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

Dominion


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.

Answer:
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


Monday, 18 May 2015

The gift of each new day

When the great library of Alexandria burned, so the story goes, one book was saved. But it was not a valuable book; and so a poor man, who could read a little, bought it for a few coppers. The book wasn't very interesting, but between its pages there was something very interesting indeed. It was a thin strip of vellum on which was written the secret of the Touchstone!

The touchstone was a small pebble that could turn any common metal into pure gold. The writing explained that it was lying among thousands and thousands of other pebbles that looked exactly like it. But the secret was this: The real stone would feel warm, while ordinary pebbles are cold. So the man sold his few belongings, bought some simple supplies, camped on the seashore, and began testing pebbles. He knew that if he picked up ordinary pebbles and threw them down again because they were cold, he might pick up the same pebble hundreds of times.

So, when he felt one that was cold, he threw it into the sea. He spent a whole day doing this but none of them was the touchstone. Yet he went on and on this way. Pick up a pebble. Cold - throw it into the sea. Pick up another. Cold –throw it into the sea. The days stretched into weeks and the weeks into months. One day -about mid-afternoon, he picked up a pebble and it was warm. But he threw it into the sea before he realized what he had done. He had formed such a strong habit of throwing each pebble into the sea that when the one he wanted came along he still threw it away.

Habits can be very positive.  But they can also dull our awareness of the unexpected, the valuable or the new.  In his teaching Jesus emphasised the value of each and every day and no day was wasted in the life of Jesus.  Every day was spent in the mix of teaching, healing, travelling and debating.  No moment was thrown away and every moment presented the opportunity of change.  Water into wine; blindness into sight; sinners into the saved. Jesus saw that those the world counted worthless could be transformed and used to change others. 

The question I want to ask is: ‘are we awake to see God in the ordinary, and see with God how the ordinary is sanctified – made sacred?’  It’s a transition from the taken-for-granted view of life to one where we see the miracle of the unexpected moment.  To put it in concrete terms, do we really give thanks for each day – its beauty and opportunity?  Do we challenge injustice and casual hatred or walk by on the other side?  Do we give people written off by the world the chance to be seen in new ways?

I wonder that if a time-traveller came to visit us, and told us that a child of one of the refugees crossing the Mediterranean would come to lead and transform our world into peace and prosperity, whether our attitude to all refugees would change?  Or would we continue to simply throw every pebble back into the sea, including the one which would transform our world for the better.

Being a disciple isn’t an easy option in life.  Being a disciple invites God to re-shape us and be a part of change in the world.  That has to begin with us.  It has to start with the habits of prayer and reflection that draw us deeper into the wonder of God’s love – helping us to see the world as God does, and not simply as the world is painted by those who despair. Nothing could do more to fulfill the words of Jesus that we “do not belong to the world”.  We belong – now and always – to the Kingdom of God.

Maggie McLean





Saturday, 16 May 2015

“No longer do I call you servant


Jesus of Nazareth; the Gospels; the Church; the resurrection.  They are all about a fundamental change in relationships.  No longer are people sin-ridden failures doomed to misery in both this life and the next.  The Church, a fresh community of faith open to all, brings all kinds of people in new relationship to both God and one another.  The resurrection leads to a continuing engagement with Jesus beyond what everyone had thought was the end.  Who we are; who we are with God; who we are with one another, all changes in the good news of Jesus Christ.

Before Good Friday we find in the Gospel of John a small clue to all this change.  Jesus says to his inner circle of followers, “no longer do I call you servants… I have called you friends”.  Of course there is the risk of a trite response to this dramatic statement.  The words “what a friend we have in Jesus” can make it sound as though friendship is sentimental relationship, a cosy get-together of the like-minded.  I wonder if that is your experience of friendship?  It’s not mine.  Friends can often seem to others to be unlikely pairings.  It can be as much about shared history as shared interests.  The disciples weren’t like Jesus in so many ways, but they’d been with him through thick and thin.  Three years of difficult, challenging and discomforting experience. 

It seems a strange idea to be friends with a figure of the Trinity.  Jesus is the human expression of that deep longing in the heart of God for us to have fullness of life.  Not a fullness of life brought about by a click of the divine fingers, but a life worked on throughout our lives, lived and refined in the furnace of human experience in the company of Christ.  Thinking along these lines several Christian commentators look to the image in the Old Testament book of Daniel (3:25) of the three figures forced into a furnace which miraculously doesn’t harm them.  If you recall the story you will also know that the figures forced into the fire were joined by a mysterious fourth person.  Even in our deepest fears and pain, we do not need to be alone.  Friends of all sorts stand with us – and perhaps even those we never thought of as friends greet us unexpectedly.

New relationships – and a God who stands with us.  It’s something powerfully demonstrated in Acts 10.  Peter is in the house of someone who wasn’t Jewish.  To this point it had been widely assumed that the Good News of Jesus Christ was for the chosen people – the Jews.  But through the encounter Peter has with Cornelius a changed relationship is revealed.  Peter perceives that God is calling these people to be baptised – to make real the understanding of God that Jesus revealed: that God “shows no partiality”.  His friendship and love are open to all, equally.  Open to the people we like and those we don’t; the close neighbour and those far away.  We may not always think it or feel it, but this was and is a profoundly radical way to create a new community.

Friends have obligations.  We don’t ignore our friends – we try to help them.  We see the best in them and encourage them to grow.  We get to know the friends of our friends.  The friendship Jesus extends to the   disciples, to us, brings communion with all sorts of people.  These people are friends of our friend – and      together we share in the work he has called us to do, loving God and serving those to whom we are sent.

Chris Swift


Saturday, 25 April 2015

Shepherds old and new

The Good Shepherd by Daniel Bonnell
When I was travelling in our link dioceses in Tanzania earlier this year I had quite a frightening experience when our Jeep had to go through a very large group of angry chanting young men bearing machetes, bows and arrows and sticks. They had formed in order to go and retrieve stolen cattle. Cattle in Tanzania are more than livestock the amount of cattle you have determines not only your wealth but the status and power you yield within your tribe.

Sheep are valuable, whether they belong to a community or an individual. In Tanzania today, and in biblical times, a flock of sheep is an asset for everyday life.  The size of a flock is the visible expression of someone’s wealth.  A prize animal might be slaughtered to feed honoured guests.  Sheep might form part of a dowry for a couple getting married. 

Caring for this precious resource was a job that mattered.

In Johns Gospel (10:11-18) Jesus offers us an image of a God who cares like the person or community which owns the sheep.  God isn't indifferent, sat on the side-lines waiting to see how everything pans out.  God is involved, passionately protective, and constantly searching for any sheep that have gone astray. This is contrasted with the hireling.  The person just doing it for the money, perhaps with little sense of responsibility towards a family or a community. I find it hard to imagine the hirelings getting together to retrieve a stolen sheep. It takes a community that cares to get so motivated that people put their lives at risk. For the young men I saw in Tanzania the loss of livestock diminished the whole community.  And for that reason it required a response from the whole community.

When we wander away from our faith, or from one another, God doesn't sit idly by. In unexpected ways, in the places we least expect it, God comes looking for us. It may be in the concern a friend expresses about us, or from the lips of a stranger, but wherever it happens, God encourages us to return to her ways. People who felt that they’d walked away from their faith find the Good Shepherd seeking them out.  And this is captured quite beautifully in psalm 139 when the Psalmist says:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed
in the depths, you are there. If I take the wings of the
morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right

hand shall hold me fast. 

Saturday, 4 April 2015

God tugs us back into life - a reflection for Easter Day

Radio 4, Monday morning, the ‘Today Programme’, with its 7.18 million listeners: “Yesterday I went to a church near Huddersfield to dedicate a new font… when we put water into it, it dripped straight through the bottom onto the floor. The plug didn't fit”.  Bishop Nick made good use of his visit last week – and our hiccup with the font. 

Last Sunday began for me with a great service full of joy and people but how quickly things can change.  Last Sunday afternoon, back in church, I was with a bereaved family as they remembered someone very special to them.  From the many and the joyful, I was with the few and the mourning.  We live lives threaded through with all these different experiences – often without much time between them.

It’s hard.

Last week pulled all these themes together, moving from the joy of Palm Sunday to the desolation of the cross.  It’s hard to imagine the roller-coaster of emotions Jesus and his followers went through.  To be the object of popular approval; to be sharing a meal with your closest and dearest friends; to the public ridicule of a shameful death – with your mother watching it all.

Then there’s today.

Friday was supposed to be the end of it all.  As Newman puts it in his prayer: “the fever of life is over and our work is done”.  Despite its horror, at least Good Friday was an end.  The disciples could return to their normal lives, friends could mourn and life would once again become routine, ordinary. 

Not today.  

Today is the day that changes every day.  The appeal of Jesus had been that he was larger than life – and now we discover that he’s larger than death.  Crucifixion; a sword in the side; a stone sealing his body in the darkness of a tomb.  God seems to smile at our puny efforts to decide that his Son is dead.  None of it matters.  God calls Jesus back into life – to bring his life and new possibility to all who put their faith in him.  With God, everything is possible.

What we celebrate today isn't a ‘get out of jail free’ card.  It doesn't allow us to skip past pain or be sheltered from suffering.  But when we've had enough, and would rather stay in a tomb of our own despair, God tugs us back into life.  God asks: “Bring me whatever you have – even if it looks and feels like death: and I will call it back into life”.

We only have to look down the long centuries of Christian history to see how time and again God has taken what the world has written off in order to breathe new life into humanity.  People discarded by the world have wept and battered at the doors of the powerful and demanded justice.

Every Easter we find ourselves at a particular moment in our lives.  I hope, for many it will be a good and hopeful place.  But for others it won’t be.  For many today will simply be a grim repeat of yesterday – and a fearful taste of tomorrow.  God knows.  And God says to us: ‘bring what you have – bring who you are, and I will give it life’.  Because today God doesn't let death have the final word.


Alleluia Christ is Risen!

Maggie McLean
Vicar of CTK

Monday, 30 March 2015

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.



It was with joy that we rejoiced at the installation of our new font and its dedication by Bishop Nick. Taking these words as his text Bishop Nick reminded us that these words were spoken to a people going into exile and that although God would not desert them life would not be easy and they would have to dig deep into their resources of faith.

On a day that promised much joy, beauty and celebration we were reminded of our imperfections as we discovered that the plug at the base of the font was not a good fit and there was leakage. Bishop Nick reflected how quickly we all fall short of the promises made for us at baptism, repeated at confirmation, and reinforced at the beginning of every service in the form of confession. We leak! And we’re in good company. Even the apostles, full of determination to stand by their Lord at his time of need, denied and deserted him the moment their resolve was put to the test. Why should we expect to be any different?

Does that make us hypocrites as suggested by a certain politician who criticised the recent pastoral letter issued by the House of Bishops without the benefit of having actually read it? Yes it does, but at least we admit it – we don’t mind letting people see the ways we leak, and we know that the world, and its people including us, are in a mess. But we also know that there is Good News to be had – and it’s up to us to ‘leak’ it out into the world! Yes – we’re in trouble, but we are drawn by hope and not driven by fear. The Christian life is not always an easy ride, but we are promised the joy of salvation as a reward.


Thursday, 19 March 2015

"Please look after this bear"

I suspect that there are few people who don’t like the stories of Paddington Bear; the little bear whose Aunt Lucy sent him to England when she entered a home for retired bears in Darkest Peru. Paddington was homeless, found by Mr Brown on the platform of Paddington Station with the sign “Please look after this bear “round his neck.

I suspect most of us would be delighted to take home a real Paddington bear, not considering the risks involved: a foreigner with a chronic addiction, (marmalade!), maybe not house-trained, and a bear for goodness sake!

So why might we be more reluctant to help, befriend, take home the many homeless and destitute people we encounter in our local railway stations and on the high-streets of our towns and villages? These people are real, not a character from children’s fiction. Do we walk by on the other side, a little uneasy about the stranger in our midst? If we do, it has a precedent.

In Luke’s gospel Jesus told the story of a priest and a Levite who each, in turn, walk by on the other side when they encounter a man left for dead by assailants on the Jericho road from Jerusalem. We can speculate all day as to why they ignored the man, but the bottom line is, they did. Yet a Samaritan, moved with compassion, went to the injured man’s aid.

He was himself a foreigner, not only a foreigner but one whose fellow countrymen were despised and hated by most Jews living in Jerusalem and the surrounding country. The very man who he gave help to would likely have seen him as an enemy! Nevertheless, his concern was for his fellow human who had been so brutally attacked. He saw the need and stepped in, without consideration of any risks he might personally be taking. He gave of his time, his own money and committed himself to ensuring that the stranger was cared for, even taking him to safety on his the back of his own animal.

Let’s not forget that Jesus was a stranger throughout his earthly life. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him”, [John 1:10]. Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, lives in all his children. So, the next time we encounter a stranger and are tempted to walk by on the other side, rather than show love and compassion, we might re-consider. It could well be Jesus that we are choosing not to love.


Sculpture: The Homeless Christ by Timothy P Schmalz.

Philip Williamson
Ordinand on placement from Yorkshire Ministry Course

Monday, 9 March 2015

Becoming a home with God at our heart

The violent act by which Jesus cleansed the Temple in today’s Gospel has long been a subject of debate.  Was Jesus speaking out against market forces; attacking the religious cult of his time; or trying to reassert the true purpose of a sacred space?
For the Israelites the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple, was a place like no other.  It was the place God was encountered in a unique way.  When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans just a few decades after the crucifixion the Jewish leaders of the time argued that now the home, and the table where the Sabbath meal was shared, had become the ‘small sanctuary’ for a faithful people scattered across the world.
For Christians that place of meeting with God is even more personal than where a meal is shared in the home.  God comes among us and within us.  Charles Wesley uses that idea in the hymn I Thou Who Camest from Above when he wrote: ‘kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart’.  In his poem Love George Herbert similarly portrays the encounter with God as intimate and direct: “’You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’  So I did sit down and eat”.
Beliefs shape us and influence the course of our lives.  It seems to me that the outrage of Jesus about the market place invading the Temple was about the creeping tendency of trade to fashion our relations not only with one another but with God.  It may be that the free market is the least harmful of various alternatives, but when left to operate without restriction it poses major threats to human wellbeing.  It is about more than just buying and selling.  Writing about the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers William Kenan argues that:
“capitalism constitutes the human self in a very particular way: as an individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit-calculating consumer.”
Human beings have always traded and probably always will.  But when that trade defines our relationships in religion we lose the place to reflect on the very purpose of that trade.  We know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  The Temple was somewhere that put the rest of life into perspective.  The value of those who went there shouldn’t have been defined by the wealth of what they could buy to sacrifice.  As Jesus made clear in the parable of the widow’s mite, the market cannot evaluate the true cost of giving or the depth of someone’s relationship with God.
In 2 Corinthians 6:16 Paul writes that “we are the temple of the living God”.  Like the Jewish homes with their ‘small sanctuary’, the Christian has a place set aside where true values are treasured and acted upon.  It is both within us and shared in the company of the Church.  When we meet together in worship our value isn’t defined by wealth but by love: and we are invited to see the value of the world in the same way.


Chris Swift
Lead Chaplain at Leeds NHS Trust Hospital

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Let us Pry


Let us Pry


Our bishops have done it again – meddled in politics! They had the temerity to call for a ‘fresh moral vision’ and described ‘a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed.’

Almost on cue, two of our most senior politicians, neatly balanced between the two main parties, have shown just how entitled they believe they are by falling for that oldest of political traps – succumbing to greed. Their toe-curling attempts to screw money out of a fictitious Chinese company in return for ‘under the radar’ assistance and ‘access to every ambassador in London’ can only serve to deepen the growing mistrust we have in them all.

Which is a shame, because there are examples of selfless and long-term service to constituency and country on both sides of the chamber. But what can the average worker on £24,000 a year, let alone the minimum wage recipient on £13,520, think when he sees someone already on £67,000 claiming between £5,000 and £8,000 for half a day’s work?

That puts Jack Straw’s and Malcolm Rifkind’s worth at some £7,000 an hour, which would cover the expenses of more than a thousand minimum wage earners. And they aren’t even sorry! Except for being caught out, of course.


Many newspapers have criticised our bishops for re-stating the case for moral values. ‘Let us pry’ one of them used as a headline, implying that Christians can have nothing to say about the way our country is run. Well, let’s take it as a legitimate slogan. If Channel 4 can pry, so can we. Go Justin! 

Bill Jones


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Mugumu Safe House


'This is the most challenging programme of my twenty years of ministry as a bishop'. These words were spoken by Bishop Hilkiah about a Safe House in Mugumu which lies at the very tip of the southeast region of his diocese. Populated by a tribe, the Kuria, who still practise the abominable act of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM),  the safe house and associated programmes, provide support for girls fleeing their homes, and their families, to escape the horror of this brutality.

Opening its doors on the 6th December 2014 before the biannual 'season of cutting' the house was built to provide room for 40 girls but in the end 134 girls made their way there. Some arrived beaten and injured, many only with the clothes they wore, all terrified and alone. It is estimated that in the Mugumu region alone 500+ girls were not so fortunate. 

FGM is illegal. Mara diocese is working with the government with the financial support from the Britain Tanzanian Development Trust, also a hefty donation from the United States, and a contributions by WYAD, and has worked hard through its educational programmes to combat this practise by raising awareness of the Safe House through educating the tribal leaders, families and the girls. 

"My life has future", one young girl at the Safe House remarked, "I am learning new skills: computing, tailoring and cooking". The project is committed to vocational training so that the young women are given opportunities and a new life is made possible. Many will remain at Mugumu and receive an education not afforded to them before but many will return home reconciled to families through the intervention and mediation of the project workers. 

Mama Rhobi, herself a victim of FGM and the inspirational founder of this project, recognises the challenges of what thy have started and the dangers it poses, "Deeply held traditions are being confronted and cultural changes made. This but the beginning". 

Bishop Hilkiah also reflected "We are seeing the devil in these evil practises and we must fight this evil".

Maggie McLean
Photograph with permission of the staff and residents of Mugumu Safe House

Thursday, 29 January 2015


A Wedding and a Signpost.

 

Sunday, 25th January, 2015.

Gospel reading: John 2:1-11

 

I love the passages we read in the four Sundays of Epiphany. 

The Jews believed that the place where heaven and earth intersect with each other was the temple but in these Epiphany passages, Jesus’ glory is revealed outside the temple - and, even more startling, none was in Jerusalem; we have a house in Bethlehem, the river Jordan, under a fig tree, and at a village wedding in Cana. 

I was once told that during the war (WW2), the road signs were removed or made deliberately misleading in the hopes that the enemy would get lost if we were invaded. 

We all need help in finding the right way - even if we use sat navs these days. 

John doesn’t use the term ‘miracles’ - he uses ‘signs’ - chosen especially to be like signposts on a journey which will help us to discover who Jesus really is. 

So at the end of our Gospel reading we heard:Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him”. [John 2:11] 

These signs eventually lead us to words near the end of this Gospel: - “that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that through believing we may have life in his name”. [John 20:30-31] 

How does this story help us to begin this journey?  What do we see on this ‘first’ signpost? 

To me, the clue is in the word ‘first’.  It’s the same word John uses for ‘beginning’ in the first words of the Gospel.  It’s the word from which we get ‘archetype’ in English.  So this story is about the ‘basic/primary’ sign John uses to set us off on our journey to discover who Jesus is [the Messiah]. 

What is this primary sign? 

Jesus is in the ‘transformation business’.  

In the custom of the time, the wedding would be a large community affair.  The whole village would be involved. It was the village Nathanael came from.  Jesus mother was there and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited.  

The family on the verge of social disaster.  It was a disgrace not to have enough wine. The family would always live with the shame of it.   

He changed water into wine - and not into any old plonk when the guests had already had too much to drink.  It was the best wine possible. There more than enough of it and the water jars couldn’t have held any more. 

Jesus’ presence still changes lives.  He transforms our lives.  He does it to the full. God doesn’t scrimp on grace.  He transforms lives on the edge of disaster and good lives into even better ones. 

I think that, when we’ve grown up in the church, we sometimes forget this.  Just try to imagine what your own life would be like without the presence of Jesus in it.  

At a deeper level, this sign points us to the heavenly feast prepared for God’s people - often described as a wedding feast with the church as Jesus’ bride.  Communion is sometimes described as being a foretaste of this banquet.  Is this how we think about it? 

The water jars - used for ‘Jewish rites of purification’ - washing feet on arrival and for hand washing before and during eating - are a sign that God is doing something new from within the Jewish system.  Jesus brings cleansing and transformation not only to the Jews but to the rest of the world. 

At a baptism service when the child is given a lighted candle we say: ‘Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’.

 

So here are some questions for us, today: 

Where are the places WE expect to see Jesus’ glory?

Do we recognise the transformation Jesus continually brings to our own lives.

Is Jesus’ glory revealed to the world through us?

 

Mildred J Butterworth.