I was struck today by a Bible passage I must have read before, but whose significance perhaps had not become so personal until now.
Moses was charged by God with responsibility for making a safe dwelling place for God’s presence among his people; the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 35). He called on the raw materials that the community could provide (threads, jewels, gold and silver etc.), and the talents and skills of the artisans within the Israelite community, to create what must have been a stunningly beautiful and richly decorated piece. There were spinners and weavers, metal workers, woodcarvers, engravers and jewellers, designers and dressmakers, oil-purifiers, bread-makers, and more, some named, most anonymous to us.
All the materials and talents were gifted in response to God’s presence, through what we might now call the Holy Spirit, and then two particularly skilled people were called forward to be teach others, so this might be a community work, bringing to life the dwelling place of God among them.
In Christ, St. Paul reminds the Galatians and us through the readings at Morning Prayer at present (today was Galatians 2:1-11), that if we confess faith in Christ, he dwells within us (through the power of the Holy Spirit). We are not governed by rules that limit what it is that can be our responsive free-will offering to God, because he has given us the skills that lie within us – however latent they may have been over many years.
To someone who can feel guilty for not ‘doing the right thing’ very easily, but who has been given this ‘new’ gift of creativity in the last year or so, a gift that seems to be ‘snow-balling’ and drawing people in (in a variety of ways), this is hugely reassuring. The creativity that lies within all of us, the skills that we have practiced hard to hone, that we desire to learn at the hands of skilled teachers, can all be used to God’s glory, if we offer them to Jesus as a free-will gift. They are not limited to the crafts listed in Exodus 35, and like the craft of poetry that gives words to emotions we struggle to articulate (see yesterday’s post for an example in relation to the Ukraine crisis) they are healthier let out into the open, than shut up within us. Jesus didn’t come to get us to legalistically compartmentalise the different parts of the way God made us into what can, or can’t be used for His glory.
This is probably not news to most of you, but for me it is a huge encouragement. My prayer as I share this is that this might help me to see the skills I am developing as a free-will offering to God, so that there is no guilt involved in the time spent crafting, and so that the gifts and sale items that I create in doing so, give glory to God because they are filled with the Spirit of Jesus that issues from within me, whether that is obvious in the symbolism used or not.
I also pray that this might help you too to consider your God-given skills as a free-will offering to God.
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’.
I wonder how much we really look forward to Christmas?
Honestly now?! I can see some wry grins… I didn’t think so. You’re possibly not the only ones!
Preparations. Hard work.
A mad gallop of events to cram into the diary, shop for, cook for, and stand, or sit, around at, listening politely, trying to take in something that will actually make us feel as jolly as the coming season of Christmas seems to think we should be.
Church doesn’t make things any easier, does it?!
We can’t really let the vicar down at this, of all, seasons, especially after we’ve said we’ll organise this,
or that, or the other.
And, he can’t really welcome every extra person who wants to come and celebrate the coming of Christ all by himself, can he?!
Or, perhaps, after all, that could be what curates are for?! 😉
But it would be lovely, wouldn’t it, if, before Jesus is born in a stable, all over again, we could have a little bit of a rest from the preparations that have to come first?!
This Advent Sunday, we start to connect afresh with St. Mark’s Gospel; what I call the galloping gospel. There’s no time to draw breath, or unpack the detail, as layers of images pile quickly one on top of each other – a bit like the sliding tower of assorted Christmas cards, each waiting to be addressed appropriately!
Whilst we prepare for a Christmas neatly defined by a date looming in the calendar, the lectionary starts its year balanced delicately between past prophesies, and some distant future that can’t be defined on anyone’s calendar. Poised somewhere in between these two, is the present moment of our Christmas preparations, for the Coming One; the One who was, and is, and is to come (Rev 1:8).
In today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah’s pleading prayer that God should reveal himself in power is not simply for his own spiritually weak generation, blown away on the breeze of the outside influences of their exile. The events it directly foretold were fulfilled in the restoration of Jerusalem. But, by Jesus’ time, God’s people are once again mired in the spiritual blindness and gloom that blunders forward through momentous events, largely oblivious of their significance.
Our Gospel this morning, collects into a passage of urgent teaching in tones almost of desperation, a couple of short parables and some sayings of Jesus, that actually refer forward again, at least in part, to the siege of Jerusalem that will occur in AD69, and the final destruction of the Temple the following year. The last of the great prophets, Jesus knew only too well that his mission on earth drew to a close the need for a Temple as a holy place that contained God; something which would be symbolised in the tearing of the Temple curtain at his death. Jesus’s freely given sacrifice would mean his resurrected presence in Word and Sacrament would ‘not pass away’, for it was to be enough for the whole world. He was Christ, the Coming One, who was the awaited Messiah of what is now history; he who changed the world, and our lives.
Yet, as we take on our Christmas lists, there are those for whom the tiny excerpts from Isaiah that open our Gospel passage from Mark are a present reality. The Son of Man, the Coming one who is, wants to come in power into the lives of those for whom the natural light of the sun is darkened by more than simply gloomy weather. For some, the moon expresses the sense that they can’t exist without the brightness of others to light up their lives, and stars are simply a set of glamorous or over-paid figures on whom is placed too great an expectation, and who all too easily fall to earth in tabloid disgrace.
And yet, the one who is, who should be the present reality of the coming Christmas season (if you’ll excuse the pun), the one who is, needs us to be his messenger angels, to go into all the events of the festive season showing visible signs of joyful expectation at his coming, not a sense of distracted and total exhaustion. Whilst our time-line is in danger of being a linear movement from one stressful task to the next, God’s time line is radically different and he seeks a new beginning in the lives of those who are attracted to the light of Christ only at this time of year. Our role is far more important than that of being Santa’s little helpers! It is to make Jesus, the Coming One, visible not just in the services, decorations, music and poetry of the season, but in our own lives – the invitations we offer, the time we take to do things for others, and yes, the welcome we give to strangers.
What Jesus is asking for, the alertness of watchful doorkeepers to who and what is coming, isn’t just a reminder to recognise at the door of the church those for whom Christ’s first coming is a new experience. Christ, the Coming One, who is to come again, is also expected, and this time he will come in judgement. What Jesus is making clear above all in this Gospel passage, is that judgement is just as much part of his earthly mission in the lives of all who encounter him, as their encounter with his birth, death and resurrection.
Our chief task this Advent, the focus of our spiritual preparations, should be a rededication of ourselves to holiness. It is not something else to be done, another thing to add to the Christmas lists in our busy lives, but the desire to take stock of our how our faith influences our life. Followed through, we should be able to see what in our lives look like in the eyes of the Coming one. If we truly believe that Jesus will come again, we have to have our senses alert to those areas of our lives that cause our faith to fade, and the wrong-doings and wrong-thinkings that take us away from God, like a swirling wind. If Christ was to come again today, what would he notice most about our lives, and would he judge that as being for better, or for worse?!
In today’s Old Testament passage, Isaiah speaks of the mountains and nations that tremble in the presence of God. If we stood in the presence of Jesus today, we might tremble for one of two reasons: either we will shake with thankful tears for his grace and sacrifice to which we have responded with a desire to ‘be blameless on that day of the Lord’ (1 Cor 1:8) as St. Paul desires in our Epistle; or we will tremble with fear that whilst we might have made the attempt, our lives will be found seriously wanting as far as living up to his example and teaching is concerned.
As we wait for ‘the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor 1:7) in the presence of the Coming One this Christmas, the one who was, and is, and is to come, we need to make our own preparations, ones that are truly appropriate not just to the modern context of the season, but to the spiritual context of it. It might be in prayer – the sort of prayer that gives space for God to answer. It may be in an Advent retreat or study book (with or without an online bookclub discussion), or in our willingness to do a new thing, or even in deciding that actually Christmas can still be celebrated without all the trimmings we’ve used in the past, to enable us to have space to be spiritually prepared as well. These are the activities in which we will encounter the ‘grace and peace of God our Father and our Lord Jesus’, and will mean we are truly “looking forward” to entering into Christ’s Mass, our joining in with his ongoing mission in the world.
Ezekiel 18:1-4 and 25-end, Philippians 2:1-13 and Matthew 21:23-32
On Thursday afternoon I watched as two of the children from St. Mary’s School, stood here in church during a Year 5 Act of Worship and drew faces on a piece of black card, with toothpaste. Their teacher made it into a bit of a race, but I was as mystified as the kids as to what the purpose of this strange activity was. Until that is, he asked them to try and get the toothpaste back in the tubes!
Of course, the children couldn’t do it, and there was considerable hilarity all round.
The key word for the last couple of weeks in school has been RESPONSIBILITY and the point was made that once we’ve said, or done, something, we have to take responsibility for the consequences, whether or not we did or said that thing deliberately.
It’s a tough lesson in life isn’t it? Whatever we choose to say or do in our lives, however minor, will have consequences for which we have to take responsibility. A lot of the time, things go smoothly. Sometimes however, we make wrong decisions, either because we simply haven’t thought things through for ourselves in the heat of the moment, or perhaps because we’re scared of the consequences of all the possible options, or perhaps we deliberately decide on something to avoid the embarrassment factor of having to admit that perhaps a decision we made in the past was the wrong one.
There are in fact lots of reasons for making the wrong decisions, but the chief priests and elders of Israel seemingly manage to notch up several of them all at once in our Gospel reading this morning.
They are all out to get Jesus to state unequivocally that he is the Messiah, but they don’t want to raise the question directly. After all, Jesus has just had the nerve to make it look like he thinks the Temple is his, by turning over the tables, throwing out the money changers and sacrifice sellers, and firmly quoting scripture: “my house shall be called a house of prayer”. It’s a provocative act, and it inspires the chief priests and elders to try and get this upstart from Galilee to blaspheme in the way that others have done before him, by declaring himself to be the Messiah, God’s long-awaited, and chosen means of drawing people to himself.
Trying to trick people into declaring a particular stance that you want to be theirs, is rarely a good way of moving a conversation forward, as the leaders of Israel discover, when Jesus carefully uses one of their own, long-held, rabbinic forms of debate to try and get them to think through and declare the answer for themselves.
Then, by dodging that responsibility and taking the route of diplomatic uncertainty, rather than offering their own viewpoint honestly, they forfeit their own right to a straight answer to the original question. It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s an act of self preservation: they don’t fancy being lynched. Equally, they don’t want to suggest that John the Baptist was divinely inspired to baptise people, including this Jesus, because that leaves the door open to the possibility that he is exactly what they don’t want him to be, but they do want him to claim he is. If he were the Messiah, God’s anointed, it not only places him in authority over them, but it rather puts them out of a job with regard to the Temple! One could say they are jealously guarding their existing rights and ways of operating, and that’s an unhelpful motivation in anyone.
In the parable that Jesus goes on to tell, pointedly directed at the priests and elders themselves, what counts is not what we promise, but our performance, and for this we have to take personal responsibility. Jesus even gives them the answer to their original, unspoken question in a roundabout way, by pointing out that they have failed to recognise and acknowledge God’s saving action towards all people, including, and particularly the outcasts of their society. The point is of course that if the chief priests and elders had themselves believed that the baptism John offered was divinely inspired and directed, they would also be accepting of Jesus as the Messiah.
It’s not like their scriptures didn’t show that God had clearly and repeatedly asked them to take responsibility for their own misguided understandings in the past, including a tendency to blame God for their own mistakes. Our reading from Ezekiel (18:31) shows this as they are as to get themselves ‘a new heart and a new spirit’. Generations of leaders had it seems failed to learn from their own mistakes. It was a theme which is warmed to in our Epistle this morning too, as the early Christian community in Philippi are exhorted to ‘work out their own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil 2:12), to take seriously their own spiritual inadequacies!
Just like the chief priests and elders of Israel and these early Christians, we all do it, sadly. We all would prefer to avoid the responsibility of thinking for ourselves, taking the consequences for our actions, making our actions live up to our words, and making our daily lives live up the Christian faith we profess. We don’t like the fact that we can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube!
In the case presented in our Gospel today, the inability of the chief priests and elders to set aside their own prejudices, jealousies and unwillingness to seek a new heart and a new spirit before God, cost Jesus his life and fulfilled the ultimate expression of God’s love for us all, as is so beautifully expressed in the early part of the Philippians passage.
The key, I think, is in the very last words of that passage…’God is at work in us, enabling us to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Phil 2:13). It is incredibly hard, but we have to give God free reign/rein in our lives, that is our prime responsibility. That’s why as a church we create opportunities for prayer and worship throughout the week, why we’re running the Pilgrim Course, we share fellowship together, collect for the Food Bank, care for the churchyard, seek new opportunities to share the Gospel etc.
Of course we have to make sure that we’re allowing Jesus into every hidden part of our lives – that’s our individual, private responsibility day by day, that gives our outward actions integrity. We have to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and then ask for the strength to move forward and make changes in our lives, explain or face difficult truths or toughest of all accept that we can be wrong, and do wrong. After all the cross and resurrection offers us God’s forgiveness and the hope of new life with him, every time we come before him with honesty and ask to start again. He’s the only one that can, metaphorically speaking, put the toothpaste of our lives, back in the tube.
This week I’ve achieved another first in curacy, my first Act of Worship in our local CofE Junior School. The brief was to link the theme of RESPONSIBILITY (joint responsibility, working together in school) to the story of Nehemiah rebuilding God’s people, and the wall at Jerusalem.
I found Lesson from Loom Bands 3 over at SPCK Assemblies.org.uk which looked at exactly this story and sort of idea, and told it in a clearer context than the Storyteller Bible version I’d been given. The problem is I am not loom band compliant, so I needed to think of another way of explaining taking individual responsibility as part of a team to make something stronger.
My mind when back to 2007 in St. Peter’s Yateley when we created a rope of prayers from lengths of blue and white tork roll! St. Mary’s Old Basing has tork roll which I could plait since I didn’t have the rope-making gadget and quickly achieve a similar effect and demonstrate increased strength. St. Peter’s Yateley said I could borrow the rope woven round a cross, and I fiddled slightly with the Assemblies.org telling of the story to fit it better to the Act of Worship plan at the school, and so I had an Act of Worship!
So, here ’tis. If you’re interested in more about the full rope making idea, which features equipment in the shape of a cross, ask me and I’ll blog about that another day.
Now then, thinking caps on; who can tell me the word that we’ve been thinking about last week and this week? RESPONSIBILITY
Last week Fr A talked about our responsibility to support people in our community, like you have with your Food Bank donations, and across the world where people may not have enough to eat or clean water to drink.
This week, we’re thinking about that word RESPONSIBILITY again, but in a slightly different way.
Can anyone tell me what this is? TORK ROLL – PAPER FOR DRYING HANDS (giant loo roll!)
One of the things that this paper needs to do easily is to TEAR, so that when we are washing our hands we can have a piece each to dray them on. So would we say that this tork roll paper is WEAK or STRONG? Fairly weak.
Now, I’ve got 3 LENGTHS OF TORK ROLL here, and we’re going to see if we can do something to make this tork roll STRONGER by several of us WORKING TOGETHER.
I used a representative of each year group – 2 boys, and 2 girls.
One child hold all three bits of tork roll, gently knotted together.
The other 3 children, TWIST your individual length of tork roll just a bit, so it’s slightly more like a piece of string.
Now, I need you to PLAIT your three bits of tork roll together.
Left over centre, right over centre, keep going… the 3 children moving around each other.
Taught but not tight.
Careful remember the tork roll tears easily!
After a few minutes plaiting, test the strength of the plaited bit. Shouldn’t tear as easily.
BY TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR INDIVIDUAL TASK, BUT WORKING TOGETHER, WE MADE SOMETHING THAT WAS WEAK, STRONGER!
Show ROPE of tork roll (borrowed from St. Peter’s).
Going to read you a story from the OT part of the Bible, that talks about someone called Nehemiah: Nehemiah and the walls of Jerusalem
Nehemiah had a very important job in Persia (now called Iraq), working for the king, but his heart was in his homeland, in Jerusalem, which is in Israel. He loved his homeland and missed it very much. Some 100 years before Nehemiah was born, some of his people had returned from exile in Persia to their homeland there and had rebuilt the temple.
One day, Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem had not been rebuilt after the many years of armies invading and breaking them down, so most of the people were still living outside the walls rather than inside the holy city. Nehemiah’s people had lost their identity as God’s people.
When Nehemiah heard all this, he wept. What could he do? He was only one man and not a builder at that.
The King of Persia noticed that Nehemiah was sad, and Nehemiah wasn’t normally, so he asked him what was wrong. Nehemiah explained and the king asked him what he wanted to do. Nehemiah was brave and asked to be sent to rebuild Jerusalem and the king gave his blessing for Nehemiah to go and rebuild the walls of his beloved city. So Nehemiah set off on the long journey home, with some building materials that the King had given him.
Once there, Nehemiah toured the city walls by night. He found rubble and stones and burned gates. He thought that his heart would break. Just like a single strip of tork roll!
‘Let’s rebuild, the city walls,’ he said to the people. ‘I can’t do it by myself. It will take us all working together, but I am sure that together we can do it!’
That is exactly what happened. Different families took charge of different sections of the walls. All along the walls, families took up their spades and shovels and got to work. It was a huge task. There were so many repairs that Nehemiah could never have done it all on his own.
In working together, sharing the RESPONSIBILITY for rebuilding the walls, the people of Jerusalem had all grown stronger together, as well as now being protected by the finished wall. They had once again found their identity as the people of God, and their joy was very great.
Reflection and Prayer:
So, what did the people end up doing under Nehemiah’s guidance that is like what we did with plaiting the tork roll?
Each family took RESPONSIBILITY for a section of wall.
Worked together to make the wall STRONGER, where individual efforts hadn’t been enough.
I’m going to pray now, and if you want to say at the end that you agree with what I’ve prayed, what do you say? AMEN!
Thank you for the story of Nehemiah and his friends.
Thank you for our friends and classmates.
Help us to each take RESPONSIBILITY for working together
so that we can make this school a strong, and happy place. Amen.
Apparently it is exactly 15 weeks until my ordination as Deacon, according to one of my cohort who dropped that little nugget into a Facebook post today.
How does that make me feel?
Frightened. Interestingly the fear is not for what comes after ordination, though there is a nervous anxiety mixed with the excitement for my new ministry in a new place, but instead fear of what needs to be accomplished in the next 15 weeks.
I have spent most of this afternoon working through a detailed commentary on Genesis 1:1-2:3 – the creation story (according to P, the priestly contributor to the Pentateuch saga). It was particularly interesting to note that even the most brilliant of Old Testament scholars can’t always resist the temptation to overlay their own theological views onto something they’re trying to be objective about.
In her lengthy reflection on the story of Abraham’s thankfully aborted attempt to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22, Maggi Dawn poses the question of whether our view of God is skewed by our pride and other misconceptions, or whether we are suitably aware of his abundant grace in our lives?
Today, mired in Old Testament theology, it feels like it will only be grace that will get me through this next 15 weeks to the altar. That feels like a far greater sacrifice is needed on my part in this next slog through two portfolios, than the weeks and years of ordained ministry that will follow, though I suspect this is far from true.
I need to look day by day to be obedient to the sacrifice that needs to be made, the level of sacrifice that I’ve probably not exhibited so much or so willingly in ordination training as I did in Reader training, so that I can hear God’s voice and experience his grace, directing me to more fruitful times ahead.
I still haven’t completely fathomed why I’ve been less willing to give up time and effort to climb the mountain this time round, though I think it started out with an expectation by myself and others that I carried a certain amount of useful past experience with me that would stand me in good stead. True though that might have been of ministry when I get there (and I’m not sure now), I think it has actually hindered the training process. But it’s really time to shoulder the burden good and proper now, before it’s too late.
Sorry, bit of a low post, of little use to others, but that’s sort of where I’m at tonight.
I can’t quite believe I’m blogging so late at night, so this will need to be brief.
Micah 6:8 is a favourite bit of the Bible, one of the very few I have even vaguely memorised (we’ll talk about my memory issues another day). Maggi suggests from it that the practice of justice, kindness and humility, is a community activity, such as Lent used to be.
Her book that we’re using is 5 years old now, and I think came out before things like the Big Read 2014 and it’s predecessors. Similarly the very act of blogging our ramblings through Lent is in part designed to make this a community activity, not just for us as a couple, but for whoever comes along and looks.
Reviewing our stewardship of finances and other things is also what I think Maggi is getting at here. Our review has so far consisted of actually stopping certain parts of our giving, to facilitate some level of transfer to new places once I’m settled into my curacy. Deliberately we don’t just give to the church, and support a couple of other charities to, that we have personal links to for different reasons, but which hopefully make a difference to the basic existence of some people’s lives.
Giving of my time has for a several years now been one of the key ways we’ve given to God through community, enabled by just managing to live off a single income. It’s tough at times, but it’s something we’ve found important. That’s not to say however, that it will be like this forever, it stays under review during each set of circumstance changes, and it’s likely for us the biggest decisions and possibly changes will come at the end of curacy.
There’s something key here about awareness; keeping decisions about our community life, stewardship and related issues, constantly on the agenda, listening for what God might be saying in the situations we encounter or the circumstances of life. Though Lent is a good time for this, the danger of restricting the process to Lent is that we’ll miss God’s specific answer to the question: what does the Lord require?
Graham will post later I’m sure, but it’s me making a start on our Lent reflections today.
Today was always going to be a day set aside for reflection; I am on one of my regular days at Alton Abbey, taking the chance to soak myself in it’s quiet prayerful atmosphere, and with nothing but birdsong to fill the gaps between offices. That, and time with my spiritual companion, which isn’t quiet, but is reflective and meets the need to face the joys and tribulations of life with someone who will wisely suggest where I have not noticed God at work, or a realistic approach to some specific issue – time to be reminded that I am made in God’s image AS I AM deep down inside without layers of expectations imposed by myself or others, or in fact the system within which I train and will minister.
Isaiah 58:6-12 (todays reading in Maggi Dawn’s ‘Giving It Up’ Lent book), reminded me strongly again, of what I have missed in ordination training – the sharing of love and hope as God’s servant and on his behalf; not because it’s my job to, but because that is the way through which I most frequently experience God’s guidance, strength and ‘watering’ – his light. These things have been in short supply during ordination training, and I am apt to blame ‘the system’ and the way in which I was slotted into it as a Reader with a recent FdA in Ministry. But, realistically, though there are ways in which the system hasn’t helped, it’s not as wholly true as perhaps I would like it to be.
Interestingly though, with less than four months to ordination, even realising this, I see no point making vast changes to my pattern of life at home and college at this point, but I am really looking forward to a new pattern of life and picking up the threads of creative and social justice work in new ways in my title post (curacy). In some senses I guess ordination training, both through it’s own structures and aim, and through the way I have inhabited it, is a sort of extended Lent IF we focus on the deprivations of rich foods for which the medieval Lent that Maggi describes is known. I may not have enjoyed the ‘deprivation’ from active ministry, but (as I’ve said elsewhere before) through it I have had emphasised to me the things that are most important to my relationship with God and what it was that led to my calling to ordination.
Maggi talks about creating change in our kitchens and limiting the amount of waste that we generate. Perhaps because I’m the daughter of a chef (my mother) and a wildlife manager (think gamekeeper and you’d be reasonably close) I have always inhabited a ‘make do’ and ‘mend’ lifestyle. I think we do a pretty reasonable job of watching the state of the fridge and freezer (without which I’d be lost, domestically) using leftovers, composting and recycling.
So where in my life, or our family’s life, am I generating waste that needs to be used up and put in some sort of pre-ordination pancake? The places to look I feel should be in the realm of technology and social media, yet as others (like Revd Pam Smith in her Big Bible blog post ‘Giving Up – or Opting Out) have pointed out the relationships built through social media are important, else we’d not be blogging through Lent though a little cutting down might be in order! I could equally become a tech junky to facilitate this as integral to ministry, and the impending curacy makes the temptation strong. But tech costs money, and until I know something I don’t already have is vital, or some existing tech becomes so slow as to be obsolete, we try to measure our tech needs against the expense of generally making ends meet! So, where do you think our (or your) family waste is?
Today has seen the conclusion of my parish placement which has been a significant encouragement to me as I enter this second and last year of ordination training. I am hugely grateful to the warm welcome and hospitality provided by Revd. Simon Cutmore, his family and the parish of Mill End and Heronsgate with West Hyde. I am going to miss these lovely congregations a lot.
Last week and this, I have preaching for two of their harvest services. Both sermons were based on the same passages, and designed to be part of the St. Alban’s Diocesan Harvest Appeal .
BUT, last week’s harvest service at Maple Cross School was a sermon for an adult congregation while the children had their own activities, whilst this week the sermon at St. Peter’s Mill End was for a harvest parade service, where a congregation of more than 150 included the children of the local uniformed organisations. So, the actual sermons needed to be very different in style and delivery, even though they needed to contain basically the same message.
I’ll let you be the judge of whether I managed it or not!
The activity and talk for this weeks sermon is below, and I am indebted to my new colleague at college @tweet_too_woo for sourcing me a bee-keepers protective head gear and a frame from a bee-hive!
This years harvest appeal in St. Alban’s Diocese is focused on bees and bee-keeping.
It talks about a man called Geji, who lives in Ethiopia in eastern Africa, who is now in his 70s. All his life he’s worked really hard to try and keep him and his family alive in his really hot, dry country, and he’s done this harvesting honey that the wild bees produce. But he’s never really had the right equipment to keep bees properly.
Until recently. He’s been given some presents. Do you want to see what one of them is? (Seek volunteer from congregation.)
The first thing that Geji has been given is a bee-keepers ‘veil’ (place on volunteer) – Why does he need those? So he doesn’t get stung – buzz, buzz, buzz! (Sit fluffy bee on the hat!)
He’s also been given a proper hive, with frames in it that bees like to build their honeycomb in, and from which the honey is easier to harvest. (Show a frame.)
Then, he and some bee-keeping friends have been given a present to share, a really important present that makes their lives much easier. It’s an honey extractor – describe briefly how it works.
So now Geji has lots of honey. And he can sell more honey – honey to hold – and get more money for his honey – money to hold.
So what do you think Geji is doing with all his money he’s getting for his honey? (Get 4 volunteers and give them the following).
Now he’s able to pay for
his family to have three proper meals a day, which they’ve never had before – breakfast/lunch/dinner paper plates
his children to go to school, because school isn’t paid for out of the money the government have collected like happens in this country – paper/pens and pencils
he’s got enough money to buy his family and himself some better clothes for when he’s not wearing his bee-keeping outfit – pop a nice jacket on another child
and… he’s got enough honey left over that his grandchildren can have some for themselves… another jar of honey to last volunteer!
So, not only has Geji had lots of things given to him to help his bee-keeping, but as a result he’s been able to share the results with his family.
He had done nothing special to deserve receiving these gifts, but he has used them wisely, and the ‘fruit’ of those gifts, is that lots of people have benefited.
As the service goes on we’re going to hear about other people who have been given things, and we’re going to think about
what they’ve done with those gifts,
what they’d done to deserve them,
and what that might teach us today.
Get back all those props, and leave them at the front to remind us as the service goes on about what we’re talking about.
So Geji who we heard about at the beginning of our service, was given a whole load of bee-keeping equipment for no particular reason other than to harvest honey. He used the money he made with the larger quantities of honey he had, to make life better for his family. There will be a collection this morning to raise funds for similar bee-keeping equipment to be sent to Ethiopia to change more lives in this way.
In our Old Testament reading this morning, we heard about a group of people who were given something. The people were the people of Israel, and if you were listening carefully, you might be able to tell me what had the people had been given?
Tricky, adults can help, who read the lesson…. the Promised Land.
The people of Israel had been kept in captivity as slaves in Egypt, they had been freed by God with some miracles, and then they had been wandering in the wilderness for many years because they kept getting things wrong, making mistakes and disobeying God.
Finally, they were in the land that God had promised them, un-originally known to us as the Promised Land. It was a place where they could finally settle down with their sheep, goats and cattle. The soil was fairly good, so they could also grow crops, and harvest what the local trees produced. It was a land where they had a deep sense of belonging.
They had done nothing to deserve all this productivity and good living, it was God’s gift to them, as God’s chosen people. So, as a way of saying thank you to God, they brought a sample of all their harvest goods, the first-fruits of that land, and placed these before God at the altar. They also celebrated the wonderful things they had been given in the way they ate their meals at home, not just on special thanksgiving days, but all the time.
Now, most of us have done something very similar this morning, we’ve brought up goods and put them in front of the altar. I haven’t had a chance to do that yet, so who would like to see what I’ve brought from my little garden at home?
Volunteers, to place my items in front of the altar – pears, tomatoes, carrots, flowers
There’s lots of food here because people have been incredibly generous, so why have we done that?
Answers: so we can help people, so other people who need it can eat.
Now, do we know who is going to be given all these things in front of the altar?
Hopefully it’s not just because we were told to. This is an important part of our harvest celebrations,we’re giving away things that we have, to others who don’t have enough right at the moment.
So, what happened in our second reading this morning. The one about a woman who gate-crashed a private dinner party. WHAT was that all about, hey?! Don’t hear of any baskets of vegetables, or packets of rice, or jars of honey, in that story, did you?!
So, what did the lady in that story, bring and do to Jesus?
Who can remember? Hands up… tears, hair, ointment – anointed Jesus feet.
Does this seem like normal behaviour to you? Do strangers normally walk into your house, have a fit of hysterics all over your feet, dry them with their hair and then rub nice smelling oil into your feet afterwards?
No? Thought not!
The woman in our Gospel story this morning, also wanted to say thank you to God for something she knew she had received, and those tears and that nice smelling oil that she put on Jesus feet, were her way of doing just that. She had received something so special that she wanted to say thank you to God for it, even though she had done nothing to deserve it. She recognised that Jesus was God’s Son, living and walking here on earth, even though he might have looked just like an ordinary man at a dinner party!
The woman had received something sooooooooo special that she celebrated it with the first-fruits of her life, which happened to be tears and precious oils. They were what she had to show for the change inside her that was happening now she understood herself to be forgiven for all of the bad things she’d done in her past. Suddenly she was valued for who she was. She hadn’t received honey, nor a promised land on which to grow fruit and veg, but forgiveness. Jesus recognised what was happening in her, and when she had finished he blessed her with these words:
“Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
This morning, whilst we’re busy giving away food and money to those that need it and asking God to bless those gifts and those receiving them, what we all need to think about, young and old alike, is this:
What is the precious gift that we have received from God, that we want to thank him for?
It might be that you know yourself to be loved by God. All of us are, I hope and pray we know that.
It might be that we are starting to understand what it means to be forgiven.
It might be that we’re starting to understand what it means to have faith, to believe in Jesus despite all that the world and the trials of life do to stop us believing that.
It might be that you are beginning to feel a deep peace within you, that gives you mental, emotional space to consider other things.
I don’t know what it is you personally have received, all I can do is give you a reminder to keep you thinking about what God has given you. It had to be something simple that I could give to everyone, to remind you of the stories we’ve heard this morning. So it’s a piece of cloth with flowers printed on it, that we’ve poured a scent over.
The cloth is to remind us of the clothes that Geji bought with the money he made from the extra honey he sold.
The flower pattern is to remind us of the flowers the bees need, and also the first-fruits and flowers of the Promised Land that the people of Israel received from God.
The scented is to remind us of the precious oil that the woman rubbed into Jesus feet when she realised that she had received forgiveness from God.
If you’re not sure whether you have received a precious gift from God, talk to someone else here, talk to Simon, or me, or some other Christian you trust, or trying praying, just talking to God. Don’t ignore the prompting. Think about it, and once you’re certain, share what you’re discovering with someone else.
So, with some help, I’ve got 200 little bits of scented, flowery cloth here – please take one, think about what you’ve received from God, and what you want to thank him for.
This morning I preached at our first Summer Sunday combined service, to those of St. Peter’s Yateley who hadn’t yet left for New Wine, or otherwise gone on holiday. It forms the last of a sequence of sermons on the story of Jacob and Joseph, and brings together thoughts about reconciliation and Eucharist.
I wonder how many of us feel trapped in some way by the past?
We’re doing our best to work through the challenges life throws at us, when some circumstance comes along and reminds us of our own past mistakes, our folly, or of the unexpected consequences of some innocuous comment we made a long time ago. Many of us live with these occasional and uncomfortable reminders of broken relationships; we set them aside and get on with life, but unless we can forge circumstances whereby a meeting takes place, reconciliation is impossible. Graham and I know only too well in our family how painful that can be; its like a kind of bereavement – every so often something happens to remind you how painful it is.
For Jacob’s family in today’s Old Testament reading, drought and hunger might be their most pressing concern, but they still live with the consequences of their past actions, now twenty years behind them.
Jacob, has a paranoid fear of losing the second son of his beloved wife Rachel, given that their older child Joseph has been, supposedly, lost to the ravages of wild animals. Benjamin must, at almost all costs, be protected from danger, even at the cost of remaining at home in famine conditions. Jacob still has his favourites!
That of course must remind Benjamin’s older brothers, Leah’s sons, of their own complicity in the so called death of Joseph, and the lies they have woven to hide the truth. Something they continue to have to cover for when faced with the accusation of spying by Pharaoh’s awe inspiring Grand Vizier! When they declare that “one brother is no more” the English translation hides a whole packet of intense emotions that are suggested at in the Hebrew!
I guess the face paint worn by Egypt’s ruling elite must have hidden Joseph’s emotions at this first meeting: not only does he remember his dreams and their role in bringing him on a painful journey to his current exalted position, but he also remembers the part played by his older brothers, now prostrate before him!
If we read back in Genesis 41:51 we find Joseph called his first-born Manasseh, as an acknowledgement that it was because “God had made him forget his trouble and his Fathers’ house”, which actually only goes to show that really the contrary was true! He hadn’t forgotten at all! The naming of his second son, Ephraim, suggests rather, that the real truth was he’d simply learned to live with different blessings in the land of his suffering.
In his book on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, Desmond Tutu talks about different types of “truth” people experience:
There is something called forensic, or factual, truth. This, if we read on through the conclusion of this fascinating story of Jacob’s family, is the type of truth that tells Joseph’s older brothers that somehow the silver they thought they had paid the Pharoah’s Vizier for their first shipment of grain, has been mysteriously returned to their possession. They do not understand why, or how, but the forensic truth is that the silver is there in their sacks in Genesis 42 v28; which only adds to the discomfort at having to leave Simeon behind as hostage against their eventual return with young Benjamin.
It was a different type of truth, a social truth, that finally enabled the political powers of South Africa to bring about the end of apartheid between 1990 and 1994, giving all people equal rights to democratic process and freedom of speech, regardless of colour or race. I guess the social truth in this Genesis story, is the starvation that drives migration and brings together different cultures, the Hebrew and the Egyptian. We see so much such economic migration today, and the social changes and challenges it brings, that it shouldn’t be too hard for us to recognise!
But it is personal truth, what Desmond Tutu writes of as the truth of wounded memories, which is being most prominently featured in these closing chapters of Genesis, that I do encourage you to read as we conclude this series of sermons today. Personal truth, says that when one person is encouraged or allowed to speak their memories, in the context of being heard and respected by those intimately involved in them, healing can be found. Personal truth was what formed the basis of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it followed from the social truth of equality. The reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers’ starts with Joseph’s discovery that they are repentant for their actions of twenty years previously.
You see, if we read through Genesis 42 v21-23, we see that Joseph comes to understand that they see their current trouble as relating to their past treatment of him, a form of confession that brings to light the information that the eldest, Reuben, spoke up for him at the time. Perhaps that is why it is in fact Simeon, Leahs’ second son, and not Reuben, who becomes Josephs’ hostage.
Some of you may have heard me talk before about the African theology of “ubuntu”. It may have become a word that describes a computer system, but even that derives from the theology popularised by Desmond Tutu, that a person is a person, through other people. To live with broken relationships, with other people, or with God, is a kind of death because we are created by God to be in relationship, healthy relationship, with other people. Ubuntu says that supporters of apartheid were as much victims of the vicious system they implemented, as the murdered, widowed, beaten and ostracised of the townships.
By being confronted by a situation where they were reminded of, and forced to acknowledge, the arguments and dehumanising behaviour they had exhibited towards Joseph in the past, the older brothers’ started the process of gaining Joseph’s forgiveness. It is personal truth, Reuben’s outburst of honesty, that sparks Joseph’s tears in Genesis 42 v22. And, if we read on into Chapter 44, on their second visit to Egypt, this time with Benjamin, it is the proof of repentance for their past actions exhibited in their honesty and truth telling under the pressure of new situations in which they feel totally out of control, that enables Joseph to finally complete his own generous acts of reconciliation by finally making himself known to them, thus enabling his reunion with Jacob in Genesis 46 v29. In the long run, it brings the family together in Egypt where they can prosper and grow in number and in their understanding of themselves as the people of God.
Here in the story of Joseph and his brothers being reconciled, we see the same as Jesus teaches us in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus is teaching us, his disciples, that the starting point for our prayers and mission as his people, is to be reconciled to one another. The familiar words of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer includes the practice of forgiveness, a daily awareness of our ongoing need for forgiveness by God for those times we stuff up, that is compromised if there is not a corresponding practice of forgiveness on our own part. It is a teaching of Jesus that we read elsewhere, for example in the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 v23-35, and in Luke 6 v37 where it says “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” The biggest challenge of all is that, throughout his ministry, and most obviously in his journey to and in his words from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), that Jesus also gives us a living example of what it means to forgive those who exclude, condemn, and torture, without understanding the personal truth of what they are doing wrong, making any confession or seeking his or anyone else’s, forgiveness.
Admitting fault, confessing wrong thoughts and actions before others, and before God, is not about earning forgiveness, or about putting the right coin in God’s vending machine to trigger forgiveness, but a response to God’s sacrificial abundant love in Christ. Offering forgiveness to those who speak their own personal truths honestly, and with an integrity to their actions, is a response to both God and to such openness. Complete reconciliation should be a celebration of the basic idea that God is over-flowing with his own self-giving love, and has made us to have Ubuntu, to be in right relationship with each other.
Joseph’s reaction to being reunited with his younger brother in Genesis 43 v29-34, is a celebration meal which he serves himself with great generosity, and at which he makes his final reconciliation with his older brothers. What we call Holy Communion, which we will share later in this service, is something that celebrates our God given freedom of relationship with him, and with each other. It is a moment of Eucharist, which means to “give thanks”, the ultimate celebration meal that should grow out of willingness to confess before God the deep personal truths of our lives, our desire for forgiveness, our ability to forgive and the quest for right relationship, for ubuntu, with each other and with God.
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.