Friday, 26 December 2014

An army of angels, not men - Homily for Christmas Night

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

To save you from waiting any longer for the Christmas cracker jokes at the dining table, here are some to have you groaning now.

One you can use any year:

Many people will stop everything at 3pm on Christmas Day to listen to Her Majesty’s annual address to the nation. But what does the Queen call her Christmas Broadcast? The One Show!

Here’s one with perhaps a certain generational appeal:

Why did Harry Styles fail at being Santa?
Because he can only use the chimney in One Direction.

But here’s the most vicious I’ve come across yet:

Father Christmas is forced to have an official from the Aviation Authority check his sleigh to make sure it’s airworthy. The official checks out the sleigh on the ground then sits beside Father Christmas for a test flight. Suddenly Father Christmas notices the official has a revolver in his pocket. ‘What’s that for?’ he asks. ‘You’re not a hijacker are you?’ ‘No,’ replies the official. ‘But we have to see how you handle this craft when you lose an engine on take-off.’

The Christmas story begins with a call from officialdom 

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

The Emperor proclaims that everybody within his dominions has to take part in a census. Count your subjects and you can tax them more efficiently. The Gospel reading tonight tells us this is how the birth of Jesus came to take place in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph might have been living in Nazareth but that’s not the original family home - so off they go to Bethlehem. And there Jesus is born, as the angels proclaim to shepherds in their fields:

To you, in David's town, this day
is born of David's line
a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord;
and this shall be the sign:

There’s a certain irony in this - or a sense of history not going full circle but entering into a spiral. Joseph is descended from King David whose home was Bethlehem - so to Bethlehem he goes with Mary to be counted in for the census. Read the story of King David in the Old Testament and you find that almost the last thing he did was to declare a census throughout his lands of Israel and Judah. Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but David gets it into his head that it’s God’s will to count his people. Not only does it tell him how big his Kingdom is. It tells him of the power at his disposal: 800,000 soldiers able to draw the sword in Israel and a further 500,000 in Judah.

It’s rather frightening to think that in such a small country so many men could be mobilised for war. The Emperor Augustus wants to know how many subjects he can tax. King David wants to find out how many he can call on to fight. In fact David comes to regret what he has done as an act of self-aggrandisement. He’s putting his own power and prestige above the honour due to God. He’s forgetting that his authority and power come ultimately from God - they are not his to use in just any way he might decide for himself.

But don’t these actions of a Roman Emperor and an Israelite King tell us so much that’s true of our world today? Without revenue - without tax - how is a government to provide for its people?... though most of what we’re hearing in the news these days is of how our political leaders plan to reduce the deficit, rather than meet the cost of health and social care. And the numbering of King David’s troops has its echoes in all our concerns for national security in a world where so many people suffer from capricious violence and oppression fomented by those who possess the weapons of force and are able to direct people willing to use them.

The censuses called by King David and the Emperor Augustus are reminders of the ways of earthly rulers. They get their way because of the temporal powers they possess. But born in the line of David’s descendants - born in Bethlehem because of Emperor Augustus’s command - Jesus enters the story to reveal a new sort of Kingship. The hope of the Jewish people was that a Messiah would rise up amongst them as their leader - and that he would be born of David’s family. One King had led them for a short time to be a united people, victorious on the battlefield. Another King, they hoped, would lead them to bring freedom from being a captive people. Now Jesus is born - one whose name translates into a promise that he would save his people.

But Jesus comes as a Saviour with a difference. Born in the poor town of Bethlehem with an animal trough for his first bed, he has no trappings of royal kingship. When wise men come from the East looking for a King whose birth has been heralded by a new star in the sky, they go to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. But he is not there. They need to travel on to humbler surroundings in a village on the city’s outskirts. And while the Emperor Augustus allowed himself to be proclaimed a god, Jesus comes - the Son of God - but laying aside his divine prerogatives to be born as any one of us, the son of Mary.

Wise men will visit the child of Bethlehem - in due course. But the first visitors to the new-born king are not royal courtiers, but shepherds, called from fields where they had tended their flocks. Shepherds were the outsiders of their day - not only economically poor but spiritually on the edge as well, unable to keep the ritual requirements of their religion. But they are the ones who first hear the message of Christ’s birth - and hear it from an angel, a messenger of God. They might be the last people who would expect to receive a divine revelation…  And then there’s a whole host of angels before them. The Bible’s word for “host” perhaps translates better as “army” - an army of angels; and they bring a call to follow a new King.

It’s a call that we need to hear as well. God has touched this world in a way that had never been done before. He wants to establish his ways not by force but by the changing of hearts. Because in Jesus we see how divine power can make itself able to enter into the fullness of humanity:

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
   Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
   Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

God looks on us now with the eyes of a child. The manger is at such a height that kneeling shepherds may look into the eyes of God. May we too look - and learn what it is to be his people, and he our King.


Friday, 19 December 2014

Christmas Near You!

Christmas Eve Carol Service
An all age service - carols, readings, candles & handbells!
Wednesday 24th December 2014 at 6:00 PM for 1 hour
Family Friendly
Midnight Mass of the Nativity
Welcome the Christ Child at St. Cuthbert's
Wednesday 24th December 2014 at 11:30 PM for 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Sung Eucharist of Christmas Day
An all-age service with Holy Communion; this service replaces the usual 10.30a.m. Sunday Eucharist
Thursday 25th December 2014 at 9:30 AM for 1 hour
Family Friendly
Eucharist for New Year's Day
Thursday 1st January 2015 at 11:00 AM for 40 minutes

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Read all about it!

Sorry there's been a delay in getting the November issue of our Parish Magazine online. It's now up in the ether and you can find it here. Lots of articles, much to look forward to, a record of events and this month's Calendar - and you get to see it in colour.

There have also been updates to the pages which accompany this Blog. Please take a look!

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Loss and thankfulness…

Last month I wrote about my father’s final prolonged illness and death - and the support I’ve found in our parish. Sadly sickness and bereavement are an ongoing part of pastoral life - or rather they are part of life, not something to be hidden away but taken together with life’s richness and its causes for thankfulness.

In September our congregation has had cause to mourn - first the death of Jean Burt, then Irvine Macnair, and (as we go to press) Olive Booth. These are real causes for sorrow and we share their families’ sense of loss. Each of them had been ill for a long time before they died. We have to acknowledge the reality of suffering.

But with it goes thankfulness too. Bereavement brings grief - but it’s important not to let go of all that is a cause for gratitude in the lives of our loved ones. As I stood by Olive’s bedside just a couple of days before she died, I was struck by the memory of how she had gone with me to sit by the bedside of another parishioner month by month as we had shared in Holy Communion - and how that went along with healthy doses of laughter enriched by her particular sense of humour. So much she had brought into the lives of other through the long years of her life - we mustn’t let it go when our loved ones need all our care and caring, and seem to recede from us.

So too with Irvine. The last time I spent with him was not only a time for prayer but an occasion for a quick check on the practicalities of getting the Parish Magazine distributed! We know how much he brought into the life of our church from being Treasurer to mowing the grass through organising after-church coffee - and much more, but above all by being there. His life in the community touched so many - professional work as an anaesthetist but also voluntary work for hospital and hospice, enjoyment of music with the Gramophone Society - or just being out and about with the dogs! Most of us knew less about his army service, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel; that he had his “wings” as someone who could parachute in to give aid as needed - or his gift for improvising in the field.

At a funeral I’m always aware there’s so much more we could say. We need to be in touch with the richness of life - and that includes our own. When things seem bleak, we need to recognise the cause for gratitude. Then we might see life as a gift - and the Giver is God.

Martin Jackson

From the October issue of our Parish Magazine - find all its content here

Monday, 8 September 2014

From the heart…

Over the last few months I’ve had real cause to be so grateful for so much support from people at St. Cuthbert’s during a time when my father has been critically ill in hospital and finally died during August. I’m quite touched by all the cards, messages, prayers and practical demonstrations of support following his death - and my mother joins me in saying just how much we have appreciated all of these. It was good that quite a few of our parishioners were able to join us for the funeral at St. Luke’s, Hartlepool - and that they stayed on to help consume the refreshments (the local side turned out for the service but amazed us by largely disappearing before the eats and drinks - obviously something we could teach them about!).

Now I’m back in the parish - and as I write I’m just back from the first visit I’ve made to arrange a funeral for someone else. What can I say? The human condition is one of mortality. As the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas roughly puts it, “None of us are going to get out of this life alive.” But the difference Christianity makes is in what we encounter on our journey - and the hope that awaits us at its end. And the Christian hope embraces the whole human condition. It was a privilege to be able to be a priest to my father with prayers, anointing and commendation - remember they are there for anyone in need! But as I said at the funeral there was a certain priestly ministry in just being able to be his son. We can all share in that for those to whom we are close - I found it most deeply holding an ice lolly for him to eat on a hot July day. Something about a father and his son…

Earlier in the summer I read a couple of books that our Reading Group have been sharing - see their article in this magazine to learn more about their future plans. The books I read were Stoner  by John Williams and The Hare with Amber Eyes  by Edmund de Waal. The first about a fictitious life but brilliantly related; the second the story of the author’s own family. I was struck by the absence of God in the entirety of Stoner from birth to deathbed. And the story of the Ephrussi family was of Jews who were set apart only as people who would suffer discrimination and finally persecution - their Jewishness not only eschewed the practice of faith but even cultural reference. Yet strangely God comes in with a daughter of the Viennese branch of the family converting to Christianity and becoming an Anglican - in Paris and as she marries a Dutch Mennonite! And then she rescues her parents from the Nazis.

Where do we find God? Let’s give him a place in our lives.

Martin Jackson

From the September issue of our Parish Magazine - find the whole issue here

Monday, 21 July 2014

A sower went out - and what grew...

At its last meeting on Sunday13 July, our Sunday School created a model of Jesus' Parable of the Sower. What many of us didn't realise is that they had planted real seeds - which are now pushing up their shoots. Interesting to see where the... plants are growing... The birds must have missed one or two of the seeds which fell along the path. Seeds which fell amongst the thorns / weeds are definitely struggling. Those which fell on rocky ground are shooting up still (but remember Jesus' warning). Thankfully those planted in good ground are in the lead.

Sunday School (and Messy Church) now take a break till the new school term in September. But remember that all ages are welcome at our Sunday Eucharist - 10.30a.m. each week!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Online house-keeping

We've just been doing some up-dating on the blog and our website...

Use the tabs above to find new homilies and our calendar for the next two months.

And our new Parish magazine is now online - just a click away!

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles

(Zechariah 4.1-6a,10b-14; Acts 12.1-11; Matthew 16.13-19)

Today’s first reading from the prophet Zechariah gives us a vision and a dialogue. First, the prophet’s vision:

I see a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it; there are seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. 3 And by it there are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.

The lampstand and its seven lamps represent the all-seeing nature of God, an angel tells the prophet. But the dialogue continues:

‘What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?... What are these two branches of the olive trees, which pour out the oil through the two golden pipes?’ 14 Then he said, ‘These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.’

Does that leave you any the wiser? We don’t know who these two “anointed ones” are in the vision of the prophet, several hundred years before the time of Christ. But as we read these words today, we are led on to think of the two great apostles, Peter and Paul. St. Paul himself, writing his letter to the Christians of Galatia, sums up their respective and complementary tasks:

…I had been entrusted with the Gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the Gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles).

The call to be an apostle is the call to be sent out with a task. Christ is to be seen at the centre of our faith. And if he is to be the heart of a living faith, then he needs people who will communicate that faith to others. Nearly two thousand years ago he chooses these two men, Peter and Paul. Today he chooses people like us.

Because Peter and Paul are people who are so like us. We remember them together on this Feast Day that bears both their names, but the truth is that they didn’t get on. Paul has harsh words for Peter, saying that he “opposed him to his face,” and that Peter had acted in such a way that he was “self-condemned.” And we can imagine how Peter must have felt about Paul - the uppity self-proclaimed apostle who had come so late to the Christian faith after a career of persecuting the first disciples. You can read for yourselves in the Bible about their feud and suspicions. And you’ll probably find yourself concluding that here are two men who should just grow up - each of them needs to recognise where he is wrong and the other one right. But in spite of it all they do remarkable things, each with a distinctive mission which results in the spread of the Christian faith across the Mediterranean from Palestine through Asia Minor and Greece to Rome and probably on to Spain - all in the space of one generation. Peter and Paul have their differences, but that is why they belong together. Could they have been more different in background and character? Peter is probably at best a roughly educated fisherman from Galilee. Paul is a Jew from the diaspora, a Roman citizen growing up with all the benefits of a Pharisaic training and a Hellenistic understanding which serve to make him all the more determined to oppose the heresy he detects amongst the people who had proclaimed Jesus to be a Messiah. But each of them finds his life transformed when Jesus calls them. Each of them will carry out a mission they could never have imagined. Each of them finds a new way of living because each is called to be open to the converting and renewing love of God in Christ.

If you go to Rome, you can visit the supposed tombs of Peter and Paul in churches which bear their names. It’s a bit of a trek to the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls - it has that name because it is outside the old walls of the city, a few miles from the centre. And the location is appropriate. Paul is the apostle who takes the message of the Gospel outside the boundaries of his own Judaism. The message of Christ cannot be confined to a particular people, he realises. It needs to be shared because God’s love extends to all of us. God’s love cannot be restricted to a particular race or to people who follow a particular set of rules or rituals. That’s Paul’s understanding, and he acts upon it. It’s an understanding that should challenge us. Do we see that God reaches into those areas of life which are alien to us… and to those people with whom we may feel uncomfortable? Can we see that God’s love is so powerful that it can break the barriers we erect? - that his love reaches out to me? Paul himself has to allow Christ to break into his own life, challenging his own rigorously worked-out perceptions. And then he will see how God has a purpose for all people.

The tomb of Peter is easier to reach. It’s in the crypt beneath St. Peter’s Basilica - and the whole edifice is built so that the altar is located directly above the tomb. You can understand what the builders are saying. They’ve heard those words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:

I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…

But we need to hear those words properly. Peter is the first of the disciples to recognise who Jesus is: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he tells him. It’s Peter who has that gift of perception which Jesus needs to find in his followers - and with it he has the boldness to say what he has found. Jesus can build using people like this. It’s Jesus who actually gives Peter his name - he had been known as Simon; now he is to be Peter, which means literally, “the rock.”

Again and again I find myself looking to Peter as an example for holy living and discipleship. Upon the foundation of such as him, God wills to build his Church. Not just to build on Peter. To build on each one of us. Peter is a man of no great ability, a humble fisherman from Galilee, a near-forgotten backwater of the Roman Empire. And Peter is a man of great faults: rashness particularly, as eagerly he pushes himself forwards without considering whether he’s up to the task he takes on; and then when his courage fails he finds himself denying Jesus at the time of his trial, the time when he is needed most.

But with such people Jesus chooses to work – with frail human creatures like ourselves. Peter is a rock, not because in himself he is strong, but because he is made strong by the grace and redeeming love he finds in Christ. We find it when Jesus appears to the disciples by the lakeside after his Resurrection. It’s Peter who rushes to be with him, jumping into the lake to get to him first. But then he finds himself looked in the eye and asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Three times Jesus asks him, just as three times Peter had denied him. And Jesus tells him: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep.” Peter had fallen short of his calling, but still Christ calls him and uses him.

As a priest I find this passage of scripture to be one of the most important in the whole Bible – certainly closest to my heart. It’s about my calling  as a priest, about the calling of another eight priests who were ordained in Durham cathedral yesterday and eleven deacons being ordained this morning… We need to pray for them - but then remember, it’s about our calling, a common calling, all together. To care for the flock of Christ – his treasure bought with his blood upon the Cross. And what enables us to do this caring is that first Christ has cared for us, reached out to us, touched those parts of our lives where we fail, healed the very wounds we bear through our human frailty. We don’t cease to be flawed creatures. The grace of orders conveyed upon deacons and priests does not make them better people or any more clever or able. But it gives something which Peter finds, as he discovers once more his calling from the forgiving Christ.

Peter, I have found myself making my own patron saint, because of his frailty, but also I hope, because of his love. It is love which first draws him to Jesus, love which enables him to find forgiveness from him as three times he says, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” And love which carries him on as he seeks to feed Christ’s flock.

A priest at ordination is told, “Because you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength but only by the grace and power of God, pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit.” We need that grace and power which were given to St. Peter and St. Paul. And a priest needs to recognise that his or hers is not a ministry to be exercised alone. Ministry is a common task of the whole People of God... a common task – of proclaiming Christ’s love for his flock, of discovering it for ourselves.


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Rules for living

In today's homily, I found myself talking about Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, who suffered imprisonment after the Communist takeover of Saigon - but whose example was a cause for the conversion of his guards. Read more by clicking on the link.

Where can I find out more about him? asked a member of the congregation. Wikipedia has the basics including his "Ten Rules of Life." They're worth meditating upon - here they are:

Ten Rules of Life of Nguyễn Văn Thuận
  • I will live the present moment to the fullest. 
  • I will discern between God and God's works.
  • I will hold firmly to one secret: prayer.
  • I will see in the Holy Eucharist my only power.
  • I will have only one wisdom: the science of the Cross.
  • I will remain faithful to my mission in the Church and for the Church as a witness of Jesus Christ.
  • I will seek the peace the world cannot give.
  • I will carry out a revolution by renewal in the Holy Spirit.
  • I will speak one language and wear one uniform: Charity.
  • I will have one very special love: The Blessed Virgin Mary.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A life more ordinary…

… isn’t quite the name of a film I half-remember watching. But this is the time of year when we move into the period the Church calls “Ordinary Time.” It’s all those times when we’re not celebrating Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter. So it starts the day after Pentecost, Whit Sunday - and will continue for the best part of the next six months.

Each season has its own liturgical colour - the colour of the vestments worn by the priest and any hangings in church. For Easter it’s been white or gold and Pentecost brings us a final flourish of red depicting the colour of those flames of fire which signified the Holy Spirit coming upon the apostles. For Ordinary Time it’s green. I think that’s intentional. As I write, my already overgrown garden is an overwhelmingly lush green. It’s the colour of life - the stuff that grows whether we help it to or not. In church, the colour green is symbolic of God’s life enriching our lives, filling us with grace and power.

That word “ordinary” is one we need to get right. It doesn’t mean boring or uneventful. It’s about all the things we need to keep happening so we can grow and so that God’s purposes for us may be fulfilled. As we move into this season, I find my diary changing its character: not marked so much by the unfolding of the Church’s year as we follow Christ’s life from birth and infancy to his death, resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit - as by the implications for how we live our lives in response. So I’m now into the round of Baptisms and Marriages which are so much a staple of church life but also so significant and special for individuals, couples and families. We find the specialness of God speaking to us in the ordinariness of life.

We go on marking that with the round of church services and events. “Messy Church” is becoming well-established and is huge fun - it’s having an effect not merely on the children and their parents who come but on leaders and helpers who make it happen. But don’t forget those quieter occasions. Our monthly “Open for Prayer” - prayer is at the heart of our lives as Christians; to be intentionally silent for this time is a deep reminder of this. “Tea and Sympathy” in its response to bereavement tells of our calling to service and pastoral care. And there are the many other opportunities simply to come together to recognise that God speaks to us day by day - and not always where we expect.

We haven’t yet worked out everything we might be doing this month - keep an eye open for more, and ask “how is God working for me?”

Martin Jackson
(taken from the June 2014 issue of St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine)

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Easter continues…

Just before Holy Week began, I went to see the film “Calvary.” It’s set in the west of rural Ireland in a community where the priest is Fr. James Lavelle, played by the actor Brendan Gleeson. The story is of this backwater parish during one particular week - and begins with a penitent in the confessional telling the priest that he is going to kill him the following Sunday. The priest hasn’t done anything wrong to this man, but others have - and the would-be killer has decided that a good man needs to pay for the deeds of others. We don’t find out till the end who makes the threat. But there’s a question as to whether the priest knows - and what he will do about it.

 The priest could go to the police, he could ask for protection, he could run away for his own safety. But the film simply follows him as the week unfolds - and we see him going about daily life in the round of parish happenings, the quirkiness and problems of his parishioners, and in exploring his relationship with a daughter who was growing up when his wife died and he entered the priesthood. All along he is heading to “Calvary.” And the question is - where should he be?

 I wondered how many people in the audience might need the reference to Calvary explaining. Holy Week takes us from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem - hailed as a King - to his death on the Cross. Jesus could have cut and run. In his prayer in Gethsemane he’d asked that “the cup might pass from him.” But what we discover is how he discerns where he must be - with his people, finally dying for his people, not shirking his meeting with the man who would betray him.

Go on to Easter… and we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection and the glory that goes with it. And then - the celebrations should go on. Easter-tide itself lasts 50 days, through Ascension Day right up to Pentecost. Meanwhile we find ourselves back with the daily round of tasks we must attend to and relationships in which we are called to give and receive care. I love Easter - but then almost immediately find myself wearied at the prospect of lots of official paperwork and other administration which is always required at this time. The challenge of Easter is to see that it’s not merely a backward-looking glance at an event of 2,000 years ago - but rather the good news of how God brings new life and light into our world, and how we need to live it out every day. Jesus calls us - not to escape the realities of life which we confront, but to show us how to live through those realities with a new hope and aided by his grace.

A blessed Easter-tide to you!

[Taken from the May issue of St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine - find it all online here]

Monday, 7 April 2014

Messy Church is coming to St. Cuthbert's...

... craft activities, art, songs and worship, games and food!

For children with their families. Meeting on the Third Tuesday of each month from 3.30 - 5.30p.m.

First session on Tuesday 15th April. Join us in the Hall!

Monday, 31 March 2014

Parish Magazine - April issue now online

There's lots to read in our new Parish Magazine: all the details of Holy Week and Easter; preparations for our Annual Parochial Church Meeting; news of what has been happening and what is being planned - including "Messy Church," to be launched on Tuesday in Holy Week, 15th April; and a preview of our next three Book Club choices. Just click through to find all this and more!

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

To be a Pilgrim…

A pilgrimage is a special sort of journey. Pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Santiago de Compostela seem to be growing ever more popular - I’ve done one and would love to do the other, if I can find a spare six weeks or so to do it properly (and more time off to recover!). A new Pope has generated interest in pilgrimages to Rome, “the Holy City,” and not only amongst Roman Catholics. But you don’t need to go that far. Nearer to home we can make a pilgrimage to the tombs of Cuthbert and Bede in our own Durham Cathedral - and if you go up to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne you can walk across the sands at low tide to bring home the sense of a journey that might require a bit of effort.

A pilgrimage requires the intention of going somewhere - but it doesn’t necessarily require an understanding at the outset of what we shall find. The purpose of making the journey is to find something out along the way - the discovery of something about ourselves, about God and about God’s purpose for us. If it’s a physical journey it needs to be more than sight-seeing, always asking what is God showing me?

But to undertake a pilgrimage doesn’t necessarily require that you go that far - or even travel anywhere else at all. It can be to stay where we are, yet nevertheless explore where Christ is calling us. Lent is a special season which is a sort of pilgrimage in itself. We start on Ash Wednesday with the opportunity to recognise our need and frailty. God is calling us to repentance - and immediately promising us forgiveness and the grace to do better. That’s why ash is used at the Eucharist that day - to show us what we are reduced to the mere chemical elements of which we are composed: “to dust we shall return.” And yet God has given us a glorious calling also - of life which is made new by the love of Christ for us. The journey from Ash Wednesday through Lent and Holy Week via the Cross to Easter Day is to help us recognise that calling.

Pilgrimages are at their best when you travel with others. That’s what we should be doing whenever we gather for prayer and worship - and throughout there’s a social aspect of encouragement for one another. Let’s make the most of it this Lent, by personal dedication, in recognition of a common calling, by sharing and mutual support, by the use of resources which are there, if only we’ll look.

I’m glad that a good number of people have already signed up for a special course of study, discussion and prayer this Lent. Appropriately it’s got the title, “Pilgrim.” It’s an official publication of the Church of England. Following the course we won’t be out on our own - thousands of others will be working at it too. It’s part of a much larger series provided to encourage people on their journey of faith. This one in particular looks at the Lord’s Prayer. Intentionally it is very basic. And we need to examine the basics of our faith, to review the path of our calling if we are to grow properly. As a parish we’ve identified the need to grow in understanding of the basics of our faith and to put prayer at the heart of our life. So this course aims to fulfil both intentions.

Whether or not you’re taking part in this specific course, please make the most of Lent. As a season of just six and a half weeks it gives us all a measured course. We may not know where it will lead us as we start - but let’s pray that we’ll be better for it at its end.
Martin Jackson

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

God's Creation and our Response of Gratitude

(From the Sung Eucharist - 23rd February 2014)

God’s Creation is good. That’s what today’s First Reading tells us. God creates the heavens and the earth; separates light and darkness; brings into being great constellations; provides us with a world of rich resources and vast oceans too; he fills the world with plants and vegetation of every kind; he makes living creatures from the smallest bacteria through a whole array of sea creatures, birds and animals in a variety and richness to cause us to wonder; and he creates human beings - men and women. He looks on all this work of Creation - and he sees that it is very good.

There’s the well-worn story of the Vicar out for a walk one day - and he meets the grumpiest man in the village hard at work in his garden. Mr. Grumpy never shows up in church - he’s always in his garden - and he gets results: it’s the most beautiful garden for miles around. The Vicar is a pious soul: “You should praise God for the beauty of Creation,” he tells Mr. Grumpy. “Just look at this wonderful garden he has given you.” “Oh, aye,” says Mr. Grumpy. “And you should have seen the state of it when God had it all to himself.”

I look at my garden and wonder… Actually someone pointed out that it was getting a bit hard to look at my garden because the windows of my house were so dirty and it was rather difficult to see through them. When I told a friend he offered to come round and hold the ladder while I cleaned them. So we did that during the part of my day off that I managed to salvage on Friday. What a difference! It’ll be even better if I get round to cleaning the insides too! One of the reasons for doing this is that our new Bishop of Durham is going to come round and visit each of his clergy at home. The last one was going to do this, though it never quite happened… With this one I’ve already got a date and a time: Bishop Paul is coming to the Vicarage on Ash Wednesday afternoon! Just 10 days time! What impression will he take from what he sees?

Actually I’ve just received a Quinquennial Inspection report on the Vicarage from our Diocesan Surveyor. The good news is that it looks like the diocese might repair the wine cellar door. The embarrassing bit is that they comment on the garden and its “overgrown borders” - a bit unfair I thought when I just haven’t had time and a dry day to clear them out. A previous Surveyor used instead to say simply that they were “well-stocked,” which I thought was a far kinder approach. Anyway, I’ve been galvanised into action. I’ve raked out nearly all the old stuff both front and back - and to make sure I can no longer be accused of having vegetation that is overgrown, I’ve taken the lawn mower over the borders of the front garden. It’s the radical approach - though not quite as radical as a youth group I had in a previous parish which was given the challenge of clearing up my garden. They found a carpet in my garage, spread it out over the beds of weeds and set fire to it. I only found out later that we were storing the carpet for a friend of the family.

The good news following my latest efforts in the garden is that I can see the first signs of spring. Snowdrops had been sheltering behind the dead remains of last year’s flowers. The daffodils are pushing their way up through piles of leaves and whatever else it was that I’ve now raked away. I’m hoping that I may find crocuses growing where I’ve cut down some other unidentified green stuff that had spread itself too luxuriantly over half the front garden.

And when I sat outside the church the other afternoon to say Evening Prayer on Albert and Joan Bartrope’s bench the birds were singing away, heralding the spring. Creation is good. My heart lifts when I look out of my bedroom window in the morning to see two deer in the garden below. The pheasant is back. Even those irritating grey squirrels and the pigeons are part of God’s carefree creation. And you see its beauty in the smallest things. Coal tits, I think they are, flitting around in the trees below the Vicarage, and the blackbird is back in my juvenile cherry tree.

Jesus tells the disciples: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Thankfulness needs to be our first response to God. If people would show more gratitude and do less complaining and grumbling, I’m sure the world would be a better place. “God clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,” says Jesus. Remember that, if you’re worried about new clothes for the sake of keeping up with fashion. Get a sense of perspective if you think you need a new car and the last one isn’t even out of its warranty - or a new phone or laptop or tablet or whichever model of PlayStation or Xbox they’re up to now (I’m talking to myself as well as anyone else I might be offending!).

But of course Jesus is speaking to people who have the luxury of worrying about these things. There are also those who have real cause for worry. St. Paul in our reading from his Letter to the Romans speaks of Creation being “subjected to futility” - and of Creation “groaning in labour pains.” There are many people who have experienced that this winter - with flooded fields and homes, cut-off communities and the heartache of loss. Creation seems to be going wrong - or perhaps we just felt we could control it and now we’re discovering the difference between the stewardship of creation and its misuse for our own ends. Whatever the case, the pain of so many people who have seen well-loved homes damaged and cherished possessions ruined cannot be denied.

But when money is said to be no object by the Government as it announces its intention of bringing relief to these communities, I think we need a new perspective. When it hurts to see what the people of these communities have lost, we need to remember those who live with the daily reality of surviving on the breadline. Along with the person whose home has been temporarily lost to the floods, there needs to be concern for the family which might be forced from their home because it’s judged that they have one bedroom too many so they have their housing benefit cut - and where will they go when there aren’t enough small houses to move into. Most of us do well to hear Jesus say, “Don’t worry about what you will eat, what you will drink or what you will wear,” because we probably eat and drink too much anyway. But for the unemployed person who finds that their benefit has been delayed or denied - or who has been penalised because it’s said they haven’t written enough applications for jobs which they’re not going to get anyway, this is a matter for real worry.

At his enthronement yesterday Bishop Paul encouraged us to believe in growth in a real way. Just look at how the Food Bank movement has grown from something so small, he said. But while it’s good that there has been that growth, the sadness is that it should have been necessary. As Bishop Paul went on, God’s people are to provide a place of welcome for all. And “God’s kingdom is open to all, poor and rich, old and young, from whatever nation on earth. It is to be a place of shelter and security for the broken, the hurting, the lost, the refugee, the abused and indeed a place of transformative renewal for the abusers and sufferers too.”

Do not worry, says Jesus. But look and see the goodness of God. Be thankful. Look at what God enables to grow. Be thankful, not complaining. And then - seeing what God has given us - be generous as God has been generous to us.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Here is the Lamb of God - recognising Christ

“Look! Here is the Lamb of God,” says John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading (John 1.35-42). Actually he says it twice.

First he sees Jesus coming towards him and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And from that he goes on to speak about the Baptism of Jesus - how the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus at his Baptism shows him to be the Son of God. John has seen it for himself - and he wants to tell people about it.

And then John says it again the next day. “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!” This time Jesus is walking past while John is standing there with two of his disciples. John points out Jesus and the two people with him decide to find out more. They leave John and follow after Jesus.

What does it mean to you to hear those words, “Here is the Lamb of God!”? We use them Sunday by Sunday, even day by day at the Eucharist. It’s the invitation which we normally use in this church to come to the altar to receive Christ’s Body and Blood - and we are reminded “Blessed are those who are called to his Supper.” Blessing is to be found by recognising Jesus and knowing him for who he is.

Perhaps though, we hear those words so often that we just take them for granted. Or we’ve never really thought through what they mean. On altars and in stained glass windows you’ll sometimes see a depiction of a lamb holding a cross. It can look cutely fluffy and pretty innocuous. But look more closely and you might see blood flowing from the lamb’s neck and into a chalice. This is about the lamb as a sacrificial victim, its blood shed and offered for a purpose.

There’s something new about the “Lamb of God” pointed out by John. Lambs and sheep were not the obvious offering for sacrifice in the Jewish Temple. Bulls and goats were offered to take away the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement. Offerings of grain and other fruits of the earth could be made especially at Harvest-time. Incense was burned as a sacrifice declaring that earth is joined with heaven in the praises of the Temple. The sacrifice of a lamb was something else - and for Jews sacrificing a lamb was not about taking away sin. It was about people and their place before God. Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, makes a sacrifice of the first-born of his flocks of sheep - and his offering is approved by God, whose lack of favour shown to Abel’s brother, Cain, leads to the first recorded murder. Abraham is turned by an angel from sacrificing his son Isaac instead to offer a ram in his place. And the Book of Leviticus made it a law that every first born son should be redeemed by the offering of a ram - though in the case of poor families like that of Jesus it could be replaced by sacrificing two doves.

Each of these sacrifices is about a personal offering - and one where the lamb stands in for an individual. The whole person needs to be redeemed before God. Except there is one particular time when the sacrifice of lambs meant something more. It's at the time of the Feast of the Passover. Lambs were offered and their blood smeared above the door of Jewish households as a sign of God’s love for his people, his care and rescue of the Israelites as he freed them from slavery in Egypt before leading them to their own Promised Land.

Now John the Baptist points out Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God!” God is doing something new for his people - and in the course of things we will discover it’s not merely another Exodus, God’s care for people of one particular race and nation. It’s a new Passover which shows God’s redeeming love for the world - for all its people. “Here is the Lamb of God!” Are we going to recognise how God is at work in Jesus?

You can miss it through a sense of familiarity… “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We sing about that every Sunday before we come to Communion in the words of the Agnus Dei 

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace. 

Do we take in what we are saying and singing?

For some people, talk about “sin” is a bit of a turn-off. Its reality escapes us. It’s something we might see in other people rather than ourselves - or it gets associated with sexual wrongdoing, and these days pretty well anything between consenting adults is reckoned to be OK. Problems that many people have in recognising what is entailed by talk about sin have led to proposals for some changes in the Baptism service. Predictably some parts of the media (notably the Daily Mail and Bishop Michael Nazir Ali) have started shouting about the Church getting weak about its own convictions through the proposal to drop the word “sin” itself in the Decision made before Baptism. Talk of “dying to sin” and the question, “Do you repent of your sins?” get removed from the text.

But that doesn’t mean the Church is getting wishy-washy. The attempt is to produce something more meaningful than those bits of the service which provoke a response of blank, bored looks. Something more than words is necessary. Baptism is God’s way of addressing us as whole people and asking for a response which will change the whole of our lives.

The first followers of Jesus discover this when John the Baptist points out Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” First time round he declares “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” - but we just hear John talking; no one does anything about it.

But the next day when he again points Jesus out - “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!” - there’s something that moves two of his disciples to do something that will lead to their being changed for ever. They follow Jesus. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” - and they don’t know. But they ask “where are you staying?” And then they take up the invitation, “Come and see.”

“Come and see” is Jesus’ invitation to us as well. His first followers spend the day with him. Then they go and tell other people about Jesus - and they come to find out for themselves.

That’s what we need to do.

The new proposals for the Baptism service don’t drop sin and its consequences. They require the rejection of evil as “all that destroys” - not just “evil” as a short word you can easily say, but “all its many forms” and “all its empty promises.” The challenge is to make the response, “I turn to Christ” - and to keep on doing so: “And to put my trust in him… And to promise to follow him for ever.”

That’s a challenge to anyone who is thinking about being baptised or having their child baptised. It’s a challenge to all of us here. “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!” Are we ready to learn more about this man, Jesus? Are we prepared to take the trouble to spend time with him? How will we respond to his invitation? - “Come and see.”