Friday, November 8, 2019

Remembrance Sunday 2019

So...there you are, at home. You're maybe digging the garden. Or preparing the dinner. Or perhaps you're mending your fishing rod for a day on the river...and there comes a knock at the door. On the doorstep is a wandering preacher, who looks straight into your soul and says "Come. Follow me".

What do you do? You've got a family who are relying on you. You've got responsibilities to them, and to your neighbours. You've got an employer who is expecting you to be at work...or a teacher who expects you in class. But there's something about this preacher. There's something inspiring about him.

Of course, you know something about him already. You've heard some of his teachings, and you've heard the rumour that he's out and about looking for followers. But you never expected that he would knock on your door.

So what do you do? Should you simply follow him out of the door? Should you step out on a new adventure...and let all your other responsibilities take care of themselves? Or should you shut the door in the preacher's face?

What do you do?

But you've been intrigued by this preacher's message. You've already heard him, talking about how the 'Kingdom of God'...the new government of coming. You've heard him calling people to turn away from society's normal ways of doing things. You've heard him saying that people need to 'repent' turn away...and to believe that there is good news.

But that's hard, isn't it? Good news. Hmm. Good news for whom? The last time you heard the phrase 'Good News' was when a bunch of soldiers rode through the town. They were proclaiming that there was 'good news' about the Emperor, Caesar. Apparently - according to the soldiers - Caesar had declared himself to be the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings...and this was 'good news'. Apparently.  According to the soldiers, 'there is no other name by which people can be saved than the name of Caesar'.  Considering the amount of taxes you are having to pay to Caesar, and considering the number of soldiers all over the countryside, it doesn't feel much like good news to you.

But this wandering preacher - this Jesus-bloke - he's talking about another kind of good news altogether. Or at least that's what you've been hearing. Apparently, his good news is good news for the poor. And for those who are mourning. And for those who are pure in heart. And for those who are peacemakers. That's a bit different than good news for Caesar, and for business-men and for weapon-makers...

Perhaps Jesus' good news...good news for the poor, and the oppressed, and the meek...perhaps that is worth following. Perhaps that is worth laying aside your family responsibilities for a while.

What do you do? Are you prepared to follow this call to 'Follow me'. Because that's what heroes do. Heroes throughout history are always given a call to follow. Sometimes they resist that call. Like Moses who resisted the call to lead the people out of slavery. Like Jonah who resisted the call to go and tell the people of Nineveh to repent.

Because calls are dangerous. Calls lead us out of our safe, secure lives into lives of adventure, possible danger, and even death. But isn't the case that the best journeys are the ones where there is adventure and challenge along the way?

That's a challenge that many soldiers have followed over the centuries. It's a challenge to stand up and fight for what you believe in. It's a challenge to leave family and home - and to become a peace-maker, often in a foreign land. It's a challenge that will certainly include adventure. It might well end in death.

But's it's a hero's call. It's a call to transform a society - perhaps through fighting, perhaps through diplomacy, perhaps through the transforming power of rendering aid and giving food to starving people. It's a call to stand up against powers of oppression that would seek to dominate an entire population...just like the Romans dominated the Israelites.

So what do you do?

Do you follow this preacher - this Jesus? You don't know where he might lead you. Perhaps he'll lead you on a path to destruction. Perhaps he's trying to put together a rebel army to over-throw the oppressive dictator's army. Or perhaps he's talking about another kind of kingdom altogether...a kingdom of God's rule, which God, and only God can ultimately establish.

And if you follow him on this path, and if you die, will anyone remember you? Will anyone sing laments for your passing? Or will you lie in an unmarked grave on some foreign battle-field?

Wouldn't it just be easier to stay at home. And go fishing tomorrow.

Wouldn't it be easier easier to just settle back in your comfortable chair, tend your garden, dandle your children on your knee, and pretend that everything's alright with the world. Wouldn't it be easier to never give your time, your energy, your skills, or your money to any other living soul?

Yes. It would be easier. But where's the adventure in that? Where's the challenge? Where's the growth? Where's the chance to be changed from glory into glory ever more like the image of God your Creator?

"Come. Follow me. And lay down your life for your friends".

You hear the call. You know something of what it means. It's something about doing things differently. It's something about living for others, not for yourself. It's something about acquiring scars and wounds, instead of the latest stuff from the market. It's something about giving up home and family, and having nowhere to lay your head for the sake of a bigger vision, a better vision. A vision of a new kind of Kingdom.

You've heard the call.

What do you do?

What do you do?

Saturday, November 2, 2019

All Saints 2019

All Saints

Daniel 7.1-3,15-18.  Ephesians 1.11.23 & Luke 6.20-31

So, why do we celebrate All Saints?  If we lived in Southampton, we might be forgiven for thinking that today is a day for celebrating a certain football club.  You see, 'the Saints' started life as the All Saints Church Soccer Team?  Mind you, after their recent 9-0 drubbing, I don’t suppose much celebration is going on at the moment!

All Saints is a time for remembering the great Saints of the church.  For example, have you ever heard of St Ronald of  Buckingham?  Apparently, he was born into the world like any normal baby, and immediately preached an amazing sermon....before promptly dying.  Then there's St Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher.  Its a great name isn't it?  It refers to the belief that the bodies of certain martyred saints have the ability to ooze a sweet smelling liquid from their wounds.

I've got a few other favourites...there is St Drogo, the patron saint of unattractive people - though there's no-one around here who would benefit from his prayers!.  There's St Isodore, who in the 1980s was designated the patron saint of the Internet, because he was well known as a scholar and compiler of information.  Can you imagine the scene in Heaven when God told Isodore that the Church has just designated him as the patron of the internet?  "I'm the Patron Saint of WHAT?!"

Personally, I'm particularly drawn to St Anthony of Padua...who is the patron saint of lost causes!  And then there's the number one weird saint of all time...the Patron Saint of finding a parking place - Saint Mother Cabrini.  Apparently, in New York, car drivers circling a block can be heard muttering this prayer:  "Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini - find me a space for my driving machiny."

Whilst all these Saints might be jolly good fun for us, there is a grain of truth in many of them.  Sometimes, saints become patron saints because of the terrible things they were made to suffer for their faith in Christ.  So, for example, St Apollonia is the patron saint of Dentists, because she had all her teeth extracted as a punishment for believing in Jesus.  

And then of course there’s our own St Faith...roasted alive on a griddle-iron, for refusing to give up her Lord.  I could tell you a lot more horror stories...but its a bit early in the morning for that!

All Saints is a good time to be reminded of the Saints who now ’from their labours rest’ - as we shall sing at the Offertory.   But it is a reminder to us that we are members of a church which is both here on earth, and also in heaven.  The Bible refers to all Christian believers as Saints, as we’ve seen in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians just now.  Paul congratulates the Ephesians for their ‘love towards all the saints’.  He’s talking about faithful holy people who are alive, because at the time Paul was writing, there were yet very few dead saints.

The word Saint comes from the Latin words Sanctus - meaning simply Holy.  The word holy  means ’set apart’  or devoted to the work and worship of God.  It’s a startling thought, that by God’s grace, and with God’s help, any of us - you or me - have the potential to be ‘holy’.   If our lives, and the way we live them, bear the hallmarks of being set apart for the service, work and worship of God, then we too may claim, in all humility to be ‘holy’.

This is God’s work, not ours.  At the end of a week in which we have commemorated Martin Luther, the great protestant Saint, its important to bear in mind his primary message to the Church.  Martin Luther passionately believed that there was nothing that any of us can do to win God’s favour, and nothing we can do in our own strength to be holy.  Salvation and sanctification are only achieved through God’s grace.  We have a part to play, of course.  We need to be open to the to letting the Spirit of God work in us.  Open to listen to the teaching of Jesus , such as that we heard in the Gospel for today.  ‘Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’  and so on.

There’s been a thought winging its way around social media recently.  Those of you who use Facebook may have seen it.  It’s one of those ‘feel good’ sayings that we all encounter from time to time, which gets lots of people clicking ‘Like’.  This particular one goes something like…

“I don’t care if you are black or white,  gay or straight, rich or poor.  If you are good to me, I’ll be good to you”.

I’ve no doubt that the person who wrote this little ‘meme’ (as such things are called) had the very best of motives.  They wanted to communicate that it really doesn’t matter who we are, our race, gender, economic worth and so on.  All that matters is how we treat each other.   It’s a nice thing to have said.  But its not a Christian thing to have said.  Because Jesus calls his followers beyond human nice-ness.  He calls us to extraordinary charity, in the pursuit of holiness. 

If Jesus had written that ’meme’, he might have said - ’It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor, or even how you treat me.  Even when you insult me, or beat me, or kill me...I will still love you’

Of course, that kind of holiness is beyond human norms.  It’s super-human, in fact.  It’s not something I would find easy to do, on my own.  But, with God’s help, and by God’s grace, maybe I could love someone that much.  Maybe I too could be considered a saint.  Hmm...St Tom of Havant....has a bit of ring to it….

The Church has always taught that we are members of not just a world-wide church, but a Universal one.  We, here on earth are known as the Church Militant, and those Saints who have died and now live with God are called the Church Triumphant.  

In the rather strange reading from Daniel we heard just now, Daniel dreams of four great beasts (which most interpreters agree stand for four great empires of the world which would rise to stamp on the people of God).  But Daniel holds on to the promise, which is ours as well, that ‘the holy ones - the Saints - of the Most High shall receive the Kingdom, and possess it for ever and ever.

So today, we the Church Militant, give thanks for the lives of the Church Triumphant.  While they feast with the Most High in heaven, we foreshadow their feast with the Eucharist here on earth. 

And if we are open to it, we take up the challenge to become Holy ones, Saints, ourselves. 


Saturday, September 21, 2019

A sermon for Harvest

Looking back on it now, I had a very privileged child-hood.  I grew up in the countryside of Devon and Somerset.  I took long walks with my dog along country –lanes, I cycled and camped all over the southern moor-lands.  And in the summer holidays, I worked on a local farm, tossing hay-bales onto trailers, and learning to drive tractors and land rovers well before the age at which I could take a driving test.  In my home churches, Harvest was a time of great abundance, with goods from fields and gardens displayed in complete profusion all over the place.

As such, I have a great affinity for the season of harvest.  It is perhaps only those of us who have sweated in the fields to bring a harvest in, who can really understand the sense of satisfaction at a job completed.  In past times, the celebration of Harvest was as much a sense of relief, as anything else.  Relief that drought had not visited the crops.  Relief that the hard work of harvest itself had not resulted in injuries to farm workers.  Relief that winter was coming, and a quieter rhythm of life could take over.

All is very different today.  Harvest now takes place every day of the year.  If plants will not grow in the fields, we grow them in green-houses – resulting in hundreds of square miles of plastic-sheeted fields.  If we can’t grow them in England, we buy them from other parts of the world where they will grow.  Labourers are still needed, but mechanical systems of picking food are taking over, more and more, and no-one tosses hay onto trailers anymore.  If drought beckons, irrigation systems can compensate. 

More to the point, we are no longer a rural society, in the main.  Even those who live in the villages and hamlets of England have usually made their living in the city, then used their wealth to buy-up and convert old farming buildings.  The word ‘Harvest’ just doesn’t have the resonance that it once had.

And yet, at the same time, the world of nature has perhaps never been more in our minds.  We are far more aware than we were in the 1970s of the interconnected nature of all living things.  On our TV screens we witness the destruction of the rain-forests, and the rising of toxic chemicals in our atmosphere.  We worry about the death of the bees, and the arrogance of genetically modified crops.  We watch the melting of the glaciers and ice-fields, and we build our heightened sea-walls against the rising of the seas.

Never has there been a time when we have been less connected to the land, and yet more worried about it. 

The same time period, from the 1970s to now, has seen a marked shift in the way we think about God’s relationship to creation and harvest, too.  In a short while, we will sing that ‘we plough the fields and scatter’, and celebrate that our crops are ‘fed and watered by God’s almighty hand’.  But actually, I doubt that many of us really believe that anymore.  The Book of Common Prayer, from which today’s service is taken, includes prayers for rain at times of drought.  But, in fact, we have far more faith in the science of weather-forecasting than we do in the idea that God sends the rain.

Now you might think that I’m sorry about that.  After all, isn’t this loss of faith in a God who sends rain a dangerous thing for the church?  Surely, if people stop praying to God for rain – or any other need – the churches will empty?

Well, perhaps they will…or at least they will empty of those people who think of God like some kind of genie, or fairy godmother, who will grant wishes in return for the right words.  My hope and observation, however, is that with the advance of our scientific understanding of creation and the harvest, we are in fact growing up.  We are moving away from the agricultural God in the sky, who granted the wishes of his farmers, towards the God who is the energy at the centre of all things.  Our God is the one who inspires us to use the intellects we have been given to shape and control our own environments.

Instead of a father Christmas God, to whom we cry for solutions to our problems, we are confronted instead by the actual God of Scripture.  This is the God who, according to the great Genesis myth, creates a beautiful garden and then gives it to his children with the command that we should ‘take care of it’.  The ancients, who wrote our Scriptures, would have had no truck with the idea of God who controls the weather.  Which is why, as Joseph did in Egypt, they made provision to store up harvests, so that food could be distributed in times of famine.  And it’s why, as the Laws of the Hebrew Bible dictated, the poor and the widow and the stranger should be cared for out of the stored and tithed bounty of the community. 

We have not learned from those times.  The tithe barns that we once possessed to soften the ebbs and flows of the harvest have all been turned into luxury dwellings.  Our society has moved so far from the idea of long term storage against times of difficulty that we proudly talk about ‘just-in-time’ delivery.  That’s the most efficient way of dealing with our needs.  Being ‘just-in-time’ means that we don’t have the costs of long-term storage, and that means more profits for our companies.  But it also means that we are extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of weather.  Or as the Brexit debate is showing us, the vagaries of politics.  If the direst warnings of ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ should come to pass, and medicines and food cannot be shipped ‘just-in-time’ from the continent again, perhaps we will have to learn once more the value of prudent stock-piling against disaster and famine.

So, as a church minister, I do not mourn the passing of a belief in the Weather-God, or for that any idea of a God who, in response to the right words, said in the right way, will supply all our needs – like a sort of heavenly drinks-machine.  Instead, I pray for a church which will teach the world of a God who inspires us to take care of creation, and to share the bounty we possess for the good of all.


Thursday, August 8, 2019

A sermon for St Dominic's Day

Today we celebrate the feast of St Dominic.  Born in 1170, Dominic was a Castilian, who like St Francis of Assisi, set aside his wealthy upbringing to lead a life of disciplined prayer and penance.  He was committed to living simply, eating little, and sleeping on the floor – foregoing even the comfort of a bed. 

But during his travels across Europe, Dominic came across a heretical sect, called the Cathars – who were based in a region of France.  They claimed to be Christians, but held the belief that flesh and all materials things were evil, that the spirit was of God and that flesh and spirit were in permanent conflict.  They promoted the idea of dualism – the notion that evil and good, or the Devil and God, are equal powers, fighting out a war – a battle between flesh and the spirit.

Dominic began his ministry as an Augustian Friar, and he recognised the danger in this kind of thinking.  So he formed a new order of preachers, specifically to teach preach against this heresy.  They became known as the Dominicans.  Eventually, some years after Dominic’s death, Dominicans became key members of the Inquisition, which aggressively tried to stamp out heresy around the Catholic church.  But, like many founders of great movements which go astray, Dominic himself shouldn’t be blamed for the idiocy of his followers.  As I often say to those who accuse religions of being the cause of wars, ‘don’t judge a religion by the stupid behaviour of its unthinking followers – judge it by the teaching of its founder’.

Dualism remains a very prevalent force in the church today.  Many churches, sadly, lead people to believe that the battle between good and evil is a more or less equal fight, and their followers are urged to be on their guard for the evil actions of the devil in their life.  It surprises me how many religious people come into this building, sincerely believing that their illness, or some recent catastrophe in their life is some work of the devil…rather than the simple, natural processes of life – which are of course an environment meant to encourage our souls to grow.

Dualism has very much entered the public mind.  For those of you who know anything about popular music, you might remember the famous song of the 1980s by Chris de Burgh, called the ‘Spanish Train’.  It’s a story of how God and the Devil play poker for the souls of the dead.  Dualism – again.

For the Cathars, and those who succeeded them, Dualism led to the practice of mortification of the flesh.  Believing that the body was evil, devotees would tear their own flesh, whip themselves, or wear clothing that would constantly scratch and irritate their skin – all to keep reminding themselves of how evil was the body.

Dominic, however, saw the truth.  His upbringing and learning had taught him what we also know – that God created the world, and created us in his own image.  How could something created in God’s own image be intrinsically evil?  All things were created good.  All created things can be used for good or ill.  That’s fundamental to the notion of freewill.  A tree can be used to build a house, or as a club to beat your enemy down.  A bow and arrow can be used to kill, but it can also be used in Olympic target-shooting for the training of fine motor skills and concentration, and the coming together of shooters in an atmosphere of friendship.  Just as the Havant and Hayling Bowmen do in our church hall, every Wednesday evening.

To really tune our understanding of the use of material things, we need only to look at how Jesus himself used them.  He regularly used the imagery of feasting, both to promise an eternal home and as a place to have fellowship with others.  He loved spending time with his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus in the comfort of their home.  He embraced the woman who anointed his feet with sweet-smelling oils.  At the same time, though, he warned us against the human desire to possess and control more and more things.  If you store up your wealth, it will profit you nothing.

So, a correct understanding of both Biblical history and Jesus’ teaching leads us to the need to strike a healthy balance between the physical and the spiritual.  Both are gifts from God, and both need to be embraced – though with care.  With St Dominic, we need to guard against the tendency to see all material things as bad, or worse still, as the works of the Devil.  If that were the case, all our efforts in recent years to improve this building as a place for people to gather in love would have been in vain.

God has given us all of creation, and indeed our bodies, for good.  The beautiful world around us is a testing ground for our souls…not because it is intrinsically evil, but because the way that we learn to use it, and take care of it, will help our souls to deepen and expand.  When we mis-use and destroy our world, our souls tend to shrink.  When we live in harmony with the world, we see it (with St Dominic) for what it truly is…a blessed realm, created for our good, in which we are called to live, thrive and grow.


Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Lord's Prayer

Today, the Lectionary invites us to contemplate St Luke’s stripped-down version of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.  The longer version of the prayer – the one we say or sing in our services - is found in the Gospel according to Matthew, as part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Strangely, Luke’s account comes somewhat later in the chronology of the texts…so it’s possible that Jesus himself sought to edit-down his original teaching into something really simple, and really fundamental to the faith he was sharing.

The Lord’s Prayer is essentially the Gospel, wrapped up into a neat package – which is why it has had such longevity, and why, incidentally, that we sing it sometimes.  This is more than just a prayer for help.  It is a statement of who God is, it is a reminder of the coming kingdom, it is the cry of a spiritual child reaching out for help, it is a promise of forgiveness, and a commitment to live holy lives.

In fact, The Lord’s Prayer contains so many complex ideas, that we could easily have a sermon on each one of its lines.  But let me try to outline some of the basics for us to ponder:

And, so quote the famous philosopher Julie Andrews, ‘let’s start at the very beginning’…

Father.  Our Father.  Our Father in heaven.  Our heavenly Father.

We take the idea of God as ‘Father’ for granted these days.  But to Jesus’ first listeners, God was the awesome creator of the Universe, the rumbling God of the mountain and of the Holy of Holies.  He was so far beyond human understanding, that they would not even utter his name.  And whilst all those things remain true, Jesus chooses as different word, entirely.  Not just ‘father’, but ‘Abba’ – Daddy.  An intimate word.  A word designed to help us to see God as the one who cares for us like a parent. By using the word Abba, Jesus de-emphasises the stern, masculine stereotype into something much more nurturing, much more loving.  The God who made all of us in God’s image – male and female – is given a title which points us towards a feminine, nurturing, life-giving identity.

This is a Gospel message.  It’s good news.  We don’t worship a distant God on a cloud, or a terrifying Warrior-God on a mountain.  We are called into relationship with a nurturing, caring, Daddy in heaven. 

And that essential insight gives us a hook by which the rest of the prayer can be understood.

Hallowed – or Holy - is your name.

This loving, nurturing, parent God is nevertheless holy.  He is not to be taken lightly, nor gently ignored like some geriatric parent left in an old folks home.  The idea of God is generally still revered today, but few people take the trouble to really spend time with the ‘old fella’, or to listen to his ancient wisdom.  So in just two lines, Jesus shows us the Daddy – the Father/Mother God – but he also warns us not to confuse gentleness with uselessness, or omnipotence with impotence.  This gentle loving God still has power.  He is still a force to be reckoned with.

Your Kingdom Come

…and to which Matthew’s account adds those lovely words about God’s Kingdom being about his will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is Jesus opening our eyes to God’s cosmic vision of the universe, and God’s over-riding desire for his children.  God’s whole being is bent towards the redemption of the world, so that everything in our physical realm might be as holy, just, peaceful and glorious as it is in the spiritual realm.  And by putting that hope into our mouths, and onto our tongues, Jesus invites us to co-operate with God in God’s mission. 

Give us each day our daily bread.

This is a prayer of dependence.  Jesus invites us to ask only for daily bread.  Not monthly bread.  Not to long term security of any kind.  Only for enough for each day.  In other places, Jesus reminds us that we should let tomorrow take care of itself, or that the Son of Man has no-where to lay his head, or that those who store up wealth for themselves on earth will one day lose it all.  For the Kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done, Jesus wants his army of ordinary people to be fleet of foot, ready to answer his call to action at a moment’s notice.  He wants people who are not shackled to earth by the possessions they carry, but ready to fly for the Gospel.

Forgive us our Sins – as we forgive everyone who sins against us.

Forgiveness is, of course, the heart of the Gospel.  But what good is it for God to forgive us, if we are unwilling to forgive others.  In this one line, Jesus opens us to an ever-rotating circle of forgiveness.  As we find ourselves forgiven, each week in this Eucharist, we then forgive others.  A virtuous circle of forgiveness rolls out from this building and from every church, bringing healing to all. 

And let us be in no doubt…such forgiveness needs to be real.  When we forgive others, we give up, we for-give, any further possibility of being hurt by the person we forgive.  Such forgiveness may do nothing for them.  It may not change them, at all – and we would be wise to always treat them with caution.  But forgiveness does allow us to move on, unshackled by bitterness, ready to do the work of the Gospel.

And lead us not into temptation…

to which we might add Matthew’s insight “but deliver us from evil’.  We need to understand this line carefully.  This is a much contested phrase.  You may have heard of recent debates at the Vatican, where the translation of this line has generated a lot of discussion.  The essential premis is this:  that it is not God who leads us into temptation.  God’s whole will is bent towards our redemption.  Why would he then tempt us away from his love?  As the Pope has said, “I am the one who falls.  It is not God pushing me into temptation to then see how far I have fallen’.  So various other ways of rendering the line have been tried – including ‘abandon me not to temptation’.

For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever Amen.

This final line, not included at all in Luke’s account, is what’s called a doxology…essentially a hymn of praise to wrap up a prayer, or a psalm.  It actually doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel, which is why Cranmer excluded it from the version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer.  It was probably added at a later date by well-intentioned editors.  Some might even suggest that by focusing on God’s Kingdom, power and glory, this was an attempt to balance out some of the more ‘touchy-feely’ aspects of the rest of the prayer.  It was an attempt to draw us back to the utter majesty of God, reminding us that this is not a God with whom we should trifle.

Time is against us – but here’s one last thought.  In Luke’s account, this prayer comes in the context of Jesus’ story about the persistent friend, who keeps banging on his mate’s door for bread in the middle of the night.  That’s because, above all, Jesus wants us to get that persistence in prayer is at the heart of our relationship with God.  If we pray nothing else each day, let us never cease from at the very least praying this simple Lord’s Prayer. 

Prayer is unlikely to change God, who already knows what he wants to accomplish.  The Lord’s Prayer is not so much a petition – an attempt to put the right prayer coins into a heavenly slot machine of answers.  But rather, it’s a kind of basic catechism of the Gospel.  It is not intended to change God’s mind, as Abraham sought to do over Sodom and Gomorrah, but rather to remind us, over and over again, of the simple basics of our faith.

We serve a loving, parenting God, who must nevertheless be taken seriously.

This God has a plan for the world, to being about his Kingdom.

Each of us needs ready to carry out God’s mission, needing only our daily bread.

The engine of that mission is forgiveness.

We need to stay on course, and not be tempted off the narrow path.


Thursday, June 27, 2019

Three year after the Brexit vote...

Luke 9. 51-62 and Galations 5.1 & 13-25

Week after week, as I read the Lectionary of readings set by the church, a remarkable number of mini-miracles take place.  It astounds me how often the Scriptures speak directly into a current situation.  Today, we find ourselves three years on from the historic referendum on exiting the European Union.  And just as they did, three years ago, today's Scriptures speak powerfully into our situation and context.

Take, for example, the today’s set Psalm for Evening Prayer – Psalm 60 – which we will read on the Rectory lawn this afternoon after our ‘Strawberry Tea’.   Bring the current divided state of UK politics to mind, and then listen to these words:
“O God, thou hast cast us out, and scattered us abroad.”  (vs 1)
“Thou hast moved the land, and divided it:  heal the sores thereof, for it shaketh (vs 2)
“Hast thou not cast us out, O God?” (vs 10)
“O be thou our help in trouble:  for vain is the help of man” (vs 11)

It should not surprise us, of course, that God speaks to us through the Scriptures.  The key question on such an anniversary as this, is ‘what is God saying to us, through the Scriptures, about the state of our nation?’

For this, we need always to take account of those three important words that I’ve told you about before…the three words which should always be applied to any analysis of Scripture:  context, context, context!

First we must ask ourselves – what is the context in which an original story was written?  What was going on in history at that time?

Secondly, we need to ask ‘what was the context of the writer of that scripture?’  What did the writer understand the original story to mean?  Why did they chose to include it?

And thirdly, we need to think about our own context, into which the Scripture is read.  ‘What does this Scripture say to us, here today?’

So, let’s apply these three questions to the Gospel reading that we’ve just heard:

First, the context of the story itself.  It takes place at that moment when Jesus turns aside from his teaching ministry, and ‘sets his face towards Jerusalem’.  In doing so, he passes through a Samaritan area.  The Samaritans were a sect within Judaism, made up of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles.  They were, to the people of Jerusalem, ‘foreigners’.  As such, they were routinely hated and despised by many conventional Jews - even Jesus’ own disciples.  When the Samaritans fail to give Jesus a warm welcome, James and John ask Jesus whether they should call down ‘fire from heaven’ to consume them!  But Jesus rebukes his disciples.  They are not thinking straight.  They are forgetting that Jesus himself used Samaritans to illustrate an answer to the vital question ‘ who is my neighbour?’.

As one might expect, that is entirely within consistent with the rest of Scripture – especially the teachings about how aliens and foreigners should be treated by the people of God. As far back in history as the book of Leviticus instructed the people of God as follows:
“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born”.(Lev.19.34).  There is even a strong argument that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was original told to encourage hospitality to strangers, and that it had nothing at all to do with homosexuality.  But that's a topic for another day!

Secondly, we must ask about the context of the writer of this Gospel.  Tradition tells us that Luke was a follower of St Paul.  He was writing at a time when the new band of Christians were beginning to feel the iron boot of Rome on their necks.  They were hiding from persecution, and fearful of their status as religious strangers in a strange land.  So Luke writes to those who are experiencing the poverty of being second or third class citizens in a European super-state, run not from Brussels, but Rome.

Luke encourages them, by reminding them of Jesus’ priority for the poor and the downcast, for the Samaritan and the stranger.  And then, in the second part of the reading – he encourages them to be steadfast in their faith.  He reminds them who have no security, no home, that Jesus himself lived in just the same way for the sake of the Kingdom.  ‘Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’.  (Lk 9.58)

Then, the third context, what about our situation…the context into which this Scripture is read today?  Well, we find ourselves in a situation where fear of the foreigner has - at least partly - once again driven a nation into division.  There were many intelligent and thoughtful reasons why many people voted for Brexit.  Many were attracted by the idea of bringing back control of our laws from a distant super-state, and from unelected officials.  Others leave-voters understandably thought they could trust the promise on the side of the famous red bus, that £350 million a week would be ploughed into our ailing National Health Service.  

But, alongside those perfectly legitimate aspirations, there was also a substantial strand of those who cited the influx of foreigners as their reason for voting to leave Europe. We saw them, on our televisions, and heard them on our radios.  Some of the politicians played up to this - not least the infamous poster showing a stream of mainly Arab faces queuing to cross a border. 

Being afraid of the impact of uncontrolled immigration doesn't make you a fact, it may well denote you as an economist, when the problems of housing, schooling and healthcare are factored in.  But pointing the finger at foreigners is the oldest trick in the politician’s play-book.  If we can blame foreigners for our failure to build new homes, hospitals and schools, then we can keep on subsidising big businesses with the lowest corporation tax in the world, while hiding our own wealth in off-shore tax havens, and no-one will notice.

The other modern context into which this Scripture speaks is the culture of wealth.  The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world.  If you have the certainty of a decent wage or pension or benefit payment at the end of every month, you are already more wealthy than 90% of the world’s population.  And yet, at every turn in the EU Referendum, politicians on both sides of the debate consistently focused their arguments on one point: the claim that if we vote for their side, we will be better off.

Into that context, Jesus reminds us that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. (Lk.9.58).  And he points us to a reality that is greater and more magnificent that anything human beings can conjure…the coming reality of the Kingdom of God.

We know what the Kingdom will be like – because Jesus has told us.  It will be a kingdom in which foreigners are loved as much as we love ourselves.  It’s a kingdom in which the humble and the poor will be blessed.  It will be a kingdom, filled by the Spirit, in which St Paul’s fruit of the Spirit will be known:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Sadly, we have seen little enough of these things in the last three years.  Instead, as I warned precisely three years ago, we have seen qualities from St Paul’s other list…the ‘works of the flesh’:  enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions.

“O be thou our help in trouble [O God]:  for vain is the help of man” (Psalm 60.11)

So, finally, what is our calling in this circumstance.  How are we to respond to recent events?  How are we to be agents of the Kingdom in a divided a fractured nation?

Through the Scriptures, Jesus speaks to us across time:  ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’.  You and I are called to keep on declaring the coming of the Kingdom.  In the face of all opposition, all hatred, all dissension and division.  

In the face of a public dialogue that is all about what we can gain or protect, we hold up a cross.  We hold up the supreme example of a God who pours himself out in sacrifice for the good of all.  We speak not of what we can gain, but of how much we can give for the life of the world, and for the good of all humanity. 

And with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we can be a place where those who voted to remain can find common cause, friendship and love with those who voted to leave.  In the face of a divided nation, the church continues to welcome all, from every political viewpoint, to gather in love around the Table of our Lord.


Thursday, June 20, 2019

Jairus' daughter and the haemorrhagic woman

Have you ever noticed that there is a certain breathlessness about the Gospel of Mark?

It is the shortest of all the Gospels, at only 16 chapters long.  Many of the stories that Mark relates are stripped down to their bare takes Luke and Matthew to give us more of the detail of many events.

And the language of Mark is breathless, too.  Take a look at tonight’s second reading, as an example.  First of all, we find Jesus under great pressure from the crowd.  As he gets off the boat, ‘much people gathered unto him’.  Then when he sets off to Jairus’ house, Mark says ‘much people followed him, and thronged him’. 

Look then at the story of the haemorrhagic woman.  As soon as she touches Jesus, Mark says ’straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up’.  Then, a line later, Jesus looks around him ’immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him’.

I could go on...but its well worth meditating on Mark’s gospel in your own time, to see whether what I say is true.  You will find, I believe, that Mark’s narrative is peppered with the words ‘immediately’, ‘straightway’, or the phrase ‘and then’,

‘and then’,

‘and then’. 

Just by his choice of language, Mark paints a vivid picture of the Messiah who is urgently carrying out his task of salvation.  There’s no time for hanging around with this Messiah!

Luke, Matthew, and John are rather more relaxed.  In their narratives, Jesus takes time to sit and eat, or to pray in the wilderness, or to hang out with his friends - Mary, Martha & Lazarus.  John especially gives us pages of lengthy prayers, in which Jesus pours out his heart for his church, to his Father in heaven.

But not Mark.  Mark is in a hurry.  And, I think he wants us to be in a hurry too.

For a start, as I’ve already said, Mark’s gospel is only 16 chapters long.  It’s easy to read in a single sitting - unlike Matthew, with its 28 chapters! Mark tells us nothing about the birth of Jesus - he seems not to consider such tales as important.  And yet, Mark’s action-packed gospel contains the most events of all the Gospel.  Mark is ruthlessly chronological, straightforward and concise.  Just like people tell me sermons should be!

Mark is essentially the first century equivalent of a journalist.  His very opening line tells us that this breathless account is of the Gospel - the good news - of Jesus Christ.  Gospels, of many kinds, were common in that time.  The birth of a Roman emperor’s son was announced as a gospel, for example.  Gospels were the first century equivalent of a headline in a newspaper, or a tweet on Twitter! 

Mark’s good news is that Messiah has come, that he has announced a radical change in God’s dealings with humanity, and that we should put our trust in him.

That is what this evening’s stories are all  Jairus, the local synagogue leader, puts his trust in Jesus to save his daughter.  And the woman who can’t stop bleeding trusts that even a touch of Jesus’ cloak can heal her.  And by reading these stories, we too are being encouraged to put our trust in Jesus.  Now.  Urgently.

Do these stories teach us that praying to God, as Jairus and the unnamed woman did, will guarantee our own healing?  Well, perhaps.  But to focus on personal healing alone is to miss the context of the whole of Mark’s breathless story.

In his opening chapter, the first words that Mark selects to put in the mouth of Jesus are these:  ‘The time has come.  The kingdom of heaven is near...’.  Mark wants us to realise that Jesus inaugurated a new kingdom, a new politics,  in which charity takes over from oppression, love conquers hate, forgiveness trumps revenge.  Or, in beautiful words of the Magnificat (so gorgeously rendered by Charles Villiers Stanford in tonight’s setting):

                He has put down the mighty from their seats,

                And has exalted the humble and meek.

                He has filled the hungry with good things,

                And the rich he has sent empty away.

The stories of Jairus’ daughter and the haemorrhagic woman are not there to encourage our prayers for personal healing - for we hardly need any encouragement when we are hurting, do we?  They are there to show us what complete trust in Jesus’ Kingdom looks like.

And what a magnificent vision that is!  If only we would trust Jesus when he tells us that it is in giving that we receive, or that we should turn the other cheek, or that we should forgive our brother 70 times 7, that we should welcome the stranger in our midst, raise up the homeless, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, or that we should be good Samaritans. 

How different our geo-politics would be, if the mighty stopped asking what was good for their country and instead started to ask what is good for all humanity!  How much nearer the Kingdom will be when leaders worry less about continuous economic growth, and more about sustaining the one planet we’ve been given to live upon.

And perhaps now, as we face the heaving politics of our fast-warming world;

perhaps now as the weapons of war are being prepared over the skies of Iran;

perhaps now as our politicians conceptually tear themselves apart in the houses of parliament;

perhaps now, we need to hear the urgency of Mark’s message all the more?


Thursday, June 6, 2019

Sermon for 75th Anniversary of D-Day and the 175th Anniversary of the YMCA

Today marks two great anniversaries, in the life of our nation.  The first, of course, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day - which anyone who has turned on a TV, or tried to drive into Portsmouth in the last 24 hours could hardly miss!  We commemorate with gratitude the lives of the 22,442 men of the British services who gave their lives for the freedom of our French neighbours, and to push back the tide of fascism.

The second, less well-known anniversary, is that of the Young Men’s Christian Association - the YMCA - founded 175 years ago today in London, by one George Williams and his friends.  I have an affection for that great institution because I served as a YMCA Secretary for about 20 years in the last decades of the last century.  The YMCA is now a worldwide youth movement, often quietly going about its Christian mission to be a place where counsel may be sought and friendships formed, among young men and women of all faiths and none.  From after-school care and pre-school centres, through to sports centres and outdoor pursuits centres like the one near us at Botley, through to hostels and homeless projects, the YMCA is a positive, life-giving presence in many towns and villages of this nation, and around the world.

The YMCA played an important part in the War effort too.  They provided YMCA Canteens, in which soldiers could take a break from the front line, and write letters home.  It was sometimes said that they served up ‘tea and comfort’ to the troops, and they were much loved for that. 

There’s a lovely story I remember hearing about a YMCA Canteen which was set up in Portsmouth, near the Guildhall, during the second world war, in the run up to D-Day.  The story gives us an insight into the distinctly British mentality of so many people during that whole conflict.  The story goes that during the bombing of Portsmouth, an excited young man ran into the YMCA Canteen shouting “The Guildhall’s on fire, the Guildhall’s on fire!”.  The YMCA lady serving tea behind the counter looked up, and replied, “so it is dear.  Would you like some sugar in your tea?”.

The Gospel reading we have just heard has been read on this day, the 6th of June, for time immemorial. That’s the beauty of the church’s Lectionary - it allows us to revisit, on certain days texts which have come to have great meaning.  This passage contains a line of Jesus’ great prayer, which, it seems, George Williams and the other founders of the YMCA also appreciated, because they took it as the motto of the YMCA from that day onward.  It is these words:

“...that they may all be one”.

The YMCA has striven over the ensuing years to be a place where true oneness of spirit between people of all faiths and none can be found.  And that oneness of spirit was also the inspiration behind the allied advance on D-Day.  British, American, Canadian and other forces all combined.  Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, all combined.  Fighters, logistics experts, scientists, weather-men, politicians, and, yes, YMCA tea makers, all combined in one great push to beat back the great evil of fascism.

Jesus’ prayer, is ultimately a prayer about his followers.  He is laying out his heart before the Father, and praying for unity between all believers.  He longs for that Unity, not least because he knows that through such Unity, other people might see the love of the Father at work.  I have no doubt that Jesus must weep when he sees the fractured nature of today’s world, and, yes, the fractured nature of his church.  We human beings, it seems, are not capable of being one...we are just too tied to our own ambitions, or our own limited understand of the world, to be able to truly embrace that one-ness. The result is our constantly competing ideas about how the world, or our faith, should be.

On D-Day, we saw Hitler’s stark and angry vision of the world come into conflict with a greater, higher vision of the world - a world without hatred of others who are not like us.  Thankfully, the greater, higher, vision won - a vision of a world of oneness, in which nations learned to work together for the common good of all humanity.  In the post-war years, thanks to the sacrifice of all on D-Day and throughout the war, the world started to come together in the great institutions:  the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organisation, the African Union and, yes, I’m going to say it, the fore-runner of what is now the European Union.

Sadly, we are beginning to witness the fracturing of the oneness that these institutions have stood for.  Nationalism is once again on the rise in the public imagination.  The very thing that the soldiers, sailors and airmen of D-Day fought to defeat - fascism - is rearing its ugly, ugly head on our TV screens and on our streets.

My prayer, like that of the YMCA, is that we will take a moment on this day of commemoration, to remember Jesus’ prayer of oneness. As the bells of St Faith’s ring out after this service, in honour of the sacrifices of D-Day, may we take a moment to re-commit ourselves to the sacred task of working for the one-ness of all humanity.


Sunday, May 19, 2019

Religion and Politics

Religion and Politics don’t mix…?
It is often said that religion and politics don’t mix.  Well, what a load of complete tosh that is!  But before I try to explain my reasoning – let’s start with a little bit of etymology. 

The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin word ‘relegio’ – which means ‘re-connect’.  It’s the same root word from which Lego comes.  Think of that, the next time you are building an edifice of plastic bricks with a grandchild or child.  So ‘religion’ is the practice of ‘re-connecting’ ourselves to the divine source from which all life springs.  For Christians, that divine source is the originally Jewish concept of God.  But for others, its Allah, or Vishnu, or Mother Earth…or any other number of creative sources.  All religions have in common the idea that if we could just re-connect ourselves to the Love which brought us forth, our lives would be fuller, more complete, more worthwhile.

Politics is, of course, the business of the polis – another Latin word meaning ‘the people’.  It is ultimately about the way that we people choose to live together.  It’s about the framing of laws, and the distribution of the community’s wealth. It’s about caring for the vulnerable in our midst, and, in short, loving our neighbour as ourselves.

So, if religion is – at the core – about reconnecting ourselves to whatever God we perceive, and if politics is about the way that we connect ourselves to one another, we have a simple concept to hang our entire world-view upon.  It was a concept that Jesus expressed most clearly, but which is also common to every great religion.  It’s a concept which can be summed up in five words:  Love God. Love your neighbour.

Around the time of Jesus, there was another great teacher doing the rounds.  His name was Rabbi Hillel, and he was once, famously, challenged to stand on one leg and recite the entire law of God.  He accepted the challenge, stood on one leg, and said: “Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.  All the rest is just commentary”.

When you think about it, the command to love our neighbour is a profoundly political statement.  Truly understood, it would radically reform the kind of nasty politics which we see around us so often these days.  You know the kind of politics I mean – the kind of politics which blames the homeless and the poor for their own misery, or blames the collapse of our financial system on immigrants. 

Margaret Thatcher knew that religion and politics belong together.  Which is why she famously quoted the words of St Francis of Assisi on the steps of No. 10 in 1979.  “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope’.  I know, it was rather cringy…but we perhaps all remember her entry to No 10 better than any other Prime Minister, before or since, because she had the courage to quote a religious text.

All of this is essentially my way of saying how delighted I am that one of the first things we do, in this Borough, after electing a new Mayor, is that we bring them to church!  For I believe, passionately, that any politics which divorces itself entirely from some form of religion is a poorer politics.  It’s something I believed when I worked as a Government advisor in the early years of this century.  And it’s something I continue to believe as a humble parish priest.

Party politics is essentially the battle of ideas.  It is the assertion of one group of people that their ideas about how the world should be are better than another group of people’s ideas.  The great religions of the world have often inspired politicians to rise beyond narrow party politics, and to embrace a fuller, wider, kinder sense of how the world should be.  A quick glance into history should remind us that it is religions which first inspired the idea of charity.  It remains one of the five pillars of Islam.  It is central to the teachings of the Buddha, and of course to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  

Religions were most often the founders of systems of healthcare, and education.  They were often flawed, sometimes rather narrow in their focus.  But the essential idea that all human beings should have the right to see a doctor, and chance to expand the mind is essentially a religious idea.  

Arguably, the state does a much better job of these things – not least because it has the resources to do so through taxation.  But let us never forget that charity, healthcare and education all arise out of the religious imperative to love our neighbour.

In fact, I would argue that we need more religion in our politics.  When we contemplate the various secular political systems under which we live, we find that we need religions to correct and steer.  All too easily we accept the mantras of secular gurus, without asking ourselves what religions might have to offer as an alternative view.

Take, for example, the concept of economic growth.  The success, or failure, of most modern politics is measured on the basis of GDP.  The stated aim of most western governments is to achieve economic growth of around 2% per year.  That doesn’t sound too bad, does it – until you realise that 2% growth over 10 years would equal 20%.  So we live with an economic model which believes that in 10 years’ time, we could – indeed should - use 20% more of the world’s resources.  Which is nuts, of course.

We find the concept of economic growth in the Scriptures too.  Many times, prophets promise the people that if they will obey God, their flocks will multiply, and their cattle increase.  But set against this are the imperatives of religion too.  Such growth, according to the Scriptures, will only be achieved by a people who give a tithe of all their wealth back to God, and who welcome the stranger, and care for the poor, the sick, the widow and the orphan.  This is a true blending of religion and politics.  Economic growth is achieved not on the backs of the poor, but as a result of generosity to the poor.

So, I’m delighted that in this Borough we continue the debate about religion and politics.  By appointing a Chaplain each year, you open yourselves to the possibility that whatever suspicions we might justifiably have about the motives of some religious people, religions themselves do still have the power to shape and mould our politics.  I yearn, as do most of us I suspect, for a kinder, more humane, more caring society.  And I pray that the interplay between our religion and our politics will continue to march towards such a goal.