Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Earth to earth

(A poem)

In this shaded corner,
sheltered from the breeze,
with stone walls rising, trees to shade,
and the midday bells to comfort us
we stand in the soft sunshine
near where earth has been moved,
to hear again the familiar psalm, the Gospel words.
Uncomfortable in their unfamiliar suits and ties,
the men stand silently together, and
no-one catches anyone’s eye;
they stand together like watchmen, while
the words are said, and the earth is thrown,
and then it is over.
And now people are speaking,
with animated quietness,
inspecting the flowers, and sharing
their handshakes, hugs and tears.
Somewhere a robin is singing.
There is a rightness to this long day’s end,
a rightness expressed in stone and soil and solemn words,
and today all those words are true,
as those who are standing find themselves
believing what they normally might not believe,
believing if only for this moment, under those age old walls.
The faith of past times still has its power,
and is still a comfort, still a strength.
Late bees are buzzing in the ivy blossom
by the gate to which we make our way,
to leave her nestled by liturgy and memories and prayers
in this place where she sleeps in the earth.
And her soul perhaps will fly.

Monday, 24 September 2018

A Harvest Hymn

When singing with Guilsfield Singers earlier this year, we commemorated the centenary of the untimely death of the Welsh composer Morfydd Owen by singing some of her work. This included a hymn tune named "William", to quite an unusual metre. The words we sang were in Welsh, and I looked without success for some English words that might fit. So I wrote this short Harvest hymn, which was sung by our small choir at Harvest Festival at The Marsh last night, and will be sung again at Chirbury this coming Sunday (10 am, if anyone's interested).

To God our harvest hymns we raise,
in adoration and with heartfelt praise.
For all his gifts, his blessings sweet,
bestowed by him with open hand,
let song be sung across the land,
across the land.

Thus may we praise our Lord and King,
not only with the harvest songs we sing,
but, as our sharing of his grace
reflects his generosity,
may we in turn a blessing be,
a blessing be.

Whoever receives one such

Last Sunday Ann and I attended the main Sunday communion service at the cathedral church of St James in Toronto, which we were pleased to find was actually the nearest Anglican church to our hotel. The service was one of five that day in the cathedral, one of which will have been in Mandarin Chinese in what is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. I would estimate the congregation to be in excess of 250, for what was quite a traditional service, led by the cathedral’s fine organ and good professional choir.

It was a very hot day and all the doors were open. Two giant fans did their best to keep the place cool, but they weren’t enough. Inevitably, the sounds of the city permeated the service. The choir sang a lovely communion setting by Josef Rheinberger, and as they sang the Kyrie Eleison I realised I could hear sirens from an emergency vehicle, probably a police car, somewhere near. For a while as choir sang the central part of the Kyrie, the power of their voices drowned out the siren; then, as they sang the quieter closing bars, I could hear it again - not intrusively, just somewhere in the background, but a telling reminder of the real life to which all us at worship must return.

Two days earlier, on our last day with our Rotary hosts Bill and Marjorie in Simcoe, they took us on a bit of a church crawl, starting with their own Anglican church of Holy Trinity, Simcoe and then visiting two early colonial churches, one in the little village of Vittoria, and a second down by the side of Lake Erie at Port Ryerse. It would be hard to imagine a more peaceful and lovely place, and not surprisingly many city people have holiday homes in the area, to which they can make their escape.

The church, however, was built as a memorial church after war. Port Ryerse bears the name of its founder, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ryerse, who fought on the British side as an Empire Loyalist in the American War of Independence, and was granted land there in 1794 by the British government.
He settled down to farm there and built a mill. But war hadn’t finished with him. War between the USA and Britain began in 1812, and American troops invaded the area and, among other things, burnt down the mill. That war ended with the 1814 Treaty of Ghent and today you’d not think that anything violent had ever happened in or around the peaceful church and churchyard of Port Ryerse.

But it has. Whatever peaceful refuges we may find or make for ourselves, there’s no escaping the struggles of life or the reality of death. Jesus spoke plainly to his disciples about his own death, as we read in this morning’s Gospel, but they refused to hear and failed to understand. They’d signed up with the promised Messiah; they weren’t expecting struggle or pain but an easy victory and royal thrones. And they even started falling out among themselves about which of them deserved the best place.

Jesus, having overheard their discussions, was gentle with them, but uncompromising. If any of you want to be first, he told them, you must make yourself last and be the servant of all. James is equally uncompromising in our first reading when he talks about the wisdom that was so greatly prized in those days. Gnostic religions promised their adherents that gnosis, secret knowledge, would be for them a source of power and status - but that in itself became a cause for rivalry and argument, as people jostled for place and position.

Nothing much has changed, it would seem. The world’s still hooked on power and full of rivalry. Church should offer a different way, but even churches can become places of rivalry and jealousy, where petty arguments turn into feuds and petty positions of influence are fiercely guarded. A lot of damage can be done by the desire of people to be big fish in small ponds. So even in our churches we need to be self aware and community aware.

Wherever we find refuge or however much we learn, none of it has any value unless we put it to use. That’s the lesson both of Jesus and of James.

Toronto is a wealthy, busy and bustling city, the largest city in Canada and its financial capital. On a clear day, its skyscrapers, topped by the CN Tower, can be seen from the other side of the lake at Niagara. But I was very uncomfortably aware during our visit of the sheer number of down and outs and beggars on the streets. In a community of winners there are bound to be losers, and some of them had lost everything. Not far from our hotel was an army barracks. Outside the gates, a motley group of men were settled with bottles and cans. Perhaps they were ex-military themselves, and not coping with civilian life.

They become non-persons. After a while you don’t see them, don’t hear their voices or read the signs saying “Anything will help” or “Stranded”. When a problem is too big and scary, our sense of helplessness turns into apathy. After a storm, thousands of starfish were washed up and stranded on the beach. A little girl, out for a morning walk with her dad, started to pick a few up and throw them back into the sea. “You’re wasting your time,” said her father. “There are too many. You won’t make any difference!” “But I did make a difference to that one!” replied his daughter, as she threw another back into the sea.

There was a man lying on the sidewalk, and two other men seemed to be going through his pockets. My first thought was that I was witnessing a mugging, then I realised the two were Salvation Army workers, looking I guess for any medical information to help them get the right treatment. The hostel they ran was close by, and it looked busy. Faith is pointless unless it leads to action; knowledge and wisdom are pointless unless they make us better people; the one who desires to be first must make himself last.

Faith is never really about me and God. It’s always about me and you. Me and all the different yous I encounter in this jumbled and often scary world. It’s proved in what I do for others, or what I don’t do. Where will I meet Jesus this week? Where will you? Jesus today might well have set not a child, but a homeless person in stinking rags in front of the disciples, when he said, “Whoever receives one such, receives me.”

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Living in the Kingdom - a Harvest Sermon

(Preached today at The Marsh Chapel)

At the very beginning of the Bible we can read about the creation of the world, of everything, of all the things we see. Now I’m a scientist, and as a scientist I can see that Genesis chapter 1 is not a scientific text. It wasn’t written to tell us how God creates, but it does have something absolutely vital to say about why God creates. And what we see, God also sees, so in Genesis chapter 1 verse 31 we read this: “God looked upon all that he had made, and behold, it was very good”.

In Toronto last weekend we saw the CN Tower, and of course we went up it. You have to. The view from the top is amazing: in the one direction, the great swathe of urban Toronto packed with skyscrapers; in the other the blue of Lake Ontario, and the green of the harbour islands. You can even stand on a glass floor and look straight down. There’s something a bit god-like about being up there able to see all the world around, or there might be were it not for the hundreds of other folk up there with you.

Certainly while I was up there I did reflect on God looking down on his creation, if only because I knew that when I got back to the UK I’d be straight into harvest festivals. And there seemed a metaphor in the cityscape in the one direction, and the lake with its green islands in the other: the soft edges and natural beauty of the lake, the hard edged brutalism of the city.

A reminder that we human beings certainly stamp our mark on God’s beautiful world! And often not in a good way. A week earlier, we were in Niagara Falls. The Falls themselves retain their natural beauty, grandeur and power, as does much of the ravine and river below the falls, but the town alongside the falls is just a crazy Blackpool Pleasure Beach sort of place, with rides, casinos, fun palaces, motels, bars and Tim Horton’s coffee shops. Elsewhere in the world, plastic pollutes our oceans, species become extinct, the protective ozone layer gets dangerously thin, and we hurl tons of explosive metal at one another. What a mess we’re making!

But although we mess up God doesn’t abandon us. In a way that’s something that lies at the heart of harvest festival. The ancient people of Israel brought the first fruits of the harvest to the temple as a thank offering to the Lord and also to remind themselves that, as Psalm 24 puts it, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof.”

Our God is the God of love, the God who is like Jesus. We see in Jesus God’s love in a human life and in a human death. And he says to us, “If you truly are my disciples, you must love one another.” A disciple is someone who learns, someone who follows and listens and learns. From Jesus we can learn how God wants us to live in his world, and to behave towards one another.

So in our Bible Reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about food and clothes, stuff like that. We do worry about these things of course, and we’re encouraged to worry about these things by the adverts, by magazine articles, by peer pressure too. We live in a very commercial and materialistic society, which no longer really questions why fashions need to change in clothes and decor and food, and why cars and other machines have to be constantly updated and new models produced.

At first sight we might wonder just what Jesus is really saying here. It surely doesn’t work to be like the birds of the air, the flowers in the field! If we don’t work we don’t earn; and if we don’t then starve, we’ll find it hard to get by. It doesn’t seem right to sit back and do nothing, hoping for God to sort it all out for us. Isn’t that the exact opposite of what harvest festivals celebrate? Haven’t we come here to say thank you for the fruits not just of what God gives but what we work for, and to remember and pray for all who work on the land? But of course, when you look more closely at what Jesus says, he’s not advocating idleness. What he is saying is - get your priorities right: work for God, don’t just worry about yourself.

Jesus talks about that as living in God’s Kingdom. That’s what happens when people live and work for God and not just for their own ends. And Harvest is a kingdom festival, in which we give thanks for all that God provides, not only by singing the harvest songs and praying the harvest prayers, but also by committing ourselves to work for God, to live in his kingdom here where we are, here where we work, here where we live.

We are the body of Christ, so Paul the Apostle tells us; and as the body of Christ we’re called to welcome God’s kingdom and to live in it. How shall we do that? Here are some suggestions: we should buy locally, know where what we buy comes from; buy Fair Trade, choose goods that give a fair return for those who make them. Be aware of what we’re using, recycling as much as we can, take what steps we can to care for God’s world. Take seriously the command, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” but widen as much and as far as we can our image of where and who our neighbour is. Make our footprint on this planet as small as we can, with others and future generations in mind.

We’re a small country church, and even at harvest there’s not all that many of us here. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do, and small can be beautiful. The small change I save in a Water Aid box, and send off every so often to help Water Aid do what it does, since dirty water and poor sanitation are a major cause of disease and infant and child mortality in our world. It’s only a bit, it’ll hardly do anything on its own, but added to all the other bits and boxes other people send it can help make sure a big work is done.

God’s been so good to us, so we need not only to be saying thank you but also to live in a thankful way. We are blessed by God: so we ourselves should be a blessing - a blessing to the planet, and a blessing to the people and other creatures we share our planet with. For the best thing to do with a blessing is to pass it on!

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Mist Nets and Banding

My nature notes column for October . . .

I’ve spent a fair chunk of the last month in Canada, so these notes may be briefer than usual! But one of the things we did while there was to visit a bird observatory on a promontory (Long Point) projecting into Lake Erie - a great place for seasonal migrants - where birds caught in mist nets were assessed and measured and ringed, or banded as they say there.

Identified too, of course - easy for them, not for me. Almost every Canadian bird (except the geese!) was new and strange, though most of them were common enough really. Mist nets were draped at various points in the wooded reserve - these are very fine nets, and birds fly into them and get caught and tangled. It can be hard to release them sometimes, but the guys there were very gentle, patient and nimble fingered, making sure the birds came to no harm.

The birds caught were then placed into soft bags with drawstrings, and would be comfortable and quiet in these bags for up to two hours, though generally they wouldn’t need to be so long. The only exception to this was the ruby-throated humming bird, the only humming bird to be commonly seen that far north. They need special treatment, and certainly couldn’t cope with two hours in a bag, so are checked over and quickly released.

The birds in bags are taken to a small laboratory where they are identified, recorded and measured and weighed. The weighing machine requires the bird to be sort of stuffed head first into a tube on the scales, not very elegant but they don’t seem to mind too much. Within this process they will also be ringed or banded if they haven’t been already. If they already have a ring, then those details are noted. Finally the bird drops down a little hatch into a space from which it can  thankfully fly away.

Birds caught while I was there included black-and-white warbler, American redstart, field sparrow, black-capped chickadee, magnolia warbler and Swainson’s thrush - plus a catbird which was the only one to be at all vocal - and the humming bird I mentioned earlier. All were safely released.

Work like this goes on all round the world, and helps us understand the migration of birds, their habits and seasonal or year by year variations in numbers. The more we understand, the better we can offer protection and support to our precious bird populations. Of course, no-one is allowed to use mist nets and other bird trapping equipment without special licence and full instruction, and the information gained is shared openly and fully. I felt privileged to have been able to see this important work, and to see a few of the local birds at close quarters.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Grace, Faith and Works

A sermon for next Sunday, based on verses from James 2 and Mark 7 :-

It’s interesting, looking at our readings today, that on the one hand James makes a point of counselling against members of the Church discriminating against one kind of person and another, while in our reading from Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus seeming to do exactly that, in not only refusing to hear the pleas of the Syrophoenician woman but also effectively calling her a dog.

Some people think that Jesus really did believe at that point that his mission was to his own people the Jews alone, and that the simple and profound faith of the woman changed his mind, opened his eyes. Others see Jesus is playing a part, doing and saying what those around him would have expected from a rabbi, while at the same time provoking a response of faith from the woman. That’s the reading I prefer, but the facts are simple and straightforward however you interpret them - Jesus turns the woman away, or seeks to; she refuses to be so turned, and in so doing she reveals a depth of faith that was inspirational in itself. Her daughter was healed, and healed because of the faith she showed.

Let me look at three things a little more closely. Firstly, the faith of the woman: she was not a Jew, and there’s nothing particular here to suggest she was even on the fringes, as some were, of the Jewish faith. This was a part of the land where Jews lived side by side with a majority gentile, or non-Jewish population. The Jews of that region were themselves rather looked down on by their compatriots in more homogenous areas like Judaea. Her faith was simple, profound, direct: and it was first and foremost formed from her devotion to her sick daughter, and her determination to do whatever she could to save her; added to that was an equal determination that if this man could help, if he had the power to help, her status as Jew or gentile should have no bearing on it. The dogs get their share of the family meal: God’s grace is not so limited that those on the outside can’t share in it.

Her answer was clever, but it was also challenging. Why should someone in need be ignored just because they don’t look like me, or don’t worship with me, or don’t speak the same language as me? Every person is made in the image of God; rich or poor, gentile of Jew, we share a common humanity. If God were to ignore that and be partial, he would be less than himself.

So secondly, our faith, and where it leads us. Paul makes great play of telling his readers that we are saved by grace and not by works. Charles Wesley’s great moment of conversion came about as the result of his coming to realise that his attempts to be good enough to please God were doomed to failure. We don’t need to be good enough, there is no points tally that qualifies us for admission to heaven. The Church is not a community of the perfect, but a school for sinners.

But the Epistle of James is a necessary antidote to that, or should I say, to a distorted understanding of what Paul says. Paul himself of course took issue with those who thought that being saved by grace meant that for us “anything goes”. That’s a heresy that does rear its head again and again in Christian history, and among some of the cults that distort the faith today - that within the community of those who are saved and therefore made perfect, anything is permissible.

Not so, says James. We may be saved by our faith and by God’s grace, rather than by the works we do, but any faith that does not lead to good works and does not reveal itself in good works is not real faith. Having just taken over as minister of a group of six churches, I am challenging all my churches to find one new way in which they can serve and be useful to the community in which they are set.
It’s good that we should be disturbed by the bad things that happen to those around us, our neighbour who is hungry, or living in poverty, or ill, or afraid, or lonely, or struggling with life in whatever way. It’s good that we pray for them.

But it isn’t good if we then sit back and do nothing other than hope that something good will come their way, or that maybe someone else somewhere will help them. We have to act on our faith and on our awareness of their need, or else that faith isn’t real. Our call is the imitation of Christ - to be as like him as we can be. Teresa of Avila famously said “Christ has no body on earth but yours - yours are the hands with which he is to bless.” The healings in that reading from Mark show how Jesus responded to need. I love the practical details in the story of the healing of a deaf man; we need to be practical too, in our response to our neighbour’s need, and in our understanding of who our neighbour actually is.

The third thing to mention is the response of Jesus to our faith. Whether he deliberately provoked her statement or not, the response of Jesus to the faith of the Syrophoenician woman was direct and complete; and she arrived home to find her daughter well. Jesus meets our faith with his, and when we commit ourselves to work for him - or I should better say to work with him - he will support and enable that work. “The Spirit of truth lead you into all truth, give you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and to proclaim the word and works of God,” in the words of a prayer of blessing at Pentecost.

Ruth and Tom are neighbours of mine who, having been members of the Baptist Church have started what they call the family church in the town, joined by quite a number of other parents with young children. The other day Ruth was telling me that they’re running out of space in the hall they presently rent, and are looking for somewhere larger. “We think we’ve found somewhere,” she told me, “but we need to be sure it is what God wants for us.” I can understand that. We of all people should not rush hastily into doing things and deciding things when we haven’t spent time in prayer, for we do need to be sure that his will is at the heart of our deciding.

But nor should we ever allow that to become an excuse for inaction or for half-heartedness. The short cut to action is - as James tells us - the commandments, or in fact the summary of the Law. It’s clear that loving God is worked out in loving our neighbour; loving our neighbour as ourself. And what makes someone our neighbour? Not geographical proximity, not fellow feeling, not the fact that they dress or pray or vote the same way as us. What makes someone our neighbour is that they need our help, and we have the capacity to give it. My neighbour in this definition is the person in my power, by whatever tiny amount, because I can choose whether or not to respond to my neighbour’s need. And their welfare is influenced and affected by the choice I make.

When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbour?” he responded by telling a story, which I don’t need to tell today, because you all know the story of the Good Samaritan. But I will end with the words Jesus ended with: “Go, and do likewise.” Amen.

The ministry begins . . .

Well, today has been my first day as Rector of the Chirbury Group. I am well past the first flush of youth, and my contract is "Sunday plus two days" (or is that "Sunday plus the equivalent of two days", whatever that may mean?), so I am clearly the cut-price option. But I'm looking forward to the challenge, and if perhaps I managed to feel a little blase about the service of collation and installation that took place last night at St Michael's, Chirbury, the reality of it was in fact quite moving.

The service ran very smoothly for the most part, but I had something of a presentiment that the bit where I ring the church bell could be a problem. Don't imagine that I am gifted with second sight, bells and me have a long history of somehow not getting on together, much as I love the sound of church bells! Having been led to the church door, I next had to pull the long rope attached - I assumed - to an appropriate rope in the ringing chamber, to toll the bell. There is a tradition that the number of times it rings represents the number of years the new incumbent will stay in the parish.

Unfortunately, it failed to ring at all. In fact, it didn't feel really as though it was actually attached to anything. I pulled harder, but nothing happened. Perhaps I shouldn't at this point have asked my churchwarden Tony to come and help me, but I did, and he came. And two of us pulling together were enough . . . to break the rope! I wonder what that might presage?

All the bells had been left "up" by the ringers, and the rope down to the porch was not attached to a bell rope, but presumably to whatever it's fixed to when not so attached. Tony went haring up the tower steps to fetch a handbell, which I managed to ring five times (counted with care) . . .

It was a lovely service, and I was pleased to see lots of friends from all over the place, and to have received some kind messages from friends unable to come. Unusually, I then announced my absence from the parishes for the next two Sundays! The holiday is fixed already, and can't be changed, and I invited any of the congregation who is able to join me at Grace United Church, Port Dover, Ontario at 11 am on Sunday 9th to be there!

There were fabulous refreshments (or so I'm told - a new incumbent doesn't get to see too many of them, because too many people want to talk to him!). A picture was taken - several in fact, of Bishop Alistair and I looking at the broken bell rope: I expect one will come my way at some point.