My oldest grandchild, Jacob, is about 5½. Halves are very important at that age. He likes playing games but he does not like losing. He’s getting proficient at counting so we are sometimes to be found playing snakes and ladders. He laughs uproariously when I go down a snake but strangely he doesn’t do the same when his counter does the same. He likes being first. When we are on the beach in Lincolnshire and he races his sister Hannah, 3½, he always wins because he’s bigger than she is, but I wonder what it will be like when he starts to race against people of his own size.
Cast your mind back to competitive times in your own life – did you enjoy being second – most of us don’t do we?
I’ve just had an experience of that. The Chief Executive of The Trussell Trust left and a consultancy firm was brought in to find a replacement. I had been asked by the trustees to look after the job in the gap between the last one leaving and the next being appointed. I’d rationalised that in all honesty I was about the only person in the organisation who could do so was me, because I was in effect the most senior person left and I understood how the whole thing ticked, but when asked if I wanted the job full time I said I didn’t think so. In fact no I did not.
Then one of our major donors sent me an email and said he would be backing me for C.E.O. at which point I had to tell him I wasn’t going to apply. He then rather forcefully, but at the same time, gently suggested I had come to the wrong conclusion and that I should go away and reconsider until I came up with a different answer. So what – you might say? If I tell you that he is the ex-chairman of Disney Worldwide, that might also explain why I went away to think about it. At about one minute to twelve on the appointed day I sent my application in. Well I was accepted for interview, I put a suit on, I even put normal-ish black shoes on, and off I went. It went really, really well, and I, who hadn’t wanted the job, began to think how it might turn out. Well it turned out that my trustees wanted a new face from outside who had already been a C.E.O. so in reality I was never going to get the job.
Let me take you back to the start – I didn’t want this job but now I felt like Jacob who had been on square 99 and was now at the bottom of the snake. It wasn’t fair, why interview me, why make me feel good and then push me down the snake, back to where I’d started. My sponsor, who it turns out had written a reference in my support was incandescent about how badly I had been treated and on one Saturday morning I spent half the morning calming him down and persuading him not to do a number of incendiary things he had threatened to do which I had reasoned would take me off the snakes and ladders board entirely. Strangely the process of calming him down brought me back to reality – I’d never wanted the job in the first place, so why was I so wound up about it now. And given they had now chosen someone else what could I do about it. I had two options – leave or try to keep the show on the road ready for my new boss to arrive in February. I’m currently attempting the second!
As far as I know, John the Baptist had no such ego to overcome. He knew his place in the world. He knew he was not the Messiah, but he also knew that he had been chosen for a task – to make ready for someone else, who was far greater than he. But that didn’t mean John was insignificant, it didn’t mean that God hadn’t favoured him, it simply meant that he had been chosen for a purpose which God knew was the right purpose for John. It was John’s purpose to challenge the people, it was his purpose to line all the ducks up ready for Jesus.
We have an image of John which may be more to do with bygone painters than reality. Robbie Coltrane’s portrayal of Hagrid in Harry Potter seems to conjure up the picture we have of John – wild hair, huge beard and some less fashionable clothing than was the current. I’m not sure he was quite that caricature but clearly he was different because he lived on the outside of society, according to an ancient rule whereby he lived away from people in the desert. He was undoubtedly different. We tend not to take notice of people who are the same as us if they start to say controversial things, but we do at least listen to those who are different to us, even if we don’t believe them. Take Donald Trump for example! It has to be said that Luke paints a rather more fearful picture of John than Mark. Luke says he called the people snakes and he told them that trees that did not bear good fruit would be cut down and thrown in the fire – did they realise he was referring to them? He told them they had to start to look out for one another – if you have two shirts, give one to someone who hasn’t got one. He came to tell them that if they were to be ready for what was to come they had better sort their lives out, they had better put the wrongs right.
I’m in the middle of page four and this is the point where I always do that annoying thing where I say – so is this just a story from 2000 years ago which we can go home and forget because in 15 days we will all be cooing about a baby, stuffing ourselves with turkey and trying to look happy about the pairs of socks we have just been given? Well I’m hoping the last bit comes true for me otherwise I’m soon going to have to paint my feet, but you get my point – the challenge in today’s Gospel is for us too. And it’s a challenge in two parts.
The first is that we have to realise that we are not often chosen to be first. Most of us here, in fact all of us here are servants of God and servants of those around us. It is my place to serve you, it is my place to do whatever is called of me, whether it’s standing here or doing the washing up at a fundraising event. We haven’t been called to sit on the throne, by coming here we have accepted that the greatest thing we can do is to come second, because by being second we can do something for others in Jesus’ name.
The second thing we are challenged to do is to set the road straight before he does come to us. So here’s maybe a bigger challenge – is there someone you need to pick the phone up to and right a wrong, is there a grudge you hold that you need to get rid of, and is there something you should have done that you haven’t? I bet we all have something standing between us and God. I’m clearly not John the Baptist, in fact I’m probably far too well known to you to make you take any notice of me, but all he was, was a messenger sent from God, and in my own small way I hope I am too, I hope we are all messengers to one another. But it’s the message that’s the important bit and so I hope you hear it rather than me. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his way. Amen
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.
Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37 (Lectionary Year B), 9.00a.m., St Giles, Godshill, preached by Canon Gary Philbrick.
‘What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.’’ [Mk 13:37].
I’ve sometimes wondered whether all sermons ought to open with those words – the Preacher’s hope!
They’re taken, of course, from the end of Mark 13, our Gospel reading for today, as we begin Year B in the Lectionary, the Year of Mark. ‘What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake’’.
Mark 13 is the so-called ‘Markan Apocalypse’, a sustained piece of apocalyptic writing, in which the Editor of the Gospel seems to gather up much of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching. Before our passage, there are sections on the coming destruction of the Temple, on the persecution of the faithful, and on the ‘Desolating Sacrilege’, a term used in the second century BC to refer to the Altar to Zeus which Antiochus IV Epiphanes set up in the Temple in Jerusalem around 167BC, and here in Jesus words, as reported in Mark’s Gospel, probably referring to the statue which the emperor Caligula planned to erect in the same place – he was assassinated in 40AD, before he’d got around to it. It’s a complex chapter, written in a style which may be rather unfamiliar to us, and which can make us feel somewhat uncomfortable.
And in the passage we heard, there are two connected sections. The first is a prediction of the end times, very reminiscent of passages in the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament – ‘The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken [13:24bf.], and the angels will gather the elect from the four winds.
And the second section, which follows on directly from the prediction of the end times, is what effect contemplation of the end times should have on us now.
‘Beware, keep alert’ [v.33], we don’t know when the end times will come, so we have to assume they will come any day. Keep awake, don’t be found asleep when the time comes.
Paul Sinha has a programme on Radio Four called ‘History Revision’. A while ago he was very amusingly talking about the history of football in South America. When talking about some obscure explorer in the 18th century, he made an entertaining point – the world is about 4 ½ billion years old – and yet we can’t even be bothered with events which happened a couple of hundred years ago.
The world is unimaginably old, and it may last, you’ll be pleased to know, for about another 1.75 billion years – which should be enough to see us, our children and grandchildren out – but the day of the Lord may come for any of us, any day. We just don’t know when it might happen. ‘What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake’.
Advent, the beginning of the next cycle of the Church’s Year is a good time to focus on these things. It is a time when preachers traditionally preached on the Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell – not very fashionable themes these days, and, you might say, not very Christmassy, but they certainly reflect some of the important aspects of Advent. As we prepare for the commemoration of the coming of Jesus at Christmas, so we also prepare ourselves for his second coming, whenever that might occur, and whatever it might be like.
Has anyone read ‘The Lollipop Shoes’? Has anyone read or seen the film of ‘Chocolat’? Both are novels by Joanne Harris, and ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ does for Advent what ‘Chocolat’ does for Lent.
Like many of her books, ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ is a little odd, a bit magical and mysterious. Vianne Rocher, and her now older daughter, Anouk, and her younger daughter, Rosette, whose father is Roux, the traveller we met in ‘Chocolat’, have now set up a little choclaterie in Montmartre in Paris, and the events all unfold in the run-up to Christmas. Quite good fun to read at this time of the year.
But it was a little passing comment that struck me.
‘Advent. Adventure. Both words suggest the coming of some extraordinary event. I’d never considered the similarity before; never celebrated the Christian Calendar; never fasted, repented, confessed. Almost never, anyway’ [The Lollipop Shoes, Joanne Harris, p.259].
And she’s right – I’d never really thought about the links between Advent and adventure; and both words do suggest the coming of some extraordinary event.
And I think that linking those two words might be very helpful to us as we move into another Church Year, and as we prepare to celebrate Christmas at Church and at home.
Let’s think about them personally to begin with. I asked the children in assembly at Breamore Primary School this week what they might do as part of their Advent Adventure, and they came up with some good ideas: buying a Christmas present for someone on their own, carol singing at someone’s house who might be a bit lonely; helping parents with the preparations for Christmas; and so on.
What about us? To what might God be calling each of us to in the coming year? I met someone on the street a while ago who was talking about leading the Intercessions in Church – he’d started doing this a couple of years ago. I was quite surprised that he used the word ‘vocation’ to talk about how he felt about doing it. Something as seemingly simple as leading the prayers had given him a voice to be able to say what he was feeling and what he wanted to lead us to pray about. It was a very moving conversation.
This week we had a meeting with the latest batch of BCMs from the Partnership – BCM, Bishop’s Commission for Mission, a short training course for lay people who want to take a step forward on their journey of faith and ministry – including among them Peter here, who has done the Worship BCM, and Mary, who has done the Pastoral BCM, and will be joining in the team of those who lead worship and pastoral care here and across the Benefice in the coming months.
We are each being called to something by God – it may be something we are already doing that we might develop; it might be stopping one thing, and allowing another to happen; it might be something quite ordinary, or something we never thought we’d be involved with. If we’re open to God in prayer, he will lead us to the place where we can best serve him.
And what about our adventure as the seven Churches of the Benefice, the Avon Valley Partnership? Where is God leading us there? In the New Year, our membership of the pilot project, the Benefice of the Future, should be confirmed. And we’ll spend quite a lot of time and effort over the next three years reflecting and innovating and experimenting to see how a Benefice like ours, with seven Churches and four Parishes can be set free for mission, and be less burdened with structures and admin. It’s quite an exciting experiment, and like all experiments, no one really knows where it is going to take us.
Whatever happens through the Benefice of the Future, another chapter in the history of the Church here will begin – another step in the great adventure which is the Christian life.
And wider things are happening as well, which are encouraging us to develop a sense of adventure in our life as Churches. Those who are on the Deanery Synod will know that we are in the process of revising our Deanery Mission Action Plan from 2014, looking at our vision for the wider Church. And alongside the Benefice of the Future, we will also be revising our Partnership Mission Action Plan, our pMAP, to reflect the new situation in which we find ourselves, and to see how we have moved on in the three years since the previous pMAP was agreed.
It’s an old saying: ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!’ The Parish Mission Action Plan is a way of identifying our priorities for the next few years; where do we want to put our efforts, and to where is God calling us in our mission as a Parish?
It can all sound a bit complicated and bureaucratic, but essentially, it is a prayerful process of discerning where we are as a Parish, and where we might be in a few years’ time.
We’re on an Advent Adventure. Personally, each of us, loved and called by God, each able to take some new step on the journey over the coming year; as a Parish, a new adventure beginning, as we learn to work together in a new way, across the Parish of Fordingbridge, and across the Avon Valley Partnership with Hyde, Breamore, Hale and Woodgreen; and as a Deanery and Diocese, as we seek God’s will for us as the Church in this wonderful part of the world which he has given us a our mission field.
A while ago, about the time that Robin Williams died, I looked at a few of his films, and I watched ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ again. Robin Williams is a new English teacher in an American school where tradition is everything, as exemplified by the banners they carry in at the start of a new school year: ‘Tradition, Honour, Discipline, Excellence’. All very worthy things in themselves, all things we might want to say about our Churches. And yet, they are stifling the life out of the students at the school.
Robin Williams says in one of his classes, ‘We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for’ [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097165/quotes].
And we could widen the application of that – poetry, beauty, romance, and the love of God are what we, the Church, are here for. We’re not here to be useful; we’re here to live out God’s love in a hurting world, to bring hope to the hopeless and comfort to the sorrowing; we’re here to bring light in the darkness and life out of death.
That’s our mission as the Church, and that’s what our Advent Adventure is all about. AMEN.
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.