Saturday, 27 April 2013

Baptism of Ruby Fuller & BCP Easter 5 James 1.17-21 28th April 2013

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1.17

Spring has sprung. When St James speaks of gifts from above we are very aware at this time of a flowering of life and vitality that comes in Christian understanding from God the giver of every perfect gift.

As I look out of the Rectory window I can watch the lambs running joyfully in the field below. They’re an uplifting image of freedom that touches a spring inside of me. Their excitement at life is evident as they go leaping and bounding around, blissfully unaware of the commercial aspect of their life, nor of its brevity.

In this moment they are an image of joyful abandonment that refreshes my spirit. Their seeming carelessness goes as soon as their mothers lift themselves from the ground and they dart underneath them for milk. They are driven as all animals are, including myself, by the need for food.

As I watch them I am uplifted and as I am lifted I become aware of how unlike a carefree lamb my life is running. I am regretful of past faults, mindful of a load of administration pressing upon me and I am somewhat anxious about all the tasks that fall on me as a parish priest.

Unlike the lambs I am aware of the weight of care that pulls my spirit down. For the lambs each moment stands alone – no past regrets or future anxieties – indeed no real sense of past or future accomplishment. They prosper without repentance, just following the law of nature, since they are incapable of the disobedience that is mine. Their capacity to skip down the field shows a mastery over gravity that, whilst warming my heart, challenges my sinful weight of self preoccupation. 

I think Stewart and Alison, with all their cares as parents, must feel the same when they look at Ruby and thrill at her joyful carelessness. It is so good to have you here following your marriage almost two years ago. We are delighted – me especially as Cricket Club Chaplain – to further join your family to God’s family here at St Giles.

That image of gravitational pull can be a way of thinking about the things that matter in life. You could think of the gravitational pull up of divine love as competing with the gravitational pull down of the evil in the world and that in our souls we call sin. The one gravitational field of the spirit draws us into God’s love and the other field drags us down.

When the astronauts trod on the moon they found themselves able to leap and jump with ease because gravity on the moon is a sixth that on earth. If they had been able to visit Jupiter they would have crawled on the surface so strong is the downward gravity.

You and I get pulled down all the time. Our bodies, thankfully, get pulled down to stay on earth. But our spirits – they get pulled down too and can feel very heavy.

Human beings are pulled down in the gravitational field of what our first lesson describes as sordidness and rank growth of wickedness. The downward gravity of sin affects us all. When we try to rise above it by our own efforts we feel like the man in the gym trying to lift weights that are beyond his capacity. The more we try to lift ourselves the heavier life feels. The gravitational field of God’s love that lifts our lives can’t be felt through our own efforts.  It reaches down to offer us a hand up in Jesus and all he has done for us by his life, death and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As we struggle with our relationships, insecurities and spiritual emptiness we find ourselves caught by the gravitational lure of sin as if in a quicksand. The more we struggle in our own strength to release ourselves the deeper we go down. I remember someone driving his father’s land rover onto a beach south of Morecambe Bay where it sank hopelessly into quick sand there before they could get a purchase on it. He had some answering to do to his dad! It is a sad truth of life that so many of our attempts to better ourselves prove counter-productive. People caught in quicksand sink faster through gravity the more they struggle to get out of it. They need an upward pull from outside themselves.

Jesus does that for us when we make him our choice as we do in baptism. Through Christ’s resurrection from cruel death the gravitational pull of God’s love has proved itself more powerful than the quicksands of sin, death and the devil.

The sinful human condition is something we can’t escape from unaided. We can’t become godlike. We can’t elevate ourselves beyond the quicksand that drags us down however hard we try. Jesus can, though - he can make us godlike. He will - if we will let him - provide us with the upward pulls we need hour by hour to rise above the heaviness of our human condition into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

Look to him my friends – not least in this Holy Eucharist!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Easter 4 8am Sunday 21st April 2013

My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.

We’re still taking in Tom Irlam’s death.

The good shepherd theme leads me to reiterate what I shared at his funeral on Wednesday about  Lieutenant – sorry I said 'lootenant' on the day – Lieutenant Irlam’s days of active military service. He was evidently a leader who knew his men, and, I said, that encouraged me to be a shepherd who knows his sheep.

By that analogy I said he was my sheep dog at this service! We’re filling in the gaps for coordinating and serving and let’s work together on that.

We miss that voice, raised with its melodious Welsh flow. I’m afraid we 8 o’clockers have to be sheep not only who hear Jesus’ voice but sheep whose voices are heard by Jesus – and the priest his under shepherd. I’m sure Tom would back me in giving you this reminder – turn up the volume in your responses, brothers and sisters! Without his stentorian tones that marshalled voices in liturgy we now have an uncertain feel.

It couldn’t be as bad a feel as the description of St Giles’ worship 100 years ago from Land of hope and glory author Arthur Benson whose home was at Tremains with the Archbishop, his father’s widow Mary. Mary Benson’s biographer Rodney Bolt has a couple of strange anecdotes. One is the absent-minded Truro parson whose sister had to secure him to the altar rail with a dog chain and padlock to prevent him wandering off before the service was over. The second amusing story is of Mary’s attempts to get Arthur to church here at St Giles. In expressing his disdain Arthur described our worship here as ‘people penned in rows like sheep intermittently crying out together like ducks in a pool’. How very unkind!

My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.
I must change gear into the substance of today’s scripture from which Tom’s demise has made for a sad but necessary diversion.

How do we hear God’s voice?

Reading the Bible, of course. I commend the new website resources mentioned in the news sheet, especially Bible Alive show as a means of getting insight into the readings used in the Lectionary for weekday eucharists. Systematic bible reading helps us more fully lay hold of the word of God as we give time to it and to trying to make sense of the difficult bits.

Besides Bible Alive I would commend New Daylight show from Bible Reading Fellowship, not least because they’ve recently commissioned me to write for them.

We can hear God’s voice speaking to us as parts of scripture light up as if they were written for us individually.

We can also hear God’s voice speaking through the preacher, yes, and also through people we know as they encourage or challenge us.

Then he speaks direct, yes, he does, and for that to happen we need a disposition to silent reflection. Be still and know that I am God says the Psalmist. Maybe a few minutes a day, to stop what we’re doing, sit and listen, perhaps after reading the Bible, maybe even after reading the paper. What would you like me to pray for from this morning’s Telegraph, or whatever?

My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.

We serve a living God who is always present with us, always close to us, who loves us through and through, so we shouldn’t doubt he will speak to us when we ask him to.   Let’s use the silence now to listen to him as best we can.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Annual parochial church meeting eucharist 14th April 2013 8am/10am

The annual parochial church meeting is an opportunity to be reminded of our vision as a church, of how it’s being implemented and who’s involved. It’s about challenge, affirmation and communication as well as refreshing leadership in some areas as the Holy Spirit prompts people to commit to new work as part of St Giles.

Our mission is stated on the news sheet. It is to grow in faith, love and numbers. That task is being addressed by some 60 of us involved day by day in church activities and another 60 either retired from an active role, save Sunday worship, or currently too stretched by work or family commitments or health considerations to be up front. This is a remarkable achievement for a village with population under 2,000.

The growth we seek has three dimensions – towards God in faith, towards the community in love and in the number that gather Sunday by Sunday and who work with us for Christian outreach. That growth is a work of invitation as Stuart Townend’s new hymn written out in the news sheet reminds us:

Come, people of the risen King, who delight to bring him praise. Come, all and tune your hearts to sing to the Morning Star of grace. From the shifting shadows of the earth we will lift our eyes to him, where steady arms of mercy reach to gather children in. Come, young and old from every land, men and women of the faith. Come, those with full or empty hands, find the riches of his grace.

Growth comes from the Lord’s invitation through us to seekers. It’s happening through the quality of our worship and friendliness as new attenders testify. Sacraments don’t need to be mechanical rituals. Preaching doesn’t need to be finger wagging moralism. Christian fellowship doesn't need to be holier than thou superiority. At St Giles there’s awesome warmth in the eucharist, gracious inspiration we trust in the range of preaching and preachers and a fellowship that sees its Christianity as about getting your head screwed on the right way.

The Gospel reading set for today addresses the issue of discernment that’s so essential as we look forward as a church with limited personnel and energies. The news sheet boat and fish logo capture its essence. The disciples fish unfruitfully until they get discerning advice from the Lord. Look with me at the last five lines of the passage from the beginning of St John Chapter 21:
Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

Over the last year we've prayed discernment as a Church - and we've received it!

A year ago we were fishing fabric-wise on the left side of the boat as our PCC gave attention to best provision of amenities including a toilet at St Giles. The Lord turned our attention during 2012 to the right hand side, so to speak, as he opened up the Martindale refurbishment as a possibility through the Martindale Committee’s identifying and seeking the Verity Waterlow funding. That hasn't meant the church toilet being forgotten, just that Jesus gave us discernment through circumstances  to shift priorities as we sought to enhance our buildings overall to better serve growth in faith, love and numbers.

Faithful to that leading, and the call to fish for or rather engage with new people we’ve set out at the end of the PCC report a major challenge for 2013 as making the Martindale a more effective mission focus serving to bring new folk into the orbit of God’s love. If that is to happen we need people on board, people well formed in Christian faith to help build outreach.

Over the last two years several of us have been fishing to get connections with the youth. We sense, as if from the Lord, we need his discernment to fish elsewhere for them or for whoever the Lord has up his sleeve to lead the youth. That’s why we've written down another 2013 challenge as involving more young adults in church leadership.

In finance again discernment is being given and sought. For the third year running we've been unable to pay our parish share in full. It’s clear that of recent years we've only managed to pay it from the reserves we had then that are now pretty well emptied. I would like to see fresh transparency over our finances which will serve corporate discernment and demonstrate more fully the generosity of St Giles membership and how the Lord is repaying it. God indeed loves a cheerful giver as St Paul writes to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 9.7) and also encourages them, as I would encourage you, in these words: On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn (1 Corinthians 16.2). In other words put your giving to God’s work top of the list and make it a proportion of your income.

The 23 group reports for 2012 are full of encouragement, though I ask myself as a church with 50 weekly communicants is our fishing like that I saw on Dieppe pier last week, too many people throwing their own lines? Most fish landed in Dieppe is caught in nets by fishing teams. Can a small church like ours really keep up 23 realms of engagement? How can we team up more?

That being said I’m a bit of a loner myself and that may need addressing. As the group reports show I’m responsible for two new initiatives, electronic discipleship and meditation group both, near to my heart, but which I see as experimental.

The First Steps and village lunch reports remind us how much the Martindale serves our mission. Now the Martindale looks a more attractive venue commercially we will have to watch and guard its use so that it serves our aim as a church which isn't raising money so much as growing Christians in faith, love and numbers.

That vision is best implemented by a strategy founded on prayerful discernment. As I said at Epiphany when we launched the new Mission Action Plan with my pair of scissors Show Each one reach one may be a good motto for 2013. Our main challenge is one of reaching out, cutting into spiritual apathy with the two scissor blades of prayer and invitation.

Through intercessory prayer for the spreading of the gift of faith we open ourselves to Our Lord’s invitation to fish in the right place. There are a good number of folk who’d come to Church if someone would ask them. The best way to identify who in your acquaintance, or down your street, may be open to an invitation from you to attend St Giles is to commit daily in prayer to the spread of faith.

Our spire points up to a God whose possibilities, exceeding our imagining, are released on earth through prayer.

'The future of the world lies with the intercessors and connectors.' Someone wrote. Will you help change the future of the world through St Giles by being the intercessors and connectors we so badly need to see the body of Christ built up in this place?

Each one reach one – by scissor blades of prayer and invitation – so that we anticipate in Horsted Keynes John’s Revelation, part of which we heard as our first reading, where every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, sing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever! Amen!

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Easter 2 Hope 7th April 2013

Easter Monday’s Start the Week on Radio 4 with Tom Sutcliffe, James Lasdun and John Gray got my grey cells going on the myth of progress. Before I went to celebrate the second Eucharist of Easter that Monday morning I received a hefty dose of pessimism. The programme majored on how reversible human progress is and the sort of Julie Andrews’ survival technique we adopt of ‘confidence in confidence’. False optimism protects us from voicing overmuch falling living standards, the poor unemployment prospects of our children, empty pension pots let alone our approaching death, harsh reality that it is.

Throughout the radio debate it was admitted people need religion to shape and give meaning to their lives. It was an admission that came down though to a sort of ‘no wonder people turn to religion to escape this awful scenario’. The assumption was religious belief provides an escape from reality – and yet the brutal realities we’re living through seem to demand such an escape, however irrational. Another coping mechanism around identified in Monday’s Start the Week is denial so that when you ask people how they’re getting on they come up with more and more bullish American style answers than the historic English pessimism that’s worked to date for the weather upwards.

As I went to Church on Easter Monday I thought: What does Easter have to say to such pessimism? Is what I’m about as a Christian just otherworldly escapism? How does the Easter good news engage with the reality of human suffering and how can it best impact the loss of hope around us?

In Church on Easter Monday I celebrated the eucharist, as this morning, alongside the Paschal Candle. As I did so, thinking of the Radio programme, I came to think of the five pins stuck in it which represent the wounds of Christ, commemorated in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.' Thomas answered him, 'My Lord and my God!'

How did Our Lord deal with Thomas’ pessimism? He pointed him to those very same wounds the Risen Christ carried from his crucifixion. In other words ‘you can be sure it is I, Thomas, and you can lay hold of sure and certain hope in the face of all in your world that would confound you’.

As Peter and the apostles answered the high priest in our first reading from Acts Chapter 5: The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. The Jesus raised up at Easter is the same Jesus killed by hanging … on a tree in other words the Cross. That’s why the Church decorates, if that is the right word, its Easter candle symbol with the wounds. As the priest says piercing the candle with the five studs at the Easter Vigil: By his holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard and keep us.

The Paschal Candle is a triumphant witness, standing tall that says God is above death. It also reminds us he’s not above suffering. That is so very, very important to us as witnesses to Christ in a world that’s losing hope. God, the God and Father of Jesus, expects nothing of us he’s not prepared to go through himself. This is the main ground of hope we cling to as Christians, a hope that isn’t just out of this world – though the resurrection is all of that - but a hope rooted in human reality.

What I am about as a Christian IS an engagement with otherworldly consolation, it’s absolutely true. Christianity is a metaphysical religion, it’s beyond (meta) the physical because of Christ’s resurrection. Yet it’s rooted in human reality for God revealed the resurrection by sending his Son to die for us. The five wounds of Christ on his arms, legs and side are the great symbol of this and as such they engage with our sorrows for he is and he remains for us as Isaiah prophesied a man of sorrows acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53v3).

If I am talking about Christian hope this morning I am talking not about a shallow optimism but the resurrection faith firmly rooted in Christ as the suffering Saviour from all eternity. Second century Bishop Melito of Sardis in an Easter sermon wrote of how Christ’s sufferings should be seen in the suffering of holy people right back through the Old Testament: He is the Passover of our salvation. He was present in many so as to endure many things. In Abel he was slain; in Isaac bound; in Jacob a stranger; in Joseph sold; in Moses exposed; in David persecuted; in the prophets dishonoured. He became incarnate of the Virgin…buried in the earth, but he rose from the dead, and was lifted up to the height of heaven. He is the silent lamb, the slain lamb, who was born of Mary the fair ewe. He was seized from the flock and dragged away to slaughter.  

In Christ’s sufferings we see human suffering in a new light. I can’t speak too well myself, my sufferings have been slight in life so far, but I’ve been close to women and men of God who say so, who say God in Christ comes close in suffering. I think of Ursilla Cook telling me how important and helpful the holding cross was that she’d been given at the Hospice. Or the day before he died, as Colin Griffiths lay on his bed, I explained he’d be anointed on his head, reminder of baptism, and his palms, reminder of Jesus’ death for him. We’d just read the Holy Week Gospel of Christ’s Passion. I’ll never forget Colin sitting up and stretching his arms right out, as if on the Cross with Jesus. It was as if he volunteered himself to suffer with Jesus so he’d die and rise with Jesus. I think of Tom this Easter week, of marking the cross in holy oil on him before he died marking this Easter week, like the Easter Candle, with a sorrowful Cross for Pam and all of us.  No wonder PĆ©guy said a Christian is a sad man saved from despair by the Cross of Christ. Life is a vale of tears.

In our second reading today from the book of Revelation we read of how such grace… and peace come from Jesus Christ… the firstborn of the dead, who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood. St John goes on to predict the risen Christ’s return Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.

The wounds of Christ are source of hope to believers, though they will be troublesome to those who pierced him and that includes you and I through unrepented sins. This passage is the basis of Charles Wesley’s Advent hymn Lo he comes that enters imaginatively into the sight of the risen Christ coming to be judge of the world:

Those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bears;
cause of endless exultation to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars!

Indeed it will be, and that is our sure and certain hope, which should help us bring all pessimists to Christ’s Cross. We Christians are saddened by suffering but our sadness is saved from despair by that very Cross and by the out of this world resurrection truth we’re celebrating in these great days of Eastertide!