Friday, 2 March 2018

Not quite what we were expecting…

… and certainly not what we wanted! I started the month of February full of expectation. Throughout most of 2017 I’ve been taking part with other diocesan clergy in a course of residential and other gatherings called Missional Leadership for Growth. It’s taken me away from the parish - but it’s also had its counterpart in meeting with a small team at St. Cuthbert’s and sharing of how we can move forward with members of the PCC and others. It’s about the Church’s “mission” (indeed God’s mission which he shares with us) - and how that may help us grow. And we have been making progress with plans for the future - especially looking to see how we can link our life and work here with a national initiative for prayer between Ascension Day and Pentecost in May. That’s a period when Christian Aid Week takes place - so we want to link in with that as we consider our Christian responsibilities. And those ten days will start as we welcome members of other parishes to join us for a Deanery Eucharist on Ascension Day - so it will remind us that we are part of a greater whole. We want to look at all the good things that are going on - from Messy Church to Lunch Club - and try to join them up still more effectively.

We’re not changing those plans. But how they are delivered will no doubt be affected by circumstances beyond our control. We did not count on the leak in our church heating system. To call it a “leak” feels like an understatement of the problem. It’s a catastrophic failure. One hole… but it took three visits from the heating engineers to find it. We could see the water pouring through the wall into the old boiler house below the choir vestry. But only when the experts followed the ducting through which most of the pipes run, excavating as they went, did they find that the source of the leak was a pipe buried under the flagstones beneath the red carpet near the font. The pipe itself was under another pipe, which meant both sets of pipes would have to be cut through to reach it. But all the surrounding pipework was so decayed that it wouldn’t be just a matter of replacing a couple of sections. The hole is at the heart of a complex system of junctions, bends and bifurcations. There would need to be a massive excavation (at least two weeks) and the font would need to be moved. An estimate was given for the repair (with no guarantee that it wouldn’t be more) of £13,300 + VAT. And once that work was done, there would be no guarantee that a leak wouldn’t occur elsewhere - an experience we’ve known to our cost on several occasions.

So we have realised that we need to think hard - and hopefully replace the whole ancient system of pipework which must be almost if not as old as the church’s 168 years. Bear with us in this, please - and be patient. It’s a massive undertaking!

For the moment - and with the Bishop’s permission - Sunday services will be held in the Church Hall. It would be good to be back in church for Easter Day - but that will be without heat, so wrap up warm if we do that! Then we imagine we’ll return to the Hall till it gets warmer. Will that put us off? I’m glad to say that on our first Sunday in the Hall, numbers went up! Let’s keep it that way!

Since then, of course, we’ve had horrendous winter conditions. In the midst of which we’ve had two weddings. We hired in an industrial heater and borrowed others. On each occasion they raised the temperature by about 3 degrees - which isn’t much when you’re starting at 3 degrees! The second wedding had to contend with deep snow - not only on the Bank but also in getting to us. But happily they persevered - and the outcome was wonderful! Something they’ll certainly be able to tell their grandchildren about.

The night before that wedding, I posted on Facebook that we’d welcome help in clearing what snow we could. I wondered if anyone would notice. But then - as they say - it went “viral.” People took it to heart - and shared it with others. The original post reached about 28,000 people! The next morning there was a tractor clearing the Bank, and a Land Rover with a snow plough, and 40 to 50 people with shovels. And people serving them hot drinks to keep them going. It’s one of the most encouraging things I’ve ever known - and it’s been repeated since over the wider community. The story itself has been in the Chronicle, the Northern Echo, the Church Times, the Times of Malta(!) and on BBC and other websites - and I’ve found myself talking about it in three different radio interviews.

The word gets round - when it’s something people want to hear, when hearts are ready to be touched. That’s what I think we can learn.

What are we wanting to say? What do people hear us say? What’s the good news we can share? How can we turn a disaster into a triumph?

And, of course, that’s what the Easter story is about. So many hopes pinned by the Disciples and even the crowds of Palm Sunday on one man, hailed as a Messiah, but then betrayed and deserted by those closest to him. The Cross is about the death of that man - and about the worst that people are capable of doing to each other. But it’s also about the means by which God brings about something else still greater - and unexpected. It’s about the triumph of his love. The new life by which he raises Jesus from the dead is greater than death.

I’m not full of empty confidence. Over the last two weeks I’ve lain awake in bed wondering how do we get through this? - how do I even get through today? I still don’t know the long-term answer to our big fabric issues. But I am touched by the human response that I’ve seen - and especially as it related to people at that most important time of their lives, in committing themselves to each other in love.

What do we hope for? I can be glad for the human resilience I’ve experienced in these last few days - and for the way that action has been an expression of love. But still more, as Christians, I hope we will find cause to reflect and act on what our faith means to us - and God’s love which is its source. We need to do something about the fabric of our church - but there’s only any point in doing it if it says something of what we believe. Every day I need to ask myself, why do I do this? Unless the answer has something to do with my faith in a God of life and love, then mine has been a wasted life. Let’s grow together through the remainder of Lent, so that at its end we may recognise again that “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!

Martin Jackson
From the March issue of our Parish Magazine - click here to read it online

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Mission & Ministry - starting from discipleship

I’ve written previously that over the last year I’ve been involved in a diocesan initiative called Missional Leadership for Growth. The intention is that all the clergy of our Diocese of Durham should take the course - not only to try to enable clergy in “Missional Leadership” but also with the idea that we should then infect our churches. And hopefully that will lead to growth in our congregations - not just so that we can survive, but so that we can flourish as followers of Christ, be deepened in our faith and be able to share that faith with those around us.

So far I’ve had a whole day meeting with members of my “cohort” (we’re divided up in groups and I’m in Cohort 3 out of probably 6 or 7); and then two residential courses, each of five days. Next there’s a day meeting in February - but not only for the clergy… We’ll each be going with three or four parishioners with whom it’s hoped we’ll continue to think about what mission means. In fact not only think, but also do something about it.

Our little group in this parish has been rather late getting off the ground, but we have been talking more widely about what “mission” means for us - especially in our PCC (Parochial Church Council). And we are starting to plan, building on our hopes for a Mission Project linked to the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost (10-20 May) when our Archbishops ask us to engage in prayer on the theme, “Thy Kingdom Come.”

There’s more planning to do. But what we do recognise now is that if we are going to reach out to others with the Good News of Christ and the message of his Kingdom, then we need to start by looking at ourselves. And that means to ask what are we doing about our own discipleship? Not to beat ourselves up about our failings, but to see how we can grow as followers of Jesus. As our Bishop of Durham says, disciples are lovers of Jesus - and need to know they are loved by Jesus. What does that mean for us? - for me?

Lent is a good time to explore these questions. There are a number of ways we can do that - in particular through our Lent Course (see page 3 of our Parish Magazine) and by special opportunities for prayer. Join us!                               
Martin Jackson

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Dismissiveness and Discipleship: Eucharist – Epiphany 2

Preached by the Vicar in St. Cuthbert's and St. John's Churches
(and written before President Trump went rather further than Nathanael)

(1 Samuel 3.1-10; Revelation 5.1-10; John 1.43-51)

Jesus calls to his first disciples - and to us - with two simple words, “Follow me.” First, according to St. John’s Gospel, he calls Simon Peter and Andrew. The next day - where our Gospel reading starts - he calls Philip, who’d been a neighbour of Andrew and Peter. Then Philip tries to make an introduction and takes Jesus along to meet his friend, Nathanael. This is where it seems to go wrong… because Nathanael’s reaction is anything but gracious. Philip tells him, this is the man we’ve been waiting for, the man who’ll really make a difference, it’s all there in the Bible… and he’s called Jesus, and he’s from Nazareth! But all Nathanael can do is to harrumph: “Nazareth!! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The first disciples of Jesus are not a promising lot. A couple of fishermen, one of whom will always prove to be impetuous, rash and useless at living up to promises; a former tax collector; a failed freedom fighter; a couple of ambitious place-seekers; a thief and traitor; and a number of them who never really seem to do much including Nathanael who comes across as the first curmudgeon of the New Testament and then re-appears only briefly in one verse of John chapter 21 (verse 2, if you want to check it) on a fishing expedition. What did Jesus think he was doing? Andrew Greely, American priest, sociology professor and novelist, put it this way:

 Jesus had [a] peculiar taste in friends. You put the whole crowd together and they were not as smart as one of the third rate philosophers in Rome. Maybe some of them could read and write. They were perhaps street smart, but [if] you were going to announce the nearness of the kingdom of God would you surround yourself with folks [like these]? They were utterly insensitive to Jesus’ spiritual message and interested only in the power and prestige they were going to have in his kingdom (which they didn’t understand at all). One of them was a thief and ten of them cowards. Surely, even if he had decided to limit his choice to Galilee, Jesus could have done better? Why these sluggards and nerds? Why indeed? And why do we pretend that our leaders today are better than they were? Patently the first Pope and the first bishops (if we want to use that analogy) were not sacred persons, but inept, often stupid human beings? Why do have to pretend that their successors are any better? Why should they be immune from criticism? Have we missed the point somewhere along the line that the leaders of the church and the followers in the church are fragile, imperfect human beings and that Jesus chose them precisely because he wanted a human church? If he wanted something better, he should have turned it over not to the philosophers in Rome but to the Seraphim.

But, of course, that’s the point. Jesus doesn’t come preaching the Gospel simply so that he can have a Church made up of angels, saints and seraphim. He doesn’t even want a Church where the philosophers have got it all worked out. He wants a human Church, followers who are ordinary people like you and me - like Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael.

There is a point in Jesus calling people like them. Philip himself is not someone that most of us could name as being of prime importance in the Gospels. But right from the start we see his contribution. He might not be able to articulate the finer points of what he believes, but he wants to share it anyway with other people. He takes Jesus to meet Nathanael; he gets miserable old Nathanael up on his feet from under his tree, and he pushes him towards Jesus despite his protests. Later we’ll find him bringing Gentile visitors to Jerusalem to meet Jesus. Still later we get confusion with probably a different Philip in the Acts of the Apostles preaching to Samaritans, reaching still further beyond the fringes of belief as he helps an Ethiopian pilgrim to understand the scriptures; and at the end of the Acts of the Apostles we see this Philip with his family, creating a welcome for St. Paul, and with his church community around him, a testimony to a life of faith-sharing. Whether or not these Philips are the same person, the point is the same. Jesus needs ordinary people who can carry his message - and being clever or articulate isn’t the first qualification. All that’s needed is a willing heart.

But with Nathanael, even that seems to be lacking. Don’t bother me, he seems to be saying to the enthusiastic Philip. And his dismissiveness could be hurtful. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael is blunt about feelings we may harbour: I’m comfortable where I am; I’m comfortable with what I know already… And that can mean, I’m comfortable with my ignorance, and I’m comfortable with my prejudice.

But Jesus needs people like Nathanael, he needs people like us - and thank goodness he uses people like Philip. Philip persists: “Come and see…” He gets Nathanael onto his feet and takes him to Jesus. And even before He reaches him, Jesus hails him: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Other translations have it, “Here is an Israelite worthy of the name…” Jesus recognises him as someone who speaks plainly, who doesn’t cover up what he thinks. The name Israel, which was given to Jacob, son of Isaac, is a word that means “he struggles with God.” Jesus can see this straight away. Nathanael - beneath the blunt gruffness - is a man with a good heart, who struggles to know the way... How does Jesus know that, Nathanael asks. And the answer is strange - it’s because “I saw you under the fig tree.” That’s enough for Jesus - and it’s enough for Nathanael to be told. Jesus knows about Nathanael, he knows he can use him, because he was in the right place. But what does that mean?

Can God use me? Am I in the right place? We can convince ourselves that we’re of little use to anyone, never mind to God. We don’t know enough, haven’t got the right skills, have so many commitments, and need to be just where we are now - these can be our excuses. But where is God going to find the people he needs? Where does Jesus find his followers? The answer we get in today’s first reading is that God finds the greatest of the Judges of Israel, Samuel, while he’s still a young boy, and he makes himself heard while that young boy is in bed. Surely God can’t be speaking to Samuel - wouldn’t he speak to Eli the priest first? Samuel can’t comprehend it, until Eli realises what is going on: stay where you are, stay in your bed; know that God has a message which requires not priests and the Temple but which needs you and your open heart - so let him speak to you where you are. That’s why Jesus can call disciples who were simple fishermen working with their nets. He can call us. And he calls Nathanael from under a fig tree. Some commentators say that a wise student of the Jewish Torah would study while sitting under a tree, so that seeing him there gives Jesus the measure of the man. But perhaps Jesus is simply saying, I’ve seen you there - I know you; I need you. The fig tree is what will sum Nathanael up, in the same way that it’s enough for the Gospel writer to say that Philip comes from Bethsaida, and Nathanael thinks he can be simply dismissive of Jesus when he hears that he comes from Nazareth.

But now Nathanael recognises something new: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” He realises that Jesus has the authority of a teacher who can be called Rabbi - and it’s not just that he comes from Nazareth… he comes from God.

And Nathanael comes from under a fig tree… The question for us is, where are we coming from? What is it that sums us up, what are the ignorances and prejudices that we need to leave behind us? Do we realise that already Jesus sees us and calls us? - just as we are…

Perhaps what we need above all in today’s society is to recover our human identity as spiritual beings. We need to recognise that we are more than the sum total of the molecules and atoms from which we are physically created. We are more than all the stuff which we cling to as material possessions. We are made by God, loved by God, and called by God to be his people. We simply need to hear his call, feel his touch, let ourselves respond. It’s not that we should let go of our reason, but it’s to recognise that there are things beyond rationalisation. Believing is not something to be ashamed of. Praying is not something we need to apologise for. We don’t need to worry if we don’t have all the answers, and a faith which expresses itself in humility has much more going for it than the arrogance of certainty. 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Christmas Night: The Vicar preaches at Midnight Mass

(Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20)

How have you got ready for Christmas? I have to admit that I’ve spent much of the last week moaning about having a cold - especially losing my voice and getting such a sore throat, as well as worrying whether I’d have any audibility to offer for Christmas. I haven’t been alone in my ill-health. And anyone at this time of year is going to find much to pre-occupy their hearts and minds.

So, do I feel ready for Christmas? Mary and Joseph, arriving in Bethlehem from their home town of Nazareth, were not exactly prepared. An unplanned pregnancy - even if it was part of the divine plan. An arduous journey, just when they could have been fixing up their home. And at the other end, only temporary accommodation with an animal trough having to be used in place of a cot for the new baby.

Nell Frizzell, writing in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, reflects on the Nativity story in the light of her own experience:

This is a story of a young woman wading through insane government admin while hobbling more than 70 miles to her in-laws’, in the final stages of her first pregnancy, before facing an accommodation crisis and the prospect of childbirth without a health service.

I gave birth five weeks ago. When I was pregnant, just sitting on the 253 bus would almost inevitably result in me having to lurch off before my stop, vomit in a bin and, shortly afterwards, want to lie down and quietly die in the Euston branch of Accessorize. The very idea of rumbling through the night on the bony haunches of a recalcitrant donkey, when your pelvis already aches from the tectonic shift it’s making to let a baby through, and the instinct to nest, settle and pat your baby’s bedding washes through your veins unquenched, makes me weep.

But then there is a birth. A birth that makes all the difference. We imagine Bethlehem in the stillness of the night. That moment of Jesus’ birth comes to us as a “still” moment. There would be blood, sweat and mucus - probably tears, tears and pain as well. But we’re right to focus on the moment of the birth. It’s that moment of the birth of each of my children that has stayed with me in the midst of everything else that was going on. And with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem we recognise one moment which changes everything. Everything is changed for Mary and Joseph - not only new parental responsibilities but bewildering messages and visitors and an even more difficult journey into exile to escape the attention of a genocidal king. And everything is changed for the world - for us - because this birth is a new revelation of God’s purpose.

From all we may feel of our unpreparedness at Christmas, it’s at this moment in history that we discover God’s love for the world as Christ meets us in the here and now - over 2,000 years ago and today.

A phrase that’s worked its way into my head this year is “doing Christmas.” I think it’s come from those people who say “We don’t do Christmas.” That can mean different things - from not sending Christmas cards, through resistance to rampant commercialism, to conscious opposition to something seen as a deceptive ploy on the part of organised religion to attract unwary adherents. Or they may just be a bit miserable in their outlook… But they have a point! Because it’s not what we do that’s at the heart of our Christmas celebration. It’s about recognising what God is doing - and from that, something of his essential nature and purpose. We sang this morning, “O come, O come, Immanuel.” The Saviour who is born in Bethlehem is given the name Immanuel - which means “God with us.” This is about the very being of God who reaches out to us, who brings himself to be with us. We need merely to bring ourselves to be with him. “O come, let us adore him!” We love to draw close to any new-born child. This is one whose love is for the whole world.

But that can be hard to take in. What do we remember as we look back over the last year? - what will feature in those “Reviews of the Year” on TV and in the newspapers? A lot of horror - so much that it’s hard to remember just when and where. Terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, in Barcelona and Cairo… and many more. Atrocities of rampaging gunmen whose blood-letting is not the more excused when it’s said they were not terrorist-related. Genocide against the Rohingya people of Myanmar. Natural disasters - over 200 people have died in just the last two days of floods in the Philippines, and we probably can’t remember more than a fraction of similar incidents from mudslides in Mexico to typhoon inundation in Bangladesh. Along with the helplessness that so many feel in the face of political action or inaction by government or opposition, here and in so many other countries.

It's difficult to hold it all in our minds. Quite likely we don’t want to. But there are certain events we can’t avoid - not least the Grenfell Tower fire and all its says to us about poverty, right judgment and action, and humanity. I found myself literally confronted by this when I was on holiday in London. A summer’s evening walk in Notting Hill with blue-plaqued buildings, upmarket restaurants and bars, a general air of prosperity, and then I turned a corner to see the burned out remains of Grenfell Tower at the other end of the street. It was a shock I wasn’t ready for. In one of the richest local authorities of our country, the estates surrounding the Tower are amongst the poorest and most rundown. And still so many of the survivors wait to be re-housed. I was listening to an interview with one of them the other day - 10 members of his family living in two hotel rooms. You might have an image of the poverty to which you might suppose he was accustomed. But he was very articulate. Why was he living there, I asked myself, when he was obviously so intelligent and well-spoken? Why had he not been able to secure the help his family deserved? And then I realised I should be ashamed to think that way. His name was Muhammad Rasul - and that might cause you to make presumptions. But the only real presumption we should have was that this was a fellow-human being with all the rights and needs which all of us should possess.

From the unsatisfied basic needs of humanity in our society, we look tonight to Bethlehem - and we’re told “there was no room for them in the inn.”

Where is Jesus Christ in all this? When people tell me they are “spiritual” rather then “religious,” I tend to despair because they are forgetting the person at the centre of our faith. I was reminded yesterday[1] that the last Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has argued that one of the tests of genuine faith - as opposed to bad religion - is whether it stops you ignoring things. The test of faith is how much more it lets you see, and how much it stops you denying, resisting or ignoring aspects of what is real.

Nell Frizzell, writing as a new mother about the birth at Bethlehem, examines what happens following a birth:

Oh sure, the gold is great, but I can just imagine the look Mary might have given as she realised she was now going to have to carry a lump of myrrh over the hills as she fled to Egypt on the back of that bloody donkey, as well as everything else.

After I gave birth I didn’t want wise men at my threshold – I wanted midwives, mothers and aunties bearing lasagnes and knitted hats. I wanted wise women: women who had known how it felt in my body, had felt that weight of birth and were proud of me.

And, of course, there’s the admin to get through. My first attempt at filling in the CH2 child benefit claimant form was so entirely unsuccessful that I not only gave up just one page in, but also burned my lunch and managed to get urine in my hair in the process.

There’s so much to pre-occupy us, so many challenges, but also an ever-increasing superficiality in so many aspects of life today. We need to recover a sense of depth. So much is going on that we can’t keep it all in our minds. And yet… what do we remember?

Tonight we remember that single birth in poverty in a backwater of a distant Roman province over 2,000 years ago. That’s what stays with us - not simply to look back on but because it’s real and speaks to us to this day. We remember that. Not simply that we should take the Christ-child to our hearts - but to recognise that coming to us in human flesh, God holds us in his.

[1] Mark Oakley writing in the Church Times, 22/29 December 2017

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Monday, 4 December 2017

Christmas - what’s on your menu?

I’m writing on 1st December. Despite the Advent Calendar window you might have opened this morning it’s not actually Advent till Sunday 3rd December. Nevertheless, we’ve already had our first enquiries as to when our Christmas services are - especially the Christmas Eve Carol Service with Christingles. So, in case that’s your question… the answer is 6pm on Christmas Eve, Sunday 24 December.

Do I need to give the day and date for Christmas Eve as well? Actually 24 December is also the Fourth Sunday of Advent - which is why Advent starts so late and is so short this year. That means we have regular Sunday services in the morning - and then start again in the evening (and on into Christmas morning). Which begs the question: just what will people turn up to?

That depends on how you view the “Christmas menu.” The Christmas Eve Carols & Christingle Service is always huge - I’m glad! It’s got obvious appeal. If you haven’t been before, come now - and don’t leave it too late if you want a seat. But I want to say, it’s only a part of a greater whole. Christmas might start then with carols before the crib. But there’s all the preparation which we call Advent. The word means “coming.” Christ is coming - but will he find us with our hearts prepared? Not just the cards sent out and presents wrapped and catering sorted. But really waiting for the gift God sends us in Jesus. He’s a gift to be anticipated - and once received, then valued. So we need to be prepared to meet him. And then realise he brings a love which keeps on loving and asks us to keep loving too.

So come and join us before Christmas - during Advent. And follow it up! Remember Christmas isn’t just the Carol Service. I’d like to make a particular plea for the Midnight Mass (11.30pm)! But then there’s the year which follows - and I don’t mean just till 31st December. Advent Sunday is the beginning of the Christian Year - so it’s a good time for resolution as to how we’ll spend the 12 months ahead. Love, service of others and worship are top of the Christian menu - starting with God’s love for us. Wishing you God’s blessing, his love and joy.         

From our Parish Magazine for December 2017 and January 2018 - click the link to find all the contents 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Of War and Remembrance

In case you wonder, the Bible Readings we use today are not chosen particularly for use on Remembrance Sunday. They’re not about War or the remembrance of those who died in time of war. They’re simply the readings appointed for use on the 3rd Sunday before Advent. So we use them if Remembrance Day happens to fall on this particular Sunday of the Church’s Calendar. But Remembrance Sunday can also fall on the 2nd Sunday before Advent - and if it does we use the readings appointed for that day, and we might find that they are no more relevant to what we actually feel.

But simply to use what the regular lectionary gives us is no bad thing. Scripture meets us where we are, the Word of God heard in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves. And as I read today’s Bible passages I thought of what it must have been like for soldiers on the battlefield who might have gathered with their Chaplain for worship. Perhaps they would gather around what was at best a makeshift altar. Probably they would be without any books - the Chaplain reading to them from his Bible - though we know that many servicemen carried a Prayer Book or New Testament, especially in the First World War. What words would they hear? Over the course of years of war it wouldn’t always have been the same passage. Might they have heard today’s Gospel reading of the Ten Bridesmaids (the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins as it’s traditionally known) and then gone off puzzled into battle ? … gone off to fight, and many to die.

On Remembrance Sunday we gather to remember. To remember doesn’t mean that we have to have been present during the terrible events of war. It does ask us to enter imaginatively into the lives of men and women who have served their country - often at great cost in wounds borne and lives lost. What took them into service? There were those who volunteered, others conscripted, others acting as non-combatants for conscience’s sake. And they were there because of people who made decisions which sent them off to war: politicians and generals; sometimes for the cause of justice, freedom, truth and right; sometimes through ambition and pride. What we can say is that it is ordinary men and women from ordinary communities like our own who have left loved ones, families and friends, to go to war - to serve their country; and hopefully to serve humanity - to do something for a greater good.

St. Paul in the first reading we heard from his first letter to the Thessalonians is writing to people who grieved over the death of loved ones. Their loss through natural causes is hard enough to bear - and he attempts to give some encouragement to them by writing of a life beyond death. I have to say, I don’t think it easily works. We might be distracted by a certain military resonance: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first.” But there’s no form of words which can speak to every person who has suffered bereavement. And especially today, when we remember those who died in war, we need to be wary of false comfort and recognise the cruel offence of so many lives lost in conflict.

I found myself yesterday reading the story of a young man from my home town of Hartlepool. He was active in his church (St. Aidan’s), he had a passion for learning - and could share it with others - and while still in his twenties became a headteacher. But then the First World War was declared. He loved his country and joined up - and found himself training and guarding an installation back in Hartlepool. And it was there that Private Theophilus Jones died, age 29, during the German naval bombardment of the town in November 1914. Over a hundred military and (mainly) civilian lives were lost in just a few minutes. He was carrying a prayer book which was hit by some of the shrapnel and would have saved his life without even a flesh wound if that had been his only injury; but it was injuries elsewhere on his body which killed him. It’s a story now because the Museum of Hartlepool has just bought that prayer book to be displayed in the town. But it couldn’t save him from the full extent of his wounds.

Where is the hope? Something else I read yesterday reminded me of one of the most renowned of First World War military chaplains, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Let me read to you from an article by Bob Holman:

In 1914, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was an unknown parish priest. Ten years later he was the church's best-known speaker, drawing larger crowds than politicians and publishing books that sold millions. How did this happen?

The answer is the first world war. In 1914, he enthusiastically supported Britain's declaration of war on Germany and soon enlisted as a chaplain. He distributed fags to troops and earned the affectionate nickname Woodbine Willie. He joined the soldiers on the western front when they went over the top, and won the Military Cross when he ran through shells into "no man's land" to obtain supplies of morphine. His speaking skills were used to maintain morale. Sickened by the needless slaughter, on his discharge, in 1919, he spoke all over the country, opposing war and calling for an end to unemployment and poverty.

Today "Willie" is largely forgotten, although the centenary … of the war may show how relevant he is to contemporary problems. Poverty campaigners and academics do call for social reform. But few are as close to poor people as Willie was. His turning point was when he stopped talking to, and instead listened to, the troops. Through his magnetic preaching, he publicised their views on wanting to end war, their dislike of the monarchy, and their desire for the end of poverty. And in his collection of rhymes, many written in working-class dialect, he expressed their views in their own language.

He became a great social evangelist calling for reform. So did others, but he was different. He gave away his possessions. His salary was modest but he received large royalties – all of which he gave to charities. He left very little money. He was genuine and, when he died, in 1929, exhausted at the age of 45, poor people flocked to his funeral in Worcester. Today, we urgently need poverty campaigners like him.

The dean of Westminster refused Willie a burial at the Abbey because, he said, he was a "socialist". Hardly, if he meant a Labour-party socialist. Willie distrusted most politicians and refused to join any political party. He proclaimed that the church (or churches) had to counter poverty and inequality. His argument was that wealth redistribution would only come following changes in people's values and attitudes, and that only the Christian message could achieve this. True, he did transform some individuals, but no large policy reforms followed. He had little impact on politicians.

Politicians have their place. We need to remember that when there is so much in the media that shows the rottenness of political conduct, and might lead us to distrust them all together. All the more reason why it is important that we use our votes wisely - and hold those elected to account. The cause of freedom and the sharing of that freedom is not to be taken lightly. It’s a cause that many have died for.

And to remember is at the heart of Christian faith. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus tells his disciples at the Last Supper. He takes bread and wine; he gives them his Body and his Blood. Given for us… Shed for us…

“Greater love has no one than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.” Sometimes the words have been mis-heard and mis-used. But they come from the life and death of Jesus Christ; their hope stems from his living and dying for us. There is a further hope of Resurrection, life with God, but we start by Remembering. Christ shares in our humanity, his loss is felt in human pain - which we share… As this poem by Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy recognises - it’s called, "A Mother Understands."

Dear Lord, I hold my hand to take
Thy body broken once for me,
Accept the sacrifice I make,
My body, broken, Christ, for Thee.

His was my body, born of me,
Born of my bitter travail pain,
And it lies broken on the field,
Swept by the wind and the rain.

Surely a Mother understands Thy thorn-crowned head,
The mystery of Thy pierced hands—the Broken Bread.