Sunday, February 27, 2022

Turning towards the Cross. Quinquagesima Sunday.


Exodus 3.1-6

John 12.27-36a

Quinquagesima. It’s a lovely word to get your tonsils round, isn’t it? Say it with me … Quinquagesima. That’s the ancient Latin name given to this Sunday, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday. What does it mean?  It ought to mean something really exotic, didn’t it? You know, something like “the Feast of St Quinqua, holder of the golden orb of Gesima, slayer of dragons, and defender of the poor”.

I’m afraid not.  It just means ‘fiftieth’. Today marks the fact that in 50 days from now, we will celebrate the rising of Christ from the tomb at Easter.

But hang on. Some of you are doing the math, and thinking to yourselves ‘that can’t be right! If Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, and its 40 days long, how can today be 50 days from Easter?

That’s because many of us forget that the 40 days of Lent do not include the seven Sundays of Lent. Sundays are days of celebration – each one a mini-Easter, during which the triumph of Christ over the grave is remembered and praised. They are also days of relief from the strictures of Lent. So for those of us who face the prospect of 40 days of abstinence with dread, the church kindly provides us with one day in seven when we are permitted to eat chocolate, or drink that glass of beer!  Then add the three days from today until Ashe Wednesday - and there is your 50 days until Easter.

More importantly than any ecclesiastical numbering system, today’s focus is really on the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. Our Gospel reading of this morning reminded us of how Jesus met on the mountain with Moses and Elijah – The Lawgiver and the ultimate Prophet (before Jesus himself). They strengthened him and encouraged him for the journey ahead…the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

This evening’s readings pick up the same theme.  From Exodus, we hear the story of Moses’ first encounter with the Divine, at the burning bush.  His face doesn’t glow, as it did later when he met God on Mount Sinai, but there is awe and wonder in this first encounter.

In the New Testament reading, which was a Gospel reading, we observe Jesus at prayer.  He is puzzling and worrying over the mission to which God has called him, and seeking God’s affirmation that he is on the right path.  All he seeks is to glorify God, and, in typical Hebrew fashion, to glorify the Name of God.  And God replies from heaven that, ‘Yes, I have glorified it – and I will do it again’!

Quite what God means, when he says he has already glorified his name, is somewhat opaque.  It could include any number of times in the past when God has been true to his word and his promises, rescued his people, or sent them aid from heaven (in the form of prophets, leaders and Jesus himself).  These are all actions with glorify God’s Name, by making the very name of God something which can be trusted, and relied upon.  But Jesus has a clear understand of what glorifying God’s Name in the future means…

The Transfiguration is a turning point.  It’s a pivot-moment between Jesus’ ministry of preaching and teaching, and his ministry of salvation which is about to unfold in Jerusalem.  It is such a pivotal point that in Mark’s gospel, the Transfiguration story appears right in the centre of his narrative.  It’s as though we are asked to note everything that Jesus has said and taught up to that point, but we are invited to really focus on what is about to happen.

 In John’s gospel (our reading of today) Jesus, himself, gives us the focal-point for our attention on the future.  He says “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself”.  In doing so, he refers back to a statement made in chapter 3, referencing a story about Moses.  You might remember it…   

The Israelites had been struck down by a plague, because of their disobedience (again!  They never seemed to learn, did they?).  To re-build their trust, God commanded Moses to fashion a serpent, out of bronze, and to lift it up on a stick for everyone to see.  Anyone who gazed upon the serpent, lifted up, would be healed – and their trust in God renewed.  (That, by the way, is why the medical profession still uses the image of a serpent on a stick as a sign of healing – look out for it, around pharmacies and the like).

Jesus describes his own ‘lifting up’ as being like the lifting of the serpent on a stick.  In John chapter 3, he says this:
            “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

This, is the focus that all the Gospel writers want us to see.  In Jesus’s story, everything moves towards the Cross.  When Jesus is lifted up on the Cross, his sacrifice, his love for humanity, his willingness to give his all for us – this has the effect of drawing us to him.  And, by believing in him, which means by following him, by living as he calls us to live, by trusting in his teachings, and his way, we too can find the path to eternal life.

Eternal life, the life of heaven, is reflected in the face of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.  And eternal life is promised to all of us who gaze, lovingly, willingly, faithfully, upon the face of Christ lifted up.

So, as we move towards Easter, a quinquagesima from now, through the 40 days (and seven Sundays!) of Lent, let us prepare our hearts to meditate once more on the deep, profound mystery and the glory of the Cross. 


Putin - ignoring his religion

A sermon on the Transfiguration of Jesus, during the invasion of Ukraine by Putin of Russia 


2 Corinthians 3.12 - 4.2

Luke 9.28-36[37-43a]

There is a story told in Kiev, (or ‘Keev’ as we’re now learning to say it) of how Orthodox religion came to the Ukraine and then Russia.  In the year 987, according to legend, Prince Vladimir the Great, had established a Kingdom for himself, more or less in the landmass of Ukraine today.  It was a time of many religions, and expressions of those religions, competing with one another for dominance (much like today, in fact).  Prince Vladimir, however, is said to have believed that the choice of a single religion, promoted from his throne, would be a unifying force for his new Kingdom. 

So Vladimir sent emissaries to study the religions of the various neighbouring nations.  The result was described in legendary terms by the chronicler Nestor. According to this version, the envoys reported of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga there was ‘no gladness among them’.  Their religion also included a prohibition against alcohol, which was a problem.  As Vladimir is said to have exclaimed, "But, drinking is the joy of the Rus'."  Russian sources also describe Vladimir as consulting with Jews.  But he ultimately rejected their religion on the grounds that the loss of Jerusalem was evidence that they had been abandoned by God.  Ultimately, Vladimir settled on Christianity.

In the Catholic churches of the Germans Vladimir's emissaries saw no beauty. On the other hand, at Constantinople, the ritual and beautiful architecture of the Orthodox Church deeply impressed them. "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported, describing a majestic liturgy in Hagia Sophia. The splendour of the church itself was such that "we know not how to tell of it."  Their words have echoes of the experience of the Disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration.

Vladimir was no doubt duly impressed by this account of his envoys.  But he may have been even more aware of the political gains he would receive from an alliance with Byzantine Empire.  Whatever the truth of the tale, Vladimir was baptized, in Crimea.  Returning to Kiev, he destroyed pagan monuments and established many churches, including the famous monasteries on Mt. Athos.

This is, of course, just one of the many stories which act as ‘founding myths’ of the Orthodox Church of ‘the Rus’ – the ethnic group who gave their name to the likes of Russia, and Belarus.  Arab sources, both Muslim and Christian, present a rather more straightforward, story of political alliances.  But I rather like the story of those envoys, reporting back from observing worship in Hagia Sophia – reporting that they couldn’t tell whether they had arrived in heaven.  At its best, you see, great worship, beautifully done, has the power to transport us.  It offers us a doorway into a different, heavenly reality. 

Now, I don’t claim that we achieve such ‘transport of delight’ every time we worship together here – but sometimes, yes, sometimes, I feel that we get close to it.  The best of our worship, when the choir and congregation are singing their hearts out, when the organ is thundering, the flowers are blooming, the sun-light is streaming…at those moments we can sometimes feel transported at least into the gateway of heaven.  Sometimes, we can even glimpse what it must have been like for those disciples, on the Mount of Transfiguration, when the doorway between earth and heaven was open for a brief while.

The Orthodox Church has a unique perspective on the process of spiritual transformation.  They teach the doctrine of ‘deification’, by which we can become more and more like God through God’s grace and divine influence. 

Orthodoxy reminds us that we are all made in the image of God (as stated in the first chapter of the whole Bible).  So, all humanity is by nature an icon, or an image of God.  Awe-inspiring worship, living godly lives, constant prayer for being filled with God’s Spirit, these are all means by which we can become ‘deified’ – more and more like God, in whose image we are made.  The shining, transfigured face of Jesus on the mountain, and of Moses before him, are signs to us that such transformation is indeed possible.  If Jesus and Moses, our brothers, can shine with divine energy – then we too, can be changed from glory into glory (as Paul wrote to the Corinthians).   Perhaps this is something of what Vladimir the Great’s envoys glimpsed in the great church of Hagia Sophia, all those centuries ago.  Perhaps they glimpsed heaven in the shining faces of the worshippers all around them.

However, another Vladimir swims into view, when we contemplate the story of the nations around the Black Sea.  Vladimir Putin claims to be a Christian.  He wears an orthodox crucifix.  He attends worship, and he has restored and strengthened Orthodox churches all over Russia.  And yet, his most recent actions cause us to wonder whether he has truly taken to heart the Orthodox doctrine of ‘deification’. 

For ‘deification’ requires us to recognise the image of God in every other human being.  And if every human being is an icon of God, then we must surely treat every human being with the same reverence as we have for God.  Only a non-believer could bomb a church (a house of God) without remorse.  So what about the home of any human being who carries the image of God.  Every bomb which drops on the Ukraine at the present time is a dagger in the heart of God.  Every soldier who obeys the command to fire upon his brother or sister in such a conflict as this, is trampling on the face of God.

All of Putin’s rhetoric of recent days has served to dehumanise, and de-deify, those he claims to be in conflict with him.  Whether it’s the Western powers, or the ‘neo-nazis’ and ‘nationalists’ he claims have taken over the Ukraine.  Such language strips away humanity, and with it, the image of God in each one.  If we make our enemy less human to us, it is so much easier to kill him.

Putin is not alone in this tendency, though.  We also do it, whenever we label another human-being with a pejorative term.  Words like the infamous ‘N-word’, or ‘migrant’, or ‘drunk’, or ‘tramp’ -  these are the politest words I can think of (among many much more ugly words) which all serve to mask the real humanity in front us, and to hide the image of God.

So, while we pray unceasingly for the people of Ukraine, today, please join me, as well, in praying for Vladimir Putin, and all those who blindly follow his lead.  Let us pray that he will receive a fresh conversion into the faith he claims to follow, and that he will cease his murderous attack on his neighbours – his brothers and sisters.  If he will not, let us pray that the power he has to stamp on the face of God will be removed from his grasp. 

And let us pray that he, and we, will recognise and respond to the icon, the image, of God in every human life that we encounter.  Amen.



Thursday, February 24, 2022

Being a Christian is tough!


James 5.1–6

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.  Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten.  Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter.  You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

Mark 9.41–end

For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

‘For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’



“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’”

We are moving towards the season of Lent.  This Sunday will be Quinquagesima Sunday – marking 50 days until Easter.  And as Lent looms, and war breaks out in Europe, the Lectionary leads us into some pretty tough Scriptures.

The Bible is full of comfort, and promise.  But it has a hard edge, too.  It expects great things from people of faith.  Let no-one tell you that the life of faith is an easy option!  It demands things from us which are rarely asked of human beings today.  It demands selflessness, sacrifice, charity, discipline and focus.  At the same time, the world around us offers pleasure, riches, reward, and personal satisfaction.

This is, frankly, a tough sell.  Sometimes, people warn me not to bang on too hard about sacrifice, selflessness, and discipline, for fear of spooking the horses – or being a stumbling-block to new believers.   Today’s readings definitely come in the category of hard teachings.  There is little to comfort us here. 

James seems to be foaming at the mouth over the iniquity of the rich!  “The wages of the labourers which you kept back by fraud, cry out”, he warns.  “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you”.  James has clearly got it in for the wealthy of his time!  He knows that wealthy people bear a huge responsibility for the way they use their wealth. 

Today, for example, in the fields of the Ukraine, we see that it is not poor Slavic peasants who have enabled the war that has broken out.  War takes wealth, to buy weapons and equip troops.  War requires wealth in vast quantities.  And those who have appropriated the wealth of the Russian economy to themselves bear the greatest responsibility for the war now taking place.

Then Jesus comes to us, through Mark’s gospel, with dire warnings of the cost of putting a stumbling block in anyone’s way.  What’s a stumbling block?  Well, essentially, it’s anything we might do which has the effect of turning another person away from God.  It is, perhaps, the ugly things we do; which people of faith should know to avoid.  At the extreme ends, a good example might be the awful crimes of abuse, which sometimes raise their ugly heads in and around churches (as well as most other organisations).  The consequences for the victims of such abuse are bad enough.  But other people instinctively find themselves put off from joining, or remaining in the church.  It’s a stumbling block.  It’s behaviour, by us, which puts other people off God. 

At the gentler end of things, however, we are all capable of erecting stumbling blocks.  I’ve known people who have left churches because they don’t like the gossip which goes on, sometimes, between church members.  Still others have left because of angry words exchanged between church members, who were supposed to be living in a covenant of Love with one another.  People who are thinking about whether to belong tend to say to themselves – “if that’s how Christians behave, what evidence is there that their faith has changed anything at all?  Why should I bother?” 

A stumbling block, then, is anything which causes another person to turn aside from the path of faith.  Which is why Jesus speaks in such firm metaphors.  “Jumping into a lake, with a millstone round your neck, would be better than causing any little ones to stumble in the faith”.

What does Jesus mean by a little one?  Perhaps he meant children – there would certainly have been children in the crowd.  But perhaps he also meant those whose faith was little.  Still growing.  Vulnerable and fragile.

And then Jesus turns his face towards the things we all do to undermine our own faith:  “Cut out your eye, or cut off your arm, if they are causing you to stumble in your own faith!”  In other words, Jesus says – “you need to deal with those sins of the body which pull you away from the life of faith.  An over-emphasis on satisfying bodily impulses perhaps?  A tendency to violence, laziness, or sloth?  Whatever the behaviour…if it gets in the way of your own progress along the narrow road of faith, cut it out!”

At the end of his stern warnings, though, comes a word of hope, from Jesus.  He reminds us of the value of salt.  A tiny thing, and yet something which flavours and preserves whole meals.  “Have salt in yourselves”, he says, “and be at peace with one another”.

Being at peace is a tough thing to ask of human beings – as we are seeing writ large in the Ukraine at the moment.  Being at peace with each other means forgiving one another, when we stumble.  It means being prepared to let insults go unanswered, and carelessness forgiven.  It surely means recognising that we are all ‘works in progress’ – and that none of us is Divine.  We are all going to fail, to stumble, at some point – and we need others, and God, to lift us up when we do.

One of the ways we lift each other up is by being salt, to one another.  By adding the flavour of love, forgiveness, charity and care for one another, we add flavour to the life of faith.  By lifting each other up, when we stumble, we mirror the action of God himself, who always longs to lift us up, and help us walk along the narrow way.  Ultimately, salt is the love of God, shared between the people of God.

Love is what binds us.  Love is what carries us forward.  Love adds flavour and depth to our relationships.  Love will ultimately save us, whether in our personal lives and interactions, or on the battlefields of the Ukraine.

So, as Lent approaches, I invite you to let God add salt to your life as a Christian.  Make a commitment to engage with the Lent programme, printed again in this week’s Chronicle.  Use the opportunity to re-kindle your own ‘saltiness’ – your own love for God and for each other – by taking the time to ponder and pray; to be challenged and strengthened by all that God, through Lent has to offer you.  I promise you – you’ll be glad if you do.  Amen.


Friday, February 18, 2022

A Sermon for Fairtrade Fortnight

Background Texts: James 2.14-25 & Matthew 5.13-20

Last Sunday, as I’m hoping you will recall, we thought about the topic of racial justice in general terms.  We sketched out some of the history of empires, which tend to collapse under the weight of exploitation.  This week, at the start of Fairtrade Fortnight, I want to focus on one way in which we can, together, do at least something about the racial and economic injustice in the world.

You’ll know, I’m sure, that I have strong connections to Africa, as a Canon to two Cathedrals in Ghana, (as well as Portsmouth Cathedral).  I’ve also spent some time in Uganda, studying the work of missionaries from the Church Mission Society.  As a result, I (and sometimes Clare too) have had the amazing experience of spending time in the wild African places.  I’ve had the privilege of seeking out the elusive Shoebill on the banks of the Ugandan Nile.  I’ve sat near a waterfall in Ghana, and listened to choruses of birds whose names I could only guess.  I’ve watched crocodiles sun-bathing, and hippos mud-bathing.  And I’ve watched bustling wildebeest jostle each other, and smaller creatures at the water-hole. 

So much of this beauty is under threat, at the present time.  But it is not just the wild places of earth which are in danger.  It’s also the lives of workers and farmers in places like Africa, as well as South America, and the entire Indian sub-continent.  And that’s because the wildebeest of the industrial countries have a tendency to jostle at the metaphorical water-holes of the world.  The biggest, strongest, fattest companies tend to push all the little ones aside, to get to the good stuff.  They step on the little farmer.  They push aside the small trader.  They buy up vast swathes of land, tear down ecological diversity, displace indigenous peoples, and fill the land with mono-culture plantations. 

One of hardest facts to absorb is that these farmers and workers who teeter on the edge of destruction are so often the ones who have, in fact, contributed least to the climate emergency which is affecting them.  Many indigenous farmers know their lands:  their techniques are often deeply eco-aware.  In Uganda, I witnessed a farming project, led by those CMS missionaries, which taught people how to rotate their crops, and manure their soil, to maintain long-term practices of eco-farming, in balance with nature.

But somehow, our economic system forces people, across the world, to ignore indigenous knowledge in pursuit of profits for multi-national corporations.  Such corporations are able to scale up the task of farming to such an extent that their products can be sold so much more cheaply than indigenously-produced food.  But, they do it by ploughing up forests, planting mono-culture fields, which quickly become unproductive.  So more forest has to be cut down, more land ploughed, and ever more environmental catastrophe created.  Indigenous farmers can’t sell their more expensive, well-produced, sustainable food…and so they go out of business.  In desperation to feed their families, they take jobs with the multi-nationals, and the spiral of decay continues.

But what can we do about this?  Us, here and now.  In this church.  Today.  One of the very few ways then that we have at our disposal is to address these wrongs is to choose Fairtrade. That is how, in the short term at any rate, we can work to improve the livelihoods of farmer and producers. We also know also that buying Fairtrade can assist farmers in their environmental adaptation. Fairtrade tries to provide farmers with a decent standard of living - enough to cover all their farming costs and enough to cover their basic human rights, like a nutritious diet, children’s education and healthcare.

Now, I know what some of you will say.  I’ve said it myself.  We say ‘but Fairtrade food tastes different’!  I know of an organisation, not too far from here, which has a Fairtrade coffee tin.  But it’s only the tin.  They actually buy commercially-produced coffee to put in it.  Their coffee drinkers think they are supporting Fairtrade…but actually they are just drinking the same old commercially-produced, cheaper stuff!  When I challenged that organisation on their practice, I was told ‘but no-one likes the taste of that Fairtrade stuff’.

Taste is, of course, acquired.  Over the first 30 years of our marriage, Clare always took sugar in her tea.  But one day, about five years ago, she decided to give it up.  Now, she couldn’t even sip a cup of tea with sugar in it.  Blurgh!  We can teach ourselves to accept new tastes, different textures – if we are convinced enough of the good reasons for doing it.

Something else we say is ‘but Fairtrade food is so expensive’?  Really?  Expensive compared to what?  How does the extra few quid here and there on Fairtrade food compare to what we spend on our Costa Coffee (for a single cup) our holidays, kitchen refurbishments, new cars, or gardening products?  Too expensive?  Really?

In the reading from the letter of James we heard just now, James reminds us that ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’.  There are many ways of working out our faith through good deeds.  But surely, one of the easiest ways is to make some kind choices when we walk along the supermarket shelves. 

Perhaps those Fairtrade bananas are a pound or two more than the other ones.  Make the sacrifice.  Perhaps the jar of Fairtrade coffee, or the packet of Fairtrade chocolate won’t taste the same as your normal choice.  Make the sacrifice.  Know that as you do, you’ve helped to change a life.  You’ve helped to keep a farmer going, and her fields sustainable.  You’ve helped to dig a well for her village, or provide a school for her children. 

So, when you depart from here today, and when you charge over to Waitrose for your Sunday Shopping(!) please be kind.  We often talk about how the wealthiest of the world should pay a little more to help the poorest.  You and I are among the wealthiest people of the world.  Let’s be kind.  Let’s put our faith into action.  Let’s ‘do justly and love mercy’ (as the prophet says).  Let’s not be the wildebeest who trample on others to get to the trough.  Let’s choose Fairtrade.


Thursday, February 17, 2022

Protest and Politics - A Christian's sacred task?


Ecclesiasticus 4.20–28

Watch for the opportune time, and beware of evil,

   and do not be ashamed to be yourself.

For there is a shame that leads to sin,

   and there is a shame that is glory and favour.

Do not show partiality, to your own harm,

   or deference, to your downfall.

Do not refrain from speaking at the proper moment,

   and do not hide your wisdom.

For wisdom becomes known through speech,

   and education through the words of the tongue.

Never speak against the truth,

   but be ashamed of your ignorance.

Do not be ashamed to confess your sins,

   and do not try to stop the current of a river.

Do not subject yourself to a fool,

   or show partiality to a ruler.

Fight to the death for truth,

   and the Lord God will fight for you.


John 12.24–32

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’  The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’  Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’



Today, we mark the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum – a modern-day martyr.  Luwum was born 100 years ago, in 1922 at Acholi in Uganda.  His childhood and youth were spent as a goatherd but he quickly showed an ability to learn when given the opportunity. Soon after he became a teacher, he was converted to Christianity and was eventually ordained in 1956, becoming Bishop of Northern Uganda in 1969 and Archbishop of Uganda in 1974.

Idi Amin had come to power in Uganda in 1971 (as the result of a military coup) and his undemocratic and harsh rule was the subject of much criticism by the Church and others. As you will know, his rule was characterised by great violence; it is estimated that around half a million Ugandans lost their lives due to Amin’s policies.  He also used the technique of blaming ‘outsiders’ for his country’s problems, (a common technique of despotic rulers).  This led to the expulsion of an entire ethnic group – around 50,000 Asian Ugandans.  Interestingly, many of these fled to the UK, where some famously set up corner shops. By virtue of the long hours they were prepared to work, ignoring the customs of half-day closing, of not trading on Sundays or late at night, Asian shop-keepers ultimately transformed the entire British attitude to shopping.

But let’s get back to Archbishop Luwum.  In 1977, Luwum delivered a note of protest, on behalf of the House of Bishops to Idi Amin.  It was a protest against the Amin’s policy of arbitrary killings and the unexplained disappearances of his political rivals.   Soon afterwards, Archbishop Luwum and two of Amin’s own government ministers were found dead following an apparent car accident. It emerged quickly that they had, in fact, died on the implicit instructions of the president.  Their bodies were riddled with bullet holes.  Rumours abounded that Amin himself had pulled the trigger.

Luwum’s enthusiasm for the good news of Jesus, combined with his willingness to stand up for Godly principles in politics, led him to his martyrdom on this day in 1977.  His life, and his death, stand as an important outworking of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel reading we’ve just heard.  Luwum understood that it is sometimes necessary for Christians to risk their very lives in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus said ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.  This was so true, of Luwum.  Had he not stood up against Amin, he would perhaps have been remembered only as someone who had silently gone along the prevailing, poisonous politics of his time, like many church leaders who prefer ‘a quiet life’.  But, by being willing to let his grain of seed fall to the ground, Luwum inspired millions of Ugandans to resist Amin’s tyrannical rule, and millions of others around the world to be prepared to call out injustice wherever it is found.   

Luwum’s reputation as a shining example to all Christians was cemented when his statue was included among the ten modern martyrs on the West front of Westminster Abbey.

Our other reading for today comes from the book of Ecclesiasticus, otherwise known as the Wisdom of Sirach.  It’s late book, written only a century or so before Jesus came to earth – and as such is treated with honour by the church, but not part of the official ‘canon’ of ancient Scriptures.  Amongst its wisdom we find phrases like those we just heard, which are certainly worth pondering.  My eye was drawn, most especially, to this line:

“Do not subject yourself to a fool, or show partiality to a ruler.”

Archbishop Luwum would most certainly have known this text – or at the very least, its truth found reflected in other Scriptures.  He refused to subject himself to the foolish ruler of Uganda.  He refused to show partiality to Idi Amin. 

There is, I think, a tendency in all human politics to align ourselves to one particular party, or ruling elite.  We quickly learn, from that party, that all other parties are full of evil, devious, people who want to destroy our way of life.  Nothing that our opposing parties say is worth hearing.  There is no wisdom to be found in them.  They are all idiots, or seditionists, who want to ruin our country.

Of course, the truth is something else entirely.  No one party, or political ruler, has a monopoly on wisdom.  Nor will any one party get every decision right, or wrong.  Our leaders are just like us, in fact:  imperfect human beings, who see through a glass darkly.

The sacred task of the Christian citizen is to have the courage to stand up against any political idea which runs counter to the principles of the Kingdom – from whichever political camp that idea emerges.  How far each of us is prepared to go in that task is a matter between each of us and God.  There is a spectrum of protest on which we all stand; nearer one end or the other. 

At the very least, we are called upon to cast our votes wisely.  For some of us, however, our sacred call may mean signing a petition, or taking part in a protest.  For others (especially those of us who are skilled with words) it will mean writing letters of protest to politicians.  For some, it may mean standing for political office, as members of our congregation have done, and indeed are doing.  For some, it may even mean being prepared to let our own grain of truth fall to the ground through martyrdom, so that by our example, much fruit may flourish.

Archbishop Luwum stood at that far end of the spectrum of protest, against the rule of a fool.  His example, however, leaves each of us with a question, and a challenge:  where do we stand?  What will we do today, this week, right now, to cast our own grain of Kingdom truth into the ground of earthly politics.  Which Kingdom principles are being ignored, or stomped upon, by our politicial leaders?  And what are we going to do about it?

            So let us remember Archbishop Luwum with gratitude: giving thanks for his witness and his willingness to give everything for the Kingdom; and for his example to us all.



Friday, February 11, 2022

Racial Justice is Everyone's Business

Who am I to speak on the topic of racial justice?  As a white, middle aged, middle-class man, I really don’t have the right.  And that’s because I lack the personal context from which to speak.  My family have never been sold as slaves.  I’ve never had to survive on a dollar a day digging lithium out of the ground for western people to drive electric cars that are practically free to run.  My child has never had to dig cobalt for Western smart-phones. My home is not about to be swamped by rising floodwaters, caused by the output of the Western power stations and traffic.

I do, however, have some personal experience from which to draw, when I think about the topic of racial justice. I recall, for example, the day 10 years ago when I visited a former slave castle in Cape Coast.  I was shown the entrance to the old slave pit.  Above the entrance – literally built on top of it – was a small chapel.  That chapel, I was told to my shame, was the first Anglican church to be built in the old Gold Coast.

Across the road from the slave castle is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Cape Coast.  The Cathedral was built by the British Army.  It was a garrison church for the soldiers who worked in the slave castle, when the little chapel became too small.  It was an immensely humbling experience to be invited to be a Canon of that Cathedral.  On the day of my installation, I addressed a sea of African faces in a church that once was stocked with smug, white, slave-trader smiles. 

Today is not the day to debate the slave trade, however. No, today, we’re being asked to think about Justice, and specifically racial justice. The focus is our reading of the Sermon on the Mount, which we heard, just now (Luke 6.17-26).  Let’s unpack some of what that great Sermon has to teach us.

The first thing we note is that it was a Sermon to a diverse group of people.  According to the text, people came to hear Jesus from all over the area, including Tyre and Sidon, which were areas inhabited predominantly by non-Jews. Among the crowd would have been representatives from all sections of society – rich, poor, powerful, powerless, and famously (according to the Gospel of Monty Python) cheese-makers too!  

To such a varied, diverse, multi-racial section of humanity; what does Jesus say?  He speaks of Justice.  In the new Kingdom of Heaven he is inaugurating, there will be justice for the poor, and woe for the rich.  The hungry will be filled, and the full will be hungry.  Those who mourn will laugh, and those who laugh now will mourn and weep.

Jesus’ words are powerful.  They predict the consequences of what will happen when those with power to effect change fail to live up to their sacred duty.  A time is coming, according to Jesus’ Mother Mary, when the mighty will fall from their thrones, and the humble and poor will be lifted up. 

This is a picture of the topsy-turvy Kingdom of Heaven.  Everything gets turned upside down when the Kingdom comes into full effect.  And we know this to be true, even as amateur students of history.  Over and over again, the mighty Empires of Humanity collapse under the weight of their own greed and corruption, and because of their lack of attention to justice; especially justice for the people under their rule, or their influence. 

In this sense, the Bible doesn’t so much teach us what will take place.  It shows us what is taking place, all the time, all around us.  It is not so much that we read the Bible, but that the Bible reads us – we find ourselves reflected in its stories, and warned by its prophets.  In that sense, the Bible is a commentary on the world we live in, as much as the world of the past. 

Societies which fail to look after the poor, of whatever race, ultimately collapse.  The Eqyptians exploited the Hebrews, and paid a heavy price at the time of Moses.  The Romans exploited every country they conquered, and kept other nations outside with walls. For all its greatness, their great City fell – conquered by those it had kept outside its borders.  The British Empire exploited the lands of millions, taking their natural resources, as well as enslaving their peoples.    Today, the Empire of the G7 exploits every other nation on earth.  Their poorest people dig in the earth for our lithium, our precious metals, our coffee beans, our sugar – while living in the most impoverished conditions.

So, when the Bible tells us to take care of the poor of other nations, we do well to listen.  Many great Empires have come and gone.  Our present Empire goes under many names.  We call it the G7 or the Western Hegemony.  But it is an Empire like all those of the past.  It lives off the backs of other nations, other races, of those who live outside its apparently impregnable borders, and military might, longing to get inside.

But what can you and I do about this?  What can we do to live out the principles of the Kingdom?  How can we sow living seeds of racial justice.      Bringing about real change means changing our buying habits – making sure, for example, that nothing we buy (from our cars to our clothes) has come from a sweat-shop, a slave-market, or has been dug out of the ground by work-slaves.     It means fighting for the voices of other races, with other experiences, to be heard in our board-rooms and in our decision-making bodies.  Bringing about real change means engaging in the political process – lobbying our politicians, protesting, and making it impossible for those with the real power to ignore the message of the Kingdom.  This is a call to prophecy…to the task of calling the people to God’s way of living, and warning them of the consequences if they do not.

So let me leave you with this challenge.  How can we become a racial justice action centre? What will you do today?  What change will you make to the things you buy?  What will you do to increase the pace of positive change in our political structures?  Who will you write to?  Where and how will you protest?  Who will you bind together to make real and meaningful change?

And…how much of your personal income will you give to charities that help the poor of other countries, other races?  If that’s a thought which challenges you, then why not talk to Sue Tinney, a World Vision ambassador, after the service?  (Other development agencies are available!).

And when you meet a person of another race outside the walls of this church, will you smile, will you welcome them in and invite them to taste the new wine of the Kingdom?  For all God’s children are welcome here! Amen

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Jesus the racist?


Mark 7.24–30

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’  But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’  Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’  So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.



I like a good insult. I confess it. Take, for example, the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Yes, Madam, and you are ugly. But in the morning, I will be sober." Priceless, isn't it?

We all know, though, don't we, that even playful insults can easily cross the line into hurt and offence.  Which is why it is quite surprising that in today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the non-Jewish races around him as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a dog has always been a gross insult.  And yet, when a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, Jesus' response is 'it’s not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'.

Jesus appears to be saying that his ministry, his power, his gifts, are meant only for the people of Israel - not for anyone else.  What a shock! What an insult! To the woman in question, it would have been like me saying that only white English people can be Christians.

But when we read the Bible, we have to be very careful. Only a few pages earlier, especially in chapters 3 and 5, we find that Jesus quite happily and regularly preached his message to non-Jews, all around Tyre and Sidon, casting out demons into a herd of very non-Jewish pigs.

So - we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a racist – which is great news, considering that Sunday will be ‘Racial Justice Sunday’!  But then, we've also got scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus pretty much hated each other. So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of Jesus statement about children and dogs?

Mark tells us that after some intense theological arguments with Jewish religious leaders, Jesus went off to the city of Tyre - some distance from Galilee.  And, according to Mark, he "did not want anyone to know it". Mark presents us with a Jesus in retreat...trying to get away from it all for a while...needing to get his head together in a quiet place without crowds all around him asking for another miracle.

Then along comes this woman - a Gentile - who asks Jesus for another miracle`. Weighed down by the difficulties of his mission, tired, worn-out, it seems to me that Jesus actually appears to snap.  We can imagine him, frustrated that he is not getting through to his own people, saying to himself "I  need to get them to understand before we can take this message any further". He gropes for a metaphor. Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all they want...".

Notice the use of the word "first". Jesus' reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states that as a Jew, from a nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring salvation to the world - Jesus fells the need, strategically, to focus on the Jews first.  But was he right?  Does it mean that if he came to Britain, Jesus would have joined ‘Britain First’?

The next line is even more troubling, potentially: "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs". It's a metaphor. Jesus is trying to soften his automatic response.  In fact, although we translate the word here as 'dogs', scholars tell us that Jesus used a word which referred to household pets. It was a diminutive form of the word for dogs. A playful word. More like a puppy than a fully grown Rottweiler!

But the woman is more than a match for the tired, worn-out Jesus.  And she's desperate to get Jesus to change his mind.  She persists - she spars with him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting for a moment the idea of the Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".

You can almost see Jesus laughing at this point. You can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not give his help immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly turned his own metaphor against him.  Mark tells us that then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your daughter".

So what do we learned from this story - and from this bit of bible-study we've been doing together?

First, we've seen something of Jesus' humanity. We sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was God. He felt cold, hunger and fatigue just like we do.   For those of us who are struggling with what feels like a never-ending lockdown, we can be sure that Jesus feels our tiredness, and our frustration.

And, just like us, when he was tired and stressed, he was capable of getting things a little out of balance.  The same goes for us. It is not sinful in itself to hold a wrong opinion. But it would be sinful to continue steadfastly holding that opinion in the face of wise challenge.  When strong science, or the Holy Spirit, reveal to us that an opinion we hold is simply wrong (a fake truth, perhaps!) we sin when we refuse to change our mind – to repent, to turn around, to face in the new direction of truth.

Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong.  We know that Jesus could frequently get exhausted by his ministry.  He took frequent naps in boats just to keep going.  It’s good to recognise that we are all human… that we can all mis-speak from time to time.  We need t be always ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another.  As someone who enjoys both giving and receiving a bit of teasing, I know that feeling of ‘Oh no, I’ve over-stepped the mark there!’.  I pray for the forgiveness of those around me, when that happens.  Just as I offer forgiveness if their occasional careless words cause me pain.  That’s part of what it means to live in a Christian community – forgiving others, as we too are forgiven.

So, what do we learn from this story?  We learn that we follow a Lord who know what it is like to be us – to be tired, fed-up, and in need of getting away from it all.  He stands with us, alongside us, sustaining us and encouraging us – knowing completely what we are going through.  He is with us today, just as he was with the Syro-Phoenician woman.  He is our rock, the source of all our forgiveness, and the healer of spirit, body and mind.


Thursday, February 3, 2022

Long to reign over us...


1 Kings 2.1–4, 10–12

When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying: ‘I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn. Then the Lord will establish his word that he spoke concerning me: “If your heirs take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel.”

Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned for seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.


How appropriate it is that as we approach the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee of Accession, on Sunday, the Lectionary offers us some wisdom from the Book of Kings.  In it, we eavesdrop on the final conversation between the great King David and his son, Solomon.  Essentially, it boils down to a warning.  King David says to Prince Solomon – ‘Watch it, boy!  Make sure that you follow the laws of God, so that He will bless you.  For if you don’t….’

It’s important to remember that, according to the book of 1 Samuel, God was not at all keen on the idea of Israel having a King.  For generations, up to the time of Samuel, God had appointed a ‘Judge’ to rule over the Nation, while maintaining that God was their King.  The Judges (of which Samuel was the last) had power to decide on key national events and important legal issues, but they didn’t have the same status and wealth as a King. 

But the people didn’t like this arrangement.  The other tribes around them had Kings – giving those tribes status in the eyes of others.  The people of Israel wanted the same for themselves.  Samuel warned them against the idea, saying, essentially, that “a King will take taxes from you to build his palaces, and he’ll draft your young men to fight his battles for him”.  But the people were adamant, and eventually Samuel gave way (after consulting with God).  Saul was anointed as the first King, followed by David, and then Solomon – the subjects of today’s Old Testament reading.

The story of how Samuel came to start a monarchy is however, important.  It’s especially so in the light of the English practice of maintaining a monarchy.  The clear message of Scripture is that God would really rather prefer it if we didn’t have a monarch, at all.  But, Scripture tells us, he will tolerate having one, if we really must! 

As I’m sure you’ll be aware, England’s history with Monarchy is a rather fraught affair.  We’ve had Kings who have conquered us.  We cut the head off one King, and we had a ‘Protector’ instead of a King, for a while.  When bloodlines of our Monarchs have run out, we’ve tended to cast around to other European nations to find a new one – resulting in the present ‘Windsor’ line, who should more correctly be called ‘Saxe-Coburg’ of Germany.

Of course, we like to pride ourselves on having a ‘constitutional monarchy’ – that is, a Monarch who has all the wealth and status of a King or Queen, but none of the power in any real sense.  It’s a classic British compromise, really.  Power is vested in the Monarch – but it is exercised by Parliament, through the Government. 

So, just as Israel demanded of Samuel, we have the prestige among nations which Monarchy offers us.  But, perhaps attentive to Samuel’s warning about monarchical power, we have found a way of having one without giving them over-weening, or unrepresentative power.

There is no doubt that our own dear Queen is a treasure.  She has taken her promise to serve the Nation entirely to heart.  Her life has been, in so many ways, one of devoted service to God, and to us.  I’m sure that she has done all within her (actually quite limited) power to live by David’s advice to Solomon.  As for her life of service, which among us would enjoy her life of opening buildings and national events, chit-chatting to strangers and politicians (without unduly influencing them) and running a huge Royal estate.  I certainly wouldn’t.  Running the little estate of St Faith’s Havant is enough for me!  The Queen has palaces and lands all over the Nation!  As for dealing with politicians – just think of some of the people with whom she has had to dine.  She had to have the odious Donald Trump for dinner, not so long ago!

So for me, the British monarchy is a compromise – and one which finds some resonance in Scripture.  We are fortunate to have, in Queen Elizabeth, a godly and indeed Christian woman who has lived up to the promise she made of a life of service to others through the office of the Crown.  I’m certain that the Queen points to Jesus Christ as the supreme example of what a life of service means. And we would do well to follow where her finger points.