Friday, 28 July 2017


I recall visiting a friend some twenty-five years ago when we lived in north Staffordshire, and being delighted to see goldfinches visiting the feeders in her garden. We saw goldfinches feeding on thistle heads in the fields opposite our home, but I had never known them come to garden feeders: this was something new.

Now, it’s pretty commonplace, and goldfinches are a very familiar sight in our garden and in most gardens, sometimes in substantial numbers. They are beautiful birds, and continue to be quite a popular cage bird. They are a soft beige in colour with black on the wings and tail, a red face and white, then black behind it on the head, and of course that glorious golden streak all across the wings when spread. They are smallish finches, able delicately to pick out the seeds they love, moving in small flocks known as “charms”.

Goldfinches and Siskins at our garden feeders.

Just now there will still be some birds in juvenile plumage. They are much plainer, without the colourful head and the buff streaks in their beige-brown plumage - but still with that bright gold wing bar opening to a streak across the wings.

These are birds that really do twitter: briefly as a contact call when they’re moving about, and in an extended form as the song in Spring. They are not always charming to each other, though, and when two birds compete, a deeper, argumentative tone is used, and the birds really do seem to be swearing at each other!

Male and female birds are identical in plumage, and they are with us all year round, found pretty much throughout the UK, though absent from the very far north. Goldfinches may move south in Winter, but most of them don’t, especially now they’ve become accustomed to bird tables. I recall buying nyjer seed and placing seeds into old teasel heads as a ploy to attract goldfinches into my garden. There’s no need to do that now, and, though nyjer seed is recommended as a favourite food for goldfinches, in my experience they use it wastefully and on the whole prefer the sunflower kernels I put out.

Goldfinches are tree nesters, generally in the higher branches of smaller trees or grown-up hedges. The nest is neat and quite delicately constructed, and well hidden. Goldfinches love thistles, and quite often thistledown is included in the construction of the nest. They lay four to six eggs.

Many seed-eating birds have declined substantially in recent years, partly due to changes in farming practice. These include, for example, yellowhammers and corn buntings. But goldfinches, aided by their move into gardens, have increased in numbers in the UK by about 80% over the past twenty or so years, to become one of our top ten garden birds in the annual surveys. It’s good to see such an attractive bird doing well.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Mustard Seed & Yeast

My sermon for next Sunday . . .

I’ve brought with me this morning two small packets which link in to this morning’s Gospel reading. A packet of seeds, first of all, and also a packet of yeast. These two packets are both fairly small, fairly anonymous really; if I put them on a shelf in my kitchen or maybe my garden shed they’ll blend in with all the other stuff and you might easily walk past and not notice them. But there’s something quite special about them - well, a few things in fact. I’ve already said they are both related to the Gospel reading, so that’s the first special thing: Jesus used each of them as a way to describe what the kingdom of God is like. And we’ll think a bit more about that in a moment.

But the second thing about them is that each of these packets contains something that is alive, even if it doesn’t at first glance look alive. Neither yeast powder nor mustard seeds actually look all that wonderful when you empty them out of the packet; they’re in fact both dormant. But there is life in both of them. And living things are different from non-living things in that they can change and develop and grow.

And there’s a third thing about the yeast and the mustard seeds, the main reason why Jesus used them to speak about the kingdom. Smallness: they’re both very small. If a bit of yeast powder or a mustard seed or two happened to be lying about somewhere you happened to be you’d either not notice it at all, or else perhaps you’d quickly sweep it away. But Jesus said that this is what the kingdom of God is like: the kingdom is like a mustard seed, the kingdom is like yeast.

So what did he mean? He said: the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; and the smallest of all seeds grew up to become something almost the size of a tree. Birds could even come and make nests in its branches.

I doubt the mustard seeds in this packet would actually grow that high, but you only need a single seed to begin quite a process of growing and spreading. Mustard grows quickly, and it’s prolific in setting seed, and that seed grows readily in its turn. Once it’s out and about, it’ll spread into every possible place, even the cracks and crannies. I love to see plants growing informally. We’ve got paved areas in our garden that we don’t really need to walk on, so I’ve invited plants to spread into the cracks and fill the spaces - not mustard, that would just be silly, it’s not pretty enough - but things like campanula, Mexican daisies, red valerian, upright yellow sorrel, lady’s mantle, wild strawberries - and it’s almost all self-set: I’ve just started it off and let it spread.

And that’s what the kingdom of God is like. It’s not about being big or important, but making the most of our chances, exploiting the cracks and crannies. When we sow seeds of the kingdom, they spread. You may have heard of “random acts of kindness” - people doing unexpected nice things that benefit others, like the lady I heard about who when she drives over a toll bridge each day always pays for the car behind her as well as her own; or the man who on his way to work on the London Underground whistles “Happy Birthday” fairly quietly, and, if anyone turns round, wishes them a happy birthday. He’s usually right, and when he isn’t, there’s still a smile and a little bright spot in someone’s day. A friend of mine whistles hymn tunes in his local Sainsbury’s while he’s shopping, and it leads him into all kinds of conversations. If we embrace the kingdom then it’s amazing how it can spread.

And then there’s the yeast: just a little pinch of dust, but if you wake it up with a bit of water and mix it with flour and a bit of salt and sugar it becomes the means by which bread is made. A pinch of dust enables things to happen that otherwise couldn’t.

So Jesus said: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."  The kingdom of God, in other words, is something small and hidden that grows to have a huge effect on the world.

Seed that grows and spreads, and that also as it grows provides shelter and sustenance; yeast that works in secret to make a profound and positive change: two important ways to understand the Kingdom. It’s not about big projects. We can find ourselves saying, “What can we do? Our churches are so weak, and we are so few!” But I think that’s where the kingdom works best: it’s all about seeds and yeast grains - those small things, small actions, that added together make a big difference, and a better world.

Provided that - well, let’s add a third image of the kingdom, also from this morning’s Gospel: Jesus also talked about the jewel that was so precious and so beautiful that a man sold all he had in order to buy it. The kingdom is built out of small things, little acts of kindness done by ordinary folk like you and me, provided we’re really seriously putting God first in our lives, and building all we do on him. Remember how Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it produces a rich harvest.” The mustard seed does nothing else but produce the plant that grows and gives shelter. The pinch of yeast does nothing else but leaven the bread mixture and enable it to rise.

When people love God and dedicate their lives to him, and learn to see the world through his loving eyes, great things can happen. Little acts of kindness add together and generate new ones, to become a kingdom movement. There’s life in these two packets of mustard seeds and yeast. But if they’re just left on the shelf, that life will fade and die. Let’s not let that happen. Let’s be lively and useful in God’s service.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Death of a Crow

. . . or probable death, anyway. I last wrote on I think June 2nd about the crow with white wing feathers who had taken to visiting our garden regularly. We would see him every day, skulking in the undergrowth and making quick forays onto our lawn. He was a weak flyer, and would hop from branch to branch to climb back to a safe height in the tree.

Crow has disappeared, it's a couple of weeks since we last saw him. My guess has to be that something has got him. He can't have been in very good health; even when we put food out specially for him, most of it was taken by other birds, before Crow dared make his way out of cover. We saw him attacked by a cat once, and he saw the beast off without too much difficulty - he could be quite feisty when roused, and that beak's a nasty weapon - but maybe another of the local cats got lucky.

What is probably more likely is that he has been driven off by the other local crows. I say this because his disappearance from our garden coincided with the arrival of some boisterous young crows, the product I assume of the nest not too far away in the wood. It's clear that crows will attack one of their own species that is somehow different from the norm, and we have seen it happen to our Crow earlier in the season. Whether it is the white feathers or something else about his behaviour that triggers the attack I don't know, but the world of nature can be cruel to our eyes. All I can say is that I'm sad that he's no longer with us.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Falco peregrinus

On a silver grey day, in a strange
light reflected from summer raindrops,
with the paths all puddles, and my
rose blooms ruined, petals plastered together,
I am sitting well out of the breeze
and just out of the rain,
listening to a murder of argumentative crows.
It feels as though summer is in retreat
under a sky well-clothed,
thoroughly muffled up in nimbus.
The swifts have not yet headed south,
though they’ll not be long, I fancy.
They are low fliers today:
I watch them skim the roofs and treetops;
a lone starling perches on a chimney pot,
fluffs out his feathers sadly.
Behind me our elm tree is dying, like
autumn come too soon with the rain:
after thirty years and thirty feet of growth
the beetle and the fungus have beaten it,
and I am in mourning for its shrivelled leaves.
Well, there’s nothing to do out here,
time for a coffee, perhaps; time, too, it would seem,
for another argumentative burst
from our local crows. But something else, too -
a shape that speeds across above them,
soars upwards, then with near-closed wings
powers down, levels out, travels on,
a true master of even this sodden air:
a young peregrine tests his wings in the rain,
and takes with him as he flies on
a beat or two of my heart.

Weeds - a sermon for this Sunday

To be preached at Corndon Marsh :-

Today we’ve heard Jesus talking about weeds. If we think of the world as God’s field, the ground in which he plants, we might wonder why it’s not all good, and why there are weeds growing in the crop.

The disciples probably did, like the servants in the story who were worried about the weeds that disfigured their master’s crop of good wheat and looked set to spoil his harvest. Why do weeds always seem to grow so much faster than the things you want to grow? As a gardener I know I won’t get a decent crop unless I keep myself busy with the hoe; left alone, rank weeds soon outgrow the crop plants; and they soon shade them out and out-compete for water and nutrients.

Sometimes I’ve left it too long, and though I might do my best to salvage what I can, often the weeds have got so many and so big that it’s hard to pull them out without dislodging the roots of the crop plants. In that case I’m better off leaving them be, though I might chop them off a bit. Like the farmer in the story: and the weeds in the story were darnel, a sort of rye grass that’s hard to tell apart from the growing wheat, so his men might very easily have pulled up the wrong plants.

What’s the point of the story? Well, Jesus is saying that we do have to accept that the world we’re living in will contain both good and bad, and that’s how it remains, this side of harvest. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be actively trying to make things better. Jesus makes that clear in lots of the other stories he told, like the parable of the Good Samaritan - so we know that Christians should always be ready to respond and reach out when people are getting hurt. We’re supposed to be proclaiming God’s kingdom, and we do that not by talking about it but by living in it: the kingdom happens when God’s way of love is being actively and courageously lived, and in however small a way healing hurts, driving back darkness, and challenging injustice, lack of care, and the abuse of power.

When we pray “thy kingdom come” as we do when we say the Lord’s Prayer, that’s not just we asking God to make things better, but we committing ourselves to be part of that. But in telling this story Jesus also wants us to know that even though as we look at the world around us now and see so much bad stuff - and we do: harm being done, wrong sometimes being rewarded (or that’s how it seems) -  even though things may seem very dark and evil, we shouldn’t lose faith. We can see weeds among the wheat, but it’s not yet harvest time. That harvest will be made when the time is right. While the crop grows the weeds will grow with it, but at harvest all will be set right. Meanwhile, God is biding his time.

As we wait for harvest we can see that things aren’t how God wants them to be, and we might ask why it is that a good and loving God lets horrible weeds grow in his garden? That’s not an easy question, but it has something to do with free will, and with love. God’s way is the way of love, and for love to happen, there has to be the freedom not to love.

Three things, though: firstly, as I look at the world and as I meet people I see more that’s good than I do bad. So we should never let our world view be distorted by the fact that bad news makes for bigger headlines. There are weeds, and some of those weeds may seem pretty big and nasty, but the good wheat is still there and it’s still growing.

Secondly, on a personal level maybe I’m glad that God’s not been too quick to hoe out all the weeds; sometimes, if I’m honest, I’m more of a weed than a fruitful crop, as I think of things I’ve done that I’d have been better not doing, and things I’ve not done that I should have done: chances I’ve missed to be fruitful in God’s service, times when I’ve been a useless weed, and not fruitful at all. So while I’ve got the time, I’m glad that God’s allowing me the chance to do better, and I need make sure I make the most of that chance.

And thirdly, some of the weeds in our world may not stay weeds. There’s always hope of change; I’ve heard some moving and amazing stories of people whose lives were transformed by an encounter with Christ, people who’ve turned from darkness to embrace the light. How do people encounter Christ? Sometimes very directly, but most often by finding in other people examples of Christian love, compassion and care that offer hope and challenge the old certainties of their lives. God lets the weeds stay in his field because while there’s life, there’s hope. The most unlikely, the most degraded people may yet turn and bear fruit. And even in the most hurtful places of our world there are heroic acts of love.

The story of the weeds promises that in God’s time a harvest is being prepared: meanwhile our task is to be a good harvest ourselves, and to encourage and bring in the harvest God desires of his world. In this service of Holy Communion, we recall the last meal Jesus ate with his disciples, at a time when evil seemed to be closing in. Next day the disciples saw what must have seemed like the final triumph of evil, as their Lord hung dying on a cross. But their minds were turned to believe as we believe that what actually took place on that cross was the great confrontation between love and evil, and in that crucial encounter love proved stronger. At the cross, death is turned to life, and we - despite our sin - are saved.

We are Easter people, following those first disciples who saw their Lord not only dying, but then newly alive. They and we are called by him afresh to be witnesses to the world of a love that we know has won the victory. So the heart of our Christian faith when we think about the existence of evil in our world is this: that the fundamental victory is already won. The cross at our altar assures us that the harvest will be brought in; and meanwhile this is true - that love is stronger than hatred, good is stronger than evil, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.

Saturday, 15 July 2017


My nature notes column . . .

The other day my son in London sent me a rather good photo of a caterpillar: clearly a moth or butterfly caterpillar (I suspect the former), with a black head and a body in two shades of green, striped along the length of the body and a bit mottled too, and with hairy tufts, not great big ones, but clearly there, of a slightly orange colour.

To be honest, at first it looked a bit like the larva of a cabbage white, but it was on a twig, not a cabbage. Identifying what plant a caterpillar is on is a major step in identifying the caterpillar. On being told it was a beech tree, I was able fairly quickly to name it as the larva of the buff tip moth. There are huge numbers of caterpillars about through a British spring and summer; some are unmistakeable - the monstrous elephant hawk moth, for example, that you may find on a willow herb or a fuschia, or the little yellow and black mobile Wolves’ scarves that are cinnabar moth caterpillars, on groundsel or ragwort. Others are harder to spot, harder to identify.

But some caterpillars are found in such immense numbers you can’t ignore them. Processionary moth caterpillars will take over a complete hedgerow bush, covering the bush with protective silk. Large and small whites will decimate your cabbages or perhaps your nasturtiums. All caterpillars are basically eating machines, and - given a good supply of their food plant - they can increase in size very rapidly, shedding their skins on a regular basis as they do so. That in itself can make caterpillar identification difficult, as different caterpillar instars can vary in colour and pattern. When the caterpillar’s food plant is also yours, you have a problem!

Caterpillars, though, are also very nutritious food themselves, for birds especially but also for other small animals. They are fat and juicy - not much fun if one turns up in your salad, but ideal for a nest of growing blue tits.  It’s probably just as well that such a lot get eaten, but obviously it’s not good for the caterpillar, and many have developed strategies for self preservation. I’ve already mentioned the elephant hawk moth caterpillar; this is one of our largest caterpillars, but it is able when approached to make itself look even larger and quite threatening, and that will see off most possible predators. And those stripy cinnabar moth caterpillars are dressed up in bright colours to advertise the fact that they are not good eating.  As farmers know well, ragwort is a poisonous plant, and the caterpillars are able to absorb that poison. They’re not affected by it themselves, but instead are able to make use of it as a protection.

Other caterpillars have to rely on not being seen. They may be coloured to resemble the food plant on which they live, for example. Or there is the peppered moth, whose caterpillar is so like a twig you just don’t see it. Others may spin webs, as mentioned above, to protect themselves. Smooth caterpillars are nicer to eat than hairy ones, so the “woolly bears” that will grow into tiger moths are reasonably safe. And caterpillars may have urticating hairs, that release nasty chemicals. It’s good that some larvae at least get through, to appear as (often) beautiful flying adults!

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Science Fiction (poem)

We have a problem.
There is an issue as regards the light:
it seems to be fading.
Audio quality also: we seem to be losing you.

Butterflies sparkle between the branches,
bees hum across the floral beds,
birds sing brightly from the woodland tops,
it’s a busy day down here.

And we’re all feeling all right,
secure in our factor thirty-five,
kept in touch with it all by our smart phones and i-pads;
the hamburgers sizzle as the Pimm’s is poured.

A single dead leaf drifts across unnoticed,
finding a quiet corner in which to disintegrate;
somewhere out of range the ice is melting too quickly,
somewhere out of sight the soil is losing its goodness.

The small boat lurches as the great sea turtle is hauled aboard;
expertly the plastic shroud about its head is removed,
gently the turtle is released, and swims away.
One more saved (for now); but how many lost?

Our planet’s health is measured in the oceans;
the wealth of the land is dumped into their waters,
with fatal consequences for tiny creatures we don’t think about;
but we need them, we depend on them.

Meanwhile, the truth is lost in a digital Babel,
swamped by fake news and manufactured sensation,
twisted by extremism, bloated into entertainment,
individualised out of existence.

For now,  butterflies sparkle between the branches,
bees hum across the floral beds,
birds sing brightly from the woodland tops,
it’s still a busy day, and we are still all right.

But somewhere someone might be saying,
“Earth, we have a problem;
you are no longer coming through as you should.
We think we’re losing you.”

Monday, 10 July 2017

Voice of Creation (a service at the Flower Festival at Pentre Llifior)

Introduction - Kindle within us, Lord, the flame of love and the song of praise; may we shine in your temple, may light be shared among us, and may our voices lift in song together with the music of all creation.  Amen.

Hymn - Great is thy faithfulness

Opening Prayers 

Father God, we gather here before you
to praise you as the creator and source of all that is. 
Out of your love the universe was born. 
From the formless dark your word brought forth light and order
and myriad forms of life; and you saw that all you had made was good.
We praise you that you have placed this world into our stewarding hands:
help us to be worthy of that trust: to find your Spirit within what you have made,
and to discern your calling voice within the circles and cycles of creation.
Disturb and challenge us, that we may take thought for the work of your hands,
and be ready to serve our sisters and brothers, our neighbours in their need.
For it is your will that we should nourish and protect the earth and its diversity of life,
and share and use well the gifts we have from you, in Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Hymn - Brother, sister, let me serve you.

Reading (Isaiah 55:12-56:1, NIV)      

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briars the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed. This is what the Lord says: ‘Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.’


Within and around this place of worship, built to the glory of God,
we find that glory expressed in many ways: in the beauty of flowers,
in the grandeur of the landscape, and in the living world of plants and creatures.
It is good to take time to be still and attentive, and to know God in all that he has made,
to tune ourselves in to the rhythms of life and growth and the turning seasons,  
in sun and rain, in the sown seed and the fruitful crop, in life’s beginnings and endings;
may our reflections lead us into deeper wisdom and clearer vision,
and may we learn to dance with the Spirit in the joy of God’s creation.

Hymn - Dear Lord and Father of mankind.

Reading (Deuteronomy 11: 13-15 NIV)

If you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today - to love the Lord your God and to
serve him with all your heart and with all your soul - then I will send rain on your land in its
season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil.
I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.


In Genesis we find the instruction, “Fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion . . .” But - and there is a but - where we go out of step with the Creator, where in the way we use the resources of the world around us we do so as owners rather than as stewards, then the whole balance of creation is disturbed. The great prophets of the Old Testament knew this, and warned the people, and their priests and kings, accordingly. What about today? We understand so much more about ecosystems, how our living planet works, what keeps things in balance. Scientists warn us that this balance is at risk - are they the new prophets? We need to find ways of using this good earth without using in up; we need to realise the impact of such things as greed, envy, malice, on that essential balance.
Hymn - God in his love for us lent us this planet

Reading (in part adapted from “Lord of Creation” by Brendan O’Malley)

Generations of stars have created an inheritance of heavy atoms that are bequeathed to us. The carbon atoms that make up the ink of the words that I am reading now, the oxygen atoms that we are breathing, the calcium in our bones and the iron in our blood: all of these are products of stars. In her song “Woodstock”, Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” We are recycled stardust, although our living, breathing, thinking selves are greater than the mere sum of our particles. The constantly creating divine movement of God is within all moving things of the universe, and we are an integral part of the dance of the whole cosmic order. Creation happens around us. The 14th century Christian thinker and writer Meister Eckhart said, “God is creating the entire universe fully and totally in this present, now.” The voice of the cosmic Christ calls to us through the hidden beauty present in creation, calling us to be creative ourselves. We who are made “in the image and likeness of God” are called to contemplate God as love, shining out in all creation, and to love and serve him in return.

Hymn - Jesu, lover of my soul

Reading (Luke 12.22-34)

To his disciples Jesus said, ‘Do not worry about food to keep you alive or clothes to cover your body. Life is more than food, the body more than clothes. Think of the ravens: they neither sow nor reap; they have no storehouse or barn; yet God feeds them. You are worth far more than the birds! Can anxious thought add a day to your life?  If, then, you cannot do even a very little thing, why worry about the rest?

‘Think of the lilies: they neither spin nor weave; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendour was not attired like one of them. If that is how God clothes the grass, which is growing in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown on the stove, how much more will he clothe you! How little faith you have! Do not set your minds on what you are to eat or drink; do not be anxious. These are all things that occupy the minds of the Gentiles, but your Father knows that you need them. No, set your minds on his kingdom, and the rest will come to you as well.

‘Have no fear, little flock; for your Father has chosen to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity. Provide for yourselves purses that do not wear out, and never-failing treasure in heaven, where no thief can get near it, no moth destroy it. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Hymn - Make me a channel of your peace

Reflection and Prayers

The hymn we’ve just sung is based on a “Prayer of St Francis”, written probably in the 19th century, and therefore not Francis of Assisi’s own composition, but very true to his beliefs and teaching. He took very seriously the call to “holy poverty”, and gave away all he had so that he could be completely focused on serving his Lord. Not all of us are called in that way, but we do all share a call to be devoted to the kingdom of God above all other things, not as a spare time interest or hobby, not as something we might get round to doing once we’ve sorted out all the other stuff, but as the first priority in our lives, the first thing on our list. Jesus promises us in the reading we’ve just heard, that if we set our minds on God’s kingdom, we will find we have what we need for the task. Let us for a while be still and prayerful:

Some words from the Salvadorian martyr Oscar Romero:

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said;
no prayer fully expresses our faith;
no confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the Church's mission,
no set goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay the foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something and do it well.
It may be incomplete, but is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are the workers, not the master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are the prophets of a future not our own.

Two Kingdom prayers:

Almighty God, you teach us by reason that all the riches of the world are made by you for our common use, and that by nature not one of them belongs to one human being more than to another; direct us, we pray, in obedience to your will, that all things may serve all people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it:
a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;
a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect;
a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.
Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Reflect on these words from the Prophecy of Isaiah:

This is the fast that pleases me, says the Lord: to break unjust fetters, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor. If you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word, if you give your bread to the hungry and relief to the oppressed, your light will rise in the darkness.

Hymn - To God be the glory


The Lord grant us beauty to delight us, light to guide us, courage to support us, love to unite us, and his voice to call us on in service and in praise, now and always. And the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore. Amen.

Sowing the Seed (Eight out of Ten Cats)

A sermon for Sunday 16th July, Proper 10 Year A :-

Eight out of ten cats prefer Whiskas, according to the advertising tagline. When we had a cat it always refused to eat Whiskas, so was in the other twenty percent, or so we thought. That suited us, because the other brands were usually cheaper. Later we discovered that our cat also visited someone down the road, and when there he would only eat Whiskas. All of which suggests to me that any survey of the eating preferences of animals, and certainly of cats, is probably a waste of time.

But scientists at Cornell University have been working on a project to classify pet cats according to personality (I’m amazed at what people in America will study). Some cats are active go-ahead mousers, while others are idle, sofa-loving loungers. Knowing the personality types of a cat will apparently allow it to be matched with an owner of appropriate personality type, so there’ll be fewer cats ending up in shelters or out on the street because things haven’t worked out at home.

That’s the idea, anyway. Dream on, I say. I’m sure cats do have personalities, but to devise tests that categorise then into personality types seems to me pretty pointless. Then again, at one time I’d have been equally sceptical about classifying people by personality type. But when I was Vicar of Minsterley, all the clergy of this deanery went to do a Myers-Briggs personality type indicator test. Myers and Briggs were American psychologists, mother and daughter I think, in the tradition of Carl Jung. To my surprise I found it quite useful, something of a revelation even. It helped me understand why I get on with some people, but find it hard to relate to others. It helped me understand why some things wear me out, and other things energise me. And I think it helped us work together better as a deanery team, or at least, when we weren’t working together all that well, it helped us to understand why!

Jesus knew about the way people differ, and the story we heard this morning, the Parable of the Sower, makes that clear. It’s a very well-known parable, and our Gospel reading also included the interpretation Jesus gave for his disciples, in which we find different kinds of people responding to the Gospel in different ways. Some don’t understand at all, and the word can’t begin to grow in them and is snatched away; some are full of initial enthusiasm, but then quickly lose it; in some life’s troubles and cares, and other stuff that gets in the way, like power, possessions, ambition, status: this chokes the word and it dies; but also: some seed grows well and is fruitful.

So what kind of soil am I, what kind of soil are you? How do we respond to the seed sown into our life? That’s a good and challenging question: we can all do things that make us more receptive, better and more fertile ground, for that seed which is the word of God. Last year I put some runner beans in for a friend; cleared the ground, put up the canes, planted the young beans, then left it for him. A month or so later I called by to find that they’d not been watered or weeded, and though some beans were still there, they were weak and getting crowded out by all sorts of rank weeds. In our own lives, for the word of God to grow and be fruitful, constant attention is needed.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason, or even the main reason, why Jesus told this story. It isn’t called the parable of the seed, or even the parable of the soil; we call it the parable of the sower, and with good reason. It’s addressed to us as sowers, as people with a job to do. We who believe have been equipped with seed which we’re supposed to be sowing. The Gospel is ours not to keep to ourselves but to share, seed to spread around; but how do we feel if the seed doesn’t take, if our efforts are all in vain?

I know how I felt when I looked at those beans I’d planted for my friend. I was annoyed and disillusioned. I shan’t do that again, I thought. But, as any farmer or gardener knows, some seed’s bound to fall in places where it simply won’t thrive. Not every seed grows well, even in the best of seasons. The people Jesus was speaking to will have known the scene well: thin soil and rocky ground, and seed either sown by hand or let sprinkle from a hole in a sack as it was carried. This seed wasn’t placed carefully into tilled and prepared ground, it was left to take its chance in the ground as it was.

Our job (our apostolic job) is to share the faith we have, to sow the seed God gives. Some of it will land on the hard paths and the rocky ground and in the thickets of folk’s lives; maybe its growth won’t be as much impeded by weeds and thorns as we fear, and maybe the soil here and there will be a bit better and deeper than we first think. But not all the seed will grow.

The care we take in sowing helps, of course. The witness we offer in our own daily lives to the love of Christ. The outreach we make, not by clever preaching or ostentatious piety, but in offering help, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to support, a word to cheer or soothe or encourage. That, more than anything else, is how we sow the Gospel seed. And, yes, the better we sow it, the more will grow.

But not everyone will hear and receive the message we bear; not all the seed we sow will grow. Jesus gives us this message: “Don’t let that discourage you. Don’t give up on the job when it doesn’t always work, when not every seed grows.” Elsewhere, Paul writes about one person sowing, and another person harvesting. As sowers of seed, we may not always see what happens to the seed we sow: some of it takes a long time to germinate. A vicar I knew went back to his old parish and was surprised to find as churchwarden a lady who’d been quite scathing about church when he’d been vicar; and more surprised when she told him it’d been something he’d said that had begun her journey to faith.

So should we concentrate our efforts on the good soil, the best prospects, and ignore the rest? I took part in a mission campaign many years ago now, in which the team that came in only visited the best prospects, the homes where we thought there would be a response. But which were those best prospects? Before they came we visited every home in the parish to start a conversation and test the ground. We felt it was vital to start everywhere, and some of the “good prospects” we offered the mission team to visit were by no means where we’d have expected if we’d just selected by, say, postcode. God doesn’t discriminate between the good and the bad ground when he goes out to sow. He accepts that some seed will be snatched away, that some of it grows up fast and then withers, and that some gets choked by weeds; and he sows anyway. So should we.

God wants us to sow the word of his love as generously as he does, and to hope and pray for harvest even when we might not think there’s much chance for it, when maybe the ground around all looks barren. For in God there’s always hope of harvest, and we should never discriminate as we sow his word. People are different; not all will hear, not all will respond, and those who do may not all respond in the same way or at the same speed, which is what Jesus is saying when he talks about the fruitful bearing some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. But if we don’t sow the seed, however unpromising the ground might look then none of it will grow. While if we do sow, who can tell what God will help to happen?

Monday, 3 July 2017

Take my yoke upon you . . .

. . . a sermon for next Sunday, 9th July.

“Come to me, all who are weary and whose load is heavy, and I will give you rest.” Verse 28 of our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus has been speaking of the relationship between him and the Father. Things hidden from the learned and wise are, he says, revealed to the simple. Here as elsewhere in the Gospels we see that though Jesus presents the message of the kingdom to all the people, the message is revealed to only some of them. Why should this be? Because revelation requires a commitment decision that begins a new relationship of trust; only then can we truly hear and receive and believe.

This commitment decision involves repentance. We hear Jesus say, “The Kingdom has come close to you. Repent and believe.” For many who went to hear Jesus speak it was just another day out, a flurry of excitement at the latest teacher to hit the road. But some of those who heard him were drawn to take a good long look at themselves, and to realise their need for change, for repentance, for the burdens they carried to be lifted. They were tired of the old life, they wanted to make a new start. It was to them that Jesus said, “Come to me.”

What was it that he was revealing about God? The heart of his message is God’s Fatherly love for us; this is a love that graciously seeks us and accepts us, a love to lift burdens and re-create us. With mind and spirit renewed we can know God in a new way, not as a distant and wrathful God, but as the Father who loves us, who saves and redeems us by the gift of his Son. In him we find eternal life. To recognise and admit our sinfulness, to become aware of the God-shaped gap in ourselves, is the necessary beginning of this process. It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus was heard gladly by people who were very aware of how their sin, how the deficiencies of their lifestyles, had excluded them from the community of faith; he was heard less gladly by the insiders, by those who already believed themselves to be righteous people.

So Jesus speaks of a revelation not given to the wise and the learned, but received and understood by the simple. And it’s to just these people that he offers his invitation: “Come to me.” Come to me, you who are weak and weary; come to me, you who know your spiritual need. The learned religious teachers of the day didn’t think they had any spiritual needs, so they couldn’t hear him. Jesus calls those who are both weary and burdened: wearied by their sin and failure, by the old life they long to be free of; and burdened by those who had put them down and rejected them, excluded and belittled them, used them and discarded them.

And he calls them with a promise. He says, “Come to me, and I will give you rest” - rest for the soul that lightens the burdens of our daily lives. To come to Jesus is to find the forgiveness and salvation that only he can give: to believe in him then not just as a teacher (of whom there were plenty), but as the distinct and special voice of God’s anointed one, God’s promised Messiah. And to come to him means to begin a complete reorientation of life. The hallmarks of this new life will be grace and love; there’s no longer anything to run after and strive for, but a new faith in which we learn from Jesus, seek to be like him, “take his yoke upon us.”

The study and observation of the Jewish Law was referred to as “taking the yoke of the law.” To say that the Lord is God, with no other god beside him, was to “take the yoke of the kingdom;” to live a life of obedience to the Law of Moses was to “take the yoke of the commandments.” So when Jesus spoke of “taking my yoke upon you” people will have understood that he was speaking of a faith response of that nature. In fact, he was offering an exchange of yokes: take my yoke, he says, in place of the yoke of authority and Law placed upon you by scribes and Pharisees. And know that my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

So to accept the yoke of Jesus was to turn away from the current religious leaders, the Pharisees and scribes, whose yoke was so heavy and burdensome. Their piety had made for a heavy yoke that excluded those who were seen as not matching up to the high standards of obvious piety the Pharisees themselves practised. We read elsewhere about how they prayed on the street corners, about how careful they were to keep every last bit of the Law. Theirs was a contractual approach to religion: if you can’t keep a contract, then you’re out, you’re excluded. But now Jesus offers an easy yoke (in other words, appropriate, well-suited). This isn’t an easy life in the sense of sitting back and doing nothing: to take any yoke is to be ready for serious work. But a good and easy yoke is one tailor-made to ensure the oxen who wore it could work well. And like that, Jesus offers a yoke that will fit well, that will suit the needs and abilities of his people.

A farmer setting out to train a young ox would yoke it alongside an older, experienced animal. Which of the two animals would be working the harder? The older one of course; and that’s just what Jesus offers here, when he says “Yoke yourself to me.” Come to me, lean on me, learn from me. To accept Christ is to be lifted and carried by him, but also to learn from him and to be strengthened by him in a way that enables us to share in the work he does.

Side by side in this passage we find the authority and the humility of Jesus. Jesus speaks with all the authority and power of the Father: he says that, “No-one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Yet this one true divine voice of authority is revealed in what is gentle and humble, the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of the children’s hymn. In him authority and humility belong together: the majesty of the God who is love is revealed in the form of a servant.

Here is an urgent call to faith for the whole world. To people everywhere Jesus says, “Come to me, find rest for your weary souls.” In an age where religion so often is strident, power hungry, intolerant, exclusive, we so much need to hear this. Only Jesus can truly bring rest and wellbeing to the troubled soul, and the promise he offers is a forever one, in which we rediscover God the Servant: God who lets go of his godness to enter our world, God who at the cross reveals his endless, limitless love, God who calls us now to share the yoke of service and sacrifice and love he freely takes upon himself. Empty yourselves of all but love, he tells us, and come. Come with me, go for me as I reach out to all the world. I am all you need: learn from me, rest in me, and learn my ways.

Slave to Christ

I recall not long ago after a meeting someone hailing me and saying, “Would you mind taking Mary home? I’d take her myself but it’s a little out of my way.” “Of course, no problem,” I replied, and I did. Only later did I realise that it was quite a bit further out of my way than his. Not that I minded, but it did occur to me to marvel at how some people can be quite careful at rationing out their kindness.

Let me read the verse before the verse our reading from Romans began with today: “You must regard yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God, in union with Christ Jesus.” After that, Paul goes on to write about what “dying to sin” means: something he understood very well as true for himself, for elsewhere he writes “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

He mentions slavery quite a lot. His Roman readers would have understood him well: slavery was a fact of life in Rome, without any great stigma. Slaves could actually rise to do important work and hold significant status in society, but such slaves of course would have no civil rights of their own: whatever their status, education or skills, until they bought or secured their freedom, slaves belonged completely to their master.

How did you become a slave? Well, you might have been captured and brought from some distant province far from Rome, perhaps after a battle. But you might also have elected to become a slave. Paul writes about someone “binding himself to his master”. Slavery could be a profession not dissimilar to serving below stairs in an English country house: you might well have a better life and a higher status as a slave than as a free person.

Bind yourself to Christ, Paul says. Become his slave, allow him to own and control you; fix your mind on his. And don’t imagine that before you joined yourselves to Christ you were free: for if you were not a slave to Christ, you were a slave to sin. And, says Paul in a phrase everyone knows, he wages of sin are death.

Now the important thing about that verse is the contrast between sin paying a wage, and God giving freely: between law and grace. Remember that Paul had been brought up as a Pharisee. Until that day on the Damascus road when he encountered Jesus he’d been a zealous keeper of the Law, like any Pharisee. The Law controlled his life. The ultra-orthodox Jews of today are the present-day descendents of the Pharisees, and, like them, they ensure the Law of Moses is distilled and interpreted in the greatest detail so they can be sure at every moment of every day, and in everything they do, they don’t transgress.

But Paul came to see that, as he says elsewhere, “sin gains its power from the Law”. Those who elect to live by the Law must keep every last little bit of it; the smallest transgression cancels out all the times when you got it right. Paul the Pharisee had thought he was doing that; but how could he, really? Only God is perfect; we make mistakes, we make omissions, we get things wrong. As a slavemaster, the Law (and therefore sin, as empowered by the law), measures how we’ve done and pays a wage accordingly. And as we fall short of perfection, that wage is death.

In Christ, Paul has found a new way that turns the old way on its head. No longer need he try desperately to keep all the rules; instead, his motive for seeking to live a caring and loving life is thanksgiving for a gift freely bestowed, just given. By our own merits we can’t deserve eternal life, we’ve no entry door into heaven. But in union with Christ we’re freely given a share in what only he could achieve. In the triumph of the cross.

Knowing this, we’re free to live in a new way. There’s a hymn which begins “Love is his word, love is his way.” Paul had come to realise that what was lacking in his old life as a Pharisee was love. He’d kept the rules, hoping to gain the reward, the due wage, for his obedience, but somehow love hadn’t been part of that. Now he is released to live a life of love that responds to the free love showered upon him by Christ Jesus.

Our very short Gospel reading this morning is the very end of the chapter in which we hear how Jesus first sent his disciples out. And there’s a clue in these verses to the difference it makes to live under grace rather than under the law. Or I think there is, anyway. Jesus talks first about receiving, recognising, making space for: a prophet, a good man. He’s talking about how we respond to one another, and I’m reminded that to live under grace enriches our fellowship. It’s no longer just me and God, it’s all of us together and God. Law limits and excludes, grace opens up and includes.

And it even includes prophets. Prophets aren’t always gladly received, because they can be uncomfortable people, who tell it like it is. But theirs is a voice we need among us, a voice of reproof and correction. Sometimes we need someone to say, “Take a look at things, sort yourself out. You’re going a bit astray.” I think that to receive prophets gladly requires a measure of humility, and a recognition of our dependence on God. And I’m reminded that in the new way of living we don’t have to pretend to be perfect; we can even welcome those who tell us off - if they’re helping us be clearer about our faith, and to grow.

Then Jesus talks about giving: about impulse giving, giving that’s a simple, immediate and charitable response to our neighbour’s need. Whoever gives so much as a cup of cold water. I’m reminded that faith is revealed in small acts of kindness. The kingdom is proclaimed when our lives bear practical witness to the love of our Lord. When it’s not too much trouble.

This is what arises from our binding ourselves as slaves to Christ, from lives that reflect his life, in love that reflects his love. Mission is best achieved, our faith is best shared, in little acts of caring. Under the Law we may carefully measure our every action; but when we speak of grace we’re talking about God’s limitless love and God’s abundant blessing: and our thank you for that is to share what we’ve received.