Monday, 29 December 2008

Midnight Mass at St. Cuthbert's

Actually the picture was taken the Sunday after Christmas, when we celebrated Holy Innocents - hence the red burse and veil amongst all the Christmas hangings.

It's taken a while to persuade the Internet to upload my homily for Christmas but it can now be found by following the link. Basically the drama of Christmas speaks to us, and the re-telling of the story resonates with our experience. The coming of Christ in his Nativity should speak to us where we are and touch us where we need it. This could sound trite and rather simple... But what is more simple than a birth? And what is more necessary to new life?

Christ the Saviour is born

I'm posting this rather late in the day... Nevertheless, a very Happy and Blessed Christmas!

St. Cuthbert's was full for the first of our Christmas Eve services - with more standing than there were vacant nave seats. It was good to have a choir of that particular service, as well as Midnight Mass. The consensus was that the newly re-vamped Carol Service was a success. There were particular requests to have copies of a "Christmas Version of 1 Corinthians 13." It's cited as "Author Unknown," so I trust that I'm not breaking anyone's copyright...


Author unknown

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls,
but do not show love to my family, I'm just another decorator.
If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas puddings,
preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime,
but do not show love to my family, I'm just another cook.
If I work at the soup kitchen, sing carols in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity,
but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.
If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes,
attend a myriad of holiday parties and sing in the choir's cantata,
but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.
Love stops the cooking to hug the child.
Love sets aside decorating to kiss the husband.
Love is kind, though harried and tired.
Love doesn't envy another's home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.
Love doesn't yell at the children to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.
Love doesn't give only to those who are able to give in return,
but rejoices in giving to those who can't.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
Computer games will break, cashmere jumpers will wear out, golf clubs will get lost.
But giving the gift of love will endure.

After the celebrations

Christmas seems to fall into two halves at St. Cuthbert's. There's the actual celebration in church which starts at 6p.m. on Christmas Eve with a packed church for Carols, the lighting of Christingles (now less emphasised then in the past) and the Blessing of the Crib), and continues through Midnight Mass and the Eucharist for Christmas morning. But before that there are the more secular hors d'oeuvres in the Church Hall. It's always beautifully decorated. You've seen how Kaydar was able to make use of it for their Nativity presentation, and before that the Lunch Club had had its celebrations. Festivities in the Hall peak with the annual concert by Leadgate Gleemen and our own Handbell Ringers - the whole occasion by candlelight and in an aroma of mulled wine and warm mince pies. It's all been fun...

Friday, 19 December 2008

Busy but fun - and holy

I try to keep Friday as my day off - but it's been a vain attempt this month. Today has been spent largely in the company of the computer and the photocopier as I try to get on top of various service leaflets for next week. I'm having a break at present because the copier has just produced a first side run of Christmas morning's pewsheet so warped that I can't feed them back in for the second side run; I'm trying to flatten them with the aid of Young's Analytical Concordance and Pierre Chaunu on "The Reformation", two of the larger books in my library. But at last all the hymns and readings are chosen up to Holy Innocents Day, and there are piles of paper heaped on the study coffee-table waiting to be collated, folded and stapled into the newly re-vamped Christmas Eve Carol Service.

Tonight we have our annual concert by Leadgate Gleemen and St. Cuthbert's Handbell Ringers. Someone reported hearing a performance by an older group of Gleemen. When they said who one of the singers was they got the reply, "He's not one of the older ones. He's only 86!" Anyway, it's always good fun. And last year so many people kept turning up that we had to send out for more mince pies and mix extra mulled wine.

This follows on from this morning's Toddler Group Party with carols. Great fun - especially with all the sleighbells during Away in a Manger. There have been a couple of school services / concerts too. But the highlight so far is the Nativity Play put on by Kaydar, a local organisation which uses our Hall for part of its work with people with learning and other disabilities. And if there were proof that it's not just politically correct to call them "differently-abled" this was it. The Angel Gabriel was a real star (actually so was the Star - who guided angels, shepherds and "wise men" on their journey to Bethlehem). At first I was mainly concerned that the Angel didn't fall off our stage, but I need have had no fear. She had learned a full script which she not only voiced clearly for all to hear, but she signed it too ("She's deaf, you know," a member of the audience whispered to me) and issued stage directions with aplomb. Mary and Joseph knew just where they were supposed to be, and everybody played their part. The whole production was so fresh and beautifully delivered - and the audience not only clapped and cheered but was quite visbly and audibly moved. It's a pity that not more people could see it. But I'm glad I did.

As for the performance of "All I want for Christmas is you..." Mariah Carey, eat your heart out!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Isn't this your busy season?...

The widely held opinion that clergy have their "busy season" in the run-up to Christmas generally has me nodding withou much argument. At least everyone else is so busy that we don't get so troubled with the more routine matters.

But that's not proving true this year. There seems to be no let-up from the routine, extra non-seasonal work has come along and preparations for Christmas are still hardly begun. The church's tree is at least ordered (and arrives on Thursday) but I hadn't got round to finding one for the Vicarage - any time I've had a free moment it's either been raining, sub-zero or dark, not ideal conditions for open-air tree choosing. So I've finally caved in and bought an artificial one. Decorated by my younger son, it looks pretty good, but I think it's the last of its type in stock at the Consett branch of Argos (I'm afraid the others didn't look up to much - and ours is no longer in stock online).

So this evening has been a breather between the general busy-ness and the pre-Christmas rush. Kaydar which uses our church hall in its work with people with learning disabilities is putting on its Nativity Play tomorrow, Thursday finds us in a local residential home for a Carol Service, on Friday morning the Toddler Group has its party, and later in the day it's our mega-concert with the Leadgate Gleemen and St. Cuthbert's Handbell Ringers. Sometime I might think about what we are going to be doing in church, apart from cleaning it on Saturday morning! Our seasonal big clean holds out the inducement of bacon sandwiches made by one of our Readers, Paul Heatherington.

That's not all he does - he's a very busy person, and you can find the sermon Paul preached last Sunday online. I always think that two weeks of John the Baptist is a bit much in Advent, so I'm glad that I got the first of them - while Paul has carried on from my points about the perils of punctuation to bring the insights of a lawyer and to bid us again hear the Baptist's call.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Preparing the Way

We've had a cold start to December. Heavy snow on Thursday, though fortunately one of our churchwardens had gritted the road surface on our 1 in 5 hill. So I lost one visit to a residential home through failure to extract the car, but then the snow began to melt and everything else has carried on as usual. Thankfully a funeral cortege and mourners were able to reach us on Friday morning - vying for parking space with the Toddler Group in the Hall. And on Saturday we had an almost totally clear road for our (pre-) Christmas Fair - which was very successful both in terms of attendance and money made! Thanks to all who worked so hard and supported it.

And so to church this morning - I'm glad that numbers are recovering a bit after the weather worries of the last two weekends. I like Advent, though sometimes people worry about pre-emting Christmas a bit too much. This year, though, people's preparations for Christmas seem rather muted - a point I made in my homily this morning. Click here to find it. With all the talk of "Economic Downturn" (was it the government or the BBC who invented that term? - they've certainly got a logo for it on the News), I could do with a bit of glitz. I'm on the lookout for over-the-top Christmas decorations.

Anway, the homily marries questions about the punctuation of Isaiah and Mark in relation to John the Baptist's injunction to "Prepare the Way of the Lord" with reflections on the lives of Nicholas Ferrar and Thomas Merton. Both of them (400 years apart) were members of the college where I was an undergraduate - Clare College, Cambridge. Ferrar's commemoration in the Church of England's Calendar was last Thursday, 4th December. And next Wednesday sees the 40th anniversary of the death of Merton on 10th December 1968. Both continue to have much to teach us. The picture at the top of this post is of Little Gidding where Ferrar established his community - about which T S Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets. I try not to quote Eliot too much, but I've given in this time! Below the portrayal of Ferrar in Clare College Chapel.

And if all that's too serious there's some reference to Frankie goes to Hollywood. Here's to more "50 greatest Christmas hits" compilations which gave me the idea...

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Into December

Quite a late night blog... I've been trying to find out whether any decision has been taken as to whether my younger son's school will be closed (in advance of anticipated heavy snowfall). There's nothing on the County Council or local BBC websites, so it looks as though we will just have to get up early and listen to local radio...

Meanwhile I can report that our new Parish Magazine (double issue for December and January) is now out. Our printer has got new machines - and the improvement shows on the hard copy. Of course you can also take a look online by clicking the link. But you only get the parish Christmas card if you buy a copy! - or at least find yourself in a place where we're giving them away. I've just printed and folded 300 cards, but the yellow ink has now run out, so there won't be any more till I get back to the shops...

Also up in the air of virtual reality you can find our Reader, Rosie Junemann's sermon for Advent Sunday. With our Christmas Fair this Saturday (11a.m. till 2p.m. for those who can make it - with Santa, Consett Brass, lunches, seasonal stalls and all the rest), we are moving on. The Hall's Christmas Decorations go up on Sunday afternoon... in time for the Lunch Club's "do" next Tuesday + Kaydar's Nativity Play, the Leadgate Gleemen / St. Cuthbert's Handbell Ringers' Concert and more. Read all about them in the magazine.

But we try to do something about Advent - Christmas is not entirely pre-empted. I've done my own bit by failing to buy any Christmas Cards so far (though I've ordered Nativity stamps at the local post office) - and I've only bought one Christmas present as yet... Then again, I haven't actually got anything sorted out for this Sunday's services. Perhaps if I get snowed in tomorrow it will help me get on...

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Feast of Christ the King

The forecast snow and ice didn't materialise in anything like the quantities prophesied by the BBC last night. However, in view of the 1 in 5 hill on which our church is built, it seems that a few people decided to play it safe - though when it came to the time of Communion there were actually more in the congregation than I'd thought. Sunday School numbers are being hard hit by Dance School preparations for December concerts.

Which is a shame, because the Feast of Christ the King is a wonderful climax to the Church's year. Not without its share of questions, however, ranging from the motives of Pope Pius XI in instituting the Feast in 1925 to the interpretation of today's Gospel Matthew 25.31-46: how do we balance our understanding of the Son of Man judging between sheep and goats and the Christ who is the Good Shepherd of all the flock, and who goes out of his way to bring back the wayward?

Well, you can find what I had to say about these and other things here. And I hope that readers of the homily - as well as those who heard it - will appreciate the depiction of Christ in majesty which surmounts the windows of the west wall of St. Cuthbert's Church. It's just a pity that it's so high and everyone faces the wrong way... But then again, the east windows are well worth looking at too.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Investing Capital - Using your Talents

Sunday's readings with the parable of the three slaves, each given a different number of "talents" to look after by their absentee master, made for lots of interesting possibilities in the light of the present financial climate. You can read what our Reader, Paul Heatherington, had to say by taking a look at his sermon for the Sunday Eucharist.

I'm not sure how I would have approached the story myself. I think there's a real issue as to what Jesus is doing when he tells stories. I don't think parables are there to be explained. And while Jesus may start off with the words "The kingdom of heaven is as if..." those words "as if" are perhaps the give-away: not "exactly like," but more "compare and contrast." Hear the story(or read it) and then ask what it says to you. There's the whole issue of whether people should have slaves. There's the question of the Master's absenteeism - is God similarly absent as far as most people in today's society are concerned? And doesn't the slave digging the hole for his one talent make a reasonable point? Arguably the Master is pretty mean and avaricious as well as devoted to his long holidays. If he's out of Dragon's Den with a massive portfolio elsewhere, he hasn't ensured that his investment opportunities at home have the support they might well need. And he doesn't seem to trust the slave who gets only one talent - or else he'd have given him more (but see what Paul has to say about this). How would you feel if you were this least-trusted and least-valued slave?

And who knows what to do with their investments these days?

So why does Jesus tell this parable? Presumably because he was touching on live issues. And still he does today... But don't take anything for granted, he seems to be saying. And as for Matthew 25.30 and the designation of the slave as "worthless" before his ejection into the "outer darkness" - don't get me going... Except to ask, isn't Jesus simply provoking us? When we want to write people off, he's there to trip us up as to the implications. The Good News of the Gospel is not "weeping and gnashing of teeth," but the one who comes after the wilful and wayward like the shepherd looking for the lost sheep. No condemnation in that parable. If God has a place for the wanderer who goes straying, why not for the "slave" who has been demeaned, distrusted and trapped into fear of his avaricious Master? The answer - it seems to me - is that he has because God is not the "Master."

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Remembrance Day - and what churches are for

I preached on Sunday - Remembrance Sunday - but the words don't get any easier, and I didn't script what I said. So no links for a sermon.

Today, Tuesday 11th November, is of course the actual date of Remembrance Day - and the 90th anniversary of the ending of the First World War. But in the Church's Calendar, we remember also that it's the Feast of St. Martin of Tours. Perhaps we don't make enough of the conjunction of this feast day and our remembrance of the victoms of war. Famously St. Martin was first a soldier of the Roman army before his Christian faith led him to a different vocation. The Church of England's Collect for the Day reminds us of this:

God all powerful,
who called Martin from the armies of this world
to be a faithful soldier of Christ:
give us grace to follow him
in his love and compassion for the needy,
and enable your Church to claim for all people
their inheritance as children of God;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Though we could perhaps do with some reminder of his growth in holiness, his life as a hermit and monk before his call to be a bishop, and the magnetism with which he drew people to join him in his way of life and as a follower of Christ...

I first visited the Basilica of St. Martin in Tours over 20 years ago, and I hadn't remembered it as much more than a rather dark and dim place. But I went back last year (and again this year!), and the place seems transformed from what I'd remembered. The huge church is itself a wonderful place of prayer with a Community of Benedictine Sisters to assist in welcoming visitors. Clear signage and displays are a help - but most it's the fact that you can't miss it as a place of prayer. When I visited this year, there was exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the main church. And the shrine below is a place of stillness and deep prayer.

And what else are churches for? Actually Ruth Gledhill, in the Sunday Times and on her blog, has carried a story about Sir Anthony Caro's work in creating Le Choeur de Lumière (Chapel of Light) in the Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Bourbourg, near Dunkirk, France. It's worth taking a look at the pictures of what he has achieved. His work is part of the restoration of a church which was destroyed in the Second World War, when a British pilot, realising that he was going down, took the decision that to avoid civilian casualties in a built-up area he should crash his plane into the roof of the church and so to avoid the surrounding houses. So there's a story of heroism and a continuing memorial to his deed, to the bravery of so many and to the sanctity of life.

Monday, 3 November 2008

All Saints & All Souls

At St. Cuthbert's we keep All Saints' Day on the nearest Sunday to the actual date of the Feast. Because All Souls' Day fell on the Sunday it's been transferred to the following day, i.e. this evening. So today's tasks include checking the lists of the departed who are to be remembered at our Parish Requiem this evening - and another pewsheet to keep us right.

After several failures in attempts to up-load homilies preached at St. Cuthbert's, I seem to have been successful this week. So to find what I had to say about All Saints and Richard Dawkins's agnostic London Bus adverts, just click this link...

Back in the Parish

I was away with my younger son from Monday to Friday of last week - half-term, and probably the last opportunity for some time to get a break together as GCSEs loom, winter draws in and Christmas approaches.

As ever, we booked rather late in the day, but were delighted to get accommodation at Rydal Hall, the Carlisle Diocesan Retreat and Conference Centre. I worried that there might be too much exposure to "religion," but - apart from a parish group - everyone seemed to be doing their own thing. Members of the group itself were chatty, especially in the bar, and communal mealtimes were fine - good food. I'd recommend it, especially the special offer on Monday-Friday Dinner, Bed & Breakfast breaks.

Not sure I'd want to go there for a retreat though - and that reminds me that I'm now well overdue for a proper retreat. During the last year I've only managed two formal Quiet Days - and one of these I led, while the other I organised...

But for a general refreshment break, you can't beat the Lakes, and Rydal Hall is well-situated to make the most of one. Autumn colours were at their best, though we also experienced some pretty extreme weather, as you can see from some of my pictures if you click here

Friday, 24 October 2008

November News from St. Cuthbert's

The new November issue of St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine is now out.

If you've got the hard copy print edition, apologies for the printing which is rather fainter than it should be. The even worse news is that we have to find a new printer from next month (any ideas?) or do it ourselves. The thought of struggling with our photocopier and then getting a team to collate, fold and staple is not enticing.

The alternative is simply to click here! - and hope that the uploading process has worked...

Sunday, 19 October 2008

A timely perspective on God and Money?...

22nd Sunday after Trinity - Year A

Preached by the Revd. Martin Jackson,
Vicar of St. Cuthbert's

Lectionary: Isaiah 45.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22

In an attempt to catch him out, the Pharisees - conniving with the government party of the Herodians - ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?...” And Jesus replies, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” They bring him a denarius. And Jesus looks at it and says, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

Most people will know this story well. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” If Jesus says “yes”, then not only will he lose popularity with the people… He will also be seen to cause offence as a religious teacher who advocates the acknowledgement of foreign pagan sovereignty. He will lose credibility and authority. But if he says “no, don’t pay the tax,” then he can be portrayed as advocating rebellion against the imperial power – and Herod’s lackeys are there to report what he says. Now Jesus is supposed to tell the people what he thinks.

Of course Jesus could vacillate. He could try pointing to the benefits of imperial rule with its possibilities for trade, its advantages of law and order, the political stability that it has brought – the jobs it has created with all those wonderfully straight roads, viaducts, acqueducts and the rest. We might expect him to. If we don’t like paying Council Tax, we’ve still got to acknowledge that it pays for services that we need.

But Jesus knows that this isn’t a matter for debate. It’s treated by his opponents as a basic issue of allegiance. Is Jesus really a religious teacher with authority, preaching a message which can set people free? - or is he an advocate of subservience to foreign paganism?

Of course we know the answer Jesus will give. Take a look at the coinage you use to pay the tax. Whose head is on the coin, what’s the inscription? To which his opponents have to answer “The emperor’s.” So, he says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I don’t think many people today have a problem with the idea that the use of our nation’s civil currency requires us to be any less Christian in our attitude than the use of some alternative - after all, what is the alternative? St. Francis of Assisi might have refused to use money - and ordered his followers to put it where, for him it belonged: on the dung heap. But how else do we pay for all the things we need? Who can grow their own food, make the basic necessities of life, and then barter the goods they have produced for others which they need? How are you going to get your gas or electricity without a cheque or a standing order? How are you going to put fuel in your car without a credit card? They’re all forms of money. And “money makes the world go round…”

But perhaps we need to take more seriously the idea that our attitude to money is about our basic allegiance - that it says something about where our loyalties truly lie. In the time of Jesus it was about whether Roman currency could be used, whether you could use a coin which had the head of an emperor who claimed divine status - and if you used that coin it might be argued that you were devaluing the God you should worship. Now we have a monarch whose coins bear the inscription, “Defender of the faith,” so the problem may seem to be solved for Christians. But perhaps the financial uncertainties of the last few weeks should make us think again… Have we simply trusted too much in money? Get enough and everything will be alright. Build up your savings and your pension fund, and you’ll be able to live without anxiety. As banks crash and mortgages disappear and falling shares reduce the value of pensions invested in them, it seems we need to think again.

Here’s a prayer which forms part of Psalm 17, and which I found myself saying at Morning Prayer on Friday of last week:

Deliver me, O Lord, by your hand •
from those whose portion in life is unending,
Whose bellies you fill with your treasure, •

who are well supplied with children
and leave their wealth to their little ones.

In other words, “don’t rich people get you down?” We’ve heard that refrain especially over the last few days - that the people who’ve been running our banks have been out mainly to make big money for themselves, that no longer must they be allowed to award themselves fat bonuses… Their portion in life really does seem unending and they’ve got the belly for more. But we need to be careful. On Thursday morning, we used Psalm 15 with its understanding of what makes for a godly life:

Who does no evil to a friend •
and pours no scorn on a neighbour…
Whoever has sworn to a neighbour •
and never goes back on that word…

All this is fine, of course - but then the Psalmist continues:

Who does not lend money in hope of gain •
nor takes a bribe against the innocent;
Whoever does these things •
shall never fall.

I hope we don’t take bribes against the innocent, but isn’t the whole basis of the western banking system the idea that we lend money not merely with the hope but with the intention of gain? And you can’t avoid it. With very few exceptions, every newly-born child in this country is given £250 to be invested in a “Child Trust Fund.” He or she receives another £250 at the age of seven. And the money can’t be touched until they’re 18. The whole idea is laudable - it’s to give them a “good start” in life, and it’s an investment which will gain interest. But at the same time it means they’re going to have to learn to use money “in the hope of gain,” as the Psalmist puts it. Perhaps we need to ask again where that is getting us.

The fact is that the government invests money on behalf of each child because they’re soon going to learn how much they need money. If they go into Higher Education they’ll face filling in forms which will commit them to years of debt to cover university fees and loans. And they’ll find financial advice that they should take out bigger loans than they might need, because they might be able to invest that money at a higher rate of interest than the loan repayment will require. Then when they get a job they can perhaps find themselves with more money and still more credit so that they can take out a mortgage. And from there they can join every other house owner in the country in taking pleasure at rising house prices or finding despondency and anxiety as the market falls. No one is immune, because those of us who don’t own houses wonder if we’ll ever be able to afford to.

Nearly everyone has become caught up in the pursuit of material things - and especially money. If you had money in a building society that turned itself into a bank, you suddenly found yourself a shareholder. I’d never wanted to own shares, but when I found myself given some and plotted their rise in value from £7 or so to more than £12 it felt good. When they fell back to the original level, I told myself they’d rise again. And now they’re worth less than a pound each. I should have got out sooner, I sometimes think. But actually I think the experience has been good for me. It shows what an empty thing money is. I’d never bought the shares in the first place. They just happened. Someone said they were quite valuable. And now they’ve been found out… They’re simply dust, and in dust there is no hope.

At Morning Prayer on Friday, having said Psalm 17, the prayer that followed asked this:

Generous Lord,
deliver us from all envious thoughts,
and when we are tempted by the desire for wealth,
let us see your face;
for your abundance is enough to clothe our lack;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

“… when we are tempted by the desire for wealth, let us see your face…” We talk about the “face” of a coin - and the profile of the monarch, whether the Emperor in the time of Jesus, or our Queen today, is her face from the side. But when we consider where true wealth is to be found we need to seek another face, the face of God. When the notional value of your house falls, but it’s still probably quite a bit more than the amount you paid for it, you need to ask - what makes me truly wealthy? If the fall in house prices has left you trapped in negative equity, then you’re in really difficult circumstances - and it’s a reminder to us all that money doesn’t merely help us acquire what we want; it can damage people’s livelihoods and families.

There’s no escaping the use of money, and here perhaps we need a reminder that the verse in the Bible which goes to the heart of our dilemma over its use is not “Money is the root of all evil.” What you find if you look up the First Letter to Timothy is that we’re warned: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Where do we direct our love? Where is it worth investing our energy for the greatest return? Jesus was challenged with the choice between God and money. And each has their place. But the final words need to be those of Jesus: “Give to God the things that are God’s.” We need to recognise the illusory nature of worldly wealth and the hollow claims that so much of life’s busy-ness makes upon us. From the beginning we are God’s creation, his children. We are called to recognise his love and forgiveness, and his grace to support and strengthen us day by day. And we are called to give back to him what he truly deserves. We need to discover again that this requires effort on our part and time: to make time for prayer and worship, to be ready to listen to him and learn from him. And if we make that sort of investment, we can expect to see the return.

Friday, 17 October 2008

A Golden Couple

Last weekend saw the celebrations of parishioners Sammie & Alan Hewlett's 50th Wedding Anniversary. Saturday 11th October was the actual day - celebrated with a Ceilidh in the Church Hall, and continuing the following day with a presentation in St. Cuthbert's Church and delicious cake.

Typically, we failed to get a picture of Alan and Sammie together, so separate pictures show Alan holding forth on the joys and achievements of their years together, and Sammie responding in like manner.

The original wedding dress was on display throughout the weekend (and later, drawing the curiosity of Brownies when they met on Monday). Sammie still fits into it, but sadly didn't demonstrate.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

What not to wear - a sermon for Trinity 21

This sermon is by Paul Heatherington, one of our Readers. Or it would be - if I could get the document to up-load properly! Sorry I can't provide a working link.

Paul looks at St. Matthew's take on the invitations to attend the king's son's wedding feast (not the one illustrated at Cana, though I wonder if this was in Jesus' mind when he told his original story) - and he makes a good point about connections with themes in the Isaiah reading given as the Old Testament reading for Trinity 21. I'd be interested in exploring further the contrasts with St. Luke's take on the story. Why is there so much violence in Matthew's version? Why the point in Matthew about the man who came wrongly dressed being thrown out "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth"?

In short, I wonder if Matthew really "gets" the point of the story? This wonderful image of a king / God, who distributes "admit for free" invitations without limit - but mustn't there be a catch?

Isn't that the problem so often with the Church? We can't quite grasp the sheer limitlessness of God's grace, so we look for the catch. We try to explain the parables, rather than simply let them speak. Matthew seems to be trying to apply this story to a world of violence and rejection. He wants it to be relevant to his readers. But the problem of seeking relevance is that we straightway limit the Gospel message. We need to let Christ speak for himself.

How... is the quandary that the Vicar of St. Cuthbert's is wrestling with. I'd like you to be able to read Paul's sermon, and have a think about it yourself. But until I can get our "esnips" account working properly...

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Harvest Gratitude - Uncertainties and Anxieties

The interactive homily I shared at our Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist has been evolving on the weekdays since - as I've been developing it at assemblies in our local schools. The main thrust of my approach has been to ask the children what people get anxious about (cf Matthew 6.25: "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink..."). Alarmingly the children - aged 4 to 11 - have picked up on every point that I wanted to illustrate: financial uncertainty, banks, mortgages, energy and fuel costs. And when I've asked them what people say they need, it's been the same refrain: up-to-date mobile phone, Play Station, fashionable clothes... They're really too young to get all these answers. But it's a warning as to how astute they may be, how they may pick up on adult anxieties, and how they're already fashioned with materialistic assumptions.

The assemblies in fact were great... joyful occasions, and the children see the point of thankfulness. For any clergy who moan about having to do a school assembly, I think they need to ask what they think they're in business for. Grumpy as I might be beforehand, assemblies (nearly) always cheer me up. And these are all normal state schools - no church schools in this parish.

And I've been reflecting on just what I have to learn from the last few days. Yesterday evening I loaded up the car (a Citroen Berlingo which is really a rattly van with windows) with the offerings made at our Harvest Eucharist. Even with the back seats down, the bags and boxes had to be piled up. Cause for self-congratulation as I headed off to The People's Kitchen in Newcastle to deliver our offering for their work with homeless people. I knew that they would be open for free meals, warmth and hospitality - but the gates for the car park and entrance to the food store were locked. Reality hit home when I went to the main door. There was quite a lively crowd of "customers" gathered there, but amid the hubbub and strong whiff of alcohol, I identified a volunteer worker. I began to say why I'd come, but then realised that some of the raised voices were about a young woman with quite a deep cut in her hand. The volunteer was trying to offer advice on what to do while having to deal with all the other advice her friends were offering him - and me turning up just to confuse matters.

I felt chastened. Homeless people are not just passive victims who wait for and gratefully receive our charity. Many of them are young, strong, opinionated, addicted. When open wounds and blood (and all its attendant risks) come into the equation, that's a lot to handle. But day-after-day that's exactly what is going on at the People's Kitchen.

We unloaded the goods which were speedily locked away. Then I found my diary wasn't in its usual jacket pocket. Had it fallen out in the car? (it wasn't there). Had I dropped it into one of the bags or boxes? Was it somewhere on the floor of the store room? Or had it been opportunely removed from my pocket? I could only say that there was nothing of monetary value in it, and that it had my contact details inside. It also had the contact details of quite a lot of other people, and I had visions of what might happen if someone looking further than the centre of Newcastle decided to visit my parishioneers and other contacts.

Very unworthy of me... Thankfully the diary was sitting on my desk back at the Vicarage. But it was a reminder of a harsh world which most of us merely glimpse, the need for proper security and the reality of what charity calls us to do - and what those people at the People's Kitchen do so much more of. Above all it's a reminder of our need for thankfulness.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Harvest Time is here again

... and you're not going to find a scripted sermon to go with it.

I've some ideas as to what I'll say tomorrow morning - and some visual aids. But visual aids and homilies are rather superflous, I suspect, on a Harvest Festival Sunday. The whole church will be a visual aid - thanks to the skill of those who decorate it. And it's an occasion for real participation as people bring up their harvest gifts - we encourage everyone, but it will be the children who take the lead.

This year we're going to use an introduction to the Offering of Harvest Gifts from Common Worship's volume Times and Seasons. It starts like this:

Let us bring forward symbols of the harvest,
gifts that God has created and his sun and rain have nurtured.
Thanks be to God.

Bring forward the harvest of the cornfields,
the oats and the wheat, the rye and the barley.
Thanks be to God.

Bring forward the harvest of roots,
the swedes and mangolds, turnips and sugar beet.
Thanks be to God.

Bring forward the harvest of seeds for next year’s crops,
for clover, for hay and for corn.
Thanks be to God....

And continues in like manner. Because we take our Harvest offering to a centre which works with homeless people we ask people to bring dried food, tins, tea, coffee, toiletries etc which can be stored. So we may invite people, "Bring forward the mangolds!" but we'd have a long wait if we expected them to appear.

And what is a mangold? Also known as a mangel - and more properly as a mangold-wurzel - I think it's time we brought it back into our harvest services. It's a form of beet, generally fed to cattle, but also popular - it seems - for hurling (at whom or what?). I guess you have to move in the right circles. See the picture to recognise it when it's in growth mode.

R. S. Thomas, famously grumpy Welsh priest and poet - and a very good thing - mentions the mangel in his poem, A Peasant:

Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind -
So are his days spent, his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.
And then at night see him fixed in his chair
Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
His clothes, sour with years of sweat
And animal contact, shock the refined,
But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.
Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind's attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed, even in death's confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.

All rather better than the sugary fare which many might prefer for Harvest Thanksgiving. Perhaps it should be required reading in place of a homily?

Meanwhile, a team of St. Cuthbert's folk has been getting things sorted out in preparation for our Harvest Lunch. I suggested that perhaps I should miss out the preaching bit tomorrow. "Oh no, you can't do that," was the response. "We need time for the jacket potatotoes to cook."
You can learn more about mangel-hurling by clicking on this link. The site is well worth a look!

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Parish Magazine - October issue

I think I've worked out a way of up-loading our Parish Magazine to the Internet. Hopefully this link will take you directly to the October issue:

St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine - October 2008

I'll also set up a more general link from which the archive can be accessed - see the links on the right.

The documents are in pdf format, and open in iPaper. Rather strangely they seem to open half way through. But you can use the tools to go to which ever page you want, to open the document in its own page, blow it up, shrink it, share it... and who knows what else if you've got the patience and skill!

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Back to Church Sunday - 19th Sunday after Trinity

Homily for the Eucharist

Sunday 28th September 2008

Preached by Martin Jackson, Vicar of St. Cuthbert's

Lectionary: Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

Perhaps the parts of your average Sunday service that make people feel most uncomfortable are the Sermon and the Collection - which brings to mind one of those stories that’s been around so long that I didn’t use it when it was suggested for this coming month’s Parish Magazine. So here it is now:

A little girl became restless as the preacher’s sermon dragged on and on. Finally, she leaned over to her mother and whispered, “Mummy, if we give him some money now, will he let us go?”

Well I’m sorry… but nobody is coming for your money at this point, so you’ll have to stay. And when we do get to the time of the collection, don’t be embarrassed if you are new to St. Cuthbert’s or are back for Back to Church Sunday and wonder what to do. People here do their giving in different ways: so they might be giving by Banker’s Order rather than using the plate; or they might just be here because it’s free; and anyway there’s no set rate, and nobody is watching to see what does or doesn’t go in.

But in preparing to preach this morning, I found myself a bit stuck… Who would be here? Would anyone come as a result of an invitation to come back to church? Would anyone just happen to be here for the first time? What assumptions would they bring? And what should I say?

My assumptions about how people look at the Church were changed some years ago when I was asked to take part in a survey being carried out by children from a local junior school. They were looking at how their Community worked - who did what, and what difference did it make? I was asked to fill in the relevant section of the survey. And this is where I got my surprise - the Church was included under the heading, “Leisure Activities.” There we were, jostling for position alongside football, tennis and bowls; music, dancing and clubbing; and cinema-going and shopping. Leisure activities are what you choose to do in your free time. It’s up to you. And if you conclude that church-going is a leisure activity, then you can just take it or leave it - and people generally reckon that it makes little difference.

There are so many other things we could do on a Sunday morning. So why are we here? Why do we choose to be here? Churches have finally on the whole been persuaded that it’s a good idea to attempt to keep their congregations warm - our failures here are entirely due to the limitations of the existing Victorian pipework, though the boilers and timer are state-of-the-art. We’re not so good about comfortable seating. Suggest you might do something about the pews and you enter the realm not just of financial constraints but also received ideas about how a church ought to look. Strangely, cinemas and theatres seem not to share our inhibitions when they try to attract their audience with comfy chairs - though at least we’re not going to say you have to pay £1.50 extra for premium seating (we’re just not going to offer it).

Churches so easily get trapped between nostalgia for something that was probably never quite the way it gets remembered and received notions that are generally more imaginary than real. What do people want? They’re right when they think that the Church is a good place to have a wedding. We’ve had two wonderful weddings here in the last two weeks - each quite different and reflecting the personalities of the people involved. But so often - not knowing quite what to say - a potential bride or groom will start off by saying to me, “We’d like to book the church…” I think I know what they mean, but the words imply that we’re just another venue that you can pay for and then turn up. That’s where I start my work with them - and try to show what the Church can really offer: to say that this isn’t just a service that we’re offering and you can buy; it’s a sacrament, something that’s central to the way you’ll live in a life-changing way; not just a few hundred pounds for the day (and well worth it for the show we put on!), but something that requires that you search your heart and recognise that the cost is the rest of your life… and that God is involved to make all the difference. It’s the same with Baptism. Quite often I get asked, how much do we charge? And the answer is that it’s free… but there is a cost: and that cost is a life given to God. He is the one who promises direction in the lives of those who are baptised. The question is, will we follow?

Leisure activities are something you can do, as and when you choose. You can give them up and no one is going to be too bothered - though if you give up on exercise activities you will notice the difference sooner or later for yourself. There are so many potentially good things that you can do that I quite understand how people find it difficult to fit in “Church.” So thank you everyone simply for making the effort to be here this morning. But now a couple of warnings…

The first is to regular members of the congregation. It’s very tempting to go up to someone you haven’t seen here before and say “Welcome to our church.” The “welcome” bit is fine. But it’s a mistake to think that this is just our church. It’s here for everyone - so “welcome to your church” would be better. Churches only have any point in existing if they exist for the sake of the community around them.

And then a gentle rebuke to people who generally excuse themselves from going to church because “it’s not the church I want.” I’ve been ordained for over 26 years and have “had my own parish” for over 20, but still I’m not able to say that I’ve got everything I want. If you want to be more than a church of one person, then you’ll have to make allowances for other people. But while it may not be the church you want, if you play your part it can become the church you help make it.

So, welcome to your church! But of course it’s fundamentally the church of Jesus Christ - his Church. It’s there in the Collect we’ve used today - one of the most traditional of Anglican prayers:

O God, forasmuch as without you,
We are not able to please you…

It takes the grace of God to enable us to do anything. And he’s not just an overbearing taskmaster trying to keep us up to the mark. He gives us the means - which Christians call grace:

Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ…

Being a member of the Church is admitting our need… and being ready to find it through God’s direction. God is not hanging over us to load burdens of guilt and obligation upon us. Remember the invitation which Jesus makes: “Come to me all you who are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest… my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

There’s a church I know of in San Francisco - which I’d love to visit - which has on its altar the inscription: “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Actually the inscription is in Greek, because this is how it was written in the New Testament when people realised how radically different Jesus was from the religious teachers of their day. But the colloquial translation - “the guy who eats with sinners” - is apt. Jesus is the man who is on our side, the man who is looking out for us… looking out for you / for me. It’s what our first reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is saying, that God comes to us in Jesus. That he doesn’t play God with our lives, but comes to us in a human life, lived to the full. The way of God in Jesus is the way of humility. The obedience of Jesus to his Father’s will and the extent of his love for his people is such that he gives his life - dying on a cross for our sake. Christ is the one who makes the difference: coming to us; meeting us where we are, and as we are. There’s no pretence required from us. We don’t need to pretend that we are better than we are. We don’t need to suck up to God. Because already God knows what we are. He feels it in Jesus - and there’s no pretence in him, who is one with God but shares our humanity.

“By what authority are you doing these things?” That’s the question asked of Jesus by his opponents. They see him as a threat to the established order. They’re living life the way they like it, they follow religion the way they like it. But then Jesus comes into the picture, and the result is quite unsettling. They can’t bring themselves to follow his way, but they know that what he says and does points the finger at them and shows just how hollow their way is. Outwardly their religion is about all the right things, but Jesus calls the people on beyond conformity. That’s how it is in the story which Jesus tells about the two sons, asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One of them says all the right things - he simply doesn’t put them into practice. The other says “No,” but is ready to have his mind - and his heart - changed.

Jesus asks, which of them does the will of his father? The people he asks give him an answer - but perhaps it’s odd that Jesus doesn’t say whether they get the answer right. I wonder what you think? Which son do you think gets it right? Which son do you identify with? But beyond our desire for the ready answer, Jesus simply keeps prodding us: what do you think? what answer are you ready to give me?

Friday, 26 September 2008

October Parish Magazine now published

Just to show that some things work best on paper, here's the notification that the new magazine is now out - and soon available!

Bits have been put on the parish website in the past. We'll see what's possible.


...a reminder that we're having a go at joining in the nationwide initiative of "Back to Church Sunday" - this Sunday, 28th September. You could try it wherever you live. At St. Cuthbert's we're focussing on the 10a.m. Sung Eucharist.

Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

Homily for the Eucharist
Sunday 21st September 2008
preached by Rosie Junemann, Reader at St Cuthbert’s Church

Baptism of Megan O’Brien

Lectionary: Proverbs 3. 13-18; 2 Corinthians 4. 1-6; Matthew 9. 9-13

Today’s service feels very much like a family occasion.

That’s not just because Jenny and Danny are here with Daniel and Megan. Nor is it just because their wider families are here to celebrate Megan’s baptism. It’s because we are all gathered here as God’s family in St Cuthbert’s Church. We are all here to welcome Megan into our Christian family and to support her as she takes her first steps alongside us on her journey to faith in Jesus Christ.

Over the years that I’ve been a part of St Cuthbert’s Church I’ve seen many children baptised and growing to maturity as part of the Christian community here. Jenny is just one of those children. I hope that I’ll also be able to see Megan and Daniel sharing in the life of the church and growing in faith in the years to come.

Of course this is Megan’s special day. Today she receives a name and an identity which are special to her.

Every faith, every culture, acknowledges the importance of individual identity and each celebrates that with a special naming ceremony.

On the first Sabbath after a Jewish child is born, her father is called forward at the synagogue to recite a special prayer and to ask blessings for the mother and child. This is when a Jewish girl receives her name. Boys are named on the eighth day after birth, as part of the rite of circumcision.

Hindu babies are named in a special ceremony held on the twelfth day after the child’s birth. The baby is bathed and wrapped in a new cloth and then placed in the father’s lap to be blessed. The priest offers prayers for the protection of the child. Then the father whispers the chosen name into the child’s right ear.

For Megan, Christian baptism marks the start of her life as a child of God – a life with new meaning and new purpose. Although she is still too young to understand it, Jesus has called her to follow him, just as he called Matthew, the tax-collector 2000 years ago. Megan will be signed with the cross, the sign of Christ, to show that she belongs to Christ before anyone else. She will have water poured over her as a symbol of cleansing and new birth. And she will be given a lighted candle to show that she is embarking on her faith journey in the company of Christ, the Light of the World.

Today, Megan receives the assurance of God’s love for her and the assurance of the loving support and encouragement of her parents and godparents – and of the whole Christian community. In welcoming Megan this morning we acknowledge our shared responsibility for her growth in the Christian faith.

The latest edition of the Mothers’ Union magazine ‘Families First’ gives some light-hearted advice on how prospective parents can prepare themselves for the rigours of parenthood.

For example:

‘Dressing small children is not as easy as it seems. First buy an octopus and a drawstring bag. Attempt to put the octopus into the bag so that none of the arms hang out. Time allowed: all morning’!


‘Go to the local supermarket. Take the nearest thing you can find to a pre-school child – a fully grown goat is excellent. If you intend to have more than one child, take more than one goat. Buy your week’s shopping without letting the goats out of your sight. Pay for everything the goats eat or destroy’!

Joking aside, the article makes some more serious points, to encourage parents to think about their vision for family life.

“It’s very easy to head out into family life without knowing which way we are going. But how much better to have a destination in mind and to feel secure in where we are heading.”

So parents may want to ask:

What kind of a family do we want to be?
What are the responsibilities of each family member?
How can we make a difference to the community in which we live?
Are we living as God would have us live?

As Megan’s Church family we may need to consider how we can prepare ourselves to uphold her in her new life in Christ. The Baptism service reminds us that she will need the help and encouragement of the Christian community, so that she may learn to know God in public worship and private prayer, follow Jesus Christ in the life of faith, and serve her neighbour, following Christ’s example. ‘As part of the Church of Christ’, it continues, ‘we all have a duty to support her by prayer, example and teaching’.

In a new book ‘Worship Changes Lives’ the writers say:

“Baptism happens to us only once. But we go on attending other people’s baptisms throughout our life. Each time, we are reminded ‘who we are’ and where we belong within God’s family.”

We, as a pilgrim community on the journey of faith, can use this opportunity to consider where we are on that journey – and how we came to be here; to explore again what it means to us to be baptised people and members of a faith community; to renew our commitment to live out life in Christ and to ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’.

As she grows, Megan will need all the loving care a family can give. She’ll need food to nourish her and clothes to keep her warm. She’ll need protection - and discipline - and hugs and kisses – and, occasionally, someone to wipe away tears. She’ll need toys and books and help with her homework. That’s what being a family is all about.

But today Megan has become a member of our church family, too. She needs each one of us to walk beside her in the Way of Christ, to pray for her, to encourage her, and to guide her.

Marty Haugen is a modern American hymn writer. At St Cuthbert’s we probably know him best for his hymn ‘Gather us in’. But he’s also written a hymn about the Church called ‘All are welcome’. This is what he says:

Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where all are named,
their songs and visions heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed
as words within the Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter,
prayers of faith and songs of grace,
let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:
all are welcome in this place.

That sounds like a very special kind of family to me!

Holy Cross Day

Homily at the Eucharist
14th September 2008

Preached by Martin Jackson, Vicar of St. Cuthbert's

Lectionary: Numbers 21.4-9; 1 Corinthians 1.18-24; John 3.13-17

What does the Cross say to us? In his meditation on the Crucifixion from his extended poem “Counterpoint” this is what the priest and poet R. S. Thomas has to say:

They set up their decoy
in the Hebrew sunlight. What
for? Did they expect
death to come sooner
to disprove his claim
to be God’s son? Who
can shoot down God?
Darkness arrived at
midday, the shadow
of whose wing? The blood
ticked from the cross, but it was not
their time it kept. It was no
time at all, but the accompaniment
to a face staring,
as over twenty centuries
it has stared,
from unfathomable
darkness into unfathomable light.

Poetry is not to be explained. And the poetry of R. S. Thomas in particular does not set out to create a warm glow, but confronts the reader with what is often uncomfortable; rarely shining a light, but rather inviting exploration of the darkness we would more readily avoid. Here it’s the Cross - and what we may make of it. Do we simply take it for granted? - expect to see it in our churches? - perhaps put one on a chain around our neck without really considering what we do? It’s the central symbol of our Christian faith, but for Thomas we often try to make it too easy:

Not a crown
of thorns, but a crown of flowers
haloing it…

(he writes elsewhere). That’s how we’d prefer it: decorated according to our design, rather than the bare wood upon which a man is killed. He goes on:

We have over-furnished
our faith. Our churches
are as limousines in the procession
towards heaven.

All this should be a warning to us. The proper name of today’s Feast is “The Exaltation of the Cross.” Lift it up and show it around! - we even sang about that in our first hymn this morning, “Lift high the cross!” But the cross is not merely to be waved around. It’s not just for show. It takes us back again and again to the cruelties which people have inflicted upon each other, and to the pain which so many suffer without relief. And it takes us back to God’s way of entering into our pain. It’s an “unfathomable darkness,” says Thomas, but across 20 centuries the face of the one who hung there looks still towards us… and into “unfathomable light.”

As a Feast, Holy Cross Day has its origins in the supposed discovery of the remains of Jesus’ Cross by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, in the early fourth century. It was on 14th September in the year 335 that the great Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated in Jerusalem over the supposed site of Jesus’ tomb. In the same church you can still visit a chapel where Jesus was said to have been crucified. But John Pridmore issues a warning about it:

The site of the cross - through the main doors, turn right, and up the stairs - is in the custody of the Orthodox…

The Greeks guard the site jealousy. A few years ago on this feast day, someone left the door open to the adjacent Roman Catholic chapel, and the Orthodox took this as an insult. A fist-fight broke out, which had to be broken up by the police. "See how these Christians love one another."

The problem is that we want our own views and opinions to prevail… I’m grateful to John Greener who has lent me a book about the Ruthwell Cross, which he visited recently in Dumfriesshire. It’s a major piece of Northumbrian artistry, a cross 21 foot in height on its pedestal which proclaims the Gospel in words and sculpture, erected probably about the year 680. And it stood as a witness to the Gospel nearly a thousand years. But in 1640 the Assembly of the Church of Scotland decided that all images and crosses must be pulled down and destroyed because of their idolatrous character. The Ruthwell Cross survived only because of the wise action of the local minister, who took the cross down but then placed it in a trench in the floor of his church so that it was preserved until a time when it could safely be set up once more.

So much could have been lost: fine scenes of the Annunciation, the life and miracles of Jesus, his Crucifixion, and Christ in glory as well as the inscription from the ancient poem, “The Dream of the Rood.” This is part of that poem, in which the Rood, the Cross itself, is heard to speak:

It was long years ago - I can recall it yet -
that I was felled in a place in the forest,
hauled away from my home. Hostile hands seized me,
bade me lift miscreants up for men to see their shame.
They heaved me on their shoulders, set me up upon a hill,
crowded round to fix me fast. Then far off I saw the Lord of men
hastening, hero-like to mount upon me high.
How then could I dare to disobey my Lord,
to bend or break even though I beheld
all the earth quaking…
I shook as he, the Son of Man, enfolded me, yet still I feared to
bow to earth,
fall to the ground; yet still I must stand firm.
I was set up, the Cross, I lifted up a mighty King,
the heaven’s Lord…

The narrowly-avoided destruction of the Ruthwell Cross was part of a wider campaign throughout England and Scotland in the period after the Reformation. You can visit the ruins of monasteries and other church buildings which were destroyed. In cathedrals and ancient churches you can see the statues which were decapitated or had their faces rubbed out. A huge amount of stained glass must have been lost. Now we would call it desecration. But to the so-called Reformers it made perfect sense. These were graven images, which could lead people to idolatry and which spoke of the yoke they perceived to have been imposed by the Church of Rome. What they failed to see was their own short-sightedness, the narrowness of vision with which they proceeded to burden their own people, and their own forms of idolatry of which they remained blissfully unaware. If only they could have seen - as again John Pridmore writes:

Devotion to the cross as the instrument of our salvation is common to every tradition of Christian piety. The Orthodox and the Roman Catholics have their reliquaries, and the Protestants their hymns. The same instinct to contemplate the wood where our Saviour hung inspires both pilgrimages to the Chapel of the Holy Relics in the Santa Croce church in Rome, and rousing renderings of "When I survey the wondrous cross" at the Keswick Convention.

The danger is always that we seek to make God in our own image, that we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we cannot hear him speak. That’s what St. Paul is saying in today’s New Testament reading:

For the message about the cross is foolishness
to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’…
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling-block to Jews
and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

The Empress Helena brought fragments of what was said to be the True Cross back to Rome, and you can see them now in the Church built over the site of her house, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. I saw the relics last year. They don’t benefit from their setting in a Chapel built of grey polished marble in the time of Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship. I was left wondering, should I be moved? - or isn’t this all really rather daft? But there’s that continuing reminder from St. Paul that the message of the Cross is foolish - and at the same time this apparent foolishness is God’s way… He loves us so much that he lets his Son take the way of the Cross. He comes not to condemn, not to judge out of hand, but to love - and to love us despite our failings and failures, even through our wilfulness and the most murderous of our instincts. It’s our human failings which take Christ to the Cross. And it’s his Cross which bids us be silent - so that we can hear him speak.

An easier way of doing things?

This blog is prompted by the desire to save time - though I'm conscious that starting and maintaining a blog is possibly one of the easiest ways to waste it.

For some years we've had - and continue to maintain - a parish website. I still don't know how to up-load material for a site of our own, and don't really want to learn. So I'm glad that "Communigate" has offered the facilities for hosting ours. But I realise that all the formatting that it requires takes just too many hours which could be better employed. And the whole thing was beginning to look like a disorganised archive.

So the site has been pruned. And my hope is that this parish blog will offer something more immediate, reasonably good-looking and easy to keep. That way I hope to make time for all those things which do really matter: pastoral care; the sacraments; proper preparation for liturgy and preaching. We'll see...