Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas at St. Cuthbert's

Every seat taken - and quite a number standing as Christmas celebrations began at St. Cuthbert's.

We wish you a very happy and blessed Christmas!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Getting ready for Christmas

Sorry there hasn't recently been time for posting on this blog. Another way you can keep up-to-date is through our new Facebook page.

We're making final preparations in both churches for the celebration of Christmas. I've just left Rainbows, Brownies and Guides who are making massive numbers of Christingles for use at St. Cuthbert's Christmas Eve Carol Service - 6p.m. 24th December. It's followed by 11.30p.m. Midnight Mass - and a 9.30a.m. Eucharist for Christmas Morning.

St. John's, Castleside had a well-attended Carol Service (again with Christingles) yesterday evening. Celebrate Christmas there with a Vigil Mass at 8p.m. on Christmas Eve. and a 10a.m. Eucharist for Christmas morning.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

He became poor that we may be rich…

These are words of a gentle meditation from the Iona Community which we’ve used to begin our Christmas Midnight Mass. And once they’re sung - and we’ve followed them with “Once in royal David’s city” - we begin the liturgy itself:

Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night,
heaven in earth and God in man.

Great little one whose all-embracing birth
brings earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

They’re words of beauty which express the deepest truth. So much else about the traditional celebration of Christmas resonates in our hearts from lullabies like the “Rocking Carol” and “Away in a Manger” to the raucous cheerfulness of “God rest ye merry, gentlemen.”

But there is the celebration of Advent beforehand - and it can introduce a note which jars or trips us up. I’m always challenged by the appearance of John the Baptist in his way of proclaiming Christ’s coming. The hymn “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry” is not at all Christmassy - this year I’ve been pulled up short by this verse:

Stretch forth thine hand, to heal our sore,
And make us rise to fall no more;
Once more upon thy people shine,
And fill the world with love divine.

The “sore” is the frailty of our human condition. It obviously troubles some hymn book compilers who give a different rendering of this verse. It’s the wound which saps our energy and leaves us failing in our endeavours. It’s something more than “sin” - itself a misunderstood concept. “Our sore” needs to be acknowledged if it is to be healed: ”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” asks the Jesus Prayer. It’s knowing what we are that we can find the grace to become what we might be.

And Christmas shows us how that can be. The love of God, reaching down to us. God’s Son taking human flesh to touch and heal us. We need the opportunities to acknowledge what we are before God: what we lack; what we might be with his help. And he doesn’t leave us simply to struggle with that knowledge. In Jesus he meets us in our need.

This is the "View from the Vicarage" in our current Parish Magazine - click to read it online. You can also find our Parish Christmas Card in print-it-yourself format - with details of Christmas services.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Putting Priorities into Practice…

One of the great things about St. Cuthbert’s is that we have meetings which are both positive and productive. Last month we tried a new style of meeting for our PCC members - to ask what direction we should be taking as a church and how to get there. It entailed giving up a Saturday morning but I was cheered and encouraged both by the attitudes throughout the meeting and in seeking an effective outcome. Rosie Junemann, Liz Parker and Carol O’Malley all have articles in the November edition of our Parish Magazine recording what went on and reflecting upon the issues raised.

Our reason for meeting was to build on the Diocese’s initiative, “Preparing the Ground for Growth.” How can we join in? What are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats that we need to deal with? And how can we then move forward? We identified two priorities in particular upon which we wish to take fresh action: (1) to become more confident in the basics of our faith; (2) to be renewed in the life of prayer.

These are not priorities only for the Parochial Church Council to do something about. We see them as basic to what we are about as a church. Unless we are grounded in the basics of our faith, then we’re not going to be very confident in sharing it with others. And our calling is to be a church with a praying heart so that we may know God’s purpose for us as his people.

And we need to act on these priorities. Just how we’ll work them out is a medium to long-term issue. But we can make a start straight away - and we’re going to do so this month. So on three Tuesdays of November there’s an invitation to come to the Vicarage to start looking at the basics of faith - perhaps we’ll need to ask what are the basics; so we need everyone’s contribution to identify those areas where we need to grow our faith. And on Monday 11th November our church will be Open for Prayer from 2 to 3p.m. -  and hopefully on the second Monday of each month thereafter. Yes, you can pray at other times and in other places. But this is to join in a shared objective. You don’t need to stay the whole time - but come for as long as you can, and see what you discover!                 

Open for Prayer:
2 to 3p.m  Monday 11th November - in church
Basic Belief - what do we believe as Christians?
7.30p.m. Tuesdays 5th, 12th & 19th November - in the Vicarage

Monday, 14 October 2013

Vulnerability, defensiveness and love

There are many reasons why people put off going to the Doctor’s. “I’ll probably be better by the time I get an appointment,” you might say hopefully. Or there are the questions the doctor is going to ask about how you’ve been looking after yourself: just how much exercise do you take? – have you given up smoking yet? – what’s your diet like? – how many units of alcohol are you consuming every week?... and many more potentially embarrassing questions - and you wonder just what you’re going to have to have to admit to.

And then there’s the fear of what the doctor is actually going to do to you. Which bits is he/she going to prod and feel? What am I going to have to reveal of an anatomy of which I’m less than proud? And after all that, what might the treatment involve? – alright if it’s a course of antibiotics, but what about hospital referrals, long courses of drug therapy, operations, the bits which might be unlovely but which we don’t want to live without? 

 Now try to think what might be in the mind of Naaman, the commander of the armies of Aram (modern day Syria) as he looks for a cure for his leprosy. It wasn’t newly diagnosed,… it was something he seems to have lived with for a long time. He’s a high-ranking General - despite his illness. He’s learned to live with the disease – and perhaps we need to be reminded that what the Bible calls leprosy is not necessarily what we call leprosy (Hanson’s Disease), but was a catch-all term for a number of skin disorders. How many doctors had he seen in his own country, how much indignity had he been put through? – all to no avail, as he continued to suffer a disfiguring condition which didn’t sit at all well with his public prominence.

Naaman seems to have given up hope of a cure. Why should he want to put himself through any more prodding or lay himself open to any more useless courses of treatment? The suggestion that he turns to the prophet who lives in Israel is a last chance for him, an alternative therapy of which he seems highly sceptical.

Naaman goes seeking his cure in the way a General would. He takes his dignity along with him in a big way: piles of silver, loads of gold, fine clothes and a letter from his king – this is the reward for the man who can heal him. But a man who can arrive in this fashion is also a threat. The King of Israel sees the horses and chariots which accompany Naaman: “Now we’re in trouble,” he says. “There’s no hope of a cure. The doctors have never been able to do anything for him. He’s obviously just picking a fight!”

But what Naaman needs is not what kings and generals expect. He goes on to the house of Elisha the prophet, and finds someone quite different from the physician to the royal court he might have expected. He parks his chariots outside Elisha’s house, but the prophet doesn’t even come out. No fussing over this man so concerned for his dignity! And while Elisha saves him from the prodding and probing of a doctor, his remedy is not at all what he wants to hear… “Go and bathe in the River Jordan – and do it seven times!” Has Naaman really come all this way to hear this? If Elisha is so great a prophet, he ought to come out and wave his arms around and cure him! He ought to give heed to Naaman’s important position! If bathing is involved, it shouldn’t be in that excuse for a river, the Jordan, but in one of the mightier rivers of Syria – perhaps it’s as though Naaman had come from Gstaad and been told to take the waters at the Spa in Shotley Bridge! Anyway, no doubt Naaman has tried all that sort of thing before!

Naaman storms off in a rage… Fortunately his servants calm him down. “OK,” they say, “he’s asked something pretty pathetic. But you’d have done it if he’d asked you to do something really difficult. Why not give it a go?” And they persuade him. He swallows his pride, goes to the river Jordan, washes in it seven times, and he is healed.

On one level, the message is that Naaman must recognise that Elisha speaks with the authority of the one true God. And he does! – when he goes home, he takes a trunk-load of Israelite earth with him, so he can worship on  the soil of the land promised by God to the Israelites. But there is another level, I think. Naaman’s first need is to recognise that he doesn’t have all the answers. The solution doesn’t lie in being able to throw your weight around. Horses and chariots might win you battles, but they can’t win you your health. Fine clothes may cover up disfigurement, but they don’t cure it. And heaps of money in the end serve only to show you what can’t be bought.

For Naaman, the need is to find humility: to acknowledge his need; instead of issuing his own commands, to listen to others. And finally to give up standing on his dignity. He goes to the river Jordan – and we can imagine the scene: first he has to unburden himself of the warrior’s armour and weapons; then to take off the fine clothes of status; and finally, as he stands naked by the river, to reveal what needs to be healed – not merely a physical condition, but his defensiveness, aggression, his pride.

Naaman cannot find healing as the rich general of mighty armies, but only as a man. Today’s Gospel story tells us something more. Ten lepers come to Jesus for healing. These men are outcasts, forced to live outside the village, careful to keep their distance from this religious teacher. They have no wealth, nothing to offer Jesus.  All they can say is “Jesus… have mercy on us!”  These are men who have nothing, except the hope that Jesus will do something for them – and whatever it is, they cannot buy it, nor can they expect religion to do anything for them, because their disease has turned them into people who are to be avoided by the religiously upright.

The strange thing is that Jesus doesn’t say yes or no to their request for healing. He just tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. It’s their response of faith that makes them well. St. Luke’s Gospel tells us, “as they went, they were made clean.” In St. Mark’s version of the story, it’s the touch of Jesus that heals the leper. For St. Luke, it’s a matter of hearing what Jesus has to say to us. Do we listen to what he is saying? Are we ready to hear and to act?

We don’t know what happens to most of the ten lepers who are healed, but one of them turns back, praising God and throws himself at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving. The point that St. Luke’s Gospel makes is that the other nine don’t go back. And it’s a very modern and relevant point for our society where gratitude seems to be a scarce commodity. How often we complain, how rarely we give thanks! If only we were ready to show gratitude more often, then perhaps we would recognise just how many blessings we have received.

In this short episode, we see what is at the heart of the Christian Gospel – what we mean when we talk of the Incarnation, of God’s Son taking human flesh. Jesus knows what it is to be human. He knows what it is to be misunderstood and vulnerable. Jesus comes to us and shares in all that we are. He brings healing, he transforms lives, and he does it not by throwing his spiritual weight and power around, but by entering into all that needs to be healed. Jesus comes as the “wounded healer.” Not someone with the answer to everything, but one who can bring hope in our suffering because he knows what it is we suffer – sharing in our humanity, even in the uncleanness of the leper, he knows what it is that needs to be healed.

Do we know our need of healing – our need of God? Honesty with ourselves is one of the hardest things to achieve, which is why it is a good idea to be able to open ourselves up to someone else: a spiritual director, a member of our family, a friend.... And we can make a start by acknowledging our vulnerability, as finally Naaman  must do. To stop covering up. To see that for all our ability, wealth and achievements we can’t get it all sorted on our own. And this may help us help others in their need. So we don’t see them simply as people who are the authors of their own misfortune, people who deserve what they’ve got, people we can do without - like the folk of Jesus’ time thought they could do without the people they categorised as “unclean,” like so many people of his time despised the Samaritans, like the many prejudices we find voiced around us and perhaps share ourselves. “People are not loved because they are beautiful; they are beautiful because they are loved.” It’s love in action which Jesus brings to those who have less than nothing to offer. And when we feel unlovely, we do well to learn from this saying – and know that we are loved. And for that, be thankful…
(see - 2 Kings 5.1-3,7-15b; 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19)

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Catching up

The October issue of our Parish Magazine has gone to the printer today - sorry to those who've been waiting, but he's only just back from holiday, and you can read it online and in colour by clicking here.

In updating the other pages of this blog, I realise I hadn't updated the Calendar page last month - I've done it now. And I've also provided a link to the September issue of the Parish Magazine - previously missing.

Harvest festivities begin this weekend with celebrations at St. Cuthbert's on Sunday - and at St. John's the following weekend. I need to make some progress with these, but there's the stuff of parish life first - including a wedding and two sessions in a local primary school on "The Bible - and why it's important for Christians." Starting with six-year olds, it's causing me to re-think my approach...

And I made a good start on Autumn re-booting with a Quiet Day last Saturday on Holy Island. I was quite taken with this resident. Click to enlarge...

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Losing, Seeking, Welcoming

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells two stories about loss. The shepherd who has a hundred sheep. One wanders off, leaving him with 99. Is it worth it - or even wise - to go and search for the lost sheep? And the woman who has ten silver coins. She loses one and then turns the house upside down until she finds it. I wonder how you manage with losing things…

I don’t lose things very often. But when I do, I’m quite perplexed. Looking for my spare keys to leave with a neighbour while we were away, I recalled putting them somewhere safe where no one else might think of looking. The problem now is I can’t think of where to look either! So they’re somewhere safe, but I’m just not quite sure where. This got me quite worried because our holiday destination was a house which belongs to a friend. He gave me a bunch of keys for the house - a thousand miles away in the South of France. That’s when it dawned on me that if we lost these keys, we’d really be in trouble with no means of access and rather a long way away from anyone who could help. And it wouldn’t be a case of search through the house until you find the keys - we’d simply be locked out.

I’m glad to say that we managed to keep the keys safely with us wherever we went - and in the house itself we made sure that we always put them on the same hook as soon as we got in. But even routines can get you into trouble. Just over halfway through the holiday I lost my camera. We’d gone back to the car, parked outside an ancient walled hilltop town in Provence - and I knew straightaway the camera just wasn’t round my neck. It wasn’t in my bag either - the bag in which I’d made sure the keys to the house were kept safely zipped into an internal pocket. So I must have put it down - and I knew it couldn’t have been long ago because I’d taken so many photos. We went back to the local Tourist Information Office by the town gate - we’d stopped there to make use of their Wi-Fi internet access. But it wasn’t there - and the lady behind the desk said no one had handed it in. So we went up to the last place we’d visited before that, where I knew I’d definitely taken pictures. But it wasn’t there either. We looked high and low along the road between the two buildings - but nothing… I wondered if we should ask in all the shops along the way, but they were all so busy. We went back to the Tourist Information Office - still nothing, so I left my name and phone number. And then we walked out the door to find an American tourist using the exact same model of camera. But would she use my camera so flagrantly near the scene of its loss? Anyone could have picked it up and walked off with it. As we walked back to the car I felt quite upset. It had spoiled a wonderful day, I’d lost all those pictures I’d taken over the previous week, and I started getting annoyed at the dishonesty of people who find something and take the opportunity to keep it for themselves. I didn’t really want to go on with the day out, but we had to go back to the car anyway. We checked rubbish bins along the way on the off-chance that someone had dumped the camera case. But there was nothing. So we got in the car - and straightaway I found the camera sitting in the driver’s door pocket where I always left it.

What I thought was lost had never been lost at all. It was where I put it to keep it safe. And putting it there had become so much of a routine that I hadn’t even noticed that I’d taken the camera off as soon as I reached the car.

The two sorts of loss in the parables of Jesus which we hear today are quite different from each other. The sheep which has strayed - and perhaps the shepherd is a bit foolhardy to go looking for it. Isn’t he taking something of a chance when he leaves the other 99 in the wilderness? What’s the likelihood that he’s going to find this other sheep that could have wandered anywhere? - or might have been killed by a predator? It would be quite understandable if he simply wrote it off as one of those losses in life you have to bear.

It’s different for the woman who loses one of her ten silver coins. Not only are they precious, but they seem to have particular personal value to her - part of a set, perhaps part of a necklace. She needs the missing coin to make it complete. And because it’s somewhere in the house there’s a good reason for searching for it. Put the light on, be methodical and get looking. And her careful search is finally rewarded when she finds the coin.

But both stories have one thing in common… Thankfulness when what is lost is found. And it’s a thankfulness which is shared to draw other people in. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost,” says the shepherd. “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost,” says the woman.

These are stories which beg the question, what is precious to me? Not just things that I want to look after. But things which I’ll really put myself out for if I need to find them. And people who really need my care - who need me to look out for them.

And do people around us know the value these things and people have for us? So that we share our joy in them?

So much these days we keep to ourselves. There’s maybe a problem when we talk about having “belongings.” The word “belonging” itself implies that what I own is for me alone - so I keep it to myself… Quite unlike the woman who shares her joy at finding the lost coin. Most definitely unlike the shepherd whose joy follows on from a search in the most unpromising of circumstances.

The woman searching for the lost coin is so careful and methodical in searching for it. The shepherd, on the other hand, seems almost reckless in abandoning the other sheep to search for the one that is lost - and we might think him at least over-optimistic as to his chances of finding it.

But the point is in the identity of the shepherd. The shepherd is Jesus himself - and that sheep could be me. “Could be” I say, because the Pharisees and the scribes who grumble at Jesus just don’t get it. They can only complain - and their complaint is about other people. Jesus is letting all these people you don’t really want to mix with get too close. Tax collectors and sinners shouldn’t get to listen in on what he has to say. They should change their ways first. But Jesus simply encourages this wrong sort of person: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Can we hear ourselves saying that? Complaining about other people? Judging people who don’t behave the right way? Reckoning that some people just aren’t worth trying with? Writing off the sheep that has gone astray?

But - says Jesus - “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

What do we need? In this Eucharist Jesus invites us to eat and drink with him at his table. The bread and wine we take to the altar are given back to us as his Body and his Blood. They’re given to us by the one who welcomes sinners and eats with them.
Homily preached Trinity 16 - Year C – Eucharist – 15.ix.2013
(Exodus 32.7-14; Luke 15.1-10)

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Renewing our vision...

It’s a slightly strange experience to be producing the first autumn edition of the Parish Magazine before I take my summer holiday. Trying to get myself into the right frame of mind to set up and tackle fresh challenges when I’m still thinking about travel arrangements, my lack of language skills and working out care arrangements for the cat!

I’d hoped that being in the parish for most of the traditional holiday period would result in a lighter workload, the chance to sit in the garden, to read some books and perhaps even to plan ahead a little. It hasn’t quite worked out that way… I’ve failed so far even to get myself along to the exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham – though I did help organise a pilgrimage to enable two dozen clergy from all over the North to make the the visit! But we all have till the end of September to go and see the Gospels. Everyone I’ve spoken to has really enjoyed seeing them. With the accompanying exhibits they’ve appreciated the context in which the Gospels were produced and seen something new about their relevance to our faith today. And look out for the free exhibition upstairs! I’ve seen that – it includes an interactive copy of the Gospels so you can turn the pages, as well as other displays and the chance even to dress up as an Anglo-Saxon monk or peasant (I’ve seen some fellow-clergy doing that).

Meanwhile I have managed a bit of reading. One book I’ve enjoyed is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. It’s been recommended for people taking part in a diocesan training day for spiritual directors. But there’s something for everyone in this story of a man who goes out to post a letter and keeps walking. It has deep perspectives on the way we lead our lives, our relationships, the things we do and don’t do and say… but it’s also very funny and it isn’t difficult to read. Rather harder to take, I’m finding, is John Cornwell’s book, Hitler’s Pope, about Eugenio Pacelli, Vatican Secretary of State who became Pope Pius XI. Cornwell argues that Pacelli’s attitudes and strategies were disastrous not only for the Church but for the lives of nations and most especially for the Jews. In part the old wisdom, “For evil to triumph, it is necessary only that good men should do nothing.” In part his desire for centralisation and control – if only the Church could dictate everything to its members… but the result was that it was silenced in its ability to speak about wider, critical issues.

It’s a work in progress, but salutary. We need strategies in our life as a church – but can’t control everything. Our pilgrimage is to follow Christ. Our power is the power of God’s Holy Spirit.     

(The September issue of St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine has just been published - click here to find it online)

(And from St. John's, here's last Sunday's sermon)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Not the medium but the message

(Jeremiah 23.23-29; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56)

Barbara Brown Taylor is an American Episcopalian priest who apparently gets nominated quite routinely as “one of the top ten preachers in North America.” So while she is presently paying a visit to this country, the Church Times took the opportunity to ask her the question, “In the age of the screen and social media, is the sermon at risk?” Perhaps this is a dangerous way for me to start!
Here’s her answer to that question:
I know plenty of people who will happily listen to a good storyteller, lecturer, or stand-up comedian for 20 minutes; so technology does not seem to be the problem. The problem has more to do with the setting, content, and purpose of the traditional sermon, which too many people experience as predictable, manipulative, or both.
As long as sermons are conceived as being about affirming a certain belief system, and recruiting new believers to it, then they are going to attract only people who are in the market for those things.
When I preach, my goal is to say something that sounds like good news to anyone who is listening, no strings attached. There's no substitute for the unmediated presence of a live speaker, which is dangerous and potentially catalytic in a way that watching a screen will never be. 
So she’s saying the opposite of what has become received wisdom. The sermon has its place. The preacher has his or her place: “There's no substitute for the unmediated presence of a live speaker...” The problem is not the medium but the message.
The big issue is what should the message be? What should we be trying to put over to anyone with the ears to hear? And there’s something to think about in her answer: “When I preach, my goal is to say something that sounds like good news to anyone who is listening, no strings attached.”
What sounds like “good news” to you? What sounds like “good news” to you that is also good news to other people? – “good news” to people you might not get on with? And how does the Church deal with the fact that people are looking for quite different things in issues of daily life and in what they consider to be important? That’s a question that sometimes defeats us – perhaps because we haven’t got the vision or understanding to deal with it; but sometimes it perplexes even the most able, intelligent and wise.
“Good news,” I think, is going to entail the admission that we simply don’t get it right all the time. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was at the Edinburgh Book Festival last week. He was reminded that his years as archbishop were marked by turbulence over the church's stance on the role of gay priests and bishops; gay marriage became a subject for angry debate; and homophobia became an issue in the wider Anglican Communion. So did he feel he had let down gay and lesbian people? His response was first a pause to think about it. Then he said,
I know that a very great many of my gay and lesbian friends would say that I did. The best thing I can say is that is a question that I ask myself really rather a lot and I don't quite know the answer.
Perhaps he could have quoted Jesus in today’s Gospel reading: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three…” There’s a realism in what Jesus says: try as hard as you may, but people are not going to agree. If they fall out over words and feelings, that’s bad enough. When they come to blows and take up guns and bombs, that is the world as we all too tragically know it.
Barbara Brown Taylor had said, “When I preach, my goal is to say something that sounds like good news to anyone who is listening, no strings attached.” And the point of Jesus’ teaching is that it should be “good news.” The problem is what we want to hear, and what we are prepared to do
The Church Times asked Barbara Brown Taylor about her experience of giving up her pastoral ministry as a parish priest – she’s written a book about it called, Leaving Church. So, they asked her, “What do you miss, and what do you not miss?”  
I miss doing baptisms and funerals, visiting nursing homes, and being called to the emergency room in the middle of the night. I miss being immersed in a great worship service, which is like conducting a great symphony. I miss the children, and watching them grow up.
I do not miss being the object of people's inordinate adulation, or hostility. I do not miss breaking up church fights - or causing them - or trying to meet my own expectations of what a good priest should be and do. I do not miss being the CEO of a small non-profit organisation that relies on overworking its volunteers. But, in hindsight, I bless it all. 
As I read these words, I could hear a chorus of clergy crying, “Yes to that!” “I do not miss being the object of people's inordinate adulation, or hostility. I do not miss breaking up church fights - or causing them…” But if that’s how it is in the Church as we know it, that’s how it was for Jesus, who comes to preach good news, who heals the sick, gives sight to the blind and even raises the dead – but with it also by his own admission brings division.
The word “Gospel” means simply Good News. It’s Good News that we are to preach, it’s Good News that we are to live out day-by-day. It needs to be Good News for the people we meet, whoever they are, with no strings attached. But it’s not the same as something that will keep everybody happy. It’s not a lowest-common-denominator, let’s-not-offend-anyone religious message. The Good News of the Kingdom recognises the true needs of our world. Good news for the poor can’t be preached while the rich are appeased. There are scarce prospects for peace in a world where so much reliance is placed upon weapons of force. Injustice for women will continue as a matter of fact while the administration of the law in so many parts of the world remains the preserve of men. Bullying and discrimination are perpetuated whenever people insist on the right to say whatever they think and feel about people who they perceive as different. While all this remains true, the message of Jesus brings division. But how else can it achieve its aims?
The Gospel of Jesus is simple Good News. But what do we hear? How will we hear? Listen in faith, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews – and recognise God’s Good News in a faith which is “stronger than kingdoms,” in a weakness which is greater than strength, in justice and promise, in the hope of Resurrection. And if it’s to be good news for everybody, we should add that we need to listen – and respond – with humility. God provides “something better” not only for me but for all those people who are quite different from me. Together we are called to be God’s people; for us all Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” He shows it when he goes to the Cross for love of the whole world, for me, for you, for those people we don’t get on with. If he didn’t do it for them, how could he do it for me?

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Where is your treasure? Where is your heart?

(Genesis 15.1-6; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40)

          Few possessions: a chair,
          A table, a bed…

That’s the start of R. S. Thomas’s poem, At the end. It came to mind for me during the time which my father has been spending in respite care during the last month. It’s a question that so often strikes me when I’m visiting in a residential care home. What are the things that you can take with you, salvaged from a long life? For my father for a four-week stay, it was a small suitcase, a couple of carrier bags, and a jacket – not that he used the jacket, because he never went out. For those staying longer it might not be much more – perhaps their own television, some photos, a special picture and a few books? But there’s no room for anything else.
At the end, what can we take with us?... what do we need?
When I go to visit my parents, one of the things they ask me is to take away “all those old records of yours.” Nearly 40 years after I left home they still think of them as mine to take away. Perhaps two or three of them are – a couple of Beatles records on 45rpm vinyl, though I don’t think that “Man of Mystery” by The Shadows ever did belong to me. They’ve already had me remove piles of sheet music which I suspect were simply dumped on us when I was learning to play the piano – and those piles now languish on my piano in the Vicarage, unplayed. I admit that there’s probably a lot of my childhood stuff in their loft – old issues of Look and Learn and The Eagle and a lot of ancient school reports and exercise books. The thought of them waiting to be cleared at some point, I find rather oppressive – except for the prospect perhaps of being able to sell some of those old magazines to a collector. But I doubt anything is of any great value. And why didn’t my parents just get rid of them, if they didn’t want them there? Even worse, why have they allowed accumulations of other possessions elsewhere in the house? A garage full of stuff that’s no longer fit for purpose – tools that just don’t work, a bike that might be too old even for Beamish Museum. A bedroom which hasn’t been usable since my brother left home over 30 years ago, because it’s full of his old books, clothes, records and other things which he’s never going to take away to his home in America. He’s left it all behind. He doesn’t need it. It was even, perhaps, holding him back. But they’ve still got it.
What do we cling on to? What do we really need?
It’s a natural thing to accumulate possessions. But then what do you do with them? That’s a question that was beginning to trouble Abram in today’s Old Testament reading. He’s just won a great victory in battle. He’s been honoured by the mysterious priest-king Melchizedek. He’s seeing the fruits of God’s promise that he would lead him into a land of plenty where he would have riches, flocks and many servants. But what is he going to do with it all? Who can he leave it to? He’s got no children and his natural heir is the otherwise unmentioned Eliezer who lives far off in Damascus. Abram is thinking about his “things.” You can’t take them with you – and he’s not very happy about who might inherit them. But God has different ideas. God’s promise is not about the material things he wants Abram to have – it’s about his purpose for Abram’s life and about the purpose he has for his descendants, the lives that may be touched by God’s presence in them.
Abram is anxious about his stuff. Jesus addresses the anxieties of his followers in today’s Gospel:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
What we read today follows on from what Jesus tells his followers about their worries concerning life’s daily needs. Just, don’t worry! Look at the birds of the air which find their food day by day. Look at the flowers in the field which are beautiful just as they are. So consider your priorities. What do you really need in the way of possessions? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I don’t think Jesus is saying everyone has to go out and sell everything they have. He’s talking about calling and purpose in our lives, not advocating a course which would lead to economic meltdown if everyone took it literally. But if you’re going to hear the call of God, you need to ask what should I do about it? – what do I really need? What action is God calling me to take?
Much of what Jesus says to the disciples seems to tie in with the life they are called to lead. His first words to them are, “Follow me…” And theirs is a life lived on the road – following Jesus, going out on their own with a mission to proclaim his Kingdom. It’s a calling which I find a challenge. I love being a follower of Jesus, but I also love living in that wonderful big, inconvenient Vicarage of mine. Stuff accumulates. I have to ask if it holds me back from doing the things I should. How many pre-occupations do we each have which get in the way of listening to God in prayer, even before we try to make our response to his call? What are the things that might be holding you back on your journey?
One of the people who has really made me think in recent months is Pope Francis. Almost immediately after his election he called on Christians to be a “Church of the Poor.” Straight away people began asking what that means in a Church which is so evidently wealthy. But at least something can be seen in the way he lives. He’d already refused to live in the Archbishop’s Palace in Buenos Aires – and he’d travelled not in a chauffeured limousine but by public transport. Now he lives in a simple room of a hostel for clergy and gets driven around in a Ford Focus. I wondered what it had been like for him as he found himself stuck in Rome with only his travelling bags. Wouldn’t I want to go back home to be given a few weeks to pack everything up? Instead he simply went back to the Casa del Clero on a bus with some other cardinals, picked up his suitcase, paid his bill and got on with his new job.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where is your heart? Where is my heart?
However we answer, Christ calls us always to be ready for him. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…” Be like the servants waiting for their Master to come back from a late night banquet. They couldn’t just leave the lights on so that he could let himself in. Oil lamps needed to be kept topped up and their wicks trimmed. Elsewhere Jesus asks just what you can expect of the relationship between a servant and his master. But today’s Gospel has a twist. The servants wait up, the Master finally comes home – but then he gets them to sit down, and he serves them, bringing food himself for them to eat. We are called to do the work of proclaiming Christ’s Kingdom. But it is a Kingdom like no other, where the King himself is the servant to his people.
Jesus calls us to follow him. Christ commissions us to go out and travel light in proclaiming his Kingdom. And Jesus Christ is the King who serves his people, who sits us down to eat and nourishes us with his love.
What more do we need?


Sunday, 30 June 2013

Calling and following - Homily for 30 June 2013

(1 Kings 19.15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62)

Jesus tells his would-be disciples, “Follow me!” And he doesn’t take any excuses. When one man says, “Let me go first and bury my father,” Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their own dead…” Is that harsh? But I suspect that this man’s father had still to die, with plenty of life left in him. We do need to recognise family responsibilities, but not as simply another reason for saying why we’re not ready just yet for taking action.  There’s an urgency about Christ’s call, so much that Jesus tells the man who wants to go first and say goodbye to his family: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
How do you respond to the call of Christ? How do you make any decisions? How do you balance responsibilities, commitments, vocation and calling and set them against the person you are? - and the person you could be?
These are all issues I’ve been pondering again recently. Partly because this weekend is the anniversary of my ordination - what do I make of my calling as priest and deacon 32 years after the event? But also in the light of my experience of facing surgery and then having it cancelled, re-scheduled and cancelled again - and then being asked when or even whether I wanted to go ahead with it. After I’d psyched myself up for several months and planned who was going to be affected by my taking time off for several weeks to follow - and after I’d eventually had eight hours waiting on the ward for the operation to take place, half that time feeling rather silly in a theatre gown and thigh-length surgical stockings - I do understand why it was all called off, but it’s no easier for that to contemplate going back again. So everything is off again for the next few months.
Meanwhile I’ve pondered - and lots of people have been talking to me about their experience of health issues. There are those who have found themselves at the mercy of unforeseen complications - someone who’d had an operation which should have taken 40 minutes but it had actually taken five and a half hours; surgeons can’t plan for that. And people who’d found there was no alternative. Most succinctly someone was telling me he’d only been in hospital once in his life: “They came and asked me to give my consent for the operation, so I asked them what would happen if I didn’t sign. To which they said, well… you’ll be dead within 24 hours.” He signed - and I’m glad to say is now in robust good health.
It makes it easier to make a decision when you know there’s no alternative.
But what about the choices you have? My experience is perhaps a bit like people who’ve been booked up for a hot-air balloon flight. They may be apprehensive, but they’re ready for it. But then the flight gets cancelled on the day because of weather conditions. So they book again - and it gets cancelled again. And then they’re running out of days when there’s any availability, and it’s inconvenient, and the weather might be wrong again. What is going to get them back in the basket?
Or yesterday I was watching people on a zip-wire over the Tyne, jumping off the top of the Baltic to fly across the river to end up on a scaffolding tower in the middle of a car park. Two of them were people I knew. “Look, he’s on the edge and he’s got his legs over the side,” the daughter of one of  them exclaimed. I can imagine that moment - looking down to the ground, looking out over the river, looking at that thin cable which is all that separates life and death, and thinking “why did I sign up to this?”
I’m glad to say they got safely across - and no regrets.
What will make us jump? The leap of faith isn’t just for a short flight in a harness with all the safety procedures in place. “Follow me,” says Jesus - and it will have implications for the way you live your life… for the rest of your life. So it’s not surprising that some of the people Jesus encounters make their excuses. “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Can you plough that furrow? When people come to make arrangements for the Baptism of a child, do they see that it’s not just a half-hour service?.. It’s the beginning of a life-time, life-long project. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” St. Paul says in today’s New Testament reading. Paul isn’t always easy to understand. What he’s saying here is that living the Christian life isn’t just a matter of following rules - and it’s certainly not a matter of picking and choosing which rules to follow. There’s actually only one rule, “one commandment” - “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But that’s a rule to apply in every part of life and throughout your life. He warns us about all the things we shouldn’t do: avoidfornication, impurity, licentiousness,  idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,  envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” But it can be still more difficult to do the things which are positive - and these are the things that are really necessary: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control... If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
The good news is that it’s not all down to our own efforts. Jesus calls us to follow, to set our hand to the plough - but it’s his Holy Spirit who will guide us and strengthen us.
I’m struck by the enormity of the calling - to set out and to keep going… that is what Christ asks of us. Over 30 years since my ordination I’m still working on it. I hope I’m getting there. And I want to end by saying that the most significant thing I have learned in all those years is that we don’t get there simply by our own efforts. Too long perhaps I’ve dwelt on an image like that of the man in the picture inside your pewsheet. How much effort he seems to be putting into the task of ploughing! You’d think he was pushing the plough himself. Well, he does need to keep his oxen going the right way, his is the responsibility of guiding the plough. But we need to remember in our case that it’s Christ who goes before us, and God who supplies us with the grace we need. We simply need to follow.


Friday, 28 June 2013

Bringing home the Gospel…

Old news makes good news - or rather in this case good news (the literal meaning of the word gospel) makes the news still today.

The Lindisfarne Gospels were produced over 1,300 years ago. But the news that they are returning for three months to the North East of England from whence they came has caught the public imagination. Throughout July, August and September it will be possible to see them in a special exhibition in the Palace Green Library between Durham Cathedral and the Castle.

The Gospels are just that - the setting down of the good news of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Handwritten and wonderfully illustrated, it’s easy to see why this ancient book should appeal to people.

But I heard someone asking why we should be making so much of a fuss about them. Since Henry VIII pillaged the monasteries of their treasures in the 16th century, the Gospels have been in London. But in our times this has meant that millions of people have had the opportunity to see them - and free. “All you need to do is nip into the British Library - and there they are…” said my friend.

See them in Durham this summer - and you’ll have to pay! But it should be worth it. Here we’ll see not a book removed from its rightful home, but the Gospels set in their proper context. See them alongside the Durham Gospels and the Gospel which was buried in the grave of St. Cuthbert, and many other treasures besides. See the explanations of how they came to be produced and the community which created them. See that they have come home. And remember that the true treasure is the witness they bear to God’s love revealed for us in Jesus.

Durham Cathedral itself will be hosting events to celebrate the return of the Gospels. And - as you can read in this magazine - there are other exhibitions and occasions throughout the region to spread the celebration. I hope people might go to them. It’s a way of understanding that the Gospels come from a living tradition in which we share - of prayer, study, worship and service. They are an artistic production - and God gives us imaginations that we should keep using. They come from the North East - and that’s a reminder to us of the part which we can play in an often-neglected part of our country.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are a gift from our region to the wider world. What gifts can we still offer in our own day?                                  
Martin Jackson
This item appears in our Parish Magazine for July and August - read the whole issue online by clicking here

Monday, 3 June 2013

Only speak the word...

Trinity 1 (Proper 4) – Eucharist –

(1 Kings 8.22f, 41-43; Galatians 1.1-12; Luke 7.1b-10)

As far as I’m aware, this is the first time today’s readings have come up for use at the Eucharist since the present lectionary was introduced in 1998 - you need a combination of an early Easter and the right year in the three year-cycle by which the readings are organized if you’re going to get them. So take a good look - I don’t know when we’ll be seeing them next!

Because we don’t use them very much, you might not be very familiar with them. The first reading shows us Solomon, son of the great King David, at the dedication of the Temple which he has built in Jerusalem. Solomon can be rather full of himself. He’s a man of accomplishment. People come from far and wide to admire the buildings he’s put up - and to gawp at this wealth and riches. He’s renowned for his wisdom - though like many clever people he can also show quite a capacity for being stupid. And now we see him taking it upon himself to address God in prayer. “There is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath,” he acknowledges - but at the same time there’s a certain note of self-congratulation in his tone, a sort of “look at what I’ve built.” And then there’s the conclusion to his prayer - let people come from other nations to this place, and let them recognise who God is truly for them - “may they know your name and fear you… may they know that your name has been invoked on this house…”

If you visit Jerusalem now, you can’t help but be impressed by the size of the Temple Solomon built. Not that it is there for you to see - but the vast expanse of the site where once it stood... On the Temple Mount today you’ll find the El Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock - large, impressive buildings in themselves, but surrounded by still more empty space. The Temple which filled that space must have been immense. People who visited it must have been quite taken aback by its scale - as we know the disciples were by its smaller replacement when they exclaimed, “look at the size of the stones with which this place is built!”

Impressive buildings can have a certain converting effect - the Temples, churches and mosques which have stood on that holy site in Jerusalem; St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome: Hagia Sophia in Istanbul; our own Cathedral in Durham… These are places of prayer, places of pilgrimage, and they ask of us, “what does this place say about the God who is to be worshipped here?”

There isn’t a right answer to that question. The buildings which stand to glorify God were so often built to declare human power. Durham Cathedral stands alongside Durham Castle to remind us that the Norman king, William, truly was “the Conqueror.” It doesn’t stop them being holy places, but their very scale and expense begs the question of the cost at which they were built - wealth so often built up by unjustly acquired riches; human labour which was not always properly rewarded…

So I’m a bit ambivalent about the plea made in today’s Gospel reading by those who approach Jesus for a favour on behalf of a Roman officer. This centurion, say the people who have come to seek out Jesus, “is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue.” I want to ask how the centurion found the money to pay for the synagogue - was it his to give? Or did he direct the labour of those who built it? - and were they fairly treated? And a still deeper question I have is in those words “He is worthy of having you do this for him…” What makes this man worthy? - the fact that he has the money at his disposal when others are poor? - the ability to tell people to get on with the job when others are only to do what they are told?

But here I need to stop griping. King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple might be over-impressed by his own wealth, power and supposed wisdom. But this Roman centurion is someone quite different. The people from the synagogue who come on his behalf do so because he counts himself anything but worthy to approach Jesus - and they know he is a true friend of God. The centurion is a man of truly human compassion. He wants healing not for himself but for a slave. As a man who has more wealth than most and people at his beck and call, you might expect that the illness of a mere slave would be the least of his concerns. But this is someone he cares for. In his telling of the story, St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the centurion goes to Jesus himself - he doesn’t say anything of what he has done to deserve special treatment; he can only ask. In St. Luke’s account, other people go on the centurion’s behalf - and they say what they say because they know the extent of his faith and love.

And we see more of that faith when he sends a further message, asking Jesus not to come to his house - simply, “speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” As a man of authority himself, the centurion recognises the authority of Jesus - a man of God who will do God’s work. As a man of faith, he believes in the one who can bring healing to his servant.

Do we believe it? Do we believe that God will answer our prayers? Do we believe that God will give us the healing we ask for?

Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed…

That’s what we say in response to the invitation to come to Communion in this Eucharist: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

Jesus is the word who comes to us in the bread of the Eucharist, who gives us his Body and his Blood, for our salvation - for our healing. We need simply place ourselves before him, make our request, and he is there for us.

Not that we are worthy - but we can ask in faith.

This is how Bishop Tom Wright sums up what he has to say about today’s Gospel reading:

Contrast the prayer of this centurion with the prayers we all too often pray ourselves. ‘Lord,’ we say (not out loud, of course, but this is what we often think), ‘I might perhaps like you to do this… but I know you may not want to, or it might be too difficult, or perhaps impossible…’ and we go on our way puzzled, not sure whether we’ve really asked for something or not. Of course, sometimes we ask for something and the answer is No. God reserves the right to give that answer. But this story shows that we should have no hesitation in asking. Is Jesus the Lord of the world, or isn’t he?