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.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


My "Nature Notes" piece for the month ahead . . .

Early one morning during the summer, I was delighted to see two hedgehogs snuffling about in my back garden. I went out and photographed them. They did not seem too concerned about my presence, and later shuffled off into the wood behind our garden. A few days later, neighbours also reported what I assume were the same two hedgehogs, and one evening I encountered a hedgehog snuffling along a footpath near our home as I wandered along in the other direction.

I mention this because the general feeling is that we are seeing fewer hedgehogs than we used to. There may be a number of reasons for this. Many are still killed on our roads, of course, and hedgehogs may be falling prey to the growing badger population. Impenetrable barriers (at hedgehog-height, anyway) between gardens don’t help, though, and where gardens have been paved or turned into parking areas, to a hedgehog that’s a desert. Excessively tidy gardens are unlikely to produce the insect and invertebrate numbers a hedgehog needs for food, and hedgehogs are very vulnerable to the widespread use of slug pellets.

Our hedgehog is one of fourteen species native to Europe, Asia and Africa, with the cute looking African pygmy hedgehog gaining popularity as a pet species. Hedgehogs are insectivorous, with insects, worms and some slugs and snails making up about three-quarters of their diet. They have a fair bit of hunting to do to get enough food, so they need to travel from garden to garden, and “your” hedgehog is likely to be one of several different hedgehogs visiting your garden. Hedgehogs are mostly nocturnal, so you will only see them in daylight just after dawn or just before sunset. If you see a hedgehog at midday, something somewhere is wrong.

At this time of the year hedgehogs are starting their winter hibernation, and I’ll repeat the annual warning to check bonfires before lighting them - to a hedgehog this looks like a cosy place to bed down for the winter. Hedgehogs need to have put on a bit of weight before their winter sleep; late season youngsters or adults that haven’t done all that well may need some help putting on the ounces, and garden feeding can help.

People traditionally used to put our bread and milk - but we now know that milk is in fact very harmful to hedgehogs. They like it, but can’t digest it properly and it will cause serious stomach upsets. Cooked meat leftovers, pieces of mild cheese, catfood if meat based (not fish) are all good - hedgehogs have only very small teeth, so it’s important that food put out is minced or chopped very small. Proprietary hedgehog feeds are available at garden centres, pet shops and on line. Raisins, sultanas and peanuts are also acceptable (not, of course, salted peanuts).

Finally, hedgehogs are really woodland animals. Gardens with shrubs and trees and  some untidy bits and shelter will attract and suit them. Piles of branches and leaves will be both a good nest site, and a possible supply of insect food.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A Sermon on Today's Readings

Preached at Middleton and Chirbury . . .

One of the mildly insulting words people use about those who go to church is "God-botherers". We are (they say) people who bother God - which implies that God would much rather be left alone, and that when we pray or go to church we’re wasting our and God’s precious time. I’ve always assumed God would be more bothered by my absence from church than my presence there. But I suppose our prayers could bother him. It bothers me when people chase after me with questions and complaints and lists of things for me to do.

A few weeks ago I was watching the birds in my garden, and a group of three sparrows were pecking about under the feeders - a mother bird and two more or less fully grown children, who were still chasing about after her, wanting attention and demanding to be fed. For a while the parent bird put up with their fussing; but then something snapped, and mum rounded on her kids and sent them packing. I have to admit I do recognise that emotion.

Would God recognise it too? Let’s think about the story Jesus told about the unjust judge. I think we can all sympathize with the widow who pursued him demanding justice, and I’m glad that in the story her persistence paid off. Whether that would have happened in real life I don’t know, though; a judge that bent might well have used his legal powers to get the woman locked up; he’d have shut her up and got her off his back without any need to respond to her demands. But that doesn't detract from the point of the parable, which is that persistence pays off.

And while human justice may be deficient, and human judges unjust, and corrupt, God is eternally just, and we can rely on him to hear our prayers and respond to them. In other words, Jesus is telling us that it's always worth our bothering God, it’s what he wants us to do.

But I can think of times in my life when it doesn’t feel as if my prayer’s been heard; when I ask but don’t seem to get an answer. Or perhaps I should really that God hasn’t answered my prayer in the way I wanted him to. And that’s why Jesus told this parable - to encourage his disciples to persevere, to be persistent in their praying, to go on doing it even when they'd begun to feel disheartened, started to wonder what was the point of it all. Even those first disciples found it hard to keep praying.

And I know I do. My main problem is discipline and commitment: the lack of those things. I don't plan as well as I should, and even when I do plan my prayers for a regular time each day, I can still be racing through them with one eye on my watch, so that I’ve finished in time for tea. Well, I tell myself, when you’re as busy as I am, something has to give. I think it was John Wesley who described himself as “too busy not to pray”. That’s a perspective I lack, when I think about it. It’s not that I need to make space for prayer in my busy life; more that I need to make prayer the central pillar around which my busy life is built. I know that, but I don’t do it well; it’s all too easy for prayer to become the optional extra that gets squeezed or even missed out altogether. I should think about the widow in the parable, for whom nothing was more important than her campaign to get justice. She was round the judge's house morning noon and night, bothering him all she could. Shouldn’t my praying be just as important?

There’s an issue about how we pray, and when, and why. If all I do is read other people’s words, with perhaps a sort of shopping list of things I want God to do, my prayer life is sadly deficient. Think about it - if I only speak to my neighbour when I want something off him, and if when I speak to him I don’t use my own words but read someone else’s, I can’t claim to have much of a relationship with him. Faith is about relationship with God, and that relationship is expressed, and indeed made, in the way we do prayer. In the way I do prayer.

So my prayer should strive to be conversation, communication, communion. It should include space for me to be aware of what God wants to say to me, how he wants to prompt me. My prayer needs to be honest, and therefore confessional; I should be facing up to things, saying sorry, when I pray. But when I pray I need also to be praising God and thanking him; and I should be committing myself to do his will. Prayer is a sacrificial thing: each time I pray I should be offering myself afresh to be of use in God’s service. And none of that will happen as it should if I’m rushed and I skimp my prayer. The number of words I use isn’t all that important, nor how good they are; but the place and the time I give is. And to be full and complete prayer needs practice and planning, and to be grounded in scripture.

I usually do say the Lord's Prayer when I pray. But when I do I’m maybe not thinking too hard about the words. They’re so familiar. But there are four words in the Lord’s Prayer that are vital to all our understanding of prayer, and they are these: 'thy will be done'. There is the essential heart of our praying.

Not long ago I was in the Oxfam second hand book shop in Aberystwyth, and I looked through the “religion” section, as I usually do. I picked up a book that had a title that looked interesting, and was disappointed to find it was actually not a book about Christian spirituality but something rather new agey hat seemed to include spells and incantations. Since the next book along the shelf was a book of Celtic prayers, I suppose whoever arranged them had decided that the two books were more or less the same. But in fact, they couldn't have been more different. Magic, as I see it, is to do with seeking power, so the elemental forces of the universe can be bent to serve one’s own needs and desires. And if that might at first sound a bit like the widow banging on and on at the unjust judge, really it isn't.

For at the heart of our praying is this: that, whatever we may ask of God, we bow our own selves to his will. Prayer isn’t about bargaining with God or trying to bribe him, saying, "Do this for me, God, and I'll give you that in return". Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. Even if sometimes that is what we do.

I’m reminded of the story of the man who always began his prayers by saying: "Now, God, if you could just manage to see things my way." What about seeing things his way? Think of how Jesus prayed, think of him in deep distress in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of Good Friday, with the guards already on their way to arrest him. The last words of his prayer were "Even so, thy will, not mine, be done." And we should say the same.

Magic spells are a declaration of power and control, but prayer is a declaration of trust and humility. Thy will, not mine, be done. Our own vision when we pray is restricted: by our own mortality, by our own circles of friends, of desires, of where in a worldly sense we belong, by the limits of our human understanding; but we are praying to the one who is eternally faithful, unlike the unjust judge. God’s faithfulness endures from generation to generation. And so Jesus tells us, as he told those first disciples: don’t give up; keep praying.

Prayer won’t be a short cut to all our hurt and sadness instantly being magicked away; but it is what God desires of us, as any good parent wants from his or her children: that we keep in touch, that we tell him how we feel. Our offering of prayer rises to him like sweet incense, so scripture tells us; and the relationship is made and remade as we pray, between we his children and he our heavenly Father. And when we persevere in prayer we will find in that growing and vital relationship the strength, insight, vision and love we need, not for an easy life but to get on with things - as pilgrims and disciples in this world, and as citizens already of his kingdom. Amen.

Friday, 14 October 2016

My last harvest sermon for this year . . .

I can well remember one of the very first harvest sermons I preached as a young curate. I was preaching at our monthly family service so there were quite a few children there, and I decided to tell the story of a loaf of bread - looking back from the loaf itself all the way to the planting of the grain. The children enjoyed being brought out to the front to play the parts of all the different people involved: the shop assistant, the shelf stacker, the van driver, the baker, and so on, back to the farmer and his seed drill. I remember it because it worked so well, almost too well in fact - by the end of the story we had nearly all the children in church that day and several of the adults as well in a rather crowded line across the chancel steps. The point of the story of course was that at harvest we are celebrating not only things - fruit and vegetables and so forth, but lots of people on whom we depend for lots of things, people we perhaps don’t think about.

Like it or not, we are interdependent. Town and country may not always understand each other, but they do need each other.  We are interdependent internationally, too, taking our share of the world harvest, to be honest maybe more than our share. Take a look through your kitchen cupboards and count up how many countries are represented there. If the pound continues to fall, we might be paying a bit more for some of that before too long - but we’ll still buy most of it, because these things from halfway round the world are part of our staple diet.

I engage with harvest festival in two ways, I think. I value the tradition of harvest festival - the old hymns, the smell of chrysanthemums and apple pie: it’s a rite of calendar passage, marking the shortening of the days, as the year turns as it must away from summer and toward the winter. As we sing, “All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.”

But also, much as I like the traditions of harvest, I’m also aware of the message harvest festival still has for our modern world. It isn’t just about the world of corn dollies, harvest loaves and morris dancers. Things are different today: all may be safely gathered in, but probably the new crop is already in the ground and growing. We farm more intensively and we live faster than our ancestors did. Harvest festivals today need to add to the traditional celebration a chance to reflect on the world as it is too. Our lives connect with people across the world the fruits of whose labour are on the shelf at Tesco. There are inequalities to think about; not everyone has a rich harvest, but we all share one world.

Traditional and modern are both important in harvest. Our lives are greatly impoverished if we lose touch with tradition - it’s too easy just to pour scorn on the ways of the past, and to claim that the hymns our parents and grandparents sang are now boring and outmoded and no longer needed. Myself, I love them all, and hope we never stop singing them. And I am reminded of the truth in George Carey’s comment when he was Archbishop of Canterbury: when a people lose touch with faith and tradition, they also lose their sense of who they are.

But faith has no point or meaning unless it is lived; its test is its relevance to the real issues and demands of the day. So it’s right that harvest celebrations should each year include God’s urgent call to action in the cause of his creation. That’s actually nothing new as a harvest theme. In the Old Testament the Israelites of long ago were told when they entered the Promised Land that they must honour the land and the Lord who had given it to them. How? By sharing its fruits, not only with friends and family but also with ‘the stranger who lives among you’, and with the weakest and most vulnerable members of their own communities.

None of us lives as close to the land as the people did then, even those of us who are every day on the farm or in the garden, and our lives are no longer devastated by a bad harvest as they might have been in the past. We fill our larders from supermarket trolleys, more than from our own plots of land. But the principle’s the same, however much more we understand about the science of things, however much more horsepower we have, and however sophisticated our lives and our lifestyle choices may be: the land that we think of as ours is also God’s. That’s what the Israelites were told when they first entered Canaan. Their land was also God’s land, their world was God’s world. So the harvest of the land was theirs not only to celebrate and enjoy, but to use and share.

Tonight’s celebration should really be called harvest thanksgiving, and it should be more than just a nod in the traditional direction of God,e a chance to reflect on what it means to live thankfully. I counted how many times people said thank you to me the other day. I’d had quite a busy day, held a few doors open, shopped in a few stores, so the number was actually quite impressive. But if I only counted the thank-yous that came across as genuine, maybe that might have been a much smaller number. Some thank-yous were for form’s sake, and some because that’s what you have to say when you’re serving a customer. Some even sounded as though they really meant “That’s enough of you, then, off you go!” Still, I suppose that any sort of thank-you is better than nothing. But the one or two thank-yous that sounded heartfelt and heart-warming - well, when people say thank you like that it makes your day, and I did have a few of those, which was nice.

What does it mean, to live thankfully as God’s people? We show our genuine thanks for God’s gifts at harvest when we value them and the land that produces them by using them according to the mind of the giver. A former colleague of mine (not a minister, I ought to say) used to write against various sections in the agendas of meetings we attended “SEP.” “What’s that stand for?” I asked. “Someone else’s problem”, he told me. Real harvest thanksgiving never writes off things that sadden the heart of God as SEP, someone else’s problem. It is our problem if we are leaching the earth of its resources and poisoning our environment. It is our problem if people are going hungry while others have more than enough. It is our problem that millions of people are refugees, living in tents in the desert or huts in the mud of any number of the world’s transit points, because other people are firing at each other using weapons we may well have made. Time is too short and our world is too precious and our God is too great for us to leave these things to others.

Individually there may be little that any of us can do about the big inequalities of our world, but there’s always something, and small things add up when people get together. We can support campaigns, give to charities and missions that really do the work as it needs to be done, just be more aware of the issues and not just go along with the general flow of what everyone else is thinking. Aid across the world gets a bad name and a bad press, and a lot of government aid is used poorly and often wastefully. But aid charities and Christian missions work in a different way - with partners on the ground, by listening to stories, by helping people make small but worthwhile improvements to their lives. Many small things added together can make a big change. So as we give thanks for harvest tonight, may it be both celebration and commitment: for true thanksgiving requires both of these.

Monday, 10 October 2016

A Harvest sermon for this week . . .

Thank you once again for inviting me to come and join you for Harvest Festival. Harvest Festival has always a favourite time of the year for me, ever since I was very little. Back then I think it would have been the best attended service of the entire year in our village church; maybe less so now, but still always a lovely time. And because everyone held their harvest service (and supper) on a different day you got to go to all of them if you planned well, unlike, say, Christmas when everyone’s service was at more or less the same time.

So thank you; I’m glad to be here. And I’ve brought this with me tonight. It’s an arpillera, which I was lucky enough to be given a few years ago when I was visiting Peru in South America. An arpillera is a sort of picture made from patchwork scraps of material, and they’re traditionally made by Peruvian ladies - a sort of traditional folk art. Many arpilleras depict bible stories, or else, like this one, scenes from village life. So here you can see a colourful market place, with the houses of the village behind, then beyond them the distant mountains, the high Andes which are so important to the life of Peru, because that’s where all their water comes from. It’s a very busy scene, with a full harvest of fruit, including oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, apples, squashes and melons; and there are green vegetables, and baskets and attractive woolly hats.

My Peruvian arpillera can be a reminder both of abundance and God’s provision, the myriad different fruits of the earth; and also of the international dimension of our modern harvest, which we can quickly see on a stroll round the aisles in Tesco, or even by looking through the cupboards in our own kitchens. We give thanks tonight not just for the harvest of our own land, but for the harvest of many lands.

But another thing about this arpillera. It’s traditional folk art, as I’ve said - rural art, but in fact this arpillera was made not in some small village but in the dust and smog of metropolitan Lima. The ladies who made it did maybe once live in a village and work on the land, but they’ve now done what so many in our world are doing, they’ve migrated to the city, perhaps because the land is no longer as good as it was, perhaps because they were enticed by rumours of streets paved with gold.

Our world is increasingly an urban world. In fact over the past few years a significant milestone has been passed, in that since the turn of the century, and for the first time in history or pre-history, most of the world’s population now lives in towns and cities. In the UK and in the more developed parts of the world, the trend is to move out of the cities and into the countryside, though it has to be said that many of those who do so continue to live lives that are relentlessly urban, and to complain that in the countryside there’s mud all over the roads, a shortage of street lighting and far too many people driving tractors. But in most of the world, the human flow is resolutely in the other direction, into the rapidly growing cities. Sixty years ago about 500,000 people lived in Lima. When I visited that figure had risen to some eight million.

So in that case my arpillera could express a yearning for the simple village life its urban creator had lost. And maybe our traditional harvest festivals do the same. I was told not long ago that harvest festivals are on the decline in the country-side, but in the cities more and more people come to them each year. I don’t know if statistics bear that out, but if they do it might be about people in our changing and complex world longing for the simplicity of bygone days.
But we can’t go back there, and I doubt we’d really want to. Harvests vary; some years they’re good, some years not so good. But in past times a bad year for harvest wouldn’t just be disappointing, it would be disastrous. People would have starved. We’re still at the whim of the weather, but it’s not like it was centuries ago.  Technology, mechanisation and internationalisation have seen to that.

In past times the thanks of the people for a good harvest safely gathered in would have been truly heartfelt, literally a matter of life and death. But not today - so is harvest festival now just a charming and gently fading tradition? I think to celebrate harvest is every bit as important as it ever was, maybe more so. It reminds us of our interdependence;  that we depend on the harvest of others, and they depend on ours. We gather to celebrate not just our own harvest, but the world’s – and not just the harvest of farms and plantations, but also of factory and mine and quarry, and of the sea.

And it reminds us that for all our sophistication and technology, the opening words of the 24th Psalm remain true: ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof.’ The people of ancient Israel knew that. They had been led by Moses to a land promised to them; and so the land they farmed was not only their land but also the Lord’s. And at harvest they expressed their thanks to God, and committed themselves each year to use well what he had set into their care.

We’ve heard the story Jesus told of the rich fool, who hoarded up his crops and filled his storehouses and barns and dreamed of a future of self-indulgent luxury. He forgot the Lord’s claim to the land and its produce. He’d cut God out of the picture, and he’d cut his neighbour out as well.
But he was to discover that no-one escapes the march of time, no-one escapes the reality of their own mortality. The fruit of our labour is also our sacred trust from God, to be used in ways that please him. And at harvest we honour God in our concern for our neighbour, in our care for the land, and our readiness to work in ways that honour him as our Creator.

That’s why the ancient Israelites brought the first fruits of their harvest to lay before the altar of the Lord. That very first portion of what that earth had given was rightfully the Lord’s possession - but so was all the rest of it, and all of it, they promised God, would be used with care and shared with compassion, so that everyone could share in the rejoicing of harvest. As each gift was presented, the one who had brought it would remind himself that without God he himself was nothing, just a wanderer in the desert. God had made them a nation, God had given them the land they worked.

Like the ancient Israelites the people who made my arpillera have served their time as wanderers in the desert. It was a surprise to me on arriving in Lima to find that this sprawling bustling city is in fact a desert town, in which rain almost never falls. The shanty towns I visited were built on dusty hillsides where there wasn’t a blade of grass. One I visited was called El Trebol, “the Clover Leaf”, but there wasn’t a leaf to be seen. Interestingly, there were ducks, though. Why? Because the local churches had developed a project to help these new arrivals get a foothold on the ladder and make their own way in the city, by training them in how to look after Muscovy ducks (which happily need only a bit of water to splash about in, since they certainly weren’t going to find any ponds). They would learn how to look after them, feed them, sell the eggs . . . and then they would be given a hatching of ducklings to start them off.

It was a good news story, and after I got back I spent time raising money to support the project from churches and schools I visited. Then about eighteen months later, I received from Peru some pictures of the next stage in the project. For ducks don’t only produce eggs from the rear ends. They can also be a good source of manure, and the brown dust of El Trebol was getting greened over. The pictures showed a band of smiling ladies, some of whom perhaps had helped make my arpillera, standing in a brand new garden made out of the dust of the shanty town.

In small ways, something similar is happening in lots of places around our urban world. People are being given back a harvest of their own. With help from local churches, charities and co-operatives, local people are finding space and resources and inventive new ways to grow what they need to feed their families, and hopefully to have a bit left over to take to market. To me the greening of that desert scene on the edge of Lima was a profound and lovely image of what God’s kingdom is really all about. New hope for the very poor, and a garden for those who live in the desert.

So may God the great Giver bless us and ours this harvest festival; and may a harvest blessing be shared widely in our world through our own fruitfulness in God’s service, and in our own striving for God’s kingdom.  Amen.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Sermon on today's readings . . .

. . . preached at Newtown and Geuffordd :-

My old parish church of Llandrinio is well worth a visit, for those who are interested in history and old stones. Changed and rebuilt several times over the centuries, it’s like a detective story in stone, as you trace the way the building has been altered, from Norman times to the fifteenth century when Llandrinio lost its market and much of its status after the founding of the Cistercian Abbey of Strata Marcella just up the river, to the new works done in the 17th century when the then Rector became the first Bishop of St Asaph after the restoration under Charles II, to the inevitable restoration in Victorian times. Some of the fabric dates back to before the Norman Conquest, and Llandrinio was one of the first places in the area to hear the Gospel, preached there by Trunio, who was one of the band of evangelists brought to this part of Wales by St Cadfan.

Among the older bits of surviving masonry is a narrow window by the side of the altar. It seems very likely that in early medieval times this window would have been used to give communion to people who had leprosy. Leprosy was not uncommon at that time, and of course no leper would have been allowed into the church itself; their disease excluded them from society, and they were, to all intents and purposes, non-persons.

We can in fact cure leprosy - or Hansen’s Disease as it’s more correctly known - fairly easily these days; but it’s much harder to put right the physical and emotional damage done to those who've lived for years with the disease. It’s a sad fact though that many people in our world still live with leprosy. To me that’s a major blot on the face of humanity, that we’ve failed to get this disease cured and done away with, when it seems we can easily find all the money we need to supply bombs and tanks and missiles to whoever wants them. Perhaps it has something to do with the way in which lepers are still seen as being unclean and unworthy today. Perhaps they are still non-persons.

Hansen's Disease is a particular disease with a clear diagnosis and a specified treatment. But in Bible days almost any chronic skin complaint could be labelled as leprosy, so that people with a whole range of skin diseases would find themselves excluded, banned from entering towns and villages. They would band together and live in the open country, until such time as - just maybe -they could prove themselves to be clean, with unblemished skin.  Interestingly, leprosy is not in fact very contagious. But it is fearful and in its effects extremely unsightly. Lepers lose their sense of touch and therefore easily injure themselves, so are frequently disabled as a consequence of the disease.

Imagine, then, what things were like for the lepers in our two readings today. That word ‘leper’ says a lot in itself. We still use it to label those who are despised and turned away by others, for whatever reason. This was a disease that labelled you, defined you, you were no longer a person, a citizen, you were a leper. And it was no respecter of person or privilege.

Naaman, for all his high office, had become a leper: think how horror stricken he must have been to see the tell-tale white marks on his skin. Imagine being one of the ten men who came to beg healing from Jesus. One of them at least was a Samaritan, under normal circumstances he would have had nothing to do with Jews.  But these men no longer had status or citizenship; as non-persons they were bound together by their shared misery and degradation.

Leprosy is more or less extinct in modern Europe; it's a disease of poverty, in countries around the world. It still disfigures and damages those who get it, and forces them into a kind of internal exile, to live in leper colonies or villages away from family and home. Church agencies are among those trying to put things right, using multi-drug therapy to cure the disease and corrective surgery to put right some of the damage caused, and helping those who are disabled to earn their own living and not have to beg.

I can almost taste the fear and anguish of the lepers in our stories as I read. Naaman clutches at straws, desperately hoping that the things his slave girl has told him might be true. The ten lepers have maybe heard that Jesus is someone special - though maybe they’d have made the same appeal to any travelling teacher. In most cases they'd have been sent away still unclean.

But in our stories what happens next is miracle. "Dip yourself in the Jordan," Naaman is told. He wasn't impressed - surely a man like him deserved a personal audience with the prophet! And the Jordan was hardly more than a marshy stream, it couldn’t compare with the great rivers of his homeland. But of course, as we’ve heard, when he does go and wash in the Jordan he's instantly made clean.

All Jesus says to the ten who came to him is 'Go, show yourselves to the priests.' You couldn’t re-enter society until a priest had certified you clean. And it was just as easy as that; perhaps they were grumbling as they turned away; there hadn’t been any special incantation or healing prayer. But then, all of a sudden, they found that they were clean, their skin pink and healthy like that of a little child. Imagine them jumping for joy and dancing off down the road to see the priest.

Naaman had some making up to do after his healing. He’d been in quite a huff about the poor reception he’d had, and the fact that the prophet hadn't come out to speak to him. His servants had had quite a struggle to persuade him to follow the simple instructions he'd been given. But now we see the newly healed Naaman not only healed but also converted. There is a God in Israel. He goes straight back to the prophet's house to say thank-you, and to promise his praise and worship to the God Elisha serves.

And that’s the most important part of this story, and the story of the ten who came to Jesus. I’ve talked a lot about leprosy, but really these stories aren’t about leprosy, which, when all said and done, was just a fact of life in those days. They’re about thankfulness. The thankfulness we see in Naaman; the thankfulness we see in just the one out of the ten who came to Jesus. They were all amazed and thrilled to be healed - but only the one came back. The other common thread in these stories is that both these thankful people, Naaman and the Samaritan leper, were foreigners. Not the people you might expect to lead the way in thankfulness to the God of Israel. 'Your own faith has cured you,' says Jesus to the Samaritan who came back to him.

For me a theme of our readings is the link between faith and thankfulness. One thing that reveals our faith is that we know to say thank-you, and we know who to say it to. Thank-you is a word that lies right at the heart of the Gospel.

Paul wrote that he’d been set free from the tyranny of the Law. As a Pharisee, he had believed that to get to heaven he had to keep every word of the Law (and indeed, he thought he was managing to do it - but he was wrong). If you want to earn your way into heaven, nothing less than perfection can ever be good enough. But Paul’s life had been completely turned round. He’d encountered Jesus, and he had encountered the grace of God. He’d been showered with undeserved, unmerited grace, discovering the wonderful truth that we are loved by God despite ourselves, despite our sin. What Paul could never manage to do by trying to keep the Law had been already done for him on the cross of Calvary; where he and we are healed and set free from the deathly power of sin. The cross stands as the sign of a spiritual healing that is simply there for us, gracious and freely offered. Even before we confess our sins we are forgiven; even before we notice the scars we are healed of the leprosy of our souls.

So the life of faith, for us as Christians, as for Naaman and the Samaritan who came back to Jesus, is a life of thankfulness. For Paul, every aspect of his life in Christ was a thank-offering for what he had been so freely given. His great theme is that now he belongs to Christ, that now Christ lives in him; all that he had lost is found, all his failure is redeemed, in the one man Jesus Christ, crucified in our stead and raised from the dead. So have we freely received: and we should freely give, in praise and thanksgiving for God's redeeming love.

Fill thou my life, O Lord my God
in every part with praise
that my whole being may proclaim
thy being and thy ways. Amen.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Read at the funeral of Annie Holloway

These are the words, adapted and rewritten by me from an anonymous original, read at the funeral today . . .

What matters, when we measure a life?
How can we assess its value?
What matters is not what you bought, but what you built,
not what you got, but what you gave,
not what you owned, but what you shared.
What matters is not your success or fame, 
but the care you showed,
not what you learned, 
but what you were able to pass on and teach.
What matters are the acts of integrity, compassion and courage  
by which you enthused, enriched or empowered others.
What matters is not the memories you held on to,
but the memories you made that live in the hearts of others. 
Living a life that matters doesn't happen by accident,
it is a matter of choice, something we set ourselves to do.
Choose to live a life that matters.