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Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on the Second Sunday after Easter, 23rd April 2017.

We live in a largely scientific orientated world. Knowledge abounds as researchers discover more about how our bodies work, how to harness the world’s resources to produce enough energy and how to increase economic stability. I, for one, am astounded how a mere piece of calf can keep my ticker going! We hear of new drugs, new procedures, great strides in the realms of neuro-science. What a time to live in! So much new knowledge!

When I was teaching research to psychotherapy students I used to get the whole process going by asking them to answer the question, ‘What is truth? And what is reality?’ You will be pleased to know I am not going to get you to discuss this right now, but simply to reflect with me on the challenge which confronts Christians when we are asked this question. If you want to sleep now please do! Whatever it is we seek to know we only know partially-it is how it appears to us. The poet Wordsworth said our knowledge is half what we create and half what we perceive.

What I mean is, that when we talk about the resurrection, we have only earthly images in which to talk about a profoundly mystical and transcendent reality or truth. And that, dear friends, was the dilemma with which the disciples and Thomas were confronted in that upper room in Jerusalem when the risen Christ appeared to them. The disciples believed they had experienced the Risen Christ, Thomas needed a different kind of experience before he believed. He needed a different kind of knowing to the other disciples.

Last Sunday was not just a moment of ‘ecclesiastical excitement’. The atmosphere was dramatic and perhaps momentarily exhilarating – but today it is routine. Maybe that is why it has been traditionally called ‘Low Sunday’ And today’s gospel reading confronts us with maybe something of a routine for us, the dance between faith and doubt. St John paints a picture of a band of ‘believing disciples’ who we are told ‘were glad when they saw the Lord’, and one disciple, Thomas, who was ‘non-believing’. A dance of faith and doubt: two sides of the same coin.

The story is familiar. The disciples give testimony through the words of the St John the evangelist that they had seen the Risen Lord. He had appeared to them in an upper room recalling the moment on Maundy Thursday when He broke bread and shared wine at His Last Supper before his crucifixion. Now the disciples were in hiding, ‘for fear of the Jews’-it wasn’t safe to go around acknowledging themselves as His followers-not yet anyway! The Risen Christ appears to them all except Thomas. He shows them his hands (probably his wrists) and his side, the marks of crucifixion. ‘This is me, your Lord, the one who was crucified on Golgotha’s Hill; I am Risen!’ He seeks to quell their fear and encourage them in the first scary steps of their mission to the world, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me so send I you.’ St John conflates Easter and Pentecost all in one and so he records Jesus as saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’- the promise of his Risen Spirit being their strength and motivation particularly in time of suffering and persecution.

Faith and doubt!  Strange bedfellows? I think not! So what is faith? It is easy to confuse faith with certainty and thus forever be repressing doubt. Certainty without doubt leads to a fanaticism such as we see with fundamentalist movements in many world religions with such disastrous destructive consequences-the creationist teaching of children in the mid-west of America, the terror struck actions of Isis, the legalistic view of the Renaissance Jew.

The faith of the disciples and eventually of Thomas is borne from the crucible of the cross. No cross, no crown: no doubt, no faith. It is a tension with which the mature Christian lives. And faith here is not about the correctness or incorrectness of doctrine or theological belief but about the very essence of ourselves, our true identity, everything we are and prepared to stake our life on. Christ was not beyond experiencing the tension of doubt-the temptations, the garden of Gethsemane, the words of dereliction on the cross. We need to make a friend of our doubt in order that it may feed our growth in faith. It is not an enemy to be overcome.

The believing disciples and unbelieving Thomas: they are both parts of me and I suspect maybe of you. Like the affirming disciples there are times when I feel really alive with every fibre of my body, mind and spirit-the moments when I feel life and love coursing through my veins-times of appreciation, and loving, seeing a way through a conflict, gaining new insight and understanding, a new truth about me and others. As pilgrim in John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ I reach the Delectable Mountains and am granted a glimpse of the Celestial City-these are moments when I feel and glimpse resurrection and I believe  it truly to be the power of the Risen Lord’s love enabling this.

But then like Thomas I sulk in sheer disbelief. The news of deaths and violence resulting in a refugee population of 22m million, the unnecessary death of a police officer in Paris, the despair at watching a child dies from a rare disease. Or the times when deadness and aridness and sometimes depression creep into our relationships which often result from the avoidance of facing reality together because we know it is too painful to bear. Where is the Spirit of the Risen Lord then? I see a number of bereaved people in my work as a therapist. They tell stories of feeling isolated, grief stricken, being so unhappy and disorientated when the known world of intimate relationships are broken as death and many forms of separation rob them of love and friendship.

John Humphrys of Radio 4 fame has written a searching book entitled, ‘In God we doubt’, the result of a series of interviews with leaders of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and the Muslim faith. When talking of the letters he received after the interviews he writes this about belief, ‘The pulse is still strong. However empty the pews may be in parish churches on a typical Sunday morning, there are plenty of people with a sincere and passionate belief. That much is evident. There are also plenty of people who think it’s all a load of nonsense……….What surprised me is how many think of themselves as neither believers nor atheists but doubters. They, too, are sincere. Devout sceptics, if you like. And many of them feel beleaguered. I’m with them.’

Thomas and the believing disciples: doubt and faith-both belong to us and take us to the very depths of ourselves in both sadness and joy, despair and hope, hate and love. They force us to face the truth about our lives. In reality we live quite a lot of the time in a space between the extremes. But Christ doesn’t ask us to sign up to belief before meeting him. ‘Peace be with you’ is his prayer for all of us.

An attention to what is happening to me in the routine and ordinariness of life when hate turns to love, separation to unity, unrest to peace, destruction to creativeness, may give us the cue and clue to a Risen Christ who is flowing through lives often unrecognised but is faithful to his promise that He will be with us to the end of the age. His encouragement is for all of us to relax into the mystery of his love and peace always present, always dancing among us, even in the greatest moments of our doubting.

 

John Towler

Assistant Priest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on Easter Day-16th April 2017 by the Reverend John Towler.

Maybe the nearest understanding I have of Easter faith is this moment, now! I am alive, I am present, and the spirit of the living God lives within me. Is the life I live now a foretaste of my resurrection? Is the life of connectedness in this community this morning a foretaste of the resurrection of the body? I guess we all come year by year to this great mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ with more questions than we do answers.

The gospel reading from St Mark is probably the most succinct of all the resurrection accounts. It is also the last chapter of his gospel. Somehow its abruptness tips over into this moment. St Mark uses the words of the ’young man sitting in a white robe’ to declare one of the most astonishing proclamations of all time: ‘he is not here……………he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you’. When I say the end of the gospel tips over into this moment I mean that this morning right now is our Galilee: for Galilee substitute Fordingbridge-where else would he be?! We can debate until we are blue in the face about what actually happened in our rational Western way but maybe the truth of the resurrection of God’s Christ will elude us unless we are still, and know that it is inside of us and between us he lives-allowing ourselves to experience this great mystery of presence.

Let us return to Mark’s account of the resurrection. What might be significant about Galilee is that it is the place where the disciples receive their calling by the lake. In Galilee they will ‘see’ the risen Christ as disciples who have been forgiven and who are renewed. Somehow Jesus is taking them back to the roots of their calling as disciples.

Galilee is also a code for the whole universe and tells us something about the total inclusiveness of all peoples for all time. What I mean by that is that Christ’s resurrected presence knows no barriers of space and time or place. Again our rational Western minds would like to know how. A modern theologian and scientist Don MacGregor has proffered a partial explanation. I will try and put it as simply as possible. Our world billions of years ago was brought into being by an act of Divine consciousness. Jesus the divine man is the ultimate expression of that divine consciousness-the closest human being who is at one with God. In his selfless act of dying on the cross he builds a bridge between humanity and God-he shows us a way of reuniting ourselves with God. By his resurrection he changes for all time the energy field and unites us through his Spirit to God. So through the Spirit of love he transcends our notions of time, space and place-witness his resurrection appearances to Mary, the disciples, the friends on the road to Emmaus, to Paul on the Damascus Road and to you and to I.

And that brings me back to this moment! Why am I here; why are you here right now? Somewhere along our journeys we have been touched by the fruits of Christ’s resurrection, we have become aware of his living presence within us. We have said ‘Yes to life’. We have responded however deftly to God’s call. Laurence Freeman in his book, ‘Jesus The Teacher Within’ writes this:

“To read the gospels, to pray in words and sacrament, to meditate, to live within a Christian Community, to study the traditions of orthodoxy, to alleviate the sufferings of others-these are all ways of experiencing the Resurrection. We only discover its meaning by experiencing it, by recognising him.”

There are two stories of resurrection appearances which on the face of it seem contradictory. The first is that occasion in the garden when Mary is in shock and like so many who are bereaved is looking and searching for her loved one, Jesus. Jesus appears to her and she is able to say and an equivocal ‘yes’-she says in recognition, ‘My Lord and my God’. The second is that walk of the two friends on the road to Emmaus. Jesus walks with them incognito, unrecognised and it is only when they share a meal and he breaks bread with them, they have any recognition.

There is a wonderful novel called ‘Incognito’ written by a Rumanian ex-communist, Petru Dimitriu. It is a profoundly moving account of the search for sanctity and humanity in and through and beyond the corruptions and inhumanities of life in our generation. It is an amazing story of how God’s mystery unfolds to Sebastian who is a soldier undergoing immense beating and dehumanising degradation in war. Let me read you two extracts:

“This was it, the sense and meaning of the universe: it was love. This was where all the turns of my life had been leading me………..”

For love was his response welling up ’from some unknown source’, of which he writes,

“What name shall I use? ‘God’ I murmured, ‘God’. How else should I address Him? O Universe? O Heap? O Whole? As ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’? I might as well say ‘Lord’ to the air I breathed and my own lungs which breathed the air? ‘My child?’ But he contained me, preceded me, created me. ‘Thou’ is his name to which God may be added. For ‘I’ and ‘me’ are no more than a pause between the immensity of the universe which is Him and the very depth of our self, which is also Him.”

Orthodoxy would say this is not a Christian book but for me is a testimony to Christ’s Resurrection, his cosmic spirit touching hearts and minds like Sebastian’s. God’s Risen Christ dances his way through the lives of all his people, the communists among them! For many, they do not ask the question of ‘Who is this?’ What the story confirms for me, in my experience, is that recognised or not, on Easter Day, we celebrate a power of love which deeply transforms lives, which brings comfort, healing, forgiveness and gives meaning to my existence right now, today and forever. Thanks be to God for this most unspeakable gift. Alleluia.

 

A sermon preached on Easter Sunday morning – Fake News? – Mark Ward, St Mary’s Fordingbridge

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WESTMINSTER ATTACK

The terrible events in Westminster on Wednesday have left many in shock and grief.  Our thoughts and prayers go to the families of all those who died, including PC Keith Palmer, and to all those injured.  It is difficult to understand the irrational hatred and lack of empathy which allows someone to mount such an attack, and our thoughts should be with the security services who have the almost impossible task of guarding us from such wanton assaults.  It is also an attack on our democracy, and we all need to make sure that, through anger or fear, we don’t give in to the terrorists’ ideology of hatred of the other.  Our society is based on the values of democracy, justice, a value of individual life and liberty, an appreciation of differences in opinion, of differing types of people in our society, values which stem from our Christian heritage, but are shared by the great majority of those who live here of all faiths and backgrounds.  As we pray for all those who have died or been injured and their families, we pray also for all those, MPs and others, who work in Parliament, for the security forces, and all those who work to keep us safe.  And we pray for our communities, for those who through ethnicity or faith feel afraid of a backlash, and for the health and well-being of our communities as a whole.

We might like to use the Universal Prayer for Peace:

Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth.

Lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust.

Lead me from hate to love, from war to peace.

Let peace fill our heart, our world, our universe.  AMEN.

Canon Gary Philbrick

Fathers – St Joseph, evensong 19th March, preached by Mark Ward

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.