Tuesday, 6 October 2015

“sometimes you have to remind yourself who you are”

Today I’m writing a sermon about a sermon.  I can tell you’re excited already.  The Letter to the Hebrews describes itself as ‘a message of encouragement’ (13:22), a phrase used elsewhere in the Bible to describe a sermon.  So this is a sermon about a sermon.  When one of the early figures of the Christian Church was asked about the authorship of the letter he said, with timeless simplicity: “God knows”.  Some think it was Paul and other scholars have even suggested a female author, Priscilla, but there is no agreement.  Most of what is thought about the letter is opinion based on some of the clues within the letter itself
Setting all that to one side I wholly agree with the letter’s self-description.  It is a letter of encouragement.  Probably written to Jewish Christians suffering persecution in Jerusalem the letter has a stringent focus on the things that matter when people need support.  If you like, it gets down to the key messages of the Gospel.  The fact of suffering as a part of human experience means that the letter is relevant today as much as it was then.  We may not face exactly the same challenges as those early Christians but the experience of oppression and suffering is never far away.  We all need encouragement.

Several decades ago I spent a year working as a bread wrapper in a major supermarket on the Isle of Dogs in London.  It was a part-time job which fitted in with my part-time role as a church youth worker.  The bread wrapping was not the most exciting job in the world.  At times managers could be vindictive if workers asserted their rights or refused to comply with unreasonable requests.  To give you some idea of the severity of this it was said that the store had 110% staff turnover per annum.  At the time I was doing some part-time training for ministry and one of the tutors came down to visit me in situ.  As we talked about the degrading ways in which staff were treated I found myself saying: “sometimes you have to remind yourself who you are”.  Quick as a flash the tutor asked: “well, who are you?”  Perhaps he expected the answer ‘a graduate’ or ‘someone training for ministry” but without thinking I instantly replied: ‘a child of the living God’.

At one level it sounds a preposterous – or possibly pious - reply.  I had strong feelings about the way shop floor staff were treated and equally strong feelings about my faith and, when push comes to shove, it is the only answer that matters.  Our human dignity is derived from God.  Christians over the centuries have suffered for their faith in many and various ways.  I believe that the theology of the Letter to the Hebrews is an invaluable document for understanding what sustains Christians when they face conflict and suffering.

A Christian can renounce or disown their faith – but if faith is held it cannot be taken away.  From Dietrich Bonhoeffer in prison to countless others who have lost liberty and possessions, faith is the one reality which cannot be removed; even death cannot divide them from the love of God.  When the writer to the Hebrews reflects on this we find the following statement:
“For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.  For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…

We are children of the living God.  This is both our hope and our glory; a dignity which is placed on us at baptism.  We are the brothers and sisters of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son who bears ‘the exact imprint of God’s very being’.  Through Christ and with Christ and in Christ we share in a dignity which cannot be removed.  So when we face suffering, loss or opposition, we know that this fundamental dignity cannot be taken away.  It was present on the cross and passed through death: it became resurrection and is offered to all who turn to Christ.

Chris Swift

Monday, 21 September 2015

More than words

Our recent holiday round the south of England was full of words.  From The Merchant of Venice in Stratford to the Magna Carta at Salisbury, I was reminded just how important words are for our pleasure and for our freedoms.  At a time when writing anything cost a small fortune the tiny and thinly spaced words of the Great Charter of 1215 reminded me how cheaply we view the production of text today.  Words fly through the internet at an ever growing rate, enabling opinions to be shared across continents in just a few seconds.  Compared with the time of King John, when a small number of people could read and write, our own era is swamped with communication.  Perhaps talk really is cheap now, and matching actions to words matters more than ever.

The Magana Carta exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral is linked to a lot of work around human rights.  Building on the Cathedral’s legacy as a home to one of the four surviving charters the community which worships there does much to champion issues of justice.  It’s hardly surprising that this was the first Cathedral to appoint a woman priest as Dean with the arrival of June Osborne in 2004.  It is a place which looks outward and looks forward.

Last year there was a debate in the Church of England’s General Synod about the importance of marking the Church’s role in the creation of the Magna Carta.  Keith Malcouronne, who represents the Runnymede area on Synod, suggested that the anniversary be used to: “highlight the Church’s pivotal role in reconciliation across society and securing some very fundamental human rights. We should look around us today and into the future as we live out that vocation – serving the common good, defending the weak and powerless, and seeking freedom for those facing modern-day exploitation and deprivation.”

A key theme in The Merchant of Venice is to remind us that human difference is only skin deep.  We all bleed.  The dignity denied to Shylock is a familiar story, no less alive today than either 500 or 800 years ago.  It seems to be an enduring aspect of the humanity that the privileged will always need someone to despise as well as the comfort of others to tell them they’re right to do it.  The current debate about refugees in Calais cannot be separated from the legacy of the Magna Carta. The local difficulties England experienced in 1215 took place at a time when travel from one end of the Kingdom to another would have taken much longer than it takes to get to Australia today.  We really do live in a global village: ignorance of the suffering of others cannot be our defence.

800 years ago a step was taken to narrow the gap between the King and his subjects.  No longer could a King simply act as he wished.  Some level of consent from the people was required.  Perhaps today the crisis of immigration arises from another yawning gap, the disparity between rich and poor around the world.  Like King John we can kid ourselves that we live in a different world, privileged and remote yet somehow a situation ordained and inevitable.  Perhaps, like him, we’ll also have a day of reckoning when the majority call the minority to account.  History, as they say, has a habit of repeating itself

Monday, 24 August 2015

Lit from within

During the summer I visited several cathedrals and greater churches and was struck by the sight of some amazing stained glass windows. From Malvern Priory’s medieval panes to the far more recent east window at Salisbury focussing on prisoners of conscience, the use of glass and light transforms these buildings.  Part of the attraction of stained glass lies in the interplay between its colour; external light and the lighting of the building itself.  So each sighting of the glass is a unique experience shaped by things beyond our control. 

But like all churches, however ancient and beautiful, these buildings are shells.  They point to something beyond themselves.  Their purpose is to feed and develop a Christian community.  Without some spiritual inner-life they’re just buildings about the past.  Despite all their beauty and history unless there is a living presence inside they’re just relics of a former time.

The idea of being truly alive is reflected upon in John 6: 56-69.  Simply keeping our bodies going, sustaining our physical structure, is criticised by Jesus:  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”  Jesus seems to be saying that our physical life is nothing unless we’re lit on the inside by a vibrant faith.  So the idea of physically ingesting that faith in order to be lit by the Spirit was set out by Jesus – although it was clearly shocking news for some of those who followed him.  John tells us that people walked away, unable to accept this teaching.

Sometimes our faith doesn’t feel as if it’s a light inside.  Like stained glass, faith can be both beautiful and fragile.  At Bath Abbey I was moved by the account of the challenge to restore the massive East window after it was blown out by a bomb dropped in World War II.  Members of the Abbey congregation collected up thousands of broken pieces of stained glass and throughout the Second World War these broken glass fragments were kept in sacks.  Can you imagine?  It must have been soul destroying for those who worshipped there.  But those sacks were also a testament of hope that despite a war which had no certain end, people believed that a time would come when the repair would be made.  Most of the experts approached after the war said it couldn’t be done.  The damage was just too much.  But eventually a father and son team took on the work and after the best part of a decade the window was completed.

We all know that faith can be damaged.  There are bombs that are dropped in our own lives and sometimes the aftermath seems impossible.  We simply can’t fit the pieces back together.  We remember the original images, the clear pictures we once saw, but an event has taken that away and it can take many years to piece the bits of faith back together again. And maybe sometimes we need the distance to change an old image for a new one – to fit faith into a new pattern.

The church buildings that fill our country silently tell stories of faith.  Some are admired for how they have survived intact for centuries; others are notable because of what they withstood and how they have changed.  Either way they remind me that our faith doesn’t always need to be expressed in words.  And more than that, the Christian life can’t be truly fulfilled by our own determination or dedication. 

What makes us really alive, what transforms us and reveals our beauty, is a light we can’t manipulate or control.  It comes in its own time and through what we offer it shines a light by which we are transfigured. We are called to be those lit by faith from within – living a life which in spirit and service poses the question to those outside: “what makes this person like this?”  Not perfect, not undamaged, but striving every day – striving with integrity - to reflect in every aspect of their life, the love and colour and splendour of God.

Maggie McLean

Saturday, 1 August 2015


A wealthy ‘hunter’ has succeeded in killing one of Africa’s ‘Big Five’- in this case a photogenic lion and Aslan look-alike, improbably named Cecil. So what? It happens every day – why all the fuss? Well, there were one or two unusual features. Firstly, the weapon used was a crossbow rather than a gun. This was interpreted by the media as a ‘bow and arrow’ hunt which gave the story a romantic twist, subsequently tarnished when it emerged that the initial shot merely wounded the beast which then had to be finished off with a gun some 40 hours later. Secondly, Cecil was part of a 20 year research programme. He was GPS tagged and thus able to report back at regular intervals so that scientists from Oxford University could learn more about him and about his species in general. Finally, he was not ‘hunted’ in the accepted sense of the word – he was lured away from the comparative safety of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park onto a neighbouring farm and slaughtered as he incautiously approached a baited vehicle. 

Every now and again, something that happens every day of the week attracts the world’s attention and at present Cecil is doing a grand post-mortem job of questioning the questionable practice of killing animals in the name of sport. The American dentist at the centre of the story is presently hiding from outraged protesters bearing ‘I am Cecil’ placards and threatening revenge. Politicians and celebrities are lining up to speak out about something on which they have hitherto remained silent. The whole issue of ‘trophy hunting’ is under scrutiny. Bravo, Cecil.

According to the Book of Genesis, God’s instruction to his creation is: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ We have been pretty good at dominion and have subdued far too many things that moveth even to the point of extinction, whilst forgetting the attendant instruction to ‘replenish’.  We have interpreted ‘subdue’ as getting an arm lock on the earth until it submits.

The conservation movement rejects this policy and most people who visit Africa’s great open spaces are filled with wonder at the diversity of creation and moved to support efforts to maintain and replenish it, as instructed. Those of us from Christ the King who journeyed to Tanzania in 2011 still talk about our vivid recollections of encounters with leopards, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, lions and many more. I don’t remember any of us ever wanting to reach for a gun. Let’s look again at the ‘dominion’ concept.

Bill Jones

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

An ordination blessing

As always sermons are meant to be heard not read. But this was my small offering on Sunday morning when I was invited back to one of my old parishes to preach at the first mass of someone who came from my present parish!

It’s great to be back in Scholes this morning and I was chuffed that Steve asked me speak on such an important occasion. A few people in church this morning know me and some may also know that for the last 5 years I have been a member of General Synod, the church’s governing body.

At the end of each day we have a short service and one time I was asked to lead it. It was a bit daunting because as you can imagine most of the senior bishops were in the room including the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. Towards the end the service I could see that there was going to be a blessing and normally the most senior church person present would do that.

I began to think that this might not be me and so I turned to the archbishop of Canterbury and asked if he should do the blessing. He looked at the service sheet, looked back at me and said: ‘your blessing is as good as my blessing – you do it’. I responded ‘archbishop I’m not altogether sure that’s true’.

Of course we all bless people.  When anyone sneezes or when someone is kind to us.  Blessing is a part of our language. 

I am sure that those who have known Steve for many years will already know that the gifts he has have been a blessing to many many people. When a group from Christ the King went to Tanzania it was a pleasure to watch – and hear – how Steve’s gifts for music became a blessing to others. It helped forge friendship, build bridges and open dialogue. 

We are all blessed with gifts and when used in God’s service those gifts become blessings to others. Perhaps the difference with a priest is that pronouncing blessings is a part of the job. 

Blessings are written into the Church services we take.  As the Bishop said to Steve yesterday, with all deacons being priested: “may they declare your blessing to your people”.  The priest is not asked to hand out blessing as they like: “they are to bless the people in God’s name”.  For a priest it’s a privilege, duty and calling to do this.

As we heard from the Old Testament reading, blessing is an ancient activity.  Goodness knows how far back it goes in human history – I suspect long before the invention of writing.  In English the word we use for blessing is linked with the word for blood.  Blessing comes to us out of the pre-Christian activity of blessing altars with a blood sacrifice.  Like so many early cultures, including the people of Israel, physical sacrifice is connected to blessing.  When the priest sprinkled the blood of sacrifice on the people they were sharing in the holiness of what the priest was doing: they were blessed.  You’ll be pleased to hear that this isn’t – literally- part of our service today (well not that I’m aware of!)

The distinctive role of the priest is to pronounce blessing at many significant moments in people’s lives.  For over 20 years I have announced God’s blessings on the newly born; those getting married and those nearing the end of life.  At times people have brought things to be to be blessed: a piece of jewellery with special significance; a Bible; or perhaps something to be placed on the grave of a loved one.  I can tell Steve that this is both an important and immensely moving part of his new ministry.  Priests are invited to recognise and name the sacredness of these moments, and the things that signify important relationships, and everything that bring people closer to God.

Why does this matter so much? 

Well, I think ultimately blessing is something rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Aaron the priest in our Old Testament reading lifted his arms to pray that God would shine on the people.  Those witnessing the Ascension we heard about in our Gospel reading, knew that they were being blessed by God directly.  Jesus becomes the blessing of Aaron – the living and breathing expression of what it means to be blessed: to be with God. Christians came to believe that Jesus was and is “the image of the invisible God”.  Jesus is God personified.  Those who met him in the Holy Land and those who meet Jesus today share in the blessing of God for his people.  God is with us in Jesus.

None of us can look into the future and say to which people Steve will announce God’s blessing.  They will be men, women, children – the rich and the poor, the old the young, the sick and the well.  But whenever Steve announces that blessing he is reminding people that God is with them.  With them in good times and hard times. 

Blessing says God is with us.  The role of a priest is to keep that reminder alive in our lives: to assure us that we are, and always will be, held in God’s love. 

As Steve embarks on this journey we pray for him and celebrate with him.  And we give thanks that in this service today Steve will announce God’s blessing to us – a blessing no less worthy than that of any other priest – or even an Archbishop.

Maggie McLean

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Jesus calms the storm

So the storm on the Sea of Galilee had pushed the disciples to their limit. In spite of their knowledge of boats and the Galilean weather, their boat is sinking. In desperation, they wake Jesus, not simply to warn him that his own life is in danger, but because they had nowhere else to turn.   
Their “Don’t you care that we’re drowning?” isn’t so much a question as a desperate cry for help.

But Jesus response is not what they expected. They’d seen Jesus perform miracles of healing and casting out demons, yet this act of control over the elements of sea stunned them. In an instant they are removed from the life-threatening situation and brought to a new place — not just of safety, but also of understanding, even if they cannot yet fully comprehend everything.

We may wonder about the mechanics of the miracles, and no matter how cynical one may be, or how little one believes miracles like those happen, deep down we expect that Jesus always will do something. And Jesus’ response can, and does, still take us by surprise.

Julian of Norwich wrote:
‘God said not, thou shalt not be tempted,
thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be afflicted;
GOD said: thou shalt not be overcome.’ 

Saint Paul wrote:
‘God is faithful, and he will not have you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.’

“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Is what Jesus asks.

Because we are human; we struggle with our fears and our limits just as the disciples did.

Yet, if we remain open to the unexpected, Jesus will see us through, in spite of our doubts, fears, and lack of faith.

Ian Grange - 19 June 2015

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

New life means new growth.

Last week we spotted that just behind the vicarage fence there’s a woodpecker nest inside a tree trunk.  He knew it was there when he explored an endless squawking sound –young woodpeckers are tireless and noisy in demanding their food. Each day we get to see this cycle of relentless demand and endless feeding.  It won’t go on forever and one day the young chick will have grown enough to leave the nest.

Growth and change are at the heart of our Gospel and Jesus instigated change and new beginnings wherever he went.  In the reading from John 3 that change is focused at the personal level as Nicodemus seeks Jesus out and  Jesus speaks to him about new birth.  There can’t be any more dramatic image of change than that.  Those who put their faith in Jesus are called to be born again.  Over the centuries that’s been understood in different ways by the Church but all of those ways reflect the idea that this is about a new beginning.

The great thing about this is that new birth has to mean new growth.  It’s not that Christians simply change an old life for a new one.  The change Jesus talks about is a new start, a fresh beginning, a point of departure.  We can’t be a woodpecker never willing to leave the nest.  New life means new growth.  If we don’t move on and develop in our relationship with God our faith will stagnate and become worse than useless.

That’s a little of what I think Jesus is saying to Nicodemus.  It’s no good sitting on the side-lines or finding a bit of time in your day to sneak away to meet Jesus by night.  Jesus isn’t selling Nicodemus some new interpretation of the scriptures or a minor dispute about the Sabbath.  Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘you need to immerse yourself in God’s Kingdom – you need a revolution in your life that’s so profound it’ll be like starting again”. 

As we think about our own growth in faith, and the challenge to the church to grow, I want to introduce  another image.  This Bible illustration by Tissot gives some hints of how growth and change is achieved.  The artist had spent time in the Holy Land in the 19th century and this picture represents the details he observed in his travels.  It is not a meeting where Jesus dominates Nicodemus, or uses power as a way to persuade.  Their two pairs of shoes in the foreground suggest a common respect for domestic tradition – as well as a hint that their meeting constitutes holy ground. Jesus is represented as an encouraging friend, reaching out his hand in reassurance and persuasion. Passionate to help Nicodemus understand but modelling a posture of equality and respect.

That seems to me a good model for us as we think of how we might help others grow in faith. A model of being immersed in our faith, eager to meet with others, but never overbearing or brow-beating.  Spiritually taking off our shoes, treating the place of encounter as holy and willing to leave our own place of comfort to be in God’s presence.

Maggie McLean