A country vicar prepares for a change…

Below is my letter for the current Alderholt Parish News. The change I am anticipating is obvious at its start. It is also, however, a time of transition for our Parish News itself: April’s is the final edition to be printed, and collated, by a team of volunteers in-house, before we move its production to a professional printer’s. Despite this, the Parish News will, we hope and intend, continue to be home-spun and local and all about and for the community.

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Dear Friends,

I have been invited, and I have accepted the offer, to become the next vicar of St Aldhelm’s, Branksome, in Poole. I will take my leave from Alderholt after the St James’ Festival of 22 – 23 July.

 

If I used emojis, I would require one to convey tears and hope, dismay and excitement, struggle and prayer – and some sense of God’s path becoming clearer through it all.

 

It wasn’t an easy decision. While it was struggling and forming within me, I attended an event in Bournemouth and afterwards on a whim drove to St Aldhelm’s (it’s between Tesco and Lidl and opposite the Bowlplex – the aspect is perhaps a little less rural than here.) I went into the pub and a chap at the bar with his pint looked pleasant. I asked if he was local and he replied that he lived just a street or two away. ‘Well…I ventured…you may have noticed, I’m a priest, and there’s just a chance I might be coming to the big church down the road. I just wonder, from your point of view, what would make for a useful or helpful vicar here?’ He smiled and said he thought he wasn’t the best person to ask and took out his wallet of cards to show me the one for the British Humanist Association… However, he said he knew and respected some people who attended, and he himself had positive memories of Fr Stephen from when his son had attended the Church school.

 

I walked back and stepped into the cremated remains area to one side of the Church, where the late, slanting sun was pleasant and almost warm. There was a bearded chap at the far end who it turned out was from Dublin. He was well set up, with his bicycle lent against the wall, a few groceries in the basket, a radio broadcasting the football scores, and a can of lager and roll up to hand. I said hello and he wondered if I was the new vicar. When I explained the situation and again wondered what it might take to be a good vicar in these parts, he was unsure, but again thought Fr Stephen had been a nice chap, and as with my humanist friend in the pub we shook hands. I reflected ruefully, and laughed, as I returned to my car: I had come looking for a sign from God – and he it seemed had sent me a cheerful Irish passer-by, and a friendly card-carrying atheist…

 

Then again, perhaps that’s the sign you’d almost expect from a God who is like Jesus… Jesus, in the Bible, always reaches out or is open to people beyond the usual boundaries. It might be a Roman centurion, or a vertically-challenged tax collector up a tree, a woman reaching out through a crowd or a blind beggar crying out from the wayside; it might be those haunted by their demons or those haunted by their past; when encountering publicans, or prostitutes, and even another condemned criminal hanging on the adjacent cross: all are outside the usual horizon of people’s concern, yet all are the focus of Jesus’ gaze under which they are changed from benighted to beloved.

 

So, Jim and Mark, I may never meet you again, but I thank you for reminding me of something I now see I wrote for this month’s Parish News, 26 years ago: Most of us, when we enter a Church such as St James’, feel that it is special, it has a special atmosphere, and it seems to help us know that God is real. The challenge of Easter is to seek to recognize in ourselves and in other people an even clearer sign of God’s presence than we can find in a Church…

 

Whether in Alderholt, or Branksome, there is our challenge and our invitation. And so, after much heart-searching, I said, I will go there…

 

With love, always       Vicar Philip

‘Give me this water to drink…’

This sermon, delivered during Parish Communion at St James’ Church, Alderholt, on Sunday, 19th March, arose from that day’s Gospel reading, the long but engaging account of Jesus meeting a Samarian woman by the ancient well close to her town of Sychar. Two aspects rather moved me as I spoke: one was the account (shared by permssi0n) of a friend’s reconciliation with an estranged brother. The other was knowing that at the end of the service I was to announce my appointment as Vicar of St Aldhelm’s, Branksome, in Poole, necessitating my leaving Alderholt this summer after getting on for 27 years. I hope, as always, the sermon can relay something useful to those who read it here, away from its original context within a particular act of worship.

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We see in this encounter between Jesus and a woman of Samaria (with whom no self-respecting Jew, let alone an unaccompanied male, would at that time mix) one more example of Jesus reaching out or being open to people beyond the usual boundaries. It is a tendency so typical of him that it must illustrate an essential movement within the heart of God: that he crosses boundaries and makes the stranger know that they belong.

 

Last Sunday we heard about Nicodemus. He is one of those religious leaders who together were beginning to ostracise and brief against Jesus. Yet Jesus received him, and John makes clear that their meeting later bore fruits of justice and compassion in Nicodemus, when the latter spoke out for justice in response to his colleagues condemnation of Jesus, and also stepped in to help anoint his dead body after crucifixion. The week before, in our Church’s All Age Worship, we heard St Mark relate that while the disciples sought to shoo them away, Jesus insisted that the children come to him. The previous week’s Prayer Book reading recounted the blind man by the side of the road, crying out. Again those around try to shush him and he cries out all the more, Jesus, Son of David, take pity on me! And Jesus turns aside and brings healing to bear on him. Then there is that woman with the bleeding who reaches through the crowd to touch his cloak and Jesus stops and asks who it is that touched him, but there are crowds of people pressing you on all sidesyes, he says, but this was different. And she, poor thing, steps forward and is for that moment the sole focus of his healing regard. A Roman centurion, a vertically-challenged tax collector, publicans and prostitutes, those haunted by their demons and those haunted by their past, even the criminal being crucified alongside – all are outside the usual horizon of concern, yet all are the focus of his gaze under which they are changed from benighted to beloved. And now today, in our passage from John’s Gospel, he is tired out, and sits near to the Samaritans’ historic well. The disciples leave him and go to do the shopping, and then this extraordinary exchange between him and a feisty enough lady it seems. Her matrimonial history would suggest almost literally a man slayer. But there is a refreshing directness about her. Jesus asks her for a drink of water, a touching gesture of trust and need. At the end of their talking, she asks him to give her to drink of the life-giving water of which he has spoken.

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How might we as Christians, and how might the Church somehow replicate and encourage this same kind of reaching out across boundaries, as Jesus demonstrates here and on so many occasions? In our world of borders, and walls – between Israel and Palestine, between the US and Mexico, between the UK and the EU, between different races, cultures and religions, between us, and most stubborn of all, within each of us – how does the Church help to breach and enable hands to reach out across them rather than hurl insults, and worse, over them?

I offer a few examples of how this mystery of Jesus’ reaching out may still be witnessed and practised today. 

Many of you will know, still all these months later, how mention of Brexit or the EU can spoil a party. It is very difficult to have any kind of discussion that does not become an exercise in feeling or administering hurt. Many families, circles of friends and work places remain divided and awkward over it. Our country, and indeed our United Kingdom, are bruised, even if not yet fractured apart. As Christians we are not likely to and need not try to be impartial. I hosted an Open Forum here shortly before the referendum, something sadly rare during that campaign of which few can feel proud. But although I asked questions as searchingly as I could of both sides’ speakers, I of course had my own passionately held opinion. Others of you will hold opposing views just as strongly. But although as Christians we will disagree passionately, yet our desire to listen and hold to people across such differences must be even more passionate. I hope to participate next Saturday in the Unite for Europe protest in London. I will wear my clerical collar, not because I think one side is more Christian than the other but because as a priest I stand for dialogue, listening, praying for one another and seeking to understand others with whom one disagrees.

 

Several times lately I have been reminded of these walls closer to home – and at times I mean, quite literally, IN the home. I have made visits where I have learned of long-standing divisions within otherwise friendly and functioning families. I think such a situation is more common than we often suppose. In families we see the best of times and the worst of times – because, I guess, in families we see each other most honestly and openly. It has been surreal, and yet all too real, to visit one household and hear of the others who (within a village context) may be just a street or field or two away, from whom there has been no contact for months, or for years, or a decade. I can then visit the other home and hear the same story but told in reverse. I am not a trained mediator and I have no brief usually to engineer a meeting between them. All I can do is listen to one side, and pray with them – and with them for the others. And sometimes I do the same in the other house. No dramatic accord usually results. But I hope by going from one to the other I may be a kind of conduit for God’s possibilities, and that my walking between them may establish a kind of pathway for prayer.

 

Some of you will know to whom I refer, with permission, when I tell you of a person who was recently reconciled with a brother after a gulf between them of many years. The occasion of their meeting really seems providential: an impulse to drive to the cathedral town nearest to the brother’s home, to the shops perhaps, or perhaps to call at the brother’s house… From the town a tentative phone call received at first a reserved response but then a reluctant invitation to call ‘seeing as you’re almost here by now.’ That brief meeting at the door led to a cup of tea, and talk, and much more talking, and eventually fish and chips and a return late at night to home at which point they had arranged their old family signal of three rings to let the other know all was well. But although late, the brother in fact picked up before the three rings were completed and they talked some more. A relationship was restored and a brother lived again for real. He died very unexpectedly two weeks later. But amid the baffled dismay, that a separation so recently overcome was now to be so shockingly permanent, there was immense gratitude that they had that chance to meet again. Those fish and chips were a Eucharist of Christ’s redemptive love.

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The Samaritan woman leaves her ‘tete a tete’ with Jesus somehow released and renewed: I have met a man who understands all about me, she tells her neighbours at home – and the unspoken implication adds and he doesn’t condemn me and in fact makes me feel special, and precious, in God’s eyes. I think this is the basis of an answer to my question, how might Christians, and the Church, give contemporary expression to the outward looking, healing love of Jesus? We each of us need first to feel and experience that regard, that acceptance, that healing, that release from shame and alienation. We need to recover the healing that was implicit in our baptism. We need to pray with the woman of Samaria, Lord, give me this water to drink… We need to humbly attend the Eucharist desiring only to feed on that bread which is God’s gift of himself. If we recognise, like that woman by the well, that we are known, accepted and healed by a love whose fount lies beyond all our constructed and imagined borders, then we will be emboldened to reach out and begin to embody Jesus’ reconciliation in our homes, our places of work, our communities – and the Church, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.

‘O night, more gentle than is the dawn…’

Below is the sermon I delivered at St James’ Church Parish Communion on Sunday 12th March 2017. It reflects on the Gospel reading about Nicodemus who comes in the night to talk to Jesus. One imagines Nicodemus as a little tentative, reluctant, perhaps even anxious, yet somehow drawn towards the strange, confounding, compelling, but non-manipulative, person of Jesus. In this, Nicodemus is perhaps a model for a number of us today who do not easily articulate a faith and yet through the darkness reach out to one who seems to speak to us of real things…

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Nicodemus is described in John’s Gospel as a leader of the Jews, a senior figure among the Pharisees. He approaches Jesus at night. I rather wonder if in those times it was rare for people to venture out at night. In Ecuador, for example, I was surprised that in Manta, the sizeable city where I was based for much of the time, the buses all stop around 8 pm. It is insecure after dark which means fewer people are about which in turn makes it more dangerous: a vicious cycle that would be much more pronounced in an age without electricity and street lighting. But for Nicodemus, afraid to lose face with his colleagues and reluctant to appear in public among Jesus’ rather ragtag followers, the night is his cloak and confidant as he comes tentatively to enquire…

 

The darkness is also, surely, symbolic. Nicodemus, although well educated and well read, is none the less groping in the dark spiritually. In this he represents many whose lives may be outwardly successful enough. We succeed in convincing others, and even ourselves, that all is well, and well organised, and holding together – most of the time… Until, perhaps, a crisis comes: an accident, an illness (physical, or mental), a separation, a death close to us that catches us unprepared. Or it may be some apparently small thing, but it gets behind our defences, the dam is cracked and the flood overwhelms us. Until then, we get by well enough, most of the time…but when we encounter Jesus the world and the life we have known suddenly seems but a land of shadows compared to the light that beckons. To this degree, many of us, when we pray in bewilderment or cry out for help, are like Nicodemus, approaching Jesus at night. Many of us when we wonder where the years went and whether there is still time to recover our earlier love or a joy that once seemed close but now more elusive, we are like Nicodemus as he puts down his books, his candlelit face turned towards the door. We, when something prompts us, against all the easier and pleasant alternatives, to step into this Church, this holy place set aside as a space for meeting Jesus, we are like Nicodemus as he made his excuses to his family that evening and stepped anxiously, awkwardly along the echoing, empty Jerusalem alleyways to where he heard he might find Jesus…

 

The ensuing conversation between them, as related by John, is however, to my ears, perplexing. I think it is intentionally so. Nicodemus’ opening compliment – we know that you are a teacher from God, because the great works you do show us that – is countered by Jesus’ enigmatic No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. It is a reply worthy of the great Buddhist teachers, deliberately perplexing those seeking instant wisdom with words designed as much to unsettle and disturb the seeker from their usual, complacent way of thinking.

 

Nicodemus responds with the understandable, rather bleak question, How can one like me, old and set in my ways, be born anew? I think in this he probably speaks for many of us. We have tried before, perhaps many times, to change ourselves. It never lasts, never really ‘takes.’ And now my life is enmeshed far more in things, many of them good, which constrain my options: marriage and family, and work, house and mortgage and chairmanship of the Bowls Club. Jesus in his response shifts the perspective to a more fundamental level and speaks of a real or metaphorical baptism that comes from outside of ourselves: not just another well-intentioned resolve of ours, but a letting God in: no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. As one blown by the wind, such a person’s life is inspired (‘in-spirited’) in a way that no self-help book or lifestyle change can duplicate. We are back to a similar change of outlook that I spoke of last week when I described myself as just a speck of dust being blown by the draught in this tiny corner of the universe, and yet at the same time being the object of infinite, focused love. It’s not all about me, and yet God is all about me, and you, and him and her and each of those other specks of dust who inhabit our astonishing, tiny, unsearchable, miraculous world.

 

Nicodemus is reduced to a rather endearing simplicity and brevity, How can these things be? At this point Jesus points to an eternal pattern of God’s activity, which is and always has been Christ-like, always poured out for us, and which now has taken the next and unique step of being revealed in human flesh and blood. And he points to where that eternal Christ-likeness of God is tending: just as Moses lifted up the serpent (twined around a bronze pole, to bring healing to all who had been poisoned by deadly venom when they looked up to it) so must the Son of Man be lifted up (on the bleak wooden cross, so that all who are poisoned by the deadly venom of sin and selfishness may gaze there and receive healing and hope.) For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 

The effect of this escalating discussion, from Nicodemus’ opening pleasantry to Jesus’ conclusion that speaks of the whole world being saved through him, would be disorientating for Nicodemus – but is for us readers and hearers as well. Several of the dialogues between Jesus and others as related in John’s Gospel have a similar, disconcerting, almost cathartic manner: they don’t ‘compute’ in the way that is normal among our conversations one with another. But this, while perplexing, feels like a liberating step-change. So much of our interaction with others, so natural and so essential, can simply reaffirm our self-regard and our usual patterns of life and our prejudices. And the ego is so often uppermost. We can all identify, or identify with, the person who concludes a long account of their own concerns by saying ‘well, that’s enough about me. So what do you think about me?’ … And if we’re honest, some of us can admit a little discomfort amid our amusement. For Nicodemus, and all who meet Jesus, one senses there is no such option. The usual centre of gravity in our conversations is weighted towards ourselves and towards concealment of the awkward and the painful. When we meet Jesus the centre of gravity shifts radically towards truth and towards God and towards the reality that is each person in their incompleteness and need. The effect is both disconcerting and profoundly liberating, and as we hear of such encounters in the Gospels we can be caught up into Nicodemus’ and others’ experience. It is for this reason that our reading of the Gospel is often attended by ceremony and ritual. We stand, and turn to face the reader. There are lighted candles, perhaps incense, and singing before and after. Jesus’ words are not addressed to us as a ‘G’mornin’, how are you?’ and our response is not ‘Fine thanks. How are you?’ Instead we say ‘Glory to you, O Lord’ and ‘Praise to you. O Christ.’ We here – and I am reluctant to say my language here is only metaphorical – we here are entering another world entirely, we are stepping, even if only for a short but significant while, into the Kingdom of Heaven, the place where God reigns and where we are – as this year’s Lent course and the movie at its base put it – ‘finding our true voice.’

 

As always I want before I close to offer some practical or tangible way for us to respond and go forward.

 

First I will mention again the opportunities provided by this season before Easter. Put aside all negative associations with Lent. God isn’t too concerned about what you give up, I feel, and he certainly doesn’t want you to become discouraged or downbeat because of sin, he’s forgiven all that long since. But I think he is supremely interested in your restoration to health and to wholeness. The Praying Together booklets provide a simple but I think profound series of short readings, reflections and suggested responses. It is a way of tapping on the Kingdom of Heaven’s door each day. The Lent Course I have already mentioned and only so many can make it to one of the various groups and it isn’t going to suit all. But it will be a help to some, and that some might just include you.

 

Secondly, and if you don’t attend a course you may like to try this exercise during a suitable 40 minutes or so sometime, you can practise a kind of prayerful entering into the conversations of Jesus using your God-given imagination. Take almost any passage in which Jesus speaks with others, one that somehow calls your attention. Read it, slowly, and probably more than once. And imagine yourself into the scene. Feel free to join in. Ask your own questions, and your imagination, or the Spirit of God (or more likely both), will suggest some interesting and even surprising responses from our Lord. If you choose to be Nicodemus, for example, you might imagine what kind of darkness assails you right now. Tell Jesus about it. You will I think be surprised by the outcome – and if it is all too puzzling you can talk to me or Lewis or anyone else you can trust, who will listen and respond with prayer and understanding.

 

You know, Nicodemus (we hear elsewhere in John’s Gospel) spoke up for Jesus among the other Pharisees, and was there on hand to help Joseph of Arimathea in lifting and anointing Jesus’ dead body. He played his part and so can each one of us. We just have to ask, and listen.

 

I sat in for a short while this week with someone completing a big, difficult jigsaw. After much fumbling and disappointment I finally added one piece and punched the air with pride. We have a God who is slowly and determinedly putting together the disordered fragments of our lives. He sees the bigger picture. And if we will let it be so, we can let go of our misguided efforts and let God in and let God inspire our being made anew. For, as Jesus concludes his words with Nicodemus, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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‘Cant make it on my own…’

The sermon below is a response to the temptations faced by Jesus after his time spent in prayer and fasting in the wilderness (Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 4). I have always struggled with this passage, at least in so far as it is frequently understood to be a summons to us to try harder. I hope my sermon’s content, and conclusion, go some way to correcting that impression. The sermon was delivered during Parish Communion at St James’, Alderholt, on the First Sunday in Lent, 5th March, 2017. 

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Last Sunday’s Gospel reading took us to the dazzling heights of the mount of Christ’s Transfiguration. This week we are with Jesus in the desert and we accompany him to another high mountain. For forty days and nights, we are told, he has prayed and fasted. Now he is assailed by siren voices – be they outer or inner whispers – that suggest a ‘realistic’, a ‘sensible’, an ‘effective’ career as Messiah, one that will be approved by people and able to please and persuade the powerful. What’s not to like?

 

On each occasion the evil one refers to scripture (a reminder if we needed it that quoting the Bible is not necessarily God’s simple answer to genuine and difficult questions) and on each occasion Jesus counters with some other words of scripture, but this time spoken with heart-wringing simplicity, not with duplicitous ease.

 

Man – men and women – shall not live by bread alone: it is not your possessions that will save you, nor your salary, nor your investments, nor your pension provision, nor your hobbies, nor your cleverness, nor your health and strength, nor any other circumstance, that will grant you fullness of life. Only God. Only Jesus.

 

You shall not tempt the Lord your God: in other words, it isn’t all about you. Think of the planets of our solar system and the billions of stars contained in our galaxy and the billions of galaxies that spread beyond ours. Let’s get some perspective. I am but a speck of dust blown in the draught in one corner of the universe. And yet I am also, along with all those other dust particles we call people, each one of us the focus of an infinite and personal fount of love who has revealed himself in this particular corner of his universe in the real human life of Jesus.  So my life is not all about comfort, about my pleasant plans for home expansion, career development, the kids’ schooling, retirement (and best not think about what lies beyond that.) My most important decision in life is not which job to take, nor who to marry, nor who to vote for, nor which shoes to wear. The only really important decision is which God you will recognise: money, power, comfort, fashion, desire, fame, and so on…or the God who is made manifest in Jesus?

 

The Lord your God, alone, you shall love, and offer worship. But this in turn carries a surprise. Orientate your life and your hopes around a God who is love, and what follows is not a fixation with talk of God, not some religious mania, not an obsession with going to church. Religion can strangely become another way of avoiding the living God, a means of seeming to departmentalise his claims and change them into a routine of church going and a social life revolving around ‘people like us.’ But when we truly put God at the centre, we find ourselves making time for others more, we begin to see Christ in others (and certainly not only within the church). We begin to hear – as I reflected here a few weeks ago – ‘heaven’s whispers’ in all kinds of unexpected places.

 

The Church is a wonderful and I believe near-essential aid to us in resisting the conformity to the devil’s easy options for our lives. It is a fellowship of losers and strugglers and pretenders and people who may seem different but who in reality, deep down, are just like me, and you. Each of us has tried to go it alone, each of us has tried – with great ingenuity and straining every muscle – to arrange the universe around us. And we have ended up here, in a heap, with all the others who beneath their polite and respectable appearance have admitted the same awful truth: I can’t make it on my own. ‘Lord, take pity on me, a sinner.’ And we all have heard that smiling, patient whisper: kid, I’ve been here all along, relax, come on home, we’ve some adventures ahead of us, just as soon as you’re rested we’re going to have such fun changing the world one day at a time!

 

But… at the same time the church, like any other institution composed of people, can become another bureaucracy, a system of rules and restraint, a citadel seeking its own power. We don’t need to look far to see – in the past, and in the present – very painful examples. Even our own diocese, bless it, which I dearly love and with so many really excellent people, can become more concerned about its rules and regulations than about its parishes and people. I can tell you a story about one such case at present, through which I am caught up into a dispute with some offices of the diocese. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating and irritating. If you want me to, I’ll tell you about it over coffee afterwards!

 

Well, we are all guilty of such failings. And for each of us the question at every turn is whether we are putting Jesus at the centre of our decisions, our relationships, our career choices, our decisions at work, and our family and personal lives. And we all fail. And we all must go back to him in prayer and in penitence, and receive his comfort, his correction, and allow him to pick us up, wipe us down, and step out again along the way.

 

I’ll mention in conclusion two practical aids to us in this pilgrimage – this foolish adventure that we are fools to refuse – that are very timely.

 

Firstly, what we decide about our money is a good way to help us begin to channel our lives in the right way. When you give money to the church please do not think of that as a kind of subscription to help keep the association running. Think of it instead as a precious means to put our money where our mouth is. Before God, our lives can and should be infused with a sense of thanksgiving. Everything we have is gift, really. It isn’t ours by merit, not really. If you go to Ecuador you will meet plenty of people who work as hard as you, who are as clever as you, as skilled as you, and they get a few dollars a day and no pension! In company with Christ we become aware that we are the lucky ones. Those Christians who have the toughest challenges in their lives are often those who most exude a spirit of gratitude and generosity. When we give to the church it is an expression of our thanks to God. It is therefore an ancillary to and even an expression of, our prayer and our charity. This morning you have received a letter of thanks and very brief explanation as you entered. Those of you who give by Bank Order or some other planned means will also receive a personal note of thanks from our Treasurer – himself unpaid of course as are all our church officers. What individuals contribute is known only to him and he doesn’t share that information. I prefer never to know. My own contribution is currently £110 per month. That is more than some others may be able to afford, but less, for all I know, than many others generously contribute. There is no right or recommended amount. All I can implore is that you think about it and pray about it. We all need to be realistic, and of course most of us will also have other charitable commitments to balance alongside what we do to support the church. Reduce it if necessary at any time, increase it as God gives you opportunity. But whatever you give, think of it as a thank you to God, not a subscription. After all, what we own is all gift, we haven’t really deserved it. Many of us are pretty fortunate and nothing wrong with that, but let’s not deceive ourselves. It’s all gift and we owe a big thank you to God at the very least.

 

A second help to us right now is the season of Lent. A chance to pepper our days with a little more prayer (for instance by using the excellent, simple, Praying Together booklet each day, or by attending one of the weekday Morning and Evening Prayers in Church), to meet with others maybe and discuss the faith (by attending one of the Lent courses using the film, The King’s Speech), to go without something to remind us how lucky we are (you can, by the way, take the escape clause each Sunday – I admit doing so this morning. The forty weekdays without coffee are hard enough, without adding on the Sundays as well…)

 

To conclude, my friends, I sometimes think we spend too much time feeling guilty, or ashamed, of things we either cannot help, or are locked in the past, or that God will sort out in his own way in his own good time…and far too few of our energies are focused on true penitence, which is quite a different thing: a more positive acknowledgement of our weakness, our sin and our helplessness, always open to God’s tireless forgiveness and grace and strength.

 

 

The View from Kingbarrow…

I preached this sermon at St James’, Alderholt, on the Sunday before Lent, 26th February, 2017. The readings recall the Transfiguration of Christ on a mountain. My sermon begins and ends with me on Kingbarrow, a curious, rather atmospheric heathland hill near to where I live. When I returned a few days later with a camera, the sun was shining, and so the photo does not reflect the rather bleaker scene I describe! 

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Yesterday afternoon I walked across the marshy, bleak common to stand on top of Kingbarrow, the local moorland eminence where we have sometimes enjoyed stunning Ascension Day mornings, amid the song of turtle doves, as we celebrate communion. Yesterday, by contrast, wind-blown rain peppered my face like grape shot. As I stood in the lee of some gorse bushes I reflected on the several hill tops that feature in the Gospels.

Earliest among them is the high place from which the tempter offered Jesus power over the world below. Then there was Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus proclaimed his teaching crystalised in those 8 paradoxical gems of wisdom, the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God… After that comes today’s high mountain on which the three closest of his disciples (Peter, James and John) are privy to an overwhelming glimpse of Jesus’ glory, when he is transfigured in their sight. All such eminence are, however, overshadowed by the last and greatest of Christ’s exaltations, when Jesus’ battered body, broken for love, is lifted up on the hill of Calvary.

Each of those ‘Stations’ have their echoes, I suggest, in the course of our Christian lives. We face our lonely times of temptation and despair. We have other times in the sunlit uplands when our church and our companions and the Lord seem to be in concert; there may be moments when we are called further into the dazzling cloud of unknowing, when through prayer our lives are at least in part transfigured by Christ’s presence. And we have those periods (they are always unwelcome and yet through them we can become most close to our Saviour) when we are required to carry a cross of suffering and to endure, on that lonely but wondrous hill of Golgotha.

On this Sunday before Lent begins, however, we pause, and glimpse the puzzling, mysterious Transfiguration of Christ. Jesus is revealed with a glory that usually our eyes are too near-sighted or distracted to see.  He is joined by Moses and Elijah, representing the two great pillars of the Jewish tradition: the Law of God and inspired Prophecy. But Moses and Elijah are in Jesus’, not he in their, shadow. They converse with him, for (this episode is pointing out to us) Jesus is himself the new Law of love and Jesus through his gift of the Holy Spirit liberates all believers to share in the inspiration of the Prophets.

A voice declares Jesus to be his Son, his Beloved, and that we must ‘listen to him.’ It is easier said than done. Listening to another is more difficult now than perhaps it ever has been. We are assailed by noise, by demands on our time, by entertainment and by focused temptations. I go onto Facebook and there I see adverts for chainsaws and GPS watches. How did they know I’m interested in both those items just now? Because, I realise, I searched for them on Argos and my computer spills the beans to Google, Amazon and Facebook. They have my measure and unless I am very careful I too will measure myself by their calculations: as a consumer, a spender of money, and little more. More reason why I must seek to listen to Jesus who knows me for what I am (a sinner) and who can reveal what I truly am intended to be (his friend, his beloved).

During Lent, we can take a few steps to help us listen to Jesus. We can attend a service on Ash Wednesday and be marked with the cross for our journey. We can fast for just the inside of a day with others. We can – no, we will! – use the booklet of short daily readings and reflections for each day, provided by the diocese. We can join with others at one of the weekly Lent courses. We can attend one of the daily Morning and Evening Prayers here in church, or the hour of silence and prayer on Monday evenings. By any and all such means, this coming season of Lent may help us respond, simply and constructively, to that voice: ‘This my Son, the Beloved…listen to him.’

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Meanwhile, Peter and his pals respond in that timeless way of humans to anything bewildering, by at first trying to organise it all: ‘Er, wow, how super this is. Umm, how about we make ourselves useful and make you three some handy little sheds (they’ll be here in no time with Amazon)- one for you, and Moses and Elijah (Hi!)’ When, next, they are utterly overwhelmed by hearing the voice from heaven, their response is more honest and more real: they cower on the ground, terrified. Jesus comes and reaches down to them with reassurance: ‘Get up, friends! Don’t be afraid!’ This reassurance by Jesus is so frequent that surely we may see it as illustrating something typical and important for all who seek to follow him, and for each of us here today. Fear is part of the human condition. It has its obvious usefulness: I see scary monster about to eat me, I am scared and run faster than I ever thought possible. Scary monster left behind, puffing. Phew. There is, however, a less constructive kind of fear that shrinks us as people and encloses us within a small and locked and anxiously guarded room, or prison. We are fearful of change yet fear being stuck with sameness; mistrustful of success, yet terrified of failure; we may fear confronting our past and yet also be anxious as to our future; we may with justification be fearful for the state of the country and world around us. Jesus’ words reassure us: ‘do not fear…take courage…let not your hearts be troubled…do not be anxious…trust…take confidence…get up and be released from sin, from whatever binds you…do not be afraid…’

Our Lent Course this year makes use of the film The King’s Speech, about the fearful and anxious King George VI. A reluctant monarch following his more confident brother’s abdication, George’s chronic anxiety emerged as a debilitating stutter when called on to make the kind of speeches that the onset of World War 2 made so important, even essential. His fear – and a degree of royal arrogance – imprisoned him in this condition and the film describes the means by which an unlikely, foreign, unorthodox and unreverential specialist is able to help him overcome his disability. Part of the healing process requires King George to face himself, face his fears, and learn both humility and self-belief. Reflecting on the film and on the Bible may help each of us to ‘find our voice’, our true and genuine voice, the voice that can utter penitence as naturally and as wholesomely as it can express forgiveness to others, our true voice that comes from a healed and humble heart.

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Walking back from Kingbarrow I took a slightly wrong path and had to climb over barbed wire and emerge, from the mud and undergrowth, onto the road, rather startling the passing motorists. In our journey through this life we are all of us just trying to find the way. We have here in the Church, not a rosy-cheeked ramblers’ club but, rather, a storm shelter for shocked survivors, with whom together we may hope to make it to the next refuge. And so I commend to you the approaching season of Lent: the ashing, fasting and shared meals this Wednesday; the simple daily prayers and reflections provided by the Diocese; the opportunities to join with others for Morning and Evening Prayer on weekdays here in Church; and the groups meeting to enjoy and reflect on the life-lessons to be learned through a well-made film. Whichever of those mountain tops I referred to earlier represents your current situation – the lonely desert place of temptation, the calm auditorium for Christ’s sermon from the mount, the mountain of Transfiguration when we draw dizzyingly closer to Christ, or the hill of suffering and the cross at Calvary – take heart, pick yourself up, do not be afraid, and let us each and all listen to Jesus…

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Heaven whispers at the optician’s…

Below is the text of my sermon at St James’, Alderholt, on Sunday 12th February, 2017. It is in part a response to some of the rather challenging teachings of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, as contained in that day’s Gospel reading, Matthew 5, 21-37. As a sermon it perhaps lacks a clear focus but I hope it says some helpful things, especially in its encouraging us to hear those ‘whispers from heaven’ that we often fail to notice.

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There are times when our Lord seems just a teeny bit exigent, a bit uber-demanding.

 ‘You have heard’, he says in today’s Gospel reading, and quotes the Old Testament, ‘do not murder…But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother, or insults his church colleague (or mutters words to the effect of ‘what an eejit!’) is liable to the hell of fire.’ Not much wriggle room there, I can tell you, for the average Deanery Chapter of clergy.

Adultery we would expect him to be against and we all agree in principle. But he goes on: ‘Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…’ I am­­­­­­ left feeling awkward that, despite the otherwise likeable chap who follows with the BBC national version, I much prefer the weather forecast when presented by South Today’s Alexis Green

Regarding the next part of today’s Gospel reading, I presume even the most fundamentalist Christian does not suppose that we should literally follow Jesus’ recommendation that we amputate parts of ourselves – eyes, or hands, or I hate to think what else – that lend themselves to our human weakness. But however we take his strictures, it makes for uncomfortable reading.

I think at least a little such discomfort is good for us. Humanity constantly needs awakening from the temptation to make itself all too comfortable. Even Christianity can become, too often, nice rather than life-changing. Prejudice towards others can replace repentant self-awareness. Conformity to commonly accepted norms guides us more than a radical awareness of God’s Kingdom breaking into this world. And perhaps, indeed, the Sermon on the Mount – of which today’s Gospel reading is an extract – is intended in part to be shock tactics, to provoke and challenge us out of our complacency: ‘You think you’re ticking along nicely, but in truth you need to wake up!’

More, perhaps, than some other major religions, Christianity constantly subverts itself, in the manner of a great artist who, to remain creative, must forever question and revisit their work. Christianity encourages, and even requires, its guidelines and moral rules, its spiritual disciplines that encourage us to pray systematically and care for our neighbours. Yet, at the same time it warns us that this is not the be all and end all. At the end of fulfilling all our obligations our best and only honest response is to declare that ‘I am an unworthy servant.’

Christianity’s subversion, or rather transcending, of ‘the rules’ does not mean we should wish to be exempt from them. The moral norms help to keep us, if not on the straight and narrow, at least from plummeting over the edge. What it does mean, however, is that being a Christian is a lot more than just keeping a clean copybook. The Sermon on the Mount, and our Lord’s hard sayings, are intended perhaps to keep us humble, forcing us to acknowledge our dependence on God, and our need for the indulgence, help and forgiveness of our brothers and sisters who accompany us on the way.

There’s another insight of the Christian spiritual tradition to encourage us through all the struggles that life and our Christian pilgrimage bring. St Theresa of Avila, travelling the flooded byways of northern Spain, founding and supporting the simple, renewed communities of Carmelite nuns in the 16th century, once stumbled and sank beneath the muddy water. Emerging, she and her companions (an early account relates) heard our Lord encourage her, saying, ‘take strength: in such ways my friends grow closer to me.’ To which Theresa replied in her typically matter of fact way, ‘Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.’

 

A nice story, and it it gives us another tip: Through prayer, through humour, through conversations with others, tell God how it is. Question him. Demand that he listen. Tell him what for. And be prepared to listen and be surprised. Each day, I suspect, messages reach us by one means or another and we probably don’t notice the majority because they are so obvious, so much part of the exchange and busyness of our workaday lives, that we overlook the majority of heaven’s whispers.

Having written that, I set myself to think back over the past week to see if I could illustrate the point, if not with voices, then whispers, from heaven.

 I visited the optician’s in Fordingbridge for a check up and remembered at the last moment to pick up a book in case of a wait. There wasn’t and in fact as I presented myself at the desk the new man in charge appeared and introduced himself very pleasantly as Mohammed. It so happened that my book’s main title, carried conspicuously in my hand, was ‘Jesus’. I turned it over in case he thought I had come determied to challenge his Muslim faith, but the back carries the title even more boldly… In fact, later, we did politely discuss our respective faiths a little and it transpired that his mosque in Portsmouth has very friendly connections with their local church and vicar and I clocked the opportunity to arrange an imam to visit our local school here in the village. And in case you’re wondering, Mohammed is a charming man, well recommended by the now retired Mr Bass, and an excellent ophthalmologist. A whisper from heaven indeed.

I attended a meeting of our school’s Governing Body. Ours is a great school, but it’s been a tough year or two for the staff and governors. It has sometimes felt like supporting Bournemouth: great talent is apparent, but the odds seem stacked against you and it would be easy for heads to go down. It was my first such meeting since before my sabbatical leave in the autumn and I spent a large part of it just quietly praying. I find that is sometimes the most, or only, useful contribution I can make to meetings I attend. I think the outcome was more to do with the other people there, in fact, but there was a really good atmosphere and both the previous, and the current, acting Head Teacher, plus all the other members were honest, constructive, focused, determined – and clearly making good headway in improving the school for our children. Another heavenly whisper.

 And yesterday I was offered a heart shaped chocolate by a chap called George. It wasn’t a personal declaration on his part. George was one of several members of Poulner Baptist Church who were using the Saturday before Valentine’s Day to do a bit of outreach in the Ringwood Furlong. He is, it turned out, a retired minister and we compared notes briefly from our respective situations. Usually I am a little dubious about evangelism that is so in your face but George was not pushy and I was in honesty glad of the chocolate to go withthe free Waitrose coffee I was balancing. Back in the car, I read the leaflet he had given with the gift, ‘An intimate Message from God to You’ it says. Inside, it is entirely made up of short, linked quotations from the Bible, ranging from ‘You may not know me but I know everything about you…I know when you sit down and when you rise up…even the very hairs of your head are numbered…you are fearfully and wonderfully made…’ through ‘you are my treasured possession…And I want to show you great and marvellous things…I am your father and I love you as I love my son…’ to ‘if you receive the gift of my son Jesus, you receive me…come home and I’ll throw the biggest party heaven has ever seen…’ I wouldn’t suggest you say all this to your special date on Tuesday, but, really, Good on you, George, I know you’ll have said a prayer for me, and I’m doing the same for you. Heaven whispered through that chocolate of yours.

I can’t say how it is for all of you, but I do believe, and suggest you may too, that heaven will have uttered such whispers to you this week past and will do so during the week to come – and that even, or especially, in this place, among these people today, Jesus speaks, and heaven whispers, as they did on that hilltop all those years ago. It won’t always make for comfortable and easy listening. But you wouldn’t really want to be anywhere else. Let’s stick with this Jesus, and stick with those who are our companions on the way.

No borders here: a sermon for Candlemas.

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The following is the text of my sermon during Parish Communion at St James’, Alderholt, on Sunday 29th January, 2017. We were anticipating (as is permitted by Church of England guidelines) the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (or ‘Candlemas’) which properly falls on 2nd February, 40 days following Christmas Day on which is celebrated Jesus’ birth.

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Today we take our leave of the Christmas crib with its assorted occupants (some kings, one of their smaller elephant entourage, some loo roll angels, Jamie the Church Mouse and his posh pal, Damian, a lone black lamb (the kindly shepherds’ keepsake) and of course (the reason for their – and our – gathering amid the straw and the dung, spellbound in awe) the Holy Family. Today – anticipating slightly the 40th day on which Jewish custom demanded their journey to Jerusalem – we look towards the Jerusalem Temple in which the child Jesus was Presented along with a modest offering as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.

I wonder if we can in our hearts and in our minds’ eyes also make that journey along with Joseph and Mary… There, feeling slightly overwhelmed, like country folk on a day out to the metropolis, amid the bewildering activity of the Temple (its robed priests, the incense, the noise of animals and of their ritual slaughter)…there we are embraced in a moment of encounter that arrests our attention like a work of art. Two elderly, humble and holy people, Simeon and Anna, one of them a constant, prayerful presence in the temple, the other led by the Spirit to enter at that moment, are drawn together by this child. We see their aged faces, worn by the years and by all the demands and difficulties of life that all must endure who are fortunate to see out long days, their eyes no longer sharp but yet able to see beneath appearances through the wisdom and the self-knowledge that life eventually brings even the most stubborn of us. And we see those faces lit up with delight and by hope and by the realisation that there is, after all, a great good come into this world, too great for this world to contain: a love so profound and so fundamental that nothing, not even torture and death, can destroy it. Their frail arms at last cradle the love that has cradled them and all creation, come into the world so that our lives might reflect and embody God’s forgiveness, God’s healing, God’s love.

 

Age and infancy – and all ages between – are here brought into a respectful and fond embrace. Each needs and benefits the other in ways that we in our fragmented culture often forget. One of the Church’s continuing, if counter-cultural, testimonies before the surrounding secular world is exactly this: the mutual blessing of each generation to the others. The Church is a venue in which the generations meet and mix. Of course it is not without its frictions. I have had to arbitrate my share of complaints over the years here, from some frustrated younger and a few just slightly grumpy older members of the congregation… But those occasions seem insignificant alongside so many wonderful examples of people across the generations meeting here, delighting in each other, and sharing life’s joys and challenges, the laughter, and the tears. Many of you will remember dear old Bert who made his way here each week, slightly alarmingly in his all-weather electric buggy. His kindness each week to the children gave us a slight dilemma. Bert was happily unaware that offering children sticky sweets fell out of favour a while back. But I’m very glad that it was the parents who, on reflection, felt we should leave be: the children’s pleasure in receiving them was real, but eclipsed by Bert’s delight in sharing them.

But I believe something even more precious and important is happening here, of which the lights of Candlemas are a symbol.

I began by referring to the gorgeous togetherness in the crib. Here, at the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, it is as if that Holy Family with its extraordinary assemblage of shepherds and kings and animals that we behold with such fondness is now opened up to all of us and to all people and all creation. In a world now of so much fear and its corollary, anger; a world of oppression and violence; a world of so many labels, attached to ‘those others’; a world of walls and border controls; a world of terror and of state oppression; a world that is both reflected in and the reflection of our own inner fear and anger and division; in such a world today’s celebration of Candlemas invites us to join a new world without borders, in which all are drawn into a fellowship of forgiveness and understanding, with a child at its centre. A child who will be the man for others. And a man for others who will be the despised outcast whose threat will be nailed on the cross. And the despised outcast who will also be the ever-living presence of hope and love that conquers even death.

We know that belonging to this community will not be painless. ‘A sword shall pierce your own soul’ Simeon assures Mary. It must be a sword indeed, to see your son convicted of a capital crime and condemned to a shameful and barbaric death. Some here will know or will know others who know what it feels like to stand by their child when convicted of a crime  – or to stand by their child’s dead body… But all of us will know what it is to share something of the sorrows of Christ. In the all-reaching wisdom of God it seems there is no way for us to come to the fullness of joy that is his promise without first we make our detour via Calvary.

But then think too of the fun we shall have to be a part of that crowd of sinners and publicans, the weak made strong and the strong who recognise their weakness, the disciples and other failures, St James and St Michael and Uncle St Tom Cobley and all! As I was saying the other week, it all begins with our baptism, not because there is some magic ‘entré’ provided by that sacrament but because there, as child or as adult, we see that the first and essential step is always that of God, not us. So that – paradoxically – I think through baptism we may recognise our affinity with all people. This fellowship opens us to encounter and embrace the Muslim, and the humbler atheist, the Christian who thinks differently to ourselves (often the hardest challenge!) and all those others who are simply wrong – and who so annoyingly and perversely think the same of us.

Each time we enter this building we step into a powerful metaphor for this invisible (but also very visible and embraceable) community which is Christ’s body. On Saturday morning someone I didn’t recognise stumbled in, exclaiming to himself, ‘Goodness, it’s cold!’ and he was surprised then to see me rather confirming his observation, by saying my prayers in front of the electric fire and swathed in a blanket. He prayed elsewhere, left an offering on the altar and as he left we exchanged awkward nods of acknowledgement in the way of men caught doing something as potentially embarrassing as to pray.

At the conclusion to today’s service we will light candles and make that transition from the crib to the temple and we will gather around or face towards the font, the symbol of our being Presented in thanksgiving to God as a child – or our Presenting ourself as an adult. We will sing those words of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, words that will quite probably be spoken at our funeral. Might this be, for at least some of us, an opportunity quietly to recall and re-claim our baptism? An opportunity as well to let go and Present before God all that is past and to Present before him all that shall be, even those moments when a sword shall pierce our soul also, knowing that in this company is our help and our healing and our hope. For here we are in the company of Christ and joined in his Body.

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