This blog is currently on sabbatical as it were. I am still blogging but I am reflecting at the moment about some experimenting that I am doing with silence. You will find me at https://experimentsinsilence.blogspot.com I hope to maybe see you there. Blessings! Simon
One of things expected of us, as parish clergy, is us being available to our parishioners. In the 21st century church this is increasingly difficult to achieve, but hopefully, it remains a cornerstone of the way that Anglicans minister. It is worth noting that being available is not sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring or the doorbell to be pressed. Being available is as much about making ourselves available to others.
Making ourselves available can occur in many and varied ways. For me, in recent days, this has included taking the Sacrament of Holy Communion to the housebound. This is a joy and privilege that I discovered in my Deacon's year and has remained a vitally important part of the ministry I exercise.
Earlier this week, as I walked to my car parked outside one of our church buildings to make a Home Communion visit, I encountered a family. We got talking - they were staying in the area on holiday - but that day a much-loved family member's funeral was taking place in the north of Scotland. Their pre-arranged holiday meant that they couldn't attend, and so were delighted to discover the church building open.
They had already been inside to think, to remember and to pray. They hadn't discovered where they could light a candle in the Lady Chapel - a beacon of hope, love and light in the midst of their grief and a prayer to the God of Compassion in their sorrow.
I showed them where they could do this, and they lit and candle and prayed for them and those gathered at the funeral many miles away, and for the repose of the soul of their loved one. This gentle act reduced them to tears.
They were effusive in their thanks that I had just been there and able to pray with them, and that the building was open to hold time and space.
As we parted ways they assured me that they would come back if staying in the area. In so many ways that doesn't matter. What matters is that the church was available to them; a space in which they knew they could come and be and hold their loved one in the Love of the One who loves us all.
I knew someone once who is a traditional storyteller. I don’t some sort of glorified children’s entertainer. I mean someone who collects and retells the ancient stories of the people and communities and land that makes up these and other islands.
We got talking about why these stories remain important. Anyone who has heard these sorts of stories will know that they resonate deep within your soul. They meet us in a way that can surprise and delight us. He explained that the stories connect us, deeply, with one another. He said: as I retell a story centuries old, the person who told me stands behind me (not literally) with their arm outstretched and their hand on my shoulder, and the person who old them stands behind them with their hand on their shoulder, and the person who told them stands behind them with their hand on their shoulder and so on, right back to the person that the story is about.
When I first became a Christian in a Lancashire Low Church, I was taught nothing about the Saints of God. I later deduced that the Saints were Jesus’ disciples and others who became close to Him in life or a life of prayer, worship and service. But because they were enshrined forever in stained glass windows, as people to emulate in my own journey of faith, they were unobtainable and deeply removed from my own experiences of life and faith in suburban Preston. Often the writer of the letter to the Hebrews has been quoted and taught to offer a different vision.
The letter to the Hebrews is by an unknown author but was probably written to an early church community living in Jerusalem facing persecution from their fellow Jews for following the new Way of Jesus and it almost exclusively focusses on understanding who Jesus is as Messiah and His role as mediator between God and humanity.
‘... By faith …’ And so we continue straight on from last week’s section of the epistle. By faith such and such happened to so and so. By faith such and such happened to so and so. Bearing in mind these letters in New Testament were meant to be listened to, for me at least, it feels like the writer - if they were writing today - would be channelling Martin Luther King Jr or Barak Obama or another great orator of our day. It feels like they are reaching some sort of impassioned crescendo - and indeed they are!
We talk much of faith in the church but we often do so in one of two ways: faith is either a commodity that we are exhorted to have more of so that we might find the gap between those enshrined in stained glass windows and us is lessened. We hear Jesus - O ye of little faith… where your treasure is there your heart will be also… and in these and many other instances, faith is something that we should be seeking to accrue, saving in the heavenly bank so we can cash it in later.
Alternatively, the language of faith is used interchangeably with the language of belief and in that context, we are often then trying to defend a position of faith as being true. We have all been in conversations like this - how does your faith stack up against… insert this week's favourite knockdown offered by the ever noisier evangelical atheists around us. We are constantly being encouraged to have a confident faith - which to me sounds like being sent out armoured to the hilt with great arguments. Faith in that context is the ultimate trump card of propositional truth.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews offers us another way. The phrase, ‘... by faith…’ comes nearly 20 times in chapter 11 and in every case the expression is used actively. By faith someone did something but this isn’t just in English. In the Greek that the letter is written in, the word for faith - pistis - is in the dative tense and is something that someone is a recipient of or an is an action done to them. In other words, faith for that very early Christian community was not something you believe to be true like some sort of equation; nor is it something that if you have enough of God will smile more favourably on you - faith is something that is done or you do; something you give and receive. Faith is something you live out.
A year ago, a motorway bridge outside Genoa collapsed plunging cars, lorries and buses to the ground killing 43 and injuring dozens. Henry Diaz was driving his brother Emmanuel to the airport to fly to Columbia to study. By the time Emmanuel reached his destination 140000 km away he heard of the bridge collapse and knew that something was wrong - his brother felt even further away. He later saw footage of his car being removed from the rubble. Henry was dead. Subsequent tests proved the bridge to have fatal flaws in it. Emmanuel has put his studies on hold to care for their mother and to attend the hearing into what happened to discover why what happened on that day happened.
The ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that the writer refers to, are the faithful saints and holy ones of faith gone before us. They are not distant and aloof, enshrined in windows or silenced in plaster busts. The early church that the author writes to was small in number and looked constantly for encouragement as they sought to live faith. Much like the traditional storyteller in a long line of story, or Emmmanuel Diaz in the courtroom in Genoa, they watch the church - the people, you and me - and they notice when faith is lived out. They rejoice when one of us prays for healing for a sick friend. They smile with joy when one of us visits someone who is bereaved. They sing for joy when one of us sings God’s praises. They cheer when one of us stands up for justice. It warms their hearts when one of us supports the needs of a lonely and isolated neighbour. They notice. They are witnesses to what we do and how we live.
What is the writer of the letter to Hebrews asking of us: Simple. Don’t just accumulate faith for some future point. Don’t just learn about faith to win an argument. Live faith. Look to Jesus. Do what He taught - love, forgive, pray for, feed, clothe, seek justice and mercy, not worrying what others think or dwelling on when we fail - live it out - make the cloud of witnesses go nuts.
At a point not far from El Paso, the architect Ronald Rael has installed something beautiful. As a way of reminding people both sides of the US/Mexican border that that which unites is far greater than that which divides, several pink seesaws have been installed between the fence. He said that the event was about bringing joy and togetherness at a place that signifies division, and a reminder to all as they play, that actions on one side have a direct consequence on the other.
These seesaws are a sign of hope and unity, that the writer of the letter to the Colossians refers at the end of our Epistle this morning. It is a stirring vision - there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian and Scythian, slave and free, and I don’t believe that this is intended as an exhaustive list! - all of the societal, religious and cultural barriers that we continue to maintain that divide - are broken down by and in Christ.
The letter to the Colossians is written to one of the earliest Christian communities. It’s hard to date but it was probably written between 30-60 years after the resurrection. In the section prior to what we hear this morning, the church are being reminded that if they want to have a deep and life-transforming faith, they need to continue to remain rooted in Christ. For a plant to grow it needs to put its roots down into good well-watered soil, so too for the Colossian church. The writer reminds them that by following Christ they have been freed from whatever they believed, or however they behaved, before hearing of the Way of Jesus the Carpenter and seeking to live that out. So because they are free - they shouldn’t feel compelled by other teachers to be bound again by other rules and regulations in regard to their new faith. In other words - the writer of the letter doesn’t want them to slip back into an expression of faith that says ‘if I do this or that, or avoid this or that, I will please God.’ The writer says ‘NO!’ - they have been living the new life Christ promised already - focus on that.
‘... So if you have been raised with Christ… [s]et your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…’
The remarkable sculpture, the Knife Angel, has been touring the UK since 2018. The 27 foot tall sculpture made with over 100,000 knives is an artistic response to the ‘surrender a knife; save a life’ campaign run by the police in 2014. The angel looms large reminding us that the status quo regarding knife crime and violence in our communities must not continue and something new must be forged.
The writer of the letter to the Colossians, contrary to what the opening verses sound like they are saying, is encouraging the church to continue to live in the now, the new life forged for us all by Christ. They are not asking their hearers to step out of the world and focus their endeavours on things that are above or otherworldly, thus ignoring life around us. Rather as Christians, as we live Jesus’ life in us and look to Him as our raised and ascended Lord, so we should allow the life and values forged from ‘above’, of heaven, to permeate our daily living. In other words - we need to continue to allow the teaching of Jesus risen and ascended to guide us. Living this way should mean that the way we act and react should be transformed.
Thus, the things that should be put to death (on the cross of Christ) and got rid of are actions and individual character traits that will ultimately harm us and those around us. They are listed by the writer as examples of what someone who’s eyes are not focussed on Christ, who’s life is not being oriented His way, might do or think. But if we don’t read this passage through the lenses of the Old Testament we might miss the hint that this renewal, that we who seek to follow Christ are invited to consciously put on like a coat, renews us in the relationship that God wanted to have with people as told in story form in the book of Genesis. Similarly if we don’t read this passage through the lens of empire and nation-building we might miss the hint that the renewed relationship that we called into in Christ doesn’t so much do away with our cultural, religious and ethnic differences, but that all are welcomed into that relationship, no one is excluded, and Christ Himself as we look to Him, fills all of us with the life of heaven. Like the Colossian church, if we are seeking to live as our risen and ascended Lord has shown us, what actions and thoughts should characterise us individually and corporately? The writer of the letter is suggesting that in the same way that the clothes we chose to wear to church this morning were carefully chosen because we like the colour/fabric/the fit/the way they look/the ways they make us feel/or even say something about us - so, as we continue to put on the renewed life of Christ - our inner thoughts and outward actions should point to the One whose love is transforming our hearts.
We can consciously put on that renewed life by rooting ourselves in His life and I'd like to suggest 3 ways:
Firstly, I’d like to encourage each of you to take time each day to read a little scripture. Remind yourself of the story of Christ in the Gospel. Start with Mark’s account - it’s short and has less tricky theology. Read a portion each day. Ponder it. Try to live what Jesus teaches.
Secondly, pray. Prayer places us intentionally in God’s presence. Many of us find prayer difficult, so keep the prayer simple - the Lord’s Prayer is a good place to start. Say it every day.
Thirdly, come to church, not to the building but come and be part of the community who are trying to do and live this - come and encourage one another - and be renewed by the One who loves us as we meet Him veiled in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
Our lives should visibly reveal Jesus renewing us; breaking down the barriers that we maintain between us. Not so much ‘surrender a knife; save a life’ but ‘surrender our life; live His life.’
I am writing this on the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Diaconate. The picture shows one of the stoles given to me to mark that occasion. It came from the congregations at Holy Trinity Maisons-Laffitte where I had worked as a Youth and Children’s Worker and Chaplaincy Assistant for two years, and where my vocation was tested.
When Sam saw it recently he noted that the beautiful silk panels (of two icons that the church gave me when I moved to Durham to begin my training) were starting to show some wear and tear and perhaps I should seek some help in restoring them. But tonight I realise that this stole bears the marks and scars and love of those 20 years and in many ways what it means for me and you to exercise the ministry Christ calls us to.
One side of the stole has a stain on it - either a drip of wax ironed off with greaseproof paper as my incumbent taught me, from one of the many candlelit services we seemed to hold in my Curacy parish; but more likely though it is a drip of wine from the very many times I have worn it to take Holy Communion to the sick or housebound - where the parishioner received Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and I met him in strong brown tea in a chipped mug and bendy biscuit.
The nape of the neck is pretty grubby, sweat stained dare I say, reminding me of the many Eucharist’s I wore it at in my Curacy parish (but sadly less so subsequently), where I had the privilege of serving at the altar, administering the Sacrament, preaching God’s word; but also reminding me of the number of times I lugged chairs around before or after an event, or led an assembly, or sat with a bereaved family and planned the funeral of a loved one, or led a Eucharist in a hospital or nursing or care home, or sat with someone lonely or broken.
There is a thread pulled out slightly on one side of it, leaving it imperfect. This is from where I had to pin it when I wore it as a Deacon. That pull reminds me that, 20 years later, I am still imperfect and blemished. It reminds me of the number of God’s people I should have ministered to differently, of the situations or conversations that with hindsight I realise I could have handled in other ways. But that pull is part of a beautiful whole - God loves despite it all.
In many ways, 20 years later, I can confidently say that being a Deacon has left an indelible mark on the ministry I am called to exercise. In an age of Renewal and Reform in the Church of England, where a ‘growth agenda’ at all costs, and an increasing emphasis on a culture of leadership seems to be the driving force of ministry, this stole calls me and you to be something different.
As Sam readied himself to be ordained a priest recently, I did what I do annually at this time of year, and returned to the Ordinal to be reminded of what the church hopes that these ministries might be as part of the priestly ministry of the whole people of God:
‘... The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. In baptism, the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom.
To serve this royal priesthood, God has given a variety of ministries. Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission; as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others…
To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries. Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being. They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God…’
The call of God on all of our lives is one of love, to be in a relationship of love with Him, and in turn to call others into that same relationship themselves. We answer that call first at our Baptism and it finds fulfilment in our following of Jesus in our lives, whether as sidesperson, reader of readings, leader of intercessions, maker of a good cuppa, a listening ear, a friend to your lonely neighbour, Deacon, Priest, Bishop or Reader, teacher, bank manager, bus driver, Cub Scout leader and so on. What Jesus calls us all to, is not a glamourous leadership role for which we will be extolled for our courage or skill - rather it is a way of love that cannot be easily quantified or counted and which often goes often unnoticed - but it is there, the Kingdom is revealed.
Ahhhh, my much-maligned blog... I've not posted anything here for ages... So by way of seeking to remedy that, I enclose a funeral address from this week. I have done many funerals over 20 years of Diaconal ministry. They are all as much a unique privilege as the people we commend and commit to God are. Some funerals live with you... of babies; suicides; circus or traveller funerals; of an elderly couple, the wife died and then days later the husband died of a broken heart; a Council contract funeral for a tenant in social housing who died with no traceable relatives. Other funerals live with you because they are of people you have known and loved and worshipped alongside either in the church building or at home. They leave their mark on our hearts. For me, a funeral should always hold that tension of acknowledging and naming grief whilst also offering Christian Hope. The address is always a key part of any funeral liturgy for me, as it is then that I have the chance to reflect the light of the Gospel on the life of the deceased. It is a chance to offer those of us present a different narrative. A narrative that needs to be sensitively offered - even in the face of real tragedy. I presided at a funeral yesterday with my colleague. I wrote an address (now anonymised) based on 1 Corinthians 13:1-8a. I hope I got the balance right. ~~~
I heard Stephen Fry speaking in a slot on a radio show the other day about what it means to be human. For him, the essence of our humanity is our use of language; our ability to communicate meaningfully and deeply with each other.
St Paul would disagree with Stephen Fry on a whole range of issues, but chiefly I suspect he would disagree with him on the thing that makes us human. St Paul reminds us today that our humanity is not dependent on speech or spirituality, not on faith or philanthropy but on love - and our ability to give, receive and live it.
For us all here today, love is life’s ultimate quest, and we search for it in all sorts of situations and circumstances. For people of faith, and especially those of us who call ourselves Christians, love isn’t just what defines us as human or the highest of all emotions, but the very nature of God. God doesn’t just love. God is love. Love revealed supremely, personally in the flesh and blood of Jesus.
St Paul tells that no matter what else we may or may not be able to do or achieve - it is love that defines us. Love is the reason we gather today. Each of you has been touched in love by J or in turn by the love she has brought up S, A and H to live out. The love of God in Jesus is eternally strong - calling each of us - as it did J - to better living and better loving. God’s love for us is such that not even when confronted with the deep darkness of tragedy and death - and love seems to be snuffed out like a candle - we discover that the light of love can never be fully extinguished. God’s love in Jesus is so strong that not even the grave could contain it, raising him from death, and offering each of us hope - shining like bright light in the midst of our present darkness.
St Paul reminds us, that through it all love never ends. Later in the passage we heard read, Paul speaks of his experience as though he and we were still missing something. He still has ultimate questions for which there are just no answers. He talks of, '... seeing as if in a mirror dimly...' and '...knowing only in part...' Perhaps that is because our lives and the direction they take are ultimately a mystery despite the plans we lay. As we gather to remember J today, we come seeking answers to ultimate questions: for which there are just no answers. Whilst your lives have been intertwined with J's with a host of memories and stories - you perhaps quite rightly feel cheated out of many many more - death, however abrupt or painful is the most puzzling aspect of living, and yet… even it cannot snatch away your memories and stories of J's or the love she has etched into your hearts.
St Paul speaks of love that never ends - love that is the essence of God. For J, and for all who call themselves Christian - the love of God in Jesus opens up our lives and calls us to respond to it’s source. Thus faith is not a monlogue into a dark void - but an inviation into a relationship with the source of all love. Faith allows us to draw from that source, flowing freely, available to us all.
Love for J and her family is the reason we gather today. Today of all days, St Paul reminds us that all love points us back to it’s source in the love of God. God’s love for each of us is eternally strong and I pray that it would well up within each of us today and in the days to come, that through it we may daily find the resources we each need, not just for living but for living in and out love, as J did. Amen.
They dyed their hair purple and hung purple ribbons around the area using her favourite colour. Her peers instead of a minute’s silence had a minute of applause. Closer to our home, some built a circle of stones - the traditional tracking symbol for a Scout to know that someone being tracked has gone home, but also the traditional Scouting way of remembering one of their own who has died. All of this done to remember Jodie Chesney, who was stabbed to death in Romford - the fifth teenager to die in the capital this year. How can this be?
Calls to build a wall continue to spout from the office of the president in the White House whilst concerns, ramped up by certain sections of the British press continue to ask popular but unpalatable questions about immigration, crime and employment.
Despite all the political wooing of North Korea in recent months, there seems to be renewed construction underway at a rocket launch site, amid mounting fears of an imminent ICBM test.
All of these questions of safety and security, of national identity, of ethnicity and cultural heritage, are all in the mind of the community that the Psalmist was part of. Midrash tradition says that Psalm 91 was written by Moses on the day that the tabernacle for the ark of the covenant was completed and was recited by him as he made his way up Mount Saini to protect him from angels of destruction. The psalm is said today in the Jewish community before sleep and during the burial of the dead.
It is known as the Soldiers Psalm or Prayer and bandanas or badges with it imprinted are often given to US troops and verses of this psalm are quoted by the devil to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel reading as Jesus deals with temptation.
In the face of personal, national and international fear and uncertainty, in a time when we might want to be lifted out of a situation that it out of our control; when we wish we could escape a scenario that is not of our making or that is not going our way; when we fear for our lives or the lives of those we love; the opening verses of the psalm present us with an image not of a mother hen and with us her chicks nestled beneath her, but of God as the Almighty, as a fortress or refuge. God like a massive bird of prey, powerful and yet intimate images of protection. God’s angelic wings will be a sure protection in the face of all attack. No evil will affect us or even come close to the places where we dwell but not just us, but all those who dwell with us in our tent. God will protect families and communities.
If these words were said by Moses as he climbed the mountain and recited by the people of Israel as they pilgrimaged through the wilderness, these were words said by a people on the move. So when the devil quotes verses 11 and 12, ‘... For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone…’ to Jesus he was meaning that God will surely protect Jesus if He jumped, but the original context was about avoiding the rocks and stones that littered the desert as the people walked. God has such a close eye on us that He won’t let us stumble on a stone, He will not let us trip and if something blocks our way - he will bear us up, lifting us up over it. The psalmist acknowledges that things will block our way, that our path through life will not always be easy, sometimes the road will be hard and dangerous. It doesn’t say that God will make the road of life smooth for the faithful. Bad and difficult things will come, but we encounter them with His protection. In those situations, if we call to God, He will answer, He will protect, He will deliver.
But, notice that the psalm is not a litmus test of faith. Being able to tread on adders, lions and serpents is not a sign of God’s favour. Sometimes we will step on an adder as it were, a lion will leap out at us unprepared - tragedy and danger will come even to those who love God. But, God is there. Talk of long life is, therefore, is not about avoiding tragic death because of our faith, rather it is a metaphor for God’s blessing, of his favour, of His presence and love.
God says he will do all of this for those who love Him and for their communities. These words, therefore, are very contemporary and ones of all-encompassing hope to the tense streets of our capital, to communities frightened about their identity because of the presence of others, but also to those of us concerned about what a nationalist politics might bring to the international stage or how we might walk forward when confronted by personal tragedy or illness and to all of us who keep this holy season as a time dedicated to deepening our love of the One who watches over us: keep walking; keep loving and trusting God. He is there.