Fear and Hope – A Sermon for Advent Sunday

29/XI/15 Advent I 10.00, All Saints’, Mudeford – Year C


Reflections on the facing fear, living in hope, and the response to the Parish bombings.

 Jeremiah 33:14-16; I Thess 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Lord, open your Word to our hearts this Advent, and our hearts to your Word always. AMEN.

In our three-year cycle of readings, today we begin year C, the year of Luke’s Gospel – so we’ll be focussing on Luke for much of the year. And we begin this new Church’s Year with a wonderful passage from chapter 21 – very well-chosen for the beginning of Advent.

As we heard the Gospel, we should have picked up the number of imperatives, urging us to look upwards and outwards. Jesus says: ‘Stand up…, raise your heads…; look at the fig tree…; be on your guard…; be alert…’

We shall hear these themes a number of times this year, as Luke’s Gospel is particularly keen on urging us to look for the signs of the times, to try to see what is going on in the world around is, in our own society, to see what God is doing in our own lives.

This has always been important, and never more so than in our own time when so much is changing in the world and in the Church.

We are always called to a larger vision, to a wider concern for the world, to a deeper understanding of what God is doing in our own lives, in our Church, in our own part of the world. And that means that we have to be more open to change than has been the case in previous generations – the ground is shifting rapidly under our feet, and we have to move to new ground if we are not to be swept away!

And listening to the signs of the times – what the pMAP process called ‘Triple Listening’: listening to God, listening to each other, listening to the wider community – that triple listening to the signs of the times is at the heart of the pMAP process, and at the heart of the Gospel. The more we listen, the more we learn, and the more we learn, the better able we are to respond to God’s call.

So, let’s return to the passage from Luke’s Gospel we heard a few moments ago. It’s a very striking, and a very challenging passage, as we begin this season of Advent. Jesus says that ‘people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…’ [Lk 21:26]; but he goes on to say, ‘Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ [v. 28]. People will faint with fear, but you should have hope. Fear and hope.

And two other things have made me ponder about fear and hope – one has been the wave of terrorist bombings across the world, in Mali, Syria, Nigeria, the plane over Egypt and, of course, in Paris. It has been the Paris attack which has affected us most personally, as it is so near to home – but we shouldn’t forget all of those who died in the other places I have mentioned as well. All of those attacks have made me think about fear.

And a wonderful book I am reading in the gym at the moment – I always have a ‘gym book’ on the go, for when I am toiling away on the cycling machine! My current ‘Gym Book’ is A Tour of Bones, written by Denise Inge, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester – I’ll explain why that is relevant in a moment – and that is a book that has made me reflect on hope and fear.

So, what do we really fear? What is it in our own lives that fulfils Jesus words, ‘people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world’? It might be illness, or being left alone; it might be death or that we think that the country is being overrun by immigrants; it might be fear of something happening to someone else – a child, a parent, a partner. There are all sorts of fears that lurk beneath the surface of our consciousness, sometimes leaping out at us at unexpected moments, sometimes just rumbling away in the backs of our minds.

What do we do with all of this fear? How do we shine the light of the Gospel into the darkest corners of our minds, where it can banish the fears which haunt us? Not an easy thing to do, I think.

Denise Inge’s book, A Tour of Bones, is subtitled: ‘facing fear and looking for life’. The fact that she is the wife of the Bishop of Worcester is relevant, because the Bishop’s House is built above a Charnel, a repository for the bones of those who have died. The house was originally mediaeval, and was later re-built on the same foot-print as the older structure. And in the cellar, under a piece of carpet, through a hatch in the floor, the Charnel is still there.

After some time of living in the house when her husband first became Bishop, they decided to have a look, and it was an uncomfortable experience – suddenly finding herself face-to-face with piles of mediaeval bones in the basement of the house where she is living. And that set Denise Inge on a journey to face her fear, and explore what charnels might be – and the journey took her all around the famous Charnel Houses of Europe. However, as she was writing the book, she was diagnosed with cancer, and in fact died last year, shortly after completing the book. So, as she explores her fear of the bones in the Charnel, she is also exploring her own fear of death – so you might think it would be quite a gloomy read. Far from it. It is a wonderful exploration of life and death, of the journey of her life, of how she faces her fear and lives the last months of her life.

It is a book which is full of hope, full of what Jesus describes as ‘raising your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’. At one point she writes about the difference between hope and optimism:

Hope is not the same thing as optimism. Optimism says that things will get better. Hope says that the good we envisage is the good we work towards. Optimism is largely passive: it is about waiting for what is better to come to you. Hope is active: it goes out and does. It falls and fails sometimes, but it is tenacious and unafraid… it will not let go of the notion that the good is real, and that we can find it [p.92].

This book raises a question for me: in a world of fear, in my own little world of fears, how can we live lives which are full of hope, and how can we offer hope to others?

We see all sorts of terrible things around us – child migrants drowning as they try to reach the safety of Europe; young people being killed and maimed by suicide bombers with terrible hatred in their hearts; families relying on foodbanks because they are not earning enough to live on; older people struggling to get the care they need to keep them in their homes – and so on – the list is endless. In the face of all of this suffering, where is the hope? How can we say, ‘Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’?

There’s no easy answer to that question, but we do need to find one – each of us need to find one for ourselves. How do we explain the hope that is in us? How do we share the love and the life of Christ with those around us, and especially those for whom life is hard?

To quote Paul in Philippians [2:12], we need to ‘work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling’. We need to be able to give an account of the hope that is in us [I Pet 3:15].

And the basis of that hope is love – the love which God has poured into the world, the love which we experience for others and from others, the love which took Christ through the Cross to the resurrection life which he offers us all.

We’re not just talking about optimism here – ‘Oh, everything will be alright, it all works out in the end!’ No, we’re talking about hope – hope which is solidly grounded in God, in his promises, in his faithfulness, in his love. Hope is like putting your foot down in the mist, and finding it on a rock. Hope is based on Jesus’ promise: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’ [Lk 24:33].

So, I recommend Denise Inge’s book to you – A Tour of Bones. But I want to finish with some words which you may have heard or read by Antoine Leiris, written three days after the Paris attacks, in which his wife died. They have a 17-month old son. He is someone who knows the reality of suffering, who is the victim of a black hatred which misguidedly thinks it is alright to take the lives of others for a twisted religious purpose. And yet, writing three days after his wife’s death, he could write one of the most hopeful passages I have read for a long time. As we reflect on Fear and Hope, how we face the one and live the other, I hope Antoine Leiris’ words will give us something to think about:

Friday night, you took an exceptional life – the love of my life, the mother of my son – but you will not have my hatred. I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know, you are dead souls. If this God, for whom you kill blindly, made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife would have been one more wound in his heart.

So, no, I will not grant you the gift of my hatred. You’re asking for it, but responding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to view my countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You lost.

I saw her this morning. Finally, after nights and days of waiting. She was just as beautiful as when she left on Friday night, just as beautiful as when I fell hopelessly in love over 12 years ago. Of course I am devastated by this pain, I give you this little victory, but the pain will be short-lived. I know that she will be with us every day and that we will find ourselves again in this paradise of free love to which you have no access.

We are just two, my son and me, but we are stronger than all the armies in the world. I don’t have any more time to devote to you; I have to join Melvil who is waking up from his nap. He is barely 17-months-old. He will eat his meals as usual, and then we are going to play as usual, and for his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either.


Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King on 22nd November 2015 at Fordingbridge.

Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge for the Feast of Christ the King on 22nd November 2015.

Play “All you need is love” by the Beatles.

“All you need is love”. It is extraordinary that having chosen to use this song before the attacks in Paris it should be preceded by an excerpt of the Marseilleuse, the French National Anthem. I want to use this refrain of the Beatles (which of course shows my age) as a theme for this morning’s sermon. Following the service in the Cathedral last Saturday we are commissioned to launch the partnership action plan which has been in the making for the past year or so, having started with a parish conference in 2013. Thus the focus of our reflection this morning is on the Mission of Jesus. Now the Mission of Jesus and the Mission of the Church find its origin in the Mission of God. And herein lies a great mystery because it throws us back to ask the question “What is the Mission of God?”  Put more simply, “What is life all about?”-no big deal.

I want to suggest that the Beatles had the answer, “All you need is love”. Countless people-philosophers, poets, musicians and composers, artists, philanthropists, reformers-all contribute to reach out for a meaning to the big question, “What is life all about?”-“What is God’s purpose for humankind?”

I want to suggest that God caused the world to come into being by an act of conscious loving. God made no conditions on that creation, it was an unconditional act of love. It was a risk but a beautiful risk. Whatever else we make believe or think about the purpose of the universe and our part in that universe, we are faced with the utter graciousness of God’s unconditional love for all his creatures including humankind. If that is the Mission of God then it is also the Mission of Jesus and the Mission of the Church of which you and I are a part.

Today that is the question which lies behind the partnership action plan. The way in which we take this plan forward is to be informed by our answer to this question. St Paul in his famous verses from his first letter to the Corinthian Church might have written this to us here today,

“If I beaver away at the parish action plan but do not have love, I gain nothing”.

It begs the question “how do we lovingly put this plan into action?” What constitutes a loving action plan as opposed to one without love?

I want to suggest that the life of Christ demonstrated how the purposes of God’s love found their fullest expression. He is our example. When we examine his life what kind of loving do we find? The establishing of a kingdom of love in the hearts and minds of all people.

Unconditional, costly, humble, forgiving and inclusive.

Love is unconditional. Most of us when we give compliments to other do so on the basis what the other person has achieved. “What a pretty dress.” “I do like your hairstyle.” “You have made a good job of painting that fence.” “Well done you-a Grade A is brilliant”.  Unconditional responses are rarer “It is really great having you in this team”. “What a lovely congregation you are”. I guess the ultimate unconditional compliment is “I love you”. That is the ultimate compliment God paid us when the world was called into being. What conditions shall we impose on the action plan through our mistrust and fear?  Shall we build in securities which will prevent taking risks and trusting others? We surely will because of the frailty of our human nature.

At the moment some in our world have been blinded by hate and the consequence is fear and terror for the people of Paris, in Syria, Egypt, and Beirut and so the list goes on. And the reality is that whilst God may hate the deeds of the perpetrators they remain loved.

Love is costly. Most of us have had and will have our hearts broken because we love and have loved. Loving is a risky business. The greatest risk has been taken by God in bring the world into being. Jesus reflects that act of sacrificial giving in risking his life to promote God’s kingdom of love for all people. He shows us how painful loving can be by losing his life in the most horrific manner-a horror matched on the battle fields of our world. How shall we measure the cost of putting the action plan into motion? Will it be by risking spending our church finances until it hurts? Will it be by personal sacrifice of time and skill? Can we risk failure in the eyes of the world? Shall we stand up for the most marginalised of our world for fear we ourselves shall be ridiculed?

Love is humble. I am not talking about the obsequious humility of Dicken’s Uriah Heep in ‘Great Expectations’. I am talking about a humility which honours others’ differences, which seeks to know and listen intently to the other, and which is prepared to set aside our own ego in the service of other people. I know-how hard is that? Jesus warned the disciples that their personal power was to be used to empower others not as a weapon for repression and bullying. The church in its time has and still does render some groups in society voiceless-the struggle goes on for gay, lesbian and transgender Christians and women’s ministry. What does a humble church look like when putting our plan into action.

Love is forgiving and inclusive. I recently quoted some words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Wednesday Communion Service which are so powerful. Remember his work for the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” In South Africa after the fall of apartheid. He preached these words at a sermon in Pasadena:

“God’s family has no outsiders. Everyone is an insider. When Jesus said, ‘I, if I am lifted up, will draw…’ Did he say, ‘I will draw some, and tough luck for others’? He said, ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all, ‘All! All! All!-Black, white, yellow; rich, poor; clever, not so clever; beautiful, not so beautiful. All! All! It is radical. All! Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Bush-All!…Gay, lesbian, so-called straight; All! All are to be held in the incredible embrace of the love that won’t let us go.”

Again hear the words of Antoine Leiris, the young man who talked so movingly about the death of his wife Helen in the Paris bombings:

‘You will not have my hatred’ he wrote: “On Friday evening you stole the life of an exceptional person, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.”

“I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know, you are dead souls. If this God for whom you kill blindly made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife is a wound in his heart.

“So no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. You want it, but to respond to hatred with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that made you what you are.

“You would like me to be scared, for me to look at my fellow citizens with a suspicious eye, for me to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You have lost.

“I saw her this morning. At last, after nights and days of waiting. She was as beautiful as when she left on Friday evening, as beautiful as when I fell head over heels in love with her more than 12 years ago.

“Of course I am devastated with grief, I grant you this small victory, but it will be short-lived.”

“I know she will be with us every day and we will find each other in heaven with free souls which you will never have.

“Us two, my son and I, we will be stronger than every army in the world. I cannot waste any more time on you as I must go back to [my son] who has just woken from his sleep.

“He is only just 17 months old, he is going to eat his snack just like every other day, then we are going to play like every other day and all his life this little boy will be happy and free.

“Because you will never have his hatred either.”

Shall the working out of our action plan pass the Tutu test or the Leiris Test?

Above, below and through all, love is our connection with the deepest part of ourselves, with others and with the mystery of God. Creation set us up for this connection; in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, love is re-established as the hope for humankind to be re-connected with the mystery of God; and Christ’s body the Church is but one channel for connecting people to love’s mystery. Week by week the church throughout the world in all its many guises breaks God’s word and God’s bread as a sign of that hope and love, and upon which we can feed.

On this celebration of the feast of Christ the King, on this day when we are commissioned as the body of Christ in this place to take forward our action plan, may we remind and take to ourselves the heart of God in Christ’s gospel of love which is unconditional, humble, forgiving and inclusive and provides us with  an eternal blueprint for establishing God’s kingdom, that is the rule of love in the hearts of everyone everywhere , unconditionally-for in the immortal words of the Beatles, ‘All you need is love’.


John Towler

Assistant Priest

Sermon All Souls’ Day Fordingbridge 1 November 2015

Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church,  Fordingbridge for All Souls Day on 1St November 2015.

Each of us this evening has come with a story or several stories in our hearts. Those stories are many and varied and tell of the lives of those we love but see no longer. You may think they are ordinary stories of ordinary lives-yes they are; but they are also stories infinitely precious and unique to us.

One of the stories I bring is the story of my mum. Her death when I was 23, was a blow I hadn’t expected. It came suddenly and it took me awhile to realise that I had been robbed of one of my protectors and sustainers during those war and post war years. I was so buttoned up with thoughts of having to be strong for my father that it took me some years to grieve for her. In fact I had not cried for 11 years. And then I met another priest who hadn’t cried for 16 years and with some help from a facilitator we helped each other to let those waters roll!

We have severally said our goodbyes in many ways, maybe many times. For most we have been part of a ritual of saying goodbye at a funeral service in church, at the graveside or at a crematorium. Tonight the invitation is to ‘say hello again’ by cherishing the memories our loved ones who have died. From this perspective, the loss of a loved one need not be final and total. Although there is indeed such a loss as far as the physical presence of the deceased is concerned, on other levels the influence, memories and legacy of them will continue to exert on those of us left behind. Such memories or words of wisdom can continue to be a source of strength, comfort and inspiration in the future. Of course this is not the only occasion we shall ‘say hello again’, but in this space through poetry and prayers, through music, with lighted candles and flowers we hold our loved ones in our hearts, giving renewed thanks for what they mean to each one of us and knowing we are held in God’s eternal mystery.

Death is both horrible and as our homecoming. It is horrible because so often we watch a life still with infinite possibilities being taken from us. Our thoughts and feelings about the dying may not always be loving and positive but we are left feeling helpless as we watch a life slip away. But death is also our homecoming. St. John reporting the words of Jesus before his own death which was both horrible and a homecoming, says these strange words,

“In my Father’s house are many resting places…”

I want to suggest two meanings for us this evening on All Souls Day. This house of God here at St. Mary’s is a place of homecoming. This is your home and my home. You are always welcome here. This is where you belong. We want it to be a space for you to call your own, a space in which you will be welcome at any time; a space in which you can be alone, maybe light a candle as we shall being doing in a moment. Above all the church is here to be for you all a community of love, acceptance and welcome, a place of belonging-all are included; your home.

And secondly, Jesus is inviting us to be part of the great homecoming for all people without exception. Remember the lovely story of the Prodigal Son. The father eager for his son’s return scans the horizon for any sight of his son. And then, once spotted he runs to meet him with arms outstretched and orders a feast for his homecoming. That homecoming awaits us all. Like St. Paul says, “now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face…” We are not given to know the ins and outs of that final homecoming except to know that the love of God which holds us now will never let us go. As God raised up Jesus on Easter Day so the promise is that our lives will be renewed in the mystery of God’s love.

And that is the Big Story where our small stories and the stories of our groups, families and communities find their ultimate meaning in a way of living and dying as part of what Jesus calls the ‘kingdom of God’. On this night, in this home, we say hello again knowing that we belong to one another and are connected to the deepest mystery of Divine Love. Amen.

John Towler

Assistant Priest



Sermon: Christ the Sunday, November 22nd, 2015 – Launch of the Partnership Action Plan

Gary’s sermon at Woodgreen (10.00a.m.)and Fordingbridge (6.30p.m.)

To see the Partntership Action Plan – click here: AVP Action Plan 7.4


A.m.: Rev 1:4b-8, Jn 18:33-37

P.m.: Ps 72:1-7, Dan 5, Jn 6:1-15


Lord God, take my words and speak through them,
take our minds and think through them,
take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

How are your Christmas puddings coming along? I only ask as today is often called ‘Stir-up Sunday’, from the words of the Prayer Book Collect for today, [which is also today’s Post Communion Prayer]: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’ That’s a call to prayer and a call to action.

So, if we’ve not yet stirred up our Christmas puddings, then we need to get on with it! If we’ve not stirred up our wills to bring ‘forth the fruit of good works’, then we need to get on with that, too.

More importantly, in terms of our Lectionary and our worship this morning, it is the Feast of Christ the King, one of the more recent Festivals of the Church’s year.

The Feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, in a Papal Encyclical, and was kept on the last Sunday of October – the Sunday before All Saints’ Day. In 1970, Pope Paul VI moved it to the last Sunday of the Church’s year, today, immediately before the Sundays of Advent. From there it became a part of the Common Lectionary, used by most of the Churches of the West, including Roman Catholics, Methodists, and, since the late 90s, the Church of England and other Anglican Churches. When we hear our readings on a Sunday [morning], we are listening to the same readings as are being used in most of the Churches of Western Christendom – that’s a lot of people all focusing on the same passages of Scripture!

Thinking about Stir-up Sunday and the Feast of Christ the King and the start of Advent next Sunday has made me reflect on the moods of the different parts of the Church’s Year. Lent, for example, tends to be a more introspective season, and Easter a more exuberant. Epiphany has a focus on light, and the manifestation of Christ to the world, while the long season of Trinity emphasizes the slow, almost hidden, processes of growth and formation.

And at this time of the year, as we move into Advent, the focus is on prayer and action. ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have…strength’ [Lk 21:36], we’ll hear in next Sunday’s Gospel. And ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ [Lk 3:4] the week after. And our Advent hymns urge us to ‘Hark! The glad sound, the Saviour comes’, and so on.

It’s a time of the year when we are urged to focus on prayer and action. ‘Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by you be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord’ [CW Post Communion, Christ the King].

And so this seemed like a good opportunity to launch our Partnership Action Plan – which is itself a call to prayer and action – and you’ll all be given copies of the Action Plan in a few minutes.

I feel like I’ve been living and breathing Action Plans for the past two years! Last year it was the dMAP, the Deanery Mission Action Plan. After quite a long process last year, it was accepted by the Deanery Synod in October 2014, and that formed the basis for the pMAPs, the Parish, or in our case, Partnership, Mission Action Plans.

Let’s just look at those words briefly first. Partnership – it didn’t take us too long to decide that we wanted a Partnership Plan, and not three individual Parish Action Plans – although you’ll see that in the pMAP, there are actions for each of the Parishes individually, as well as actions for the Partnership as a whole. Although our three Parishes and six Churches are all very different, and have different needs, our overall resources of people and finance and so on are shared – it didn’t seem right to the pMAP Group and the PCCs to be setting Action Plans for the Parishes without any regard to what was going on elsewhere in the Partnership – so, a Partnership plan it is.

And it’s a Mission Action Plan – it’s about our calling as the people of God in these places, and what we are going to do about that calling. What sort of Church is God calling us to be, and what sort of people do we need to be to fulfil that calling?

And it’s a Mission Action Plan – it does require us to do something about it if the whole exhausting process is not going to be a waste of time. In fact, it won’t be a waste of time, because some things in the Plan have started already, just because we’ve been talking and praying about them,

And some people have asked, ‘Why do we need a Plan at all?’ Surely, things just happen. This is a little clichéd, but it has been said that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail! This isn’t a business plan in the commercial sense – this is a Plan born out of listening – in fact, it’s born out of a process of Triple Listening – listening to God, to each other, and the communities we serve. So each of the words in the title is important – it’s a Partnership – Mission – Action – Plan!

And the process by which it came into being is outlined on p.8 of this week’s bumper edition of Partners.

Just going back a step: three years ago the new Bishop of Winchester, Tim Dakin, in his Enthronement Sermon, outlined his vision for the Church in the Diocese. He said he hoped and prayed for a Church which would be ‘Living the Mission of Jesus’. And he suggested three dimensions of that vision:

  • Passionate personal spirituality
  • Pioneering faith communities
  • Prophetic global citizens

That was the start of the pMAP Process.

Two years ago, the Diocesan Synod Conference spent a few days thinking about what that might all mean for us, and arrived at four Strategic Priorities:

  • We grow authentic disciples
  • We re-imagine the Church
  • We are agents of social transformation
  • We belong together in Christ, practicing sacrificial living and good stewardship of all that God has entrusted to us

And that led to the dMAP and pMAP Process, which is very simple – Review, Plan, Act.

Review – the triple listening process I’ve already mentioned – listen to God, to each other, to the wider community.

Plan – Who is God calling us to be, and what is he calling us to do to serve him, to grow disciples, to change the world, and to live generously and thankfully?

Act – Get on with it. And you’ll see from the pMAP Process that the Act Phase begins today, although, in fact, some of the actions have begun already.

So, when you get your copy of the Action Plan – and I hope you’ll read it prayerfully and carefully – when you get it you’ll find an introductory page, saying what it’s all about, followed by four sections, based on the four strategic priorities. And then a list of actions – for the Partnership, and for the individual Parishes and Churches. The actions are about how we grow as people of faith, how we reach out to others to invite them to join the journey of faith, how we serve our communities and about how we live generously with what we have. There are actions in each of those four areas.

Each time the PCCs meet, we will consider the pMAP, and see where we have got to, and what needs to be done next. But the Actions are not just the responsibility of the PCCs – they are the responsibility of us all. As you read the Action Plan, perhaps you can pray about what actions God is calling you to take as you continue to follow him in faith. It is good Advent reading, at this time of the year when we are being called to prayer and to action. AMEN.