Monday, 27 November 2017

This year's Christmas poem

Written after hearing the band my daughter plays with doing "Sleigh Ride", albeit in a warm and comfortable church . . . and with the Church of England's 2017 Christmas campaign "God With Us" in mind.

Christmas again, and tinsel lights are glittering everywhere;
a band is playing “Sleigh Ride” to the shoppers in the square.
The sound of money changing hands, the rush to get things done
when body clocks are slowing in the absence of the sun,
and Christmas pop charts, TV ads, that toy we have to buy:
a time of high anxiety, it’s easy to see why
so many of us dread it, or we feel it’s worn us out;
it’s so much fuss for just one day - just what’s it all about?

It’s not about the cash tills, it’s not even Santa’s cave
where kids are given trinkets when they promise to behave;
a world away from city streets, and under eastern skies
the tales are told of angel song, a star seen at its rise,
and shepherds and astrologers brought to a humble place,
to find to their amazement there the dawn of saving grace,
a child laid in a manger bed, with love-light in his eyes,
and as they kneel they see the tears of joy that Mary cries.

So open ears, dear Lord, to hear beyond the noise we make,
the quiet song of love that greets the Child born for our sake:
in Bethlehem, a brighter light than all our lamps can give -
our one and only Saviour, who is born that we might live.
God-with-us lives among us, comes to teach and to befriend,
to heal, to call disciples, and to love us to the end.
So when the shopping’s finished, and the holly decks the hall,
thank God that by his love is born the greatest gift of all.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

A Sermon for this Sunday "Christ the King"

I was sitting on the top deck of a number 26 London bus, travelling west towards Waterloo, and idly gazing, as you do, into the office windows we passed. It was late in the afternoon, and people were just finishing their working day. In the offices I passed I could see people still busy at computer keyboards, or delving into filing cabinets, talking on the phone, feeding paper into printers. And then all of a sudden the scene changed: the rooms changed from functional office spaces designed for people to work in, to something much more immense and sumptuous. One room I looked into had a great shining ceiling that looked as though it was inlaid with mother of pearl. It was an office of some sort, but not one that needed any desks; instead, it held a suite of very comfortable armchairs, with occasional tables and some swish art deco style lamps. And, if I remember rightly, a palm tree. These offices were very different.

My bus had entered Threadneedle Street, or somewhere very close to it. We were now in the financial heart of London, and these offices weren’t so much about efficiency and functionality as about status, achievement and power. I wonder whether they’ll be quite so grand post-Brexit?

Royalty is our theme today. The last Sunday before Advent is often used to celebrate Christ the King. And you don’t find kings in the ordinary and humdrum places of this world, like offices filled with desks and photocopiers and computer terminals. But you might find one in the other offices I passed. Kings are about status, opulent palaces and demonstrations of power.

These offices in the financial quarter were certainly palatial in style, and all very grand indeed. I’m reminded that in one of the churches I used to serve we had a statue of Jesus in which he was crowned, richly robed, and seated on a throne, looking every inch the traditional image of a king. And he is, of course. He is King and Lord, the one before whom every knee shall bow. But he’s no need of the trappings of kingship that the world holds so dear.

Since this particular church was a bit high church, it had quite a few statues, and it also had a quite lovely painting, Victorian I think, of Jesus wearing a crown. But this was a crown of thorns: Jesus hanging from the cross, not seated on a throne. The cross is his true throne: here’s where his kingship is proved, here’s where he displays his kingly power. That’s the story of the Gospel passage I read: while the kings of the earth provide themselves with trappings and effects that make them look special and powerful and maybe even divine, Jesus is recognised and affirmed as king when he is least powerful in human terms. When he has no power, not even the power to stay alive.

The mystique and specialness of earthly rulers is for the most part smoke and mirrors. In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe went in an instant from the revered father of his nation to a man the crowds of protestors couldn’t wait to see the back of. As this week we celebrated the seventy years of our own Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip, we might remind ourselves that the fact that she is loved and respected even by many who don’t really support the monarchy has more to do with the genuineness of her as a person than it has to do with the bling of royalty. If anything, as the mystique of royalty has faded, her popularity has grown.

She also has a deep and sincere Christian faith, and, I believe, a genuinely humble heart. As should all of us who follow the King who was crucified, for his cross provides for us a model of kingship. Throughout the Gospels he told stories of the Kingdom. When we think of kingdoms, we tend to think of countries, nations, borders, geographical things. Kingdoms may be acquired by conquest, kings have dominion and build empires; we of all nations know that, since when I was at school most of the world seemed still to be coloured pink on our maps. But Jesus doesn’t talk about that sort of kingdom; the Kingdom he proclaims has no borders or boundaries; it isn’t limited to any one nation or people, but is open to all.

For the Kingdom of God is found whenever and wherever people make him their King, whenever and wherever they acknowledge him as Lord. And that means that this kingdom is being built, offered and shared in many different places - places where people are listening to the word of God and taking that word seriously as they choose how to live. Wherever people do his will, share his love, praise his name. But we also pray “thy Kingdom come.” It is not yet complete; the Kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Now as we serve our King, but not yet as we wait for its promised fulfilment, when at last all things are gathered up in him.

The Kingdom, then, is both good news now and also future promise. But it does need to be good news now, or our words about future promise will ring very hollow. So where will we find it? There’s no need for a palace: the Kingdom of God may well be being built in a street of suburban semis, or in the mud huts of an African village or the lean-to shacks of a Brazilian favela. Perhaps our King is building his palace in a line of refugee tents somewhere out in the desert, perhaps our King is joining the queue at the soup kitchen in some cold northern city. For wherever people are doing his will, he promises to be with us.

At the time I took that particular bus journey I was working for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG). If that sounds a rather quaint and old-fashioned name that’s because it is: the Society was founded in 1701 by an Anglican clergyman called Thomas Bray, who happened to be born not far from here near Chirbury and was educated at Oswestry School. So for over three hundred years the society he founded has been propagating the Gospel. These days the society has changed its name to United Society, Partners in the Gospel - more modern perhaps, and easier to understand, but I’d like to stick with that world propagation. Propagation suggests that mission’s about rooting and earthing the Gospel, so that wherever we do it, it flowers and fruits in ways appropriate to the soil of that place. 

Those words, “thy kingdom come” aren’t only what we hope for, but also what we commit ourselves to work for. While I was working at USPG I heard so many amazing stories. Like the work of the Delhi Brotherhood with street children in the bustling capital of India. With children who live their whole life on the streets; all they have is what they earn there. They need safe sleeping places, they need training and life skills, and drop in centres to bring in children who often aren’t very reachable and may have a deep distrust of authority and organisation. Why do these people care when others just walk past? Because they know that the King we serve had no place to lay his own head, and they know how he loved the lowly and the childlike in spirit. So his kingship is being proclaimed on the streets and among the children of India.

A young girl came to speak to us after working for six months in South Africa, where HIV and AIDS has had such a devastating impact on communities and families. Many people there still won’t admit to the scale of the problem of HIV, but it’s big and nasty and made bigger and nastier by ignorance and poverty. People need healing and therapy, and they also need care and affection, and advice and education. The girl who spoke to us had decided to train as a nurse so she could go back out there; that’s what she felt God was calling her to do, she told us. Our king sets his throne in the place of suffering and proclaims his reign among the sick and the broken. And today his kingdom is acclaimed in the places where HIV and AIDS rip families and communities apart, and among people no-one else gives space to. 

Those were two stories out of many. I myself visited a project in Brazil that was working with people who, in a favela or shanty town, were rubbish collectors, making a precarious living out of recycling plastic and paper. The Church was helping them form a co-operative and start a depot a bit like the one at Cae Post, so they could make a better and more secure living, and not be exploited by the traders with whom they had to deal.

Jesus stands with those in our world who are exploited, ill-used, cheated - and he hopes too to change the hearts and minds of those who do the cheating. He isn’t a king who gives orders from somewhere remote and on high. When we roll our sleeves up and get on with it, his sleeves are rolled up too. 

Wherever the Kingdom is found, its language and currency are the same. The currency of the Kingdom is love, and the language of the Kingdom speaks words of compassion and care. All of the stories I heard began in the same way, it seemed to me: with people who were feeling the pain of their sisters and brothers, and wanted to respond. Jesus on the cross shared our human pain, and in that pain he reached out in compassion to the robber crucified next to him, and prayed forgiveness for those who had nailed him there.

That love, offered for us, requires something of us. But what can we do, you and I, here and now, to serve our King and proclaim his Kingdom? I know that from this church you give generous support to the mission and aid work of Christians around the world. And in every act of worship we pledge our allegiance to Christ our King, the source for us of leadership and authority, and the fount of justice. And our world cries out for justice, the Gospel justice, the justice of the prophets: justice with a bias to the poor, justice that springs from righteousness and compassion, and that seeks to heal and to restore.

The thrones and palaces of this world convey the message ‘All this belongs to me.’ But in the end all that stuff is dust and ashes. The throne of Jesus, which is the cross of Calvary, has a very different message. It says, ‘All this I have given for you.’ We have been given so much by our king, so how can we hold back from giving in his name and in his service? Giving so that our sister and our brother may truly know the good news of God’s love, the healing touch of God’s hand, and the transforming power of God’s justice? 

May I close with a short prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you that you lift me up and call me forward, and for the many blessings with which you enrich my life. Help me to see in every human being my sister and my brother, for all are made in God’s image and by his love. Grant me strength and vision to live in and by the light of that love; and help me, Lord, never to forget that each person I meet is, like me, the child of a king. Amen.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Flight of the Stone

(a poem)

It is a truth self evident that
stones do not fly.  They may roll around a bit,
they pile up to make cairns,
or even mountains, but they
do not fly. Or at least,
not on their own.

Stones do not have wings.
Birds have wings, as do butterflies.
Angels are supposed to have wings,
though none were visible on the angels I’ve met.
Bats, moths, mosquitoes, night flying things  -
these all have wings. Stones do not.

Stones may fly up from the mouth
of a volcano, or perhaps bowl along at the breath
of a hurricane wind. But mostly
stones fly when people throw them.
And that’s all right when they are (say)
skimming stones from the beach.

But in general, I think,
people throw stones to hurt
other people, to drive them away,
to shut them up. Pity the poor stone,
which is not in any way malevolent, and
just wants to lie there, maybe roll around a bit.

Here is a stone: thousands of years have
made it what it now is: see the streaks of colour,
feel its smoothness, let it lie in your hand.
And then place it reverently down
where it will be pleased to sit. Respect it, and
don’t make it fly.

Friday, 17 November 2017

A Sermon for the Sunday ahead . . .

I don’t intend to speak for very long, but I’d like to say a word or two, reflecting on the very last verse of the Gospel reading we’ve just heard: “As for that useless servant, throw him out into the dark, where there’ll be wailing and grinding of teeth!”

There used to be a great tradition, in chapel more than church I think, of the fire and brimstone sermon that majored on the themes of judgement and wrath. The story’s told of one preacher who was thundering from his pulpit about the grinding of teeth on the day of judgement, only to overhear one old boy remark to the person next to him that he’d be all right, since he no longer had any teeth. “On the day of judgement,” roared the preacher, “teeth will be provided!”

Seriously, though, today’s Gospel reading is one of many stories where Jesus speaks about how we will be accountable for what we’ve done with what we were given. The servant in the story is described as useless, and he’s punished for it. Followers of Jesus are supposed to be useful.

In what way useful? The first two guys in the story proved their usefulness by their wise investment of what they’d been given. So more is required of Christian folk than keeping out of trouble and not doing anyone any harm. We’re supposed to be enriching the world around us, making our bit of the world a brighter and better and more loving place - through positive action, through noticing what needs doing and getting on and doing it, and by encouraging and enthusing and mobilising others to share the same task. Jesus himself talks about going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, in other words doing more, and going further, than the expected norm.

Christians should be yes people, and it’s a shame that so often the Church seems to prefer to say no. If we’re following Jesus then like him we’re in the business of loving our neighbour as ourselves: which means opening hearts, not closing minds.

In the story the useless servant didn’t really do anything wrong. Maybe that was the problem: he was scared of ever doing anything wrong. So in the end he didn’t do anything. His boss got his money back, and maybe he might have been glad of that, but he wasn’t. That talent was there to be used, not buried. We only get one shot at this; we need to be getting it right.

So today we have a Christening. The Church prefers to say baptism, but let’s stick with Christening, because Christening means being named in Christ. Joining his band of folk. Now Poppy won’t know too much about that as yet; so her parents and godparents - and, to a degree, the rest of us too - are taking a responsibility upon ourselves as she comes to the font: a responsibility for her, to teach her, to encourage her, to set her an example of how to use well and fruitfully this amazing gift we have called life. How to be lovingly and usefully Christian in the way we live.

Now those of you who don’t come to church all that often may possibly go out of church today saying, “Hey, I quite enjoyed that! Maybe I’ll pop along to my local church - maybe to this church - at Christmas and see how I get on.” If so, alleluia, and you’ll be warmly welcomed. But maybe more importantly, if you go away thinking, “How can my life do more good than it has been doing?” then I’ll be happy and I think our Lord will too. I’m sure he’s pleased to see busy, well-filled churches where songs of praise are being sung; but what really gladdens his heart is when that praise, and that spirit, is taken out into our everyday lives too; when we’re investing the talents he gives us in making sure good things are happening in the world around us.

Many centuries ago the prophet Micah wrote: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” That hasn’t changed, and the world still needs justice and kindness and love. That’s the way of life and the world view we’re commissioned into when we’re Christened. That’s what’s on offer for Poppy today.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Peter and the Fish

(A poem in progress)

Peter stands at the wall.
He is watching the fish, brown trout,
dipping in and out of the deep pool
by the bridge. Their constant movement
and the splash of the water
pleases him. Willow leaves, burnt and brown,
float on the stream. Only a few
still adhere to the branches.
It’s November, a dull grey day
though not too cold. Peter comes here most days,
buys a pie from the shop just over the bridge,
stands at the wall, watching.
Sometimes there are no fish,
but in his mind he still sees them,
loves the constant interplay
of their twisting bodies, how they curve
through the water. He, bent and twisted,
envies their freedom, as he leans as usual
on the shorter of the two sticks he uses.
Thirty years those sticks have brought him to this wall,
rain and shine, rain and shine. Now, though,
a murmuring voice somewhere deep inside
is telling him there will not be many more
days like this. Soon the brown trout will ply
their cold splashy water unwatched,
unloved, and uncaring, in a world that is
just the same, only not remarked upon.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Remembrance - a sermon for next Sunday

(I shall be preaching at Leighton and Middletown)

President George W. Bush, when American troops were first sent into Afghanistan, said: “This war is being fought in the defence of civilization itself”. That kind of language has been used since then by many a politician, as campaigns have been pursued against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and more recently Daesh or Isis. 

And it would probably find an echo in the recruitment videos of Isis and its supporters. For these people “civilization” is exactly what they choose to fight against. They’ve no time for the excesses of personal freedom as practised in the west - they see it as a threat to the austere and puritan form of Islam that they claim is the only true faith. But in reality even fundamentalist Muslims have found themselves sickened and appalled by the depraved violence, mass murders even, meted out in the so-called Caliphate. None of this finds any justification in the Koran. These are sick and bad people.

But this sad admission has to be made: religion plays a significant role in the violence that scars our modern world. Indeed, religion has been a cause of war and conflict throughout recorded history. Today Muslim minorities face persecution and often violence in Myanmar, in some parts of India, in parts of the Philippines. In other places Christians are the minority and Muslims the oppressors. In Sri Lanka, Buddhists and Hindus fought for many long years. Within Islam immense atrocities are carried out by Shia against Sunni, Sunni against Shia. In Christian Northern Ireland Catholics fought Protestants, and in the former Yugoslavia the Orthodox Christian Serbians fought the Catholic Croats.

And yet for the most part all of those religions claim to be, and at their best strive to be, peaceable. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers: God will call them his children.” And great thinkers and teachers in other faiths would surely say the same.

The wars that continue to be mostly in our minds on this day, the Great War of a hundred years ago, and the Second World War that followed so soon after it, were not primarily religious wars; but even there religion played its part, as did the cult of personality which inspired a pseudo-religious fervour in those who came close to worshipping Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. Most religions preach humility as something to be prized; how is it then that religion or something that looks and feels a lot like religion so often becomes a means of making one race or culture or nation over others superior over others?

Today we remember the victims of human violence and madness and greed, and of those who grab at power. And we honour the memory of those who have at crucial times in the history of our land and of the world stood firm in the cause of freedom against the cruelties of dictators and despots and against the false ideologies and religions that seek to exploit, to dominate, to imprison. We think of those who’re still suffering today, in the wars that continue, in terrorist attacks, in divided communities, and in the sort of act of mindless terror that we saw last Sunday in the United States.

Freedom is a key word in what we do today. Freedom that’s not just for me but for you as well, whoever and wherever you may be. In two world wars and at many times since the men and women of our armed services, support services, and in civilian life too, have campaigned and fought and striven and died in defence of freedom; sometimes the world around them was looking very dark and desperate indeed. We honour them all, and we honour too those who continue to serve today in the defence of freedom. And we have stood in silence to remember those who made the ‘final sacrifice’ in defence of their nation and of the free world.

Here is where I stand. War is always wrong in itself, as is any form of violence. But war is sometimes necessary. When we appease a warmonger, when we kowtow to those whose hearts are filled with violence, or turn a blind eye to those who seek to dominate and abuse others, we in the end conspire with them, in fact we support them. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, indeed, but peace can never be made by appeasing evil. To avoid war is a good and noble aim, but there comes a time in life when the line has to be crossed: when those who do evil must be confronted, at whatever cost, or our freedom is lost. That was true in 1939 and it continues to be true today.

We dwell in a free land; may we never take that freedom for granted. Today reminds us how much that freedom cost. And not just freedom for ourselves. To fight in defence of our own freedom without thinking of our neighbour is hard to defend from a Christian standpoint. If war can ever be described as ‘just’, then we fight not just for our own freedom but for our neighbour’s freedom too.

I began by quoting George W. Bush: he used the word civilization to define what that war was being fought to defend. Civilization: we need to think a bit about that word. It means more than just ‘our sophisticated and comfortable way of life’. It’s about more than technological gadgetry, it’s about more than our right to live how we choose. Much more. Civilization happens when we recognize one another as family, as sisters and brothers. Civilization is expressed in vision, caring and culture, in a sense of duty and purpose, in knowing we belong together. It’s expressed in the peace that in the Bible is called shalom: peace built on a foundation of justice and righteousness and truth, peace that gives honour to God. True religion teaches the ways of peace, True religion should be the spring of civilization. 

Whereas false religion, religion misused, is not only hateful and hurtful but ultimately godless. We believe that God is love, and any religion that teaches and inspires hate denies the God it claims to serve. I want no part in that. True religion isn’t just the badge we wear but the life we live: life in relationship with God.

The life we live: we can’t defend peace or freedom or civilization by treating them as ideas static things, however important. We need truly to live the freedom we preach, and that may involve us in change and even sacrifice, so we make space for our neighbour too to share in the peace and freedom we enjoy. Those who came back from the trenches of the Great War or who celebrated VE or VJ Day in 1945 did so dreaming of a new and better world. Some of those dreams came true, but many were dashed or lost. Our modern world is an uncertain and often scary place; in it we need still to dream, to retain the vision of a better world, and more than that, to build and to work for and to defend a freedom that all may share.

As today we remember the sacrifice of comrades and fellows and forebears, may we also have in mind the sacrifice that lies at the heart of all we do in church: the sacrifice of our Lord Christ on the cross of Calvary. If it’s civilization we’re defending in this dark and uncertain hour, then may that civilization rest on the very firmest of foundations, on the divine love revealed to the world in the cross of Christ. Christ Jesus died that all might live; from the cross he forgave even those who nailed him there. True civilization requires of us that same self-giving love: love without limit, love from which springs a true and eternal peace. We and all the world stand within the sweep of that wondrous and eternal love, love that seeks to make its home in your heart and in mine. Amen.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

A Funeral Poem

Don’t cry too much for me, though I have gone to that good night;
the gate stood open, I passed through; don’t grieve my soul’s last flight.
A new day dawns on lofty hills, the sun glints through the trees,
and calling birds rise up to chase along the gentle breeze.
I walked the lanes and worked the fields for all those many years,
and now in peace I’ll take my rest. Don’t shed too many tears,
but celebrate the love we shared, the bright and happy days,
the sweet songs of the summer, the sun’s soft evening rays.
It’s autumn now: my leaf has drifted down from life’s great tree,
but soon will come the spring, so do not grieve, my soul is free.