What are you waiting for?

Address for Advent Sunday 2020

“Wake up!” – seems to be the message of this morning’s gospel reading – and possibly not a bad one for Morning Prayer at the end of November!
But, I think, the appeal to keep awake needs to be heard against the broader Advent themes of Watching and Waiting.

Waiting is certainly one things we’re accustomed to just now – waiting for announcements of new tier systems; waiting to hear what will or will not be possible this Christmas.
And there has been an anxious wait for the production of a vaccine, as the only real solution to our currently restricted way of life. And so, now, we celebrate the good news that, earlier than expected, more than one vaccine looks likely to be widely available soon.

Now that that the longed for vaccine has become a reality – the anxious waiting might just morph into anxious questions: Will it really work? And for how long?
Is it really safe? What might the side effects be?
And, if I get the right answers to that lot,
when will I be able to get some?
Waiting for an ideal, then, does not necessarily mean that we are prepared for it – when we are finally confronted with it as a concrete reality.

And so, to Advent – when we’re reminded that we are still waiting – for Christ to bring all things to completion. Whether we think in literal terms of Christ’s Second Coming, at the end of time, or of a more gradual outworking of his promises – there is unfinished business in the struggle against evil.

Our first hymn uses the word “longing”:
“longing for light we wait in darkness”,
and it implores Christ to “be our light”.
In the Book of Psalms, the psalmist cries out: “When? When shall I come before the presence of God?”

Here again there is an urgency in the waiting – an overwhelming desire to see God – to see Christ face to face – and perhaps to know then, for sure, that faith has not been in vain.

But how will that reality feel when we finally get to encounter it?
We might imagine ourselves, like the disciples, sitting at Jesus’ feet as he explains to us the things we’ve never really understood.

Or we might think back to last week,
and the image of Christ as judge,
before whom we’ll stand in fear and trembling
– in which case we might be happy to wait a bit longer!

Perhaps we have no clear preconception of what that reality will be like – just a strong sense of being called to that eternal home which still lies beyond our grasp, but not quite out of sight or mind.

St Paul contends that the faithful are already enriched in Christ and strengthened by him; that Christ is already present among us, and visible in the spiritual gifts that he has given and continues to draw out from us.

And so, if we really do long to see the face of God, it’s not entirely a matter of waiting for God to act – it requires us to be awake and alert, and to watch for the signs of Christ’s presence among us – to recognise the gifts we share, here and now – to give thanks for them
and to put them to good use.
This season of Advent reminds us that, as Christians, we live in a kind of dual time zone – engaging fully in the everyday reality of our mortal life, while eagerly anticipating the eternal reality of life in God’s presence.

Advent reminds us that the kingdom of God is both “now and not yet” – IS already being established here but not yet complete.

Advent calls us to sit still long enough to notice what’s there under our noses: the gifts and graces that counter our fears and anxiety – the eternal light that continues to shine through each temporary darkness.

This is not a time for busy-ness then – a time to “prepare” with plans and “to do lists” and frantic running around – but a time to prepare ourselves –
to cultivate an attitude of mind: of openness to present realities we haven’t seen before; of glimpses of all that lies beyond those present realities.

And, as we watch and wait for the signs of God’s life among us, awake to the opportunities that he sets before us, perhaps we may see more clearly the next steps in our own lives that will bring us closer to the kingdom of God.

Wilton Windows

In the absence of Christmas Carols Service or Town Treelighting, we’ve encouraged people to decorate a window – to bring a little Christmas cheer.

Below are some of the results!

Charlotte Ponting
Ray and Elaine Johnson
The Mcnulty family (notice the doormat!!)
Michelle Marchment
Another “blaze” from North Street!
Childhood wonder! Window prepared by Tasha Cooney (and admired by Harrison!)
Abigail Collins – “A Merriment of Santas!!”
Christine Matthews – our first “Carol” depiction.

Christmas Star – Pam Edge

Feeling “sheepish”?

Address given on 22 November – “Christ the King”

Today I want to speak about Consequences, Kings and Caprinae – and I appreciate that that isn’t quite alliteration, but it does give you a short introduction as to where I’m going!

As we come to the end of the church’s year, on this last Sunday before Advent, we come to the end of our focus on St Matthew for our Gospel readings.
I remember standing here this time last year and advising those in church that we would be in for a bumpy ride:
St Matthew’s Gospel contains within it some of the most comforting sayings in scripture – “Come to me, all you who are weary – and I will give you rest”; or “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful..”;
and some inspiring words “Go and make disciples of all nations – behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
But it also includes some of the most difficult and challenging teachings of Jesus. And Chapter 25, from which we’ve just heard, is no exception: last week we heard the fate of the slave who failed to use the talent – the coin – entrusted to him by his master; and today’s parable of the sheep and goats seems equally unforgiving.
And there’s a very clear message that there will be consequences in the next life for the way that we live today. In this particular parable, the judgement is unequivocal and final – some are destined for eternal life, and others for eternal judgement, there is no middle ground.
That vision does fit with Matthew’s liking for hard edges – for a clear dividing line between the faithful, as he seems them, and everyone else. And yet, even so, the core of this parable is actually quite the opposite – emphasising the need to show kindness to those that most need it, whoever and wherever they may be
The kindness or the indifference with which we treat “the least” of our brothers and sisters is the way that Christ deems us to have treated him – and in turn, determines the way that he will treat us.

So what should we make of Christ the King – who, in this church, is depicted in the apse behind me, looking down from the judgement throne?
Clearly our own society, even with a reigning monarch, is very different from that of the 1st Century, where kings ruled in a more direct sense.
And, for me, the harsh judge of today’s parable brings to mind a rather troubling image of a celestial Donald Trump – issuing executive orders at whim, and sending away into the outer darkness anyone whose opinions don’t fit with the version of the truth he wants to present.
Fortunately, St Paul rides to the rescue today – in his letter to the Ephesians. Here the Son of Man, seated on the throne of glory, is identified clearly as the one who was raised from the dead, having first lived among us.
For Paul, then, “Christ the King” is not some distant, despotic figure – he is the Crucified Saviour, immersed in the sorrows of the word – and whose own human face we can still recognise, in the features of downtrodden and suffering humanity today.
It is because God does understand what it is to be human that he is such a powerful judge – there is no wriggle room, no excuse of frailty in front of one who’s seen and lived it all before us.
Come judgement day, it seems, there is nothing more to be said – our actions will speak for themselves.
At this time of year, as Christmas approaches, we inevitably face a whole raft of appeals from charities at home and abroad. And this year, in particular, with so much financial uncertainty, we may be left with the overwhelming feeling that we just can’t do everything we’d like to.
But can we, in watchful Advent, take the time to notice and to seek those who seem to be in greatest need, whoever and wherever they turn out to be?
Can we make Advent a season of preparation and of kindness, in which to work out what we can do for the least of these –
whether or not that involves giving money, or spending time with someone, or perhaps making a change of lifestyle to correct the negative impact we have on others?
And now to Caprinae – the sub-family to which both sheep and goats belong.
Sheep and goats may not always appear as different as our Gospel reading suggests.
I still remember the disgust in my household, when one well-meaning tourist referred to our Jacob’s sheep as “spotty goats”!
And if woolly, western sheep can be so easily confused, then I suspect the skinny sheep of Palestine are even more similar to the goats there – proving what we already know, that appearances can be deceptive.

Scientifically, there is a difference between the two: sheep have 54 chromosomes – and are referred to as the Ovis genus; whereas Goats – the Capra genus – have 60 chromosomes.
And they behave differently.
Sheep tend to graze, munching away wherever they are put (although if you ask my neighbour about our sheep and her vegetable garden, she may question that theory!)
Goats, on the other hand, are professional foragers – wandering at will: which is why we often see them tethered here, as they can be quite destructive when left to it.

Sheep are willing to be led – “my sheep hear my voice.. they know me, and follow me” – and they tend to flock together.
Goats tend to be more independent – of us and of each other. They are arguably more intelligent than sheep – and like to do their own thing.
So is that what the parable is getting at – that we are going to be judged on the degree to which we take account of others, rather than just ourselves?
As with the animals, so with people – we can’t possibly judge good from bad simply from appearances: and, in any case, it’s not our place to judge.
It’s not even that simple with ourselves, either: none of us is entirely good or bad – like the “spotty goats” that are in fact sheep – we almost certainly display confusing elements of both.

All of us, I suggest possess noble, selfless instincts – that drive us to do good things, to think good of others, to put others first;
but there are always those selfish doubts niggling away – am I being taken for a ride here; do I really want to do this; what about me for a change?

And so we will need to work at resisting our goat-like tendencies, and cultivating our sheep-like awareness of others – if we are to be clearly recognised by Christ on the right side of the divide.

And so, to risk another bout of alliteration, Advent calls for an attitude of attentiveness.
We are invited to be attentive to ourselves, and the way we live our lives;
attentive to others, and the things that might transform their lives for good;
attentive to God – who gave us life and, in Christ, has redeemed us all.

What’s in a name?

Address given at (virtual) Remembrance Sunday service 8/11/20

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 44; Romans 8: 18-27

If there were a prize for the most over-used phrase of 2020, two very strong contenders would be “new normal” and “unprecedented times” – both of which have become pet hates of mine!
“New normal” would seem to suggest that we’ve all somehow changed now, and arrived at a settled state of being – whereas in reality things seem to change and keep changing with alarming speed.
And as for “unprecedented times”, that would seem to suggest that there’s never been anything as bad as this before – but I suspect that many of our ancestors would beg to differ.
We ourselves may never have known anything as bad as this, but that doesn’t mean that similar things – and worse things – haven’t happened before.
After all, what is Remembrance Sunday for – if not to call to mind the sufferings of those who lived through the great conflicts of the past AND the strength of the human spirit to endure and overcome those things?

And perhaps our experiences of 2020 bring us closer to understanding that war-time experience which most of us haven’t lived through: the curbing of certain freedoms; separation from our loved ones; the starker reality of death; and the anxiety and uncertainty that flows from all those things.
Those sensations, it seems to me, reflect both past and present realities.
And now, as in the adversities of war, we see both the best and worst aspects of humanity displayed, in the flowering of community-spirit and human compassion, but also in thoughtless or deliberate selfishness.
In World War 2, and the years which followed – many things were subject to rationing, as certain foods and materials were in short supply.
In 2020 we’ve also experienced those shortages – but largely due to panic-buying – individuals taking far more than they need, without any concern for other people.
However “new” our present “normal” may be, human nature is still as complex, and fallible as it ever was.
Of course 2020 has not just been about Covid 19.
It’s been argued this week that the pandemic has provided the perfect smoke screen, behind which terrorist organisations have begun to regroup.
And there’ve been fresh acts of violence in France, Afghanistan and Austria – resulting from a “war of ideas”: the determination of some to impose their own ideology on others, or to destroy those who stand in the way.

In the build up to the American Presidential elections, we’ve witnessed a particularly fierce tribalism – a trait from which our own domestic politics is not immune.
Such tribalism is perhaps inevitable in a time of war – when a defined enemy has to be defeated; and the people emboldened for the long haul. But in a time of peace, manipulating those same tribal instincts is a dangerous game – and in the time of a pandemic, possible a fatal one.

Faced with all those challenges, and more, we may either despair, or we can recognise evil for what it is and refuse to give in to it – to strive for better and determine to change what we can.

The Lebanese writer, Khalil Gibran, writing at the turn of the 20th Century, said: “I have learned tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.”
The suggestion then that, in recognising what is wrong, we can in fact chose to do what is right, with greater clarity and resolve.
In rejecting the intolerance of the religious fanatic; the irresponsible egotism of the populist politician; the selfishness of the panic-bulk-buyer; we may in fact discover what human nature is meant to look like – what we can become when we truly love our neighbours as ourselves.

St Paul speaks of hope – not so much in the things that we see around us, but in the things we do not yet see – not, we might say, in any “new normal”, but in what is constantly being revealed to us about the way ahead.
We can already glimpse that future hope, in the words and actions of the people around us.
Yes, there are those whose sole concern seems to be to “make a name” for themselves – to win power, influence and instant recognition – irrespective of any guiding principle, or concern for the common good.
And yet there are countless others working tirelessly – to do whatever is necessary to keep things going – to get us through this pandemic – to help us reach the “promised land” of a world where new, safe vaccines can free us from our present anxieties.
Like the soldiers of the World Wars, and other battles, we will never know who all those people are – and yet, we can still recognise the value of what they do – of the personal sacrifices that they have made for good of us all. “Their glory will never be blotted out”, as the writer of Ecclesiasticus expressed it.

And from the past, we can learn the lessons of war – that the suffering and hardship of 2020 is neither “normal” nor “unprecedented” – and that, while we are living through them, those things seem all too real and never-ending – in truth life will not always be like this – human societies and organisations can be rebuilt.

Those of us who have faith in Jesus Christ draw hope from his example – of overcoming the worst atrocities of human violence and degradation – and revealing a new life beyond that suffering.
And all of us may draw hope from the power of the human spirit – formed in God’s likeness – that has enabled soldiers to find comradeship in the heat of battle; and sworn enemies to find reconciliation when fighting was done.
All of us may draw hope from the power of nature – which has healed the man-made scars of the battle field.

This year as every other, let us remember all those who have faced the realities of war – and so put into perspective the difficulties we face today (however painful those experiences may be) – and so draw hope for a brighter tomorrow.