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.