Celebrating God’s creation #Harvest Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and Luke 12:16-30

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Bramshill Mission Chapel

The hidden gem of the Parish of Eversley and Bramshill is that there is a mission chapel in the woods at Bramshill, where the locals still gather to worship once a month. It seats 24 – in old cinema seating derived from a source I’ve not yet managed to discern! It also, as of this month, boasts a new (to Bramshill) organ – a gift from a local Roman Catholic parish – with which a ‘full-house’ sang the harvest hymns this evening.

Celebrating God’s creation as the bedrock of our life and faith.

Why is it that as Christian’s we make such a huge effort in our harvest celebrations?

It’s not like it’s a festival that celebrates a part of Jesus’ life, like Christmas, or Easter, or even his continued ministry among us through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Harvest formed no direct part in Jesus’ story, despite the number of agricultural parables and images he used.

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The inside of Bramshill Mission Chapel, decorated with garden produce and flowers for Harvest

Why is that some come to adorn our local holy places with produce and share in worship at harvest more than other seasons, and without the stimulus of the significant secular commercialism that adorns at last some of those other festivals?

As we gather the fruit and vegetables, the flowers and the autumn leaves to beautify even this simple place of Christian worship, we are reaching back to our most basic understanding of God, and the bedrock of what he has gifted us with: life.

Tucked away in the woods by a garden pond, corrugated iron roof resounding to the scrape of branches and the ricochet of this years abundant crop of acorns and chestnuts, one might be forgiven for thinking this chapel is dead. Certainly many locals, including until recently myself, live in ignorance of it’s presence, or at least it’s location. And yet this place is a symbol of the riches of life, renewed and re-used for God’s glory, whether that be in the comfort of cinema seating or the swell of the freshly inherited organ. Here is life to be celebrated rather than hidden away.

The abundance of colour and produce here, against the backdrop of simplicity in this place, reminds me of two other ‘hidden’ places.

  • One, which I visited earlier this year, is the Chapel in the roof space at Talbot House, at Poperinge in Flanders, a pilgrimage I may reflect more on at Remembrance. In WW1 and still today, it is decorated with the rich harvest of that fertile but scarred land… hops.
  • The other I have only read about, for it was only briefly a place of Christian worship planted into a mosque, within the confines of Changi prison after the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Rev’d Eric Cordingly* created St. George’s Chapel within Changi, and in the autumn of 1942 invited the inmates of that most notorious of prisons to celebrate harvest. One might wonder, given the starvation rations and forced labour of their circumstances, why and how, both practically and spiritually, they could possibly celebrate the abundance of God’s life? But celebrate it they did. Eric writes:

“It was useless to attempt to decorate until the cool of Saturday evening, and then there was no dearth of helpers… sweet potatoes, purplish-green egg plant, those odd-looking “ladies fingers”, tapioca root in its twisted and distorted shapes,… bundles of green leaf vegetable [were] in evidence. Numbers of palm branches had been cut and were then fastened against the pillars of the Church. Tremendous bundles of brilliant hued flowers were left shyly at the entrance of the Church by the giver. The gift of flowers had meant a journey with a fatigue party outside the wire [as] the amount of flowers growing within the limits of the camp was very small…

As the sun set the Church seemed to fill with that typical smell that fills our Churches at home at Harvest, [and] someone had made a huge cross entirely of [the] pure white blooms [of frangipania]; over a thousand of them went to make up this symbol of Christianity.”

As I received… the gifts I felt deeply conscious of the sacrifice entailed… The services need not be described in detail, the enthusiasm was typical of that shown in decorating… Among those present was the… commanding officer of the Dysentery Wing at the Hospital… to [whom] we were sending the gifts which decorated the church… The harvest hymns were sung for we realised that as we were thanking God for the fruits of the earth over which we had toiled, our prayers too were thanksgivings for the Harvest at home.”

Here amidst the death that pervaded Changi, was a community celebration not just of life, but of love and sacrifice in the presence of conflict, injustice, suffering and constant, un-necessary bereavement due to starvation. The “veneer of civilisation or reticence” which Eric writes of having been stripped from them all, reveals that at the bedrock of human existence is a thankfulness for the harvests by which our life, both it’s physical life and it’s spiritual core, are maintained by God. From one day to the next, they did not know if they were to live or die, what clothes or food they would have, but they wished to celebrate life, and God’s provision within it, without visible anxiety for that future over which they had no control.

That harvest celebration in Changi in 1942, to my eyes at least, was an example of living out our Gospel reading today. Jesus’ parable is warning against hiding away that which we have been given, and which our own sacrifices have produced or gathered in. Death will come all too quickly, especially to the human soul, if the abundance of life is not celebrated and shared when opportunity presents itself.

Jesus’ reflection on the birds and the flowers isn’t some kind of romantic mysticism, but an encouragement to recognise that which we have been given; what it is that can be used to focus on a very necessary recognition of what God has given us both symbolically and practically, in the life of the natural world with which we are surrounded. Surely in the economy of God’s Kingdom, the beauty and productivity of the land is a foretaste of the treasures of heaven with which we will be surrounded when it is more fully revealed? Jesus is reminding us that if we are to be rich towards God in the now and not yet of this kingdom, then we must celebrate and share that which we have been given, and the sacrifices of toil with which we have shared in the labours of his beauty; life, today, in all it’s fulness.

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The harvest loaf, Bramshill Mission Chapel 2017

This chapel, these harvest gifts that you’ve so faithfully brought in, our hymns and prayers, and the meal which we shall shortly share, are a witness to the goodness and riches of life that God has given us. Our celebration of these good things should also not be hidden away, but brought out into the open in our lives, so that the riches with which God has blessed us are shared with the world at large, witness to our faith in our creator God. That means not simply finding productive and helpful places in which all this beauty can be shared, but considering how the beauty and riches of our lives can be more creatively used to feed the physical and spiritual needs of others, and point to God’s coming Kingdom.

*Rev’d Eric Cordingly became Bishop of Thetford and his secret notes from his life and ministry at Changi and on the Burma Railroad were published posthumously by his family as ‘Down to Bedrock’.

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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?

Financial battles – 1 Tim 6:6-19 Luke 16:19-end

I was back in Old Basing celebrating Eucharist and preaching this Sunday, before being back on the road again next week.

The Epistle and Gospel spoke about money, at times using some quite militaristic language I thought, but also about listening to God, to Jesus’ example and instructions for living a life that helps to extend the Kingdom of God. To understand my reference early in the sermon, it will help to know that my training incumbent Fr Alec has previously served as a padre in the Guards during the Afghan conflict.

2016-08-04-18-14-02I wonder how many battles you’ve fought in your lifetime?

Some, like Fr Alec and others among you will have fought in, or at least witnessed personal, armed conflict with a dangerous aggressor.

I’ve been reading my great-uncle’s diary, written at least in part during the Battle of the Somme, and it has struck me forcibly that in battle, listening to, and passing on accurately, commands and current positions is vital; you need to know when to move forward and where to, else your battle line will not be covered by supporting fire; you need to be aware of when retreat is the only option; and you need to listen to those around you, to know where the fighting is fiercest. And if those in command are ill-informed, misdirected, or won’t listen to the wisdom of those who have seen and experienced the front line, however junior their rank, then the battle becomes an even more pointless waste of life than it was already.

Many of you will have fought other battles. Battles with various illnesses, battles to get members of your family the support they need, battles of a legal nature when things have gone wrong or accidents happened. And quite probably we have all fought a battle with money in some way.

2016-09-27-12-48-03cHowever rich or poor we are, most of us will say we could do with a little more money. And of course there are untold millions of people in the world, for whom a little more money would make a massive difference. They’d be able to eat more than one tiny meal a day, perhaps have a roof over their head, and be able to afford to send their kids to school. They could leave behind sheer misery, and yes, probably be content with their improved financial lot.

For some people, much of their dealings with money have given rise to uncertainty and stress. Those of us who have lived through the massive fluctuations in the mortgage rates and styles of the 1980s and 1990s, or held savings in more recent financial crises, will know that money will come and go. Listening to best advice doesn’t always guarantee financial security, especially when the greed of a few jeopardises the whole financial system. But, the front line of the battle in individual families is always whether food can be put on the table, clothes on our backs, the rent or mortgage paid, and some form of transport be afforded to get us to work or school. When all is said and done, here in the western world, that is about ALL we need.

Money is NOT of itself evil. Money was a human invention to make the movement of goods and services easier; in and of itself, money is not a bad thing. But when money becomes the thing that we listen to the most, whether we desire more and more of it, or whether we’re in debt because of desiring more and more of what it can buy, then we’ve started on the slippery slope to worshipping it, and that is idolatry. Money isn’t evil. Loving it IS, as our passage from 1 Timothy 6 this morning famously points out.

Loving money, or the things it can buy, makes us greedy, and whether held individually or corporately, loving money will stop us having a generous heart, and that was the rich man’s problem in our Gospel parable from Luke 16. He couldn’t even make the effort to give the starving man at his gate the crumbs from his table. We’ve all seen images of starving people, those on our own streets and those around the world. Written in the pain of their pinched faces and the pattern of their skeletons protruding through thin, fleshless skin, is a picture of what greed can do – even when some of the cause is natural disaster. If we listen to our politicians carefully, we can hear greed in their words too, when the profits made from the sales of arms, far outweighs the increase of a few million in the aid budget to the very places under fire from those armaments!

So in the battles generated through the idolatry of money that leads to greed at a personal or national level, how do we as Christians decide who to listen to, and then how to act?

Money can come, and can go. God doesn’t. He is the constant. His is the voice of instruction that should guide us. In our parable, Abraham listens to the rich man in torment in Hades who has, too late, seen the revelry of his lounging pass away (Amos 6:7). Realising the error of his ways he wants to save his like-minded brothers. Unlike similar fables of it’s time, in Jesus version of this story, there is no happy ending but rather the stark reminder that the rich man and his brothers’ had failed to listen to the voices of Moses, and the prophets like Amos, who taught God’s law. The Law included among other instructions the requirement to enable “the alien, the orphan, and the widow” to collect the gleanings in a field and the last olives from your trees, “so that God may bless you in all your undertakings.” (Deut 24:19-20)

God has not required those who have money, or other forms of wealth, to simply give it away willy nilly. It is as possible to be a wealthy Christian, as it is to be poor one who remains financially secure. The key in battling to handle our finances with integrity as Christians, is not only to listen to wise financial advice and hope it’s at least half-right, but to listen to scriptures like those today. These scriptures, and others like them, are the battle commands we’ve been given and should lie behind all our financial dealings; to fight with our faith and our money those battles that stand for Jesus’ priorities of love, gentleness, endurance, generosity, and other good works, including feeding the hungry at our gates.

With the Foodbank, our support for Christian Aid and other charities, the occasional purchase of the Big Issue, we are caring in small ways for the Lazarus’s at our gate. But, the characteristics of love and generosity aren’t just about us behaving better towards others for our own peace of mind to show we’re better people; they are the essential requirements of being in Jesus’ army. However, it isn’t about buying our way into God’s Kingdom either, it’s about living by faith from the point that we declare for ourselves a belief in the resurrection of Christ on through our lives. We accept our place in this battle through baptism and confirmation, and we will be constantly challenged to move our financial battle lines forward making appropriate forays and sacrifices along the way, listening for the instructions both scriptural and otherwise that show us when to advance, or retreat, and where the fighting is fiercest for those around us. Those will be the places where our generosity of spirit, and our money, is needed most. There will come alive our calling to fight in Jesus’ army.

Let us pray:

Loving Lord who has given us much
We thank you for the example of generosity set us in scripture;
We repent of those times when we have not been generous.
We repent of those times when greed has made our finances precarious.
Open our eyes to the needs in the world, those on our doorstep, and those further afield,
And grant us wisdom to prioritise your kingdom in the financial decisions that we make.
Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Coming or going? A sermon for 2 parishes in vacancy (Heb 11:1-16 and Luke 12:32-40)

 

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Inside St. Mary’s Herriard  (very grateful to my husband for taking the photographs as we’ve travelled the rural parishes of Odiham Deanery in recent weeks)

I was back on the road this week, at two ends of Odiham Deanery, leading worship at a BCP Holy Communion in St. Mary’s Eversley who with Derby Green are still to appoint a vicar, then crossing all the way to St. Mary’s Herriard as that part of the North Hampshire Downs Benefice anticipate the imminent arrival of their new Team Rector. My reflections dwelt on their situations in the light of the Epistle and Gospel this week.

Also included here are the intercessions I used at Herriard, which used some of the imagery of the Gospel reading.

 

I wonder. Do we know whether we’re coming or going?

We all have times in our lives when we are up to our ears in stuff, juggling different needs. There will be things related to our work or livelihood demanding our attention; some domestic issues that might inflict themselves on us, like a car breaking down just before a long-journey is required; or perhaps some difficult family situation that needs us to give up precious time that we don’t really have, to help or resolve it. Some of this muddle of circumstances will have been caused by our own mistakes, some, simply by that thing we call life. We find ourselves dashing, mentally and possibly physically, from one thing to another, without a clear a idea of where our focus needs to be, what is important rather than urgent. We don’t know whether we’re coming or going.

Our readings this morning are all about comings and goings.

In the passage from Hebrews, we start with the coming of faith into the world, people learning to recognise the relationship of faith, hope and trust in the lives and movement of people who heard what could not be seen: the power of God to move things forward.

In our Gospel passage, there are preparations for the coming of a master to his servants, at an unknown time, possibly late at night when it would be understandable and easy to be asleep.

That’s the comings, but what about the goings?

In our Hebrews passage we are reminded of some of the root stories of our faith, with Abraham “setting out into a new land, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Isaac and Jacob were to take important journeys of their own, all three of them having heard the promise of a kingdom that they were never themselves to see fulfilled: that Abraham’s children would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore.

In Luke, there is also the promise of this kingdom, but the details of the journey required are hidden in the description of what needs to be done. “Be dressed for action…” (Luke 12:35) was the advice originally given to the Israelites preparing for their Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:11). In the story of the first Passover there is a sense of urgency as they prepare to leave and go into a new land. But, this going can only be enabled by the coming of the Lord into Egypt in great power, preserving and releasing his chosen people to go into the Promised Land. We also read this passage in the light of the Christ who spoke it, he who had not only come in his earthly life to serve, but was also going through a violent death, to release all people into a new life. Goings, and comings, towards the fulfilment of a promise that will ultimately be fulfilled at Jesus’ return.

I have spent much of the last few Sundays travelling around parishes in the Odiham Deanery that are in vacancy, so it is unsurprising that as I reflect on my own comings and goings among you and other parishes, I do so with a strong sense of the goings and comings that you are yourselves experiencing. You have said goodbye to clergy who have moved on to pastures new, and you anticipate the coming, sooner (Herriard) or perhaps later (Eversley), of those freshly called to be among you. As churches, you are making preparations, either concrete plans or something a little more nebulous and ill-defined that hasn’t quite, if you’ll excuse the expression, got its clothes on yet.

But what of the promises that all these comings and goings are moving towards. Is it simply the potential/promise of a new Vicar/Rector who will take the strain off tired hands, fasten their belt, tuck in their robes, and get down to the hard work of serving their patch as Christ serves the church? Is it a promise which will take you on a journey to a new land, a fresh coming of Christ? Is it the promise of the Kingdom of God?

The opening lines of our passage in Hebrews define faith in relation to hope. Faith for the Hebrews – the people of Israel whose community is defined by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and a journey to a new kingdom – was always closely linked to hope. Their hope was in looking at the future and trusting God to sort it out from the muddle of circumstances that their lives, at times their mistakes, had got them into. Their hope was under-girded with faith, and with that they had an assurance that the promises that had been made to Abraham, would be fulfilled.

It wasn’t a promise that rested on particular people, though they needed to be obedient to the voice of God, and encourage obedience in others. It wasn’t just a promise about some land, a place to call home, to protect and nurture so that it fed them. It was most importantly a promise that moved them toward a perfection of relationship with God, which is what the Kingdom of God is. In Jesus that promised relationship with God was extended to include us all. In the ‘now and not yet’ of the Kingdom of God, the promise has a fresh start, a new beginning that includes us in the need to be prepared for its complete fulfilment when Jesus comes again in glory.

We are the stars in the sky, the sand on the shore, part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. We are part of the Kingdom of God, the custodians of the next leg of the Kingdom’s journey toward perfection, and God works in our imperfections just as he worked with Israel’s. So, we need to understand our roles in the comings and goings that are required in that Kingdom.

As you make your preparations for the coming, sooner or later, of new clergy, how prepared are you for going forward with the next part of that promise? Are you dressed and ready for action? Have your lamps been lit?

My hope and prayer is that amid the comings and goings of a parish in vacancy, your hopes have been based on the assurance of faith in our God of journeys, and the anticipation of life in the now and not yet of the Kingdom of God, revealed in a Christ who comes among us now, and serves us at this table.

Prayers used for Herriard service:

Looking at the clothes we are wearing:

Lord Jesus, your Kingdom comes that those who have nothing are clothed not only for comfort, warmth and protection, but in the love of God our Father. As we put on the cloth of hope in new beginnings, enable us to clothe and feed others, so that they too may be know what it is to receive blessing from you.                    Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Looking at the lamps and lights around us:

Lord Jesus, your Kingdom comes that those who are in darkness see light, the light that shows the path ahead. As we look forward to a new path, a different route, enable us to shine the light of your mercy into the lives of those whose journeys have become dominated by pain, by fear or by addiction, so that they too see a new way and a new hope, in the knowledge of your presence and your promises.             Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Looking at the belts, fastenings and ties of not just our clothes but also our relationships with each other and with others:

Lord Jesus, we remember that your Kingdom comes through the relationships that we have. Help us where appropriate to use some to lift what we carry out the dirt so that it can be used for your glory. Through the power of your forgiveness, loose those relationships that bind us to places of pain and judgement, and fasten others tight, so that no-one is left behind and all are included in the journey of faith in you.             Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

As we gather at your table, and leave by the door:

Lord Jesus, we remember that your Kingdom is a place where we are fed and sent out. Help us be alert to your presence among us, from the smallest to the largest part of your creation, in our friends and in our occupations; that in all things we welcome you, but are also your obedient servants, eager and prepared to serve your Kingdom in our prayers and preparations for your coming again in glory.

Merciful Father…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sitting at the feet of Jesus – Luke 10 v38-end

 

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View across the nave, All Saints, Odiham, North Hampshire Downs Benefice

As we galloped through to the end of term, this week with Pilgrimage Day and end of year Acts of Worship at school, I neglected to post last Sunday’s sermon that I gave in the North Hampshire Downs Benefice. This included my first visit to All Saints, Odiham for the well attended BCP Holy Communion at 8am, and a return to St. Mary’s, Upton Grey for Family Communion.  Continue reading “Sitting at the feet of Jesus – Luke 10 v38-end”

Are we like Legion? Luke 8:26-39

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St. Mary’s Church, Upton Grey, in the North Hampshire Downs Benefice

Today was my first Sunday covering services the North Hampshire Downs Benefice, and specifically a Family Communion service in the parish of Upton Grey. I really should have photographed the glorious view from the church porch (complete with circling Red Kite and twittering Long Tailed Tits) and I received a very warm welcome. It was a particular delight to have young children both read the Epistle, and lead the prayers. 
It has been a challenging week for anyone preaching; just what can one usefully say into a dynamic situation of violent episodes around the world. For me there was the added challenge of speaking to a congregation I don’t know, to a maximum of 8 minutes, and with young children present. What follows was my stumbling attempt which included props, as annotated. 

How familiar is our Gospel this morning? A person with significant mental health issues is ignored by the society in which he lives, and presents not simply a threat to himself but to those he encounters. A carer, passionate about serving people in need, is turned away through fear.

No too human stories are exactly the same. In our Gospel today, Legion doesn’t kill, Christ does not die, at least not in the land of the Geresenes – it will take the religious and political powers of the land to do that. In the Gospel story, our God-given humanity is given another chance.

We see a ‘legion’ of dehumanized situations in our world that perhaps it’s tempting to hide our children from and ignore. To add to the conflict in Syria and the treatment of refugees across the Middle East and Europe, the normalization of violence has been seen only too clearly in the last couple of weeks. We’ve seen football hooliganism (I managed not to decapitate a Churchwarden when throwing a football to them) rooted in a culture of casual racism, fuelled by the normality of heavy drinking (empty beer bottle). The violent gun use of a computer game (Call of Duty 2, borrowed from a neighbour) was suddenly translated into desperate scenes from Orlando (on my iPad) related to both IS and to homophobia. And when it all seemed comfortably like other people’s problems, MP Jo Cox is murdered outside her constituency office, and we watch (Saturday’s Guardian article) as an armed man is arrested. West Yorkshire suddenly seems quite close to leafy Hampshire. (Hand out visual aids as I talk.)

In our Gospel reading, within a short while of Jesus’ arrival and healing encounter with Legion, the community Legion has run from, creep up voyeuristically to gaup at the transformed outcast – fully clothed and in his right mind, sat as a disciple at Jesus’ feet. They are filled, not with joy and amazement at the healing of someone they know, but by fear. Fear, not so much of Legion, but of the man who had given him new life: it is Jesus they ask to leave.

It is human nature to fear what we do not understand.  The Gerasenes understood the source of the healing power that transformed Legion’s dehumanised life even less than the evil that had inhabited Legion in the first place. Jesus knew that they would only come to understand by living with a visible symbol of the power of good over evil, which was why to complete his re-humanisation, Legion had to stay in the community to which he belonged as a catalyst for their healing. It was Legion’s healing which for that society would prepare the ground for the apostolic mission to the Gentiles that would proclaim that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for ALL of you are one in Christ Jesus”.

As we reflect on this morning’s Gospel, we need to ask ourselves to what extent are we like Legion? There may indeed be demons that we have been, or need to be freed from including an over-addiction to computer games or drinking to the exclusion of all else. There may indeed be the dehumanising influences of racism around sport, the sensationalism of the papers, and the ridicule of social media memes that on the surface seem funny. (I took back the visual aids and placed them at foot of Nave altar at which I presided.) Yes, as the last week has proved only too well, we need the calm understanding of Christ-like compassion to heal these, alongside a healthy dose of self-control. To the extent that these things rule our lives rather than cause us to flourish, we need to let Jesus take them from us and place them out of reach.

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The ‘high altar’ at the end of a narrow chancel in St. Mary’s Church Upton Grey – I shared bread and wine with the congregation at the rail here, having presided at the Nave altar.

But like Legion, we are also called by Jesus to stay in the communities in which we live and work, and to show them in word and action how he has changed us. To the extent that we have been healed, helped and placed ourselves as disciples at Jesus’ feet, we need to be encouraged to make that known to those around us. Like Legion, we will not see Jesus’ healing work complete in us, until we share his compassion with the world around us. The apostolic work towards creating a world of equals, where our shared, God-given humanity is understood, is ours. “Return to your home” Jesus is saying to US, “and declare how much God has done for you.”

 

 

Luke 7:36-8:3 Serving and being served #HMQ90

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The Nave and unusual sanctuary of St. Mary’s Church Eversley.

On the occasion of national celebrations for Her Majesty’s 90th Birthday, I found my self covering a service of Holy Communion in a parish a mere five minutes from my home, rather than the usual 25 minute drive to Old Basing. It’s been a while since I was in St. Mary’s Eversley, but as they work through a vacancy this is the first of a couple of services I’m for them. Due to the celebrations of The Queen’s birthday the service also included the treat of listening to the choir sing Zadok the Priest!

 

I wonder how many times in her long reign Her Majesty The Queen has felt like she is dining at a Pharisee’s house? Perhaps we best not answer that question.

Pharisees got such a poor reputation from the Bible that they became an adjective in our dictionary, a synonym for hypocrisy and dissembling. But, at least at first view, Simon the host in our Gospel passage seems on better terms with Jesus than some of his legalistically minded brethren.

Simon is willing to invite Jesus into his home; pity he forgets to make Jesus welcome too.

When you look at footage of Her Majesty’s 265+ foreign visits, I wonder if like me, you are struck both by the number of symbols of welcome which she encounters: in Tuvalu she was borne shoulder high into the sea in a boat carried by warriors; in Northern Ireland she received a model of the infamous Game of Thrones throne; she received a wooden plaque from athletes in Sierra Leone ; a silver box of soil from World War 1 battle grounds whilst at Wellington Barracks; and in a New Forest clearing in 1979, she was presented with a small posy of garden flowers by a 10 year old girl, who had to curtsey whilst wearing a trouser suit!

I wonder if she’s ever had her feet ceremonially washed?

Many of us will know that common courtesy and tradition in first century Israel-Palestine, should have meant that whatever Simon’s view of Jesus’ status, as a guest entering from the dusty street, Jesus should have been made welcome by having his feet washed. As social faux-pas go, it was quite a big omission. Perhaps it’s a sign of Simon’s confusion about Jesus: is he a prophet or a problem; a servant of God or a seditious dissenter?

An intruder enters and with emotional excess, makes up for Simon’s slight.

The Queen knows a little of intruders too: when in 1982 a gentleman entered her Buckingham Palace bedroom, she said afterwards to those who praised her calm reactions: “you seem to forget that I spend most of my time conversing with complete strangers.”

So did Jesus. His Kingdom-building ministry meant he was constantly on the road, meeting strangers, most of whom were as confused as Simon the Pharisee about Jesus’ role in the world. Unlike the woman with the alabaster jar: she knew exactly what Jesus’ role was; he was her King.

We don’t know what the Palace intruder said to his Queen, just as we hear nothing except weeping from the woman pouring her wealth over Jesus feet. But unlike the Palace intruder, she is a disciple, someone who welcomes Jesus and recognises him as the Messiah; it’s just she doesn’t need words to say so.

In scripture we hear Simon’s concern for the impropriety of the situation overwhelm any understanding of his own mistake – he’s much more worried about her past mistakes than his current ones. He cannot see beyond these to the service and powerful symbolic action that she is making towards Jesus. Simon seeks to score points, rather than understand the depth and dynamics of love and forgiveness, faith and servant-hood.

They are hidden from Simon, deep in that alabaster jar, those tears, that hair, and in Jesus’ unflinching understanding of the woman at his feet: who here is serving, who is being served; who here is King, and who given a Royal inheritance?

Anointing with Oil of Chrism is a sign of Royal status. It was the most private bit of the Queen’s coronation, the part that wasn’t televised. During the singing of Zadok the Priest, the symbols of her status were removed, and in a simple white dress, the oil of Chrism “was poured onto her hands, her chest and her head, to show she was being set apart to serve and love her people in all her actions, with all her heart and with all her mind” (‘The Servant Queen and the King she serves’). To Her Majesty this was the most important part of her coronation, the point which most strongly symbolised the sacrificial qualities of the loving service in which she would devote the rest of her life to the peoples of this country and Commonwealth. Through that service she has sought to tell forth the praises of her Lord Jesus Christ, in the words of her Christmas messages and in the way she relates to people. She may have had Prince Philip at her side all these years to support her, but it is her Christian faith that has been at the “inspiration” and “anchor” of her service.

The woman with the alabaster jar was serving and anointing Jesus because she recognised him as her Lord and King. Something had happened that meant she had seen in him the undiluted love of God and so she placed her faith totally in him. But whilst it was her that was anointing him, at the end of this encounter it is Jesus who serves her with an anointing not of oil, but of public words of forgiveness with which to step forth into the freedom of a new life.

In baptism the stories of love, forgiveness and freedom come alive in the symbolism of water, the stories of creation, of Exodus, of new life. It is the point where we are to invited to metaphorically rise from our knees and start our journey through life taking with us the peace of Christ. As part of this, in some Christian traditions, the oil of Chrism is used as part of baptism services, underlining the fact that through baptism we are made Christ’s Royal people, anointed to serve others, as Christ has served us.

In a world where we are encouraged constantly by the media, by politicians, by economists to make judgements about others, the truthfulness or otherwise of their statements, the validity of one person’s rights over another’s, it is easy perhaps to forget that we are called by Jesus simply to serve one another.

If we are baptised, or wish to be baptised, then to fitly live out our baptism we must make sure we do not live like Pharisees. To show that we have received that anointing for service, we are called not to simply invite the stranger in, but to make them welcome. We are called not to judge the style or degree of another’s sin, but to forgive it. We are called not to hide our faith, but to proclaim it in abundance, by word and action. We are called to live lives as Christ’s Royal people, such that we make others feel not hopeless and downtrodden, but like royalty themselves.

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From behind the altar, the sanctuary design makes for a rather unusual view of the congregation, especially since there’s a who extra aisle and the choir right of picture!

As we celebrate Her Majesty The Queen’s birthday and her life-long commitment to Jesus, let us live as a true witness to the faith we share with her, “inspired [as she herself has said] by Jesus’ simple but powerful teaching: love God and love thy neighbour as thyself – in other words, treat others as you would like them to treat you.”

 

St. Mary’s Eversley, it was a joy to worship with you; thank you for the warm welcome. I look forward to an early morning BCP with you in a few weeks time.

Lifting the Veil – the only ‘ordinary’ sermon this spring

Snowdrops against the East End of St. Mary's 2
On a different note:  The snowdrops at St. Mary’s are stunning at the moment.

My sermon last Sunday 7th Feb 2015 (using the lectionary readings Exodus 34:29-end, 2 Cor 3:12-4:2 and Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]) was the only ‘ordinary time’ sermon of this spring, since the distance between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday was a matter of 7 days. 

 

In only a third of the weddings I’ve had the privilege of taking, has the bride worn a veil that was down as she entered the church on her wedding day. Since my survey currently only covers three weddings, to extrapolate the assumption that veils aren’t very popular with brides today, is possibly a distortion of statistics, but I think it might be safe to say that there have been times in the history of western culture when the wedding veil has been more popular.

In the Roman era they were red to ward off evil spirits! At times they have been used to cover the ‘goods’, lest a bridegroom renege on the deal at the last minute!! Thankfully, arranged marriages are now illegal. At times veils have emphasized on the chastity the bride, and they weren’t lifted until the end of the ceremony, as a symbol we might suggest, of things to come. Today, a veil retains a little secrecy, keeping the beauty and hopefully happiness of the bride hidden from the gauping throng as long as possible. As the veil is now raised BEFORE the service starts, the symbolism is more about the bride freely giving of the inner beauty of her personality and reflecting the love she is receiving from the groom. All suitably romantic. It is nearly Valentine’s Day after all!

In our Old Testament story today, Moses is no blushing bride, but rather is forced into wearing a veil, almost permanently. He has been away from the people of Israel, talking, on their behalf, with God. Actually IN the presence of God, something that no human alive had experienced. He comes away radiant, shining with the joy and glory of the encounter. And, the people of Israel? They can’t bear to look.

Moses has with him a SECOND set of tablets on which are engraved The Commandments. They are, as it were a replacement set, for Moses had broken the first two in frustration when he had returned from a previous mountaintop consultation with God to find the people of Israel had made a Golden Calf. Frustrated by their endless wandering in the wilderness they had thought it might offer better guidance and protection for their journey, than the distant seeming Lord with whom Moses kept conferring.  But they had been firmly shown that the only thing keeping them from understanding God’s constant care over their travels, was their lack of trust in the one who had brought them to freedom.

Now, seeing the reflection of God’s presence on Moses’ face was more than their guilt-burdened hearts could bear. Gradually their leaders, and then the rest of the community come close enough to hear the words of guidance and protection that will really protect them: commandments to love God, respect each other, avoid idolatry and return as gift the best of everything God gives to them. Moses’ radiance confirms that what he is saying is authentically from God, but whilst they’re willing to accept the rules, they can’t live with such constant proof of God’s presence. So it is ironic perhaps, that it is not the people who take up veils to shield themselves from the glory of God, but poor Moses who is forced to hide from them the impact of his encounters with God.

St. Paul wants nothing veiled. In our second reading today, he has no truck with the idea of hiding the impact of God’s presence on people’s lives. Of course, he too had seen God’s glory – and in his case a veil, as of scales, had fallen over his eyes after his vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. For three days they had reminded him of his dependence on God as he grappled with belief in who Jesus really was. With his baptism into that faith, the glory of God which was the boldness of Paul’s ministry was given its freedom, transforming one degree of glory to another, changing the lives of those who heard him and saw for themselves a radically changed man. For him, there could be no cloak of secrecy about the Good News of Jesus that had revealed the forgiveness of God.

It is a brief revelation of the grace-filled glory that would be brought about by the cross and resurrection of Christ, that forms the start of this morning’s Gospel. Peter, John and James are witness to Jesus being gloriously soaked in the presence of his Father God. At the very moment when he is consciously turning his face toward Jerusalem, and another, more ugly hill, Jesus talks with Moses, who had carried the Law of the Lord to his people, and Elijah, the prophet who had challenged them to be faithful to that law. Jesus was of course to be the fulfilment of all that these two men had strived for: a new covenant relationship between God and his people that enables each of us to lift the veils we place between ourselves and the love of God.

So much of Jesus’ ministry was about healing wounds, injustice and prejudice caused by human idolatry, not perhaps of a Golden Calf, but of money, wealth and a craving for power and control. They are the reason His death, resurrection and, glorious ascension are the permanent lifting of the veil of slavery to things which harden people’s hearts, to reveal for each of us that we can be made a new, radiant creation through faith in him. As Christ died on the cross, the curtain or veil of the Temple in Jerusalem was torn in two, because with his death went the last barriers to the freedom of which, and with which, St. Paul later spoke.

Moses removed his veil when he went into the presence of the Lord God to take counsel. The cloud that veils Jesus’ glorious encounter that the three disciples fail to fully comprehend, is lifted by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when they are equipped with the boldness to speak about Jesus as the Son of God. Likewise Paul writes to the Corinthians, that when anyone turns to belief in Jesus and receives baptism, their veil is also removed because their faith places them in the presence of God. If we believe in Christ, there is nothing of which to be ashamed.

This Sunday, we turn from our consideration of the birth and early life of Jesus, to a greater awareness of the purpose of his death, resurrection and ascension. As we prepare for Ash Wednesday we are asked to look into our own lives, picturing ourselves perhaps as penitent Israelites or confused disciples, and consider where we may have placed a veil between us and God. Perhaps we have made an idol of something that has become a greater priority than giving time to loving God’s people and his creation. Perhaps we can’t quite bear to look closely at who he reveals himself to be in Christ, so we ignore the need to search for a better understanding of what he asks of us. Perhaps we are confused, unsure of what all this means and frightened of where it might be leading us.

We are called to lift those veils by setting aside our idols,… by study,… and by simply trusting God, even when he might seem absent. God sent Jesus into the world, so that through faith in him we could be transformed into his image, changed from one degree of glory to another, to become more like him, day by day. We need to be willing to keep our focus on the law, the love and the glory of God, and allow it to change our lives so much that we can look at ourselves and see the character of Jesus starting to be reflected in what we think and how we act. That will be our assurance that we are soaked in God’s presence as we journey on through life.

Luke 4:14-21 Fasten your eyes on Jesus

“The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Jesus.”

It was 1981. We were on holiday & my Dad was buying ice-cream at a rather nice village shop at the back gates to Balmoral. As we waited, a Land Rover sped out the gates from t’big house driven by a striking blond. It accelerated, rather alarmingly, spraying gravel behind it as it turned away from the public roads up an estate track. Later that day, as the press got overly excited by Prince Charles’s first official post-wedding photoshoot with his wife Diana, we guessed that the blond in question had feared that the silver car parked by the gate to the house contained less welcome photographers. At twelve, as I avidly watched the TV coverage, it felt like I’d come within touching distance of possibly the most famous woman in the world. My adult mind sees it rather differently, and with not a little sadness.

In our gospel today, the local boy from down-town Nazareth has returned. He’d been hitting the headlines of local gossip since he’d encountered his cousin John busy baptising the repentant in the River Jordan; the little altercation between the two and the ensuing direct message from God, had caused quite a stir, which at least had filled the ‘gossip columns’ when he vanished completely for more than a month. But, he had returned, the same, but different. No longer helping his father in the carpentry workshop, he was now occupied helping the local Jewish leaders fill their preaching rotas. You can imagine therefore that there was quite a crowd at the synagogue that day – curiosity has ever been the filler of pews, just as it has become a pay-packet to the paparazzi!

A passage from Isaiah was a perfectly appropriate second reading for the day, and the congregation sat watching, in rapt expectation of his wisdom. What they got was… possibly the shortest sermon in history! At least, that’s how some of the more tabloid orientated theological interpreters have styled it.

Hearing Jesus say “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” probably didn’t seem like a history-making moment to those in the synagogue that day, but Luke by basing the rest of his Gospel on Jesus’ fulfilment of this prophesy, tells us that this is deeply significant, and therefore we need to sit down and fasten our eyes on trying to discover exactly what Jesus was doing and saying here.

Firstly, after his baptism and desert temptations, Jesus seems quite comfortable in his own skin; he knows who he is, and he knows what he’s here for. In the tension of the moment, he exudes a quiet confidence. Otherwise he wouldn’t be saying that he was the fulfilment of this famous, much longed-after prophesy. He’s going to fulfil it in a way the Jews aren’t expecting, but he’s certainly no Jonah in the sense that he’s not tried to get as far away as possible from doing what God has tasked him with. As he’s been touring the familiar countryside of his youth and now to his home town, it is worth noting that he’s chosen to bring his message first to the people who have un-knowingly nurtured it over the his silent years of preparation.

There’s two things that this can be telling us, two thousand years on. Part of it is that we need to be looking carefully among those we encounter day by day and week by week, and asking ourselves, what might God be trying to tell us through them, either through the way they act, or what they say? The second part is possibly more difficult; we need to be prepared to be recognised as fulfilling what God is calling us to be and do, in our own home, around the village, and in the communities in which we are known and respected. It won’t always be easy, but if we are looking with anticipation at what Jesus is saying to us, we need to be prepared to act on what we think the answer is.

The second important thing to note about Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth, is what words he chooses to highlight from the Jewish scriptures, to succinctly define what it is he came to earth to do. He obviously feels that his Father God has called him most particularly to “proclaim good news to the poor”, to announce pardon to “prisoners and the recovery of sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free”. Those witnessing this rising star of the Jewish faith, steeped as they were in a yearning for freedom from Roman authority and the right to self-rule, largely heard this as the start of an uprising against oppression, and perhaps with a certain pride that it was a local boy that was going to finally make a difference.

Yet, we know from the rest of Luke’s Gospel and on into the Acts of the Apostles, that Jesus’ message was not in fact the one that many Jews wanted to hear – it was not a message of punishment to Gentile oppressors, but part of a larger picture and a wider interpretation of the prophesy in Isaiah, that Israel was called to act with justice, mercy and love as a light to all nations in their own age, and in the years to come.

Jesus, the Messiah, was the announcer of good news to not only the financially poor, but also the inadequate, those who feel their life is a failure, who see no value in themselves. The freedom of prisoners wasn’t an amnesty to those who have committed crimes, but the offer of release for those imprisoned by guilt, anxiety, fear, and the pressure to be someone other than as God made them. Whilst Jesus did indeed come as a healer to the physical ailments of many, he was also speaking to those who have lost their moral and spiritual direction and cannot see clearly the positive use they can put their God-given gifts and talent to. The freedom which he offered was in fact from the oppression of a narrowness of thought that offers only the quickest solution or fix, whether that be to an addiction, or to an economic, political or spiritual problem.

Today, as we sit with the Nazarene community and listen to the words that Jesus carefully chose to reveal his mission, we have to accept the challenge that in seeking to both recognise Jesus in our midst, and be his followers, we too are called to live out this prophesy just as much as he did. We mustn’t be frightened by tabloid headline creators into believing that someone is always after us for the wrong reasons, that speed is of the essence, that people respond to threats, that we can’t change the world.

In Jesus, we see God’s Son baptised and affirmed, spiritually strong enough to withstand all temptation, moving among his own people with a message that challenges preconceptions, and expects positive social and societal consequences. Yet, as we accept the presence of Jesus, the baptism in which he shared, the spiritual strength from which he drew, we have also to accept that through him we are also God’s children, and so with him we are called to seek love, freedom, healing and justice in our own lives, in the lives of the people we love most, and in the life of the community around us. Just as in Jesus time, this may happen in a way we hadn’t anticipated, and it may be a message that people initially struggle to accept, but it is the message and the mission we are called to share if our attention is fixed on Jesus.

Refiners Fire – burning away the ‘slag’ (Zeph 3:14-end, Phil 4:4-7 and Luke 3:7-18)

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All Saints, Minstead (viewed from the south near the final resting place of Conan Doyle) – yes, there are 5 bells in that little tower!

Once upon a time I was the youngest campanologist in the county. We had three bells in All Saints Church, Minstead, but there’s not much that you can do with three – the mathematical patterns that make up a peel of bells, are a little on the short side with three. Five is a much more interesting number, and research showed that we could fit five in the bell frame without the tower itself being shaken to pieces. So two new bells were commissioned, the old ones removed to be retuned, then all five re-hung – all done with one expert and parish people power, including a nine year old ‘doing as she was told, and staying out the way for the dangerous bits’!

As part of all this activity I had the opportunity to watch bells being cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. It was a hot summer’s day, but I was clothed in good 1970s tweed trousers for protection and stood in the corner of the foundry floor as the metal was heated, and the impurities scrapped off the top so that the hot copper alloy could be poured into a hand-crafted bell mould. It was amazing to watch, and a privilege to ring the precisely tuned finished articles; the bells proclaiming peace and thanksgiving in worship, a community rejoicing in fine craftsmanship and singing out a song of praise to God.

“Rejoice”, in Latin “Gaudete”, the opening word of our reading from Philippians, a connection to this week’s lightening of the Advent mood of preparation, our rose candle and our robes. “Rejoice”, in modern parlance is about a sense of joy welling up inside people, fairly private except for the smile to the face; the sort of blooming look that comes with news of a long awaited pregnancy. In St. Paul’s day, “rejoice” was a word used to describe a public celebration, exuberance tempered with the need to be gentle and gracious toward less extrovert souls – more like change ringing when the pattern of notes moves only on command, rather than with every beat of a full peal.

There is a tension here that sits well with this mid-point in our preparations to celebrate the birth of Christ, sat here as we are, surrounded by scenes of his nativity in our Crib Festival. At the time of John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry that we focus on through today’s Gospel, devout Jews were waiting for a “new word from God”, and eager to place their hope in the presence of a fiery young prophet going about the Galilean villages! Might he be the long awaited Messiah?

But John was only tolling a single bell, proclaiming the steady sound of justice and the need for repentance, a wake-up call for those who would go on to hear the message of his cousin Jesus, the thongs of whose sandals he felt unworthy to untie. John would have grown up with the story of his cousin’s nativity just like we have, but as perfectly-tuned to God’s message for his people as any Old Testament prophet, he was well aware that when the Messiah’s mission on earth was made fully known, it would come with the sound of the axe felling the trees that bore no fruit, burning the resulting timber as waste.

John offered on the banks of the Jordon, the baptism of repentance, God’s power like water washing people clean. Yet, here he is proclaiming the baptism of burning fire that the Messiah would bring, drawing out through the power of the Holy Spirit, the impurities hidden within people’s lives. We may struggle to understand the difference, but if we consider for a moment, we’ll recognise that there is a vast difference between wanting to change the destructive habits of our lives and, dare I say it, make sensible New Year’s resolutions, and actually being changed inside of ourselves, so that it is impossible to return to old habits. It is a painful process.

The image of the bell foundry can help us understand what God wants to do here. As the copper and tin is melted in the furnace to temperatures resembling that to be found in a volcano, the impurities known as ‘slag’ rise to the surface – blackened waste material that is scrapped away, the last remnants of which are held back as the bell is cast. Here is a picture of the process of fire and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives that should be as much a part of the work of Christ in our lives as is the baby in the manger. If we are to ring true to his Gospel in our own lives, there will be ‘slag’ in each of us that needs burning to the surface and scraping away. Our hope of a Saviour for the world must come with the realistic expectation that we ourselves may need to be radically changed into what God wants us to be.

Zephaniah’s prophetic psalm of salvation that is this morning’s Old Testament reading [and I do encourage you to read it], is summoning God’s people to sing, shout and joyfully exult because of God’s presence in the midst of them, rejoicing like the clarion call of bells. It was the sort of prophesy that led to the expectation of a heroic Saviour from oppression and suffering. Yet its’ fulfilment came as the baby we now place in our crib scenes, the saving power of whom would be the refiners fire of judgement and justice, drawing us into a greater awareness of his presence, a sense of the calling to what we call holiness.

Church bells gather God’s people into the holiness of our worship of him, whether that is in the form of a peal of bells, the tempered rejoicing of a slowly changing pattern of life, or a single tolled clarion call to hasten into our place before him. They only do so after the refining process of the furnace has removed the impurities so that their call can be clear and true to the tuned pitch required by the master craftsman. God is our master craftsman. If we are to ring out a tuneful call for others to share in our rejoicing this Christmas and on into the future, we must first come into his presence in humility, seeking to understand what it is in our lives that needs to be burnt away.