Just a quickie as I prep for Holy Communion at St. Barnabas Darby Green this weekend.
I was trying to find something suitable as a dismissal prayer that went with Luke 13:1-9 and couldn’t find anything that quite worked, so I’ve ended up writing this. Not sure it’s much really, but it might help someone.
Lord God, we yearn to be like the fig tree Which bears fruit throughout the year. Feed and nurture our faith in Jesus this week, That through the power of your Holy Spirit, We might be strengthened to grow in acts of love and service, To the glory of your holy name. Amen.
God moves in mysterious ways, and so often uses us at our weakest, because that’s when we don’t get in the way of what he wants to say or do. This morning felt like one of those morning’s in St. Barnabas, and I sense from what people said that God’s message through this ‘inhabitation’of Anna, may benefit from a wider hearing. The text is below, but if you want to watch it’s on the St. Barnabas feed here, starting at 20 minutes into the the service.
I have got used to waiting in the shadows. Watching and waiting, fasting and praying. Listening too, eager to hear what God is saying.
The shadows are my home now, here in the Temple, or at least in that part of it in which I am allowed to stay. I wait here, watching and listening for a sign of hope, for a truer, more steadfast light in the darkness than the braziers that warm the nights.
My former life in the north seems a lifetime away, probably because it is – it’s a long while since I left. As a childless widow I no longer had a place in my community, no value to a society that sets such store by what your status within family life. Odd really when so many of our scriptures tell us that God prioritises the widow and the orphan (Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 146:9) and expects the same from us (Exodus 22:22).
But then, so many of those who jostle for position in society or even within these Temple walls, seem to forget, ignore or neglect the teachings of scripture. I retreated here many years ago, expecting to encounter justice, mercy and love in God’s holy place, but was disappointed to find there was an even greater poverty of integrity in the faith of most who frequent these courts. I was shocked by the number of people who deemed it necessary to be seen to be here every day, or at least every Sabbath and Holy Day. Yes, it’s a big place that usually holds them all quite comfortably, but they have synagogues in their own communities, their own priests and spiritual leaders to whom they can turn for teaching and advice; yet they seem to need to be noticed as worshipping members of the Temple community, rather than supporting fellowships nearer to home. Their presence seems to add to the shadows rather, or at least emphasise that so many lives are so far from seeking God’s presence to be revealed in their neighbourhoods and lives.
Because I’ve watched and listened, studied scripture and even astronomy, I know that shadows are created by light. Even on the brightest day, one creates the other as the sun pushes past the pillars around me. But the biggest shadows in the Temple are those caste by the theological debates that swirl past me, as the leaders of our faith insulate themselves from reality by fabricating the rules and regulations that define who can do what; who can’t do anything; and why we should believe everything they say. So many of our leaders seem to forget that it’s not them that we should be believing in; the light of faith comes from another source entirely – the Spirit of God.
Of course there are regulars here, who seem to have a far more authentic faith, like Simeon for example. He is the seeker and the guide, always looking outwards from his own needs towards those of others. That’s how we got to know each other a bit, as he almost always asks after my health and well-being when he visits. God speaks to the quiet of his soul, and has promised him he’ll see the salvation of all God’s people before he departs this world.
Instead of getting embroiled in heated debates, Simeon prefers to watch quietly, seeking out those who travel-in occasionally from the countryside, the hesitant, and those whose pain and turmoil is written all over their expressions. As he befriends them – engaging them in gentle, perceptive conversation – there’s plenty that I can learn from people’s body language, and indeed hear in the acoustics of this place, even with my dulled hearing and rheumy eyes. So I stand a little distance apart, praying them through their conversation, seeking God’s light in their darkness. At a later time, I’ll try to catch the people concerned and share any wisdom I’ve discerned, or pass it on to them through Simeon. I guess that because I’m willing to speak to people of what God has shown my quietened mind, some have come to tell of me as a prophetess – though that’s to God’s honour not mine.
Today was much the same; Simeon spotted the couple with the child in their arms. Given they’d patently bought two young pigeons in the outer courts, I thought he must their first-born, whom they needed to offer to and redeem from God, as required by those rules and regulations the priests are so fond of. That being the case, the little scrap can only have been a few weeks old, but already he had a presence that seemed to grab your attention. I did wonder why they too had chosen to come here, rather than their local synagogue? They didn’t look or behave like they fitted the mould of those who wanted their neighbours to know their son had been redeemed at the Temple. As with most new parents, they looked tired, and worn, and not a little dishevelled from their journey into town; but they also seemed to carry with them a presence, The Presence, that suggested that for them this was no symbolic act, but had deep significance.
Simeon had spotted that too, and as I watched he received the child into his arms from the parents, with a reverence and a joy that radiated from him. I knew at once that he too sensed this child was different, important, a gift from God. So I listened and prayed even more intently as he proclaimed to the child’s parents that he saw not only his own salvation but the salvation of the world in the life of their son! This was no ordinary child, and I watched his mother’s face as Simeon’s words of blessing spoke of the challenge that their babe would offer to those who currently held their so-called authority in this place so preciously, and the pain that would cause her. She and her husband didn’t seem particularly shocked by the nature of the prophesy. Rather, they looked amazed and grateful that someone shared their understanding of the child’s importance. They already knew, what the Holy Spirit had just revealed to Simeon; the child in their care was the Messiah.
The presence of this child in the Temple changed everything. Here was God, come suddenly to his Temple, just as the prophet Malachi had promised (Malachi 3:1). As Simeon received the gift of God’s grace and peace in the salvation that was being offered by the tiny child in his arms, I saw the redemption of all humanity: this child would grow to fulfil Isaiah’s prophesy that the one who would come to heal the our collective failure to understand and live by our scriptures, would be pierced for all our faults (Isaiah 53). Indeed, he would be the one that would fulfil Israel’s calling to bring God’s light to all the world (Isaiah 60:1-3) if only Abraham’s descendants could recognise that fact and proclaim it to the world.
I knew then that my last days would not be spent in the shadows, but in the light of that knowledge. I stepped out into the courtyard and started to praise God for what I had seen and heard. I interrupted every group of debating theologians I could find. I explained to them that what they were looking for, I had seen; and they could see it too if only they would stop straining the gnats and swallowing the camels (Matthew 23:24) of the rules they said we have to follow to earn God’s favour. Yes, I insisted, God was offering us his mercy, grace and hope, if we would only share in the love of this small child who was the fulfilment of all that had gone before in the history of God’s people. I knew with all of my being that in this babe, God’s Spirit would make possible the end of legalism and redeem us from the cultural sin of ignoring and ostracising the widow, the orphan, and anyone else who doesn’t seek power or make a hollow show of humility. I wanted everyone to know that God’s Spirit was living and active in the life of the little child who had been promised us (Isaiah 11:6), the one who would bring peace and reconciliation to all God’s creation. Those who hear me may not want to listen, but I know what I have seen, and I will end my days, praising God for what he showed me this day in the Temple.
We recently had an Away Day with the PCCs of our Benefice. In the opening worship I used a reflection on the scripture: Luke 10:25-37 The Good Samaritan “Called to be an Innkeeper” by Elaine Gisbourne from the book ‘Wild Goose big book of worship resources‘. This was particularly appropriate for St Barnabas Darby Green with a now disused inn next door, but left the need to for something similarly appropriate for St Mary’s Eversley, where a well-used footpath goes through the churchyard. So I wrote this:
I bring you the passer-by,
those in a hurry to get where they think they’re going,
or stuck on their high horse unable to dismount grace-fully.
I offer you the passers-by,
who see the future in some other sphere,
of learning, of leadership, of leisure,
and notice it not in the suffering of friend or stranger.
What will stop them in their tracks,
prompt them to turn round, come back,
pique their interest,
ignite their compassion,
calm their fears?
I give you the passer-by,
in the rainfall of their fears and anxieties,
when grief or hardship strike,
or they pause to acknowledge –
there is something beyond their sphere of influence.
Their path may seem a far-cry from yours,
and yet it passes close-by,
intersecting where needs are met,
hope is found,
and grace abounds.
Feel free to use if you deem it worthy and appropriate, with suitable credit please, and note in the comments if at all possible.
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.
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.
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’.
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?
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.
I 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.
However 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Theoreo means, in New Testament Greek, to wonder, ponder, or 'chew over.' Theore0's are my reflections on current issues, facing the Church and Christians. I frequently consider issues such as the relationship between faith and economic life, Christianity and leadership and, other ethical issues. Many of these issues are covered in a book I co-edited called Theonomics (available either through Amazon or direct from Sacristy Press). All views are my own. I aim to provoke and stimulate wider debate, for the common good and hope not to offend.