A Sermon preached on Sunday 26th November, 2017 , the Feast of Christ the King at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge by the Reverend Dr John Towler.

I found this is piece of news in the Observer Newspaper last week:

“It was in May 2015 that Ladislav Lamza, a Croatian Social Worker replaced the sign outside a Mental Health Asylum, replacing ‘Home for the Insane’ with ‘Centre for People like us’. She says, ‘We express many things in that small sentence because what we have done for two centuries is the opposite. We’ve said ‘You are not like us, you are ugly and madman I’m not like you’.”

This morning I want to look at Mathew’s cartoon in a somewhat opposite way by suggesting that we are all hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison; the church and the world all belong to ‘A Centre for People like us’. Might these be instructive for us if we self examine ourselves and ask to what extent am I hungry, am I thirsty, am I a stranger, am I naked, am I sick and I am I imprisoned in some way? I am suggesting that these might represent spiritual states which tell us something of how we live out our lives in the light of the gospel.

What I do not want to do is to suggest that these are purely spiritual states because we are a unity of body, mind and spirit-so the whole of us is affected in some way.

Hunger and thirst are intrinsic to our human desire and need for food and drink: it is at the very root of our being. It is the same spiritually. A writer Dave Butts eloquently makes the point that when we lose our appetite for seeking God we often turn to junk-food which can dull the appetite even further. Last week we were thinking about the parable of the talents and how important it is that consider the way in which we make money is as important as maximising the resources we have been given. Likewise, looking for happiness and fulfilment is thwarted through a quest for power, money or escape to all sorts of pleasures.

As a church we can allow our appetite for God to be dulled by junk-food and snacks: a pursuit of endless activities, and projects-we can be busy, get tired and exhausted but forget that our search for God is the end and the beginning of our earthly pilgrimage. The scriptures are full of allusions to our hunger and thirst for God:

  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
  • “. . . whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
  • “Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
  •  “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

I am also reminded of the famous Heineken Beer Advert: ‘Refreshes the parts that others beers do not’

How hungry and thirsty are you for God or have you lost your appetite? Who do you allow to nourish you? Do you allow anyone to nourish you or are you like many of us stubbornly independent? What kind of food and drink nourishes you?

I was privileged this week with some friends to be part of an evening at Sarum College. It was called ‘Waiting’. The evening provided a diet of wonderful imaginative poetry read by the theologian and poet, Malcolm Guite and by an imaginative exploration of the biblical characters by Paula Gooder. We drank wine, laughed and were deeply moved by what? Was it God in disguise who warmed our hearts and touched our souls? Was it the wine? Was it the company of people gathered in that place? My imagining it was all of those things which evoked from me a response of ‘yes’, God is in this place. It provided a space in which I could re-connect with God through and with others.

I am sure you will have had similar experiences. As the season of Advent begins next Sunday how might you seek ways of satiating your hunger and thirst for God? What is required of us is that we remain open to the possibilities of receiving God’s grace in our lives in so many ways: people, the Scriptures, meditation and prayer, listening, waiting and not rushing about unnecessarily, filling every moment but leaving spaces for God to meet and connect with you.

May be the feelings of being a stranger or we say estranged in our relationships can alert us to a disconnection with God. Maybe we feel exposed, naked, vulnerable , or ashamed which can alert us to a need to reach out for a connection, to acknowledge our need of another particularly when we have to make challenging decisions, or when we feel lonely, when we feel sad or disorientated. We may feel at times depressed, out of sorts, at variance with the world and in need of care but are too proud to ask for help. We may carry feelings of feeling imprisoned by illness, an addiction, questions relating to our sexual orientation or gender or our care of others in that regard. What are we enslaved by? Does our religion get in the way sometimes, by making too many demands, too much of our time? Dare we meet Christ us? For:

“As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me.”

Above all, this Advent, allow yourself to feel deeply whatever it is-emptiness, frustration, exposed, imprisoned, hungry and thirsty or indeed joyful and peaceful. We have received the promise that light emerges out of the darkness. That is the message of Christmas.

Today is the feast of Christ the King. We are reminded on such a day of how God calls each one of us to be participators of a kingdom of compassion, vulnerability, forgiveness and justice. The journey will be rocky, uncertain at times, empty. I am reminded that Mother Theresa of Calcutta lived in a kind of spiritual vacuum in her last days when she her sense of God’s presence eluded her.

‘Be still and know that I am God’ is a useful mantra to use in those spaces in which we cease our business and intentionally reflect upon the meaning of our lives and where God fits into this.

I finish with a profound and beautiful piece of writing by a Rumanian, Petru Dumitriu, in a book entitled “Incognito”. Having experienced the brutality and cruelty of war and Communist concentration camps he arrives at an understanding of what has been happening to him on his journey which leads him to an understanding of the nature of God and the meaning of the universe. He writes:

“That was it: the sense and meaning of the universe was love; that was where all the turns of my life had been leading me. Why had I expected the world to justify itself to me and prove its meaning? It was for me to justify the world by loving it and forgiving it, to discover its meaning through love, to reveal it through forgiveness.”

Being part of ‘A Centre for People like us’, is a sobering reflection for Advent. We all belong to God. May your journey be enriched this Advent by your relationship with the mystery of the living and loving God.

We have become satisfied with mere church, mere religious exertion, mere numbers and buildings—the things we can do. There is nothing wrong with these things, but they are no more than foam left by the surf on the ocean of God’s glory and goodness.” [Ben Patterson, Deepening Your Conversation With God, 171.]

BIG TRAIN EVENT 2018

Make a note of the title – this isn’t just a train event – it’s a BIG train event!

Organised by the Friends of Fordingbridge Parish Church, we are hoping to attract all train enthusiasts and the just plain curious (most of us?) to this major fundraising weekend.

I hope you have the date firmly in next year’s diary – 10/11th February 2018. There will be a floor layout of these larger than average trains (forget your “o” or “oo” gauge!) in St Mary’s church hall to which all are welcome to come and admire. There will be a small entrance charge but stay as long as you like as refreshments will be available all through the day.

These are sizable moving trains with safety barriers in place so quite safe to bring children – they love them and find them quite fascinating. Usefully, this is the beginning of the half term holiday so what better place to visit! – remember the date 10th and 11th February 2018.

The Friends of Fordingbridge Parish Church, with our main aim of caring for the fabric of the church, are hoping to attract people from not just our local community, but further afield as well. Look out for some serious advertising and please, spread the word amongst your family and friends.

A sermon preached by the Reverend John Towler  at St. Giles Church, Godshill and St. Mary’s Church, Breamore on Sunday 19th November 2017, the second Sunday before Advent.

The X Factor TV show I have to confess is not one I watch! I’m a Strictly Come Dancing’ man! However, the times when I have seen snippets of the X Factor programme and watching the contestants on Strictly have reminded me of how important it is to not hide one’s light under a bushel especially if you have a gift for doing something well and one which enhances our common life together. Basically the programme as many of you will know is a mammoth talent competition with lots of glitter and razzmatazz. I have my doubts sometimes at the public’s ability to spot talent but that’s another story!

And I am not sure this is what Jesus had in mind in the parable of the talents. In fact I am not sure given what we know of the rest of the gospel message, that the last verses were part of his original saying. ‘Being cast into outer darkness with gnashing of teeth’ does not square up with the revelation of God who is loving, just, and compassionate.

So, is this a parable about investing money? Is it a parable about how to use the talents we have been given? Is it a parable about what happens if you bury your head in the sand like an ostrich? Maybe it is about all three. Let’s give each of them a whorl.

Clearly the master of the house was wealthy. Someone has worked out that a talent might be worth ¾ million pounds in today’s sterling; and was worth 15 years’ wages as a labourer in first century Palestine. He had money to invest. He was known to be a tough cookie. He delegates the management of his wealth to his servants, much as investors in today’s markets do. He gives five talents (a large amount of money) to the first servant, two talents to the second, and one talent to the third. Two servants earn 100 per cent returns by trading with the funds, but the third hides the money in the ground (under the mattress) and earns nothing. The rich man returns and rewards the two who made the money and the third he punishes. If we approach the parable as allegory we must do so carefully, for the Master is identified with the risen Christ.

For those in the workplace the parable commends putting capital at risk in pursuit of earning a return. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the trading is ethical and people are not being exploited. Hence many of the high street banks and merchant banks might be found wanting in this respect and subsequently are fine billions of pounds for what is corrupt practice.

The meaning of the parable extends far beyond financial investment. We all have gifts some of personality, some of practicality, some of financial acumen, some of compassion-the list is endless (see St Paul) because God endows humanity with everything that can reflect his love and glory. It is as if we are to be stewards of his gifts as a way of revealing God to the world and in pursuit of the ‘golden rule’-do unto other as you have done unto you-love God, love your neighbour as yourself.

These riches are humanity’s potential for creating a just, loving, forgiving and peaceful world. It is in the life of the divine man Jesus that we see how fruitful these riches of personality  can be, how they can bring healing and compassion to all humanity especially those who are suffering and feeling they do not belong.

The parable teaches us that the starting blocks are staggered for each one of us. We do not all have the same wealth, the same start in life, the same opportunities. To a large extent we are governed by geographical location (what might our lives be like if we had been born in Bangladesh?); by parentage, by the context (I am a war baby); by the degree of nurture we did or did not receive. Our gifts are not then equal and there is no demand that they should. “Well done” is the result of using the gifts we do have in the service of God and God in humanity. We do not expect to be remunerated the same. However, I do believe women should be paid for the same work on a par with men! What we can and should expect is that we will be remunerated according to our gifts, not be exploited or exploiting of others for unfair gain. Much is being debated about the minimum wage and zero hour contracts. I find both notions which verge on exploitation of businesses to make profit by not paying the worker a reasonable wage for his gifts of labour. The consequence of this is that ordinary tax payers pick up the bill. I am sure Philip Hammond would argue differently! The rich man says, “Well done, good and faithful servant”. As well as being ‘well done’ for the outcome, the method of achieving the outcome must be ‘good’’.

What of the poor guy who hid his talent out of fear in case his investment didn’t work out? ‘Love casts out fear’. How much of our personal and corporate life in the church is hampered by fear, fear of getting it wrong, fear of being unpopular, fear of change, fear of people being different from ourselves, fear of taking risks. Christianity is a risky business. At the heart of our faith we are called upon to be sacrificial in our service of others. We know unless we have been hurt ourselves we shall not really know how to be compassionate about the hurt of others. Dietrich Bonheoffer put it very powerfully, “To be a Christian is to be human. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some form of asceticism, but to be human. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.”

Hiding, discounting or denying the exercise of the stewardship of the gifts God has given us is tantamount to spiritual blindness. We are called to be ‘trustworthy’ servants-those who trust that the mystery of God beckons us daily to join in the healing and salvation (wholeness) of the world, and by world I mean all peoples and in whatever endeavour we become involved. The salvation of the world does not depend on humanity’s efforts. The deal has already been struck-love has won hands down.

Whatever else the parable teaches us we must see it in its context of the thoughts of the time when Matthew expected Jesus to immanently return (the second coming). Now we know that Christ meets us in our neighbour and the world’s neighbours on a daily basis. It is a parable about faith in God, about making the most of the opportunities of meeting this mystery in the heart of daily living. That daily living is a life of risk. Jesus is telling us in essence that to turn religion into another kind of safety and security, into something that makes life easier and more comfortable is to lack faith. Christianity, Jesus is saying, is about living outside of security and safety. As the metaphor of Sydney Carter’s hymn puts it, we are called to The Dance of faith wherever it takes us.