Tuesday, 31 October 2017

All Souls - sermon at the requiem.

Every year I dread the fall of leaves in autumn, partly because our garden’s not short on trees, so there’ll be lots for me to sweep. But also because I don’t like winter, and the dark nights and cold days, and the stark and leafless winter trees.

So our ancestors planted yew trees in holy places, and they brought evergreen boughs into their homes for a midwinter festival, and we still do that at Christmas. As a child I used to collect sticky buds in the middle of winter: put them in a jam jar of water on the kitchen windowsill and they'll sprout new leaves to give a little taste of spring long before we get the real thing. Or you can buy your little pots of hyacinths or mini-daffodils in Charlie's or Tesco to do the same.

One winter we had a week on Madeira, where most of the trees are green all year round; but in a mountain valley we came across a grove of chestnut trees that were leafless and bare. Our guide assured us anxiously that they weren't really dead, and they’d get new leaves in spring. I think he didn’t know that at home most of our trees are deciduous, and look kind of dead all winter.

They only look dead though. Each tiny hard bud on each black winter twig re-tells the story of Easter. Each one contains new life - all the loveliness of spring hidden away but waiting to emerge. As the nights drawn in, autumn may feel like the end of things, but really the year’s circling round to a new bright beginning that will come, however dark it is just now.

Our lives too have their circles and cycles, as we move round the year, marking seasons, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Every year’s a circle, from Christmas and New Year to Easter, to another birthday, to the summer hols, to harvest and Bonfire Night, and round to Easter and New Year again. 

Except that it isn’t, not really. In this service we admit to the truth, that as the years turn there are endings as well as beginnings, and there are partings of the way. One of our prayers includes the phrase "those whom we love but see no longer". For some of us that parting of the way may be very recent, for others perhaps many years have gone by; but we’re united here by that phrase. We still love, even though we see no longer.

As physical beings, we’re made literally out of stardust. Trust me on this, I’m a scientist, that’s where the stuff that makes us comes from. And one day our physical selves will be recycled. Fact. When I'm done with it, the atoms and molecules that make up me will go on to make up something else. 

That’s part of the story of you and me, and what it means to be human. But it’s not the whole story; I don’t think so, anyway. I don't think that you can put all there is to say about human life into atoms and molecules. We're more than the sum of our parts: there’s things about us, like humour, personality, skill, emotion, character and most of all love, that I want to talk about in terms not of atoms and molecules but of spirit. Ask me if my physical death will switch that off, the spiritual me, and I have to say no, I don't believe it will.

Here’s what I think. Like those bare winter twigs that contain the promise of spring, I believe that every human self contains the possibility of forever. And here’s why I think it: because I read in the Bible that folk like me and you are made in the image of God. And also because the very fact that we do go on loving those whom we see no longer helps me believe that love is stronger than death. Now even at its very best our human love is only a faint reflection of the love divine we sing about: and that’s the love I trust in: love that created us, love that came to meet us and claim us and redeem us in the man Jesus, the man we call Christ, the Son of God. That’s what I believe, and that’s why I’m here.

Tonight you and I have an opportunity to remember, and as we remember, also to celebrate and affirm the love we go on feeling, for some of us maybe as still quite painful. And we’re not doing this in an attempt to hang on to something that’s slipping away from us. We’re doling it because the memories we have and the love we feel, these are important, and they remain part of us, and it’s right that they should. And the candles we light tonight we light both as a way of remembering and also as a sign of hope.

Hope in what? Hope, I say, in the flow of life that’s without limit, hope in the eternally creative love of God. Hope also in the cross, our sign of a love that’s stronger than any enemy, that has defeated that last and greatest enemy that we call death. Jesus tells us that we, you and me, have a place in that love.

Elsewhere in scripture we read that perfect love casts out fear. If I look at the black skeletons of trees on the windy hillsides, if I’m honest I still feel a bit of that fear our primitive forbears felt at this time of year. They built bonfires and festooned their homes with evergreen branches to bring back the spring. But I don’t need to, because I believe and trust in the love of God.

So tonight we remember some special people, we acknowledge the spaces they've left in our lives, and we also commend them to God’s love, the love that surrounds and sustains us in this life and welcomes us home when this life is over. I believe that each human life is a unique and special spark of the love of God. I believe that those who are special to us are also special to him. We go on loving, and so does he, and his is the perfect love that casts out fear, love stronger than death, love which says: 'I am come that they may have life, and may have it in all abundance.' 

November is a dark time, but we already have the promise of spring. Our God is God not of the dead but of the living; and his love has already ended the power of death to hold us.

All Saints - a sermon for this coming Sunday

Last Saturday I was in Hereford Cathedral, dressed in my black cassock with red buttons, to do a day’s chaplaincy there. What I do is just wander round chatting to people, sometimes praying with them or helping them find space to pray, maybe hearing stories they feel they need to tell, often talking about the building and its history, and doing my best to answer the questions people have. It’s an enjoyable way to spend the day, in a building I love. I have a bit of a thing about stained glass: and later on I’ll mention a couple of my favourite windows.

But one thing I don’t enjoy quite as much as I’d like to is my drive down there. Ideally I’d drive to Craven Arms, park up and take the train, but there isn’t one that really suits, so mostly I do end up taking the A49 all the way down. “It would try the patience of a saint, the A49,” one of the cathedral guides remarked, when I told her about my journey. I had to agree. I like driving, but I don’t much like the A49. But it did start me wondering why patience should be the defining feature of sainthood.

All Saints' Day was last Wednesday. Its old name is All Hallow's, but these days it’s only the eve of All Hallows that gets much public recognition, and then more as the pagan festival Halloween, or as an excuse for a bit of a fright night. The shops are full of gory outfits. But the name Halloween just means the evening before All Saints’ Day. Centuries ago the Church seized on the pagan festivities of this time of year and turned them into Christian ones, remembering the company of saints and the lights of heaven.

All of this happens as the nights get longer and the days shorter, something that’s exacerbated these days by us having to turn our clocks back an hour. Fires were lit at this season to drive back the gathering dark long before Catesby and Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. It goes back so far into pagan times that it precedes the written word and the beginnings of history.

A vicar I know in a rather high church city parish still holds a solemn evening mass on All Saints' Day which he follows with a bonfire, fireworks, hot dogs and a general knees-up in the church hall and the vicarage garden. It’s his way of claiming back for the faith the November 5th fireworks events he rather disapproves of; but it’s also his recognition of a basic need for celebration and laughter as the nights grow darker that we all share, almost whatever we believe. And maybe we do also need a bit of controlled scariness, if only to allay our fears of the real thing.

These days we may talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD - our inability to cope with all that darkness, the way we get depressed when the clocks go back: but I guess that's just the modern equivalent of fears that are primeval, the same fears that led our ancestors to light bonfires and maybe also to build places like Stonehenge.

But what's that got to do with saints, you may ask? Well, in part no more than this: that when things get dark and dismal on our Christian pilgrimage through life, then the stories of saints who've walked the same roads and stood the same tests or worse can give us inspiration and strength. And is it their patience that inspires us? Well, yes, it may well be. The patience of saints is praiseworthy: we remember them as people who continued to trust in God even when all the world seemed to be against them. So we can think of saints as lights to guide us and to cheer us, and what better time to do that than November, when the mists fall and the frosts form and the nights draw in with a vengeance. For the message of All Saints' Day is this: the darkness may be tough and scary, but it doesn't have the last word.

But if saints are lights to guide us, they’re lights that shine with a reflected light, a light that is not their own. And that brings me back to the stained glass windows I love at Hereford Cathedral - and here as well, come to that.

One of my previous churches has a great west window filled with apostles and prophets, whose robes and faces and haloes really shine out when the sun comes through. Mostly, I took morning services and the window was rather dark and even quite dismal on a dull day. Obviously I’m standing at the east end of the church facing the congregation, and the great window behind them. But if we did have an evening service, especially if the sun was just at the right angle, the saints and holy folk in the window shone out with enormous splendour. But only because they were translucent to the sun. The saints we honour at All Saints’ Tide were men and women whose lives were translucent to the glory of God. Their lives tell the story not of their own greatness, but of his.

Blessed are you, said Jesus; blessed are you when everyone reviles you, when the whole world seems to turn against you. This list of blessings has patience - or fortitude, perseverance, endurance - right at its heart. Singing as I do in a male voice choir, I see that the same patience is the theme of those wonderful songs we sing so many of: the spirituals that rose from the experience of slavery and suffering in the American Deep South. These were people who despite their chains were convinced by the word of God that slaves though they were, they would find freedom: freedom was what God wanted for them, freedom was their destiny. And the songs that arose from their experience of slavery still have relevance and meaning. In them we find a freedom message all can share, of a light to lighten all darkness, and a love to banish all fear.

Silence is golden, sang the Tremeloes, back in 1967. So it is; but patience and silence are two different things. The reason I say that is to make clear that there is no Christian ministry of the doormat. The patience of saints wasn’t about letting the whole world trample over them. Hymns like "Stand up, stand up for Jesus" and "Onward, Christian soldiers" remind us that the patience of the saints is purposeful, faithful, militant even.

Let’s reflect on that word militant. The old Book of Common Prayer of 1662 begins the prayer of intercession in the Holy Communion service with these words: "Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church, militant here in earth." Militant here in earth. But Jesus says blessed are the meek, the mild, the peacemakers; surely those who follow him should be gentle and patient? Surely Christians shouldn’t rock the boat?

Well, we should be meek and mild, certainly. Meekness and mildness though has to do with what lies at the heart of our Gospel call: love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. But that’s not the same thing as appeasing, ignoring or keeping quiet about those who by their evil do damage and exploit those around them; it’s not the same thing as turning a blind eye to those who by their neglect, their thoughtlessness, their greed are placing their own immortal souls in danger. I remember a preacher on Remembrance Sunday once pointing out the difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking. Peacekeeping may stop the guns from firing, but peacemaking requires more of us that that. Peacemakers though are militant, by which I mean aware, involved, sleeves rolled up: searchers after justice, challengers of injustice. Blessed are the peacemakers, says our Lord. Never confuse meekness and mildness with weakness or cowardice; the first are marks of a church that dares to be Christ-like, the second of a church that’s content to remain invisible. And which of these do we honour in the saints?

One of the traditional prayers of the Church includes this plea: "Grant us a patient faith in time of darkness, and strengthen our hearts by the knowledge of your love." That’s a good prayer for this season. And it’s good to honour the saints, and here’s why: we don’t honour them as alternatives to Christ, as somehow specially holy in their own right or by their own efforts. No, we honour them for the ways in which they lead us to Christ, and for a holiness in their lives that they received from him.

Saints aren't supermen or superwomen, they are fellow pilgrims, people who were themselves very aware of their own frailties and failings. We may honour them as great teachers, inspired thinkers, maybe as heroic martyrs, maybe as devoted pastors, but what we really honour is their openness to the love of Christ, and the ways in which they shone with his light.

Among my favourite stained glass in Hereford Cathedral is a group of four small windows that recall the life of Thomas Traherne, a parish priest and poet and spiritual thinker who was born and brought up in Herefordshire. It was installed in 2007 and created by Tom Denny, whose stained glass work is quite distinctive. These windows tell the story of his faith in a remarkable and attractive way. They’re quite different from any of the other windows in the cathedral. And that says something important to me about sainthood and discipleship: the way we shine is different, particular, it depends on who and where we are. But what makes us shine is always the same. We shine because of the light of Christ, we shine to share his love.

So let’s honour the saints of every age as our companions on the way, and as sisters and brothers in Christ. And at All Saints’ Tide let’s remember that we are all saints. That’s the word used by Paul when he writes about, and when he writes to, Christian believers. The saints of ages past have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit, but so have we: the promise given to them is also ours.  So may we too have the patience of a saint: when the way ahead is tough, and the sky is dark, and the task before us hard, may we too remember that the victory is already won; our Lord Christ is our King already, enthroned in the heights of heaven, and with us as we serve him and follow him today.

Monday, 30 October 2017

A poem written for my Mother's funeral

My Lord, I give you thanks that I have lived
to taste the cold clear air of dawning day,
to hear the thousand notes of singing birds,
to smell the sweetness of the new-mown hay.
I thank you, Lord, that I have travelled far,
I thank you for the friends made on the way,
for mountains, valleys, glimpses of the sea,
for every welcome place where I could stay.

The memories come tumbling down the years,
of family, of children at their play,
of easy times and hard, of lessons learned,
of drifting autumn leaves, the scent of may,
of summers on the beach, the soft wet sand,
the beat of winter waves and tang of spray,
and every turning year new things to find,
new books to read, new thrilling words to say.

I thank you, Lord, for every touch of love,
for sad goodbyes, when loved ones went away,
for every lift of heart, for every pain,
the sunny skies of June, November’s grey.
For strength that saw me through the rainy times,
for joys received and shared, each happy day;
and now the sunset; may my journey on
be truly journey home: for this I pray.

Thomas - a poem:

He is standing in a shaft of sunlight,
and I see that light not only falls upon him
but burns also within him, is kindled there
and is flooding through him:
he has become part of the light.
I see his face, his eyes, startled, wondering,
trace his outstretched arms, his open hands.
“All that is mine is yours, as you are mine” -
so speaks a voice from somewhere soul-deep inside him,
or else from the unimaginable heights
of the endless universe, where stars spin as they burn.

He has stopped on the road he was walking;
now, standing in the middle of the rutted track,
having raised his eyes, he brings them down again,
shamed perhaps by his road-worn, scribbled clothes.
Behind him, the distant city clusters around its cathedral.
I see the tower, imagine the faraway chime of bells.
It is the call to vespers;
and now the light upon him fades, and the road
once more is claimed by cloud and shadows.
He is, after all, still made of dust.

And yet he is no longer the possession of dust,
nor is that dust his destiny:
for what was new kindled within him shines still,
his heart is light and fire and love.
“In my Father’s house are many rooms” -
that promise which is now and always true:
“my child, I go to prepare a place for you.”
The light that is before us is sure, will burn for ever,
and he, and I, are gifted a place in that light,
in that welcome light, where we are known and loved:
with new faith and courage
and into the darkening shades of evening
we will walk on.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Another Harvest Sermon

My last of the year . . .

Deuteronomy 26  /  Luke 12

What I want to do this morning is to tell you about the woman whose face appears on your readings sheet. Her name I don’t know, but long after I met her I called her Angela in a poem I wrote about her. In fact, her story in my poem was only partly her own story, it was more a combination of the stories of different people in the place where she lived.

I was in Brazil, in the deep south of Brazil, what is known as the Rio Grande de Sul, and in the old imperial city of Pelotas. Pelotas is a city that still possesses traces of its ancient grandeur; it has some fine houses and a palace, two cathedrals, and three universities. But Angela, we’ll call her that, lived with her family and the other families around her in a very different Pelotas. Their world was the favela.

I was there maybe fifteen years ago. I’d been attending a conference in the busy city of Porto Allegre, some way to the north, as a guest of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil. The Bishop of Pelotas was one of the other guests, and he invited me to visit his diocese. I saw the old palace, and visited the Anglican Cathedral, and I remember spending some time in a rather fine coffee shop with cakes the equal of any in the world. But I did also visit the world Angela inhabited. The favela where she lived was known as Anglo; Anglo because it was located in the ruinous grounds of what used to be the Anglo-American Salt Beef Packing Company. There’s no great call these days for salt beef.

The favela consists of shacks not unlike a rather poorly constructed garden shed. But each shed contains a family. Dirt tracks run through, and to gain access from the track to the compound of a particular dwelling you have to cross an open sewer. Everywhere was very dusty, rather smelly too.
Anglo has been there for quite a while. Here and there one or two of the shacks had become small villas constructed from breeze blocks and painted pink. And a few of the dusty tracks had the occasional lamp on a post. Later in my visit I saw a newer camp, on some waste ground near the centre of the city and much more vulnerable to being cleared away by the authorities; and there people were living in what were little more than tents.

But don’t imagine that the people in Anglo were anything other than dirt poor. Maybe a lucky few were doing better, but most, like Angela, were just scraping by at best. What did they do? Angela showed me her cart. It’s in the picture. She walked the streets with this cart collecting rubbish, plastic mostly but cans and things as well. I saw them sorted and piled along one side of her small yard. Plastic bottle tops were especially prized, she told me (through my interpreter, a Swiss girl doing a mission placement there). You got the best price for bottle tops.

But the deacon at the little church there told me they didn’t get much of a price for anything; that was the problem. In Brazil everything that can be recycled is recycled, and it’s the poor that do it. But people in Anglo had to sell to the traders who came round and collect, maybe once a week, once a fortnight. They’d never quite know when the traders would come, and they’d no choice but to accept what the traders offered them. Angela had a pile of rubbish, sorted and ready for the trader, but no-one had come, and that day she’d no money to feed her children. The church had a soup kitchen that day; without it, they wouldn’t have eaten, she said. And just the day before I’d been eating cream cakes with an excellent coffee or two without a care in the world. 

I went to the soup kitchen, and met Angela again there. The place was crowded. Mission hymns were sung, joyfully if not all that tunefully. And soup was ladled out into the plastic bowls and tubs the women brought, and bread and cabbages were handed out too.

Everyone there was pretty much in the same boat. They were all living on the edge, at risk, constantly, from petty crime, from exploitation by traders who rip them off, from disease, those open drains didn’t look or smell all that healthy, and from the city fathers who might just decide to tidy things up by bulldozing the favela and kicking them all out.

The soup kitchen was one project, but the church there wanted to do more. It hoped to buy and secure the old Anglo site: some of the old buildings could be used to set up a co-operative to sort, process and bale the waste the folk of Anglo collected. Then they could sell it directly to the big recycling firms and not have to rely on the traders who turned up when they felt like it, offered poor rates and probably also cheated on the scales. I hope that by now they’ve managed to do that. Angela’s children won’t be far off grown up by now. Will they still be as poor as she was? What do they have to look forward to?

Why tell that story at harvest festival? Look at the labels on the things in your kitchen cupboards and fridges, how many different countries are represented. We thank God for harvest today here in Leighton, but harvest is worldwide. More than once in Brazil I came face to face with the contrast between immense wealth and abject poverty. My visit to Anglo was one of those occasions.

In the Old Testament there are many stories of people on the move, not least the people of Israel in the book Exodus being led through the desert by Moses. They journeyed from slavery in Egypt to find a new land, the land promised to them by God, that would flow with milk and honey. I don’t know how Angela ended up in the favela, where she’d come from; maybe like so many she’d travelled in from the country hoping the city would give her and her children a better life. The people of Israel, on the run from Egypt, spent forty years in the desert. How long would Angela be in the desert of the favela?

The people of Israel reached the land God promised them; all they had to do was to cross the Jordan to enter a wonderful place, with fertile soil in which they could grow all they wanted. But before they crossed that river to enter the land, Moses told them they must never forget what they used to be, that they’d wandered in the desert, desperate for food and water, that they’d been slaves in Egypt. And they must never forget that it was God who’d brought them safely to the land they now held; so they must offer thanks, but more than that they must live thankfully.

Our harvest festival is a time to remember that, as one of the Psalms puts it, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof; the round world and all that dwell therein.” Jesus says, “Consider the lilies; consider the ravens. Seek God’s kingdom above all else, and he will make sure you have what you need.” We thank God for all that’s good in our land and in our lives, but harvest brings responsibility as well as blessing. We honour the giver of our harvest when we use what he gives us according to his mind, and in a way that reflects his love. When we seek his kingdom.

God gives us a rich and beautiful world to share, but we can get depressed, or I can anyway, at all the bad news that comes our way, every bulletin is full of it. And the problems and sadnesses and inequalities of our world can sometimes - often - seem so big, so intractable, so unchangeable that we might just end up believing there’s nothing to be done. I think the church in Pelotas proved to me that day that I’d be wrong to think that. We may only be able to do small things like that soup kitchen, but lots of small things added together make a big thing. Harvest is there to be shared and used, not hoarded up. And every small act of sharing moves us all just a step or two closer to the promised land.

The King's Feast

Sermon notes for this Sunday . . .

Matthew 22.1-14 (Trinity 18, Proper 23 year A)

Don’t you think it slightly strange, in the Gospel story we’ve just heard, that a poor guy plucked from the street to attend the king’s wedding feast should then be bound and flung out for not having the right clothes on? How many street beggars or Big Issue sellers do you think would be in possession of suitable attire for a posh wedding?

We’ll return to him later. But all in all, this is quite a strange parable. It’s one thing to turn down an invitation to a wedding, but it’s a bit over-the-top to actually kill the messengers who bring it, don’t you think? Particularly since the king in the parable was the sort of despot who’d burn down your entire town in response. They’d have been well advised to say yes to a man like that, even if they had had other plans for the day of his party.

I think Matthew gets a bit more stark and even bloodthirsty than the other Gospel writers when he re-tells the stories of Jesus; Matthew also groups the stories together, so some commentators think that here we’ve two quite different stories joined together, the one about the wedding feast being populated by people gathered in from the highways and byways, after those first invited failed to respond, together with a second story about a man coming to a wedding without the proper clothes and being punished for it.

But, separately or together, they’re stories we should take seriously, and the theme of both is judgement: God invites us to a feast he’s prepared, a salvation feast, but woe betide us if we pass up on that invitation. Sometimes we soft-pedal the judgement side of the Gospel, but we shouldn’t. God is love, and his love seeks to include us all, desires to leave no-one out. But God is also the righteous judge who is angered by our rejection and our misdeeds; and his wrath is to be feared.

“The Christian Church is a revolutionary movement that became an institution - discuss.” That might have been a question in one of my papers at theological college, but was in fact a headline in last week’s Church Times. Jesus came with a revolutionary message, and here he targets those for whom the system and the ritual have become more important than God. The priests with their ritual and sacrifice, and the Pharisees with their purity and piety: these two groups had between them created a godless religion.

Let me explain. They professed belief in God, they prayed to him and offered their sacrifices; but really they’d relegated God himself to be just one component in a system that didn’t really need him. As long as they did all the right things God had to let them in: they’d racked up enough points, they’d earned their place.

That’s what they thought, anyway. In the story Jesus told there were people who expected to be invited to the king’s banquet; it was what their social standing deserved. And they also thought it perfectly OK not to go, if it spoiled the routine of their tidy little lives. In the story the king deals very harshly with their disrespect.

In the previous chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we’ve already heard Jesus tell the Pharisees and priests that (quote) “tax gatherers and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Instead of serving God, he told them, and responding to God’s call, they’d been serving only themselves.
So what has the Church done with the revolutionary message of the Gospel? Are we looking to change minds and hearts and lives, are we looking to change the world, or have we become institutionalised? The problem with institutions is that they become hierarchical, bureaucratic and self-serving.

It’s a truth proved time and time again in all kinds of organisations and institutions, that what should be serving and encouraging and enriching the local groups and ordinary members, can end up taking from them rather than giving to them. The organisation itself becomes more important than its aims, and its structures seek to be served rather than offer service, end up impoverishing rather than enriching. The aim of the Church is to teach, preach, proclaim and live the kingdom, to share and show God’s love and to acknowledge him as king. Not to spend as much time as we do just keeping the show on the road.

Sorry - bit of a bee in my bonnet, I guess. But I’m reminded of a company someone I know used to worked for. When they did a programme of restructuring they managed to cut out a whole tier of management without anyone really noticing. They’d got more management than they needed, because one thing managers are good at doing is creating more managers and building little empires.

Let me get back to the man I started with, that poor guy plucked from the gutter and then thrown back again because he hasn’t got the right clothes? “Tax gatherers and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom ahead of you,” said Jesus - but only if they’ve listened, obeyed, responded, made changes. Only if they’re wearing the right clothes.

Here’s a thought. What if the king, knowing that people pulled in off the street aren’t going to have much to wear, had put out suits of wedding clothes for them all? Wouldn’t that be a kind and kingly gesture? And isn’t that what our gracious God does do? When we turn to God we’re clothed with his love. So maybe this man was punished not for not having a wedding suit in his wardrobe at home (and maybe not having a wardrobe, or even a home), but for not having bothered to wear the wedding clothes that had been provided for him.

In other words, for being the person who comes to church but then falls away or maybe departs in a huff because they can’t be top dog; or the person who’s happy to be known as a churchgoer, but who fails to allow Jesus into the rest of his life, whose everyday activities don’t reflect the kingdom principles he hears about on a Sunday. I know that sometimes I am that person, and that’s why I’m here. So often my Sunday praise and fervour doesn’t get properly connected in to my weekday life; it’s something I need always to be working on.

Tax gatherers and prostitutes and all kinds of folk from the highways and byways of life get invited to the kingdom feast of our Lord. They’re welcomed in, they’re commanded to come in. It’s a revolutionary party, it’s a beggars’ banquet, in which all the established principles get turned upside down. Except this one: you don’t come as you are, you come attired in the robes that the king is giving you, the ones bearing the sign of the cross, a cross to be worn not only on the outside of us but in the deep and secret places of our hearts.

To do less than that is to cheat on God and to disrespect his generous and saving grace. It’s not only the obvious targets, like the priests and Pharisees to whom Jesus told his story, who stand under judgement. It’s all of us.

Nature Notes

My offering for local community magazines for the month ahead . . .

Another Autumn Walk

After last month’s foray, a rather shorter walk this month, which I made along the canal towpath on a very wet day in early October, walking home from Coed y Dinas. It wasn’t a cold day, and the breeze was light, but the rain was quite heavy at times and the light wasn’t all that good.

But there was still plenty to see, beginning with a pair of swans and their well grown cygnets on the pool formed out of the old route of the canal. I wonder if these were the same birds I saw at the lock at Berriew on the walk I described last month. They may have been, but there are always several pairs along this part of the canal. These were being quite busy in the rain, up-ending themselves to dabble deep down into the water with their long necks. Swans feed mostly on underwater vegetation, but they don’t mind supplementing that with water insects and other invertebrates, frogs and even small fish should these come to hand, or rather beak.

A moorhen dashed jerkily past in front of the reeds, but either didn’t notice me or wasn’t too bothered at the sight of me. This is one of our commonest water-birds, found pretty much everywhere in Britain, and happy to live on smaller ponds than its relative the coot. Its red bill with a yellow tip is distinctive, as is its jerky, flicking motion when swimming or walking. Like the coot it has lobed toes rather than fully webbed feet. Well-grown juveniles are dull brown and lack the red beak; I saw a couple a little further on as I walked.

Not many insects fly when there’s heavy rain, but a large dragonfly came across just in front of me, close enough for me to hear the rustle of its wings, as I left the pool to walk the canal towpath proper. Maybe I’d disturbed it from its resting place. A surprising number of plants were still in flower along the towpath, including my personal favourite, meadowsweet. The towpath equivalent of the “Chelsea chop” designed to bring on a second showing of flowers in your garden is the midsummer mow along the canal, which guarantees a late flush of flowers from meadowsweet and others. The scent is lovely, but I wasn’t going to stop and sniff in the rain. The same scent, incidentally, is present in the leaves and other green parts - not as strongly, but scrunch up a leaf and sniff it and you’ll get a hint of it. Other plants in flower included low-growing speedwells, a pleasing blue, and the yellow of creeping Jenny, not a wild plant, so I suspect garden soil must have been used to build up the bank here during restoration.

A couple of herons passed over, and I could hear a buzzard mew, but the highlight of my walk had to be a sparrowhawk drifting across the fields used for the country and western weekend and other events. I say drifting, for it wasn’t going at any great speed, but this was quite a purposeful drift: a few wing beats, a glide, a few wing beats again, keeping its eyes open for any opportunity. The short wings and long tail are typical; the wings have a rounder shape than the kestrel. This hawk is a superbly adapted and deadly hunter, and always, for me, a delight to see.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Growing Up

What was now
what was you
what was me
has been turned into history
in this whitewalled room
such a short journey
such a sudden change
a last page turned
the book closed
no time for goodbye
you took the overnight train
heading for that new dawn
leaving us breathless
leaving us lost
everything now will be measured
as before you or after you


A sermon preached today at Dovaston on Isaiah 5.1-7 and Matthew 21.33-46

The two readings I’ve used this morning have a certain similarity to them, since they both are about vines and vineyards. But there are important differences too, which we’ll think about as we go along. Vines and vineyards were familiar places to the people of Israel, and the vine in its abundant fruitfulness symbolised not only God’s gifts to his people, not least his gift of the land itself in which they lived, but it also symbolised what God asked of his people - that they were to be as fruitful, as abundantly fruitful as the vine; all their thoughts and actions were to be a thank offering to the Lord who had blessed them so richly and abundantly. And the vine was seen as a sign of sacrifice: vines had to be staked and supported, the branches couldn’t support themselves; so it was seen as choosing not even to support its own branches, but to give everything of itself away.

Our first reading, from Isaiah is a poignant statement of God's loving care for his people. The People of Israel are God's vineyard, we read, and the Lord has tended that vineyard with loving care: he has cleared it of stones, and dug the soil, and planted choice vines in it. After all that care, why then has the vine produced so poorly? And what should I now do? That’s what the Lord asks through his prophet.

When we moved into a new home many years ago, we were delighted to find a well-stocked and nicely cared for back garden, with fruit trees that included the only peach tree I’ve ever had - and it did bear fruit, just a few, but freshly picked peaches from your own tree knock anything you might buy into a cocked hat. Anyway, there was also a vine, which grew and grew and grew. It looked handsome, vine leaves are quite attractive, but it produced not a thing. Probably it wasn’t meant to, and was always supposed to be just ornamental, and it did do its bit to add to the beauty of what was a pretty good garden. But I like grapes, so I was a bit disappointed.

I might have dug up that vine, but I didn’t. I grew quite fond of it, and anyway we weren’t in that house for very long, only three or four summers. But in general, it’s never enough just to look good. Vines are supposed to be fruitful. Think on this: coming to church isn’t being fruitful. Singing hymns, even saying prayers isn’t being fruitful. All these things are essential steps towards being fruitful, but fruitfulness is proved not by what we do on a Sunday, but by what we decide and give and do in the rest of the week, in our off-duty moments, our everyday lives.

Now here’s an interesting thought. God created the Earth and all that moves within it. And there it was, moving and working and blending together very well, each ecosystem finding its own harmony, to use scientific language, each different environment fruitful and productive in its own way, as its own version if you like of the Garden of Eden. Only when people appear on the scene do things start to go wrong. If you’re being picky and Biblically precise, only when the man and the woman eat the fruit that was forbidden to them does it all start to go wrong. And while you could blame it all on the serpent, I think it was always going to happen. God made us with the capacity for independent thought. He made us with the ability to be disobedient.

Since we also read that he made us in his own image and likeness, that’s an interesting thought. You might wonder, why on earth would God want to spoil the harmony and loveliness of what he had made, by adding disobedience into the mix. The answer has to do with love. God could have created automata who would do his every bidding - like a modern production line in a car factory where robots install each component in exactly the same way and can be relied on to get it right all the time every shift.

But we are made in his image: made therefore with the capacity to love, and you can’t programme love. However much you love someone you can’t make them love you back. God makes us with the capacity to respond to his love, but that includes the risk that we won’t.

God wants his world to be filled with peace and love. But for that to happen he accepts the risk of hatred, discord, injustice. He creates us to be fruitful, and in the summary of the law we’re told how to be: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Getting back to the image of the vines in the vineyard, God showers us with gifts that should encourage us to bear fruit - by sharing, by caring, by responding to our neighbour in need, by desiring a better world and helping to build it. But what if we just keep those gifts for ourselves? That’s the risk he takes with us.

But if you’re a vine grower and your vines aren’t producing, I guess there does come a point when you have to act, when you have to accept that the vines you’ve got are just taking up space and using resources, without giving anything back. What would you do with your vines, asks the Lord - and what should I do with mine?

Our Gospel reading also ends with a question. Probably the story from Isaiah was in the mind of Jesus when he spoke as he did to the religious leaders; but the story as Jesus tells it isn’t about the vines but about those who tend them, and by the time Jesus finished telling the story, the chief priests and Pharisees knew perfectly well just who it was aimed at: themselves.

Jesus had already told them the parable of the two brothers, one of whom offers to help his father but doesn’t, while the second says he’ll not do it but then changes his mind and does it after all. The religious high-fliers, temple priests and Pharisees, may have looked good and said all the right things, but in the end they were not delivering, they were not doing it.

Now in this parable he takes his accusation against them a step further. He tells them that to further their own ends and looks after their own well feathered nests, they’ve been prepared actively to oppose the will of God.

In Isaiah’s story the people of Israel are the vines; in the story told by Jesus, the tenants who’re supposed to be caring for the vines are the religious leaders: formally designated leaders like the high priests, or self-appointed religious authorities like the party of the Pharisees. Those who have the privilege of caring for the vineyard, have also responsibility towards the owner of the vineyard, to make sure his vines produce a good harvest.

A short aside: I remember some years ago, at rather a low point in my life, going one Sunday to a large and well attended and outwardly very successful church (I won’t say where). I’d not been there before, but I’d heard it was lively, and to begin with I was impressed. But as the worship went on I was becoming uncomfortably aware that no-one from start to finish had said a single word to me. Not even the minister did as I left; he was so happily engaged with conversation elsewhere that he never noticed me as I went past. Maybe I caught them on a bad day; maybe their welcome team was on holiday or laid low by the flu. But maybe, just maybe, this outwardly successful church might have been a little too full of itself, rather than of the Spirit.

As I say, I may have judged them harshly and unfairly. But one sense I get from the parable Jesus told is that the tenants in the vineyard had got a nice little business going there. They got a good living out of it, and they didn’t want the boss disrupting things by wanting his share. So they thrashed and sent away the messengers sent to them (in other words, the prophets). And then the owner sends his son.

Well, we know what happened next. Jesus predicts his own destiny in this parable; and indeed the parable itself may have played its part in provoking some of the opposition that would in time see him taken and tried and sent to be crucified. Jesus asks a question: “How would the owner of a vineyard deal with tenants like that?”

“He’d bring them to a bad end,” reply the priests, and in a sense they’re condemned from their own lips as they say that. Maybe they only realised that later. Jesus went on to speak to them about “the stone the builders rejected, that has become the chief cornerstone.” In the Bible the cornerstone’s often used to describe the relationship between us and God. Nothing we build will last, unless we build on him, as in Psalm 127 - “Unless the Lord build the house, its builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watch over the city, its watchmen stand guard to no avail.”

So Jesus is telling them: “What you are building you’re building for yourselves, to please yourselves. Unless you choose to build on the foundation God provides, that corner stone you have rejected, you build in vain. You’re just like the rebellious and self-serving tenants.” No wonder they didn’t like to hear it.

The challenge of the parables told by Isaiah and Jesus is one we need to hear too. The Gospels show us that we are both sheep and shepherds (sheep as we hear and obey the shepherd’s voice, shepherds ourselves in the care and leadership we offer one another); and I think we’re also both vines and vine-growers - and as both vines and vine-growers we’ve a responsibility to the one whose vineyard this is. We should be fruitful as vines, not just looking good on a Sunday by Sunday basis, but really delivering on that: by on a daily basis being the servant people God desires us to be, in his image, in the image of the servant-King; and we should be fruitful as vine-growers, loyally encouraging and directing and supporting one another in a ministry we all have a share in, that honours and serves the one who is the giver of all life, and who will in the fullness of time call each one of us to account.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A Harvest Address . . .

. . . given at Chirbury, Sunday 1st October:

What I want to do this morning is to tell you a heartwarming and true story about what harvest is really about, and why it’s good that we come to church to celebrate it.

Imagine, look around you: instead of green hillsides and valleys, with trees and fields and hedges, imagine that the land all around is the same dusty brown colour; dusty brown because the ground itself is just dry dust. There are steep hills on either side, and they too are brown. Nothing is growing here. As you walk, the dust covers and stains your shoes, and it gets into your clothes, and it makes your eyes water.

I was there just about twelve years ago, in a place called El Trebol, which means The Clover Leaf. But there is no clover in sight: you could be in a desert; and in fact you are in a desert. No rain falls here, which is why nothing grows. I’ve been in one or two deserts in my time, and deserts are usually fairly empty places, but this one isn’t. Look around again: this desert scene is full of houses, lots of houses, houses that stretch along the valley, and march up the hillside.

As you look, you’ll see that many of these houses are in fact hardly more than tents. Even the better and more solid ones are more like rough sheds than houses, built mostly out of bits of hardboard, planks of wood, corrugated iron. The houses you see have been knocked together out of anything people could lay their hands on. You might find yourself thinking of allotment sheds, except that nothing grows here, and every shack has a family living in it. Some of them are just hanging onto the side of the hill. How did they manage to build there, you wonder. Why are all these people here? Why make a home in a place so arid and dry and desolate?

In the Old Testament there are many stories of people on the move; in Exodus you read of the people of Israel led through the desert by Moses, journeying from slavery in Egypt to find new land, a land promised to them by God, a land that would flow with milk and honey. They were in the desert for forty years, we’re told. They didn't want to be there, but back in Egypt they'd been slaves, overworked and treated badly by their Egyptian slave-masters, by Pharaoh the king of Egypt. So the desert was a better option, at least until they reached the land they’d been promised.

And when at last they did reach it, it was a wonderful place, with fertile soil in which they could grow all they wanted. But before they crossed the river to enter the land, Moses told the people that they must never forget what they used to be, that they had wandered in the desert, desperate for food and water, that they’d been slaves in Egypt. Most of all, they must never forget that it was God who’d brought them safely to the land they now held, so they must offer thanks and they must live thankfully.

Our harvest festivals, like the festivals of the people of the Old Testament, are a time to remember that, as one of the Psalms puts it, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof; the round world and all that dwell therein.” So we thank God for all that’s good in our land and in our lives; and, I hope, we also remember that God wants us not only to say thank-you but to live thankfully, using well what he has given us, and being mindful of all with whom we share our world, especially those whose own harvest is much poorer than ours. Like the people whose story I started with, living in the desert.

You might imagine them to be living in some terribly remote place miles from anywhere. But in fact the people I visited were living on the edge of one of the world’s great cities, Lima, the capital city of Peru. I went there to visit people and projects supported by the mission agency for whom I then worked.

The people I met had trekked in from miles around to seek a new life in Lima. Why? Because back home they had no land, or they were terrorised by cruel landlords or bandits or rebels. Perhaps they’d imagined the streets of Lima would be paved with gold. But where they landed, in El Trebol, streets were paved only with dust. The reality of life for those recently arrived was very tough indeed. But the church was very much there among them. The church building I went to see was itself a shack, with walls made of hardboard, and a dirt floor - but it was a place of hope. Inside it, the people who came heard the stories of Moses and the people of Israel, and they prayed that God would help them too.

But how would God help them? God uses people to help people, and the church was running a project to help families in this shanty town to rear Muscovy ducks, and to sell duck eggs as a co-op. I was quite inspired to meet some of the families taking part, and a couple of the church leaders who were helping to teach them. But that was only the beginning of a harvest story that still continues.

So now, imagine that dusty scene again; El Trebol to look at was like an old-fashioned sepia photograph brought to life, in which everything is some shade or other of brown. But look again today, and you’ll see some patches of bright green: squares of rapidly growing crops protected by fences made out of blue plastic sheeting: gardens, new gardens, growing in the desert.

These gardens are a new project that hadn’t started when I was there. People from the church had spent time gathering families together who wanted to start co-operative allotment gardens where all kinds of things could grow. Lima isn’t far off the equator, and things really do grow there. The blue plastic shelter was vital though, to make sure the wind didn’t  blow the thin soil away. More plastic was used to make scarers to see off any birds that might steal the seeds.

The duck rearing project contributed too. Ducks produce more than just eggs; and duck manure had helped stabilize and enrich the soil, making it more fertile and less likely to blow away. Now the folk from the church had all these things, or they could lay their hands on them anyway. All they needed on top of that was a bit of a start to make it happen.

In a very green and pleasant village in the English midlands, in prime growing country not far from Evesham, people at a little church were gathering to celebrate harvest festival. And they decided they’d like other people to have a share in the harvest for which they were thanking God. As it happens, Worcester diocese is linked with the Anglican Diocese of Peru, so the bit of money they decided to send went to Lima, where it was just the start the folk there needed to make this little miracle in the desert happen. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough, and well targeted. So today it’s helping those particular desert people to take a step or two towards the promised land they’ve been longing for.

God gives us a rich and beautiful world to share, but we can get depressed, or I can anyway, at all the bad news that comes our way, every bulletin is full of it. And the problems and sadnesses and inequalities of our world can seem so big, so intractable, so unchangeable that we end up believing that there’s nothing we can do. So my simple harvest thought for you today is that this little story about ducks and gardens proves that it’s not true that there’s nothing we can do. There is. And every small act of sharing moves us all a step or two closer to the promised land.