And, finally…

My last sermon as Vicar of St James’. It was, you might say, just another Sunday: I rose early to continue writing the sermon, then celebrated the 8 am Holy Communion, with its welcome, tangible quietness. Parish Communion on this second Sunday of the month has a smaller congregation than other weeks as all the children and families attend Messy Church in the village school – but the baptism that followed featured any number of lovely, lively children. 

The readings (for the fourth Sunday after Trinity) were from the Old Testament’s Zechariah 9, 9-12 and from Matthew’s Gospel 11, 16-19 and 25-30.

‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants…’

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Last Sunday, along with many of you, I attended the ordination – among 10 other deacons – of our friend Lewis Pearson. The service at the Cathedral was a moving, if lengthy, occasion, with much impressive music and ceremony, and a subtle and powerful sermon. That was perhaps enough inspiration for a normal week, but on Monday, my car was returned by Tim, the village mechanic I use, unexpectedly (and untypically) promptly. I took it as a sign from God that I should indeed attend the triennial Salisbury Diocese Clergy Conference, held in Derbyshire (for which unlikely location there are strong, mainly financial, reasons.) More than three hundred of us clergy engaged with the chosen theme of Faith in an age of Uncertainty. As usual, the highlight for me was the company of so many congenial and interesting colleagues, rather than the official presentations and talks. Wiser clergy did not try to attend everything expected of them. Meeting a friend one morning at breakfast I remarked that I was being selective about what I went to. It turned out he was also being selective, and I suspect wise: he spent the two full days of the conference by taking himself off to Chesterfield to watch the cricket match taking place between Derbyshire and Durham…

 

Returning to St James’ after these forays into the fine-tuned Cathedral and the slightly prescribed enthusiasm of the clergy conference, I breathe a sigh of relief. If we live in an age of uncertainty, then we best adapt to it in our parishes and our places of work. If we are to learn anew how faith can guide us in our perplexity, then that faith is best regained or renewed not amid the extraordinary life of the Cathedral or conference but here amid the ordinary life of a parish church like St James’ and in a down to earth community such as Alderholt.

 

This is because Christianity is less a theory that can ‘in general’ provide a faith in a time of uncertainty. Much more, Christianity is always specific, always incarnate, always particular not general. Christianity is the means by which individual people, you or I, can find our way amid the unique circumstances that make up your or my life, your or my specific ‘time of uncertainty.’ A conference can certainly help and encourage us. Worship in a cathedral – or other remarkable place – can inspire us. But just as after a holiday, back home, back at work, back amid the family and friends and neighbours, is where it’s really at, so Christianity is always parochial, always grounded, always personal.

 

In this, I think Christianity has our measure. I for one am very confident at discerning what is good for other people. I can tell you at length what is wrong with the world. What matters however and what is much more of a challenge is to challenge my own egoism, my own pride, my own fear, my own recurrent failings. I will gladly help remove the speck from your eye – or, more likely, give you a theory about your speck or my thoughts on specks in general. Anything rather than attend to the awkward plank that protrudes from and somewhat obscures the vision of my own.

 

But our Lord – Zechariah the prophet predicts in our first reading – will arrive humbly and lowly, upon a donkey not a charger. Our Lord will sometimes come to you in an arresting moment of shock and disclosure so that you have to stop the car and weep in the layby. But more often he will come to you in the momentary reminder occasioned by a beggar on the street, or the recurrent challenge provided by a difficult colleague at work, or the kindly courtesy shown by a stranger – or adversary whom we had despised.

 

Jesus was all about particularity not generality. He taught by parables not theories. He responded to individual cries for help. He revealed the one overarching God in a particular place and at a particular time. The incarnation – God taking flesh – is a scandal that always offends our preference for generality over personal change. God asks you, and me, What do you – truly – want? He says, Come to me, each person who is weary and heavy burdened, each one who wishes to find their true home, their true rest, amid this world. And to each of us is given the assurance that his yoke is easy, his burden light. A recovering alcoholic, or addict, will tell you that the first essential steps on the road to recovery are both the simplest and the most difficult: to recognise one’s addiction and one’s own utter helplessness – that you cannot make it on your own. I suggest that in practice the vast majority of us are addicted in one way or another, we each have our go-to means of escape and avoidance. Certainly I think all of us are addicted to a false way of thinking that projects our own needs and failings on to others. And I suspect that this in turn infects and therefore explains so much that also goes wrong in our communities, our nation and our world.

 

To each of us, Jesus gently says (but it always feels like a shock to our complacency) Stop play-acting, I much prefer the real you with all your ugly faults to the false you with all your manicured pretence. I love you, not the mask you put on.

 

I guess this is the reason why – it seems – my Lord kept me here among you such a long time. I’m a slow learner and I’m not a bad actor. By being here for over quarter of a century I had to face a few of my own failures and a few of my own failings and I had time to learn from a few of my mistakes. After so many years, reality has a chance to crack the façade so that grace can find a way in. ‘I let love in’, sings Nick Cave, but only when all attempts to keep love out have failed.

 

Over the past few years I have developed as something of a parish side-line a series of concerts here in the church, featuring artists who I feel in their various ways help us to think outside our usual boxes. Tonight at 7 pm we will welcome two performers who each I think flies a flag for being truthful.19989303_10209909533194512_8208360801180313938_n

Owen Moore is a dexterous and polished singer, but behind his practised skill and kindly courtesy there lies – one can tell, if only from his voice’s melancholic edge – a person who knows what it is to walk the streets. His music makes no claim to be profound but is from the heart. Gordon Hoyles, whom you may recognise this morning (he looks like your childhood’s image of God, but with a Lancashire accent) is, with Blossom his wife, a remarkable person.IMG_20170710_102158

His friendship with both Pippa and me goes back more than 30 years. He and I disagree profoundly about every political issue you care to mention. Despite his being wrong about everything however he – and his often funny, sometimes outrageous, always original poetry – remind me that being human is not about being human, not about being a person, it is about being you, or me.

 

I hope that this church– partly through and partly despite my ministry – has been a place and a community where honesty has been valued more than pretence and where you and I have been able to turn from the false idols of our own inventing and our own projecting to see our truer selves, ugly in our own eyes and very precious and beautiful in God’s. I hope this Church of St James has been for you a mirror in which the blind look at themselves and love looks at them back…

 

And so to conclude, the poem from which that last phrase derives, The Kingdom by R. S. Thomas

 

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 purge yourself

Of desire, and present yourself with

Your need only and the simple offering

Of your faith, green as a leaf.

Handing back the key

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Dear Friends,

 

A few days before writing this, I conducted a wedding, for Matt and Natalie.

I was thoughtful as I signed the marriage register for the last time as ‘Vicar’. The occasion itself was a typically joyful event but also touched with a sad memory that in some ways only made the joy more real, more profound. This was because 22 years earlier I had conducted the funeral of Jo, Natalie’s older sister, who died unexpectedly aged 10.

 

Such experiences – of a wedding and a funeral – are just two of the strands that make up a parish priest’s connection with a community. Sometimes it can seem almost a burden; more often it feels like a precious gift. But now, as my time as your Vicar draws to a close, I think it has been a rich and rare privilege of which I was never worthy but for which I will be forever thankful.

 

I was 32 years old when I came to the village in the autumn of 1990. I had no plans to stay, but nor did I have any towards advancement (whatever form that might take for a priest.) As the years passed I learned a lot but in the process realised I knew very little. I made mistakes and, thanks be to God, gained from those the confidence to go on and make bigger and better mistakes. Meanwhile, a couple of generations of young children waved to me on my bike, then avoided with embarrassment my salute as they waited for the bus to take them to bigger school and finally, with awkward and I think fond respect, came to ask me to arrange their weddings or baptise their children.

 

Through it all, I have begun and ended most days by stepping across to St James’ Church building (the huge cast iron key weighing like a handy weapon) lighting candles, sitting, kneeling, praying, sometimes raging, sometimes crying, sometimes wondering if anyone listened to me at all, and sometimes receiving as if in answer the quiet conviction that my every gasp for air is breathed into me (as is breathed into each one of us) by a Spirit whose breath speaks the name ‘Jes-us.’

 

After my departure, and that of my excellent colleague Lewis (to be himself ordained on 2nd July and begin a ‘training curacy’ at St James’ Church in the Old Town, Poole), there will be a period of consultation as the Salisbury Diocese considers how to maintain the ministry of our church in the face of the inevitable shortage of clergy (and money with which to pay for them.) There is an excellent team of Church Wardens, their assistants and other volunteers in place to help our – your – church continue as much as possible its wide-ranging ministry in and for the village. Please wish them well, support them if you can – and if it is your spiritual practice to pray, remember them and pray for both St James’ Church and for this amazing, unique village of Alderholt.

 

The St James’ Festival will be my last weekend among you as Vicar. I’ll enjoy it, and try not to cry. I celebrate a Eucharist for St James’ Day at 7.15 pm on Tuesday 25th July. Afterwards there will be a party with food, music and something to celebrate. You are most welcome but if you can call a church warden and let them know you are coming it will help them cater adequately.

 

At the conclusion of that service I will lay the church key upon the altar, with a heavy but also very grateful heart. After all, it never was ‘my’ Church. It was and always will be God’s – and therefore…

…YOUR Church. Its doors – and God’s embrace – are always open for you.

 

With much love (and using the signature from that final wedding register…)

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Falling forwards

Below is the text of a sermon I preached at the Eucharist in St James’ Church to mark the start of a new three-year period (‘triennial’) of the Wimborne Deanery Synod (whose members are shown in the photograph gathered outside for coffee by the Coach in the Community.) I return in the address to the theological subject of another recent sermon here: the mystery and (I argue) the relevance of our understanding God as Holy Trinity. The readings were 1 John 4,7-end  (‘He that loveth not knoweth not God’) and Luke 16,19-end (‘There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table…’)

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The scriptural readings this evening were not chosen as a politically-correct response to the rather extreme contrast between distinct parts of one London borough, exposed in the most graphic and hellish way by the Grenfell Tower fire. The readings are those for this past Sunday, the First after Trinity, in the Book of Common Prayer.

 

Quite possibly Cranmer and his colleagues simply translated into English the readings that had long been in use before the Reformation. Whatever the origin of the Prayer Book’s lectionary in this instance, we may ask ourselves why, on the first Sunday following the festival of the Holy Trinity, the readings bring us up so sharp with their challenge: to see God present in each and every person; to focus on love rather than judgement; to fear wealth and its attendant inequality as we would flee from death itself.

 

In reality, that it should surprise us itself reveals our theological poverty. How many of us have heard a cleric on Trinity Sunday self-deprecatingly lament his or her place on the preaching rota that day (and whose subsequent sermon makes clear that the bad luck all belonged to the congregation)? However did we come to suppose that the Christian revelation of a triune God was somehow an awkward and complicated intellectual challenge rather than the good news for the poor and the confused and the lost that it is?

 

Christian faith is not an intellectual labyrinth. We are not like the Queen in Alice through the Looking Glass who boasted of her ability to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Everyone here can give the lie to such a conception of religious belief. However you may struggle to articulate your stumbling, struggling faith, it is certainly not like that! Our faith feels, does it not, much more as if our centre of gravity were always in front of us. Our experience of faith is as it were of  falling forwards, constantly in fear and trembling, constantly discovering that our falling is but the opportunity grace requires to lift us into the Kingdom where love reigns. Our barbeque and bouncy castle on Sunday following Lewis’s last service with us prior to his ordination in a week or two concluded with an impromptu water slide set up in the churchyard with some thick plastic, a hose and all the available washing up liquid. How the dead around must have enjoyed it as those kids slipped and slid their way down, and then felt the heavier thuds and hilarious descents as we grown-ups were persuaded to join in! Christian faith is a little like that. The worst thing is to keep your footing. To find your way you have first to fall.

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That God as Father is beyond and beneath all that exists, yet close, with open arms, with the human face, of Jesus his eternal Son, and who also in-spires us, in-spirits us, with every breath, every in-spiration, that we take articulating the name of Je-sus… Such is our God. And such is the reason why the Sunday after Trinity gives us the readings we heard. For as there is no contradiction within the mystery of the Trinitarian faith, so – of course! – there is no contradiction between love of God and love of neighbour, between prayer and practical help given to others, between silence and singing, between private wealth and public common-wealth, between worshipping God in the beauty of holiness and tending to the wounds of the poor amid the ugliness of squalor. How did we ever forget such home truths, other than the reason why we forget the sight of ourselves reflected in a moral mirror – it’s sin what gets in the way, and repentance that can clear the way?

 

As we begin a new synodical triennial let us not be fearful, or anxious, about the challenges we face. God knows it’s hard enough for each one of us to live as humans. Being a Christian and being the Church was never easy and is not easy today. But let us take heart and be encouraged – and give encouragement – as we face all the challenges the coming years bring. As you came into this church you stepped through gates that are decorated with the pilgrim’s shell of St James. Each time you step aside from your daily duties and make time for prayer, you make a space for the Triune God to breathe and work through you. Each time you remember the poor – by word or deed or banker’s order – you turn aside to tend your brother or sister who is Jesus. Each time you step forward and stretch out your hands for communion, One who loves you fills your palm with bread that is his life. And each time you fall on your knees, or cry out with tears to him, you fall forwards into grace. Think of the Church from which you come. Then picture that water slide. Keep both those images alongside each other… And may God the Father strengthen us by his Holy Spirit breathed constantly into us through his dear Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Dear Simon…

Simon Hoare is a really good MP for our North Dorset constituency. I like him. He is bright, carries his intelligence behind a comfortable and courteous county-Tory front, stands on the more liberal, inclusive wing of the Conservative Party – and displays commitment and compassion towards all his constituents. He came to the Election Open Forum in St James’ Church last night and answered all questions with a thoughtful openness, never with cliches or soundbites. But I won’t vote for him and I have sent him this open letter to explain why.

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Dear Simon,

 

Thank you for coming to the Election Open Forum at St James’ Church. I want to wish you well and to assure you of my support and prayers when you are (I have no doubt) re-elected. You are an excellent MP who listens to and cares about all your constituents. I, however, will not be voting for you and I owe you an explanation why.

 

Your party is committed (against your and the majority of your colleagues’) better judgements to leaving the European Union even if the deal is bad for Britain, and has ruled out allowing the British people a direct say once the details of that deal are clear. I cannot support you in what I strongly believe is a wrong course for our country.

 

In the face of increasingly clear signs of economic difficulty your party has no plans to change policies that have greatly exacerbated the divisions between rich and poor. In the face of cuts that affect the poor most your party only offers the hope that a ‘stronger economy’ will in due course be to the benefit of all. In the absence of any such prospect, however, we must expect further cuts and increased inequality if your party is elected to Government.

 

Your party’s manifesto is vague and un-costed and has already, in several instances, been contradicted by your senior colleagues. Your party’s campaign has no vision or hope and is focused on supporting a single individual, your leader. I cannot place any confidence in such a programme for governing our country through its current crises.

 

Your leader does not in fact seem to me capable of being a good Prime Minister. Her changes of mind (for instance over Brexit, calling this General Election, and the ‘dementia tax’) as well as her reluctance to engage with ordinary people or take part in probing interviews, and her refusal to debate on equal terms with other party leaders, all suggest a personality that is anxious and controlling rather than strong and stable. In foreign policy (perhaps a Prime Minister’s most serious responsibility) her appointment of Boris Johnson to represent our country is insulting both to the British people and to our foreign partners. Her ‘holding hands’ (metaphorically even if only briefly in literal fact) with Donald Trump is shameful, as is her anxiety to please Saudi Arabia. Her statements in response to recent terrorist outrages have consisted of clichés and unspecific soundbites more suited (I hate to say it) to electoral advantage than as serious policy proposals. By contrast, the leader of the Labour Party has through this campaign refused to react to personal smears and unfair attacks, he has focused on policies rather than personalities, and he seems to have a calmness under pressure and a modest recognition of the need to work with others in response to the challenges we face that seem to me much more appropriate to a Prime Minister.

 

So, Simon, although I look forward to supporting you as our next Member of Parliament, I will not be voting for you and will cast my vote, in this instance, for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Tom Panton, who seems to be a thoughtful and committed young man and in this constituency the closest contender.

 

With my very best wishes, and prayers,

Pip

 

Pentecost: God’s indiscriminate embrace

Below is the text of my sermon at St James’ Church, Alderholt, on Whit Sunday, 4th June 2017. It attempts to ‘locate’ the gift of God’s Spirit not so much within stained glass windows or particular ‘Charismatic’ Churches but amid the encounters and challenges of our daily lives.1b4966a8757e40a9a86078a01e990719

‘I talk to you, and you talk to me, and if we talk for long enough something may happen!’ … Such was the relaxed account of his business strategy given by a quietly effective Salisbury estate agent. He would be amused to think that his remark, in reply to a question about how houses get sold, would be quoted at the head of a sermon today – but I think his technique describes rather well God’s genius expressed through the festival of Pentecost.

Pentecost, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, can seem rather overwhelming, portrayed through stained glass images of saints with flames on their heads and all about them looking agog, or through the (for most of us) equally inaccessible experience of those who loudly proclaim they are filled with the Spirit. Most of us may feel unsuited however either to stained glass or to charismatic confidence.

But Pentecost, and the promise, and the problematic challenges, of God’s Holy Spirit, are for us all, I believe. Today’s Bible readings if we read or hear them without pre-judgement, confirm what I will dare to describe as the indiscriminate embrace of the Spirit. God is like the slightly tipsy host of the party who just wants to hug everyone.

 

Take the account in Acts – our first reading – of all those gathered from various nations hearing, and communicating, in their own languages. Yes, it is astonishing, but, underneath, the point being made is that God’s Spirit is the means by which real communication, listening, and understanding take place. Here is a democratisation of God’s gifts. That which was previously reserved to prophets or kings is now bequeathed to uncle Tom and aunty Thomasina Cobley and all. The Holy Spirit makes possible real communication, and community, and, by the same token, where there is real communication and real community, there the Holy Spirit is at work. For this reason the Church should have as its focus both the building up of trust and relationships within its membership, and its enabling, celebrating and cherishing all that builds up community (including of course family) life. That is why the church celebrates and blesses marriages (and also welcomes and supports other forms of generous-hearted commitment between people, whatever may be our varying views about gay marriage.) It is why too we at St James’ arrange and promote things like the reCreate Festival, the Christmas Bazaar, St James’ Festival, and the Parish News (itself a remarkable contribution to the life of the community)

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‘I speak to you and you speak to me…and something will happen.’ The second, Gospel reading points to the kind of things that will indeed happen. Peace will be spread. Reconciliation will become real and actual and experienced in ordinary lives. Forgiveness (and the immense, profound healing that that brings) will be given and received amongst us.

‘I speak to you, you speak to me.’ It really is that simple. It is God’s way with us and we are invited to do something similar. What else is prayer, when you look at it plainly? There’s that nice story of the priest, puzzled by the simple old man who spent so much time just sitting in his country church, gazing towards the altar with its cross. ‘What do you do there for so long each day?’, the priest at last asks. The old boy replies, ‘Oi looks at ‘im, and ‘ee looks at I.’

 

So God, when he comes to us in the form of the Spirit, is drawing us into the divine conversation, into the cherishing and love that flow between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the process we encounter and are drawn into closer fellowship with Jesus. ‘We each hear the other as if in our own language’ they report at Pentecost. At a time when we more and more inhabit separate ‘echo chambers’ – of ‘people like us’ and those who read the same newspapers, or share the same views about Brexit and of course the same likes on Facebook – such a fearless and extensive possibility of fellowship and understanding, such as is evoked through Pentecost, is not only radical, it is almost shocking. We could all do with a lot more of this kind of shocking. When we enjoy a moment of generous-hearted conversation in a supermarket queue, when we overcome prejudice or fear towards a stranger, when we find some way to traverse the negative assumptions we hold about younger people, or older people, or poor people, or rich people, or posh people or rough people, of people who live in big houses and people who have no house to live in at all….we risk meeting Jesus who changes lives. And this is the dance of love we are drawn into by the Holy Spirit, who is as it were the beguiling tune that leads us, played by the Lord of the Dance himself.

 

The whole point, then, of Pentecost, and of the Christian teaching about the Holy Spirit, is to help us into a living, and life-changing, life-challenging – and above all a life-enlarging – relationship with Jesus and (which is almost the same thing) with one another. It is all about you, Jesus.

One of my regrets as I prepare to leave St James’ is not having pressed harder my idea of commissioning a sculpture of Jesus that would have been placed in the front right corner of the nave. The idea was of a piece that would not represent Jesus crucified or resurrected, but would imagine Jesus the person who so attracted and intrigued all who were humble or honest enough to own their need of help. The sculpture was to have been of a seated figure, with a wild mountain kid goat to one side. It would have also posed the question that Jesus put to his friends, ‘Who do you say that I am? I think it is less the Church’s place today to inform people who or what Jesus is (Resurrected Lord, Miracle Worker, Divine Teacher, Prophet, etc.) Rather, the Church should help keep conversation alive about him and invite all who will pause to reflect for themselves: Who is Jesus for me?

A sculpture, however, is only a symbol. The reality of our living this relationship with Jesus is the more important and more difficult priority. I can only hope that during my time among you we have each of us learned something more of this mystery of living with Jesus in our midst, of encountering him in one another, and of being surprised and humbled by meeting him among the poor, the suffering, the dying, the difficult, and the outsider. I hope our friendship with Jesus has at times led us to question our certainties as well as to reassure our doubts. I hope even now his company with us provokes us to question our political representatives, and our own political prejudices, during this General Election. I hope too that after I leave, when there will be a lengthy interregnum (as it is called for some reason) and uncertainty as to our future as a parish, that you will commit all the more to a kind of sacred awe in your relationships with one another. I know very well the many ways in which Church life – as in any family – can bring out the best and the worst in us, especially when the symbolic leader (even one as halt and blind as me) is absent. Make sure your words to each other are encouraging ones. Make sure your complaints are few – and best suppressed altogether! In the absence of a symbolic leader (the Vicar) make more recognition of the real leader of this church, who is present in and among you all: Jesus.

Today, Jesus breathes his Spirit upon you. ‘Peace be with you,’ he says fondly but with real authority. He shows you his hands and his side to warn or reassure you that nothing very good happens without at least some costly sharing in his cross. ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them…’ Nothing new happens without apology and forgiveness. It is the divine technology for the regeneration of every age and every situation. And, the unbound ones are the best prepared to unbind the rest of the world.’ (Richard Rohr)

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Not waving, but drowning

Below is my Vicar’s Letter for June’s edition of Alderholt Parish News. An old friend and mentor, in  a letter to me a few weeks back, remarked – using a telling metaphor – that he had always felt ‘out of his depth.’ It led to me recalling, and relating, an uncomfortable memory from my time in Ecuador last autumn…

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Dear Friends,

 

 

I was sure I was about to drown.

 

 

It was in Ecuador and I had walked to the beach. Two of my fellow clergy were there, one of them with his grandchildren. My travels had mostly taken me to industrial or rural areas inland and I was keen to swim at least the once while I had the chance. I changed and went to the water’s edge. The waves were crashing in and so, with difficulty, I waded through them so as to swim in the calmer water beyond, as I would at Bournemouth. But this was the Pacific and a different kind of beast, and as soon as I had thrust through the last surf I was immediately in very deep water. I am not a strong swimmer and had intended to swim a little way parallel to the sand and then return but now I realised with a shock that the current, or perhaps just the waves’ undertow, was carrying me strongly away from the beach. I could see my friends paddling, quite close and yet suddenly unreachably far away, but they were elderly, or very young, and could not have helped me even if I could gain their attention above the noise of the sea.

 

My first reaction was panic, followed quickly by a sickening sense of foolishness or even a kind of embarrassment: ‘what a stupid, unsatisfactory, ignominious way for my life to end…’ At the same time, instinct drove me urgently and I swam back towards the waves with all my puny, wild, beating-about efforts and at last caught – or was caught by – a forming wave that flicked and tossed me deep into the green, gurgling, bubbling sea from which I emerged gasping for air but a little nearer my goal. Further waves crashed over and submerged me, yet carried me forwards until at last I could find my footing and stagger out. My companions were unconcernedly dressing and had not noticed my struggles.

 

Perhaps during an average life there are a few such moments when we think we are going to die. That is, ahead of the moment at the close of each our lives when there is no swimming back to shore.

 

Of course, the moment passed, and passes in all such cases. I was thankful, and rather thoughtful, as I dried. I wondered how I might learn from the experience (not to be so proud and foolish, and not to take the gift of each day for granted) but then I followed my friends back to lunch and did not mention what had happened.

 

So now I tell this story to you and I reflect that each of us is carried by waves that are bigger than we are. I confess that very often in my life I have felt out of my depth. Occasionally, as in that experience, I have felt myself picked up, swallowed, and cast back again onto dry land (like Jonah after being spat out by the whale) with some kind of impenetrable but good intention: ‘learn humility, learn gratitude, learn how to do some good to others while you have the chance.’

 

And, I guess I could add, ‘learn to swim – or, at least, learn when not to try…’

 

 

With much love,

Vicar Philip

One for the road (to Emmaus)

Below is the text of my sermon at St James’ on 30th April 2017 when the Gospel reading (Luke 24, 13-35) described the journey to Emmaus of two of Jesus’ disciples, and their journey to a recognition of the risen Christ.

One helpful comment I received afterwards referred to my attempt in this address to reclaim as a positive aspect of Christian teaching the admission that all of us are sinners. My treatment of this theme here does not, I agree with my helpful critic, adequately explain in what sense I am using the term (ie, not so much to suggest that each of us is equally bad or immoral but to point up our intrinsic need for help, our fundamental inability to ‘make it on our own..’). Perhaps this should be the theme for another sermon on another occasion…

 

‘Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised Jesus; and he vanished from their sight…’

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My friends, we live in the strange after-glow of Easter. Not only during these weeks when the garden of Resurrection, with its delightful montage of figures, tomb, primroses and moss, decorates the church building, and the paschal candle stands lit, prominently in the chancel. We live in this after-glow of Easter, always…

 

Each day, and each of our lives, is a journey, and we are like those disciples walking to Emmaus, trying to make sense of events and mistakes – and the stuff that just happens – and very often struggling to remain positive or hopeful in the face of it all.

 

In my experience, Holy Week, the days leading up to Easter, often bring into (sometimes painful) focus the challenges and pressures that are at work in our lives. It is almost as if the evil one (however you picture him or it) knowing his bluff has been called on Calvary, will cast around to cause all the mayhem it can among those with the effrontery to celebrate the fact. I remember during my time in an Oxfordshire parish (a stressful period in many ways) the church building for which I had particular responsibility was subject to some very unpleasant desecration on two of those holy, and for me then as now very busy, few days. Nothing so obvious afflicted me this year, but I approached Easter very uncomfortable about a conflict with some committees and officers of our diocese, and also feeling a continuing frustration and even outrage towards some aspects of our national political debate. You may find it hard to believe but beneath this calm and eirenic appearance… there exists a stubborn and angry (and too often self-righteous and arrogant) so-and-so (what do you mean, you knew?) The Christian celebration of Holy Week and Easter finds us as, and how, and where, we are. That is why the worship of those days is so powerful, in many ways so unwelcome and yet ultimately very rewarding (and why each year there are individuals whose lives are touched and changed in the process): it touches a spot.

 

Now, following Easter Day, we walk our Emmaus road, and we proclaim that Christ is risen, alleluia… But if our response is to be lived and not merely proclaimed in Church, then we must be honest. Believing in the resurrection is hard enough. Living in its transforming power is very often but an aspiration. So let us first acknowledge, as we must, the reality that undergirds everything we do here at St James’, the reality that assuredly unites us beneath all our differences, the reality that is each of our starting points and our truthful context: we are sinners. It is the only thing we all have in common and it is the only absolute requirement for membership of this church. You may believe all you like in Jesus, you may do all kinds of good Christian things, you may be a God-send and sign up for all those rotas on which there are vacancies (quite a few of those) but if you’re not a sinner you have no part here. This is the counter-cultural, stark but important basis for understanding Christianity. Tim Farron, the Liberal leader and a convinced Christian, discovered how hard it is for journalists and the public to understand this. In response to an inevitable challenge whether he considered gay people to be sinners (to which, it was clearly hoped, he would mutter something about fire and brimstone as all Christians are assumed to do) he responded with the orthodox and non-controversial point that of course gay people like all of us are sinners. That we are all sinners, however, is no longer commonly understood or accepted in today’s Britain. But here at St James’ we are loud and proud to say, we are!

 

How, then, are we to live in Easter’s after-glow? How might Easter Sunday not just be a yearly festival but a year-round dimension to all our days?

 

To answer that I must at least attempt to clarify how we might understand the resurrection of Jesus. A person whom I like and admire posted on Facebook the other week a series of exclamations against all religious belief and baloney. The posts were typically robust, plain speaking and witty. I was pleased rather than offended (I much prefer such honesty to the sometimes rather saccharine declarations made by us religious believers) but I gently demurred. Religious belief is not, I suggested, a matter of believing – like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland – several impossible things before breakfast. It is much more about living with your ‘centre of gravity’ so to speak, somewhere other than in you. Instead, it is always somewhere in front, somewhere that makes you want to reach out (in prayer and love) towards a centre that is not me. Religious belief feels like falling forwards, into God. Therefore, living in the glow of Easter is not simply a matter of how we define the resurrection of Jesus, but a moment’s reflection here may be helpful.

 

The Biblical accounts of the resurrection are surprisingly sober and restrained. They are not at all like the sorts of magical stories of ancient myths and nor are they like the biased, exaggerated or at times invented stories of the modern popular press. There is a quality to the Gospel accounts which impresses all who, with an open mind, investigate them. It seems clear to such a reader that ‘something extraordinary happened.’ What that something was is impossible to define easily. The evidence mostly points to the physicality of Jesus’ risen body­ (he eats, he builds a fire and prepares breakfast, he points Thomas to his wounds) but other evidence equally strongly tells us that was not just a physical resuscitation of a physical body (he appears among the disciples despite doors firmly closed and he is not immediately recognised in some instances, including today’s road to Emmaus until he breaks bread.)

 

Personally, I think legitimate Christian interpretations may cover a wide range. To me, the evidence suggests a physical, but also warns us against thinking it a merely physical, resurrection. But those who find it impossible to countenance a physical resurrection (and many of us have our times of doubt on this matter) may still find a home here among us. There are Christians who believe in everything that’s required of them and then live lives of zealous intolerance and unkindness, so I am happy to keep company with – and learn a great deal from – those who doubt the resurrection but are striving to learn to live more like Jesus.

 

For me, in short, the resurrection of Jesus is, in the correct sense of the word, a mystery. It is real but so real that it goes beyond the usual categories we have for describing events. Therefore the variety of ways in which it is related in Scripture (and experienced by us) are equally valid and equally unsatisfactory. The resurrection of Jesus, ultimately, can only be experienced by being lived. On Friday I attended a meal with the 14 or 15 people who had arranged the recent ReCreate Festival, meeting, imagining, planning, dreaming, despairing and then working with lots of others as the amazing week came about. At one point, we went around the table and each of us pitched in a high point or abiding memory from the week. There was a huge range, and each contribution, reflecting a particular individual experience or perspective, was met with an exclamation of, ‘Oh, yes!’, and so added to the account of what we had all experienced. I think the Resurrection of Jesus is like that and that every Christian who strays into its orbit expands the ways in which the tale may be told. Each of you whose heart has been strangely warmed by something of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a witness to these things and has a part to play in relaying the story of Jesus and amplifying the mystery of his resurrection.

 

This coming week some of you will be commuting to, it may be Bournemouth or to Birmingham, some of you will be wrestling with business decisions or (much more difficult and probably more important) young children. Some of you will feel too busy and too much needed and others of you will feel not busy, and not needed, enough. Most of us will hear the news from the country and the wider world with varying degrees of concern, sympathy, bewilderment and our usual variety of views that seem so self-evidently correct to ourselves. Our lives and our journeys are various, meandering and strewn with hazards. But along each of them we will be in company with one who comes as it were anonymously and unbidden and yet strangely warms our hearts – and in a week’s time, God willing, we will meet here again, and recognise whose company we have kept, in the breaking of the bread.

Emmaus