Tear down those barns! A sermon for Harvest.

As we were driving back along the A1 last Sunday, I saw a huge plume of dust drifting across the carriageway. It was so thick that it was like driving through dense fog.

And if I’d have been able to stop, I would have done. (I didn’t think it was too wise, given that I was in the outside lane at the time!)

The dust plume was caused by a combine harvester working in the field, bringing in the last of the harvest.

The aroma of freshly-cut corn (or, more likely, wheat) took me right back to my childhood.

When my village was entirely surrounded by farmland and such a smell was the epitome of harvest time.

(So, I seem to recall, was the acrid stench of the stubble being burned shortly afterwards, but let’s quietly airbrush that from our minds!)

So there I was, just for a moment, harking back to my childhood, when harvest was harvest. When we had such a strong connection with the local countryside.

And – at least in my romantic recollections of the era! – all our food came straight from the ground onto our plates without going via some huge processing factory.

Of course, it hasn’t been like that for years. The food industry has a very bad reputation, but what it manages to do is to ensure that the food we do produce keeps longer and gives us more variety in what we are able to eat.

You only need to go into a supermarket or look at the donations we’ve received towards the Foodbank to marvel at the work of the home economists who devise all these sumptuous recipes, giving us an endless array of instantly available and easy to cook food.

But before I go off on another spell of reminiscing about the past, I think it’s only right to spend a moment or two thinking of such abundance.

Our supermarkets are stacked with tens of thousands of different items, many of them similar. You might have seen the coverage of the new Tesco offshoot, Jack’s, being launched this week.

Jack’s will have a product range of about 2500 items, under a tenth of the number carried in a typical superstore. Even in Jack’s, we’d be hard pressed to buy one of every item over a decade.

It’s not just our supermarkets that are packed to the gunnels. Our homes are, too. One of the real growth industries over the last few years has been the rise of self-storage units.

There are now almost 1500 of these in the UK, double the number there were 10 years ago, offering a staggering 42.2 million square feet of storage throughout the land.

There’s inevitably an industry-wide association, hosting the Excellence in Self-Storage Awards – some 50 in total every year, ranging from “pricing transparency” to “social media presence”.

And what do we all put in these facilities? Things we’ve spent precious money accumulating in the past, but can’t bear to get rid of.

Let’s put that another way. We spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need.

And then we pay even more money we don’t have to put them in storage as we haven’t got the heart to throw them away or resell them – or, better still, give them away.

The social commentator, Oliver James, makes the observation about the growth in this industry that “We are confusing who we are with what we have…”

But wasn’t it ever thus? If we turn to our Gospel reading today [Luke 12.11-21], we’ll note that it’s entitled The Parable of the Rich Fool.

Here was a man who had reaped a bumper harvest. His barns – much like the supermarkets, much like my bookshelves, much like many other storage receptacles in our house – were full to the brim.

So what’s his instinctive reaction? “I’ll tear down those barns,” he says, and build some even bigger ones!

Because he wants to store up all his grain and goods – he doesn’t need to share it with anyone. He can live off his possessions forever, he thinks.

But of course, he won’t live forever. He’s confused who he is with what he has.

God tells him that “this very night, your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

All of the rich fool’s life has been spent in the pursuit of acquiring possessions. But when he rocks up at the pearly gates, he’ll have nothing with him but his soul. All that life spent accumulating stuff has ultimately led to nothing.

You see, this is a parable not about wealth per se. It’s about how we use that wealth.

It’s about how generous we are with what we’ve been given.

It’s about giving back to God – or not giving back to God as the case may be – what has been entrusted to us.

It’s ultimately about whether our life is determined by what we have, or who we are.

And that’s a message picked up by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.

Paul makes it quite clear there is an expectation that the people of Corinth develop a generosity of wealth, as well as a generosity of spirit.

“The one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly,” he chillingly reminds us.

But this isn’t about the medieval approach of tithing the first fruits of the harvest. That was a methodical, mandatory way of ensuring that the tithe barns were filled.

Often, it must be said, so that the Lord of the Manor could have ever more sumptuous feasts whilst the villagers starved. No, this is about voluntarily giving.

As the passage goes on to say, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Actually, that phrase “cheerful giver” is somewhat an understatement. A better translation is “one who gives with hilarity.”

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard outbreaks of spontaneous laughter in any of the churches I’ve been in when the collection plate has been passed round!

But what Paul was desperately trying to encourage in these new Christians in Corinth was to see everything as coming from God, so everything should be going back to God.

And, like the giving of any gift, we have to do this not because we have to, but because we want to.

“All things come from you, and of your own do we give you,” says King David in the Old Testament.

All things come from you, O God… David got it. Paul got it. The Rich Fool didn’t get it. Have we got it?

Have we got the notion that, when we give at Harvest, or any other time of the year for that matter, we are just returning what God has given us?

Have we got it that we are simply stewards of God’s creation and that bringing the harvest home requires us to share that produce with those who need it more than we do?

Have we got it that our lives are not determined by what we have, but by who we are?

You know, I think we have got it. I see an enormous amount of generosity in this community, with people giving sacrificially in so many ways.

Not just of their money, but of their time, their talents and their love.

There are so many people for whom giving back to God – as we do every harvest, and throughout the rest of the year – is an integral part of their lives.

And this community is eternally grateful for such people.

When we give at Harvest, we are symbolising the generosity that comes from God. And we are enriching the lives of others beyond measure.

We had a Foodbank steering group meeting this week. Adrian, the Baptist Minister, told those of us at the meeting of how the Foodbank helped some 50 people over the holiday period.

That’s 50 lives touched by the presence of God through those who have given so generously throughout the year, not just at harvest.

That’s 50 people shown the love of Christ through the work of the servers, the deliverers, the stackers and the team leaders.

That’s 50 people for whom life, in all its complexity, has been made just that little bit easier as they won’t have to think about whether the last bit of money they have should go on feeding the kids or buying them new school shoes.

God loves a cheerful giver. And I want to thank you for being so generous.

Not just today, but throughout the rest of the year, in how you give back to God.

In how you recognise that, unlike the Rich Fool, true happiness can never be attained by simply building bigger and bigger barns.

And in how you refuse to be determined by what you have, but would rather be known for who you are.

Thanks be to God for every one of your generous hearts this harvest time and throughout the year. Amen

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Generosity and Joy, Imagination and Courage at the Wedding Banquet

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I love being here at St Peter’s and on the Sundays I’m not, I’ll often think about what’s happening here.

It’s a trifle inconvenient if I’m in the middle of conducting a service in another church. I’ll sometimes have to pull myself back from attending our service here, and concentrate on the one I’m leading there.

Last weekend was one such occasion. Rosie [the Reader] and I were away with almost 300 other ministers, both lay and ordained, on the Bishop’s Weekend Conference. And, despite my missing St Peter’s, let me tell you it was a fabulous weekend.

Unlike many such times when I have been away on a Christian residential weekend, the food was good, the rooms warm and the conversation and laughter lasted well into the night. It really was a terrific time.

I am a big fan of occasionally spending time away from the parish in order to get some head space.

Because going away allows us, I am quite convinced, to see things differently. Even if we hear exactly the same talks, read exactly the same books and see exactly the same people, something changes.

When we are on neutral ground we can sometimes be far more perceptive to the Spirit of God in our lives. And I think that’s what happened in the weekend just gone.

Don’t get me wrong. I must confess that I wasn’t hugely looking forward to spending an hour on the M25 on a Friday evening after a frantic week at work, only to be jolly and sociable with my fellow ministers.

I had no choice in going to the Bishop’s Conference, as I had spent the last eighteen months on the organising committee. It would, therefore, look rather strange if I didn’t get there myself.

It also meant, of course, that I had had a sneaky preview of the programme of speakers and talks. I was delighted that the headline act would be Adrian Plass.

Adrian is someone whom I remember very fondly from a visit to our Christian Union (and who has several books already on my bulging shelves.) He and his wife Bridget’s mixture of humour, pathos and deep spirituality was so refreshing to hear, and I could have been there a lot longer.

It’s all very well going away but – of course – the real challenge is to put all the ideas we’ve heard into practice in our own settings.

Bishop Alan commended us to think differently about Living out the Kingdom with Generosity, Joy, Imagination and Courage, something which formed the heart of all the presentations throughout the weekend.

What can we do, I wonder, to enable others to experience afresh God’s love for them in this church, this parish, this patch of God’s kingdom? What can we do to enable ourselves to experience afresh God’s love for us?

These are both taxing questions, and the Bishop made it clear that there are no easy answers, no quick fixes, no blueprint for success.

He even admitted that those accompanying Paul on his first missionary journey to Antioch managed to do a pretty decent job without so much of a whiff of a Mission Action Plan.

But what the Bishop did manage to do was to convince many, if not all, of those present, that this was something we can achieve. Despite all the doom and gloom of the national statistics.

Despite the tremendous difficulties posed by an ageing clergy. Despite the financial sacrifices being made by so many people across the Diocese and throughout the church as a whole. This is something worth doing.

So with the Bishop’s words still in my mind, it was very interesting to read the parable set for today. I think it can teach us a great deal about generosity, joy, imagination and courage.

I say the parable. If you look carefully, it’s actually two  parables and we’ll need to consider them separately (although you’ll have to wait another three years to hear about the second one!)

The first one is very familiar and I don’t need to go through many of the details again. And, as ever, it can be taken at a number of different levels. Simplistically, it’s about the standard protocol in a Jewish wedding.

Two invitations would be issued, much as they are to many weddings today. The first was a “save the date” invitation – if you knew you couldn’t come, you’d be disinvited (to use that horrible Trumpism) at the time of the issue of the second invitation.

So the King’s friends would have said “yes” to the first invitation, and he would have eagerly expected them.

When he made the second approach to them – when everything was ready and the celebrations about to begin – they gave him the cold shoulder.

It was perfectly reasonable things that they had to do instead – to tend the crops, to care for one’s business and so on – but they just didn’t prioritize joining him at the feast.

Let’s remember that the King had shown great generosity in inviting them to what would have been a time of great joy.

Understandably, the King was a little miffed by the no-showers. Instead, he took revenge on many of them and invited his servants to seek out other people to make up the numbers.

By doing so, he was showing both imagination in how he solved the problem, and courage by inviting complete strangers in, both good and bad, as our translation puts it.

No wonder I thought this was an appropriate parable to read after last weekend!

As ever, this parable has a number of different meanings.

The first is thought to be the allegory used in the parable to represent those who had originally been invited to share in God’s Kingdom – those of the Jewish Faith, God’s chosen people.

They received the invitation and had ample warning of when God was going to come to earth, through the Patriarchs and the Prophets.

But when the time came, nearly all of them carried on with their lives and didn’t think that Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting all their lives for.

So, God opened up the wedding banquet to the Gentiles – that’s you, me and everyone else not directly descended from David.

The second meaning is the wider interpretation of the parable. What might we, of non-Jewish descent, learn from it today?

Well, the king’s invitation was to share in his joy. Who wouldn’t want to go to a wonderful feast, where the wine flowed freely and there was ample for everyone? Yes, this really is a parable about generosity and joy! I haven’t just shoe-horned them in there.

But in the world’s eyes, those who missed the invitation were doing worthy things – they weren’t just sitting around doing nothing.

But there was no sense that the feast could be for them. How would it enrich their lives? Why should they stop what they were doing and go to the banquet?

Although our translation says the King was enraged when his guests didn’t respond to his invitation, I can’t help but feel he would have been very disappointed, too.

Perhaps it’s easy to concentrate on his pretty harsh actions – seeking revenge on those who had killed his slaves would have been fairly standard practice in the culture of first-century Palestine.

Because this is about God being disappointed if we don’t respond to his call – it’s not about punishment. Who wouldn’t want the joy of knowing Christ? We’d be absolutely daft to turn down the opportunity!

Ultimately, however, this is another parable about grace. It’s about those being invited in off the streets to share in a wonderful feast, completely free of charge.

It’s that old idea of the King giving with no expectation of return. There would be no (substantial) wedding gifts from the people off the streets – both good and bad.

But there would be the joy of knowing that they were there to enjoy being part of the Kingdom. And I am sure that God is truly joyful when people join his Kingdom.

I could spend just as long talking about the second parable here, but I am not going to. You’ll have to wait for another three years before you get that chance!

But what I do want to do is to spend a little time thinking about what we might learn from the King hosting the wedding in terms of living out the Kingdom with generosity and joy, imagination and courage.

The first – and plainly obvious – thing to say is that we need to be generous in how we share the Gospel with others around us.

There should be no holding back! If we are truly followers of Christ, we should not be afraid of the Gospel!

But our generosity is wider than just inviting our friends to the Band Concert, worthy though that might be.

It’s about reaching out to those around us who wouldn’t be our first choice of person to spend eternity with. That’s emulating the generosity of the King.

And second, we need to do so joyfully. We need to be able to share that joy with others.

Joy isn’t putting on a fake smile and giving the impression that all is well in the world.

Joy, for me, is knowing that we are part of the bigger story of God’s unfolding creation, knowing that we can make a difference in the lives of others, and having something to celebrate as a result.

That’s joy. How much of this do we share with whom we rub alongside on a daily basis?

Thirdly, we need to use that imagination in terms of how we do church. It’s often been said that the seven words that will kill any church is the insistence that “we’ve never done it like that before…”

We’re all going to need to find ever more creative ways of sharing the Gospel. Be it here on a Sunday morning, online, or through different models of church at other times of the week?

Who knows, one day it might even mean entering into a formal partnership with the other churches in the village?

My point here is not to be doom-laden, but we are hardly likely to meet the challenges we face today by doing exactly the same thing and hoping people flock through the door. I think we need to be a bit more imaginative than that.

And what of courage? That naturally flows from imagination. We need the courage not only to dream big ideas, but to put them into practice.

We need to get out of our comfort zone – out of the boat, and onto the water, if you like.

We will need to learn how to know when some things are not working, and to let go of things we have loved for a long time but are no longer fit for purpose. And we’ll need the courage to do things differently.

I’ve talked a lot about we needing to do things. It is all about us working together. And I’m delighted to announce today that I shall be staying at St Peter’s for the foreseeable future, as the Bishop has invited me to become an Associate Minister here.

I thank you all – especially for Lynne – in your generosity of spirit towards me, Helen and the girls over the last three and a half years and we are all looking forward to continuing the journey together.

I think that God has given us a wonderful opportunity to continue to be part of the life of London Colney.

Just as the Bishop said, if we can live our lives both individually and collectively with that spirit of generosity and joy, imagination and courage, it’s going to be a pretty exciting ride.

And I pray that God will bless us in whatever lies ahead for us – both in our efforts to strengthen our own relationships with Christ, and in placing St Peter’s right in the heart of village life. Amen.

 

 

The night has passed and the day lies open before us… (Romans 12.9-end)

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“The night has passed and the day lies open before us; let us pray with one heart and mind. As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for you.”

These opening words from the Daily Office are some of the most wonderful in all the modern prayer books, if you ask me.

Every day, I get up early – usually before anyone else in the house has stirred – and pop down to my study to say Morning Prayer.

In fact, such was the sunrise this morning (pictured above) that I sat up in bed saying my prayers; one eye on my tablet, the other on the drama unfolding out of the window.

It helps that I am a morning person – six years of getting up at the crack of dawn to deliver newspapers when I was a teenager stood me in good stead to be an early riser.

But there’s something quite magical about that time when the house is completely quiet and I can get lost in my own thoughts – or, hopefully, the daily readings.

It has been a particular joy over the summer to sit in the garden for my prayers – handily downloaded onto my tablet so I don’t have to cart around the Prayer Book, a Bible and anything else I might want to use.

As I sit there listening to the birds, with the gentle hum of the motorway in the background, it really sets me up for the day. The night has passed and the day lies open before us.

For those of us involved in education, whether as students, parents, carers or teachers, the idea of days lying open before us appears to be particularly poignant at this time of year.

Within the next day or two, millions of boys and girls across the country will take those timid little steps into their new classrooms, meeting their new teachers – in many cases, in their new schools.

And, let me tell you, their teachers will often feel just as nervous as they do.

Because with this time of new beginnings comes new possibilities.

Possibilities to learn new things.

Possibilities to make new friendships.

Possibilities to put the past behind us and re-establish ourselves.

But there’s also the idea of having to leave some things behind. Perhaps we’ve been separated from our old friends – there will certainly be a few empty seats in my Common Room this year as some wonderful colleagues moved on at the end of last term.

Perhaps we’ll have a longer journey to get to school. Perhaps we’ll no longer be the big fish in a small pond, but the smallest fish in a pond that seems as big as the ocean.

The night has passed and the day lies open before us – with all the pain and heartache that that might involve.

One of the most wonderful lines from a song I know is “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end…”

Perhaps, when faced with the challenges of the new year, we’d rather be back where we were, thank you very much.

And these times of change, of course, happen to all of us, not just those involved in education.

Perhaps it’s coming to terms with our children finally fleeing the nest?

Maybe it’s dealing with the breakdown of a relationship that’s been the heart of who we are for a long time?

Possibly, it’s even facing our first day without our soulmate next to us when they have gone to glory?

How do we embrace the challenge of the day lying open before us?

Well, I think Paul had some good things to say about this in our Epistle this morning.

First, a bit of context. Much of this letter, which we have heard from in recent weeks, concerns the new Church in Rome trying to establish itself.

It’s almost at the very beginning of its existence. So it’s trying – as were all the new Churches – to work out its own set of ground rules and procedures.

The thing about the Church in Rome is that the members couldn’t quite work out who they were, and how they were supposed to act as Christians. (Can any of us answer this question, I wonder?)

So at the heart of Paul’s letter is the tension between trying to recognise their heritage as Law-abiding Jews on the one hand, and living as Christians under grace on the other.

And the readings in this middle section of the Epistle – sometimes known as the admonitions – are Paul’s best attempt to articulate how to hold the Law and Grace in tension.

Because, for Paul, it’s not an “either/or” situation. It’s a “both and”.

The startling thing about this passage is that there is nothing in this list of exhortations that a reader of the Hebrew Bible, or Jewish Scriptures as we might call them, could disagree with.

Much of the more controversial material – the words at the end about vengeance belonging to the Lord – are a direct quotation from Deuteronomy.

So what’s the point of telling people to behave just as they were?

Well, what Paul didn’t want to do was to ensure that the new Christians of Rome didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

He was saying to them, “You’re now under grace, which means that you can be forgiven for anything you do, but you must try to act for the good of all humanity.”

And this, I think, is an important lesson for us today. We also might be free to act as we wish, since we are all under grace. But that doesn’t mean to say we should.

And we’re far more likely to bring more people into the Kingdom by following Paul’s advice than we are by doing what we want, even if it hurts others.

So what Paul is encouraging us to do, and what Paul is encouraging all those in a time of transition to do, is to “let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” These are the marks of the true Christian.

Now I don’t want to say this will always be plain-sailing – Christ’s own words in today’s Gospel make it clear that following him might be the most costly thing possible for us to do.

But I do think that sometimes we over-complicate matters, just as the people of Rome did with their complex rules and regulations for the consumption of food.

Just as they did with their arrangements for worship.

Just as they did with their social hierarchies.

Paul sweeps all that aside and says, at the end of the passage, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

As we move into these times of new beginnings, may we take that verse as our guiding principle.

The night has passed and the day lies open before us. Let’s use this day, and all the days we have left on earth, to spread Christ’s love to all we meet. Amen.

 

Who is my brother? Who is my sister?

A sermon preached at Aldenham School’s 2017 Visitation (Speech) Day

20170624_102046The name Kenneth Thomas probably doesn’t mean a great deal to you. And, to be honest, it didn’t to me until last week.

Kenneth Thomas is one of the names inscribed on our memorial to the Aldenham First World War dead just above the organ console to my left.

And so, on the Year 9 trip to Flanders last week, we sought out his final resting place.

It has been my immense privilege for the last 10 years or so to go on this trip to the Battlefields of Ypres and the Somme, to help Year 9 students try to make sense of the carnage there a century ago.

The trip follows broadly the same itinerary every time. But each year there is always something different, which is why I continue to offer my services every year for the next trip.

And this year the trip had its own little twist. We tried to make a particularly strong connection with those who had gone before us from this school, and I frequently heard myself saying, “They walked where we walk.”

So we made a point of visiting a number of graves and memorials for Old Boys.

Boys and men who made the journey from England at some stage between 1914 and 1918, some of them not even having completed their education here, and who never came home again. They walked where we walk.

The link between then and now became particularly tangible when we were paying our respects to OAs from Beevor’s or McGill’s.

Because these two houses are (save for some rather wonderful refurbishments over the years!) pretty much the same as they would have been at the turn of the last century.

The Beevorites and McGillians would have left their houses after breakfast, meandered over Top Field and would have sat in lessons in what’s now the Maths, or the History and RS block.

They would have sauntered down to Cooke’s Field for their football matches, and would have gathered daily – yes, daily! – for their Chapel services in what’s now the Music School. They walked where we walk.

One of the particular graves we visited was a short hop from where we were staying in Ypres. It was of Captain Kenneth Thomas, Beevor’s House 1902-05.

The Aldenhamian tells us that, like many of his compatriots, Capt. Thomas had joined up following his time at Aldenham, during which he won his colours for Cricket. He then served for three years in Malaya.

Rather than spending all the war out there, he transferred into the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in December 1914 and received his commission. He became Captain shortly afterwards.

We don’t know anything about the circumstances of his death, other than he was killed in action on June 3rd 1916.

So, in a solemn moment last Thursday morning, around 80 members of the current Aldenham community – almost all of Year 9 plus eight members of staff – gathered around Capt. Thomas’ final resting place in New Irish Farm Cemetery.

We paused for a moment of reflection, and the boys from Beevor’s bowed their heads to pay their respects to one of their forebears.

Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool McGillian, I found the whole process immensely moving. Capt. Thomas walked where we walk.

As we got back on the bus, I sent a photo of the gathering to school and was met with an immediate reply from the Development Office.

Attached to the email was a photo of Captain Thomas. The face of an Aldenhamian who had paid the ultimate price was staring back at me.

He would no longer just be a name on the plaque in Chapel. He would be forever etched in my mind as a real person – somebody’s son, somebody’s friend and somebody’s brother. He walked where we walk.

We heard in our Gospel reading this morning of when Jesus was out walking, spreading his word through his actions of healing and his telling of parables.

And in the middle of this passage, he makes an extraordinary claim. He’s told that his mother and brothers are outside waiting for him, as – presumably – they can’t get anywhere near him because of the crowds.

“Someone told Jesus,” the narrative goes, “Look your mother and brothers are outside, wanting to speak to you.” Jesus responds, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”

And, pointing to his disciples, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Unsurprisingly, theologians have tussled over the precise meaning of this passage for centuries now. But perhaps they are making things more complicated than they need to be?

And I think the message of this statement is quite apposite this morning as we gather to celebrate this wonderful community’s 420th year.

Who are my brothers? Jesus’ response suggests that, actually, brotherhood – and sisterhood, for that matter! – goes far wider than a simple biological identity. Brotherhood and sisterhood is determined not by one’s parents, but by one’s actions.

And what we saw just now in the slideshow, what we experience on the Sports pitch, what we witness in the Theatre, the classroom and dining room here is a response to that question.

Our brothers and sisters are those with whom we spend our daily lives. Those with whom we scale the very highest peaks and those with whom we plumb the very depths during our time as a member of the Aldenham community.

For Captain Thomas’ case, and for the other 162 OAs killed in the First World War, there is an additional dimension to this. Jesus ends his statement by saying, “for whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

You may well be pleased to know that I am not going to spend any time discussing the morality of war at this point, and whether the tactics used in Ypres represented the will of God.

But what I will say is that Captain Thomas, and many, many, many more of those who left this community never to return would have joined up thinking that they were making a difference.

If we go back a little further – another three and a bit centuries – Richard Platt presumably founded this school because he thought he would make a difference in the lives of all those he sought to provide education for.

He, and the other benefactors we’ll remember shortly, gave of their time, their talents and their treasure, to make a difference to the countless thousands of pupils and staff who have passed through the school ever since. And for their contribution, we should remain forever thankful.

And, as we seek to fine tune our vision for the future of the school – so that my successor in a couple of centuries’ time is here to extol the virtues of being a member of the Aldenham Community! – it’s worth holding on to that statement, Who is my brother? Who is my sister?
The brothers were there to take the school through its early stages of growth.
The brothers and sisters were there to shepherd the school through some incredibly dark valleys, when its very existence was put into question.

The brothers  abd sister were there to fight – and die – alongside one another in the First and Second World Wars.

The brothers and sisters are still here.

They sing their hearts out during House Music, and go hoarse with cheering on their compatriots during the Tug of War.

But being a brother or sister involves more than just the fun stuff, the visible stuff and the competitive stuff where house spirit is all too evident.

Real brothers and sisters are there at all times. Jesus’ brothers and sisters are those doing his will here in the school.

The brothers and sisters are here looking out for the isolated and the lonely in their tutor group and bringing them into the fold.

The brothers and sisters are here to provide companionship for those who have lost their way, just being there when they are needed most.

The brothers and sisters are here speaking out in so many ways against injustice, against bigotry and against intolerance.

The brothers and sisters are here digging deeper and deeper into their pockets every time a charity appeal is launched. Who’ve raised well over £1000 just in the last week for the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

These are brothers and sisters doing the will of the Father in heaven. These are the brothers and sisters I see on a daily basis in this place.

And, if we want to aspire to the brotherhood and sisterhood I’ve just mentioned, we need to walk the talk in our daily lives around school.

We need to uphold those Aldenham attributes of aspiration, courage, co-operation, curiosity, independence and respect in all that we do. In the words of Mr.Williams, these values need to be lived, not just laminated!

Values I’d argue Richard Platt would have been very quick to recognise in the first cohort of Aldenhamians.

Values exhibited by Captain Thomas and his band of brothers on the Battlefield.

And values which will keep the good ship Aldenham afloat for many more years to come.

Who are my brothers? Who are my sisters? Jesus asked rhetorically. The answer is clear: Those who do God’s will.

Those who love their neighbour as they love themselves as we’ve heard so often in Chapel this year.

Those who strive to make the world a better place for all who share this precious planet.

So like the thousands who have gone before us in this place, may we be guided by the determination to make a difference in all we do throughout the school and in the world beyond.

May we, as Christ’s brothers and sisters, walk where he walked. Amen.

 

Faith is a journey, not a journey’s end

What is it about journeying that brings people together? It has been said that the only time Brits will talk to people they don’t know is when they are travelling somewhere.

We seem to have spontaneous conversations with complete strangers once we sit down on the train, the coach or the plane. (OK, this doesn’t happen on a commuter train around here or the tube, but you get my point!)

It’s as if we feel the need to acknowledge the shared nature of our experience.

Whenever I take the girls up to see my parents in Yorkshire, we tend to look with pity on the person occupying the fourth seat at our table when we get on in Stevenage.

There is usually a wistful smile in return – presumably, they had hoped the table would be theirs for the whole journey – but pleasantries are usually exchanged.

But as we become comfortable with one another, the anecdotes start to flow. The weather’s a good place to start, or how late the train is running. And gradually, we both probe a little deeper, perhaps about enquiring about where we’re going and whom we’re visiting.

By the time the train is drawing into York, it often becomes a bittersweet experience to say farewell to someone we shall never see again. I feel enriched by having shared time with a stranger, and wish them well with their onward journey.

There’s something about the nature of journeying that brings out a profound change in us. It seems to make us a little more able to express our vulnerabilities, a little more willing to open up, and to be opened up.

I guess that this has always been the case. Ever since the earliest of times, humans have journeyed together, as well as separately. And I would suggest that some of the deepest conversations are held when we are on foot, stepping side by side.

When at university, I had my first serious conversation with the rather good looking first-year student who was later to become my wife somewhere in the hills of Derbyshire. (Actually, I could tell you exactly where it was, but that’s possibly being a bit obsessive!)

I returned to almost precisely the same spot to spend a blissful day with my Dad shortly before we moved to the States, retracing the first serious hike we had had together when I was a boy.

And I decided that I would pursue the path of ordination during a walk with two of my best friends (both of whom, not-very-coincidentally, I had met on the same walk in Snowdonia!)

I wonder what your favourite journey alongside someone else has been?

Let’s go back to the journey we’ve ust heard about on that first Easter Sunday, on the road to Emmaus. We don’t know a whole lot about the exact chronology of the day, but this was the third resurrection appearance of Jesus.

Rather confusingly for those of us who like things to be told in order, Luke suggests it was before the appearance to the rest of the Disciples, including Thomas we heard about last week. This happened later on in the day. But I want us to imagine what might have been going through the mind of Cleopas and the un-named disciple – quite possibly his wife – on that journey.

Everyone who had been in Jerusalem for the Passover cannot possibly have missed out on what was going on. They were either eyewitnesses to the crucifixion or news would have spread rapidly throughout the city. We understand that these two had great knowledge of events.

Imagine, if you can, what it must have felt like for them. Everything that they had stood for – Jesus being the Messiah, the Son of God – was over. The prophets had not been fulfilled. There was no new commandment. There was no Lamb of God.

So these two – quite possibly without home, or family, or income, because they had given all those up to follow Christ – were putting the past behind them and trudging away from Jerusalem. Utterly devastated. Betrayed. Angry. Shattered. At their lowest possible ebb. How would we feel in such circumstances?

And then Jesus walks alongside them.

We can speculate why they didn’t recognise the risen Lord if they knew him so well. The easiest response is to suggest that He was hidden from them, through some sort of divine intervention.

Some have suggested that Jesus was heading in the other direction, back from Emmaus. He was headed towards the east, with the symbolism of new life, and they were heading west, towards the darkness of night. I am not convinced by this.

Perhaps there’s more to it than that. Perhaps, like Mary Magdalene in the Garden, they were so wrapped up in their own grief that they were not actually taking in what was going on.

And let’s remember. To come face to face with the Christ just two days after he had been crucified would have taken such an extraordinary amount of imagination that perhaps they just weren’t capable of seeing.

Even after what we know, would we see the risen Christ in these circumstances? All we are told, however, is that “they stood still, looking sad.” Is this at all surprising?

But this, for me, is the heart of this story. You see, I don’t know that we are that different from Cleopas and his friend. We are happy to acknowledge the presence of God when we are at one with the world.

Yet when the chips are down, are we so confident? When all our hope has gone, can we still cling to the resurrection story? When we are utterly despondent, can we acknowledge the work of Christ in our lives? And in the lives of those around us?

I find it wonderfully inspirational to hear of how Christians cling to their faith in the most desperate of circumstances.

Terry Waite did a piece for the radio last week about how he kept going through his dark years of isolation, and it was lump-in-the-throat stuff (especially when he talked about needing to meet his captors again, but that can wait for another sermon!)

But most of us might not find it quite so easy. We somehow muddle on our journey and it’s only afterwards that we recognise the intervention of God in our lives. Perhaps that’s why the “Footprints” story seems to be so powerful.

And if that sounds like your story, I want to say that you’re in good company.

Because for me, faith is a journey, not a journey’s end. We might not understand what we are going through. We might scream out, asking where God is.
And God might be standing right alongside us, holding us in our rage and despondency, just as Jesus was with Cleopas and his travelling companion.

They needed to understand for themselves, and that understanding would not come until they reached their destination for the evening.

And there’s more. The rebuke that Jesus gives them – “how foolish you are!” may sound a bit harsh. But the point of this part of the account is that, I think, the story needed to be told. Without Jesus reminding them of the Gospel, how would they know whether it had been fulfilled?

But still they did not see. Even so, they invited Jesus to carry on with them. Now there are plenty of people who may be in that position today. They are still searching. They know the Gospel in their heads, but not yet in their hearts.

So if you are one of those people, you’re in good company too. Faith is a journey, not a journey’s end.

And eventually, they reach their destination for the day. It was only then when “he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them” [v30] when the scales finally came off their eyes.

Supper-at-Emmaus-1024x728The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio really captures the essence of this moment of revelation wonderfully – there are some copies at the back if you wish to look at them.

Whilst we are on the subject of journeys, I had the chance to visit the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery last year. It was quite extraordinary. I did something I very rarely do. I got back to the end, and went round again. And again.
And each time I was drawn towards a painting called The Taking of Christ (also at the back), featuring the betrayal and arrest of Jesus.

330px-Caravaggio_-_Taking_of_Christ_-_DublinThere, looking on in eager anticipation was a face which looked familiar. It was that of Caravaggio, who had put himself into the baying crowd. It brought a lump to my throat.

But back to the story. Jesus was sharing the bread and wine with his followers, and therefore the echo back to the Last Supper is clearly there. But this was no formal dinner like the Passover. This was the sharing of experiences at the end of a journey together over a communal meal.

It was only then that they recognised the risen Lord. And, for me, this gives great comfort. I am not trying to suggest that the Eucharist doesn’t matter. But we don’t have to wait until the Eucharist to eat and drink together.

Real Christian fellowship – real revelation of fundamental truths – can occur in the breaking of any bread together. And at this stage, the disciples’ newly-refreshed faith became a corporate experience.

But that’s still not the end of the story. There’s one little detail I wonder whether you noticed. It’s tucked away in verse 34. Instead of staying in Emmaus for the evening, the two returned straight to Jerusalem, where they met the eleven.

And the disciples affirmed their amazing account with the words “It is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” [v34.] We know that Simon better as Peter.

Jesus’ right-hand man who denied him in his hour of great need. Not once. Not twice. But three times. (There’s another painting at the back from Caravaggio about that, too…)

And from this account, we know that Jesus appeared to Simon almost before he appeared to anyone else. It’s almost an echo of that amazing story of forgiveness in Luke – the prodigal son.

Whatever we have done in our lives. However unfaithful we have been to Jesus. However much we have turned our backs on him. Jesus will seek us out and offer himself afresh to us on our faith journeys.

So, I wonder where we are on the road to or from Emmaus? As individuals? As a community of believers? As a nation?

Are we still with our heads down, tramping in the wrong direction? Not ready to accept the change the resurrection can make in our lives?

Or have the scales just fallen from our eyes as we recognise the risen Lord? In the breaking of the bread, are we delighting in his presence?

Or have we changed our plans, maybe even the course we expected our life to take, and are now rushing to share the good news with those who don’t yet know Jesus?

Wherever we are, may God continue to bless us all on our journey of faith together. And may we hold onto the comfort that faith is a journey, not a journey’s end. Amen

Jesus slipped off – the need to disconnect (John 6.1-15, The Message)

Screenshot_20170313-212607 (1)

Five percent. That figure may not mean much to you but it brings me out in a cold sweat. It’s when my phone tells me that I have a critically low battery. The screen goes so dark you can barely read it. All non-essential apps are automatically shut down.

And I begin to search around like a man possessed, trying to work out how I am going to get some more juice in my device. The world is about to end if I don’t.

What has brought me to the point where I can’t cope in life without my Samsung in my pocket? How did I get so caught up in the need to be contactable at any time? When and how am I going to disconnect?

Take the time a few weeks ago when I went up to Stoke. I did the usual stuff – a tweet here, Facebook status update there – and I was quietly confident that I’d get home on just the one charge. Because – shock, horror – I had left the house without a power brick or charging lead.

So then we got back to the station to find our train home had been cancelled. The one we eventually got on travelled at the speed of an arthritic tortoise and was so packed that I had to stand back to back with a Crystal Palace fan – not easy when my team had just taken his to the cleaners.

And I watched my percentage fall and fall and fall. I had to do something drastic. So I powered down.

And I spent most of the rest of the journey gazing with envy at the guys on the table I was leaning against, one with a charger and the other a brick, idly going through every app on their iPhones.

They seemed far too unfriendly to offer me a few minutes’ top-up so I didn’t even ask them. I had in my mind when I’d be able to switch back on and still get home before my phone died. And, somewhere south of Milton Keynes, I made the decision to reboot.

All was not lost. Nobody had called. Nobody had announced on Facebook that they had got married or had had some other life-changing event. There were no pictures of newly-born children on Instagram (or none from the people I follow).

My notifications button on Twitter remained grey, indicating that nobody thought my tweets about the game I’d just watched were even worth acknowledging.

And it got me thinking. Maybe I should switch off more often if nobody needs to get hold of me? Maybe I should treat my phone like my Dad does. He’ll take it out of his pocket, carefully switch it on, make a call, switch off and put it back in his pocket.

Of course, it drives the rest of us nuts as we spend the entire time leaving him messages and waiting for him to go through the whole routine when he gets them – sometimes several days later.

But, you know, I think my Dad has a point. The rest of us have become slaves to our devices. And that is far from a healthy way of loving ourselves. Instead of us controlling our phone, our phone controls us.

It wakes us up in the morning. It sets our agenda for things we will do before sleep comes round again. It tells us that we haven’t walked far enough that day – or gives us a little pat on the back when we have.

It stores our email and puts us in touch with people across the globe. It takes photos of our kids growing up plays us our favourite tunes whenever we want them.

And it takes us right through the time when we just check the news,  or social media, or play one last round of Candy Crush, before we switch our lights off.

And our lives are full of the detritus that such devices leave behind. Charging leads. Adaptors. The desperate search to get the wifi code as soon as we arrive somewhere new. The constant fear of the thing getting nicked or crushed under the wheels of a bus or just becoming so old that our friends will laugh at us.

Now I’m not saying we should have all given up our phones for Lent. I like to think that I use mine for good sometimes – and obviously I need to be contactable in my day job. But it’s how much we use our phones and other devices that worries me.

And I thought the advice about a digital detox given in this slot last week is really, really important.

But I think we could probably all do with ditching our devices every so often. Because they send out the signal that we’d rather be somewhere – anywhere – than we currently are.

The former Chief Rabbi talked recently about the need for a Digital Shabbat – where we all disconnect for a period of time every week – and how it was a good way of looking after ourselves.

We heard earlier the story of Jesus feeding the Five Thousand. And the verse that interests me most about this passages is the very last bit that was read. It must have been pretty demanding feeding 5000 people in one go.

So afterwards, Jesus slipped off and went back up the mountain to be by himself. If that were taking place today, what would Jesus do?

I bet that he would have powered down and just spent the time in nature, reflecting on the reality of the here and now, rather than the unreal world in his Instagram feed.

Perhaps he would have looked out over Jerusalem and, instead of snapchatting his disciples, he’d have spent the time admiring the beauty of creation.

He probably wouldn’t have got his Beats out and slammed on a bit of Ed Sheeran, but would have listened to the sound of the birds singing sweetly.

And by doing so, he would have disconnected from the unreality of his virtual life, and connected with the reality of his actual life.

So, the challenge for us today is – can we disconnect? I am hoping to do so when on holiday once we finish here in a few weeks’ time.

The email will come off my phone. I’ll switch on the Out of Office and switch off the Call Divert. I’ll resist the temptation of telling the world about what I am doing on holiday by the sea in Norfolk.

Instead I’ll listen to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. I’ll watch sandpipers digging for worms and the dogs running joyfully into the icy sea.

And I’ll just be. I’m looking forward to my Digital Shabbat. Why don’t you try to switch off and disconnect, just like Jesus did?

Note: This sermon was preached in School Chapel as part of a series on Loving your neighbour as yourself, most of which were delivered by students on issues as varied as charitable giving, digital detoxing and park running. I hope this explains the slightly familiar language!

 

 

Let go, Let God (Matt 6.25-37)

20160904_135727I wonder when was the last time you were kept awake by thoughts going round your head? I must confess that I am not a good sleeper and it seems that I lie in bed for endless stretches some nights.

For no particular reason – there just seems too much to think about in the hours that I’m meant to be awake so my brain is still going 90 to the dozen when the rest of my body has given up in fatigue.

I had one such night last week, when I was preoccupied with coming back here to St Mary’s. Of course, it was an unproductive chain of thoughts running through my mind and I can’t remember exactly what the point of my internal argument was.

Perhaps if I’d have had a notebook by my bed I could have written the sermon there and then? But I know that I woke up feeling somewhat anxious about the whole experience. I can’t imagine why because, as I said, I’ve been looking forward to returning here.

There is, it seems, a lot to worry about these days. We are told that the NHS is in crisis, and our pensions won’t go far enough to keep us in the manner to which we have become accustomed.

We face the prospect of there being insufficient care facilities for us all when we are reaching the point where we can’t look after ourselves, so will have to move back in with our children.

Will they be able to look after us, though, as they’ll all be working so hard to pay off their student loans and the rent whilst they save for their first house?

And will their children face a life of unemployment or dead-end jobs with no prospect?

Put into this mix the fact that the other side of the Atlantic there’s a man with the nuclear codes who seems to spend more and more time acting irrationally and it’s not surprising that our stress levels are rising. How can we not worry about the future?

Putting things like that, and you can see that Jesus’ teaching on worrying is pretty radical.

So let’s spend a while unpicking what he means by this passage, towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount.

I think the first thing to say here is that Jesus is addressing his 12 disciples as much as the crowd at this point.

These are people who have given up everything for him yet, like the Israelites following Moses in exile, are starting to show signs of worry. Had they really made the right decision, I can hear them thinking!

Jesus uses one of those phrases which has become part and parcel of our everyday language – O ye of little faith! – in the traditional translation – to describe those who are worried about the future.

This phrase is often used jokingly by my mum when everything turns out right in the end. But, you know, I think she’s got a point. Because what Jesus is saying is that worrying is profoundly dangerous to our relationship with God, and is therefore something we need to guard against.

Worrying clearly damages our health – there is plenty of evidence for that. What we might call the western diseases of stress and heart attacks are simply not experienced in the same number in countries with a laid-back culture, where there seems to be more acceptance of life as it is, rather than how we would want it to be.

Although it can be immensely frustrating, there’s something quite profoundly refreshing about that word manana –I’ll do it tomorrow! – often used in such countries.

Worrying disrupts our productivity – we spend time internally analysing our thoughts, rather than helping those who need to be helped. It’s easy to spend time thinking about the things that could go wrong, rather than giving thanks to God for the things that have gone right.

Worrying also negatively affects the way we treat others. It’s natural to trust other people less if we can’t trust our own prospects for the future.

And – I’d argue most importantly – worrying affects our relationship with God. With worry, there can be no ultimate trust, as worrying produces a conditionality in our faith.

It’s like saying “I do trust your plan for my life, God, but I’m still not able to let go of all the things that could go wrong.” That’s not real trust in God.

And so we see Jesus giving some pretty basic advice to his followers as to what they should spend their time thinking about.

“Do not worry about your life,” he says, “what you shall eat, or what you shall drink, or what you shall wear.”

What he is saying here is not that food or drink or clothing do not matter in themselves; it’s just that they should not occupy too much headspace.

A small confession here – I am sometimes gripped by paralysis by analysis. There have been times when I have thought about going for a run. But I need to make sure I am comfortable when I run. Too many layers and I’ll overheat. Too few and I’ll give myself a chill.

So I put stuff on – and take it off again before I set out. I look out the front windows and then the back windows to see if there are any weather fronts approaching. I check the weather app on my phone. And I repeat ad infinitum it seems. On extreme occasions, I have spent longer deciding what to wear than the length of the run itself. That’s the absurdity which Jesus is talking about here.

And it’s often the same when given too much choice on a menu. We spend forever deciding what we should have to eat – and don’t want to make a wrong choice, lest we lose out on some enjoyment of the dish we could have had.

So we end up flustering over our choice, and spending the rest of the meal regretting not opting for what our dining companion – or someone on an adjacent table – is eating as it looks far better than our choice. The “fowls of the air” don’t seem to have such a problem, do they?

In a landmark book called the Paradox of Choice, published in 2005, Barry Schwartz made the astounding claim that too much choice makes us worse off as we simply cannot make a rational choice and therefore spend our time thinking about what might have been, rather than enjoying what we have.

That’s precisely what Jesus is arguing against when he tells us not to worry about the choices we make.

And then we have the most beautiful of images – the lilies – probably poppies or anemones – providing us with the most wonderful sense of enjoyment. Whose beauty does not come from external decoration but from internal design.

O we of little faith, who spend so much time trying to make ourselves look acceptable to others, lest they think badly of us!

As I said earlier, the real concern here is that worrying restricts our ability to trust God’s plan for our lives. In the big scheme of things, fretting about whether we wear one outfit or another, or choose the lamb over the beef main course, isn’t going to do too much damage to our relationship with God.

But if we consistently spend time and headspace concerning ourselves with the trivial details of life, it gives us less of an opportunity to be thankful for what we do have.

And so that’s why the Gospel reading today features that well-known line Seek ye first the kingdom of God… or Strive for the kingdom of God in the translation we heard. If our primary concern is how we can please God, rather than how we can maximise our own pleasure, we will achieve righteousness.

We simply can’t reward ourselves with it – it has to come from God. And it comes from God when we trust in him, rather than concern ourselves with trivialities.

Besides, as the passage concludes, there is no point in “worrying about tomorrow” as tomorrow will bring enough worries of its own. Rather, let’s spend time delighting in the choices we have made for today.

There is, of course, a much wider dimension in all of this, and this is the subject of our Epistle reading this morning. That is the place of our lives in the great cosmological battle which has been going on since the fall of Adam.

We also heard the lengthy creation narrative – a story we probably know very well. But note how the writer to the Romans refers directly back to that time when he writes “for we know that the whole creation groans in labour pains until now.”

What Paul is really saying is that this pattern of worrying for the future is inherently part of the fall of man, and can only be put right by the redemption of Christ.

Because what he concentrates on is not worry, but hope. And hope, we are told, is what cannot be seen but has to be experienced. Therefore, we are to hope in the future, rather than to worry about it.

It’s important to say, I think, that Jesus, and by extension, Paul, is not advocating a “ruthless, thriftless, reckless, thoughtless, improvident attitude to life” as one commentator (Barclay) put it.

It’s perfectly rational to be concerned for the future, such as saving for a pension, and to not be could be considered to be irresponsible beyond measure because it might place an intolerable burden on those left to clear up the mess. But “do not worry about your life” really means that these things should not consume us.

It could be argued that worrying is part of human nature. But breaking free of worrying can release us from the burdens of dissatisfaction and regret. It can also liberate us to enjoy where we are in the moment, much as the “birds of the air” are able to do.

I had the opportunity last September to do some abseiling. My colleague and I let all our 14 year old boys go first. They, of course, were without kids to feed, wives to care for and mortgages to pay, so pretty much jumped off the top of the tower.

Mike and I were quite glad that all the boys had left us, as we both stood there physically trembling. We knew that there was virtually no prospect of us coming to harm. But that didn’t make leaning backwards from the edge of a 30-foot tower any easier.

But as we both gingerly let our weight be taken by the rope, nothing untoward happened. The world didn’t stop turning. The birds didn’t stop singing. After a few seconds, were able to lean out completely, pushing off with our legs.

And it was one of the most liberating experiences I have ever had in my life – so much so that I did it again, and again, and again.

But that step backwards into the unknown was a step in faith – that they safety systems would work, that the person feeding me my rope would not let go, and that I wouldn’t do anything daft. And that’s what taking no thought means.

I once knew a tremendous man of God, who was working as part of the Clare Community in my home village an hour or so up the A1 from here. Damian had on a poster at the end of his bed the words, Let go. Let God.

That simple phrase has stayed with me through thick and thin in the last 30 years or so. When I’ve been tempted to worry, I’ve thought back to those words. When I am delighting in being where God wants me to be, I’ve thought back to those words.

It’s not always been possible, of course – even in the middle of the night, saying Let go, let God does not get me straight back to sleep and I continue to worry. But my prayer for all of us is that we are able to take no thought for our lives, that we are able to Let go, and Let God. Amen.

 

Carrying the torch – Isaiah 58.1-9 & Matthew 5.13-20

20170127_164412One of the unexpected blessings of not currently having a Chaplain at school is that I get to lead nearly all the worship services throughout the year. We meet as a community in the Chapel last thing on a Monday and a Friday.

The congregation – all 550 students and a fair smattering of my colleagues – sings heartily and tends to listen well to the sermon. It’s a good way to end the school day, and indeed the school week.

The most powerful times in the school Chapel – just as they are here – are when silence descends. I try to build in pockets of quiet in a service to enable a time of reflection.

And sometimes we do it formally and observe a longer period of time together saying nothing. The sense of unity, of God being at work in many different ways, of lives being touched, is palpable.

One such period of silence occurred a week last Friday, when we gathered together – as we do every year – to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Some students who had recently had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz spoke very movingly of their experiences there.

And others talked about why we must continue to remember the victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides. Then representatives of each of the seven school houses lit a candle and we watched their flames dance around in the failing light for a minute as we observed a solemn silence.

We broke the silence by pledging, as a diverse school community, to build a better world, in the words of the liturgy we used, where “all are valued and none are excluded, where justice and mercy flow like rivers, and where relationships are built on love and acceptance, not fear and intolerance.”

It was a quite beautiful moment to look out over a sea of faces from all corners of the earth joining in those words with me. It gave me great hope.

At the very same time the service was taking place, President Trump was putting the finishing touches on his Executive Order which put a complete ban on immigration from 7 mainly Muslim countries.

When the news of the ban came out the next day, the contrast with my feelings in Chapel twenty four hours earlier could not have been greater.

We had stood alongside each other in a show of unity. Here was the leader of the free world trying to divide.

We pledged to include all. He vowed to exclude many purely on the basis of their country of birth.

We longed for justice and mercy; he seemed to delight in injustice and inhumanity.

When I saw the coverage from airports that night, and when I heard the way in which lives were being turned upside down, I wept for the future of the United States.

It became particularly painful to see the reports from Washington airport.

A place where we landed so full of optimism when we arrived for the next phase of our lives sixteen years ago.

A place where we introduced our days-old elder daugther to her Grandparents.

And a place where we said farewell to dear friends and colleagues when we returned home five years later.

That place had become somewhere to detain – handcuffed – five year olds, for four hours as the horror continued.

Everything that the United States seemed to stand for had been obliterated with the stroke of a President’s pen. There would be no more of the sentiment emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

There was a lot of talk on social media last weekend about how churches should address what was going on.

Much of it went along the lines of “if your church isn’t talking about what’s going on in the USA, it’s time to find a new church.”

But, when faced with the readings the Lectionary has thrown at us today, I really don’t see how we can’t talk about it.

When I am looking at photos of five year olds in handcuffs alongside those words about God telling the people of Israel to choose to “loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free” [Is 58.3] it’s really difficult for me to come to any other conclusion.

A closer reading of Isaiah, though, brings out another problem – the scourge of hypocrisy. And I wonder whether we – as a nation, as communities, as individuals – aren’t culpable of falling into the same trap as the pious long faces of Israel.

God was on a bit of a rant against his chosen people when our Old Testament reading begins. God is angry that the Israelites only seem to see one side of being a true follower of God.

They are doing absolutely fine at some of the rituals involved and even complain that God doesn’t seem to notice when they fast, or humble themselves [v3].

But there’s no point in fasting, God says, if at the same time you are “oppressing your workers and striking with a wicked fist” [v4].

God cannot be happy if at the same time as wearing sackcloth and ashes, a sign of true repentance, God’s people don’t actually change their behaviour.

The corollary for us would be to say our prayers of confession here, and to go into the world and do absolutely nothing different.

I don’t believe that’s what God intended.

The tone changes halfway through the passage, when God starts to suggest some of the things that the Israelites – that we – should be doing instead of making ourselves look good. And it’s quite a long list.

We are to, as aforementioned, “loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free” [v6].

Once we’ve done that, it’s our duty to “share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our houses” [v7].

As if that’s not enough, we must “cover the naked, and make ourselves available to our own communities.

Then the light of God will break forth like the dawn.

Then our “healing shall spring up quickly” [v8].

Then God will hear our cry and will say “here I am” [v9].

This sounds like a tall order. Does it mean we all need to be running a soup kitchen, or taking in asylum seekers, or chaining ourselves to the railings outside No. 10 until every prisoner is freed?

Of course not. But what it must mean is that we have to be biased towards the poor, the tired and the huddled masses.

We have to take the side of the oppressed, rather than the oppressor.

We have to shout out against injustices when we see them. It’s not an option.

How we do this will depend on the resources we have at our disposal. But what we can all do is pray. And I’ve prayed like I’ve never prayed before for a world leader in the last couple of weeks.

We can all take part in campaigns by groups such as Christian Aid and Oxfam, who work tirelessly to alleviate suffering throughout the world.

We can all lobby our MPs to urge them to take decisions which benefit the poor more than the rich.

Carrying the torch of hope is not optional for Christians. It’s part of what it means to be a follower of Christ. And this is what we see in our Gospel reading today.

We are with Jesus as he delivers the Sermon on the Mount, and he has just delivered the Beatitudes. (Blessed are the poor in spirit, and such like.)

Jesus hits his followers pretty directly as he says to them, “You are the salt of the earth…” and “You are the light of the world…” [Matt 5.13]. Let’s spend a moment or two looking at those analogies.

Nowadays, we use the phrase “salt of the earth” to describe the most wonderful, humble people we know. The Greeks used the word divine for salt, such was its importance, and Romans likened it to purity.

Nowadays, of course, salt is seen as a thing best avoided, but when it was pretty much the only preservative, it was valuable and had a vital role in holding together the very basic elements of life.

And Jesus says that we need to work on our faith, lest our lives lose their saltiness. That’s why a faith which is standing still, which is not exploring new ways of experiencing the love Christ has for us, through Bible study, or worship, or prayer, is doomed to fade away. That’s losing its saltiness, which makes our faith effectively worthless.

For me, the second analogy used – that of the light of the world – is incredibly powerful. As Christians, we ought to be known as people who bring light to others. As a nation. As communities of believers. As individuals.

I think we have the power to do that in so many ways, both collectively and individually. We ought to be that shining “City on a hill” [v.14].

And our light should “shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven” [v.16].

I wonder how often, to use the third analogy, we hide our own lights under a bushel? This is not about being shy and self-deprecating.

This is about making the light of Christ evident to those around us.

Are we quiet when we should speak up?

Do we go along with the crowd when we know it’s not edifying to God?

Do we deny the light of Christ in our own lives?

Do we let our own conduct cover the light from others?

Do we keep the light to ourselves, rather than sharing it with others?

Do we, in short, do all the things the people of Israel were doing when they refused to let their faith actually make a difference in how they treated others?

Because, as I said earlier, carrying the torch is not optional for us as Christians. It’s who we are.

So where we see injustice, where we experience intolerance and hatred, where we hear of our fellow brothers and sisters being treated in a way that God didn’t intend, we are compelled to act.

We are bound by our faith to try to bring God’s light into every situation. We are told by Christ to give light to “all in the house” [v.14].

As I look across at what’s happening in the States, it’s easy to get despondent, or angry, or saddened.

But I am a believer in hope, and I believe that “even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise” to coin a phrase from Les Miserables.

I believe that the groundswell of outrage against injustice, the prayers of all those working to bring God’s light into the darkest situations, will ultimately mean that the light of Christ will prevail.

I began by talking about one American President, and I want to end by quoting from another, often compared to the current incumbent.

After his eight years in the White House, Ronald Reagan addressed the nation with these words in his farewell address:

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life…. And how stands the city on this winter night? … After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true to the granite ridge, and her glow has held no matter what storm.

And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home” [farewell address, Jan 1989].

President Reagan and I share the hope that the City on a hill will continue to shine out. And may we all strive to bring the light of the world into our homes, our communities, our nation and our global community.

And may our actions shine before others to reflect the glory of Christ in all that we do. Amen.

 

What’s in a name? – Luke 2.15-21

20161224_082230What’s in a name? I wonder how many of us know how and why we got our our own name? I, for one, have no idea why I ended up being called what I am. Having had the responsibility with my wife of choosing names for our two girls, I can tell you that it’s quite a thing.

As a teacher, it’s perhaps a little more tricky for me than most. We can associate potential names with all sorts of past pupils – for better or worse! – and it’s difficult to come up with a name which is completely neutral.

Helen and I were so convinced that our first daughter was going to be a boy that we barely thought about a girl’s name for her. We got talking about it as we drove across the States three months before she was due to be born and vowed we would not leave Kansas until we had nailed one for her.

We faced a similar issue with our second daughter and had no idea what to call her. (In the end, I resorted to printing off all the girls’ names on the school register and picking one from there!)

I love our girls’ names and cannot imagine them being called anything different. But I really think, with hindsight, we ought to have put a bit more effort into the choice of something which – for most of us – sticks with us forever.

Perhaps when my parents were with us just before Christmas, I should have taken the opportunity to find out why they called me what they did. Part of me wishes to keep it a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they might have thought twice if they’d have known how notorious the name Philip Green would become.

As you know, my name has been under a bit of attack recently, due to my namesake’s shenanigans with BhS. “There’ll be no more Philip Greens under Labour,” screamed John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, during his conference speech last autumn.

A week or so later, it was Theresa May’s turn to vilify Philip Green, who was lumped together with tax dodgers, the sneering elite and big tech firms as being responsible for all the nation’s ills.

And, you know, I felt quite hurt. I knew, of course, that these attacks weren’t directed at me personally, but seeing one’s name in print or talked about on the 10 o’clock news in such a negative way still rankles with me. Names are important.

Under Jewish law, names were a vital part of one’s identity. We heard in our first reading this morning those beautiful words of what’s known as the Aaronic Blessing.

In the midst of some quite detailed laws on culinary practices and priestly behaviour (I’m quite glad we don’t have to read all that this morning!) there is this most beautiful piece of poetry, which I often use as a blessing at the altar rail. We’ll hear John Rutter’s setting of it after the sermon.

The blessing contains a number of important elements. The Lord bless you and keep you indicates the personal nature of this blessing – it’s about blessing the Israelites as individuals as much as a community.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you refers to the way in which the Lord can protect us, again both individually and collectively.

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you is a sign of God’s approval being conferred on us, just as we tend to raise our chins when we approve of something.

And give you peace refers to that inner sense of shalom, or well-being, rather than an absence of conflict.

But it’s the bit we don’t say in the blessing that’s of most relevance here. So shall they put my name on the Israelites, God says, and I will bless them. Taking God’s name – literally, by wearing it on one’s sleeve as some Jews do (much as we might wear a Cross or a fish) – was a way of being assured of God’s blessing at all times.

When we take the name of God seriously, we walk in his ways and our entire actions are there to bring glory to his name.

Taking God’s name is, of course, at the heart of our Gospel reading this Sunday. We mark the eighth day of Christmas today, which we might well more readily associate with maids-a-milking than the Festival of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus, to give today its full title.

I think it’s worth spending a bit of time delving into why this is such an important day in the Christian calendar.

The first part of the reading retells the story of the shepherds visiting the manger and then spreading the Good news throughout the kingdom as God’s first evangelists.

And, amidst the glad tidings, there’s that wonderful line of “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Lk2.19).

Among the visit of the heavenly host, and the joy of the shepherds, there was still time for Mary to reflect on the wonderful news of the birth of the Saviour of the world.

We have the perfect blend of the divinity and humanity of the nativity encapsulated in this verse.

But, notwithstanding the importance of the nativity story, that’s not what I want to talk about today. It’s what comes next which we mark today. As ever, a little context is necessary.

The eighth day of a child’s life, under Jewish law, was crucial. For the first seven days, the mother was considered to be ritually unclean, and could not associate with anyone from the Temple.

That ended on the eighth day, and immediately a priest would have come to a family to undertake the naming of the child and the delicate medical procedure which I will not go into this morning.

This process was one of the few which priests would break their Sabbath observance for as the Torah (the Ancient Jewish teachings) said that it must take place on the eighth day.

The ceremony was where the child was recognised as being one of the Covenant – in other words a descendent of Abraham – when he was originally given the Covenant by God way back in the early days of human life.

In addition to the physical mark of circumcision, there was also the child being given a name, which might well be different from his original name (if he had been given one at all!) This name would stick.

In the same way, a Pope will take on a new name when appointed, and most people entering religious orders will also do the same, to indicate their identity has changed completely.

Other ceremonies took place 33 days later, when the mother was ceremonially clean again, and we’ll hear more about the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on Candlemas. But both ceremonies recognise the importance of two things.

Firstly, that children are a gift from God and, in a sense, they are lent by God to us.

This is why such a great emphasis was put on acknowledging the birth of a child in such a spiritual and formal manner.

And secondly, of course, that names are important.

We are told in this account that the newborn baby was given the name Jesus, which was the name told to Mary by the Angel Gabriel before the Immaculate Conception. Jesus is a common form of Joshua, which, in itself, means YHWH (or God) saves.

Another account of the naming in Matthew’s Gospel has the baby being called Emmanuel, meaning God with us, from the Prophecy in Isaiah. Matthew ties this up nicely with the account in Luke saying, in the parallel account that He (Jesus) will save the people from their sins (Matt1.21).

So this day is important – by formally being given the name Jesus, Christ has become known as the one who will save us from our sins, if we believe in him.

And this is touched on in the Epistle this morning. Paul (or whoever wrote to the Galatians) acknowledges the importance of the holy family observing Jewish custom, as Christ was born under the law.

But because we acknowledge the name of Jesus, we are “no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal4.7).

What this is saying is simple, yet profound. Jesus became a child of the covenant when he was named on the eighth day.

If we acknowledge the name of Jesus, we also become children of the same heavenly covenant. And we are blessed in the same way as Aaron offered blessing to the Israelites in those beautiful words we will hear again shortly.

I think it’s quite apposite to acknowledge the naming of Jesus on this, the first day of the New Year. We take on, once again, the name of Christ. And we are urged to uphold that name through our thoughts, words and deeds in the year ahead.

Without that naming, we wouldn’t be able to acknowledge Christ. And without acknowledging his name, we would not be children of the covenant.

And my prayer for us all is that, as we enter into the uncertainty of 2017, we do all we can to uphold the name of Jesus throughout whatever lies ahead. And as we do, we are reminded of the blessings bestowed upon us by being part of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Thanks be to God, and every blessing in the year ahead as we continue on our journeys of faith. Amen.

 

 

 

There is a light that never goes out (John 1.1-14)

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Who had trouble sleeping last night, I wonder? Was it the excitement of what you might wake up to? Was it the sheer exhaustion of having to get so much stuff done yesterday so that you might just have lunch sometime before it gets dark today? Was it something else keeping you awake, as is the case most nights?

I am not a particularly good sleeper, and last night was no different. I find it tricky to settle down, especially when I didn’t get in until almost 1.30 and was still buzzing from the Midnight Service. I go through a little routine every night – shut all the doors, close the curtains as tightly as possible, and make sure all devices aren’t flickering away.

Only then – when all light has been extinguished – does it become possible for me to sleep.

(This doesn’t explain how I can nod off on the sofa, looking straight into my reading light with the telly blaring and the Christmas tree lights flashing, but an investigation of that can wait for another day!)

Light and darkness are part of life for all of us. Who really likes being in the dark? Who really likes being in the light? Perhaps there are times when we’d rather be in one state or another, but I guess for most of us we’d like a little light to keep us feeling safe, but not so much that we’re blinded by it.

But with all our gadgets and blackout curtains and streetlights and so on, we’ve come to think that we can control the light exactly as we want it.

That, for me, is a bit of a shame. Few experiences match walking across an open field by moonlight. And my favourite services in this church are always when we dim the lights as low as possible and simply use candlelight to illumine the building. Last Sunday’s Carol Service, for instance, was a very special one.

Light, of course, has been a theme throughout the Bible – and, for that matter, in most religious texts.

Last night, Jewish households across the world lit the first of the candles on their Menorah as they welcomed in Hanukkah. This nine-day festival, when the temple candles miraculously burnt for nine days when there was only oil in them for one, symbolizes the very survival of the Jewish religion.

Eight weeks ago, Hindus celebrated Diwali, or their festival of lights.

We see light as a metaphor for people in God’s presence. Right from the third verse of the Bible – “And God said, Let there be light!”.

Through the Prophets: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” [Is 9.2],

And on by the announcements by Jesus that he is “the light of the world” [John 8.12] to the very last Chapter of the Bible (“For God will be their light”) – [Rev. 22.5].

In all, there are well over 300 references to light in the Bible. I thought that, since the sprouts need a while before they are done, and none of us wants to open any more presents, we could take a look at all these instances where light is mentioned…

Maybe not! But we do have one of the most important references to light in our Gospel reading today. John says, in Verse 4, “In him – (that is, Jesus) – was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

And one of my favourite verses in the whole of the Bible follows: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

And what we are celebrating today is the day when that light came into the world, in the form of a baby. We are all so familiar with the Christmas story that I am not going to repeat it today. But what I do want to do is to spend a little time thinking about how we might respond to that light being brought into the world.

But first, let us remember that the world changed forever on that first Christmas day. God came down in human form and lived among us, as John goes on to say. It was the first time that God had taken human form, and the first time that he had actually lived on earth as a human.

I think some of us actually downplay the importance of the nativity, and it’s right that we celebrate the coming of Jesus in the stable (or wherever it was – we shall never be certain!) What a miraculous event that was!

But Jesus wasn’t something that just happened 2000 years ago in a land far, far away. Because through his death and resurrection, the light of Christ has been passed on to others to use to light up the world. All those who believe and trust in him receive the light.

That’s why we make such use of light in our worship. That’s why we light the paschal candle at our service on Holy Saturday. And that’s why we give those who have just been baptised a candle so that they remember they are now walking in the light of God.

I don’t need anyone to tell me 2016 has been a pretty awful year by most accounts. We’ve all seen the horror of Aleppo unfolding daily on our television screens. We’ve read about the rise of hate crimes in our own back yards, when evil seems to be gaining the upper hand.

And we’ve mourned the loss of so many people who, although probably not personally known to us, symbolized a past time when there was plenty of light and optimism in the world.

On top of that, we might have faced personal tragedy and upset, perhaps losing those who are dear to us.

Or maybe we’ve seen our own health deteriorate in a worrying way? In such circumstances, it’s difficult to think of this time of year as one when we might rejoice because the son of God has come to bring light into the world…

Where is the light in Aleppo or Nice or Berlin? Where is the light in this village, with so many people suffering from the indignity of poverty and unemployment? And where is the light in our own households, suffering from grief and loss and increasing pain?

Well, I see the light still shining in the efforts of those seeking to bring emergency aid to the people of Aleppo, and comfort to those suffering from the effects of terrorism. Those risking their own lives to help others in the most abject of surroundings.

The darkness did not overcome the light.

I see the light in the fact that, from this church and others in the village, 49 hampers have been delivered to families who can’t even afford to put food on the table at any time, let alone Christmas.

The darkness did not overcome the light.

And I see the light in the way in which members of this congregation have been tireless in their prayer and practical support for those undergoing times of extreme pain or hardship.

The darkness did not overcome the light.

There is a light that never goes out. That light is Jesus. And what’s our response to this light coming again at Christmas? Well, I think we can go one of three ways.

We can try to run from the light and blot it out, just as I do when I can’t sleep. But, ultimately, the light cannot be extinguished, however far and fast we run. It will always find us. There’s no point trying to escape from it.

We can be poleaxed by the light – much as a rabbit is when caught in the headlights. Where we are so consumed by the light that we cannot move away from it. But, ultimately, that doesn’t help anybody, least of all ourselves. Not letting the light of Christ change how we are is utterly pointless.

Or we can embrace the light. We can use it to bring light to the lives of others, through our words, deeds and prayers. That’s what those providing aid to the people of Aleppo are doing. That’s what those contributing to the foodbank are doing. That’s what those bringing the needs of others in their prayers are doing.

The light shines in the darkness, John says, and the darkness did not overcome it. And at this Christmas time, as we remember the coming of Christ once more, my prayer is that we all embrace that light shining in the darkness.

And, to quote the song we often sing, we use the faith we’ve found, to reshape the world around, through our sight and touch and sound in you and you in me.

That’s what John meant when he said the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. It’s just as true today as it was when he wrote those words almost 2000 years ago.

May I wish you all a very happy Christmas, and may the light of Christ in our lives never be extinguished. Amen.

Note: This is the prepared text of my Christmas Morning sermon. Whether it ended up being as prepared is beyond my control 🙂