Tuesday, 30 April 2019

I was glad...

I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord.
Our feet shall stand in thy gates: O Jerusalem.

These words from Psalm 122 are amongst my favourite verses of the Bible. They’re from a sequence of Psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent - 15 Psalms numbered 120 to 134. If you haven’t read them recently, take a look - none of them is very long. And I think it’s appropriate that the Book of Psalms itself is more or less in the middle of the Bible - it’s at the heart of our faith, at the centre of what we believe, but also reflects so well the human condition and our struggles in the midst of joy and sorrow.

The Psalms of Ascent themselves were probably first used by people on pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. They’re sung by people who love that building, who find God’s presence there and who long to worship in it. It’s a building set in a city: that city of Jerusalem which represents above all others the adversities, tensions and strife of centuries but which is at the same time a dwelling for God - a herald and a hope of the heavenly city still to be established.

How do I feel now that we have “moved back” into St. Cuthbert’s Church? I was glad… It made me want to sing, and I did a little dance once the heating engineers had moved out. Psalm 126 expresses the feeling of God’s people when they return from exile in Babylon:

When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion:
    then were we like unto them that dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter: and our tongue with joy.

But it’s not easily achieved. “Getting our church back” has been hard work. There are so many thanks due to those who have worked over the last 15 months to bring us to this point. That’s why it will be good to bring all this into a service of thanksgiving led by our Bishop on Sunday 19th May. Not much notice - but now is the right time! We’re so glad he can join us right now! And remember the truth expressed in Psalm 127:

Except the Lord build the house: their labour is but lost that build it.        MJ

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Calcined to dust? Easter Homily

(Acts 10.34-43; Luke 24.1-12)

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.  Sing his praise
                                                  Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
                                                  With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

George Herbert rejoices in the celebration of Easter. And if you wonder what that word “calcined” means, there’s a note in my book which says “Burnt to ashes.” We began Lent with Ash Wednesday - marking people on the forehead with the sign of the Cross in ash, saying to them, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” Whether or not we’ve lived up to the second part of that injunction and kept the resolutions with which we might have set out, the first part remains true: dust we are and to dust shall we return.

And yet listen to George Herbert: “That, as his death calcined thee to dust, / His life may make thee gold.” We know all too well that we are frail, mortal creatures, subject to death. But also we are God’s creation called to new life; and the Resurrection of Christ that first Easter Day is the promise that we shall live with him in glory.

Not that it’s always easy to live with that confidence. It’s not only the limitations of our human frame which we know, the grief we suffer at the loss of loved ones, the sadness we feel at the suffering of others, the pain which comes from relationships which won’t work out right. The days of Holy Week began with a collective sense of loss as millions watched the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burn - and its spire collapse. I felt the loss. Not only was I fearful for its lost treasures. But I’ve worshipped there. The cathedral’s services have been broadcast just about every day and could be watched on the internet. And for me, it wasn’t just watching - it was joining in with a daily rhythm of prayer, something that sustained me when I didn’t have the energy to do the praying alone.

But in that building, so much of it reduced to ash - calcined, to use George Herbert’s word - there’s also a powerful image. An incredible engagement of so many millions of people around the world challenged by the question of what it stood for.

Two things in particular. One, that the building is not merely a symbol but emblematic of western civilisation. Famously, the art critic, Kenneth Clark said that he couldn’t define civilisation - “But I think I can recognise it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.” And he turned and looked across the River Seine to Notre Dame. In our cheapened modern culture with its degraded values and our lack of attention to what really matters, we need to look again to see what needs to be preserved and developed.

But second and still more, the very presence of that building challenges us to ask, why was it built? Not merely as a thing of beauty or an attraction to 13 million people a year, but as a testimony to faith and a place where that faith is worked out in the worship of God. “You can worship God anywhere,” was one of the responses made by an archbishop after the fire. And that is true. The worship which would have been offered in Notre Dame continued through Holy Week on the other side of the river in the church of St. Sulpice. But I could sense the aching hearts. We know God by the places in which we worship. He is always more than buildings, more than worship itself. But ours is a faith which is incarnated, made flesh in Jesus Christ - and bricks and stones also have their place in enabling our faith.

The people of Notre Dame have to find other places to worship even as they plan to rebuild. [Here] at St. Cuthbert’s for the last 14 months with just an interlude during warmer weather, we have had to worship not across the river but across the road in our Hall due to the failure of our heating system. Today we return to the church for our first Sunday together since last October - it’s ironic that we use the new heating system for the first time just as we find ourselves in a spring heatwave! Going back there’s a sense of relief - and also of anticipation. I have to admit to being a bit fearful - things have changed… we have changed through our experience of the last year and more. But hopefully we have learned something through our time in exile - the different dynamic of worship, new ways of relating to each other, the grace of persistence in the midst of exasperation, much hard work and a generosity of spirit.

Always we need to remember that Christian faith is grounded in more than buildings - it’s more true even than the things we learn in adversity. But these together are a start.

And the heart of Christian faith is the Resurrection. An Easter Faith is what we celebrate not only today but every day. “If Christ is not raised, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain…” wrote St. Paul. And when Peter finds himself in the house of the Gentile soldier, Cornelius, the message which he brings is that Christ is risen from the dead. That’s what he says in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

It doesn’t mean that it’s a faith that’s always easy to grasp. Even on that first Easter Day of which we hear in today’s Gospel… The same women who had seen Christ die on Good Friday, who had stood by as he was buried, now come to the tomb - and find it empty. The stone is rolled away, the body is gone. Their response is not faith but terror. Two men in dazzling clothes appear and tell them Jesus is risen. But they only have their word for it - and when they tell the other disciples, they don’t believe them: their words seemed to them “an idle tale.” At least Peter goes to look, finds the grave cloths discarded by themselves and knows the tomb to be empty. But for now, all that the Gospel writer can tell us is that he is “amazed.”

Easter faith grows from an empty tomb. But before that there is betrayal, judgement, condemnation and a death upon the Cross. All these are carried into the meaning of Easter because they are all together rooted in the love which God shows us in Jesus. And that faith needs to grow. Recognition of the risen Jesus will come only later: for Mary Magdalene in an encounter with one she takes to be a stranger; for two disciples on a journey who don’t recognise the traveller who walks with them until he breaks bread for them; for disciples who have gone back to their old life of fishing and then find the risen Jesus telling them where to fish, feeding them and sending them on in love.
In knowing Jesus to be risen, the disciples discover what is truly precious to them - and something so precious that it will determine the rest of their lives.

What is precious to us?

One of the heartening stories in the aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame is that the colony of bees kept on its roof has survived. There have been three beehives on a roof over the sacristy, just beneath the rose window, since 2013. Each hive has about 60,000 bees. The poet Carol Ann Duffy, in her book The Bees writes of the bee as a symbol of grace in the world and of what is most precious and necessary for us to protect. Those 180,000 surviving bees are, I think, a sign of hope as the planning for the rebuilding of that great church begins. Carol Ann Duffy writes:

                                                For this,
let gardens grow, where beelines end,
sighing in roses, saffron blooms, buddleia;
where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise
in pear trees, plum trees; bees
are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Approaching Easter

It’s been a strange Lent - again! Not being able to use the church is something that many of us are feeling acutely. Just being able to go in at the usual times and do what we do in our worship - and the practical things like knowing where the books are, being able to put out the sacred vessels; actually having an altar which is set apart and the place at which we meet with Christ in the bread and wine we consecrate at that altar. I’m missing the church as a place for prayer - it makes me realise how much I want us to be able to keep it open for as much of the time as possible. And for our wider community I’ve felt distinctly uncomfortable. Is the church available for a funeral? - we’ve endured some very cold conditions, but knowing just how important it is that we should be able to use this well-loved place which has been there for the most important parts of people’s lives. And I’ve worried about just when we can offer to host Baptisms and Marriages (why not wait till it’s warmer? - I was asking last year).

Now I hope that the work of getting a new heating system up and running is just about complete. Sorry we can’t be more definite at this point as to quite how much we can promise for Holy Week, but we have a programme of services which we shall celebrate one way or the other! Make sure you are with us - and do travel for the one or two which will be celebrated at St. John’s Church, Castleside.

We began Lent with two shared Ash Wednesday services: the first at St., John’s, because they always have a Wednesday morning service anyway; but then the evening service at Christ Church, Consett. I was grateful that we were invited to be part of these services. This year we couldn’t put them on ourselves. But perhaps in other years we need to work further on just what we can do by sharing with neighbouring parishes - to the benefit of us all.

And I hope we won’t forget what we have learned by out time of worship “in exile” across the road in the Hall. Getting literally closer to each other, the sharing, spontaneity and improvisation. And finally, remember that Easter itself is but a start - of our journey with the Risen Christ.

From the April issue of our Parish Magazine - find it online here 

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Coming soon...


is the beginning of Lent,
& a Solemn Day of the Church

Wednesday 6th March

10.00am Eucharist - St. John’s, Castleside

7.30pm  Sung Eucharist - Christ Church, Consett

each with imposition of ashes

We’re sorry not to have a Eucharist in St. Cuthbert's Church 
- but we are invited to join in these services at which our own Vicar will preside. 

Monday, 28 January 2019

Time to take a breath…

In terms of the Church’s Calendar, this February offers us a bit of time off. The season of Christmas and Epiphany ends with the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas), which we will celebrate on Sunday 3rd February. Then it’s “Ordinary Time” until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday - not until 6th March, because Easter is so late this year. I don’t remember when we had quite so much time to fill in between the seasons - but it will be no bad thing!

Time to take stock, I hope. I thought of encouraging people to prepare for Lent - but actually Lent is the time you prepare for Easter, so we should think of more than preparation. So I’m going to see the weeks around these four Sundays as time just to set a rhythm for daily living: “Ordinary Time,” we call them liturgically - or you might think of them as “Empty Time,” and ask just how can I fill them wisely?

Work can be self-generating. Clear a space in your busy diary and it can easily fill up with clutter. I’ve had enough of the wrong sort of busy-ness recently, not least in lots of correspondence, discussion and form-filling to do with our plans to install a new heating system. We’ve now reached the point where I think we’ve done all we can. Now there’s a period of “Public Notice” lasting 28 days so that people can know officially what we intend. Then hopefully we can get on with the job. And it will be Lent by then probably. I hope that the new system will be running before Easter - it would be good to walk out of the Hall as we usually do for our Palm Sunday Procession, enter the church - and stay there!

But first some time to pause - can we use it to listen to what God is saying in gentleness and peace?

Martin Jackson

From the February issue of the Parish Magazine - click to find it online!