Sunday, 12 November 2017

Of War and Remembrance

In case you wonder, the Bible Readings we use today are not chosen particularly for use on Remembrance Sunday. They’re not about War or the remembrance of those who died in time of war. They’re simply the readings appointed for use on the 3rd Sunday before Advent. So we use them if Remembrance Day happens to fall on this particular Sunday of the Church’s Calendar. But Remembrance Sunday can also fall on the 2nd Sunday before Advent - and if it does we use the readings appointed for that day, and we might find that they are no more relevant to what we actually feel.

But simply to use what the regular lectionary gives us is no bad thing. Scripture meets us where we are, the Word of God heard in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves. And as I read today’s Bible passages I thought of what it must have been like for soldiers on the battlefield who might have gathered with their Chaplain for worship. Perhaps they would gather around what was at best a makeshift altar. Probably they would be without any books - the Chaplain reading to them from his Bible - though we know that many servicemen carried a Prayer Book or New Testament, especially in the First World War. What words would they hear? Over the course of years of war it wouldn’t always have been the same passage. Might they have heard today’s Gospel reading of the Ten Bridesmaids (the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins as it’s traditionally known) and then gone off puzzled into battle ? … gone off to fight, and many to die.

On Remembrance Sunday we gather to remember. To remember doesn’t mean that we have to have been present during the terrible events of war. It does ask us to enter imaginatively into the lives of men and women who have served their country - often at great cost in wounds borne and lives lost. What took them into service? There were those who volunteered, others conscripted, others acting as non-combatants for conscience’s sake. And they were there because of people who made decisions which sent them off to war: politicians and generals; sometimes for the cause of justice, freedom, truth and right; sometimes through ambition and pride. What we can say is that it is ordinary men and women from ordinary communities like our own who have left loved ones, families and friends, to go to war - to serve their country; and hopefully to serve humanity - to do something for a greater good.

St. Paul in the first reading we heard from his first letter to the Thessalonians is writing to people who grieved over the death of loved ones. Their loss through natural causes is hard enough to bear - and he attempts to give some encouragement to them by writing of a life beyond death. I have to say, I don’t think it easily works. We might be distracted by a certain military resonance: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first.” But there’s no form of words which can speak to every person who has suffered bereavement. And especially today, when we remember those who died in war, we need to be wary of false comfort and recognise the cruel offence of so many lives lost in conflict.

I found myself yesterday reading the story of a young man from my home town of Hartlepool. He was active in his church (St. Aidan’s), he had a passion for learning - and could share it with others - and while still in his twenties became a headteacher. But then the First World War was declared. He loved his country and joined up - and found himself training and guarding an installation back in Hartlepool. And it was there that Private Theophilus Jones died, age 29, during the German naval bombardment of the town in November 1914. Over a hundred military and (mainly) civilian lives were lost in just a few minutes. He was carrying a prayer book which was hit by some of the shrapnel and would have saved his life without even a flesh wound if that had been his only injury; but it was injuries elsewhere on his body which killed him. It’s a story now because the Museum of Hartlepool has just bought that prayer book to be displayed in the town. But it couldn’t save him from the full extent of his wounds.

Where is the hope? Something else I read yesterday reminded me of one of the most renowned of First World War military chaplains, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Let me read to you from an article by Bob Holman:

In 1914, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was an unknown parish priest. Ten years later he was the church's best-known speaker, drawing larger crowds than politicians and publishing books that sold millions. How did this happen?

The answer is the first world war. In 1914, he enthusiastically supported Britain's declaration of war on Germany and soon enlisted as a chaplain. He distributed fags to troops and earned the affectionate nickname Woodbine Willie. He joined the soldiers on the western front when they went over the top, and won the Military Cross when he ran through shells into "no man's land" to obtain supplies of morphine. His speaking skills were used to maintain morale. Sickened by the needless slaughter, on his discharge, in 1919, he spoke all over the country, opposing war and calling for an end to unemployment and poverty.

Today "Willie" is largely forgotten, although the centenary … of the war may show how relevant he is to contemporary problems. Poverty campaigners and academics do call for social reform. But few are as close to poor people as Willie was. His turning point was when he stopped talking to, and instead listened to, the troops. Through his magnetic preaching, he publicised their views on wanting to end war, their dislike of the monarchy, and their desire for the end of poverty. And in his collection of rhymes, many written in working-class dialect, he expressed their views in their own language.

He became a great social evangelist calling for reform. So did others, but he was different. He gave away his possessions. His salary was modest but he received large royalties – all of which he gave to charities. He left very little money. He was genuine and, when he died, in 1929, exhausted at the age of 45, poor people flocked to his funeral in Worcester. Today, we urgently need poverty campaigners like him.

The dean of Westminster refused Willie a burial at the Abbey because, he said, he was a "socialist". Hardly, if he meant a Labour-party socialist. Willie distrusted most politicians and refused to join any political party. He proclaimed that the church (or churches) had to counter poverty and inequality. His argument was that wealth redistribution would only come following changes in people's values and attitudes, and that only the Christian message could achieve this. True, he did transform some individuals, but no large policy reforms followed. He had little impact on politicians.

Politicians have their place. We need to remember that when there is so much in the media that shows the rottenness of political conduct, and might lead us to distrust them all together. All the more reason why it is important that we use our votes wisely - and hold those elected to account. The cause of freedom and the sharing of that freedom is not to be taken lightly. It’s a cause that many have died for.

And to remember is at the heart of Christian faith. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus tells his disciples at the Last Supper. He takes bread and wine; he gives them his Body and his Blood. Given for us… Shed for us…

“Greater love has no one than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.” Sometimes the words have been mis-heard and mis-used. But they come from the life and death of Jesus Christ; their hope stems from his living and dying for us. There is a further hope of Resurrection, life with God, but we start by Remembering. Christ shares in our humanity, his loss is felt in human pain - which we share… As this poem by Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy recognises - it’s called, "A Mother Understands."

Dear Lord, I hold my hand to take
Thy body broken once for me,
Accept the sacrifice I make,
My body, broken, Christ, for Thee.

His was my body, born of me,
Born of my bitter travail pain,
And it lies broken on the field,
Swept by the wind and the rain.

Surely a Mother understands Thy thorn-crowned head,
The mystery of Thy pierced hands—the Broken Bread.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

A people without history… not redeemed

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
….                                A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

This is just part of the last section of Little Gidding from T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets, one of the greatest poems of the 20th century.  What’s it about? That’s much debated - but especially in November, the month of Remembrance we do well to remember those few words, “A people without history is not redeemed from time…”

There’s no quick way out of the mess into which humanity so frequently gets itself. It can be tempting for Brexit negotiators to think that a “No Deal” position will allow us to start with a clean economic slate full of opportunity - but opportunity requires a willingness to engage with hard realities. Catalonian leaders might argue that a declaration of independence from Spain immediately confers on their country a new nationhood which all should recognise - but that is to ignore a history which is somewhat harder to unpick. The leaders of North Korea and the USA may speak of nuclear options - but the cost would be devastation.

The season of Remembrance begins with remembering the holy ones of God and our loved ones at All Saints and All Souls.  In remembering those who gave their lives in time of War, we see a sacrifice which weighs on us through the years to this day. It needs to be honoured. We cannot live only for the moment. How did we get here? Where do we go? The Cross and Resurrection of Christ stand in history too - and call us on our way.             

Martin Jackson

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

A Diet of Worms: not an idea from Slimming World…

I first came across the Diet of Worms when I was studying O-level History. It was satisfyingly revolting for a 15-year-old boy - until I realised that Worms was a place in Germany, and the word Diet meant Council. So when Martin Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms in 1521 it wasn’t to force him into a new food regime, but to make him answer before the imperial authorities for the doctrines he had been proclaiming.

Famously Luther, an Augustinian priest and friar, was said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31st October 1517. In them he took issue with what he saw as the fundamental errors being perpetrated in the Church of his day - notably the selling of “Indulgences,” a supposed way of buying yourself out of Purgatory while actually financing the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Which is why this month is being celebrated (or not celebrated) as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. There’s more to it than that of course - and many historians have concluded that Luther never did actually nail his argument to the door. Others deny that at the Diet of Worms he uttered the words, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

But these arguments shouldn’t get in the way of the fact that the thinking and actions of Luther were critical in religious and world history. Popular history thinks of the Reformation in this country as being due to Henry VIII deciding to create his own Church if he couldn’t get what he wanted from the Pope. In fact Henry got his title Defender of the Faith from the Pope for opposing Luther’s doctrines. Henry wanted to be a Catholic, but on his own terms. Luther, on the other hand, struggled to live his Catholicism until his reading of the Bible and his conscience took him elsewhere - and he could have lost his life for maintaining what he believed.

Only in recent years have Roman Catholics and Lutherans come to recognise a common truth in what is called “Justification by Faith.” Is it faith alone, regardless of what we actually do, that’s important? Or do we reveal our faith by the things we do? For us all the truth starts with the gracious love and mercy of God. We do well to remember that.        MJ

Taken from the October issue of our Parish Magazine - find it online here

Saturday, 2 September 2017

New learning from an unwanted event …

You can read in the September issue of our Parish Magazine about our last meeting of Messy Church, where we explored Jesus’ healing of the paralytic / lame man. It was dramatic. But how much do we really think it applies to us? “Get up and walk,” says Jesus. And so he does.

That’s something I suddenly discovered myself unable to do on the first weekend of my summer holiday. I was in London, crossing a road, when I realised the traffic was approaching more closely than I thought. So halfway across I put on a spurt of speed - at which point I felt a tearing sensation in my calf. I must have hopped the rest of the way, because at the other side I discovered I couldn’t put my foot down to walk.

Sent off from Accident & Emergency with a pair of crutches - that’s when I began to see just how many other people had crutches or some other disability with which they had to live. Not always a disability you might at first see. I took the bus from the hospital - and an Asian family motioned to me to get on ahead of them. It was on the bus that I realised their eight-year old son was severely autistic and every move they made had to be negotiated. But they’d let me on first - and when it was time to get off his young sister went to the driver to ask for extra time. On the next bus was a man who’d been refused an operation: he was British but had been living abroad and had broken his foot in India - now the bones wouldn’t knit. When was that? I asked. February, he’d said - and he was no better.

Mine was a chance accident - and hopefully I’ll heal with time. Others won’t. It’s not their fault - but sometimes we treat them as if it were.

Overwhelmingly I’ve had positive responses - people have offered their seat; lots have shared their own stories. Aided by family and friends I’ve been able to get on with life. And perhaps a slower pace for the remaining holiday was no bad thing.

Jesus gave physical healing to the man in the Messy Church story. But he had a deeper need too. “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus tells him. And we all need to hear that.                                                                       

Martin Jackson

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

How to get in touch...

The Vicar is back from holiday - albeit rather reliant on the crutches he acquired on his first weekend off. Sorry if you've been trying to catch him without success - why not try again? The Vicarage phone number is 01207 503019.

There's lots to do already. Next week's diary is already pretty full. This week there's not so much in it, but there's a lot on the desk. And he's not using his legs more than he needs to...

So you're quite likely to find him in the Vicarage. Worth saying because people are averse to using the phone - perhaps in case they get the answering machine?

So if you're wanting to be in touch, if you want to arrange a Baptism / Christening, a wedding, if you're interested in being confirmed (act fast on that one!)... this is a good week to try to catch him. Try that number - 01207 503019. And it's much easier to make arrangements this way than by email or social media messaging. We actually get to talk to each other - this week or any other...

And he can be found in church quite a bit too! You'll find our service times on this site - and you are most welcome to join us!

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Weeds in a field...

6th Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist – 23.vii.17 (Proper 11)

(Isaiah 44.6-8; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30,36-43)

In the Quinquennial Inspection which the diocesan surveyor carries out on Vicarages there’s a section which deals with the state of the garden. The Surveyor was generous in the report he wrote about mine: “The garden is well-stocked.” He didn’t say what it was well-stocked with. Or as someone else looking at my garden remarked: “A weed is a flower growing in the wrong place.”

For the second Sunday running, our Gospel reading gives us a parable of Jesus with an agricultural theme. Last week the parable of the sower – and the question, where does the seed (which stands for the word of God for our world) fall?… on good ground which lets it grow healthy and strong?… or somewhere less receptive, where growth will be inhibited or simply not happen at all. How do you interpret that story? I’m struck by the simple act and foolishness of the sower, who goes out careless as to where the seed may fall – this is an over-generous sower who doesn’t look too closely as to where the seed lands, but who - like God - showers his blessings abundantly. Whether you count yourself good ground, stony, choked up with weeds and hang-ups, or whether you’re as hard as the road surface, God has not written you off – he cares for you, and he’s coming for you, just like Jesus is coming: not just for the receptive and religious, but for the tax-collector, the sinner, the publican and the women of disrepute.

This week’s parable is again about seeds. This time they’ve already been planted and they’re growing. And there’s a different slant to the story. The seed no longer stands for God’s word or Jesus’ message. The seed is people – or so the explanation of the parable tells us. And the problem is that the good and the bad are all mixed up. How can they ever be sorted from one another? The Bible scholars tell us that the weed growing alongside the good wheat is darnel, a weed which is difficult to tell from the wheat. And even if you can tell them apart there’s another problem. Their roots intertwine. Pull up the weed and there’s a good chance that the growing wheat will come up too.

I can follow the parable that far… In my own garden I have to confess that I’m never really sure what I should pull up. I find quite a lot of the weeds individually attractive… I know they’re a mess when there’s a lot of them, but the plants we put in deliberately don’t seem that much different at times. And sometimes I pull up the weeds and the flowers come out too. Don’t you get help, people sometimes ask - and once I did agree to take up the offer of gardening assistance from a caller to the Vicarage. He couldn’t be any worse than me I thought, and I went off leaving him to the task. When I came back, he’d dug out absolutely everything in the borders. “That’s the only way to get rid of those weeds,” he said. And he spent the next day laying out the plants, flowers, weeds and shrubs on the drive, trying to decide what he should re-plant. Within a week everything was pretty well back to its original state, except the flowers were rather thin on the ground – in fact those that survived his attention were actually flat on the ground.

So when someone comes up to you and asks – like the slaves in the parable or the man at my door – “look at those weeds: do you want us to go and gather them?”, then take heed of the wisdom of the landowner who says: “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

But, of course, this parable is not just a course in basic gardening. It’s a sign of the kingdom of heaven. And even more basically it’s a picture of how things are. We get bothered that there’s so much evil in the world - so much that’s wrong with it. Things just don’t go right. We’re right of course; the trouble is all those other people who get it wrong. We have our own notion of what is good. But so many other people seem to go out of their way to cause bother and grief. They might be terrorists at one end of the scale; politicians in government or opposition or both, who just don’t seem to have a clue; or members of a union who threaten to take industrial action just as you expect to be turning up at the airport for that long-anticipated holiday (happily that doesn’t seem to have happened this summer!). They might be religious extremists (not our sort of religion, of course); or they might just be your neighbours or friends you’ve fallen out with who rub you up the wrong way. There’s a lot that could be read into those words, “an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat… an enemy has done this.” Enemies fall into many categories but they have in common the fact that they cause us trouble, and they’re not easily got rid of. The good and the bad are there together, side by side.

So you could follow the interpretation of the parable which Matthew’s Gospel gives: that this is a matter of having to put up with wrong-doers for the time being, but in due course they will get their just reward in a “furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Fine… if you reckon you’re one of the “righteous” who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” But can you be so sure? What do other people think about you? And what about those recurring enigmatic words of Jesus: “Let anyone with ears listen”?

We need to ponder this Gospel reading for today. It’s about hope – the hope of a kingdom of righteousness, where justice will be done, wrongs righted, the evil-doers shown up for what they are. But shown up for what they truly are, not what we think they are. This is a parable not about vengeance against those we categorise as “the enemy,” but a warning that we should not be hasty in judgment. Who can tell the darnel from the wheat? But also Jesus calls us to be his disciples living out the call of the kingdom in all the contradictions of this world. He comes to this world to meet us in our human need. He bids us live out our vocation here because of what we can do for this world. And what can we do? Not jump to conclusions, not rush into condemning those who are different from ourselves, but think again: “Let anyone with ears listen!”

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Who is Jesus Christ for us?

4th Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist – 9.vii.17

Year A - Proper 9

Zechariah 9.9-12;
Romans 7.15-25a;
Matthew 11.16-19,25-30

I’ve spent most of the last week in Whitby taking part in a programme called Missional Leadership for Growth. As I’ve already commented in the social media, the first sign of growth for me was that I put on five pounds in weight during the five days of the course - a sign we were well looked after with three cooked meals a day, the bar open every evening and added cake with a surprise celebration of my birthday in the midst of it all. But church growth was the real aim. What are we doing so that our congregations can grow? How do we go about it? - which entails a lot of challenge to accepted practice. How does that tie in with the sort of people we are? - so there’s a lot of self-understanding and personality type testing along the way. But fundamentally there’s always going to be the basic question: what is the message we are seeking to share? What do we want other people to hear about? What can make a real difference to the way people live?

I’ll be exploring this much more in the weeks and month to come. There’s another residential course later in the year - and work to do as we might explore the implications for us all together in our parishes.

But for now I simply want to take it all back to a question put to me previously by a bishop at another clergy residential: “Most clergy really only have one sermon. So what’s yours?”

In case it hasn’t yet clicked with you… this is it.

The clue is what you’ll find on page 4 of the booklets we use to help us celebrate this Eucharist. Alongside the responses which we use when we hear the Gospel read, I deliberately had that picture of Christ printed - and his words, “But you, who do you say that I am?” When we read the scriptures we need to ask, what do they tell us about Jesus? The Gospel is not just to be read so that then you can close the book and do something else. The Gospels tell us of Jesus and the difference he makes for us and for our world. And we hear those words first put by Jesus to the disciples: “But you, who do you say that I am?” When the other disciples hedge their bets over a question put to them by Jesus, Jesus puts them on the spot - “I don’t want to know what other people say about me. I want to know what you say.”

This is the critical question which for me lies at the heart of my preaching - whether you recognise it or not! From Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” I’ve found the question I have to ask again and again is “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” That question - “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” - was put into that form by the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, at the time that Nazi ideology was taking over his country. Bonhoeffer saw Nazism as an infection which corrupted the heart and soul of his people, which removed their ability to recognise humanity in other people. And of course he was right - once you deny the humanity of someone else, it doesn’t matter how you treat them: Jews, gypsies, gay people, communists and socialists could all be treated as less than worthy of human consideration; there was something “deficient” about them, so for the greater good they could be isolated, mocked, persecuted, locked up and murdered. For Bonhoeffer, there had to be recognition of that question which is the starting point of Christian faith: “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” And this is not just a religious question. Because the way we recognise God to be at work in the world gives the clue as to how we can live out our lives in the world. For Bonhoeffer it was to lead him to the path of resistance, leaving the security of a university teaching post, withdrawing from a state-sanctioned Church, and finally giving up his freedom for a prison cell before he was himself put to death. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This was Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Jesus’ invitation to take up the Cross and follow him. Bonhoeffer was to discover the ultimate truth of that for himself. But where we should all start is in asking the question: “Who is Jesus Christ for us?”

We can begin to find the answer in the invitation which Jesus himself issues to us. It’s there in today’s Gospel:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light

Come to Jesus, whatever the burdens we bear, however weary we have grown, and you can learn from him. The answers are not to be found in a textbook, not in any set of rules or printed instructions or recipe for success. The answer is to be found in relationship with Christ - in the one where God and our humanity meet. “All” are welcome to make their response. The burden may be that of exploitation - in a world of inequality and injustice, where even in this country the gulf between rich and poor continues to grow, where in other lands the poor find themselves barely able to exist. The burden may be that of expectation, laid on us by society, family or ourselves - the burden of feeling that we need to achieve. And in all of that there are the burdens which so many carry (most of us?) of guilt, fear and anxiety - the burdens which perhaps people are least ready to share. Bring all of that to me, says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.”

Because it is Jesus who meets us in our need, who brings us peace. When prayer seems the last thing to be of any use, we can find through Jesus that prayer grows in us. And it is Jesus who meets us as we are - and where we are. He makes no pre-conditions for that meeting. Simply that already he is there,… so, come!

Jesus is the one who sees us as we are and knows us. It’s tempting to say that in meeting us without pre-condition Jesus meets us also without judging. But actually that’s not true. Judgment - when we find it in Christ - is what truly we need. In Christ we find judgment, yet with mercy. It’s a judgment that we need because we need to be able to listen to the one who truly sees us as we are; only the one who sees what we truly are can discern those burdens of which we need to be relieved. We can come to Christ without pretence, because he knows us… whether or not we admit our failings. If we cannot express our need for ourselves, already he knows.

All of this is the mystery of what Christians call the Incarnation. It’s to say that in Jesus, God comes into our human picture. To say that Jesus is fully God and fully human is to say that he is the one who brings all that we need of God’s purpose and healing into the world, and he is the God who can understand our human need because he shares our humanity.

In Jesus Christ we meet the God who meets us in the fullness of our humanity. That’s the sermon which I hope I always preach. And the fundamental question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us / for me?”… The rest is the working out of this starting point for faith. That God meets me in my need. That God calls me to see others in the light of that humanity he shares with you and me. That in the meeting of the human and the divine in Jesus, we can see the way that lives may be transformed.

“Come to me…” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.” We could make those words too comfortable. They call us from anxiety and fear and weariness, but they demand a response as well. It starts when we hear the question Jesus puts to us: “Who do you say that I am?” It asks us to answer the question - and act upon it - “Who is Jesus Christ for us?”

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Fire and the Knife

3rd Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist – 2.vii.2017
(Proper 8)

Genesis 22.1-14;
Romans 6.12-23;
Matthew 10.40-42

“God tested Abraham.”

That’s the way our first reading begins today. It’s a test about whether Abraham will give up that thing / that person who is most precious to him. How far will he travel? How far will he go? What is he prepared to do in response to a message he takes to be from God?

The traditional understanding of the story is to treat it as a test of obedience. God has given Abraham a son in his old age. He’d given up hope of children, but then he is blessed with the birth of Isaac. It’s a sign of God’s favour - and a promise that God will do great things with Abraham’s descendants. But then there is this test:

God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’

“So Abraham rose early in the morning…” We’re not told anything about Abraham questioning God. Nothing about the conflict you might expect to find in his heart or soul. No protest from Isaac’s mother, Sarah - I wonder if Abraham actually tells her what he is going to do; he certainly doesn’t tell Isaac. It’s all summed up in that one short word, “So.” God speaks. Abraham listens - and his response is immediate: “So Abraham rose early in the morning…”

It was a three-day journey. Abraham and his family had settled in Beersheba. The place where he is to offer his sacrifice is in Moriah - identified traditionally with the rock on which the Temple in Jerusalem would later be built. Abraham and Isaac travel with a donkey and their servants. They take with them the wood for the sacrifice. Abraham knows what he is going to do and he isn’t going to be foiled by finding there’s nothing to burn when he gets there. Then the servants are dismissed and Abraham goes on with only Isaac and the donkey. There’ll be no one to stop him. Isaac knows they are going to offer a sacrifice. They’d probably done it together before. He doesn’t know that he is to be the sacrifice.

Isaac said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’  8 Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

Then they arrive. They build the altar and Abraham binds Isaac and lays him on the wood of the altar. That word “binds” perhaps distracts us from the horror of what is going on. Binds is too soft a word. Abraham ties him up and is going to kill him. That’s the point. And he’s going to do it because he thinks God has told him to. Do we buy that traditional understanding that this shows the extent of Abraham’s obedience to God? That nothing can be greater than what God tells you - even killing your own son?

We live in a world where people do just that. Jihadist suicide bombers ready to blow themselves up to kill as many people as they can. Sometimes children used for the same purpose. Religious extremists who will take a van or a truck and use it to mow people down in the street before they get out with knives to kill still more. And they do it in the name of their religion. It’s not a new phenomenon. There’s the story in the Bible of Jephthah, one of the Judges of ancient Israel, who makes a vow to God:

If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house when I return victorious… shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.

Just two verses earlier we’re told that the “spirit of the Lord” had come upon Jephthah. But now here he is promising to make a human sacrifice. And Jephthah wins. He comes back from the battle - and out of the door of his house comes his daughter, dancing with joy to meet him. “I cannot take back my vow,” he says. And two months later he takes her life as a sacrifice.

And that is what Abraham also is ready to do. Abraham himself carries the fire and the knife as he walks with his son to the place where he plans to kill him. “Where is the lamb for the offering?” asks Isaac. And Abraham knows but doesn’t say. There’s a stained-glass window in St. John’s Church, (here in) Castleside which depicts the sacrifice of Isaac. The beauty of stained glass should not distract us from the horrific nature of the story. Another picture I know shows the fire on the altar already burning and Abraham holding a knife to Isaac’s throat - it is graphic and truly horrible.

But then an angel speaks - and Abraham hears. “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him…” Abraham has passed the test of obedience. Or perhaps it is a case that sanity finally prevails. Against the blindness of religious certainty, humanity finally gains the upper hand.

We need to hear the message of that angel. When you’ve convinced yourself that what you’re doing is right even though the consequences are dire and the damage you’re causing is dire, stop! Step back. Think again.

It’s something the politicians need to do when they’ve set their course and declare their determination to see things through regardless of the cost. It’s something that the leaders of nations need to take to heart when national interest becomes confused with self-interest and the end result is war, loss of life and the displacement of peoples. But it’s something we all need to act upon when we have become so convinced about our own rightness that we cause havoc all around us, break up relationships and even destroy ourselves.

“Do not lay your hand upon the boy…” says the angel to Abraham. But there is a terrible re-telling of the story by the poet Wilfred Owen as he wrote amid the horrors of the First World War:

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

“Offer the Ram of Pride instead…”
What is it that truly keeps us from hearing God’s Word and understanding his purpose? What gets in the way of our humanity? Can we not recognise the call instead simply to love - and discover truly what that means?

The window in St. John’s Church which depicts Abraham on the point of sacrificing his son is one of a pair. The other window shows Christ the Good Shepherd. It’s the Ram of Pride which Abraham finally needs to offer up. It’s the care of the flock to which Jesus calls us. And the words of today’s Gospel speak to us: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Whatever else Jesus may be saying in the words of today’s Gospel, he is certainly emphasising the importance of a ministry of hospitality. Make people welcome, and you’re making Christ welcome, and so you’re recognising something of what God is saying to the world.

Where will you find Christ? Jesus tells us:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…

I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these... you did it to me.

Look beyond what you think is right because it’s good for you. Look beyond the ways of thinking in which you might have become trapped. When you think you hear the voice of God, think again. But listen - because it is God who tells us that all the commandments he gives are summed up in just two: to love him, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

On Missional Leadership, Active Learning Sets…

Don’t be put off by the title! But these are two terms which are on my mind as I write. At the beginning of July I’ll be spending the best part of a week on a diocesan course entitled “Missional Leadership for Growth.” It’s not the whole course. There’s already been a preparatory day, I’ve completed online learning preference and personality insight tests, and there’s another one on learning aptitude to complete before Monday. Then there’ll be a group of parishioners to set up - in the hope that we can share and act on what I’m discovering, followed by another residential week in November and still more work with our parish group to follow. All the clergy of our diocese are doing it at some point - I’m part of “Cohort 3” so they’ve already had one group through and another one half way.

I admit to being apprehensive. There are good intentions in the running of the course. But it will take up a lot of time. Even more, it will require fresh approaches on my part. “Active Learning Sets” are part of it - watch this space to see what they entail and whether they work!

But if they require a new openness on my part - well, that goes hand in hand with a sense that we need fresh initiatives in the life of the Church if we are to be getting on with the task of mission. The danger is always of “initiative fatigue.” But at the same time it’s fatal to do nothing - and received wisdoms do need challenging.

Wasn’t it simpler for the first disciples? Jesus simply said to them, “Follow me.” When they wanted to know more as to what he was doing, he invited them, “Come and see.” And that invitation is still open. The issue is how we extend that invitation in today’s world.

The challenge is also to accept it. “Come and see,” says Jesus - and that requires a response. We need to give up time in the first place. “Take this bread, drink this wine,” he asks us. It’s a simple invitation - but so often we can think of other things we need to do instead. How can we flourish as Christ’s people? How can we be deepened in our faith? That’s what we all need to learn. That’s where we all need renewal.         

Martin Jackson

From our double issue Parish Magazine for July and August 
- find it online here and by using the links from this site's pages

Friday, 23 June 2017

At the right time - God's call and our response

4th Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist –

(Exodus 19.2-8a; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35-10.23)

The Gospel reading we’ve just heard is a sermon in itself - on how to live out our Christian discipleship and how to go about sharing what we believe. Perhaps it’s all too much to take in. But there’s one sentence in our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans which should leap out and tell us the point of it all. If the Gospel passage tells us how to live as Christ’s disciples, it’s the passage from Romans that tells us why. And this is it (chapter 5, verse 6):

…while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

Can we take that in? The Gospel is not about what we must do if we are to be worthy of Jesus. The Gospel is about what God does for us even though we are not worthy. The whole of Paul’s great letter to the Romans deals with the question of how we - frail, sinful, sinning, wayward creatures - are put right in our relationship with God. At the beginning of the passage we’ve read this morning, Paul has reached the point where he has made his case that the Christian is “justified by faith.” In other words, to know God’s love you don’t need to earn it. You can simply believe it that God loves you. I think we have to be careful that we don’t make the “faith” or “believing” bit a condition of the deal. Salvation is not a reward because we have decided to believe… as though it’s a quality that we’ve worked hard to possess for ourselves. Rather, we can believe because we are saved by God’s merciful action. It’s God who has taken the first step, as St. Paul tells us now:

…while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

We would go on through life without direction, weak and foundering, if it weren’t for the fact that God has put his Son into our human picture. He has taken the initiative. He has found us to be hopeless cases. But he loves us to the extent that Christ gives his life for us on the Cross.

This is the heart of the Gospel. God’s unconditional love for the people of this world; the readiness of Jesus to die for us. For St. Paul it raises the question, “who would you die for?” If I asked you individually, I think the answer I’d get most frequently would be, “for my child / for my children.” I guess Paul didn’t have children. So he’s thinking a bit more remotely: “perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” Perhaps… You’d want the sacrifice to be worth it. You might think of the firefighters in the terrible fire last week in London - or police officers, paramedics and nurses who run towards danger in the midst of a terrorist attack. Is it worth it, we ask? But the remarkable thing that St. Paul notices is that Jesus dies for us even though we might think we are not worth it:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (5.8)

Can we take that in? Can we make our response to that love which God shows us? There’s the love to be seen. We only have to let it into our lives, and that’s “believing” / being “justified by faith” / “finding peace with God.” The sad thing is the state of the world we live in, which distracts us from what is truly important.
Ours is a society where we seem badly to have lost sight of what is truly important. Where many people don’t seem even to expect to find meaning. Where selfishness is the first principle on which they act. And we might wonder, how can God love a world like this?

That question perhaps provides a way into today’s long Gospel reading:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (9.36)

If we think life is bad now, how different was it in the time of Jesus? But he has “compassion” for these poor hopeless people, not just misguided but without any sense of direction. And so we can dare to hope that he feels for us also. It will come down to that one verse in which St. Paul sums up the ground of our faith:

…while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

And this is not something merely to be believed. Jesus issues a call to action, and it’s here in today’s Gospel reading. He needs “labourers for the harvest” - people who will join him in bringing hope into this hopeless, heartless world. And his first step is to summon twelve disciples. This is not just an event in history. We’re told the names of these twelve disciples: Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddaeus, Simon and Judas Iscariot. It’s been said that if you were drawing up a shortlist of people to head up the management of a new venture, these disciples would be a pretty useless bunch and the only one who would probably get through the recruitment process would be Judas Iscariot. But Jesus doesn’t work through management procedures. He calls people… real people. The recording of their names shows they are people just like us. Try putting your name alongside theirs, and ask: how can I live out my discipleship? how can I make a difference where I am? In Baptism we use the names by which people will be known. The point is that they are known to God. We are known to God, and he calls us to join in his work.

Jesus needs people - he needs us. And then he tells us how to go about doing his work:

7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…

Doing God’s work will take faith and courage on our part. And it will take self-denial and restraint. It’s not for people who want material rewards. If we’re serious about wanting our world to be a better place, perhaps first we have to recognise that we can’t necessarily have everything we want. No payment by results for the first disciples, no unnecessary baggage, and they needn’t worry about having a full wardrobe. What does that say to us in a world of energy crises and global warming, where we see the need to cut down on carbon emissions so long as we can still have that cheap flight for our holidays, fuel for our cars and the central heating on full? What are the possessions we really need as opposed to those we simply accumulate? I realise that one of the most worry-free times in my life was the gap year I spent living in Jerusalem with only the luggage I could carry onto the plane - and now I live in a big house and wonder where to store things!

There’s a final point in today’s Gospel. God’s love is given freely. It’s there in the compassion of Jesus and in the giving of his life on the Cross. You can reach out and take it. But it also will require courage, endurance and the readiness for self-sacrifice. “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” ((10.22). But along the way there will be fallings-out, betrayals, persecution. That is the world we live in - in all its harshness. But even so - in that world - we can hear Christ’s call. Today’s Bible passages made me think of Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who took the place of another man who had been sentenced to die in a Nazi concentration camp. St Paul writes: “rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” Maximilian Kolbe was there when ten men were condemned to death because one other prisoner from their camp had disappeared. One of the men cried out about his fears for his wife and children, and Kolbe took his place in a bunker where they were denied food and drink for over two weeks until he was killed by an injection of carbolic acid. He didn’t need to give his life. It was not his life that had been required, but he gave it.

And in this act of giving we can see a reflection of Christ’s love, which we can never earn but only receive - that love which then we seek to live.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Wednesday's Concert - tickets on the door!

The immensity of God - speech and silence

Trinity Sunday – Eucharist –

(Isaiah 40.12-17; 2 Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20)

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, 
What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them?
mere human beings, that you should seek them out?

These are words from today’s Psalm - Psalm 8. Words about the majesty of God, the enormity of his Creation. But I’m afraid that even as I read them I couldn’t get out of my mind a song that has been taken up by the Messy Church movement:

My God is so great, so strong and so mighty,
there's nothing my God cannot do.
My God is so great, so strong and so mighty,
there's nothing my God cannot do.

The mountains are his, the rivers are his,
the stars are his handiwork, too.
My God is so great, so strong and so mighty,
there's nothing my God cannot do!

I think it’s what is known as an ear-worm, something you hear and then can’t stop hearing. That’s the point: the greatness of God and “nothing my God cannot do.”

But the Psalmist sees a problem with that. If the heavens and all that goes with them are so great - and now we know that the universe is far greater in its extent than anyone could have known at that time - then why should God be bothered about us, such a small part of Creation and so petty in all our concerns? We are mortal creatures, why should he be mindful of us? Mere human beings, so why should he seek us out?

Isaiah sees that to be an issue as well:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?...

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as dust on the scales…
All the nations are as nothing before him;
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

But that’s the remarkable thing. God is so great. We might be such a minuscule part of the sum of things that we don’t count for anything. But the whole point of what Isaiah writes is that in fact we do. The mystery of God is that he is so great, yet still he puts us at the centre of his concern. The nature of God might be beyond our understanding, but it’s our limited, mortal humanity which is of the utmost concern for God. As perfect as he is in himself, needing nothing outside himself to sustain himself - nevertheless he reaches out to us, poor human beings. That’s because of who he is, his very nature - and at its simplest that is to say that “God is love…”

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with all of you.

These are the words with which St. Paul concludes his Second Letter to the Christians at Corinth. They’re the words with which we so commonly end our prayers: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore.” The love of God is at the centre of our faith and our prayer. But it doesn’t end there. It’s made known only through the grace of Jesus Christ - the way in which and the person in whom God reaches out to the world. It’s made real by his continuing presence with us by his Holy Spirit.

How can you know God? How can you express the reality of God? Rather unexpectedly, I recently found myself having that discussion at a wedding reception - with a philosopher. He was researching in metaphysics and epistemology and before long we were into talking about Wittgenstein. The one thing I can remember from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings is his proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Or - if you can’t put it into words then you should keep quiet. For many people, this has been taken to exclude any religious frame of reference or talk about God. And Wittgenstein’s first proposition is, “The world is everything that is the case.” But he himself came to be a critic of his own writings. And all along he had been saying simply that talk about God was not something for the realm of philosophy. It didn’t mean it could be excluded as a matter of ultimate concern. He’d said as well that philosophy could not explore ethics - but it didn’t mean that we can live without them, and his own life showed the importance of ethical action from the courage he had shown as a soldier to his giving up his professorship during the Second World War to work as a hospital porter and then a lab assistant at the RVI.

About those things of which we cannot speak we should keep silent… That might be the philosopher’s point. And I think Christians need to value silence more. When we come to meet God we need to do so in stillness, able to recognise the mystery of God. God is not a “thing” to be talked about. God is before all things, greater than all things: God is Being itself, and only in him do we have any being ourselves. So much talk about God is inadequate. Talk about God when it gets wrapped up with churchiness or personal agendas can be just superficial or glib.

But we do need to move from silence into speaking of God, because God speaks to us. In himself God is imponderable, beyond understanding, but he reveals himself to us - and a record of how he does that is found in the Bible. It uses human words, so they are always going to be inadequate. But they tell us something of God by showing how he has called a people to be his own and revealed his love for us in Jesus - and that he doesn’t leave it there two thousand years ago but continues to be our guide and strength through the presence of his Holy Spirit. That’s what’s there in the final words of Jesus recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

Jesus himself speaks of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s the way his disciples have known God. One God with one will and one purpose. He could exist simply for himself, but such is his love that he reaches out and beyond for love of the world he has made. You can discuss how God can be one God and at the same time three Persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and people have. Theology, talk about God is a vital thing. But remember always that talk can get you only so far - we need to be prepared to admit what we can’t put into words, ready to encounter the mystery of God in silence.

To know God is to affirm that God is love. St. John sums up what it is to be a Christian in one sentence: “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.”

Can we live knowing the truth of that statement? A simple faith is going to be demanding - and that’s true as we try to make sense of the world… as we try to make sense of God. What we need to do is to try and make sense of both together. We make sense of them when we know that God is love - and reveals that love in so many ways. We make sense of our faith when we respond in love to the God who first reaches out to us, and when we put love into action for the people around us.

David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, used to sum up Christian belief by saying, “God is as he is in Jesus, and so there is hope.” When God seems unknowable and distant, it’s Jesus who reveals who God is. And in our on-going relationship with God it’s Jesus who is the point of reference - it’s because of Jesus that we understand the work of the Holy Spirit. So, be open to encounter with God. God can’t be limited by human definition - the Spirit blows where he wills - but we can judge that encounter by reference to Jesus, and then we will begin to know something of God.

The danger on Trinity Sunday is that we get bogged down in all the talk about how God can be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three Persons, yet one God,… and the end result is to leave us with a doctrine rather than a God who is alive and active. None of us can ever fully understand God, still less explain how he works. But we see him at work. What we do reveals God to others.  We may have far to go in working out the implications of that faith, but the promise is that God will travel with us. Do we want God as our companion on life’s journey? If we ask ourselves this question perhaps it will help us understand more about our relationship with God - and our calling.