Inhabiting a sacramental world

What follows is the text of my sermon at St Aldhelm’s, Branksome, on the Sunday before Lent, 11th February, 2018. The readings were 2 Corinthians 4, 3-6 and Mark 9, 2-9

I remember the first time I went to a professional football match. It was between my local team, Middlesbrough, and Bolton Wanderers, on the last day of 1967. My friend and I cycled there and paid our two shillings to climb up to what was then called the ‘Boys End’, a corner of terracing set aside for youngsters and children. In those days, the only football on TV was brief highlights, in black and white, broadcast so late on Saturday nights that only rarely had I been permitted to see it. So I had no HD preparation for the scene. I don’t remember much of the football (we lost 2-1) but imprinted on my memory – and onto my heart – is the vision, as we emerged from the tunnelled staircase, into the noise of the gathering crowd, of the playing field below. Never had the colour green seemed so vibrantly, unspeakably, shockingly green as was the pitch that day, laid below in the bright winter sun and defined by the brilliant white of the line markings. My young, not yet 10 years old, heart was in awe and I would not have been able to find words to express the sensation

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I think all of us have been given to know – no matter how rarely or fleetingly – moments of transfiguration, occasions when we seem to be more alive that ordinarily is the occasions when the world around, or other people, or another person, seem illuminated by a light that is none the less real for being undefinable.

 

Today’s Gospel reading recounts the Transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain top.  This event has its own commemoration, by ancient tradition, on 6th August (a date which since 1945 has also been a reminder of mankind’s ghastly capacity for a ‘transfiguration’ of an entirely negative kind: Jesus’ appearance in dazzling light is perversely echoed by the blinding light of the atomic bomb that exploded above the city of Hiroshima.) The Transfiguration’s appearance in our readings on this Sunday, before the start of Lent, reflects the trajectory of Jesus’ life, in which this event precedes his turning towards Jerusalem – and Calvary – just as we also now are about to begin our journey through Lent towards the Passiontide re-enactment of Christ’s suffering and Passion. For us, as for John, James and Peter, this may serve as a foretaste of the glory that is to be revealed,  amazingly if paradoxically, on the Cross.

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More generally, however, the Transfiguration of Jesus is a glimpse into an aspect of our world, and our universe, that we most often, perhaps necessarily, overlook, our eyes distracted by busyness or dimmed by ego: that we inhabit a sacramental world.  Each moment can be a reflection, a revelation, of God’s presence. My all but 10 years’ old childhood-me had a sense of this on that sunny winter’s day at Middlesbrough’s original Ayrsome Park football ground. Even in our older selves I hope we receive occasional reminders. I was privileged and delighted to join some of the  players and crew from the pantomime last night following their closing performance, taking over a large part of the local pub for celebratory drinks and impromptu singing. After months of rehearsals and no doubt some frustrations and despondency along the way, here was a glimpse of ordinary people whose lives had been transfigured during five performances by laughter, singing, and a profound camaraderie. Here was a sacramental glimpse of human community.

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Our Christian worship is, or should be, sacramental also. Not only when we celebrate what are called the sacraments (principally, Holy Communion and baptism) but more generally because when we step into this building we are entering something like the mountain of Transfiguration, a place where we glimpse that this world – and each of our lives – is imbued with God’s presence. It is for this reason that we observe rituals that are ancient but still powerful. Our worship is not to be mere flummery and performance, of course. But it should be, must be, pregnant with God’s possibilities.

Because worship is not an empty ritual or a staged recital, but rather a transformative, participatory exercise, we all have a part to play. Some have distinctive roles. The priest celebrating, most obviously. The servers make an invaluable contribution. The music is an important ingredient: and now may therefore be the moment for me to tell you that our organist and choir director, Andy, will be stepping down from those roles this Passiontide after 29 years. He doesn’t want a fuss made and we will respect that but we will of course wish to convey our profound thanks in a suitable way on Palm Sunday. All these people however and others who have particular roles within our worship are principally intended to facilitate the participation of each and all of us: the choir is there to support, and encourage, the singing of all of us. The priest presides on behalf of the real celebrant who is Christ through the priesthood of all believers: the Mass is offered by all of us. For this reason I will dare to raise a challenge to us all this Lent. My challenge is to mark the minutes as we gather before the main Parish Eucharist with quietness, with a mindfulness of who we are, where we are and in whose presence we are. I recognise that my proposal may seem to cut across a long and social tradition but I believe our fellowship and conversation can be all the more real and enjoyable after the Mass if we have given ourselves – and one another – some space to pray and be attentive, through quietness, as we gather. I will perhaps – no, probably – fail in this plan, especially as I can see that such conversations are motivated by friendliness not disrespect. But I still believe it’s worth a try.

 

But however challenging it will be to achieve a quiet, contemplative start to our Sunday worship, for our own lives to be transfigured by grace will seem impossibly more difficult. Our Gospel however gives us hope. We hear of Moses and Elijah. One was tongue tied and fearful, yet used by God to achieve the seeming impossible in the face of the tyrannical Pharaoh. The other was a rough countryman who stood up to the unpredictable power of Ahab. Likewise, Peter, James and John, each with their problems and defects, although they respond at the time with awkward, embarrassing irrelevance, go on to become God’s servants and Christ’s Apostles. Each of us too is capable of being clothed in something greater than we had imagined possible. But it isn’t easy. We are made of reluctant and sometimes recalcitrant stuff. And circumstances conspire with our human nature even when we aspire to more.

 

The season of Lent is intended to help us, not to hammer us. Be gentle and not too ambitious. You may at times naturally weep at your shortcomings, but try also to laugh at your frail humanity (as the Panto helped us laugh at ourselves these past two weekends.) Avail yourselves of all the aids this season brings: the prayers, fasting and shared meals on Ash Wednesday, the daily prayer and reflection booklets that you receive today, the Lent course groups available at various places and times. The worship of Passiontide and Easter.

 

And pray. If it helps, I am here almost every morning at 7.45 and am glad to say Morning Prayer with you. During Lent I hope to be here quite often at 5.15 pm to lead Evening Prayer and I will try to advertise on the newssheet on which days each week circumstances seem likely to permit that. But however and whenever you make time, do pray, for each other, for yourselves, for our Church, that this building, and more importantly, this Christian community, may – all be it bit by slow, incremental bit – be transfigured by love.

 

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Christmas trees in January

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Sharing a medley of Christmas sermons on New Year’s Day seems about as timely as offering Christmas trees for sale in January. But like Christmas cards perhaps a few people will snap them up in advance for next time.

More to the point, I post them here as a kind of ‘thank you’ – to the people who attended St Aldhelm’s and to the God who attended us there. 

The inspired photos were taken by Mary Martin. The uninspired few that were taken by me are easy to distinguish.

The first address was given at the Parish Eucharist on Christmas Eve morning.

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Sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Christmas Eve, 2017

It’s a fairly tough call for the preacher when the fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve. The Carol Services have all taken place, the 15th Christmas Tree Festival has come to its final day – and as soon as this morning’s service is over we will be changing the altar frontal to its festal gold and the thurifer will be practising her moves for the Midnight Mass.

 

Advent is all over bar the singing of a seasonal hymn or two still to come.

 

Yet at this almost-Christmas service I invite you to notice how we came to this point – how, indeed, God came to this point, and to this place which is Bethlehem then – and Branksome and each and every community of men and women now.

 

Our lighting of the Advent array of candles has reminded us of a sweep of Biblical history through which we can see a pattern, a gradually clearer disclosure of a God who is for all, who speaks to the heart increasingly more than he seems to dictate our ritual or other behaviour and whose very being is love. As Christians we should make no boast of superiority. We have much to learn from other faiths and from all people of good faith. But we can and must simply assert the distinctive Christian vision that God shows himself most truly and most profoundly when he takes leave of detached, impassive hegemony and instead inhabits the flesh and blood and the weakness, vulnerability and – yes – the suffering of mortal humanity.

 

And so it is that such a weak and vulnerable person, a young, dependant, powerless girl, becomes the portal of God’s unique and crucial entry into our world. It all, you could say, hinges on her. On her ‘be it done unto me according to thy word.’ It all hinges on Mary’s ‘Yes!’ I suppose it is for this reason that the Annunciation is proclaimed so prominently on the west wall of this Church building, the end most often seen by those approaching it – and in recent years by all leaving Lidl’s by car – and whose attention may at present be the more engaged by the statues of Gabriel and Mary being illuminated, each evening, by Christmas lights. This Church building was placed here to be a gateway for the poor of Branksome and equally for the nearby wealthy. It is an invitation to enter into the generosity and the possibility of God, to receive for ourselves what Mary received from Gabriel: the assurance of grace and that the Lord is with us, and that the fruit of our lives shall be blessed.

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Each weekday morning at 8.15, and on Sundays as we begin the 8 am Mass, the Angelus is rung, a short series of responses and prayers accompanied by a distinctive sequence of rings on the bell. ‘The angel of the Lord brought tidings unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit…Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word…And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…’

 

We have plenty of reminders of the wickedness and foolishness of people. Even if we shunned the news and the company of all who hurt or distress us, we would have plenty of reminders of human fickleness and frailty and perfidy simply by looking honestly at ourselves – but let us never forget nonetheless that our human nature was and remains God’s preferred medium of redemption. Mary is our reminder that each of our lives, no matter how damaged or diminished, is God’s opportunity, his way back into the world he created and seeks to complete as a theatre of dreams made real.

 

I think this Advent – and autumn more generally – have given us here at St Aldhelm’s a few reminders of the way God ‘prepares the ground’ for Christmas, makes us ready to receive his birth into our Bethlehems, our homes, our hearts. I will outline four such reminders and in each case pose a challenging question they may put to us.

 

First, a few Sundays ago I had a guest to stay who is an opera singer. She explained to me that although she had worked hard to train her voice, she felt essentially it was a gift from God and that she should be willing to share it. So it was I asked her to sing during the service. I don’t think any of us here that day will easily forget that Polish carol and her unamplified voice that so sweetly filled this space. I am one of those who blanch at the thought of heaven being occupied with the songs of angels, but now I’m not so sure. She shared her gift with us that day but in truth each of us has a distinct gift by which we can amplify God. What gift is God inviting you to use and share at this time?

 

Secondly, I have seen many examples of St Aldhelm’s tradition of hospitality. Not least, at the service with which my ministry here was inaugurated. It does great things when we share food and when we share hospitality. In what ways might you act or live more hospitably and generously towards others?

 

Thirdly, the Christmas Tree Festival has led me to reflect. What it does for those two or three weeks is make visible a community that can at other times feel like a disconnected number of people, homes, organisations and good causes. Meeting some of those decorating the trees, then the various organisations presenting concerts or celebrating carol services, and perhaps most of all meeting some of the large number and variety of people visiting and being awed by it, has demonstrated to me the mysterious way in which this Church can be a catalyst for making community more real, and in every sense more profound. Please do not overlook, or underestimate, what a precious legacy you and we hold here. In what ways will you seek to support and make known the riches of this Church: its worship, its community and its building?

 

Finally, our Carol Service here last week contained I felt quite a nice mixture of tradition and informality. It seemed to attract, and be important for, a wide variety of people and ages who attended. Equally the Beer and Carols event on Thursday at the Branksome Railway Hotel was surprising to many. For my part I was less struck by the loud, but in fact heartfelt, involvement of the locals (because from experience I would have predicted that) even though some of them may at first have been uncertain about the prospect – but I was more impressed by how many and wide a variety of church members supported it, including some for whom entering the pub was evidently a new and unfamiliar venture. The outcome was some wonderful singing, much laughter and fellowship – and a hundred quid raised for the Children’s Society.  In what ways may God be inviting, and coaxing, you to venture into new paths: at work, in your praying, your worshipping, your daily interactions with others or in other contexts of your life?

 

God longs to find a stable to receive him still. If our heart is to be his Bethlehem, we will do well to ponder on Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel: Behold the handmaid of the lord – be it done unto me according to thy word…’

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The next is my address at the Midnight Mass. I was tempted to re-work a sermon from the same service at my last parish, a couple of years ago (I confess that I hadn’t arranged time earlier in the week to work on it) but in the end decided I should make it more personal and particular. If therefore there is any good in it the simple (not humble) truth is that it came as a gift not by dint of my effort.

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Sermon for Midnight Mass, 2017

Stepping into this church tonight you entered what feels like an enchanted wood. I am new here, I only began as your Vicar three or four months ago. I had heard about the Christmas Tree Festival but you have to see it to understand. My life, these past two or three weeks, has been somewhat lost among this mysterious, awesome forest of Christmas trees. Its enchantment, unlike in most fairy stories, is good and wholesome. I met a number of those who came to decorate trees: families and individuals, local schools and residential homes, charitable clubs and societies – so that together these trees represent and in a way help to realise a community, no mean achievement in these days of division and argument. The fortnight has also been marked by a series of daytime and evening concerts and carol services but if I was ever in danger of being ‘Christmased out’, the Nativity presented by our neighbours across the road, the Victoria School for those with learning difficulties, would have restored my faith: such uninhibited joy and enthusiasm and love! In between those events, there has been a stream of people, of all ages, coming to browse and marvel, to chat and to mix and to meet others: by such a means we are reminded that we belong, not to a point of view or a prejudice, we each and all belong to a community, of sinners, yes, but who know their need of each other and (if we can but admit it) our need of God.

 

My friends (and although I am so newly arrived here I hope I may call you that): my friends, your small children, or grandchildren – or the small child that inhabits each one of you – will have run with fascinated delight among these trees, spotting strange things that adults overlook. They see things from below and understand that life is all about stretching upwards. We more ponderous adults may react more prosaically, comparing this year’s with another year’s festival perhaps, or preoccupied with the tree still undecorated at home. We carry our weight of anxieties and griefs. We cast our eyes down and forget to stretch up, or to look further than we can see. For us adults this array of trees may represent the wood in which we have lost our way, the forest of fear and guilt.

 

But this holy night shows us the way to the light. I will even dare to give some directions, but only because I need to heed them more than anyone. Some directions for you as you move up to the communion rail (or for you to imagine, if you choose to remain where you are):

 

First, please notice the largest tree amid the festival, our St Aldhelm’s prayer tree. Each of its cardboard candles suggests a topic or object for our concern and prayers. Beside it, throughout these past weeks, perhaps some 700 or so candles have been lit, each a symbol of a heartfelt hope or prayer, some of which have, movingly, been written in the notebook alongside. You are welcome to add to their number as you go up to or return from communion, or after the service concludes. Yes, we are creatures who need money, and food, and warmth and friends and family and so many other things. But we are creatures also who need to pray. It needn’t be with many words, it can be in a heartfelt thank you or in an equally heartfelt groan – or even in tears – but through good times, through tough times, in hopeful and in hopeless times, we need to pray.

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Secondly, passing the prayer tree, make your way to the sanctuary, where I will shortly bless the bread and wine for Communion. There, before the altar clothed in festal gold, you will see the crib, assembled this afternoon by a church full of children and their families. Each child contributed a handful of hay as they accompanied the various figures there. It’s untidy, and diverse, and the donkey’s ear is patched on with araldite and parcel tape. It’s rather untidy, perhaps a bit of a mess. But it’s exactly there that God chooses to be born. And it’s exactly where you are, amid the mess of your life, broken and patched together, that God desires to be born.

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Finally, making your way back from Communion (or in your mind’s eye if you remain where you are) notice above you, above this extraordinary carved wooden screen, the tree, amongst all the trees, that bears the crown: the tree of the cross. The babe whose birth we celebrate was no mere sentimental affectation on God’s part. Among the gifts taken to the stable were a lamb – the animal most frequently sacrificed in the religion of those days – and myrrh, the aromatic oil used to anoint the dead. This baby was born to die, so that we might be born anew.

Your journey here tonight has brought you into an enchanted wood that is each of our lives. By following the way of prayer, and making of our hearts a Bethlehem that will let love in, and by allowing love to flourish through being sacrificed and given away, we may find that this enchanted wood brings us to our true home and to our true selves.

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My third effort was for the Christmas Day Parish Eucharist. My address used a series of ‘story boards’ (the photo shows them drying shortly prior to the service) to relate the story of our imagined Church Mouse, Li’l Aldie…

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All-Age address for the Parish Eucharist, Christmas Day, 2017

Please allow me to introduce to you our St Aldhelm’s Church mouse. He is called Aldie, Lit’l Aldie (thus keeping the door open to sponsorship by two budget supermarket chains.) He may look a little bear-like, but I believe this to be a true-enough likeness, and you may judge for yourselves a little later.

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Aldie is very proud of his church, as are all of us who belong here, but pickings are lean for a church mouse. It’s cold and there’s very little for a mouse to eat. Even Harvest Festival these days is no feast, with most gifts – for good reason, so they can be given to our local food bank – packed or tinned. But then, once a year, there comes around…

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the Christmas Tree Festival! Now the church building is warm each day. Mince pies get dropped and trodden into the floor (‘Yum!’ says Alie!) and he can climb and explore all the 70 or so Christmas Trees! But then, quite quickly, Aldie lost his new-found cheerfulness…

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…because along with all the Christmas trees, into the church come all kinds of other animals, each enjoying the place as if they belonged there just as much as him, Aldie! Fr Cornelius the vicar-bear (although Aldie grudgingly admitted that he was a regular there all year round) and Polo the Polar Bear (‘and he’s so BIG’, grumbled Aldie, ‘he’ll soon eat all my crished up mince pies!’) and then the donkey came (‘Who let him in?’ wondered Aldie, ‘especially when his ear is broken and only stuck on with parcel tape and glue.’) and then a lot of white mice filled the tree nearest to the front where the crib is! ‘This is just too much!’ complained Aldie, and he sulked and felt very, very sorry for himself, and quite a bit angry with everyone else. But…

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Aldie did what every wise mouse (and wise person) should do when they feel everyone and everything is against them: he went and poured out his complaint to Mary in the crib, starting with the complaint of every child (and each of us adults at times, if truth be told), ‘It’s not fair!’

 

Well, as always, Mary listened, kindly and patiently, so that she didn’t need to correct him so much as help him to see a bigger picture: ‘You see, Aldie’ she explained, ‘Jesus was born in a poor place called Bethlehem where all the world was gathering, to a mother like me who was poor and unimportant, in a stable that had no doors – all so that then and for ever-after every person (and every mouse!) might know they are welcome. There is room for Cornelius, and Polo, and the donkey, and all the white mice, for all the people who are humble, or humbled, enough to realise their need of Jesus – and there is room for you as well, Aldie, and I want you to be right there by my side.’

 

And there, close to Jesus and to Mary and Joseph, is where we shall find him when we all gather close to the crib to sing the carol at the end of this morning’s service!

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Finally, a few more of Mary’s wonderful photos…

 

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This Branksome Tardis!

Here is the text of my sermon at the Parish Eucharist at St Aldhelm’s on Sunday 26th November, the Festival of Christ the King. The readings were Ephesians 1, 15 – end, and Matthew 25, 31-46. At the beginning of the service, one of our congregation spoke briefly about her homeland Zimbabwe and to thank everyone for their prayers through a time of crisis following the military coup that led to Robert Mugabe’s resignation. Such personal links with other parts of the world are a rich gift from God to us in the Church… To illustrate the anointing we offered during the Eucharist, the last of the three photos included here is of my receiving anointing during a service while in Ecuador a year ago.

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This last week, after he had completed the installation of a log burner in the Vicarage (something on which I am content to have blown most of my re-settlement grant provided by the Diocese to help cover a new vicar’s expenses when moving – who needs curtains anyway?) Wes asked if he could see inside the Church and I was delighted to show him. His reaction was typical: ‘Wow! It’s big!’

 

My friends, in stepping into this building today you have entered a Tardis, and not only because the interior seems even bigger than its outward appearance suggests. The Church, and its worship, are a time machine that allows us to revisit and engage with a past in which God has been formative, and enables us to anticipate and be strengthened in hope by a future that is in God’s hands.

 

Here we take our place alongside Mary and John beneath the cross. Here, we take our place in that upper room with Peter and James – and, yes, Judas – as we take this bread and wine as tokens of Jesus’ very body and blood by which we, and the world, are redeemed and renewed. Here we emerge bewildered and half-blinded by tears, with Mary Magdalen, into the crazy dawn of the first Easter Day. Along the way we can meet as our contemporaries St Francis and St Augustine, St Aldhelm and St Margaret and all those others who adorn our stained glass windows. But the journey on which our Church conveys us is not only back in time. Here we are also given a future perspective. Here we can anticipate the end of time when we can see and know even as already Another sees and knows us. ‘Christ will come again’ we say as part of the acclamation at the heart of the Eucharistic prayer. This is not some awkward echo of those slightly mad people who tell us the End Is Nigh. It is, rather, a staking of our future on a victory and fulfillment of which we are sure because it is not under our control but in God’s hands.

 

‘All shall be well’, said one of our typically homely and down to earth English saints, Mother Julian of Norwich – ‘And all manner of thing shall be well.’ It’s not a bad credo for those days when we can’t see the way forward or any way out of the problems that afflict us. I have been in some ghastly and painful meetings – the kind where everyone is split into factions and trust is frayed and words are said that are intended unkindly and even words intended kindly are misheard. At such times I pray, ‘thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth – as it is in heaven…for thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory – thine, not mine, not ours…’ It doesn’t exempt me from making a mess of the meeting, but it does help put it all into perspective…

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And today our Branksome Tardis takes us to the edge of the unknown universe and to the very edge of time’s dimension, and allows us to see the world in all its smallness and in all its unutterable complexity, beauty and fragility, and wonder and pain and joy and depth and love…and to declare that Christ is its, and our, King.

 

His reign is not that of an earthly power. It is neither the swaggering and posturing of a President Trump, nor the confusion and bickering of our sadly diminished Government, still less is it the absurd and fearful pomposity of a – now former – President Mugabe. Instead, Christ Jesus’ reign is one of gentleness, service and sacrifice. In one of our windows he is represented in robes and crown, but bearing still, in his hands and on his feet, the marks of his crucifixion.

 

Today’s first reading gives us this big perspective: ‘God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.’ Please notice in that passage, first, that Jesus – the humble and vulnerable and suffering lover – is above every name. In a New Testament (both Hebrew and Greek) context, a name referred not just to a parent’s accidental choice from an online list. Your name represented your inner identity, your uniqueness. Even today, we see the power of a name on the backs of football shirts worn by fans. Politicians blazon their name on posters. Dictators’ names are trumpeted everywhere. One of Mugabe’s last, hubristic acts was to preside at the renaming of Zimbabwe’s major airport. I suspect that President Robert Mugabe airport’s re-branding  may be short-lived. Above all names is the name of Jesus. But notice, secondly, in that passage, that the Church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. As I seek to serve you as Vicar I am glad and inspired to hear the story of our church and the accidental or heroic or absurd or embarrassing or even scandalous elements of its history. But that history is not the real story. The real heart of this Church and of every Church is Christ, and we must never doubt it or forget it.

 

Today’s Gospel reading helps us work out the implications for our lives of Christ’s kingly reign. His judgement is what ultimately appraises each one of our lives. But his appraisal is not based on our success, nor our cleverness, still less our wealth, or our reputation. Instead he will ask simply, did we – do we – assist the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the imprisoned (be that in a jail of Her Majesty or a jail of our own or others’ making, a prison of addiction or fear) and the naked (so many people now are well enough clothed but cold and shivering with loneliness and self-loathing)? ‘Whatsoever you did (or neglected to do) unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, so you did (or failed to do) unto me…’

 

There is another challenge that today’s festival of Christ the King puts before each of us, I believe. What kind of Kingship do we seek in those aspects of our lives, or work in which we have some kind of sway or authority or leadership, be it within a family, an office, a place of employment, an institution or, indeed, a church? Many is the Vicar who can talk the talk of humility but his or her – or my – actions are very carefully designed to get their own way…

 

We can too easily deplore a harrumphing Trump, a floundering Government or a corrupt dictator (did I not do exactly that earlier in my sermon?) What is more difficult, and important, is to recognise the inner Trump when we blame others for everything that goes awry. Or to see the inner Cabinet – the inner Boris Johnson or Michael Gove! – when we scheme and fight to get on top, and escape the blame when it all goes wrong. Or to note the inner Mugabe when we strut and seek our own way.

 

Our ‘St Aldhelm’s Tardis’ conveys us on quite a journey, then, but – as in the conclusion of a typical Doctor Who story – we emerge always in our own time and our own local place, but a little wiser and humbler after the journey. We will re-enter our world after today’s service knowing that Christ is King and therefore we should have hope, and feel humility, in seeking to follow his path. To help us today, you are offered a simple act of anointing with holy oil as you return from the communion rail. I, on one side, and Fr David Leggett on the other, will be glad to make the mark of Christ’s name (the first two letters of his name in Greek) on your forehead, and the sign of the cross on the palm of each of your hands, with words that are an assurance to strengthen and encourage you as you re-engage with the confusing and sometimes painful world in which we live: ‘I anoint you in the name of God who gives you life. Receive Christ’s forgiveness, his healing and his love.     May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ grant you the riches of his grace, his wholeness and his peace.    Amen.’

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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

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.