‘Broken’ is the imaginative title of a recent BBC1 TV drama starring Sean Bean as a Catholic Parish Priest in a downtown suburban parish of Liverpool. It was a very brave piece of TV because it unashamedly depicted some of the ugliest features of the church and humanity to such powerful effect.
The main character, Fr Michael Kerrigan, is haunted by memories of being bullied and abused at the hands of a grubby priest who taught him at school. The flashbacks keep assailing him just as he is at the most solemn part of Mass, the consecration of the bread and wine, making him stumble and freeze.
He is assailed by doubts: “I’m not a priest, I’m an imposter,” he groaned in the final episode. The irony is that we know, from everything we witness him do over the series, that Fr Michael is in fact as terrific a priest as any community could hope to have. Fr Michael has a hugely conflicted conscience as he battles with the demons of his past and engages with the demons of his often disturbed congregation.
A TV journalist writing about the programme, identifies the dilemmas, “What’s the right response if you discover one of your poorest parishioners (Anna Friel) has concealed her mother’s death in order to keep claiming her pension – a victimless crime if ever there was one? Fr Michael works it out. If a woman comes to you and calmly confesses she plans to take her own life, how do you react? Should you break the bond of the confessional to save her? Again, he steers a compassionate course through choppy ethical waters.”
There are scenes of Fr Michael raging against the iniquity of the local betting shop because of its dire effect on some of his poorest parishioners. The consequence shows scenes of his parishioners armed with baseball bats smahing the betting machines. He pulls no punches of the how the church has failed people over abuse and other gross acts of disorder.
Jimmy McGovern, the writer of the series, depicts the church at its worst and its best. At its worst a church beset by sexual abuse; at its best a church which can act as place of refuge, compassion and solace for the broken. The final scene is so poignant of the whole series. After considerable pressure from his family Fr Michael is officiating at the funeral of his dear mother. One by one the broken members of his community file before their broken priest as he offers them the sacrament of holy communion, broken bread, ‘The body of Christ’ he says to each, to which they individually reply, ‘Amen. Wonderful priest!’ Somehow in that moment of receiving the broken body of Christ they mutually recognise each other’s brokeness and vulnerability.
They recognise that they are each ‘wheat and weeds’. The parable of the wheat and the weeds is a powerful story of how each of us, the world at large and the church in that world grows both wheat and weeds. It would be easy to look at that parish of Fr Michael and point the finger: look at how the weeds are tarnishing the lovely wheat of the those who consider themselves as good wheat.
Thinking about such things is natural; acting upon such things is dangerous. We are beset with unrealistic expectations which only lead to discouragement, despair, even cynicism. That would be bad enough. But the expectation that the Church is only for the good and the holy has led people to embark on some very misguided projects throughout history. We have only to mention the word ‘crusades’, ‘inquisition’. And for other religions currently, ‘the holy jihad’, to know how dangerous it is to pursue a fundamentalist, and black and white view of religion or politics.
Jesus’ own example should have prevented these errors. First of all, Jesus himself was criticized by the Pharisees for dining with the unclean. He accepted tax collectors and sinners as disciples. He knew the flaws in Peter, Judas, and the others, but he chose them anyway. And just in case his own actions weren’t enough to get his point across, he told the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24ff) which forms our gospel reading this morning.
Beware, we are in danger of identifying the wrong people! The people the Jews condemned were the outcast and sinners of his day. Clearly they were considered beyond the scope of God’s redeeming love. Weeds! Not so. The gospel is unequivocal in its inclusion of all worthy of that love. Jesus says, suspend your judgement, God is the final arbiter of the kingdom of God, not humanity.
At the moment I am greatly exercised at the direction of the Church of England with its addiction to running the church like a buisness. At times I want to shout ‘this is wrong’. However, I must leave God to be the final arbiter. ‘Let them both (i.e. tares and wheat) grow until the harvest..’
And what for you? About whom are prejudiced? Who do you unequivocally declaim as wrong? It has been popular in the history of the church to separate the sacred from the secular. If you start from the premise that God’s love knows no bounds then the mystery of God pervades the whole of creation, all peoples at all times without discrimination of race, creed, colour, sexual orientation, ability, gender. The church was never set up to be the arbiter of who is in and who is out.
The explanation of the parable needs to be read with caution. There are images from current belief at the time of Jesus which speaks of fire, sin, evildoers, weeping and nashing of teeth. All a trifle alarming! However this is not be taken literally! The images would have currency then as signs of the end of time when God would suddenly return to earth in judgement. They are not part of our world view in the 21st century.
The parable of the wheat and weeds bids our forbearance of difference, and places all humanity on a level playing field. Our trouble is we can be spiritually short-sighted and in so doing the church has made and does made some pretty large blunders in the name of Jesus and God. We are called to trust the mystery, keep our hearts and minds open to all possibilities, and let love be the litmus test in all our thoughts, feelings and actions. Fr Michael knew himself to be ‘broken’, a weed. Because we also ourselves are flawed and broken, we shall get it wrong, horribly wrong, as we have in the past. We need to continue trusting that our loving God is working among our wheat and weeds and that it is at harvest time God who will be the final arbiter of our redemption.
John Towler, Assistant Priest.
Today is Rural Church Sunday. I wonder what image that conjures in your mind. Do you see the idyll of the English countryside, thatched cottages, the village green, the thwack of leather on willow, horses in the paddock, a blue, blue sky and tea and strawberries on the lawn?
Or do you see vast fields, huge machines, backbreaking harvesting, up at dawn, to bed after dusk, perhaps way after dusk, endless paperwork and possibly a huge loss, or being stuck in a tied cottage with poor plumbing, rotting windows and being paid a pittance, out to milk the cows in the depths of winter or to feed the sheep way up in the hills in 2 feet of driving snow?
They are of course both possible as listeners to Ambridge will be well aware – the big profit farm with its new techniques, the traditional farm with a bit of machinery gone wrong costing thousands to fix and even the foodbank as well of course as wife-beating and a court case which kept Margaret and me on the edge of our seats for the whole of our holiday in Pembrokeshire last September and now a female revolt in the cricket team.
The church used to celebrate the rural way of life much more than it currently does. A few years ago I celebrated the whole rural year with the parish of Hale & Woodgreen. In January we stood in the car park of the Horse & Groom on a very cold day and celebrated Plough Sunday. A few months later we beat the bounds, and then at the beginning of August we celebrated Lammas – the first fruits of the harvest and then of course Harvest. Somehow it put us back in touch with the agriculture that gives us our daily bread and far more.
But when I was growing up in Grantham in Lincolnshire our harvest festival was celebrated by the local businesses bringing up what looked like huge Tonka toys because the town in those days made enormous dump trucks and other agricultural gear built on its heritage of Ruston & Hornsby who had been the original manufacturers of mass produced traction engines and steam ploughs. We didn’t sing “we plough the fields and scatter”, we sang “we plough the field with tractors” because that was the reality. I was also privileged to live within the confines of a Welsh hill farm for several weeks a year for some years and on the coldest, snowiest days Ivor the farmer would reassuringly appear up in the hills where our cottage was on his tractor to feed the sheep. When I started work we soon moved to the Lincolnshire fens. Our house was surrounded on 3 sides by fields and they grew bulbs and gladioli, so in the spring we looked out on a riot of colour.
It all feels quite comfortable doesn’t it? But in that same Lincolnshire where the sky goes on forever and the sunsets are spectacular, there were then people who were almost slaves working for gang-masters who subcontracted the harvesting. It is a bit better now but not much and everyone speaks Polish, Bulgarian or Romanian now instead of English – but it is a hard exploitative life.
Jesus lived a pretty rural existence – Jerusalem was really the only big place in his life but most of the time he spent wandering from village to village, hamlet to hamlet, meeting the subsistence farmers of his time, scratching a living from the land whether it be crops or sheep or goats. So I guess when he met that vast crowd we were reminded about in that oh so familiar gospel story this morning, they were out in the countryside. They must have travelled from miles around to hear him. Most I suspect had little more than what they wore and scratched a living. They were after something more and this Jesus appeared to offer it to them.
I often wonder what happened – did Jesus do something extra-ordinary himself and somehow create all the food and the 12 baskets over from nothing – it’s reasonable to suppose he did because he was and is capable of anything, or could it have gone like this:
The boy has been sent off for the day by his mum with the two fish and the 5 small loaves – was he with anyone else or was he alone – did he go to listen to Jesus or did he just get swept up in the crowd? Naively he sticks his hand up and says – “I’ve got my packed lunch”. I guess those around him laughed at his stupidity, but Jesus saw something in the boy no-one else had offered – generosity. Once Jesus acknowledged it could it have been that a few more people admitted they had their lunch too, and some enormous bring-and-share meal suddenly happened. I don’t know. Maybe not but it’s a fantasy I have about this story. How often do we hear about people who share everything they haven’t got? We saw it after Grenfell Tower, the mainly poor local population cleared their own wardrobes and cupboards to provide so much that the surplus has had to be stored for the future – I know this because some of my Trussell Trust vans came down from Coventry to pick it up and take it to be stored until it can go back as people are rehoused. – Generosity.
Let me remind you of the first reading – take some of the first fruits of all you produce from the soil of the land and put them in a basket. Then go to the place that the Lord your God will chose.
And for me that’s what Rural life is about – how ever hard it is, the rural shares its bounty with the rest of the country, and now the world just as the boy shared and a miracle occurred. But we have to still acknowledge that for some life is hard and so as the rural church we must also show great generosity.
I was asked to contribute to a diocesan film recently and the question I was asked was “what does being generous mean” and I said “it means not just giving away what is easy to give, but giving a bit more so it hurts”. Maybe you think that’s trite but it’s really easy to give away what you don’t need – it’s less easy to give away what you think you might need or even what you do need. I hear lots of grumbling about the money the church takes from us and when I do I often say – well don’t give it then, because if you give it grudgingly it’s no gift, but if you give it because you want to grow the kingdom of God here on earth giving it will feel so much better, even if it does hurt a bit. Hurting for many of us here might be one less meal out – when the poor give out of generosity it often hurts much more. I wonder what the widow did for a meal after she gave away her last pittance? And what did Jesus give away – his life. And notice this, in that first reading it doesn’t say – give away to God the stuff you have left, the manky bit that’s mis-shaped , he says give your first fruits – that’s the newest of new potatoes or the first picking of peas – the best.
On the assumption you are here today because you want the kingdom of God to thrive in this place, then I guess you too see something in Jesus just as that mass crowd did. Our challenge of course is how do we respond – can we be like the boy – generous and share willingly what we have, even if it does hurt a bit, I hope so. Amen.
It would be something of a doddle for me to preach about the feeding of the four thousand or the five thousand given what I do daily for a charity which last year provided almost 1.2 million food parcels for people in this country. It isn’t the reading for today as set in the lectionary but it was one of the two that were suggested when I adapted this service from one provided by the Arthur Rank Centre, which provides Christian support to farmers and a whole host of other rural Christian resources.
I kept the reading and the Old Testament one for good reason. One speaks of “first fruits” and the other of a small boy with five small loaves and two fish. The boy is in danger of becoming the centre of a huge joke when he offers his packed lunch to share with others. But notice this, innocent though he may be he is the only one who does offer anything up amongst the very large crowd.
I’m someone who is very happy to believe Jesus did the seemingly impossible just as I’m willing to believe that God created a big fish which swallowed Jonah and spat him out a few days later unharmed, for God can do anything. So it may well be that Jesus did turn those fish and loaves into a banquet for many thousand. On the other hand it may well be that having seen the boy offer up his packed lunch, many others decided to offer up theirs too which they had been hiding in their bag and the sum total, as is often the case, was that when it was all added together there was more than enough for everyone. But whichever scenario happened, the person who started it all was one small boy, one small boy who even the disciples dismissed as irrelevant.
We don’t know what Jesus would have done if the boy hadn’t offered his lunch but the fact is he took what was offered and he used it for God’s purposes. The boy was the first fruit.
Now, looking around us you might think we are not first fruit given our relative ages. There are few spring chickens amongst us – but just like the boy we are here and we have offered ourselves up. If we were to walk out there and tell the world we were the start of a new Christian revival it is possible that the reaction of others would be similar of that to the boy, they may well ridicule us.
And of course if we were acting just in our own power then they may have a point, but we have a miracle worker to call on. Ah – you might say, miracles only happened in the bible, but is that really true? I personally think that if we could believe more, we would see more miracles. Jesus sent the twelve out to heal the sick and do miracles in his name so clearly he expects it to happen through the use of normal mortals like you and me.
But back to us few here just for a minute – when we go to the supermarket we see perfect fruit and veg, no scabs, no marks, no funny shapes, but that’s only because all the other stuff has been rejected and often thrown away or ploughed back. My allotment grows potatoes with extra bits, forked carrots, slightly nibbles radishes and bendy leeks. They all taste as good as the perfect stuff from the shop even if they do look a bit odd and inside they contain just as much, in fact possibly more goodness because they haven’t been ripened out of the ground and stored for months. Which is a bit like us really isn’t it? I’ve got an ear that works intermittently, someone else will have a bad leg, someone will wish they had done better at school or had invented something amazing. Despite all the stuff that we can’t do, or which holds us back, God is there in our midst and he uses what he has. Would anyone starting as revolution have chosen those 12 disciples on purpose – well given their faults you wouldn’t have thought so, but Jesus did because he knew with his guidance we can do anything.
So like it or not, you and me – we are it, we are the church in Godshill, and Sandleheath, and Woodgreen and Breamore and Hyde and Fordingbridge. We are the ones clinging on to keep the church alive in our rural communities alongside 10,000 other small communities across this land.
But what makes us first fruits? We are the first fruits in this diocese of a plan to raise rural church from being on its knees. When I went to the first Bishop Tim Diocesan Conference in 2012 and we began to explore 4 strategic principles, one of which was to do church differently, I had no idea that 4½ years later this benefice would be chosen to be a beacon project of the diocese supported by funding from the Church Commissioners. But here we are, we are now that small boy, with seemingly not much to offer, and we have been chosen, called out from the whole of the southern archdeaconry of the diocese to lead the revival of rural church.
If we dare to dream, and dare to trust in God, could we end up with 12 baskets overflowing?
So what’s it all about? In October we will start to plan this three year project. Fortunately the funds from the Church Commissioners will provide us with some expert help, including that of the Arthur Rank Centre up in Stoneleigh so that we can rethink how we do church. I have no idea what that will entail but the idea is to make ourselves much more visible to the wider community and to make it simpler for then to find out what we offer and I hope for us to find out what we could offer them that we don’t right now.
Will it mean new technology – probably, but we shouldn’t be frightened about that. We tend to have an aversion to things we don’t understand don’t we but usually it’s because we are fearful of it. When I was a boy I lived over 200 miles from my only set of living grandparents and neither they nor we had a telephone in the house. I saw them at Christmas and perhaps twice a year other than that. It was my only contact with them. I live between 190 and 250 miles from all my 5 grandchildren but I see them and speak to them all every week because of Skype. We sit at our computers, press a couple of buttons and suddenly we are together, talking, showing each other things and so I’m closer to my grandchildren than I ever was to my Grandparents much as I loved them.
So new things, difficult though they may appear to begin with, can make huge positive changes to our lives – we just have to have the courage to give them a go. I’ve said this before but what if we could have a big screen here, and at 9am on Sunday all the people who would love to be here but who can’t get here through ill-health, could join us so we could see them on that screen and they could see us on their TV screen. What if one of them could read the lesson from their armchair?
What if we had a clever screen in here which when you touched it, it helped you find out how to get married here, how to find the Puddle Ducks group in Fordingbridge or that there is a Taize café church next week in Woodgreen. What if you could ask for prayer and that prayer could be said in every one of our churches. The possibilities are endless even though at the moment it might feel like we have 5 loaves and two small fish.
So we are the first fruits and we have a great opportunity. Yes some of the things we do won’t grow. Some may start to look healthy and then die off, some might look very strange shapes to begin with but we may just hit on something which works in abundance. But we have to be prepared to stand up like the boy and offer. And notice – he only offered what he had. Jesus used what he had and did something amazing with it. And then we can say, repeating our first reading slightly amended:
“Now we have entered the land that the Lord our God has given us as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, we will take some of the first fruits of all that produce and put them in a basket. Then we will go to the place that the Lord our God has chosen as a dwelling for his Name and we will say to the priest in office at the time, ‘We declare today to the Lord our God that we have come to the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us’.
A traditional carol used in a Sermon by Canon Gary Philbrick on July 9th – the sermon text will be posted below.
1. Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;
Chorus: Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.
2. Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.
3. In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Between an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.
4. Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard I from above,
To call my true love to my dance.
5. Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love’s dance.
6. The Jews on me they made great suit,
And with me made great variance,
Because they loved darkness rather than light,
To call my true love to my dance.
7. For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance:
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
The same is he shall lead the dance.
8. Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance.
9. Then on the cross hanged I was,
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance.
10 Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love’s deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance.
11. Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.
A disaster waiting to happen! That is how many residents at the Grenfell Tower Flats described their tragedy. I guess all of us might have had such words on our lips to describe such occasions we have experienced or witnessed. How often have you found yourself angry and frustrated that you have been or are not be listened to and understood? We are left feeling disappointed and powerless. Those of you who have experience of teenage children, dogs with cloth ears, and partners with selective hearing will know what I mean. Or you have played Chinese whispers and end up with a distorted and misunderstood message. A tragedy waiting to happen or a distorted misunderstood message!
Well, St. Matthew records such an event in this morning’s gospel reading. ‘To what shall I compare this generation?’ It would seem that the ‘generation’ Jesus speaks of is the whole of humankind. He likens it to a children’s game in which girls on flutes invite boys to dance the wedding dance and in which wailing boys call upon the girls to sing a funeral dirge. But the boys do not respond to the flutes, nor the girls to the wailing. Both groups refuse to play the game. This brings the response: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’. How does this parallel the situation with John the Baptist and Jesus? It would seem that John comes preaching with a message of mourning and repentance: Jesus announces joy and the presence for the kingdom and invited others to join him to enter into it. John the Baptist is vilified as having a ‘demon’ and Jesus was clearly known for being good company at parties and the disreputable company he kept. Both invitations to this generation fall on deaf ears-the messengers are ignored. A disaster waiting to happen!
Despite the poor response to Jesus what he is doing and has done is vindicated. It is those who are not ready to respond favourably that are the losers.
John the Baptist and Jesus had come proclaiming the good news of the establishing of God’s kingdom in the world. Jesus is drawing attention to his first hearers and us today that refusing to listen, hear and understand the good news is an option which many are choosing. Jesus has called his church into being, expressly to proclaim the good news of God’s love. Those of us here this morning have been granted sight, and some us glimpses, of that love. With that sight and those glimpses comes responsibility.
I have written elsewhere in the Avon Valley Partnership Magazine my views on how we are doing in the Church of England. Some of it I fear is a different view which I find is being promulgated in the wider Anglican Communion and especially in our Church of England.
It all hinges on how we see the role of the church in modern society. In recent years I believe the church has panicked about numbers and we have had prophets of doom telling us that we belong to a dying church so we had better do something fairly dramatic. First let me say, I do not believe the church is dying. Second that I firmly believe that whatever fragile, tired, energetic, failing, exuberant body we at times might feel to be, we are in St. Paul’s words an expression of ‘the body of Christ’. Whatever the numerical strength of the church, it will always be the ‘body of Christ’ in the world-a body of people in every locality seeking to worship God with thankful hearts and feeding those in need whoever and wherever that need presents itself love one of Sydney Carter’s songs (same guy who wrote the Lord of the Dance) when he writes, ‘The poor of the world are my body’ he said. This does not mean we do not have to pay attention to how we utilise our resources financial, human and spiritual. This does not mean that we need to constantly review the worship we offer, the way we express the good news of the gospel in word and action. This does not mean that we can neglect the findings of modern science with all its wonders and seemingly unanswerable questions. For example, much of hymnody still reflects a three tier universe, knowledge which science rejects.
What I want to say next is not meant to be a dig at the modern church but simply to offer some thoughts about the direction in which we are travelling. In this I have been inspired by the writing of Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christ’s College, Oxford in a book called the ‘Future of Anglicanism; currents, contour and charts’.
In a way, to use an earlier metaphor, I want to invite you in a reflective dance about our modern church. At the heart of Martyn’s argument is that much of our current business with so much activity is that our church is being managed and organised like a business where Bishops become chief executives, Parish Priests become local managers and you the congregation assume the role of customers. This leadership model is a kind of rescue mission in the face of disaster about to happen. We have begun to measure God’s activity in terms of ‘targets’ and ‘missional outcomes’. We have unwittingly taken on the mantle of ‘success’ as a Godly criterion. So, for example, a church congregation of 12 might begin to be seen as a failure unless we can find ways of boosting the numbers.
Martyn Percy reminds us that Jesus was seldom interested in quantity and writes, “the kingdom is about enriching quality, even in small numbers”. I guess it is not a surprise. We live in a world obsessed with measuring this and peoples’ achievements numerically-health service, education, social care, police etc. It is easy amidst the daily bombardment of the importance of measurements to forget that the church’s primary task is twofold-the worship of God and the working to establish the kingdom of God with those values of love, forgiveness, and justice for all people. The mission of the church for me is about uncovering and sharing in the work that God is already doing in his world and with his people.
Here at Hyde your parish church is a jewel in the crown alongside all other churches. The building is a place where all can receive baptism, where young and old come to ask God for his blessing in marriage, where a community gathers to bid their fond farewells to those who have died. All who live here are members, some active, some occasionally active and some latent. Our job is to serve them unconditionally. They are welcome at all stages of their spiritual development, and those who might call themselves agnostic or atheist.
As well as communities of activity we need to be communities of quiet and contemplation as we ponder what God has in store for us. ‘To what shall compare this generation?’ says Jesus. Like Father Kerrigan in the ITV series ‘Broken’ much of what we do will not look like success to the world. In the end his community saw through him something of the vulnerability and brokenness of Christ.
So the gospel always comes with a public health: if our eyes are simply on swelling numbers to be successful we might just be missing the message. Committing to the gospel brings hard times as well as good. Like the children in the market place we need to dance with those mourn and dance with those who rejoice knowing that our gracious God goes before beckoning us to join him in the dance of life.