Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Monday, 5 November 2018

Refreshing the Spirit

Sorry that this issue of the Parish Magazine is appearing late. It’s entirely due to my taking my “summer holiday” at the end of October (it’s been a complicated sort of year), but at least I managed to top up with sunshine before the holiday itself ended with cloudbursts and thunderstorms.

I bring back lots of memories - and things which I need to go over again to see what I made of them: many too many photos - and a notebook full of the accounts of what we did and where we went.

What do I remember most from this visit to Rome? Uppermost in my mind is the experience of going to church! Actually we visited many churches, but there were three places where we joined other Christians in worship. One was the Anglican Centre which is squeezed into a set of rooms in the Doria Pamphili Palace. There’s a wonderful art gallery there too, but you can visit the Centre for free. Go on a Tuesday at 12.45pm and you can usually join in the weekly Eucharist which is followed by prosecco and lunch. The chapel was packed - and interesting folks turn up, this time including a pilgrim party from the Church of Norway.

We went to Vespers as well at the Cistercian Abbey of Tre Fontane - after a day of tramping around looking at things it was good just to sit and stand as the monks did the hard work of prayer. But the place I keep going back to is the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches of Rome. I spoke last Sunday about the sermon - what I managed to hear, despite not being able to understand most of the language. But the worship is still more. It’s helped by the beauty of the place. But it’s grounded in the offering of prayer and the faith from which it stems. It’s a place of welcome. Children particularly play a part - simply by being there. One week it was First Communion candidates who were put to work as acolytes, joining en masse in white robes with candles. The next Sunday they welcomed cubs and scouts - who kept their caps on in church; half of them found themselves deployed with candles. And during the Gloria and Gospel Alleluia many of the congregation ring bells (they seem to bring their own). But all of it ties in with a great spirit of joy.

That worship stems from faith. The church itself is in the care of the Sant’Egidio Community which works with the poor and homeless - and more widely promotes peace and reconciliation. Its members meet each evening at 8.30pm to pray - but first they go onto the streets and feed the poor. Round the corner they run a restaurant ‘Gli Amici (The Friends) which is run as a partnership between people with learning difficulties, volunteers and professionally trained staff. And it all comes together in the offering of worship - in meeting with Christ.

Where is Christ to be found? In worship, of course - but also in his people. Perhaps it came together most for me as I watched a disabled man who’d prayed devoutly behind us go forward for Holy Communion - and after receiving, he kissed the priest. What was the gift? Who was the giver?
Martin Jackson

From the November issue of St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine - find it on this link

Thursday, 27 September 2018

What next? - Part 2

“The plan may not be worked out, but God has a purpose.”

That’s the sentence with which I ended last month’s “View from the Vicarage.” If anything the plan is now still more mystifying, though I continue to hold to my faith that God does indeed have a purpose! But purposes are often still to be revealed and as yet unseen.

I’d been writing in the light of personal challenges - especially through my mother’s declining health and need for 24 hour care - and the challenges we face as a parish, not least from the lack of a working heating system in our church. Concerning the heating, I said we’d sent in estimates and proposals with a request for advice to our Diocesan Advisory Committee. The Committee’s response has not been what we hoped for. So we shall be responding further to them and challenging their reasoning which appears to run contrary to advice they gave last February! This means further delay. But we are pressing on - and have made a couple of recent grant bids (and had further positive responses in other quarters).

But having picked ourselves up and worked out how we would move forward, we were then hit by Storm Alice - hit quite literally, with two trees felled, one dramatically falling across the road but being caught by the power cables. After various strategies failed, skilful tree surgeons arrived and made a brilliant job of the tree removal. Power was restored after about 30 hours - and I enjoyed loss of a phone line and internet for 5 days. But there is more fabric work to be done now, since the major damage suffered was to our own boundary wall between the Church and the Vicarage. No doubt more expense - and form filling!

We might again ask, “Why?” and “What next?”

But, of course, we can’t just give up!

I was helped today by the readings we used at the midweek Eucharist in St. John’s Church. The first was from the Book of Proverbs (30.5-9) - and came in the form of a prayer:

Two things I beg of you,…
keep falsehood and lies far from me,
give me neither poverty nor riches,
grant me only my share of bread to eat,
for fear that surrounded by plenty, I should fall away…

It’s a prayer not to be given too much of either extreme (poverty or wealth) to have to deal with. It’s very much what we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer - “Give us this day our daily bread.” That’s a prayer not to have our cake and eat it (to push the metaphor) but to have enough just to keep us going. So it asks us to examine the question, “just what is God giving us? How is he feeding and nourishing us day by day?”

The other reading we used today was from St. Luke’s Gospel (9.1-6). It tells of how Jesus sent out the Twelve Disciples with a mission. They were to proclaim the Kingdom of God and bring healing to the people they encountered - and they were to do it without any provisions:

Take nothing for the journey: neither staff, nor haversack, nor bread, nor money… Whatever house you enter, stay there; and when you leave, let it be from there. As for those who do not welcome you, when you leave their town shake the dust from your feet as a sign to them…

We expect soon to be moving into the Hall for our regular worship. It’s not what we want. Hopefully it won’t be for too long. But it can be enough for the moment (just read what Messy Church accomplished there in its most recent meeting with 31 children, their carers and a host of leaders).

And St. Augustine reminds us of the longer view in the Collect we’ve been using this week in our worship:

Almighty God, you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself,
and so bring us at last to your heavenly city
where we shall see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord…

Martin Jackson

From the October issue of St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine

Whoever welcomes one such child

17th Sunday after Trinity     Year B (Proper 20) 

 Eucharist – 23.ix.2018 -  St. John the Evangelist, Castleside
 (Jeremiah 11.18-20; James 3.13 - 4.3.7-8a; Mark 9.30-37)

I’m glad to say that we have people from St. John’s Church who are involved in Messy Church at St. Cuthbert’s. Work we do with children always impresses people. Last week’s session was brilliant with 31 children registered and all the adults they brought with them as well as lots of leaders. It was loud, fun and exhausting.

People like to know especially what we’re doing with and for children. Today’s Gospel reading shows that Jesus had a way with children that must have been quite impressive. “Let the children come to me,” he says elsewhere to people who think religion has to be dreary and for adults only. Actually we have the opposite problem these days - so many adults think that religion is something children should learn about; but they don’t think it should have much bearing on their own lives.

Jesus makes us think again about our perspectives. “Unless you become like a child you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven.” And in today’s Gospel reading he sets a child in front of his disciples - who are really themselves being rather childish, arguing “who’s best? which one of us is the greatest?” - and he tells them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me...”

But I wonder if there’s a danger in this? “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me...” Is that true about any child? What if the child is a little brat who knows just how to wind you up? What if it’s your child - adept at getting on your nerves? What if it’s someone else’s child? - and you wish they’d been taught the basics of good behaviour?

The fact is that sometimes children – even our own dear children – can be pretty horrible, and we know that we were as well when we were children. And don’t we have to remember that when Jesus says, “Whenever you welcome one such child....”?

Jesus knew what childhood was about - and no doubt how awful some aspects of it could be. In the so-called New Testament Apocrypha there’s an interesting book called the Gospel of Thomas – it starts with this rather troubling perspective on the childhood of Jesus:

4. He was again passing through the village; and a boy ran up
against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to
him: Thou shalt not go back the way thou camest. And immediately he fell
down dead. And some who saw what had taken place, said: Whence was
this child begotten, that every word of his is certainly accomplished? And
the parents of the dead boy went away to Joseph, and blamed him, saying:
Since thou hast such a child, it is impossible for thee to live with us in the
village; or else teach him to bless, and not to curse: for he is killing our

5. And Joseph called the child apart, and admonished Him, saying: Why
doest thou such things, and these people suffer, and hate us, and persecute
us? And Jesus said: I know that these words of thine are not thine own;
nevertheless for thy sake I will be silent; but they shall bear their
punishment. And straightway those that accused Him were struck blind.
And those who saw it were much afraid and in great perplexity, and said
about Him: Every word which he spoke, whether good or bad, was an act,
and became a wonder. And when they saw that Jesus had done such a
thing, Joseph rose and took hold of His ear, and pulled it hard. And the
child was very angry, and said to him: It is enough for thee to seek, and
not to find; and most certainly thou hast not done wisely. Knowest thou
not that I am thine? Do not trouble me.

It would be interesting to know more about the childhood of Jesus, but I’m afraid we won’t learn it from apocryphal Thomas. There’s just too much in it of how we would like to deal with other people... how we know that we’re right and they’re wrong, and we’ll show them. And that is not the way of Jesus Christ as we know it from the Books which did (unlike the so-called Gospel of Thomas) get included in the New Testament.

Though perhaps the disciples were rather too slow in realising that... In today’s Gospel reading Jesus has to tell them off when they argue about which of them is the greatest. Who’s the best? - who’s the strongest? - who’s most right when everyone else is wrong? People still go on this way to this day. Just look out in the coming weeks of party political conferences. Who’s got the muscle? Who’s got the newspapers and public opinion on their side - and how do you keep them there? Will there be plots against Theresa May and a leadership challenge? Who will be trying to do down Jeremy Corbyn? But there are things more important than having power you can throw about.

It says something about human nature that people try to do other people down as a means of promoting themselves. Look at the disciples’ failure to grasp the mission of Jesus, “Who’s the greatest?” Don’t we have to recognise our failures in this respect? Clergy in particular need to search their hearts. Every 18 months we have to undergo a so-called Ministerial Development Review. What am I good at? What are my shortcomings? What do I want out of my life and ministry? I was undergoing one of these processes a few years ago, and I got the feedback that I’d simply gone about things the wrong way. I’d stayed too long in the parishes I’d tried to serve, I hadn’t tried for the right jobs, and basically I hadn’t made the right connections. Another senior priest, now departed this diocese, said that a failing in most of his parish clergy was lack of ambition to get out of the North-East and experience something different. He might be right (every other priest in the room had served their entire ministry in the Diocese of Durham) - but it didn’t answer a still more basic problem that clergy from other parts of the country are notably reluctant to come and serve here. It’s too cold, too far away (from what?) - it’s not the place to be if you want to get on… But where does God call us?

 ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,’ says Jesus to the disciples. And “I am among you as one who serves.” Can we hear that and take it to heart?

Back to children… Jesus says we should become like little children if we are to enter the Kingdom of God. But not here. Instead he tells us we must be ready to welcome them. We must be ready to serve those who might be the most vulnerable. We must be there for those who are least likely to be taken into account - even when there are few rewards in doing so.

How should we do it? I think we can learn from today’s New Testament Reading - from the Letter of James:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish…  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy… And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

It’s not difficult to fall into the same trap as the disciples, to let vanity, pride and selfishness get the better of us. “Whoever welcomes one such child...” - that’s the way Jesus tells us to start being his disciple. That means welcoming the unruly child as well. The child who argues all the time, as much as the one with the angelic expression. The child who might be a bully as much as the most frail and vulnerable in the class. And it means recognising ourselves to be God’s children, ready to reach out to one another, ready to receive his care.

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.