Let us pray..

Address given on 26 September 2021

Readings: James 5: 13 – 20 & Mark 9: 38 – 50

One day a florist decided that he needed a haircut, and headed off went to the barber’s nearby.
After the cut, the barber said to the man, ‘I’m not taking any money from you. This week, my first customer of the day gets a free cut. Nothing to pay’
And the florist left the shop looking tidy
and feeling very pleased.

When the barber went to open his shop the next morning, there was a ‘thank you’ card
and a dozen roses waiting for him at his door.

Soon, in came the baker ready for a haircut,
and when he tried to pay his bill, the barber again replied, ‘I won’t take your money. This week, my first customer of the day gets a free cut. Nothing to pay’.’
The baker was also a happy man, as left the shop.
The next morning when the barber went to open up, there was a ‘thank you’ card
and a dozen doughnuts waiting for him at his door.

A little later, the local Member of Parliament came in for a haircut, and when he went to pay his bill, the barber again replied, ‘I cannot accept your money.
‘This week, my first customer of the day gets a free cut. Nothing to pay’.’ The Member of Parliament was very happy and left the shop with a smile on his face.

And the next morning, when the barber went to open up, – there were a dozen Members of Parliament all fighting to get to the front of the queue.

I have to admit that that story I neither true, not original – I just stumbled across it among one of my old school friends’ musings online, and wondered what it says about our general attitude towards MPs and others in leadership roles today, or positions of power today.

Certainly anyone in public life tends be seen as fair game for the “celebrity treatment” in the press – who can build up and then destroy an individual’s reputation almost in the blink of an eye, and without much fear of redress.

For a society which used to be marked by deference to those in authority, a good deal has changed in the past half century – whether for good or ill you can decide!
In today’s gospel, it’s Jesus’ leadership style that comes under the spotlight.

That opening phrase – “after leaving the mountain” – refers to the transfiguration: some of his closest disciples have just witnessed Jesus transformed in dazzling light, by the power of God. They know without doubt, now,
that he is something out of the ordinary –
and presumably expect him to begin to assert his strength and authority. But what he actually does is start talking about his own impending death.

The disciples just don’t get it –
why is he talking like this, just at the moment when everything seems to be going his way?

And, interestingly, they were “afraid to ask him”.

Was Jesus in fact something of a tyrant –
a temperamental, fiery leader whom you just didn’t ask?
Or were they afraid of upsetting him; or perhaps of just looking stupid, yet again?

And whatever the reason for their reticence in approaching him, it’s also intriguing that Jesus didn’t want anyone else to know that he was there in Galilee.

He wants to teach his disciples without distraction –
the important stuff has to be done away from the glare of publicity: private briefings, and subcommittees are apparently nothing new!

And, perhaps prompted by talk of Jesus’ death,
the disciples then begin arguing over which of them is the greatest – rather like children squabbling over who should be the leader for their next game. And, when Jesus catches them at it, they’re rightly embarrassed.

Maybe those who’d been with him on the mountain, at his transfiguration, felt somehow “chosen”;
perhaps those who’d been closest to him as he performed some of the more dramatic healings felt that they could bathe in his reflected glory;
but Jesus simply reframes the terms of reference:
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all
and servant of all”.

Just as his own power will be revealed by offering up his life, so true greatness is seen not in those who cling to power in order to enrich themselves, but those who use what power and influence they have to give life to whoever they can help.

Jesus makes his point by indicating a small child – in those days certainly not regarded as having much status: even the gospel writer refers to the child as “it”, not he or she!
And Jesus, the great teacher, equates himself with this child: “whoever welcomes one such child .. welcomes me”.

If you want to achieve greatness, he seems to say,
pay attention to the those who have no power –
who can’t repay you for any kindness shown.
And if that doesn’t seem to make sense,
well let’s just think a little closer to our own experience.

Most of us who were around in the 1980s and 90s, will probably remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and the things she said and did, more clearly than most of the MPS of the time. Gratitude, and the legacy of lives touched by kindness, apparently last longer than short term power and status.
James also makes a passing reference to leadership, when he urges the faithful to call on the elders of the church
“to pray for and anoint the sick”.
Not a risk assessment or a PCC meeting is sight, notice!
A reminder, perhaps, that our leaders are not meant to be managers – but primarily men and women of prayer and devotion – and if the church structures that we’ve created work against that, then they need to change.

For all of us, James underlines the need to pray,
not just when we are in need of help, but in all things – celebrations included.
Because in doing so we allow our minds to be focussed on what really is important in our lives, and other people’s lives;
we open our minds to notice things we may have overlooked;
and we root all our experiences in the goodness of God.

I’m not sure whether, like Elijah, we’re ever going to gain power to make it rain or not rain –
although the ability to engineer rain by night and sunshine by day is certainly appealing!
What we can hope to learn through prayer
is that true strength comes through knowing
and confessing our own weakness.
It’s in owning that weakness and dependency on God, that we open ourselves to receive power from him.

Perhaps not power to do everything we think we want to do, but power to do what is in our best interests,
and for the building up of those around us.

Perhaps then we ought to pray more often for our leaders:
to pray for leaders who are not self-reliant –
to pray for leaders who are not afraid to make mistakes with the best of intentions and to be honest about them – to pray for leaders who are willing to identify themselves with the most vulnerable in society;
and to pray for leaders who recognise
that bigger and better plans than their own,
are always unfolding in God’s good time.

And perhaps we could ask that those same attributes might be formed in us.

“The Mayor’s Service”

Address given at a celebration of Wilton’s Volunteers,

with Cllr Phil Matthews, Mayor of Wilton.

19 September 2021

I can’t pretend that what we are celebrating today is a simple, straight-forward – “good news story”:
none of us would have wished Covid 19 on our enemies, (I hope!), let alone on our families, friends and neighbours.
And yet – without doubt –
out of the hardship and confusion of 2020 –
good things have come, here and elsewhere.

Back at the beginning of the pandemic,
as uncertainty and fear took hold,
an impressive number of people here stepped forward –
to help those who were most vulnerable in our community.

And, just as some of those who would normally have got stuck in to any community venture were forced to stay at home, others came along and along and filled the void.

It’s been particularly good to see different generations working together – especially in the case of this year’s vaccinations.
Our church has relied heavily on our young people to get us through – not least in the area of Social media and online presence. And those of us who are older have learned that we can and must learn from the young.

At the same time, I think we have begun to realise just how much we rely on some of those whose jobs may not seem particularly glamorous.

I dread to think what would have happened, during those warm and sunny days of the first lockdown, if our refuse collectors had all stayed at home too.
Perhaps the air would NOT have seemed quite so pure!

Back then, many of us started to notice some of those people who always seemed pretty “invisible”.
Perhaps, now, we can continue to value people for the contributions they make to our communities,
rather than their social or celebrity status,
or the salaries they command.

You may also remember, in the early days – as communities across the land rediscovered a sense of determination to pull together – that there were rosy predictions of a society remade, and civic pride renewed.
Sadly that has NOT proved the case – with more and more instances of anti-social and selfish behaviour hitting the headlines. And it would be all too easy to forget the signs of hope that flourished here, so impressively.
I really hope that we will NOT lose sight of what has been achieved,
or of the vision of a strong and flourishing community:
where we don’t leave the isolated to struggle alone;
where we understand that our own freedoms have consequences for other people;
where the sense of belonging extends to everyone in our town.

In the passage that Adam just read for us,
St Paul is giving his advice for harmonious living.

And he argues that we should use our different gifts – the unique skills and perspectives that God has given us – for the good of the whole community.
And perhaps in doing so, to value those whose lives and perspectives we struggle to understand,
but who can therefore see things and do things that we probably can’t.

That variety of gifts makes for a richness of life that no individual, and no single group, can provide.

“Let love be genuine” he writes.

Whatever we can contribute to our communities,
let it be for the right reasons –
not just because it makes us feel good about ourselves,
not because we want to LOOK good in our neighbours’ eyes, but because we really do feel their pain and share their joy.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep:
IF we can feel that degree of simple human empathy across any social divisions that wider society may construct,
then our community HAS to be stronger as a result.

And that strength matters when we come to Paul’s final plea: “Do not be overcome by evil; but overcome evil with good.”

It’s hard always to “do the right thing” on your own.
it’s even harder to stand alone against evil.

The local pages of Facebook and others media comments have been peppered over the last year with complaints – from dog mess, to fly-tipping, to damaged cars and racing motorbikes.
It’s difficult, and sometimes risky, for any one of us to speak up and challenge anyone we see up to no good.
A group of us, on the other hand, might just be able to intervene effectively.

IF we can feel that we are part of a strong community, where we DO genuinely care for our neighbours,
and where we CAN call on those neighbours to help us,
then it becomes more possible to look after the surroundings we share, and gradually to overcome those things which threaten to spoil it.

I’ve gone on long enough now!
And I just want to end with a thank you – to all of you who have volunteered in any way to help this community –
and a plea, that we don’t let the legacy of what you have achieved evaporate into nothing.

Whether it be with Wilton Help, as volunteers with some other group, or simply by being good neighbours – let’s pledge ourselves to keep working for a stronger,
inclusive community here in Wilton –
so that ALL of us can enjoy the brighter future
that we hope and pray is just around the corner.

To speak, or not to speak?

Address given on 12 September 2021

Reading: James 3: 1 – 12 & Mark 8: 27 – 38

I don’t know who selected today’s readings, but I do think it’s funny that that reading from James is set for the end of the first week of school term.
Just now, I am sure there are more than a few teachers” around the country, with vocal cords feeling the strain after the summer break, who are wondering whether his warning against becoming a teacher was sound advice, after all!

Both of today’s readings seem to be concerned with the power of speech – and whether to speak or not to speak.

The injunction against becoming a teacher is perhaps a warning not to set ourselves up as more than we really are – presuming always to tell other people what to do
or to direct their lives for them.

And in Mark’s gospel we have yet another instance of Jesus ordering those around him not to tell anyone
what they’ve seen and heard;
but then almost immediately he tells the crowds to nail their colours to the mast; that they must not to be ashamed to speak up – for him, and about him.

To speak, or not to speak, that IS the question.
And behind the various images that James uses,
to illustrate the power of speech, there are some human traits we might still recognise.

Those of you who are teachers and/or parents will almost certainly have witnessed the phenomenon of one and the same child appearing to undergo a complete transformation – depending on their audience.

The child who at home is noisy, argumentative, funny – but at school is almost silent.
The child who at home will only lift a finger to help after serious badgering – but at school, or in the youth club, just can’t wait to volunteer for any task that needs doing.

From the same mouth CAN come “blessing and cursing” – can come grumbling and enthusiasm – can come a withering put down and a warm encouragement – can come endless questioning or cool indifferent silence – all depending on context.

And that’s not always a bad thing.
It’s actually healthy, I think, that we learn to take account of both our situation and the people we’re addressing.
It’s more of a problem when someone doesn’t really understand what is appropriate – that the workplace is possibly not the right place the kind of informal banter they’d use with friends.

Part of that process of judging the right tone,
is noticing the mood of the person to whom we’re speaking: we know for ourselves that, when we’re tired or angry about something, we react to things differently than when we’re feeling energetic and upbeat.
And the slight hint of criticism, or correction at the wrong time – or a thoughtless comment which makes it clear that the other person is not really thinking about us –
can cause hurt which may run deep for years,
and may in fact never heal.

Our words once spoken cannot be taken back.

Happily, the opposite is also true –
a well chosen, well timed word of encouragement,
or kindness – can affect us just as deeply,
and can also last a lifetime.

Our own words are powerful things – for good and ill.
And, the day after the 20th anniversary of 9/11 – the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York – we can’t ignore the power of speech to radicalise – to persuade others that extremism of one sort or another is a necessary path. Even without the reach of the internet, there are those with the power to manipulate through well-chosen words.

Very often the most susceptible to this kind of persuasion are those who feel that their own words don’t count for much. Those who think that their voice is always ignored are more easily persuaded to find other ways to get attention.

And I’m not just talking about Islamist extremists here, the same could be said of those from the “white working class” – who may find the attention and affirmation they crave within the more extreme and unsavoury political movements of the day: whether that be the anti-Semitic left or the white supremacist right.

The power of speech to give hope and encouragement can equally be harnessed to give false hope and to sow the seeds of hatred through misrepresentation of reality.
So, what on earth are we meant to do with that lot?!

I want to suggest four main pointers:

1 Speak honestly.
Yes the teacher may put on his or her “teachers voice” in front of their pupils, and those same pupils may well act and speak very differently with their friends, their family and their teachers. And that is fine provided they are really being themselves – not acting someone they’re not.

2 Judge your words carefully.
If we know that someone is sensitive about a particular issue, and about which we have something to say – we need to decide if we really DO need to mention it just now; and if we feel that we should, then at least prepare the ground gently and acknowledge the gulf that may exist between us.

3 Speak up, even when it makes you unpopular.
If we only say the things that other people want to hear, what are we actually going to contribute to the society we live in? And where is our own self respect?
If we really believe something, surely we must be prepared to argue for and defend it.
4 Challenge untruth.
From the distorters of religious belief to the zealous anti-vaxxers whose claims seem to get more preposterous by the day, we need to be ready to counter false information.
We say that the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.
The same could said for speech: the only thing necessary for conspiracy theories to gain credibility is for the people that know better just to ignore them,
and hope they’ll go away.

Finally, there’s another strand to all this –
which is the effect that our own words have on us.

When Jesus asked the disciples,
“Who do you say that I am?” – he wasn’t after a quick ego boost, he was making them face up to themselves,
and what they thought they were up to.

And as Peter blurts out “You are the Messiah”, he convinces both Jesus and himself, that he is ready to take on the harder truths that Jesus is about to reveal.

The words that we say affect us –
especially when we are speaking about ourselves, and the things that matter to us.

We recite the Creed week after week,
or perhaps day after day,
because the repetition of those words forms us:
over time we are changed by those words.

Even if that bold statement, “I believe”, may sometimes feel like more of a statement of intent, than of fact – a clinging to the life raft, when we’re struggling to believe – reciting those words together can encourage those around us, and help us to keep faith.

And, in better times, as we say those same words with confidence ringing in our voice –
they become an endorsement of all that we feel,
and of the life we’re experiencing.

There is a saying that “You are what you eat” –
but Jesus said it is not what goes in, but what comes out of us of our mouth that defines us.
It might be more accurate, then,
to say that “You are what you speak”
And so, let’s come back to the heart of today’s Gospel, and the very direct challenge that Jesus gives to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” – not just
“who do people say..” but “who do YOU say that I am”.

That surely is the most fundamental question for any Christian – and, for that matter, anyone who forms an opinion about Christianity.
What DO we make of this Jesus of Nazareth?

His question gives a very direct challenge to each one of us – think very carefully before you answer.

Words matter.

Rector’s “Annual Address”

The 29th February 2020 sticks in my mind – as the date of our Parish’s last, organised Social Event.
That evening we gathered some of the Altar Servers and their families, for skittles and pizza, little knowing what sweeping changes were just around the corner.

Since then families, and individual households, across the UK and elsewhere, have been through the most enormous challenges:
the strain of financial uncertainty – whether through loss of jobs or loss of interest on savings;
the emotional strain of disrupted lives and separation from loved ones;
and, for many, the loss of loved ones in the most awful circumstances.
And I don’t believe that there is a single family, in the broadest sense, that has not been changed by the experiences of the past 15 months.

Faced with those pressures, some families have drawn closer together – helping each other out as best they could, keeping in touch more frequently, through whatever means was possible.
Other families have fallen apart – as individuals at breaking point have lashed out, and caused hurt that cannot easily be forgotten or forgiven.

And I think those same pressures have faced us, as the family of the church.

You’ve already heard the challenging financial situation we find ourselves in – and I don’t want either to overestimate or underestimate the seriousness of our situation.
What I do want to say, first of all, is thank you.
We have weathered the past year far better than many churches. And that’s due, at least in part, to those who responded to our pleas last year to join the Parish Giving Scheme, so that we have known that regular income was coming each month.
And, irrespective of how you gave, thank you for continuing to give – despite the worrying economic backdrop.

The life of our churches has been disrupted, just as significantly as our home life. None of us has been able to worship as before; weddings and funerals have been curtailed; patterns of prayer and the way we receive the sacraments have had to evolve – none of which has been without emotional cost.
So, once again – thank you.
Thank you for being bold, and coming to church even when you weren’t completely sure it was the right thing to do.
Again, we have managed to do far more than many neighbouring parishes: partly because of the size of the building here, we were able to keep at least two services going every week, at a time when many churches had their doors firmly shut.
And our celebrations of Confirmation, Christmas and Easter – here and at St Catherine’s – gave a much-needed lift to many of us, I know.

Like so many others, our family has lost some of its members – and we miss them and all that they brought to us. We have also gained new members; and fresh insight, as a result.
We are not, then, the same mix of people that we were 15 months ago.
And almost certainly, as individuals, we have been changed by our experiences – and we mustn’t forget what we’ve learned from that, as if it was all just a bad dream from which we’ve now woken.

We’ve learned over the past year that we can adapt what we do; that our services can be shorter, without losing the essence of our worship – and that has been crucial for some of those currently attending church.
It also opens various possibilities for outreach into our communities if we are confident enough to explore them.

It’s tempting to fall back on familiar ways, and the reassurance that provides – but we are entering new territory now, and we need to be aware, that anything which we now take up again means diverting time and energy away from both our current activities and any such future possibilities.
So we will need to think carefully about what it is we are really trying to do, and what will be most effective in helping us achieve it.

Much of this past year has been spent reacting to events – responding to each new development sometimes in hope, sometimes despairing as we seemed to lose ground again.
Now, at last, it feels as if we are entering more of a recovery phase, and can start to plan ahead with a little more confidence.

Now, we need to keep on being both generous and bold.
If we are going to flourish, as the church family of Wilton with Netherhampton and Fugglestone, we need to keep coming to worship as frequently as we can.
Simply by gathering in sufficient numbers to feel a part of something significant, we can support and encourage each other.
And if we want this family to grow, then we need to demonstrate by our actions that worshipping together is important to us – otherwise, why would anyone else want to join in?

One of the first tasks of the new PCC will be to review our worship, in the light of recent developments.
We’ll need to find a new pattern of services that will work for all of us, across the parish, including those who have not yet had any of their services restored.
That IS going to need generosity as we adapt to each other’s needs, and flexibility, over timing and content of services, as we work out what we can sensibly manage, and still offer the best that we can on each occasion.
There is still uncertainty about a number of things, and we really do need to pull together, in the months ahead, as one parish, to ensure no part of our family is overlooked, or taken for granted.

I began by looking back to our last “family gathering” on the 29th of February – which has been enshrined on the noticeboard to my left for the past year.
We have to wait until 2024 for the next 29th February – and I very much hope that by then we will have pulled though and bounced back, as a parish, stronger and more confident than ever.
But it IS going to be a long haul – and we will need to pace ourselves, and to be careful not to expect too much of any one member of the family.
Individuals, like families, can be broken and are not then easily fixed.

I want to end with a familiar tale of two sisters – Mary and Martha.
In Chapter ten of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is described visiting their home, where Martha scurries around preparing dishes, serving food and generally doing everything she can to make him welcome.
Mary, on the other hand, sits around, listening to Jesus – without lifting a finger to help.
And when Martha protests to Jesus, he takes Mary’s side!
She, it seems, has noticed that Jesus is worth paying attention to, whereas Martha effectively treats him like any other house guest – getting on with her familiar tasks as hostess.

We have been kept afloat, over the past year and a bit, by a number of Martha’s – who’ve beavered away tirelessly to keep things going as best we could, and without whose efforts we may well have fallen apart by now.
But they too need the chance to draw breath and reflect on all that’s happened – all of us need our “Mary moments” – otherwise we risk being so wrapped up in our own endless round of tasks that we too miss the point of it all, and fail to pay any attention to what Christ himself is saying.
The beginning of this period of recovery is both a call to action – for all of us to get involved and share the load, as Martha would have liked; and it’s also an invitation to watchfulness – making sure that we ourselves make time to stop and pay attention to what’s going on; but also looking out for other members of the family who may be wearing themselves ragged and encouraging them to slow down.
And if, along the way, we notice that certain things are not being done – then there is a choice: either to get involved and do them, or simply to accept that sometimes there will be more important things going on.
Our family can flourish again, if we commit to the welfare of all our members, and if we pay attention always to Christ as its head.
As we prepare ourselves for all that the year ahead will bring, then, perhaps we can adopt (as our family prayer) the word of Richard Gillard’s hymn:
Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.

Walk this Way!

Address for Easter Morning 2021

John 20: 1 0- 18

One of the consequences of lockdown has been a huge increase in walking – more people going out on foot; and those who always did, walking more often.
That has been good for us, and our general health – if not always for the pathways: where too many walkers sometimes destroy crops or churn up mud.

And if you do go out walking, you will see a variety of styles among your fellow walkers – the seasoned and purposeful walkers in appropriate clothing, the dog-walkers programmed to familiar routes (and sometimes with the dog seemingly in charge).
You may see parents and children, or husband and wife – where one party is evidently more enthusiastic than the other – and the unvoiced question “whose idea was this?” hanging in the air.
And the way people walk – the body language they transmit – can tell us a lot about how they’re feeling.

When I was small, it was quite normal to see a mother heading off, on foot, to the local shops with her child trailing behind (almost walking in circles) and making it quite clear that this was not where they wished to go! Eventually there’d be an exasperated cry of “stop dawdling!”) and the child, head up, would suddenly put on a turn of speed for about a minute, before resorting to the same delaying tactics.

By the time he reached school age – if it was a “he” – said child would have perfected the art of “trudging” – hand in pockets – and mentally putting off the vision of the school gates, and all that lies beyond: very different from the way he headed home at the end of the day!

As a teenager, they’d probably adopted either the confident swagger of someone who wants to be noticed – OR the head-down “glide” of someone who would much rather be invisible, than in the spot light.
And pretty much all of those traits then translated into the joys and pressures of the adult world of interviews, work, parenthood, family gatherings and all the rest!

There’s a lot of moving around in story of Easter morning. And I wondered what we might draw out from this episode.

First, Mary Magdalen went to the tomb – we’re not told how. We might imagine her rather anxiously creeping through the garden, not sure who else might be around; or moving slowly, with the desolate trudge of someone who really doesn’t want to see the sight she has imagined there.
But when she reaches the tomb,
and sees the stone removed,
we’re told clearly that she ran to the 2 disciples. Perhaps she fled in terror or perhaps it was excitement – she just had to get them to come and see.

And the disciples, when they hear what she has to tell them, both begin running as well.
Clearly they did want to see for themselves whatever had happened there – but perhaps there’s more.

The disciple whom Jesus loved (we don’t know his name for sure) – he outruns Peter – desperate to get there. And I suspect that turn of speed betrays more than just his curiosity – he has to know what someone has done to his friend.

And, when they have both seen the empty tomb, they “went” back to where they were staying. Again we’re not told how they moved, but they were no longer running – perhaps they just thought the grave had been robbed and went with a dispirited trudge – or perhaps they couldn’t quite make sense of what they’d just seen, and wandered back in a daze.

And then Mary is left alone to encounter the risen Christ – the beloved Jesus whom she’d expected to find IN the tomb. And, when she has finally recognised him, it’s clear that she moves to him, because he tells her not to hold him: he IS the person she’s looking for, he confirms, but he’s no longer the man he was. Something has changed in this new life beyond the grave.
And then she goes again to the disciples and tells them boldly “I have seen the Lord”. And perhaps we imagine her moving now with confident stride – determined to share with them what she has found.

From all of that moving around, we can sense a mixture of emotions:
grief; anxiety; longing; hope; amazement.
And in more ways than one, the story of Easter Morning seems to resonate with the place in which we now find ourselves.

During the past year, it seems to me, all of those emotions have taken hold of us at various points –
grief at what has been lost; anxiety at what might be coming next; longing for those people and those places we’re not able to see;
hope with each new beginning
and amazement at the speed of progress.

And now it feels as if there is new life ahead of us –
as restrictions on us are gradually lifted
and more things become available to us.
Perhaps we might be eagerly anticipating a change of scene; or some proper retail therapy, as most shops open again, or maybe just a decent haircut!

In any case, there are new opportunities ahead, provided we don’t mess things up.

Progress is not inevitable, sadly.
Along with new freedoms this week – we’ve seen some of the worst aspects of human nature:
the selfishness that led some to think it’s OK to litter parks and beaches they’ve enjoyed, with rubbish as far as the eye can see.

And there IS always the danger that selfishness becomes recklessness, which could cause infection rates start to rise again – and threatening our precious new life.

And there is the final thread of the Easter story – we have to choose to embrace that new life and to use it well.
To walk in the light of Christ means rejecting what we recognise to be selfish and evil and defending all that what we see is good, and loving and life-giving.
And that may mean exercising restraint, when our actions might harm someone else. And it means being bold in challenging others, when we see the danger signs.

And so, perhaps we should approach the future with neither a headlong charge nor an anxious trudge, but with a confident stride – taking note of the changing landscape around us.

We can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the hardships of the past year –
as if standing, weeping at the tomb.

We can no longer hold on to the way things were,
any more than Mary could hold onto the old Jesus.

Christ calls us onwards –
to learn from what we’ve been through,
to recognise what was not good in the things that we used to call “normal”, and to do things better now.

He invites us to be an Easter People – filled with the joy and hope and strength of his new life.

Let us celebrate all the signs of new life around us.

And as we stride out into each new day,
let’s commit ourselves again and again,
to safeguarding that precious life
for all our neighbours.

Not Crowded Out

Reflection for Palm Sunday

It’s been a quite while since most of us have been part of any crowd. Certainly the largest gatherings that I’ve been part of, in the past year, would be the congregations here at All Saints’ and on Christmas Day – with around 100 people. Not exactly huge then!

But we’ve been reminded recently of the power, and unpredictability, of ‘the crowd’.
The recent vigil on Clapham Common, in response to the murder of Sarah Everard was described as “initially sombre with most people speaking in hushed tones or quietly reflecting.”
But then, first some speakers hijacked the event for their own agenda and, after dark, the sheer numbers present gave to many of those gathered a sense of strength and a determination not to be shepherded by the police or local councillors urging them to disperse. There IS strength in numbers, and sometimes a general feeling of dissatisfaction can gain powerful momentum and focus.

That’s been very evident in the protests in Bristol over the past week – demanding the right to protest, and causing a significant amount of damage in the process.
I don’t want to get into the rights or wrongs of either protests – what I’m interested in is the way that gathering in large numbers can somehow heighten the emotions of all those present, and the way that the mood of the whole crowd can be swayed – very powerfully and very quickly – by even a small number of determined voices.

It only takes one determined heckler in the room, to give any stand-up comedian a seriously bad day.

The crowds who welcomed Jesus were quite a mixture.
There were those who’d been following him – drawn by the things he’d been saying and doing; or by the stories told about this man who appeared, only recently, to have raised Lazarus from the dead.
There were also, no doubt, those who were drawn by the crowd itself – who just wanted to know what was going on: caught up in the excitement without really knowing what it’s about.
And there were those who knew plenty – who saw in Jesus a man whose claims were quite possibly blasphemous, and who very likely represented a threat to their own authority. They were there to see for themselves just what that threat looked like, in person.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd welcomes him – full of anticipation and rejoicing. They had no red carpet to roll out for him – but the cloaks that some laid down were expensive things: an extravagant gesture –echoed by those who laid down the leafy palm branches to soften the way.
And the shouts of welcome were for a king – who comes in the name of God.

Clearly, that was too much for the Pharisees, keeping careful watch from within the crowd.

And, in Matthew’s version of this event, they demand that Jesus should “order his disciples to stop”. Jesus refuses, claiming that even if the crowd were silenced, the stones around them would cry out instead. The power of this moment cannot be stopped.

But, as with any demonstration or gathering, the mood can change very quickly. And within a matter of days, those scheming for Jesus’ downfall will have sown enough doubt in the hearts and minds of those around them, to turn the cheering crowds into the baying mob – demanding Jesus’ execution.
Again, the shifting emotions are somehow intensified by the sheer numbers in the crowds; and no pleading for calm or reason, even from the Roman Governor himself, will be heard by them.
And with that shift of mood, Jesus’s fate is sealed.

Interesting to note then, how Jesus handles all this.
By now surely Jesus IS aware what his role must be – he has already been preparing his disciples for the time when he will no longer be with them: reluctant though THEY may have been to hear what he was telling them.

Jesus neither hide as away from the crowds,
nor seeks to change them –
he makes no attempt to silence the excited shouts of welcome, nor to counter the savage demands for his death.

Instead, it seems, he works with the crowds – accepting, and even encouraging, the intensity of their emotions – but subtly reinterpreting those things.
Yes he IS a king – but not quite in the sense that they had imagined. Yes he MUST die, but not because he claimed to be God, but because he IS God – determined to reveal the depth of his love for those same crowds, and for all people.
I wonder if there’s something in that for us to take on board, as we react to the people around us,
and the crowds who gather around the causes of today.

When Paul urges the Philippians, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” – it is a call for obedience, for control over their own emotions.

Not much is new in any generation – but old emotions can still run high. And perhaps the example of Jesus should encourage us not to try to shut down the voices of today’s crowds, as the Pharisees did –
not to seek to change the story, as Pontius Pilate did,
but to try and sense the mood of the people – what is driving people to gather and protest – and to reinterpret those things:
to help give meaning to the today’s events within the context of God’s unfolding story across the ages.

All humanity and all eternity is held in tension within the mysterious figure who rides into Jerusalem – to be welcomed, rejected, crucified and to rise again.
We have quite a week ahead of us – go with the crowds, but keep your eyes on him.

Unbelievable Truths?

Address given on 31 January 2021

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Readings Malachi 3: 1 – 5 Luke 2: 22 – 40

One of my favourite Radio programmes is Radio 4’s “The Unbelievable Truth”, hosted by David Mitchell.

The show’s contestants essentially spout nonsense, but try to smuggle in 5 highly improbable, but true statements. And it’s the job of the others to try and identify those facts before anyone else.

One of the facts that I learned, this week, was that the second person to throw himself over the Niagara Falls in a barrel was an Englishman, Bobby Leach, – who accomplished this feat in 1911.

And the unbelievable truth was that Bobby Leach survived this hugely risky fall – only to die 15 years later, after slipping on a piece of orange peel! Bizarre but true!

The second odd thing that I’ve gleaned is that there is a condition called Galanthomania, which means being besotted with, or even addicted to, snowdrops – those innocent little clumps of white flowers
that decorate our churchyards and hedgerows
at this time of year.
Apparently some people just can’t get enough of them.
And the unbelievable truth is that, in 2015, one bulb –
one tiny snowdrop bulb – sold for £1,360
(+ £4 postage and packing)!

That was a rare variety of snowdrop called “Golden Fleece” – perhaps because it was worth its weight in gold; and perhaps because we might think whoever paid that amount has been well and truly “fleeced”!

In any case, it’s the more common, pure white ones
that I want to think about this morning. These “proper” snowdrops used to be known as Candlemas Bells – appearing as they do just around the Feast of Candlemas.

And they were often used to decorate churches –
as a symbol of both hope and warning:
the green shoots celebrating the new life of spring,
but the snow white petals cautioning that winter has not lost its icy grip just yet.

And that’s where these Candlemas Bells tie in with the Gospel reading we’ve just heard.

Simeon’s prophecy is of the great and wonderful things that this tiny child will go on to achieve; but also of the hardship and suffering that will be caused along the way.

And what begins as a perfect picture of Jewish ritual – two parents fulfilling the Law of Moses –
soon starts to become more than that,
as Simeon describes Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” – the non-Jewish nations of the world –
as well as “the glory of his own people”.

A promise of greatness, and yet,
ahead lies the pain of separation – first of Jewish Christians exiled from the Synagogues, and also of Jews and Christians over the centuries since.

A promise of greatness, and yet
Jesus himself would face the fierce disapproval of both religious authorities and secular powers –
causing his family “grief” in more senses than one.

No wonder then, that Mary and Joseph were amazed by Simeon’s words – astonished at the prospect of what lay ahead of them.

Six verses later, in Luke’s Gospel,
we find the teachers gathered in the Temple for Passover listening intently as the 12 year old Jesus questions them.
And they are amazed at his words – and his evident wisdom – both an inspiration and a challenge to their own authority.

Both experiences are awesome (in the literal sense!) – something to be marvelled at, but also profoundly unsettling – leaving the onlookers to wonder at such unbelievable truths, and the collision of hope and fear that they seem to provoke.

And perhaps that’s a tension we can identify with – as we enter this vague “in between” time in the church’s year, and as we look out at the world around us.

The green shoots of hope are beginning to poke through into our consciousness: how could we not be amazed at just how quickly Covid 19 vaccines have been developed, and vaccine centres organised – with thousands of vaccinations having already been given here in Wilton?

And yet, we can’t quite escape the “icy grip” of fear, or at least anxiety, when we’re presented with headlines about more than 100,000 Covid-related deaths in the UK. There’s no disguising the human misery in those figures.

Our Cathedral, made the international headlines last week – with a very nice piece in the New York Times – celebrating not only one of the most tranquil settings in which to “have your jab” – but also the fact that the Cathedral Organists were busy providing musical accompaniment in the background.

Nothing to fear there, you might think –
but there were complaints, that this was not a proper use for a church – one Instagrammer called it a “desecration”!
Really?! Was that just fear of something new and out of the ordinary?

Given that Jesus was not exactly shy of healing in the Temple, even on the Sabbath – and his fairly blunt response to the religious busybodies who criticized him – I think the Cathedral Chapter were absolutely right to open their doors in this way.

Another musical news story appeared on Thursday – in which two negatives merged to form a positive!
We’ve been aware for some time of Long-Covid – of people who’ve survived Covid 19 but who are left with damaged lungs and other ongoing health problems.

At the same time there has been a real crisis in the performing arts, with venues closed and most live performance prohibited.

And out of these two causes of anxiety, a new hope has emerged.

Members of English National Opera have begun offering online group singing lessons – to Long-Covid sufferers – working through simple melodies and lullabies, to relieve anxiety; teaching techniques of breath control, in order to make best use of their damaged lungs, whilst also providing valuable work for the singers themselves.

Despite the real challenges of a virus we still don’t fully understand, and the negativity of some of our “neighbours” – there are still pleasant surprises,
and surprises which should amaze us.
The green shoots are bursting through.
And perhaps that’s the final lesson of the humble, common snowdrop.

No matter what the previous year has thrown at them – wet; dry; scorching hot; bitterly cold – come February, those persistent little flowers will be back.

New shoots appear, and slowly, quietly
transform the landscape – almost without our noticing –
until one day we look up and see that transformation.

Then, in turn, we might be changed
by the freshness and beauty of that new growth –
as our anxiety is turned again to wonder.

In a similar way, it seems to me,
our recovery from this time of uncertainty is not just down to us, any more than the natural cycle of the snowdrop. No matter what we do or feel – life goes on, one way or another.

But perhaps we can train ourselves
to recognise and celebrate those first signs of progress, to face the weeks ahead not just with grim determination, but with that same active persistence.
Simeon and Anna were faithful and persistent in their belief that they would see the Christ, and were rewarded.

Can we, like them, be persistent in prayer – even when we don’t much feel like it – so that hope is kept alive in us?
Can we be persistent in looking for the signs of redemption, even when the headlines are grim?

Malachi remained confident that God’s messenger would come to purify and restore his people.

Can we make this period of uncertainty the time of our purification – shedding those negative things which weigh us down, or at least putting them into perspective – so that we will be ready to share in the new life that will flourish, in ways we don’t yet see?

However we get on with any of that,
and wherever it might lead any of us,
perhaps we can all be encouraged by the
resilience of our little snowdrops –
seemingly fragile, and easily crushed,
yet somehow able to spring back again and again.

May we pray and trust that God’s life-giving Spirit
will give us that same strength and resilience.

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.

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.

“Running up the down escalator!”

Address given on 25 October 2020 (“Bible Sunday”)

Readings: Romans 15: 1-6 and Luke 4: 16-24

Last Sunday saw the enthronement of the 98th Archbishop of York – Stephen Cottrell. And while he may not have that much influence on us, in this southern Province of Canterbury, he is nevertheless an interesting character.

I once heard him preach at St Paul’s Cathedral – back in 2011, when it was surrounded by Occupy London protesters in their multi-coloured tents – but that service sticks in my mind mostly because of the sermon. And I have to confess, for me that is usually NOT the case!

9 years on and I remember him giving both a very erudite reflection on Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, and also a very human recollection of his childhood.
As a 10 or 11 year old, he said, he enjoyed nothing more than going with his friends to the local shopping centre and indulging in the slightly risky challenge of “running up the down escalator” – pitting himself against the motion of the machinery, and hoping he didn’t meet anyone else trying to come down.

And that “gravity-defying” experience, he said, was rather like that of Christian ministry – which at one and the same time can be both exhilarating and exhausting!
I don’t know if that image is still in his mind as he begins his new ministry as an Archbishop – but there’s no doubt that, like the rest of us, he will face a challenging time in the months and years ahead.

As he spoke on last Sunday, there were two themes that struck a chord with me, and that seem to resonate with this morning’s readings for “Bible Sunday”.

He spoke of the Church as a place where we are called to demonstrate our love, for each other and for our neighbour, through generosity of spirit and active concern for the weak and vulnerable. He spoke of his determination that the Church of England would respond to the recent report on Sexual Abuse not just with hand-wringing and apologies, but with real systematic change. And I’m quite sure that determination will last.

In the context of Covid 19, he described the wearing of face masks as an act love – something which may be inconvenient and sometimes seriously annoying to most of us, but potentially life-saving to some. And so, to paraphrase St Paul, “those who are strong ought to put up with it, for the sake of those who are at risk”.
And I think that applies to other aspects of our church life too. Ever since July, when we took our first steps back into public Worship, there’ve been frustrations for us, both at the things we can’t do yet, and at the way that certain things have to be done differently. And for those of us leading worship, the need to re-think absolutely everything – from wedding rings to Communion wafers, to shorter services without service sheets – that’s all been pretty exhausting. And, sadly, unlike the Archbishop’s escalator game it hasn’t also been quite so exhilarating.

I know that some people are disappointed that I have followed the guidelines quite so firmly – and yet I have to say that I am disappointed that anyone might expect me not to.
Protecting the weak and vulnerable is absolutely at the heart of our faith – not just in the words of St Paul but in Christ’s own ministry and teaching.

And that does mean sometimes doing without things, or doing what we’d prefer not to – seeking through our worship to build up those of our neighbours who most need it, and not just seeking to please ourselves.
The alternative would be to cut the vulnerable adrift and cater for the healthy – and I’m really not sure how that could be seen as a demonstration of our love for each other, and for our neighbour.

The second thing that I picked out from the Archbishop’s comments was that it is his job “to bring alive the Christian message of hope” – again perhaps something of an “uphill sprint” just now but one to which all Christians are called.

As many people, perhaps most people, struggle to grasp the reality of the situation we’re living through – let alone what the future might look like – being able to offer some sense of hopefulness is vital.

And as we celebrate Bible Sunday an obvious place for us to look for that message will be in the pages if Scripture, as Jesus himself did to inhabit the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news”.

There is, though, a question of how we do that – of how we offer hope into a context of mixed emotions and fears and levels of understanding.

It’s tempting to start with Scripture and to pull out the things we think people need to hear.
But shouldn’t we really focus on discovering what people are really interested in or concerned about, before we start offering any suggested answers?

Answering questions that no-one is asking cannot bring hope – at best it just leaves us talking to ourselves.

Just as our worship is at its richest when we bring all of our lives before God – “warts and all” – so our use of Scripture is most powerful when we acknowledge the things we’re struggling with, or that we can’t make sense of, and then “mine the tradition” – searching the Bible for meaning that resonates with reality.
Pray the Psalms – with their very earthy mix of despair, of anger, of resilient faith, of hope and salvation.
Read the Gospels with their central message of love triumphant over hatred, of good over evil, of light shining through the deepest darkness.
And if we can do that not only with our own experiences, but also for those of our neighbours, then perhaps we can bring that sense of hope that is so desperately needed.

Just to be clear then, I am not encouraging you to follow the boy Stephen’s example and heading into town to run up the down escalators – you may be relieved to hear!

But I do want us to share his aspiration to be bringers of hope – to do everything we can to listen to those around us, to gauge what the real challenges are, and then to offer some meaning and perspective from the story of our faith;
to express that faith in a way which will be understood and make sense to our neighbours;
to recognise the good things that are happening out there among out neighbours –
the acts of love and self-sacrifice that are too easily taken for granted,
and so to draw hope, and give hope, by celebrating and giving meaning to those things too.

This Bible Sunday reminds us then of both
the rich treasury of our faith –
and the need for humility in sharing that faith.

We do not have all the answers –
we cannot solve all the problems of our community,
let alone the world at large,
but we can be part of that solution.

Our scriptures and our faith give us a unique perspective on the events unfolding around us all.
We are called to offer that perspective
– as ably and as sensitively as we can.