Trusting in the wilderness

Sermon given on 6 March 2022

Luke 4: 1 – 13

It’s not often that the Choir Director gives the sermon!
But, this time last week I was beginning my mammoth drive to Central London, for Caroline’s Licensing Service, and next Sunday I will be in Oxford – so I thought I probably should preach today!

It was a curious experience, last Sunday – seeing Caroline again, looking just the same but in a strange place.
And, although Licensing services are done differently in the Diocese of London – there was the same familiar legal jargon as Caroline was handed her licence and “installed” (wonderful term – “installed”!)

And I’m guessing that next weekend will be just as odd.

Stella and I will be returning to Trinity College Oxford, where we met, for a college reunion and for the memorial service of the then chaplain, Trevor Williams.
I will be directing the choir at that service, more than half of whom will be the very same singers I worked with back in 1986 – and whom I haven’t seen, or heard, in over 30 years.

And so we’ll be returning to a very familiar place which will obviously have evolved; and also seeing again some very familiar faces which will also no doubt have changed in the decades since we were there.

Taken together, then, those two weekends start to feel a bit like pilgrimage – that deliberate exercise of taking ourselves into new places, and finding familiar experiences and glimpses of God’s presence IN the strangeness of what is new to us
AND also of looking at familiar places with fresh eyes: looking for new and unexpected signs of God’s presence in the places we thought we knew.

And that’s not a bad place to start our journey through Lent – with its focus on the renewal of our faith.

Lent is a time to take a “fresh look” – to recognise what has become stale and needs refreshing. And Lent is a time to see what we’ve been missing – while we’ve been too busy with our own thoughts.

Our reading this morning recalls Jesus taking himself off into the strangeness of the wilderness. And I’m not going to delve too far into that, as many of us heard virtually the same reading explored on Wednesday.

But that was Matthew’s version.
And, this morning, I just want to note some of the subtle difference between that account and Luke’s,
which we’ve just heard.

Both accounts have the same three temptations, but Luke puts them in a slightly different order so that he ends with the challenge to Jesus, to throw himself off the Temple to prove that the Father would save him.
And there’s another curious little change at this point.
Whereas Jesus and Satan mostly exchange quotes from scripture with: “It is written… this” – “It is written.. that”,
here Luke has Jesus saying – “It is said that – you will not put the Lord your God to the test.”

It is said – not it is written – and there must have been a reason that change. Was he implying that this was current teaching, among the faithful – rather than just inherited wisdom from the texts?
And if so, does it still ring true for us? Are we liable to put God to the test?
Certainly it’s very easy to find ourselves trying to bargain with God.
Even those who have very little belief or faith at all will sometimes cry out in desperation:
”God if you’ll just help me – if you’ll just keep him safe – if you’ll just make her well – THEN I’ll start going to church, or I’ll give this or do that.”

And I’m absolutely NOT suggesting that there’s anything wrong with anyone crying out to God for help – quite the opposite in fact. But what I think we’re being cautioned against is making that cry some kind of transaction.

Carved at the back of church, here, is a reminder that all things come from God and that we can only give back to God is already his. Our worship and praise and love is due to him without any special favours to us first.

Promising God that “If you will just – then I will” really doesn’t cut it.

What Jesus demonstrated, from the Temple, was an absolute trust in the Father that needed no proof.

There’s another difference, right at the end of the two accounts of Jesus in the wilderness.
In Luke, Satan departs from him “until an opportune time” – waiting to sow doubt in the heart of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsememe – lurking in our world, perhaps, to sow confusion, and doubt and division, whenever an opportunity presents itself.

In Matthew, however, when Jesus has resisted all three temptations, Satan leaves and immediately angels come and minister to Jesus –
as evil is rejected, goodness takes its place.

It’s been said that Vladimir Putin chose “an opportune time” to invade Ukraine:

And, caught right in the middle of the unfolding chaos, is the Convent of St Elizabeth, in Minsk – the capital of neighbouring Belarus.

It’s from that Convent that we have our two icons.
Founded in 1999, St Elizabeth’s is a very new community in a very young country. Minsk itself has been under the control of Kiev, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Germany and, for much of the 20th Century the USSR – only achieving independence in 1991.
So they know only too well what invasion feels like.

They also know what it means to trust in God – not only because both the church has survived the various changes there, but because of the colossal amount of good that manage to do in their city – funded only by their sales of religious art and donations to them.

They run a residential home for children with learning disabilities, and two large farms – one for men and one for women – which provide shelter, food, clothing and work for people who would otherwise be homeless.
They are now understandably concerned that their work might be hampered by any escalation of conflict in the region.

At the same time they are an Orthodox community – linked to the Russian Orthodox Church,
which has done rather well under Putin’s regime.
And so, for the residents of St Elizabeth’s,
there must be something of a tug of loyalties.
The reflected glory of a strong, influential church must be helpful to the Convent in raising funds for its work.
And yet, like the 600 Orthodox priests who have just issued a statement condemning the war in Ukraine, they simply can’t square the unfolding horror there with their own faith and mission.

Their response has been to publish a “prayer for use in time of war” – recognising the seriousness of the situation – and crying out for God’s help on behalf of all the Orthodox, and for all involved in conflict,
that he might “remove from their midst all hostility, confusion and hatred, and lead everyone along the path of reconciliation.”

That sounds like a plea that evil might be banished so that good may flourish in its place – so that they can continue to minister and be messengers of God’s grace (angels) to those that need them.

And perhaps we can make the same prayer – not only in relation to Ukraine, but to countless other situations nearer to home.
As we make our pilgrimage through this Lent,
it may seem that we are being tested –
to hold our nerve, and keep on trusting in God’s purposes, though the world around us seems even less certain than last year.

Let’s begin then by looking afresh at ourselves and the world we inhabit;
giving thanks for the many good things we find there;
and praying for strength to tackle the things which we see that need to be changed,
so that goodness may truly flourish:
in us,
through us,
and around us.

Where is your faith?

Sermon preached on 20 February 2022

Luke 8: 22 – 25

Before anything else, I would like to point out that I did not choose today’s reading!! It is sheer coincidence that the Gospel reading set for the 2nd Sunday before Lent – Matthew’s account of Jesus calming the storm – happens to be making an appearance just days after storms Dudley and Eunice did their worst!
And I’m still not sure whether that coincidence is a gift or a challenge, for someone preaching in their wake.

As always, I suspect much depends on what we make of the various miracle stories of Jesus. If we take this account as literally true – and so as proof that Christ can simply control the elements at whim – we might be simultaneously impressed and relieved, but also rather dismayed that he doesn’t intervene a bit more often.

Whatever our take on miracles, this account is largely concerned with Jesus’ identity – as the punch-line makes clear: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
Who then is this?

And, given the more Jewish focus of Matthew’s gospel. the reader is surely intended to find echoes in the God who parted the waters of the Red Sea, so that the Israelites could escape their oppressors. Ant that, whether the disciples recognised it or not, in Jesus, Jahweh himself was walking this earth beside them.
And it is, perhaps, easy for us who’ve always been taught that as fact, to forget how radical that claim is; and how blasphemous it must have seemed, during his earthly life and in the decades that followed.
And yet that clearly is what the gospel writer wants us to acknowledge, and it is fundamental to our Christian faith.

There is more to this story, of course.
It’s also concerned with our nature, and the nature of our faith. Faced with mortal danger, the disciples are seized by debilitating fear – they don’t know what to do.

They can’t believe that Jesus is actually asleep,
and they must be starting to wonder why on earth they trusted this man?

And that’s probably something we can identify with.
There are times in all our lives, when we are hit by events we can’t control – or when there are so many things flying at us that we feel like we’re sinking under it all.
It’s easy then for fear to creep in and doubts to take over – why would God allow this to happen to me?
Is he asleep, doesn’t he care?

But that’s not the only response we might feel. Sometimes the opposite is true. A devastating blow of some kind, or a sea of problems, can lead us into a more INTENSE period of faith. Finding ourselves unable to control events, or unsure of what comes next, may simply make us more aware of our dependence on God.

And it’s that that I think Jesus is drawing out for his disciples when he asks them “Where is your faith?”
I don’t think he is dismissing their fear – or showing exasperation that they would lose their nerve.
He wants them to know that they will face dangers and hardship in life, but that ultimately they can trust him to bring them through.

We might imagine a small child, walking through a storm or wading through choppy waters, would easily lose control and be swept of their feet. But if they’re holding on to Mummy or Daddy’s hand, they will be carried forward I their strength. And even when they can’t hold on, the parent will can still take them by the wrist and guide them safely forwards.

That’s the kind of faith and trust that I think Jesus is calling from the disciples.
He wants them to know that they won’t always see him, or sense him with them, but that whenever they reach the point where they think all is lost, then he will act –
he will hold them, and not let go until they are safe again.

And for us, as for them, that message contains both an assurance and a challenge. This is not a promise that Christ will just take care of everything for us – we are not invited to fall asleep in the boat and leave him to it.

Learning to trust him does not mean that we no longer take responsibility for ourselves, or that we deliberately put ourselves in harm’s way.
And just as we take steps to ensure our physical safety, so we need also to guard our spiritual welfare.

We know that, for our personal safety,
there are places that it’s wise to avoid at certain times:
it’s probably best not to take a gentle stroll across the seafront during a heavy storm.

Similarly, there are situations that we need to extract ourselves from, either because they leave us emotionally drained and depressed, or because they are so tempting, so compelling that they lead us into some form of addiction, where something other than God takes hold of us, and won’t let go.

Jesus asked his disciples “Where is your faith?”
Perhaps we might re-pitch that question to ourselves as “where is your faith?” “Where is my faith?”

Do we place our trust in him, or in something else?
And do we need to start to refocus our attention on him and not on the waves around us.

People who live in parts of the world where wild storms are a regular occurrence are usually well-drilled, and well equipped for battening down the hatches – and they have effective systems to give them advance warning.

And I want to suggest that we need those same mechanisms in place for ourselves, in order to preserve our faith and our spiritual health.

Do we know ourselves well enough to recognise the warning signs when all is not well – when we’re not coping as well as we might?

Can we recognise the things that have become TOO important to us and get in the way of our faith?

Do we have any ways of reconnecting with God, when we can’t feel his hold on us any more?

Those ways may just be very simple:
perhaps lighting a candle or holding a Cross,
to focus our thoughts on God.

Depending on our sensibilities,
we might try using the Lord’s prayer;
using Rosary beads
and asking Blessed Mary to pray for us;
using the Orthodox Jesus prayer “Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner”;

using any simple prayer,
and just repeating the same words, over and over again, until we rediscover a sense of God’s presence with us – of present help and direction.

As we move towards and into Lent,
if we can spend some time thinking about, and building up our spiritual armoury – finding resources that we know will help us to focus in that way – then that will be a far better Lenten discipline than giving up chocolate again! (And, for some of us, at least, infinitely preferable!)

A prayer by Jeffrey John:

Give us Lord the grace to walk by faith,
through every storm of life to keep our eyes on you.
And when we fail to see, or start to sink,
stretch out your arm to raise us up.
So may we learn to hold to you through good and ill,
until we come to that haven where we would be,
in everlasting joy and peace.

In time and eternity

Sermon given on 13 February 2022

Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10 Luke 6: 17 – 26

Back in the early 90s, I taught in a small school in Somerset. And we all had to take our turn on the “duty roster” – patrolling the courtyards and corridors, at break times, to make sure that the many rules were being obeyed.

And I remember on one day, that I was supposed to be “on duty” for the first half of morning break, but I really needed to “nail” a couple of miscreants who’d been playing me up, and wanted to keep them back at the end of the lesson.

Bearing in mind this was before computers in classrooms, let alone emails, I resorted to the usual practice of sending a child with a note to one of my colleagues –
there was even a set phrase:
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but Mr Wood sent this.”

So I penned a couple of lines, asking the person after me if we could swap duties, handed it to a more trustworthy child, and off he went down the corridor.
A couple of minutes later the door opened and he approached my desk – “Mr Mack sent an answer”.

So I opened the note again,
“Yes of course, I’ll cover it all – don’t worry.”

Now giving up coffee in the Staff Room really was going the extra mile, so I thought I’d acknowledge it. And I scribbled on the bottom of the note “Eternally grateful!” and sent the messenger back along the corridor. “I’m sorry to disturb you again Sir, but. Mr Wood sent this.”

A minute later he returned,
with a fresh piece of paper.
“Mr Mack sent you this.” So I opened it.
“Be careful” he had written – “eternity is very long time!”

Not to be outdone, I took out my pen once more:
“Oh really?,” I scribbled, “I thought eternity meant there is no time.” Off went the messenger.

He returned, with a grin on his face,
realising by now that something odd was going on,
and handed me the note.
“Look!”, it read, “do you want me to do this duty or not?!”

“Yes please”, I wrote in return, “I will be EXTREMELY grateful.” Off went the messenger again,
who was enjoying all this far more than whatever maths problems he was supposed to be working through.
Back he came again, bearing the reply with all the flourish of Neville Chamberlain declaring “peace in our time”.
I opened it in fear and trepidation:
“That’s fine”, my colleague had written,
“take all the time you need.”

I asked the boy to sit down – enough time wasted!

The reason for all that reminiscing is that notions of “time and eternity” seem to run through our readings today.

The Beatitudes, those words of Jesus beginning
“Blesséd are you” also appear more fully in the Gospel of Matthew. And on both occasions they lead on to the words “Great is your reward in heaven”.
And it’s that phrase which has often been seized on to imply that this world doesn’t matter so much as what comes after. We put up with what Cardinal Newman called “this troubl’ous life” in order to store up credits for the one that really matters, that which comes next. And indeed some Christians do seem to be in rather a hurry to get there, or at least not that bothered about changing things here.

But is that really what Jesus means?

And how would you square that idea with another saying that we’ll have heard time and again,
“Oh come on, it’s not the end of the world”?

What does that phrase imply, if not that this life does matter – and that the end of it would be a disaster!

In both cases, I think, perspective is important.

When an adult reassures a child that some problem they are facing is “not the end of the world” –
it’s usually from the perspective of having been there themselves, probably more than once,
and coming safely through the other side.

With age and experience comes the wisdom to know that when we are facing a brick wall, there’s probably a way around it OR someone else who can help dismantle it for us and lead us gently forwards again


And I think that Jesus’ words can be taken in that same way:
he’s not doubting the reality of the struggles that the poor, the hungry, the desolate, the persecuted are facing.
He simply knows that there is consolation to be had.

But that’s not the same as saying “sorry this is all a mess, the next world will be better.”

The word that he uses, repeatedly, is “blesséd” –
not “you will be blessed” – but “blesséd are you”.
And that word implies a continuous state – you are already blessed and will continue to be blessed: there’s no waiting around for something more dramatic – the blessing, the consolation is already there, ready to be found by us.

And his focus, especially in Matthew, is on things present – things essential to this life – questions of justice and peace and human flourishing.

That’s a long way from saying – “just wait and see”.
He’s more concerned with dismantling the brick walls that inhibit people, by first enabling them to realise
that there is a fuller, richer life beyond.
Events this week have highlighted the sharp difference in perspective between Queen Elizabeth, not the longest-reigning Monarch in our history, and the various politicians who’ve been shuffled from one role to another.

The Queen has fulfilled her role dutifully and reliably for70 years – most of us can’t remember a time when she was not “our “queen.” – Her perspective is long-term, underpinned not only by her Christian faith, but by hersense of duty to the centuries old ideal of the monarchy.

Politicians. on the other hand, come and go – and even when they seem determined not to go – their perspectives are short term.

Political agendas are shaped by events, and public opinion. Political careers depend on catching the mood of the moment and shaping policies that are seen to deliver.
Ten years down the line, things will almost certainly look very different.

We cannot rely on human strength, or fame, or influence – which are fleeting, and fallible – but must look for something deeper to sustain us.
Jeremiah says “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord”, they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots into the stream”.

What a beautiful analogy – the tree flourishing in all weathers, able at all times to drink in the refreshment it needs to thrive, even in the scorching heat of summer.

We are blessed whenever we uncover the Christ-like values of compassion, mercy, justice and truth;
we are blessed whenever we sense the holiness and majesty of God – enabling us to see each day’s happenings within the timeless perspective of heaven.

Paradoxically, it’s that long-range perspective –
the conviction that all will be well –
that enables us to immerse ourselves more fully in the present moment.

It’s that long view – and trust in God’s purposes – that helps us to stop fretting about anything we’re going to face next week, next month, next year;
that frees us from guilt or regret about things from the past that can’t now be changed;
and which teaches us to rejoice in the gift of this life,
and in God’s goodness.

Back at the school in Somerset, we used to sing a very simple 3-line hymn, which reflected that truth

Be still and know that I am God,
I am the Lord that healeth thee.
In thee O Lord I put my trust.

Blesséd are we – when we calm our anxious minds,
and pause our frenetic activity long enough,
to root ourselves in God and draw in the living waters,
so that we are not withered by the heat of the day,
but flourish – in time and in eternity.

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.