We were treated to an excellent sermon that Sunday from the Reverend Lu Gale, Officer for Lay Mission and Ministry in Southwark Diocese, who has helped and supported us greatly through our interregnum. We heard how for some God's presence as Holy Spirit manifests as exuberant, extravagant, lively praise and worship; in others humbled silence. "Some the Holy Spirit bucks up; others the Holy Spirit shuts up!", as our preacher was informed by Ronnie Bowlby when he was Bishop of Southwark. (I think I veer towards the latter...)
Was the Holy Spirit with us at St George's on Pentecost? Well, I should hope so - a denial of that would give a pretty bleak outlook of any church. So, "yes". But there are always moments within any church service, within any experience, any day in the life, where perhaps God feels more than usually present. Most Christians would probably describe those moments as being when the Holy Spirit was present. An increased awareness of God's presence as Holy Spirit might be a better way to describe it, I'm not sure.
In true CofE fashion, our celebration of Pentecost was a relatively low key affair. There was no manifestation of what the Pentecostal or Charismatic churches would consider the "gifts of the Spirit" - no praying in tongues, no prophesying. There was no particular euphoria, no collapsing of people overcome, no altar call, no Toronto Blessing. There wasn't even an invitation for the Holy Spirit to rest on God's people - one of the peculiarities of Eucharistic Prayer E (the best, I think). So where was God present as Holy Spirit?
It was quite an emotional Sunday for us. It was only the second Sunday we had taken our new baby, Sebastian, to church due to Serena having been too unwell to go the week before. It was emotional, for me, in the sense that Sebastian was blessed in my arms not once, not twice, but three times during the service. One blessing at the communion rail as the rest of us receive the sacrament, and the usual benediction on us all at the end of the service. A further blessing on him, and on all of us, was bestowed when the congregation were anointed individually with holy oil - a high(ish) church Pentecost rite which was beautiful in a very understated way. Was the Holy Spirit present in that threefold blessing on our new son? Well, again, a "yes", but a "yes" in the same "yes, of course" sense. Even those three blessings on Sebastian were not what I'm thinking of in particular.
Let me tell you about our friend Heather. I will always remember Heather as the first person who really made us feel welcome at St George's. Not welcome in the meeting-and-greeting of new people sense, but genuinely welcoming us by taking us under her wing the first Sunday we attended and just being herself for us. (I say this about someone fifty years my senior). She's kept a prayerful eye on us ever since, I am sure.
Heather's life is not currently easy. Her husband died many years ago. One of her two sons has been mentally very unwell for the whole of his life, and Heather does more for him than many her age could - she is always up and down to his residential care home, takes him away on the most wonderful holidays, is always there for him. But Heather's sight is now threatened by macular degeneration. It is being treated, but success is never guaranteed. Her primary concern is that if her sight deteriorates she won't be able to drive to see her son. The last time we spoke she hadn't told her son.
But Heather is not someone visibly weighed down by what may have happened in her life. She is a kind, loving, patient person who always wants to know about you and your week first. Like my Gran Gran she is one of those people who says that they have prayed for you, or will pray for you, and you know that will happen; sincerely, validly, lovingly. And she likes Formula 1.
When Serena had been ill we received some beautiful flowers from Heather. The first opportunity we had to thank her for them was as we were waiting in line to receive communion and she was returning from the altar. We exchanged the briefest of conversations, during which we thanked her for her kindness and she told us that she had lit a candle for Serena when she had been at church the week before. She kissed us both, and then Sebastian.
It was an additional blessing, in the truest sense of the word, and in those brief moments God was present by the Holy Spirit. Two or three of us were gathered, and Jesus was present amongst us.
No fireworks on Pentecost, just the true fruits of the Holy Spirit "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control".
May God bless friends like these. Amen.
If I put my rose-tinted glasses on and think back to the "best" Christmases of my youth I go back to when I was 8, 9, maybe 10 years old. The last few weeks before Christmas at my school were always very special. I was at a Christian Prep School, and the school carol service in the local parish church was always a big affair. I sang in the choir and loved all of the rehearsals, loved putting on a cassock for the service and loved singing in the choir (and occasionally reading) in the service itself. Our school Christmas party was great fun too - a couple of hours of playing games in the afternoon, carol singing by candlelight in the school chapel and then a Christmas dinner in the dining hall where, most exciting of all, the staff waited on the boys!
The Christmas things at home as well: going out as a family a few weeks before Christmas to buy a tree, decorating the tree and the house together, carols playing on the record player (or possibly an early CD!), a Christingle service, and the celebrations on the day itself. When we were still young enough there was also the ceremonial glass of sherry and mince pie for Santa by the fireplace and carrot on the window ledge for Rudolph. The sherry and mince pie were always gone, and the carrot left with convincing bite marks!
I did love those Christmases. I don't know what my parents would answer if you asked them how easy and relaxing they found Christmas when my two brothers and I were small and unruly, and they also played host to demanding relatives! I hope they did find them enjoyable.
What did Christmas actually mean to me as a child? In truth, I don't remember. I do know that it was a magically exciting time of year. Did I ever really understand the Christmas carols I was singing? Or even the lessons I might have read in the carol service? Possibly, probably not. Did I even listen to the sermon?! Something about a baby born in a stable, but who was the baby and was it important? I'm sure a donkey came into it somewhere too...
Christmas 20+ years on doesn't quite have the same magical air about it. This is not to say I do not enjoy it. I do very much! It is different, though. I understand a bit more of what we are celebrating now than when I was a child - I certainly hope that is not responsible for feeling less magical about everything. I think being stuck in work up until just before Christmas may have something to do with it.
I also find it strange that we basically celebrate Christmas during Advent rather than the season of Christmastide - I went to two carol services and two Christmas parties in the middle of Advent! What always makes Easter feel so special is how it follows on from the penitential season of Lent and the increasing tension and drama of Holy Week. The particular liturgies all add to this. But it feels as if Advent has become lost as a penitential season in the CofE, and the liturgy feels inadequate in preparing us for the feast of Christmas. Advent, a season of waiting, looking forward and preparation has become about the fulfilment and celebration instead. I suspect friends in the Orthodox Church would tell me how it is done differently there!
In the sermon I heard preached on Christmas morning we were warned against chasing after the idealised secular Christmas sold to us by the media. Perhaps the Christmases I remember from the past are all rose tint and no substance. Perhaps I do just need to remember "the reason for the season" as that preacher put it. I'm not a great fan of slogans like that and the annual "put Christ back into Christmas" campaign. I think they largely fall on deaf ears, particularly if that is all we say as Christians, just louder and louder each year.
And yet, we do have something to say as Christians at Christmas: it is a question of knowing how to say it. We need to be clear that we have GOOD NEWS for people at Christmas - please no more sermons about the definition of marriage. The good news for all people at Christmas is not to be found in the turkey, the wine, the office parties, the chocolates, the presents, but strange as it may seem in the baby born in the stable in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. This baby is excellent news - it shows God loves us and identifies with us. In this baby, God himself is found.
The Franciscan Richard Rohr says: "In Jesus, God achieved the perfect synthesis of the divine and the human. The incarnation of Jesus demonstrates that God meets us where we are as humans. God freely and fully overcomes the gap from God’s side. The problem of redemption is already resolved once and for all, long before its dramatic illustration on the cross. Bethlehem already revealed that it was good to be a human being."
It is good to be a human being. We don't need the eating, the drinking, the presents and the partying to convince ourselves of that, it is far too fundamental to depend on those things! It is part of who we are. It is part of who God has made us to be. And we are shown that in the infant Jesus: heaven and earth in little space. We are shown it not in some divine fireworks display but in a very human thing - the MOST human thing - a woman giving birth to a baby.
And that, thank God, has made all the difference.
I was (and still am) utterly devastated by the result of the vote at General Synod on Tuesday. On a whim I decided to go down to Church House after leaving work as early as I could for the end of the debate and the vote itself. The public gallery was full by the time I got there at 5pm (unsurprisingly) so I sat with a dozen or so other latecomers in the overflow “Abbey Room”.
Every house at the Synod was in favour of the motion. The overall number in favour was around 75%. However, the rules for passing this measure were that each house had to approve the measure by a two-thirds majority, and the percentage in the house of laity was only 64%. By six votes the measure did not pass laity and did not pass at all.
I was gutted. Silently gutted, unlike a particularly unpleasant little (literally) anglocatholic man who was also watching in the Abbey Room. After hearing that the measure had not carried in the house of laity he shouted “Yes” at the top of his voice. Prior to announcing the result ++John Sentamu had requested that all those watching in the Church House were to please keep respectful silence on hearing the result. Clearly this message hadn’t transmitted to this particular man, or he chose to ignore it. It was an incredibly ungracious moment…
I will admit it – the legislation was not good. It was not the legislation I wanted to see before the Synod, and was not the legislation I wanted to see passed. I want our church to declare that anybody can be a bishop regardless of colour, sex, sexuality, whatever, with no exceptions, get outs.
What we had instead was a bit of a fudge that tried to provide “provision” for those who could not accept the ministry of women. Those “provisions” were not far reaching enough for some, they were not “proper provision” – they voted against. We don’t know who exactly voted for and against, but it is thought that some of the supporters of women bishops also voted against, as they felt the provisions gave too much away.
It was bad legislation, but I still wanted it to pass. The legislation did make some provision (although clearly not enough for some) and possibly just, although I’m not sure, avoided enshrining discrimination in the legislation. What I wanted to see pass would be seen by those opposed as even worse legislation.
The mood at Church House was incredibly bleak. One young vicar watching with me in the Abbey Room threw his dog collar on the floor as he was taking in the result. As I talked to him afterwards he asked me, “What am I going to say to my friends who I can’t get into church anyway? What am I going to say from the pulpit on Sunday? What indeed.
This result is not the absolute catastrophe some have portrayed it as. There will be women bishops, and hopefully with no discrimination in the legislation; the majority of Synod voted for this legislation as did the diocese (42/44); and Christ is still risen, let us not forget that small detail! The waiting, though, is ridiculous now. This vote is hugely damaging for the church of england. Anyone saying this was a good result for church unity hasn't got a clue - I cannot see how divisions are not simply going to grow on this issue.
It has been a gut punch, something that’s left me completely deflated since Tuesday evening. What made it feel worse was that I’ve been cooped up in work for the last two days (as you’d expect?!), when all I wanted to do was whatever I could to help and support those I love in the church I still seem to love. There have been many female ministers/priests who have played such an important part in my life of faith: Annabel Shilson-Thomas, Maggi Dawn, Julia Binney, Kathryn Fleming, Carol Jones. (So many apologies if I have left anybody out.) How this result must make them feel I can only begin to imagine.
Leaving me so deflated could have left me wanting nothing more to do with this church. Some people have talked about leaving: I can see why some people would want to run a mile. But it hasn't had that effect on me. If anything, it’s made me want to get more involved, and help to right what I see as an injustice. The church is hurting (as am I), needs healing and I want, if I can, to help.
Jesus, who was welcomed into the world himself as a new-born baby in the stable in Jerusalem. Who, looking at that tiny baby could have known what significance He held? Could they see past the child, to Jesus, to God? Some could, or thought they could. Would we have known if all we saw was a baby? Would we have understood even if we had seen Him right in front of us?
September 16 - Trinity XV
Oh dear, this week's lectionary readings are almost embarrasingly rich in wonderful language. The Isaiah passage is a wonderful vision of the restoration of God's creation. I can just hear Harris's wondeful musical setting (Strengthen ye the weak hands) as I read it. Psalm 146 feels like the social gospel in condensed form. James 2 is renowned for infuriating Martin Luther. How can you justify a justification by faith alone in view of a Bible passage which says "faith without works is dead" or "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead". Well, Luther didn't like that very much!
But oh dear is the fact that I've really not given enough time to looking at these passages this week to justify anything that might approach a sermon. I have a few thoughts on the gospel passage - two very different miracles compared with many more conventional miracles. The first miracle is interesting for the nationality of the person healed (and that of her daughter). Does Jesus really dismiss someone from the scope of his healing ministry simply because of where they have been born. Is "dog" a racial slur akin to "n*gger" as I recently heard suggested from an african american? Does Jesus really change his mind in this passage? Can God change? Does God change?
The second miracle has none of the racial questions of the first. It is perhaps interesting in that it happens in a very private place. This is not a healing for everyone to see. It is also a very physical healing - the healing action of Jesus is accompanied by physical actions: placing fingers in ears, spitting on someone's tongue (!) or spitting on your finger and touching someone's tongue (still !). It reminds me of the sacrament in that an outward physical sign is accompanied by an inner change.
Well, as I said, just thoughts. No time to even think about working them into something useable as a sermon. I continually get the feeling that I am too busy for God at the moment. There's an expression that is trotted out when people say "I'm too busy to pray" or "I'm too busy to go to church" which goes "You're too busy NOT to pray/go to church". Well, maybe, but I'm not quite sure how much grounding that has in the world that most of the populace inhabits. Yes, we are all too busy, yes we all work too hard, yes we all worry about money too much. But we also have to keep up our mortgage and council tax payments, we have to keep putting food on the table amidst rising prices - almost entirely due to shadowy market forces way beyond our control and understanding. Assertions that we're too busy not to pray/go to church don't commute for hours every day to boring jobs with unpleasant bosses and work-weary colleagues.
There's an expression "the God of the gaps". It's normally employed in discussions involving science and religion. The God of the gaps is what is required to explain all of those things in nature that are beyond our understanding. Such a "god" has slowly been whittled away as human science has explained nature. But in my recent experience there is another "God of the gaps". At the moment that "god" for me is the "god" for whom I don't have enough time, the "god" who doesn't get as much attention as my job, the "god" who is constantly being pushed into the gaps between the other things in my life. That "god" doesn't feel much like the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, the God revealed in Christ. What is worse is that I don't seem to be actively doing anything about this...Kyrie eleison
One thing I am really feeling in my life at the moment is the need to preach again. I used to preach quite a bit at our old church, but since leaving there around a year ago I haven't preached once. The opportunity has not really arisen at our new church. Also, being an Anglican church those who preach are essentially all clergy or at least Lay Readers. (What I need to do to preach in church is another thing, of course...) We're also blessed with a lot of clergy in the parish (although no incumbent or priest in charge) and Lay Readers so there are plenty of people to preach.
So, no pulpit...or lectern from which to preach. However, I can use my blog to collect my thoughts as I would for a sermon, and I hope you'll indulge me in doing so! It really is a written reflection, rather than exactly what I might say, but the thoughts are probably the same. As seems fitting, I thought I would use the weekly lectionary texts as the basis for my thoughts. Much easier than having to choose a text each week, and much less danger of just choosing favourite passages.
Despite my best intentions, it is now 2330 on Saturday evening, so if I were a jobbing priest or preacher this would really be very last minute for a Sunday morning sermon. But, it's been a hectic week. I also gain a certain degree of perverse pleasure thinking about the number of others also writing their sermons at the last minute on a Sunday evening! This will really be a collection of random thoughts I've had about the passage(s) this week rather than anything rounded at all, so do forgive me in advance.
The texts for Trinity XIII are Deuteronomy 4.1-2 & 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1.17-27; and Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23. I only really have time to consider the gospel passage, although I think the pairing with the Deuteronomy passage and that particular Psalm is a little ironic. The prohibition of lending money at interest in Psalm 15 should also be food for thought for, well, just about anybody. Every had a credit card? Ever had a mortgage? Work in the financial industry? How do you deal with Psalm 15? Really not enough time! (Now 2335...and I must hit the sack at midnight).
So, the gospel...
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
A slightly odd chopping up of Mark 7, but that is what has been put in the lectionary!
What is all this business about excessive hand- and pot-washing all about? Yet again Jesus and the strict set of the scribes and Pharisees seem to come into conflict with one another, and again over something which seems fairly trivial on the surface. Yes, washing your hands before eating is the hygienic thing to do, but not worth arguing about surely?! Well, it goes a little bit deeper than that I think.
Firstly, it's worth noting that Jesus did not attack the practices of the Pharisees directly. It only became an issue for him when they (the Pharisees) started questioning the behaviour of Jesus' disciples. Through that they were really having a go at Jesus himself. "If the pupils are doing this or that, it must have come from the instruction or example of the master..." It is when the Pharisees in effect ask why the disciples are not behaving like good people of God that Jesus' anger is provoked. He calls out the Pharisees' obsession with external cleanliness as a mere human tradition which pays lip service to God but shows how empty their hearts are of true affection for God or his people.
The issue with washing of hands and vessels goes way beyond simply wanting to be clean, and to avoid food poisoning! Whole swathes of the Old Testament are devoted to discussions of what sort of things make a person unclean, how long it makes them unclean for, and how to ritually wash to make oneself clean again. Unclean things include pigs, lepers, dead bodies, menstruating women, bodily discharges etc. The Law in the Torah clearly demarks who is "clean" and who is "unclean" and therefore "untouchable". Those outside and those inside the lines of acceptability. The Pharisees in Jesus' time would have been washing themselves ritually to decontaminate themselves after having touched the wrong sort of people.
Jesus in this passage, and in his behaviour throughout his ministry recorded in the gospels roundly criticises this. Think Jesus touching lepers, touching dead bodies or at least being in close proximity to them (Lazarus, Jairus's daughter), being touched by the woman who had been bleeding for years. Jesus says that no more should people be made untouchable outcasts. Yet again the message of Jesus is a radically inclusive one. You might have read in the Scriptures that to touch a leper makes you unclean, but look this Jesus character is happy to touch a leper and then pronounce that they are healed and their sins forgiven. Who does he think he is?! Who is he?! What gives him the right to do this for God's sake?!
It sometimes feels that the church hasn't moved on very far from the attitudes of the Pharisees in this story. People don't tend to worry so much about ritual washing and cleanliness, but there are some groups of people that the church is very uncomfortable associating with - drug addicts, alcoholics, the gay community and others deemed to be sexually "other". There are those within the church who worry that other's perceived sin might rub off on them if they get too close. They need to stay clean. They cannot be contaminated.
There is another sense in which the church indulges in this sort of Pharasaism. That is in terms of what beliefs are and aren't acceptable. The church is hugely fond of saying to others "Why do you not behave in accordance with our tradition?" "Why do you not do what it clearly states in the bible?" Laying aside questions of exactly what IS part of tradition, and exactly what the bible DOES say, this sort of behaviour looks very questionable in view of this passage from Mark.
Any time the church says "Why are you not like us? Why do you not believe what we do? You must be like us and do what we do in order to be a Christian, or to be a good Christian" it is falling into an ages old trap. This is not the time and place to discuss right beliefs or practices (and at 2358 I must go to bed!), but there is something inherently problematic in an attitude which looks at others and asks them to justify themselves. This applies to all: conservatives, liberals, progressives, evangelicals, progressives, whoever.
It seems far more consistent with the message of Jesus that we should be looking at ourselves and asking difficult questions of ourselves instead. What do you think?
[And at midnight I'm calling it a day, or night, or whatever, without quite getting round to the next bits of the passage]
But that's not the aspect of Northumberland I wanted to post about. Northumberland is full of what G K Chesterton would have called the "Rolling English Road". This is the title of one of Chesterton's best-known and best-loved poems, which begins:
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire...
It continues in similar vein. Chesterton's thought process is that the drunkard on his way home from the hostelry at dead of night does not necessarily take a direct route, but weaves about a bit, perhaps doubling back here or taking a detour there. And the English road which results is one of my favourite things: full of tight, twisty corners; following the contours of the landscape; taking in views of the surrounding countryside; crossing streams over little bridges; and great fun to drive in a nippy car like a Ford Focus! Despite their frequent twists and turns, rolling English roads do get you there in the end, and the journey is as enjoyable as the destination. Our ordinance survey maps for that part of the world are scribbled on to show the "good driving routes". Good meaning picturesque rather than direct or quick.
The A1 (and at times the A1(M)) formed the large part of our route home from Northumberland to London. This isn't a rolling English road any more. Thanks to bypasses, this road no longer passes through the centres of the towns along the route. Thanks to cuttings and embankments, the road now cuts through the landscape, rather than rolling with it. The result, of course, is that the journey is pretty quick, but the views of the countryside around are almost non-existent and the journey is just that: a purely functional journey from A to B.
So what? I like driving on little roads and not motorways (Although not the 350 miles from SE London to N'land)! Well, thinking about this got me thinking about the often-quoted saying of Jesus about the broad and narrow ways:
"Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it." Matthew 7:13-14
This is often interpreted as meaning that it is very easy to disobey God and to sin, but very difficult to turn from sin and follow Christ. I wonder, though. Would the person who said "my yoke is easy, and my burthen light" really have meant that? I'm not too sure.
A lot of Christ's teachings spoke directly to the local people in words they would understand as a people suffering Roman occupation. Who built wide gateways and easy roads? The Romans... So, one possible interpretation of this passage I would draw out is that Christ is saying that the Roman's ways (of violent oppression in order to enforce the pax Romana) lead to destruction, whereas His ways (of peace leading to the pax Christi) lead to life.
I think there's also a lesson to be learnt in how we view our Christian discipleship and journey of faith. My own path of faith has been a lot like the rolling English road (at times staggering drunkenly) and not very much like the straight Roman road. It might be a little slower, but it rolls with the cultural landscape of the past and the scientific reason of the present, and does not ride roughshod through them.
There are those, though, who are happy to drive a straight Roman road through the path of reason and tradition (normally using the Bible as both weapon and justification), and to call that straight path "faith", or "the only way to God", or "the only escape from hell". Well, as far as I am concerned they are welcome to their wide gate and broad road! What might they miss cutting through the landscapes of the past, present and future? What enjoyment of the journey will they miss if the end goal is all that matters?
That Roman road's certainly not for me. So, based on my past experience, I shall keep on the windy, twisty, rolling English road that I have trod so far. As Chesterton puts it at the end of his poem:
"For there is good news yet to hear, and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green."