Friday, 29 June 2018

More Random Thoughts from the Garden

A new "Nature Notes"

After all, I’ve been sitting out here a lot just lately! We were still busily filling the bird feeders each day, but they were getting repeatedly swamped by young birds that I’m sure really ought to be learning how to fend for themselves rather than just cashing in on the fat chunks and sunflower seeds we put out, so with a slightly heavy heart I’ve decided to take it out of action for a week or so. It seems to have worked, in that there are still plenty of young blue tits about, but they’re now doing what they’re supposed to do, hunting along the branches of the oak tree behind us for the hoards of little creatures there are there, which frankly are easy pickings just now.

It is sad to watch a tree slowly die. I mentioned our elm last time. It still has some green leaves, but slowly but surely the fungus is spreading, with new branches succumbing all the time. Leaves fall as they die in the autumn, because the tree makes them fall when it no longer needs them, by sealing off the leaf stem. The tree still needs these dying leaves, so even the ones that are completely brown and withered are still there hanging on the branches, which really just makes the whole scene look so much worse.

Tree bumble bees are a new species to the UK, first recorded in 2001. We’ve had loads on the white flowers of our strongly scented thornless rambling rose - this is the first time I’ve identified them. Our rose has a distinct flowering season which is over, so the bees have moved on too. They’re not large, and they have a fluffy ginger thorax, a black abdomen and a white or grey tail, quite distinctive. They often nest in bird boxes (wasps and other bees will also do this). At a time when bees are under pressure, it’s good that this new species is spreading well. We need the bees!

Anyone who thinks we’re not made of the same stuff as the animals has only to listen to young blackbirds chasing after their parents for food. They have a particular call which has exactly the same wheedling cadence as kids mithering mum or dad for an ice-cream on the way back from school. The hard cherries on our earliest blossoming cherry are tiny and certainly not for human consumption, but blackbirds love them. Dad refused to listen to his kid’s wheedling, and flew off, leaving junior to make quite a decent fist at tearing off ripe berries and gobbling them down. So obviously he had been watching and learning.

Swifts arrived a bit late this year I think, but they may well leave early, as we have had some quite prolonged sunny spells and that means good hunting for swifts. They don’t linger here - they’ve come to raise a family and once they’ve done that, they go. So swifts leave earlier in a good summer than in a bad one, the opposite way round from what you might think. They leave a lot earlier than most other species, but even so it’s a reminder that for migrant birds August really is the first month of autumn, rather than the height of summer. Birds are already on the move!

Saturday, 23 June 2018

His name is John

Sir Christopher Chope MP is, I imagine, the usual mixture of good, bad and indifferent that most of us are, even members of the House of Commons. However, for at least the next short while, and maybe longer than that, he’ll be remembered as the man who halted the progress into law of a bill designed to protect the freedom and safety of women. It seems he wanted to make the point that laws of this kind should be made by government bill rather than by using up the precious time allowed back-benchers; but if so he picked the wrong time and under-estimated both the importance of this particular issue and the strength of public feeling around it. One foolish word and the whole world was suddenly against him, or that’s certainly how it felt, by his own admission. He may even wish now that at that decisive moment he’d been struck dumb.

Zechariah at the start of our Gospel reading this morning had been struck dumb. Zechariah was an old man with no children, and by now no expectation of children. As a temple priest, born into one of the priestly families, he held a position of honour. And at last his turn had come to have the greater honour of being chosen to burn incense in the inner court of the temple. But as Zechariah took his turn to perform this work, he too spoke out of turn, and his world came crashing down around him.

This is how it happened: an angel spoke to him, and told him he was to be the father of a son. A message from heaven that promised to fulfil Zechariah's deepest longing, a son to bear his name! The  last thing he should have done was to answer back. But he did: No, he said, that can’t happen! My wife’s far too old, this is surely some kind of joke. No it’s not, said the angel, and promptly struck Zechariah dumb. Which meant he couldn’t fulfil his temple duties or any of the rest of his work as a priest.

So our Gospel reading starts with Zechariah off work and unable to say a word. Meanwhile, the angel's promise has come true, and the child’s been born. It’s the eighth day, time for his son to be circumcised, and also named. By tradition the first born son would be named for the father, or perhaps he’d be given another close family name. So that’s what the folk gathered there expected. But the angel had said that the child should be named John, so that’s the name Elizabeth tells them. ‘Hang on,’ the people say, ‘this isn’t a name in your family!’ Squadrons of angels - as I imagine it - are all holding their collective breath, as the people turn to speechless Zechariah, who surely won’t let his wife do something so foolish. He’ll put her right! Zechariah calls for a writing tablet, and what he writes is: ‘His name is John.’ And just as suddenly as it went, his voice returns.

Zechariah did what he should have known to do all along. A priest is supposed to trust and obey the word of God. And his moment of trustful obedience leads to the return of his voice, so that any instinct for protest or ridicule there might have been among the onlookers is instantly defused, and turned to amazement and wonder. A miracle has happened.

In fact this is a story shot through with miracles. An elderly childless couple blessed with a son, a temple priest struck dumb, and his voice miraculously restored; and God using Zechariah’s initial doubt and subsequent faith to proclaim his divine purpose and power. The name John actually means ‘God is gracious’ – giving this name to the child acknowledged him as God’s gift and special. And John wasn’t God's gift just to Elizabeth and Zechariah, he was a gift to everyone. Everyone was talking and wondering about these events. Everyone must have expected great and wonderful new things to spring from this birth.

And one thing I take from this story is that God has a way of bringing good results out of bad stuff, and of transforming human weakness and stubbornness and failure. Those months unable to speak must have been torment for Zechariah, but it was nobody's fault but his own. If only he’d not spoken out of turn; if only he'd kept his doubts to himself. His priestly ministry had been disabled, God had smitten him, and who knows, maybe God had permanently written him off? What if he could never be a priest again? He must have wondered. It happens all the time in human relationships: we fall short, make a mistake, let someone down, and we’re marked with a permanent blot, labelled by our mistakes.

Well, we may treat each other that way, but God never does. What about the times when I’ve blown it, wanted my own way or refused to listen to advice? The times I’ve decided for myself what can be done and what can’t without asking God, gone where I wanted to go, and not where God wanted to send me? God’s word to us: ‘Trust me for what you need, and work for my kingdom’ - Jesus is always saying things like that. But it’s easy not to trust, not to believe it can be done, to look down when we should be looking up.

Basically God said to Zechariah: ‘Who are you to tell me what I can or cannot do?’ - and that’s when he struck him dumb. So Zechariah the priest learned humility and obedience the hard way, as we often have to do. But here’s something I see, looking back through my life: when I’ve made mistakes or wrong decisions, failed to trust as I should, cut God out of the process, in the end I find that’s not the end, and God still brings good out of it all. Things we regret may in the end serve to deepen our spiritual awareness and our knowledge of ourselves, and God can start to use us in new ways. Our doubts, once worked through, may lead us to a stronger and more vivid and worked-out faith.

John isn’t my given name, and yet in a way it is my name, and it’s yours too: for the declaration that ‘God is gracious’ lies at the heart of our shared faith. To say God is gracious means God gives more than we deserve, and loves us though we don’t merit it, and that God renews and keeps his promises to us, even when our first reaction, like Jonah in the Old Testament, has been to rush off in the opposite direction and go our own way instead of his. We Give up on each other, and we may well give up on God, but I believe that God never gives up on us.

‘His name is John,’ said Zechariah, or at least, that’s what he wrote, as his son was circumcised and named. And in our own naming and baptism we become members of the community of John who was himself the first baptizer. In baptism we’re made members of the company of folk who know God is gracious, and who - even if they don’t always get it right - are learning and striving to trust in his divine and holy love. And as I look to whatever lies ahead for me and for us, who can tell where God in his love might be leading us?

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Son of Encouragement

On a bright sunny morning a couple of weeks back I was walking along the streets near where I live, and feeling pretty good. So I smiled at the people I passed, and even said ‘Good morning!’ to one or two of them. But no-one much made any reply. OK, it was Monday morning, but even so - I was beginning to feel a bit depressed. Possibly the fact that I was wearing a high viz jacket and picking up litter meant that people didn’t even see me, let feel they needed to relate to me in any way. I do a stint now and again as a litter champion, trying to keep the streets around me a bit tidier. I enjoy doing it, but for the most part it does seem to render me invisible.

And then I came across a little girl with her mother and I would guess her grandmother - and as I smiled, each one of them smiled back. I felt so encouraged by those smiles, and I had to say thank you. ‘You're just about the first people who've smiled at me all morning,’ I said. ‘Well,’ said granny, ‘it's going to be a gloomy old world if we can't manage a smile between us.’ 

Last Monday was the feast day of the apostle Barnabas. That wasn’t actually his real name, which was Joseph, but a nickname, which means 'Son of Encouragement'. His story’s in the Acts of the Apostles; read it and you’ll find that Barnabas was a man who really lived up to his nickname. He was good at encouraging people, and he did it all the time.

To offer encouragement and support is one response to the simple truth that, as the poet John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire unto himself.” We belong together. The readings set for today focus on ‘The King and the Kingdom’. Jesus told lots of stories about the kingdom of God, and we heard two in today’s Gospel. The kingdom of God is like a seed that sprouts and grows in secret. And it’s like the tiny mustard seed that nonetheless grows up to become a bush big enough for birds to shelter in. 

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God he’s talking about what happens when people start serving God faithfully, and doing what he wants them to do. A kingdom isn’t an acreage of land but people who loyally serve their king. And to encourage one another is a big part of the service our King call us to give.

The kingdom of God starts small and grows secretly, because it doesn't depend on people showing off or throwing their weight around or looking big. Nor does it need people to be religious experts or able leaders or skilled performers. It just needs people to be encouraging one another, loving one another, even sharing a smile or two. Jesus said: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” And he went on to say, “That’s how people will know you belong to me.” God’s kingdom is built on encouragement, on generosity, on compassion, and most of all on love. It’s built when people know we belong together because we belong to God.

The late Scottish bible commentator William Barclay often inspires me with his reflections on scripture, so here’s something he wrote: ‘One of the highest of human duties is the duty of encouragement.  It’s easy to discourage, and the world is full of discouragers. Our Christian duty is to encourage one another. Many a time a word of praise or thanks or appreciation or cheer has kept a person on their feet. Blessed is the one who speaks such a word.’ Amen to that, I say; take inspiration from Barnabas, be ready to encourage each other, and keep the kingdom growing here. 

You don’t need to be an expert Christian preacher to pass on the Good News of God. Often a smile and a hug can be enough to start the ball rolling. I was collecting on the street for charity yesterday morning - that’s another situation where you can often think you’re invisible, but I smiled at as many people as I could as they passed by, and I was pleased that quite a few smiled back, and even more pleased at the amount of money in my tin. It’s true: a good smile goes a long way. 

Every churches should be a place of encouragement. It’s been truly said that we come to faith not when we believe in God, but when we know God believes in us. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Jesus died for all, so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but should live for him who for their sake died and was raised to life.” Wherever we meet in his name, Jesus wants us to be a community of encouragement: to be truly living for him, and sharing his love.

We don’t always know how we’ve encouraged others. Paul wrote that it isn’t always the one who sows the seed who gets to reap the harvest. Let me share an inspirational story that I found quite moving when I heard it. It’s about a man who’d become housebound and severely disabled by an accident at work. Confined to his home, he decided to spend time to writing letters to people in prison. His constant pain meant it wasn’t always easy to write, but he stuck at it. He had a lively mind and the ability to tell a good story, so he knew this was something he could do well.

His letters had to go via the prison chaplaincy, and when he first started writing the chaplain told him that the prisoners he wrote to wouldn’t be able to reply. He understood and accepted that to begin with, but as time went on he began to get discouraged and his confidence waned. What if no-one was reading his letters? What if no-one was even receiving them? He didn’t know, and it was more and more painful to write. Maybe he was just wasting his time. 

At last he decided it wasn’t worth going on. He would give it up.  But just as he made that decision, a letter arrived - not from a prisoner, of course, but from one of the prison officers. Just a very short note, on official prison paper, saying: “Could you please write your next letter on stronger paper? Your letters get passed from prisoner to prisoner, until eventually they fall to pieces. It would be great if we could make them last a bit longer!”
We all need a bit of encouragement. We’re all that bit happier for a smile. But the encouragement of Barnabas -  encouragement not just so I can feel comfortable, but so I too can keep on giving help and encouragement to others. This is the heart of my Gospel: I know that I’m cared for, and that God believes in me. I believe in a generous God who calls me to be generous too. And whenever I pass on something of his love, in however small a way, I’ll be helping the seeds of his kingdom to grow. And so will you.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Tree Bumble Bees

The roses in our front garden are particularly lovely this year. They're ramblers of some kind, with a simple open flower that comes in clusters, looks sweet, and smells sweeter. This year they've been festooned with bees, that I've identified as tree bumble bees. These are a new species to Britain, first identified I think in 2001, but they've spread very rapidly across the whole of England and a good chunk of Wales, and into Scotland too. At a time when our bee population is under threat, a new species has to be good I think, and scientists tell us that there's no evidence the tree bumble bee's spread is harming other species.

The tree bumble bee likes to nest in holes in trees, as its name suggests. One reason for its spread across the UK is that nest boxes will do just as well, and it has even been known to evict the existing avian tenants in order to take over. I don't know where the ones we have are coming from, but they don't seem to be nesting on our premises. They like to come to our rose when it's in shade, there aren't anything like as many about when it's in full sun. I've seen them on one of our fuschias too, but they clearly like the rose better than anything else we've got. The wide open flowers will help. These bees don't like tubes like foxgloves, unlike many other bees. It's interesting to see where different species go. Our cistus - white open flowers like the rose - doesn't attract tree bumble bees, but instead has lots of visits from solitary bees of some species, black and honey bee shaped.

The tree bumble bees have a fluffy russet thorax, often with a black mark in the centre, then a black abdomen and a white tail. They vary in size, depending on the role they play in the colony, but none of them are all that big. They do seem to be very active and hard working bees. I'm glad to have identified them, and glad too that bees of all kinds have certainly benefited from the good start we've had to the summer.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

A Sermon for Trinity 2

(For St Mark's, Marton and St Mary's, Trelystan)

I’m not sure where Jesus is at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. But he’s in a house somewhere, whose I don’t know; he’s not somewhere out on the road, or in a boat on the lake, the sort of places we often find him. He’s in a house; but wherever he is, you’re going to get a crowd: so many people, and so much going on that Jesus and his friends can’t even get a bite to eat.

The story Mark tells us focuses on two sets of people who really should have known who Jesus was and what he was about. But it seems they don’t. Firstly, there’s Jesus’ own family; and then secondly we have the scribes, or teachers of the Law, people who knew the faith inside out. 

So the family of Jesus arrive, determined to save him from himself. They can’t get near; they’re somewhere on the edge of the crowd, and they have to send a message in to try and get Jesus to come out to them. Why? Because they really don’t understand what’s going on. In fact they think he’s gone out of his mind. “He’s beside himself,” they say. The verb used here in the original Greek of Mark’s Gospel means literally “to stand outside of”.

I suppose that was true in way, though not in the way the family were thinking. Jesus was beside himself. Or at least, Jesus was living in more than one world; yes, he was the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, living in the First Century equivalent of the world in which you and I live.

But was that world his real home? Jesus talked a lot to the crowds about somewhere else, another world that he said had drawn close to them as he spoke, as he forgave, as he healed. A world he called “the kingdom of God”. The Kingdom of God is anywhere and everywhere, and it’s the world how God always intended it to be. The world in which God is honoured as Father, the world in which people live together as sisters and brothers. And that was the world of Jesus’ true life, the world he told stories about, the world in which he invites us to join him.

But that was something that really annoyed the scribes, the teachers of the Law. They were there in the crowd, because it annoyed them so much that they’d come down specially from Jerusalem to challenge Jesus. You see, they also didn’t understand what was going on. Religion had to be done their way, or else it wasn’t real. I wonder if we really grasp just how radical all this talk about the Kingdom was? The idea that people could themselves talk to God, could call him “our Father”. Here I am standing here today in a Church, wearing liturgical robes, part of the “organised religion” of our times. We’re human beings, and we need to be organised, and Jesus himself went to synagogue and to the Temple. But when he talked about the Kingdom what Jesus was really saying is this: what we do in church and in the organised religion bit of our lives is less important than that we ourselves are right with God, and right with one another, right with our sisters and brothers, right with the other people God loves just as much as he loves you and me.

Now the scribes so couldn’t get their heads round that that they could only imagine that Jesus was in league with Beelzebul, with the prince of demons, with Satan himself. Or maybe they just wanted to persuade the people of that, so they could discredit this new and dangerous preacher who was such a threat to the way they did things.

What they hadn’t grasped, I think, was the difference between religion and faith. They’re two different things. Religion should be an expression of faith, the servant of faith, a way in which we share our faith, a place where we can encourage one another in faith. But faith comes first - the living relationship with the living God that Jesus called “living in God’s Kingdom.” That’s what it’s really about, much more than hymns or liturgies or ministries or venerable buildings, however much we may love all of that. Religion must never become an end in itself, and maybe for the scribes that’s just what it had become; a system which had God safely and securely locked up inside it.

So what’s the Church really about? The Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cotterell, a very mission minded man and a pretty good preacher, once noted that “Christians have made a religion in the name of the one man who came to end all religion.” But that’s only if the Church isn’t being what it’s supposed to be. That’s only if Church becomes an end in itself. What the Church is supposed to be is a sort of outpost of the Kingdom of God, a community of people united in mission by his Holy Spirit.

Within this story there’s one really difficult bit, and that’s to do with the unpardonable or unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit. What does Jesus mean by that? I still wrestle with this, and with the idea of any sin being unforgivable, for surely God’s love is greater than any sin. What exactly is Jesus saying to the scribes? Maybe that they know that what he’s saying is true - and yet for their own ends they continue to work against him. They’re working for themselves while they claim to work for God, and for as long as they do that, they’ll not be forgiven.

Anyway, Jesus dealt with the scribes. And he dealt with his own family, too - not by rejecting them, so much as by including everyone in as family. This is the picture of God the Father that Jesus always gives us: God who invites us in, and assures us of a place. So let’s become part of that crowd as Jesus speaks. Hear how he says “Here are my mother and my brothers and my sisters, for whoever does the will of God, and whoever lives in the Kingdom of God, is my brother and sister and mother.”

Where am I really in that picture? Where are you? God is always saying to us, “Come closer, receive more from me, do more with me.” What might that mean for me? For you? Where does his Spirit touch mine? Where is my heart being pressed? How can I grow to be what God’s wanting me to be? To live in the Kingdom is to love in the presence of miracle and mystery, and at the heart of it all, love. And just at this point in my life my task is simply this: to learn how to be, here and now, the person, the child, God says I am to him. Amen.

Random Thoughts from the Garden

My "Nature Notes" for the month :-

Sitting on our patio on a gloriously sunny Saturday, I’m very glad we’ve been able to develop a garden that’s really good for wildlife. It’s helped by the woodland behind, but we’ve installed a good array of insect-friendly plants, we have plenty of bushes and trees, we’ve left some scruffy bits to give shelter, and, though we have no pond, there is a stream in the valley below us, so we’re not far from water.

This means we have plenty of bird visitors - currently young blackbirds pursuing their parents and begging for whatever they can get, and coal tits working furiously to keep their young ones fed too, plus a noisy family of jackdaws rampaging through the treetops. I haven’t seen any young blue or great tits yet; sadly our resident nest of blue tits was I think raided by the local pair of woodpeckers, who very probably took all the young just as they prepared to fledge. All that work by the parents came to nothing - but that’s nature, and we do have young woodpeckers at our feeders.

Finches come to us in many shapes and sizes, and I particularly love the two pairs of bullfinches we have around. They mate for life, and we usually see male and female together, even though they must have a nest full of young. Siskins have stayed with us through the summer, and goldfinches are always around too - along with chaffinches and greenfinches of course. Robins are less visible just now - hard at work I imagine. We have two pairs, each of which think their territory includes our feeders, so some serious arguments develop from time to time. We is plenty of floor level browsing space for dunnocks and wrens, and at the moment wrens are often to be seen prospecting the stems of our lovely tree peony.

We have many more bird species, but starlings are only very occasional visitors, and house sparrows, though regularly seen, only visit us from the gardens on the other side of the road, attracted by the fat and seed chunks we put out.

This seems to have been a good summer so far for butterflies and bees, but there aren’t many wasps - I’ve seen only one queen. Last year hornets passed through from time to time along the woodland edge, but none this summer as yet. When it comes to larger creatures, we’re not short of grey squirrels! And we have also seen frogs, a toad, a hedgehog or two, even slow worms. We don’t see these often, but there’ll be others around we never see. You’re never very far from a brown rat, for example.

Among the trees behind us, the elm succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease last summer, so we were surprised when this spring it leafed up and produced flowers. But now the leaves are drooping and shrivelling branch by branch, and I suppose we’ll never again have the great elms we used to know when I was a child. I’ve planted a young elm which I hope will grow to fill its place. While there’s a good mix of trees behind us - ash, sycamore, oak, wild cherry, crab apple, even a yew - I do hope we can manage to keep an elm or two.

Friday, 1 June 2018


A sermon for Trinity 1 :-

Where would we be without rules? Maybe a lot happier and a lot less hassled, you might think. After all, rules can be a bit of a bore. They’re frustrating and annoying, and they stop us doing what we like. But live a few days without rules and I suspect we’d be ready to ask for them back. Life wouldn’t be safe without the rules of the road, or the rules that govern, say, electrical installation or plumbing standards. And, though just now we might be shaking our heads over the new GDPR - General Data Protection Regulations, if you’ve been asleep for the past six months - the fact is we do need rules to make sure our personal information is handled properly, not sold on to others or used in ways that annoy or worry or endanger us. And that’s before we get to criminal law and all that that involves. I’ve been burgled, and while the police didn’t catch those guys I’m glad they were at least tried to, and that they took it seriously as a crime - against the rules, against the law.

Religious and secular laws and rules are different things in 21st century Britain; but for Jews at the time of Jesus, they were one and the same thing. They would be for Orthodox Jews today as well, in that God’s law governs every aspect of their life. And prominent within the commandments given by God to Moses, from which all the rest of the law derived, was this: remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. If you don’t keep the Sabbath, you don’t do honour to God. He rested on the seventh day; so should we. No lifting burdens, no harvesting crops, no work at all.

The Pharisees kept these rules rigorously and diligently; Jesus, however, did not, or so it seemed. His disciples had been plucking ears of corn as they walked through the fields on the Sabbath, for no better reason than they were hungry, and Jesus had done nothing to stop them. Pharisees saw it happen; they were looking out for opportunities to challenge Jesus so they could discredit him, so they could show the people just how far short he fell from their own high standards.

We’ve heard the story, and also Mark’s account of one of the many healing miracles Jesus performed on the Sabbath. He seems almost to have made a point of healing people on the Sabbath; and here he even does it in church, or in the synagogue. Now of course, Jesus was very much in favour of keeping the Sabbath; where he differed from the Pharisees was in how you go about that. What does keeping the Sabbath really mean?

The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath, was how Jesus put it. And that applies not only to that particular rule about keeping the Sabbath, but to all our rules and laws. It’s a test we need to apply. Put most simply, does this or that particular rule add to the health of the community, or detract from it? Does it apply a burden? Well, yes, of course it does - all rules are in some way burdensome, all rules restrict our freedom to do just whatever we want. But is that burden balanced by a benefit? It should be, if a rule is good. Good rules make our lives better by balancing my rights and freedoms and hopes against yours. And notice that word “balancing”. If a rule is designed to make life really tough for one group just so that another group has it easy or is given a dominant place, then that law is wrong, unjust, immoral - ungodly, I would even say.

“That’s just the way it is, some things will never change.” Lines from a song by Bruce Hornsby and the Range that was a chart hit around the world in, I think, 1986. Written by Bruce Hornsby, the lyrics of the song challenge the idea that segregation (in the deep South of the United States) was just how things were, how things always had been, how things were bound to remain. You’d even hear voices saying that’s how God wanted things to be; to challenge segregation was to challenge God’s order. The Christian witness of Dr Martin Luther King was countered by voices on the other side that also claimed the authority of God and of the Bible. Some things will never change.

Rules govern our lives, and they do need to. We need our own freedom to do whatever we want to be to some degree curtailed, so that other people too may have a measure of freedom, and we can live safely and happily and well together. Good rules aim to ensure the greatest good for everyone. But not all rules are good; Jesus told the Pharisees, who it has to be said loved their rules, that where the law was used to stop good things happening that need to happen then that law needed to be challenged.

Christians are supposed to be law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. Our default position, if you like, is that we’re loyal and obedient to whatever government is in charge of our daily lives, and to whatever system of law is in place. But, as Jesus makes clear, that loyalty to the state must never be at the expense of our first and prior allegiance to God. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” That is the summary of the law as given by Moses, and we’re reminded of that at every communion service.

If the rules imposed by others stop us from serving God as we ought, and prevent us from loving our neighbour as we’re called to, then we should be ready to ignore such rules - to oppose them and campaign against them, for God wants better for us than that. Christians should be the first to stand up against injustice; but a combination of niceness and fear often keeps us quiet. Martin Niemoller, who as a Lutheran minister spent seven years in Nazi prison camps, wrote this: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Those words are inscribed at the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC.

Good rules are there so we can to live together safely and well;  God gave us the Sabbath Day because he knows that folk need a rest and a change of pace in life; but he didn’t give it so that people could beat each other over the head with strictures about what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do. If you let the Sabbath stop good things from happening, then you’ve got it wrong. And the Sabbath is certainly not there so that one group of people can lord it over another saying, “Look how wonderfully good we are, unlike you sinful lot!”

As ever when we hear what Jesus says, we’re to go and do likewise. And that means valuing and keeping the rules, because  most rules, most of the time, are good and will serve us and protect us, and the very best of them will make particular space and provision for the weak and the vulnerable. But that’s the point about rules and about ourselves as disciples: rules are there to serve us, and we are there to serve God; the Sabbath is there to serve us and not to enslave us. Get that perspective right, and we can start to live.