Saturday, 31 March 2018

Gardens and Gardeners - an Easter sermon

Easter begins in a garden, in the very early morning. Women are horror-struck to find the tomb empty, and the only thing they can imagine is that it’s been desecrated. One of them, Mary of Magdala stays by the tomb, weeping. And then someone speaks to her, someone she doesn’t recognise - I wonder why? Perhaps her eyes were too full of tears? But in the Easter stories people often fail to recognise Jesus, to begin with, anyway. I suppose that makes sense. Why would you recognise the one person you never expected to see again? Anyway, Mary thought it was the gardener.

It strikes me as interesting, reflecting on that, that the story that leads to the cross also begins in a garden, or so scripture tells us, in the book of Genesis. It begins with Adam, placed by God in the Garden of Eden - as the gardener.

I can’t help but wonder therefore if when John first wrote his account of that first Easter Day, he might have had Adam the Gardener of Eden in mind, when Mary thinks it’s the gardener she’s talking to? In Cardinal Newman's great hymn 'Praise to the Holiest in the Height' we find these words: "O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came." And St Paul wrote: "As by one man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead; as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive."

Spring is rather slow this year, but it is just beginning now in my garden. And after all the snow and frost all of a sudden I’m surrounded by little signs of resurrection: things that looked dead are starting to sprout, birds that were sullenly silent have started singing, and I’ve even seen a couple of ladybirds. Not everything's pulled through, and I’ll have to do some planting, but I’m looking forward to being out in the garden again. It’s nice to do my bit to make my little corner of earth a place of growth and beauty. As the saying goes, you’re closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.

Gardeners feel the rhythms of time and season, and the cycles of beginning and dying, which is how our living world operates. We live in four dimensions, but it’s the fourth of those, time, that truly rules our lives. None of us can escape the ticking of the clock. But though we are creatures of time, we have a spiritual side to us as well: the bit of us that’s moved by a soaring melody, or a dramatic painting, or the view from a mountain top - or even the beauty of a well-kept garden. Long ago, one of the writers of the Old Testament put it this way: "God has made everything beautiful in its time, and he has set eternity in the hearts of men."

In a way that’s the essential tragedy of human existence, that we are creatures of time, and yet have eternity in our hearts. It means we can never realise that eternal possibility that’s there within us. Adam the first gardener messed things up, got things wrong, and got slung out of the garden. We do it too: our rash and thoughtless acts, our petty selfishness and greed hurt those around us spoil God's creation. Usually we don't mean it, and we'd much rather be good. But like Adam we mess up and get it wrong.

For me there's no day that brings that home more sharply than Good Friday. One traditional prayer of the Church speaks of Jesus as being 'betrayed into the hands of wicked men'. But really these guys were not so much wicked as weak, short-sighted, selfish. The high priests, the scribes and Pharisees, Pontius Pilate and his Roman soldiers, even Judas Iscariot: they weren’t monsters, they didn’t I think want to do bad things. Yet the deepest evil ever seen happened because of what they did or didn’t do, and on Good Friday the Son of God died like a common criminal. Peter was to blame too, and John and the other disciples. When it mattered, they’d all run away. Joseph of Arimathea provided a tomb when it was all over, but couldn't he have done something to save Jesus? How come all kinds of people from Pontius Pilate down sent this blameless man to die just because a mob shouted for it?

Modern Passion Plays have become very popular around the country at Easter - The Wirral, York, Edinburgh, Epsom, Belper, to name a few this year. London, of course, in Trafalgar Square. Last year the Manchester Passion happened again, I’m not sure whether there was one this year but I don’t think so. But it’s the one from 2006 that stays with me, the first one; I watched some of the BBC broadcast again the other day on YouTube - the ending especially. What a great concept, an acted out Passion Play on the streets of Manchester, using songs mostly by Manchester bands. As things moved to a close Mary Magdalene sang a really sad version of the Elkie Brookes song “Sunshine after the Rain”; then the compere came on to wrap things up and sign off, having, in the guise of Pontius Pilate, received confirmation of the prisoner's death. But in fact the story wasn’t over. Suddenly there came a great shout and cheer, as on the clock tower of Manchester City Hall Jesus appeared singing "I am the resurrection and I am the life." That’s what Passion Plays were always about, they presented the drama of salvation in a dramatic form that could speak directly to all who came to see - that could speak directly to that part of each of us that’s a spark of what’s divine, a spark of what’s eternal.

St John’s account this morning is quieter but every bit as full of drama. Mary discovers that it's not the gardener she’s talking to, it's not the old failed first Adam; her master, rabbi and friend calls her by name. She’s in the presence of the new Adam, free now from the bonds of time and sin and death. That’s already wonderful - but then he sends her to the disciples. Tell them, he says, “that I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” So we are included in what he has done, it’s not just his victory, it’s ours as well. Today Christ is risen to restore in us the eternity God made us for. So for me every spring day in the garden is my assurance that the story’s not over. It isn't, and it never will be. Time and mortality don’t have the last laugh. For Christ is risen, and time can’t steal him from us. He is risen indeed, opening our way to dwell forever in the Father's love.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Seeing the Cross

My short sermon today (Good Friday) at Compline at The Marsh Chapel :-

On Good Friday we see the world at the height of its power. The world can do what it wants with this man. It can break him, it can destroy him. Or so it seems. But the hidden truth of Good Friday is this: the other players in the scene are hardly more than onlookers. For all their jeering, for all their weaponry, despite their power and show, they have nothing to say. True authority is found in the broken man whose death they witness.

The disciples couldn’t see that. All they could see was the end of all they’d hoped for. But we see the cross as those who stood by that day couldn’t see it. We see it in the light of Easter, and in that light it becomes a place of triumph and victory. For now though, feel the tragedy, and taste the despair; watch this good man be all too easily condemned and put to death. For now, be confronted by your own helplessness, know your own sin.

I doubt any of the players in this story started out with evil intent. Judas Iscariot may well have hoped to provoke Jesus into being the sort of Messiah he wanted, one who would fight for his people. The chief priests wanted to keep the peace: it was best for the people and the Temple, and incidentally for their own status and security, that this one man should die - better that,  surely, than the whole people destroyed. Pontius Pilate was trying to make the best of an impossible job: a weak man in a vulnerable position trying to cope with a city half in ferment, and to please a ruthless emperor who could remove him at a stroke.

Evil, even this greatest of evils, comes into the world more often through short-sightedness and petty ambition, than it does through bad people delighting in doing bad things. And can any of us claim not to be weak or short-sighted or petty or prone to selfish error from time to time. We all take our share in leading this man to Calvary, and banging in those nails. There's no-one else to blame.  “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”

Those words were written by Augustus Toplady in the hymn “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”. It’s a very personal salvation hymn, and as such it encourages me to know my own sin and to admit my own helplessness. Only then can I find in my crucified Saviour the grace I need. But what I find as I look to the cross isn’t mine alone; the love displayed here is love without limit, love for all the world. At the cross all are convicted of sin, but all are at the same time offered the remedy for sin. “When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people to myself,” said Jesus.

I’m not usually a fan of the art of Salvador Dali, but his tremendous painting 'The Christ of St John of the Cross' does resonate for me, perhaps because of the way the cross as Dali depicts towers over the world. Jesus died to save the whole world from sin, and he will set free all who come to him.

Tonight we celebrate the battle decisively engaged and brought to its end. There’s a body laid in a tomb, and some people are relieved, and some are triumphant, and others are wretched and weeping and full of fear. In human terms this is where the story should end. But it doesn’t. On Easter Day the world will wake to alleluias, alleluias that sing out the end of sin's long reign, that celebrate and affirm our freedom from death's embrace.

Tonight we stand by the cross, and though we may do our best to know nothing of what lies ahead, but just share the grief of it all, in fact we’re more than onlookers, more than those who can’t see past the immediate reality of a public execution. We know that what looks like the world at the height of its power is in fact Jesus doing what no-one else ever had the power or the will or the love to do. Or ever could. May we be drawn to that love, and may we be changed by that love, the glory of love divine displayed in a broken and dying man. May that love take root in our hearts, and may it shine in our lives, so the whole world may be drawn to the glory, and the love, and the life, of our crucified King.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The Servant King

To be preached at St Mark's, Marton-in-Chirbury on Maundy Thursday:

“Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” Those were the words of Jesus to Simon Peter, after Peter had said: "You shall never wash my feet." I imagine all the disciples felt as Peter did - Jesus was their rabbi, their teacher and master, so every one of the disciples must have been shamefaced, when they watched Jesus take bowl and towel to wash their feet. They’d had to meet in a secret place, so there wasn’t a servant at hand to wash their feet. That was a menial but very necessary task; no-one would want to sit and eat with the dust and grime of the city streets still clinging to them. And of course one of the disciples should have taken on the task; but none of them had thought to do it - every one of them had left it for someone else to do - ring any bells?

Peter must have felt really ashamed that his master was having to serve them, rather than they serving him. Yet again they'd let him down. As Peter saw it, they'd forced Jesus to demean himself, to behave like the lowest of servants. And that was wrong!

But the Last Supper is a place where worldly norms get turned upside down. By choosing to wash their feet Jesus welcomes Peter and the others into a new world, and in this new world greatness is measured not by how tall we stand or how deeply other folk bow before us, but by how deeply we love, and how willingly we serve. Later as they eat together they share the signs of this new world: bread and wine that are no longer just themselves. They still are bread and wine, but now they’re something more as well. Jesus breaks bread, and says: This is my body; do this to remember me. He blesses the cup, passes it round, and says: This is my blood.

And so begins the supper we share tonight. Broken bread and wine outpoured join us to the life and love of the man who declares himself as our Servant King. To Peter he says: “If I don’t wash you, you’re not in fellowship with me.” No-one else could or would perform this task; but in Jesus, despite ourselves, we’re made clean, our purity is restored.

Ahead lies the cross. Even as they share this last meal, the disciples still don’t understand what’s happening, and what Jesus is preparing to do. This is something no-one else could do. Jesus offers himself, the perfect priest presents the perfect sacrifice: the Lamb of God offered to free his people from their sin. This meal makes us part of that once and for all sacrifice, for Jesus says: This is my body, broken for you. Here at this table we’re joined to the life laid down, and to the life restored. 

I was watching an old episode of Midsomer Murders the other night. I’m glad I don’t live there! Anyway, this episode had a church at the centre, and two clerics - the current vicar, and the previous vicar now retired. I assumed one of them would be the murderer, and I was right. But I did think there’d have been one good vicar and one bad one, and there I was wrong: neither of them was much good. The Church made an easy target, I suppose! It usually does, but why not? The Church can be as worldly as any other human organisation, with its divisions, arguments, hierarchies; with an outward show to mask who knows what bad stuff happening inside. Church is a human organisation, made up of people as weak and fallible as any other people. But that’s not the whole story - for we also share this meal.

Like Peter, we may promise more than we give; like James and John, we may try to grab the best seats. But the fact that Jesus breaks bread tonight with ordinary fallible folk helps rather than hinders my faith. On this night every year, I’m reminded that in Jesus the expected rules of the game of life no longer apply. The world is turned upside down. See how the world does things, says Jesus: but my friends are no longer in the world - among you, things need to be different. Share this bread, take this wine. Be like me, and allow me to be part of you. Excel in service, let the very greatest among you be the one who is servant of all. True greatness isn’t found in palaces and towers. Sorry, Mr Trump, but yours is fake greatness; true greatness involves washing feet; it’s shared in bread and wine. Here and only here will the world find true life and health and glory.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Cross-shaped living

The fourth and last of my Lenten addresses . . .

“Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must renounce self; day after day he must take up his cross, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

For me, Holy Week is about coming right up against the tragedy of the cross, really doing our best to feel it like those first disciples did, as everything gone wrong, as God’s plans subverted, as a good man, the best man, dying because we let it happen, we ran away, we maybe even helped hammer in the nails. Jesus had done his best to prepare his friends, but they will still have been horrified, terrified, crushed.  I want to feel some of that this week.

For the first Christians the cross was at best a secret sign. It was an implement of death, a place of failure and rejection, and it seemed wrong to honour such a thing in any way. Now the cross has pride of place in many a church, and so it should, for it is in fact both the means of our salvation and the place at which we are convicted of sin, and we need to take both these things to heart if we are to embark on what we might call cross-shaped living.

On that first Good Friday, the disciples in their fear must have been saying something like, “It wasn’t supposed to end like this!” They didn’t know it then, but they were wrong on both counts: it was supposed to be like that, and it was not the end. Our sins crucified Jesus, but not because of his weakness and inability to prevent it, not through the subversion of his plans. Our sins crucified Jesus because he allowed it to happen. And in this event we stand convicted of our sin, but as we so stand, God in Jesus removes sin’s power to hold us and enslave us.

From this spring two things, the first of which is the transfer of slavery.  Slavery was commonplace in those days; while today we find it offensive and find it hard to draw analogies from slavery, at that time it would be have been well understood and not questioned. It was simply a fact of life. And any slave bought out of his slavery would now belong to his new master. So, having been bought by the cross out of our slavery to sin and death, we now belong to the cross, and to the one who, hanging there, paid that price. And that, of course, is why the cross is marked on each of us when we are baptized, when we are brought into the Church. You can’t see it, it isn’t drawn on us in indelible ink. It’s visible only if we make it visible. But it’s there, there as the sign of who we now belong to.

The second thing is this - that we also belong to one another. There are no limits to what Jesus did on that cross; he even pleaded for those who nailed him there.  At Calvary Jesus took upon himself not just the sins of his immediate disciples, not just the sins of a few favoured people, but the sin of the world.  “When I am raised up,” he says, “I shall draw the whole world to myself.” Raised up on the cross, and lifted there to die; but also raised to new life on the first Easter morning. And because he lives, we too will live, and that is a promise that is open to all. Is it attained by all, received by all, understood by all? It’s not for me to second-guess the judgement that only God can make, but it is clear that I share a duty and commitment to get that good news out to whoever I can, and wherever I can, and in whatever way I can. In what looks like tragedy and failure, a victory is won, a throne is raised, and it’s for everyone to share: the triumph of love. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, we know that light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death.

So, through Christ we belong to God, and in Christ we belong to one another. And I love the way the cross itself as a sign can be used to express this. The upright, connecting me and God, you and God, every person who sees it and understands and God. And the crosspiece like arms outstretched, connecting me with you, you with me, nation with nation, tribe with tribe, with no limits, with everyone welcome, everyone offered a place. Take up your cross and follow me, says Jesus. And in cross-shaped living we are called to share with the world our new and restored connection with God, and our essential connection one with another.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The Challenge of His Message

The third of my Lenten talks . . .

“Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in secret, preach from the housetops” (Matthew 10:27).

One of the issues I come across again and again in ministry is the person who says, “My faith is just between me and God.” In fact that sometimes almost seems to be the mantra of the Church of England, which I think, in my darker moments, could explain a lot. Like that other regular, “Charity begins at home”, there is virtually nothing in scripture to support it.

Though of course one does have to admit that Jesus did preach against the Pharisees and their very obvious displays of piety. Remember how they liked to stand on the street corners to pray; remember too how Jesus called them “whited sepulchres” - like the whitewashed funeral monuments that looked good on the outside but inside were full of corruption.

Jesus spoke against the Pharisees because their display was designed to draw attention to themselves. They enjoyed looking good, they liked to be noticed.  In the days when churchgoing carried more status than it does these days, there were certainly elements of the Pharisee about in the good old C of E. Anthony Trollope contrasts the quiet devotion of Septimus Harding with the too obvious piety of Obadiah Slope, for example, in the fictitious city of Barchester.

But one thing Jesus clearly doesn’t tell us is that we should keep our message to ourselves. Nor does he say that we should sit back quietly and let the vicar do it all. It’s all very well to say that in these parishes we need a vicar who is out and about, and who talks to people on the street, in the shop, down the pub - amen to all of that I say, by the way - but they do need to be able to identify more Christians than just the chap, or the woman, in the funny collar.

“Ah, but they do know which of us go to church,” you might say. “Excellent, that’s a good beginning,” I might say, “but it shouldn’t be the whole story.” Now shouting from the rooftops would have been easier back in the day of Jesus, when roofs were flat and the weather was warm. What might be the equivalent today? What do people need to hear, how can our message be made relevant to people’s real lives, real questions, and how should we do it?

Dare I mention once more at this point the words Mission Action Plan? That thing we haven’t yet done? Mission: let’s not be under any misapprehensions here. Jesus is talking about doing mission, and he’s saying that we all need to be involved. So what is mission, and where does it begin? Mission is sharing God’s word, sharing God in fact, sharing Jesus - but it begins not with shouting, from rooftops or anywhere else, but with listening. Even if you’re just putting together an advertising campaign for a new washing up liquid, you need to begin with questions: “When they’re washing up, what do people want, what are they hoping for, what isn’t working, what are their anxieties?” No point in putting together a campaign that doesn’t scratch where people are itching. Or a mission.

Action: but, having listened, assessed, we do need to be doing stuff, and not just sitting on our hands. And it isn’t speaking so much as caring that gets the message across. Caring, and inviting. So it’s the right sort of action we need, and to do that, we need a . . .

Plan: I’m usually too impatient to do this well. I have previous as regards rushing into things, and acting too quickly on ideas that really needed more work. Worth remembering: even Jesus took time out - in the wilderness at the start of it all, but constantly through his ministry, too. If he needed it, what makes me think I don’t? Jesus in the wilderness faced up to the problems and temptations that might otherwise have derailed him. Jesus constantly took time to pray, and planning and prayer belong together. God needs to be part of our planning! God needs to be the centre of our planning!

Saturday, 17 March 2018


A sermon for Passion Sunday :-

Around 32,000 years ago, a squirrel in what is now Siberia buried some seeds but never came back to get them. Instead, the seeds were found by a team of scientists examining the permafrost. The scientists took the seeds back to the laboratory, and managed to prepare some of them for germination: they grew several specimens of a little white flowered plant of the pink or campion family, with the Latin name of Silene stenophylla. Those plants grew and flowered and produced their own seed, so the scientists produced viable plants from seeds 32,000 years old, to beat the previous record for the oldest seed to grow, held by a two thousand year old date palm, by an amazing thirty thousand years.

The technique of freezing seeds to keep them viable is used by several groups of scientists around the world, as one way of preserving stocks of vulnerable or rare species and varieties of plants that might otherwise die out. But 32,000 years is a lot longer than anyone might have imagined keeping seed for.

Some seeds naturally remain viable longer than others, even at normal temperatures: like the poppy seeds that germinated in the trenches of the First World War, or that suddenly grow on any disturbed ground, maybe when a new road’s being built. Expect to see poppies along the new Newtown bypass, even if it’s been years since there were any in the surrounding fields.

But for the most part, seeds more than a few seasons old aren’t going to germinate. They may well look exactly the same as a fresh and perfectly viable seed, but looks aren’t everything. The life inside is no more. I’ve got an oil palm seed I’ve had since university days, when I studied tropical crops. It looks just the same now as when I first had it, and it’s really quite a handsome seed, a bit like a tiny coconut. But it will never grow.

Keep the seed, and you lose the crop. Lose the seed, by letting it fall into the ground and hide there, and you release the life within it. Or, as Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain . . .”

So the wheat grain becomes a potent symbol of sacrifice, since it must surrender itself, its own identity, in order to be fruitful. But that’s what the seed, the grain, exists to do; so if the grain of wheat doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it’s been - in a sense - untrue to its calling. Jesus says: “It was for this that I came to this hour,” as he looks ahead to the cross.

We call today Passion Sunday, and the fortnight from today through to Easter Eve, Saturday week, is Passiontide. Holy Week itself begins on Palm Sunday, next Sunday, and in that week I just want to follow the events through, and to share as much as I can the agony and fear and confusion the disciples felt, as they saw Jesus taken from them, as they saw his mission come to nothing, and as their own dreams were all shattered.

But today and through the first part of Passiontide, we reflect more on the meaning of the cross than the event itself. Jesus spoke openly to his disciples about what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. Then they couldn’t take what he was saying, but he was telling them that his death at Calvary wouldn’t be God’s plans betrayed and brought down, but God’s plans fulfilled: plans that needed the grain of wheat to fall into the ground and die.

The trigger for these words about the grain of wheat interests me. Some Greeks, some Gentiles, people who weren’t Jews, had asked to see Jesus. They came to Philip, who’d have been a Greek speaker, coming as he did from Bethsaida. And somehow the fact that these Greeks want to see him prompts Jesus to begin speaking about his death. Why should this be?

The disciples expected Jesus to be their Messiah, come to set their people, the Jewish people free, by restoring the Kingdom founded by David. So Jesus tried to tell them that he’d do greater things than that in Jerusalem. The victory he would win would free everyone from the burden of sin; from the cross he would proclaim the love of God once and for all: he was there not just to win freedom for one nation but for every nation.

In the Communion Prayer we say that Jesus died once and for all: Jesus himself said, “When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people to myself.” What was it those Greeks wanted from Jesus? We don’t even know from the reading whether they actually got to see Jesus; only that Philip and Andrew told Jesus about them. But if they did get to see him, and hear his words about a seed falling into the ground and dying, what did they make of it, I wonder?

St Paul wrote that the cross was a scandal to the Jews, and foolishness to Greeks. A scandal to the Jews, because surely no genuine Messiah could meet such a wretched and shameful death; and foolishness to Greeks, who were obsessed with the ideal of human physical perfection. Think of the Olympic Games and the others like them; look at the statues of the various Greek gods and goddesses: each of them as near to human physical perfection as any sculptor could manage. A broken and physically wrecked man dying on a cross couldn’t possibly be divine.

21st Century western culture isn’t all that different, I feel. We’re hooked on preserving our life, our youth, our looks. Just spend an evening watching the adverts instead of the programmes. And where people are interested in spirituality, it’s still more for their own sake than for the sake of the world: so they’re spiritually toned up as well as physically, and feeling better about themselves. Maybe that’s what those Greeks wanted too - something to reassure them and boost their egos.

Only Jesus could do what he did on the cross: once and for all, the one perfect priest made the one perfect sacrifice of himself. But Jesus calls us to follow him, and that means being like him, doing what he does, changing the direction of our lives so that we’re thinking and living sacrificially. For “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.” In those words Jesus spoke of his own mission, but he was also telling his disciples what they should be, how they - and we - should live. That we should take to heart the message of the seed.

What does it mean, to live sacrificially? What do we give up, what do we give away, and why? Plenty of people go to gyms and health spas to be rigorous and disciplined, and to get into shape; plenty of people follow diet plans or go to weight watcher clubs too. But isn’t that just about looking after our own physical selves, within the world of here and now?

I’m not knocking that, of course we should look after ourselves; but the sacrifice of Jesus is very different. What Jesus did he did entirely for others: his sacrifice is complete, it’s an act of love that holds nothing back. Lifted up on the cross, he draws the whole world to him, to the wonder of self-giving love. And his disciples are called to be as like him as we can be, living in a way that reaches out to others, living in a way that involves the death of our own selves. Doing the job that seeds are supposed to do: being fruitful.

Seeds are amazing things; they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Many years ago, I bought a necklace in a market in Peru on which every bead was a seed, lots of different sorts, all strung together. It looked beautiful, but of course each of those seeds was completely dead, and none could ever grow. Seeds that look good, but don’t do what seeds are supposed to do: looking good, but doing nothing - in the end, what use is that?

If my life is centred on me, or maybe on me and my mates, surely my life is a wasted life, however good I may look, however well-known or popular I may be. For I was surely made for more than that, because I’m made in the image of God, and so are you. In other words, we’re made to love like God, to care like God, to give of ourselves like God in Jesus Christ our crucified King. That’s the point and purpose of us, that’s what we should aim to live out and live up to, and if we do we help make the world a better place. If as disciples we take to heart the message of the seed, then the God whose love has won freedom for all in the cross of Jesus will be known and served and praised and shared.

Monday, 12 March 2018


My "Nature Notes" column for April . . .

It’s still early March as I’m writing this, and I’m already listening out for my first chiffchaff of the year. By the time you read this, there should be plenty to hear, I hope! It is one of our commonest summer visitors, also one of the earliest to arrive, and once it gets going, it’s among the loudest, too.

Not only is it loud, it also helps identification by singing its name. To be fair, some birds seem to me to be singing chiff chiff, and others chaff chaff, but by and large you will hear two different notes - the chiff being the higher pitched note, and the chaff a bit lower. The bird will do a burst of this, generally from somewhere near the top of a tree, then fall silent for a while (actually, it may well give a softer churring sort of call during this ‘silent’ time, but it’s hard to hear unless you’re very close to), before starting up again.

The male chiffchaff will start singing as soon as he arrives, to establish a territory. Whether the female also sings, I’m not sure - in any case, the sexes are almost impossible to tell apart. Chiffchaffs are small brown and buff birds - brown head, back, wings, tail, buff throat and underparts. It’s about the size of a blue tit, and early arrivals can often be seen prospecting for spring insects through the branches, before there are too many leaves about.

Chiffchaffs and willow warblers are almost impossible to tell apart on sight, and both are very common birds. Willow warblers may be a bit plumper, and a bit more greenish and yellowish in colour, and with maybe a slightly more prominent eye stripe. Frankly, I can’t tell the difference. Fortunately, the song is totally different, willow warblers give you a falling cadence of sweet, tuneful notes, and usually from within cover rather than the top of a tree.

They also arrive later, having travelled all the way from southern Africa. Chiffchaffs winter in north Africa, or in southern Europe, and a few don’t even leave the UK, but stay in the south west of England (but this may not have been a good decision in the winter just gone!). Probably chiffchaffs get here a good two or three weeks earlier than willow warblers, and they won’t all leave until mid-October.

Almost all the work of building the nest and incubating eggs is done by the female, leaving the male to chiff and chaff somewhere overhead. The nest is ball shaped and placed in dense vegetation like bramble patches. The male sometimes feeds the hen bird while she is incubating, but not reliably, though he will help feed the chicks once they are hatched. The brood generally numbers six or seven; the little eggs have purple speckles, resulting in charming, if dubiously true, rhyme, “Chiffchaff eggs are speckled by / mother bird eating cherries” (used by Donovan in a song, I believe). Chiffchaffs are insect eaters, and happy residents of medium to large gardens, and patches of woodland - and one of my very favourite birds.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Mums R Great

Mothering Sunday family address . . .

This morning we have some letters scattered around the church.  Let's see what we can spell with them.

To begin with - who has got a letter 'M'?

We only need one 'M' for the moment, so the other one can wait until later.  It's not hard to guess what this 'M' might stand for today, because we all know that it's Mother's Day, or Mothering Sunday.  So we'll begin with an M for mother.

We'll add onto that M a letter 'U'.

Put a U next to the M and you get the initials of an organisation that's very important in our church here and in churches all over the world.  The Mothers' Union.  Today is a special day for the Mothers' Union because one of the main things they do is to support Christian family life.  And that's exactly what we're celebrating today.

So we have M and U, so let's add on to that a letter 'S'.

Which makes SUM.  Sums are about adding things up.  And one of the things we do today is to add up all the things about our mothers - and other people who care about us too - that we want to celebrate and say 'thank you' for.

And now we'll add on the letter 'T'.

And that turns our word into the word MUST.  Mothering is so important!  And so is saying thank-you for the care and love that mothers can give.  It's something we really MUST do, and it's good that we have this day to do it.

Well, that's our first word.
Perhaps we can start our second word with the same letter - 'M'.

M for mothers, M for Mothering Sunday - which isn't just about our own mums, but is also about Mothering of every kind.  Some people talk about our 'Mother Church' where we learn how to live together as God's family; and the Bible even talks about God loving us and caring for us like a mother hen caring for her chicks, and hiding them under her wing.

This time our second letter is 'E'.

Which of course turns our word into ME.  Whoever I am, the theme of today affects me.  I may not be a mother, or I may not have a mother - but mothering is something we all do, really, and we all have done to us.  Caring for each other, being cared for too.  That's what should be happening in God's family, all the time.

Now for a third letter, 'G'.

That turns our word into GEM.  A gem is a jewel, something precious and special and rather beautiful.  Which is what mothers are.  There is a Jewish proverb that says:  "God couldn't be everywhere, all the time.  That's why he made mothers."

Finally, we'll add two letters at once, and they are 'A' and 'R'.

And there we have our word.  The world's number one supermother, Marge Simpson.  I'm serious, although she is a cartoon character.  If you watch the Simpsons, Marge is the one who is the focus for love and care, the one who provides and guides, the one who worries too - and, along with Lisa, most of the time the only one with any sense.  A real model of motherhood, though with a rather strange hairdo.

Two words, MARGE MUST.  Marge must what?  Actually, they're not yet the right words.  What we need to do is to swap a few letters around, and add in another 'R' which really should be ARE . . .

. . . and THEN we have the central message of today.  MUMS R GREAT - that's why we send the cards, and that's why we give the flowers, and that's why we have this service here in church.

For we MUST give thanks for mothers and mothering:  for this is one practical way in which God's love is revealed among us and lived out in our lives - in the caring and giving, the loving and the sacrificing (even) that is what real mothers and real mothering is all about.  God is served not just by what we do in church, or in our prayers and our singing of hymns, though all these things are important - but in the caring, loving and giving way in which we live our lives, and in mothers, and mothering, and families.

Moses and Mothering

A sermon for Mothering Sunday . . .

When I was still quite small myself, my baby cousin was brought to visit us, and I can remember him lying in a little carry cot made out of wicker, something I’d not seen before. My aunt told me it was called a Moses basket, and I remembered I’d been told the story in Sunday school about baby Moses floating on the river in a little basket. The same story we’ve heard this afternoon. I think my brother and I probably wondered whether we could try out our cousin's Moses basket to see whether it floated like the one in the story. But there was no water at hand, or not enough, anyway. It would of course have been an extremely naughty thing to have done, and it wouldn’t have worked anyway. In the story the basket was smeared with pitch or tar to make it watertight. Without it, the basket would have sunk.

My cousin’s Moses basket wasn’t designed to float, but just to look nice and be easy to carry. Modern Moses baskets taken down to Marton Pool or along the Montgomery Canal will not float, so don’t do it, please. But the first ever Moses basket was designed to float, and it was wedged in carefully amongst the reeds, while Moses' sister Miriam stayed close by to keep an eye on things.

That was vital, for if Pharaoh’s men had happened to see the basket, it would have been curtains for Moses. The Egyptian king had given orders that every baby boy born to a Hebrew mother had to be put to death - he’d be taken down to the river, thrown in, and left to drown. Thankfully, baby Moses had a mother and a sister who were determined he should not die. They made sure he was as safe as he could be, with Miriam there to do her best to make sure nothing bad happened. And their clever plan saved him; for it was Pharaoh's own daughter who found Moses, and she decided to keep him. She even gave him back to his own mother to wet nurse him, though of course, she didn't know that it was Moses' real mother she’d appointed. 

This is I think a good reading to use on Mothering Sunday, because lots of mothering is happening in this story, not only by Moses' own mother, but also by his sister, as together they trusted God to take care of him, which he did. And Pharaoh’s daughter? She’d been tricked, I suppose, but her own mothering instincts kicked in when she saw the child. Mothering Sunday isn’t only about mothers, because mothering is done by all kinds of people in fact: people who care for others, give time to others, people ready to offer protection and help to those who can’t easily help themselves. 

And there’s a message there for all of us. When we follow Jesus we follow together. We're together part of his family. Mothering, taking care of one another, is fundamental to all that we do and are as Christian people. Even if life gets difficult or dangerous, our motto as Christians should never be 'every man for himself'.

St Paul wrote about this in his letter to the Colossians; as Christians we should put on, we should clothe ourselves with, things like compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. When we do so we’re imitating our Lord, doing our best to be like him. That’s what Jesus is like, and his Church should be a caring and loving family of people who know we belong together, because together we belong to our Lord. 

When my children were in Sunday school they used to sing a song called 'Magic Penny', which went something like this:  "Love is something if you give it away, you'll end up having more." Well, mothering is about giving love: and we are to love one another because Jesus first loved us. If his love is in our hearts, we'll always have more than enough of it, to keep and to share.

So our Mothering Sunday today should do what it says on the tin: firstly, celebrate our mothers, but secondly, also remind us about mothering as something we should all be doing - taking care of each other, and being thoughtful and protective. 

Jesus wants his Church to care for people in need, in fear, in pain; he wants us to stand firm against the uncaring and destructive forces of the world; his heart bleeds when those he loves are hurting or are badly treated. A Church that’s trying to be like him will notice when people are hurting, and will notice when people are abused, abandoned, cast adrift, damaged; for he wants us to care when other people don't, cross over and help when other folk pass by. 

So little Moses bobbing in his basket among the reeds stands today for all who are vulnerable, all who are at risk, all who have little power to help themselves. I'm glad Moses had his mother and sister there to make sure something good came out of a situation that might have seemed almost hopeless, with threat and danger all around. Because they were there, what God wanted to happen did happen. The mother and sister of Moses in this story are a good example for us; like them we too need to be resourceful, active, caring, courageous, mothering people, because when we are, we are working with our Lord.

God so loved the world

A sermon for Lent IV :-

God so loved the world . . . in those five words is the foundation of my faith, I think. For it’s the existence and the experience of love that enables me to see point and purpose in human life, in my life; this is what makes us more than mere mechanicals. St Paul expressed it superbly in that tremendous thirteenth chapter of the his first letter to Corinth: nothing we can do, nothing we can achieve, nothing we can give has any meaning or value without love. And if, as Paul tells us, love stands above all else, then love must be the divine nature of God himself; a God who is anything less than all loving cannot be God - or that’s how it seems to me.

I was being told the other day that the reason why our churches are not very full is simple - I’m not preaching the right message. Well, certainly I could be a better and more persuasive preacher than I am - but the right message? I think for the man who was instructing me (yes, I think that’s what he was doing) the right message would contain rather more fire and brimstone than I usually manage to include. I think he might prefer his sort of preacher to speak less about love and more about keeping the rules. I think the sort of church he would like to see would be completely clear about who is in, and who is out.

The fact is, I can’t be that sure. Does love keep to the rules? Wasn’t it the Pharisees and the Priests in the Temple who were all about the rules, who were so sure about who was in and who was out? Jesus says this: “It was not to judge the world that God sent his Son into the world, but that through him the world might be saved.” Not just some people, note, but the world.

In John’s Gospel, whenever Jesus speaks about being lifted up, we must think of the cross. It is on the cross that Jesus will be lifted up, so that all can see him. Most who see him there will despise him and spit on him, or else turn their heads away in shame. Even his own disciples will run for cover. Yet here is where the glory of God is revealed, for it is the glory of love.

In our Gospel reading for next Sunday Jesus will speak again about being lifted up. He says, “When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.” All people. That’s not to say that Jesus isn’t absolutely clear about the ways in which we go wrong, the things about us that deny God’s love, the things about us that subvert that love. Last week’s Gospel heard him saying, “If you follow me you must deny yourself.” Change is required of us, and there’s no doubt that a church that strives to be like Jesus must hate sin; but at the same time that it hates the sin, it must also love the sinner - for God meets us in our sin not with condemnation but compassion, not with rejection but forgiveness.

Now here’s the thing. Jesus holds back nothing when he gives himself on the cross. This is love in its most complete and purest form. Love is a wonderful thing when we experience it, but - well, but, there’s always a but. We hold back, keep a bit for ourselves, try perhaps to manipulate the situation, or maybe our love gets soured by jealousy or grievance. There is no holding back at Calvary: Jesus takes upon himself all that condemns any one of us to death, all our sin - without limit. We are forgiven, you and I. Before anything else, we are forgiven.

The mission message of the church can never be: “Sign up with us, come to church, and we will organise forgiveness for you, once you're with us, your sins will be forgiven.” It can only be, “Your sins have been forgiven. Come and recognise that forgiveness, receive that forgiveness, come to church to join us as we say thank you for all that Jesus has already done."

Everyone is forgiven. The power of every sin is broken. But of course, not everyone is ready to recognise and receive that forgiveness. Not everyone even believes they are in need of it; in fact, these days the public definition of sin is no narrowed down and trivialised that if I decide to speak about sin to, say, parents bringing their child to be christened, I first have to carefully define it and explain it before they really even know what I’m talking about.

A doctor may prescribe medicine, but if the patient refuses to believe that he or she needs it, no good will come of the prescription. Or to give a different example, I’m reminded of the rabbit which we once had, and one night my brother forgot to close the door of his hutch after feeding him. Next morning he realised what he’d done and rushed out to what he expected would be an empty hutch, but so far as we could tell the rabbit hadn’t even bothered to look outside, let alone go there. The hutch was comfy and warm and he had food. Yes, he was in prison, but he didn’t realise it, he didn’t recognise it - and thankfully we had no foxes around.

Jesus also says, “The light has come into the world, but people preferred the darkness.” Forgiveness is on offer, but to accept forgiveness you must first recognise that there are things about you that need to be forgiven; and then you must also be prepared not to do those things again, to cut them out of your life. To change, and to live in a new way. That’s a fair step to take, and some of the most famous Christian thinkers and writers and speakers on mission have themselves had to hit rock bottom before they were prepared to accept the truth about themselves and the truth about Christ.

What was that truth? Something about the shortage of love in their own lives; something too about the light of love that we see in Jesus. Bright lights are not always comfortable: they disturb us, they show up stuff we’d rather keep hidden, they force a response. But also this: that even when they had been at their most degraded, in the darkest places of their lives, the furthest away from home and safety, they were already forgiven, their sins were already discounted, for they were already loved.

Everyone we see this week, God already loves them; everyone we see this week, Jesus died for that man, that woman, that child. No-one is ruled out, God’s love has no limits. That’s the only starting place I know for the mission and ministry I have.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Imitating Christ

The second of my Lent homilies, to be given tomorrow . . .

“A disciple is not greater than his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

There is both warning and promise in these words.  Someone once asked, “What is the difference between God and the Vicar of Buslingthorpe?” And the answer was, “God doesn’t think he’s the Vicar of Buslingthorpe!”  The warning is not to get above ourselves. However well we learn, by the end of our lives we’re still learners, still disciples, still with more to discern and discover. The mark of the disciple of Christ should always be humility.

But our challenge is to grow to be like our teacher. "My child, to the degree that you can leave yourself behind, to that degree will you be able to enter into me," says our Lord as expressed in the devotional classic “The Imitation of Christ”, written by Thomas a Kempis in the early 15th century and never out of print since. The imitation of Christ is our highest calling, and Thomas a Kempis wrote his book as a devotional guide for those who, within community, were seeking (to borrow words from St Paul) to grow into the full stature of Christ.

To be forgetful of self is very rightly the first step in this. An important corrective note, though. That doesn’t mean to treat yourself badly, or to hold yourself as of no account. If anything, deciding to follow Christ is a journey of discovery of ourselves as valuable and lovely and loved. If I am to love all of God’s creation, then I must love myself too: but as Christ loves me, and with a critical love that shares his vision of the things that need changing, correcting, improving.

Nor is it necessarily a matter of being ascetic and solemn and not enjoying the world. We are, after all, following a man who it seems enjoyed a good party. We are allowed, no, we are instructed, I think, to love the world God has made and given into our care, to delight in it, and to enjoy it.

So the journey of the disciple should be a happy journey. The same Greek word that translates as blessed (makarios) can also translate as happy. Not a facile, surface happiness, but a deep joy that sustains us in hard times as well as when the road is smooth and easy.

To imitate, to grow like someone, you must also study them. The Gospels are our guide, and the other writings of the New Testament, as we seek to know Jesus better, and to know what it really is that he means and asks of us when he says, “Follow me.” When we read thoroughly rather than selectively and focusing on the nice bits, we will find some difficult and challenging things. So it’s good to have help as we study. That’s one reason why Bible study groups can take you so much further than just looking at the scripture on your own. But we can also be helped by Thomas a Kempis and his more modern equivalents: people who set out to guide and help the Christian pilgrim, and also the stories of people we think of as saints, or honour for their piety.

Imitation on stage or screen comes in two forms, I think. One is the imitation of the impressionist, like Rory Bremner or John Culshaw or Tracy Ullman. These can be very good, and they take a lot of work, but it’s surface stuff, looking and sounding like the person but not serious, maybe raising a laugh by getting the person to do or say something they never would in real life. The second is the serious actor playing a part, and maybe seeming to really become that person as they do so. Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, maybe. I think it was Colin Firth who said of a part he played something like, “You can only really do it if you take that person to heart.” Discipleship is more than acting, even acting at that level, but the same thing applies: “You can only really do it if you take that person to heart.”

Comfortable and Uncomfortable Words

My Lent 3 Sermon . . .

The sentences from scripture used as a preface to the Prayer of Confession in the old Book of Common Prayer communion service are called the “Comfortable Words”. I would begin by saying, “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.” There are indeed many comfortable words in scripture and especially in the Gospels, but in contrast, today’s story from John’s Gospel is decidedly uncomfortable. If someone came into the cathedral while I was on duty there and behaved like Jesus did that day in the Temple, I’d probably have called the police. What we title the cleansing of the temple is quite a violent episode. Jesus doesn’t mess about as he throws out the money changers, the dealers in pigeons, and all the rest of them.

Why did he do it? He was I think being deliberately provocative, and his actions were a fulfilment of what the Prophet Malachi had said God’s servant would do. But in fact Jesus was surely genuinely and deeply angry at what he found going on in his Father’s house. The pictures of Jesus in my old Sunday School Bible are very comfortable and comforting, but here’s a different picture of Jesus. A more difficult image of an angry Jesus, violently angry in fact, as he makes a whip of cords and physically drives the traders out. 'Zeal for my father's house has consumed me' was the Bible quote his disciples recalled. This is  Jesus apparently consumed and overcome by anger: not a staged event, but an outpouring of passion.

Would Jesus be just as angry to see our Cathedral gift shop, or the notelets on sale at the back of church here? I hope not, and in fact I don’t think so. It wasn’t trading in the temple as such that he was opposed to. When I was at Minsterley we had a fair trade stall at the back of church, and I’m sure Jesus didn’t mind that at all: he surely liked us having a stall that promote justice and fairness. It was in fact the lack of justice and fairness in the temple that made Jesus so angry that day: the deliberate abuse and exploitation of poor pilgrims who’d maybe travelled miles to worship in the house of God within the city of God.

For this is the deal that faced a pilgrim arriving at the Temple. To offer sacrifice, you had to buy beasts from the temple farms. To pay tribute, you had to put a temple coin on the plate, so you’d need to exchange your everyday coinage for the Temple’s own money. So the temple had a monopoly, and they or their franchisees could charge whatever price they liked. And they did. Here under the arches of the house of the God of justice and righteousness, the people of God were being treated unjustly. No wonder Jesus was so angry.

What can we learn from this story? How might it apply to us? Well, the first thing I draw out of this story is this: every single person who passes through the door of this or any church, old or young, rich or poor, regular attender or occasional visitor - each one is precious to God. Everyone matters. Reading the story of the cleansing of the Temple, you can see there were insiders there and outsiders. Pilgrims - like Jesus himself - who’d travelled from places like Galilee up to the north were definitely outsiders, so there’d have been a lot to make them feel out of place. To be new or a visitor to any church can be difficult: you don't know the ropes, what to sing, when to stand, all of that. But it's the job of the insiders, if you like, to ease the way and provide a welcome. That wasn’t happening in the temple: the priestly insiders were in fact adding burdens and making things harder.

So I’m reminded that welcome is one area in which every church has to test itself. Does how we do what we do match up? Does the quality of our welcome witness to the welcome offered by our Lord? Does our concern for one another reflect his care for us? Or are we falling short of what could and should be as his people?

The second thing I draw from the story is that it could in fact happen anywhere. The temple was the holiest place, in which the finest Biblical scholars met and debated. I’m sure there was no deliberate policy to exploit the poor and make things tough for pilgrims. It had sort of just happened. That’s how that works, if we don’t take care. Over the years standards slip, abuses go uncorrected. Little things go unnoticed - a bit like that odd noise in your car engine that at first you ignore and then later you don’t even notice - until suddenly something blows up and it doesn't work any more.

So it’s always good to do some spring cleaning - now and again to really root about through the dark and dusty corners, and get below the surface. We might be surprised how much dirt and dust has built up. That’s what Lent is: spring cleaning time for Christians - both as individuals and as church communities. And the cleansing of the temple reminds me how even the holiest of places needs a good clean through from time to time - because you don't always notice how things get slack, and problems can build up where no-one notices.

So the third thing I take from this story is that while many of his words are comfortable words, Jesus can isn’t always a comfortable presence. In the Temple that day he was a decidedly uncomfortable presence. Jesus stirs things up and challenges complacency; Jesus stands against all that is unjust and unfair. For we know that Jesus is always the lover of people, and in any organisation, including churches, it can happen that people find themselves serving the system, when the system is supposed to be serving them.

Many years ago, a senior cleric speaking to a clergy conference I attended suggested to us that the choice before every church is between an uncomfortable life and a comfortable death. Those words have stayed with me. An uncomfortable life, versus a comfortable death. Bob Jackson, who was Archdeacon of Walsall. He told us that in his experience it’s the uncomfortable churches that are growing. These are churches that are looking forward, open to what’s new, open to change. It’s uncomfortable when new people come in, with different ideas, different needs. But when a church opts for comfort rather than change it may also be opting to fade away and die; that’s tough but it’s true. Living things are always changing.

Now Lent is by tradition a time when we accept a bit of discomfort. We may well have given up some of the things that comfort us (in my case, cakes). But as we know, there’s more to Lent than giving things up, there’s stuff we get on with too; spring cleaning, throwing out the bad stuff. Now’s the time to check the scruffy corners of our lives, to get the rubbish cleared, and as we do this to be looking outwards rather than inwards, and forwards rather than backwards - and that’s challenging and uncomfortable, but it is where Jesus is calling us to be. He wants disciples, people who learn from him and copy him and follow him: people who put into practice in our own lives what we have seen and learnt in him. Not just the comfortable words, but the uncomfortable and challenging too.