg. But it’s not true of the tomb in that garden. On that first Good Friday evening and through the day that followed the tomb contained no life.

The body laid within it had been certified dead. Joseph of Arimathea, who provided the tomb, expected nothing to happen there; all he wanted was to do the right thing by this good man. Mary of Magdala and the other women with her, when they made their troubled way into the garden through the early morning mist, knew they would find only death in that place. But they needed to do what they could, so they came to anoint the body now that the Sabbath was over.

We shouldn’t be surprised to find there’s something mysterious and dream-like about the Easter stories we read in the four Gospels. Jesus shows himself to be the same man that died, that people had seen die, that people had laid in a tomb: the scars were there in his hands and feet, the gash where the spear had been thrust into his side.  And yet he’s not the same; he appears in a room whose doors have been closed and locked, and people who’ve known him well don’t recognise him when they first see him. What has happened is unthinkable, impossible, and it will take time for his friends to get their heads round it all. But also, this is not resuscitation, this is not “a conjuring trick with bones”; this is something new, not a resumption but a beginning.

One Easter hymn speaks of ‘the Queen of Seasons, bright with the day of splendour’. Something new has begun, and nothing is the same as it was. A man known to have died has been raised, and his tomb is left empty, the graveclothes no longer needed. Without Easter what would be left of our Christian faith?

Let’s imagine no Easter Day, no risen Christ. imagine the disciples making their furtive way back to their fishing nets, picking up the threads of their old lives, as the challenging things said and done by this carpenter’s son from Nazareth fade in the memory and are cast aside. Think of the cross continuing to be nothing more than the mark of shame and disgrace. Think of death continuing to have the last word.

But that isn’t what happened. Jesus continues to live in people’s hearts because on that first Easter Day people knew he was alive. Death does not have the last word. Jesus was not raised as a one-off. He wasn’t raised because he’s so good and so different from us that the normal rules don’t apply to him. Jesus is raised from the dead as God’s declaration that life is for all to share, that every one of us is born to inherit life and not death. For though we are made of the dust of the earth, we are made in the image of the God whose love for us stands for ever; we have within us the seeds of eternity.

Five words to take to heart, then, on Easter day:  ‘Make the most of life.’  You could interpret those words in a selfish way: please yourself, and don’t worry about the rest of the world, or even “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”   But that would be like being the caterpillar that wants to just stay a caterpillar for ever. The message of Easter day is that there’s more than that for us. The empty tomb, the grave clothes set aside, speaks of the love stronger than death in which we are known and named. And that it’s worth using and sharing what we’re given - loving our neighbours as ourselves.

To see a butterfly newly emerged from its winter shell is a wonderful thing.  The wings gradually open to the sun, the warmth gradually has its effect, and suddenly the insect is airborne, flying strongly, making the most of its new wings.

And we are offered the renewing and strengthening warmth of God’s love so we can make the most of the life that is his gift to us. God calls us to meet him not just on Easter day but every day, and promises that when we open our hearts to him we too can be transformed as his people. To be Easter people is about what we do with the whole of our lives, not just the Sunday bits of them. The world today desperately needs more Easter people within it: people who are living now the life that is eternal, people who are trusting now in the love that is stronger than death, people who are serving now our risen Friend and Brother by continuing his work of healing and renewing, befriending and blessing, bringing light into the world’s dark places. As we do this, so we shall be offering our own sacrifice of praise to the one for whom the cross became a throne and the grave became a garden - revealed in all its spring beauty when the stone was rolled away.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

A Sermon for Passion Sunday

I'm preaching this Sunday at the chapels at Arddleen and Geuffordd.

There’s a richness of scripture in the readings set for this Sunday, the Sunday sometimes called Passion Sunday. I could probably preach a dozen sermons; time, however, will not allow me to! Between now and Easter Day in two weeks time, we journey through a heady mixture of glory and tragedy, and it’s important I think that we experience both of those things.

Of the many texts in scripture that spoke of a coming Messiah, it was to the servant songs of Isaiah that Jesus turned as the pattern for his life, as the programme for his ministry as the Christ. God’s chosen one, according to this scripture, would be a servant so much abused and so deeply wounded, a man so scarred and unsightly in appearance, that people would shrink away from him, that people would reject him and treat him with derision. Jesus spoke in plain words about this to his disciples, but it’s no surprise that they didn’t it, they didn’t understand or accept it. Remember how Peter insisted to Jesus, “This shall not happen to you!”

But all these things did happen to Jesus. The disciples were scattered in fear and alarm. Despite all that Jesus had tried to tell them, they could only experience his passion in terms of defeat and tragedy. And the tragedy of these events was only deepened further by the shame they felt at having let him down. They didn’t stand with him, they didn’t stand up for him; when trouble came, all of them ran off and left him alone. As we read the story we can’t help but be moved by poor Peter, sobbing at the cock-crow as he discovered how easily he had denied his Master, having insisted that he would stand firm with him and defend to the death.

We too need to feel some of that tragedy, for the cross is tragedy. Our sins are the reason why this man’s blood is shed. Ours are the hands which nail him to the cross. He loses his life because of what we have done, and because of what we have not done.

You may recall Mel Gibson’s film of the Passion of Christ, released in 2004, and the cause of great controversy at the time, including some charges of antisemitism. Incidentally, for those who like trivia, the fact that the film is voiced entirely in biblical languages has made it the highest grossing film ever made in a language other than English. It was quite a rigorous and brutal telling of the story, too brutal for many people. After its release, Mel Gibson revealed that the hands in the shot where the nails are hammered in were in fact his own, something he chose to do to demonstrate that no one person or group or race of people is to blame for what happened at Calvary. We are all implicated in the tragedy of the cross.

The cross was to begin with such a shameful sign that Christians used it only secretly. But it became a sign of glory. In other words, what began as a mark of disgrace and disgust became something that could take pride of place in churches of all shapes and sizes and traditions. Now here’s the thing. At any point Jesus could have turned from the way of the cross. But he is the suffering servant, the one spoken of by Isaiah the prophet: and he must therefore walk the whole road, he will be completely faithful, even though his own life is shattered; Peter and the others may scatter, but their Teacher will be faithful to death. And now we understand what St John teaches us: that it’s here on the cross that Jesus is raised up, and what seems like a place of shame and defeat is in fact the throne on which Jesus is revealed as King. And as Jesus says in John’s telling of his story, “When I am raised up I shall draw all people to myself.” Not raised up from the tomb on Easter morning, but raised up on Good Friday to jeers and spitting, mailed to the wood of the cross.

Peter, James and John had in fact glimpsed the glory that was to come before the events of Passiontide unfolded around them. When they went up the mountain with Jesus to pray, they had seen him suddenly too brilliantly white for their eyes to bear; and with him were Moses and Elijah, the two great heroes said not to have died but to have been taken up bodily into heaven. We remember this as the Transfiguration of Jesus, just a short moment of divine glory, before it’s over and Jesus is alone.

That experience meant that as they endured the tragedy of the cross, those three disciples, the inner circle, had seeds of glory already planted in them. In the light of Easter they would come to understand that Jesus had died not because they - we - had bound him to the cross, but because he had accepted it. On the cross which becomes a throne Jesus freely takes up the burden of our sins, he accepts the challenge of love and becomes our salvation.

And that cross is therefore the heart of who and what we are as his people. It is the ultimate and undefeated sign of love. It claims us forever as God’s people even though we ourselves can never do enough, can never be enough, by our own efforts. The deadening impact of a law we can never keep is transformed by grace. Today, Passion Sunday, we celebrate the cross as our sign and our glory; but between today and Easter, we need also to feel the tragedy of the cross, and to know our share in the hammer blows by which our Lord is fastened there. We can only share its glory if we also know its shame.

On the mountain Jesus met and spoke with Moses and Elijah. They were great reflectors of God’s glory, they were faithful labourers for the freedom of God’s people. But only in Jesus do we find the perfection of that glory. On Calvary we see the Son completely transparent to his Father’s glory. What he sets free on this tree can never again be bound.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

As yet untitled . . .

A poem I wrote yesterday and read at the "Verbatim" open mic poetry session :-

A street or two away from the bright lights,
but a world away too,
you might just find him delving through the bins,
a piece of urban detritus, set adrift on another rainy night.
He does not know any more who or where he is;
his eyes see nothing of the world in which he used to live,
your world - for that was before the day he died,
the day the music died, that was
before the blood in his veins was turned to straw,
and his soul dried out and shrivelled.
Once he knew all the songs,
once he knew all the players.
A flick of his fingers, and the lights came on back then,
when his world was laughter, and cheers, and applause,
when there were still things
in which he could believe,
when there were still pains and pleasures he could feel.
There was a time when nothing could go wrong,
when he was the lucky man,
the man with the charmed life, blessed, indulged,
delighted in by his own guardian angels.
And then it all did go wrong, then
it all did go. Lost is all he is now; the street lamp
picks out a single feather, floating.
And there are no tears, only rain,
and the angels, if they are there at all, can no longer fly
in the cold and wet.

Monday, 7 March 2016


My nature notes column for the coming month . . .

We’ve been getting some very large numbers of finches visiting our garden feeders over the past few weeks, and numbers of greenfinches, chaffinches and siskins have generally been in double figures, with smaller numbers of goldfinches, a couple of pairs of bullfinches (bullfinches pair for life, so are usually seen as a couple), and the occasional brambling, the chaffinch’s Scandinavian cousin.

A greenfinch with trichomonosis (picture from a bird food supplier)

But then I noticed one greenfinch acting rather differently from the rest. Finches (and other small birds) tend to flock together through the winter, and a group of mixed species will move through the area visiting different sources of food - which is one reason why one moment there may be no birds at all in your garden, and the next it’s absolutely full of them. This bird, however, was not moving around with the flock but staying close to the feeders. It looked listless and sad, and its feathers were puffed up, making it look like a little ball of a bird.

Although it stayed close to the feeders, it didn’t actually seem to be using them much. This was a rather poorly bird, that much was clear. And probably therefore a bird suffering from the disease trichomonosis, which has greatly reduced greenfinch numbers in our gardens in recent years. I had been expecting to see signs of this disease sooner or later, so I’m sad but not surprised.

Trichomonosis is caused by a protozoan parasite, and affects the throat and gullet of the bird, preventing it from eating successfully. Affected birds may regurgitate food, and other birds may then consume it, which is a prime cause of the disease spread, as is poor hygiene at feeding stations, bird baths etc. This is the disease of pigeons known as canker, or as frounce when seen  in birds of prey. It has been known as a disease of cage birds for some time, but has been identified as affecting greenfinches (and other birds such as chaffinches and siskins) since 2006. The parasite cannot live long outside its host, which means that simple hygiene measures can meet with a reasonable degree of success. It does not affect human beings or other mammals.

So what should I do? I try to make sure I clean feeders regularly, but I could improve hygiene further by using an appropriate disinfectant product. It’s important to leave feeders to air-dry before refilling. Bird baths, also, should be emptied and air-dried on a regular basis. Ground-feeding birds are particularly vulnerable, so cleaning the ground beneath feeders (ours are on paving) will help - but, even better, move feeders around the garden; that will help prevent the build-up of contamination in any one place.  I think the RSPB recommends stopping feeding so that birds are forced to feed elsewhere at a lower density; in reality, though, they may simply move on to other garden feeding stations, where perhaps no hygiene measures are in place. So I shall improve hygiene, keep feeding, and hope for the best.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Refreshment Sunday

A sermon for tomorrow . . .

One of the traditional names for this Sunday, the fourth in Lent, is Refreshment Sunday. On this Sunday you were allowed to take a break from your Lenten discipline, and, I suppose, let your hair down a bit. The name 'Refreshment Sunday' reminds me too that we all need a bit of refreshment in our lives, and that every Sunday and not just this one should be refreshing. Modern Sundays may be entertaining and even exciting, but for me they’re often too busy and frenetic to be all that refreshing. A lot of people are so worn out by the end of the weekend that they’re almost relieved to be back in work on Monday morning. But in all the mix and muddle of a modern Sunday, churches perhaps can still offer the chance of refreshment.

Worship is more than a fill-up visit to the spiritual petrol pump before we drive off into the working week, but we should be refreshed and recharged by what Sunday worship provides. When we review how we do worship, as I’m sure we should from time to time, one of the questions to ask should be, “Is our worship spiritually refreshing, and fulfilling? Or does it take more out of us than it puts in?

Today is of course Mothering Sunday as well as Refreshment Sunday; household servants would be released today to visit their families, which is one reason for the name, but it also became a day when we celebrate our Mother Church. So perhaps we can reflect on what that phrase 'Mother Church' actually means. We could of course also reflect on the motherliness of God, but perhaps we’ll leave that for another time. But in what sense can we think of the Church as a mother?

Mothering is in part about providing refreshment; childhood memories for me include Mum providing endless cups of squash on the hot summer days we always seemed to have in those days. As we kids came rushing in from playing outside or down the fields, all hot and tired, there’d always be a jug waiting.

But of course, there's more to refreshment than that. Lots of things get described as 'refreshing' in our everyday speech. Drinks are refreshing, but so are flavours, mint for example, flavours with a sharp and clear impact on our taste buds. Water taken externally is refreshing, too, so we’re refreshed and relaxed after a bath or a shower. But people can say refreshing things too: think of a refreshing truth, or a refreshing idea. “It’s refreshing to hear someone saying such things,” people may say. Just the other day, someone said to me, “What a refreshing change!” To be honest, I don’t recall what that refreshing change actually was - but it's true that a change can be refreshing.

There’s a real link between refreshment and healing. Refreshment aids the process of recovery. That’s true when we’re healing bodies, and it’s also true when we’re healing minds and souls, and for that matter situations and communities. Healing can begin or be enabled by refreshing things: the truth being spoken, a new perspective or vision being shared, or just a caring hug being given.
But I can think of another place where I personally see the word 'refresh' quite a lot: on my computer screen. I often need to press the refresh button when things on the web get fouled or frozen up, or when the page I want doesn’t load as it should. When I press 'refresh' things should and often do start working again as they should. I’ve spent much of the past week trying to persuade my computer to work as it should; and sometimes my own life needs just as much work.

There are times when our Christian lives get fouled up and frozen, times when ministry and witness and prayer get stale. When our lives as Christians get tangled and deformed, Sunday and Mother Church should be refreshing us and kickstarting us, putting things right, sorting out the glitches, showing the way forward.
If it's doing that, then great, halleluia, praise God. If it isn’t, then that’s something to look into. Question: Do we step out of church on a Sunday with a spring in our step, or does what we do here feel like hard work? Does worship inform and inspire us, or is it more likely to patronise and bore us? As a minister I might not enjoy the answer to a question like that, but it’s still an important question to ask. There are times when church itself is in need of refreshment.

Church provides refreshment when it channels the refreshing power of God. So if a churches fails to refresh, then perhaps its connection to God isn’t properly tuned. We can sometimes be too churchy to be Godly - too involved in doing our own thing to be as plugged in as we should be to what God is wanting to do.

The alternative greeting at the start of the communion prayer (the one not printed in the books we use) is this: The Lord is here, his Spirit is with us. That’s the promise that began this thing called church, on the first Christian Day of Pentecost. God's Spirit is the Spirit of fellowship, if you recall the words of the Grace, and fellowship and refreshment are closely linked. God’s Spirit is given for our refreshment.  The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace; well, a long list of things in fact, but the list begins with these three.  How well do we do love and peace, and more importantly perhaps, how well do we do joy?

Christian joy is actually quite a deep and even (in a way) serious thing. All Sundays, even in Lent, should be joyful. And what motivates our joy is that we delight in our Lord, our living and reigning Lord, whose new life we share. One of the prefaces we use at Easter speaks about the long reign of sin being ended, a broken world being renewed, and we once again made whole.

It’s all right to quote from the Easter service because every Sunday, even in Lent, is in fact a celebration of our risen Lord, and so a time of joyful praise, as we praise God for his love, for the love which saves us, calls us and sends us.

And joy and refreshment closely connect together. A truly joyful church will be constantly refreshing and enthusing and enlivening those who worship as part of it. We're sent out from this service with joy, sent to take the good news of Jesus out into the world that so desperately needs to know about his saving love. At the close of this worship we are sent from Mother Church to share and continue the holy task of mothering, refreshing, healing, loving, in the places where we live and work, and in the name of Jesus Christ. Our world needs so much to be refreshed by what only his gracious hand can bring.