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.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

God’s Spirit of Peace - and a troubled world

There’s so much I could try to write about this month. In terms of the Church’s Calendar we celebrate the great Feasts of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday - not that it’s easy to get either of them right. Early in the month there’s a General Election - you might well feel you’ve already heard enough about that! And as we go to press we’re all too aware of the atrocity of the suicide bomber’s attack which took so many lives and maimed others at the concert in the Manchester Arena. Words fail us when we try to give expression to our feelings, with children as young as eight amongst the victims and others bereaved of the parents who were waiting to collect them from the concert.

It’s not surprising, given the shock felt at the Manchester bombing, that less attention has been given in the media to an Islamist attack on a bus in Egypt carrying Coptic Christian pilgrims - in the same week with at least 28 killed by gunfire. The Coptic community also suffered grievously just before Easter with bombs detonated on Palm Sunday at their Cathedral in Alexandria and at another church north of Cairo. Over 70 people died that day. It’s a reminder that many Christians pay a real cost in seeking to celebrate their faith. The atrocities we suffer in our own country bring home to us the state of fear in which so many millions live every day around the world.

What is impressive is how so many hold to their faith despite the discrimination, intimidation and outright attacks which they endure because of it. The association of Islamist extremism and violence causes many westerners to doubt the value of any religion. The example of persecuted Christians tells us something else - that their faith is in God and God is love. That’s what we seek to celebrate at Pentecost and in understanding God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s God who has loved us into being, God’s Son who shares our humanity and shows us what it truly is, God’s Spirit who moves among us to lead us into all truth. God is love - and entirely love, so there is no room for hatred. It’s hard to take that in - but that is our calling, and one to be lived in faith.

Martin Jackson

Friday, 12 May 2017

Archbishops' Pastoral Letter

Last weekend we read the Pastoral Letter written by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to aid parishioners in preparation for the forthcoming General Election. We've been asked for a link to the letter - which demands careful reading - so here it is: Just click here.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Easter faith - what comes next?

One of the features of the Church’s Year which I try to avoid having after Easter is the Annual Parochial Church Meeting - and with it what used to be called the Easter Vestry. They’re both very necessary - the APCM to look back over our last 12 months and forward as we elect members of the Parochial Church Council and Deanery Synod representatives; the Annual Vestry (as we name it now) for the election of those critically essential people, the Church Wardens. We’re well served by all - thanks to all who have served during the last year and for those who will move us forward in the months to come. It’s not the meeting itself that causes me the problem when it falls after Easter - it’s all the paperwork, which can sap the energy even when it’s done electronically!

But it’s all done! Except there’s always more to be done… St. Paul wisely wrote that some disciples had the “gift of administration.” Such people are to be treasured along with those who exhibit pastoral skills, who can preach, sing, lead worship and evangelise. The problem is nearly everyone (certainly of who are ordained) seems expected to have it these days.

So reading the Acts of the Apostles as we do in the days and weeks after Easter is always a corrective for Christians in general and clergy in particular who feel that they are losing their way in discipleship and mission. It shows the early days of the Church. Without the physical presence of Jesus which they’d previously relied on, how were the first Christians to move forwards? There are instances of courageous preaching, effective evangelism, miraculous healings and astonishing conversions. But also the need for planning; for plotting a course - sometimes in the midst of disagreement; for people who would take on the care of others and folks who would just do their best to keep everybody together. And all of it undergirded by prayer - knowing Jesus’ promise to be with his people to the end of time, strengthened and guided as we are by the Holy Spirit.

The Acts of the Apostles is a rather neglected book - find it straight after the Gospels. And ask - what is it saying to you?                                

Martin Jackson

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Resurrection here and now…

In a time when much of what we see in the News Media speaks to us of the human capacity for violence, injustice, complacency and despair, it’s welcome when a “good news” item turns up. One such report is of the unveiling of the restored “Edicule” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Knowing that a huge project was underway at the time a number of us went on pilgrimage in February, I was pleased enough that we were able to enter the traditional site of Jesus’ burial - though it was shrouded in scaffolding. But now the restoration is complete. Amongst the discoveries is the bedrock in which Christ’s body was said to have been laid, and the dating of the two marble slabs in the chamber which pilgrims may visit: the upper slab, from Crusader times when the church was rebuilt; the lower slab, dated to the fourth century when the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, made provision to build the original church.

Does it matter? Yes, because the events of Christ’s Passion, of Holy Week and Easter, happen in real time - his betrayal, condemnation, death, burial and Resurrection are a matter of record. And physical evidence of their probable location takes us in a special way to recognise how God touches our world. Christian faith is more than a merely “spiritual” experience.

Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, understood this - which is why she was so painstaking in seeking to identify those places most closely associated with the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Later in the same 4th Century a pilgrim to the Holy Land called Egeria recorded her travels and the places she visited - and much of her writing concerned the worship in which she participated. The worship we offer now in Holy Week and at Easter has grown from the same roots as that which she knew. We may not be in Jerusalem ourselves - but our prayer and worship in a very real way takes us there as we seek to follow Christ in his Passion, as we meet him at his Resurrection. The prayer we offered as pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem is the same as the prayer of the Stations of the Cross in St. Cuthbert’s. What is celebrated in the Upper Room is made real in our Eucharists. The Christ who rose from that tomb in Jerusalem is the one who comes to meet us now.                      

Martin Jackson

This article is from the April 2017 issue of our Parish Magazine - click to find it through this link

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Encounters at the Well - the Samaritan Woman and witnessing in Nablus today

Homily - Lent 3     Year A            19.iii.2017             

(Lectionary: Exodus 17.1-7; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42)

We’ve just heard a Gospel reading that’s too long to print into the weekly pewsheet - and so long that you might wonder where to start unpacking what it’s about. It’s about Jesus, of course, and more importantly again it’s about Jesus and his relationship to other people and to one person in particular. It’s the story of an encounter - his meeting with a Samaritan woman at a place known traditionally as Jacob’s Well. It’s a dialogue which doesn’t follow one particular thread but goes off this way and that. It breaks off as the woman goes away and later returns - with other people including the disciples and the woman’s fellow-townspeople coming on the scene as well. At the end you might feel confused. Where did the conversation get them? What happened to that woman? What is the point of all that discussion about the place of true worship? What might have happened next? - to the woman? to the other Samaritans who come to belief in Jesus? What happens during the two days Jesus spent with them? - but we don’t hear anything of what went on during that time…

We’re not going to get all those questions answered in just a few minutes now. Except to say that this is a human encounter. St. John’s Gospel so often has a theological point to make. But here the point is that critical issues about our faith have to be worked out in everyday circumstances - in the encounter with strangers, in confusion as to what anybody is talking about, in hospitality, in the need to break off to attend to other things that demand our attention. If you wonder what is going on between Jesus and the woman he meets at the Well, then perhaps you could ask what would be going on if you were part of that encounter. What would you think of Jesus, what would he make of you, how would your conversation go - and where would it get you? How would things go on from there? These are questions to reflect upon, not to answer in a hurry.

If there’s one verse from all those long readings we’ve heard today that might serve as a key to help our understanding, I think it’s one in today’s reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly…” It’s part of a bigger argument for St. Paul. What the death of Jesus does is something we’ll explore in the days of Passiontide before Easter. But for now, it’s those words, “at the right time…”

Time and place are all-important. The distinctive thing about the Christian faith is that it grows out of the relationship of God and humanity. God is seen to be at work in human history, God is revealed in human flesh, God meets us in Jesus - often unexpectedly as in the case of today’s Gospel story - but always “at the right time…” - in the right place.

Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman is at a particular time in a very particular place. “Jacob’s Well was there,” we’re told. That would resonate with any Jew - a place marker on the journey of Jacob as he came to understand God’s purpose for him and for his people. But it’s also a place which would emphasise the divisions between Jews and Samaritans, two peoples with an ancestor in common, but divided on how to practise their religion and put their faith into practice.

Jacob’s Well is in Sychar, to use the Biblical name. For Israelis, it’s now known as Shechem; for Arabs, it’s the modern city of Nablus. I remember nearly 40 years ago, having Samaritan residents pointed out to me as I was driven through the streets - in 2015 there were only a total of 777 Samaritans recorded throughout the whole of Israel and the West Bank, a tiny remnant, and since the 1990s they’ve been unable to live in Nablus itself following the violence of the first Palestinian Intifada. But it’s likely that many of their ancestors were assimilated into the predominantly Muslim population of this third biggest city on the West Bank.

And the city of Nablus today is a bustling city. Visiting it again last month as part of our pilgrimage, I’d carried preconceived ideas. I’d remembered the first time I’d gone there - just a quick visit to the place said to be Jacob’s Well, that place where Jesus met with the Samaritan woman. I’d remembered looking up and seeing Israeli soldiers watching from the rooftops. And I think that left me with a feeling that this was a town to get in and out of as swiftly as possible for the sole purpose of visiting that Biblical site.

But now I realise I was wrong. So much of the West Bank is scarred by occupation by Israeli forces, by the incursions of settlers, by restrictions placed on those who live there as to where they can go and when; and they live with uncertainties about whether there’ll be water in the taps or electricity to heat and light their homes - as well as lots of rubbish in the streets. But as we drove through Nablus people were simply getting on with life: in the centre the streets were choked with traffic; there were stalls on the streets and shopping malls too; life and work were carrying on. I’d expected hostility - but instead this was normality and if people in other cities of the Middle East were able to live in such a positive fashion the region would be the better and certainly more peaceful for it.

The Christian presence is tiny - about 650 in a city approaching 200,000 - and Anglicans are very much a minority amongst the Christians. There’s much we can learn from them.

The majority of Christians are Orthodox and we visited their church, built over the place where Jesus is said to have talked with the Samaritan woman. We drew water from the Well - some were brave enough to drink from it. We prayed and sang in the crypt around the Well - and then there was time to look at the church. When I’d visited it five years ago, I couldn’t remember it from my previous first visit. This time I found out why - it hadn’t been there 40 years ago. It was built as a memorial to the parish’s previous priest, Philoumenos, a Cypriot who had served his congregations in Palestine for over 40 years until he was found murdered by the Well - probably killed as he’d said his evening prayers. Jewish extremists had issued threats a week before, demanding that all Christian symbols should be removed from the shrine. No one has ever been charged with the murder. Distrust and hatred could have held sway.

But his successor, Fr. Justinus, dedicated himself to building the new church which stands there now. It’s a fitting resting place for Philoumenos who is buried in the upper church - and it’s both a place of beauty and a living witness to Christian faith in this overwhelmingly Muslim city. Philoumenos was not the first inhabitant of the city to have died for his faith. In the middle of the second century a pagan Palestinian philosopher called Justin came to faith in Jesus Christ. His was to be one of the most important contributions to the Christian understanding of how Jesus could be both God and human - and for the sake of his faith he died. He’s been remembered ever since as Justin Martyr. The word martyr has a double sense: these days normally used for someone who has died through religious mistrust and hatred; but the more basic meaning is simply “witness.” It’s to believe something and act on that belief, regardless of the inconvenience or cost.

So we visited that Orthodox Church which so visibly maintains a witness built on a faith expressed in that city for 2,000 years. But we also visited a rather smaller and humbler place - St. Philip’s Church, which has been an Anglican presence in Nablus since the middle of the 19th century. Its witness may seem less obvious, but the Anglican Church has maintained a school - now a kindergarten - there since 1846, and during the last 170 years it has provided for Jews, Muslims and Samaritans as well as Christians. For over 100 years there has also been a hospital, built by the Anglican Church: St. Luke’s Hospital with its 60 beds. Both school and hospital are open for people of all faiths. The parish priest, Fr. Ibrahim, spoke of the pressures of life in general and for Christians in particular. For such a small community it meant a lot that visitors should come from other countries. For our part, we could only be struck by how much he and his people were doing with so many difficulties and constraints set against them. And perhaps we need to recognise how our failure of perception has been part of the problem. There had been an Anglican presence in Nablus since the 1840s, but the first Arab priest was appointed only in 1901. The first Anglican missionaries preached only to the Jews of the town - but they had the Bible in Arabic from 1865 and it was the Arabs themselves who asked to learn more. And so now it is an entirely Arab congregation - and one which works to foster harmony. The cloth on the church’s altar had pockets sewn into it where people can leave their prayers. It’s not only Christians who make use of it - Muslim visitors also leave their prayers there.

Our visit was a humbling experience. How important is our faith to us? How much difficulty will we put up with to practise it? What do we hope to share with others? Do we trust that our prayers will be heard? - and encourage others in their prayer?

Today’s Gospel reading - set in that city now called Nablus - shows a clash of cultures, a confusion of faiths, deeply held and contradictory convictions. But in the end the encounter of Jesus and the woman at the Well is about two people who practise mutual hospitality, who overcome suspicion, listen to one another - and so come to a better understanding. If only we could do the same!