Sunday, 9 September 2018

Crossing borders - and boundaries

15th Sunday after Trinity     Year B

 Eucharist – 9.ix.2018

(Isaiah 35.4-7a; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37)

Some of you will have received an email from me the other day with an appeal attached. And it’s an appeal which we’re making again in the course of our Eucharist here at St. Cuthbert’s. The appeal is for church members to help us put together a welcome pack for families moving into our parish.

People move in and out of the parish all the time of course. But these people have come a long way, not by the easiest of routes. They are refugees from Syria, and when they arrive they will be joining us with next to nothing. Already a few months ago, a handful of refugee families have been settled in the parish. Now we are being asked if we can help the latest of those to arrive as they settle in.

The lists of what is being asked for are at the back of the church. If you can, please indicate on the lists what you can bring - and then make sure we get it. Many of the items are much the same as we ask for at Harvest for the People’s Kitchen Appeal - or week by week for those who rely on our local Food Bank - dried and tinned foods, toiletries. People are people. To that extent we’re all the same. Except these have lost everything. So you might be able to help with some of the bigger household items they might need. And they’re not allowed to work - at least initially. And the allowances they will receive will be meagre. So they will be hard-pressed.

One of the problems refugees encounter is the reception they’ll get in the communities where they settle. Especially because they may look and dress differently. I wasn’t sure exactly when the first families were arriving, but I realised they’d come when I saw a woman in a hijab walking along Pemberton Road - and then more than one in family groups. We’ve been curiously insulated from ethnic and religious diversity in our part of the country. You might wonder whether you can or should communicate with someone who dresses quite differently and may not speak your language. But I hope we’ll be the better for their presence. If nothing else, their children will be the ones who will have to make connections within the community because they will be there in our local schools.

The imminent arrival of refugees from Syria makes today’s Gospel reading all the more appropriate. But it is nevertheless quite shocking - the encounter of Jesus with a woman of Syrophoenician origin, a Jew meets a Gentile. It’s Jesus who has crossed a border - the only recorded instance of him leaving his native Palestine as an adult. Jesus finds himself in Syrian territory. No great importance is given to that journey in itself. The Roman Empire is the Schengen area of the first century without border checks. That’s what had enabled Mary and Joseph to flee in fear from Bethlehem to Egypt after the birth of Jesus - if you want to say that all migrants should stay in their own lands, then you will have a problem with the second chapter of the New Testament, Matthew chapter 2!

What is shocking in today’s Gospel reading is the response which Jesus makes to the request made by this Gentile woman. She wants Jesus to heal her daughter, and he replies: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It reads as a rejection of this woman and her daughter in their need. Jesus had brought healing to the people of his own land, who were fellow-Jews; it seems like he doesn’t want to extend this healing any further. Is it a test of how far the woman’s faith will reach? She persists: “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus gives in - the young girl is healed.

Some interpreters of the passage say that all along Jesus intends to heal the girl - he’s showing that Gentiles as well as Jews can be the object of God’s mercy; we only need to ask. Others say that it’s the intention of the Gospel writer to show that the Christian faith would be shared with Jews first before it would be taken to the Gentiles. Still others say that the word Jesus uses for “dogs” is a diminutive - so it translates as “puppies,” rather more cuddly than a first reading might suggest. But however you take it, there’s a challenge to our perceptions. God’s love is not confined to a particular people. Nothing qualifies us rather than people from Syria or Africa to be the special object of his favour. Only our humanity makes us worthy of God’s mercy - and them as well. It’s to other people in their humanity that we must make our response.

Are these people any different from us? I’ve been thinking of the links which people in our church have with other lands. Families whose children have moved to work in other countries or who have married someone of a different nationality. I have a brother who moved to the United States because that’s where the work was - over there he has a partner who comes from South America. One of my best friends here is an American who has picked up Canadian and British nationalities in the course of his travels. Others have left this country to work overseas. I have a son whose research work entails membership of a Danish as well as a Scottish university. None of these people was forced by absolute need to make the moves they did - but many have benefited because they have made their life’s journey.

Perhaps the oldest part of the Bible is to be found in the book Deuteronomy (chapter 26). It’s what to say when you come to make a Harvest offering, recognising God’s guidance and provision for you. The person making the offering should begin: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…” He was a nomad, a herdsman travelling wherever his flocks could find food.

The Israelites were a people who only discovered themselves - and God - while they were on the move. Abraham, the Father of their nation, had journeyed with his family from the region we would now call Iraq through Syria to the land of Canaan - and there he lived as a guest, not by any right. His grandson, Jacob, would make the move with his family to Egypt to find refuge in time of famine. And the return journey would take them 40 years in the wilderness with only God as their guide. The story of faith revealed in the pages of scripture is one of travel, encounter, hospitality and hostility, and finally understanding of the self and of God. Still we are called on the journey. May we know ourselves the better for it, may it help us know God and his purpose for all his people.

Monday, 3 September 2018

What next?

I’ve just come back from installing my mother in a residential care home. It’s just a mile from the house she’s lived in for the last 47 years - in fact the same distance from all the homes she’s had since she married in 1952. But it’s the greatest of wrenches. After months in hospital, a hip replacement, physio rehab, just two weeks back in her own home and then a fall which dislocated her shoulder, this is where we’ve arrived - after the agonising over the decision, visits to and discussions of the various possibilities, and assessments by occupational therapists, social workers and care home managers.

It’s been my agonising. Not like seeing your children off to university where they have made the choice and have to get on with being independent. I’ve been the one who’s had to facilitate the choice, knowing that it’s about the giving up of her independence.

Now I’ve got back home, and I realise I need to get this Magazine to press tomorrow. And there’s a wedding in the afternoon. As well as three Baptisms at the weekend in addition to the regular services. And all the register entries to make. And a couple of pewsheets to produce - which reminds me that I haven’t yet sorted out the hymns for Sunday (and what shall I preach about?). 

But it’s not my effort in all this that will make the difference. It’s trusting in the grace of God. God has a purpose. That doesn’t mean that everything is mapped out or that “everything happens for a reason” (I certainly don’t believe that after my mother’s last fall and the re-setting of her shoulder at 4am in Casualty). But in everything we believe that he may bring out what is good. Only by the Cross does there come Resurrection.

September is like a new season in the Church’s year. We have challenges to face. We’re still daunted by the heating problems in church - though we now have a couple of proposals and estimates and are seeking advice from the Diocese. And there’s the matter of where to find the money… But we will go on. The plan may not be worked out, but God has a purpose.
Martin Jackson

From the September issue of our Parish Magazine - click here to find the whole issue online 

Monday, 16 July 2018

Power and the Personal

Homily for Trinity 7 (Proper 10) – Eucharist – 15.vii.2018

(Amos 7.7-15; Mark 6.14-29)

The account of the Beheading of John the Baptist is one of the more horrific stories in the New Testament. John himself is always off-stage. The reason he’d first upset King Herod is a past event. Now he’s in prison. But the focus is on Herod and his family at a feast for his birthday.

Herod isn’t a real king. He’s a “tetrarch,” a puppet of the Roman rulers who have divided his land up into three. This is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who had been king when Jesus was born. This Herod has been given the province of Galilee as the region which is his to administer. We know from what happens later on that Herod must have spent some of this time in Jerusalem - because he is involved in the trial and condemnation of Jesus. But we’re not told where the events of today’s reading take place.

The indicators are that they happen in the Galilee - in a palace equipped both with facilities for entertaining and for imprisoning Herod’s enemies. The scene is of eating, drinking and dancing. But the prison is near enough for Herod to send out word to have John the Baptist killed in his cell and for his head to be brought in as the banquet continues.

Just think about that - the people who were involved in this, those who were complicit in a death without a trial or any sort of due process. Not only the executioner, but Herod who first had John locked up, his wife Herodias in the malice she holds against John, and the daughter who is manipulated into making the request for John’s death. Would this murder have been particularly newsworthy? Or just the sort of thing that might be expected of someone who has been given the power to do what he wants - and isn’t required to answer for his actions? Are there people like that in our world today? Who is going to speak out against them? What would you do if you found yourself in a tricky situation, but could extricate yourself by doing the wrong thing if you knew you could get away with it?

We’re given this whole story not simply for its own sake but to tell us how it fits in with the ministry of Jesus. In St. Mark’s Gospel it comes in between the story of how Jesus sent out his twelve disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God, teaching and healing along the way, and the account of how he fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fishes. Jesus is making an impact by what he says and does, and Herod Antipas has heard about it. This is why we now get today’s story. People are speculating about what or who Jesus is. Some say he’s a prophet, like Elijah - perhaps he’s even John the Baptist come back. And Herod knows what he has done to John - he’d had him beheaded. So has he been raised from the dead? If Herod finds himself asking the question, it nevertheless won’t stop him later being part of the attempt to stop the whole movement Jesus leads by putting him on the Cross.

The terrifying thing about Herod Antipas is that he’s a man who has been given the authority to govern and power over life and death. But he’s moved to do what he does by personal feelings, ambition and the desire to avoid embarrassment. It’s worrying that there are people still like that today - some hold the highest positions of world leadership, others resign from political office when things don’t go their way. You can supply the names yourselves. They are not the first - and no doubt there will be others to follow.

Herod first locks up John the Baptist when John speaks out about his personal morality. Herod had stolen his own brother’s wife from him - and he can’t take it when John tells him he’s wrong to do it. But there’s something that must have nagged away at Herod. He puts John in prison, but he recognises that John is both righteous and holy. He likes to listen to him.

If only Herod could overcome the conflict which must have been in his heart and let those qualities of righteousness and holiness change him! Are there moments in our lives when we know what is right but just can’t make the move that could change us for the better? I found myself thinking of G K Chesterton’s words: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

In the end it’s just too difficult for Herod. Instead he gives in to the grudge which Herodias holds against the Baptist. He makes a stupid offer to the daughter of Herodias when she dances for him. He can’t see a way of refusing her request without losing face. And the result is that a man loses his life.

The Gospels keep the action in Herod’s palace. The execution takes place unseen in the prison and John’s head is brought back. Brought back and given to the girl who’d asked for it. And what will she do with it?

If you want the full horror, the artist Caravaggio can take you there. He painted The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in 1608 as an altarpiece for St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. It’s still there - a huge canvas with life-size figures - dominating a room at the west end of the Cathedral. It’s been described as one of the ten greatest art works of all time: "Death and human cruelty are laid bare by this masterpiece, as its scale and shadow daunt and possess the mind."

In the picture the executioner stands with knife in hand as John’s body lies on the ground. It’s the only picture that Caravaggio ever signed and he does it using the paint from the pool of John’s blood. It’s claimed that in signing the picture the artist was declaring “I, Caravaggio, did this.” Caravaggio had been involved in a fight which had led to another man’s death. Another crime forced him to flee from the Knights of Malta. In painting the picture he must have had a sense of his own guilt.

But as we think of that scene - and of the story we hear today - we need to ask ourselves where we go wrong; and of the damage we can cause, the havoc we can bring to the lives of others.

“The king was deeply grieved,” St. Mark’s Gospel tells us. But more than grief is necessary. John the Baptist had spoken out against Herod, but also offered him a vision of righteousness and holiness. The prophet Amos offers a vision of a plumb line - not only to show what is crooked and wrong, but how it can be put right. And the love of God - the grace we find in Christ - shows us how we may move forward: admitting our faults, knowing our need, and accepting the forgiveness which is offered for us from the Cross.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Open Garden Day - Sunday 15 July

...running from 1 - 5pm.

Buy a map which admits you to wonderful gardens throughout the Village. You can start at either Shotley Bridge Cricket Club where there's a Craft Fair - or at St. Cuthbert's Church Hall where there'll be refreshments.

Proceeds to be divided between our Church Heating System Appeal and the Cricket Club Junior Division.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Building anew…

I’m not proposing that we build a new church for our parish. But I have to admit that the present one gives us (gives me) quite enough trouble itself. At 168 years of age it’s reached that critical point of lots of bits wearing out at the same time. Keeping the paint on the walls has been a long-standing problem - and we realise that the only solution is to take it all off and start again. But that pales into insignificance when you lose your heating system - and while you may not think you’re hearing much about that, let me assure you that we are working on it!

I’m glad to say that the planned roof works have now been completed - and  the bills have been paid! So there’s less anxiety in that quarter. And for the moment we can enjoy the church and the natural warmth of summer. But it doesn’t stop me fretting about the return of chillier weather and the challenges still outstanding.

So I’m glad to have found a fresh perspective when checking out part of our church’s history. Shotley Bridge Village Trust has a current project of placing plaques on various buildings of significance in our area. Each plaque will give a short description and a special “QR Code” which will link smart phones to a more detailed online account. In checking the dates for the proposed church description I noticed a couple of things. One, relevant to our current problems, is that the heating pipes seem to date back to the extension of the church in the early 1880s - or are these simply “additional pipes”? There’s reference to “the existing arrangement” - so perhaps they were simply added on to an original system dating right back to 1850! And going back to the beginning, there’s the reminder that the church didn’t spring up overnight. It was consecrated in September 1850. But the foundation stone was laid 18 months earlier. And the parish was formed in June 1847. Over three years’ work by priest and people was necessary before they could move into the church we have now. There would have been disruption as they enlarged the church in the 1880s. The task now may seem to lead us uphill. But it’s not the first challenge we have faced. Thanks to all who are working to build our church anew!   
Martin Jackson

From the Double Issue Parish Magazine for July & August 2018 - click here to read it all!

Monday, 11 June 2018

Where are you? - avoidance, sanctity and faithfulness

Trinity 2 (Proper 5) Year B – Eucharist –

(Genesis 3.8-15; 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1; Mark 3.20-35)

Today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis starts with a compelling image: the sound of the Lord God walking in a garden at the time of the evening breeze. It’s the Garden of Eden, of course, given to Adam and Eve, its only human inhabitants, for their use and pleasure as long as they exercise stewardship over it as asked by God. In its centre there are two trees: the Tree of Life, which nourishes them and symbolises all that is life-giving - all that God wishes for our good; and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil - of which God has asked them to refrain from eating its fruit. It’s a deal: they know the deal, but they’ve broken the deal. Now God comes into the picture in person.

Not that you see him. He’s only heard - but he’s taking pleasure in his Creation, all that he has made to be good, by walking in his garden in “the cool of the day,” as more traditional translations put it. I like it to be warm - give me a warm evening so I can sit out in my garden, but you can appreciate what it’s saying. I can sit at the evening hour and appreciate the subsiding of noise and the day’s busy-ness; if I’m outside or have the window open, I hear the song of birds, feel the peace settling in the summer air - and it’s lovely.

But in this third chapter of Genesis everything is about to change. God calls to Adam, “Where are you?” Does he need to ask? Surely God knows. He knows that Adam has been disobedient. He made Adam and everything in the garden, so he doesn’t need to ask… Except for Adam’s sake. “Where are you?” God asks of the man and the woman. Where have you put yourself? What sort of mess have you got yourself into? Why do you feel the need to hide?

Adam’s answer is: “I heard you… and I was afraid, because I was naked.” Adam had been created naked. It’s naked that we all come into the world. But now something has happened that makes him feel shame. Adam has come to see the human condition which he inhabits as something to be ashamed of. He feels alienation. He’s taken the step away from God - and now he realises that his own strength and his own abilities are insufficient to reach back across the gap.

Where are you?” God asks Adam. You can treat the story of Adam and Eve as a myth, if you wish. But it’s no less true for that. If God were to say to me, “Where are you?” what would I answer? What do I answer? What would you say?

Where are you?” So often, if you put that question to people in the context of speaking about faith, they’ll say “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” There’s a lot that religious bigotry and hatred has to answer for, history does have periods which have been described as “Wars of Religion,” and it’s sad that the veneer of religious respectability or even religious authority has been used as a cloak to cover up abuse of various sorts. Is that why so many people are reluctant to describe themselves as “religious?” But I wonder if you’d get very far if you were to press them on what it means to be “spiritual” as at the same time they reject religion and its precepts?

Fr. George Rutler, a Roman Catholic priest in New York, puts it this way:

The Internal Revenue Service would not be impressed by someone who paid taxes not in the formal way, but in a spiritual sense. Yet the equivalent of that has become an esoteric mantra among many who identify as Catholics but reject Catholicism as their religion. 

It’s what he calls “cultural Catholicism.” I suspect it actually has more identity and coherence to it than much of what passes for spirituality in this country. Nevertheless, he goes on:

That “cultural Catholicism” does not work when challenged by Catholicism’s despisers. There is much to be said for inheriting the faith of ancestors, but ancestors are betrayed when that faith is a patrimony that is squandered by a spendthrift heir. In the Middle East there are Christians who can trace their religious identity back to the apostles, but theirs is not a mere cultural religion. A year after Christian towns of northern Iraq were liberated from the Islamic State, many families still live in refugee camps…

In those areas, the faithful have had to resist attempts to make them renounce the Gospel by force. In decadent Western cultures, such surrender has been voluntary. Much of Europe has long since abandoned Christ through indifference.

Where are you?” God asks Adam - and us. It’s a challenge. Adam does what so many of us do when we’re found out or put on the spot. He blames someone else. It was her… “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit from the tree, and I ate.” At least Eve had some curiosity about her as she took up the challenge to eat a fruit which would give her the knowledge of good and evil.

Where are you?” How would we respond to the challenge which Jesus brought to the communities amongst which he proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God? His hearers at the time said he was mad, but they themselves could talk only about Satan and the work of demons. How much different is it in today’s world where there’s a growing interest in the occult, but little action taken to learn or practise anything of the positive aspects of faith? Even Jesus’ own family can’t take in what he is doing. Flesh and blood are not enough. There needs to be an openness to receive the message of Christ. As Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

That’s not to say that you should write your own family off. As some of you know, my Mother has been dealing with increasing pain and lack of mobility as doctors have again and again put off surgery to replace her hip. I know I’m by no means unique in wrestling with how best to help when I live at such a distance yet am at the same time the only person she has who can try to get her the help and provision she needs. For months when I’ve asked how she is, she’s responded with the word, “Rubbish.” Her frailty and pain are not the human condition which God wills for his Creation. And then I read St. Paul’s words in today’s Second Reading from his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

How can my Mother not lose heart? I know I have. The months and years of pain are rather more than what St. Paul calls a “slight momentary affliction.” Thankfully as the crisis came to a head she has been admitted to hospital and will get her operation later this week. But for the moment there is still uncertainty, anxiety, confusion - and that sense of mortality, the “outer nature which is wasting away.”

Yet there is more that we can affirm. For a start the human condition which lets us down is a glorious condition and a gift. “Behold, I am wonderfully made,” the Psalmist could affirm - even though he spends much of his time complaining and lamenting the state he and the world are in. If sickness, pain and death make us angry with God - well, that’s better than being merely angry. Anger alone at our frailty and wretchedness get us nowhere and give us no hope. Anger where God is in the picture at least gives us hope. Not necessarily an answer - but something and someone beyond our time-limited pain.

Because I needed a day off last Friday, but wanted to see my Mother in North Tees Hospital, I drove down to North Yorkshire for the day so I could visit her on the way back. Too much driving! But I was glad I did it. In Lastingham (once I’d been to the pub!), I re-visited the village church and its ancient crypt. It’s a place where St. Chad had lived in the seventh century. A man of great ability, skilled in preaching and a faithful pastor of his people, Chad found himself deposed from his bishopric. But he didn’t engage in recrimination, he didn’t let despondency overcome him. He continued faithful in prayer and sought new ways in which God was calling him. And the end-result was that he took his Christian faith to people he’d never expected to encounter. God opened new ways.

Carrying on from there I stopped in Egton Bridge - literally because we were going the wrong way and I needed to make a U-turn. It became an opportunity to visit the Roman Catholic Church of St. Hedda. Inside we found the relics of Blessed Nicholas Postgate, a priest born nearby and who had ministered for 50 years at a time in the 17th century when the practice of his faith was forbidden. In a period of national hysteria over the so-called Popish Plot he was caught performing a baptism, judged and condemned for treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. At the age of 82 he was the oldest person in this country ever to be executed for his faith - a faith he’d put into practice living quietly but travelling far and wide to be a priest to his people.

It was an ignominious end to a life lived largely in obscurity. It’s said that the man who went out of his way to trap him was rewarded with a payment of 22 shillings, but then committed suicide by drowning himself. Bigotry and hatred played their part. But the faith which Blessed Nicholas practised sustained him through a ministry lived out in the hardest of times with no earthly reward until it ended on the gallows in York. Better that way than to be like those who brought accusations against him as others did against Jesus. Better to know the cost of discipleship than to follow the easy option which avoids grappling with the hard issues of suffering and mortality, of faithful religion and a calling made real in Christ.  

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Into “Ordinary Time”…

That’s when the vestments and hangings in church go green - after Easter-tide, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. But it’s not just a switch from golds and reds to something more mundane. It’s the reminder that it’s in the ordinary times of life that we do our growing - as surely as the grass in your garden will now be growing. So green is the colour of life, growth and hope.

Much of life is about “getting through it.” Fabric takes up much of our time, energy and money in the life of the Church. I’m glad today to have been able to say goodbye to the roofers who have spent the last two and a half weeks at St. Cuthbert’s - but I know we now have to turn to financing and fitting a new heating system. Hopefully there’ll be plenty of fun along the way. But let’s not lose sight of why we are doing it. Keep prayer at the heart of our faith - it will give us energy and growth. Here’s a borrowed reminder of how the simplest of prayers may be effective. References with acknowledgment to Parish Pump

Prayers don’t need to be long to be acceptable to God. 
For instance, consider:

St. Peter (Matthew 14.30):                           Lord, save me.
A Canaanite woman (Matthew 15.25):   Lord, help me.
Samuel (1 Samuel 3:10):                Speak, for your servant is listening.
Psalm 43.3:    O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; 
          let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.

Christians in later years have adopted the same form.

Michelangelo:                    Lord, make me see your glory in every place.
Gladys Aylward:               O God, give me strength.
William Barclay:               O God, keep me from being difficult to live with.
Francois Fenelon:             Teach me to pray.  Pray yourself in me.
John Wesley:                O Lord, let us not live to be useless, for Christ’s sake.

Why not practise saying a simple sentence prayer of your own each day?

Martin Jackson