“The Lord is here?”

Address given on 13 September 2020

Readings Numbers 21: 4-9; Philippians 2: 6 – 11; John 3: 13-17

On Friday. very many people in the United States, and elsewhere, marked the 19th Anniversary of 9/11 – the deliberate destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and the loss of those who were working in them.

And, among the coverage of that anniversary, I came across a story about the “Ground Zero Cross” – a 20 foot section of steel girder, with its cross bar, which had been discovered among the debris of the North Tower, and which clearly resembled the empty cross of Christ.
Once this structure had been exposed, it quickly became a sort of shrine for those working on the site.
And, for many a it was a powerful sign of Christian hope – that just as the pain and desolation of Good Friday would lead on to the resurrection and new life, so the pain and desolation of 9/11 would not have the final say – life would flourish again, albeit a life changed by experience;
human kindness and resilience would shine through that initial sense of hopelessness.

Archbishop Rowan Williams – who happened to be in New York at the time of the attacks – was asked the question “where was God that day?” And after a moment of thought, he pointed to those selfless acts of bravery and compassion and said “there” – in that “selfless” and “self-giving” human response” God’s love was realised.

And if that seems a slightly evasive answer, then I’d want to defend it on the grounds that it brings us right back to the message of the Cross – and victory won over evil not by a dramatic show of power and divine intervention, but through human cost and self—giving, human suffering giving way to hope.

And so, back in 2001, for many working to clear what remained of the twin towers, and many others since, that Steel girder Cross made absolute sense – and was blessed as “symbol of hope for all”.

But that wasn’t quite true. The organisation known as “American Atheists” – the US equivalent of our “National Secular Society” – quickly objected to the presence of any religious symbol on what is, clearly a public space.
What represents a symbol of hope to some, suggests a kind of “power-grab” to others who don’t identify with that symbol. And in the end, it took two Supreme Court judgement to rule that the Cross should stay, and it now stands in front of the” 9/11 Memorial and Museum” – where it can be seen either as a religious symbol of hope, or as an important historic artefact.

In the context of our own observance of Holy Cross Day, it’s worth noting the strength of reaction to that cross – positive and negative. Although there were, and are, presumably plenty of people who remain indifferent to it – the symbol of the cross does have the power to disturb.

It doesn’t quite fit with our notions of how societies work – of human achievement and success.
The cross, after all, is first and foremost a symbol of shame: it’s only through the lens of Christian faith that it become more than that.
And if you don’t accept that faith,
or don’t really understand it, then it must seem a truly bizarre symbol on which to pin our hopes.

Growing up in 1970s Lancashire, I remember well the tradition of Whit Walks – when the Cross of Christ was carried proudly in procession, following the band through the streets – to the amusement of some, and the bafflement of others – and with a slight tinge of triumphalism about it. If I’m honest, it felt more like a show of strength – a demonstration that the Church was still there – rather than a demonstration of God’s presence among us.

But then the potential for different reactions and emotions evoked by the Cross is right there in our readings; “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Clearly the brass serpent that Moses raised up was both a symbol of hope and of power – those who were bitten by snakes expected that symbol to save and protect them.
And Jesus, John suggests, is “lifted up” both in the literal sense – to his death on the cross – but also in the sense of being exalted; raised up to eternal glory.
At the cross God’s power is displayed,
but through human weakness,
and the self-giving love of Jesus himself.
And here the Cross and the scriptures reflect something of our human nature. We have a tendency to “lift up” certain individuals – either as being worthy of our respect and admiration, or in order to “make an example” of someone to be shamed and punished.

The media sometimes delight in building up some new celebrity – in the arts, or sport or politics, and then knocking them down again – hounding them until their human failings are plain for all to see.
And all of us, consciously or otherwise, are inclined to “build up” those who stand for what we are thinking – to praise them as champions of our cause, without always questioning their judgement, whereas the painful truth will sometimes be that they, and we, are wrong!

Just as the disciples didn’t want to believe him, when Jesus told them he must be killed, we will sometimes have to wrestle with our own thoughts and emotions in the pursuit of truth and wisdom.

The cross of Christ points to the fact that there was only ever one man, Jesus himself, who was without reproach, and who truly deserves our admiration and devotion.
The way of the Cross – the Christian life – is as difficult as it is rewarding. It requires us to follow Christ’s own example – to give ourselves to the service of others, in ways that will not always win us approval or acceptance.

Yet it’s in that self-giving – and in the dogged pursuit of truth and justice – that we experience the depths of human compassion and resilience, and that the depths of God’s love is revealed.
And in that revelation lies the true power of the Cross.

In New York, in Wilton – made of metal or of wood – the Cross becomes a symbol of hope when it is seen to be the focus of both divine love and compassionate, human action.

As we continue to adapt to the evolving trials of Covid 19, and to other challenges in our national life,
the Cross of Christ calls us to respond with that same self-giving compassion and, in whatever ways we can, to turn that compassion into action.

Just as in New York, in the weeks that followed 9/11, that is where God will be found today.

“The journey of 1000 miles ..”

(.. begins with a single step!)

Address given on 26 July 2020

Readings: Romans 8: 26 – 39; Matthew 14: 13 – 21

This week, as many of our schools came to the end of term,
the lockdown phenomenon that was “PE with Joe” also came to an end.
Joe Wicks – a fitness instructor from Epsom, in Surrey, had been due to go on a tour of various schools after Easter. And, when lockdown prevented this, he began a daily 30-minute P E lesson via YouTube – at one stage netting almost a million viewers – with whole families joining in as part of their daily routine.

Along the way, he was able to generate more than half a million pounds in advertising revenue which he donated to the NHS. So two contributions to our nation’s health.

Now, after 18 weeks, and with a damaged hand, he’s decided it’s time for a rest – but what incredible things resulted from that initial decision to go online.

I have not been one of those following Joe Wicks: but I have been doing something similar.

Back at the beginning of lockdown, freshly exiled from the leisure centre, I discovered a more local alternative.
Via the unlikely route of Salisbury Cathedral’s Instagram feed, I stumbled across the equally unlikely character of Paddy Watts – who is not, as I might have assumed, in a middle-aged Irishman but a very English tennis coach in his late twenties.
Paddy had also expected to be busy this summer – in the build up to Wimbledon – but instead found himself back, living with his parents, and unable to work.

So he too began offering a free workout – on six mornings a week – via Instagram.
And that became my 8.15 ritual, and a real boost at a time where there were very few fixed points in the day!

As we progressed into April, however, the routine changed, as Paddy really needed to start earning some money again.
Now there would be just 3 freebies – and the other three sessions would be twice as long and charged for.
In addition there would now be personal advice, and sessions would be on Zoom , so that he could actually see us and would know if we were slacking!

And so I had to make a choice – cut back, or step up a gear or three. In the end, my family offered to pay a month’s subscription as part of my birthday present and the choice was made, and I’ve stuck with it since!

Now, if you’d seen me on Tuesday, at about 9am, you would know that I do sometimes struggle with it– “well, that was a tough one” Paddy grinned at the end of the session, “we know” someone else called back: that someone wasn’t me, I was too out of breath!

Those that DO see me in that state of near exhaustion sometimes wonder why I put myself through it, I know.
And if you asked me to explain what keeps me going back – I’d have to say there were three reasons –
a clear sense of progress; a strong sense of fellowship; and a slightly unnerving sense of accountability.

The sweat, if not quite tears, and the dent in the bank balance are worth it because I always feel so much more alive afterwards (though not always straight afterwards!) And the sense that things we once struggled with are now becoming second nature – that brings its own reward.
Secondly, that powerful sense of fellowship – Paddy himself uses the word “community”: none of us have ever met Paddy or each other, in the usual sense. But – in the early days of “isolation” – there was something reassuringly normal about having some regular contact with someone “outside” the 4 walls.
And we quickly started to recognise each other and even each other’s personalities:
Alice who always exercises out in the garden (even when it rains);
Barty who just can’t resist answering his phone, whenever it pings;
Romy, whose Labradors sometimes join in the floor exercises with rather more enthusiasm than she does – and – I’d better not go on!
So that’s been rather nice – but it also brings with it a certain accountability. I know that if I really didn’t feel like it one day, it would be noticed if I didn’t show up. And it would then be on my conscience that someone else might feel demotivated because I hadn’t bothered.
And, of course, there’s the beady eye of Paddy himself – who doesn’t miss anything,
is perhaps best described as a relentless encourager!
Now, if I’m making you feel tired, I do apologise – but I wanted to see if those three motivational strands might apply to us, as we start to rebuild our worship, and our church-life in general.

Can we hold on to any new discoveries -that we’ve made in the past few months – and that we sense have nurtured us in body, mind or spirit?
Can we continue to explore what will feed us, and help to maintain that sense of progress – renewing our faith with fresh energy and understanding?

Can we harness that sense of progress for all of us – for our community – not just my health; my knowledge; my spirituality. Can we try to make sure that our fellowship grows ever deeper, and that we don’t exclude anyone who wants to be a part of it?

And, can we develop our sense of accountability,
to each other and to God, so that we are bold in putting our faith into practice – and so that we can encourage each other to persevere when that gets tough.
St Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit, who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, knows us and holds us together within God’s family – with all the saints and with Christ, the firstborn.

And we are empowered to endure the hardships we sometimes face, and to challenge what is wrong – to speak truth to power; to speak up for those who are persecuted, or vulnerable or neglected.

Faith, through the eyes of St Paul, is not so much about our comfort as our salvation – and the salvation of the world.

But how on earth to we contribute to that?

There are two pointers, I think, in our gospel reading.

Right at the end Jesus sets before us the image of the scribe – who draws on his treasury of stories and images – to plant ideas that can take hold and grow into something powerful – something precious.
We’re all too aware of the negative way in which ideas can be planted in people’s minds – the manipulation of social media for personal gain; allegations of Russian interference in western politics; 5G conspiracy theories in response to Covid 19 and a host of others.

What our gospel seems to demand is that we combat those things with true stories of our own –
personal stories, images from scripture, examples of the good that is being done all the time.

But what can we do against the mighty corporations and international media platforms? Even together we are barely a drop in a very large ocean.

Again, Jesus reminds us, that even the tiniest of seeds – the mustard seed – can eventually produce a sturdy tree, up 25 feet tall apparently (7.6 metres).
Its growth is slow – tiny imperceptible steps each day – yet, the end result is impressive and strong.

And, as with yeast, which transforms stodgy dough into bread ready for baking – just a small amount of goodness is needed to start transforming things for the better.

And so I think what I want to draw out of all those things is that we don’t need to be frightened by the uncertainty, and constant changes that we’re facing now, but should actually be excited at the possibilities.

We can never be certain that we are doing the right thing; we can’t wait for absolute certainty before we speak up or try something new. And what we need is NOT certainty, but a mustard seed of faith:
Joe Wicks didn’t know that his PE sessions would take off at all – he could have found himself broadcasting to noone: Paddy Watts’ first audience included 3 old school friends, out of curiosity, and his mum and aunty, out of loyalty!

But both have delivered more than they might have expected. And so, our small, tentative steps in faith can lead us far beyond the limits of our own vision;
far beyond what we thought we were capable of.
God’s Spirit is calling us afresh – in these strange times – to acknowledge God’s love, which is unconditional and without limit;
and to proclaim that love, in words and actions;
and to remember that,
in everything and despite everything,
we are always in the company him
who is both Christ our Lord and Jesus our brother.

Reckless waste or generous giving?

Address given on 12 July 2020

Readings: Psalm 68; Isaiah: 10-13; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Like many others, I suspect, the Rectory Garden has emerged from lockdown in a rather tidier state than it was back in March!
There are now pools of sunlight where the sun has not reached for years, if not decades;
patches of wilderness have been transformed into borders;
dead wood has been cleared;
and the battle of the brambles has been won – at least for now!

And it’s against this background of newfound tidiness that, this week, I observed my wife seeding a new area of grass.

First she weeded the area – then she raked out the stones – then she levelled it – then she scattered the seed evenly over the ground and raked it in – then she watered it, taking care not to under-do it Or to drown the poor seeds.
All in all quite a meticulous operation.

And I suspect that’s the kind of careful attention that a farmer in first century Palestine would have given when sowing their precious crop seed.
With the threat of famine never too far away, surely they would take care only to scatter the seed on fertile ground, and keep it watered. The harvest was too vital to leave to chance.

So what would they have made of the sower in Jesus’ parable – who seems utterly careless – reckless even –
with the precious seed?

He seems content to allow it to fall on the path to be eaten by birds; or to fail on shallow, rocky earth; or to be lost among sturdier weeds. And only a fraction of the seed actually grows on to produce new grain.

I suspect that, to Jesus’ first hearers, so much waste would have seemed bizarre – and even quite shocking.

Don’t forget that the crowds only get the first part of this story – ending with “Let anyone with ears listen”! – almost as if he wants them to be disturbed, and to puzzle over what he’s said.

The explanation is saved for the disciples, later.

We perhaps tend to hone in on the other side of the story – and to wonder what kind of seed we are!
Are we one of those who with a tendency to be distracted from the following God’s call – or too fearful of what others think – or too slow to understand?
Or, is our halo gleaming bright, and the fruits of our labours only to plain for all to see?

A sobering thought perhaps, but don’t worry –
I’m not asking you to answer!

In any case, I’m not sure that really IS the fundamental point of this story.

What if it really IS about the sower, rather than the seed?

Is Jesus actually telling us something important about the nature of God himself?

Are we meant to be shocked by the profligate God who scatters his blessings even on the most unresponsive of us his, children, knowing full well that his love will be ignored by some and rejected others – and that only a few will respond with anything like the gratitude and obedience that is owed.
And in this, are we meant to recognise Jesus himself, who died for all humanity – whether they know it or not – because it is better to save a few at great cost, than none at all?

If that is the case, then what first appears to be reckless waste in fact turns out to be selfless generosity.

That’s not unlike the image in Isaiah – of the rain watering the earth indiscriminately, so that both crops and people can flourish.

No matter if the weeds are given a boost in the process –
this is no empty, futile cycle of rain and sun and cloud, rain and sun and cloud – because by it God’s purpose is accomplished: from that abundance flows life in all its rich diversity.

“You crown the year with your goodness”, the writer of our Psalm reflects, “and your paths overflow with plenty. May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing and the hills be clothed with joy.”
Through God’s generous provision, it seems,
not only do the crops flourish, but even the barren wilderness can be transformed into pasture.
So, is that what we’re meant to recognise in Jesus’ curious tale?
Is that a part of the divine nature that we are meant to imitate, in our own inadequate way?
And, if so, what might that generosity look like in practice?

I want to suggest three areas where that generosity of spirit might just inform the way we think and act.
Our generosity can be seen, I think, in the ways that we adapt, give, and welcome.

In recent weeks we’ve had to adapt, in the way that we shop and do much else, in order to protect one another. And we’re adapting now, in the way we worship together – to make it as safe as we can – so that worship can happen, and can be accessible to as many as possible of those who want to come.

Willingness to adapt, ungrudgingly, for the sake of others takes real generosity of spirit – it costs us – but is necessary for at least some of us to flourish.

In similar vein, the most obvious channel for our generosity is in our giving – what we do with our hard-earned pennies.

Quite rightly, we like to know that any charitable donations are used wisely – to be sure that we are making a difference in the things that are important to us.

And yet, for us in the Church, although there are things that we can instantly recognise and value – brighter, greener lights here; new carpeting at St Catherine’s; the ministry team we rely on– there are other areas that we just don’t see.

We also have to meet the relatively unglamorous costs of administration, maintenance, insurance and the shared burdens of the Diocese and national church – all those hidden things without which we’d gradually grind to a halt.

Generosity, in this case, comes from the willingness to give –
not just towards the things that we personally value,
or benefit from, but to the Church as a whole,
for the life of the whole. And we may well find ourselves funding, or being funded by, other Christians whose beliefs and practices are very different from our own.
That kind of generosity can be difficult,
on all sorts of levels, but it’s what we’re asked to do
as fellow members of the Body of Christ.
Then there’s the generosity of welcome.

And I’m not thinking so much of the events or social groups that we put on for other people – none of which can happen just now – but of the way we think about people who choose to come to us for reasons of their own – because we can now celebrate weddings and baptisms, for example.

It’s easy for us to be dismayed when families come here for a while, before a baptism, and then we never see them again.
Did we do something wrong – or was that always the intention?

It’s hard not to be irritated with couples who seem to treat this building as a glamorous backdrop for their wedding day, apparently without much thought for what it’s actually here for.

And yet, for all that, there are others for whom the impact of coming here – and of being welcomed among us – is profound.

Does it really matter then, if some of those people do soon forget what was here, or remain largely indifferent to it, IF even one person finds God’s love here and responds?
I’m pretty clear in my own mind what Jesus would have to say.

With any of these “life events”,
as with the public, social groups and activity days that we’ll hopefully return to before too long,
what we are doing is sowing seeds – making connections with people so that they can more easily connect with God.

As with Jesus’ parable, some of that seed will remain dormant, only to burst into life much later;
some will never do much at all;
and some will amaze us – or someone else – with their growth.
We simply don’t know what our efforts will lead to – that’s God’s province.

What we can do is “prepare the ground” in the way that we transmit the word of God – taking care over what we do, and the warmth with which we acknowledge others.

We can strive to share God’s gifts as liberally as the rainfall – without pre-judging anyone’s response, our own included.

And then we have to trust –
that God will accomplish his purposes,
through us and those unknown to us,
and at the time of his choosing.

Rebuilding with “living stones”

Address given on 5 July 2020, at the first public worship since “lockdown” began.

The picture on the screen behind me is called “living stones” – and, if you can’t see it, I’ll describe it a series of human-like figures forming a bridge – with a central arch and two uprights – and spanning a ravine.
Across the top of the bridge, another figure appears to be leading yet others who are carrying goods of some kind, their “shared burden”.

And it’s meant to symbolise for us the “living stones” of the Church – and to reflect our dependence on, and obligation to, each other.

There’s also a background theme of wisdom:
it takes wisdom to know that we need to cooperate, in the way that’s depicted here – to recognise that none of us can do everything by ourselves;
it takes wisdom to know how to cooperate – to recognise that not all of us can do any one thing equally well;
It takes wisdom to know where each of us fits within the whole structure.

If one of the girders of our bridge suddenly felt like a stroll across the top instead, then we’d either be faced with a gaping hole, and a rather ominous sagging at one end,
or else one of the other pieces would be forced into taking the strain instead, which may well be too great for them.

There’s wisdom, then, in recognising the particular skills and strengths that we each possess – and those we don’t – and there’s wisdom then in using those skills in the most effective and supportive way that we can.

One of the great lessons of the past few weeks is that everything may suddenly change, and that different circumstances call for a different kind of structure in order to provide what is needed.

One of the biggest challenges – when lockdown kicked in – was that many of those who are normally most active in our community – the army of retired volunteers who serve on committees, run community groups, provide drivers for the Link scheme and so on – they were suddenly taken out of the picture and told firmly to stay at home. And some of them then needed help themselves just to acquire the basics.
We’re feeling the effects of that restriction now in church, as we try to reopen without the majority of our volunteers and with many of our congregations still shielding.

What’s been interesting, more generally, is that when the need arose – other people came into the frame: the response team here in Wilton has been superb;
and also that those who were “locked down” – and prevented from doing those normal tasks – have instead found other ways to stay in touch and support each other.
Shares in the various phone and screen companies must surely have been buoyed up by the amount of traffic between us!

And, even though our normal committee meetings and social groups couldn’t happen, still a lot has been achieved from our various homes; and “virtual” meetings have gradually begun to feel less alien and more productive.

It was particularly good to be part of the Grapevine meeting, a couple of weeks ago, when not only were we able to welcome back Robin Lalonde (from his Devonshire home) but, thanks to the screen-sharing skills of Julian Lyne-Pirkis, we were all transported to Nigeria to see for ourselves the differing challenges of his work place there.

So there have been some unexpected benefits of lockdown which, if anything, have helped to strengthen our sense of connectedness – of fellowship.

The imagery of the “living stones” works well for us, I think, but what then about the concept of wisdom?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus himself introduces a note of ambiguity. He seems first to praise wisdom, but then thanks the Father for “hiding these things from the wise and intelligent”.

If wisdom is such a precious thing, why would God want to hide anything from those who are wise?

I did just check the Greek original, just in case I could helpfully blame it on the translator, but I can’t – it IS basically the same word for both wisdom and the wise.

So presumably Jesus is making some point here!

Could it be that he’s highlighting for us the difference between ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’?
There are things that we know, because we have learned them or seen them – adding up to the sum total of our knoweldge;
so too there are things that we learn from what we know – by thinking and reflecting on all that we’ve seen and heard – and from which flows wisdom.

Perhaps then it’s over-reliance on our own knowledge – on our own abilities – that Jesus is discouraging here.
True wisdom, on the other hand, draws not only on the experience and insights of other people but on God himself.
Wisdom points beyond ourselves, and deepens our relationship with one another and with God.

And it’s that collective wisdom that we need now – to help us make sense of what we’ve experienced over the past few months;
to make sense of the changing knowledge and circumstances with which each day seems to present us;
and, not least,
to work out what on earth we’re meant to do next!

That applies, I think, to our worship and our church life as much as to everything else:
it’s natural now to be craving all that we know –
to want to get back, as quickly as possible,
to all those things that we’ve been deprived of since March.
And yet, at the moment, we can’t go back to doing those things, and I’m not even sure it would be the right thing to do if we could.

If in fact we can take things slowly – over the coming weeks or months – we have a precious opportunity to reflect on whatever we’ve discovered while the churches have been closed – how we managed, or struggled, to pray alone; how we managed to “feed” ourselves in the absence of Holy Communion; how we managed to maintain that sense of fellowship from our own homes – AND what things we really couldn’t find without meeting together in church.

And with the wisdom that comes from those reflections, we can then start to rebuild the structure of our churches in the way that is right for now – and for the new circumstances that will emerge in the months ahead.

If we can, then, let’s focus not on what we are missing, but on who we are missing here.
And by that I mean those who’d normally be in church with us -some of whom will be joining us later from the other end of the camera – but also the far greater number of others who have been watching our services, and following the daily prayers I’ve been posting online.

As we begin to expand our activities again, can we continue to support them?
Can we make space for them within our structures, so that they too can become “living stones” – and support us in return?

Clearly, there is a limit to what we can do – too much weight on the bridge and it will buckle and give way: but that’s where the collective wisdom comes into to play again – in discerning where and how to channel the skills and energies that we have.

We are yoked together in Christ’s service – but, he assures us, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light:
if we are wise, we will learn to carry just what we need,
and how to share the load, so that we all may flourish,
and together build up a ‘spiritual house’ to his glory.

THE CHURCH IS OPENING!

From 4th July we begin the gradual process of “unlocking” our churches.

We want to do this safely for all involved and so will be starting small, beginning with the Parish Church, and taking each step carefully.

A thorough Risk Assessment has been undertaken and measures put in place to ensure social distancing and minimal risk of contamination..

Beginning of SUNDAY 5TH JULY, there will be MORNING PRAYER at 10.45am.
(This will be a relatively short service 35/40 mins. and will not include Holy Communion.)

We will also be open for PRIVATE PRAYER on WEDNESDAYS from 9 – 10am.

We believe that our church is now as safe as it can be, and look forward to gathering for worship again!

Saving God,
open the gates of righteousness,
that your pilgrim people may enter
and be built into a living temple
on the cornerstone of our salvation,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

To be a Pilgrim.

Address for Sunday 21 June 2020

We began our worship this morning with the pilgrims of St Albans, retelling the story of their Patron Saint – carrying those giant puppets in procession to the Cathedral.
St Alban was a Briton, and living under Roman rule: he was a well-respected man – known to be wealthy, generous and kind hearted.
It was due to this reputation that a Christian priest, seeking refuge from persecution by the Roman authorities, came to Alban for help. Alban hid him away in his house, and as he got to know him better, Alban was so impressed by the example of this priest – Amphibalus – that he became a Christian.
And when, eventually, Roman soldiers came knocking at the door, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and had himself arrested instead – giving time for Amphibalus to flee.
When the magistrate discovered the truth of what he’d done, he was furious – and insisted that Alban should offer sacrifice to the Pagan gods in order to atone for his wrongdoing. Alban refused, stating that he only believed in the God of Love.
And so he was led away and killed, becoming the English church’s first martyr.

It’s slightly unnerving then, that today’s Collect encourages us to follow his example – not a very enticing prospect!
Perhaps I can rescue us then with the thought that our word martyr – someone who dies for their faith – is a translation of exactly the same Greek word as the word for “witness”, μαρτυσ.
Strictly speaking then, we could say that a martyr is someone who bears witness to the truth whatever the cost.
And while St Alban witnessed to his faith by dying for his friend, most of us are called to witness to our faith in the way that we live.
There we are, it’s feeling better already!
That’s not to suggest that our task is easy – bearing witness to our faith means living by the standards we commend to others, grappling with the challenges of the gospel and not holding back – being both as generous and as faithful as St. Alban.
And at least as challenging for many of us, to be a witness implies a willingness to speak about our faith – something that we may feel is intensely private; something which may feel is TOO precious to even try and explain to someone else.
When we speak of our own religious, or spiritual experience, too often we’re afraid of looking silly – or of making a mess of it and letting the side down, of selling short God’s goodness and greatness.
And yet, very often what other people want to hear is precisely that – our honest reflections on how we come to be mixed up in this curious bunch of people called the Church.
There’s no suggestion that the priest, Amphibilus, tried to cathechize, or teach Alban the doctrine of the Church – it was his nature, we’re told. and the way he spoke about himself that captured Alban’s imagination and led him to follow the way of Christ.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of plain speaking, of honestly “thinking aloud” about our faith and our struggles with that faith, in communicating the power of the gospel to others. We do also need scholars, and evangelists, and experienced spiritual guides within the life of our Church – but we don’t ALL need to be skilled in all those things in order to pass on our faith, just a willingness to speak of our own reality.

Into that reality Jesus himself speaks some rather unsettling words:
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
At first hearing that seems rather perverse.
If you WANT to live you’ll die – if you hate living, you’ll live for ever! What kind of morality is that?
Presumably though – if it doesn’t seem to make sense – then that’s not what Jesus is saying. He wants his hearers to do a double-take and think about what he’s said.
Could it be that he’s also talking about the way that we live – about where our attention is focused.
If we are TOO concerned with our present circumstances – surrounding ourselves with whatever we can acquire, always content to stay put and look no further – then there is only one possible outcome: ultimately it will all come crashing to a halt. We can’t preserve this life, unchanging, for ever.
On the other hand, if we are the kind of soul who is always striving for something better – all too aware of our own shortcomings, as well as those of the world around us, and always looking for ways to improve things – then we can expect to be rewarded when finally we pass from this life to the next.
In that light, the prospect of keeping our life in eternal bliss – absorbed into the life of heaven – has rather more to commend it.

And that’s where I want to wander back to the theme of pilgrimage – and to interpret pilgrimage as a deliberate refusal to simply exist, and fade away.
Pilgrimage – in the literal sense – is a sacred journey where we leave behind the familiar, and seek God in new surroundings and among new people, and to learn from them.
And in another sense, pilgrimage is a state of mind – an equal determination to keep seeking truth, to keep seeking beauty, to keep seeking holiness, wherever we glimpse them.
If we are too comfortable with what we already know, with what we like, or with what we think we know about a particular issue or concept – then we’re in danger of falling into the “loving life” category: from which we can only grow stale and lose what life we have.
If we can keep alive the pilgrim’s sense of enquiry, of eagerness to hear the stories of others and to learn from them; if we can view our life as a pilgrimage of faith, then – even if we’re physically unable to travel to new places –we are already journeying towards the eternal joy that Christ sets before his hearers.
All of that, I think, is true for individuals; for church congregations; and for THE Church as a whole – the Body of Christ.
None of us are meant to sit still for too long – to be too sure of who we are and what we do and leave it at that: we are called to strive for the kingdom of God, to seek out the signs of God’s presence in the surrounding that are familiar to us – and to step beyond what is familiar, in order to receive fresh insight, fresh inspiration and the wisdom that others have perceived before us.
In that pioneering, pilgrim spirit there is risk – as Alban would testify – but there is also rich reward for ourselves, and those we encounter.
We have no idea what happened to Amphibalus, the priest whose life Alban saved – but his influence echoed throughout England and beyond through his most notable convert.
And we can be sure that he never forgot about Alban.
Two lives were changed – each one by the other – and countless others have been changed ever since, by their combined witness to Christ.

A pilgrim’s prayer
O God, watch over us as we walk in the love of your name, Be for us our companion on the way, Our guide at the crossroads, Our breath in our weariness, Our protection in danger, Our shade in the heat, Our light in the darkness, Our consolation in our discouragements, And our strength in our intentions. So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and, enriched with grace and virtue, we return to our home filled with joy. Amen.

Private Prayer

CHURCH OPENING TIMES

We’ve now completed our Risk assessments and introduced the Safety measures needed to allow us to open the church for anyone who would like to come in and pray.

We know that some of you will be disappointed that it can’t be open for longer, but protecting the weak and vulnerable is central to our Christian faith, and we want to keep everyone here as safe as possible.

From Sunday 21st June we will be open on:
Sundays, from 9 – 10 am and Wednesdays from 9 – 9.30am.

During these times church is open ONLY for individual prayer
It will not be possible to light candles or to access prayer books or other printed material. You may like to bring (and take away) your own prayer book if that would be helpful.

There will be restricted access, to a number of pews near the front of church.(There will be stewards present to guide you.)
Toilet facilities will not be available.
Normal social distancing and other safety rules apply: in particular, please do not bring any food or drink with you.

Please see the short video, above, for an idea of what you can expect to find when you come into the church.

To boast, or not to boast..?

Address for 14 June 2020

Readings: Exodus 19: 2 – 8 ; Psalm 100: Romans 5: 1 – 8

There’s quite a contrast in today’s readings – between the assurance given by God to the Israelites, in our reading from Exodus, and about God, in the Psalm, and then Paul’s words, in his letter to the Roman Christians.
If you obey my voice – if you really listen to me, and keep my covenant, God assures the Israelites, “you shall be my treasured possession”.
“The Lord is Good”, declares the Psalmist, “his mercy is everlasting”.
But if all that adds up to a divine promise, Paul’s words sound more like a threat!
“We boast in our sufferings, – knowing that suffering produces endurance, and character, and hope.”
If God leads the Israelites to expect ‘special treatment’, then, Paul seems to be advising that suffering is a natural part of the Christian life – something to be expected.
But is it?
Is suffering to be regarded by Christians as natural, or necessary; as something to be welcomed, even, for our greater good?
We can probably all think of someone – that we know, or know about – who has emerged from a period of hardship, with renewed strength and energy and purpose.

At the beginning of lockdown I quoted Terry Waite, Archbishop Runcie’s “special envoy” – who, with his bitter experience of incarceration in Beirut, effectively told us to ‘get a grip’ – not overdo the seriousness of our current inconvenience.
And I’m currently reading his book – Travels with a Primate – which leaves the reader in no doubt that his sense of humour has survived intact.
And so, yes, it seems to be true that suffering can indeed produce endurance and character and hope.

Fundamental to our Christian faith is the suffering and death of Jesus; and his rising to new life.
So we know that good things can come out of even the harshest treatment and deprivation.
And yet, for those who are facing hardship of one kind or another, who are now in the enduring part of the process, there is likely to be little sense of hope or purpose – just the reality of pain or despair – and no real sense of any future perspective.
So I’m not convinced that suffering really IS something to boast about – with quite the enthusiasm that Paul seems to be advocating here.
If, as we profess, God is love – then surely suffering must be seen as a frustration of God’s will, and not something God wishes for us.

Although there may be consequences when we turn away from God, just as there were for the Israelites, his promise is still that he views his people as a “treasured possession”.
He calls us to trust that he holds us – through dark times and rejoicing – and to listen to his voice.
To do justice to Paul, if we had carried on to the very next verse, in Romans, he tells us that because of Christ’s suffering, we are now saved from the wrath of God – Christ suffered, so we don’t have to – a neat reversal of logic!
Perhaps what Paul is really telling us, is that whenever we do face some kind of hardship, we can draw strength from the example of Christ’s suffering and victory over death; we can draw strength from the way other people have overcome even the most formidable challenges; and we can be encouraged when other people’s hardship matches our own (“If they can get though it, so can I”).
I can’t deny that the process he describes – suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope – can work very powerfully – not just for unfortunate souls who themselves endure hardship, but also for those around them, who witness their triumph over adversity.
In the worlds of art and literature, of theatre and dance, it’s sometimes argued that you need a powerful dose of hardship – of real life at its bleakest – before you can really produce your best works, or give a full-blooded performance.
And, perhaps on this Music Sunday, you’ll bear with me as I pay tribute to the composer who I think had the greatest influence on me – as a musician, and also as a young Christian.
Herbert Howells, who lived from 1892 – 1983, was a perfectly adequate teacher, composer and performer of music. He was also a contented family man until, in 1935, tragedy struck.
On a family holiday in rural Devon, his 9 year old son, Michael, contracted polio and, 3 days later, he died. The tune to which we sing the hymn “All my hope on God is founded” was given the name “Michael” in memory of his son.
Without doubt the impact of this loss did indeed transform Howells’ creative powers – from perfectly adequate to something profoundly more individual and compelling.
It would be wrong to suggest that Howells ever really “recovered” from Michael’s death, and his own faith was somewhat ambiguous after that – hardly surprisingly, we might add.
And yet he went on to produce vast amounts of church music that is still sung in cathedrals and churches across the English-speaking world.
And it’s the compelling way he then began to convey, in his music, a sense of yearning for the presence of God – of “pining for beauty” as one of his anthem’s puts it – which captivated MY heart and mind and soul as an impressionable teenager; and led to the fusion of music and spirituality which has carried me ever since.
That feels uncomfortably like “like experience on the cheap” – he suffered, I benefit: pain and loss for him, life-enhancing beauty for me.
Howells certainly endured and grew in stature, but the hope belonged more to others.
I suspect that Howells himself did realise the greater creative energy that he possessed after Michael’s death – but there’s no question that he would have preferred, instead, to see his only son grow up.

And so I can’t accept Paul’s invitation to “boast in suffering” – however much I recognise the strength of human will and the power of God to bring us through.
I can accept that we can learn from suffering – our own and that of others – as with any experience of life. But that doesn’t mean that it’s is something we should seek out, in order to prove ourselves; that doesn’t mean we just accept suffering as inevitable.
Not all suffering is unavoidable: and unnecessary suffering – whether caused by deliberate cruelty, or indifference, or ignorance – is a cause for shame, not boasting.

The recent “black lives matter” protests have highlighted for us the continued hardships caused by inequalities in our global society. And if we are willing to delve further, and closer to home, there are others whose lives are incredibly hard – the key-workers we’ve been so eager to praise during this pandemic, but slow to reward with a decent wage – the victims of the modern “slave trade” who somehow disappear. There is now way that their suffering can be justified or dressed up as something good.
For them, and others, there is natural progression from suffering to endurance to character to hope – it needs other people to give them a cause for hope.

“God proves his love for us”, says Paul, “in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
He calls us to prove our love for him – not by dying, not by choosing to suffer, but by doing all that we can to prevent suffering where we can – and, if when we can’t prevent it, to do whatever we can to support those who are afflicted in some way.
Jesus himself, quoting the prophet Hosea, said “I desire mercy not sacrifice”
To be righteous in his eyes has little to do with some well-meaning martyr complex – a desire to show how holy we are by our hard work, or how much we’ve sacrificed – and more to do with a thankful and loving heart.
Loving Lord,
We thank you for your love so freely given to us all..
Empowered by your Spirit, may we be united in prayer and worship,
And, in love and service,
reach out as your hands across the world.
In Jesus’ name.
Amen