Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Last Day of Spring

That's what it probably was today . . . it all depends, of course, when you choose to start summer. The calendar first day is 21st June, but meteorologists and many naturalists tend to go for June 1st, which makes it easier to keep records, as your season starts at the beginning of a month.  Having said that, Springwatch has only just started, which means for the most part perhaps it should be labelled "Summerwatch". Seasons start at different times for different creatures, as for different people. Some summer migrants haven't been here long - the swifts that are screaming across our skies, for example, or spotted flycatchers. Resident birds and some early migrants like chiffchaffs may well have raised a brood already, and our garden has already seen its share of young blackbirds, blue tits and coal tits.

This has been quite a warm spring, on the whole; and dry, too, though the last couple of weeks have put some water back in the table. The forecast I saw for today suggested the occasional shower. In fact it rained here for much of the afternoon. Winds were light, maybe we were just unlucky - or lucky, everything is still growing apace, and the water is much needed.

Crow, as we call him, because he is, albeit with white wings and a rather hang-dog expression, is still around our garden. He is very shy and cautious, and can't fly at all well. He will sit in a tree above our feeders for ages before daring to come down, and then doesn't stay long on the ground. He has his own route - on foot - back into the wood, and then you hear him climbing bit by bit back up the tree. I managed to persuade him to come down and eat some scattered grain this morning. It's not much of a life. I notice Springwatch tonight features a woodpecker with exactly the same designs on a blue tit nest as ours had, and suggested they wait until the chicks are almost ready to fledge before striking; sad, but that's how nature works.

Summer tomorrow, and a warm day is promised! To close, a bee on one of our rambling roses . . .

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Sermon for Pentecost

(To be preached at Chirbury)

Not long ago, after attending a family funeral, I had a walk round some of the places I used to know in my primary school days in Stafford. It was interesting to see how things had changed, some for the better but some not so, in my view anyway. My brother Ben has recently signed me up to a Facebook Group called “Stafford Remembered”, and it’s been fascinating to see and to share some great old photographs and memories of my home town, and to re-make one or two acquaintances as well. People all around the world are part of the group, and the impression I have is that many of them really wish that places they knew when they were young could still be just the same whenever they went back to visit. If I’m honest, part of me feels the same way. But I also know that it can't be like that. For better or for worse, the world moves on, and we have to move on as well; you can't hang on to the past, however much you wish you could; you have to let go.

Last week a friend of mine was showing me some photos of a family wedding she’d just been to, her niece’s, I think. I didn’t know most of the people in the pictures, but it was nice to look in on the celebration: a celebration of love, in which friends and family come together to wish these two people joy and  blessing, God’s blessing, in their married life together. That’s one particular way in which we let go of the old life, to take on something new, at a wedding. The two people looking so happy at the heart of the family groups would not of course be letting go of all the old stuff: “something old” is deliberately part of the list of what you have to have at a wedding, and families and friends continue to have a part to play in the new partnership sealed in a wedding ceremony. But things will be different: husband and wife belong to one another in a new way.

To start out and begin again is a recurring theme within the church year: Advent, Candlemas and Lent; Maundy Thursday and Easter Day - all these are times when we're encouraged to start out afresh, and to make a new commitment to God.

And today is also one of those special days, and perhaps the most important of them: Pentecost. Today is sometimes called the birthday of the Church; when the Holy Spirit entered the lives of the apostles with sudden and dramatic power. Birthday - yes, from this point on this band of folk not only had a message for the world, they had the means and the desire to share that message, and to share it with an infectious joy that would cross all kinds of human boundaries.

They were changed from what they had been - disciples, followers, learners - to become instead witnesses and apostles (the word apostle means messenger). The experience they shared of God's presence and power was totally transformative - something they simply had to share, and take out into all the world. And there’s still a hunger for the message of joy they had to share.

After another funeral not long ago, a slightly unconventional one, I found myself talking with a young teacher who works in a church school in London. Christian values are important to her, she said, and she’s clear about what she believes; but she’d been finding it hard to actually go to church week by week. That was partly just the pressure of teaching and of city life, but also she wasn’t sure what to say or do, or when to sit or stand, in a fairly traditional church. “It sometimes seems that everyone’s looking at me,” she said, “and sometimes I don’t really feel very welcome there.”  Things like when to stand or when to sit aren’t important, I replied. "But they do feel important when I'm there,” she said. As a girl she’d always been chapel, so maybe the culture shift between church and chapel was part of the issue - but not the whole story. Anyway, she’d keep trying, she said.

That conversation reminded me that there’s a real market out there beyond our sturdy walls of people who are serious about faith but maybe unsure about religion. People who are not churched, but who do perhaps want to make a new start in life, and to know God.

I remember at a clergy training day some years ago Robin Gamble, of “Leading your Church into Growth”, saying that many clergy he spoke to felt their churches were surrounded by opposition and hostility. There is some of that of course, he said, but the truth is that churches are mostly surrounded by people who think well of us. But they don’t come, most of them, most of the time. Why is that, and how can the Church today help people to find that new start in Christ, in the Gospel, and indeed in church? Over the ten days since Ascension Day, we’ve been asked to reflect on that and pray about it within our diocese, and this afternoon there is a gathering at the cathedral to celebrate faith and mission on this birthday of the Church.

The challenge of mission and church growth begins with ourselves, with being open to renewal, and ready to make a new start. Like in my home town, that means some of the old has to go or to change, but not all of it. Some new things need to come in, but always in the service of the unchanging and undiluted message of God’s saving love and the power of the cross. We’ll win no converts by being trendy just for the sake of it, but nor will we is we’re inflexibly hooked on traditions whose main role is to make us feel comfortable. A living faith is always open to change.

The Pentecostal experience of those first disciples was of God not far off in space or far back in time, not needing to be approached in some special way or by using special words, not needing all the paraphernalia of the temple cult - but simply there, powerfully and compellingly present in the here and now of their lives. The only way they could describe what happened was by speaking of the uncontrollable and cleansing forces of nature: wind and fire. A rushing mighty wind that filled the whole house, and tongues of flame that rested on each one standing there. They were so filled with joy, so completely infused with a sense of God’s power, that as they spilled out onto the street people thought they were drunk on new wine. And so, in a way, they were.

But that was then, what about now? Bishops Richard and Alastair have asked that in every parish we pray for the God’s gift of his Holy Spirit, which is what the disciples had been commanded to do. But what does that mean, in practice? I don’t think it’s about signing up for a happy clappy style of religion, not necessarily anyway; but it does I think mean taking the risk of stepping out of our comfort zone - to coin a phrase, it’s about “letting go, and letting God”. Asking God to empower and enthuse and re-vision us in his service.

Is that scary? It should be, because it’s about me surrendering control of my life from me to God. I’ve been thinking about scary things ever since an otherwise quite sane and sensible friend told me she was going to do the zip wire at Blaenau Ffestiniog to raise funds for charity. Something I would never dare to do, or that’s what I think now, anyway. Put myself completely in the power of others? Let go, and hope for the best? That’s maybe how it was for the first disciples in that first Christian Pentecost. But this is my prayer: I’m convinced I need to pray it, and I think every church needs to pray something along these lines, if we are truly to invest ourselves in the future that God desires: “Lord, bless me and fill me with your Holy Spirit. May I receive again and afresh the blessing of your love, and may I be empowered to share that blessing in your world. Amen.”

Monday, 29 May 2017

Blue Tits and Woodpeckers - an update

I posted a few days ago about the great spotted woodpecker's attacks on our blue tit nest box. Well, the box is now deserted, and while the entrance hole doesn't seem any larger, I think it has probably been enlarged enough to allow chicks to be snatched. So I fear the worst. The woodpeckers are frequently around, and very vocal.

I might be mistaken, though, in fearing the worst. I'm sure the chicks were close to fledging, and they might have gone, even though I missed seeing them fly. Today, there were briefly some young blue tits near the feeding station. There's a nest not far away in the wood (the two sets of parents were quite combative towards each other), so they might be from that brood, but equally they could have been "ours". Anyway, my next job is to get the box down and sort out a replacement.

A strange bird has been visiting our feeders over the past few days - brown and black and quite scruffy looking. Its behaviour suggested a coal tit, but the plumage frankly didn't convince at all! But it was: a small throng of young coal tits duly appeared, and the scruffy parent got on with the task of feeding them. It's a reminder if I needed one as to just how hard the parent birds have to work, and at what cost to their appearance if not their health, to raise probably at least two broods of young through the season. I have to say that, though scruffy, the adult bird seemed healthy and active enough.

Coal tits are right at the bottom of the pecking order, just below blue tits which are usually next to bottom. Our resident blue tits this year, however, have not been ready to accept that place, and have seen off great tits and other larger birds, as well as the other nearby blue tit pair. Coal tits, aware of their place, generally make swift raiding visits to grab a seed and then go. Often they plant the seeds they grab, keeping them for later. When sunflowers start growing in unlikely places like hanging baskets, coal tits are usually the reason!

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Prayerful Waiting

Only Luke tells us about the Ascension. He tells the story twice, to close his first book, his Gospel, and to begin his second book, the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is sometimes called Acts Luke’s Gospel of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel takes us with Jesus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and in Acts we go with the disciples on from Jerusalem to Rome, and into all the world.

It’s in Jerusalem, or just outside at Bethany, that Jesus takes leave of his disciples. And they return to Jerusalem to wait prayerfully and joyfully for the gift of power and prophecy and insight that he’s promised them. The Gospel tells how the disciples travelled with Jesus from Galilee to Judaea, along country roads and city streets, listening, watching and learning, and growing more and more certain that this was the man through whom God would act to save and restore his people. But then their hopes were dashed; they fled in terror as he was arrested, quickly condemned in a staged trial and put to death on a cross. But then there is Easter: their Lord was with them again; over a period of forty days he taught them how in the prophets and psalms the servant who would suffer and die to save God’s people was foreseen. They came to see that what had seemed so much like failure and the ending of all their dreams and hopes was in fact God’s salvation being brought to its wonderful fruition. The cross, the ultimate sign of degradation and defeat, was instead a throne, the place where we are drawn to know the wonder of divine love.

And this good news, God’s love triumphant over sin and death, isn’t reserved for any one place, or any one time, or any one people. There is what we call the Great Commission: "Go into every place, preach the Gospel to every nation." The disciples were about to begin this work.

Next Sunday, Pentecost, the Church recalls how the disciples were given the power they needed to be God’s witnesses to the world. As he left them on that hillside at Bethany with his hands lifted in blessing, Jesus told them to stay in the city until they were clothed with the power from on high. Today we remember those days of prayerful waiting, and in our diocese and across the Church of England we’re asked again this year to spend time ourselves in prayer for the Church in mission; to wait prayerfully, for God still has work for us to do.

We may think we’re too weak and small to do that work; we may well think the task’s too much for us, but it isn’t. Those who waited in Jerusalem were a tiny band of folk: not well educated, not well off, not well known. They had no buildings or organisation, and they were probably quite frightened, too, for Jerusalem was a dangerous place for any friends of this man who’d been crucified.

But they waited, and they prayed. I doubt they prayed for anything in particular; how can they have known what to pray for? But prayerfully they placed themselves at God’s disposal, to be used as he desired. Often as the Church we are tempted to set our own agenda, whatever that agenda may be. To keep things how they’ve always been, perhaps? To defend the Church’s prestige, its standing in society? To make sure our Church is large and growing - but isn’t faithfulness to God’s word more important? To keep our Church rich and secure - but shouldn’t the Church of Christ be taking risks with poverty and generosity?

Last Sunday, Aldersgate Sunday, Methodists looked back to what happened to John Wesley when he waited prayerfully on God. he was already a Christian, a son of the vicarage and himself a Christian minister, but on that day he experienced God’s love and God’s call in a new and deeper way. His heart was, as he put it, strangely warmed, and a new ministry began.

Wesley’s words are used in the annual Methodist covenant service: “Christ has many services to be done; some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both. In some we may please Christ and please ourselves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given us in Christ, who strengthens us.”

The power to do all these things is given us in Christ. I was given a copy of those words not in my local Methodist Church, though I do go there quite often, but at our Cathedral last year, at an evening of sharing resources, ideas and expertise in mission and ministry, discovering some of the good things that are happening round our Diocese. Next Sunday there’ll be another event at the Cathedral, which I hope to attend, to follow this time of prayerful waiting that reflects how those first apostles waited on God in Jerusalem. The gifts of the Spirit are promised to us as to them - to equip God’s Church for the challenge of mission in this confused and often hurting world, a world so much in need of his love.

Like those first apostles, our prayer is mostly about listening for God, waiting expectantly for his call. His promise hasn’t changed: "Commit yourself to me, to my way of love, and my Spirit will be your strength, your guide, your hope and your vision."

Saturday, 27 May 2017


Great Spotted Woodpeckers have been regular visitors to our garden ever since we moved in here, but generally more in winter than summer, and we've had no evidence of them breeding in the small woodland behind us. This year, though, we've had lots of drumming, and very regular visits by both male and female through the spring, so we're pretty sure they're nesting close by. That's good, but it brings into play the less attractive (to us) side of the woodpecker - that they predate the nests of other birds.

We were woken the other morning by a loud tapping noise from just outside our window. I wondered whether it was a blackbird prospecting the gutter - moss grows readily on our gently sloping tile roof, and chunks of it end up in the gutter, where blackbirds and jackdaws often examine it hoping to find invertebrates to eat. Ann, however, immediately identified the sound as a woodpecker trying to break into the nest box, which is currently being used by blue tits. A bang on the window, and there was a distinctive blur of black and white as the culprit fled back into the wood.

Since then the woodpecker has been back quite a few times. Each time we've heard it, we've acted quickly to scare it off, but the damage is being done, and the hole is much larger than it should be. Whether any of the chicks will survive to fledge I'm not sure, but at present the parent blue tits are still busily attending and feeding, so we can but hope.

The nest box, with woodpecker damage around the hole.

This nest box has been in place since before we moved in here, so was due for replacement anyway. We'll need to make sure that the new one has the nest hole protected by a metal front. A reminder, if we needed it, that nature is red in tooth and claw (and, in this case, quite fearsome beak).

Friday, 26 May 2017

True Religion

John Wesley, whose conversion was celebrated in Methodist churches last Sunday, famously said: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

I thought I’d begin with that quote on this Sunday after Ascension Day, because I’ve found myself over the past week reflecting on the difference between false religion, of which there is much in our world, and true religion, which is what their Lord told the first disciples and their companions they were to take out into all the world.

St Luke tells us that it was as he blessed them that Jesus was taken up from them through the clouds and into heaven. As he blessed them, as his hands were raised in the act of blessing. The inference is that blessing is what he is always doing. There’s no point in our Christian lives, there’s no time in the history of the Church, in which we do not have, in which we are not offered, the blessing of Christ.
And our task as his people is to pass that blessing on, to everyone, in every way, at every time, to paraphrase John Wesley: not in order to earn brownie points, not in order to justify ourselves, not to merit eternal life, but simply because we have been already blessed, we have been redeemed, and we have the gift of heaven.

Luke tells us that Christ ascended through the clouds, and a picture in my Sunday school bible presents that in a very literal way, as his sandalled feet lift from the ground. Actually, the how isn’t so important. The clouds Luke mentions are in the Bible always a symbol of mystery, and those who first read Luke’s words would have known that. There is mystery here, but the simple facts are these: Jesus was with his disciples, teaching them, encouraging and preparing them, opening the eyes of their minds. And then there came a time when he was no longer with them.

They’d been told to wait, and Luke tells us they waited joyfully. Of course they did: they knew the truth, they knew what the cross now was - no longer a sign of defeat and death, of things having gone terribly wrong, of God’s plans being thwarted by evil men. Instead, the cross has become a royal throne, the place where God’s love had been proved triumphant, the sign of life, and the hope of glory. They knew this truth, and they knew they were blessed, and held securely in God’s love.

One of my favourite hymns is Timothy Dudley-Smith’s powerful hymn “Lord of the years”. I especially love the last verse, which begins, “Lord, for ourselves; in living power remake us, self on the cross and Christ upon the throne.” “In living power remake us” - that’s exactly what those first disciples will have prayed as they waited in Jerusalem for the gift that had been promised, the gift of the Holy Spirit that would send them tumbling joyfully out onto the streets to begin to change the world.

“Self on the cross and Christ upon the throne” - here in just a single line Bishop Timothy sums up the essential heart of Christian service and witness and mission. Self on the cross and Christ upon the throne. Paul writes in Romans chapter 6 verse 6 (in the New Living translation) “We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin.” But it’s one thing to say that; now we have to live it. In obedience, in service, in love given that reflects and responds to the love received: knowing that Christ is on the throne, at the right hand of the Father, and that we have his blessing.

“Religion has been the cause of most of the troubles of our world throughout most of human history, and it still is today.” So said an atheist friend to me the other day. I think it’s often a good thing for Christian ministers to have one or two atheist friends. There’s always the chance we might convert them, but meanwhile they do help to keep us on our toes.

Now I could have pointed out that an awful lot of evil has been done by people who weren’t remotely religious, and by regimes some of which had banned all forms of religion. I could think of past atrocities perpetrated by Josef Stalin, I could point to the atheist nation that is North Korea today. But it’s hard to deny that religion has been involved in a lot of bad stuff through the centuries, and that some form of religion, however twisted and perverted, played its part in the terrorist outrage that last week in Manchester came close to all of us.

I can understand why some people, like my friend, want to switch off from all forms of religion. It’s all wrong, they say. Take no orders from anyone, only yourself. Live your own life, don’t expect any god to tell you what to do, don’t trust anyone who claims to speak the word of any god.

I can understand, but I don’t agree. Many of those whose bad actions are fuelled by hate find in religion a label to justify what they do; but if they didn’t have that label they’d find another. The Manchester bomber may have believed that what he was doing was pleasing to God, but he believed that because he had been brainwashed, indoctrinated, re-educated by people whose guilt is, if anything even more than his; he was in a way, simply a weapon they made and used, with evil intent.

Where religion is used to justify terrorism, violence, hatred, such religion is false: simple statement. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, leaders of every faith would I am sure stand together to affirm it. We’ll think in a moment about what makes it false, what proves it to be false. A word first about false sacrifice. The phenomenon of the suicide bomber is one of the saddest and scariest developments in terrorism over the past fifty years. It horrifies me that those who plan terror attacks can find or make willing candidates ready to sacrifice themselves for the cause. False sacrifices in the service of false religion: young people persuaded that the success of their sacrifice can be measured in the number of other young lives they take with them.

Such a perverted form of self-sacrifice is horrific and shocking and sick when compared with the man who as he hangs helpless on a cross is saving the world, is facing down and defeating the power of death itself, when compared with the sacrifice at the heart of our faith. Christ dies that we may be freed from death, Christ dies that we may live.

That word faith is crucial. Faith isn’t the same as religion, but true religion expresses faith, is founded in faith, is enlivened and enabled by faith. Faith isn’t just belief, it’s also trust: not just saying to God, “Yes, you exist” but seeking to align our heart to his, to make him our example, and to praise him not only in our prayers and the songs we sing, but in lives of active and obedient service.

For Christians, that’s expressed in those four words of Bishop Timothy, “Christ upon the throne.” We believe that God is like Jesus. John wrote in chapter 1 verse 18 of his Gospel, “No-one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Faith rests in relationship; if we seek to make Jesus the centre of our lives, we’ll want to be as like him as we can be in all we do, in our living, our giving, in the care we show.

All the great religions speak of God’s call to his people in terms of love, justice, peace, service. There are many forms of false religion in our world, not all of them violent, but all I would say harmful. Some false religion is idle, lazy, self-interested, uncaring. Some is divisive, sectarian, factional. Some is ambitious and power-hungry in a worldly way. Some is cold, ritualistic, exclusive. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” said Jesus; and “I give you a new commandment: love one another, as I have loved you.” False religion works against the good of all, to promote the good of some; but Christ calls on us to seek the good of all. The message and challenge of Ascension-tide for all of us is this: “Self on the cross, and Christ upon the throne.”

So in his name, and with his blessing, and according to his will: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Ascension Day

This morning I spent a couple of hours packing bags in Tesco, raising funds for Hope House. Chatting to people as I did it, obviously some of the time I was talking about Hope House and the work it does. But conversations also drifted onto the events in Manchester, that bomb that deliberately targeted children and families, since my time in Tesco included the minute’s silence held nationwide at eleven o’clock.

After the silence one man said angrily, “This country’s finished. It’s in a mess. Somebody needs to start doing something!” I have a feeling that I might not have agreed with him who that somebody might be, and what they should be doing. But I certainly did share with him a sense of anger and shock and helplessness. The young singer those young people had gone to see said, “I have no words.” How can anyone choose to act with such cruelty and lack of pity against innocent young people? It beggars belief.

Someone said to me the other day, “Why does God let something like that happen?” And this morning in Tesco someone else commented, “It’s a godless world we’re living in.” In these few words I can’t do much to address the problem of evil in the world, let alone the specific point of how anyone committing such a hideous crime could believe that they were serving and pleasing God, as I presume the bomber did believe. But those who worked on his confused and credulous mind to persuade him that his God would be served by indiscriminate killing are I believe even more guilty, and have even more to answer for, than the bomber himself, who was, in a way, just a weapon they made and used.

Anyway, the person who asked why God lets these things happen went on to answer his own question by saying, “God sits there up in heaven and doesn’t care what’s happening down here, that’s what I think.” said I can understand and sympathise with that point of view. But I don’t share it.

Today is Ascension Day, so I suppose our theme is Jesus going back to heaven. Today is the day when he was taken bodily up through the clouds, leaving the disciples back down there to get on with things without him. That’s the story St Luke tells, at least. As it happens, only St Luke tells this story, so one question to ask straight off is why should that be? Why don’t the other Gospel writers tell the same story?

The reason they don’t is that only St Luke needed to tell it. He told it twice - firstly as a means of ending his Gospel, and then secondly to begin his second book, the Acts of the Apostles. So, today then are we just here to commemorate a mere literary device?  No, there’s more than that to Ascension Day; but I think today’s more about what the story means than about the physical details themselves. And what the story is told to convey is something agreed on across all the Gospels: that Jesus was with his disciples for a period of time after Easter Day, but then was no longer visibly and physically present with them.

He was with them to make sure that the truth of the resurrection had firmly lodged in their hearts and minds; and to make sure they were ready for what would happen next. What that meant for them and means for us is this: firstly, that Jesus left them in order that something new could now happen; so that the gift of the Spirit could fall upon them, giving them courage, insight, vision, love. Through his Spirit, far from abandoning his world, God in Christ continues to be actively involved through the life of his Church, through its fellowship and witness and service.

Secondly though, Jesus left them to take his place at the right hand of the Father, from which, as our creed reminds us, he shall come again to judge the world. Ascension Day is about the active presence of Christ in the world, the promised gift for which his disciples waited in Jerusalem; and it’s about the kingship of Christ, and that we and the world stand under his judgement.

The last verse of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s great hymn “Lord of the Years” reads: “Lord, for ourselves; in living power remake us, self on the cross and Christ upon the throne.” With admirable economy Bishop Timothy sums up in these two lines the essential mission of the Church. Self on the cross and Christ upon the throne. Ours must be a cross shaped mission, marked by self sacrifice, measured in lives lived with others in mind; that’s what the Spirit of God lovingly inspires in the Church. And it’s to be an obedient mission, a mission true to the mind and heart of Christ, to his example, teaching and instruction. “A new commandment I give to you,” he told his disciples: “that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

So Ascension Day is a celebration not of the departure of Christ from his disciples, but of his abiding and enlivening presence with them - and in the Church that continues his work today. Not that this allows for any easy answer to the question “Why?” Why Manchester, why Westminster? Why Paris, why the attack a month ago that killed a coachload of schoolchildren in Syria? Why so much evil and sadness in the world? Why so much evil, loveless and false religion? But I am confirmed in my belief that what Christ calls from us today is a prayerful waiting on his words, and that we accept him as our Lord and King, and living lives of service that reflect his sacrifice and proclaim his love. And that in the face of false religion, religion that teaches hate and demands and destroys lives, our sacred call is to live that true religion whose hallmark is love.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

On Hell and Aldersgate - a sermon for the coming Sunday

At every main Sunday service we Anglicans are required to recite one of the creeds, generally either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. These days we do sometimes use other statements of faith instead, maybe the one used at baptisms or the one derived from Philippians chapter two. A creed is a statement of shared belief, and to stand and say the creed together expresses our fellowship as God’s people. But the Apostles’ Creed, which dates from the fourth century AD, was designed, like other creeds, to be also a test of faith, a statement of what you had to believe to be part of the Church; and if you couldn’t say and mean each and every word you were in a state of heresy.

So every phrase in the Creed is a precise and carefully judged statement of orthodox faith. Today I want to focus on one small segment which personally I always found really difficult when I was a boy in our church choir back home. And it is this: “He descended into hell.” The longer Nicene Creed we most often use at Communion doesn’t include this phrase; it simply says, “He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again”, in the version used in Common Worship.

But the Apostles’ Creed at morning and evening prayer says that Jesus descended into hell. The Biblical basis for this phrase seems in part to lie in a phrase from one of today’s set readings, the one from chapter three of the First Letter of Peter. In verses 18 to 20, Peter writes: “Christ suffered for our sins once and for all, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God; put to death in the body, he was brought to life in the spirit. In the spirit he also went and made his proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, those who had refused to obey in the past.” That last sentence, about making proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, is quite difficult to interpret, but as I read it I find myself asking - where else would spirits be imprisoned but in hell?

The first part of what Peter writes is clear enough: he tells us that Christ, the one who is just, has gained freedom for those who are unjust, in other words, us, fallen and sinful people. By living a righteous life and dying a righteous death, Jesus has  bridged the gap between the righteous God and us his unrighteous people. But then Peter goes on to address a question I’ve generally not thought to ask: where was Jesus, what was he doing, on the day between his burial and his resurrection, the day we call Holy Saturday? The Apostle’s Creed tells us Jesus descended into hell. And here, having written in verse 18 that Jesus “though put to death in the flesh, was “made alive in the Spirit” he goes on to say that in the spirit he made proclamation to the spirits in prison.

Through much of the Old Testament, when thinking about the place of the dead, the Bible speaks of Sheol, the pit, a shadowy place between existence and non-existence. But by the time of Jesus some Jews, the Pharisees for example, had a well-developed belief in life after death, although that wasn’t shared by other groups like the Sadducees. The early Church began to contrast heaven, to which the righteous dead would go, with Hades or hell, the place to which the unrighteous and disobedient would be sent. Peter in this reading uses the usual word for prison, rather than openly speaking of hell, but he surely does mean us to think of hell, for here is where those who persist in disobedience are held.

He tells us that Jesus “gave his proclamation” to those who’d refused to obey in the past; and then speaks about the time of Noah, and of the eight people, Noah and his wife, and his sons and their wives, who passed safely through the flood. For Peter this is a sign of the salvation we receive through baptism, by which we’re brought through water to safety. But it seems the dead are not excluded from the salvation offered to us. Reading on into chapter four and verse 6 Peter writes again that “the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like mortals, they might live in the spirit like God.”

To me this means that there are no limits to the reach of God’s love. The creeds of the Church affirm that only in Jesus do we find a power and a love that can conquer death itself. There’s no limit to what Jesus does for us, there’s no place he won’t go, as he seeks to change our hearts and bring us back to God. Peter tells how God’s righteous servant brings the unrighteous, both living and dead, back within the reach of God’s love, back within the bounds of its saving power. God’s boundless love, the triumph of his Son: this is not limited or conquered, not even by the powers of death and hell. Jesus said to Peter that on this rock he would build his church, to stand so sure that not even the gates of hell could prevail against it.

In a way I’ve always sat a little lightly to creeds. I’m happy to recite them and I believe in what they stand for, but I’m poetic rather than precise in the way I understand the words I say. “Now we see through a glass darkly”, Paul wrote. God is beyond our reach and sight, but we rejoice in the mystery of a love we see in Jesus, love that seeks us out and saves us. The centre of my faith is the relationship of love I’m offered: “What a friend we have in Jesus”, as the hymn puts it. Jesus is love divine, acting to change hearts and lives, acting without limit, going even to hell and back for us. There’s nothing he won’t do, and nothing in life or in death, on earth or even under the earth, can separate us from his love.
Methodists call this Sunday Aldersgate Sunday, the one before the 24th May, when John Wesley’s faith was transformed and his heart “strangely warmed” (as he described it) in a meeting room in Aldersgate Street, London. What was it that warmed his heart that day? Love, pure and simple, love that claims us, love that redeems us, love that sparks our love and enables our witness and service and praise, love without limit. It’s not what you believe that counts, nor is it even the list of good things you do. We are saved through grace, brought home by a love we don’t deserve, by the one who is love without limit, love without end.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017


My Nature Notes article for the coming month . . .

“What is the point of wasps?” I was asked the other day. Well, on fine and warm spring days, queen wasps have been very visible this year. At our place, as fast as I’ve got rid of one another seems to have turned up, and generally they don’t seem to have been very well-tempered. So wasps are, at the very least, irritating; but the fact is, we’d miss them if they weren’t there.

You may be surprised to know that there are some 9,000 different species of wasp in the UK. Many of these are very small, some are highly specialised, most don’t sting, and you probably wouldn’t recognise a lot of them as wasps at all. The ones that cause us so much trouble are the so-called paper wasps of the family Vespidae, social wasps that build large paper nests and have nasty stings. The largest of these is of course the hornet, not unknown in these parts but not all that often seen, either. We are close to the northern edge of its UK distribution, though hornets are beginning to spread further north. Hornets are fairly docile unless their nest is threatened, but do have a very nasty sting if riled, and an individual hornet or wasp can sting more than once. Their nests are in fact quite small, with maybe 300 inhabitants, whereas the nests of the two best known species of ‘typical’ wasps, the common wasp and the German wasp, can grow to accommodate more than 10,000 individual wasps.

The queen wasps that are so annoying just now have hibernated through the winter and are looking for nest sites. She’ll also be urgently looking for food to build up her strength, and wasps are in fact important early season pollinators of flowers. Once the first eggs have been laid, the queen, then the emerging workers, will take insects and caterpillars to feed the young. In warm weather it can take little more than a week for an egg to develop into the adult wasp, in cooler temperatures the process may take three to four weeks. Estimates vary as to how many insects a wasp colony will take in a season - suffice to say it’s a lot. So wasps can be a force for good in many ways - annoying though they can be, they are in fact the gardener’s friend.

Wasps are mostly a problem when the nest is threatened. Wasps follow a linear flight path in and out of the nest, and if you happen to be in the way, they don’t like it. They have excellent vision, and sudden panicked movements on our part make us seem larger and more threatening, increasing the chance of attack. When a wasp stings, a pheromone is released that encourages other wasps to join in, particularly when the nest itself is threatened. But badgers will often destroy wasp nests, feeding on the grubs and clearly able to ignore the stings of defending adults.

A number of species of wasp new to the UK have arrived in recent years, among them the median wasp which is larger than native species, and has something of a reputation for aggression. Thankfully, this wasp is still fairly rare. But wasps form part of a balanced ecosystem, and, if we are kind to them and respect their space, for the most part they will do more good than harm.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Way, Truth and Life - a sermon on John 14.1-14

(To be preached this Sunday at Trelystan)

Our Gospel reading today may be one of the best known passages of the New Testament, not least because it’s read at many a funeral service. Significant words, but what are their context? We’re in that upper room where Jesus made secret arrangements to share a last supper, a Passover meal, with his disciples. And Jesus has washed their feet, something you’d expect the lowest servant to do. That must have been an uncomfortable moment: it should surely have been one of them who did it, not their teacher; but Jesus has set an example of service for them to follow.

He goes on to tell them that one of their own number will betray him; and at the end of the meal Judas leaves the room. It was night, John tells us bluntly; not just the darkness of evening, but the darkness of sin and chaos. Love one another, Jesus tells the remaining eleven. “I will follow you anywhere,” says Peter, “I will lay down my life for you.” But Jesus tells him, “Before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

And so this chapter begins, with the disciples feeling uneasy, embarrassed, disorientated. So Jesus starts by saying: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.”  These are words of comfort, and the disciples will need words like that. If they are disorientated now, how will they feel tomorrow, Good Friday? They can’t know as yet just how badly they’re going to fail their Lord. But Jesus, of course, does.

So there’s a message to take from this passage about our own failure; the ways in which we let Jesus down. Like the disciples, we let Jesus down. But he promises us as he promised them that despite our failure there is a place for us in his Father’s love. Jesus doesn’t measure us by our performance: in Ephesians chapter two Paul writes, “It is by grace that you are saved, through faith - and this is not your own doing, but the gift of God.” Jesus says here: “You know the way to the place where I am going.”  Not “You will know the way” but “You do know the way.”
You already know the way, Jesus tells the disciples. They’ve been with him a while now, they’ve heard his teaching, they’ve seen him at work. They should have learned something. But Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” I think Thomas was the sort of guy who asks the question everyone else is thinking, but no-one else dares ask. And in the lecture or class room you heave a sigh of relief and think, “Thank goodness someone asked!” Good job we’ve got Thomas with us! that’s probably what the others were thinking. And Jesus tells him (and us), “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.”

Words of comfort, but words also of truth and challenge. The way isn’t something we search for, it’s nothing to do with maps and satnavs, nor is there anything mystic about it. It’s not a matter of arcane knowledge, it’s about relationship. To know Jesus is to know the Father. In this person, in this human life, we can see the glory of divine love. And we have a place in that love. Jesus says he is the way; not a way, but the way, not a truth, but the truth. “No-one comes to the Father, except by me,” he says.

I sometimes feel uncomfortable about exclusive language: the way, as if there is no other way to goodness and God. While I am a Christian by conviction and choice, and not simply by chance, that doesn’t mean that I reject all other religious paths, all other ways of searching for God, as simply “wrong”. But for me the challenge of “I am the way, the truth, and the life” is a personal challenge, a challenge to me. I’ve no right to sit in judgement on anyone else, as to what relationship they have, or don’t have, with God. The challenge to me - and to you - is that we take to heart the example Jesus has set us, and the mark of his cross as the only place where our salvation is secured, where the burden of our failure, our sin, is lifted from us. So all that we do and say, the way we live, the decisions we make, should be a living witness to what God has done; to what he’s done in Jesus and in the story of the cross, and to what he has done and is doing in our own lives.

For me the challenge and call of these words is simple and direct: live in a way that shares the story of God’s love; live in a way that proclaims the good news that through faith in Jesus we can have a personal and loving relationship with the God we can call our Father. It is that simple; it is that straightforward; and it’s also that demanding.

But now Philip speaks up: “Show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” And Jesus replies, “You’ve been with me all this time, surely you get it by now. If you know me you know my Father. You’ve heard what I say, you’ve seen what I do. At the very least, believe in me on the basis of what your own eyes have seen, your own ears have heard."

I wonder how much of this the disciples took on board? Not very much, I should think, at the time. But later they will have realised that what Jesus was doing, what he was really saying to them was this: what’s about to happen is what needs to happen, what is supposed to happen. It may feel as though everything has gone wrong; it may feel as though all God’s plans have been wrecked. But no, that’s not how it is: in the events of these days God’s holy one is doing what he was sent to do. And in so doing he is blazing the way for his people, meeting the opposing forces head on. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” One of many great “I am” statements in which Jesus explicitly claims for himself the power and authority of his Father.

Finally, as we continue through the reading, we find Jesus saying, “You will do even greater things, because I am going to the Father,” and, “If you ask for anything in my name I will do it.” What huge promises these are! Anyone with faith that’s grounded in Jesus, and witnessed to in a relationship of prayer and praise will do even greater things than he did. Anything we ask for in his name we will receive. How can all of this be true? Here’s one way of interpreting and understanding these words that works for me.

We are in the service of the Kingdom. Jesus spoke a lot about the Kingdom. In fact, all he said and did proclaimed the Kingdom. The kingdom happens wherever God’s work is done, wherever his Lordship is proclaimed, wherever we truly commit ourselves to Jesus as our way, our truth and our life. In his earthly body Jesus was limited by space and time; his ministry was confined to Galilee and Judaea, pretty much. But his death and resurrection has freed him into all the world; and the work of his Church, which is the body of Christ in the world, will be to proclaim the Kingdom everywhere, to do and say Kingdom things across the whole world, in every land, in every language.

In this way Jesus is able to stretch around the world, changing hearts, helping people discover grace and freedom, healing ills, healing relationships, forgiving sin, restoring peace, feeding those who go hungry; as we share the story of what Christ has done in us, and show what he can do in others. And we are not alone in what we do, we are not unaided. What we pray for in his name we will receive.

Where we seek his mind, where we share his vision, where we are committed to his work of love, we shall receive what we need to be good witnesses, to be Kingdom people, to be his Easter people. And as we minister in his name our ministry is founded in this confident faith: that in the wonderful love he has for the world each one of us is known and treasured. There is a place prepared for us, for each and every one of the children of God. Amen.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Sheep and Shepherd

(A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter)

When I first came to minister in these parts, just over the border in what is now the Stiperstones group of parishes, a friend sent me a card to wish me well. On the envelope, under my address, he’d written “Enclosed: a picture of some of your new parishioners.” When I opened the envelope, I found the card to be a charming picture of rather a lot of sheep. And he was right of course: there were definitely more sheep than people in my new parishes, and I can recall more than one occasion on which my journey to church on a Sunday morning was delayed by sheep straying about on the road.

And only a few weeks ago I was coming over the Long Mountain from Marton towards Trelystan, on my way home from somewhere, when again there were sheep all over the road. Really, all I could do was to slowly drive towards them so I was herding them along the road. Thankfully nothing came in the other direction, so I had a clear run with them; and eventually they came across a track off to the side leading up to some farm, and scampered off up there. Was that home, I wondered - but I had no way of telling, and at least they were off the road and out of my way.

That wasn’t the best example of good shepherding, though of course they shouldn’t have been out there in the first place. But it was the best I could manage at the time. Walking down from Shelve towards White Grit on Good Friday, I was able to observe a shepherd working very well, with her dog, just a couple of fields away. Sheep are naturally prone to panic, and quick to follow each other in quite lunatic directions, so the shepherd needs to be tuned into that and thinking ahead if he, or in this case she, is going to keep the sheep safe and get them to where they need to be. I’m no judge, but it seemed to me that in this case shepherd and dog didn’t put a foot wrong. The sheep were safely and skilfully moved into a small holding area in the corner of the field where they could be securely penned in.

That was a good example of how we move sheep here. We drive them, we herd them. In the Middle East, on the other hand, sheep are by tradition led by their shepherd. On holiday in Greece I remember watching a man leading a small flock of fairly scruffy looking sheep to graze on salty pasture by the mouth of a little river. My attention had been drawn by the tinny sound of the bells worn by each sheep, but really it could have been a scene straight out of scripture. There’d have been no fields and fences up on the hills of Judaea or Galilee; flocks would mix on the hills, and sheep needed to know their own shepherd’s call.

Jesus spoke a lot about sheep; no surprise, since he used everyday things to illustrate his teaching, images to help those who heard him understand and remember his words. But the image of a shepherd is very Biblical. It’s often used in scripture of kings and leaders. When Moses knew his life was nearing its end, he called on God to appoint a leader for the people, so they’d not be “like a sheep without a shepherd”.

Most tellingly, the 23rd Psalm, a version of which we’ve just sung, has God himself as the shepherd who leads us into safe pasture, refreshes our souls, and is at our side even in the darkest and most desperate times of our lives. Prophets like Ezekiel contrasted the bad and careless shepherding provided by their leaders to the people of Israel with the good shepherding their Lord desired for them. Those who should have protected the sheep had instead exploited them and neglected them, leaving them scattered, helpless and unfed while they themselves grew fat and sleek. Judgement would fall upon those false shepherds, while the Lord himself would intervene to provide for the needs of his neglected and harrowed flock, restoring them to health.

These were images that would surely have been in the mind of Jesus when he talked about sheep and shepherds. But in truth, there were many examples of ‘bad shepherding’ in his own day, and there are still.

So where do we look, for shepherding and guidance? Whose are the voices we tune into, recognise, and follow? The people listening to Jesus knew well that though the sheep they cared for should recognise their own shepherd’s voice and follow only him, it didn’t always happen that way. Sheep got lost; sheep attached themselves to the wrong flock; and sheep were constantly at risk from dangerous predators and unscrupulous thieves.

Jesus warned them against the false shepherds of their own day: shepherds who cared more for their own needs than those of the flock in their care, leaders whom God had made responsible for the sheep of Israel, but who had instead exploited them and led them astray, abusing the trust placed in them. Hirelings, he called them, hirelings who care nothing for the flock.

I don’t think we need to look very far in today’s world to find examples of bad shepherding and false leading: political leaders who care more for dogma and power than for the real needs of real people; the dubious ethics and moralities peddled by the media and from within the so called celebrity culture of these times; the enthronement of Mammon in industry and commerce, and the idea that things are only worth what you can sell them for.

Thieves, Jesus calls them. Verse 10: “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy.” Some thieves may have a persuasive tongue and a sweet voice; their message may attract and seduce. It’s tempting to follow such shepherds, but all their promises turn out to be false, to be so much dust and ashes. Whereas Jesus says (continuing to read verse 10), “I have come that they may have life, and may have it in all its fullness.”

Jesus goes on to say, “I know my own, and my own know me.” They will recognize his voice, he tells us. Think of the sheep penned together at night. In the morning the shepherd comes to call his sheep out of that mixed flock, to lead them to find good pasture up on the hills. That’s the picture Jesus gives us.

And he goes on to say that his sheep won’t respond to the voice of another shepherd. How good are we really, I wonder, at picking out his voice from all the various siren calls of the world? We need help to do it well. I’ve been trying to learn some Welsh recently, but over Easter things got too busy, and I’ve had a few weeks off. It’s distressing to find just how quickly you lose touch, and things went rusty; I’ve got to get back to doing a bit every day, if I’m going to catch up and keep up. The same thing applies here. “Seven days without prayer make one weak” (that’s W E A K) as the church noticeboard poster puts it.

“I have come that they may have life,” says Jesus. A good shepherd knew what dangers faced the flock, and would be always ready to protect them. Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” When the sheep were up in the hills through the summer months, the mixed flocks would be brought into the safety of a fold for the night. Imagine a walled circle, with a single entrance, where the shepherds would sit on guard. Maybe just one shepherd would keep watch while the others got some kip. In that case the shepherd himself would lie across the doorway, to make sure none of the sheep strayed out of the safety of the fold, and no predators got in. So Jesus says of himself, “I am the gate of the sheepfold. Whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture”.

Mother Julian of Norwich, whose day it is tomorrow, would have well understood what the 23rd Psalm has to say about “walking in the shadow of death”. She wrote vividly about the testing and trials of her life, but goes on to say that “we are all mercifully enfolded in the gentleness of God, and in his kindness and goodwill.” In times of trouble and sadness, we are (she writes) “kept safe and sound by the merciful safeguarding of God, so we are not lost.” Such words connect into my image of Jesus as the true shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. He knows us more deeply than we know ourselves, calling us by name, seeking us out when we lose our way.

And through his death on the cross he has become for us the gate we could otherwise never find, the gate that leads us to be enfolded in the safety of eternal love, the gate that leads to the life promised in all abundance. The more we open our hearts to him in prayer and worship, the more time we take to reflect on his word, the more clearly we’ll hear his call, picking out and tuning into his voice, against the myriad voices of the world.

Some more words from Mother Julian: “We cannot know the blessed safety or our endless joy until we are filled with peace and love, that is to say, wholly pleased with God and with all his works and with all his judgements, and until we are in love and peace with ourselves and our fellow Christians and with all that God loves, as love would have it. And God’s goodness in us brings this about.”

So let us pray:
Merciful God, you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be our Good Shepherd, and in love for us to lay down his life and rise again, so opening the way into his eternal kingdom. Keep us always under his protection, fill our hearts with that love and peace that is your gift, and grant us grace to recognize his voice, to hear his call, and to follow in his steps. In his name we ask this, Jesus Christ, our Shepherd and Saviour and Lord. Amen.