Sermon preached at Sandleheath Uniting Church, John the Baptist teaches the people a lesson about generosity and care, Advent 3

Both of today’s readings are about being prepared for the coming of Christ, a subject I spent quite a while on two weeks ago so this week I thought I would spend a bit more time on the first 8 verses which are to be honest quite frightening. The people of Israel are not behaving well, not for the first time, and John tells them very clearly – if you don’t mend your ways God will wield an axe and then throw you into the fire, and he calls them snakes because they are behaving one way but pretending to be different.

The people, I guess confronted with this rather frightening looking man, wanted to know what they had to do to escape the fire. John’s answer was very simple – if you have 2 shirts and you come across someone with no shirt, give them your spare one, if you have food, share it with those who don’t, if you have a position of trust then do the right thing, only collect the tax that is due, and not a premium for your own pocket, nor should you extort people just because you have weapons and they don’t.

It doesn’t seem very difficult does it? So let’s fast forward 2000 years. Do we live in a generous world? If we were to go to Ringwood and visit Waitrose we would find beans from Africa, fruit and onions from the Middle East, coffee from South America, tea from India and China and so on. We move food all around the world for our own benefit. In my house in a few weeks’ time there will be dates from Israel, ginger from India, China or Nepal, and many other items from around the globe. When I visit one of my children in Leeds I spend ages wandering round their local Turkish supermarket fascinated by all the things on offer.

So given all of that – when the world produces 40% more food than it consumes, why do we still have people starving? If we can move it here, we can move it there too. How can it be right that here in Hampshire we put perfectly good food into a giant cauldron to produce energy because we have not used it all. In this country we waste almost as much food as we eat. Yes we support the homeless, yes we support those needing foodbanks, but in all honesty we should be using our surplus to feed those who are starving across the world.

I was lucky enough a couple of weeks ago to visit something called a Social Supermarket in a town called Goldthorpe in the borough of Barnsley in Yorkshire. Goldthorpe was once a thriving community due to black gold – coal. It was surrounded by pits where most of the menfolk worked. It was a hard life but everyone earned sufficient to live. The mine owners and then the coal board built them houses to live in. Then the pits began to close, most of us remember that time, Arthur Skargill and Margaret Thatcher locked in conflict, the police expected to keep the peace, neighbours calling each other scab because one worked in the pit and the other drove a lorry that moved the coal, and the lorry drivers kept working. Goldthorpe has about 8000 residents. It is run down, all the shops have metal shutters to combat vandalism and theft and many of them are empty. The people look downtrodden and the community has a large movement within it because the coal board sold the houses for £1500 when the pits closed, the clever residents bought their own house and then sold it for much more and now at least 20% are rented out by landlords who own whole streets, where people come and go on a regular basis. There is a shiny new Asda next to the school, but many can’t afford to shop there, even the discount ranges are too expensive. But there is another shop, about as big as the Tesco in Fordingbridge. You have to be a member to get in and you have a swipe card very much like the ones you get in hotels to open the door with. You can only join if you are on benefits, and only 750 people can join at any time. Once inside it looks just like Tesco, neat rows of shelves, all the brands you expect to see, about 800 different lines of stock, but they include items from Marks and Spencer, Asda, Morrisons, Tesco, all next to each other. This is surplus stock – still in date, not damaged, but overproduced. It is bought for 10% of its normal shelf price, which is much cheaper for the supermarket than having to pay to have it taken away, and then it is sold in the supermarket for just 30% of its shelf price, saving the shoppers 70%. They can only shop there for 6 months and then they are expected to be in a better position to return to Asda. In that 6 months they undertake courses in numeracy, literacy, budgeting and so on and for the final 2 weeks they do an intensive course making them ready for a job and they are guaranteed one interview. Whether they get the job or not is then up to them, but they have been given the best chance possible.

I was able to join them for lunch in the café they have as part of the supermarket. It has a full time chef who teaches and on the day I was there it was roast beef and all the trimmings although as I was eating later I just had some soup. The atmosphere was friendly and the surroundings pleasant. It wasn’t full of old tables and chairs, it had nice café style seating and the whole place was about dignity and there was a really good atmosphere – one of hope.

The scheme is made possible because a man who has built up his own business trading in foodstuffs has been generous enough to pay for the transport of the food from the manufacturer or supermarket to his own warehouse and then out to the social supermarket. Now they have proven it works they should be able to find some venture capital partners who will finance a much bigger roll-out. Indeed a report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on hunger recommended in a report this Thursday that Social Supermarkets should be spread right across the UK. And the benefit is that it takes people from food starvation, to foodbank, to social supermarket and then to Asda, a progression which gradually puts people back in control. You can argue that the current benefactor is very rich and can afford it, but so are many more people who do not share their wealth. He has taken the shirt he didn’t need and given it away and he has enabled the food that we should be sharing to go to those who need it rather than an anaerobic digester.

So you sit there and you think, I haven’t made a fortune from a business, I don’t have millions to give away. If so I will refer you to the widow who gave the only coin she had, all of her wealth; be it almost inconsequential to the collection plate – she had nothing yet she gave more than the rich around her who were giving a token compared to what they had.

John is telling the people they must be generous in spirit and in practice. They must share and not cheat one another. I suspect few of us cheat others but are we really generous? Go back to the man with 2 shirts. If we think about it having only one shirt isn’t very practical is it. It’s going to mean some hardship because eventually it will need a wash which will mean going without the shirt until it is dry again, but compared to having no shirt at all, the discomfort is marginal. But it is a real cost and I often wonder if we give from our surplus or from our cost? John doesn’t say share your surplus food, he says share what food you have, which says to me that even if you only have enough for yourself you should share the other person’s burden by having less to give them something.

Be honest with yourself – how do you approach the Christian Aid envelope, can I get away with change, maybe not, ok well that means I’ll have to put a fiver in. Maybe ten or even £20 is within your grasp even if you buy a slightly cheaper piece of meat that week or what about going without meat just for one week – it’s hardly a big sacrifice is it?

I don’t tell you this to sound self-righteous, but I well remember a day I went for a job interview. It was a job which would enable me to earn sufficient to make ends meet and pay off some debt we had built up. It entailed me travelling 60 miles each way but it was worth the time spent to get our family into a secure place. As I was leaving the car park to walk to the interview I met a Big Issue seller who asked me if I’d buy his last copy so he could go home and get warm. I only had £2 in my pocket and at the time we weren’t well off, but something told me to give him the money. Whether I was rewarded for my sacrifice or whether it just put me in a good frame of mind, I don’t know, but I got the job, and within a year we were both solvent and debt free.

I was telling the good folk of Harbridge a story a few weeks ago when I was taking a service there. At one of the garages between Fordingbridge and Ringwood stands a silver BMW X4, if you are not familiar, it is a two seater sports car with a very long bonnet and a soft top roof. I see it every time I drive past it. I even stopped to look at it one day making sure the garage was closed so I couldn’t be leapt upon. I don’t need 4 seats, Margaret has a perfectly good and very nice family estate so that isn’t stopping me. But then that little voice inside says – it will use more fuel and pollute the atmosphere more but more importantly you won’t be able to pick up food from kind generous people who donate it, or the odd piece of furniture they give to the shop. And I think, you know what, I don’t need that BMW, why do I want it – is it so I can sit at the traffic lights and when they go green roar off into the distance, the wind in my hair, my cool shades on and everyone thinking – I wish I could be like him? Or would I rather be able to say, yes I can pick that food up which means someone else will eat properly. In all honesty it’s a fairly easy choice and so far I haven’t given in to temptation, but to a point it hurts because I’d really like the car.

Seeing Pope Francis in a Fiat 500 instead of some amazing limo is a great lesson to the world. Knowing he lives in an ordinary apartment, didn’t have handmade red shoes made, paid his paper bill when he became Pope, they are all amazing examples to us of generosity which blesses both those who receive and those who give.

A couple of weeks ago someone sent me a short film. It was a charity rugby match and a toddler escaped his parents and wandered onto the field. Seeing what had happened one player picked up the ball, gave it to the small boy and set him off running to the other end. The other players on the pitch soon got the message and all the opposition dived either just behind him or just in front of him to let him keep running. When he began to tire another player picked him up and carried him to the score line and then there was a huge cheer from the crowd as his dad ran on to collect him. How amazing was that compared to a big security person rushing on and scooping him up to get him off the field. How good must everyone have felt and what an amazing lesson to thousands of people around the world who have seen that clip.

The team who let the little boy score went behind as a result. I don’t know if they won or lost but it cost them. Yet even if they lost I suspect they went home much the better for their generosity. To badly misquote an old saying giving is not just for Christmas. Of course the sad thing was that despite John’s teaching Jesus then ended up on that cross because they didn’t heed John’s words. But it’s not too late for us.

Amen.

Mark Ward

Can we save rural churches from closure?

Can we save rural churches from closure?
Summary
In recent weeks, media coverage has described rural clergy as ‘close to drowning’ under the pressure
of maintaining medieval buildings with dwindling congregations. With the Church of England carrying
out a series of reviews and consultations as part of its ‘reform and renewal’ programme – will we see
rural churches closing or are rural communities ready and able to give their support? Jessica Sellick
investigates.

This is a paper by Jessica Sellick, Rose Regeneration for the Rural Services Network:
http://www.rsnonline.org.uk/analysis/can-we-save-rural-churches-from-closure
In January 2015 the Church of England published ‘growing the rural church’. This revealed how 65%
of all Church of England churches (10,199) and 66% of parishes (8,394) are in rural areas.
Of these churches, 70.1% are now “multi-church groups”, maintaining the Church of England’s
commitment to have ‘a presence in every community’ at a time of reduced funding and ordained
clergy. While 29% of urban parishes are declining, only 25% of rural ones are.
As well as setting out hard facts and figures, the research contains the voices of clergy and lay
people: painting a picture of the challenges, optimism, faithfulness and innovation in rural multi-church
faith groups.
Here the role of parish churches is not merely places of prayer but at the heart of local communities,
affirming local identities and giving people a sense of place and belonging.
Yet clergy are struggling to find ways to ‘give rural’ the time it needs amid smaller and scattered
populations, bureaucracy and several buildings to look after across their patch.
So how can we prevent rural churches from closing and make them thriving hubs for rural
communities? I offer three points.
Firstly, clergy and rural communities need to work together. ‘Growing the rural church’ suggests
changes to training are need for clergy and laity alike so as to negotiate a better balance between
what is familiar and what is possible.
For clergy this means not arriving in the countryside ‘to do rural ministry’ but embedding yourself into the life and heartbeat of rural communities – going along to social activities and local facilities (e.g.pub, shop) to talk to residents.
In 2013 Professor Linda Woodhead from Lancaster University and YouGov carried out an online survey of 1,500 Anglican clergy. 83% of those surveyed saw the parish system as important; and a high percentage conveyed their strong commitment to God and to a generous system of universal welfare.
Also in 2013, Ivan Annibal and I produced a slide pack on poverty and emerging issues in the countryside which we used to talk to ordinands to try to encourage them to move into rural posts. Most recently, the Arthur Rank Centre published ‘Resourcing Rural Ministry’ which contains lots of ideas and case studies.
For rural communities it means stepping up to the mark by getting involved in activities and being willing to do things (e.g. coffee morning with hymns, messy church, tea time church, use of social media etc. as well as traditional services).
For while churches are places for prayer and worship, ‘fringe’ members of the congregation (i.e., those that may not attend every Sunday but come to events such as Harvest, at Christmas) need to be supported to come and participate at other times.
This not only helps clergy work out when, where and how they support all members of the parish (amid having several churches on their patch) but also means clergy and parishioners can come together to develop a shared vision for growth and work on implementing this together.
Secondly, we need to think more innovatively and imaginatively about how we use and maintain church buildings.
In October 2015, the Church Buildings Review Group published its report on the stewardship of church buildings. 78% of the Church of England’s 15,700 churches are listed. Over 57% of churches are in rural areas and 91% of these are listed.
The Church of England is responsible for around 45% of Grade 1 listed buildings and almost three-quarters of these are in rural areas. Yet one in four rural parishes has fewer than ten regular worshipers and collectively £160 million is spent on maintaining parish buildings.
The report contains proposals to
(a) secure more financial support for listed buildings for the long term,
(b) change the law to create some specific new flexibilities for parishes and dioceses,
(c) incorporate building reviews into mission and ministry planning,
(d) enable individual dioceses to have a bigger role in seeking a use for closed buildings,
(e) establish a single church buildings team at Church House, and
(f) create a new Church Building Commission for England.
For me, the report brings out the significance of place and how the diocese, at a local level, has responsibility for strategic planning and developing new place-based initiatives. Indeed, there are numerous and imaginative examples of how church buildings have been adapted to community use, breathing new life into them.
The Building Review Group report, for example, suggests ‘Festival Churches’ as an alternative means of maintaining a church with almost no congregation without closing it completely. This new category of parish church means the building is used only for important celebrations and/or occasional weddings or funerals and is being piloted in some dioceses.
The interior of St Maurice Church in Horkstow (North Lincolnshire) has been transformed with surplus pews and stalls removed to create an open flexible space which can be used by the community.
Interpretation boards have been produced setting out the history of the church and village and a programme of evening events held to encourage local people to use the church (with at least 30 people at each event).
There are several examples in Cumbria where churches are providing a venue for the post office, delivery of public services and meeting place for charities and voluntary and community sector organisations.
In Norfolk, WiSpire (majority owned by the Diocese of Norwich) is using parish churches to provide better broadband services to the whole of the county not just the populated areas.
Finally, all of these reports reveal how churches can be burdens, blessings and assets for rural communities.
For Professor Woodhead, the answer is not only in better clergy and boosting congregations it is also about giving equal attention to entry-points into society, “those places where the rubber of Christianity meets the road of real life: in homes, playgroups, schools and other places where children are socialised” and I would add the places where people work (offices, farms, factories and so on).
As the Church of England continues its Reform and Renewal programme and with Christmas approaching (and many of us attending services) what more can we do to celebrate our churches all year round and keep them open?
The proposals contained in the Church Buildings Review Group are open for consultation until Friday 29 January 2016. Read more

A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Hale. On the second Sunday in Advent, 2015.

I spent the inside of last week with my friend and colleague Peter Murphy at the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. Ostensibly, we were there on a nostalgic visit re-visiting a Hostel in Leeds also attached to the Community where we started our theological training some 50 years ago. We took the opportunity to re-visit the Hostel which is now a University hall of residence and witness a remarkable transformation within the historic shell of the remarkable Victorian building. The chapel is now a common room and a large plasma TV screen now adorns the East end of the chapel where the altar used to rest. To the right of the TV screen I are the words, RELAX-good transformation!

Part of the time we shared in the life of the Community as we worshipped morning and evening, a lectio divina (bible study), and had shared meals largely in silence. The love with which the brothers received us was palpable. We made a pilgrimage to the Calvary Garden, the Community’s cemetery as we said hello again to the monks who had been our mentors those 50 years ago.

In the silence the only distractions are those which flowed through my head and experienced in my body. Distractions there were and also a great sense of simply being in the moment filled with a silence I want to name the presence of the mystery of God. It was bit like a dance. At once in the moment sensing the fullness of the silence and then my mind travelling myriads of paths of things important and insignificant.
Richard Rhor, a Franciscan monk in his book, ‘Everything Belongs’ writes this,

“The now is not as empty as it might appear to be or that we fear it may be. Try to realise that everything is right here, right now. When we are doing life right it means nothing more than it is right now, because God is in this moment in a non-blaming way. When we are able to experience that, taste it and enjoy it, we don’t need to hold on to it. The next moment will have its own taste and enjoyment.”

The Advent season beckons us to a time of waiting and attending. We are called to pay more attention to the moments of existence-the air we breathe, the autumn wind blowing on our faces, the dancing leaves at our feet, the smell of rotting and decay, the watery sun and moon. And inside ourselves to discern what is really important for us. Our daily battles with demons of many familiar faces, our anxieties about those we love, our concerns about cards and presents. How we are going to meet the seemingly conflicting demands of many people.

Weighing heavy on my heart this week is a dear friend’s huge grief at the loss of his son through cancer at such an early age knowing that his other son is also slowly dying of cancer. What do I say to him? How can I support him? Peter and I lit a candle for him and his family in York Minister I subsequently found out, almost at the point he died. I know that I have to surrender all of my thoughts and feelings and faltering prayers to the divine mystery who goes before me. And I still am concerned about what I can do.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”-words from Mark’s gospel echoing those words of comfort by Isaiah to a broken nation of Israel. What John the Baptist shows us is a passion and a zeal for the coming presence of God in our lives. How do we prepare the ‘way of the Lord’? How do we ‘make his paths straight’?

One of the downsides of the Protestant Reformation was to focus our attention so much on the spiritual journeys of individuals. Both are important-the individual journey and the community. I came away from Mirfield with a sense that God is working in the Community. It is all too easy to use the Church as a private club for the development of our individual spiritual journeys. For us to act as a community, as an alive body of people we have to spend time being with and listen to each other as we grow in trust and faith with each other. It is in the active engagement with each other we discover what the path of the Lord is for his people, how to make his paths straight.

So what do we talk about? Do we share and hear each other’s pain and dilemmas? Do we have share a future together to be Christ’s hands and feet and heart in this place? What are our church’s distractions? What are we avoiding? An examination of the agendas of our PCC’s and Synods might be worth a look!

Advent might then become a period when we think about these things and pray about these things knowing that the mystery of God’s love is already before us longing to support and sustain us in the difficult questions and the anxieties we carry.

Advent is a period of preparation then, a time when we can set aside some time from distractions and risk simply being without too many words. We live in a fabulous part of the world. The world of nature provides us with so many gifts of awareness of God’s loving mystery. Stand in the stillness of the forest and know that you are both alone with yourself and connected to one who holds the whole of life in the palm of his hand.

John the Baptist’s message to the crowds was one which pointed away from himself to the one who ‘is coming after me’. Once we know what truly distracts and fills our heads with so many thoughts and fears and anxieties that we may be able better to make an act of surrender of them in order that God’s love and energy can fill our moments. Our awareness of them may be fleeting. But it is in opening our hearts that we allow God to fill us. That is Mary’s eternal gift to us. She was beckoned by God to open herself to be filled with his Spirit and Jesus, God with us. That is the goal of our ‘preparing the way of the Lord’-again this Advent open your heart to yourself in love and to one another and all whom you meet-enjoy making the paths of the Lord straight for all to walk on.

 

John Towler

Fear and Hope – A Sermon for Advent Sunday

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

FEAR & HOPE

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: Preparing for Christ’s coming using the Jesus Prayer, Advent Sunday 2015 at Fordingbridge and Sandleheath.

If you are sitting comfortably I will begin, for this morning I may be a little longer than I usually am. And that’s my subject – time. Does it rule your life? Do you get up at a set time, have your lunch at a set time my grandma did, lunch at 12, tea at 4, go to bed at a set time? Are you always on time, hours early or that person that sneaks in every week at precisely 5 minutes late? Do you keep your clocks 5 minutes early to avoid being late? Do you have a calendar that you write all the events in your life in or a diary you carry with you. Of course keeping up with everything is now very simple. I haven’t worn a watch for years except for the fake $10 Rolex I wear with my dinner jacket when I need to dress to impress but which loses 10 minutes in every hour. I carry my time around with me on my phone as well as my diary although since Gary arrived I have also used a calendar as a back-up for church matters which he kindly supplies although more often than not I forget to update it or I put something so cryptic I can’t remember what it signifies and I end up emailing or texting him for a translation.

Some of you know that we have a caravan on the east coast which my parents originally owned. My mother filled it with clocks and every time we used it the first thing I did was to collect them all up and put them in a cupboard because quite honestly I didn’t want to be ruled by regulated time when I was relaxing. That’s not to say I don’t like clocks, I love them and we have three I particularly cherish, one which was my father’s, he had very few possessions that were his alone, he had owned the clock before he was married. It sits in our conservatory unwound but a reminder. We also have a cuckoo clock which hangs in the hall which I wind every morning and depending on the weather it gains or losses in equal measure and has to be hung at an angle otherwise it stops. The cuckoo remains off until the grandchildren arrive when we spend every half hour dashing to see the cuckoo appear, and we have a grandfather clock which belonged to my grandparents and was made in Sleaford, where they lived by Nathaniel Shaw. It always loses despite attempts to alter the regulator. And there is a similar clock in the cottage we use in Pembrokeshire which I wind as soon as I arrive because the tick relaxes me. As you might have guessed these clocks mean rather more to me than their function which in all three cases is somewhat wanting.

I wonder who it was that decide we needed to chop the cycle of day and night into 24 equal parts and then chop those into 60 equal parts and those again into 60 equal parts which of course we now chop into hundredths and thousandths. Why did it become important for us to identify certain parts of the day, and why did we decide that the hour and the half hour would signify the start times of many events in our life rather than just doing them when it pleased us?

Well we couldn’t live our lives without measuring time now could we? How would we know to be at the station at the time the train is supposed to be there even though usually it isn’t? How could we all congregate here or in a cinema so we could all watch the film or start the service at the same time, how could the family meet around the table to eat food together at the point it is ready?

But is time something much bigger than knowing when something is happening?

Many faiths believe that time is cyclical, that it consists of a series of repeating ages. In our tradition of Judaic Christianity we believe in linear time from the creation of the earth to the end of time. Of course we have no idea when that will be, it could be later today, in which case I hope it is after the Strictly results because I want to know who has been evicted, or of course it could be millennia away.

When Jesus was on earth telling the time was rather simpler. In the Gospel we are given the fig tree to consider. People only needed to look at the fig tree to know what season it was, in bud, spring, in full leaf, summer, ripe fruit, autumn and then looking dead during winter. They knew when to plant by reference to the activity of plants and the position of the sun in the sky.

Jesus appears to suggest that when he returns the weather will be turned on its head, the seas will roar and strange things will happen to the sun, moon and stars.

So maybe despite the recent rainy spell I will get to see Strictly this evening as the sun seems to still be where it should be in the sky.

Jesus talks about time simply in terms of being ready. He doesn’t say to us, you are ok as long as you write “prepare for the end of time” in your calendar for 5th June 2023, he says, you have to be constantly ready because I’m not going to tell you when I’m coming back. Being able to measure time isn’t going to help you, you need to be ready now.

Well we do measure time to give our lives order, and today is New Year’s Day so Happy New Year. No my calendar isn’t a month out, today is the first day of our new Christian Year, Advent Sunday, Advent translated from the Latin meaning “coming”. The next 4 weeks are about preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord, the birth of the Saviour of the World. At Advent and in Lent we prepare, we prepare for life and we prepare for death and new life in the cross and resurrection. These are times which we limit by the calendar so we know when they begin and end but in reality they are just passages of space for us to get ready. It’s a shame that in this coming season we have allowed ourselves to be overcome by the hype of Christmas, the adverts that began several weeks ago, the cards that have been in the shops since September and even in in the hallowed space of Winchester Cathedral Close the Christmas Market was open last week with incessant piped carols already playing, maybe I’m being cynical but is the Cathedral cashing in on our materialist approach allowing it to overshadow the very festival it stands to celebrate? Why do we attach so much more time and effort to getting ready for a massive outpouring of excess than we do to be in a place to meet Jesus when he comes, either symbolically at Christmas as a baby or for that second time he tells us will happen? Verse 34 of the Gospel “Don’t let yourselves become occupied with too much feasting and drinking and with the worries of this life”.

I know many will view my actions as bah-humbug, as evidenced by my Christmas headwear, but when everyone starts decorating the office with baubles and bits of tinsel I always refuse to join in, not just because I’m a killjoy, but because for the next four weeks we need to focus on getting ready, being in the right place and not being distracted.  It’s a time to reflect, a time to take stock and see who we really are and whether we are coming up short in the eyes of God.

I am very privileged to be able to spend quite a bit of time with Bishop Jonathan because we sit on several committees together and over the years we have become firm friends. Jonathan has a very elastic attitude to time, so much so we have started to tell him everything begins half an hour before it really does so he will only be a bit late, but it is because he is more concerned about what happens in the time he has, than the time itself that makes him the godly man he is. Several weeks ago now I wasn’t very well and he found out. His diary is madness personified, it is always packed, but somehow he found out I was ill and the next morning the doorbell rang and there he was. I remember saying to him, “surely you should be somewhere else” and he said to me “brother” this is where I need to be”. He spent far too long chatting to me seemingly completely unworried about all the other things he should have been doing. He had brought a book with him called “Living The Jesus Prayer” by Irma Zaleski. It is only 63 pages long and many of them are only half full as it has 62 very short chapters. I don’t think he will mind me telling you that he told me that he finds prayer really hard – two minutes in and he is thinking about tomorrow, next week, getting the car serviced, anything but what he is supposed to be doing. He firmly believes that much of our private prayer time should be listening not talking, so he has this simple mantra. First he stays quiet for just a few moments and the he says “Come Holy Spirit, Come Holy Spirit, Come Holy Spirit” and after another short pause he starts to use the Jesus prayer which is simply “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner,” which he repeats over and over until his mind is clear of all the distractions. Zaleski has one chapter about meeting God alone and she says this, we say “have mercy on me” not “on us” because we have to make our own individual peace with God, find our own relationship with Christ, meet him face to face. No one can do it for us. Somebody can bring us to Jesus but we must meet him ourselves” or in a popular saying – “you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, it’s up to the horse to make the final move, and so it is for us.

I have been using the Jesus prayer since that day and it works for me. I printed it and put it on the key fob of my car keys but within a day or so I’d remembered it by heart. So, this advent I simply ask you this – are you prepared? If the idea of the Jesus prayer appeals to you as a way to stop and move out of our time to spend time with God, and if you’d like to not only use it but think a bit around it I have put 10 copies of the book on the coffee bar, please feel free to take one. If you are no 11 onwards you can get it for around £5 on Amazon or Abebooks.

I’m going to finish with a short extract from the chapter “desire for the presence of God” which goes like this, and this is the author speaking:

I once heard a story about an old parishioner of St Jean Vianney (the Cure of Ars) who used to spend a lot of time alone in church. St Jean became curious about him and asked him one day, “Why do you spend so much time sitting in church? What do you think about?” The old man answered, “Oh I just look at Him, He looks at me, and we are happy together.”

This wonderful story illustrates two important points about contemplative prayer: it is not complicated, but is a simple way of being in the presence of God; and we do not have to go to the desert or enter a monastery to experience it.  We can practise it anywhere, at any time. But most of us, like the Russian Pilgrim, need help and encouragement to begin. We need to find a path of prayer, a simple way of experiencing the presence of God and remaining in it. It can be for us a means of entering the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. As Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity has said, “Heaven is God and God is in my heart”.

Living the Jesus Prayer, Practising the prayer of the heart. Irma Zaleski. Canterbury Press, Norwich edition printed 2011

Mark Ward, LLM