Looking for the heart of Branksome

Below is my letter for the November edition of the Parish Magazine for St Aldhelm’s. As is normal in an urban area the magazine’s circulation is mostly confined to Church members and supporters, but we have some thoughts as to how it might evolve as a publication for the whole community. For this reason, perhaps, my piece reflects on where that community’s centre is to be found…

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Dear Friends,

 

When I arrived in Branksome, I wondered where its centre was. Or to put it another way, when those of us who belong here describe to others where we live, our home place, what image comes to mind? Where is the heart of Branksome? If I cross Lindsey Road from the church I enter the adjacent parish of Branksome Park. If I walk towards Bournemouth I pass the hip-and-happening Melton Court and the very handily-placed Tesco’s, but I soon enough leave Branksome and enter a different county (the County Gates, or ‘LV’, roundabout is in our parish, by the way.) I can go north, beneath the railway, to the Bourne Valley. Here there is no doubting I am in Branksome, but there isn’t really a centre, with shops and facilities. Those things I do find if I head west along the Ashley Road, but by then I have crossed the border again out of Branksome. But before I have walked that far – and most certainly if I have driven – I will have had to negotiate what I have to admit feels like the heart and centre of Branksome…

 

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My large scale map of the parish tells me that the John Lewis roundabout, around which queues of traffic persist for most of the day, is in fact known by a more historic, and evocative, name, deriving perhaps from the former clay piping factory: ‘Pottery Junction.’ Thus where the centre of our Branksome community was formerly marked by a significant manufacturer and employer, with the school close by, it is now represented by queues of drivers hoping just to get through the jam…

 

(On a bicycle, returning along Ashley Road, I note some cars that are desperate to overtake me, and note them again as I drift carefully by, where they are stuck among the queues at the roundabouts…)

 

When, however, we enter St Aldhelm’s Church we are reminded that a community’s centre is not a geographical point. Step inside our Church on a Sunday, or sit in on a coffee morning, or come amid the wonder of the approaching Christmas Tree Festival, and you will be among people of all ages and backgrounds, all nationalities and all shades of opinion, and there will be a spirit of friendliness and welcome. The centre of a community is a spiritual and mysterious dimension. You know it when you find it, and you relax, and smile.

 

The Church building stands as witness to that dimension, unostentatious but powerful, at the heart of our community. Prayers are said in there each and every day. The sanctuary candle flickers with a light that testifies to God’s presence in our midst. The quietness within the building – somehow the more pronounced for the dimmed background noise of traffic, and the bleating of the nearby pedestrian crossing – breathes reassurance into us: you are ok… (it seems to whisper to us) …it is going to be all right…God hears…God listens…God loves…Jesus walks with you…

 

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Morning Prayer is currently said, each weekday that I am available, at 7.45 (8.15 on Saturdays) Evening Prayer at present varies according to my schedule – but if there a few who would like to meet at set times I am very happy to respond. The bell is rung to remind any who may hear it that, wherever be the centre of our community, or the centre of each of our lives, God is truly there – here – with us.

 

With love from Fr Pip

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The drone and the beer festival

The text of my sermon at St Aldhelm’s on Sunday 29th October 2017. We had read two of the set passages for the day: 1 Thessalonians 2, 1-8 (‘So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.’) and Matthew 22, 34-end (‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind…and you shall love your neighbour as yourself…‘) For my own part, I felt there was something here worth saying but I doubted I had said it very well…

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My dear friends, this morning I intend to take both a bird’s eye – and also a very down to earth – view of the mystery of our Christian faith.

 

The high altitude viewpoint was provided by a drone flight over our church and grounds… My friend runs a company installing alarms and CCTV and I was interested to consult with him about some ideas for our building. While here I mentioned a worry I had about the roof. Last Saturday, amid the buffeting winds, I was talking to John Kilminster in church when we heard a loud clattering sound on the roof. We hoped it was thunder but I wasn’t at all convinced. My friend offered to take a look using his drone. It is an extraordinary gadget, small, quiet and clever in a way that those of us old enough to remember being awed by cassette tapes will never quite understand. Its crystal survey revealed that indeed two roof tiles have become detached. One of them, sliding down and hitting the lead gulley, explains I think the sound John and I heard: another task for the to-do list. While airborne the drone recorded some memorable views not otherwise available: ours is an awesome building and the rectangle of ground including the Vicarage, Hall and Den is a remarkable resource.

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For the very down to earth perspective, I take you with me to the 19th Poole Beer Festival, held in our Hall and Side Garden over the past few days. I have long appreciated traditional and craft beers and can show you my copy of the 1977 Good Beer Guide to prove it. These days I can enjoy a half or three but no more. Now, let me say plainly that I am very conscious, and supportive, of all those (and they are many) for whom alcohol is a serious problem. But the Festival was well run, sociable and friendly and  I was delighted to call by and bless it on its first day. The cheerful, hard-working team of volunteers gathered around before the doors opened and I offered these words:

 

Jesus met people where they were and was accused by some for frequenting bars and inns. He compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a feast or a party to which everyone is invited. And his very first miracle was not to cure the sick, although that soon followed, but to change water into wine so that a wedding reception might be an embodiment of God’s generosity. So it is that in his name I bless this Festival:

May the skill and craft – and diversity – of traditional brewers here be celebrated

May good ale and good company abound

May old friendships be renewed and new friendships made

May the punters be patient and bar staff cheerful.

May conversation flow and laughter resound.

May the beers remain fresh and may the barrels be drained

May this Festival be a parable of God’s abundance and hospitality

And may God’s blessing be upon all who volunteer and all who visit.

And in place of Amen I will, in Jesus’ name, simply say ‘Cheers!’

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The big picture and the down to earth focus: both are necessary. As Christians, and as a Church, each, and all, of us need to have both a bigger picture of what we are about, a bigger vision that reminds us to look further than we can usually and ordinarily see…and we need to keep our feet on the ground, be immersed – the theological term is ‘incarnate’ – in the ordinary, confusing, awful and amazing world around us. We – and our Church – might almost be described as a bridge, or a ladder such as Jacob witnessed in his sleeping vision in the desert, enabling heaven and earth to correspond and connect as they so evidently did for all who encountered Jesus.

 

In today’s gospel reading we see a uniting of the big and the immediate. Our first priority must be to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. Our second, and equal, priority is to love others, as ourselves.

 

There are a few things that may be obvious to you but nonetheless important to say about this ‘summary of the commandments.’ First, to love God should not be confused with pious practices or emotions. Indeed the temptation for Christians and Churches of every denomination and tradition is to substitute either a set of boxes to tick, or emotions to feel, in place of living as one who is formed and directed by that mysterious and ultimate reality that is God. At the Reformation Martin Luther rightly reacted against a religious practice that had become debased into a series of functional observances, and payments, and recalled us to a more personal and living relationship with Christ. But of course Protestants soon enough replaced those Catholic rituals with others: wearing the proper clothes and not allowing children to play on Sundays, naming the date of one’s conversion, using the expected religious jargon: by these and other means our faith can just as easily be turned from a gift that enlarges and humbles us into a formula that diminishes and inhibits us. To love God means to live within a bigger dimension of love.

 

Which brings us, secondly, to remark on the connection Jesus emphasises between loving God and loving others. They are inextricable, two sides of the same coin. To be Christian is to be passionate about God and compassionate towards others. To be Christian is not about feeling good (still less, about feeling bad on account of our sins). It is about feeling for and with those whose lives are difficult, hard or muddled, it is to think about those who suffer, and to struggle (against the odds) to make a difference regardless of our own comfort and convenience. In the Church we can especially practise this and hope to improve our proficiency thereby in the world around. In this context I am touched by Paul’s words in today’s Epistle in which he expresses such warmth and regard for others in the Church: ‘So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the Gospel ofGod but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.’

 

A third point occurs to me as a result of the prayer and discussion group I attended this past week. We were discussing the Lord’s Prayer. We remarked that this key text for Christians is such that any Jew – and even Muslim – could share its words and sentiments. For us it is a Christian text of course, but only because in saying it we feel we do so with Jesus, and reliant upon him if we are to live by it. Something similar can be said about Jesus’ summary of the commandments. Both commands are central planks of the Old Testament. Jesus’ original genius was to bring them into such close association as we have the here. They also beg the same question as does the Lord’s Prayer, how are to respond? And they beg from us the Christian answer, We can only respond by relying upon the help of Jesus whose grace is communicated by God’s Holy Spirit. Without his help I know that these two commandments will remain as lovely an aspiration as is my resolve to clear my desk of paperwork, and about as likely to be fulfilled.

 

So to return to my opening combination of perspectives.  The drone, and the beer festival, both have revealed aspects of our church to me this past week. Here, in this Eucharist, we are held between heaven and earth. Our building bids us look up and at the same time look around and value each other. May God thus lift us up to see the bigger picture of his love towards us. May we respond by a sincere re-orientation of our lives, characterised by a down-to-earth regard and sympathy towards others.

Minted with God’s image

This is the text of my sermon at St Aldhelm’s on Sunday, 22nd October, 2017. The readings were 1 Thessalonians, 1-10 – and Matthew 22, 15-22 (in which Jesus is asked, should the people pay the imperial tax, or precept, to the Emperor…)

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Each one of our pounds, and each of our new-style banknotes – those plastic ones that flip out of your purse, your wallet, your hands, like slippery fishes searching for the cash register – each coin or note is imprinted with the portrait of our Queen.

 

Pointing out the similar image of the Emperor of his day, Jesus remarked to those attentive to his words and to those who were hoping to snag him in his words, ‘Render unto Caesar, therefore the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’

 

Which begs the question, what things belong to God and how shall we recognise them? In this world that may seem Godless or at any rate rather detached from God, where do we find the things that belong to him?

 

You may recall the lines, included as food for thought in last week’s newssheet, of Mother Julian, a widow who lived a life of prayer in 13th century Norwich and who is our earliest known female English author. In typically homely and touching manner she recounts: I saw that God was everything that is good and encouraging…God is our clothing that wraps, clasps and enfolds us so as never to leave us…God showed me in my palm a little thing round as a ball about the size of a hazel nut…I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself: ‘What is this thing?’ And I was answered, ‘It is everything that is created’… I wondered how it could survive since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothing… The answer came, ‘It endures and ever will endure, because God loves it…And so everything has being because of God’s love…’

 

Hold any thing up to the light and you will see molecules, and mystery, you will see wonder – and you will see the imprint of its maker. Like the water mark of our monarch’s face embedded in a £20 note, the face of God is indelible, even if often invisible, in all things that exist.

 

Render to Caesar that which is imprinted with the head of Caesar. Render unto God that which is imprinted with God’s image.

 

At the summit of all this creation, stand (or cower, or strut) we humans  This is not to downgrade other animals.  I’ve met some fabulous dogs on my visits locally, and I have told them about the animal service I led in my last church this summer past. They nod their head when I suggest something similar here. But they all acknowledge that being human is another unimaginable step for them. No animal shares to any degree the stature or foolishness, the cruelty or the kindness, the ingenuity or the stupidity, the dignity or the indignity that we humans demonstrate. And each one us bears the image of God. ‘All of us are in the gutter (so writes Oscar Wilde, and so sings Chrissie Hynde) but some of us are looking at the stars.’ There is no criminal, no addict, no depressive, no suicide toppling over the edge, but that the image of God shines (dimmed but inextinguishable) within each of them. What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour…’ (Psalm 8)

 

How often, though, do we recognise the mystery, the uniqueness, the beauty, the awesome mystery that is a person? Perhaps when we hold a new born child. Perhaps when we anoint the body of one just departed this life. But too often our vision is dulled by proximity or familiarity, by our own agendas, our need to project our assumptions, good or bad, onto others. Each person is minted with the image of God but we do not notice. It is a negligence that includes how we regard ourselves. Once, when depressed, a doctor, who didn’t know me personally but knew what I would be surprised but needed to hear, said to me, ‘you also deserve to be happy.’ As a priest I think I should sometimes echo his words to others, all be it expressed in Biblical terms (‘you are God’s child, he understands and likes you, he wants you to be forgiven, fully human, fully alive, and fulfilled’) – but nor should I forget to direct such assurance to myself as well.

 

So we can begin to see what it might mean to ‘Give to God the things that belong to God.’ It’s a pretty big call and it demands that we look constantly afresh and anew at others and at ourselves. To not think too highly – nor too lowly – of ourselves, and never to write off anyone, but to see possibility, God’s possibilities, in every face and in every person.’ Not easy, and I reckon it requires a good deal of prayer to form such good habits in us. Prayer of quiet, and meditation upon the scriptures – and prayer for others, held up before God without imposing too much our own opinions.

 

I know to my shame how much I stand in need of such prayerful exercise, how easily I slip into blame and contempt towards others. But I thank God for the occasional glimpses of how it can and should be. A few of you have heard me relate one of my initial exploratory visits here, back in the early spring. Parking the car and walking around I felt I should try to meet one or two people. I went into the Railway Hotel. Late on Saturday afternoon, it was quiet. But a chap leaning at the bar with his pint had a friendly face and I made conversation. Was he, I asked, local? Yes, from a street or two away. Well, you may notice that I’m a vicar but there’s a chance I may end up being the vicar of the church down the road and I wonder, from the point of view of someone local, what kind of vicar would be welcome or useful to people here? He chuckled and reached for his wallet of credit and other cards and showed me his membership of the Humanist Association. I laughed then as now at the memory, but I also remember we both enjoyed the joke and he went on to say positive things about some of the church members he knew and of Fr Stephen whom he remembered. Afterwards, returning to the car, I stepped inside the garden of remembrance and met a chap in overcoat, with very long beard, his bicycle leaning against the church wall, who was settling down on the bench, can of lager and roll up in hand, to listen to the football scores. He wondered if I was the new priest with the foreign sounding name and I explained that Fr Wayne had unfortunately left but that I might become the new vicar. He wasn’t too sure what kind of vicar was needed either, but again he thought Fr Stephen had been a decent chap. I returned to my car laughing. I had arrived seeking a sign and the good Lord had sent my way a gentleman of the road and a card-carrying atheist – and, you know what, I thought that was a pretty encouraging sign. Lord, if I can in any way be a conduit between your church and some unexpected people, then please send me there…

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Another example almost hit me the other day when I was jogging to Lidl to pick up breakfast things. A guy on a bike emerged quite fast from the path from Poole Road and we very almost collided, but, due to some instinctive agility on both our parts, didn’t, just. When I arrived at the shop entrance he was securing his bike and I went across to speak. Fortunately I had overcome my petulant reaction enough to say, I hoped without an edge, ‘I don’t blame you for riding on the pavement, mate, I do it myself at times, but do take care, you gave me a hell of a fright there.’ And fortunately he reacted without defensiveness, apologised, and we had a brief chat. Strangely, in the shop, our purchases meant that we several times coincided at the same shelf and then were adjacent in the checkout queue. I’m glad we hadn’t got furious with each other earlier else it would have been far more awkward. At any rate, what could easily have been unpleasant became rather a good natured and pleasant meeting.

 

I have not described miracles but I hope I have described scenes with which you can identify or think of with other examples of your own.

 

Shortly, at Holy Communion, you will receive a wafer as a token of Christ’s real presence with you. Each wafer is imprinted with the cross, the sign of God’s love poured out for his creation. As you eat this bread you may reflect that each of you was imprinted with the sign of the cross, at baptism.

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Give to God that which belongs to God. That means, I think, recognising God in all things, in all people, in each one of you. When you look at the world, and at people and at yourself, you may ask, whose image is contained here? God’s image is contained here, and everywhere, and in you and in me and in every person.

‘Love bade me welcome…’

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Below is the text of my sermon delivered during the Parish Eucharist at St Aldhelm’s on Sunday, 8th October. The first reading was Philippians 3, 4-14. The Gospel passage was Matthew 21, 33-46: Jesus’ parable of the vineyard left by its owner in the care of tenants who forget their dependence and instead reject the owner’s messengers and kill his son…

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My friends, where could there ever be such a vineyard where the owner is treated so ungratefully and his son abused and killed and his body cast out so contemptuously? We naturally feel the injustice, and we protest: such could and must never be amongst us!

 

Yet, in truth, it is a parable told by Jesus for our time and for every generation. The Bible always speaks to us here, and now…. The parable of the vineyard is a story that describes a kind of fortress mentality, a state of mind that is strongly defended and aggressive. What matters, it says, is what is on this side of our boundary wall, a boundary that is assiduously and anxiously guarded. Our writ extends here, we suppose, and none other.

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I believe Jesus in this parable describes all of us, often enough. We need not look far to recognise such a dynamic. Consider so many of those whose lives are based on power or publicity or money. The more they are magnified in the media, so much the more they seem to be diminished as people. Consider even our Government at this present time: dear Theresa May, and her colleagues in the Cabinet, that ‘nest of singing birds.’ I do not say this with any party political intention. Much the same might have been and was said of the government led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and would doubtless be true soon enough of one presided over by Oh, Jer-e-my Cor-byn.

 

But we do better to look closer to home. Who has not been affected at times by a poisonous atmosphere amongst colleagues at work, or in any kind of voluntary society, theatre group, choir, golf club, school staff room or Governing Body? Which nuclear or extended family does not at times feel toxic or negative? The Church as a human institution is by no means immune. There are clergy who manipulate or demean others, and I do not say I am not at times one of them. And among any congregation there are those who whisper unkind things of others. Every priest has been warned by well-meaning parishioners, ‘beware of him…’ not realising that he has already counselled the vicar to beware of them..! Indeed, I wonder if one of the healing blessings unintentionally occasioned by a change of vicar is the opportunity by everyone to at least partially wipe the slate clean: all of us, clergy and others, can at least resolve to treat people as we find them – not as we, or others, remember them – to be.

 

What I am describing is part of, but not the whole, truth. Yes, in this world we are caught up into a web of fear, suspicion, envy and anger. We cannot simply by an effort of will step from it. It’s described in complex terms by psychiatrists and counsellors, but more simply by the Christian faith as sin. It is part and parcel of being human and that is what God knows us to be, and we cannot and do not need to try to transcend it. He does not love us despite our sin, he loves us through and in it. This is all true. But the greater truth is that a way has been opened for us that leads into a bigger and ampler place – and the Church, with all its faults, is our way in.

 

Jesus was killed not among the luscious and productive, and viciously defended, vineyard of our parable. He was put to death amid the city’s landfill site called Calvary. But his blood wrought so agonisingly from his veins is his pledge of healing and wholeness poured out for us.

 

That death on the cross, so centrally illustrated by the Rood Cross in this extraordinary Church building of ours, is also the beginning of a new community that is not, ultimately, conditioned by power, or personality, or popularity (even though we and others often try to make it so, to our shame). This new community is instead predicated upon repentance, and forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and love.

 

St Paul ‘got’ this, of course, partly because all his other securities fell, or were wrenched, away: his assurance of holiness, his self-discipline, his reputation, his honour. All ripped away, at first by his groping, helpless blindness, dependent on his servants on the road to Damascus, and then, secondly, by his imprisonment. Sure, I could boast if I really wanted to, he says in today’s first reading, but why would I bother? It’s all froth, it’s hot air, it’s media spin. What matters, he says, is that Christ died for me and I died with him – and I’ll stake my hope on being a part of his rising to new life as well.

 

My newly beloved friends…our Church is nothing unless it is founded upon Christ the cornerstone. But if Christ be its foundation, then there is no knowing what we can be or do together. I have no blueprint for that, no 5 year plan, no magic formula. All that I want to do among you is all that we each of us truly wants: ‘to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’

 

This coming Saturday, everyone is welcome to refreshments in this Church at 10 am. The Friends of St Aldhelm’s have done great work to support and care for this building but they were at the point of dissolving the Association after many years. No shame in that after accomplishing much. But instead I wonder if from that faithful seed a new plant may begin to grow. Any and all of you who care about this building, its fabric and facilities, its cleanliness and security; any and all of you who want to cherish it as a house of prayer and of sanctuary, a ‘soul space’ in which all may find solace; any and all of you who hope that our church building may be a hub for creativity, beauty, art, music and all that is imaginative, creative and life-enhancing in our community; and any and all of you who want to see our Church building extend a message of Christ’s welcome and openness to all who live, work or pass by here: then any and all of you are ‘Friends of St Aldhelm’s’ and we need to hear from you and from each other next Saturday and beyond.

 

Our Church is not a walled vineyard. Its boundaries strictly delineated and protected. Our Church is a waste place made fruitful by him who died and rose again for us. You will shortly make your way to Holy Communion, entering the chancel and sanctuary by stepping beneath the Rood Cross. Carved into that screen, running down several of its pillars, are finely sculpted grapes. Here is the wine that heals and sustains us: the blood running down from his cross. We enter by that portal to partake in a feast of love to which we, who often with good reason feel unworthy, are therefore all the more welcome.

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Before inviting you to come forward to receive Communion I will read this poem by a priest in this diocese, George Herbert, who was vicar of Bemerton near Salisbury, about 400 years ago…

 

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

 

‘A guest,’ I answered, ‘worthy to be here.’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

 

‘Truth Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat:’
So I did sit and eat.

A light to lighten the way…

My sermon at St Aldhelm’s on Sunday 24th September, 2017. The invitation to those listening to consider supporting the cost of maintaining a sanctuary candle alight found a good response – and other offers are very welcome!

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Last week I spoke about the two distinct worlds to which we belong.

There is what we often describe as the ‘real world’ in which each person must guard what is theirs, might is right, fear stalks us all the days and everything revolves around money: money, we say, is what ‘makes the world go round’. This is the world that exercises, and exhausts, us – and yet in truth its assaults are like those of a nightmare. If only we could awaken…

 

…to the other, deeper, really real world… It is partly to help us awake that God prompts some of us to turn aside from our occupations and preoccupations and step into this place. This holy space is set aside so that we can blink our eyes and be thankful that our true, abiding home is in what Jesus refers to as the kingdom of God, the world where God reigns. Forgiveness is its life blood and love is its universal language.

 

Typically, Jesus describes and evokes this more real world not with theories or exhortations, dietary regimes or exercise programmes (he knew he could leave all that to the weekend colour supplements.) Instead he tells stories. The kingdom of God is like…a mustard seed, so tiny it would never attract notice yet is able to grow and provide shelter and a home for all, so that none of us need ever suppose we do not belong…the kingdom of heaven is as if…a great Lord arranged a party and invited very many upstanding people, who all had more pressing engagements, and so the doors were opened wide to the poor and the wasted and the wastrels (and even, most scandalously, to you, and to me.)

 

Today’s story follows in this pattern and remains for many of us one of Jesus’ most shocking. It clearly is absurd to pay someone who works only the last hour an equal amount to the one who has worked all the 12 hours’ long day. No employer would countenance, and no union would tolerate, such a travesty. Yet Jesus describes God’s kingdom with such a parable.

 

To help hear this story, let me try to take you there by another way…

 

It’s been for me a week, no worse and no better than many another week in my life. Yet those two distinct worlds have been ever present. For someone like me whose work is mainly with people and therefore largely about conversation and connection, these are trying times. My phone and broadband are shared with the office. The potential difficulty only became apparent after school term began and both Sam and Busy Bodies were in the Church Centre each day. Anyone trying to call me calls the office, from which there is no bleep to make me pick up. When I go to make a call I find myself instead hearing Sam speaking with someone else. Only one of us can get online and so my router has to be turned off until mid-afternoon (the difficulty should be resolved by a new phone and internet connection due to be installed this coming week.)  Meanwhile, my mobile phone went dead and has been sent away for repair. Then, yesterday, the old, un-smart phone I had recovered from deep in a drawer also stopped working. So in some desperation I set out for the big Sainsbury’s to pick up a cheap standby, but all the ones I might have bought were out of stock. All this, in such  a big store, entailed several kilometres walking to and fro, partly in company with a very pleasant assistant. By the end I felt so fed up and tired that I handed my basket of other intended purchases to her, explaining I didn’t want to queue to pay for items only picked up while searching for a phone they couldn’t provide. I immediately felt ashamed of my attitude but it was too late and the assistant responded with a generous smile I didn’t deserve, making me feel deservedly worse. I drove on to Tower Park and its even bigger Tesco’s. There, the phones were in stock but my economic – or mean – nature wouldn’t allow me to pay the asking price that was twice that of Sainsbury’s (if they’d had them in stock…) I returned home two precious hours later with nothing, except much frustration, a bad temper and a vague feeling that life was out to cheat me. We all have such experiences. I guess it could have gone either way. Did I vent my exasperation by lighting a bonfire to annoy the neighbours or, even more extreme, by taking a chainsaw to a TPO’d holm oak? It felt like proof of God’s existence that despite it all I had to admit the funny side instead.

 

My week, however, had an alternative aspect. On Monday I went to listen to the St Aldhelm’s Orchestra practise. They were playing a piece that neither I nor (I discovered) most of the players knew, by a composer equally unknown. It contained periods of dissonance that were uncomfortable but which then suddenly and profoundly resolved into a harmony that was rather restorative. At the interval I was introduced and I spoke to them and then chatted over the tea and coffee. A musical theme reappeared on Thursday with Flossy Malavialle. A friend came and arranged the sound system for us, free of charge. Flossie was her usual accommodating, funny, engaging self, lulling us into a light-hearted mood before her singing lifted us into an altogether different, enchanted sphere. One left feeling altogether lucky to have been there – and, more, somehow lucky, and blessed, to be alive, to be human, to be capable of hearing and enjoying such music, shared with such unique talent and heart.

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I have, you can probably see, described those two realms: the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God. In the first I was like the workmen of today’s parable who felt cheated of their rights and their deserts. In the second I awoke to the realisation that I had been given beyond any of my deserving, good measure, pressed down and running over… In that second world I felt like those who had turned up lazy and late and yet been accorded all the generosity of God. The kingdom of heaven is indeed like a landlord who went out early in the morning to hire labourers… and I, and we all, are like those who grumble because life has not given us what we think we are owed, AND we are like those Jonny come-latelys, baffled and astounded by receiving that which we hadn’t ever dreamed of.

 

I want to bring us back though to this Church building. On Thursday, with a friend to hold the step ladder, I placed a 7-day candle in the central of the seven sanctuary lamps. Its flame is not bright and you may struggle to notice it under the chancel lights, but it flickers persistently as a reminder that prayer is offered here each day and as a symbol of Christ’s light that conquer every darkness. It is a beacon drawing us on to seek that other world in which we already live (if we could but see.) Keeping it alight will cost about £15 a month and given our straightened finances I will not pledge to do so unless a few people would like to sponsor it a month or two at a time, perhaps in memory of someone or with a particular prayer. If so let us know and we will be glad to share the intention through the parish magazine.

 

This brings me to a hesitant but practical conclusion. Jesus tells us not to keep his light hidden under a bushel (oh, no…) but instead held aloft. Our Church building, however, is for the most part – perhaps unavoidably – closed and locked most of the time. In other, metaphorical and more important, ways we seek to be an open church: a community that is open hearted, open minded, open to others and open to God. But the building itself cannot easily support or symbolise that message. When I met with the Friends of St Aldhelm’s last week I reflected on this and they asked me to express my thoughts in next month’s Parish Magazine. I wondered if the Friends, having done amazing things over many years to enhance and preserve this extraordinary place, might find a renewed focus for the future in making this building even more a beacon, a refuge, and an encouragement to all in our local community. How can we make this building more available to all and in the process allow it to proclaim more clearly that ours is an open church, metaphorically and literally? For this reason the next meeting of the Friends, a coffee morning here on Saturday 14th October, will be open to all who might want to help such a thing to happen, slowly it may be, so that in future we can say, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like St Aldhelm’s Church, whose light shines for all who are in darkness and long to find their way…’

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The Rood reality

Below is the text of my sermon at St Aldhelm’s on Sunday, 17th September. The readings were Romans 14, 1-12 and Matthew 18, 21-35.

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It’s all of 10 days since I became your vicar. People ask me how it’s going. ‘Well’, I reply, ‘I’m surviving, so far…’ I hope that doesn’t suggest to anyone the story of the person who in mid-fall from the top of a skyscraper receives a call on his mobile half way down, asking how it’s going: ‘No problem so far…’

 

We live by faith, and God’s goodness and providence are enough, poured forth as they are each day in so many and varied ways. I went for the fourth or fifth time to collect some curtains from Aga’s sewing shop and left her some more to adjust and shorten. Her eyes widened, ‘How many windows you have?’ ‘Oh, there’s quite a few more yet’, I explained, ‘It’s a big house that comes with the job,’ I thought I should explain. Another day, I went to Tesco’s to get a few items, among them refreshments for my first meeting with the Church Council. The girl at the checkout was very pleasant. She didn’t seem fazed by the boxes of beer and port I had for the PCC and for the concert this week. Instead she exclaimed, ‘Oh, it seems funny somehow, a vicar buying pizza.’ Like I say, our Lord lifts our hearts each day in many and varied ways…

 

This week I visited Bishop Aldhelm’s school. I introduced Fr Cornelius to the children at Busy Bodies. I met the Church Council and was delighted to encounter an impressive array of experienced and skilled people, unafraid to speak their minds and to disagree with each other (and with me) without falling out. They will make the Chairman’s job a challenging but rewarding one and I think together we can do some good. I have held the ladder while a church member cheerfully ascended to change a bulb and then dusted down our rather cobwebbed Rood. I have accompanied the choir in their cheerful weekly practice. I have seen an upstanding member of the congregation dressed as a clown signalling to the passing traffic our Saturday morning sale (his efforts may not have swollen hugely the crowds attending but gave real delight to passing bus drivers and their passengers.) I celebrated Mass with the Friends of St Aldhelm’s and discussed with them how our church building might make its wonder and beauty somehow more accessible to the community of those who live or work or pass nearby. And I have talked with many people, and prayed with several as we reflected together on the past or on current changes in their lives. It has been a tiring and exhilarating and an awesome start to a ministry that I know I am unequal to but which fortunately is in God’s hand, not mine.

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Our Lord – of this I feel sure – has been equally active in your lives this past week: in ways just as obvious, or hidden, or ingenious as those I have dared to describe here. It is all because we live in a kingdom called Grace. We suppose we belong to a world where money rules and power controls and distrust is the only common language; where pleasure must be stolen and love earned; where terror and fear reign and where we must guard what we suppose belongs to us. This, we say, is the real world. But no. In truth, that world is a dream, or a nightmare. In truth we belong to what the poet and priest R S Thomas called The Kingdom:

 

It’s a long way off but inside it

There are quite different things going on:

Festivals at which the poor man

Is king and the consumptive is

Healed; mirrors in which the blind look

At themselves and love looks at them

Back; and industry is for mending

The bent bones and the minds fractured

By life. It’s a long way off, but to get

There takes no time and admission

Is free, if you will purge yourself

Of desire, and present yourself with

Your need only and the simple offering

Of your faith, green as a leaf.

 

I suppose you could say our challenge and our hope as a Church community is to live a little more consciously in that Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, of which Jesus so frequently spoke and to which all his teaching, his healing, his miracles, his forgiveness, and his passion and death and life renewed, testify. Typically in today’s Gospel reading he makes the point plain by means of a story. A servant who is in huge debt must fear disaster when accosted by his master but is amazingly and wondrously released by him with no payment due. In turn he does what we, fearful and defensive creatures as we are, so often do and demands full payment of all that is owed to him. We are like that servant in that we have been forgiven our debts and our faults. We must therefore live out our luck by extending grace to others. Slightly more prosaically, St Paul makes a similar point in today’s first reading from his letter to the Roman Church: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?’ We are all servants of God. We may indeed be liked and loved and lifted up into the company of Christ’s friends but we should not forget we are all still just servants and none of us is the gaffer.

 

In yesterday’s Mass I used the readings for Holy Cross Day, 14th September. At the end of the simple, short service we gathered beneath the Rood – newly dusted – and reflected that in the figures of Mary and John at the foot of the cross we see a template for our life as the Church. ‘Behold your son’, ‘Behold your mother’, Jesus says to each from the cross. We are entrusted one to another, within a body – Christ’s body – that shares some of his pain and all of his risen life – and forgiveness, 70 times 7 times and counting, is that body’s lifeblood. ‘We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves,’ writes Paul. ‘If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord…’

 

And so it is that I must ask – of myself and of us all – the question posed by Paul at the conclusion of today’s first reading: ‘Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we all stand before the judgement seat of God.’

 

In conclusion this prayer, provided for us to use at the end of today’s communion:

 

Lord God, the source of truth and love, keep us faithful to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, united in prayer and the breaking of bread, and one in joy and simplicity of heart, in Jesus Christ our Lord.’

Finding myself in Branksome…

Below is the text of my first Sunday sermon at St Aldhelm’s, Poole, on Sunday 10th September, 2017. The readings used in celebrating the Eucaharist were Romans 13, 8-14 and Matthew 18, 15-20.

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‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18)

 

Leaving, moving, and arriving have made for a bewildering time. After 26 years in Alderholt, I knew what was what – and where it was. Translated to Branksome I have been a little disorientated. Nothing is where it should be. I wander to and fro in my splendid large kitchen wondering in which cupboard I placed the cafetiere. Having discovered it I cast around for where I last placed the coffee. Then I find that, having mistaken the newly acquired cooker controls, I have heated the main oven and so the croissant in the top oven is still frozen.

 

It isn’t much different in Church. Since Monday I have been coming in to say my daily prayers and at first I had no idea where to sit and read the Psalms and lessons for the day. My previous Church building would pretty well fit within our sanctuary. Here is so big and so awesome, it took me a few days to find a place to settle. When I at last did, I then had to walk the length of the church to find the correct switch for the light above me.  I fear I might lose my way among its many processional possibilities. I was glad to have the choir and servers to follow this morning, else there’s no saying where I might end up. If Andrew had solemnly led us out the door to Lidl’s, I would have dutifully followed.

 

In all seriousness, it has all been a slightly disorientating, and tiring, experience. I have felt like a young person beginning at a new school. You’re glad to be there, and you know it’s all somehow going to be ok, but you feel a little undefended, unsure, vulnerable, disabled.

 

And I think, actually, that’s no bad thing. Because deep down that’s how many of us, perhaps most of us at times, in fact feel. Even if we are settled and secure in our homes and our work and our families, deep down there is a struggling, stumbling child, feeling far from home and vulnerable. It’s no bad thing, too, because it is more from our vulnerability than from our self-confidence that we begin to step forward in faith. It’s our need that we bring with us to church, not our success. Our human frailty is what we all have in common. And when we step inside this place, whether clinging to our parent’s hand or to our walking aid – or to our tattered pride – we all breathe an instinctive, if inaudible, sigh of relief. Here we are welcomed, and understood, forgiven, liked and loved. Here our stuttering attempts to pray are lifted into the song of angels, so polyphonic that our cries only add to the harmony.

 

In truth, my friends, our strength as a community begins with the admission of our brokenness as individuals. We are not impressive, but we are impressionable – and we sense that here is where our souls can be imprinted with the marks of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection and healing love and grace. Here the sign of the cross, placed invisibly on our forehead at baptism, is written anew and again, and again, as we admit and confess our sins, share in Christ’s fond forgiveness, attend to his word through scripture and receive his broken and risen presence in Holy Communion. Our eyes are lifted so that we might recognise his presence too in each other, and in the world whose beauty and busyness, hurt and hopefulness press so closely as we step from this building.

 

The Gospel reading at first sounds rather stern with its suggested procedure for complaints and grievances, a process that may lead to exclusion. But I am reassured by this passage. First, it confirms that rows and disagreements are par for the course in the church. Not all will be sweetness and fond regards among us all. Secondly, it implies that there is usually a way to resolve our differences that will both preserve and enhance our fellowship, and that we have the capacity to do so from amongst ourselves. Thirdly, this reading gives to us the privilege, the awesome responsibility, of pronouncing his forgiveness – or its denial –  but when we remember how profoundly, and even shockingly, Christ forgave and healed the excluded and blame-worthy, then we know with what spirit we must forgive and with what holy dread we must ever deny forgiveness towards others. Finally, even the way it describes those who might ultimately be in the wrong gives hope: let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. And Jesus makes abundantly clear that there is a welcome in his community for publicans, Centurions, prostitutes, the deaf, the blind – and, yes, the Gentiles and the tax-collectors, so, if I be excluded, and if I’m happy to re-join that queue: Yippee! Straight back in I come!

 

St Paul in today’s first reading sums up this aspect to the Christian Gospel by writing, Owe no one anything except, to love one another. In the matter of love, of course, we are each of us always the debtor – when we remember how freely and undeservedly and how abundantly we have been loved. It is God’s love that brings the light to each day, the beauty to each moment, the air to each breath and the hope to each of our souls. If his love might be stopped we should die more assuredly than through any calamity Mr Kim Jong Un’s terror (or Mr Trump’s tweets) might lead us. A few days ago I popped into Lidl for a single item and was in the queue to pay when a computer glitch meant all the several check outs were unable to process payment. We all looked at each other, somewhat at a loss. Lucia and Daniel and the other assistants at their tills could only sit there helplessly. Eventually, rather sheepishly, I replaced my bunch of flowers and sloped away. If God’s love could ever cease, just imagine that queue, without end…

 

Today, in our awesome Church building, whether we be many or few or just two or three gathered in his name, we return to the fount of grace. The queue we may form as we go forward to receive Holy Communion depends upon no computer check out and we are offered grace abundant, with no payment on our part, other than the admission of our weakness and our need.

 

My friends, I join with you with little to offer but what I have I will share with you, knowing that our generous and loving God gives more abundantly than we can understand or comprehend.

So, using again today’s special ‘Collect’, let us pray:

‘Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever…’

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