Sunday, August 30, 2020

Take up thy cross

Text: Matthew 16.21-28

HEALTH WARNING…the first three paragraphs are a parody…to be read in a phoney American accent!

I have great pleasure in announcing last night, I had a vision! The Lord God Almighty spoke to me. He said to me..."Pastor", he said, "Pastor - I have good news for you! I want to shower you and your congregation with abundant blessings. (Praise the Lord!) I am going to make yours a church of millionaires! You are going to become so wealthy, so full of miracles, so full of powerful acts of God Almighty, that the whole of Havant will flock to your doors!

All your congregation has to do is to show that they trust me. They simply have to sign over the deeds to their houses to the church. Then I will know that they trust me. Then I will bless them with riches from heaven. Then they all will become millionaires, and all their problems will disappear". (Praise the Lord!)

So, my brothers and sisters, our Treasurer, Sister Shelley, will be standing by, at the ready, with forms for you to sign at the end of our service. Just sign over the deeds of your house to the church, and the Lord God Almighty, in the glorious name of Jesus, will give you your heart's desire! A-men, brothers and sisters. A-men!

It's a bit frightening to think that there really are churches like that in the world.  They feed on people's misery. They create an image of the world which is so pumped up with future hope, that gullible people really do believe that God is in the business of making them wealthy...but they are tricked into making their preachers wealthy instead.  Remember that TV Evangelist I talked about last week – with his massive house on a hill.  Hmmm…perhaps I’m in the wrong branch of the church?

According to today’s Gospel text, modern-day prosperity preachers are not the first people to have got the wrong end of the stick.   Verse 21: "From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed,"

You can just imagine Peter's reaction can't you? He has just confessed Jesus as the Messiah (as we heard last week).  He’s just been told that on him – Mr Rocky – Jesus was going to build his church.  And now…Jesus is talking about having to suffer and die.  Peter probably thinks that Jesus has gone nuts.  Perhaps the Messiah has been working too hard?  "Never, Lord" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt 16:22)

But Jesus is adamant. He tells Peter off with really startling words: "Get behind me, Satan!" Pretty stern stuff.  And then Jesus goes on, in verse 23: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things". In other words, "You are thinking like a man, but by now you should be starting to think as God see things from God's perspective".

And then – here comes the ‘drop the mike’ line: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (verse 24).

So what does it mean to embrace suffering as part of the Christian life?

Let me introduce you to my friend Lucy (not her real name).  She had spent all her life serving others through the church. She had been at coffee mornings and fundraisers, and served on the PCC, and made endless cups of tea. She had truly denied herself for others.  And yet, Lucy now found herself bed-bound, and unable to serve others anymore. She even had to rely on others to help her to the bathroom.

Lucy’s body was failing her but not her mind.  She said to me, "perhaps God is teaching me that there was still a bit of pride in me.  I’m learning that I need to let others serve me for a change. Perhaps I'm learning that in the end, we all must rely on God, and on other people.  That none of us can exist in isolation."

I was intensely moved by what Lucy said.  After a life-time of faith God was teaching her something deep, something profound, about our need for each other, and for God.  There was, for Lucy at least, a purpose in her suffering.  She learned to gladly take up her cross, for what it would teach her and others, even as she neared the end of her life.

This does not, of course, explain all suffering.  To even begin to explore the place of suffering in God’s plan would take a lot more time than I have today!  And it does little to explain the awful and apparently senseless suffering of so many.  But I suggest to you that Jesus offers us a clue.  Jesus had to suffer, and indeed to die.  But through death, came resurrection.  There is hope at the end of all tunnels of suffering, for those who trust in God’s essential goodness.  And for those who are open – like Lucy – to hearing God’s voice in the midst of suffering.

So, may you come to know the power of God that is often revealed in suffering. May you come to know the power of denying self, and taking up the cross that is offered to you.  May you come to know that God's power is so often revealed in and through weakness - our own weakness, as well as the weakness of those we encounter and serve.

And it’s alright…you don’t have to sign over the deeds of your house to Sister Shelley!


Sunday, August 23, 2020

Who do you say that I am?

Matthew 16. 13-20

Who do you say that I am?  That’s the question that Jesus asks Simon.  And it’s an important question – because identity matters.  

If I asked you the same question, I imagine that many of you would reply ‘You are the Rector’.  But that’s only because you know me primarily in this role, at this time in my life.  In other places, and in other times, I’ve been a youth worker, a housing officer, and a charity chief executive.  I’ve been a government advisor and a shop-floor salesman of microwaves and stereos.  I’ve been a passport writer, a singer, a piano-player and a trumpeter.  I’ve been a student, and a roller-skate rink attendant.  I’ve been an ice-cream seller, a burger-flipper and a farm labourer.  I still am a priest, and a deacon, and a Canon, a teacher, and a social entrepreneur.

In my private life, I have been (and am) many things too.  I’m a husband, and a son.  I’m a brother, an uncle and a best friend.  Now I’m a grandad.  

But there are other things about my identity which could be used to describe me.  I’m tall.  I’m big.  I’m hairy around the chin.  I’m Caucasian (or white), I’m straight.  I’m middle aged - just, and I’m a cardiac patient.

All of these words and all of these descriptions are summed up in the one word…Tom.  But all these words, all these descriptions, only scratch at the surface of who I really am.  Because I know the secret ‘me’.  I know the internal conflicts I live with.  I know the thoughts that rage through my monkey mind.  I know the temptations I have to fight.  I know the things that give me pleasure, and the things that stress me out.  They are all part of me too.  They are what I’d have to try to describe if you really wanted to understand who I am.

SO imagine, the panic that must have crossed Simon’s mind when Jesus asked him the same question!  ‘Who do you say that I am?’  What answer could Peter give which would sum up succinctly all that he already knew about this man.  He could have said, ‘You’re Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter.  You’re the brother of James and Joses and your other siblings.  You’re the teacher, the wanderer, the story-teller of our time.  You’re the preacher, the prophet, the man of wisdom’.  But Simon used none of these descriptions of Jesus.   

‘You are the Messiah.  The son of the living God’.  

Messiah – Saviour.  The one whose coming has been long-expected.  The one who would offer the path of salvation to the Jews and to the whole world.  And the very son of God.

Jesus was delighted.  I imagine him throwing back his head and laughing!  ‘Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah!  You’ve got it!  You’ve understood the essence of who I am.  And that’s a revelation that could only have come from God!’.

‘And you, Simon, you are a rock!  That’s what I’m going to call you from now on…Rocky.  Petros.  Peter.  Because you, with all your mistakes and gaffs, are open to what God teaches you.  And it’s on that kind of openness, and attentiveness to God that I’m going to build my church. Alright?  Rocky!’

You see, Simon wasn’t all that his description said he was.  Any more than the word Messiah described all that Jesus was.  It was a nickname.  An epithet.  A way of getting a handle on Simon Peter.  It said nothing about his failures. Nothing about the times he completely got things wrong, like denying Christ, or lopping off the ear of a High Priest’s guard.  Or that time when he thought he should build some shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the mountain.  

Simon, as I said a week or two ago, is ‘everyman’.  He’s you and me.  With all his failures, he sticks straight to the path of faith.  He is determined, and he wants with all his heart to follow where Jesus leads.

But his nickname doesn’t say all there is to say.  Nor does ‘Messiah’ say all there is to say about Jesus.  Nor does ‘Rector’ say all there is to say about me.

It’s supposed to be a Native American saying, that you should never criticise another, until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.  Simon Peter had walked more than a mile in Jesus’ shoes.  He’d lived alongside him, got to know him, heard him, listened to him – and at the end of that experience, he found that he could after all, describe him in a single, powerful adjective:  Messiah.

Jesus had walked a mile or two in Simon’s shoes too.  He’d sat with him, listened to him, laughed with him, eaten with him, watched him fail, watched him grow.  And at the end of all that, he had a an adjective – a nickname – for Simon too.  Rocky!  He was going to call him Rocky.

Here’s a final question to ponder…

How do you think others would describe you?  What nickname would you like be given by someone who has walked a mile in your shoes with you?  Gentle one?  Courageous one?  Prayerful one?  Faithful one?  Generous one?  Resourceful one? 

How would you like to be summed up in one word?  

And how can you live in such a way, that such a nickname becomes yours?


Saturday, August 22, 2020

An Address for the Funeral of the Reverend Douglas Bean

Saturday 22 August 2020

I’m very sorry indeed that I only had the chance of meeting Douglas, briefly, on one occasion – and that, I think, was at the end of a Christmas service here at St Faith’s, when I customarily get to shake about 400 hands.  Not really the best time to make someone’s acquaintance.  

But from what I’ve heard about Douglas from Teresa and Alan over the past few weeks, I have no doubt at all that I would have enjoyed his company immensely.  It seems we had quite a few things in common – not least a love of music, and of encouraging others to play music in ecclesiastical spaces.  It was ironic, to me, that just as I was beginning to think about re-starting our lunchtime concerts season here, I heard about Douglas’ efforts as a musical impresario at St Paul’s.

What I am not going to do, however, is try to do justice to Douglas long life and ministry – his two primary ministries of being both a priest, and a family man.  I don’t know about you, but I usually find myself rather dissatisfied at any eulogy by a minister who never really knew the deceased.  The rather more interesting question for me, as a priest, is to ask what Douglas wanted you, his family, to remember him by.  The answer to that question is found in the choices that he made about the readings and hymns we are using in this service.

Many such choices, made for funerals, are frankly usually pretty arbitrary.  They tend to consist of distantly remembered childhood hymns (which is why ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’ remains so popular).  Scriptures chosen tend to be either those suggested by the church, or again, dimly remembered passages about ‘my father’s house has many mansions’.  But the choices of a priest, who has lived and breathed these Scriptures and these hymns throughout his life, are choices worth contemplating.  What messages might Douglas have wanted to convey, through these Scriptures, and through these words?

The first hymn he chose, of which we only heard the tune, reminds us of the sacrifices of the Saviour, on a green hill far away – clearly the foundation of Douglas’ hope and life.    The second hymn asks for the guidance of the Great Redeemer to every pilgrim through the barren land of world in which God’s Kingdom is yet to be fully established.  It asks for nourishment along the journey, through the Bread of Heaven.

The first reading, is a long discourse on forgiveness.  Perhaps there have been people in Douglas’ life who he found it hard to forgive.  Perhaps he guessed that others struggled to forgive him.  I know that I frequently have to ask my own family for forgiveness, especially for those times when I let my ministry as a priest take precedence over my ministry as a husband, father and grandfather.  Perhaps Douglas asked for your forgiveness too, through this reading?

Then, through the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Douglas offers us advice.  Rejoice!  Rejoice in everything that life throws at you.  And always focus your thoughts and intentions on things that are true, lovely, honest, just and pure.  Perhaps in these days when our television sets are filled with half-truths, false news, dishonesty and impurity, these are words we do well to heed as we live the rest of our lives?

Then comes the psalm.  Psalm 139 – a deep and penetrating sense of God’s deep and penetrating knowledge of each of us.  For some, this notion can be discomforting.  For those with secret sins, or blackened hearts, it can be an arresting notion to realise that God knows us intimately, and has known us since we were formed in our mother’s womb.  But for Douglas, after a life lived in search of God, I suspect there was joy in the invitation to “Search me out, O God, and know my heart”.

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is the colloquial name for the last hymn we shall sing today.  But I suspect that for Douglas, it held before him a glorious vision of the end of all things, when the Son of Man returns to earth, when the Kingdom is fully established, and when all humanity can sing together ‘Glory, glory, halleluiah!’.

And all these thoughts, and all this depth, is summed up in Douglas’ last hymn choice – the tune of which we will hear as we finish our service.  Written by Sydney Carter, whom I suspect was Douglas’ friend, ‘the Lord of the Dance’ reminds us that in Jesus Christ, all things hold together.  He is the dashing dancing-partner, who invites us to take his hand on the dance-floor of life.  Through all the ugliness of the cross on a green hill far away, for all the barren land through which we need the guidance of our Great Redeemer, through all the lies and impurity of our messy human lives, Christ invites us to dance with him.  “I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me…I am the Lord of the dance, says he”.

You will all have your own memories of Douglas, of Dad, of Grandad.  And I hope you’ll enjoy sharing them which each other today.  But let me encourage you not to miss his final words of encouragement and hope to you – mediated through the choice of these hymns, and these readings, today.


Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Wedding Robe

The Wedding Robe

Preached on Thursday 20 August 2020

Matthew 22.1-14  

In Africa, and especially in West Africa, there is a wonderful tradition for big events, like weddings and even funerals.  It’s a tradition of printing a huge bale of cloth, and then making garments from that bale – so that everyone wears the same cloth to the event.

I’ve seen this particularly in the Diocese of Ho, where I was present for the 10th Anniversary of the founding of the Diocese, a few years back.  Bishop Matthias had commissioned the cloth, and he gave me a stole made from it.  It happened to have pictures of Mary on the cloth, as well as a picture of the Bishop himself.  And the stole he gave me ended up with the Bishop’s picture right over my heart!

The parable we’ve just heard is about such a wedding feast – as a lens through which to understand the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is essentially a history of salvation.  God is, of course, the King who throws the party.  The slaves he sends out to invite the guests are his prophets and priests.  The wedding guests are the Jewish people – at first – who, according to the parable, fail to turn up to the wedding.  In our first reading today from Ezekiel, we are reminded of all the times God’s people turned from God’s way, worshipping other idols, their hearts turning to stone. 

In other words, many whom God invites never quite sit down and eat from the table of God’s Kingdom.  

So the King invites everyone else in.  These are the Gentiles…the rest of humanity.  The parable is teaching us that whilst our faith has Jewish roots, it is a faith meant for all the world.

But then there’s a sting in the tail.  Among the guests, the King spots a man who is not wearing a wedding robe.  He doesn’t have one of the pieces of special cloth produced for the occasion. He has obviously decided that he wants to be in the party, but he doesn’t want to live by the rules of the host.

Who is this parable pointing to?

One day, when I was out driving with Bishop Matthias, he pointed up to a mansion on a hill.  It was a fine mansion indeed…with high walls, vast gardens, security fencing and many many rooms.  ‘Who do you think lives there?’, the Bishop asked me.  ‘I don’t know’, I replied.  ‘A pop star?  A chief?  A banker?’.  ‘No,’ replied the Bishop, ‘that mansion is owned by the self-styled Apostle of one of the TV churches.  He gets people to send him money via his TV channel, promising to do the work of God – and then he builds himself that mansion to live in!’

The man without a robe is anyone who comes to the party, but who doesn’t want to play by the party’s rules.  He is any church member – or church leader – whose lifestyle, beliefs, and choices and not Kingdom lifestyle, beliefs and choices.  He is the church member, or church leader, whose heart has remained cold to the preaching and teaching of the Kingdom.  And who uses the church for his own gain.

The man without a robe is the kind of so-called Christian who promises healing in return for donations.  Or the kind that assures you that if you just make a generous donation to the church, the Lord will shower you with blessings in return.  He is the charlatan, who finds other guests at the wedding feast, and then gets them under his spell and influence.  Or worse still, perhaps, he is the kind of so-called Christian who joins a church, and pretends his faith, just so that he can abuse children, or steal from the church’s coffers.

There are some politicians who try this on too.  They make a pretence of their piety – going to church, or, perhaps, standing outside a church brandishing a Bible, when in their heart they are full of hatred for others, and greed for themselves.  Some people have suggested that a certain American president has these characteristics.

But of course, it’s easy to point the finger at others. Whenever we point our finger at others, we have three fingers pointing back at us.  The Bible always invites us to consider whether we are the villain in the story.

That’s a question each of us can only answer for ourselves.  But if we are the kind of Christian who puts on our religion when we leave the house, but who never practices their faith at home… 

And if we are the kind of Christian who prays about forgiveness, but who actually nurses and feeds the hatred in our heart…

And if we are the kind of Christian who offers himself publicly as a living sacrifice, but then makes no sacrifice at all…

…then we should be wary.  The King may decide to deal especially harshly with such a one.  The outer darkness may await.

The Kingdom of God is a place of welcome for all.  Go out into the streets, and say ‘Everyone is welcome here.  Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, black and white, male and female…and every other description you can think of!’  God’s gift of life is freely given, and lavishly provided.  But let no-one take such generosity for granted.  And let no-one use it for his own gain.  


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Racism in the Bible?

 Isaiah 56. 1,6-8  and Matthew 15. 10-28

I’m going to say something shocking, now…perhaps to some of you.  It’s this:  the Bible contains rather a lot of racism.

This should not surprise us.  The Scriptures we have inherited from our ancestors inevitably reflect the mind-set of the people when they wrote them.  In particular, the Jews believed that they were the ‘chosen people’ – a special people who were set apart from all other nations, through which the salvation of all humanity would come.  In a sense, this of course was true.  Jesus was a Jew – and therefore, through Him, salvation for all the world did indeed come through the Jews.

But this truth bred some pretty uncomfortable ideas in the minds of certain Jewish leaders over the centuries.  Despite all the awful things that happened to them as a people – all the conquests and defeats, the carrying-off into exile - they felt a deep sense of being special to God.  And for some leaders, that special status drove them to believe that they were in some sense superior to other nations.  They were the nation through whom God has chosen to reveal himself to humanity, after all.  Didn’t that make them super-superior?  And therefore, other nations were just not as special.  They were less than the Jewish people. Inferior.  And that the Jewish nation must remain ‘pure’.

A very good example of this mind-set can be found in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra.  After returning 70 years in exile, in Babylon, Nehemiah, the returned Governor, rebuilt the walls and the temple of Jerusalem.  Many of the common people of Israel had not gone into exile.  It was only the leaders who were carried off.  The common people stayed behind and carried on their lives as best as they could under Babylonian rule.  

But after rebuilding the walls and the temple, the high priest, Ezra, also newly returned to Jerusalem, stood up to pronounce to the common people that God now commanded them to separate themselves entirely from the nations around them.  He sharply condemned them for having ‘mingled the holy race with the peoples around them’ (Ezra 9.2).  Men who had married Canaanite women, for example, were commanded to divorce them and send them away. 

Not all leaders believed this was what God wanted.  Whilst Nehemiah and Ezra were battling for racial purity, many, like Isaiah and Jeremiah argued that their special status was a calling to servant-hood, not domination of others.  The famous picture of the ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah is a key passage, which encourages the Jews to see themselves as servants to all humanity, being prepared to die in the attempt.  Jesus embodied this idea, which is why the suffering servant passages are often seen (especially by Christians!) as a foretelling of his story.

And in this morning’s reading, also from Isaiah, we hear a call for all foreigners to be welcomed into the house of faith.  ‘These foreigners’, says Yahweh, ‘will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in the house of prayer….’.  Jeremiah had a similar vision, in which the people of all nations would be welcome onto the Holy Mountain of God.  

And so, you see, racism was as much a live issue for the people of Bible-times as it remains for us today.  Its pages are full of the clash of civilizations, competing endlessly with each other for dominance, and always claiming that their God was on their side.  There have always been people who consider themselves essentially superior to everyone else.  It’s part of fallen humanity’s nature to look down on, to ridicule, and to fear ‘the other’.

It was this inbuilt racism to which Jesus was referring when he spoke sharply to the Canaanite woman who was seeking healing for her child.  We find him ministering in a foreign part of the area in which he lived.  Canaanites, a conquered people, lived there.  Jesus has chosen to expand his ministry beyond the Jews, beyond Galilee, Nazareth and Jerusalem, and into the heartland of foreigners.  

And when one of them asks for his help, he sees an opportunity to prick at what he knew all Jews of the time would have been thinking.  He clearly senses – or divinely knows – that this woman is someone with the capacity to teach the Jews all gathered around him.  So he fences words with her.  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”.  In other words, he boldly states that his mission is only to the children of Israel, not to the ‘dogs’ of other nations.  But this woman has courage, and a quick intelligence.  “Ah,” she replies, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table”.  

I like to visualise Jesus laughing out loud at that reply!  Yes!  This is what he needs!  Someone who can show by their wit, intelligence and their faith that they are just as good as any Jew, and just as deserving of God’s love.  This fits entirely with the rest of his teaching – including the parable of the Good Samaritan, and his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  Jesus wants the whole world, every nation and tongue, to know of God’s love.  And that’s what he commands his disciples to tell, in the Great Commandment at the end of his time on earth.  “Go,” he tells them, “and make disciples of all nations”.

And this, is what he commands of us too.  There is no room for racism in Biblical Christianity.  No nation is superior to another – whatever great things some of their individual people have achieved.  God’s love cries out to every nation and every people…Come.  Come up to the mountain of the Lord. Amen.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Reflections on VJ Day 75

Sermon on the 75th Anniversary Commemoration of VJ Day - August 15th 2020

War is, without doubt, the most destructive force on our planet.  Forget earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanoes.  Their destructive power – though often immense for a few hours – pales into insignificance against the destructive power of war.  The destruction of cities, the millions of victims of any world-wide conflict, the destruction of whole economies and entire races of human beings – these are just some of the effects of war.

Nuclear war cranks up the destructive potential to an even greater height.  It was Albert Einstein, reflecting on the pure destructive potential of the weapon he helped to create who said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  He understood that a worldwide nuclear war had the potential to push the human race back into the Stone Age.

And yet, War is an inevitable and, it seems, ever-present aspect of human nature.  So, what can we learn from the wars of the past (let alone the wars of today)?   On this 75th anniversary of the surrender of Japan, perhaps it is worth a look at the causes of that particular conflict.

Between 1928 and 1932, Japan faced domestic crisis.  The Great Depression – across the whole world – led to spiralling prices, economic collapse, mass unemployment, falling exports and social unrest.  In November 1930, the Prime Minister of Japan was shot by an ultra-nationalist.  In 1932, the army tried to assassinate the next Prime Minister, and ultimately the military seized control of the country.  Between 1932 and 1936, admirals ruled Japan.  Confident and arrogant, they believed that the whole of Asia should be ruled by them – as a way out of economic collapse.  China was invaded, and in response, in 1941, the United States announced a punitive oil embargo.  For the Japanese leaders, that move was a perfect pretext for war, unleashed in December 1941 with the Pearl Harbour attack.

The rest, as they say, is history – including the history that some of neighbours in Havant lived through in all its horror.  In our Monthly Information sheet for this month is a compelling and harrowing tale of what it was like to serve in the Far East in the 1940s – penned by a recently deceased member of St Faith’s, Govan Easton.

But it is the history behind the history from which we need to learn.  The conditions which prompted the rise of the Japanese military machine are similar to those that led to the rise of Hitler, half a world away.  Market forces in crisis, spiralling debt, unemployment and poverty – however caused.  It is when economies go bad that people look to extremist leaders for solutions.  Given our current economic woes, throughout the world, not least as a result of COVID-19, we need to be on our guard against this tendency.  We must not let populist fear-mongers rise again.  We must not let fear drive us to more war.

War is what happens when language fails, and when we focus our angst, our fears, our problems on some other easily identified group.  For the Nazis, it was the Jews.  For the Japanese, it was the ‘evil Americans’ and their allies.  Today, for billions of people throughout the world, the West is still perceived as ‘the great Satan’.  And many in the West, following populist leaders, are blaming immigrants and ‘others’ of all races for the problems we face.

To imagine that the Second World War was the last Great War is to be na├»ve in the extreme.  There has never been a ‘war to end all wars’.  And there never will be – for as long as human beings choose violence over talking, self-preservation over sharing, hatred of the ‘other’ over love of neighbour.

British Troops have been involved in wars all over the planet – since 1945.  Many of you will remember such wars – some of you have even fought in them.  Greece, Malaya, Korea, Eqypt, Kenya, Cyprus, Indonesia, Dhofar, Aden, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Lebanon, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leonie, Afghanistan, Iraq (again), Libya, and Syria.

But there is another way.  Writing around 2,700 years ago, the Jewish prophet Micah dreamed of a day when all the peoples of the earth would ‘learn the ways of God’.  “He will teach us his ways”, said Micah, “so that we will walk in his paths”.  “He will settle the disputes between peoples, and they will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.  Everyone will sit in peace under their own vine, and no-one will make them afraid”.

This peace will only come about when the peoples of the earth finally accept the rule and governorship of God, when they take seriously what God meant when he told us to love our neighbours as ourselves.  That’s a message repeated again and again through the Jewish & Hebrew Scriptures, and the Scriptures of all the great religions.  It’s a message that was taken up with vigour by Jesus of Nazareth.  Only when we stop keeping the best stuff for ourselves, being content to watch our neighbours in other lands starve and die, will the world ever find the peace for which we all yearn.

If we will let him, the Lord will indeed be our Shepherd.  If we will follow his ways, he will indeed lead us beside still waters.  Our cups will indeed overflow.

But how will this be achieved?  There is no other way but the way of changing one person at a time.  To quote Mahatma Ghandi, ‘if you change yourself, you will change your world’.

So today, we give thanks for the 75 years of relative peace we have enjoyed here in Britain, not forgetting the Manchester and London bombings, Novichok poisoning and other terrorist outrages.  We remember, once again, those who gave their lives – or who were forced to give up their lives – for our peace. Today we especially pay tribute to those who endured the horror of the Death Railway and the Far East prisons. We remember, too, the innocent children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – those who never raised a weapon against any one of us.  We remember them, and all those who have sacrificed themselves, or who were sacrificed, in the vast number of conflicts ever since.

But let us not simply remember them.  Let us honour their sacrifice with a sacrifice of our own.  Let us, each one, commit ourselves to living differently from today.  Let us put aside the lure of wealth, and the pettiness of nationality, and realise that we are all, each one, children of the same God.  Let us learn from him, and follow his ways…so that perhaps, one day, such commemorations as this will no longer be necessary.


Tuesday, August 11, 2020

As we forgive those who trespass against us...

 Ezekiel 12: 1-12  & Matthew 18.21–19.1

I can’t help but wish that I had the time to explore both of this morning’s readings with you.  The first is a marvellous tale of how Ezekiel, prophet of God, acted out a little cameo of carrying his baggage.  He did this to make people wonder, and so that they would ask him what he was doing…so that he could warn them that unless they mended their ways, they too would be carrying their baggage out of the promised land.

It’s a delicious little story, and it makes me wonder what dramatic cameos we could act out, as a warning to the people that we are called to serve in God’s name.  Perhaps a cameo of me drowning in a bath-tub might warn people of rising sea-levels.  Or perhaps putting Sandra in a hospital bed outside the front of the church would encourage more people to pay attention to COVID restrictions!

But, as I say, there isn’t time to do justice to both of these readings.   And the Gospel reading for today is SO important, that we really mustn’t skip over it.  It deals with the topic of forgiveness, of course.  

As a priest, who has heard many a confession or life-story, I know that forgiveness is one of the hardest callings of the Christian faith.  How can someone be expected to forgive another who has abused them, or stolen from them, or falsely accused them, or hurt them in a myriad of ways?  How can we forgive the negligent parent whose drunkenness marred our childhood?  How can we forgive the internet scammer who took all our savings?  

And yet Jesus calls us to forgive those who trespass against us…as much as seventy times seven, he says metaphorically to Peter.  He is talking, on this occasion, in the context of a church fellowship.  Note that Peter’s original question is ‘if a member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive him?’.  And this is because Jesus knows that a lack of forgiveness can completely wreck a church fellowship.

I’m sure all of us have come across those tragic stories of how a person has left a church – or stopped going to church altogether - because of a thoughtless word or action on the part of another church member.  Some of these occasions can seem trivial to us.  For some reason, the more trivial stories always seem to revolve around flower ladies who have been slighted by the Vicar, or choir masters who go to war with the PCC!  Arguments over pedestal arrangements or the volume at which hymns are played can quickly build into deep and abiding resentments…until one side or the other bursts, and resigns.

The trouble is, it’s usually the person who walks off in a huff who suffers the most.  They are left with their seething resentment, however justified, whilst the rest of the community usually heaves a sigh of relief that the situation has been resolved.  The church moves on to the next challenge…but the person who resigned is left feeling hurt and angry, and possibly never darkens the door of any church ever again.  And they lose out on all the potential for spiritual, intellectual and moral growth that membership of the church would have offered them.

And that is why forgiveness is so important.  To forgive someone is, quite literally, to give up one’s right to feel aggrieved or hurt by another.  When we do that, we deny the person who has wronged us any power over our own emotions.  We take away their ability to hurt us, or damage us in the longer term. Altogether.

In fact, true forgiveness means giving up the right to feel hurt before the hurt even has a chance to take root in one’s soul.  To forgive is to give up the hurt before it can take hold.  

But does this mean that the person being forgiven gets away with whatever they have done wrong?  Well, perhaps – especially for the little things…the annoying word, the careless insult.  By forgiving someone for that, we rise above them.  We see them for what they are…symptoms only of that most common of diseases…the disease of being a failing human being.  

But what about the really big things…the systematic abusers, the scammers, the murderers?  Well, for such people, Jesus offers further advice. In Matthew chapter 10 he advises that we need to be ‘as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves’.  If I know that someone has the potential to cause great harm to another, I have a duty and a responsibility to do all I can to prevent that harm.  So it is only right that I must, and should, involve the appropriate authorities in stopping them.  But never out of revenge.  The gentle dove releases the hatred.  But the wise serpent makes sure – as sure as they can – that the wrongdoer is prevented from causing further harm to anyone else, and suitably punished for the wrongdoing they’ve already wrought.

This is why we have a justice system, after all.  Having forgiven the wrong-doer, so that they no longer have the power to hurt us, we hand over the responsibility for punishment and correction to the society in which we live.  There, appropriate punishment is meted out, without passion, without hatred.  Just punishment is handed down, but not by the person who was harmed.  Not least so that the harmed person is not further damaged by committing some act of violence or retribution themselves.

So, may you find the strength to let go of the hurt that others have done to you.  May you release your heart from the resentments it holds onto, so that your heart may fly free, and straight into the heart of the forgiving God of Love.  

Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  


Sunday, August 9, 2020

Doing what Jesus is doing...

Matthew 14. 22-33 – Jesus and Peter walk on the water

Those of you who have enjoyed the Corona Chronicle will be aware that a small crisis took place at the Rectory during the darkest days of the Lockdown.  The Rector’s wife suddenly started digging a great big hole on the Rectory lawn.  This, I have to tell you, was no mean feat.  After getting through 8 inches of top soil, Clare was confronted by a solid concrete slab, and a buried gate post, made of reinforced concrete.  But she was determined – and for many days she hacked and bashed and gradually made progress into the hole.

I watched all this activity with some bemusement.  I had just had an operation on my ticker, so I was forbidden from doing any heavy work.  So I watched the hole gradually enlarging from a distance through the lounge window.  

What really worried me was the size.  It was about six feet long…and the way she was going, it was going to be six feet deep as well.  Could it be that Clare had finally had enough of living under lockdown with me?  Was this hole meant for a dark and sinister purpose?

When she had finally reached her required depth, Clare set about filling the hole with water.  Perhaps, I thought, she doesn’t intend to bury me there.  Perhaps she simply intends to drown me?  ‘Well!’  I thought ‘I’ll show her.  This will be an excellent time to try out the notion of walking on water!’

The stories of Jesus walking on the water – across three of the Gospels - come out of a long Jewish tradition.  In the ancient Scriptures, water is often seen as a metaphor for chaos and death.  ‘In the beginning’, says the writer of Genesis, ‘the earth was formless and void…and the Spirit of God brooded upon the face of the deep’.  Into that chaos and formlessness, God speaks his words of creation – words of life and hope and potential. 

So, through these stories of Jesus walking on the water, or stilling the storm, the Gospel writers wanted us to understand that God, and his Way, brings order to chaos, it brings life over death, and hope over fear.  Those of you who are interested in biblical literature in general might be interested to know that the ability to ‘walk on water’ was ascribed to other great leaders, before Jesus, such as the great King Xerxes and to Alexander the Great.

It is only in Matthew’s Gospel, however, that we have a delicious detail added to the story…and that’s the detail of how Peter got out of the boat to also walk on the water.  He then got scared, and Jesus had to raise him back to the surface, while ticking Peter off for his lack of faith.  The most obvious point of this story is, clearly, an encouragement to have faith.  The Gospel writers want us to put our trust in God, and to keep it there…never wavering, even when we get scared or confused by what is going on around us.  The waves may crash and roll, but Jesus always reaches out his hand to us, to steady us against the storms of life.

There’s something else too.  Something I think we shouldn’t miss.  And that is that the question of why Peter steps out of the boat in the first place.  I think the answer to that question is that Peter sees what Jesus is doing…and then he wants to do it to.

Throughout the Gospels, Peter is depicted as ‘Everyman’.  He is the archetypal human being, who yearns to be a better man, but who often fails and gets things wrong.  Peter is you and me.  He dreams and hopes, he’s often a ‘man of action’, but he also gets things wrong – like when he denies Jesus, or cuts off a soldier’s ear, fails to understand why Jesus is washing feet, or fails to actually walk on the water.  

But through all his failings, Peter consistently tries to do what he sees Jesus doing.  And whilst he fails, time and again, eventually he rises above his nature, and becomes the premier voice for God in the years following Jesus’ ascension.  He finds he has the power to heal, the power to speak powerfully, and the power to shape and lead the entire movement called Christianity.  With all his failings, he becomes the Rock – the Petros – on which Jesus builds his church.

But he only achieves this by first watching what Jesus does, and then doing it, himself.  He lives alongside Jesus as Jesus heals the sick and preaches powerfully, and sets up the basic structures of the church.  Then, after Jesus ascends, Peter copies Jesus.  He does the same things.  He becomes the healing hands, the preaching voice, and the organising force for God’s mission on earth.

And, if Peter is an archetypal Everyman – this is our task too.  We, like Peter, are called to see what Jesus does, and then to do that. We must not be deflected by the priorities of the world around us, but rather we must focus our entire energies on doing what Jesus did.

This, ultimately, is what it means to be a Christian – or a ‘Christ-ian’.  A follower of Jesus.  We are called to bring healing to the world.  We are called to preach as powerfully as we can, each in our own way, the good news of the coming Kingdom.  And we are called to organise ourselves to be God’s hands and voice to a dying world.  

It’s scary, sometimes.  We have to be prepared to step out of the boat and into the chaos.  But Jesus offers his steadying hand to all who have the courage to follow him…and to do what Jesus does.


Thursday, August 6, 2020

Too much heaven on their minds?

(Luke 9.28-36)

The story of the Transfiguration is told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Peter also refers to it in his second epistle.  So what’s it all about?  All these shining faces, and visits from long-dead prophets?  The main purposes of the story are two-fold:

First – the story is intended to re-assure us that Jesus is the continuation and culmination of the past.  He builds on the great Teacher of the Law, Moses, and he fulfils the predictions of the great prophets, represented by Elijah.  Remember that the first readers of the Gospels would have been mainly Jewish, or at least people mightily interested in Jewish ideas.  They would have been grappling with the question of who Jesus was. Through this dramatic, mountain-top story, they were being encouraged not to doubt for a moment that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who coming was foretold.
Secondly – at the climax of the story, we hear the voice from heaven saying ‘This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him.  The first readers of these Gospels, and indeed we ourselves, are being encouraged to take Jesus seriously – and especially to take his teachings to heart.

This is a moment of high meaning, and of high significance.  Peter doesn’t want it to end, does he?  He wants to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  He wants to capture the moment, and tie it down.  Which is a very human thing to want to do.

Our beautiful churches are a bit like that.  God sometimes feels a bit distant, doesn’t he?  We get glimpses of him, in the world, in our imaginations, in those sparks of sudden insight which we all experience from time to time.  You know – those moments when the things we’ve learned about God drop into place.  “Ah!  I get it,” we say.  But those moments are fleeting.  They are incredibly precious.  But fleeting. Because our little brains can’t hold on to the enormous reality of God for very long.

So like Peter, we feel a deep, human need to construct something in which to preserve our sense of those precious moments.  We build it with great care.  We fill it with the work of craftsmen; stained glass and beautiful ornaments.  We place it in the heart of our community, as an ongoing sign of those precious moments of connection with our Maker.  And we visit it – as so many have done since our doors re-opened – to search, once again, for that feeling of connection.

But, just as Peter, James, John and Jesus himself had to do, we have to move on from those moments.  Life should, and often does, contain moments of spiritual ecstasy.  But, real life, the daily task of becoming more like God, that goes on once the moment of ecstasy is passed.  In simple terms, ‘you have to come down from the mountain’.  For Jesus, that meant a dark and dangerous journey to Jerusalem, and to his death.  

But what does it mean for you and for me?  It certainly means realising that we can’t remain on the mountaintop all the time.  If you keep your head in the clouds, you’ll quickly become ‘so heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly use’.  

Will has been teasing me this week.  He’s been grabbing – and then publishing! – pictures of me caught in practical action…fixing noticeboards and pressure-washing pigeon muck off the bell-tower staircase.  It’s all been jolly good fun.  But it’s also been a reminder that the work of serving God doesn’t just happen in the Sanctuary, or here at the Altar.  We have to come down from the mountain, with our sleeves rolled up, and our hands ready work, and our mouths ready to speak the words of Jesus.

So let me ask you this.  

What can YOU get your hands into this week?  

To whom could YOU speak Jesus’ words?  

You, who believe that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, continuation of the faith of ages past.  How can you come down from the mountain, and be his hands, feet and mouth to a dying world in need?  

Whom can you bless with your charity?  

Whom can you help along the road?  

Whom can you help to heal, or house or feed?

In response to your faith in the Chosen One, whose words you are commanded to heed…what are YOU going to do?


Sunday, August 2, 2020

Getting and keeping. Or giving and sharing?

Reading: Matthew 14:13-21

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Last week our gospel reading was all about to help us envision the Kingdom of Heaven is like. A mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl of great price - and so on. In other words, we were being asked to think about just what a life-changing idea the Kingdom is. 

This week - the focus changes, to a real-life example of the Kingdom being worked out.  It’s story of the Feeding of Five Thousand. I’m afraid I can’t think of this story without remembering a Sunday School song that has stayed in my head for about 45 years!  Do you remember it?

Two little fishes, five loaves of bread.
Five thousand people by Jesus were fed.
This is what happened when one little lad
Gladly gave Jesus all that he had.
All that I have, all that I have
I will give Jesus all that I have.

It’s basically a simple story. Jesus has been pursued by a great crowd. When evening falls, the disciples ask Jesus "Shouldn’t we send these folks away to buy some food?". But Jesus takes a few loaves and fishes, he blesses them, and commands them to be distributed among the crowd. The food somehow multiplies - so much so that there are 12 baskets left over.
Was this a miracle of multiplication?  Was Jesus showing off his divine power?  Or did something else take place – something much more radical, and much more important than a divine conjuring trick?  

Could it be that people had, in fact, brought food with them? After all, not many people would go out to a deserted place - miles from home - without packing a few sandwiches for journey. So perhaps, when Jesus started to distribute all that he had, people started to open their picnics up - and began to share with each other. You can be sure that most people had packed far more in their picnic than they would need!  But until Jesus showed them how to share, they were keeping their sandwiches hidden away…

Here’s another important point to note.  In response to the disciples’ question about sending people away, Jesus replies, "They need not go away...YOU give them something to eat". Then, a few lines later, after he has blessed the food, in verse 19, Jesus gives the food to the disciples, for THEM to pass it on to the crowd.

God gives the task of sharing the wealth of the world to US, his friends and followers. The disciples could have taken the blessed food, and disappeared behind a bush to eat it all themselves.  But Jesus commands them to share what they have. There’s a really important Kingdom principle at work here: the Kingdom of Heaven is not about getting and keeping, it’s about giving and sharing.
We live in a time when getting and keeping have become such a normal pattern of life. We live in the time of 'consumerism' - when getting and then keeping as much stuff as we can has become the norm – perfectly acceptable to most people. 

This pandemic is showing us, starkly, just how much of our Western economy is based on the consumption of stuff…and on so called ‘entertainment’.  I feel very sorry for the for the staff of shops who sell plastic rubbish, meaningless birthday presents and fashionable clothing.  Their sales have taken a huge hit, and their livelihoods are desperately threatened.  
And I feel sorry for staff of pubs, cinemas, and theme parks.  
And the airline crews.  
And the cruise-ship crews. 
And the car factory workers.  
And the eyebrow-waxing salons.  

But, honestly, is this really the way we want to live?  Is this all we are?  Consumers of stuff, wholesale burners of fossil fuels, obsessed with foreign holidays and the appearance of our eyebrows and nails?   

It is an uncomfortable fact that consumerism as the new religion. Temples, mosques and churches have been replaced by shopping arcades. 
  • The priests of this new religion are the marketing managers, who tell us what will make us happy. "Buy more stuff!" they cry, and find fulfilment. 
  • The collection plate, once used to maintain the church and bless the poor of the community, has been replaced by the cash register.
  • Icons and spiritual imagery has been replaced by advertising posters. 
  • Hymns and spiritual songs have been replaced by jingles and advertisements.

But Jesus still calls to us across the centuries. "You fool!" he says, to the man who has stored up great wealth for himself. "Do not store up for yourself treasure on earth, where it will only rot and decay. Instead, store up treasure in heaven, where it will last for eternity". "Stop hoarding and learn the power of giving!"  Live simply, start sharing, and actually you’ll find there’s plenty to go round.

The feeding of the five thousand is the only story that is common to all four Gospels.  It demands that we radically re-appraise the way we live.  Much more than the story of a God who can magically multiply fish and bread, it’s a call to all humanity to dig deep, bring out the wealth from our pockets, and share the wealth of all creation.