Saturday, 29 December 2018


I’m very fond of ducks. Well, who wouldn’t be? They are lovely and often mildly comical, birds, and they’re often much easier to see and to get close to than other birds.  The Gloucestershire poet F.W. Harvey’s poem “Ducks” is a personal favourite of mine. He wrote it I think around the end of the First World War, in which he won the DCM while serving in the Gloucestershire Regiment, and was later captured, spending the remainder of the War as a POW. His poem begins “From troubles of the world I turn to ducks . . .” Well, so do I - I can sit happily and watch them dabble.

Not all ducks dabble, of course. Mallard and teal dabble, upending in the water to feed on plant or animal matter just below the surface. Their bills are well adapted to filtering out tiny morsels of food from the water. The biggest bill is that of the shoveler, which looks ridiculously big on the bird, especially in flight, but is a brilliant tool for filtering up food as the duck pushes it along through the water.

Other ducks dive, the two most commonly seen being the tufted duck - the drake is black and white with a crest that always looks to me like a poorly Brylcreemed comb-back - and the pochard, with a russet red head, light grey back and black breast.

And then there’s the wigeon, the drake of which also has a reddish head and grey back, but the  head is perhaps more chestnut in colour and with a pale gold crown. These are unusual in that they come out of the water to graze on grass.

All these species can be found in the UK all year round, but there are many more of them around in winter. Wigeon can sometimes be found in very large numbers, for example. In summer they are confined to Scotland and the north of England, but they will be found much more widely in winter, and there will always be at least a small group at Llyn Coed y Dinas, for example. Other ducks like pintail, goldeneye and gadwall will also turn up in the winter, though in smaller numbers, while the more goose-like shelduck, once confined to the coast, is now quite often seen well inland.

Sawbills are another kind of duck, with thinner bills with serrated edges (hence the name) that help them to grab fish. The two that breed in the UK are the red breasted merganser and the goosander. Goosanders were not found in these parts until quite recently, but now they are a familiar sight on the river, and I’ve seen one on the little lake at Powis Castle. They’re big: males have a dark green head and a red bill.

Not all ducks quack. It’s the (female) mallard that makes the sound most people associate with ducks. But here again is F.W. Harvey: “As for the duck, I think God must have smiled a bit / seeing those bright eyes blink on the day He fashioned it. / And he’s probably laughing still / at the sound that came out of its bill!”

A sermon for the Sunday after Christmas

 . . . using the "second service readings" i.e. Isaiah 61, Galatians 3.27 - 4.7 and Luke 2.15-21 :-

“Through faith you are all children of God, in union with Christ Jesus.” Those words were written by the apostle Paul to the Church he helped to found in Galatia; they were originally part of his letter just to them, but they’ve become part of our New Testament scripture because they apply not just to the Galatian church but to every church, and to all who’ve been baptized. All who are baptized are brought into union with Christ.

Or at least, potentially so. As with every other gift, it’s what we do with it that counts. Let’s think about Paul himself for a moment or two, though. Paul had had a good Jewish upbringing in what seems to have been a strict and observant Jewish family. He was schooled as a Pharisee, for which he would have been sent to Jerusalem. There he learned how to apply to the whole of life, to every daily action and decision, the demands of the Law of Moses. Purity was very important to the Pharisees, and all good Jews were very aware of the special status they had as God's chosen people, and very anxious to preserve and protect that status and purity in the potentially difficult situation that Paul’s family would have experienced, of living as Jews within what was a Gentile city, Tarsus in what is now central Turkey. Within his daily morning prayers he would probably have prayed words like these: 'I thank you, Lord, that you have not made me a Gentile, a slave or a woman.'

In those early days he was still called Saul. As a young man in Jerusalem he became aware of a group within the Jewish community who claimed the Messiah had come and had been crucified. The idea of a crucified Messiah was horrifying. It flew in the face of everything Saul believed. He would have been appalled and disgusted at what this new group of followers of Jesus were saying. They needed to be stopped. And so Saul became a zealous  persecutor of the followers of this new way. Until, that is, Jesus himself broke through.

In his letter to the Galatians, it seems that Paul is taking that familiar prayer and turning it right round completely. For none of those old distinctions between people matter any more. They’ve all been taken away, for all are now one in Christ.

The writer of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, Luke, was one of the most faithful companions of Paul. We can’t be sure, but he may well not have been a Jew by birth. If so, he was the only one of the Gospel writers not to be. All the Gospel writers have their own particular themes, and an important one for Luke, as he tells the story of Jesus, is the breaking down of barriers. It's Luke who tells us about shepherds coming to worship by the manger. And shepherds were very much looked down on. The work they did prevented them from participating in observant Jewish life; yet it’s to these people that angels first bring the good tidings. Maybe that’s because they were the only people still up and about, but I think there’s more to it than that!

Luke also tells us that Jesus was brought up properly within the Law of Moses; all the right things were done for him as the Law required. But, though the message of God’s salvation comes from the Jews, it is not merely to the Jews. It will go out into all the world. To everyone, Gentile and Jew, man and woman, free man and slave, the door of God’s love is opened. And that, of course, includes us.

So last Tuesday we celebrated the birth, but today we need to go on to think about what that birth means: what it meant then, and what it means now. To us a child is born, to us a son is given. But how does this gift make a difference to you and me? How is the world changed, by God sending his Son to be born among us?

The prophet Isaiah wrote: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.” These are wonderful and startling words that are both divinely inspired and intensely personal. In his writing Isaiah suddenly switches from relaying the words of God to saying in the first person that the Spirit is upon ME. You can almost see the flash of light: NOW I see what I have to do, and what message I have to share. It’s about a great Year of Jubilee, which needs to be proclaimed and acted out. The Year of Jubilee is something we can read about in Leviticus - it’s the fiftieth year in which debts are cancelled and land is returned to its original owner: and the reason why that happens is to do with being the people of God, and knowing as God’s people that we belong together, and that all that we have, and the land we hold, is actually his. It all belongs to the Lord. We are merely stewards, and it’s out duty as stewards to use what we have in accordance with what our Lord requires.

So Isaiah calls for a Year of Jubilee that will bring justice for those are depressed, downhearted, and imprisoned, and freedom and comfort for his people. And in all of this God will be glorified. Jesus read this passage to the people of his own home town, and declared, 'Today, in your hearing, these words are fulfilled.' But the very fact that shepherds were told the good news at the time of his birth points ahead to what will happen.

Although, as I’ve said, shepherds were outsiders and looked down by the religious elite, shepherd is also one of the great titles God claims for himself, perhaps most beautifully in the 23rd Psalm - but also in, for example, the Book of Ezekiel. And Jesus will claim the title of 'Good Shepherd'; he told his disciples that 'the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.' Shepherds are there to serve, to guide and to protect - that’s the job they do; and in the process of doing that job they may well need to risk their own lives. God's anointed Messiah is anointed both to serve and to suffer. The task before him is nothing less than the setting free of all God’s people: their salvation and restoration. And to achieve this the Christ will lay down his own life.

It was realising this that changed Saul the persecutor into Paul the apostle. And for us? If we celebrate Christmas without seeing what this child will grow up to do, we only have half the story, or indeed less than that. The road begun at the crib must lead to the cross: it’s all one story. And that cross, as Paul came to understand, is what brings all people together. The divisions perpetuated by the Law are removed: everyone has an equal right to stand in God's presence.

And to stand as his children. In those days a child, however well born, had no authority over his own life until he made the transformation to adulthood that for a Jewish child would be bar-mitzvah, becoming a son of the Law, or for a Greek child the ceremonial cutting of the long hair of childhood to make him a full member of the patria or clan, or for a Roman child the day on which his childhood toys were offered to the god Apollo, to show he was now a man and had put away childish things. Paul writes to the Galatians that will now they’ve been only children, but in Christ they’ve been given the status of sons. So the challenge now is to grow to full spiritual adulthood.

A similar question for the Church today might be 'Are we talking about Jesus, or living with him?' Are we engaged in the work Isaiah the prophet proclaimed, which Jesus took as his manifesto?  Do captives find release here, do the broken hearted find healing, is there oil of gladness to replace the tears of those who mourn?  On New Year’s Day the Church commemorates the naming and the circumcision of Jesus, which was done by custom on the eighth day after his birth. The name 'Jesus' in fact means 'The Lord saves';  and if we are Jesus people, then his name becomes ours, and so does the work he does. Shepherds came to worship a baby; the man he grew to be calls us to travel with him, to make space for the needy, to be a church for all: he is love born among us, so may his love flow through us, lighting new lights of love for the salvation of the world.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Yesterday's Sermon, for the 1st Sunday of Advent.

One of the most widely disregarded thirty mile an hour limits in this area is the one on the main road through Forden. I do try to slow down to thirty there; I’m not a slow driver, but to be honest I do always try to obey speed limits wherever they may be. Mind you, it’s not easy to do that through Forden - it’s a wide road so you feel as if you’re going really slowly, while other road users wanting to go faster, do tend to push you and put you under pressure.

So the other day when I drove through, it was a surprise to me to find everyone going along very tidily indeed - slowly, even. As I rounded the bend, the reason was easy to see: a police squad car was neatly parked face on to the road, more or less opposite the chapel. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen the police take any interest at all in the traffic flow through Forden. If he was, even - he might just have stopped there for his lunchtime sandwiches, for all I know.

In general, when people know they’re going to be inspected, they put a bit of extra effort in. I’m happy for most people who might call on me to find our house in its normal warts and all state of play. We’re not the most tidy and organised household, nor ever will be. One of my aunties has been known to call on us without much notice, but that’s all right - she can take us as she finds us. But there's another who’s a different matter. I’d need notice of a visit from her, because we and our house would need to be on our best behaviour.

In our gospel reading this morning, we find Jesus talking to his disciples about the turbulent times around them. In those days, many people believed the end might come at any moment; and wars, earthquakes, floods, anything might be a sign of the approaching end. People always do try and read the signs, of course; if we can work out what’s going to happen next, we can be better prepared.” If I could prove that the day of judgement is next Friday, I bet you’d be awfully good right through till then.
To be honest, if the day of judgement is next Friday, I’ll be as surprised as anyone. Jesus told his disciples to recognise the signs for what they are, the marks of a fallen and crumbling world that will at some time come to an end; but they don’t need to get hooked on reading signs, they don’t need to second guess what they see, or find meanings that aren’t there.

To go back to my drive through Forden, there won’t be the equivalent of a clearly marked police car to remind us to start being good. People are always supposed to drive through Forden at thirty, whether or not there’s a squad car there. Christians are always supposed to be good, whether or not they think that God is watching them. (He always is, by the way - which makes the fact that I’m generally far better behaved when I’m wearing my dog collar than when I’m not, just a bit ridiculous.)

So Jesus says to his disciples, “Be on your guard; do not let your minds be dulled by dissipation and drunkenness and worldly cares so that the great day catches you suddenly like a trap.” Unlike the more serious of my aunties, I doubt God minds that much whether my house is tidy; but I'm sure he does mind whether my soul is tidy and whether my life is tidy. He wants to be sure my heart is in the right place. So that’s the sort of alertness and watchfulness he needs from us; not watching for signs and portents so much as being watchful of ourselves and disciplined; and alert to every opportunity that comes our way to show and share God’s love, to lend a helping hand or a comforting arm.

There are quite a few places in the Church year where we’re reminded what being a disciple involves; but in particular before the two great festal seasons of the year, Christmas/Epiphany and Easter, we’re given times for being penitent and prepared. Lent still gets taken seriously, but Advent maybe less so. People quite often call today Advent Sunday, as if Advent were a single day, or a week at best. But it’s all four of the Sundays leading up to Christmas, and the weeks between. A time to get ready.

One reason why I generally drive through Forden at thirty even when people around me and behind me would like to go a bit faster is that I’ve done advanced driver training. If you think you wouldn’t know it from the way I drive, you should have seen my driving before! Anyway, advanced drivers should pay full attention to all the rules and signs of the road. And they’ll aim to be as prepared as they can be for anything unexpected ahead.

Advent, like Lent, is designed and intended to help us progress from everyday disciples to the advanced version. But that only happens when we use the season as it’s intended. When I joined the Institute of Advanced Motoring,  that on its own didn’t make me an advanced driver. I needed also to read the book, with all its helpful tips and diagrams and illustrations, and to get some hands-on experience with an advanced driver, which wasn’t always easy; after all, some of the time he was fairly bluntly telling me where I was going wrong, and challenging the decisions I made.

It’s clear from today’s Gospel how Jesus wanted his disciples to progress to being advanced disciples. The medieval writer Thomas a Kempis called this “the imitation of Christ”. Our holiest duty, he argued, is to build into our own lives as much as we can of the example Jesus sets us of faith and love and service and duty and sacrifice. We need to allow his example to challenge the bad habits and the failures to act that otherwise might go unnoticed.

Well, I may be an advanced motorist, but I’m not a perfect driver: I still have plenty to learn, and I don’t always get it right. That’s also true for advanced disciples - though we’re working at being better followers of Jesus, we won’t have become super saints - nor ever will in my case at least (I don’t presume to speak for you). But the message is: start small, but do start. It’s Advent: use it. Do one extra thing, say one extra prayer, read one extra piece of scripture, draw one little bit closer to Jesus.

And don’t do it as a penance, as an attempt at piety or to fit in with the solemnity of the season; do it as a positive endeavour - part of the process of getting ready, not only to celebrate Christmas but also to take faith, believing, Church and Jesus seriously in your life; giving God the place he desires.

We need to be ready for inspection at any time. That’s what Jesus said to his disciples. There won’t be a marked car, or a phone call to say that my serious auntie is going to call by next Friday. And anyway, Jesus doesn’t want his folk only to be disciples when they think they’re being watched; or to be fitted in around the edges of the important stuff in their lives. In a few weeks, we shall sing those lovely words of Christina Rossetti, “In the bleak midwinter” - “What I can I give him, give my heart.” I hope I can use Advent to help me be ready to sing that not just as a lovely bit of poetry or a favourite carol, but as a personal prayer.

Bird in the Mist

We have reached a moment, a point of decision;
I have searched for the words to give form to my feelings,
to give sense to it all, to make the thing complete,
but I left only fragments laid aside, 
each one too hard, too sweet, too harsh, and not enough.
They do not fit together,
the truth is somewhere else. And I cannot speak,
I cannot write; instead, I find myself
in the early morning, the grey mist and the dew,
where the new light is strange and beautiful,
and nothing is clear, but everything possible,
waiting to be, under a widening sky.
And there is a bird, half-glimpsed at best, with
grey feathers softening into the grey of the morning:
a bird flying upward, her wings spread bravely, lifting away.
Remember the times that are there to be remembered,
the bright days, the warm days; then
watch as the light strengthens, and the day begins,
and know that the bird in the mist 
is returning to the sun.