Sunday, November 29, 2020

Advent 1 - Tired of Waiting

When, I wonder, did we forget how to wait for something. None of us like waiting, for anything.  We want what we want, and we want it now!  And, if we are one of the 1% of the world who have enough money to buy pretty much anything we want, we tend to get it…now.  

A couple of years ago, Clare came back from visiting a friend’s house, extolling the virtues of the new Amazon 'Echo' device.  'It's fantastic', she said.  You can just ask it to play the radio, or for a summary of the news headlines, or what the weather will be!  I really fancy one for Christmas.'  Three days later, one arrived in our house!

The Season of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, and it is designed specifically to be a time of waiting.  For the rest of our society, the New Year starts with a bang and fireworks…with a sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ at something important.  That’s odd, when you think about it.  Why should the simple turn of the Calendar be something to be celebrated with dancing in the street and all night parties?  But the Church, deliberately, counter-culturally, starts its new year with two important words…’Coming’ (which is what ‘Advent’ means)…and ‘Wait’.

This year, with the challenges of COVID, none of us can wait for the whole messy business to be over.  We don’t want to wait.  Even the Government has felt pressured to relax sensible rules of social distancing over Christmas, because, they felt, society in general is simply incapable of waiting.  ‘Don’t ruin our Christmas!’ they have cried – even though many of them will go nowhere near a church, nor even ponder for a moment the meaning of the coming of Christ.  What would it matter if we delayed Christmas by a few months, until we’ve all been vaccinated?  But no, we don’t want to wait.  We must have what we want, and we want it NOW!

In Advent, we can’t help looking forward, because we see the way the world is now.  We yearn for God to put things right.  The writers of the Gospel’s shared in that sense of urgency.  Mark and Luke, for example, repeat a saying attributed to Jesus, which is (for me) one of the most intriguing lines of the New Testament: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”.   Jesus is reported to have promised that his second coming was SO imminent, that the current generation would not pass away before that great event happened.

Well, that didn’t happen!  This is one of those examples of where we need to understand the context of the writers of Scripture.  Mark was writing at a time when Jesus had been gone for perhaps 30 years, and the early church was feeling the iron boot of Rome on its neck. Peter was probably in prison, along with Paul.  Rome was becoming increasingly hostile towards both Jews and the new cult of the Christians.  

It should not surprise us that Mark, in reporting Jesus’ words from three decades before, has rather let his imagination run away with him.  He didn’t want to wait for God’s plan to be unfolded in God’s time.  Despite reporting that Jesus said ‘no-one will know the hour or the time of his coming’, Mark let his inner-optimist get the better of him…I suggest.

Or perhaps - Jesus is, in fact, already come, stealthily, in clouds.  That by his Holy Spirit, he is already among us.  That he is even now, continually, gathering his elect – his followers – from the ends of the earth.  Gathering us into churches, love-factories, for the spreading of his message of Love.

And, while we wait for the completion of the Reign of God, there is a very real sense in which God is already among us, already coming – in fact already here.

Every time an army lays down its weapons, and seeks peace - Jesus comes.

Every time politicians and scientists combine their efforts in unprecedented action to produce a vaccine – Jesus comes.

Every time a family is raised up of fear by the organisation Stop Domestic Abuse, Jesus comes.

Every time a lonely person finds a friend in our morning church-opening, or forthcoming Christmas Market, Jesus comes.  

Every time one of our church members phones another church member just to chat – to make a connection - Jesus comes.

Every time a hungry family is fed by the Beacon or PO9 Foodbanks, Jesus comes.

Every time homeless people sleeping in our town are treated like the human beings they truly are, Jesus comes.

Every time that an alcoholic, a gambler, a drug user turns up to one of our Pallant Centre support groups, and says ‘NO!’ to their addiction, Jesus comes. 

Every time an item of clothing is recycled through our shop, rather than added to the pile of human refuse, the planet is loved, and Jesus comes.

Every time a young person develops their human potential through Dynamo Youth Theatre, or a person with learning difficulties grows in confidence through Creating Chaos, or a teenager with mental health challenges is helped by MIND - Jesus comes.

Every time that SSAFA helps the poverty-stricken family of an armed services veteran, Jesus comes.

You see - signs of the kingdom are all around us.  

Our task, like an alert house-owner, is to keep awake.  To see the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found. Amen.


Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Whore of Babylon

(Reading:  Revelation 18 and Luke 21.20–28)

In case you didn’t know, we are in the dying days of the Church’s liturgical year.  The new year begins for us on Sunday, with the first Sunday of Advent.  In the midst of winter darkness, we seek shelter, warmth and light.  With our ancestors of faith, we await the promise of a coming Messiah, who will save us and lead us beyond the darkness.  

But in these dying days, the Lectionary does not let us rest in peaceful slumber.  After the glorious vision of Christ the King which we shared on Sunday, we now find ourselves confronted with apocalyptic visions.  In Revelation, today, we meet the ‘Great Whore of Babylon’, and witness the promise that her reign over the earth will one day end.  And then in the Gospel reading, we read Jesus’ dire predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem – which actually did take place, about 40 years later.  These visions are reminders to us that although Christ reigns today in heaven, ‘on the right hand of the Father’, his work of fully establishing God’s kingdom on earth is not yet done.  There is still much struggle ahead.

‘Babylon’ is a very particular biblical metaphor.  Based on the idea of the city which carried off Jewish leaders into Exile, 500 years or so before Jesus, the Babylon of the book of Revelation is generally thought to represent the city (and the political and economic structures) of Rome.  When John prophecies the overthrow of Babylon, he predicts the Fall of Rome.  Later scholars have suggested that Babylon represents any economic or religious structure which runs counter to the principles of the Gospel.  Throughout history, Babylon has been associated with Jerusalem itself, the Roman Catholic Church, and these days, even the cites of Washington DC, Brussels, Strasbourg and London! 

Too many religious leaders – especially among the Christian churches – have tried to read the book of Revelation as if it were a coded message to the 20th or 21st centuries.  “Look!” they will say, “the downfall of the whore of Babylon is a description of the American war against Iraq (which is modern-day Babylon)”.  Then, they will make a leap of prediction, and claim that this means Jesus is coming soon…any day now.  Unfortunately, the messy history of church claims about the imminent return of Jesus suggest that they are probably wrong.

But as with all biblical prophecy, we must be cautious of trying to fit our context into the context of the biblical writers.  We need to hear the hope, and the fear that they were expressing about their own time and their own world – and then consider what parallels there are for us today.  For there are indeed many parallels between our world and the world of the Bible.  

The kinds of signs which commonly accompany ‘end times’ prophecies are exactly the sort of things we see and hear around us today.  Wars and rumours of wars.  Famines and earthquakes.  And plagues.  No biblical writer ever heard of COVID-19….but after the ‘hell on earth’ of 2020, we know all about plagues!

War.  Famine.  Earthquakes and sickness.  These are the Big Four – the things which have the most potential to disrupt our comfortable existences.  These are the four major events that human beings feel most powerless about, on an individual level.  But it is our very impotence in the face of such existential threats which offer the chance for God to break through.  Confronted by the reality of war, many people will seek peace.  Confronted by the reality of famine and earthquakes, many people will respond with charity.  Confronted by a plague, even politicians may come together in common purpose, and find the resources to help scientists find a vaccine.

You see, this is what God does.  He enters into the darkest corners of human existence, and by his presence he redeems us.  His spirit whispers ‘Make peace’ to the Generals who could unleash hell.  His spirit whispers ‘share your wealth’ to the rich nations, when famine or natural disaster strikes the poor.  His spirit whispers ‘come together, co-operate’ when pandemic plagues threaten the world.     

The most graphic example of Jesus turning darkness to light is perhaps the work of the Cross, transformed into Resurrection.  But that’s just the most graphic example.  For this work – of turning darkness into light, despair into hope, sickness into healing, war into peace…this is the work of Jesus, every day.  In this sense, Christ the King is truly on his throne – proclaiming through the Spirit of Truth the Laws of the Kingdom to all his subjects.  “Seek peace, give love, co-operate together and bind up the broken”.

So as we move towards the time of anticipation which Advent affords, let each of us ask ourselves whether we have truly heard and answered the call of the King of Kings.  Let each of us commit ourselves anew – let us be ‘stirred up’ (in the words of this week’s collect) to ‘seek peace, give love, co-operate together and bind up the broken’.  Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Christ the King - and a bit of 'woolly thinking'

 he Sheep and the Goats

Matthew 25: 31 - 46  - The Sheep and the Goats

[Jesus said:]‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’


As you know, today is the Feast of Christ the King – the Sunday before Advent.  Its put here, on the last Sunday of the church’s year, to remind us to keep our eyes fixed on the end of the story, even us as prepare to contemplate the beginning of the story at Christmas.  The humble babe of Bethlehem  was destined to be the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords…Christ the King.  To help us picture that ultimate destiny, Matthew gives us today’s story, of the separation of the sheep and the goats.  

When I say the word "sheep" to you - I daresay that you have a vision in your mind of something round and fluffy, with a big thick woolly jumper.  On the other hand, the word "goat" brings to mind something bigger, stronger, with a rough wiry coat, and big horns.  In fact, that was not the image that Jesus had in mind.

Something I’ve learned through my trips to Africa in recent years is that primitive breeds of sheep and goats are remarkably similar.  Woolly, English sheep, and strong wiry goats are the result of selective breeding over many centuries.  But in hotter countries, where thick wool would be a distinct encumbrance, there is only one way to tell the difference between a sheep and goat in a hurry… namely that sheep's tails point downwards, and goat's tails points up.

The story of the Sheep and the Goats comes at the end of a long section of Matthew's gospel, when Jesus has been talking about the End of All Things.  It all starts back in Matthew 24, when his disciples say to him "Tell us...what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"

So this parable, which is part of Jesus' response to their question, could easily start with the words "At the end of the age"...or, as we might say, "at the end of the day".  At the end of the day, this parable teaches us, there are only two kinds of people.  They are pretty similar, these people - it’s hard to tell them apart, in fact.  They all lead fairly normal lives, they marry, have children, go to work, watch Eastenders.  But there is a difference.  And the difference is found in the way that they relate to other people. 

All the people of the world, the sheep and the goats, are surrounded by others in need.  At the end of the day, the difference between the lost and the saved is indicated not by the way they look, but by the way they behave.  The difference is seen in the way they respond to the hungry, homeless, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned.  Jesus is saying "if you want to know who will be saved, look at the quality of a person's the decisions they make about others in need".

That is the heart of the story of the sheep and the goats.  At the "end of the age", at the "end of the day", how I have lived towards other people will show whether or not I have attained the salvation of my soul. Or to quote Jesus, earlier in Matthew’s account, “By their fruit shall ye know them”.

But of course, it’s not as simple as that.  How I have lived towards others is only an indicator. It is the outward sign of what’s going on inside of me.  Every human being is capable of being generous, from time to time. Adolf Hitler was famous among his friends for the gifts he gave them.  

I wonder how many of us have supported Children in Need this year?  Good for you, if you did.  Nothing wrong with that, at all.  But woe to you, if that is all you have done for others this year!  I feel nothing but sorrow for those who can only respond to the plight of others when it is put in front of them in graphic detail on the television.  My friends, such people are goats.  They are the ones who look like sheep, but whose obedience to the radical call of the Gospel is only skin deep. 

Becoming a sheep - a true believer, a true Christ-ian, takes a complete transformation of our inner being...or what the Bible calls being 'born again'.  Crucially, it takes a daily commitment to the abandonment of 'self'.  Earlier in Matthew's gospel, specifically Chapter 16, Jesus says this...listen to him:

"I anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?"

Salvation, or being 'born again’, is not achieved at a moment in time...just by saying a prayer.  It is the work of a lifetime, to keep on carrying our cross.  When Jesus died on the cross, he gave up his rights to everything, even the robe that he wore, and the life that he had.  But even while he was hanging there, he found time to forgive his executioners, make provision for his mother, and give a comforting word to a thief.  

When Jesus calls us to 'take up our cross', he means that for us to find salvation, we need to embrace that kind of radical giving.  And then, when the moment of testing comes (as it did for Jesus) the way we find ourselves behaving will be the best indicator of the kind of person we are.  

And of whether our tail points up or down.  


Thursday, November 19, 2020

St Hilda and the Battle for Unity

 Hilda is a name we don’t encounter very often these days.  In fact, I only know one Hilda within my entire circle of friends and church members.  Few of us who are older than 50 can hear the name without remembering the infamous Hilda Ogden, of Coronation Street – a strong, forceful character, with a piercing voice, who made the life of her poor husband Stanley rather complicated!

But, in fact, the name Hilde has a long and proud history in the British Isles.  Originally it was a Viking name, and it meant ‘battle’.  Not a bad name for the fictional Hilda Ogden – who picked plenty of fights with Stan and her neighbours!  But perhaps it’s an even better name for the saint whose memory we honour today – St Hilda of Whitby.

Hilda was a relative of the King of Northumbria, who established a monastic community somewhere near Whitby.  She was much loved by her community, and highly venerated in her life-time as a wise and compassionate leader.  As such she battled against rural poverty and ignorance, and battled to establish her community of love and learning. She is known as a patron of the arts, because – in particular – she fostered the music of a sheep-herder called Caedmon.

But she is perhaps most famous for playing a large part in an important gathering of the early British Church, which took place in the year 664…known as the Synod of Whitby.  At the time, the Church had already been well-established in the British Isles – since at least the first century after Christ.  In fact, medieval scholars asserted that the first Bishop of Britain was a man called Aristobulus – who was believed to have been one of the 70 disciples, sent out two-by-two by Jesus himself.  Since those early days, the church had flourished, all across the British Isles.  The names of great Saints like David, Patrick, Aden, Alban and Cuthbert come down to us from those years.  But, being somewhat distant from Rome, and especially after the fall of the Roman Empire, British Christianity had developed as a somewhat distinct version of Christianity, with many of its own local traditions.

But in the year 597, Pope Gregory sent Augustine, from Rome, with a brief to evangelise first the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Kent (who were said to be a pretty Godless lot, apparently).  Then, once established at Canterbury, Augustine set off to bring the rest of British Christianity fully under the authority of the Roman church.  Many British Christians were not too happy about this.  We Brits don’t take kindly to attempts to rule us from other European cities!  Great debates ensued, about the supremacy of Rome as the seat of St Peter, on whom Jesus had said he would build his church.  One particular focus for this debate was on how to calculate the date of Easter.  Different parts of the British Isles celebrated Easter on different days – depending on what calculation they used.  That meant that some Dioceses in Britain were cheerfully proclaiming Easter, while others were still in the solemnity of Lent.  The Kingdom of Northumbria, and especially the Episcopal See of Lindisfarne, was one such place.

So, the Synod of Whitby was called, by the King of Northumbria – King Oswiu.  After much debate, it was agreed that Northumbria would fall into line with the practices of the Roman Church.  In reality, the Synod of Whitby was just one of many such gatherings at that time, and part of a process of harmonising the British Church with the historical Mother Church of Rome.  But, some revisionist historians like to point to the Whitby Synod as a pivotal moment when a native, Celtic church came ‘under the heel’ of its more powerful Roman neighbour.   The truth is rather more complicated – as the truth so often is.  But those who fear the exercise of power over the British Isles from foreign capitals often point to the Synod of Whitby as a kind of ‘re-enslavement’ to Europe, like the earlier enslavement under the Emperor Tiberius…an enslavement which was only undone by Henry the Eighth, nearly 900 years later.

St Hilda played an important part in the Synod. And it was perhaps her greatest battle.  As a senior leader in the Northumbrian church, she spent much of the following years persuading and cajoling those around her to accept their place within a worldwide, or ‘catholic’, church.  In that sense, Hilda’s battle was for unity.  She longed for the body of Christ to be one – clearly and powerfully speaking with one voice, and being prepared to give up some individualistic practices and traditions for the sake of the greater good.  It was her defence of the Roman Church’s right to rule, while still being proudly a British Christian, which means that she is venerated as much today in the Catholic church as she is in the churches of the Islands of Britain.

St Hilda then, stands as a focus of Unity – for the worldwide church, as well as for political unity (remembering that the church of her time was much more than a purely religious authority).  That makes her a challenging saint for us Brits to contemplate (and indeed venerate) – especially while we anticipate Britain’s present attempt to free itself, once again, from the perceived shackles of another European super-power.  

On Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, when we will ponder what it might mean for the whole of creation to come under the Lordship of Christ.  In the meantime, the battle for Unity of St Hilda of Whitby might offer us some food for thought.


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Talents and abilities

 Matthew 25.14-30.  Here's the passage, first:

‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 

And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 

But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”


I’m sure that most of us who have heard a sermon on this passage will immediately associate it with money – and especially with giving money to the church!  But I already do quite enough begging for God’s mission in Havant!  So I’d like to broaden things out a bit.

As many of you will know, I teach that context is everything.  We need to understand the context of the original speaker of any words, the context of the person who wrote them down, and our own context as hearers.  Context, context, context – the three C’s.

For the first of these (the context of the speaker) let see where this passage figures in Jesus’ story.  The Parable of the Talents is part of a long sermon from Jesus about the end of the world.  From the beginning of chapter 24, Jesus does these things:

- he foretells the destruction of the Temple, 

- he describes the signs that will be seen at the 'end of the age',  

- he predicts the persecutions of the Christians, 

- he foretells the coming of false messiahs and prophets

- he describes the 'coming of the Son of Man'

And then he tells a number of parables to illustrate and underline the kind of behaviour that he expects from his followers while we await the end of all things.  

- He uses the illustration of a fig tree, whose tender leaves foretell the coming of summer to encourage us to be watchful. 

- Then Jesus talks about the kind of lives that he expects his followers to live, while awaiting the end of the age.  They are to be those whom the Master finds 'at work' when he arrives - not eating and drinking with drunkards, but 'at work' about their Master's business.  

- Then comes the story of the Ten Bridesmaids, that we heard last week - another encouragement to be prepared and watchful for the coming of the Lord.  

-        Then - at the end of all that! - comes today's story of the parable of the Talents, which we'll deal with in a moment.  

- Finally, the whole section concludes with Jesus famous story of the end of time, when the sheep will be separated from the Goats - when those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and who visited the sick will be separated for all eternity from those who did not.

Can you see the context in which the Parable of the Talents sits?  The narrative force of the whole section is one of pointing us to the end of days, the end of the age, the Second Coming of the Messiah.  And this is where the second context comes in – the context of the writer, or the recorder of a person’s word.  Matthew seems convinced that the end of the world was going to happen very soon.  He even records Jesus saying that the end of the world will take place while some of his followers are still alive.  (Which is an interesting theological conundrum that we’ll leave for another day!).  

According to Matthew’s understanding – Matthew’s context - Jesus is coming again!  Let me say that one more time...Jesus is coming again!  It’s something we declare in the 'mystery of faith' during every Communion service...'Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again'.  It is a central tenant of our faith that we believe the Kingdom of God to be both among us now, but also yet to come in all its fullness.  That, of course, is a subject for a whole sermon of its own.  So we won’t dwell there for now.  

The point is that while we wait for the Master, according to the parables, we are to be busy about our Father’s business.  And that, finally, is OUR context.   Whatever skills and abilities we have, whatever wealth we have been given in financial terms or in terms of abilities, Jesus the Master expects us to use them in his service.  We are not to bury them.  We are to grab every opportunity to use the gifts we have been given for the work of the Master.

What does this mean in practical terms?  Let me quote theologian, Fred Craddock.  He says this…

“Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake.  More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home...teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice and feed the neighbour’s cat.  “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much”.  (Fred B, Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990. 193))

So, I want to encourage each of you to spend some time this week thinking about that very question.  Go into a quiet place, and let your mind wander free through God's mission field.  Is there a homeless person who needs your care?  Is there a friend or family member who would be SO uplifted to receive a call from you?  Is there a function within the family of the church that you could carry out...but which you have ignored for a while?  Is there some money you could give to alleviate the suffering of another human being, or expand God’s mission in Havant?

And let me finally, ask you to ask that question with the kind of urgency that Matthew wants his readers to hear.  What will the Master say to you when he comes?  Will you be one of his 'wicked and lazy slaves'?  Or will he call you his 'good and faithful servant' and cry 'well done!  Enter into the joy of your Master!'?  


Thursday, November 12, 2020

On the road to freedom....for ALL God's children


Paul's Letter to Philemon 7–20

I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.  I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.

Luke 17.20–25

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’

Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, “Look there!” or “Look here!” Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation.


It is a sobering fact that the Bible appears to support the idea of slavery.  In the letter to Philemon, which we’ve just heard, Paul begs his brother (that is Philemon) to accept back into his service one Onesimus, a slave.  Presumably, Onesimus had run away from Philemon, and then found himself serving Paul, during his imprisonment.  Along the way, Onesimus had become a Christian – and Paul appeals to Philemon:  ‘please take back Onesimus, not just as a slave, but as a Christian brother.’

This is rather shocking to us.  Paul does not appear to condemn the idea of slavery itself. Instead he simply asserts that, because he is a Christian, Onesimus is more than a slave.  The issue of his slavery is not at question. At all.

This passage was one of the key reasons why it took so many years for the British Empire to abolish slavery.  After all, if slavery appears to be perfectly acceptable in the Bible, why should slave owners feel any guilt about it?  (Or so the slave owners argued).  It took years and years of patient exposition, mainly by the likes of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, to persuade the British Parliament and people that there were higher biblical principles at play.  They reminded them that slavery was simply considered ‘normal’ in Biblical times.  No-one questioned it – even the slaves, mainly, accepted it.  It was just the way things were.  But Jesus brought about a transformation in the way that human beings began to think of themselves, especially in relation to one another.  He invited us to see ourselves as sisters and brother of the same heavenly Father.  And, later on, Paul himself would write that we are all equal before God.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3.28)

The letter to Philemon then, arises at a time when such thinking was only beginning to percolate.  The Good News of Jesus for all humankind was only just beginning to take root.  The Holy Spirit was only just beginning to nudge humanity towards the Kingdom.  And writings like the letter to Philemon are a snap-shot in that process…. they are like a still-frame photo of an opening flower.  Half open, but not yet fully revealed.

And that’s the danger of using any Scripture to justify any kind of hatred or antagonism towards others.  Scripture only ever offers us a snapshot in time.  It is a snapshot of what people OF that time thought about God.  In the Hebrew Bible, that includes snapshots of a time when people thought that God wanted the Hebrews to forcibly possess the lands of other tribes.  It’s a time when they thought that God wanted parents to stone their own children for blasphemy at the city gates.  It’s a time when the people thought that the world was made in six days, and that God insisted that no-one should wear cloth made from two different types of fabric!  (Bad news for anyone wearing a poly-cotton shirt today!).  It’s from a time when people thought that God could be contained in a Temple, or that he lived on top of a mountain.

The New Testament is also a product of its time.  It’s from a time when slavery was considered the normal way to structure a society.  It’s from a time when Paul could say that he would never permit a woman to speak in church…and get away with it!  It’s from a time when a woman was commanded to obey her husband, rather than form a partnership of equals.  It’s from a time when non-binary relationships were still considered a sin, and not an inevitable consequence of a gloriously diverse creation.

But since those days, as we move inexorably towards the end of all things, and the coming of the Son of Man, the Holy Spirit has continued His work among God’s people.  Slavery has been abolished – in every legal sense (although it still exists, illegally, tragically, underground).  The status of women as priests and bishops, writers, artists and business people has been made legally equal to men – at least in most of the Reformed Churches and Western nations.  And now, the last of the great taboos – the appalling treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and other non-binary people – is at last rising to the top of the heap.

Which is why I delight in the fact that this week, the Church of England has launched an exciting new initiative, to listen again – with even more attentiveness – to the experience of people who experience their bodies in ways that are different to the majority.    The Bible teaches us – right throughout its pages that we are on a trajectory of change…leading towards a future, glorious day, when EVERY knee will bow at the throne of the God of Love.  The Holy Spirit has led us, along the way, to work hard to rid ourselves of slavery, of racism, of sexism, and paternalism.  My prayer is that in the coming months and years, we will also say goodbye to homophobia….and embrace the truer, deeper reality that we are ALL made in the image of God.  Amen.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Remembrance 2020

It is our enormous privilege, here at St Faith’s, to host Havant Borough Council’s Civic Service of Remembrance each year.  And that’s because outside these walls we also have the privilege of hosting the Havant War Memorial – built by public subscription in 1922.  This year, the pandemic has caused us to radically change our approach – but we look forward to gathering again, next year, with thousands of our neighbours, to commemorate the Fallen.

It would be inappropriate to say that I enjoy this service, each year.  How can one enjoy the necessity of remembering all those who have given their lives for us?  But I do confess to gaining a certain satisfaction from our annual gathering.

Why?  Because this is one time in the year when we lay aside our politics, our arguments about the Havant Regeneration Plan, or Brexit, or the handling of the Pandemic, or any number of other contentious issues – and we come together, as a community, to say ‘thank you’ to the Fallen.

It is a strange irony that War, and its effects, has a way of bringing communities together.  We stand united against a common foe.  Or we stand united in grief and commemoration.  There’s something about war – its scale, its sheer horror -  which causes us to lay aside our petty differences, our political, theological and philosophical struggles – and to come together.  It is sometimes only during war that the very worst – and the very best – of humanity gets seen.  

We all know about the very worst, of course.  The awful machines of war – the tanks, and the machine guns which can mow down a whole platoon in seconds. But the best of humanity can also be seen.  Human ingenuity.  The coming together of communities like the East End of London during the Blitz.  Great art, poetry and music.  Leaps in medical and scientific knowledge.  The common endeavour of capitalists and socialists, monarchists and republicans, black and white, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh (for all of them fought with the Allies in the Great War).   And, perhaps above all, the best of humanity is shown by the willingness of human beings to lay down their lives for their families and communities.

When you think about it, that’s an extraordinary thing to do.  In what other circumstance would you, or me, be prepared to give up our life for another?  Let’s say, for example, that you learned today of a neighbour who was dying of a serious heart condition.  But then you learn that this neighbour’s life could be saved, if you (or me) were willing to give them our own heart – but only by dying first.  Which of us would be willing?  Who would raise their hand and say ‘take my heart!’?

War, then, is the ultimate canvass on which to paint the very worst and very best of humanity.  It is perhaps why war is so deeply embedded in the human condition, and reflected throughout all the great religious scriptures of the world.  Our wars reflect the cosmic battle between good and evil.  The battle between light and dark, fought out all around us in space.  The battle between growth and decay – between the gravity that binds, and the entropy which destroys.  The battle, if you will, between God and the Devil.

For Christians, this battle was supremely fought in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.  He demonstrated that greatest trait of humanity – the willingness to lay one’s life down for one’s friends.  Jesus volunteered for the suicide mission of the Cross.  He knew what the result of going to Jerusalem would be.  He warned his followers, in advance, that he would be taken down by the elite political powers of the day.  And yet, he stepped forward.  He allowed the very worst that human beings can do to each other to overwhelm him…and then, and then, the power of his sacrifice over-came all that death and suffering.  By rising from the dead, he demonstrated that the very best instincts of humanity CAN overcome the very worst.

Jesus announced the coming of a new kind of world – or as he called it, a new kind of ‘Kingdom’.  It was a world in which the greatest traits of humanity would not just be shown in the crucible of War – but in everyday life.  He called his followers to lives of sacrifice for others…not just on the battle-field any longer, but in everyday living.  He called his followers to be prepared to pour out their lives for others, just as he had done.

And what was the result?  The flowering of the best of humanity, flowing from the heart of God.  The Christian church – like all the great religions, became the home of charity.  Great universities of learning, advances in medical science, superlative art – music, poetry, drama.  And the very principle of giving, sacrificially to others – all these flowed from the example of Jesus.

Of course, it was not always rosy.  The cosmic battle between good and evil was fought, and continues to be fought, in the crucible of the church as much as in the rest of the world.  Powerful men gained control of the levers of power, and corrupted the teachings of the Founder.  Power was mis-used to dominate, to fight, to tear down – to even burn each other at the stake.  Because that’s what we human beings do.  We relish the battle.  War is found at our core.  Religion became not the anti-dote to war, but sometimes the cause of it.

Does that mean that we should have nothing to do with religion, anymore?  Of course not.  We do not judge a religion by the stupidity of its followers.  We judge it by the teachings of its Founder.  And in the case of Christianity, the Founder said this:

“Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself”


“No-man has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends”


“The Kingdom of heaven is among you”

So, today we give thanks for the sacrifices of the past, sometimes compelled by conscription and fears but often offered willingly.  And we find that we too are called to demonstrate the very best traits of humanity.  We too are called to lives of sacrifice for others.  We too are called to be prepared to lay down our preferences, our prejudices, our wealth, our abilities and, yes, even our lives in the service of all humanity.

For that is the example set for us by the Fallen, and the call of the God who sacrificed everything for us.


Thursday, November 5, 2020

Anxiety, panic and fretting...


Philippians 3.3–8a

For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ


Luke 15.1–10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’


So…another Lockdown eh?  I don’t know about you, but I confess to a certain level of rising anxiety this week.  I’m find myself anxious about a lot of things.  There’s the Lockdown, of course…I’m anxious about the number of rising infections.  Will I fall victim to this virus?  Will my family?  Or any of my parishioners and friends?  This week, I’ve been especially anxious about doing the right thing for our Remembrance Sunday commemorations.  And I’ve been anxious about how we can continue to pay our parish bills, with all our ways of making money closing down again.

But I’m anxious about other things too.  Like the state of world politics, especially in the United States right now (as we wait for the results of the presidential election).  But our own British politics gives enough cause for anxiety, don’t they?  We are only weeks away from the end of the Brexit transition period.  What’s going to happen? 

Today is, of course, November the 5th.  So that adds a new layer of anxiety – especially for those of us who have pets or very small children.  We want to protect them from the stupidity of letting off fireworks – usually by people who have no idea who Guy Fawkes was!

Anxiety is, of course, a normal human reaction to the changing circumstances of life.  It’s part of our natural protection mechanism.  We cast around for threats to our security, or comfort.  We are on our guard…and that makes us anxious.  We become more alert…less likely to sleep…and therefore more anxious. 

In our first reading, St Paul describes the kind of anxiety that he has lived with, all his adult life.  There’s an almost Trumpian level of boasting on display as he talks about all the ways that he tried to work himself up into being acceptable to God.  He was ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church; righteous under the law and blameless.  (You can just hear Donald Trump at this end of that list can’t you?  ‘No-one has ever been more righteous-er than me!’).

There’s a lot of anxiety on display in today’s Gospel reading, too.  First, there’s the anxiety of the Pharisees and scribes.  They were anxious about this new charismatic preacher in their midst, who appeared to be leading people away from their way of doing religion.  They were anxious about losing their authority – losing their power base.

And then, in Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, his main characters display anxiety too.  The shepherd is anxious about his lost sheep – so much so that he leaves all his others, to go in search of the one who was lost. The woman who has lost a silver coin is anxious.  How will she feed her family, or have dignity in her old age, when she has lost her coin?

Both the shepherd and the woman are offered to us as pictures of God.  Now, we need to be careful about making God in our image – but there is a sense in which Jesus sees God as being anxious about the spiritual fate of his children.  The Scriptures in general give us a picture of a God whose whole being is anxiously focussed on the salvation of humanity.  He seems anxious to communicate his wisdom for living, sending prophet after prophet to teach us his ways.  When that stratagem fails, he sends his son – his very self in human form – to teach us from his own mouth, and then to die in order to show us the way to life.

And ultimately, it’s God’s sheer passion – anxiety if you will – for his children which saves us.  Paul ultimately discovers that all anxiety about faith, all his chasing after righteousness was ‘rubbish’ compared to the experience of finding out that God loves us, anyway.  We have no need to try and earn God’s favour – because he is already favourable towards us.  He loves us…enough to have come to live among us, and die among us.  For, what greater love is there than this…that a man should lay down his life for his friends?  This is the kind of God who will search out the lost sheep, or the valuable lost coin.  This is the kind of Father who stretches out his hands to his children and says ‘Come unto me, all ye who travail and are heavy laden…even in a pandemic, even when the politics of the world are in chaos, even when the climate is catastrophically changing…and I will give you rest.

So, to my own present anxiety, and to yours, I say this:  let us use the coming days to rest in the Lord.  Let’s stop chasing after the things of creation which we think will make us happy, and look to the source of all creation instead.  Let’s take time to rest in the loving gaze of our heavenly father, to contemplate his teachings, and receive the power of his love.






Sunday, November 1, 2020

All Saints 2020


1 John 3.1–3

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Matthew 5.1–12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


Those of you who have suffered my sermons for a few years will know that I always look forward to All Saint’s Day.  It gives me an opportunity to rehearse my list of funny and quirky saints – most of which I have culled from a book by the priest and broadcaster, Richard Coles, called ‘Lives of the Improbable Saints’.

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.  It’s a great name isn't it?  It refers to the belief that the bodies of certain martyred saints secrete a sweet smelling liquid from their wounds.  Apparently, St Theophilus’ body did just that, in copious amounts!

Then there's St Isodore, who in the 1980s was designated the patron saint of the Internet –because he was a scholar and compiler of information.  I like to 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?!"

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."

All these Saints are jolly good fun, but there is more than 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 let’s not forget 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 it’s a bit early in the morning for that!

So, All Saints is a good time to be reminded of extraordinary lives of the Saints who now ’from their labours rest’ - as we shall sing at the end of our service today.  But are there saints among us now?  

The Bible refers to all true believers as ‘saints’.  So the answer to my question must be ‘yes…there are saints among us today’.  There are, and must be, those who in the words of John’s first letter which we heard just now, are ‘children of God’.  They are those who yearn and hope for the final revelation of Christ, so that they can become more and more like him.  They are those who constantly seek to purify themselves, because Christ is pure.

Or, if you prefer, from Jesus’ lips in the Sermon on the Mount, the saints – the blessed ones - are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  They are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart.

But is that me?  Is that you?

Our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox church have an insight to offer.  They teach that all Christians have the potential to become so like Christ that they can become kinds of gods themselves.  Orthodox theology calls that process ‘deification’ – and it’s a goal for which all of us are encouraged to strive.  

But what does it look like, in practice?  Much has been made recently of the sainthood of the medical profession, tirelessly exerting themselves on behalf of the COVID-suffering population.  Other saints have been recognised by awards and honours – like Captain Sir Tom Moore, and Marcus Rashford MBE.  And locally, our own wonderful Sandra Haggan, recently recognised by the Spring’s awards programme.  Hmm…St Sandra.  I like that!  

But are saints measured by what they do?  Yes, of course…to an extent.  The true nature of our heart is often demonstrated by our actions.  But what about those who cannot do anything?  Is it possible to be a saint who is tied by illness to the hospital bed, or trapped at home by being shielded from COVID?  Well, I want to say ‘yes’ to them too.  Being a living saint is not just about what we do.  It’s about who we are.  To be a saint is to become more and more like God.  

But how?

Well, here’s a way of thinking about an answer to that question.  There’s been a thought winging its way around social media recently.  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”.  On the face of it, it’s a nice thing to have said – essentially ‘all that matters is how we treat each other’.   

But it’s not a particularly Christian thing to have said.  Being nice is not an exclusively Christian virtue.  Jesus calls his followers beyond human nice-ness.  He calls us to extraordinary love, in the pursuit of holiness.  If Jesus had written that ’meme’, he might have added – “It doesn’t even matter how you treat me.  Even when you insult me, or beat me, or kill me...I will still love you”.  

Christian love is the kind that says ‘Father forgive them’, even when ‘they’ are nailing you to a cross.  Christian love is unconditional – like the love of Jesus, who we strive to be like.  It is a love which does not stop even when, like St Faith, we are being tied to a roasting griddle iron. Or as Christians in Nice encountered this week, being knifed by a religious extremist.  It’s a love which sees beyond the poor behaviour and poor choices of failing human beings, and which begins to see all humanity as God sees us – children - who often fall down, and constantly need picking up and hugging from time to time.  

Now of course, I realise what a challenge it would be to continue to offer love to a knife-wielding madman, or an abuser of children, or a corrupt politician.  Simple common sense says that, of course, society needs protecting from this kind of behaviour.  But hate is never the right response.  Hate only produces more hate.  The ONLY possible remedy against hate, is love.  It won’t always work – but it’s the only path worth even trying.  And it’s the path of Jesus.  It’s the path of holiness.  It’s the path of saint-hood.

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 Thomas of Havant....has a bit of ring to it….

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