Friday, 5 July 2019

You're going to reap just what you sow . . .

I’ve mostly tuned out of the Brexit debate, since it seems that for better or for worse the future of our country is now in the hands of the members of one particular political party, and I’m not a member of that or indeed any political party. But I was interested and slightly alarmed to hear one member of that party saying a week or two back that he was happy to use “Any means necessary to achieve Brexit.” I think he was referring to the idea that Parliament might be prorogued, but the frisson of alarm came from that phrase “Any means necessary.” It’s the sort of thing, I thought, that might be said by a revolutionary or insurrectionist rather than an elected politician. Anyway, it seemed to me to symbolise the way that in today’s world the end seems increasingly to justify the means.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we see Jesus sending seventy of his followers to prepare the way. They’re to visit every place he’s heading for; and they’re going there like lambs set among wolves. Jesus is under no delusions about the reality of the task: it’s going to be tough. But the instructions he gives to the seventy are simple and straightforward. “Announce ‘Peace’ to every household. Cure those who are sick. Proclaim to people that “The kingdom of God has come close to you.”

That’s very different from “by any means possible.” Here the means are matched to the end. To truly preach the Kingdom we ourselves must choose to live in the Kingdom. Last week’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians listed fruits of the Spirit that included peace, kindness, gentleness and self control. This week’s reading has Paul telling them, “Let us never tire of doing good.”

He then goes on to warn his readers that “Everyone reaps what he sows.” The Lou Reed song “Perfect Day” includes that line, turned round slightly, as Reed sings, “You’re going to reap just what you sow.” The song describes a day out with the girl who was to become his first wife. A day of simple, peaceful pleasures that allowed Reed, a troubled soul if ever there was one, to feel good about himself, to forget his confusions and demons.

The song tells the story of one person having time, patience, gentleness and love for another whose life perhaps is short of such things. You’re going to reap just what you sow. I think that in a nutshell that was the mission Jesus entrusted to the seventy he sent out, and to us as well. Mission may be a big thing that aims to change the world; but that big thing is made up of a series of single, simple acts of love and care.

Jesus sends us out to find where healing is needed and where people are short of love. And to say in those places and to those people that “the Kingdom of God has come close to you.” But that means the Kingdom must be present in us. Preparing the way for our Lord to come into broken places starts with us playing our part in the mending process - not “by any means possible” but by actions and attitudes that are true to the example of our Lord himself. We can’t manipulate or coerce people into the kingdom, or persuade them by reeling out flashy but hollow promises; only by living Christ’s way of gentleness and patience and love.

So our mission as Christians is to love our world into becoming receptive to Jesus Christ. Wherever things are broken, or people are laid low, ignored, or treated unjustly, Jesus calls us to say to them - people who’ve been hurt, abused, left out - that God knows and loves them, has a place in his heart for them, that they are invited in to his kingdom.

To do that, Jesus told the seventy they should carry no purse or bag, and not even wear sandals. To do mission we need to be vulnerable: too much protective gear can cut us off from those to whom we’re sent. There’s no circumcised and uncircumcised, says Paul to the Galatians. All are one in Christ. We in church are no nearer heaven - nor further away - than those who aren’t here with us. We just have a bigger responsibility, that’s all. Jesus sends his people out from the safety of our church buildings with this simple but tough task: “Go out and meet your brothers and your sisters, and show them my love.”

It’ll never work, they say. It’s naive beyond belief, they say. We know how society works, they say, and it don’t work like that. But it is how Jesus worked, and the only way we can truly and persuasively speak of him is to be like him. In our gentleness and our openness and our love. The means has to model the end. The end has to be visible in the means.

Now having said that, sometimes the brokenness we see around us seems just too big, and we ask “What can we do? Where can we even start?” People sometimes talk about mission fatigue, when we’re faced by complex and confusing problems, and can’t locate any one clear target to aim at, and the enormity of the task defeats us. The temptation is simply to withdraw to where we ourselves feel protected and safe.

Well, I’ve a cartoon at home that shows a huge block of stone, labelled “injustice”. Figures on the top are looking down, to where far below someone is chipping away with a tiny hammer and chisel. One of the people on top says to another, “Don’t worry, it’s only a Christian.” People who can only do the small things may seem not to be achieving very much; but when those little things are added together, they change the world. Desmond Tutu said something along those lines.

“You’re going to reap just what you sow.” Jesus calls his friends to show that love is the only redemptive power in the world, and to do that right where we are. God’s Kingdom isn’t somewhere far off, it’s close by us, because his kingdom is wherever people are daring to love and to give and to be open and gentle and kind. It’s wherever people choose to go against the world’s ways of neglect, manipulation and violence.

I do wonder what those seventy guys thought, what they feared, as Jesus sent them out. Were they thinking, “This can’t possibly work!” I might have been. But if they were, they came back completely changed, overjoyed at the signs they’d seen, and the things that had happened.

And maybe each one of the seventy had accomplished just some small thing, maybe one little random act of kindness. But the overall effect was that demons were turned back, that the bad stuff that messes people up was stopped in its tracks. Or as Jesus told them, “I saw Satan fall from his place of power. A wise old abbot was once asked what the opposite was of love. “Hate, surely,” said one of his monks. “No,” said the abbot. “Not hate, but apathy. Hate is a hateful thing, but at least it knows what it’s doing. Apathy does nothing, and pretends things are all right, or that the problems are too big to solve. Hate may campaign against love, but apathy simply ignores and forgets what love should do.”

My favourite image of love is love as a candle. Maybe only a small candle, but that single flame will drive back the darkness. There may not be much light, but it is no longer dark. And once one candle is lit, it can light more candles: light is added to light, and the darkness driven further back. Each single candle has the potential to flood the world with light. And love’s like that too. “You’re going to reap just what you sow” - maybe the seeds I can sow won’t amount to very much on their own, but if I hold back from sowing them they’ll achieve nothing at all. While if I am prepared to dare to sow them, they’ll become part of a campaign to change the world.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Hand to the Plough - A Sermon on verses from Galatians 5 and Luke 9

(Proper 8 Year C)

“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

In the days when farmers worked their land using a horse or an ox to pull the plough, they needed to be vigilant, looking ahead. Not that they don’t still - but back then, to plough a straight furrow would take the farmer's full concentration. You might look back briefly, to check that all was right behind, but if you did anything more than that, if you relaxed your concentration on the row ahead, things could go very wrong.

Jesus uses the image of the plough when responding to people who are offering themselves as disciples - and what he says to them and therefore to us is simple and stark: if you want to come with me then it’s got to be the most important thing in your life. There’s a saying that goes: “He who gives God second place gives him no place.” Discipleship is a tough ask. Some people give away all they have, throw off the trappings of the secular life, and go off to join a monastery or convent. I’ve known a few who’ve done that, and greatly admired them. But I couldn’t do the same, I know. For most of us, following Jesus is something we have to fit in to the reality of life in the secular world, earning a living, looking after families, all the stuff we have to do.

But even here, Jesus says, “Put me first; plough without looking back.” Today's Gospel begins with Jesus having “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We know that he knows what awaits him there. He is going to Jerusalem to fulfil the task his Father has set. This is where he’ll complete the story of his obedience to his Father’s will. So today we see Jesus himself setting his hand to the plough, and not looking back, even though the road he takes, the furrow he ploughs will lead to his death. It’s a passage to stir our hearts. Jesus could have chosen to go anywhere, by any one of a thousand different ways, he had the same freedom any of us do in life. He didn’t have to go to Calvary and the cross. But he chose to do so, setting his course to Jerusalem.

“Those who set their hand on the plough and look back are not fit for the Kingdom.” Our Gospel reading will go on to mention some of those people, and we’ll see from that how to follow Jesus is never an easy ask, nor can it be part time. Several people came and offered themselves as disciples, but for each one there was a caveat, something they had to do first, something that takes priority. But before we come to those people, we might think about the Samaritan village that turned him away.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that a Samaritan village should reject a Jewish teacher. Jesus was going to Jerusalem, and Samaritans didn’t accept that Jerusalem was the holy city, the right place to worship God. And anyway, Jews and Samaritans didn’t ever really mix. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, either, that the answer to this from the disciples of Jesus was to suggest he should call down fire from heaven to consume them. How dare these people not welcome the Master? Their minds were full of thoughts of revenge.

Jesus turned and rebuked them; for that could never be his way. We’re not told what Jesus actually said; but one ancient copy of this Gospel does include some extra words, in which Jesus points out that the Son of Man hasn’t come to destroy human lives but to save them. The Samaritans had acted out of ignorance; they’d failed to recognise who and what Jesus was.

Lots of people around us today also don’t know who Jesus is. So how do we react to them, and how should we? Not, surely, with condemnation or rejection, nor by simply ignoring them or writing them off. To be true to the example of Jesus, we should respond with patience and care, with blessing even. All that we do as Church should I think have in mind our need to reach out to and share with those who are not yet signed up to what we believe, and don’t yet know Jesus. The Alpha course we’re planning in our deanery this autumn is a case in point. And I hope that people who don’t yet know Jesus may come to recognise him there.

Anyway, then we come to Jesus among his own people. They were much more welcoming than the Samaritans had been, and indeed a number of them were keen to offer their services. “I'll follow you,” they say, “wherever you go.” The first person to say that wasn’t immediately welcomed by Jesus, however. Maybe Jesus could sense the shallowness of an offer that was skin deep rather than heart deep. It’s easy to say the words, but much harder to put those words into action. “Do you really mean what you say?” asks Jesus, in effect. “Will you really give up the comfort of your home to follow someone who has no place to lay his head?”

So with the next two encounters. There was the man who said, “I’ll come, but I must first bury my father!” And there was the man who said, “Let me first say goodbye to the people I love!” These seem to me to be quite reasonable requests, but Jesus was quite uncompromising in rejecting them. I have to admit that’s always caused me some unease. “Let the dead bury their dead!” sounds a quite uncaring thing to say. But I think the point here is that there can be no negotiating prior to saying “Yes”.

The Christian life can’t be shared by all the other loyalties and interests we have; it has to take priority. Once we set our hand to the plough, we have not to look back.

I’m reminded of the vows said at a wedding service. They are in fact acts of enslavement. Each partner gives himself, herself, completely to the other, holding nothing back, offering the whole self. Of course, we then offer back, and receive back, the freedoms we might need to make it all work: to do our own thing at times, to keep our own interests. But the complete offering of self each to other has to come first. I’m reminded also of when I first went to see my Vicar about my feeling that God might be calling me to be a priest. He did his level best to put me off - not because he didn’t think I was called, but because he wanted to make sure I’d really thought through how tough it might be.

Probably a lot of the people who flocked round Jesus and thought they might follow him were looking for a gentler ride and an easier Master. Maybe they turned away sorrowfully, wishing they could have gone with him. But it’s hard to give up the comforts and certainties of life. It’s important that anyone making a big decision is challenged. Have you really thought this through? Have you really measured what this will cost?

It’s costly and tough, but, as Paul wrote to the Galatians in our first reading, it’s the way to freedom, the freedom of the Spirit. It rather sounds as though the Galatian church wasn’t doing so well. People were falling out, and people were getting into bad ways. Paul tells them to watch out. We’re set free by the Spirit, but freedom doesn’t mean we can just do what we want and behave how we like, he tells his readers.

Paul lists the vices to be avoided. We can imagine most of those vices were part of the scene in Galatia, since Paul generally writes in response to very real situations that need sorting out. I have to say that no church today is completely immune from the same problems and issues. And occasionally things go very wrong. Human beings are fallible and frail, we make mistakes, we fall out, and sometimes we’re not nice to know, even in churches. One thing to remember, though, is that even when we’re not very loveable, and even when we don’t manage to love one another, we are all still loved by God; that simple statement has to be at the heart of all that we say and do and believe as his Church.

And Paul goes on to list the marks of a Church that is truly open to the gifting of God’s Holy Spirit. These are the things we should aim for, and this is how God’s will can be achieved and fulfilled in us - the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is where truly hearing the call to follow Christ should lead us. This is what should happen when we place our hand on the plough and don’t look back.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Legion (a sermon)

I was reminded the other day of the story of a man whose wife rang him while he was driving along the M1 to warn him that she’d just heard reports of a car driving the wrong way down the carriageway. “One car?” he replied. “They’re wrong there - there’s hundreds of them!” What reminded me was the interesting experience I had last Saturday of coming round a roundabout - the one at the bottom of the road from Forden - heading for the Welshpool bypass, only to meet a little blue car driven by a neat elderly looking gentleman, coming straight towards me the wrong way round the roundabout. I was a bit surprised; I have to say that he seemed remarkably unconcerned.

A single wrong decision when driving can have immense and long lasting consequences. If you do happen foolishly to drive down the wrong slip road and end up on the wrong carriageway of a motorway, how do you get off? I was once driving in Basingstoke when I suddenly realised there was another carriageway to my left. My blood froze and I was on the verge of panic, until I realised that they were in the process of converting the road from single to dual carriageway, and the new carriageway was still under construction.

And what’s true of driving is equally true of much else in life. Harmful behaviour patterns can be very hard to break or change, varieties of addiction more so. It isn’t just whether you can make the changes in yourself, it’s also the way you get labelled by others, what they see in you and expect from you. If you’re travelling the wrong way down the carriageway of life, it can be very hard to find a way off. What we today might identify as mental illness, addictive behaviour, or perhaps criminal or sociopathic tendencies, would in past times have been thought of in terms of demon possession. And the man in today’s story had gone a very long way down the wrong carriageway; he’d acquired loads of demons. People had given up on him and were afraid of him, so there he was, living in squalor among the tombs.

It’s an amazing and very dramatic story, but we may be tempted to disregard it because we don’t think in terms of demon possession these days, or most of us don’t; and maybe even because we feel bad about Jesus allowing all those pigs to jump to their deaths.

But I think it’s a story with much to tell us and to teach us. And though we might reject the idea of people being possessed by demons, people living with certain forms of mental illness would relate to it very well. That’s what it can feel like to them: that other voices are controlling and seeking to direct them. And to be honest all of us probably know times when we say in exasperation, “I no longer feel in control of my own life!”

Nowadays we can identify a genetic component to schizophrenia, and we can see how forms of paranoia are linked to the abuse of certain drugs, like skunk marijuana, or related to post traumatic stress disorder. Our understanding of mental illness has grown, but it still inspires fear. Bad decisions and bad things that  happen can set a person down a wrong carriageway they can’t get off, not on their own, anyway. But along the way, they may scare other people, who shun them and write them off.

The man in today’s story had been so written off, and people were so afraid of him, that he’d become as good as dead, or maybe he just wished he was dead. He lived among the tombs. I guess there were people in the village who still cared about him, but they were afraid and they didn’t know what to do. The best they could think of was to chain him up, but that didn’t work. We may talk about a “complex” when referring to types of mental illness; it isn’t easy to unravel things once you’ve travelled a long way down the wrong road. In our reading that translates as being possessed by so many demons that he gave the name “Legion”. But some part of him wanted release, which is why he met Jesus, while much within him didn’t, was too far gone, which is why he spoke as he did. But Jesus had time and patience and compassion for a man everyone else had written off.

The story itself gets quite strange: the demons negotiate with Jesus, effectively, and Jesus allows them to go into the pigs rather than being banished altogether, upon which the entire herd of pigs rushes over a cliff and is drowned in the lake - which was bad news for the pigs, and also for their swineherd! Pigs of course are unclean animals for Jews, so maybe they didn’t matter too much. William Barclay, in his commentary on this passage, suggests that the destruction of the pigs was necessary to demonstrate to the man that his demons really had gone for good. But for me it speaks simply and starkly about the destructive power of the things - the habits, the abuses - that we allow wrongly to take control in our lives. They can be deadly.

Bad decisions, bad advisers build on themselves, so that they take us further and further along the wrong road. Depression or not being able to sort things out, face up to problems, conquer fears, or live with a sense of failure or loneliness may lead a person to take solace in alcohol or some other drug, which may seem to make things better but in the end only make them worse.

May I say, by the way, that I’m not only talking about what we diagnose as mental illness. I don’t in fact believe there is a clear boundary between sanity and mental illness. The things that are out of control in a person we label as mentally ill are to a degree shared by all of us. And any one of us is capable of making bad choices in life, putting our trust in the wrong petty gods or the wrong human prophets.

The people of the town reacted to the healing of the man there by the lake by telling Jesus to go away. Barclay talks about them not wanting the balance of their lives disturbed. He may be right there, since they do seem to have quickly realised that a person with this much power would be an uncomfortable presence. He’d want to change them too. To accept Jesus we do need to accept the need for change: “You can’t follow me and look back,” he said to his disciples. And that could translate into, for example:

You can’t follow me and still make people work for you under such bad conditions; you can’t follow me and still have racist opinions; you can’t follow me and still be wasteful in the way you use the earth’s resources; you can’t follow me and still be prepared to allow people to live in substandard housing. He might well be saying all of this to us and more. He might even be saying, you can’t follow me and still walk past or abandon or lock up those who are mentally ill. And anyway, it isn’t only the obviously and scarily mentally ill who are in the grip of bad decisions.

Here’s where my initial story of the man going the wrong way down the motorway breaks down a bit. Going with Jesus may often be the exact opposite of going along with the crowd. Maybe the man seeing all those drivers coming towards him was after all the only one going in the right direction. The man cured of those demons wanted to stay with Jesus, but Jesus sent him home instead - to those very people who’d told him to go away and leave them alone. It’s easy to be a Christian when I’m away on retreat in some holy place; but the place where Jesus needs me to be a Christian (and you too) is here in the place where I am, and now in the hour that I’ve got, and of course not only on a Sunday, but tomorrow too.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

I saw something in my paper the other day that rather startled me. “Asteroid near miss on Scotland” read the headline. Wow, I thought, how come I never heard about that? When I read the article I discovered that the near miss actually happened some half a billion years ago. But scientists it seems are just now making sense of the evidence off the west coast of Scotland, unravelling the mystery of a traumatic event from very long ago, that they can still read in the rocks deep below the waves.

It was a very interesting story, not least because like most of us I’m fascinated by mysteries. Whodunnits are among my favourite reads, and I’m also interested to discover local legends and traditions like the story of Mitchell’s Fold. It’s fascinating to see how people make sense of mystery, work out what’s going on, crack the code. I’ve just started reading a book about Bletchley Park, where the German Enigma Code was cracked in World War Two: remarkable people unravelling a mystery.

Which brings me to today, Trinity Sunday, a day that marks the Church’s engagement with the greatest mystery of all, the nature of God. Preachers on Trinity Sunday sometimes feel the need to delve so deeply into the various theological texts and theories that their congregations are sent to sleep within the first few minutes. All the stuff we learn at theological college but never use at any other time. Let’s see what we can do to explain the mystery of the Trinity, and unravel the mathematical formula that say “three in one and one in three”.

Or maybe we shouldn’t do any of that. Maybe we should just accept and live with the mystery and wonder of the unknowable God. Most of us live with a lot of things we don’t understand and can’t explain, even though we tend to want mysteries to be demystified. I don’t have the faintest idea how my TV or my laptops or my washing machine actually works. I don’t even understand how my toilet flushes, not really. But somehow I manage to live with those mysteries.

Of course, the reason I can live with that is that I know someone somewhere does know how these things work, and if I need to I can ring someone up who’ll come and fix them when things go wrong. Or if I do want to do it myself, I can probably find and download some instructions.

But God is unknowable, and even the best books of theology are only a set of someone’s ideas and theories. The nearest we get to understanding is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Something we can say about God that we can all agree on, and adhere to. And it begins by admitting that God is unknowable. What Trinity goes on to do is to talk about the ways God reveals himself to us.

So the real question for today isn’t, “How can I explain God?” but “How does God seek to connect with me, and with you? And into the  day-to-day living of our lives?” That’s what this doctrine is really about. What it certainly isn’t is the last word about God, the explanation at the end of the whodunnit. Trinity isn’t God summed up and explained, and neatly wrapped in a box. Trinity is us talking about how God engages with us, meets with us, and seeks a part in who we are and what we do.

Last Sunday - Pentecost or Whit Sunday - we celebrated the birth day of the Church in the fire of the Holy Spirit. The Church began, not with an explanation of things, but with a gift. God’s glory and love understood by those first apostles not as an idea or a doctrine but like fire that pulsed through their every vein. This morning’s Gospel reading has more to say about the Spirit. We hear Jesus tell his friends that “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

As human beings we’re programmed to look for answers, and to make rational sense of what we see and hear and touch around us. And we may well choose to stop there and not go beyond the things we can fully understand and explain. But the Holy Spirit is given to lead us into a deeper truth than that.

A truth that isn’t about explanation but engagement. As the apostle John wrote, “No-one has ever seen God.” But God reveals himself to us: as Father, Creator, as the man Jesus Christ, who called himself Son of Man but whose disciples came to see him as Son of God, and as the Holy Spirit, God opening eyes and minds and hearts in a new way, giving us gifts, and linking us in fellowship. I think of this as God saying yes to us in three ways: the yes of creation, of our being - existing, thinking, feeling, loving; the yes of salvation, God lifting from us the burden of our failure and sin; and the yes of empowerment, God choosing and calling and equipping us to live fruitfully as his people.

I’ve been humbled by the faith I’ve found in very poor places. Maybe the complexity of our lives and our material wealth gets in the way of knowing our dependence on God. We can meet all our own needs, leaving God there to plug the occasional gap, or as an emergency support, or (sadly) as a life option we can discard. Whereas in the favelas and shanty towns and African villages I’ve visited people seem to have a deeper and more direct sense of God’s presence and call, and of the centrality of faith.

God wants to say yes to us wherever we are; he says yes most vividly in Jesus. In Christ all the love of God is there in a in human form, in a human life: in the humility of his birth; in his engagement with those whose lives needed changing, healing, transforming; and in the sacrifice of the cross.

At Easter the empty tomb changed forever the life journeys of the apostles. From the despair of Good Friday they began to see that on the cross love had won the greatest triumph: death itself had been overcome. And the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost turned a band of folk who should have been crippled by fear and failure into the fearless first missionaries of the Church: they knew God was with them; his love, like wind and fire, had made them unafraid of anything, unafraid even of death.

So the doctrine of Trinity isn’t an academic exercise designed to explain the nature of God so much as people needing to understand and use and pass on their own living experience of God, people who’d been on the road with Jesus, who’d stood by the cross, and who at Pentecost were convinced that Jesus would always be with them and they with him. And that in Jesus and in the gift of his Spirit, the power and glory of the Father was also present.

Love is the key to it all. The love that filled them as the Holy Spirit came upon them is inseparable from the love of the Father who loves us into being, and the love of the Son who saves us from sin and death. The Holy Spirit is the love of Jesus gifted among his people, and Jesus says, “I am one with the Father.”

Trinity is about being drawn into the heart of God’s eternal love: Trinity tells us that relationship and love are fundamental to God. The icon on the middle pages of our weekly sheet is a very famous icon of the Trinity created by the Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century: in it, Trinity is expressed as a close and intimate relationship, a community of three, that is nonetheless also hospitable and welcoming to all. Trinity is our human attempt to speak of the God who promises always to love us, and to be with us at every turn and through every struggle.

A Church bearing the name of the Holy Trinity should therefore be a place of community and hospitality. Like the God who offers himself to us as Father and Son and Spirit, and whose love is steadfast and sure, however fickle we may be.

So for me Trinity isn’t about explaining the mystery. Trinity’s about how God meets us, relates to us, leads us and calls us. He calls us to be Trinitarian: to offer hospitality, to build community, to dare to care, and to take the risk of loving. And all of this we do in praise to the God who gives himself to us as Father and Son and Spirit, with a love beyond all we can imagine, and with a yes that creates and heals and equips.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Pentecost (sermon)

“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you do not know me?” That’s what Jesus says to Philip at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, and they’re words that speak to my own doubts and uncertainties. Sometimes and in some places I’m sure and confident about what I believe, but that’s not true all the time. Sometimes faith’s a struggle, and my sense of being called gets weak and faint. And maybe Jesus is asking the same question of me: “Have I been with you all this time and still you don’t know me?”

Pentecost was one of the big Jewish festivals, not as important as the Passover, but big enough to bring a lot of people into Jerusalem. The wine harvest happened at Pentecost, which is why some people were quick to dismiss the joyful band of disciples that day as having drunk too much of the new wine.

But they’d been filled with the new wine not of the grape but of God’s Holy Spirit. And all the ifs and buts of faith, all its uncertainties and inhibitions, had been lifted from them, to leave them full of wonder and delight: each of them experiencing God’s love in a deeply personal way: as flames, distributed, and resting on each of them - that’s how it’s described. But also as something shared and bringing them into a new closeness together, as they were so powerfully made aware of the closeness of God, and the triumph of his love.

I’ve got lots of favourite hymns, one of which we’ve already sung this morning: “Come down, O love divine.” Any top ten of my favourites would probably be different on any different day. But if there’s one hymn I think would always be there, it’s the one that begins “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” These days it’s often sung to a great new tune which must be of fairly local origin as it’s called “Corvedale”. But I also sing it to an old Welsh tune as a solo at concerts; and I sang it recently at the memorial service for a friend.

I like this hymn so much because its theme about how when our faith gets officious and judgemental and narrow minded we’ve lost touch with God’s generosity and grace. And these words especially always strike home: “But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own, and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.” I’m sure God always sees further than the narrow judgements we make, and is more generous by far than our moral strictness. The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples on that first Christian Pentecost as a direct experience of transforming love. They were so overcome with joy because they knew, not just as an idea or doctrinal statement but as something that ran through them like fire, just how much they were loved. That’s why they went straight out onto the streets to tell people.

But there was a day after Pentecost, and a day after that. Even for those first fired-up Christians there’d be days when faith was more a slog than a dance, days when the skies and the streets were cold and grey. Last week at morning prayer I was reading from the first Letter of John; and in chapter 2 John writes about those in whom the fire had obviously cooled, for they’d left the fellowship and gone their own way.

Nearly forty years ago I was made a deacon, and I remember the day clearly. It felt like Pentecost: I was on a real spiritual high, with the sense of God welcoming me in with the gift of his Spirit, on that special Sunday. But I remember the Monday that followed too, when the real task of ministry began, and my sense of being fully called and equipped wasn’t quite so strong.

My ministry’s never been an easy ride. It’s included some great times, but sometimes I’ve fallen out of love with the Church, and at times it’s annoyed or appalled me. But I haven’t always got it right either. As Paul wrote, God entrusts his message of love to mere earthenware vessels, to us fallible and breakable human beings. At times we do make his love too narrow. But Jesus has promised not to leave us without help: to send his Holy Spirit.

On that first Christian day of Pentecost, narrowness was done away with, and barriers were broken down. People from all over the world could hear the apostles speaking to them in their own language. Amazing! So what really happened?

People from all over the place could hear good news preached in a way they could understand. They’d all have been Jews, or else proselytes, believers who worshipped alongside Jews. It took a bit longer for the Gospel to reach across the barrier that separated the Jewish world from the world beyond. And probably all these people spoke Greek, since Koine or common Greek was very widely spoken across the Roman Empire.

Not a real miracle after all then, you might say. But a miracle is much more than a magic trick. The miracle of Pentecost isn’t really the speaking in tongues, however that actually happened; it’s the fact that, as those tongues of fire rested on the heads of the disciples, the barriers were broken down between what’s divine and what is of the earth, between the sacred and the secular, and between every sort and class and race of people.

God’s love is for everyone, and within that love we see one another and understand one another in a new way. Each one of us is someone loved by God, someone bearing his image. Wherever we are, God is with us, longing for us to turn to him and open our hearts to him, longing to fill us with the radiance of his love: a love that is immeasurably broad and wide and deep.

And that love shone in the life of Jesus, which is why he asks, “Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me?” And I don’t always know him. On those grey and dismal times when prayers are hard to come by, I find myself thinking that however loudly I speak them they won’t be heard. Is that because I make his love too narrow, by false limits of my own? Am I closing my eyes to things I should be seeing? Have I settled for a smaller, more manageable God, who fits into my lifestyle?

All of those things, at times. And maybe also it’s just that things are no longer as fresh and new as they once were. God is always doing new things; his love is always sparking off new and beautiful events, changing lives, healing situations. But maybe at times I’ve been looking in the wrong places. I might expect to find God in church, but he isn’t locked inside this or any other sacred building. The message of Pentecost is: “Wherever two or three are gathered together, there am I in your midst” - God’s promise to be always with us. We can build walls around the places where God’s supposed to be, and try and dictate the places in which he belongs. But it won’t work. The message of Pentecost is that God doesn’t stay where we try to put him.

Today’s Gospel reading challenges us to see God in new ways; to open our eyes wider, to open our minds and our hearts wider too. By all means look for God in churches and cathedrals, but don’t expect to only find him there; see him also at work in the kindness of strangers, in the beauty of the natural world, in each person who takes risks in the name of justice and peace, in each person who reaches out to people who are weak or needy or broken or hurting. The message of Pentecost takes us out of our own comfort zone to see further: as the Taize chant puts it “Ubi caritas, et amor, deus ibi est” (Wherever love and charity are, God is there). Barriers were broken on the birth day of the Church, and when barriers get torn down there’ll always be a sense that we’re stepping into the unknown.

That’s certainly what the disciples did that day, as they left the safety of their lodging to shout and sing and laugh and pray out on the streets. And there on the streets of Jerusalem the Church was born. And they and we are met in ministry and mission by a love beyond words, and the assurance that in God the unknown and unknowable, we are known; we are treasured; we have a place in his love; we find in him our true and lasting home.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Paul and Silas in Prison (a sermon for Easter 7)

I love the account of Paul and Silas in prison, because it’s such a great story to use in Messy Church or school assembly - how can you go wrong with a tale that involves prison cells, an earthquake, and a jailer armed with a sword, with which he’s about to kill himself? It’s full of excitement and danger, but with a message of liberation and a happy ending.

So I’ve used it a lot over the years, as you can imagine. Paul and Silas are the victims of spite, trumped up charges, a bit of mob rule and some inept decisions by those in authority. The magistrates had had them flogged, not realising that both Paul and Silas had the status of Roman citizens, which should have protected them from treatment like that.

Later they had to make a grovelling apology. Next morning, the magistrates sent a message to the jailer telling him to let Paul and Silas go. But the two apostles refused to go; they stayed put in prison, and sent a message back saying, “You gave us a public flogging and threw us into prison without a trial. If you want us to go, come and escort us out yourselves, rather than sneaking us out via the back door. And by the way, an apology would be nice, since we are both Roman citizens.”

But that comes after the reading we’ve heard this morning. To begin with, there they are in prison, whiling away the time by singing hymns. It’s late at night by then, but they’re singing and praying, and the other prisoners are listening, one hopes gladly. Then all of a sudden there’s an earthquake. That part of the Mediterranean was and is prone to earthquakes, and this one certainly shook things up. Their chains fell off - their arms and legs would have been shackled, and maybe their necks as well. The cell doors swung open. Meanwhile the jailer had probably been knocked unconscious. When he came to and saw all the doors open, and all his prisoners presumably gone, he drew his sword to end his own life. But just in time, Paul shouts, “Don’t do it! We’re all still here!” It’s all so dramatic!

The reality is that those were cruel and brutal days. A jailer whose prisoners escaped would face the same punishment as them or worse. It surprises me that Paul and Silas were able to persuade the other prisoners to stay, since we’re told that the earthquake had released every one of them; but somehow he got them to see their escape could only be at the cost of their jailer’s life.

And so they all stayed. And the jailer was so amazed and overcome by that selfless act that he fell at Paul’s feet, and that night he and all his household were baptized. Liberation had come to the man responsible for their imprisonment. And even before he was baptized, the jailer treated and cleaned the wounds Paul and Silas had from their flogging, while later he invited them to eat in his own house - a kindness that proved the genuineness of his new faith. “I turn to Christ,” people say at a baptism service. Truly turning to Christ means also turning to kindness, compassion, fellow feeling and mutual service.

But wasn’t that was what got Paul and Silas into prison in the first place? They’d been exasperated by the shouting of a girl whose gifts of prophecy brought big profits to her owners. But they must also have been exasperated by her situation - being a good earner for people who owned her, while having no life of her own. What they did released her, gave her a life again. You could say it was an act of liberation that imprisoned Paul and Silas.

Those who seek to build a better world will always be met by vested interests who don’t want things to change - particularly when it hits them in the pocket, or they think it might. Think of eco campaigners today. The world is drowning in single use plastic - but how able are we to do anything much about it? There are so many vested interests, from the companies that make big profits out of plastic, via the supermarkets for whom products packaged in plastic are easier to move and display and sell, and therefore more profitable, to you and me who find it so easy to use something once then throw it away.

Liberation isn’t always easy. Not everyone who’s offered it wants it - it can be more comfortable in a cage. Our pet rabbit escaped when I was little. We thought it was gone for good, but next day there it was back in its run. It felt safer there. But though a cage can be gilded and given every mod com, it’s still a cage.

Our story shows us two forms of justice. The first is the justice meted out by the magistrates, justice meted out by those in power: in this case misused and distorted, kowtowing to the loudest voices and those with vested interests. Like too much of the justice we find in worldly places. But then we see the justice God desires, modelled by Paul and Silas both before and during their time in prison. God’s justice honours the other person, desires their freedom, and is motivated by kindness, compassion and love. This is the justice that rolls down like waters, that lifts every valley and levels out every hill; the justice of the Magnificat, that lifts up the lowly: justice that makes a positive difference. This justice is always linked with those other two important Bible words, righteousness and mercy. And this is the justice of the Kingdom of God.

Paul and Silas were locked up because the girl’s owners, and the mob, and the magistrates, labelled them as dangerous. And so they were - to those who dealt unfairly, to those who acted unjustly, to those who imprisoned others. Jesus came to make changes to that, to set people free, to set free both the oppressed and the oppressor. Liberation is one word for that: his Gospel changes people and transforms situations. It casts down the mighty from their thrones, to quote again from the Magnificat. But maybe that’s us - comparatively powerful and fairly comfortable, at any rate. And then it won’t always feel like change for the better. The owners of the slave girl were set free by Paul from their unfair exploitation of her, but I don’t imagine they saw it in terms of liberation. It’ll have felt unfair, unlawful even, because of the way it damaged their interests.

We rightly identify them as being among the baddies in this story - but don’t we sometimes do the same? Thy kingdom come, we pray, so long as it doesn’t interfere too much with the smooth running of our lives. As long as it doesn’t cost too much, or take up too much space in my diary.

This is the penultimate Sunday of Easter, and the last Sunday to bear the name of Easter. The great fifty days of Easter end next Sunday on the birth day of the Church, Pentecost. For forty days the disciples struggled to understand not just that Jesus had risen, but what it actually was he’d done for them and for the world on the Cross: to see the Cross as a place of triumph, not of defeat. Then for ten days they prayed, as we’re praying now, between Ascension and Pentecost.

We have proclaimed the Resurrection, and we’ve sung the hymns, heard the stories, repeated the alleluias. But next Sunday Pentecost will challenge us: “Are we living the Resurrection?” Last week, Jesus asked a crippled man lying by the pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be healed?” Today the question is, “Do you want to be free?” The liberation of Jesus Christ breaks open all kinds of chains, just as that earthquake did. It takes away in the end the labels of oppressed and oppressor that are part of how the world’s systems imprison us. If we’re truly God’s people, if we’ve found in him the healing and forgiveness and freedom we need, then we’ll be known by a new name, a name that’s made visible in how we live: in fellowship and community and service.

Let me close with the last verse of one of our hymns :-

Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart,
come quickly from above;
write thy new name upon my heart,
thy new best name of Love.  Amen.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Politics . . .

A past chaplain to the United States Senate was once asked, “I suppose you take account of the state of the country, and pray for our senators?” “No,” he replied, “most times I take account of the state of our senators, and pray for the country!”

I’d be interested to hear the views of the present chaplain to the House of Commons. We’re told that (quote) “religion and politics don’t mix” - or at least, we’re encouraged to think they shouldn’t. In much of the world religion and politics are very closely mixed, but ours is a secular state, and none of our major parties has a specifically religious base. And I’m sure that’s as it should be; while my faith encourages me to take an interest in the themes, campaigns and programmes of our political life, I don’t think it instructs me to vote in any particular way.

And the Church of England won’t come out in support of any one political party. That doesn’t mean the Church shouldn’t take part in political debate, though. The Christian faith may well have useful and perceptive things to contribute, and political statements, decisions or ideas that lack consistency, humanity or charity deserve to be challenged. Anyway, politics with a small p is the preserve of everyone - politics just means “how we live together”, and that’s something often far too important to be left to those we happen to have elected.

I’ve met and worked with quite a lot of career politicians over the years, and got to know some of them quite well. While I’ve not always agreed with them, and some at least would never get my vote, it’s only fair to say that nearly all the politicians I’ve met clearly came into it wanting to make things better and to do some good, and with hopeful and positive intent. I’m sure there are politicians who’re there for what they can get out of it, or to promote their own divisive and extremist opinions, but they are the minority, I think. We may disagree about what’s best for the nation, and on how to get it, but most people who are active in politics are there in search of a better world.

There is a link, I think, between my opening thoughts and today’s readings. In the Acts of the Apostles we have the record of Paul’s first missionary journey across to Europe. While there was probably already a Christian community in Rome, Paul’s journey to Macedonia is the first actual record we have of the Gospel coming to Europe. Paul came in response to a dream or vision, and the message that people here needed his help. Politics at its best is also about hearing and responding to people’s calls for help.

There were lots of people needing help in Jerusalem. A man who was crippled or disabled was worthless, not only unable to earn a living, but implicitly blamed for his own misfortune by those who saw it as God’s punishment either for his own sins or maybe those of his father. That belief also allowed them not to feel they had to respond to his disability, other than maybe by throwing a few coins into a begging bowl.

When the waters moved in the pool, the first person into the water would be healed. So they believed, anyway, if only in their desperation. We don’t know how many of this man’s thirty eight years of disability had been spent lying by the pool - but his hope of being healed must have been dashed again and again.

The question Jesus asks him is an interesting one. “Do you want to get well?” Why was he there if he didn’t? I wonder where the stress actually came in those words, as they were spoken. “Do you want to get well?”, perhaps. I’ve got a broken light over my bathroom mirror. I fixed it, which worked for a while, till the bulb fell out and brought the glass shade off, which shattered. Since then I’ve not bothered to fix it: more trouble than it’s worth, I suppose. In all sorts of ways in life, we accommodate ourselves to situations that aren’t ideal, and are sometimes far from it. When we say, “I don’t do politics,” we’re sort of saying “I’d rather just keep things as they are, and not worry about fixing them.” Maybe this crippled man had got used to living as he was; maybe he’d be happier not getting well.

But that wasn’t the case. He wanted release from his condition, it’s just that he wasn’t quick and able enough. And Jesus healed him. Politics at its best, whatever party we’re talking about, is about restoring chance and opportunity to those who lack it; it’s about recognising the spark of initiative in people, and helping them to seize their chances: knowing what people are hoping for and aiming for, and helping them get there.

Different parties and political creeds may have different ideas about how to do that, but in their own ways that I think is what most people in politics come into it to do. To start off with, anyway. Maybe the shine gets rubbed off, maybe it does become just a job, maybe the perks get too tempting. Or the party whips shout louder than the voices you should be hearing.

A higher proportion of MP’s have an active faith than would be true for a typical cross section of the population outside of parliament. So I dare to hope and pray that the example of Jesus and his apostles may inspire jaded MP’s with a Christian faith to recapture some of the zeal, hopefulness and concern that first motivated them to seek office. And to remind them that they’re answerable not only to the whips and their party machine, but also to those who elected them; and to those who voted for the other guy, but who are still their constituents; and to their own consciences; and to God. And maybe at times to reassess, which are the most important voices to hear? Who to follow, who to serve?

But that doesn’t only apply to elected politicians. There’s a message for you and me too. All of us are in some way responsible for the world around us, and for the people around us. Don’t let other things shut out the voice of our neighbours, when they’re saying “Come over and help us!” or, like the man by the Pool of Siloam, “I can’t fix this on my own.” Don’t let our own stuff crowd out the voice of God; take seriously the example of service Jesus sets us, not least in this story. All sorts of people were passing by that pool that day. But Jesus stopped and listened.

Most of the professional politicians I got to know well had at some time picked up a call for help, and decided it wasn’t a job for someone else, but something they should do. For Christians, our neighbour is anyone who needs our help; anyone who, like the guy by the pool, is going to be stuck there if we don’t respond. Someone like that is in my power; I’ve the power to respond or to not respond, to help or to pass by. All politicians want power: “when we’re in power we’ll do all these things to make your lives better” their manifestos assure us. But the wiser ones know that power is worthless until it’s used for good, that power held for its own sake always corrupts, and that for the land to prosper, power and responsibility - and a measure of humility - should always go hand in hand. Not just in the High Court of Parliament, but in every human situation. Not just up there, but down here too.

“Love your neighbour as yourself,” the Bible tells us. “How can someone claim to love God whom he has never seen, if he fails to love his brother whom he sees every day?” asked St John. “I am among you as one who serves,” said Jesus. “Let the greatest among you do the same.”

Lord, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to look for any reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will. Amen.

Rogation Sunday

I think my son John must have left the old copy of Scientific American Magazine I came across the other day. It included an article about the planet Saturn and its various moons, with some amazing pictures taken by a recent probe. Saturn is the second largest planet in our solar system, much bigger than the earth. It’s what’s known as a gas giant, made up mostly of hydrogen, so it's big but not all that heavy. And of course it’s surrounded by those amazing rings, that were first observed and recorded many centuries ago by Galileo. No-one really knows what they are; one theory suggests they could be the debris from some kind of giant cosmic accident, perhaps when an asteroid was torn to pieces.

No human being could live on Saturn, nor any life form we could imagine. But scientists have pondered over whether some of its various moons could harbour simple forms of life. The biggest moon - Titan - is more or less planet sized, and it’s been observed to have clouds and atmosphere and even weather - though not the sort of weather we could survive in. That’s a shame, since Titan is rich in mineral ores, and the idea of mining Titan has been a staple theme of many a science fiction novel.

Reading about Saturn as a place not to live started me thinking about where we do live, and about life on earth. Organic life forms are fragile and very varied, and they’re also persistent and determined to thrive. Think of the sheer dogged strength that allows germinating seeds to push their way up through the tarmac and concrete with which we coat our planet; think of those emperor penguins that stand guard over their chicks all winter in the frozen desert of Antarctica. But though life on earth comes in many forms and has made a home in all kinds of environments, the search for signs of life beyond our own planet continues not to find any trace of it. Star Wars may be a hugely successful movie franchise, but so far it seems a long way removed from reality.

Scientists talk about the 'Goldilocks Zone' to mean that part of the space around a star in which life may form. It's a very narrow band, and we're in it. The proper name for it is the CHZ, or Circumstellar Habitable Zone, but Goldilocks is a snappier expression: like the porridge in the story, our band is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.

Many people think there’s a conflict between religion and science, and I know there are faith leaders who still today totally reject what science has to say. I trained as a scientist, and for me the conflict they speak about isn’t real. For me, science answers the question “how” - how I exist, how all of this works. Religion tackles a trickier question: “why” - why am I here, what am I here for? Some people want to say that the why question doesn’t exist, or if it does, it’s not spurious and doesn’t mean much. Well, it does for me, as I search out the hand of God in this vast and complex universe, and ask what he wants of me - and of us.

In the Book of Genesis, right at the start of our Bibles, we’re told that God made all things, and in our Psalm responses at the start of this service we said that “The earth is the Lord’s”. That I believe, and that belief is at the heart of this Rogation Sunday service. Where I part company with the fundamentalists is that I don’t think the Bible, in Genesis or elsewhere, intends to dictate how God creates. What the Bible does do is to tackle the issue of how we relate to that created order, and to our God. 

With that in mind, we can see in Genesis that we’re made of the same stuff as everything else, made (so chapter 2 of Genesis assures us) of the dust. And that’s really the same as science says. We may have this marvellous ability to discover, think and reflect, to design and create, but we’re still made of the same stuff as frogs and buttercups and jellyfish. But that’s not the whole story, for Genesis chapter 1 tells us that we’re also made in the image of God.

What does that mean, though? The fact that we’re creative is certainly part of it, and the fact that we’re aware. Farmers and gardeners are part of that creativity which is as I see it not only God given but also something that reflects God. A good garden is a place of harmony and peace, in which the earth is made productive and beautiful, and somehow we are too. It’s no surprise that Adam and Eve start their story in a garden, Eden.

Eden is as much about where we choose to travel to as where we’ve fallen from. I love to look round gardens, and they remind me that God wants us and calls us to work in harmony with him, with what he’s made, and with one another. Much of how we use the world is far from harmonious, and that worries many of us I know. Rogation Sunday should address those concerns - plastic and pollution, deforestation and global climate change. The clock is ticking. But we can’t ask God to wave some kind of magic wand, and do nothing ourselves. What we pray for we much also work for.

Places like this were loved by the Celtic saints who first brought the faith to these hills. They discerned and worshipped God in the rhythms of the natural world; and the world of nature was for them something to work with and to be quietly and reverently part of, not a thing to fight or to force into submission. Their worship followed the rhythms of tides and sunsets and seasons, and was founded firmly in prayer: prayer as the foundation of a life of godly service: prayer as a necessary beginning to all our work.  There’s an old saying that to pray is to work, and to work is to pray. Prayer time is never wasted: prayer clears our thoughts and directs them to God, and gives him space to speak to us or to form thoughts in our hearts. And work can be done prayerfully, if how we work and what our work achieves glorifies God as Creator.

That’s our theme this Sunday. Rogation brings together prayer, growth, creation and a spirit of holiness. God the maker of stars and planets is also the giver of life and the inspirer of love.

So let’s thank God for the beauty of the land around us here, and pray we may live here reverently - with a vision of his love, an understanding of his purpose, and a quiet holiness. Here we are, safely in our Goldilocks zone. But how safely, really? We reject at our peril the warnings climate change campaigners give us. More to the point, perhaps, we reject at our peril the way our forbears worked and worshipped at the same time, adapting their lives to the rhythms of creation, and honouring God not just on a Sunday but in all the everyday events and activities of their lives. Pray that we may use the land and all it gives us in a way that gives glory to God; in ways that fulfil his purpose and love, and that reflect the rhythms and harmonies of creation.

Monday, 20 May 2019


My "Nature Notes" article for local magazines . . .

I was doing a few evening jobs in my garden the other day, close to my rather untidy fruit cage - untidy mostly because raspberries, which often seem to grow better underground than on top of it, seem to push their shoots up everywhere (note: except in the rows where you want them to be). Last year’s new raspberry canes are of course now busy flowering, ready to produce this year’s fruit, and there was a steady hum of bees, as several different sorts prospected the flowers.

Although raspberry flowers have thin white petals that are hardly visible, and clearly don’t use showy colours to attract the bees, they’re obviously popular, and I’m glad they are: no bees would mean no fruit. And that’s true for a huge number of our flowers and fruits, both things we like to see in the hedgerows and commercial crops. Bees are vital, and without them everything else would break down.

Bees form a large and very variable group of insects, and there are about 270 species of bee found in the UK. Although our first thoughts might be of honey bees, there are in fact just ten species of honey bee worldwide, only one of which is naturally found in the UK, so most bees are not honey bees. And not all bees are social insects in the way that honey bees are - most are either solitary or live in loose colonies.

But all kinds of bees are important pollinators of our flowers, and everything we can do to maintain and improve bee populations is important. In gardens, this can include opting for flowers that are good for bees - some showy blooms don’t produce the nectar and pollen that bees need - using garden chemicals sparingly if at all, and installing a few bug houses or bee hotels, which are readily available not only from wildlife groups but also garden centres and even supermarkets. And then maybe signing up to the Friends of the Earth campaign and their Great British Bee Count.

Currently, several of our roses are beginning have great bites taken out of their leaves - a sign that our local leaf-cutter bees are back in business. They seem to specially like roses. They are dark, hairy little bees, and the female bee cuts the leaves to make cells for her larvae. We also have one particular climbing rose whose clusters of small highly scented flowers attract good numbers of tree bumble bees. This is a species new to the UK, and it’s a bit of a relief to see a species on the increase at a time of anxiety about the declining bee population as a whole.

Tree Bumble Bee on our climbing rose

We need them all, as different bees are around at different times of the year, and may prefer different plant species. I’m always glad when the bamboo tubes in our “bee hotel” get blocked and turned into cells for the grubs that will be the next bee generation. But not all bees are good guys. I saw a very yellow one - almost wasp-like - sneak in the other day: that will have been a cuckoo bee, and its grub won’t just eat the food ball left for the host larva, but probably the larva itself as well.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

All You Need Is Love

Jesus said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Later, he went on to tell his disciples that “everyone will know you’re my people by the way you love each other.” The Beatles sang, in 1967, “All you need is love.”

To love one another sounds easy enough in theory, but it gets a bit more tricky when you come to actually do it. Where are the limits? Even loving our families, friends and neighbours isn’t always easy. Rifts and arguments can happen in the closest families, and even best friends can fall out; and that’s before we get to the stories of problem neighbours, and shared drives, new extensions, noisy parties or Leylandii hedges.

What Jesus actually said was this: “As I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So we are to love in the way that Jesus loves, to be like him in our loving. Jesus was quite blunt about it. He told the people: “You’ve heard it said that you should love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but what I say to you is this: love your enemy, and do good to those who hate you.”

That widens the boundaries quite a lot. The list of people we should love includes the postman and the dustman and the girl who delivers the paper, the person on the till in Tesco, the guy who just took the parking space you were aiming for, the person who cheated on you or told lies about you, the person whose different language or colour or faith you find uncomfortable or even threatening, and even those who make themselves your enemy by the nasty things they do. It’s not easy, but Jesus loves all these people, so we should too. And we have also to love ourselves. That isn’t always easy, either.

In John chapter 14, Jesus calls himself the way. Thomas had said to him, “We don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” and he replied, “I am the way; I am truth and life.” The very first Christians weren’t called Christians; they were called “Followers of the way”.
And to be true to Jesus, the Church isn’t a fixed thing so much as a movement: a movement of people doing their best to continue his work of transforming lives and changing the world for good. Jesus told the people that before anything else they should seek the kingdom of God.

And love is there at the heart of the kingdom. Think of the great chapter 13 of Paul’s First Letter to Corinth, which is all about love. This is what Paul wrote: “Love is patient and kind. “Love envies no-one, is never boastful, never conceited, never rude; love is never selfish, never quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs, takes no pleasure in the sins of others, but delights in the truth.” If you take the word “love” out of each place in that passage where you read it, and replace it with the name “Jesus”, you realise that Paul isn’t writing about the ideal of love, but the person of Jesus. What you can then do, of course, is to put your own name in, in place of the name of Jesus. That gives us something to aim at!

So maybe a true Christian is the person who dares to give a smile when others are all frowning, or the person who offers a helping hand to the guy everyone else is walking past. Jesus told people they should turn the other cheek, and walk the extra mile. The poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island.” We human beings live in connection with one another - that’s part of what makes us who we are. And even little choices in life can have a real impact. Think of those grouchy days when everyone seems to be frowning and unhelpful; on days like that it’s hard not to do the same. So if we’re following the Way of Love by smiling we’ll be out of step with the rest of the world, or that’s how it may feel.

But we need to be out of step; that’s the challenge. For if we choose to smile, that starts a ball rolling, and if we join everyone else in frowning, that does too. What we choose to do has an impact beyond ourselves, whether for better or for worse.

Christ’s Way of Love imagines a future in which all have what they need, and commits us to work for it: for every one of our neighbours to have enough to eat, and safe shelter, and good and warm clothes to wear, and something to smile about.

The fact that most people in this country do have these things is testimony to people in past ages who worked to make that happen, many of them because they were following Christ, following Christ’s Way of Love. We have what we have because people before us dared to care beyond themselves. The fact that many in the world still don’t have these things shows there’s still a way to travel.

Last week we asked the question “Where do we go from here?”, and Mark and Lizzie Hackney talked to us about mission. In reply, they didn’t actually say, “All you need is love” - but that’s what they meant. They challenged us to think about how each one of our churches can be a blessing for the communities we serve. If we are blessed (and we are), we should aim to share that blessing, and God’s love, as widely as we can.

That’s what Jesus called his friends to do, when he said, “As I have loved you, you are to love one another.” We could love in a way that excludes others and turns us into a holy huddle, but that’s not how Jesus loved. To love like Jesus is to love without limit and to love without precondition. That’s the mark of the love divine we sing about: it’s love that makes a difference, that lifts up, that opens doors, that heals. And that’s what the apostle John had in mind when he wrote: “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” He’s calling the people of Jesus to live and to share the love we find in Jesus, and if we’re doing that, we’re doing mission.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Mary's Gift

A sermon for Passion Sunday morning, based on John 12.1-8 :-

Today begins the season within a season that we call Passiontide - taking us from today, the 5th Sunday in Lent, through Holy Week to the cross and the tomb. Within these fourteen days there are many themes on which to reflect, many emotions with which we come into contact. That’s true even in the two readings we’ve heard this morning. Neither of them actually mentions the cross, but the cross stands at the heart of what each of them has to say. We hear Paul defending his Jewish credentials against those who it seems have been saying he’s a traitor to his Jewish faith. On the contrary, he says, I’ve found the answer to a question my faith as I once knew it could never answer. And that answer is Christ Jesus. We’ll come back to Paul the Pharisee, and what changed him, a bit later.

First let’s think about our Gospel reading, where Jesus is anointed with costly oil, and Judas is mightily offended by it. It’s a story of generous giving, it’s a story about love; and there’s perhaps a hint that those friends of Jesus at Bethany, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, knew more or suspected more about what lay ahead for Jesus than did his disciples.

The giving - and, more to the point, the receiving - of gifts can be a minefield in public service. Take these words from the guidelines regarding the Planning Inspectorate, for example. “It is an overarching principle that individuals working for the Inspectorate must adhere to the highest standards of public service. Dealing with offers of gifts, benefit or hospitality - if ever in doubt a polite but firm refusal is the right action.  The Civil Service Code states that Civil Servants must not accept gifts or hospitality or receive other benefits from anyone which might reasonably be seen to compromise their personal judgement or integrity.” Which might reasonably be seen by whom, I wonder? And when? What might seem an innocent act of friendship now might look very different with hindsight, especially where something goes wrong.

Anyway, the reasoning behind these kind of rules is clearly sensible: an expensive gift could be seen as a bribe even if it was just given out of friendship. And even then it could influence a decision. But suspicion regarding generous giving isn’t restricted to the Civil Service. All of us probably tend to look a bit askance at acts of open extravagance, of money or expensive gifts being thrown around. We might mistrust the impulse behind the gift, or feel at a loss because we’re not in a position to be equally lavish in response: either way it can leave us feeling uncomfortable. So even without John’s rather snide remarks about Judas being a thief, the extravagant giving of Mary, filling the whole house with perfume, might have left us as uncomfortable, were we there, as it did Judas.

Our Gospel story unfolds with a sense of tension in the air. Jerusalem was a dangerous place, and though the disciples were convinced Jesus was going there as Messiah, and therefore bound to win the day, they also knew it was going to be pretty tough.

The previous chapter in John’s Gospel tells the story of Lazarus raised from the dead. That story must have spread widely and quickly, and it won’t always have been heard gladly. There were those who wanted rid of this man before he stirred things up any more. Some among the Pharisees were plotting to have Jesus killed; they believed that if they didn’t stop him the Romans would destroy the nation itself. So maybe Mary knew enough to fear she might be about to lose her dearest friend.

Our Lenten journey takes us toward Jerusalem, week by week. That’s especially true this year; most of our readings come from Luke’s Gospel, and that journey to Jerusalem is one of Luke’s great themes. We know that Jerusalem will be a place of challenge and pain and ultimately of a terrible and degrading death. And now we’re near the end of the journey. Next week we’ll stand at the foot of the cross to see our Lord breathe his last. But we know how the story ends, so we’re already planning for Easter.

That wasn’t so for the people gathered at Bethany that night. The disciples had dreams of a military victory and thrones from which they would share in the government of Israel. But Mary perhaps could think only of death; and maybe this anointing was her last desperate attempt to hold on to Jesus. Of course we can’t know, and the story doesn’t tell us. But we do know that while Jesus had only a little time left of his earthly journey, and maybe Mary could sense that, what he was going to do in Jerusalem would prove God’s abundant grace and boundless love. This is the God who restores the hopeless, who makes rivers flow in the desert.

And - as Jesus’ response makes clear - Mary’s generous gift is itself a testimony to and a reflection of that wonderful abundant grace, the amazing grace of which John Newton sang. In this Gospel we see two contrasting ways of responding to the problems and challenges of life. Mary, in gratitude for her brother Lazarus’ life, but maybe also aware that Jesus will die in Jerusalem, gives with absurd generosity; and with abandonment too - see how she wipes his feet with her hair. The disciples would have been very disturbed to see such a flagrant declaration of love. It won’t only have been Judas who felt uncomfortable.

And meanwhile, just off the edge of the picture, we have the Pharisees, and others who joined them – and eventually, the Roman authorities too – responding in a way that’s all too familiar. They are privileged people who feel their power base to be under threat. So they do whatever they can to tighten their grip and reassert control. And if that requires a death, then so be it. The end, it seems, will justify any means to hand.

Mary’s way is to give all we’ve got; while the Pharisees and their allies aim to do whatever it takes to keep control. We instinctively label the Pharisees as the baddies, and it’s clear that John had it in for Judas when he set this story down; but, be honest: most of us, in a similar boat, might also opt for their way, and to do what we can to keep control.

We might even find ourselves agreeing with Judas. “It’s such a waste! Think how much good could have been done with all the money that oil cost!” And then of course there was Mary’s sensuous and abandoned behaviour: no respectable woman would wear her hair down in company, let alone use it in such a flagrant fashion.

And, as I’ve said, we may well feel discomforted by acts of excessive generosity. Our culture encourages us to take only measured risks, and of course, in many ways that’s wise. But our God has no use for cost-benefit analysis, he’s profligate in the generosity of his grace; we see his grace in Jesus, who calls us to be like he is and to do as he does: to take the risk: give without counting the cost, love one another as I love you.

And this seems to lead me back to Paul. In his former existence as a sincere and zealous Pharisee, Paul thought he was serving God by doing all he could to keep control, and by persecuting the followers of this dangerous man Jesus of Nazareth. He was getting it badly wrong, but he did what he did because he wanted to do what he thought God wanted. And by keeping control and working to fulfil every point of the Law, he thought he was getting it right.

He had to meet Jesus on the road to Damascus before he could see the truth, that ultimately those who aim to keep control lose it, and lose it for ever. Even the most zealous keeper of the Law will still fall short of the perfection of God; and those who live by the Law can only be judged by the Law.

That’s where Paul was until, as he put it, “Christ took hold of me.” He came to see that what happened on the cross begins a new story: a story of generous love, the love that’s mirrored in that lavish gift of perfumed oil that filled the house with fragrance. God’s love is like that, only much, much more. So may we embrace the impulse we usually deny, to give as abundantly as we can. We know how the story ends: God makes rivers flow in the driest desert. So shouldn’t we be kneeling with Mary in that perfumed room rather than standing with the Pharisees in their quest to keep control?

Entering Passiontide

A sermon for the evening of Passion Sunday, based on Luke 22.1-13 :-

As we enter the story of the Passion in St Luke’s Gospel, the tension is building. A number of factions among the Jews were anxious to silence Jesus, each one of them anxious to defend their rights and privileges, and scared to rock a boat captained by the Romans. The Pharisees with their emphasis on purity under the Law were scandalised that Jesus was happy to meet with people who were obvious sinners, even to party with them on occasion. He was undermining everything they stood for, and cheapening the Law of Moses, that’s how they saw it. The supporters of Herod, the dubiously Jewish tetrarch of Galilee, knew that if the Romans were ever to decide Herod was no longer able to keep order, he’d be out of power straight away. And the chief priests in the Temple needed to protect the fragile status quo of their city so as to make sure the Temple remained intact.

There were enemies on every side, but now also an enemy among Jesus’ own followers. Satan entered Judas Iscariot, John tells us. There are many theories about what motivated Judas. John’s Gospel presents him as a bad sort who stole from the common purse. But in that case why did Jesus tolerate him? Why had he called him in the first place? So had Judas had lost faith in Jesus, having presumed him to be what probably they all expected - a Messiah whose impact on Jerusalem would be political and military: a Messiah to remove the Romans and the Herods too, and restore the Kingdom of David. So why was nothing happening? Did Judas decide it was better to do a deal and then look elsewhere?

Or did he have a slightly different motive? Maybe it wasn’t that he’d lost faith in Jesus, but that he’d decided he needed to do something that would provoke Jesus into action; something to start the ball rolling. What better than to stage an attempt to arrest Jesus? Surely that would force him to fight back. That might explain his suicide. When the fight he’d hoped to provoke didn’t happen, Judas realised, too late, who Jesus really was.

We can’t know, we can only speculate. But when Jesus said of Judas, “It would be better for that man had he never been born” I don’t think he meant that in a condemnatory way; I believe his words were spoken with a huge depth of sadness. Jesus knew that when he came to his senses Judas would be loaded with a greater weight of grief than anyone could ever bear. And so it was.
With or without Judas, the forces of darkness were drawing ever closer. A feature of the Passiontide stories is the sense of arrangements being made in which the disciples themselves have no part. So who was arranging things, then? Who made sure people knew beforehand that a donkey was needed for the journey into the Holy City? Who made sure a room was made ready for the Passover supper to be prepared?

I have a theory. I think it was Mary and Martha. They lived just outside Jerusalem at Bethany and presumably knew people there. The disciples wouldn’t have, being Galileans. Mary and Martha were clearly very close to Jesus, added to which women might well attract less attention than men when arranging these things at a tense and dangerous time.

The story rings very true, anyway. The authorities wanted Jesus in custody, but they knew they’d no chance of making an arrest while Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people in the streets and squares of the city. They needed him to be in some quiet place, where there were as few supporters as possible to cause trouble or raise a hue and cry. Jesus himself chose that place, as we will see as we read the rest of the passion story. But in tonight’s reading Jesus needs a different quiet place, one his enemies won’t find, so that he can do this special thing - eat with his disciples the supper at which he’ll break bread and share wine using special and provocative words. words that join them and us to the cross. The disciples must look for a man carrying a water jar. That’s women’s work, not something you’d find a man doing. But he’s there and they follow him.

And when they enter the house he’s entered, they’re expected. They speak to the householder, who directs them to the room that’s been made ready. We don’t know who any these people were. Not the owners of the Palm Sunday donkey, nor the householder. People like to speculate: was the owner of the house Joseph of Arimathea, for example? But maybe it’s no-one we’ve heard of. What all of this does suggest is that, while most of the followers of Jesus were from Galilee, there was a Jerusalem network too. And surely one vital link was Mary and Martha.

When you read Luke’s account of the passion - or any of the others - what strikes you (what strikes me, anyway) is the amount of careful planning that’s gone into it all, in which Jesus is working closely with some trusted allies. They may not have known quite why they were doing what they did, and the disciples themselves seem almost blissfully unaware until the last moment: but Jesus himself was very deliberately poking a stick into the hornet’s nest of his enemies, forcing their hand almost - backing them into a corner from which they were pretty much bound to take the course of action they eventually did.

This is what he knew he must do, and the timing of it all was all as he arranged it. In other words, this is a deliberate act of sacrifice, not the sabotaging of his plans by others. Jesus knew by now what Judas was going to do, and he knew that the garden was the place where he would be taken. But before that he needed to do this vital and special thing that would connect his disciples in - connect us in too - to that sacrifice. A Passover meal, a celebration of God’s deliverance - at which he will say, “This is my body, do this in remembrance of me.” Only he can do this work, but he chooses to join us to what he alone can do. Soon the disciples will see their master a broken man, hauled away by unbeatable powers. Except that what really happened was the exact opposite of that. What we really see is Jesus choosing to do what he alone can do, while his enemies are mere pawns in that play.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Pollution, Plastic, Litter!

I was doing some litter picking not far from where I live the other day, and I came across this. I cleared what I could, but sadly this stream isn't accessible to the public, so I could only gather what I could reach over the fence . . .

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Problem of Pain

Today’s Gospel reading is quite a difficult read right from the start. What are the events being talked about? It’s hard to be sure, though they’re clearly quite tragic. I’ve read a number of different theories, and the one that makes most sense to me is that both events - the murdered Galileans and the people killed when a tower fell on them - both events are linked to a project initiated by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate that aimed to improve the water supply to Jerusalem. That seems a very worthy initiative, and it was much needed, so you’d think it would have been popular with everyone.

But Pilate had decided to fund his project with money from the Temple treasury. I’m sure that seemed to him a sensible and practical way to do it. Jerusalem needed a water supply, so Jerusalem should pay for it. And since most of the money that came into the holy city ended up in the temple treasury, it surely made sense to use that money for this project.

But the people of the city, along with the many pilgrims who came to the Temple, were appalled at the thought of temple money being taken by the Romans. The Jewish equivalent of les gilets jaunes were soon out on the streets. Pilate’s response was to get his soldiers to mingle with the crowds in the disguise, so they could then deal with the trouble makers by falling on them with cudgels at a given signal. And that’s what they did, but with a vengeful violence that probably exceeded what Pilate had decreed. Still, no matter, order had been restored. And there would certainly have been Galilean pilgrims there. Maybe a group of them joined the protest, or maybe they were just there to make sacrifice, bystanders who got caught up in it all, with fatal consequences.

As for those killed when a tower fell: maybe they were Jews who’d taken Pilate’s penny (in other words, money from the temple) to work on the project. So when the tower fell on them and killed them that could have been seen as a just punishment from God for having received money stolen from his temple.

As people brought this news to Jesus, or asked him about it, were they pondering the question people have always asked, “Why did this tragedy happen to these people?” Did they think they knew the answer? What about the question behind that question: Why is there so much suffering in the world? Is suffering inextricably linked to the way we behave, the way we live our lives? But in that case, why do bad things happen to good people? Is all suffering caused by God? Should we think of suffering as a form of Divine punishment?

In his little book “The Problem of Pain”, one of our set books at college as I recall, C.S. Lewis looks at these questions and is forced to conclude that “The existence of suffering in a world created by a good and almighty God . . . is a fundamental theological dilemma and perhaps the most serious objection to the Christian religion.”  And it is, he’s right.

The people who came to Jesus had already come to a conclusion, I think, about those who died in these two disasters. They’d been punished, so they must have sinned, they must have transgressed. There was an obvious reason for the deaths of the eighteen people killed by the falling tower; and the Galileans? they too must have done something bad.

Many Christian scholars through the ages have tried to find a reasonable and logical answer to the problem of pain. At college, along with C.S. Lewis, we read Irenaeus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth and many besides. Lots of attempts to answer the problem of pain - but every one fell short, or so it seemed. And it’s not just a question for religious people. Everyone faces it, in all walks of life. We all know of good people to whom bad things have happened. Sometimes we can see a cause, sometimes we can identify someone to blame. But not always by any means. Suffering just happens; perhaps I can reduce the risk of suffering happening to me, but nothing I do will make completely immune from it.

We may come up with ideas like “Only the good die young,” even though that too is patently untrue. It’s certainly not a new question, as we see when we read the Old Testament Book of Job, Job’s so-called friends see the string of tragedies that befall Job himself, and all they can say is well-meaning but stupid things like, “You need to call on God, you should be praying harder” or “Things could be worse,” or even “God’s punishment is lighter than you deserve.”

The last seven or eight days have seen terrorist attacks, in New Zealand, in Holland . . . and we’re rightly distressed to read of the victims and their stories. “Why are these terrible thing happening to such innocent people?” we ask.

But when Jesus was asked to comment on the two tragedies in our Gospel this morning, he made it very clear to those who came to him that the people who died were neither better nor worse than other folk. Insofar as we’re all sinners, we all stand in some way under the same sentence of death.
And it isn’t that there’s a direct causal relationship between sin and suffering, that God chooses to zap us in response to our sin. It’s not that simple; and yet there is a link, for all that. Sin causes suffering.

Let Pilate’s actions stand for the injustices perpetrated by those in powerful places. The high-handedness of tyrants and dictators - though even those elected democratically can act in ways that prove unjust, uncaring or just plain foolish, and these things cause hurt. Destructive behaviour, misuse of power, feuding and vengeance seeking - these are things that happen at every level of human life. The greed that grabs and hoards without considering the other; the anger that lashes out before trying to understand: all of these do damage, all have consequences. And as Christian folk we need to be ready to speak out and act against all that causes suffering to others, and also to be aware of these things in ourselves.

And that thought takes me back to the story Jesus went on to tell. What’s the meaning of the parable of the fig tree? Why did Jesus tell that particular parable, and why is it placed here in Luke’s Gospel? Here’s what I think.

Most of us would prize fairness as a vital human value, and it’s the sense of things “not being fair” that underlies our questions and anxieties about the problem of pain. God should play fair, and it feels as though he isn’t. Fairness means we’re rewarded for doing good and punished when we do wrong. Fairness suggests that when we do really well, we might get a special pat on the back, or even a bonus. And those who get things badly wrong should be excluded, or get the sack.

In the story what the landowner says sums up what most of us think of as fairness: “Look! For three years I’ve been coming for fruit from my fig tree, and still there’s none. Get rid of it - why should it go on wasting my soil?”

But the gardener begs him to let it stay another year; he’ll dig round it and add manure. And then if it bears fruit, it can stay; if not, it can be cut down. We may well think of the owner of the vineyard as standing for God; but what if we read this parable with God instead as the gardener? If you do, it becomes the manifesto, if you like, of the God who doesn’t operate according to the standard concepts of fairness that we employ - and if he did any of us might be rooted out as not fruitful enough. Our God is the God of patient and faithful tending, and he looks on us with hopeful expectation.

All we have is the present moment, and tomorrow is never guaranteed; now is the time for us to work at being fruitful, now is the time to oppose what causes hurt and discord. But  there’s a word of good hope for us in the story of the fig tree: a promise that, though tragic things will happen, God is still tending his garden. He still works in and through his people to bring light and life, love and peace to a broken and sinful world. May he work that work in us. Amen.