Saturday, 22 October 2016

Trinity 22 (30th Week, Year C) 23rd October 2016

I stand in a family tradition of plain speaking counting among my forbears the Craven Dialect poet Tom Twisleton, my first cousin twice removed who lived from 1845 to 1917 and whose poems are still read in my native Settle. Some of the locals there are working with me on the Tom Twisleton Centenary next year when his poems will come to the fore. I thought one of them – ‘Church ‘gangin’ was a spot on commentary on today’s scripture.

Here it is – the main part of it - and though in Craven dialect I’ll read it more as a Sussex Downs man than a Yorkshire Dalesman translating the dialect to make it more intelligible in our situation.

One Sabbath day, in summer time, when leaves were green and flowers smelt prime, and lile birds raised a din. I chanced to pass a house of prayer, that reared its steeple in the air, and folks were going in.

Both young and old, and rich and poor, in making for the open door, all in a throng did mix. Some strode in pride, like king or queen, some tripped like fairies o’er the green, some tottered in on sticks.

I stood and watched ‘em walking in, to hear of future woe for sin, and bliss for t’ just and wise; and while I gazed with vacant stare, and watched ‘em enter t’ house of prayer, strange thoughts began to rise.

I asked myself, ‘what is it brings yon mingled group of human things, that from their houses come! Do they come here to sing and pray and to the priest attention pray?. Answer says, ‘nought but some’.

There’s yon smart Miss in gay attire who hopes to make them all admire, he very best she’ll don; and one sits near whose wandering eye is peeping up and down to see what such a one has on.

And one comes in with haughty stride, his heart puffed up with empty pride, he thinks none like himself; he hasn’t come in here this day to join his voice with them that pray, but just to cut a swell.

And some bent down as if in prayer, o’er top of t’ pew, with careless stare, do nowt but squint and scan; to words of truth they pay no heed, they feel as if from prison freed, when t’ clerk says t’ last Amen.

And then again there’s some who gang, with solemn looks and faces long, to sing the song of praise; who wear religion as a cloak to hide from unsuspecting folk, their cunning roguish ways.

All service through with pious looks, they hang their faces o’er their books, they act the saint right well; on holy things they seem intent, while all the time to save a cent, they’d cheat their own old man.

There’s some no doubt, but ah, a few, who come with hearts sincere and true to worship heaven’s high King; who humbly kneel before the throne, and in return for mercies shown, their heartfelt praises sing.

Tom Twisleton’s poem ‘Church going’ - which picks up on our Gospel reading where Our Lord has a story we might call ‘Temple going’.

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Where do we as this morning’s church goers see ourselves in this?

Don’t we rather like being exalted? To receive the satisfaction of a job well done or a duty fulfilled. To believe things we do, even for Church, really make us a bit better than those who fail where we succeed. No, no, no says the parable – to believe that make you prisoner of small time righteousness. I like my red buttoned Canon’s cassock, of course! Bad as the rest…

Or – how about the inward assumption that, because of our failings, we don’t measure up to the standards of the Pharisee in ourselves, so we’re secretly stained beyond redemption. I find this a quite familiar condition in our high achieving culture and wouldn’t be surprised to hear something of it next weekend during Confession-time before All Saints Feast.

Where’s the good news? It’s, as I have said before about the Jesus Prayer, that the prayer of the tax collector is available to all of us. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
For you and I are all sinners and yet sisters and brothers of the Son of God, children of a merciful Father. The parable of the Pharisee and Publican is an invitation to break away from the tyranny of self-righteousness, of judging ourselves by ourselves, and enter the glorious liberty of the children of God – which is to recognise you and I are on the bottom step of the ladder but that God loves us all the same.

A visitor to a psychiatric hospital found one of the inmates rocking back and forth in a chair cooing repeatedly in a soft contented manner, ‘Lulu, Lulu…’.

‘What’s this man’s problem?’ he asked the doctor.

‘Lulu. She was the woman who jilted him,’ was the doctor’s reply.

As they proceeded on the tour, they came to a padded cell whose occupant was banging his head repeatedly against the wall and moaning, ‘Lulu, Lulu…’

‘Is Lulu this man’s problem to?’ the visitor asked.

‘Yes,’ said the doctor. ‘He’s the one Lulu finally married.’

We all have our ‘Lulus’ be they in families or in Churches – I would be more merciful than my cousin Tom to fellow church members though I’m grateful for his poem.

I guess I am most likely someone else’s ‘Lulu’!

We are all sinners – full of shortcomings – but we’re loved by almighty and unending love, and is there any better good news than that?

The tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Harvest Festival 9th October 2016

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10.11

We’ve chosen a livestock focus for Harvest Festival because of where we are and who we know. We live in Horsted Keynes and I know Howard of Shepherd Publishing, also a farmer who’s into livestock.

That verse from John 10.1 presses different buttons. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep presses a button about God’s love for each one of if we think of ourselves as wilful lambs. It connects with the 24-7 care of the livestock industry Howard’s part of. It’s also no coincidence we’re promoting Shepherd Publishing’s role in serving that industry. Lastly there’s the sting in the lamb’s tail in saying shepherds die for their sheep since the livestock industry is about sheep dying for their shepherds and indeed for all of us!

A few more thoughts on Harvest Festival, lambs in particular.

They themselves have a season - lambing season - and we’re all aware of that in the village, particularly up at Cinder Hill. Anne and I also see lambs running joyfully in the sledging field below the Rectory.  They’re an uplifting image of freedom that touches a spring inside of me, so it’s (it’ll be) strange seeing them a bit fastened up in Church (later today).  

Their excitement at life is so evident as they go leaping and bounding around. They’re blissfully unaware they’ll so soon have to lay down their lives.  This commercial aspect isn’t evident to them as they engage in that joyful abandonment that refreshes my spirit.

Their seeming carelessness goes though as soon as their mothers lift themselves from the ground and they dart underneath them for milk.

They are driven like all animals, including myself, by the need for food. They themselves, and their parents, wouldn’t have our care without the human need for food and indeed the livestock industry.

As I watch the lambs in the field I’m uplifted and made aware of how unlike a carefree lamb my life is running. I’m regretful of past faults, mindful of a load of administration pressing on me and ongoing concerns like filling St Giles on a Sunday (yes we’ve now resorted to serving sausage sandwiches!) Unlike the lambs I’m aware of a weight of care that pulls my spirit down. For them each moment stands alone – no past regrets or future anxieties – indeed no real sense of past or future accomplishment. They prosper without repentance, following the law of nature, incapable of the disobedience that is mine.

The lambs’ capacity to skip down the field shows a mastery over gravity that, while warming my heart, challenges my sinful weight of self preoccupation. Yet, as a Christian, I know Jesus The good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The gravitational pull of divine love draws us up through Jesus countering the gravitational field that drags us down that 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’d been able to visit Jupiter they’d 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.

Harvest Festival’s a reminder to be thankful for the love that over and around us lies, the love we come from, belong to and will return to. May such thanksgiving to God this morning loosen all heaviness of heart and draw us up towards him. May the thought of the lambs in the field, in joyful abandon, be our inspiration and teacher! 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Trinity 19 (27th of Year) Keep the Faith 2nd October 2016

Keep faith and keep the Faith.

This morning’s scripture speak of faith in two aspects, the quality by which one believes in God through Jesus and that which is believed by Christians.

As believers we respond to God subjectively and in different situations but we also hold to the faith of the church through the ages expressed in the creed and church catechism.

Faith has a subjective and an objective aspect, an individual and collective side, all of which is illustrated by our readings with the Old Testament and Gospel readings going for the subjective, the epistle for the objective aspect.

Habakkuk affirms that the righteous live by their faith (2.4) and Our Lord in Luke 17, following a 
warning to beware of stumbling blocks to faith, gives a shocking response to the apostles’ demand: 
Increase our faith! saying if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry 
tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you. A little faith in a great God goes a
 long way. Jesus goes straight on, though, to warn against overconfident believing paralleling the 
obedience of faith. We believers are worthless slaves… doing only what we ought to have done (Luke 17.10).

Keep faith – he’s saying – but keep it humbly.

Keep the faith – is the invitation of the second reading which again has a latent warning against individuals setting themselves above themselves as believers.  The passage has a strong affirmation from Paul of personal faith I know the one in whom I have put my trust but it goes on to affirm the vitality of holding to the consensus of Christian believing handed down from the apostles. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us. 2 Timothy 1.14

At the end of 2 Timothy Paul summarises this as Keeping the Faith. These later New Testament writings s call the Pastoral Epistles show the Church adapting after the death of the apostles to a succession of faith guardians from which our bishops descend. When I became your parish priest I became so before you and the Bishop with a declaration of assent to apostolic faith in these words professing the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.

Over my 39 years as a priest I have faithfully endeavoured to hand on the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds over almost two generations and at considerable cost. It’s meant challenging thinking: that Sunday obligation’s unbiblical, baptism’s a form of baby blessing, hell’s questionable, marriage’s renegotiable, ordination’s leadership, male and female are interchangeable, the devil’s a myth - and I’ll stop there!

Keep the Faith I say to myself and to others. If you don’t keep to it, Christian faith in its fullness, the whole counsel of God as Paul puts it elsewhere, the catholic or whole faith, if you don’t keep to it, you’ll end up not keeping faith. The Jesus you see will diminish from the contours or dimensions of apostolic faith.  The way you see God will be the way you see him, not as he has actually revealed himself and handed down through the apostles and their successors, witnessed by the creed, the sacraments, the commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

Keep faith and keep the Faith.

I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands. Paul writes to Timothy in today’s lesson; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Without God’s grace, without the Holy Spirit’s anointing, without knowing our Bibles, welcoming Holy Communion, praying, confessing our sins, we will be unable to live in that obedience which Christian faith is.

To live forgiving all who hurt us and thinking of others more than ourselves, to live with both enthusiasm for the Gospel and sympathy for the many in our acquaintance who’re far from Christ – all of this we flag at without the Holy Spirit whose life within us, given at baptism, needs rekindling again and again!

We need the Holy Spirit to keep faith, and we need him to keep us abreast of the Faith, to grasp again and again the rich wonder and cohesion of Christian faith and draw us back from settling for Christianity-Lite!  Of course we can’t make the best the enemy of the good, and the Lord gives us the most brilliant example here, affirming marriage as unbreakable and yet protecting an adulterous woman, applauding utter integrity and yet absolving a thief.

Keeping the faith is something for you and I. Judging unbelief is a matter for God. As Chesterton said, looking through history, with various upsets and persecutions, Christianity has appeared to be going to the dogs seven times over its history - each time the dog has died! Currently our heels are being snapped at by arrogant secularism, behaving as if all the immense knowledge we now have coexists with any more wisdom than past generations. Then there is resurgent Islam at our heels with its naïve and wrathful simplification of Christianity.

The lectionary today recalls faith in two aspects, the quality by which one believes in God through Jesus and that which is believed by Christians.

How well do you know your faith?  Confirmation classes might be a long time back, the world has moved on from there, even if Christianity remains with the unalterable newness of Jesus! Might it help you to pursue a fuller grasp of Faith than a sermon can give, attend the midweek Life and Faith group, or find a good book on Christian basics to help you field the questions people put to you rather than keeping your head down when religion’s an issue. The Church library may help, or having a talk with one of the clergy.

Religion will always be an issue, God-given yet man-handled! 20 centuries of Christianity carry wisdom but that wisdom is ours to seek and you don’t get it any more here in Britain by osmosis. Indeed without actively seeking to increase your apprehension of Christian Faith there’s so much that’s counter it around that the default is more and more renegotiation if not surrender to its plausible yet deceptive alternatives.

Faith in the Christian perspective is as Paul defines it in Romans 5:11 is exultant trust in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord, who in the words of the second reading has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

Keep faith – keep the Faith – and may the Holy Spirit anoint you this
morning through the eucharist so that you gain fresh resolve to seek
the Lord and get yourself more abreast of the faith of the Church which

is the good treasure entrusted to you..(by) the Holy Spirit living in us.