Thursday, 11 December 2014

Advent and Christmas Services 2014

Here are full details of Advent and Christmas worship across the parish to which everyone is very welcome indeed! Wishing wishing you a very happy, holy and blessed Christmas when it comes!


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Thankfulness - for baptisms, weddings and funerals (for Remembrance Sunday)

As any Anglican priest will tell you, one of the privileges of parochial ministry is what might be in a throw away phrase termed ‘hatch, match and dispatch.’  It is an honour to help those who come to articulate thanksgiving for the safe arrival of a new life and dedicating them to the God who brings all things into being, to give words to the celebratory love between two people as they commit themselves to each other for the rest of their days, and in a dignified way to acknowledge the pain of a relationship ended by death and to speak and seek hope.

Last week we reminded ourselves that a sense  of thankfulness runs like a golden thread through these weeks of the Kingdom.  As we heard Jesus’ Beatitudes we thought more about a sense of thankfulness for the pilgrim people of God. And on All Saints Sunday, specially the Christian men and women who have heard the call of Christ and who in their ordinary humanity, have been a blessing to others in our journey of faith. It is in their ordinariness that I experience the holiness of God. Through them I continue to see the face of Christ and hear His voice.

Today I am thankful for the church being there at the milestones of life, and in baptisms, weddings and funerals, reminding us of the constant presence of God throughout life, and I encourage you to be too.

Aside from the archaic and maybe even slightly threatening nature of this parable of Jesus - at it’s heart is the story of a wedding. But as anyone will tell you, the time of waiting between fumbling to put the engagement ring on a finger to uttering the closing words of the vow ‘… according to God’s holy law. I the presence of God I make this vow’ can seem intolerably long.  Yet the waiting to wed involves an active waiting with plenty to organise and plan. The privilege of taking a couple’s wedding is meeting a loving couple, establishing a relationship with them, and enabling them to articulate their love for and commitment to each other surrounded by their closest and in the presence of the God of Love, through all things that are to come.

St Paul then brings us to the final stages of life’s dance. Having rejoiced at the enlarging of love as a child is brought into the world - a mystery that induces deep thankfulness in most of us, when our most intimate relationships with others end, we come crashing down.  St Paul, writing to the Thessalonian Christians, speaks of the hope of Christian faith in the face of death because of the Resurrection of Jesus. But as anyone will tell you, the time of waiting between our loved one taking their last breath to the words ‘… earth to earth, ashes, dust to dust…’ can seem intolerably long.  Yet the waiting to commend and commit someone to God involves an active waiting with plenty to organise and plan. The privilege of taking someone’s funeral is meeting with those who mourn, establishing a relationship with them, and enabling them to articulate their love for the person who has died and grief with those who surround them with their love in the presence of God - the Lord of life and death.

Today I am thankful for when the pilgrim people of God - the church - who has helped me to articulate my emotions into words, and walked alongside me as I committed myself to walk with my wife into the future for better or worse, those who rejoiced with us at the arrival of children and consoled us when it gets hard, and who silently wept with us at the death of those whom we have loved as we remember them as we have committed them to God.

The word ‘remember’ literally re-member, means to bring something from the past into the present. It is an emotional act with a strangely physical aspect to it.  As we remember the cost of all war but perhaps this year of all years the human cost of the First World War, and we remember all those who have and continue give their lives in the cause of peace, so we should also remember those who have pilgrimed with us in our life journey.  General Maslov writing at the end of WWII described German children crying as they searched desperately for their parents in a blazing town. ‘What was surprising,’ wrote Maslov, ‘was that they were crying in exactly the way that our children cry.’ After Nazi propaganda had dehumanised the Slavs, Soviet revenge propaganda had convinced its citizens that all Germans were ravening beasts…’

Reflecting on the brutality and inhumanity of Auschwitz, Thomas Merton wrote that in order for something like Auschwitz to happen, ‘…It is enough to affirm one basic principle: anyone belonging to class x or nation y or race z is to be regarded as subhuman and worthless, and consequently has no right to exist. All the rest will follow without difficulty… As long as this principle is easily available, as long as it is taken for granted, as long as it can be spread out on the front pages at a moment’s notice and accepted by all, we have no need of monsters: ordinary policemen and good citizens will take care of everything…’

That is, accepting caricatures of inhumanity can too easily turn ordinary people inhuman. Surely Remembrance must be at least in part about reminding ourselves that other people whoever they are, are not caricatures, not beasts, but other human beings who walk with us in life. These have people children, who cry like our own; who love and commit to love and who grieve at the ending of those relationships by death.  These are women and men, who may be strangers but also could be our friends.

On this Remembrance Sunday I re-member with you those who gave and continue to give their lives in war to maintain our relative peace and long that swords be turned to plough shares and spears turned to pruning hooks and that nation should not turn against nation and not learn war any more as it says in Scripture, but I also re-member all those of God’s pilgrim people - who have rejoiced with us in our joys and weep with us in our sadnesses - including you - those who once were strangers and are now becoming friends as we pilgrim on together knowing the truth of the words of Job revealed in the resurrection of Christ:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,

then in my flesh I shall see God.”

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday - 9th November


The details of services on Remembrance Sunday is as follows:

8.00am - Said Communion - St Peter's Mill End
10.15am - Remembrance Sunday service - St Peter's Mill End
10.15am - Remembrance Sunday service - St Thomas' West Hyde
10.15am - Remembrance Sunday service - St John's Heronsgate

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Read, Mark, Learn and Inwardly Digest...

So following this morning's Epistle reading from Colossians 3, I was reminded of starting Secondary school, an odd thing to recall on Bible Sunday I know but there you have it.

When I started Secondary school I remember going to buy all the relevant uniform to kit me out. I remember getting my blazer, which seemed enormous, but I was told with a smile, "You will grow into it" as it was expected to last for a god few years. I can remember for the first few weeks going to school with a vest and a jumper in the vain hope that it would fill the blazer out!

It's like that often with our appreciation of Scripture - through it we will grow into an appreciation of it and it's importance and therefore also into a relationship with God Himself.

(In place of a conventional sermon, my colleague and I had a conversation (a dialogue sermon) and I enclose my part of the conversation below.)

Q:  What is the importance of scripture for you?
A:  This may sound like a crazy thing to say but when I first came to faith in my teens, I wanted to be one of those Christians that ate scripture up, that read it insatiably, but I wasn’t. The Bible bored me. It was a historic document, key to my faith, but I was told it was important, so it must be!

Over the years, I have wrestled with, grappled for meaning within, tried to relate to scripture in many ways and places. I used to spend much time, like many of us maybe, focussing on what I believed were the important parts of scripture - the Gospels, and to a lesser extent some of the Epistles and left much of the Old Testament and Wisdom literature well alone. I just didn’t get why they were there in the canon, I couldn’t make sense of them or relate to them. No one taught me how to realistically deal with scripture in devotion. As a result I rarely read it aside from in church.

Once ordained I daily read scripture in personal devotion and wrestled with it regularly - trying to relate it to my every day living. Over time I came to realise that within scripture is contained the whole gamut of human emotion and experience and God’s involvement within that experience of life.

In my university days, many Evangelical friends referred to the Bible as the Word of God and seemed to reverence the pages of this book that I just didn’t ‘get’ over and above the Word of God - namely Jesus, whose story it told. I found this hard to deal with. 

I eventually realised that scripture wasn’t the Word of God nor was it simply words about God. I came to hear the voice of God still speaking to me through those dusty words of former millennia.

Finally, I read a book called “Life With God’ by Richard Foster, and American Baptist, who wrote a very influential book a number years ago wrote a very influential book called ‘Celebration of Discipline’ about a disciplined Christian almost monastic rule of life. In ‘Life With God’, Foster talks about Lectio Divina as a way of engaing with scripture prayerfully, asking God to speak through it and listening. He describes why scripture is important to him with a  phrase you may well have heard me use - he talks of scripture as the big story of God’s involvement and relationship with people where God says to us ‘I Love you; I want to be with people like you; will come and be with me.’ Scripture for me still encapsulates and embodies that story and that invitation.

 Q: How do we use scripture for personal devotion?
A: I read it daily, but in 2 ways - in devotion and in study. As study - scripture contains the building blocks of the life of Christian faith. It shows how God’s revealing of Himself over history has changed right up to it’s ultimate in the Incarnation. In the Epistles and beyond we discover how the early church came into being and grew as God’s ministry to and through her flourished.  As a rule of thumb, I find scripture a challenge and a yardstick as to how we engage with God in our day and age - it asks me some very challenging ethical and moral questions about myself, my beliefs and my culture - some of which leaves me so challenged that I either discard it or discount it. I am not advocating either approach, but some of scripture is very challenging, especially when we realise it was written in one cultural context and language and then placed up against our own.  But it also invites into a living relationship with God.

I read scripture devotionally too in that context as we pray morning and evening prayer, say the paslms, as I visit the sick and as I prepare for and lead worship. Through it I believe God has still got things to say to my often weak and failing humanity about who I am in relation to who He is and His love for me no matter what.

Q: What passage of scripture sums up the Good News of Jesus Christ?

A: John 3:16 - A former Archbishop once said that the Church was the only organisation that existed for the benefit of it's non members.  In Jesus' words we are reminded that God loves the world - not the church, not just a club for the holy good and true, but the world - all of us always. His love is for us whether we feel we are worthy of it or not. Being loved and accepted under all circumstances by the one that brought all that is into being... well that surely has to be good news...

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Give to Caesar...

There’s nothing more certain in life than death and taxes one time President of the US Benjamin Franklin was reputed to have said. And in many ways he’s right. Death comes to us all and tax has been a reality for citizens of a nation for millennia.

Jews in first century Palestine, you see, paid numerous taxes: Temple taxes, land taxes, and customs taxes, just to name three. The tax in question was a particular – and particularly onerous – one. It was the Imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. That’s right: first-century Jews were required to pay their oppressors a denarius a year to support their own oppression.

Not that everyone saw it this way, however. Those put in power by the Romans, represented in this passage by the Herodians, advocated supporting Roman “governance” of Israel. Nationalists opposed to Rome found the tax offensive as it was a constant reminder of their humiliation. And the religiously devout, represented by the disciples of the Pharisees, had to pay the tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius and a proclamation of his divinity, forcing them to break the first two Commandments.

All of which made the topic of the Imperial Tax tremendously divisive and one’s opinion on it immediately revealing. And herein lies the cunning demonstrated by two normally fractious parties united only by their shared opposition to this young Rabbi Jesus who the day before had entered Jerusalem to great acclaim and had been stirring things up at the Temple ever since. With their question about the Imperial tax, Jesus’ foes thought they had him trapped, as he would either disappoint the people by advocating for the tax or put himself in jeopardy with Roman officials by arguing against it.

But Jesus not only evades their trap, he entangles them in their own one too. “Who’s face is on the coin,” he asks. Perhaps over-eager to trap Jesus they forget that by producing a coin from their 1st century trouser pocket they betray their own allegiance to the Romans. For those not paying attention, Jesus makes it clear whose side they are really on by asking whose image and title are on the coin. “The Emperor’s,” they answer, assuring those in the crowd that they know full well the face and blasphemous confession of divinity they carry.

All this sharpens the bite of Jesus’ response: “give, therefore, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And suddenly the tables are turned, as all in the crowd will recite the Shema regularly - “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” - they confess that everything belongs ultimately to God. With just a few words, Jesus reveals the truth about his would-be accusers and simultaneously calls them to account before the God they worship.

Might Jesus also be doing the same to us, inviting each of us to declare our allegiance? In that sense, perhaps the key to understanding Jesus isn’t ‘whose image is on the coin’, but rather ‘whose image is on or in us’. It would be hard for Jesus’ audience to listen to his words and not hear echoes of Genesis 1, where God declares His intention to make us in His own image. And that’s what always seems to get lost in conversations about money or politics. For while we may feel strongly about our political loyalties,  but before we are Conservative, Labour, Liberal or anything else, we are Christian. And while we may be confident that how we spend our money is our business and no one else’s, yet if we forget in whose image we have been made we may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the sum  total of our possessions and that our bank accounts tell a true story about our worth and value.

Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians. His statement just raises some questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God?

Friends, a holy god, who is one, demands the service of whole human beings. The God of Jesus has a claim on all of our life. So if God demands all of our life, what is left to render unto Caesar?

“The things that are Caesar’s.” What are they? Caesar, the State, seems to have a claim on much of our lives, but in fact, nothing belongs to him. Everything belongs to God; the things that Caesar claims are merely on loan.

“The things that are God’s.” The way most of us behave suggests that we believe that God has a claim on about one hour per week and a small percentage of our income. But God’s mark is upon every particle of our being. 

One Sunday, a minister put a number of marker pens in the pews and after reminding the congregation that all they had and were is God’s – and that all God has and is is also theirs! – she invited them to mark one of their bank cards with the sign of the cross. The idea was that for the next several months it was nearly impossible to buy something and not reflect on whether or not this purchase aligned with their own sense of values and God-given identity. It wasn’t an answer, of course, each person had to think for themselves about how their faith impacted their decisions about spending. In an empowering way everyone that day and over many weeks was reminded of their identity as a child of God, something no amount of spending or saving could change. What it did was root faith and life together and invite some active reflection on how to live that out especially in relation to who had first place in their life and first call on their time and money - them and their desires, or God.


God wants more from us, in the end, than polite conversation. God wants for us abundant life. Because while Benjamin Franklin may have once said that death and taxes are the only two certainties of this life, each week we have the opportunity to declare that the one who was raised from death shows us that God’s love is more certain than anything else.


Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Absent Landlord

I have never lived in rented accommodation before. The closest I have come is living in Vicarages, where there is effectively a landlord/tenant relationship between us and the Diocese.  As you’d expect, what that means is, if something goes wrong in structure or fixtures and fittings of the house, I can send an email or make a phone call requesting that whatever needs resolving gets fixed, and it does. The relationship is mostly very good indeed.

It is significantly more difficult for those who have poor relationships, or none at all, with their landlords meaning that a complaint about a leaking tap or a faulty boiler could face evection. It is very good news indeed for the UK’s 9 million private tenants, 200,000 of whom faced revenge eviction last year because of making genuine and valid complaints, that a law preventing ‘vengeance evictions’ is coming in.

How much worse would it be to have a landlord who never responded, who never showed up, who never seemed to care about their property and investment? We would be appalled. Tenants would move out. The weight of the law would be brought to bear. The landlord would be out of business and their investment in the property would be lost as it went to wrack and ruin.

If the landowner who planted the vineyard in this parable told by Jesus, who put up the fence to protect it, dug the winepress in the midst of it and built the watch tower to keep this precious investment safe is supposed to be God, and the land and its produce are the world which belong to Him - where is the absent landlord when it mattered? When slaves are sent to receive the wine at harvest they are beaten and abused, and when the son and heir is sent the tenants plan to have him killed - where is the Landlord when it counted? Why did He not prevent such awful tragedies occurring?

Where was the Absent Landlord for Alan Henning? Or for Alice Gross? Where is He in Iraq or in Syria? Where was He in Auschwitz or on the fields of the Somme? Has the Landlord just gone AWOL because as sure as hell it feels like that sometimes…

Quite correctly you might point out that the landlord in the story had no idea that His slaves would be treated the way they were or that his son would be murdered. There would be no way that he could have prevented these atrocities. But as a person of faith, I find that image of God deeply unhelpful - God who sends people to receive and pay blessing upon blessing are stoned and killed as is finally His Son, so He comes in stern vengeance to clear the tenants from the land and lease it to others… No thanks.

Culturally, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience in the first century. Landowners could expect tenants to turn over (a portion of) the crop at harvest time. Those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land and the landowning elite could usually pay others to remove them forcefully if necessary.
Many in Jesus’ audience would have understood the experience of these farmers all too well. If they chose not to “pay” the landowner, as was the case in this story, the landowner would find new tenants without doubt.

To us the story looks and sounds different: First the landowner sends servants, and they’re beaten, stoned, and killed. Then he sends more — not the police, mind you, or an army, just more servants — and the same thing happens again. So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to treat with these bloodthirsty hooligans? It’s absolutely crazy. Who would do such a thing? No one…except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk everything, to reach out of them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child, than he does a businessman. It’s crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.
And maybe that’s the key to this story - it’s more Jilly Cooper than Alan Sugar. The landowner isn’t absent - he is so besotted with his current tenants, so deeply in love with them that his actions display patience - eternal patience - which makes no business sense then or now, despite what they do to his investment, his workforce or his family.

So after the murder of the son, Jesus goes on to ask the pharisees what the landowner should do: ‘…Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time…’  

And maybe that is what we want - vengeance on those who destroy the vineyard and who kill and maim those who work (however tenuously) for the landowner by doing good or by being innocent bystanders. Maybe we want a God of vengeance for Alan Henning or Alice Gross however rightly so, and Jesus knows that as He finishes this parable and accuses and condemns the Pharisees himself. But at this point, I can’t help noticing Jesus introducing us to a God so blinded by love for us, who is even more merciful and patient (almost naively so) than we could possibly imagine.

This morning Jesus tells a story of heavy business investment - land, plants, fencing, protection - which will have cost the landlord dear. He tells of swindled business deals, violent assault and multiple murder.  But who is the bad guy in this story? The landlord or the tenants? Who actions turn your stomach? Who let’s you down? God, the Absent landlord or us the selfish tenants?


This morning Jesus also tells of the desperate, crazy love of the Absent Landlord - which is offered not once, not twice, but a million times or more, often in surprising ways and through unexpected people, to all who will receive it.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Harvevst Flower Festival and Harvest Festival

St Thomas’ West Hyde is holding it’s annual flower festival this weekend. Church will be open on Saturday and Sunday from 12noon-6pm and on Monday from 10am -12noon. The theme of the festival is ‘Harvest.’

Tying in with that - on Sunday, 21st September, St Thomas’ will be holding it’s Harvest Festival at 9am to which everyone is welcome.  Please do bring perishable and non perishable produce which will be distributed between the Catholic Work Farm and the Food Bank in West Hyde.  

Please also do come prepared to give financially to support the Bishop of St Albans Harvest Appeal, supporting a literacy project in Egypt. More info on the enclosed poster.



Monday, 8 September 2014

Digital Dehumanisation and the Forgiveness of God - sermon on Matthew 18:15-20.

Back in May 2010, Paul Chambers was convicted of sending ‘menacing communications’ via his Twitter account when he discovered that the nearby Robin Hood airport was closed due to snow.  Expressing his frustrations Mr Chambers tweeted that the airport had a week to get themselves together or he would blow the airport sky-high.

And then more recently, a man has been convicted for threatening to assassinate Alex Salmond via social media. Having watched a tv programme about the politician, Christopher Stevenson tweeted that he might assassinate the leader of the SNP. Whether this, as in Paul Chambers case I mentioned a moment ago, was a joke in bad taste is ultimately open to interpretation.

We live in an instant world and expect instant communication, instant answers to our problems, instant gratification and satisfaction. And when things do go wrong, and we need to complain many of us find it easier and more convenient to send an email. Quick it may be, but we can’t unsend it when it’s gone, but at least we didn’t have to look at Roger whilst I was saying all that I needed to him.

Here’s the thing - people aren’t perfect. None of us. We all make mistakes. We all get it wrong and let others down by doing and saying stupid and sometimes very serious things. This fallibility becomes more and more noticeable when you put broken, failing and sinful like us people together in community. Living communally is hard, we will get wound up by our neighbours. But we spend less and less time with each other in real time.  Community still exists but it’s no longer limited to the people you live amongst, in fact less so than ever as our homes are increasingly places we sleep, and community for many now is about the groups we socialise with or our acquaintances on social media sites. We are still the same broken and failing people interacting with others, just in different ways and places.

The goal of these verses of Jesus’ in this morning’s Gospel is not to change someone’s behaviour or to show them how wrong they are but to seek to restore a damaged relationship by speaking truthfully about the breach or hurt you are experiencing, taking responsibility for your feelings and your actions and inviting the other person to do the same, and inviting dialogue and conversation that you might find a way forward together.

Read this way, these verses are remarkably counter-cultural. We live in a culture of digital dehumanization, where we can accuse or complain about someone else at the safe distance of the comments to a blog post, trash someone’s reputation via Twitter, or share difficult news via an email rather than through a face-to-face conversation. In each case, we have failed to take seriously the humanity of the person with whom we are in relationship, hiding ourselves in the digital forest of 21st century immediate communication.

Jesus, however, invites us to take a different way. He invites us to love each other enough to speak not just to but also with each other, holding each other accountable through vulnerability rather than by force. After all, it takes guts to talk to someone you feel is in the wrong without judging them, putting them down, or taking responsibility for their actions. And it takes guts to listen when someone else tries to do the same thing for you. In this way of relating, the key is to put being in relationship above being right, and to take incredibly seriously how much God wants us all to be in good relationship with each other and with God.

This sense of forgiveness and community also helps us to understand at the second part of this morning’s Gospel as well. Jesus says - ‘…if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them…’  This isn’t some magic formula to peace and prosperity though where you just find another Christian or two and agree on what you want and God provides.  I’m not sure that’s how it works.

I think Jesus is saying that when we nurture the kind of caring, vulnerable, honest, and authentic relationships with others that he’s talking about, literally anything is possible, because God’s will and presence become manifest as Christians gather together in faith, hope, forgiveness, and love.  The hard part, of course, is doing it, not just talking about it.

But none of this is easy.  Sometimes I find it so hard to forgive others for the wrongs I believe they’ve done me. And I find it even harder (at least at first) to receive the forgiveness of another. But when I do – when I let go the burdens of accusation and blame – it’s like a whole new world opens up. We call that whole new world the Kingdom of God, and every once in a while we get a full-bodied taste of that forgiveness when we’re caught up in the difficult, demanding, and oh so sacred work of tending our relationships. 


And there’s the key - God cares this deeply about our relationships, not only with Him but also with each other.   Jesus reminds us that that God cares – really cares – not just about us but also about how we treat each other and are treated in turn. God loves us enough to help us love each other better. And God wants to redeem us enough to embody the forgiveness He invites us to in the form of His only Son, Jesus, as he lay upon the cross.

~~~

I am indebted to David Lose for some ideas and input into this sermon - thank you!

Sunday, 31 August 2014

James Foley, Self Denial and the Cross

The unfolding drama in Syria and Iraq is deeply upsetting especially when nestled so closely to the ongoing military arguments in Gaza.  The stories of people, families, ethnic minorities, religious groups being driven from their homes, mercilessly persecuted and in some cases senselessly murdered, produces from the theist and atheist alike a prayer-like cry of anguish…  Why… surely not more… how long O Lord…


All too often this news story remains something on the screen, in a far-away land, but then something happens which takes our breath away and brings the story back to our neighbourhoods and our streets.  The murder of James Foley at the hand of a British ‘Islamic State’ extremist for me is just one such story.  James Foley was unable to write letters to his family whilst being held by ISIS, because they were confiscated by his jailers.  Instead he asked another hostage who was about to be released to commit a letter to memory.  When that hostage was freed he dictated the letter to James' mother, Diane.

Dear Family and Friends,
I remember going to the Mall with Dad, a very long bike ride with Mom. I remember so many great family times that take me away from this prison. Dreams of family and friends take me away and happiness fills my heart.
I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.
Eighteen of us have been held together in one cell, which has helped me. We have had each other to have endless long conversations about movies, trivia, sports. We have played games made up of scraps found in our cell… we have found ways to play checkers, Chess, and Risk… and have had tournaments of competition, spending some days preparing strategies for the next day's game or lecture. The games and teaching each other have helped the time pass. They have been a huge help. We repeat stories and laugh to break the tension.
I have had weak and strong days. We are so grateful when anyone is freed; but of course, yearn for our own freedom. We try to encourage each other and share strength. We are being fed better now and daily. We have tea, occasional coffee. I have regained most of my weight lost last year.
I think a lot about my brothers and sister. I remember playing Werewolf in the dark with Michael and so many other adventures. I think of chasing Mattie and T around the kitchen counter. It makes me happy to think of them. If there is any money left in my bank account, I want it to go to Michael and Matthew. I am so proud of you, Michael and thankful to you for happy childhood memories and to you and Kristie for happy adult ones.
And big John, how I enjoyed visiting you and Cress in Germany. Thank you for welcoming me. I think a lot about RoRo and try to imagine what Jack is like. I hope he has RoRo's personality!
And Mark… so proud of you too Bro. I think of you on the West coast and hope you are doing some snowboarding and camping, I especially remember us going to the Comedy Club in Boston together and our big hug after. The special moments keep me hopeful.
Katie, so very proud of you. You are the strongest and best of us all!! I think of you working so hard, helping people as a nurse. I am so glad we texted just before I was captured. I pray I can come to your wedding…. now I am sounding like Grammy!!

Grammy, please take your medicine, take walks and keep dancing. I plan to take you out to Margarita's when I get home. Stay strong because I am going to need your help to reclaim my life.
Foley was not known as an especially religious man but the faith he reveals in his letter is in stark contrast to the extremist faith of his captors and killers.  The letter reveals him as a prayerful man and his life’s work and story demonstrates how he ‘lost his life’ (to use Jesus’ expression literally) reporting these terrible events to the West.

We meet Jesus this morning not in prayer in a war zone, but in today’s Gospel at Caesarea Philippi. Interest in His ministry is growing and people want to know more. So Jesus does a little survey - are people getting it? Are they getting him? So he checks it out with the disciples - they hear it all - the chatter in the crowd as He teaches, the exclamations as He heals and performs miracles. ‘Who do people say that I am?’ He asks. Some say John, some say Elijah but then there’s Peter squirming to say something like a kid in class with his hand in the air, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of God!’ Bingo!

But almost without pausing for breath, Jesus goes on to teach that it must all come crashing down - the triumphant of the Messiah warrior-king will not be crowned in glory, but in failure, suffering and ultimately death. The hopes of generations crushed.

The headstrong schoolboy Peter at least had the grace to take Jesus to one side before blurting out his incredulity… Surely this can’t be… This is madness… Why… This Must. Not. Happen… And all of a sudden - Peter the one who get’s Jesus - is the adversary of God and must get out of the Way, the road toward His Divine purposes.

‘…If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it…’ And this is where I struggle.

I don’t want to deny myself.  I have spent much of my adult life accepting and gradually liking and on my best days, loving myself as you told me I should Jesus.  I am finally at ease with who I am and now You tell me Jesus to deny myself - my successes and shortcomings?  I’ve just come to terms with these.  This seems to fly in the face of the big story of God and people as told in the Bible where your Father effectively says - I love you; I want to be with people like you; will you come and be with Me?

So what is it that I should deny Jesus? My gifts and talents, my self-worth, my personality, my hopes, dreams and desires? What needs to decrease in me that means that You increase? Surely self-denial isn’t a form of self-flagellation? 

Self-denial does not mean embracing suffering for its own sake.  Jesus you spent much time alleviating needless suffering or oppression whenever you encountered it.  Saying no to me and my priorities and drives allow the possibility of me saying yes to you and yours, but as Syrian and Iraqi Christians remind me that this sort of self-denial comes with, sometimes, enormous risks.

Then there’s the cross taking. I have always understood Jesus that you took the cross and suffered and died so I don’t have to. So sorry, but I reject “take up your cross” as some sort of victimisation or martyrdom for its own sake.

Yet, if the cross is a symbol for defiance of empire? If the cross is representative of the absolute certainty of the incarnation? If the cross is a model for resistance to the status quo? If the cross is a reflection of our human propensity to eliminate the voices that call for justice, for mercy, for compassion, for love? Well then, I am all for the cross. And I will readily take up that cross, any day.

Jesus you say “take up your cross and follow me.”  Taking up my cross is not an individual act that validates my faith or demonstrates my willingness to go the distance or a statement of self-denial. The cross has everything to do with community. Taking up my cross with you and yours and following. In asking what am I willing to deny in myself, in asking what will I give my life to and for, what you are ultimately asking Jesus if will I follow and be identified with you - even if that means putting me second or worse, whenever, wherever… 

It’s no wonder that this Jesus still has trouble attracting followers. It’s not an welcoming prospect.  His logic, that seems so opposite all we have encountered in life. It invites us to find our purpose in serving others rather than in accumulating goods. It invites us to imagine that our life – and the lives of those around us – have infinite worth simply because God chooses to love us apart from anything we've done or not done.

Why follow? Because, even when confronted by self-denial and death on a cross, it’s all about life, because the story of this Messiah doesn’t end there but concludes in an offer of eternal life to every life. Not the pseudo-life we've been persuaded by advertisers or politicians it's the best we can expect, but real, honest-to-goodness life.  All we have to do is trade what we've been led to believe is life for the real thing. It's incredibly hard because so much money and energy has gone into convincing us that the best we can expect is a quid-pro-quo world where you get what you deserve. But if we can let it go, even for a few moments, we'll discover that God still loves to create out of nothing, raise the dead to life, and give each and all of us so much more than we either deserve or can imagine.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

YES!

As I write, some are saying that history has been made as The General Synod of the Church of England has voted to follow the clear mandate of 43 of our 44 Dioceses, and the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit, to allow women, duly called and equipped, to become Bishops.

This is a decision that has and will cause enormous pain for some and much rejoicing for others.  But this article is not the place to rehearse the theological and scriptural arguments for or against women’s place in leadership in the church (which I believe is very clear indeed), which will continue on for weeks, months and I suspect years to come.

What is worth saying that in some ways, history was not made at the vote.  History was made as Christ came amongst us, and called all of us, men, women and children to follow Him; to fashion our lives on the pattern He gives us; and to see God’s hope and promise in Christ sealed on and in us by virtue of our Baptism.

Friends, our baptism isn’t just a naming ceremony under an other name.  It is not ‘just’ our entry into the Church of God. Rather our Baptism binds us to the death and resurrection of Christ and is a call on our lives to follow Jesus’ Way, to abide by His Truth and live His Risen Life.

But Martin Luther, Church Reformer, understood Baptism being even more significant than that: ‘…Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that [they are] already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.” (Treatise To the Christian Nobility (1520)). Friends, our Baptisms are our ordination to a life of Christian discipleship, formation and service.

I am neither trying to negate the historic three-fold order of ministry that the Church of England has received it; nor I am I seeking to undermine the authority and validity of those called to the recognised lay ministries of Reader, Lay Worker, or Evangelist, as all these ministries have and continue to serve us well as a means of ordering our ecclesiastical life; nor am I downplaying the significance of the vote that prayerfully took place at Synod recently where Catholic, Liberal and Evangelical members alike understood the will of God for the Church of England was to see men and women serve in every Order of our shared life. 

Friends, what I am struck by afresh though, post ‘Yes!’, is that it is by virtue of our Baptism that we are all called to Christ and called to serve Him - primarily as Baptised Lay people, and it is only from there some of us are called to serve Him secondarily as deacons, priest and bishops.

Whatever we may personally feel about our shared life together following Synod’s discernment of the will of God, my friends, we are all Ordained - children, women and men - to serve Christ because of our Baptism. We may not wear a cope, mitre or pectoral cross, but as it says in our Baptism liturgy:

‘… Here we are clothed with Christ…
As children of God, we have a new dignity
and God calls us to fullness of life.’


As the Ordained, let us continue to pray for the ministry Christ calls us all to share:

Heavenly Father,
by the power of your Holy Spirit
you give to your faithful people new life in the water of baptism.
Guide and strengthen us by the same Spirit,
that we who are born again may serve you in faith and love,
and grow into the full stature of your Son, Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit
now and for ever.  Amen.

~~~

For those who would like it, the voting statistics by house: Bishops 37 yes, 2 no, 1 abstention. Clergy 162 yes, 25 no, 4 abstentions. Laity 152 yes, 45 no, 5 abstentions.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

HEADS UP!!!

Many if not most of you will know this already, BUT...

22nd June - 6pm - Sung Eucharist with Chiltern Hundreds Bach choir and Chorleywood Chamber Orchestra - Mozart Mass in C Major and Motets ( Ave Verum and Sancta Maria).

29th June -

11.15am St Albans Abbey for Jairo's Ordination.

6.00pm - Welcome Sung Eucharist in the evening, with bring and share supper in the Parish Hall.

Both Sundays at St Peter's.  There is no worship in the morning on both of those Sundays.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Dreaming...

Do you remember your dreams? I don’t usually. In fact, dreams pass me by so much as I might even say that I don’t dream. Very occasionally that’s not the case and my dreams are big and vivid.

In a recent dream I had, a band who’s music I like very much were performing live, and I was able to attend. That in itself is pretty miraculous these days! What was unusual though was that I found myself playing drums that night with this band! This was a huge shock as I haven’t seriously played the drums for a while. The concert was going terribly though… None of us where in time, the guitars were not in tune, we stopped and started. It was shameful…  What was stranger still in the dream was that the guitarist of the band, who is really lovely in real life, was getting very cross with me indeed - ‘Come on Simon you know these songs? Why aren’t you playing?!’ Even though I protested that part of the issue was that we had not rehearsed, he was having none of it, and I woke up with him shouting at me!

Whitsun, what we celebrate today as Pentecost Sunday, is a good time to dream some dreams.  After all, at the heart of the first Pentecost sermon, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel to promise that God’s spirit enables all of us to dream -- young and old, male and female, slave and free -- all of us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, have been commissioned to be official Christian dreamers.
God calls the church to dream. All too often the church doesn’t dream. It feels like we are asleep - avoiding issues, not engaging with real life, dozy and slow to move when woken.  As baptised people, as Pentecost people, a Spirit filled people, dreaming seems to get a bad press.

First, I wonder if somewhere down the road we decided that dreaming is for children; that dreaming isn’t, in other words, something that responsible adults should do. But, as we already noticed, Peter quotes Joel to say that everyone will see visions, prophesy, and dream. Interestingly, while his list starts with the young, it goes on to include old men as well! Moreover, one of the keys to innovation in according to those who influence the most successful companies, is to be willing to think like a child and relearn how to question assumptions. Who says our congregations can’t grow? Why do we assume that our friends and neighbours won’t come to our church? Where did we get the idea we have nothing to offer our community? And before you start to wonder whether Jairo or Helen are the answer to our dreams, just stop right there and rose yourselves.

Both Jairo and Helen’s learning curves are going to be steep certainly in their first year amongst us, but also beyond.  Jairo’s title will be ‘Assistant Curate.’ He (and this is true for Helen in her new role as Reader too) is with us and amongst us to learn with us and from us and to assist us all in the ministry of the church - and that is something we are all called to. He isn’t just another pair of ordained hands - significant chunks of his time will be non parish-based training, and my availability will action stuff go down.  These and too many other things “everyone knows” need to be called into question by some active dreaming that invites the Spirit to help us see possibilities we hadn’t seen before and asking what part we can all play, with Jairo and Helen, in realising those dreams.

Second, perhaps some are worried that dreaming can be divisive. What if, after all, your dream and mine are different? How do we decide which dream is “better”? Here we can turn to Paul in our reading from , who reminds us that there is always diversity and difference in the body, the Church -- and that is something to be celebrated! There are, as Paul writes to his beloved and difficult congregation in Corinth, a variety of gifts and likely a variety of dreams. But there is one Spirit. A plethora of dreams invites a new world of possibilities, but they are mediated by, as Paul says, a commitment to the common good. Each member of the body -- and each member’s dream -- has a role to play. It may be challenging to get there, but the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost was never intended to make things easy; rather, those tongues of flame were sent to set hearts on fire. And if there is some jostling along the way as we discern between gifts and dreams of the Spirit, we will be okay if we remember that we are all members of one Body.


Finally, I wonder if we’re just worried that if we dream we might be disappointed. I mean, if we just stick with the status quo, we won’t be surprised by how things work out. Dreaming, for some, feels like getting your hopes up. And if things aren’t going to end well, why add insult to injury by getting ourselves even more hurt in the process. Remember, Jesus refused to leave his disciples mired in fear. Indeed, as John tells us this morning, Jesus sought them out, finding them even though they’d shut themselves behind locked doors. Jesus has more in mind for us than fear. He wants to breathe upon us the same Holy Spirit he gave his first disciples and set us loose to forgive sin, share the good news, work for the welfare of our community, provide strength to the weak and courage to the fearful, and in all these ways to share with those around us the dream and vision of Christian community - and those dreams are God’s. Might we fail? Yes. But rather than let that possibility paralyze us, perhaps we can remember that God seems to have way to snatch surprising victory from the jaws of defeat.

Last thing - notice that God promises to give His Spirit to all - not just to a certain sort of Christian - and the outcome is that God’s spirit enables all of us to dream -- young and old, male and female, slave and free All of us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, have been commissioned to be official Christian dreamers.  We need to listen to those dreams, and then work together in making them God’s reality.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Up, Up and Away!

It's been all too quiet here for some time. So here's Sunday's sermon...

~~~

We are all familiar with depictions of people coming and going. Many will recall in the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz,” how Glinda, the good witch, descends upon Dorothy and the Munchkins in a bubble, and after delivering a message and explaining the mystery of the ruby slippers, departs in the same way. And no one who has watched even one “Star Trek” episode can have missed Captain Kirk or his crew being beamed up by a transporter beam.
So, that is just like the Ascension, right?

Wrong. The Ascension of Jesus is not a device to get him back into heaven from whence he came. The Ascension is an account of how Jesus, having finished his work on earth, blazes a trail over which we one day shall travel, a trail to eternal life that continues our relationship with the risen Jesus and God, our creator and redeemer.

While other religions have their divine ascension narratives, with other worthy ones ascending with them, Jesus departs alone, leaving his disciples behind, staring into empty space, as a cloud takes him out of their sight.
And why does that matter?

Because our work is not done on earth. We learn more about that work from Jesus’ prayer for his disciples – and us – in the gospel reading for today: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.”

This farewell prayer is said, not just for the small band of family and followers, but also for each of us. The good news here is that Jesus prays openly for us, for our protection and our unity so that we might be one, as Jesus and the Father are one.

Jesus also tells us, shortly before his Ascension, what eternal life means for us: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

The Ascension makes Jesus accessible to all people, not just his disciples in a particular historic moment. He prays for all people, and all may call upon him. There is no limit to accessing him, no request too small.

Recently a woman called her church office in distress because her husband had just received a bad diagnosis. She did not know what to do. As she talked with her minister, her voice became calmer and she began to voice her fear about what might happen. Then she said, “Will the church pray for us?”
“Of course,” the minister replied, “and I am praying for you both right now.”
“I know,” she said. “I can feel it.”
The risen and ascended Lord entered into her time of need with a calming presence through her plea for help and her pastor’s prayer. That is how a relationship with Jesus is supposed to work: immediately accessible, even when we cannot say the words because of our grief or distress.

People are constantly learning how the living Lord works on their behalf. Jesus’ Ascension paves the way for this work, and we are the beneficiaries of it.

In the Easter season, we are continually drawn to stories about Jesus’ pastoral care for us. He walks to Emmaus with the troubled disciples who had hoped he would redeem Israel, and then helps them see his risen life and the power it holds for them as they begin to share the Good News with others. He cooks breakfast for his friends on the shore of the lake, and they know through this simple act of hospitality how deeply he cares for them, and we know how deeply he cares for all of us.

When was the last time you asked God for something? When was the last time you knelt in a church or in your living room and asked Jesus for a specific need? When was the last time you prayed for yourself or a friend to be healed?

For whom will you pray today? For whom will you offer prayer this week? These prayers are dialogues with Jesus, and he wants us to speak to him. He wants to give us good things, the things we deeply desire and need to lead lives of hope. That is what he does for the disciples in today’s gospel reading, and that is what he will do for you.

Conversion and transformation are the steps the risen one takes with us. Few people have the dramatic experience recorded by the apostle Paul on the Damascus road, but many have moments when life and their place in it begin to come together. That is the conversion experience, when the pieces of the puzzle of life begin to fit together. The conversion leads to transformation, a new life centered in the risen, ascended Lord. It is no longer all about you or me.

Jesus does not come and go on a transporter beam. His presence abides in the church and in a personal and unique relationship with each of us. That is what we celebrate in the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

Today, whether you are joyful about something or sad and grieving over what might have been, remember you are connected to the risen Christ, through the community of faith and directly with him. Pray for specific things you need. Ask for the things he wants to give you, and always remember it is his risen and ascended life that makes him accessible. He wants to walk with you. Will you take his hand?

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The choices we make, reveal the true nature of our character...




‘The choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.’ So reads the strap line of the new  and surprising advert for Guinness featuring what looks like a game of wheelchair basketball, until we realise that only one of the team of friends is disabled - the rest are playing as him and with him.  It says something about their bonds of friendship. This is should be true for us as Christians individually, as churches and as a wider parish.  The choices we make should reveal the true nature of our Christian character, and should say something about our growing faith.


One would like to think that this was true for our politicians too.  There has been a lot of headline inches and news print taken up recently following David Cameron’s pronouncement that the UK is a Christian country.

He staunchly defended the role of religion in politics and said the Bible in particular was crucial to British values, ethics and our interpretation of justice. He said,

"But what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Those comments are not really about what David Cameron personally believes or not, but they are about Jesus Christ and our understanding of who He is and what He teaches.
In the 2001 Census 72% identified themselves as Christian but in 2011 that had decreased to 59%. Less and less people publicly align themselves with Jesus. They struggle to have faith.

The Risen Jesus meets Thomas, sometimes known as Doubting Thomas.  He is Apostle for many in 21st Century Britain as a he unafraid to ask the hard questions of faith, he wants to come to see and believe in the person of Jesus.

The choices we make, reveal the true nature of our character as Christians growing in faith.

This year has been about continuing to see God at work amongst us and all of us coming to believe in Him in new and deeper ways. Like the Common Mayfly which lives for just one day, it is about make thing most of the opportunities presented to us - making the most of now. Will we reach out and help others to embrace the Resurrection life of Jesus.

One of the obvious ways of doing that is meeting people in their need. For us as churches that is done, most fundamentally in our Occasional Offices - the numbers of Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals we conduct.


Numbers of Baptisms are slightly down since our last APCM, but nothing to really worry about as numbers tend to go up later in the year.  We have seen the numbers of Weddings go up as couples celebrate their love for one another - I said to you that I hoped this would happen, and this is in part to do with other local couples having an excellent experience of the church and being prepared by us for married life, and couples realising that their local church is somewhere, maybe even the right place, for their wedding to happen.  Good news spreads.  Similarly the numbers of funerals we are conducting is also going up, as we offer comfort and hope to those who are grieving locally and we should be indent to the ministry of people like Anne Peat and the In Touch Bereavement group in this respect.

This last year has seen a continued flourishing: Play and Praise, the Foundations course, our Lent and Advent study groups, we have a Reader in training, the parish Confirmation where 4 adults and 6 children were confirmed by Bishop Paul, we have had 4 people on parish placement (ordained and lay), our SWAG youth group, new services for Holy Week and Easter, developing Schools work, our food banks, more Home Communions, sustaining the ministry to the residential homes, developing the work of In Touch, church growth - especially with young families, a renewed flourish of the Maple Cross school service and Friendship club, preparations for the arrival of Jairo as our Assistant Curate.

The choices we make, reveal the true nature of our character as Christians growing in faith.

What new things are ahead of us to help to see Christ at work and to believe in Him ever deeper? We hope to establishment of Parish-wide fabric and finance groups to help care for our buildings and look after our money;  to extend the reach of our food banks; to offer 2 new Bible study groups; to completely renew our Misson Action Plan and discern God’s priorities and vision for the parish; to discuss how we effectively use our buildings for the good of the church and in mission to the wider community; to establish a regular pattern of worship offering the ministry of healing; to run a short course on the very basics of Christianity called ‘Start’, to extend the opening and reach of Play and Praise; and to engage more meaningfully with our wider community.

Jesus says ‘If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any they are retained’ (John 20:23.)  This is not giving disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. Rather, he is further specifying what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. As people come to know life in Jesus, they will be “released” from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be “retained” or “held onto.” The stakes of this mission are very high indeed.

Jesus’ response to Thomas, ‘Do not doubt, but believe (John 20:29) is not a rebuke, but rather a blessing for all those who will come to believe without having had the benefit of a flesh-and-blood encounter with Jesus. Indeed, the author goes on to declare that this is the very purpose of this book, addressing all of us who have not seen but have heard this testimony: “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31).

What is more, this Jesus keeps showing up. As he came back a week later for Thomas, Jesus keeps coming back week after week among his gathered disciples -- in the word of Scripture, bread, and the wine -- not wanting any to miss out on the life and peace he gives. And he keeps sending us out of our safe, locked rooms, filled with the life of God, into a world that, like us, so desperately needs his gifts of life and peace.