Living by the rules, or ruled by the Spirit? John 3:1-17

High Altar Lent Array

St. Mary’s in Lent Array

Back preaching in my curacy parish this week, and it’s Lent, a time to take stock of how we live by holding the mirror of Jesus’ teaching to our lives, and seeing whether we meet his expectations. The Gospel this week is the story of Nicodemus’ deliberate encounter with Jesus in John 3:1-17 but I’ve drawn from both the other lectionary readings too: Genesis 12:1-4a, and Romans 4:1-5 with 13-17.

I wonder how many of us, when we were younger, were taken on ‘duty’ visits to see relatives? You know the type of visit, the one where the parent say, “we know we struggle to find anything in common with Great Aunty Flo who will expect you to sit nicely at table, and Uncle Sam will spend the whole time talking about how to grow giant onions, but it’s Christmas and they do like to see the children.” Perhaps, we’ve even done that to our own children!

This sort of thing has a lot to do with family, and rules, spoken and unspoken; those invisible laws about how we should behave with and relate to our ‘elders’. It doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with love, or grace, or spontaneous gifts, Christmas, birthdays… or whatever.

Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, was quite good on rules; how people’s relationship with God worked should, in his eyes, have been based on abiding by them. He wasn’t so blind that he couldn’t see that God was at work somehow in the miracles that Jesus was doing, but when Jesus started to relate his abilities to people – not just him – “being born from above” Nicodemus is utterly flummoxed. He doesn’t seem to know a rule that allows people to be born twice, and when Jesus explains the difference between physical and spiritual birth to him, he’s still mystified. The Pharisees had got so wrapped up in their rule book that they’d forgotten where the Jewish people actually came from, and how!

God called Abram (Genesis 12:1-4). There were no ‘people of God’ before Abram, and importantly, there were no Ten Commandments until well after him. There’s a lot else that happens in the story of the people of Israel between Abram and Moses; for starters they multiply from a family to a much bigger family – a nation of people. The Law, as those commandments and the man-made sub-clauses created around them, was not the defining symbol of the people of Israel. Nor was circumcision, which was something that Abram was instructed to do (Genesis 17) as a sign of this covenant relationship whereby he believed himself and his family to be called by God (Romans 4:3), something we call faith. That little iceberg word ‘faith’ is the crux of the issue; the nation of Israel were a people of faith whom God called, and not defined by circumcision, or the Ten Commandments and the Law. Their covenant was born of the Spirit of God (John 3:8), the same breath or wind that had moved over the waters of creation (Genesis 1:2).

As a Pharisee and student of Jewish scripture in which the law was contained, Nicodemus should have known and remembered this, and it is this that Jesus rather sternly reminds him of. The Pharisees’ focus on the Law had straight-jacketed them, and the people of Israel, into forgetting that they were a people of faith, and that faith is a living, breathing thing, a relationship built on love, and grace, and spontaneous gifts as the wind of the Spirit blows. Judaism had become a religion of rules, where what family you were born into defined who you would be, and what you would be able to do in life.

Whilst Jesus had been born of the royal line and lineage of David, who and what he was called to be and do was defined by his relationship with God his Father, his calling as God made man, the Messiah, God with us. God’s relationship with us the people of the world, was never designed to be limited to the people of Israel in the long-term, as Abram’s original calling and his covenant with God testified: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:3), and “I have made you the father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5).

Ordinary birth into the extended family of the people of Israel, or even a specific family within that, wasn’t enough to convey membership of the new covenant and Kingdom of God that Jesus was initiating. It is God’s loving initiative in sending Jesus, and people’s belief, their faith, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,…”, conveyed through baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, that initiates our inclusion in the Kingdom of God.

So what of the Ten Commandments which we in Lent are prone to recite, and the other rules in which Nicodemus was well schooled? The function of the Law at it’s original and best, could perhaps be described as a mirror, which the people of Israel could hold up in front of themselves, and in which they should see every spot and pimple in their own lives. The Ten Commandments didn’t define the people of Israel, but highlighted where they fell short of the ideal of a faith-filled relationship with God. They were a means to the end game of a covenant relationship, not the end in and of itself. The Commandments, distilled into the two that Jesus taught – love God, and love thy neighbour as thyself – are a mirror by which we explore the extent to which we are managing to live out our faith in God, our relationship with Jesus; the extent to which our baptism in water and the Holy Spirit are bearing fruit.

But the additional rules that had accreted around them weren’t even achieving that! When the people, the family of God, start making the rules their god instead, the family becomes closed to its expansion to and inclusion of others in the world, the very purpose for which God breathed and called them into existence. It’s as true now, as it was then.

Jesus is helping Nicodemus to understand that what Jesus is doing actually comes through his relationship with God, helping Nicodemus return to a properly Abrahamic belief in God. We don’t see it in our Gospel today, but these words must have struck home, because later Nicodemus will speak up for Jesus’ right to a fair hearing under the Law (John 7:51) using it as a tool, not an end or judgement in itself. Later still when we come to Good Friday, we will see Nicodemus respond to the Jesus whom his compatriots have crucified, by accompanying Joseph of Aramathea in the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39-42). The Law now forgotten, the relationship with Jesus is all important, exemplified in loving care and compassion even at the time of his death.

But Jesus is speaking to our time too. Where in the world, and in what context in this country, are we seeing rules becoming the thing to be lived by, rather than the love, care and compassion that those of us who are baptised Christians are called to live by? We can’t just stand idly by when this happens, we are called to speak out just as Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. Are we living by a set of rules, or ruled by the Spirit of God? In recent weeks our own family, the dear old Church of England, has given us some glaring examples of what happens when relationships are confined or defined by a set of human rules through which the Holy Spirit has not necessarily been allowed to blow. Have we remembered that as co-inheritors of the promises made to Abram for the whole world, we are called to live as a faith-filled mirror of God’s inclusive love for all?

Perhaps Jesus is saying to us today that if we’re not careful Great Aunt Flo and Uncle Sam will recognise that our duty visit is only paying lip-service to a loving relationship, and they may well make the fact that we’ve been rumbled abundantly clear, to the discomfort of all concerned! Relationships that work only by a set of rules are prone to cracks, and pain, and family breakdown; and there needs to be honesty, repentance and then forgiveness when that is the case, so that duty is set aside, and relationships of love are rekindled as a testament to our love for God in Jesus, and our baptism by water and the Spirit.

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Focus on today Romans 8:18-25 and Matthew 6:25-end

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The ‘lilies of the field’ at St. Mary’s Mapledurwell… there’s an even better show up this path. In fact many local churchyards have stunning displays of snowdrops at present. Try Tunworth and St. Mary’s Old Basing if you’re interested.

I thought this sermon, preached this morning in Odiham and Mapledurwell an a rather peripatetic Sunday, was a bit weak and as much for me as for others. Yet, I was stopped at the door of both churches for people who felt it ‘spoke’ into a situation in their lives, and for one I’ve just emailed a copy for a third party. It is such a huge encouragement for preachers when people do this, so my thanks to them for being brave enough to tell me their stories afterwards. Prayers too for the situations concerned, and in grateful thanks to the friend whose story I share anonymously (but with permission) – I hope I got it roughly right; God seems to made good use of it!

I wonder how many of us would admit to being more anxious and worried about the state of the world, and the quality of life that our children and grandchildren will inherit, than we were a year ago? I certainly am.

We are reminded by today’s Gospel from Matthew, that Jesus lived very much in the present, the today. He knew his ultimate task was the salvation of all people through the cross and resurrection, but by focussing his attention on the situation presented to him, his words and actions celebrated the goodness of God in the here and now, whether it be by bringing healing where there was suffering, or harnessing the beauty of creation to make a well worked point. He recognised and worked towards the future through his focus on the present.

It is very easy just now, to relate to the spiritual leaders of Jesus time who were largely gloom and doom merchants. All was shadows and vanity; perceived in others, like their Roman rulers, and then proclaimed in their own blinkered view of how to be religious. Philosophers were at it too; focusing on taking people outside of their own troubles into another place; what we might now call the cult of escapism. They were so worried about jockeying for their own future positions, that they forgot to stop and look at the beauty and importance of what God was revealing in the present, through Jesus.

Our reading from Romans this morning, explains to us what that present reality was, and is; it is a journey to the perfection that God intended for creation, and an understanding of our role in that. The biblical narrative is full of the broken-ness of the people Israel, and their relationship with God. Likewise God uses the creation he gave humanity dominion over, to make possible their freedom, their healing, and their understanding of God’s promises to them: think of the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the seas, the stilling of the lions’ mouths to save Daniel (Daniel 6:22), the promise of the river of the water of life (Rev 22:1). With us, creation is yearning and eager with hope for the time when we are fully and finally redeemed in the new creation of God’s Kingdom, when the lion shall lie with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6). But Jesus is telling us in Matthew that unless we stop and focus on the present, we will not be aware enough of what God is doing around, in and through us. Therefore, we will not be right with God (i.e. live in righteousness), and not have taken our part in the ‘now and not yet’ of the revelation of his glory.

We progress towards the full revelation of his Kingdom one day at a time. This is why Jesus wants the people that follow him to live predominantly in the present, for the benefit of the future. By making God the creator, God the healer, God brimming with good things, the focus of our attention today, it fills today with beauty, and energy, and excitement. This helps us and others, to love him, and express our faith in him. Looking for God in the here and now, breeds positivity, and means we don’t worry as much about tomorrow. Celebrating what God is doing today and seeking to share that with others, is building the Kingdom of God: “Put the world first, and it gets moth-eaten in your hands. Put God first, and you’ll get the world thrown in.” (Tom Wright)

Yet living without worrying about the future seems an impossible task today, and for some living with constant anxiety is a significant health concern. The anxiety that is most dangerous, is a constant that infects everything someone sees themselves as, and everything they do. It is unrelated to the obvious causes of anxiety like work strains and family life. I spoke to someone this week who described from personal experience how difficult the journey is for a chronically anxious person to accept Jesus’ second commandment to “love your neighbour as you love yourself”; in other words that they are called to love themselves, and therefore be kind to both themselves and others. For them it meant they gave themselves a window in the day when they were “allowed to worry” and outside of that they had to constantly tell themselves that they could worry in that time window, but just now they needed to set their anxiety aside, remember God loved them, and focus on the beauty and tasks in the present moment. Some days, they admitted, they were better at this than others, but over years of patience and practice, it helped.

Given the news stories that we are bombarded with, it is very easy to want to change the world ourselves, or simply become depressed and frozen into inactivity because we know we can’t. But we can change ourselves, a little bit at a time, a day at a time. Today, and each day, Jesus is asking us to live in the present. Let us pay attention to what it is that God has given us to focus on, today. That might be sharing the beauty of spring bulbs in our garden, or the countryside and its wildlife, with friends or family members. It might be writing letters of gratitude to people who have helped us through recent life-changing circumstances. It could be the busy-ness of bringing others to church so they too can worship and pray. It might be showing our vulnerability by admitting to another person that we are overly anxious and perhaps in need of external help; or listening to someone else in similar circumstances who needs our support. These, and many others, are Kingdom building actions. Yet it may be that by simply resting in and enjoying the now, and being assured that God will restore our strength, we will be equipped with the energy and enthusiasm to recognise and achieve what God is asking us to contribute to his Kingdom now, for the future.

 

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Does God want to change your mind? Matthew 1:18-end and Isaiah 7:10-16

 

Here’s my sermon for the BCP services I led or contributed to at All Saints, Odiham on Sunday. The voice just about held out, and hopefully the 8am congregation weren’t too upset that I stopped the service briefly to check out the source of the noise of running water that some of us could hear… it turned out to be a radiator behind the high altar gurgling air, but then they have just have just had their heating overhauled massively!

Have you ever changed your mind?

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Stop and think. Is God trying to get you to stop and think about something?  Does he want you to change your mind?  (This is one of the wonderful range of Christmas Trees on display in All Saints Church, Odiham last weekend. Thanks to Graham for the photograph, and acting as chauffeur to help me through the day.)

Or had it changed for you?

That ‘still small voice’ might sometimes be of calm, but God has a habit changing our plans, and whilst it might be accompanied by a sense of peace that he’s in control, it won’t necessarily make life easier.

Believe me, I know what I’m talking about: 10 years ago, Peter (the LLM taking the Matins service I preached at) was my Old Testament tutor and I was in my first year studying to be a Reader! God you see had other ideas [point to clerical collar]… it just took me another five years to listen properly, give in to them and do as God wanted!!

Mary’s fiancé Joseph, bless him, didn’t have five years. God had to make the message clear and change Joseph’s mind; overnight.

Ahaz? Well God tried to make him listen through the prophet Isaiah, but with less success. The importance of Ahaz’s story is the battle between faith and unbelief, and whilst there would be a faithful remnant in Israel with whom God would dwell and become incarnate in Jesus, it would be no thanks to Ahaz.

As Christians, we would like to think, or perhaps we would like others to think, that we are aware enough of God being with us, that we can hear his promptings, and respond to them. We’d possibly prefer it if God hadn’t got some unforeseen and imminent parenting role in mind, though for some it would be a welcome miracle. But it’s not always easy either to listen, or believe that God is talking to us, especially when the circumstances or instructions seem impossibly bizarre or difficult.

Ahaz is threatened and afraid of an invading Assyrian army when we meet him in Isaiah 7. If he remains neutral he protects God’s people, if he doesn’t, he won’t. Indecision is worse still. After the failure of one encounter between the prophet Isaiah and Ahaz, God is now metaphorically jumping up and down, waving his arms around and shouting, “pick me, pick me… ask me, I’ll show you what to do!”. But in the feigned piety of his unwillingness to test the Lord, Ahaz puts the lie to any sense of faith-filled readiness to be guided out of the situation by God. He’d rather seek mortals who will make his problem their own.

Joseph is likewise a troubled man, and has given much thought to how he should respond to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. She has obviously explained to him the story of Gabriel’s visit, for Joseph sees no question of any unfaithfulness. Instead he sees this work of the Holy Spirit as none of his concern, and has resolved out of kindness not to open Mary to inaccurate ridicule and disgrace but leave her quietly to her own and God’s, devices.

Yet, Jesus was to be Joseph’s concern, to be welcomed into Joseph’s lineage, life and home. This was not someone else’s problem, a buck to be passed, but it takes a direct message from God to get the point across to Joseph. God is making himself present in humanity in a similar way to that which he has throughout Israel’s history; by acting unexpectedly to make tangible his powerful love and grace. The name Emmanuel, does not denote a quiet and unassuming presence, and thus, just for starters, God requires both Mary AND Joseph to have their lives turned upside down!

We are not Ahaz, or Joseph. But we do have battles of our own, or encounter unexpected situations among our families and friends. We do have to make difficult decisions about what we should do, whether that be to respond to a call to ministry [smile], or about the ongoing care of a loved one, or anything else. We do look at the decisions made by organisations in which we have an interest, and sometimes think we know better. We do forget to listen for God, not realising that he is leaping up and down trying to attract our attention, or speaking to us in our dreams, trying to show us the way forward.

In Joseph’s dream the angel says the child that Joseph will have joint responsibility for raising is to have a further, more common name than the overtly explanatory Emmanuel ‘God with us’. Jesus is a shortened form of the Hebrew name Joshua, common in that era because the Jews were hoping for a national liberator. But this Jesus was not being born to liberate Israel from the oppression of others, but from their own unfaithfulness to God, their ability to limit his power in their own lives. “You are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” Joseph is told. For as we will be reminded in the coming days from Isaiah 53:5 he will be pierced for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities. Theirs, and ours.

If we want to find our way out of a tricky situation, or find our thoughts invaded by an unwelcome army of concerns, how often do we seek other people who we can persuade to agree with us, buy us time, or get us out of trouble? Or how much do we rely on our own judgement of what we are capable of coping with, and leave others to go it alone with the difficult situations they find themselves in? Perhaps it’s not about changing other people’s minds… but about changing ours?

Our sins, those that Jesus came to save us from, are often not the obvious crimes which we might well associate with the Ten Commandments and think ourselves well distanced from, but perhaps more closely linked to an inability to listen to God, who in Jesus the sin bearer is also the guide actively seeking to show us our way forward. Ours, not anyone else’s.

If we believe in the divinity as well as the humanity of Christ, we have to believe in his sovereign power to speak to us. If we believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Emmanuel is still with us seeking to liberate us from our sin, it may be necessary to change OUR minds, OUR thoughts on the best way forward, OUR plans, so that they are in line with GOD’s mind, GOD’s way forward, and GOD’s plans.

 

 

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Facing our fears this Christmas – Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11

 

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St. Nicholas, Newnham in the North Hampshire Downs… that existed long before the larger village nearby, Hook. (Cameraphone photo by Graham)

This morning involved a first. It was the first time I’ve led Sung Matins, and I don’t think the little congregation at St. Nicholas, Newnham twigged, so I feel relatively pleased as to how it went.

And here’s what I preached:

We’ve got two weeks. Exactly two weeks.

For those of us who have not yet written a Christmas card, wrapped a present, iced a cake, nor hung up a decoration, Christmas still seems like something that lies a little beyond our anticipation, wrapped more in stress than holiness.

For those of us who know they’ll be alone, or sharing Christmas around strained and broken relationships, who are concerned that this might be the last Christmas with a loved-one who is ill or frail, or who are worried that celebrations will be tempered by physical pain and the drugs required to mediate them, the holiness of the season isn’t just marked by stress, but by fear.

Fear of isolation.
Fear of the emotional turmoil.
Fear of imminent bereavement.
Fear of admitting we aren’t coping with life, let alone Christmas.
Fear that the Messiah isn’t who we thought he was.
Fear that Jesus isn’t coming for us.

In our Gospel reading this morning, with just two weeks to go until Christmas, we are quite deliberately taken away from our preparations for and anticipation of the Christmas story, and asked to confront our fears. Our fears, and those of John the Baptist who we visit this morning not in the desert proclaiming judgement, but locked in a prison cell, awaiting a fate that we know ends in his beheading.

The rufty-tufty desert man, who announced the coming of God’s kingdom and proclaimed Jesus as God’s anointed, expected the world to change with the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Now caged, John, wondering why he hasn’t yet heard that promise is being kept, is probably disappointed, definitely vulnerable to doubts, but still gutsy enough to voice them to the one they are concerned with.

John, who after all is cousin to Jesus and will have grown up with the prophesies that were spoken around the births of both of them… John is having his doubts about the identity of the Messiah because Jesus isn’t living up to expectations. Even in his response to John’s question, Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking like a strong leader strengthening God’s people (Isaiah 35:3) for battle, or a saviour come to bring vengeance (Isaiah 35:4) on an oppressor.

Yet, Jesus, in word and action, DOES fulfil the prophesies about him, the ones that say he will heal the blind, the deaf, the mute and the lame (Isaiah 35:5-6). Indeed even the dead are raised (Matt 11:5), though when John receives Jesus’ return message, I wonder if he might again have been disappointed, wishing that Jesus could also set the prisoners free (Luke 4:18) – starting with his cousin John!

And yet, Jesus is trying to set John free, to bring him some joy. Free from the doubts as to whether all the locusts and honey, the rough desert living, the run-ins with the authorities, and indeed the imprisonment, have been worthwhile. John hadn’t been failed, nor had he failed, or let God down. Jesus is affirming that he is indeed the Messiah, fulfilling the prophesies that had been spoken down the centuries about him, including John’s. But with the new Kingdom comes new ways, and they put the weak, the lonely and the broken first, the new covenant before the old which in effect has been closed with John the Baptist’s work.

Jesus the baby in a Bethlehem manger, Jesus the itinerant healer, is also Jesus of the cross, and it won’t be until the temple curtain is torn in two and then the stone is rolled away, that the saving power of Jesus the Messiah, will be fully revealed. Sadly, John doesn’t live to see and hear that revelation. But we do.

While Matthew’s portrayal of John and his doubts is striking, maybe it’s not so odd to hear about them in Advent, when we, too, at times, may feel stuck between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept. Like John the Baptist, we may feel we are are hung-out-to-dry between Christ’s first coming at Bethlehem and his second in glory; disappointed by ourselves, the world, and even God; fearful that we’ll not be released from the prison of our fears.

We regularly try to hide our insecurities and fears behind our houses, our careers and (dare I say it) church attendance or, for that matter, our failings and infirmities. Until, that is, the word “cancer” or “redundancy” or “divorce” is breathed within our family circle and we know ourselves to be just as fragile and vulnerable as anyone else. Even the word “vacancy” can set up a myriad insecurities and fears within a Christian community! And at these moments – the impact of which is heightened at this time of the year – we need to turn again to the words and actions of Jesus for comfort, hope and joy, all the more because we know they are accompanied by the cross and resurrection.

If ‘the hopes and fears of all our years’ are to be ‘met in him’ not just tonight or in a fortnight’s time, but ALWAYS, then we have to view the babe in a manger in the light of the whole of his story. When God became incarnate as a human baby, he took on our hopes and fears and not only moved to heal those he could in Jesus’ earthly life, but then watched them get nailed with the Christ-child to a cross on Good Friday, breaking the hold of any sense of failure that first Easter morning.

That wasn’t just for then. It is for now. Whatever our disappointments, we don’t let God down by having or expressing them. God comes to us anyway, eager to join us in our weakness, to hold onto us in our insecurity, and to comfort us in our fears. For God in Jesus came not for the strong and the proud, or to fight physical battles on the fields of history, but he comes the weak and the vulnerable, the lonely and ill, and the broken. We, who may feel that we’re the ‘least in the kingdom’ and out in a desert place, by grace have an honoured place at Jesus’ side, because he comes to us where we are, offering us the strength to withstand the winds and rough cloth of our lives, bringing the joy of his presence into our lives.

There is no reason why we shouldn’t admit our hopes and fears, and like John, question him with our doubts, but God in Jesus, comes for us.

[With thanks to the Working Preacher for inspiration: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2911]

 

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Praying in Advent through five festivals

5-candlesRegular readers will be aware that I’m currently on placement in the North Hampshire Downs Benefice. One of the mini-projects that I’ve been focusing on is leading the prayer element of a couple of Prayer Suppers in the Parish of Odiham.

Alongside the re-ordering of the physical church, the people of All Saints Odiham have also been focusing on prayer as part of their own re-ordering as a community of Christians. The ‘bring-and-share’ style suppers (an hour for fellowship and food, followed by an hour for prayer) are a part of this process, and the vicar and I will be reflecting on how they have gone before I complete my placement.

This particular hour of prayer was inspired by the Service of Five Candles celebrated each Advent Sunday in All Saints Church, Minstead in the New Forest (where I grew up). That service involves children processing five large ‘pascal’ sized candles with appropriate motifs, readings and collects, one for each of the five main Christian festivals. It was brought to the parish in the 1960s by the then Rector, Rev’d Clifford Rham.

This pattern of prayer involves ordinary-sized candles, shorter but appropriate readings and collects, and uses them as an inspiration for prayer, which need not be restricted to the bullet point suggestions provided.

The attached document forms a folded A4 sheet that anyone could use for a an Advent reflective service or similar. The illustration above shows how the five candles can be used and decorated.  advent-hour-of-prayer-through-five-festivals

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If Jesus chose to return today? An Advent reflection

p1090449cwI’ve been preparing some Advent materials, and in doing so found this old reflection, dated November 2006, so as I started Reader Training and before this blog was started!

It is by way of a response to the following questions:

If Jesus chose to return today, how would you react?
What might you say? How would you feel?

 

Why did you not come sooner?

Don’t get me wrong Jesus,
it is good to have faith rewarded.
But if you’d come last week those
four soldiers would not have died;
If you’d come last year those
bombs would not have shattered lives;
If you’d come twenty years ago
millions of children would not have suffered.

So why now Lord? Why here?
Why this room, these friends?

Is our pride, our business,
our self sufficiency and security,
really part of the pain you’ve come to relieve?
How can we be worthy of your interest?

Come to the kids loitering in our street,
our friend who lies in a hospice;
Relieve the bereaved, the prisoner
or hassled mother coping on her own.

Relive their pain, forgive their sin,
remove the evil from their lives.

And then, perhaps then…

consider me.

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I’ve missed the point:
I see it in your eyes and feel it in your touch.
You are there too, aren’t you Lord!

If you’ve come back, you’re here for all;
Each house, each home;
each hospital and prison;
Each tank, and battlefield;
each parliament and throne.

Your Majesty, now considers …
me;
Replays the video of my life,
freeze-framing those moments in the journey,
When I forgot to phone a friend,
to say a prayer, to comfort a relative,
To leave a space,

for you.

And now Lord,
on my knees,
At your feet
surrounded by your glory…

I wait upon you.

Photos by Graham taken at St. Mary’s Old Basing, December 2014

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Cutting out the canker – Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12 #Advent2

 

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The remaining, canker free, fruit trees in my garden – from which the birds are largely benefiting at present!

I’m still on placement in the North Hampshire Downs, and was blessed today by a stunning run between the villages, scattering Redwings and other thrushes to the four winds, and narrowly avoiding a flock of Partridge who had less concept of what wings are for! The less said about People In Lycra On Cycles the better.

On the liturgical front, celebrating Holy Communion in a rural church (Tunworth) lit largely by candles was lovely, though with no heating I breathed ‘smoke’ through the whole service and found my hands frozen by the silverware at the altar – all of which made the warm cup of tea provided from an urn in the open church porch much appreciated! At least at the second service (in Greywell), the Eucharistic Prayer was not accompanied by a loud quacking from the river that runs past the churchyard… this time 😉

Some might say as a trainee on secondment I should have pulled the punch that this week’s Advent Gospel packed, but there has to be an integrity with the season, and why should those living among parishes in vacancy not be challenged to consider how they may be being called to consider how God might be calling them to change their ways, just as he calls me to change mine as I write?

 

When we moved to Yateley about 18 years ago, there were 4 fruit trees in the garden. An apple, a Conference pear, a plum tree and a cherry. It is a small garden, but the intention was to keep them all; we are big fans of fresh, home-grown produce.

But within the first 12 months, it became abundantly clear that the plum and the cherry had canker; areas of damage to the bark that at times oozed a nasty brown slime. They were the two smaller, weaker trees, and unsurprisingly they produced no fruit. Since the canker was in the main stem, we couldn’t simply remove an infected branch, as the fungal infection that causes canker would have remained.

We cut them down to ground level, treated the stumps with something so that we didn’t get sucker growth from the roots, and took the stems away to the tip, since bonfires aren’t allowed in our neighbourhood. We didn’t want the infection getting into our compost heaps or otherwise spreading through the garden. The apple and pear have survived, and after a good frost-free flowering period, bear a good crop of fruit.

In our Gospel reading this morning, John the Baptist is effectively likening the Pharisees and Sadducees, the spiritual leaders of their community, to a canker infection in a tree that needs to be cut out and thrown on the fire. The canker itself is the overwhelming arrogance and pride that the Jewish elite took in their inherited relationship with God, forgetting that their God is the maker, creator and hope of all things and all people, the Gentiles included as our Epistle highlights.

Ordinary people were flocking to John the Baptist in their hundreds to receive baptism in the river Jordan. They knew from their scriptures that the Prophets had said that God would come back to his people, when they repented. So people came in droves to repent. Confessing their sins, they were baptised with water in Jordon; not just a symbolic cleansing of individuals, but God doing a new thing in history as they went through the Jordan a second time, 1000 years after the Exodus.

God’s defeat of all evil and the establishment of his kingdom on earth as in heaven, is proclaimed by their actions as imminent. It was the beginning of a true repentance at the heart of ordinary people, that wasn’t just sorry for the day-to-day things they had done wrong, but would be life changing for those who recognised the one who would come immediately after John: the Messiah, the new King of the Jews, the inaugurator of God’s new Kingdom. His roots might be in the House of David of whom Jesse was the father, but this new Kingdom wasn’t just for Israel but for the whole world.

Of course, when the spiritual leaders of Israel sussed what was happening, they didn’t want to miss out on the excitement and anticipation that ordinary Jews were experiencing; but they were met with a very different reception. Not for them the immediate new life and forgiveness symbolised in the waters of baptism. John you see knew that at the heart of their presence was pride in their own status, and the ancestry of the Jewish people as a whole; a purity which they sought to protect.

John prepared the way for Jesus coming, knowing that God really is God; God isn’t simply a kind, indulgent parent who seeks to gently correct his children. Jesus would balance his mission of forgiveness, healing and comfort, with the solemn and stern news that when the Kingdom of God is completely fulfilled, God will demand complete allegiance. In Gospel of St. John we hear Jesus say, “I am the Real Vine and my Father… cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes…” (John 15:1-2 MSG). The vine does not even need to be suffering from canker to find itself pruned hard so that it bears fruit!

The spiritual leaders needed to have that made very clear to them, right from the start, and that was part of John’s role. They would find that the easy way to avoid being cut out and thrown on the fire would be to show they were fruitful trees, not hidebound by pride to their traditional rules, regulations and arguments around those bits of scripture they found convenient. In urging harmony between early Christians rooted in both Jewish and Gentile cultures and spiritualities, St. Paul uses our Epistle this morning to takes us back with them to the Old Testament prophesies that not only Israel, but all nations are summonsed to worship, submit to and praise God.

In this Advent season of preparation, we remember today that John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets even though we encounter him in the New Testament. We also anticipate both our remembrance of God’s incarnation as an ordinary baby in a manger, and the completion of the Kingdom of God at Jesus’ coming again. Binding those ideas together today is John’s challenge to the traditional spiritual leaders of his time echoing forward into our own church congregations who are called to be the spiritual leaders of our own generation, taking our part in the coming of God’s Kingdom. It is a call to take a long hard look at ourselves, individually and collectively, and identify where there might be a certain unhealthy pride in our lifestyle, our roots in and attitudes toward others in the community in which we live, or the practices with which we prefer to manifest our faith.

Before we flock to Jesus for the annual ‘love-in’ at the manger this Christmas, we need to look at where we need to accept God’s challenge and judgement in our own lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:13). Where is there canker in our lives that needs to be cut out? What in our lives are we being summoned to repent of? It’s not just about being sorry because we can’t seem to help ourselves from making mistakes, but consciously setting aside that which inhibits our ability to share the love of God with others.

The collect that accompanies our Advent wreath today says that Jesus is the incarnation of God’s ‘power’ and ‘love’. Peace should flow from the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ out through those of us who believe not just in his birth, but the truth of his crucifixion and resurrection too. But it will only come from us understanding that this peace with God and with our neighbour, stems from accepting and responding to both the ‘love’ and the ‘power’ of God visible in that incarnation; the balance between healing from God and obedient allegiance to God. The peace of God, which is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5) in our lives, will only be seen when the canker of pride and arrogance that makes us think we don’t need to change anything, has been well and truly cut out, and placed on the fire for God’s disposal.

Collect for the Advent Wreath: Advent 2

God our Father,
you spoke to the prophets of old
of a Saviour who would bring peace.
You helped them to spread the joyful message
of his coming kingdom.
Help us, as we prepare to celebrate his birth,
to share with those around us
the good news of your power and love.
We ask this through Jesus Christ,
the light who is coming into the world.
Amen.

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Christ the King – In Him, can we? Colossians 1:11-20 Luke 23:33-43

What I think is a male Duke of Burgandy butterfly... a close view of the photograph suggests  stubby legs at the front! (Noar Hill, near Selborne, late May 2016)

What I think is a male Duke of Burgandy butterfly… a close view of the photograph suggests stubby legs at the front! (Noar Hill, near Selborne, late May 2016)

This morning as part of my placement in the North Hampshire Downs I was in All Saints, Odiham marking the end of the liturgical year with the Feast of Christ the King. My reflections start with the super-moon and a very small butterfly!

Epistle: Colossians 1:11-20  Gospel: Luke 23:33-43

I suspect few of us will have seen the full-extent of the super-moon on Monday, though on Sunday as I returned from a late afternoon service in Greywell I was blessed with a wonderful view of the apparently huge rising of the ‘nearly’ super-moon, in the glowing colour of autumn’s glory. But as there was no-where suitable to pull-off and capture the phenomenon in a photograph, it has to stay purely as a memory.

There was something so fascinating about this phenomenon of the moon being 30-thousand miles closer to the earth than usual, that images of it filled our news bulletins, our papers and our social media. Something we usually feel very far removed from, suddenly appeared closer (due to angles and orbits) and we were drawn into the detail of the moon, especially the craters and their impact ray systems. From a greater distance we normally just accept these by projecting onto them features with which we are more familiar: a man, or a rabbit, depending on our cultural context and physical viewpoint. Instead the different materials of which the moon is made were highlighted, emphasising for those of us that aren’t scientists that the moon is a far more complex thing than perhaps we realised. We understand more of the universe when we are able to see the detail of what we are looking at.

I originally come from the New Forest and have been fortunate to be surrounded by wildlife most of my life, learning to understand the differences in coat colour, markings, size and other physical attributes of some native animals and birds. But it took the discovery and accessibility of digital photography to bring to the fore the detail and significance in an insects eye, antennae, wing-case or legs. Did you know for example that some of the small, rare and beautiful Duke of Burgundy butterflies have only four apparent legs, the vestigial remains of the front two marking out such individuals as males?! It’s important to those studying the viability of butterfly populations to know whether individuals are male or female. We understand more of the world around us when we are able to see the detail of what we are looking at.

On this final feast of the Christian year, known as the feast of Christ the King, we are given the opportunity to understand in more detail the significance of our Servant King by drawing close-up to the cross on which he died.

In Luke’s account of the crucifixion the accepted view of Jesus’ pretentions to the role of a Messiah who brings salvation, inspire mockery and derision with the thrice repeated challenge to save himself. The Jewish leaders, the Roman soldiers and one of the criminals with whom he is being crucified see Jesus as-if only from a distance, and even then, perhaps only as what they want to see: not a man or a rabbit on the moon, or an insect with the usual legs but another defeated and humiliated trouble-maker put out of the way.

Yet the second criminal takes a much closer view. Recognising his own death as justified by the law of that time because of his own wrongdoing, his vision of the innocent next to him is enhanced, and he sees clearly in his character, words and actions, the truth of who Jesus is, and the power of which his crucifixion speaks. For the irony of the mockers demand that Jesus should “save himself” to prove he is “the Messiah, the chosen one”, is that in his crucifixion lies the means by which this King achieves his royal power and offers salvation not to himself, but to all humankind. As in so many other examples from his earthly ministry, it is an outcast from society who is capable of a unique insight into who Jesus is, the Servant King.

The early Christian Hebrew poem that we now read in English prose in Colossians, draws this image of Christ as Servant King still closer, like a telescope on a distant moon or perhaps the macro lens on the minute detail of a passing insect. Here is visible even more detail, highlighting the supremacy and sacrifice of Jesus, giving us a greater understanding of the nature of the God we too are called to serve.

Jesus, it highlights, is the first-born of all creation. In him all things hold together. It is easy to forget when looking in awe at a super-moon or the beauty of a butterfly, that actually they are, because Jesus. Jesus Christ wasn’t simply the person for whom the whole creation was made, it was his idea, his workmanship in the first place, designed for humans to enjoy and care for. He who flung stars into space, created us to rule with justice what he had brought into being (Psalm 8).

But, we’re told, he is also the first-born from the dead. Why? Because the evil and pain that came into that creation through humans wrongdoing, their inability to care appropriately for it and for each other, could only be healed by the very one who created it, the living God. Christ the agent of creation is also the agent of reconciliation, forgiveness and hope, which is why Christ the King, the head of the church, the fullness of God, is a crucified Christ, the Servant King.

As WE look in detail at these close-up images of God made man, refusing to save himself because of you and me, and the world we live in, we should also see something else: Jesus is the blueprint for the genuine humanness which is the gold-standard of what we are called to be as humans. The cross isn’t just about the perfection of love, grace, forgiveness, humility and sacrifice which Jesus made, it is a summons to find and exhibit that love, grace, forgiveness, humility and sacrifice in our own personal humanity.

Unlike the images we have of a super-moon, a butterfly or any other aspect of the world and life around us, whether purely in our memory or on a camera or computer chip, this close-up, detailed image of Christ, the Servant King, can only be retained in our memories, and, importantly, shared with others, IF we willingly admit our own wrong-doings, strive constantly to understand who Jesus is by being up-close to him in all things, and bring that image alive in our own lives.

JESUS withstood the mockery of those who really should have understood and recognised him, and rose with humility above the derision of those whose last laugh was at the expense of an innocent. In him, can we?

JESUS recognised in the words an outcast criminal condemned for crimes he really had committed, a hope and faith in God that deserved a place with him in paradise. In him, can we?

JESUS, first-born of all creation, brought the world into being as a place of beauty, in which the abundance of life was to be enjoyed, celebrated and cared for. In him, can we?

JESUS, first-born of the dead, brought healing and forgiveness to a broken world and to broken people. In him, can we?

In the image of Jesus we show to others in our own lives, can we welcome people into this kingdom of Christ, our King?

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Prayers for #Remembrance Day based around a sonnet by Malcolm Guite

I have been asked to do the prayers for the Remembrance Day service in one church of the parish in which I have recently started a two month placement. In an effort to both step away from standard forms of published prayers, and to feed my own need for creativity, I have written the following. The words of intercession are wrapped around the words of a sonnet written by the well-known poet-priest Malcolm Guite (published in his book ‘Sounding the Seasons’,) and conclude with more formal words from the Church of England’s, ‘New Patterns for Worship’.

I hope Malcolm will forgive me if he’s not sure his sonnet should have been used this way, or if my words don’t live up to his wordsmithery. I also hope that the parish in which they will be spoken can relate them their own feelings and emotions in the silences that will be offered, and that you, if you have need, might feel free to make use of them. [If you do, please let me know when and where via the ‘comments’ facility.]

 

 


November pierces with its bleak remembrance

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Photograph by Graham Hartland from the Devonshire monument near Theipval, France, reminding us not only that this is 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, but that the Jews whose kin would die at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War faught as an integral part of the Allied Forces in the First!

Of all the bitterness and waste of war;
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.

Lord God, as we remember with gratitude
the fallen of generations past,
The faces and wounds of those
still very much present in our living memory;
We beseech you again
as heirs of a conflicted humanity,
for that peace which passes all understanding,
And the faith that trusts in your unfailing love.

[Silence]

Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
For shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause.

Jesus Christ, who spoke calm to the storm,
Healing to the diseased and lame
And the assurance of a future to the hopeless;
Make your voice heard by the leaders of all nations and peoples,
That they, with us,
might act with true justice,
Love mercy,
and walk humbly with you our God.

[Silence]

In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries from every land.

Holy Spirit who stirs our hearts to compassion
In flickering images
That flow with the blood of careless inhumanity;
Let the sparks of our inadequacy and frustration,
Be ignited into the flames of action,
That together we might be prepared to be
Your answer to our fervent prayers.

[Silence]

One silence only might redeem that blood;
Only the silence of a dying God.

Blessed Trinity, who reached into your broken world,
Through the redeeming power of the cross and resurrection
To break the power of darkness;
In your endless grace,
Work in us to restore the knowledge that silence
contains not the seeds of apathy,
nor the truth of lies,
But the fruit of your Kingdom come,
And the hope of eternal life.

[Silence]

In darkness and in light,                                              NPW J6
in trouble and in joy,
help us, heavenly Father,
to trust your love,
to serve your purpose,
and to praise your name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.      

 

 

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Silk and batik clergy shirts – from bridal designers Nortier Shallow

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Silk clerical shirt – I know the sleeves look long, but that way they cope with a multitude of needs.

I don’t profess to be in the slightest bit stylish, being happiest when comfortable, and am no model, so apologies for the grim photos (courtesy of my husband). I work in a variety of environments which tend to the cold and drafty at times, and require the wearing of a top layer of long, flowing robes in which I tend to wave my arms around a lot (aka: the ‘manual actions’ of the Eucharist Prayer and sharing God’s blessing and forgiveness)! Thus I like my clerical shirts to have ample room both for the arm waving, and the ability to hide a layer of thermals!! I’m basically just a little,… quirky.

I inherited some silk remnants that Cross Designs successfully made into a dress and shirt for my ordination as Deacon, but they tended to the ‘close fitting’ and they’re too far away for easy fitting sessions. Then I found some similar silk in CandH in Winchester, so for my ordination as Priest I got Ben and Adrien (Bahbua the designers at my local bridal shop BOO) to come up with something that fitted my quirky requirements. It was fantastic fun, and they fully entered into the spirit with which the material had been chosen.

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My ‘pentecost’ clerical shirt – in cotton batik.

I was delighted, so when we found some batik cottons in wonderful colours at a quilting shop called Step-By-Step Quilts in South Molton whilst on holiday, I just had to get Ben and Adrien to have another go, the only alteration to the pattern being to reduce the depth of the collar, so that a standard collar insert fits without falling out. Once again I’m thrilled with how they’ve turned out, and the orange/green/pink shirt has already been christened my ‘pentecost’ shirt by the locals where I’m on placement. I also have red stars, which I’m saving for Christmas – no surprises there!

I’m hugely grateful to Anna at Boo, and particularly Ben and Adrien for making the whole experience a delight and coping with an eccentric cleric in their bridal shop.

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My ‘pentecost’ shirt hiding under robes – I can even toll a bell in it!

Adrien and Ben are in the process of re-branding and will be moving to their own premises in Basingstoke as Nortier Shallow in the near future. I can thoroughly recommend them for anyone wanting something a little different made ‘bespoke’.

Not the cheapest option in clergy shirts, but way more fun and a great way of getting to know local businesses!

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Another batik clerical shirt – Christmas stars!

 

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