Sermon preached for Epiphany 2

“I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

That’s coming later. But to start with, I think many of us will have felt that the opening of our Old Testament reading today strikes a chord: the word of the Lord was scarce in those days, visions were not widespread – or, indeed, as the King James Bible translates it, there was no open vision. At the moment, it seems that we are living in a time that fits that description. Things look very dark and very unclear – and while we have cause to be thankful, from the bottom of our hearts,  for all the progress that’s being made with new treatments and new vaccines effective against Covid, people still wonder – particularly if they work in health or in education – how much longer they can struggle on before things improve. It’s hard to encourage yourself by picturing a better future. Even the light at the end of the tunnel might turn out to be an approaching train.

And yet one thing that emerges from today’s readings is that it can be at a time of darkness, or perplexity, or struggle,  that God – in various different ways –  calls people. What sort of people? Well, all sorts really – Samuel, a little boy living away from home; eager searchers like Andrew and his friend; people who introduce, people who get introduced; people whose background is entirely local, like Simon; people like Philip whose Greek name suggests that he may have had wider contacts; people who come along immediately, or people like Nathanael, very possibly the same person as St Bartholomew, who are fairly sceptical and won’t be rushed – especially as Nathanael’s home town is Cana, about 4 miles from Nazareth, and he knows that anything to do with Nazareth is probably a waste of space.

It must be about 40 years ago that my then parish priest pointed out, in a sermon, that the first disciples our Lord called were, by occupation, fishermen – men who had a hard life – and that it was still His habit to call people when life was difficult. Some time later, when my own life was very difficult and I also had a feeling that God was not going to leave me alone, though I wasn’t at all clear what was going on,  I talked to my parish priest about it and – in the course of the conversation –  remembered aloud what he’d said about how difficulty and calling could often occur together. He grunted and said, “That’s the usual method, I’m afraid.”  He ended up as a bishop, and that was absolutely the last thing he wanted. 

Nathanael probably was a fisherman – he certainly goes out fishing with St Peter and the others at the end of John’s gospel, and perhaps his first conversation with our Lord took place near the lakeside – but when our Lord speaks to him, we catch a glimpse of the Nathanael our Lord already knows, even though they appear never to have met before. “I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you.”  For this fisherman, life at the moment isn’t only an outward struggle; there’s been an inward struggle going on as well, and our Lord is aware of that, even at what seems to have been a first meeting.  Here is truly an Israelite – or indeed an Israelite worthy of the name. One of the stained glass windows in this church illustrates the story to which those words refer: Jacob wrestled with an invisible figure all night and received the name of Israel because he had striven with God and prevailed. And – something you couldn’t say of Jacob – Nathanael (whose name means Gift of God) is a man in whom there is no deceit. We know he says just what he thinks – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And no doubt he was already saying that to himself, and struggling with it, before Philip arrived and really started something. Many people probably saw Nathanael as rather an awkward character. But awkwardness, too, can be a gift. Let’s remember: there are kinds of awkwardness that our Lord values, and can use.

Back to the fig tree. If you lived in the Mediterranean world – indeed, if you live in it now, and have a house rather than a flat  – and you need some fresh air and time to yourself, you go out into your courtyard, or if the house isn’t big enough for that, there is probably a space outside the door. Either way, there will be a vine trained over it to give you shade – or, still better, there will be a fig tree. If you are having an inward struggle, that’s where you’ll go to have it. And while Nathanael was under the fig tree, our Lord – saw him. In his mind’s eye? In some moment of supernatural vision? It doesn’t really matter. The more we look at the Gospels, the more conscious we are, and the more it matters,  that when our Lord sees someone, he isn’t just a spectator.  He always enters into what he sees. He may see to respond directly – he sees the crowds and has compassion on them, because they’re like sheep without a shepherd. Or he sees in order to enlarge the vision of others – he sees the poor widow putting her two mites into the treasury and says that she has put in more than anyone else. Or he sees in order to engage or challenge – he looks at the rich young man, loves him, and invites him to give his money to the poor – and grieves when the young man can’t bring himself to do it. So when our Lord says he saw Nathanael under the fig tree, the point isn’t just some display of clairvoyance – the point is that he entered into what he saw. He has, in a sense, been there alongside Nathanael. Or, in a very extended sense, you could even say he’s been part of the wrestling match, like the invisible wrestler who wrestled with Jacob. Will Nathanael continue to write this new teacher off as a waste of space because he comes from Nazareth, or will Nathanael himself  – when it comes to the point – Come and see?

Well, he comes and sees, and when it comes to the point, Nathanael the wrestler doesn’t wait to be asked “Follow me” – he takes the plunge and commits himself before he’s asked, in a way that our Lord finds quite entertaining. “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he refers to another story about Jacob – one that curiously enough isn’t illustrated here in our angel windows – Jacob’s vision of the ladder joining heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending, and God standing beside it. Nathanael is promised that he himself will come to see heaven joined to earth, with Our Lord Himself as the Ladder. And no doubt the Evangelist is reflecting, as he writes, that, in the light of the passion and resurrection of Christ, that’s what any Christian may hope to see with the eye of faith – and that however bad the visibility may sometimes be, it’s still a fact.

It’s worth noticing that the fig-tree sort of experience doesn’t stop at Nathanael. It’s been happening to inward wrestlers ever since. Just to use one example, it happened to St Augustine.  Augustine describes how, in a spiritual turmoil that was approaching a crisis, wanting to leave his old chaotic life behind, but doubtful if he could really make the break,  he rushed out of the house into the garden, and finished up flinging himself down under – yes – a fig tree. It was while he was there on the ground that he heard a childlike voice, apparently in a neighbouring house, chanting, “Take up and read, take up and read” – and so he got up and went over to the garden bench where he had left a volume of St Paul’s Epistles, and opened it at random:  “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh…” And that did it. Augustine seems at this point to have been wrestling with his worse self – but he hadn’t been wrestling on his own. He too, quite certainly, was being seen by our Lord under the fig tree.

Now St Augustine was called, in the end, to be a bishop and one of the greatest teachers of the church. Nathanael was called to be one of our Lord’s first apostles. Not all of us are called, all the time, to this kind of life-changing role, that changes countless other lives as well – though you never know, and in any case even Nathanael and Augustine weren’t told their whole story at the start.  Cardinal  – now Saint – John Henry Newman, who certainly had a lot of fig-tree times in his life, was nonetheless sure that God had given to him, and to everyone else (young people,  this may be important for you one day),  God has given to every single person something to do that no other single person was made to do; and he added, “I have my mission; I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.”  Certainly he knows the whole story now.

 And as for ourselves: at this time of great difficulty, when the word of the Lord sometimes does seem scarce, when visions are not widespread, when we don’t get immediate answers, and when perhaps our faith in God is tested, we may find ourselves being called by him to do some very simple things. Simple, though they may still be accompanied by a struggle, in or out of doors. We may be called to pray more, and use this lockdown to spend extra time with God. We may be called to do something for someone who is experiencing more difficulty than we are – just look at our Mothers’ Union members who have been making twiddle muffs for residents in our local care homes, and other  St Michael’s people who have been responding to a call of that kind that can make all the difference. We may be called to pick up the telephone, or send a card. And these things, too,  can indeed change lives and lead to results that are for the time being known only to God – and in the providence of God they may change our lives too. When people talk about vocation, just as when they talk about conversion, they sometimes make the mistake of talking about it as if it worked to a kind of standard pattern or recipe. It doesn’t. It can be a dramatic all-at-once process, or a gradual bit-by-bit process, or very clear and direct, or very obscure. But it’s certainly not uncommon for signs of it to emerge when life is difficult. I’ll leave you, though, with a couple of lines from Thomas Merton, who, as a Cistercian monk, had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the process that had led him to that monastery:

“Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfil the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

Sermon Preached on Epiphany (transferred)

A one-time work colleague of mine, who has been a friend ever since, made a retreat some time ago, at the end of which she heard an inner voice saying, “Simplify everything”. She has done, and, because she and her husband have a connection with the Franciscan order, she’s been constantly motivated to simplify everything ever since. To me, Debby’s life – which she divides between her church ministry, several music groups, an environmental project, local politics and a double allotment – still seems pretty complicated. To Debby, it’s all an expression of her call to simplicity. And I’ve no doubt she’s got that right. Complication can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder. What Debby exemplifies to me is simplicity of heart.

It’s easy, and sometimes wise, to say, “Keep it simple!” That certainly gets said almost as a slogan when the faith and worship of the Church is being discussed. There’s nothing wrong with that, but, as with all slogans, we need to think carefully what we mean if we say it.  Some people, looking at our celebration of the holy Eucharist in church today, with as much ceremony as we can manage in the present circumstances, and the procession to the crib that will take place in a few minutes, might say, “There’s nothing simple about that! You’re talking about a baby who was born into poverty, and here you are with embroidery and incense and processions – Why doesn’t the Church get rid of all that clutter and keep it simple?”

 Now on the face of it, it may also seem that these wise men, whose visit to the baby Jesus we celebrate today, haven’t much to do with simplicity. What did St Luke tell us about the shepherds, on Christmas morning? They heard the angel’s message, they arrived at the manger the very same night that the holy child was born, they went back,  and they passed on the good news. Simple, and an example to us all. By contrast, what does St Matthew tell us today about the wise men? They found the child after a challenging journey; they were inspired by a heavenly message that wasn’t in words and had to be checked out on the ground, with risky political implications; they delivered three presents that still need some explaining, and they disappeared out of the story, travelling by another route.  No wonder the church calendar commemorates their visit twelve days on from Christmas Day itself. The whole thing is complicated enough to take more time – especially as Herod’s massacre isn’t confined to new-born babies but includes toddlers as well. Complicated, at least on the face of it – but, I’d suggest, not altogether complicated, and also an example to us all. In among these complications, there is simplicity of heart. 

There’s a lot that St Matthew doesn’t tell us about the wise men, and so, because we do enjoy a bit of a mystery, we can easily complicate things still further. To start with, how many wise men were there? Matthew doesn’t say; three gifts suggests three givers, but we don’t know. What sort of wise men? The word Matthew uses – Magoi – could cover all kinds of what we, using a related word, might describe as Magic – but as they evidently studied the stars, they probably specialised in astrology – which in those days combined what we now know as scientific astronomical observation with elements of what we now, I hope, recognise as the sinister kind of fortune-telling that goes by the name of astrology in our own time.  (While I was researching this sermon I came upon a website, claiming to be run by a society of astrologers, who said you could use their astrology to make a fortune on the stockmarket – I wonder how many vulnerable people are being led to their ruin by trying that? To return) Where did these wise men come from? “The East” sounds exciting and exotic but it’s not very precise – maybe Persian lands afar? Well, maybe – in that case they might well belong to the ancient religious tradition called Zoroastrianism, practised by the Parsees to this day. But by the middle ages, Christians who studied the scriptures had decided that the wise men were three kings (the gifts were precious, and Psalm 72 mentions kings bringing gifts), they were of three different ages (young, middle-aged, and old),  they came from the three continents then known to Europeans (Europe, Asia and Africa), and they were called Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior. All traditions with something to say to us, passed on by our ancestors in the faith, inspiring wonderful works of art, and worth exploring and honouring in their own right, as we shall do when we go home with our Epiphany chalk – but, on the face of it, the traditions tend towards still more complication rather than towards clarity and simplicity. To say nothing of the question, still actively debated,  of what the wise men saw in the sky, and how it led them on the last stage of their journey to Bethlehem and then – stopped. 

But, for this morning – I’d still suggest that the wise men are potentially an example to us all, and certainly to the very many people who find that their journey of faith isn’t simple, or doesn’t seem simple all the time. The wise men’s journey has complications, but what they bring to it, and on it, isn’t complicated at all: they bring what they know, what they are, and what they have. They bring their knowledge of the stars – how else would they recognise a star that wasn’t on their map? They bring their professional identity, something they have trained in and developed over perhaps half a lifetime or more, and the determination and perseverance and sometimes risk-taking that goes with doing that; and they bring their precious, perhaps rather elitist,  gifts – and with these things they come to worship. That’s pretty comprehensive, but it’s not complicated. It’s the kind of simplicity that one poet describes as “simplicity costing not less than everything”.

These wise men don’t set out knowing all the answers. Even the question they ask when they reach Jerusalem means more than they know it does – “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” For a start, it means things to King Herod that it doesn’t mean to them, and further,  I wonder what they would have thought if they’d returned to Jerusalem 30 years later and seen “King of the Jews” written up above a dying man on a cross? Their precious gifts also mean something to us that the wise men were probably aware of only dimly, if at all. The lyrics we sing this morning (or, in church, can’t sing)  find in the gifts a meaning that the Church has recognised for at least 1800 years: Gold for a king, incense because he was God, myrrh because he was to die. But once they find out where they’re going, they rejoice, and they get there; and they sum up their journey, and their hopes, and what they know and are and have, in their act of homage, as they prostrate themselves before this apparently very ordinary child. Complications or no complications, they offer their worship in simplicity of heart. How else could wise men worship a child?

On the other hand, there can be a kind of apparent simplicity that seems to go with knowing all the answers, and it can actually look very like a dead end. When the wise men reached Jerusalem, there were people already there who did know all the answers; Simple! yes, the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem of Judaea, that’s what the Bible says and here’s the proof text to show it. Well, that information proved useful. But I wonder if it occurred to those who knew all the answers to stop and ask themselves why that might matter to them at that moment, what sort of a governor might be coming out of Bethlehem, and what they ought to do about it? The shepherds had said in the middle of the night, “Let’s go now”, the wise men set out from Herod’s court towards Bethlehem with joy. And meanwhile,  the experts on the sacred writings to whom it was all quite simple – who lived in Jerusalem, which is about five miles from Bethlehem – didn’t take the risk of going to investigate. Would they have been willing, as the wise men were, to pursue a mystery, to cast down their knowledge, their professional identity, their hopes, their gifts, their very selves, before a totally undistinguished baby boy? It doesn’t sound like it. 

To return to something I said earlier: it’s true – and quite simple – that to have a church, to mount an act of Christian worship, you need, simply: bread, wine, water, a Bible and people.  So where do the incense and the embroidery and the processions – and the music and the pictures  – come in? They come in just where the wise men come in. To start where there’s an obvious overlap, particularly today: incense has been recognised for thousands of years as a sign of the presence of God and of our prayer and worship. Incense was known to be for God, and there were plenty of Christians who died rather than burn it in front of a statue of a Roman emperor. Of course it isn’t indispensable but it isn’t just a bit of clutter either – it’s a visible, smellable way of saying that God is God and that we are in his presence. Embroidery and processions – not just clutter either: a way of reminding ourselves that we are in the presence of royalty, and that our whole life is a journey towards the King of Kings. The wise men will approve; they understand that now. Bell-ringing: a skill requiring effort and tenacity and, in some cases, a talent for mathematics – we could probably keep it simple and announce the service with a hooter, but let’s consider the hundred and twenty years of self-giving that this church has experienced from those who paid for the tower, hung the bells, recast them and went on ringing them, generation after generation. Weren’t they, too, wise men – and women? Art and music: things that skilled people practise with dedication and years of hard work. The fact that not everyone can perform challenging music doesn’t mean that challenging music is just complicated clutter and churches shouldn’t have it: when we give singers and instrumentalists, particularly young ones, a chance to learn it and to make it part of their worship, we give them an opportunity that the wise men would understand – an opportunity to offer to God something demanding, something of themselves, while offering to the rest of us an experience of the beauty of holiness as we listen and reflect.  All these apparently complicated aspects of worship can help us to put into practice something very simple that we can usefully lay to heart: in our life-long journey towards God we don’t always achieve instant results, nor are we even always clear about the immediate direction of travel, but if we persevere as the wise men did, in simplicity of heart, in self-giving and reverence, our worship will prepare us to join finally in the worship of heaven – “Where we need no star to guide, Where no clouds His glory hide.”

Children, and grown-ups too: when the priest says the prayer of consecration, listen as he reminds us of our Lord’s own words and actions which are right at the centre of our worship here and now. “This is My Body” sounds simple, but probably only the Lord Himself really understands exactly what He Himself is doing at this altar, and exactly what He is inviting us to to become part of as we come to him. But we can still come to him in simplicity, bringing our complicated selves,  just as the wise men came to him when he was a baby. When he invites us to bring him ourselves,  He doesn’t say “Understand this”. He just says, “Do this”.

Sermon preached Christmas morning 2020

A very happy Christmas to everyone here in church, and to everyone watching at home – particularly to anyone who is a visitor or an explorer, or perhaps wondering if, after all, Christmas might be more than just another fairy-tale that you grow out of. Welcome. Come and see.

Come and see – but let’s pay attention to what we see and to how we look at it. 

Those of you who are still at school will remember being told, just as I was told when I was at school:

“Take great care over the presentation.” Well, I once taught an A Level student who had been told that – so many times that he really thought that as long as he underlined the title of his answer in three different colours, the examiner would be impressed. He was mistaken. However, as life goes on and we prepare for interviews or important meetings, it comes back to haunt us: “Take great care over the presentation.

There can be good reasons or bad reasons for this. One bad reason is that if you are being judged by lazy people, they might not take the trouble to find out what you or your work are really about – it’s much simpler to judge you on the way you tie your scarf. One good reason is that if you clearly haven’t made an effort to present yourself or your work respectably, you come across as a lazy person who might be lazy in other respects too.  So, take care. But part of the challenge about presentation comes down to what people are looking for. People who judge entirely on presentation are likely to be looking for the wrong thing, and they get disappointed sooner or later.  The presentation and what is being presented  – in fact, the PRESENT – might not match up in quite the way you expected. Disentangling the presentation and the present can take time and reflection. So, come and see.

Now of course it’s lovely to be given a present with beautiful presentation, over which someone, perhaps a younger family member, has taken trouble.  But when you read the Christmas magazines, or visit the gift-wrap department, it can all get a bit ridiculous – because these hugely expensive wrappings and ribbons and stickers and glittery bits are so often designed, as the saying goes, to make a statement – a statement about:  how important the giver is, not about how important someone else is to the giver.  The PRESENTATION can take over from the actual giving of the PRESENT. And when you see a department in a shop, or on a website, which is labelled “Gifting” and it turns out to consist entirely of glittery wrappings and ribbons, you might suspect that for some people that’s what is starting to happen. Between real people in real life, we hope, that process doesn’t reach its logical conclusion, but the logical conclusion could look like this:

And when the devil says he has a present for us and we say, “Oh, yes, please” because the presentation looks so glittery and so inviting, this is what it will amount to.

All presentation and absolutely nothing inside.  The devil gets away with this all the time – his presentation can make a rubbishy word or action look glamorous and exciting, but what’s inside turns out to be empty and boring. And indeed, if I fell for this and was disappointed, I’ve no right to be disappointed – when I picked it up I could have felt that it was empty.  But I’m a human being – and falling for the devil’s presentation and the emptiness inside is something that human beings have been doing almost from the word go. It’s pathetic, but there it is.

And the answer to that? The answer is: a present from God.  A present that he gave us on the first Christmas and he goes on giving it year after year, no matter what. What happens when God gives us a present?.  “Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord”.  Yes, some of the presentation is spectacular – a night sky full of angels and light and music – but some of it sounds very down-to-earth and in some ways totally ordinary – the baby is wrapped in swaddling clothes – well, of course – what else would a new baby in those days be wrapped in?  So what are the shepherds to do about this present? They have, as it were, to look inside – they go to Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass. 

Now when God gives this present, none of it is about showing how important the giver is. We get a message so that we know who it’s from  – “Glory to God in the highest” –  but unlike some people who home in on the Gifting counter, God really doesn’t have to use a lot of presentation to show how important he is. What he wants to show is how important we are to him. And although the shepherds wouldn’t have got their heads round it when they saw him in a manger in Bethlehem,  they know all about it now, as they behold him in heaven: God shows us how important we are to him by giving us a present which is more than a present – his PRESENCE, and his very self, and essence all-divine. Absolutely not because we are worthy of a present like that, but absolutely because we are not worthy. And because he knows it’s what we need more than anything else. 

Once the angels have gone, God’s present doesn’t look showy or dazzling from the outside, but that doesn’t mean that the giver has taken no trouble: he’s been working on this present, for thousands of years. It’s very carefully wrapped on the outside – in news – history, prophecy, messages – which don’t dazzle us but deserve our attention and arouse our expectation and encourage us, when the moment comes,  to look inside. And finally, when we do look inside, as the shepherds did:

It’s not empty, and although in a sense it’s ordinary, it’s certainly not boring: we see inside, absolutely ordinary looking but unique, and precious, and vulnerable, and to be treasured and loved, wrapped in swaddling clothes, a human baby, in whom, then and now, dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. That’s what we need. Because God is not giving us a piece of presentation from the Gifting counter; God is giving us Himself.

That’s not a present to be put away in a cupboard, or forgotten about, as does happen to some presents. The shepherds, who were the first to hear about it and see it, remembered it and went on talking about it for years – probably for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the shepherds’ neighbours began to feel that they’d heard it all before.  Yet if we’ve heard the Christmas story so many times that we think it has nothing fresh to say to us, perhaps this Christmas – when so many of our expectations and hopes have been disappointed, when the  presents we wanted to give and ordered online have failed to arrive, or gone to what is now the wrong place, or will have to be put in the post after Christmas  – perhaps this Christmas might be a bit different in another way as well,  might stop us in our tracks and make us reflect afresh on what God has given us. As we approach the altar for our communion, or make an act of spiritual communion at home, let us Come and see. Christmas certainly isn’t about presentation. It isn’t primarily about presents as we give them to one another. It’s about His PRESENCE.

Sermon preached on Advent 2

“With the possible exception of the equator, everything begins somewhere.”

Last Sunday Elizabeth was reminding us of some ways in which – in this season of Advent, when the Church begins a new year – we might make new year resolutions and thus make some new beginnings in our Christian life, which, by the grace of God, will bring forth fruit with perseverance.

It may seem strange to ask where such new beginnings get made – but I think today’s readings do prompt us to ask that question. Where does the new beginning take place in Mark’s account that we have just read? Where is the new beginning taking place in the passage from second Isaiah that we have just read, and that Mark is quoting? Where, indeed, do so many new beginnings take place in Holy Scripture? 

Let’s remind ourselves of some of those new beginnings…. Think of God, leading his people out of captivity in Egypt, making his ways known to Moses and embarking on a solemn covenant with the children of Israel; think of their journey into exile in Babylon, and of their homeward journey, with everlasting joy upon their heads; think of God at work, ever afresh, in the lives and messages of so many of his prophets, whose witness we particularly celebrate this week; think of one who was more than a prophet, John the Baptist, urging everyone who would listen to make a fresh start – and, to look a little further forward, think of our Lord preparing himself for the beginning of His public ministry. Some of these new beginnings were threatened by disaster, some of them seemed at the time to end in disaster – but looking back on them now, we can see that they bore fruit, fruit that will last. And where did all these new beginnings take place? In what looks like the most unfruitful, unpromising, barren kind of surroundings you could think of.  In other words, in the wilderness. In St Mark’s gospel we don’t get a family background for John the Baptist as we do in St Luke – he just appears in the wilderness, like the sort of phenomenon that would occur in the wilderness. Now we shall have time to focus on John the Baptist next Sunday, so, for today, let’s pause and look at the setting in which the voice is crying and the way is prepared in today’s readings – the wilderness itself.

What sort of a place is the wilderness of Judaea? Some of it is desert, some of it is scrub country – all of it inhospitable, dry for most of the year, and either too hot or too cold for comfort; not a place where you would decide to settle unless you had a good reason – or perhaps a very bad one, which means that it can be lonely, and perhaps threatening. A place of isolation, of hunger, of insecurity. A place outside our comfort zone. On the positive side, it’s a place that also has an amazing quality of sharp, uncompromising light – light of a kind we don’t generally see in this country – light, and space, and silence.  Isolation, hunger, insecurity – but also very little in the way of distraction.  An invitation to look, to listen, and so to recognise the chance of a new beginning. To take the words of just one of the prophets: here’s Hosea, writing out of his own experience of a disastrous marriage, who finds in the wilderness the hope that God’s relationship with Israel, also in a disastrous state at the time, could have a fresh start:

“This is the very word of the Lord… Listen, I will woo her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak to her heart…. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth when she came up from Egypt.”

Well, as our days in Maidstone become darker and foggier, perhaps that geographical  wilderness may seem a long way away – but there is more to wilderness than geography. Even with this wonderful prospect of effective vaccines, for which let us give heartfelt thanks this morning – even with this new hope, I think many people, looking back over the past year and forward into the coming months, see wilderness. At least they see some of its starker ingredients: isolation, hunger, insecurity.  For many people, particularly elderly people separated from their loved ones and often unable to understand why, there has been isolation of a kind they’ve never previously experienced. For many people – tens of thousands in the past week, and there will be more – there is terrifying insecurity, even when they have worked hard for decades to build up a business, or to make someone else’s business, for a while,  a multi-million-pound success.   For many people, if they are parents, there is real hunger, because the food that comes into the home has to go to the children. A friend of mine in East Anglia tells me that her local Salvation Army organises food parcels for families in need. Last year they gave out 3000 parcels during the whole winter. This year they have already given out 8000.

People whose experience of the wilderness is as immediate as that wouldn’t be at all inclined to thank me if I started preaching to them about new beginnings. Earlier this week I was listening to two clergymen in Burnley who were literally crying as they tried to feed and comfort the people in their town who are poor and hungry and desperate. So where do I go from here? Probably the person who needs preaching to is me – and by me, I mean also all those of us who are fortunate enough to have had not too bad a wilderness year – sometimes isolated, sometimes frustrated or disappointed,  but not poor, not hungry, not insecure, not lonely; vulnerable perhaps, but not ill.  New beginnings have to take place somewhere. Is it in our wilderness that a new beginning might need to take place? And might that make a difference – perhaps the beginning of a new beginning – for someone who is in a worse wilderness now?

A poor woman on the video-clip I’ve just mentioned, who, as well as her other troubles,  hadn’t had the hospital checks she should have had, was saying, “I feel angry because people aren’t listening.”  What is it like to be not very articulate, not very educated, and poor, and to try to get someone to listen to you? What must it be like to have to spend all your time trying, not very successfully, to get people to listen? 

Well,  the prophet Hosea makes it clear – and he’s not the only one – that the wilderness – our wilderness anyway – ought to be a place of listening. “I will speak to her heart.” We have some listening to do. Elizabeth was encouraging us last Sunday to make a renewed effort to read holy Scripture, and that is one of the best opportunities we have for listening to God.  And if we pay attention this week to the prophets, we shall, thank God, hear the message that God will comfort his people – but alongside it, we shall hear a message that is not at all comfortable. One of the main messages of the prophets is that neglect of God and neglect of the poor generally go together, and both need to be put right if there is to be a new beginning in the relationship between God and his people. “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in.  And he looked… for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” Perhaps my present very limited experience of the wilderness is an opportunity to listen, to begin to listen more carefully – to hear God, and also to hear what God hears.

And:  to do something about it. Speaking of John the Baptist, our Lord once asked the people, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” And part of his point has to be that the wilderness isn’t in fact a place for spectators. We’re told that when they heard John, even the Roman soldiers were asking “What shall we do?” The wilderness has to be a place where we engage. If there is a new beginning in the wilderness, it has to produce fruit –  what John himself calls fruits worthy of repentance. 

When we listen to people who are experiencing a wilderness so much worse than our own, it’s easy to despair, because there are so many of them. The devil just loves despair, and this must be one of his favourite kinds. Of course I can’t help everybody – but that doesn’t mean that I can’t help anybody. If I can’t do anything heroic, that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything at all. If we can go shopping, we can find a present for someone at Priority House or some tins for the food bank. If we can get to a postbox, we can send a card to a care home. If we can’t go out, there’s a new button on the church website – we can click on that to send money to support local families in need. That’s immediate, and local, and a way of saying to someone, Yes, I’m listening. But the quality of light in the wilderness ought to make us see further: to have a range of vision that’s national and global. At this time of year, all sorts of information about people in need, many of them abroad,  pours into our letterboxes. We can’t respond to them all – but let’s not despair and bin them all either.  

Furthermore – here I know I’m speaking to myself – since times are going to be hard, and the only direction taxes can go is up, one of my new year resolutions will have to be: As long as those who spend my taxes are properly held to account, I will pay my taxes cheerfully. 

This week, as we catch our first glimpse of John the Baptist,  a prophet and more than a prophet,  we are invited to thank God for what he spoke from of old by the mouth of his holy prophets.  John was in prison, or perhaps dead, by the time our Lord told the story of the rich man and the beggar called Lazarus, but that was John’s kind of story. You’ll remember that the rich man, who has, for his entire life,  ignored the beggar outside his gate, realises painfully, after death, where he went wrong, and wants his five brothers warned so that they can repent in time. Could Abraham send Lazarus back from his place among the blessed dead to tell them to repent? Abraham’s reply is: “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they won’t be persuaded, even if someone rises from the dead.” Moses and the prophets, voices from the wilderness, an opportunity for a new beginning that could get away….. We have been warned.

Sermon preached on Second Sunday before Advent

Matthew 25: 14-30

I’ve a feeling that those of you who are still at school sometimes have a secret wish – to be a fly on the wall in the staff-room and hear what the teachers are saying among themselves about you and your friends. Well, I’m going to to let you into a secret – here’s one thing they’re almost certainly saying about you or someone you know. They’re saying,

“If  Ermintrude put as much effort into doing her homework as she puts into making excuses for not doing it,  Ermintrude would be doing brilliantly.”

Why do they get so fed up with Ermintrude? You might think it’s because all their lovely history or geography has been going to waste. But really, it’s not that. It’s Ermintrude’s time and Ermintrude’s opportunities that are going to waste. She could be achieving progress, and all she’s achieving is excuses – which may not even be truthful, and which will certainly get her nowhere. And the answer is not to stand over Ermintrude until the homework is done, still less to do it for her: doing the homework and handing it in on time is all part of growing up.

But alas, grown-ups, too, can sometimes sound just as pathetic as Ermintrude when they, too, start falling back on excuses. The Bible is full of grown-ups like that – but let’s just listen for a moment to the very first example – Adam, saying to God, “I heard the sound of you walking in the garden , and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”  Not “I have just done exactly what you told me not to do, it was my fault, and I’m sorry.” If Adam had managed to say that, perhaps we can imagine a different end for the story even at that late stage.  But the fear and the concealment are tell-tale signs that the relationship between Adam and his creator has already gone badly wrong. Adam may or may not have been afraid of being found naked; what really frightened him was the prospect of being found, and found out.

Fear and concealment are tell-tale signs of a relationship going wrong: so now listen to the excuses of the useless servant in our Lord’s story from today’s Gospel reading. “I knew you were a harsh man… so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” Is there a relationship here at all? In what sense was there ever one? It may be hard for us to picture what the master had entrusted to that servant, but it’s suggested that in those days one talent in silver would probably have paid a working man’s wages for rather more than 16 years – some experts say 20. Dumping it on the counter at the bank would have taken far less effort than digging that hole. So think of the amazing wealth the master entrusted to all three of these servants – by his standards, as he said, it was something little, but with far greater things to come if they proved trustworthy.  And think, therefore, of the huge gesture of trust the master was making, and of his joyjoy which he shares with his servants, when that trust is shown not to be misplaced. 

Now this story does tend to get an outing at parish stewardship campaigns and school prizegivings, and I’m not saying that that’s wrong – but in those contexts there’s a temptation to focus on the economics, the fact that the successful servants doubled their master’s money, as successful fund-raisers and successful exam candidates often do, either literally or metaphorically. But there’s more to this story than economics. The master is trusting to the point of rashness, but the good servants clearly also trust him to appreciate their efforts to put those huge sums of money to effective use. I’m tempted to think that somewhere on the estate there was another servant who was also entrusted with a fortune, tried hard, and wasn’t so successful – but the master didn’t complain about that, and he too was appreciated.  It’s the useless servant who thinks – or says he thinks – that the master is a grasping tyrant whose only concern is how much money he can make.  And the master points out that the servant’s own behaviour shows that his excuse is not just a pathetic excuse, but a lie. “You knew I was a grasping tyrant, did you? Then why didn’t you open a deposit account?” There’s a footnote here: twisted ideas about God can produce twisted behaviour, and twisted behaviour can produce twisted ideas about God, in a chicken-and-egg kind of way. And what this story is about is of course, among other things, how we should see God and the relationship he wants to have with us – the way in which God invites us into co-operation with him by trusting us – quite rashly – with gifts that are far more precious than money, though they don’t exclude money: The created world for a start, and in addition our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all, his inestimable love in the redemption of the world, the means of grace, and the hope of glory. None of these riches of nature and grace is ours absolutely; it comes from him, and one day – our other two readings this morning, and the approaching season of Advent, ought to remind us of this – one day we shall have to explain to him what we did with it all. 

God invites every one of us into a relationship of co-operation with him, for the good of the church our Lord came to build, and, looking outward, for the good of the world. I wonder what the useless servant said to himself when the master gave him that talent?  Perhaps it started with “Why me? I’m no good at business – and those other servants have got a head start anyway.” And a bit later “Well, if I just keep a low profile and let the others get on with it…” And later “Nasty old skinflint, what does he expect? It wasn’t fair to make demands on me like that!”  and later still “If I put it out of sight, perhaps I can forget all about it, and with luck, so might he.”  No prospect of joy anywhere there. The relationship was steadily destroyed – by something that started off by masquerading as humility, and then went on through laziness, self-righteousness, furtiveness, potential dishonesty – to telling his master a barefaced lie and disappearing into the dark. That’s how the habit of mind that resorts to excuses can end up. If we find ourselves with an opportunity to serve the church or the world, false modesty can be a very false friend indeed, to ourselves as well as to those we should be serving – because we really don’t know what God will give us the ability to do until we have a go. Having a go doesn’t come with a guarantee of instant success – but if God trusts us, we can trust Him. God is faithful.

To finish on a personal note. In one of the places where I worked, I was once in a position where I had to stand up against a very unjust misuse of power. There were a couple of very unhappy and at times rather frightening years, when, despite the help of our union, my colleagues and I seemed to be experiencing only defeat, though it didn’t end like that. The wise priest to whom I could talk about it all while it was going on said one thing to me which I’ve never forgotten, of which I still regularly remind myself in happier times, and which might have shown the useless servant the proper response to his master’s trust and the proper thing to do with the talent he was given. The wise priest said:

“God does not require you to succeed.  He does require you to try.”

Sermon for Trinity 18

Service of the Word; Matthew 22:1-14

An old friend of mine was invited to a royal occasion several years ago – and though I haven’t visited her lately, I think the invitation is still on her mantelpiece. You might wonder if that’s because she wants to show off. I’m sure it isn’t – it’s a reminder for her of one of the big occasions of her life, and it shows how honoured she felt by the invitation and how much she appreciated it. 

Our readings today, and particularly today’s Gospel, all point towards what is in fact a royal invitation. God requests the pleasure of His people’s company. And He means that. Our company, if he can have it, is a pleasure to Him. Sometimes we may ask ourselves why – but there it is. We aren’t talking about a jaded West End hostess working through her address book – we are talking about the most gracious royal host  we can imagine, who seeks our friendship

Christopher Robin watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and asked: “Do you think the King knows all about me?” 

Well, in this case, this King does know all about me – and He still wants to be my friend, and He wants my company. Hence the invitation.

Our Lord’s story today, as Matthew presents it, is really two stories. It’s fair to say that our Lord might not even have told them on the same occasion – St Luke includes the first but not the second, but for St Matthew they belong together. And, in combination, they can make a modern hearer do a double-take. I can remember being quite upset by today’s Gospel when I first heard it in my schooldays. We finish up with a poor man who has apparently been scooped up off the street and deposited in the middle of a royal banquet, who then gets thrown out because he isn’t wearing the right clothes. Well, any fairly bolshy schoolgirl will say that that isn’t fair. 

I think it helps if we take the two stories in turn, and – important – put them together and ask ourselves how they applied to St Matthew’s audience, and how they can apply to us.

First of all, the story about the royal invitations, sent out by royal messenger.  St Matthew has this coming immediately after the story about the landowner and his vineyard, and he evidently sees those stories as parallels: in the vineyard story the landowner sends out messengers to ask for something (the landlord’s share of the produce) while in this story the king sends out messengers with invitations to something – a royal wedding celebration. But in both stories the messengers are greeted, not with a welcome; not even with a perfunctory “Oh, all right”; but with utter contempt, and, then, with violence. These stories are being told in Jerusalem, and Matthew links them with a comment that the religious establishment figures in that Jerusalem audience knew that what the Lord was saying was about them. God has called His chosen people into a relationship with Him; He expects, from them,  respect for Him, and justice in their dealings with one another; He has prepared a feast of rich food and wants to share it with them. He sends messengers to carry the reminders and the invitations, and His messengers get attacked – they don’t even have the guarantee of safety that a messenger has by age-old convention.  We might think, as our Lord surely did, of John the Baptist – but also, further back, of Elijah fleeing for his life, or Jeremiah thrown into an underground cistern, or Amos, told to take his prophecies elsewhere before something nasty happened to him. They were all attacked by people who had political or religious power, and who misused it; and our Lord here makes it clear that you can’t go on treating the messengers, and their message, like that for ever. To insult the messenger, or worse, is to insult the one who sent him. If you go on doing that, you can find yourself running out of chances, and someone else (possibly someone you would want nothing to do with) will be given the chance you threw away. Now it looks as if St Matthew, writing after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus in 70 AD, interprets that warning in the light of history – as far as he’s concerned, the burning and pillaging of the temple, and the massacres and atrocities that went with it, were divine retribution, and that’s why, in Matthew’s report of the parable, there seems to be a military expedition just as the banquet is coming to the table. But it’s the punchline of the story that matters, and St Luke agrees about that – that the original guests proved not to be worthy, and they are now going to be replaced by a motley crew, both bad and good,  who will be quite astonished to find themselves invited. Matthew and his original audience had, between them, plenty of Jewish background – but they would have got the point: if the Jewish establishment of Our Lord’s time had thrown away their chance, there was room at the table, now, for Jewish people who perhaps didn’t tick all the boxes, and for people who weren’t Jewish at all – a feast of rich food for all peoples, in fact, as Isaiah had suggested there would be.

So much for the messages of invitation. What about the wedding garment? Again, this is about respect for a gracious host. When the Queen gives a garden party these days, she invites all sorts of people who are not millionaires, and she doesn’t expect them to dress like millionaires; the invitation just comes with a line or two of guidance about what you should wear – a suit for the men, a smart summer dress for the women. In other words, take a little bit of trouble. And why wouldn’t we?

Move the scene to a very opulent oriental court in the ancient world, where a royal wedding celebration would go on for a week or more, and things become much more elaborate.  The king’s domestic staff will of course greet you on arrival, and wash your feet, and anoint you with perfumed oil, because that’s just common politeness to any dinner guest anywhere – but if you’ve had a difficult journey to come to this royal wedding, and most journeys were difficult,  the king’s servants will surely invite you to have a bath and change your clothes before you join the company. And if your clothes are travel-stained and your luggage still on its way – or if the king wants to give you a particular welcome – the servants will offer you, from the palace wardrobes,  a fresh robe to put on when you’ve had your bath. So, do you then say to the servants, “I thought this was a come-as-you-are party. Keep your robe, you’re lucky to see me here at all.”? Well, in our Lord’s story, when the King went to mingle with his guests in person, he found a guest who, from the look of him,  had quite clearly said just that. And when the King addressed him as “Friend”, he had nothing to say – because, although he was there in the building, he wasn’t there as a friend. He was, as we would say, just there for the beer, and although he was in someone else’s house, he was going to conduct himself exactly as he liked. The king wanted his company, but he didn’t want the king’s company. And once that was clear to all concerned – well, I’m surprised if he waited to be thrown out. In that moment he had come face to face with the king, and seeing the look on the king’s face, he simply vanished into the dark.

For St Matthew’s original audience, there would have been a double message here. First:  a message of encouragement, suggesting that God welcomed them to His table, whatever their origins or their past record, and had more pleasure in them than in those who, within living memory, had treated His messenger and His Son with contempt instead of accepting his invitation. They were invited to come “Just as I am….”, and they did.  But the second message is a message of warning: Don’t presume on God’s welcome to the point of forgetting your manners. If you do, you yourself will be treating your royal host with contempt. When you arrived, you were invited to take off your tired clothes, to have a bath, and to put on new ones – in other words, as St Paul explains it, to put off your old self, be renewed and put on your new self, put on Christ. Indeed, in the early centuries of the Church, and often today where  people are baptised as grown-ups, baptisms would be done just like that. You took off your own clothes, you went down into the water, and when you came up out of the water, there was – a white robe waiting for you to put it on. That was part of the sacramental sign of the fresh start God was giving you. You came just as you were, but you came in repentance, seeking renewal. So: you should be behaving like someone who has had a fresh start.

So what about us? I’d suggest that, for us, there might be an element of warning in both parts of the story. First, perhaps we aren’t given to treating the messengers, or the invitation, with active contempt – but are we… inclined to take God’s invitations for granted? Indeed, do we always recognise them when they come, or appreciate them for the privileges they are? Yes, a royal invitation might indeed involve rearranging one’s timetable or one’s diary – oh, dear, Sunday Mass is at 10.30 and the PCC meets 6 times a year on Wednesdays. Some royal occasions are thrilling, others generally aren’t, and the King probably finds that as well. But He is faithful, and he invites us to be faithful. When he says, “Do this”, he isn’t saying “Come along now and then, if you happen to feel like it”. He’s saying, “I am completely committed to being there, always,  because your friendship matters so much to Me. So what about you?” 

And second: are we, as well, inclined to take for granted that fresh robe – the opportunities God gives us for renewal? For most of us, our baptism was a long time ago – when did we last stop and thank God for it? And in addition, we may then realise that our baptismal robe is a bit travel-stained these days – but God is always waiting for us, waiting with a fresh robe, just as the father did for the prodigal son, when we come to ourselves and turn towards home. That’s what sacramental Confession is there for – and it isn’t just for distinguished sinners or distinguished saints; it’s there for ordinary, common-or-garden Christians who find it a source of refreshment and renewal, and choose it as a concrete way of making a fresh start – perhaps before a new stage in their lives, perhaps as a special preparation just before Easter or another festival, perhaps as a way of kick-starting their Christian lives when they feel they’re getting bogged down, perhaps as part of their ordinary rule of life. It’s a sacrament that tends to be under-recognised and under-used in the Church of England, and it shouldn’t be; having it available, and keeping it available, is one of the things a church like St Michael’s stands for. We, of all people in Maidstone, shouldn’t take that for granted.

Today – a day when we are without a priest and can’t therefore celebrate the holy Eucharist – is an opportunity to stand back and appreciate that royal invitation that comes to us, in the ordinary way, Sunday after Sunday. Let us never be tempted to take God’s invitations, or God’s opportunities for refreshment and renewal,  for granted.

O may Thy table honoured be,
And furnished well with joyful guests;
And may each soul salvation see
That here its sacred pledges tastes.  Amen.

Sermon preached at Harvest Thanksgiving

What have I got here? [melon]

And when I cut it open, what’s inside? [seeds]

And if I planted them all and looked after them, what would I get?

Of course not all fruits are as full of seeds as melons are, but when I went to the supermarket I chose a melon because it reminded me of something that happened when I was very young. 

When I was about 6, outside our back door in Australia, growing between 2 flagstones, there appeared a melon plant. It just appeared – presumably the seed had been dropped there by a bird – and as my parents were not the sort of people who want the paths tidy and go mad with the weedkiller, it went on to flower, and then it produced a beautiful arrangement of 5 melons on the edge of the path – 4 small ones, and a big one sitting in the middle. My mother found homes for the small ones, and she turned the big one into a huge batch of melon jam. But as we look at this melon, with its hundreds of seeds packed into it so beautifully, let’s stop and think of what this melon, and the melon plant of my childhood,  can have to say to us about the massive, reckless generosity God has built into the natural world, and the astonishing results that can come from one single seed, even just a stray one. Harvest time is a good time to stop in our tracks and appreciate what God has given us – not just to eat, but to enjoy and to admire. 

Particularly because we live in one of the world’s rich countries, we can be tempted to take His gifts for granted. At best, that’s disrespectful; at worst, it’s a very destructive mistake. It’s the mistake the Israelites were warned about in our first reading; when they have come through the wilderness and arrived amid the riches of the promised land, it will be all too easy for them to start congratulating themselves and forgetting God. Our reader this morning was reading a modern translation that says, “Take care” – but the old King James version says, “Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God,” and that, I think, does better justice to the warning that comes with discovering that you are rich.  It’s a warning that was part of a familiar syndrome for Old Testament writers with eyes to see: the author of Proverbs prays to God not to let him be too poor, because he might then be tempted to steal, but not to let him be too rich either, because he might then be tempted to say, “Who is God?”

And if we have eyes to see, the kind of disregard of God that these writers are talking about is something that we can nearly always find lurking in human societies, and in ourselves too. I’m not going to generalise, because I’ve known some admirable people who were totally godless but also humble and appreciative – but when we talk about humanity being fallen, one of the things we mean is that human beings can find it quite natural not even to stop at ignoring God, but –  to move on from there to imagining that they can be God instead. And when that happens, we can expect damage to the created world as well as damage to human beings themselves. The created world, as Pope Francis points out, becomes one of the exploited poor. If we look at the story of the Fall in Genesis,  it’s right there; human beings try to bypass their Creator and be as gods, and they try to go behind His back to exploit that rich, beautiful garden He has planted – to exploit it, not to glorify Him, not even for their food, but to glorify themselves. When St Paul writes to the Romans about how the creation, or our corner of it, has been doomed to futility, not through its own fault but through ours, and how it longs for the time when the work of redemption is complete and human beings are manifested as what God intended them to be – that’s what he’s writing about. And it goes on happening. 

So let’s listen to the words of the rich hero – or anti-hero – of our Lord’s story in today’s Gospel. “What shall I do?”

It’s a question we’ve all asked – asked ourselves or asked somebody else.  It’s the question people ask when they’re in a quandary, or even more when they’re in a crisis and getting desperate. Those of us who read Pilgrim’s Progress in our youth will remember the picture John Bunyan paints, right at the beginning, of the man clothed with rags, with a great burden on his back, breaking out with a lamentable cry, “What shall I do?” The unjust steward asks that question when he’s in a financial crisis; St Paul asks it when he’s in a spiritual crisis on the Damascus road; Pontius Pilate asks it in what he sees as a potential political crisis – “What shall I do with Jesus?” – and this last example (what, indeed, do we all do with Him, time after time?) shows how serious the results can be if we get the answer wrong. So what sort of crisis is this rich man in with his bumper harvest? One commentator whose work I was looking at during the week hit the nail on the head: this rich man is in a crisis of greed. And the way he answers his own question (much too quickly, probably) tells us a lot about him, and does have serious results. His answer is that once he has pulled down all his barns and built bigger ones, he is going to say – and to whom is he going to say it? To himself, of course – “I will say to my soul” – he is going to say, to himself,  “Well done, Me! Me will never have to do a day’s work again! Life for Me from now on will just be one long party. Have a good time, Me!” Our Lord, who enjoyed parties Himself and wasn’t keen on people calling each other fools, gives us God’s comment on this torrent of smug, self-centred nonsense. God’s answer to nonsense is: “You fool!” We remember that the rich man was talking not to God but to himself, and things might have been better if God had been included in the conversation from the start – it’s even possible that the rich man is still so busy rabbiting on about himself that God’s voice is being completely drowned out – but it’s too late now even to say, “Beware!” What God now says is: “This very night, your Me is going to meet My Me – and what is your Me going to amount to, except that pile of grain that you will leave for your relatives to squabble over while it probably goes to rot?” This is not a story that ends happily; in fact, it’s literally a dead end – a classic example of the futility that human beings can inflict on themselves and on God’s life-giving, generous creation. 

What shall I do? Our Lord’s audience are left to suggest the sensible answer to that question for themselves, and the answer isn’t rocket science. You might very well say that any fool could answer the question asked by this particular fool in his crisis of greed. Well, for a start, Be thankful. Be very thankful. Do not forget God – remember your Creator, and recognise His generosity. And then? Certainly fill at least one of your barns, depending on their size; you need seed corn, and anyway the harvest next year might not be so good. And then? What about the men and women who have helped you work your land and get this harvest in? Remember them, and show, in a generous way,  your appreciation for their hard work. And then? By all means have a party – but take the Lord’s advice and think of inviting some of the waifs and strays who can’t invite you back.  

What shall I do? We are now living in a world in which all nations, rich and poor, are running into terrifying amounts of debt, and in which we are all going to have to face the fact that every one of us individually is now going to be poorer, very probably for the rest of our lives. Does that mean that the answer to the rich fool’s question is going to be different? I don’t believe it does. Applying it on a national or international scale, rather than on a single farm, will be a challenge, but the principle remains the same. Some individuals, some industries, some nations, are better placed to ride out this pandemic and its consequences than others. What shall they do? Be thankful, be very thankful, and then……??

When we look at my melon and its seeds, it’s easy to be reminded of nature’s power to transform – each little seed able to germinate, and grow into a plant, and flower, and produce new fruit. But, on this day of thanksgiving, let’s remember that there is also a power of thanksgiving to transform. Thanksgiving blesses. Think of the contrast between, on the one hand, the dead fool and his pile of rotting grain, and, on the other hand, five thousand men (plus uncounted women and children) being fed with five loaves and a couple of fish. What makes the difference?  Our Lord took a boy’s picnic lunch into his hands, looked up to heaven, gave thanks, and shared it out. That’s what thanksgiving looks like. A priest whom I heard preach on that miracle in France suggested that, as at a French level crossing a sign reminds the motorist that one train can conceal another, so one miracle can conceal another; the boy’s picnic was transformed, but so, probably, were the hearts of a lot of people who had their own private picnic tucked away somewhere, and beheld our Lord’s act of thanksgiving, and realised that this was their moment to be generous – and hence the enormous volume of left-overs. Thanksgiving blesses, because it brings us into contact with God, who is able to do abundantly more than we can ask or think.  Incidentally, thanksgiving sometimes has the power to transform into blessings all sorts of things, and relationships, that look very unpromising – to move us on to a blessing from what might have been a dead end. Next time somebody really gets on your nerves, try identifying the good things about that person and thanking God for them – the results are sometimes quite surprising!

This morning, in our day of thanksgiving, we share in the Holy Eucharist – the great Thanksgiving. We can be present physically, or join in spiritually, as the priest, here at this altar, does as our Lord did on the night before he suffered. He takes bread, which earth has given and human hands have made, he looks up to heaven, he gives thanks, he breaks it and shares it out – and in this thanksgiving a transformation takes place, because the bread becomes for us the Body of Christ – given for us, and to us. Not only that: here at this altar the Lord of the feast invites us to let him bless us, and transform us in our turn into what we say we are: the Body of Christ. And it will be a sign and a measure of that transformation if we go out from this altar still remembering Him, and giving thanks, and being generous. Thanks be to God for his gift beyond words.

A Message from the PCC Secretary

Dear St Michael’s Friends,

None of this is urgent right now, but some of it will shortly become so, and so I hope you will bear with me.

As you know, the Annual Parochial Meeting and Annual Parochial Church Meeting are due to take place in church after Mass on Sunday 25th October. Social distancing in church is not a problem, and unless there is  drastic tightening of the regulations we should be able to meet as arranged.

This in turn means that The Electoral Roll has to be revised. Tim Samuelson, our Electoral Roll Officer, will be keen to hear from anyone who has not previously been on the Roll and would now like to be included. To be eligible, you have to live in the parish or, if you live outside the parish, you need to have worshipped at St Michael’s (online will do!) over the last 6 months. You can collect an enrolment form from church, or download and print one from: www.parishresources.org.uk. Please return it to Tim by 11th October at the latest.

All Electoral Roll members, including new ones, are eligible to vote at the Annual Meetings to elect the Churchwardens and Parochial Church Council members. They are also all eligible to stand for election as Churchwardens and as PCC members. Could you ask yourself whether God might be calling you to offer your time and your thinking to serve St Michael’s in one of these roles? If you would like to stand for election, you need a proposer and a seconder and the appropriate form – obtainable from church or from the website mentioned above. Please return your form to Fr Neil or to me by 24th October.

Then, there’s Harvest. We are celebrating this on Sunday 4th October. We can’t, this year, look forward to presentations by our uniformed organisations, as they are unable to meet at present – but we do want to be able to send tins, packets and fresh produce to the Food Bank. Bring them to church on the 4th, or I shall be in church on Saturday 3rd between 9 am and 12 noon if anyone would like to deliver, or to do a little socially distanced decorating, then. If you can put your gift in a box or basket you don’t need, that will mean less handling. If you are unable to come to church, Maidstone Homeless Care at 15 Knightrider Street will be most grateful for any gifts of food or money. As the furlough scheme comes to an end and unemployment rises, people who have never used a food bank in their lives will be needing one before long.

There is no Mass on 11th October but there will be a Service of the Word at 10.30 am that day. Do come to church as usual if you can! And the service will be live-streamed as well.Any last-minute responses to Bishop Rose’s Three Questions need to reach me by tomorrow, when I shall try to draw together what our parish is saying in reply. If you haven’t got round to it, it isn’t (quite) too late – but please let me have your thoughts quickly!

Finally, I’m sure you will all want to join me in thanking Heidi for organising such a lively and enjoyable Heritage Open Day, and Tim for visiting 26 churches in an arduous Ride-and-Stride. More about this in the forthcoming October Magazine, but it doesn’t feel right to stop tonight without thanking everyone who helped to make the day such a success, under far from ideal conditions.

With warmest good wishes,
Eleanor.

If anyone will come after me, …..

Matthew 16.21-28.

All of us who love this church building – and, much, much more important, love what happens in it – appreciate how much we owe to its major benefactor, Frederick William Scudamore. It’s been my privilege this year, when I could, to visit the diary left by his wife Frances, now in the county archives, and to appreciate how much we also owe to her – a determined, committed Christian woman, who, like Frederick,  had the courage of her convictions about the rediscovery and reaffirmation of the Catholic heritage of the Church of England, at a time when that meant being part of a movement that wasn’t universally popular, especially perhaps in these parts.

Early in Lent 1875, the year in which the foundation stone of this building was laid, Frances Scudamore mentions reading a sermon entitled “Christianity without the Cross is a Corruption of the Gospel of Christ”. She read that sermon less than a month after it was preached, in Oxford, by Dr Pusey, one of the pioneers of that same movement, and that makes me suspect, though I can’t prove it, that Dr Pusey himself had sent Frances or Frederick one of the first printed copies. 

Pusey’s sermon was written for Septuagesima Sunday, and it sets out to encourage his undergraduate congregation in personal self-denial during Lent. He includes some uncomfortable words for these young men in comfortable circumstances – remember, Oxford undergraduates in those days were generally rich – about how they might feel, on the day of judgment, when they found that when they saw the Lord hungry or unclothed they had…. directed Him on to the workhouse. No doubt Frances, reading that sermon on a Sunday in Lent, also took it as a reminder about personal self-denial.  But perhaps what Dr Pusey was saying about the centrality of the Cross carried an additional message for the Scudamores – a message of challenge and encouragement on a larger scale. The part they played in bringing this church into being was costly to them in time, energy and money. They were well-to-do, but not among the very richest people in Maidstone. They were highly respected, but Frederick and his relatives were self-made professional men, in a category where you can lose respect (and clients) as well as gain it. Their physical circumstances were comfortable, but it’s clear from the diary that Frederick often worked punishingly long hours, and in the spring of 1875, when this church was at the planning stage,  he was absolutely drained by a serious illness that kept him away from work for weeks.  And both the Scudamores were quite intelligent enough to see that the St Michael’s project would involve continuing uncertainty and possible disappointment, and risk, not only to their popularity but to their credibility and that of the Church. It was a project that they managed to see through to a satisfactory conclusion, as we know, and it’s clear from what Frances writes in her diary that she at least never lost her sense of humour – but when they took up St Michael’s, ready to spend and be spent for it, it would be fair to say that they took up a cross with it. They took it up for love of their crucified Lord and the Church for which He died – which means, also, that they took it up for us. 

Was that cross something they chose? Yes and no; in a very real sense, the choice involved was simply the choice of saying yes, or saying no, to what they believed God was calling them to do. And what God was calling them to do was costly, but not nearly as costly as many of the callings lived out by countless Christians of all kinds during the last 2000 years. We have only to glance at the church calendar – St Bartholomew and St John the Baptist in the last week – to be reminded of just a few of those who took up their cross and went on to drink of the cup He drank of.  I know there are people who go through life looking for ways to avoid suffering or insure themselves against it – and our Lord’s words to St Peter in today’s Gospel make it clear that if, like St Peter, we recognise our Lord for who He is, we should see, as St Peter doesn’t at that moment,  that it is pointless and damaging to put the avoidance of suffering at the top of one’s list. Our Lord didn’t do that, and if we want to stay in His company, we had better not try to do it either. On the other hand, there are some people who seem to go through life looking for ways to invite suffering, rejection, persecution, illness or whatever, and I’ve a feeling that they may have been commoner in the Victorian age than they are now – and that, too, is pointless and damaging. Because: denying yourself comes first, and denying yourself has to rule out any attempt to pick your own cross. If we think of the doctors and nurses (not all of them Christians) who have died this year from Covid 19 by just following their profession, living out their calling,  in this country and abroad, they provide a classic example of that kind of self-denial; as one nurse commented a few months ago, very simply and directly, “It’s what we do”. 

God blessed the Scudamores with each other, and with their family and friends. Things don’t always work out like that. In this morning’s reading from Jeremiah, and certainly in the accounts of our Lord’s passion, it’s clear that the experience of taking up a cross and carrying it can involve isolation, and that suffering itself does often isolate people still further, even totally. That’s one quarrel I have with some of the Bible translations that we use these days; the translators are so keen to choose inclusive language that they put everything into the plural – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross…” and that sounds quite sociable and chummy. But what our Lord actually says is, “If anyone – any individual person – will come after me, let that person deny himself or herself, and take up his or her  cross….” There is every possibility that the individual cross that any individual Christian is called to carry will be known completely only to that individual Christian and to God. As Jeremiah says, “Lord, you know….” Being isolated and, often, misunderstood may well be part of the total experience. And if we allow our Bible translators to conceal that fact from us, we have only ourselves to thank if, one day, the sense of being entirely alone with our cross takes us by surprise. But, even if it does, the fact still remains that however completely alone we may feel, God does know.

I’m going to say something now which may be unhelpful and may well also be presumptuous. If it’s just unhelpful and presumptuous please forgive me and try to forget I’ve said it.  So far I’ve been talking about the kind of cross that people can and do take up as part of a Yes to God. Those crosses are serious, and real, and they matter, and when they are faithfully carried, other people benefit and sometimes, not always, it can become wonderfully clear that there has been a purpose in it. But there are crosses that, as far as we can see, come under another heading, and those can be the most isolating of the lot, especially as very often they don’t seem to have any purpose. People – often people we know, but also literally millions of people we don’t know – have the most appalling things laid upon them as a result, sometimes, of choices made by other people before they were born, things that happen as a result of outside circumstances or other people’s wicked choices  during their lives, sometimes things that never involved any choice by anybody. And if we believe in God, we say, “My God, my God, Why…? And if we are Christians, we realise that we are not the first people to ask that question. Our Lord, alone in His agony, on His Cross, asks that same question. He too isn’t the first to ask it; that question was part of the tradition of prayer that He inherited, and He made it His own. He made it his own at a point at which it seemed, in His own experience, that God was absent, or that God didn’t, after all, care. And for the time being – how long was it? How long did it feel? -, there was no answer. Just silence. That question, and that silence,  was the experience of the One in whom the fulness of the Godhead dwelt bodily. 

I find that that silence moves me to silence too. In a couple of weeks, on Holy Cross Day, there will be aspects of the Cross that move us to triumph and to thanksgiving. Of course. But for today, for a moment, for now, as the Lord sweeps Peter aside and sets His face like a flint, I think we should stay with that aspect of the Cross that moves us to silence. In His Cross He wills, by his own choice,  to unite himself with, take on himself and experience the burden, of all those,  whose suffering makes both them and ourselves ask, “My God, my God, why…..?”  Now from time to time, when people know that we are Christians, they will ask us: either, “What’s so special about Christianity anyway?” or “Look at this world, look at this horrible mess. I thought you lot believed in a god of love?” And for me the answer to both questions is the same: “I believe in, and I worship, a God Who has been crucified.  And I think I’d find it impossible to worship a god who hadn’t.”

Church Open for Private Prayer

Just to let you know that, although we have not yet arrived at the point where we can once more offer public worship in church, the church will be open for prayer on Tuesday 30 June from 2pm until 4pm. A chance for prayer and reflection, a chance to visit the Blessed Sacrament, and we shall be able to enjoy hearing Gareth doing some organ practice as well.

If you can come and join us, please do. Please remember:

  • Observe social distancing
  • Bring (and wear) a face covering
  • Use hand sanitiser (provided  in the porch) on entering and leaving.

For reasons of hygiene we are not able to provide books or prayer sheets – please bring with you, and take away with you, whatever you would find helpful (thanks to Mark and Fr Neil, there is good material on the church website).