I wonder what brought you here this morning? I asked exactly the same question to the midnight mass congregation at Christmas 2015. Some of you will be here because you are always here, some because you are perhaps visiting family or friends and some because, well it just felt like the right thing to do today. Any one of those is absolutely fine. I suspect, or at least I hope that unlike midnight mass none of you has dropped in on the way back from the pub, although if you lived in a small town in Lincolnshire that my family lived in during the 1980s, it was always possible to go to the local pub, The Bull, for breakfast and pour your own pint to go with it, a hangover, if you’ll pardon the pun, from the days when the locals went fishing all night, or so they said.
But I digress – the Christmas story, as I recounted that evening, is a bizarre one. We now live in a world which has a new peace time phenomenon – fake news, so imagine you have never heard this before:
An older man, about to marry a younger woman learns from an angel that his intended is already pregnant by something called The Holy Spirit, they then go on a very long journey whilst she is 8 months pregnant, turn up at their destination and find that they should have booked online but didn’t and they end up in a stinking barn surrounded by animals and then are visited by some, no doubt, equally fragrant shepherds who have brought a few extra animals with them. If that isn’t enough, the new father is visited in a dream by another angel who suggests they take a different way home as the King’s assassination squad is looking for their baby. To be honest it’s the stuff of fiction isn’t it?
So, let’s fast forward 30-odd years. The baby has grown up and puts a rag-tag group of the locals together and persuades them to wander around with him living at the mercy of the weather and the kindness of the people they meet. But it turns out that this is no ordinary man, but a man nonetheless. He can heal the sick, he can make the dead rise to life, and he can avoid temptation like no other, and he is absolutely brilliant at not answering the question he has been asked and in so doing usually gets right at the heart of the matter at hand. Oh, and he can turn literally hundreds of bottles of water into the finest wine anyone has ever tasted, walk on water and calm a serious storm.
Yet, at the height of his fame, and having seemingly overcome attempts to silence him, it appears as though his whole world has fallen to pieces – and in the space of a few days his friends desert him, he gets hauled up in front of the local invaders’ big-wig who has no idea what to do with him, and then the very people he has been helping rise up and condemn him to death resulting in an excruciating few hours nailed to a cross during which time he slowly asphyxiates as he is unable to bear his own body weight, and even during that time he forgives someone who is strung up next to him and arranges for his mother’s future welfare.
Now if that isn’t enough, as we learned this morning, a couple of days later there is an earthquake which rolls back the stone over the tomb he has been placed in and he has disappeared.
So let me ask you again – what brought you here? Fake news? – If you had never heard this story before what would you think? It takes some believing doesn’t it? And even if it did all happen as the four books we have to read from lead us to believe it did – what is the point of it all? Surely it’s just some old mumbo-jumbo from the past.
So what does that make us then – gullible, stupid?
On the other hand does the amazing world we live in, and the stars we so far know of and the galaxies we as yet don’t, does that all exist out of pure chance? It is difficult to believe that it does.
Then again you say, but the world is full of evil and greed and hate, and we only have to go back a few weeks to the events in London recently to be reminded of that. If there is a God why on earth would he allow such things to happen? It’s a fair point, or so you might think.
But for me, and I suspect for numbers of you here today, it is the very fact that this is such a strange story which makes it real. How many savours of the world would arrange to be born into abject poverty, how many rulers would surround themselves with significantly fallible people to the point that they are completely hopeless most of the time? How many kings would travel for 3 years just in the clothes they stand up in and how many would submit to the kind of death Jesus allowed himself to suffer, when he had proven beyond all doubt that he could have done almost anything to escape?
For me it’s about suspending our own sense of reason. We try to rationalise everything don’t we, it’s the world we live in, especially now that we have to sift the fake from the real. Take the story of Jonah for example – how did Jonah survive in the belly of a large fish? Well I don’t know, our logic says he would have died because there was no air and then been dissolved by the acid in the fish’s stomach, but to a God that can create the world, I suspect it wasn’t that difficult to arrange. God exists outside our logic, outside our capacity to understand and we can only really learn from him if we accept that, if we open our minds to any possibility, and that’s why he chose all of those strange ways to make himself known to us, because it suited his purposes. And for us, we don’t always need to understand, we need to believe.
And that is my very long-winded way of getting to the morning of the Resurrection. The women run to the tomb to do all the stuff they had intended to do on the Friday but couldn’t because the religious leaders forbade it, as the Sabbath Day had begun. And when they arrived they found an empty tomb. The version we have heard today doesn’t tell us this but if you look at another account, Mary Magdalene meets someone she thinks is a gardener or maybe a caretaker of the land, and after hearing her own name mentioned just once – “Mary” – she not only recognises, but is adamant she has seen Jesus – she simply believes. She doesn’t stand and rationalise it, “well maybe I’m so upset I’ve dreamed it, maybe I ate something or drank something which is making me hallucinate”, no – she simply accepts it, Jesus is alive, and with that she runs back to tell the others, who not surprisingly think she has gone a bit la-la.
Yet Mary has seen beyond her human and earthly logic and accepted that God simply IS. And that’s why I’m here this morning because for me God simply IS. Jesus is hope beyond all the rubbish and the hatred. Jesus is the only one that makes the seemingly senseless massacre of a few days ago, a hundred miles from here, make any sense. His death taught us that we exist for one another, for the common good. PC Keith Palmer died to protect many others. I have no understanding why the others died but we see our true humanity – our small ability to grasp Godliness in the actions of those who so desperately tried to save others, in the actions of those who simply comforted others – “Love one another as I have Loved You”.
If you are still not sure why you are here – to be honest, it doesn’t matter – you are here, and you will leave here as Easter People, as Resurrection People, maybe not overflowing but at least and maybe only the tiniest bit touched by a God who has loved you since before you were and after you will be, and in the meantime, capable with his gift of love for you to do almost anything in his name.
So if you don’t quite understand it all, take comfort, neither do most of the rest of us, but you don’t have to rationalise everything to believe. Amen.
Today we celebrate the feast of St Joseph of Nazareth, husband of Mary the mother of Jesus and earthly father to Jesus, natural father to at least 3 more sons and two daughters. His story is confined to the time before, during and after Jesus’ birth and the incident we heard read to us a few moments ago, the day he and Mary lost Jesus, only to find him in the temple, where he answered them, in what we might see as adolescent arrogance “well why didn’t you know where I’d be – her in my father’s house”. I wonder what Joseph thought at that comment?
The passage from Hosea we heard a little earlier is about another Father – Jesus actual father – God, showing his compassion to his errant people.
So then – fathers. We all have or have had one, maybe we knew them, and maybe we didn’t. Whether we did or not they had an impact on our lives either through being there or indeed not being there.
My own father was born way back in 1916, not so far away from the birth of some of the fathers of those of you who are older than me. He was 45 when I was born. Just think back – he was born in the middle of a world war where life was unbelievably different to today. He lived until 2006 and so he saw and fought in another world war, saw the popularisation of the motor car and the telephone, of television, of computers, air travel and even the mobile phone, although he would only ever switch it on when he wanted to use it which made it a useless means of emergency communication if anyone else needed him! He saw many parts of the world in the Navy but he never again travelled outside the UK apart from Southern Ireland when we once took him and my mother on holiday with us.
My father was a joker. He was left-handed and at school his arm was tied behind his back to cure him of his affliction, which of course he didn’t. His left-handedness has resulted in me tying my tie left-handed and playing both cricket and hockey left handed, cricket is simple, hockey less so as they don’t make left-handed sticks, yet I am utterly right-handed. He would rail against his punishment and at least twice was sent to work in the headmaster’s garden which adjoined the village school. On one occasion he was told to plant seeds so he put all the seeds into a pot, gave them a liberal mix and then sowed them in neat rows and awaited the result. On the second occasion he uprooted every carrot and replanted it point up, thus he was no stranger to capital punishment. He left school at 14 fairly uneducated but by no means stupid. He soon learned that taking an empty pop bottle back to the shop earned him the deposit and if he then snuck round to the back yard he could reclaim the bottle and at least once, if not twice more claim the deposit before he was rumbled.
He went to work for the local grocer who had a delivery van which daily travelled around the villages of East Lincolnshire. He learned to drive but didn’t take a test. One day the village policeman asked about the licence and my dad who if nothing else was always completely honest admitted he didn’t have a licence, so the policeman banned him from driving the van until he had taken his test. This resulted in a new daily ritual of dad cycling out of the village to await the arrival of his boss with the van, upon which they would swap, dad would do the rounds and in the evening they would repeat the ritual.
For a while he was also employed in the church to pump the bellows for the organ and discovered that the speed at which you pumped could have an amazing range of effects on the sound which came from it.
Well the war came and went and he returned home. He loved to dance and it wasn’t unusual for him to work at the shop on Saturday morning and then borrow the van to drive to London to dance to one of the famous dance bands of the time and drive straight back in time to ring the bells before the service on Sunday. Being a bit of a jack the lad he had a few girls on the go and eventually the heat got to him and he escaped to Brighton to another Grocer’s shop, White and Wilson of Preston Park, purveyors of fine foods to the gentry of Hove. He was in digs and one day commenting on the dining table being rocky, he suggested to the man of the house he should sort it out. When dad returned home the wife looked at him angrily and suggested dad try to sit at the table. He discovered his knees would not fit. As dad had well known the problem was not with the table but the floor so constant removal of a piece from each leg had little or no effect.
Well my mother, 20 years his junior, much to her own mother’s annoyance followed him south and they were married on 6th June 1960. On a visit to our small bungalow in the small and slightly down at heel suburb of Portslade, my maternal grandmother strongly suggested that dad should remove his muddy wellingtons before entering the house, and in defiance he then proceeded to walk all over the house leaving footprints everywhere he went.
I could go on for hours but I won’t, so let’ skip forward 25 years or so. My parents have moved from the pleasant surrounding s to what I thought, arriving in December, was a flea pit of a northern town called Grantham, which of course it was neither, but it was cold. My grandmother was now living with my parents and my mother was still working. Dad now became the main carer for his mother-in-law. Indeed before she moved in it had been his practice to drive the 15 miles to her house in Sleaford once a week to take her and my great aunt Lily shopping. Lily, never one to waste anything would stand in the supermarket and break off all the bits of veg she considered waste whilst grandma would order cheese by the 2 ounce and bacon again 2 rashers at a time. Dad decided to sit in the car and let them shop alone from that point on as he couldn’t stand the embarrassment of being with them.
But why do I tell you all of this? Well he was like so many other ordinary men a reluctant war hero, heroic just for being there and doing what he was told, he held down jobs which were no great shakes by some standards, shop assistant, delivery driver and finally postman, which could spawn another 3 hours of stories in addition to “when I was in the war”. My dad was nothing special like so many others and neither was Joseph. He did take notice of an angel more than once but otherwise he was a simple man, yet that does not diminish what he achieved because he simply trusted in God. Amen.
I don’t know what it is about this gospel passage but I’m often drawn to it. Last Tuesday I was invited by the Bishop of Bath and Wells to present to his area Deans and Lay Chairs about the Deanery Mapping process we have undertaken in this diocese and deanery. If that doesn’t mean much to you, we all did a benefice map a couple of years ago which set our direction of travel and then we did another map for the deanery. I used this passage that day to talk about taking risks.
So why am I so fascinated by the story? Well you only have to watch a piece of period drama to realise that until not so long ago there were tensions and etiquettes to keep around meetings between a single man and a single woman, indeed if you had lived in my parents’ house in the late 1970s you would have witnessed my mother turning up in the living room about every 3 minutes to check Margaret and I weren’t up to something she disapproved of – which naturally we weren’t! Well Jesus, a single man broke every rule in the book by talking to a woman alone, and what was worse she was married, or at least she wasn’t married to the man she lived with which made the whole thing worse, and to cap it all she was from Samaria, and the Jews and Samaritans had a bit of an English-French thing going. So the whole situation was wrong.
We all know what happened – he met the woman, they had a tricky conversation about her domestic arrangements and then she took him home to meet the neighbours, who also incidentally were Samaritans. Doesn’t sound like much of a recipe for success does it but at the end of the passage we learn that many people came to know him.
But given all the risks – why on earth did he do it? I think for more than one reason:
He wanted the woman to change her ways, and as far as we know he succeeded. He sat on the well cover in the middle of the day because he knew that was the only time she would be there as she wanted to avoid the neighbours, and so she really couldn’t argue with him about her situation.
He wanted to meet the local people and heal the rift between his nation and theirs – and he achieved that too.
But more than that, he wanted his disciples to see that what he had to offer wasn’t just for the Jews but also for everyone else, you and me included. He was saying I can offer you something that exists way outside ethnic boundaries and something which is open to everyone without having to obey all the rituals of past religion. He went in human form to be with people where they were – notice that – he went to them; he didn’t expect them to come to him.
He deliberately disobeyed the Jewish law, why, because the law had become all about ritual and hypocrisy and he wanted no more of it – he wanted people to simply get back to being in a relationship with God and the only two rules were, love God and love one another.
But let me come right back to this – he took an enormous risk and it could have all gone very wrong – his disciples could have left him, the Jewish leaders could have tried to haul him up before the religious courts and his reputation could have been torn to shreds.
Was it worth it – was it worth the risk? Well clearly he felt it was.
I talk a lot about risk in my day job. It’s my job to weigh up the risks of doing or not doing things according to what I refer to as the Trussell Trust’s appetite for risk. We have decided the level of risk we are willing to take in different circumstances and I have to decide if the idea in front of me fits within or outside that, and if it is outside it can we change the plan to bring it inside, or alternatively should I suggest that on this occasion the extra risk is worth it. Do you remember the Baron’s trail we had in Salisbury in 2015 – that was a huge risk which could have been a financial disaster but it seemed like an opportunity we could not miss, so we went out on a limb and it payed off and earned us almost £250,000, I just didn’t sleep for a year.
I have no idea whether Jesus weighed up the risk or not, or whether for him any risk was worth taking to bring people to faith. I suspect, given what happened to him, he felt that any risk was worth it.
So then – here’s the tricky bit. This isn’t just a story with a happy ending. It is an example to us all. That’s why I’m quite fed up with the Bishops at the moment about their attitude to gay marriage. Ignore the actual issue itself. In my view they should come out and say what they think rather than coming up with an unworkable compromise – being gay is ok, being a gay priest is ok, we still love you, but if you get married and you are a priest we won’t recognise you. I’m not saying any of the issue is right or wrong, although I do have a view if you want to ask me, but in my view the bishops should stand up and tell us what they think rather than attempting to please everyone and pleasing no one.
Let’s bring it a bit closer – we live in this safe world of church, or so it seems. We come here, we all know what’s going on and we expect pretty much the same thing every time. Yet this safe place and the way we go about has put Christianity in the UK, especially in the Church of England onto a trajectory which could wipe us out in a few years. We are losing people at a vast rate of knots but we continue to do the same thing.
If Jesus is our model what should we do? I would venture we should take more risks. We need to be out there meeting people in places where we engineer interactions – it doesn’t have to be with the local lady of ill repute, it could be propping the bar up at the Horse and Groom but we won’t spread the Gospel of God’s love in here.
Hopefully we will soon get a real chance to experiment. Last October some of us went to the diocesan conference for a week and whilst there we discussed twelve possible projects for the diocese to undertake over the next three years or more. In Bishop’s Council 12 or so of us whittled these 12 down to 4 based on the feedback from the conference and on Thursday evening we put those four items to Diocesan Synod who decided to risk backing us. One of those four may have a very direct effect on us here, because our benefice of Avon Valley is one of only three pilot projects called “The benefice of the future” which is all about working out new ways that rural churches can work together to provide all the things that the community they serve needs. We will have pretty much a blank sheet of paper, a dedicated mentor and some money to try out how to make ourselves relevant to the communities around us. It means we won’t try to do everything everywhere but we will have the resources to be able to tell people what we do in different places and I hope to develop new ways of being church.
Let me finish with just one idea that occurred to me. Everyone goes on and on about getting new people, young people into the church, but that’s all well and good as long as we don’t forget all the people who have faithfully kept these places going. In Salisbury there is a health care company that looks after people who are housebound. As part of the service they install a monitor in the house just like a TV screen. Each morning and evening, irrespective of whether a visit is planned, the company calls up each of their clients and they have a conversation where each can see the other. That allows the care company to assess the person very easily – do they look ok, have they got dressed, do they look happy or not and the client can also see the person they are talking to so it’s proper company at least twice a day.
What if we could dial up Vivian this morning so he could see us and we could see him and he could be part of this service. We could have as many people dialled in as are here – one of them could lead the readings or the prayers – they could be fully part of this service even though they struggle to leave home, how amazing would that be? If we got known about we could have a virtual congregation with us from almost anywhere as long as we could make the technology work. And I haven’t even thought about what we could do outside the church.
So, I know we can’t go around breaking the law otherwise we find ourselves doing as I have to next Friday, attending a speed awareness course in Eastleigh courtesy of Norfolk police Last Christmas Eve, although in my defence I was certain I was in a 40 limit! But it doesn’t mean we can’t take other risks that help us share God with others.
I for one can’t wait.
Do you like to read? How about reading a book over a 3 month period either for your own benefit or to then also discuss with some others? The Learning Zone now has a book Group which will begin in May. The idea is to read a Christian book which provokes us and then meet in a comfortable environment (with some typical AVP hospitality) and chew over our thoughts.
The May-July book:
Seeking God “The way of St Benedict” bu Esther De Waal. This short book investigates the Rule of St Benedict. We are being encouraged by our own Benedictine diocese of Winchester to adopt our own Rule of Life for the 21st Century, so why not see what Benedict thought 1500 years ago, interpreted and explained by De Waal.
To register your interest either email email@example.com or telephone 01425 656120 and if you are quick you can secure one of 15 (used) free copies!
Details of the meeting date and venue will be announced in due course.
Mark Ward (Ministry Team Learning Zone co-ordinator)
Preaching for the season of Lent is all about the Symbols of Christ’s Passion – the period of his travel to the Cross. Now we could argue that his journey to the cross began at his birth or even at the dawn of time before the world ever was, but for this purpose we are to think about the period right at the end of his earthly life, his last few days, perhaps his last few hours.
In simple terms we understand the bread and the wine to be his body and his blood, and we shall celebrate that ritual feeding of ourselves from him in a few moments as we remember his death in the Eucharist. But what does it mean to us that he was a human being – that he was flesh and blood? I’m currently reading a lot about priesthood and there is a temptation for me to rehearse a lot of theology which may or may not interest you but let us start from this point:
God sent Jesus to this earth to be flesh and blood because as it says right back in Genesis – we were created in the image of God. Jesus came in that image to be amongst us as a perfect example of what God intended – to show us how we should be. The reason he ended up on the cross and his blood was spilled was because we have failed to live in that image – we have not been perfect, so he offered himself as a hostage to our human failings.
We who have come after can do nothing about what came before, but we can try to be the people God wants us to be. Of course temptation is put in our way and as we have heard already this morning, Jesus resisted the temptation because he was perfect, but we are not that strong and temptations get to us. But because he realised that and he gave himself up on our behalf, we can be forgiven those temptations over and over again.
The other reason Jesus came to this earth as flesh and blood is so that he has been like us – he knows what it is to be human, he understands things like temptation because he experienced it and that makes him the only person who can join together God with his humanity and God with his creation.
This is where it could get a bit theological so stop me if I lose you, and don’t worry if you think I am losing you because I’m not entirely sure I have worked it all out, but it goes something like this:
I remember reading you something from Richard Rohr some months ago where Rohr says – if you apply earthly logic you can’t understand the person of God because God defies all our logic. Jesus was 100% human but he was also 100% divine. Now I know what you are going to say to me – that’s not possible is it, you can’t be more than 100%, although on the TV I’m always hearing “I’m going to give 150% effort to this” – humanly not possible – but for Jesus nothing is impossible so adding up to 200% is fine – he is completely divine and completely human – why because that means he can experience being of God and of God’s creation – human, and that allows him to mediate between us and God – he has full understanding of both which is why he became flesh and blood.
And that’s different from just negotiating between us and God. Negotiators at best can empathise but they rarely if ever know what it is like for both sides of the argument I hope this helps:
Imagine there are two countries, both of the countries are completely different and they are separated by a stretch of water over which a bridge is built. The bridge joins both countries together but they remain separate countries even though the bridge is there. The bridge isn’t a country – it’s a bridge, so even though it joins the two together it can’t understand what the countries feel like or understand their differences.
Now contrast that with an iron bar that has been heated up to white hot. Let’s call the bar God and the heat us, it doesn’t matter which way round. They are both contained within the same thing – the heat can’t be generated unless the iron is there but they both exist together. Jesus is both the bar and the heat because he is both God and human, and so he understands what it is like to be both. He contains both parts and so he understands us both. I hope that makes sense.
So the fact that the Word was made flesh (and blood) is crucial to the person of who Jesus was. Is it therefore surprising that when his end came on this earth it was so physical – that he suffered great pain from being flogged from the crown of thorns, from dragging the cross and falling, from the nails driven through him, damaging flesh and spilling blood. If you have seen Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” it is gruesome, and it was gruesome – Jesus felt that pain so that he could feel our pain, so that he could explain that pain to God the Father. He also knew what God thought and felt too. If Jesus had not lived and died as we live and die we could not relate to him as we do. And because we can relate to him he can mediate for us and we can be forgiven by God the Father as a result.
So it is no accident that Jesus came to this earth, because he came not just to live amongst us but to experience our experience, and it is no accident that he had to die – perfection had to be offered in our place, a life without stain, and because of the lack of stain God recognises everything Jesus asks of God on our behalf because both Jesus and God are without stain.
So we have much to be thankful for each time we do give in to temptation, that we can be forgiven, and that it is possible to stand up to temptation in the future.
I’m going to finish on a slightly different topic. If you want to understand why Jesus came to this earth, go out and buy a DVD of the film “I Daniel Blake”. I can’t remember if I have spoken about it here or not. It is a film by Ken Loach about a man called Daniel Blake and a small single parent family he meets at the jobcentre. It’s a very sad film and a film that appears to be without hope. It won’t make you feel better by watching it; in fact it will probably upset you. But there are some amazing bits of perfect humanity in it – it proves that we can live in God’s image when we stop thinking about ourselves and start to think about others but crucially it also reminds us that when we get it right it can cost us dearly too. Daniel learns this, so does single mum Katie and her young daughter Daisy, for in all their pain they all reach out to each other, yet because they have done so, when things go wrong, their own pain is even greater. So it also teaches us that humanity is about love, of giving your own flesh and blood for others even when it hurts – even when you end up on your own cross for the love of others.
It’s about £10 to buy the DVD, and I reckon Lent is an ideal time to watch it, but you may need a box of tissues.