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...