Friday, 16 December 2016

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Time is of the essence

This two-month issue of the Parish Magazine covers three seasons of the Church’s year: Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Of the three it’s Advent which is probably the most neglected. Christmas has carols, cribs and shepherds, Epiphany has wise men and glorious gifts. Advent is more abstract. Its traditional themes of the Four Last Things - Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell - are not easily dealt with, and not really matters that most people want to think about. On top of which Advent tends to get pushed out of the way. It’s become “pre-Christmas:” a time of anxiety in shopping for presents, worrying about who will get missed off the greetings card list, and getting ready for the day or two when supermarkets will be closed and we fear we might run out of the excessive amounts of food and drink we plan to consume (and all those parties before Christmas).

But Advent properly observed is a corrective to this. The one aspect which survives in popular culture is the Advent Calendar. It’s become a sort of countdown to Christmas with a chocolate a day. But fundamentally it is about “time.” We number the days. The Psalmist had prayed that we may learn to “number our days” - and that’s to say that we need to recognise the preciousness of time. Time we are given - a gift, God’s gift to us. Time which is an opportunity not to be wasted.

In the Church’s Calendar, Advent is the beginning of a new year - so can we use it as a time of resolution? Right from the start, be patient even as we get anxious about Christmas preparations. Learn how to pace ourselves. Give up being so caught up in activity that it leaves us only fit to slump. How can I best use my time? - for my own benefit; to help others; to spend time with God. “We wait for the Lord” in this season of Advent. Let’s recognise that virtue of waiting, and be all the more joyous in our Christmas celebration. MJ

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Cryogenics and the Feast of Christ the King

Homily at this morning's Eucharist 

One of the saddest news stories of the last week must surely be the one about the 14 year old girl who knew she was dying of a rare form of cancer - with no hope of any cure. She wanted to live, and she wanted to live so much that she asked if her body could be cryogenically frozen in the hope that some time in the future -  perhaps hundreds of years in the future - a cure for her condition might be found and somehow the doctors might restore her to life. She isn’t the first to have made that request. But because of her age she was too young to make a will and too young to determine what should be done with her body when she died. So she asked her mother, who agreed. Her grandparents came up with the £37,000 it would cost to dehydrate her cells so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by ice crystals and to drain her body of blood which would be replaced by a sort of anti-freeze, to pack her in dry ice and send her to a storage facility in America where her remains would be stored in a canister of liquid nitrogen. But her father objected - which is why her request became a news story. It required a High Court judge to determine what should happen - and he ruled that the girl’s mother should have the right to decide. So the mother set in motion the process for freezing and storing the girl’s body. The girl died within 10 days of the court ruling. The girl and her mother spent her last hours together - the girl apparently was comforted by having her request granted, though reports are that the mother was distracted by knowing just what would have to be done immediately following her daughter’s death.

The story of a young person’s death is tragic in itself. This story is so much more tragic again. So much more life that could have been lived - the girl, her family and the judge knew that; we know that. The desperate clinging to life - that is human in itself. But the still further element of tragedy is that the whole process of letting go in the face of death is denied - this cannot be a good death - in a sense because death is denied: the hospital could not do its work properly; the father was denied access to his daughter; the mother herself seems not to have been able to be attentive in a time when every moment of the present is so precious; the girl herself clung to a hope - but we are left asking if she was sold only an empty hope. And no one seemed prepared to explore the aftermath. How can loved ones grieve for someone who has died but then been left in a state where there’s that most remote possibility of some sort of resuscitation? No grave to visit or place to lay flowers, but the knowledge of a large aluminium canister in which bodies are hung upside down for centuries or until the money runs out or there’s a power failure or leakage in the coolant system. And to what state could life be restored? Would anyone have the will to bring the girl back to life even if it should be possible? What sort of life after the damage of disease and the complications of the preserving process? And with whom would that life be shared? Our living is made worthwhile because of the context and relationships in which we live. Who would be this girl’s loved ones for her?

It’s a sad story for our secular age, where God doesn’t get a look in. Actually I think there are plenty of ethical issues even for the most hardened secularists - at least if they approach them from a properly humanist perspective. What is it truly to be human? That’s the question we need always to ask. It doesn’t seem to have entered the equation in this tragic case. And there’s no sense at all that to be human is to be made in the image of God. We are made in God’s image, even with all the flaws we possess of human character, frailty and disease. We are God’s creation, not lightly to be handled, even if we might be aware most acutely of its imperfections as we perceive them. And because we are made in God’s image, we have a hope - even in the face of death - of redemption. Our bodies and our minds, even our abilities and our relationships, are less than perfect - but we are loved. That’s the affirmation we can hold to as Christians, even in the darkest of circumstances, even when we can’t make that affirmation ourselves. If only there could have been someone there for that family to affirm it for them as that poor girl faced death. If only they could commend her to God’s care and protection - to know that he holds her in his heart; to say in the words of that simplest of prayers, May she rest in peace.

That needs to be our prayer for them now. I’ve thought about their plight as I’ve pondered today’s readings for the Eucharist. The plea of one of the thieves crucified with Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus’ response from his own cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Is this a real promise? There’s no theological underpinning: Christians and others continue to argue over the nature of life after death. There’s the other thief who simply mocks from his own cross - hard words denying hope in the imminence of death from one who is paying the penalty for his own failures in life. But that is not to say that he himself is without hope. Jesus promises hope to the one we call “the repentant thief” / “the penitent thief.” But he doesn’t himself speak words of condemnation against the thief who derides him. And Jesus’ words of hope in Paradise are not an anodyne response. We look at Jesus on the Cross and see one who will himself cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Forsakenness is a natural emotion in the face of death. And it’s one that Jesus himself feels. He shares it as he dies on a Cross under the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.” This is our King, Christ the King. But a King with a difference. Without special protection, without bodyguards. Whose throne in this world turns out to be a Cross - but who can because of that all the better reach out to us from it. Vulnerable - as any of us. God’s Son - and affirming our call to be his children. Let’s remember that for all who face their own Calvary - and for ourselves.

(Readings at the Eucharist: Jeremiah 23.1-6; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43)

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Remembrance and the need for new vision

Homily at the Sung Eucharist - 13 November 2016

(Isaiah 65.17-25; Luke 21.5-19)

Words we hear in today’s Gospel:

9 When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

Listening to these words today they may seem to indicate a certain inevitability about the state of the world as it is. “There will be great earthquakes…” - and thousands are living in temporary accommodation only a fortnight or so after the most recent earthquakes to have afflicted Central Italy. The world is still not immune to famines and plagues. But most of all we know the continuing persistence of war which blights the lives of millions in Iraq, Syria and so many other lands - with a fall-out into other nations through the fear generated by the tacticians of terror. What can we do to turn back the tide of war? And there is a temptation to say, “We must be strong, and show our strength.” It goes along with the rhetoric we have been hearing all too much in these last weeks of making America “great” again. There’s no denying the reality of that rhetoric when it is employed by a Russian leader. And what about our own nation? - perhaps we might be on dangerous ground if we too readily succumb to the aspiration of putting the “Great” back into “Great Britain.” We truly should be “Great Britain…” but as the name is intended and in contrast to the “Little Britain” which empty patriotism might so easily conjure.

The war dead we honour today died not to make our country great but to secure freedom and justice not only for our own land but for others. As the epitaph in the war cemetery at Kohima says,

When you go home, tell them of us and say
For their tomorrow, we gave our today.

There’s another sort of epitaph in this poem - and it’s possibly due to its popularity that the poppy has come to be so potent a symbol for us today.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poem itself is the epitaph, composed by the Canadian doctor and artillery commander John McCrae when he was called on to take the funeral of another officer. In the midst of the Battle of Ypres in May 1915 there was no chaplain available and McCrae stepped in to officiate. “We are the Dead…” - and he means those buried beneath the crosses and poppies. But we feel it ourselves - our place alongside those who had so recently lived and loved in the flush of youth, felt the warmth of the sun but now know the coldness of death and the clay in which they are laid. Do not “break faith with us who die…” That must be the challenge to us now. But there is that other line that might give us cause to ponder: “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Does that mean, keep fighting on regardless? Or might it make us question, how do we pursue our differences and quarrels? - how do we look at people we might consider the enemy, who we write off as alien to ourselves, beyond a common understanding?  

The poet and soldier Roland Leighton found himself challenged by an experience he recorded in Ploegsteert Wood in April 1915:

"...there was a grave in the wood with a carefully made wooden cross inscribed with the words: 'Here lie two gallant German Officers.'

“The men who put up the cross congratulated themselves a little on their British magnanimity, but when, later, they pushed the enemy out of the trenches in front of the wood, they found another grave as carefully tended and inscribed: ‘Here lie five brave English officers.’”

Leighton himself would be killed in battle before that year ended. But before his death he had realised that humanity and compassion are not the sole possession of those we consider friends and allies. What should bind us together should be far stronger than anything that might divide us. It’s there in Wilfred Owen’s poem, Strange Meeting, where two soldiers emerge from battle on the other side of death to tell of all that is dear but now lost - and to speak finally the devastating words of recognition: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend…”

In this week’s Church Times, the Anglican Priest, Paul Oestreicher, writes of the time his father took him - as a young man - to visit the fields where the Battle of the Somme had been fought a century ago. It was a sunny day as they walked through cornflowers and poppies. His father, born in Germany, had volunteered to fight with patriotic fervour - and he survived the carnage of war to be promoted from Private to Lieutenant in the 11th Bavarian Artillery. At the end of the war he found himself in a field hospital in Alsace, bitter in defeat but still with his pride in the Fatherland intact. But not for long. In 1918 he found himself having to escape the French before they could take him prisoner as they re-occupied Alsace. In 1938 - having Jewish parents - he had to flee for his life from Germany.

Most people in this country have been mystified or more likely uncomprehending at the refusal of FIFA, the world governing body in football, to agree to the wearing of poppies by the England and Scotland teams in their match on Armistice Day. Their reasoning is that the poppy is a political symbol - an argument which would barely enter into the minds of the vast majority of us who simply wear them. As I’ve been talking with children in schools I hear what is surely much nearer to the point - the poppy which bloomed in those fields of battle, its colour the red of blood shed by those who died, a beautiful flower which might speak of lives so cruelly cut short, and its fragility which speaks of our own precious, human vulnerability.

The poppy stands against the callousness of the hard-hearted, against the rhetoric of politicians who set national strength in opposition to the requirements of justice and provision for the needy, against anyone who would diminish the human dignity of our neighbour in a world which is God’s creation.

A friend of mine wrote on Facebook the other day: “Well, there you go. I was just spat at.” One man had blocked her path as she walked down the street in Sheffield, another spat at her. She is a priest like me. Unlike me, she is black. After so much blood has been spilled and so many lives given in the cause of freedom and justice, there are still those who confuse patriotic service of their country with hatred of those they feel do not conform to their national ideal. A misguided nationalism which thinks it knows what is against but has no right sense of what it is for so easily writes off anything and anyone perceived to be different as simply alien - and you might be written off as alien because of your religion, race, sexuality, colour, the way you dress or your economic status.

As we lament the wars of the last century we need again to ask, why were they fought? - to what end were so many lives given? As we despair at the millions whose lives are still destroyed by wars being fought now in other lands, we need to ask what is required of us that peace with justice be built here in our own land today? Let not the sacrifice of others have been in vain.

The vision which Isaiah is given for his people is a vision towards which we should all work:

19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat…
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox…
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
says the LORD.

Monday, 31 October 2016

What on earth is the Church for?

That is the question we found ourselves asking at a meeting to prepare for the Mission to our Diocese by bishops from all over the North. It’s called “Talking Jesus.” Read a bit about it on page 14 - and we hope you’ll hear much more about it before it takes place at the beginning of next March.

What could we do to get ready? we asked ourselves. One conclusion we came to is that we tend to be reluctant to talk about our faith because we’re not always very confident as to what we believe. So we’ve decided to try to tackle that - in a very basic way without any great planning. In November and early December we’ll have three meetings open to anyone to look at the basics of what the Church is for: how it’s about our relationship with God and with the wider world; his relationship with us and with this world we call his Creation.

We’ll be meeting on Tuesday evenings in the Ian Severs Room (the lower level of the Hall - approach from the Car Park entrance). All are welcome. You don’t need to be a regular church-goer. All questions are welcome. If you’re worried they might be too basic - don’t! That’s just what we need. So, come & join us.

The first two meetings are this month: 7.30p.m. start…  

Tuesday 8 November and Tuesday 22 November   

Martin Jackson

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Last Sunday after Trinity - Bible Sunday

(Isaiah 45.22-25; Romans 15.1-6; Luke 4.16-24)

The Church of England marks today by giving us two names for the day: the Last Sunday after Trinity and Bible Sunday. They’re both misleading descriptions - if not actually wrong! It’s only the Last Sunday after Trinity by virtue of next Sunday being the Fourth Sunday before Advent - but that gives the game away, because that means there are actually another four Sundays after Trinity before we reach the end of the Church’s year. As for Bible Sunday… I get the point that it’s good to take an opportunity to look at the importance of the Bible in the life of the Church in general and the Christian in particular. But shouldn’t that be the case every week? - every day? There’s a danger that we try to say something about the special place of the Bible in determining how we express our faith and live our lives - but forget that it’s more than simply words on a page.

Nevertheless we’re given good passages from the Bible for use today - and one of them in particular shows how Jesus thought about the Bible and its use. But here’s a note of caution: read the words, but see where they are placed! Context is everything. The words of Scripture are not proof texts to be used as easy answers to all our questions.

You can see why these passages have been chosen for this day we call Bible Sunday. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes

whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

And then in the Gospel reading, St Luke tells us that Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah and then declared,

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

So Paul is telling us that you can trust the Bible - it’s something to learn from (“for our instruction”), it can keep you going in the right direction even when things are tough (it enables “steadfastness”) and it’s a source of encouragement. But remember that he’s talking about the Bible he knew - what we call the Old Testament.

That raises two questions: First, what about all those bits of the Old Testament we’re not too keen on now, like long lists of laws on things you can or can’t eat or even wear? - and more particularly on how you treat other people, whether you want to get on with them or not: whole peoples who get massacred because other people want to occupy their land and live in their towns; people of the “wrong” nationality or religion; people who get discriminated against, oppressed and even killed because of their gender or sexuality. Besides which we might ask how we can give approval to what are often morally doubtful actions on the part of some of the Bible’s main characters - there’s Abraham, who throws his first son and his son’s unmarried mother out of the household… and nearly kills his second son; Joshua, who directs a military campaign that might now be described as genocide; Samson, whose penchant for killing his enemies might charitably be understood at best as psychotic homicide; King David, who establishes his nation and is portrayed as a model for the coming Messiah, but who can’t refrain from multiple marriages, adultery and cover-ups by bloodshed.

I could go on… But then there’s the second issue that if the Scripture in which we are to invest so much of our faith is the Old Testament, what can we make of the New Testament? It would be an audacious claim for the New Testament writer who declares “All Scripture is inspired by God…” to add, “… and by the way that includes this letter that I’m writing now.” Knowing that Scripture has the authority of God - and that it provides a way to understand his nature and purpose - requires something more.

What I love about the Bible is not that it’s a text book full of answers that you can read from the page. It’s that it shows us the lives of frail and failing people, and their mixed-up relationships, and their disagreements and lack of understanding - and that in the midst of it all God is at work. He speaks to them, even if they don’t hear it properly. He blesses them - even if they throw the blessings away. And finally he comes to us - born as any one of us - in Jesus, living a human life, knowing its joys and vulnerabilities, loving and dying and rising again for our sake.

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

That’s to say that the words of the Bible have their place - and their purpose is to point us to what God is doing, to where he might be found.

So listen to St. Paul when he says that the Bible is there to instruct and encourage us. But what else is he saying? He starts the chapter by telling us, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak…” Paul is writing about what it means to be a Christian, how to put faith into practice by the way you treat and respond to other people. St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans contains a brilliant treatment of Christian doctrine - notably the one we call Justification by Faith. But it’s much more than doctrine. There’s a reason for having doctrine and that’s to explore how we relate to God and to each other - how God in his love and mercy relates to us. So the chapter previous to this one looks at what the Bible says about Jewish ritual dietary laws - what you can or can’t eat according to the Bible. But then St. Paul makes us face the question: “Who are you to pass judgement?” That’s the point, he says: “no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another.” Serve Christ, seek righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, don’t let the way you behave “cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.”

It’s by wrestling with the demands of Scripture that we see what love demands of us in our relationships with one another. It’s by seeing how we fail in keeping those demands which leads us to recognise the loving mercy and forgiveness of God revealed in Christ.

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” says Jesus to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth after he has read from Book of the Prophet Isaiah. He’s talking about the purpose of God which Isaiah has foreseen:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Look at me - I will make this real, Jesus is saying. But something more. The verses of Isaiah 61 which Jesus says apply to him are followed by others which imply that God favours the people of Israel as a nation over others. Other peoples will be subservient to them and will do the hard work while the Israelites will enjoy the wealth. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Jesus asks how we can discern God’s purpose - and it’s in the words he chooses: Good News for the poor, freedom for the prisoner and the oppressed, recovery of sight for the blind. But will we see? Will we hear what Jesus is saying?

His own people can’t take it in. They can hear the Bible read, but can’t relate it to this man from their own town who they think they know. They’ve much more to learn. Jesus knows it. People in other towns have welcomed him and seen what a difference his message can make and experienced the healing he has brought to so many. But it doesn’t work in his home town of Nazareth. They can only say, “Doctor, cure yourself.” I’ve pondered the place of those words in this story. Does it imply that Jesus himself had some sort of physical infirmity? Perhaps his neighbours remembered childhood illnesses from which he’d suffered? Now they question how someone they think they know can have a message for them.

What do we think the message is that God has for us? Can you find it in Scripture? - or in wrestling with what the Bible says to us? Can you find it through your relationships with other people? - in the love and generosity which they might share with you? - in your failings to relate to others and what you realise is your need of God’s mercy and grace?

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled,” says Jesus. All God’s purposes are worked out in him. The congregation in the synagogue at Nazareth have some way to go before they can take that on board. Perhaps we do too - but it’s never too soon to start.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

“This will take a while”…

That was the signal I got on my computer as I started to put together the October issue of the Parish Magazine. It was already delayed because I didn’t get back from holiday until the final hours of September. Then as I sat down to work out what we needed to include here the laptop decided to update - a major update, as it indicated when it told me, “This will take a while.” And there was nothing I could do about it, except wait until it had finished.

I got off quite lightly.  A friend tells me it held him up for three hours. Our Area Dean found her laptop updating in the midst of her Harvest Service where she needed to use it to project the words of the service and hymns. I just had to wait 90 minutes.

These days we so often expect to be able to do things straight away. We expect immediate responses by phone, text or email. We complain when people don’t get back to us. But here’s a reminder of the virtue of patience, so easily forgotten. Be patient with each other. Be ready to spend time in prayer and take time with God. Remember how patient he needs to be with us…    

Martin Jackson

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Going to church on holiday, avoiding heresy and getting our religion right

Trinity 11 (Proper 14) – Eucharist – 7.viii.2016

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

I’m trying to get round to planning my main summer holiday - which this year is going to be in September, and hopefully in a house borrowed from a friend in the south of France. Where will I go to church? - is one of the questions I ask myself when holiday-planning. I wonder if you think about that? - or the people who are not here because they’re on holiday at the moment? Might you worry that it could be all too strange? You can’t be absolutely sure what’s going to happen if you drop in on a service as near as Consett, Ebchester or the Snods! So you might be worried if it’s a different country, a different language, and a different denomination. Will they ask if I belong to their Church? That’s a question that’s sometimes at the back of my mind – but in fact they never do. As for the form of service, if you go to a Roman Catholic Church in France you need have no worries – it’s just like the Church of England, except a bit more “low church”. It all happens in the same order except that the Peace is just before Communion. And they normally use almost exactly the same readings that we do – so I take along my pewsheet for St. Cuthbert’s and St. John’s; that way I can follow the readings, and I can think of you while I’m in church wherever I might be!

So when I’m abroad I take myself off to church, sit somewhere inconspicuous and follow what everyone else does. Just occasionally I come unstuck - a couple of times I’ve been asked to take up the elements of bread and wine to the altar, once to carry up a dish on which people had written the prayers they wanted to be offered. But the most difficult occasion was once when I was staying in Carcassonne in the south of France. A white-haired man in an open-necked shirt, khaki trousers and brown shoes greeted me as I went into church and beckoned me to come with him. He was taking me to the front - no filling up from the back there. And as we went, I realised he was asking me a question: would I read the lesson?  Quick as a flash I gave my reply, “No thanks, I’m English.” Actually that’s a response that works quite well. Say that when you’re in Holland and they’ll treat you as something of a simpleton, say it in Germany and they’ll try to be helpful, use it as an excuse in France and they know you want to be left alone. I was rather glad to make my excuse, because the reading that week was difficult enough in English, never mind French. Eventually they got a lady in front of me to read it – and she did it beautifully. In fact the regulars must have been impressed, because - without warning - just before Communion, the lady who’d been leading the singing came to her and asked her to join the priest in administering the Sacrament. So I had a close shave. But it wasn’t the last surprise. The man in the open-necked shirt whom I’d taken to be a French version of a sidesman or churchwarden, then walked in dressed in full vestments – he was the parish priest, and clerical collars are conspicuous by their absence in France.

But let me tell you more about the place where I was staying. Carcassonne is a stunning example of a fortified mediaeval city which I’d long wanted to visit. But it has something of a history, and I wondered as I sat in church how we Christians were relating to that history. Because back in the Middle Ages, Carcassonne was a major centre of the Cathars – also known as the Albigensian heretics. We can really only piece together what they believed from the records left by the Catholic Church as it fought the heresy. The original fortifications of Carcassonne were destroyed in 1209 when the King’s forces – in alliance with the Church – took the city from its ruler who had made the mistake of defending his subjects who had opted for the wrong religion. The Count of Carcassonne was to die in a dungeon within the year – either from sickness or murdered. His subjects were to be deported from their town. When they were eventually allowed to return, their city had been turned into a royal fortress, and they had to build a new town for themselves on the other side of the river. Meanwhile Carcassonne had become one of the centres for the Inquisition – we visited one of the towers in the fortress which had been used as a courtroom by the Church in its fight against heresy.

In fact the people of Carcassonne probably got off quite lightly – in nearby B├ęziers, where Catholics and Cathars had lived together, the whole population had been put to the sword, urged on by a priest who had encouraged the soldiers: “Kill them all, the Lord will know his own!” It’s a reminder how zeal for religious truth so easily becomes bigotry; how it can make alliances with ungodly forces – whether it’s mediaeval warlords out to gain lands and booty, or modern nationalism, or terrorism equating itself with a distorted Islam; how a religion of charity and compassion can so easily make itself enemies and be compromised by the shedding of blood. We don’t need to look far to see how this is something that still goes on.

So in that church, a certain part of me felt uncomfortable that I was worshipping in the very place which declared a rather violently achieved victory of the Christian religion over its rivals. The Christians had a point of course. The religion of the Cathars treated the New Testament as allegory rather than fact and rejected large parts of the Old Testament. It treated Good and Evil as two more or less equally matched principles at war with each other. The only way to find salvation was by treating the world itself as something evil – those who were “pure” (Cathari) were to abstain from marriage, deny themselves meat and other animal products and live the most austere sort of ascetic life. Only this way could the soul be freed from the body which they saw as a sort of prison. They could not accept that God had created the world and saw that it was good. They did not accept that Christ had come to bring redemption to the world – for the Cathars he’d come to give an example of how to be free of the world, to show how the material creation needed to be renounced. The life to come was not in a resurrection of the body, but in the freedom of the liberated soul. The only sacrament for Cathars was a baptism of the Holy Spirit which was undertaken only when the individual was ready to renounce the world and material things. Baptism in water and the Eucharist with its use of bread and wine were by definition rejected because they were sacraments which claimed to make God known in and by the use of created things.

The mediaeval Church had a point that this was simply not Christianity. The Christian religion affirms that God’s creation is good, salvation comes because God’s Son shares our human flesh – not through renouncing it. But the Cathar heresy proved strangely popular for a religion which was so austere. And the Church itself was part of the problem. In today’s Gospel we can read Jesus’ words: “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” But people in the Middle Ages looked at the Church and saw it accumulating great riches, the monasteries themselves were endowed with great parcels of land, priests and other clerics had grown lax, they were unlearned, and failed in their duties of pastoral care and concern. If the Church could not live up to the message it preached maybe they needed to look for a different message to live by.

We have to ask ourselves if this is something going on today. When people look at the Christian Church of the 21st Century, what do they see? If so much of modern life is about complacency, selfishness or the accumulation of personal wealth and comforts, then we need to ask, “do we offer people any real reason not to follow that way of life? – any reason why they should listen to the Christian message?” We need to ask what people find when they do engage in a spiritual quest which takes them to other religions – where they find more to answer their questions in Buddhism or Islam or “New Age” religion - or even the stuff you find on the more sentimental sort of Greetings or Sympathy card. We need to be faithful to the Christian Gospel, but we need to take seriously what people are asking and saying.

The persecution of the Cathars was one of Christianity’s darker times. So much of it was bound up with politics and greed. Even the religious orders who were brought in to defend true doctrine did so not so much by persuasion as by force and sanction. And these are not tools at our disposal today – even if we wanted to use them.

Perhaps what we need to recognise is that Christian faith prevailed ultimately not because it forced its rivals to submit. Rather, despite itself, from within the Church there grew new movements which were to prove attractive. New leaders arose who showed by their lives how the Gospel could be lived. At the same time as the Cathars were being forcibly suppressed in Southern France and other parts of Europe, St. Francis had begun preaching his message which rejoiced in God’s creation as something good. When he heard the message to renounce worldly wealth, he did it in such a way that showed that the one who owned nothing of his own actually possessed all things. The call to charity was put into practice. Prayer was not seen as just a matter for people who were called to be different by living a religious life – it was something which could make people different and change the way they lived. The Church came to flourish once more not by the use of force or even by winning arguments – it came to life when it was seen once more to be living out its message.

The call to faith is the call to recognise that God is speaking to us - and to let that make a difference to the way we live. That’s what our first two readings are about this morning: a faith which will lead us and prove sure, even when we don’t know where we are going. It’s to recognise in Jesus’ words, that it is God’s “good pleasure to give us the kingdom,” and so we need not fear for earthly things. But it’s to recognise also the goodness of this world even as we refuse to be consumed by desire for its riches. As St. Clare of Assisi wrote: “Gaze upon the poverty of Jesus, placed in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. What marvellous humility! What astounding poverty! The King of angels, Lord of heaven and earth, is laid in a manger.” God takes our world and our humanity seriously, and calls us to do likewise. He calls us to work alongside him for the sake of his purpose. In the words of another of his faithful followers and servants, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “We are not called to be successful; only to be faithful.”

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Good Samaritan, St. Benedict & Being the Neighbour

Trinity 6 - Year C – Eucharist – 10.vii.2016

(Deuteronomy 30.9-14; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10.25-37)

Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is a parable we think we know all too well. A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho - downhill all the way - gets set upon by thieves. They rob him, beat him up and leave him for dead. But there are people who can help. The first is a priest, but he thinks the better of it and keeps his distance as he goes past on the other side of the road. A Levite - another servant of the Temple with his part to play in established religion - does the same. But then a Samaritan comes along. Samaritans and Jews didn’t get on. Jews insisted on rituals of purity which Samaritans couldn’t measure up to, and for the Jew worship was to centre on the Temple in Jerusalem in the place where the priest and the Levite served. Samaritans offered worship on Mount Gerizim and had intermarried over the centuries with immigrants of other faiths so that they were shunned by Jews who lived so close to them, but also so separately. But it’s the Samaritan in the story who comes to the help of the victim of the crime. He goes to him in pity; he pours oil and wine onto his wounds as an antiseptic; he bandages him; he puts him on his own horse or donkey and takes him to an inn where he can rest; and he leaves money so that the man can stay there as long as he needs to recover. It’s the Samaritan, of course, who does the right thing.

But think a bit more, and you might ask what you would have done? Bible commentators often say that the priest and the Levite don’t want to approach the man who has been robbed because they are afraid that they will make themselves ritually unclean. They could see he was bleeding - that wouldn’t just mess up their clothes; contact with his blood would require that they went through a ceremony of purification. And if they found he was dead that would make things even more complicated in ritual terms. They wouldn’t be able to do their religious jobs!

An even simpler explanation might be that they were afraid. They didn’t want to be the next unlucky person to get attacked and robbed, so they kept their distance and hurried on as quickly as possible. And the explanation which might ring true today is that they didn’t want to be late for their next commitment. They were busy people and surely someone else would stop and help. Both the priest and the Levite knew the importance of time-management, even in the first century - and clergy who have been anywhere near a Ministerial Development Review in recent years know it even better!

The problem may simply be one of priorities. Not just a matter of what should you do when something looks to need an urgent response, but what should you do when you know there are other things you should be doing as well?... and you’re not going to get them done unless you ignore this one. Time management theory tells you that every task can be categorised in one of four ways: urgent but not important; important but not urgent; neither urgent nor important; and both urgent and important. Just because something looks urgent it doesn’t necessarily need to be done now, because there may be something more important. And when something looks important, it may not need a hasty response but a rather more careful reflective approach. Only if something is both urgent and important do you need to act now. They are the rules. The priest and the Levite know what rules they are working with. And they decide there’s something more important than going to the help of this beaten up victim of crime.

And it’s not just because they are working with their interpretation of Jewish Law…

Tomorrow the Church keeps the Feast of St. Benedict, father of Christian monasticism in Western Europe. Benedict’s great contribution was to work out a Rule - a set of guidelines - which would tell his followers how to live. Chapter 43 is about being late - “Don’t do it!” If you’re late for worship in the Divine Office, you should stand in a special place in church where everyone can see you and know you’re late. You should do penance. Even if there might seem a good reason for being late you need to apologise. And the same goes for meals - don’t improve your punctuality and you lose your wine allowance and have to eat in a separate room.

The thing to know about the Rule of St. Benedict is that it was written as a result of his desire to bring orderliness into the way his brother monks lived, at a time when so many thought they could do whatever they pleased. Benedict wanted to establish what he called “A school for the Lord’s service” - and his purpose was so that those entering into it would find their way to “blessings in eternal life.”

That’s something that we must not miss in today’s Gospel reading. Of all the Gospel writers, only St. Luke tells the story of the Good Samaritan. The story has an introduction which Matthew and Mark also record, but with a twist. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts, Jesus is asked, what is the greatest of the commandments? - and it’s Jesus who sums it up: love God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength - and your neighbour as yourself. But it’s a bit different in Luke. Luke tells us that Jesus was approached by a lawyer who wanted to know what to do in order to inherit eternal life. And Jesus simply turns the question round: what does the religious law tell you? And the lawyer gets the answer right:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’

In the Prayer Book we call these words the Summary of the Law. It’s everything that’s necessary reduced to just these few words about love - do this and that’s the way to find eternal life. That’s the aim of St. Benedict when he wrote his Rule. It’s the whole point of the Scriptures - to get us into God’s kingdom, to share with him in eternal life.

The problem is that then people get hold of the words that are used and try to make of them what they can. The lawyer who comes to Jesus wants to show that he can win points against him: so, “who is my neighbour?” His question is just what we do when we try to find excuses not to do what we know we really should. We do it when we say “Charity begins at home,” and use that as a reason not to support overseas aid and poverty relief programmes. We do it when we never quite get round to helping with something because there’s always something else needs doing for the family or at work. “Who is my neighbour?” So many of us don’t even see our next-door neighbours for weeks at a time, so it’s not surprising if neighbourliness is in short supply. But the real need is to see myself as the neighbour to whoever may be in need. Ask, “who is my neighbour?” and you can argue yourself out of responsibility for just about anyone. But - in a real way - charity should begin at home, because it needs to start in my heart and overflow to anyone who is in need.

For the priest and the Levite of the parable there were ways to argue that the man left bleeding by the roadside was not a neighbour with needs for them to respond to. Because they don’t see that they should be the neighbour to him. Jesus asks, “Which of the three was the neighbour to the beaten and broken man?” And the lawyer avoids naming the Samaritan. He can only say “the one who showed him mercy.”

Are we people who show mercy? We need to recognise what we seek to avoid; to recognise the need of the person we wish to avoid; the call to us to show courage and take risks. We need to look beyond what we can do without too much trouble, beyond what we can afford or do easily, to recognise what might ask of us some inconvenience. We need to recognise Christ in other people, even in people who are quite different from us.

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’

That’s the right answer, says Jesus. The summary of the Law is simple - to love. And love has no bounds. St. Benedict attempted to set down in writing a Rule for Holy Living, guidelines for anyone whose quest was for eternal life. But it’s only a start, what he called “a school for beginners.” And he summed it up in words we can take to heart: “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.”

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Finding our identity…

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the whole debate on membership of the European Union resulting in the Referendum decision to “Leave” is that it’s been conducted in terms of what we can get out of it – the benefits for me. When people have said, “Why don’t they just give us the facts so that we can decide properly?” it’s been to do with how much money we might save ourselves in membership costs – or how much money will we be able to spend on ourselves instead of other countries – or how low we can bring the figures down for net migration. Quite a few figures did in fact get thrown around. But “experts” were disparaged as if the very fact of their professional knowledge was a cause for suspicion. And other figures – including those on the side of campaign buses – are now admitted to have been untrue.

There’s been quite a bit of talk about taking back power for ourselves – much of it accompanying assertions that left to ourselves we can be a truly “Great” Britain. Well… we shall see. I didn’t think that being a European stopped me being British – and now there’s a real possibility that we’ll end up without a United Kingdom to be British in. And it’s that last thing that really bothers me. A small majority of people want me to stop being who I was.

That’s democracy! And I’m not going to disparage it. But perhaps we all need to think, “Who am I really?” “What constitutes my identity?” With Archbishop Justin Welby I affirm that my identity is known finally in that I am a child of God, redeemed by Christ. Whatever my passport may say about citizenship, the Kingdom to which I am called finally is the Kingdom of God. This is the one thing which ultimately is worth knowing. Its manifesto is the Beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matthew 5). Perhaps we all need to take a refresher course in it.             Martin Jackson

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Confrontation with demons - the need for encounter with humanity

Homily for the 4th Sunday after Trinity - 19th June 2016

(Isaiah 65.1-9; Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39)

Jesus arrives in the country of the Gerasenes and straightaway, we’re told, even as he steps from the boat onto land, he is met by a man “who had demons.” He’s naked – “for a long time he had worn no clothes” – “and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” Perhaps we need to pause and try to take in that encounter. Think of how it looked… The terror the man must have inspired in others who had tried to bind him with chains and shackles, who had thrown him out of their community, who must have feared his brute strength, his unpredictability and screaming rages, who tried to keep their children from this terrifying creature. Think of how you would feel if you were approached by that crazed man who had torn off all his clothes and who has now set eyes on you and is heading your way. It’s not an everyday encounter. But neither perhaps is it outside our experience… We’d simply rather not be there, we’d rather keep it outside our imagination and consciousness.

Where might you meet someone like this? I realise looking back that it was an almost everyday reality when I was a student – or rather a real possibility which most of us chose to avoid. Cambridge in the 1970s - and probably still to this day – had a higher proportion of homeless people than just about anywhere else in the country. That was something that would strike me in one particular spot which should have been a haven of peace and quiet – a small triangle of land between the Divinity Faculty, the shops of Trinity Street and opposite St. John’s College where you could stop and sit on park benches shaded by the trees. It was an old churchyard. And it was there amongst the tombs that you might find yourself the object of unwelcome attention – the homeless and the hungry who felt you could spare them some money for a cup of tea, people in rags but with enough money for the bottle you saw in their pocket, people who might just want to talk… but then you realised this was not the sort of conversation you wanted, that so many of these people had a mental illness which had taken them onto the streets and out of a system which had failed them, out of the company of people who feared them.

These were my earliest encounters with people who might be like that man who nearly two thousand years earlier had lived among the tombs. When the living fail you, where else is there to go? – perhaps that’s the reasoning. When I worked in Sunderland, it was outside our church in the city centre that I would find people lying under a blanket of newspapers on the park benches in what had once been a churchyard. Quite a few of them would find their way into the church. These were people whose problems were not going to go away – even if most people wanted them to go away. So they’d converged on that particular area. Many more lived in the squalor of bedsits, an almost completely separate culture from the one surrounding them. The churchyard was one of the places where those cultures met.

It’s in the meeting of Jesus with the man possessed by demons that there’s a meeting of cultures and understandings which most of us prefer to avoid. The man no longer has a place in the city which is his true home. He lives amongst the tombs – the place of the dead shunned by the living, the place of ritual uncleanliness and contamination which a good Jew like Jesus should seek to avoid. The demoniac puts himself outside the acceptable norms with his refusal or inability to wear clothing. The way he has been bound in chains speaks of a society’s despair at its members for whom there is no recourse except to use secure units, locked wards, sedating drugs and straitjackets. What can you do for people like this? And there’s no easy answer. It would be easy to point the finger at the people who seemingly have excluded this man. But how much had they put up with? Don’t they bind him with chains and shackles not only for their own protection but to keep him from self-harm too?

There are some words of one of the Church’s Collects which come back to me again and again: Speaking to God we admit, “You see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” There are things about some people which we just cannot deal with. And if we’re honest there are things in ourselves which are beyond our capacity to cope with too. “You see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” It’s a beautifully reflective admission of our self-failure. Less beautifully put, it’s what we see in that man who comes out to Jesus and screams at him: “What have you to do with me, Jesus… do not torment me.” It’s the man’s voice but it’s that which is within him – over which he has no control – that speaks. An “unclean spirit” as the Gospel writer puts it – these are real demons by which he is possessed, so many they are called “Legion.” This is the encounter of all that is beyond human control with one who is recognised to be God’s Son. And it’s the recognition that is important. There is nothing that can be done for this man. The people of the city know it. He knows it himself. It seems the demons know it. And we know it. And we see “that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.”

The demons of the man who encounters Jesus need to be recognised. That man – distraught and dangerous as he probably is - has to be able to approach Jesus before Jesus can drive the demons out. His humanity needs to be recognised by Jesus before he can be healed.

The events of the last week, its atrocities and the shock felt so widely in the communities of our nation and further afield are a reminder of what goes wrong when we treat people as something other than ourselves, as an enemy, as people to be kept at a distance, as less than human. From the slaughter of so many young people in a night club in Florida because their sexuality identified them as a rightful target to the murder of an MP in a Yorkshire street, the fundamental failing is to create an enemy because he or she is perceived as something alien – as someone who needs to be erased from the world which another individual wishes to inhabit. The gunman in Orlando might have had his mind poisoned by extremist Islamist notions of right and wrong or he might have been directed by his own conflicted sexuality – or both. The killer on the street in Birstall might have had psychiatric problems with his mind still further poisoned by politicised racism. What we can say is that both inhabited worlds which denied a place to other people. Both failed to see humanity in their neighbour. Neither could have recognised that to be human is to be created in the image of God.

Religious people need to be careful in all of this. Those in today’s Gospel identify the spirits possessing the Gerasene demoniac as “unclean.” Things that are unclean have no place in their community – as surely as the Jews of Jesus’ day would have identified the pigs into which the spirits are sent as “unclean.” How do we perceive other people – of different race, nationality, religion, sexuality? – people who are unemployed, people who are an economic threat? – people who are wrong where we are right? – people who (as far as we are concerned) don’t belong?

Jesus comes into the situations of conflict and disagreement – and brings healing… But not without risk. Not finally without losing his life.

The point is not to suffer wounds – though that may be the cost – but to bind them up. It starts when we can look beyond difference and what we wish to reject to recognise a common humanity by which we might be formed.

It’s there in those most critical verses from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians which we read today:

27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ; 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Do we believe that? Can we act as if it is really true?

Here are the words of the Collect – that prayer – to which I referred earlier:

Almighty God,
you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves:
keep us both outwardly in our bodies,
and inwardly in our souls;
that we may be defended from all adversities
which may happen to the body,
and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

View from the Vicarage - June 2016

Parish Consultations and Proto Group Councils…

I don’t know what that means either – but it’s something like that that I have entered in my diary referring to the event in our Calendar pages listed for 7.30p.m. on Monday 27th June.

Don’t worry most of you – you don’t need to be there unless you are a Parish Priest, a PCC Lay Chair or a Church Warden (and we know that not all of them can make it!). But it’s far from being an irrelevant meeting. The point is to explore further how the parishes of our area can cooperate better. At a time when parishes and congregations are necessarily sharing their clergy what is the best approach to that sharing? – not only so that clergy can do their job but also so that the people of our churches can grow together and learn from each other.

The parishes of our Group are our own, Castleside, Consett, Leadgate, Ebchester (including Low Westwood) and Medomsley. Within the Group, I am seeking to serve our own parish and St. John’s, Castleside. David Cleugh has three parishes and four churches. Does he have the right three / four? Have I got the right two, not only in terms of my workload but also for the sake of congregational cooperation when the parishes are on opposite sides of Consett and don’t actually touch each other? How does Consett fit in? – obviously in the middle but with a large enough population to create questions of how best to serve its people even if there is only one church for the priest to care for.

There aren’t any easy answers to these questions. All the more reason to explore them! To that end, we are considering creating a “Group Ministry” – not consisting merely of clergy but in which all play a part. That’s why we are looking at having a “Group Council” – and we’d need to ask who would serve on it. If you have any answers (on a postcard?) or helpful observations, let us know!                                                            

Martin Jackson

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Prayer before Pentecost…

Jesus Christ calls every person to follow him. As Christians it’s our duty and joy to share that invitation. That’s why the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are inviting every church in England to join a week of prayer this Pentecost, from 8-15th May — let’s pray for every Christian to receive new confidence and joy in sharing this life-transforming faith.

That’s the invitation held out to us this month. If you’re only reading it now, then it calls for an immediate response – just take a look at the date of the week of prayer! And it can’t come soon enough…

The Archbishops’ call is issued under the heading, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” It’s from the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer which Jesus gave to his disciples. On page 17 of this magazine you can read how we have explored the Lord’s Prayer with Messy Church. It’s important for our children to learn this prayer. But how good are we adults at using it?... or at giving time to prayer each day?

I hope the Archbishops’ call may stir us all up in the life of prayer. They themselves declare their hope is

·         for all Christians to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ.
·         for all of us to have confidence to share the Gospel
·         for all to respond to the call of Jesus Christ to follow Him as disciples, to live out the Gospel and to seek God’s Kingdom from day to day.

Can you make that extra effort to give time to pray this month? To join in one of the special local initiatives? Deliberately to set aside some time each day for prayer? And to keep working at it?

Martin Jackson