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”.
Why?

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.