St Helen’s Church

18th February 2024. 1st Sunday in Lent.

Prayer for today:

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted 40 days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: grant us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through Jesus Christ your son our Lord. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Maureen Stevens, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those whose year’s mind is about this time we remember Nancy Robson, Emily Herold, Alistair Robson, Sheila Robson, Marjorie Roddam and Derek White.

Lent studies continue on Thursday at the home of Barbara Parker, from 2.30 to 3.30 p.m.. All are welcome. The material to accompany the course is being emailed along with these notes.

Readings:

Genesis 9: 8-17

God said to Noah and his sons, ‘I am establishing a covenant with you and your descendants, and with every living creature that is with you, as many as came out of the ark: never again will all flesh be cut off by the flood waters, never again will a flood destroy the earth.’

And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I make with you and with all living creatures, for all generations to come; I have set my bow in the clouds, a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds I will remember my covenant, and waters will never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.’ And God said to Noah,  ‘This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all flesh on earth.’

Verses from Psalm 25

Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.
O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed,
let not mine enemies triumph over me.
Yea, let none that wait on thee be ashamed:
let them be ashamed which transgress without cause.
Shew me thy ways, O Lord; teach me thy paths.
Lead me in thy truth, and teach me:
for thou art the God of my salvation;
on thee do I wait all the day.
Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy loving kindnesses;
for they have been ever of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions:
according to thy mercy remember thou me
for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord.

Good and upright is the Lord:
therefore will he teach sinners in the way.
The meek will he guide in judgment:
and the meek will he teach his way.
10 All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth
unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.

Mark 1: 9-15

Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

As he came out of the water he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. A voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. He was there 40 days, tempted; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited upon him.

After John was arrested Jesus came to Galilee, and proclaimed the good news of God, saying, ‘The time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the good news.’

Thoughts on today’s readings

A few days ago a mother stopped me outside the school. Her daughter had a question and she was looking to me for an answer: ‘Why do we say that God is in our hearts? Why do we say that God is everywhere?’

I spoke of how we believe God made all things; therefore God is involved in all of creation: all things speak to us of God.

But we also think of the heart as the place where love is. Think about your Mum: you love her, and so she is in your heart, she is with you. You love her and you think of her, and so she is always with you. She loves you: she holds you in her heart; you are always with her. And so we are in the heart of God, who made us, who loves us, and if we love God, then God is in our hearts too.

In our readings this morning we have water and a dove, and God who is very present.

The window above the door of our Church speaks to us about our first reading. Here is the water of the flood, which God sent to destroy a disobedient world, but above it in vibrant colours is a bow. The bow which in ancient times was a weapon, a symbol of warfare and death, has been transformed into a sign of God’s promise of peace: never again will God send such destruction. And in our gospel reading it is through water that the Son of God makes his entrance to his ministry: the water through which his sisters and brothers passed as a sign of cleansing and change, of their desire to turn to God, water not of death but of new life.

And over the water a dove, a sign of the Spirit of God. A dove which brought to Noah a sign of life in a branch from a tree, and the promise of peace, the dove which hovered over  creation in the beginning, creating peace and order where there was chaos, the dove which was a sign of what manner of spirit is was that rested upon Jesus.

In our first reading we are told that God spoke to Noah and his sons to establish the covenant of peace of which the bow is a sign.

At the river God speaks to affirm that this is his beloved Son, and now immediately Jesus is sent out for 40 days into the wilderness, as were Moses before him, going to Sinai to receive God’s covenant with Israel, and Elijah going to Mount Horeb, to meet the Lord in person and receive his orders.

Last week in our Gospel reading we herd how Elijah and Moses appeared with Jesus on the mountain where he was transfigured, and here is what these stories are pointing us to: Moses and Elijah looked for the coming of the Kingdom of God, and were glad, for the kingdom of God has come in the person of Jesus, Son of God, son of Mary, son of Man.

The repentance Jesus preached of  can be a sign of sorrow, but it is an expression of hope, and that hope is grounded in love.

The ground of that hope is our faith that God, who is love, made us and that his will is for peace and for life. Because there is love there can be reconciliation, even though sin has brought death and separation, and Jesus Christ is our way through the flood to new life, the beautiful bow of God’s promise, the cross no longer an instrument of terror but the sign of God’s compassion and mercy towards us, God who holds us in his heart and does not turn away from his beloved children.

11th February 2024. Sunday before Lent.

Prayer for today:

Almighty Father, whose son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Maureen Stevens, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those whose year’s mind is about this time we remember John Johnson, Edward Burn, Roy Pierce, Doris Smith, Calum Stobbs, Nancy Robson and Emily Herold.

 

There will be a service in Church at 9.15 on Tuesday to mark Shrove Tuesday and the beginning of Lent.

Lent studies begin on Thursday afternoon at 2.30 at the home of Barbara Parker. We will be following the Gospel according to

St. Mark, using the course prepared by Revd. Chris Simmons.

All are welcome.

 

Readings:

2 Kings 2: 1-12

The Lord was going to take Elijah into heaven as he and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here: the Lord has sent me to Bethel, ‘  but Elisha replied, ‘As the Lord lives, I will not leave you.’ They came to Bethel and prophets came to Elisha and said, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master from you?’ He answered, ‘Yes, I know; be silent.’

Elijah said to him, ’Stay here; the Lord has sent me Jericho,’ but again Elisha would not leave him. They came to Jericho and prophets came to Elisha and said, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master from you,’ and again Elisha replied, ‘Yes I know; be silent.’

Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan,’  but Elisha would not leave him.  They went on until they stood beside the Jordan, and 50 prophets stood at a distance from them.

Elijah rolled up his cloak and struck the water; it parted and they crossed over on dry ground. Elijah said, ‘Tell me what I must do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha replied, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ He replied, ‘You have asked for a hard thing. If you see me when I being taken from you, it will be granted to you; if not, then not.’ As they continued walking and talking, they were separated by a chariot of fire and horses of fire; Elijah ascended into heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha kept watching, crying, ’My Father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’

And when he could see him no longer he took his clothes and tore them in two.

 

Verses from Psalm 50

The mighty God, even the Lord, hath spoken,
and called the earth from the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.
Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence:
a fire shall devour before him,
and it shall be very tempestuous round about him.
He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth,
that he may judge his people.
Gather my saints together unto me;
those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.
And the heavens shall declare his righteousness:
for God is judge himself.

 

 

Mark 2: 2-9

Jesus went up a high mountain, taking only Peter, James and John.

He was transfigured before them: his clothes became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appeared before them, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, ’Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’

He did not know what to say: they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud came a voice, saying, ’This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.’ Suddenly, as they looked round, there was no-one with them, but only Jesus. As they came down the mountain he ordered them to tell no-one what they had seen, until after the son of man had risen from the dead.

Thoughts on today’s readings:

In the Summer of 1988 I was ordained deacon in Newcastle Cathedral. I found it difficult at the time to take in and fully appreciate what was happening, but it was a beautiful day; my family came up, and we went out to the coast afterwards. In the afternoon there was a small party in the flat I had recently moved into on Croydon Road, not far from St. Augustine’s Church on Brighton Grove. As the afternoon wore on my family and my friends left me, and I was by myself in my flat.  As yet I knew hardly anyone in the parish, and I had a sudden sense of being alone. After the highs of the day, there was a sense of flatness. Of course this did not last, and before long I felt very much at home in that parish.

On Friday evening I preached at a special eucharist to mark the retirement of my best man Glyn Evans, at Christ Church North Shields, where he has been vicar for 7 years. We were ordained together, and it seems difficult to accept that his time as a parish priest is now past. It was a fantastic service, reflecting his fantastic ministry: about 300 people were in Church, from all the different periods of his ministry: in parishes, in prison, as a chaplain to the deaf, to businesses and to the police. I didn’t see anyone from Newcastle United though! They were an amazingly diverse congregation, of all ages and backgrounds, and his parish did him proud in celebrating his ministry.

He is a big personality and tomorrow he and Judy his wife jet off to the sun. But I did spare a thought for his team at North Shields: how will they be after the party is over?

There is something overwhelming in the account of the Transfiguration, our gospel reading for today. It is so completely outside daily experience: no wonder Peter did not know what to say!

We are not told how they knew it was Elijah and Moses; presumably no-one was wearing name badges. Was the face of Moses shining, or was he carrying tablets of stone and with those horns coming from his head as depicted by Michaelangelo? Was Elijah wearing a cloak? And why those two?

Is it because Moses made Israel’s first covenant with God on Sinai, as enshrined in the Law, and led the people to the Promised Land?

Is it because Elijah was a mighty prophet, is it because he kept the widow and her son fed through the famine, and restored her son to life when he had died. Is it because he did not see death but instead was taken up to heaven? We are not told. Yet in Peter’s talk of making shelters there is a sense that he thought the glory of that experience would go on, yet suddenly, we are told, it was over.

Jesus alone was with them, and they had to come down the mountain, and follow Jesus to Jerusalem, where a cross awaited.

Likewise there is for me something heart -rending in the account of Elijah being taken up to heaven in the stubborn refusal of Elisha to let go of his beloved master. He knows what the Lord will do yet he will  not let go of Elijah and , to be fair, Elijah does not reject him or drive him away. There is grief in that cry, ‘Father! My Father!’ and anger in the verses that follow, as Elisha cries, ‘Where is the God of Elijah?’

Nevertheless the account tells us that when Elijah was taken up to heaven his cloak fell from him, and was taken up  by Elisha, who struck the river Jordan with it, so that the waters again parted.

From now on he was no longer the apprentice: he was the prophet of Israel; is master had to leave him so that he might receive that double share of his spirit.

That all too short moment in the presence of the glory of  God did not protect Peter from the sense of failure in the face of the cross.

It was all over: he went back to fishing. And yet this was just the start: without the cross and Passion there could be no resurrection, no sending of the Holy Spirit. Far from being abandoned, he was renewed, empowered a leader in that body of Christ whose impact would far outshine the mission of the Son of Man.

In time Peter would follow his Master in glorifying God in his ministry and in  his martyrdom.

Like Peter and his companions, we too cannot see into the future, and  cannot always make sense of what is happening in the present.

Sometimes it is only when we look back that we  can see where we were led, and how God’s grace sustained us.

Last year in Trinidad, in St. Faith’s Church in Rio Claro I saw how people I knew as children have become people of faith, leaders in their Church.   My parents planted seeds during 7 wonderful years, but it was only when they had gone that those seeds could grow up, develop and blossom in new ways, as the Spirit of God has directed.

This morning I am sure there will be sadness at Christ Church as people gather at the Lord’s table without Glyn, but the Lord is there, he is never gone away. He will call those he has chosen and they will grow and their ministry will develop, and the Lord will continue to  lead his people .

4th February 2024. 2nd Sunday before Lent (Sexagesima Sunday)

Prayer for today:

Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your image: each us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in ally our children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Maureen Stevens, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those whose year’s mind is about this time we remember Mary Caird, Elizabeth Dixon, Cyril Sparke, Gillian Nixon and Margaret Ridley Huddleston.

St. Helen’s PCC meets on Wednesday at 7.30 at Fox Cottage by kind invitation of Ms. Ruth Marlee.

Lent studies begin on Thursday 15th February at 2.30 p.m. at High Juniper by kind invitation of Mrs. Barbara Parker. Please speak to me or to Chris Simmons if you wish to take part or to follow the course.

Readings:

Colossians 1: 15-20

Christ is the image of God who is invisible; he is the first born of all creation. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created, both visible and invisible, all thrones and dominions, rulers or powers – all was created through him and for him. He is before all things; in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the Church.

He is the beginning; he is the firstborn from the dead, that he might have the first place in all things. For in him the fullness of  God was pleased to dwell; through him God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, on earth and in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Verses from Psalm 104

O Lord, how manifold are thy works!
in wisdom hast thou made them all:
the earth is full of thy riches.
25 So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable,
both small and great beasts.
26 There go the ships:
there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.
27 These wait all upon thee;
that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.
28 That thou givest them they gather:
thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.
29 Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled:
thou takest away their breath, they die,
and return to their dust.
30 Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created:
and thou renewest the face of the earth.

31 The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever:
the Lord shall rejoice in his works.
32 He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth:
he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.
33 I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live:
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
34 My meditation of him shall be sweet:
I will be glad in the Lord.
35 Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.

Bless thou the Lord, O my soul.
Praise ye the Lord.

John 1: 1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not. 12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: 13 which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

Thoughts for today

On a night quite a few years ago I gathered with friends and colleagues from the hospital at a popular Hexham restaurant, Vercelli’s. We were there to say good-bye to a much-loved doctor who was about to emigrate to New Zealand. She is still missed and perhaps there might have been an element of sadness at this parting, but we knew then what we know now: the life she and her family have enjoyed in New Zealand would have been completely impossible in this country. Moreover she still returns often to this country, and her son, my godson, is currently a student in Glasgow.

But something else happened, which lightened up that night. Among the friends who had gathered was a nurse, who had endured years of serious illness and operations.  But on that night she passed round her phone, carrying the image of the scan of her unborn baby. For us who had accompanied her in hard times this was little short of miraculous , a triumph for hope and courage, life and love.  The little life we began to celebrate that night is now a girl entering into adolescence, with an enthusiasm for amateur dramatics and a love of the stage, who began her Christian journey here at her baptism at Whitley Chapel.

As I read these two bible passages set for today, this was the story which came to me. For me these are passages about birth, and about the miracle of every new life: the wonder of creation where every new life is unique yet has its origins in the original act of creation, when the first living creature came into being.  This is an act endlessly repeated, and each life has its own potential and opportunities, and in each life God is present. For here life is not presented to us as an accident or as an automatic process but as an act of love and of will, an expression of the love and the will of God. This is a story whose beginning we cannot see, and about whose beginning which we can only theorise, but it is our story, the journey we make each day, and it will continue long after our chapter here on earth is ended. These passages do not speak of life as a sort of value-neutral accident but as God’s eternal purpose. The hymn quoted  Paul in Colossians speaks of the visible life we know through sense and also of the life outside human sense, with its powers and dominions, which is beyond our experience, imagination and understanding. And through it all is God, invisible, yet who has reached out to us and revealed his image to us in our own mortal flesh in Christ the first -born of a new creation.  For our purpose is not merely to participate in the cycle of life but to be part of the life and purpose of God as part of the body, born in this world yet called to new birth and new life in the body, born not of the will of the flesh but of God. And the purpose of this calling is to be nothing less than part of God’s work, which is here described as reconciling all things to himself, making peace even through the blood of the cross.  It is the work of love, it is the work of healing, it is the work of Christ. We are called to work as we are, where we are and with what we have been given, yet never alone.

Years ago our friend knew she had been called by God to serve as a doctor (and as a mother, and as a wife and much else besides). She has brought healing and compassion to so many and continues to do so. The young girl whose annunciation brought us so  much joy that night brings light and joy to all who love her, and in time she too will continue on that journey with Christ into which we welcomed here as her baptism – her journey and ours.

 

21st January 2024. 3rd Sunday of Epiphany.

Prayer for today:

Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Maureen Stevens, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those whose year’s mind is about this time we remember Denise Baxter, Eva Dodds, Peter Johnson, George Heslop, David Leyland, Sarah Jane Walker, Matthew Clark, Judith Robson and Ella Turnbull.

I have copies of ‘Reflections for Lent’: daily readings and prayers for Lent, published by the C of E, and of ‘Lent and Easter for everyone’ by the popular writer and former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, also with daily readings and reflections. Please contact me if you would like copies, and to discuss Lent studies.

Revelation 19: 6-10

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder-        peals, crying out,

‘Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure’—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are true words of God.’ 10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your comrade who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.’

Psalm 128

Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord;
that walketh in his ways.
For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands:
happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.
Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house:
thy children like olive plants round about thy table.
Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed
that feareth the Lord.
The Lord shall bless thee out of Zion:
and thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life.
Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children,
and peace upon Israel.

John 2: 1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

 Thoughts on today’s readings

Already this month I have met with two of the seven couples who plan to marry at Whitley Chapel this year. One question I often ask is, ‘Why have you decided to get married?  What difference do you think it is going to make?’  Some couples will say that it’s about commitment, that it’s about being a family with children, or else that it’s an expression of where they have come as a couple.  I remember asking one woman in the supermarket car park, some days after her wedding, whether she felt any different: she and her husband had been together for over 20 years.  Their marriage had been a very simple service attended by 20 people, followed  by a barbecue in their garden where we all brought something. She thought , and said, ‘I feel as though I belong.’  I thought it was a very profound statement: surely we need to feel that we belong, that we are special to someone, and precious.

St. John’s Gospel begins its account of the ministry of Jesus at a wedding. It is quite a short account, yet it is brim-full of symbolism and of mystery, of statements which can be interpreted in many different ways. Where was Cana? We’re not sure; the same Gospel tells us that the disciple Nathanael came from there. Is it the case that Jesus and his disciples arrived towards the end of the wedding, that their arrival spoilt the calculations of the host and so the wine ran out?  Certainly the empty water pots suggest the feast had not just started. Jesus’ response to his mother, whom he addresses as ‘Woman’, is ,’My hour has not yet come.’ It is not an enthusiastic response. However, this story does powerfully describe the transformation which the presence of Jesus makes at this wedding. When I was at theological college this story was the means of much teasing of those who saw alcoholic drinks as incompatible with Christianity. How then to make sense of the Son of God turning perhaps 150 gallons of water into wine?  But in the Bible of Jesus, our Old Testament, abundance of wine is one of the signs that accompanies the new age of God, promised by the prophets, when God will wipe away his people’s tears, and bring them salvation. It’s there in Isaiah 25: 6-9, in Amos 9: 13 and in Joel 3: 18, as well as in Psalm 104. Wine is an essential and powerful sign of the fruitfulness God brings from the earth, something which does not rot away like fresh fruit, but endures, which accompanies times of joy and celebration. When the disciples saw the sign that Jesus did, they recognised in this a sign of this promised new age: they saw his glory and believed in him.

And why at a wedding? Because, as the reading from Revelation makes clear, here is where a new age dawns, here is where those committed to each other celebrate their union. Jesus the Lamb of God has given his very life for his beloved. His bride is clothed in fine linen which is the righteous deeds of the saints, those whose faithfulness has been tested and has endured.  When his hour was indeed come, Jesus the Son of God, and son of Mary, sealed the covenant with his people on the cross, with his life and his blood. He gave himself, for better, for worse. Blessed are we, for this covenant, this unconditional gift, is to us. His disciples believed in him: not in theories or ideas or a set of rules, but in him. We are invited to believe in him, to trust in that great love.

The couples who marry here this year will face the person they believe in: they place their whole person in their hands, and believe they are loved for who they are. They are freely given, and they freely receive the gift of the person who stands beside  them, for better, for worse, and their joy is ours, is mine.

Blessed are we, who have been invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb. His love was there before time was, and every morning is new. May we believe in him, and see that he is here, to save and to renew, this year, this day.

14th January 2024. 2nd Sunday of Epiphany.

Prayer for today:

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Maureen Stevens, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those who have died we remember Martha Anderson, and also Freda Chalmers, Constance Wood, Derek Swallow, Sydney White, David Lamb and Denise Baxter whose year’s mind is about this time.

Readings:

1 Samuel 3: 1-10

The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he ran to Eli and said, ‘Here I am; you called me.’

But Eli said, ‘I did not call; go back and lie down.’ So he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, ‘Samuel!’ And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am; you called me.’

‘My son,’ Eli said, ‘I did not call; go back and lie down.’

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

A third time the Lord called, ‘Samuel!’ And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am; you called me.’

Then Eli realised that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, ‘Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’

Then Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’

Verses from Psalm 139

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

 

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
How vast is the sum of them!

John 1: 43-51

43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’

46 ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked.

‘Come and see,’ said Philip.

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, ‘Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’

48 ‘How do you know me?’ Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, ‘I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you.’

49 Then Nathanael declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.’

50 Jesus said, ‘You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig-tree. You will see greater things than that.’ 51 He then added, ‘Very truly I tell you, you will see “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’

Thoughts on today’s readings

When Philip was called by Jesus, such was his joy that he had to share the good news. Already he was a true disciple: one who is fruitful, who does the Lord’s work by sharing the good news.

Initially Nathanael, to whom he came, was most unenthusiastic. His initial reply was dismissive. Can anything good come from?.. well, you can complete the sentence with the name of any town which has a bad reputation.

Nevertheless he was not a man blinded by his prejudice, and so he did ‘come and see.’ And now he found he was with someone who knew him absolutely. And here we read him move from dismissive scorn to the same respectful address (Rabbi) used by John’s disciples and then to something completely different, confessing to Jesus, ‘You are the Son of God, the king of Israel.’

For here we are back with Psalm 139: You , Lord , have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you know my thoughts from afar.

For Nathanael understood this: who but God could know him completely? And Jesus speaking to Nathanael likened him to Jacob, whose name, Israel, was given to him when he had wrestled with God. But Jesus said this to Nathanael: unlike Jacob, whose character was defined by craftiness, you are without guile. Unlike Jacob, who received in a dream the vision of angels ascending and descending on a ladder from heaven, you will see heaven open, and it is on the Son of Man that you will see the angels journey from heaven to earth.

Our first reading tells us how God called Samuel. Note that Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the temple, and as yet he did not know the Lord. It was the priest Eli, old, blind, a failure because he had failed to curb the corruption of his sons, who told him how he must reply to this mysterious voice: it was the Lord.

This is what I take from these readings:

Even if I do not always understand what I am doing, if I am serving the Lord, then perhaps it is then I will be open, able to hear when the Lord calls. And if I do not understand, then there will be those, whether old and weary like Eli or full of the joys like Philip, to help me ‘come and see.’ In the end, God knows me, my struggles, my character, and can open my eyes to the man from Nazareth who has opened heaven, and is the way.

I am never too old or feeble to be unable to help another to hear or to know the Lord. His calling is source of joy, but is not simply for my personal fulfilment. I am called in order that I may bring others to ‘come and see.’ I may begin my service in the night, in darkness, but the dawn will come, and then I will know, even as I am known.

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?

Will you go where you don’t know , and never be the same?

Will you let my love be shown,

Will you let my name be known,

Will you let my life be grown in you,

And you in me?

 

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?

Will you care for cruel and kind,

And never be the same?

Will you risk the hostile stare,

Should your life attract or scare,

Will you let me answer prayer in you,

And you in me?

 

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?

Will you let the prisoners free,

And never be the same?

Will you kiss the leper clean

And do such as this unseen,

And admit to what I mean

In you, and you in me?

 

Will you love the ‘you’ you hide

If I but call your name?

Will you quell the fear inside

And never be the same?

Will you use the faith you’ve found

To reshape the world around

Through my sight, and touch, and sound

In you, and you in me.

 

Lord, your summons echoes true

When you but call my name.

Let me turn and follow you

And never be the same.

In your company I’ll go

Where your love and footsteps show.

Thus I’ll move, and live, and grow in you,

And you in me.

 

7th January 2024. Epiphany

Prayer for today:

O God, who by the leading of a star manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith, may at last behold your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Maureen Stevens, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those whose year’s mind is about this time we remember James White, Mary Atkinson, Josephine Urwin, Geoff Brooker and Phyllis Duncan.

Readings;

Isaiah 60: 1-6

Arise, Jerusalem, shine like the sun; the glory of the Lord is shining on you. Darkness will cover the earth and its peoples, but the light of the Lord will shine on you, and his bright presence be with you.

Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Look around you: see what is happening. Your people are gathering to come home. Your sons shall come from far away; your daughters will be carried like children. Then you shall see and be filled with joy; your heart will thrill and rejoice.

The wealth of the nations will be brought to you; their riches will be brought across the sea.  A multitude of camels will come from Midian, from Ephah and from Sheba, bringing gold and incense.

People will tell the good news of what God has done.

Verses From Psalm 72

Give the king thy judgments, O God,
and thy righteousness unto the king’s son.
He shall judge thy people with righteousness,
and thy poor with judgment.
The mountains shall bring peace to the people,
and the little hills, by righteousness.
He shall judge the poor of the people,
he shall save the children of the needy,
and shall break in pieces the oppressor.
They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure,
throughout all generations.
He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass:
as showers that water the earth.
In his days shall the righteous flourish;
and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents:
the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.
11 Yea, all kings shall fall down before him:
all nations shall serve him.
12 For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth;
the poor also, and him that hath no helper.
13 He shall spare the poor and needy,
and shall save the souls of the needy.
14 He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence:
and precious shall their blood be in his sight.
15 And he shall live, and to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba:
prayer also shall be made for him continually;
and daily shall he be praised.
16 There shall be an handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains;
the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon:
and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.
17 His name shall endure for ever:
his name shall be continued as long as the sun:
and men shall be blessed in him:
all nations shall call him blessed.

Matthew 2: 1-12

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judaea, when Herod was king.

Then men came from the east to Jerusalem asking, ‘Where is the child who is born king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose in the eat, and have come to worship him.’

When Herod heard this he was troubled, and so was everyone in Jerusalem. He sent for the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law and asked them where Messiah should be born.  ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘For so it was written by the prophet, “You, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the cities of Judah, for from you will come a ruler who will be shepherd of my people Israel.”’

Then Herod met the wise men in secret and learnt from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem , saying, ‘Search diligently for the child. When you have found him send me word, so that I also may come and pay homage.’

When they had heard the king they set out, and saw the star they had first observed in the east. How great was their joy when they saw the star! It went ahead of them, until it stopped over where the child was. They went into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother; and they brought him their gifts of gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their country by another way.

1 We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.

Refrain:
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

2 Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign. [Refrain]

3 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high. [Refrain]

4 Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb. [Refrain]

5 Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies. [Refrain]

Thoughts on today’s readings

In our day and with the advances in technology and science we are able to see further and in more detail than ever before into the universe and find it to be ever-vaster, with the probability of other worlds and universes beyond. When today’s astronomers look into the night sky they see incredible sights, and are able to record images of worlds coming into existence, and of their fiery demise. Here indeed are epiphanies: revelations and new understandings, but in all this we are observers and, in a real sense detached. Does it in a measurable sense change our daily lives that we are aware of awesome events taking place light years away?

Those who scanned the sky thousands of years ago, with nothing more than their naked eyes, were familiar with the stars they saw. They named them and mapped them; no doubt they also knew the planets, with their very different movements, even if they did not understand their significance in the same way that we do. The stars at night were an essential part of their lives, familiar signposts for the traveller across the wilderness and the desert, as they were for the returning exiles for whom the message in Isaiah 60 was intended. But here too they looked and waited for signs from God, whose hand and presence they saw in all things and in all places.   And so it was a sign in the sky which set those men in the east of their journey. Not a journey of discovery in the sense we understand, much less a journey of conquest; rather they were like pilgrims on  a journey of faith, towards an end they could not have understood or imagined , yet where they knew God had done something momentous.

For the likelihood is they had never heard of Bethlehem, a village in Judea. They believed a king had been born and so they went to the capital city, Jerusalem, and to the palace of King Herod. But if their knowledge was incomplete, nevertheless their minds were open, and their faith and trust in God were sure. The account in St. Matthew’s Gospel tells of their great joy at seeing the star which led them to the child, and of how they worshipped him. Here, as they fell on their knees, was their Epiphany, but what did they now understand?   What did this mean; in what sense did the penny drop as they offered their gifts, carefully transported across many miles? They had indeed brought gifts for a king: gold as a sign of the wealth of the kingdom for which he would be responsible, incense as a reminder that all and any power comes from God and that prayer and worship must be at the heart of his being and his kingship, and finally myrrh as a reminder that he too was mortal and must one day die. But here they saw the king they worshipped, not in a palace or in a great city; not guarded by soldiers nor attended by servants.

Here they saw a child in his mother’s arms, and saw in him the source of all life and being; in this new life they saw all life contained, the hope of all the world for all time. It had been written in the stars which had always guided them, and so they saw and believed, and worshipped the king of heaven with his mother.

 

 

31st December 2023. 1st Sunday of Christmas.

Prayer for today.

Almighty God, you wonderfully created us in your own image and more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, we may share the life of his divinity; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Maureen Stevens, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those whose year’s mind is about this time, we remember Margaret Nieuwland, Clarence White and Fred Howden.

Readings:

Galatians 4: 4-7

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

Psalm 148

Praise ye the Lord.

Praise ye the Lord from the heavens:
praise him in the heights.
Praise ye him, all his angels:
praise ye him, all his hosts.
Praise ye him, sun and moon:
praise him, all ye stars of light.
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens,
and ye waters that be above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for he commanded, and they were created.
He hath also stablished them for ever and ever:
he hath made a decree which shall not pass.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
ye dragons, and all deeps:
fire, and hail; snow, and vapour;
stormy wind fulfilling his word:
mountains, and all hills;
fruitful trees, and all cedars:
10 beasts, and all cattle;
creeping things, and flying fowl:
11 kings of the earth, and all people;
princes, and all judges of the earth:
12 both young men, and maidens;
old men, and children:
13 let them praise the name of the Lord:
for his name alone is excellent;
his glory is above the earth and heaven.
14 He also exalteth the horn of his people,
the praise of all his saints;
even of the children of Israel,
a people near unto him.

Praise ye the Lord.

 Luke 2: 15-21

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.

  Thoughts on today’s readings:

Last December I was called to an impromptu meeting by one of the consultants at Hexham hospital. When, she wanted to know, were we going to sing Christmas carols in the hospital?

After years of enforced silence, even before COVID, I had almost lost hope of being able to do this again. However, I made enquiries, got permission, and on a particularly grim day just before Christmas, when the misery and dissatisfaction of staff was being expressed in the nurses’ strike, we gathered round the piano and sang. From wards and offices people came out, along with patients and visitors, and the sound of the singing soared up the stairwell and filled the building. It was a moment of pure joy, a kind of release after everything else that was going on, and the years of enforced silence.

Again this year we gathered, and the sound of the singing of the familiar carols was the most powerful and beautiful witness to the wonderful story which lights up our midwinter lives.

Looking again at ‘Lockdown nativity’, the amazing production which replaced our Nativity service in 2020, I was reminded of the beauty of what was achieved, but also of the sense of longing it evoked, listening to the children singing in an empty school hall, and remembering the long months when, as my mother put it, we were ‘muzzled.’

When the angels appeared to the shepherds they did not give out leaflets or preach a sermon: they sang them a song, and the words and the melody lodged themselves in their minds and hearts, so that they left their flocks and went to see this sight: a baby lying in a manger. And because this song had entered into their spirits they not only saw a baby, with Mary his mother and Joseph, but believed and knew they were looking at the Lord’s anointed, a new David, the promised saviour.

To learn and to remember a song does not require us to read music, or even to be able to read and write at all. Words become familiar and are remembered and become a part of our memory, of our very selves.

Back in March, when I visited the village in Trinidad where I had spent my childhood, I was astonished to hear a woman, who had then been a child a few years older than me, singing a song, to the tune ‘Scotland the Brave’ but with words thought up by my father, which she and the others of the Church Lads’ and Girls’ brigade, had been taught in the course of a 15 mile march from Rio Claro to Mayaro.

Songs have a great power to encourage, to establish an identity, a sense of common purpose and community, whether it’s an anthem, or a song sung at a game of rugby or football.

The psalms are the prayers of the Jewish people, composed not only to be read but above all to be sung.

From earliest times, singing has also been part of Christian practice and culture. We too have the psalms, but also Mary’s song of triumph, Magnificat, and the ancient hymn quoted in Philippians by Paul, from which we get the much-loved ‘At the name of Jesus’.

Around the year 600 the Pope, Gregory, is credited with bringing from his native Greece the form of singing which would become known throughout the western Christian world, but would in time become the preserve of choirs and religious communities.

It was the genius of the reformation to bring singing back to the people: the hymns of Luther and his contemporaries gave the German people the words of the bible in verse and in song, in memorable hymns, not unlike the metrical psalms of Scotland.

In the great hymns of Methodism men and women, both literate and illiterate, were given words to move and to raise their spirits, and to express their identity as children of God, and as the people of God, in Jesus Christ. As I was taught it: hymns are the prayers of the Methodist Church.

As Paul wrote to the Galatian Church, they did not receive the spirit of a slave, condemned to silence, to not-being, but the spirit of a dear child who cries out, ‘Abba! Father!’ This is the spirit of Jesus Christ, the spirit who moved shepherds to go to the manger and see in this baby the one who was one with them, and went out glorifying and praising God – that sounds like singing to me.

You are a dear child, we are dear children of God. Let the song of the angels resonate with our heart and move our spirit, and may we teach God’s children today the songs of his love for them, and for his creation.

 

 

Sunday 24th December 2023                                                                                                 The Fourth Sunday of Advent

At the lighting of the Advent wreath:

 People of God, prepare! God above all, maker of all, is one with us in Christ. Come, Lord Jesus!

God, the mighty God, bends down in love to earth. Come, Lord Jesus!

God with us, God beside us, comes soon to the world he has made. Come, Lord Jesus!

We are God’s children, we seek the coming of Christ. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

Hymn 470           Hills of the north, rejoice

The Collect

God our redeemer, who prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son: grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour, so we may be ready to greet him when he comes again as our judge; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

The second book of Samuel, chapter 7, verses 1-11 and 16

 Now when the king was settled in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel, and I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you, and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place and be disturbed no more, and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel, and I will give you rest from all your enemies.

Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

Psalm 89

My song shall be always of the loving-kindness of the Lord:

with my mouth will I proclaim your faithfulness throughout all generations.

I will declare that your love is established for ever;

you have set your faithfulness as firm as the heavens.

For you said: ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one;

I have sworn an oath to David my servant:

“‘Your seed will I establish for ever and build up your throne for all generations.”’

You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand and high is your right hand.

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;

steadfast love and faithfulness go before your face.

Happy are the people who know the shout of triumph:

they walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance.

In your name they rejoice all the day long and are exalted in your righteousness.

For you are the glory of their strength, and in your favour you lift up our heads.

Truly the Lord is our shield; the Holy One of Israel is our king.

You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people:

‘I have set a youth above the mighty; I have raised a young man over the people.

‘I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him.

‘My hand shall hold him fast and my arm shall strengthen him.

‘He shall call to me, “You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation;”

‘And I will make him my firstborn,

the most high above the kings of the earth.

‘The love I have pledged to him will I keep for ever,

and my covenant will stand fast with him.

The Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”  But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

 Reflection

 It’s a real pity we don’t have time – though I am sure we could make time if we really wanted to – to listen to all 80 verses that make up chapter 1 of St Luke’s Gospel, instead of the relatively few, though very beautiful and familiar ones we have just heard. A pity because the chapter as a whole forms a miniature literary masterpiece, intertwining the very different experiences that belonged to Mary, betrothed of Joseph the carpenter, and Elizabeth, ageing wife of the temple priest Zechariah. The story of the momentous months of their pregnancies deserves as much imaginative engagement as we can bring to bear, whether we place ourselves in the shoes of either of the women, or indeed of the men. At the very least, I invite you to go home and get out your Bible and just read the whole chapter before it gets dark today, taking enough time to savour the story as if you were encountering it for the first time.

Advent is above all the season of longing, of desire – whether it is the child who can’t wait for the magic of tomorrow, or the likes of us who look sorrowfully at the world and long for the fulfilment of God’s kingdom of justice and peace. And as once again we come to the very end of this Advent season, Luke gives us this amazing drama.

Elizabeth and Zechariah – you could scarcely imagine a more respectable couple. How deeply must they have longed for children to carry on the family name and the tradition of priestly service. How unfair that their hopes have remained unfulfilled. And who can blame Zechariah for his scepticism when he is told that their deepest desire is to be fulfilled. He’s totally dumbstruck! But how wonderful for them and how richly, their friends and neighbours must have thought and said, they deserve this long-overdue sign of God’s blessing upon them.

But Luke has another story to tell, and he does so with genius, drawing our attention back and forth, implicitly comparing and contrasting the joy of Elizabeth and Zechariah as they await their hearts’ desire with the scandal, the confusion and the sheer danger of Mary’s interesting condition. There’s a moment, I suppose, when a woman knows she is pregnant. And then she’s got to decide who to tell first. Mary knew. Mary had to decide. And the angel may indeed have told her not to be afraid, but……. Not for nothing does the Greek word which describes Mary’s feelings mean literally “completely stirred up”. “Perplexed” doesn’t do justice to it. “Troubled” is a bit closer, if you think of it as like troubled waters, dangerous waters. Mary was in a tide-rip of emotion, and that’s a place of danger.

And here is the bit we miss when we clothe Mary in soft and sentimental blue. This is not a story for the children – it’s too scary. Mary embraces the danger and in the process becomes dangerous, very dangerous. Because she desires God, and all that God promises, and she turns it into a passionate song of fulfilled desire from the very depth of her being. And anyone who truly desires God from the depth of their being is very dangerous indeed. I begin to understand now why so many musical settings of the Song of Mary – the Magnificat – are so urgent, so “ungentle”, so much at odds with the instinctive image of Mary as not only humble, but powerless. This is the prophet Mary, the dangerous, dissident Mary transforming her spiritual longing into political and economic demand, hope and promise.

My soul magnifies the Lord,

He has shown strength with his arm;
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

What a woman! Mary has often been regarded by the Church with a mixture of suspicion, fear and reverence. Rightly so, if sometimes for the wrong reasons. But what a woman! This is not the mass-produced Mary of religious trinkets, but the dangerous Mary, the passionate Mary. This is Mary who feels deep within her being the consuming, enveloping love that only a mother can feel – and towards whom? None other than the One who Was, and Is and Is to Come – the one whose presence and whose promises we also claim to desire and long for this very night. Dare we sing it, say it, even think it? O come, O come, O come, Emmanuel. How dangerous are we prepared to be?

 The Prayers of Intercession

Of current concern: women giving birth in Gaza

We pray for the sick, and for their healing according to God’s will, among them Maureen Stevens, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde

We remember those who have died recently, among them, and those whose year’s mind is about this time, among them Watson Purvis, Helga Marshall, Charlotte Trotter, Joseph Nichol and Rachel Readman

Hymn 256           Let all mortal flesh keep silence

The Post-Communion Prayer

Heavenly Father, who chose the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of the promised saviour: fill us your servants with your grace, that in all things we may embrace your holy will and with her rejoice in your salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hymn 26              O come, O come, Emmanuel

Tonight is Christmas Eve

Nativity Service at 5.00 p.m.

Tomorrow is Christmas Day

Holy Communion (Book of Common Prayer) at 8.30 a.m.

Parish Communion at 9.30 a.m.

Next Sunday is the First Sunday after Christmas

The Bible readings will be Isaiah 61:10-62:3 and Luke 2:15-21

 

 

 

 

 

10th December 2023. 2nd Sunday in Advent.

Prayer at the lighting of Advent candles:

One candle to remind us of the prophets, a second for John the Baptist, who called people to change their way of living to prepare for the coming of Christ.

O God we thank you for the witness of John the Baptist. Help us to be open to power of your love to change us, and to be true witnesses to the power of Jesus in our lives. Amen.

Prayer for today:

Oh Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Maureen Stevens, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those whose year’s mind is about this time we remember Denzil Hamilton, Alan Swallow and Phyllis Heslop

Preparations for the Nativity Service on Christmas Eve continue in school this morning from 9.30 (and next Sunday)

Our Carol service is in church next Sunday at 5 p.m.

Readings:

Isaiah 40: 1-11

God says, ‘Comfort your people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, cry to her that she has served her sentence, the penalty has been paid; she received at the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries, ‘Prepare a way for the Lord in the wilderness! Make a straight highway for God in the desert! Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain made low, and the uneven land levelled, and the rough ground a plain. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out!,’ and I said, ‘What shall I cry?’

The people are like grass, as passing as the flowers of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of God blows on it. Surely the people are grass. Grass withers, and flowers fade, but the word of God will stand for ever.

Get up to a high mountain, Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice in strength, Jerusalem, herald of good tidings; do not fear to raise your voice. Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God1’

See the Lord come in might, and his arm rules for him. His reward is with him, his recompense before him.

He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and lead the ewes gently.

Psalm 85

Lord, thou hast been favourable unto thy land:
thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob.
Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people,
thou hast covered all their sin. Selah.
Thou hast taken away all thy wrath:
thou hast turned thyself from the fierceness of thine anger.

Turn us, O God of our salvation,
and cause thine anger toward us to cease.
Wilt thou be angry with us for ever?
wilt thou draw out thine anger to all generations?
Wilt thou not revive us again:
that thy people may rejoice in thee?
Shew us thy mercy, O Lord,
and grant us thy salvation.

I will hear what God the Lord will speak:
for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints:
but let them not turn again to folly.
Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him;
that glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth are met together;
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11 Truth shall spring out of the earth;
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
12 Yea, the Lord shall give that which is good;
and our land shall yield her increase.
13 Righteousness shall go before him;
and shall set us in the way of his steps.

Mark 1: 1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I send my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight.”’

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. From the whole Judean countryside and from Jerusalem people went out to him, and were baptized by him in the Jordan, and confessed their sins.

John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt at his waist; he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘After me is coming one more powerful than me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

Reflection

Here’s a question. It might make quite a good pub quiz question, but it’s not a trick. If you know the answer, shout it out. Which saint has two feast days in the church calendar, but was not a follower of Jesus, and died before Jesus did?

???? the ???????. If you add together everything that the four Gospels tell us about him, it actually adds up to quite a lot. We know about the circumstances of his conception and birth. We know something about his relationship to Jesus. We know what clothes he wore and what he did with his time. We know what his message and teaching was about. We know he had a group of followers. We know about his death. That’s quite a substantial picture – more than there’s time to recount in detail this morning. (His feast days, by the way, are for his birth on 24 June and his beheading on 29 August.) But now I’ll just do the obvious thing, and focus on the text that links Isaiah and John the Baptist in the two readings we’ve just been given.

“Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

So, does this highway have a meaning? A strange question, but, “Yes, of course.”

For Isaiah, it was the highway running from Babylon to Jerusalem. The seventy wilderness years of Israel’s disaster, disgrace and exile which followed the capture and destruction of the city and the great temple of God by the dreadful King Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC were over. The return of the people themselves to their beloved city was wonderful, but Isaiah knew that the presence of the people was not enough. Without the presence of their God nothing was worth a scrap. Prepare a highway along which our God may return in splendour and triumph to his beloved hill of Zion.

John the Baptist went into the wilderness. It suited him. It’s a harsh landscape not so far from the city – a desert not of sand but of rock and scrub. From its uncorrupted barrenness he could see clearly: the disgrace of a nation under foreign occupation, the tinpot authority of Herod’s puppet kingdom, the immorality of Herod’s family, the compromising politics of the religious leaders. It’s not meant to be like this. It doesn’t have to be like this. Drive a highway straight to the heart of it, and let righteousness thunder in. Ruat caelum, fiat justitia!

 Let’s change the picture and ask, just who is travelling the highway at the moment? How is God returning to his people? Who will fulfil the prophecy of righteousness, peace and justice that Isaiah foretold and John proclaimed? It’s a mystery awaiting disclosure, and in his gospel Mark tells us absolutely nothing about it! But crossing the country from north to south – Nazareth, Yorkshire to Bethlehem, Surrey – are an old man and his very obviously pregnant young wife. On the surface there’s no secret: there’s been an autumn financial statement, and it’s not done them much good. The result is they have to go and become part of the statistics, in a survey designed to bring in more tax to reduce the level of government borrowing in Rome. But the young woman does have a secret, something she is treasuring in her heart. We’ll hear her story in a fortnight’s time.

Meanwhile, what a multi-lane thoroughfare this is turning out to be, this highway which we are building. But it’s not complete until we make its meaning our own. Prepare the way of the Lord: yes. But in Advent we sing, “prepare we in our hearts a home, where such a mighty guest may come.” Prepare we in our hearts – our hearts the destination of the highway? What is in your heart this morning, this minute, this moment? How prepared for the arrival of a mighty guest does your heart feel?

For each of us, preparing the way of the Lord means lining up our deepest desires with God’s will. That’s what prayer means, and it requires that we must be made straight. Of course, it’s the journey of a lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take another step this morning.

Yet, even if we can’t do that right now, perhaps we can all pray that the way of the Lord may be made straight. That might mean a prayer for peace where there is violence, or justice where there is abuse, or healing where there is disease, or forgiveness where there is injury, or light where there is darkness – in the world, in the church. Or perhaps that some part of your life, or the life of someone close to you, can be set straight so that the way to God is made plain. Your heart will tell you what your prayer is.

Like Mary, travelling the road to her moment of delivery, you will know the secret of your own prayer, even if you don’t know how it can possibly work out. But hear today’s good news: “Hark, the glad sound! The Saviour comes, the Saviour promised long: let every heart prepare a throne, and every voice a song.”

We make the journey ourselves among all the desert rocks of this world and this life towards the fulfilment of the prophecy. A long and difficult journey? Yes, it’s the journey of a lifetime. But we shall take another step this morning, and it will not take long. It is our shared journey to the altar – to find once more, in the sacrament, the proof of divine faithfulness and strength: God with us.

To say any more might seem superfluous, but by way of closing reflection on the mighty guest we invite into our hearts as we kneel at the altar, I offer you the words of an Advent hymn from the Roman Catholic writer, Luke Connaughton (1917-1979).

The voice of God goes out to all the world,

His glory speaks across the universe.

The great kings herald cries from star to star:

“With power, with justice, he will walk his way.”

 

The Lord has said, “Receive my messenger

My promise to the world, my pledge made flesh.”

A lamp to every nation, light from light:

With power, with justice, he will walk his way.

 

The broken reed he will not trample down,

Nor set his heel upon the dying flame.

He binds the wounds, and health is in his hand:

With power, with justice, he will walk his way.

 

Anointed with the Spirit and with power,

He comes to crown with comfort all the weak,

Go to the face of justice to the poor:

With power, with justice, he will walk his way.

 

His touch will bless the eyes that darkness held,

The lame shall run, the halting tongue shall sing,

And prisoners laugh in light and liberty:

With power, with justice, he will walk his way.Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen

26th November 2023. Sunday before Advent (Christ the King)

Prayers for today:

Eternal Father, whose son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven that he might rule over all things as Lord and King: keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace, and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by you be plenteously be rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those whose year’s mind is about this time we remember John Harding, Bobby Gordon, Mary Moore, Alys Dodds, Lilian Chester Alexander and Christo Swanepoel.

Readings:

Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24

11 ‘“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.

20 ‘“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: see, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. 23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.

 Psalm 100.

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness:
come before his presence with singing.
Know ye that the Lord he is God:
it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,
and into his courts with praise:
be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting;
and his truth endureth to all generations.

 

Matthew 25: 31-46

The sheep and the goats

 31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 ‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

37 ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”

40 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

41 ‘Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was ill and in prison and you did not look after me.”

44 ‘They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or ill or in prison, and did not help you?”

45 ‘He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

46 ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’

Thoughts on today’s readings

A few days ago I was visiting a lady in this parish who loves animals and keeps pygmy goats. They all have their little characters and she loves them like her own children. It’s hard to understand why goats would be a symbol for those who will not be coming into the kingdom of God.

Yet for the image and meaning of the sheep we do not have look far. If you travel to the flatlands of Lincolnshire or to the villages of East Anglia you will find the great mediaeval wool Churches. Built on and, in a way, celebrating the wealth derived from the trade in wool from England across into Europe in those centuries, they remind us of an era when sheep were the source of the wealth of this country, a wealth derived not so much from  meat as from the yearly harvest of fleeces, when wool was the king of textiles. The sheep in this image given by Jesus stand for those who are valuable, precious if you like, to the king, and the goats are those who are not, who have proved to be worthless.

It has been said that it is because they cared for the followers of Jesus –‘these brothers and sisters of mine’ – that the sheep are rewarded, rather than because they have cared for any and all, but it’s very clear to me that there is no such calculation in the kindness of the ‘sheep’. Rather they are surprised at the idea that they might have done anything out of the ordinary. On the contrary, they have been doing what was normal : carrying out what in the Jewish world were known as the acts of charity, and doing it now, in response to the need they encountered, rather than putting it off or being too busy or self-absorbed.

In these weeks when we have heard of dreadful massacres in Israel, of lives and communities being literally crushed in Gaza, of families of hostages and prisoners waiting to see if the ones they love are on a list or not, today’s readings remind me of even grimmer times in the last century when exhausted and terrified human beings arrived at the camps of Eastern Europe to be separated into those who were selected to work, and those who were sent to their deaths. This cruelty was carried out in the name of a government which trumpeted its technological progress, and passed laws promoting the survival of the strong, and judged those considered weak, disabled or of the wrong genetic makeup to be unworthy of life.

But as it is written in the Talmud, the texts of the rabbis of Israel, ‘If you save one soul, who have saved the whole world.’ True humanity has a way of surviving and of finding its voice and its courage even in the hardest of times. There are those whose names are known, like Oskar Schindler, a nazi who in ordinary times would have been written off as a corrupt individual, yet who used his wits and influence to save over 1000 Jews, but surely also so many who are no longer remembered, who opened their homes and their hearts to strangers, and often put their own lives in danger.

Today’s prayer speaks of the Lord stirring up our wills. Now, even in this darkest time of the year, is the time to be ready, to be awake and alert. Who knows in what form we will encounter the Lord? It may be in the patient in hospital, struggling to make themselves understood after a stroke, who needs someone who will listen. It may be in the homeless person sleeping in a shop doorway: who knows how their life brought them to such a pass? We were not called by Jesus Christ to judge the world but to announce his good news in our words and in our lives. We learn from our mistakes but do not dwell on them, for ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil therof.’ We have been given the living way to follow in Jesus Christ the true shepherd of the sheep, and we have been fed and given all we need to be ministers of his gospel. Let us give thanks for the example of those whose faithfulness has shone like light even in the darkest of places and times, and may we be used so that others too may live and find their way to him.

19th November 2023. 2nd Sunday before Advent.

Prayer for today: Heavenly Father, whose Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil and to make us children of hope and heirs of eternal life: grant that we, having this hope, may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that when he shall appear in power and in great glory we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever, Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those whose year’s mind is about this time we remember Walter Milburn, Terry Atkinson, John Watling and James Clark.

Readings:

1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11

We do not need to write to you about times and seasons; you know the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are still talking about peace and safety, destruction will come on them as suddenly as labour pains on a woman. They will not escape.

But you, sisters and brothers, are not in the dark. You are children of light; we do not belong to the night. Then let us not sleep like the drunkards, but be awake and sober. Put on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation for a helmet. God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to be saved through Jesus Christ.

He died for us so that, awake or asleep, we may live in him. Then continue to encourage one another and build each other up.

Verses from Psalm 90.

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

Thou turnest man to destruction;
and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past,
and as a watch in the night.
Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep:
in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up;
in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

For we are consumed by thine anger,
and by thy wrath are we troubled.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee,
our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.

So teach us to number our days,
that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

 

Matthew 25: 14-30

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like when a man, going on a journey, summoned his servants and entrusted the care of his property to them. To one he gave 5 talents, to another 2, and to another 1, according to their abilities; then he went away.

The one who had received 5 talents traded with it, and made 5 more.

In the same way, the one with 2 talents made 2 more. But the servant who had received 1 talent dug a hole in the ground and hid it.

After a long time the master returned and asked his servants for their accounts. The one with the 5 talents said, ‘Look , Master; I have made 5 more talents.’ The master replied, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant. From now I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

The one with the 2 talents did likewise, and again the master said, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ But the one who had received one talent came and said, ‘Master, I know you are a harsh man. You reap where you have not sown, and gather where you did not plant seed. I was afraid, so went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ The Master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant. So you know that I reap what I have not sown, do you?  Then you should have invested my money with the lenders, and on my return I could have received the interest. Take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the 10 talents. For to all who have, more will be given, and they will have abundance. But from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’

Thoughts on today’s readings:

Our readings this morning put me in mind of an old farming proverb: ‘Farm as if you were going to live a thousand years; live as if you were going to die tomorrow.’ Jesus’ parable is a call to urgent action; hiding in a bunker is not an option.

Note how the Master does not give each servant the same level of responsibility. He recognises that they are different, and entrusts them with his wealth, according to their abilities. Note also that “I can’t do it,’ is not an option.

The sums are still huge. It would have taken an average labourer somewhere between 15 and 20 years to earn a talent.

One focus of the story is on the wretched ‘one talent servant’.  He is motivated solely by fear and self-preservation. Literally, he is trying to cover himself. He has no love for his Master and cannot conceive that his Master has any affection for him. Interestingly, there were rabbis who taught that, if you were entrusted with another person’s property and buried it, you were absolved from all blame in case of loss: you had taken the safest course of action.

The servant then thinks, “I have done nothing wrong.’ Yes, but he has done nothing worthwhile either. If he did not dare risk anything through his own efforts, did he not care enough to let others, bankers in this case, make his Master’s wealth work and earn interest?

He has been concerned to save his skin but, as Jesus taught, ‘Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will gain it.’

The reward for the servants who laboured to increase their Master’s wealth is not rest, but greater responsibilities, and their Master’s joy. The faithless servant is worthless. He has condemned himself and is cast out.

We believe God knows us in Jesus Christ. As Christians we believe we can find our meaning and purpose in God’s purpose for us, in accepting and following our calling, whatever that is, in believing that each one has been entrusted with gifts and talents unique to us, and by using our lives and our talents in the service of our neighbour and for the joy and to the glory of God.

Faith, love and hope will protect us from fear, discouragement and despair, even in the hardest of times.

We cannot number our days or predict the future: it has not yet happened. ‘The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.’

We cannot waste our time speculating on such things: we have been given a life to live, we have been given those around us to love and to serve, and faith involves believing that God has given us the means to fulfil his purpose in us, and Jesus Christ has sown us the depths of his love for us.

As someone who does not sleep particularly well at night, I find the idea of ‘staying awake’ unattractive.  I do not find sleeplessness makes me function better as a human being, and I would say ‘being ready’ is perhaps something I would prefer to aspire to.

Being ready means we are not consumed with self-absorption and worry. It means we are open to listening to God in prayer and listening to our neighbour, and therefore able to respond.

As St. Paul wrote to those early Christians in Salonika, ‘Build each other up, encourage one another.’

And so may your light so shine that all people may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven.

 

5th November 2023. Last Sunday after Trinity

Prayer for today:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that through patience , and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Bos Wigmore, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those who have died we remember Audrey Henderson.

Her funeral is here in Church on Thursday 16th November at 11 a.m.

We also remember Moffitt Reed, Gordon Grubb, Ken Barron and Harry Robson whose year’s mind is about this time.

Readings:

Colossians 3: 12-17

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Verses from Psalm 119.

Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?
by taking heed thereto according to thy word.
10 With my whole heart have I sought thee:
O let me not wander from thy commandments.
11 Thy word have I hid in mine heart,
that I might not sin against thee.
12 Blessed art thou, O Lord:
teach me thy statutes.
13 With my lips have I declared all the judgments of thy mouth.
14 I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies,
as much as in all riches.
15 I will meditate in thy precepts,
and have respect unto thy ways.
16 I will delight myself in thy statutes:
I will not forget thy word.

Matthew 24; 30-35

Jesus said to his disciples:

20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equalled again.

22 ‘If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Messiah!” or, “There he is!” do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you in advance.

26 ‘So if anyone tells you, “There he is, out in the desert,” do not go out; or, “Here he is, in the inner rooms,” do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

29 ‘Immediately after the distress of those days

‘“the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”[a]

30 ‘Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth[b] will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.[c] 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

32 ‘Now learn this lesson from the fig-tree: as soon as its twigs become tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it[d] is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

 

Thoughts on today’s readings:

Driving along a quiet country road near my sister’s home in New Jersey, I realised with a shock that I was looking at the ugly naked head of a turkey-vulture at the side of the road. There was no need to speculate as to why it was there, and sure enough, when we looked more closely, there beside it was the body of a deer, no doubt knocked down by a car. Jesus used this very blunt image to illustrate the coming of the Son of Man at the end of the age: his coming would be unmistakable. There have always been prophets of doom, would – be messiahs and saviours; Jesus warned his disciples not to be deceived.

Reading these verses I am reminded how the ruthless and bloody attacks of October 7th took place in the early morning of a public holiday in Israel, when people were relaxing and their guard was down. Jesus’ prayer that his people would not have to flee on a sabbath, when the gates of every town and village remained locked, or in the winter, when the roads were impassible with mud, seem particularly poignant today. In Isaiah 11: 10 the prophet told how the root of Jesse would stand as an ensign to the peoples: just as clear, Jesus promised, would be the sign when his chosen people were gathered in.

Over and over the bible warns us to be ready: but this is not about digging bunkers or laying in stores of tinned food. Since the final sign will be the coming of the Son of Man, our readiness consists in focussing on Jesus here and now, on conforming ourselves and our lives to him, and this, it seems to me, is what Colossians is telling us to do in the words of our first reading. Lists of virtues were popular in the ancient world: the Book of Wisdom lists virtues beloved of the Greeks as those taught by Wisdom: self-control and prudence, justice and courage, and the writer of Colossians has a different list: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, but then tells us that above all else we must be clothed in love -agape- which is the beginning and the end of all virtue.

These virtues must not be, as it were, stored away in a cupboard, or referred to in documents, but used and exercised every day, like the muscles of our body. These verses emphasise the importance of our common life and mutual encouragement. It is so that we may be ready to serve that we are told to teach and encourage one another, learn from each other and, yes, worship. The Christians of Paul’s time sang psalms and hymns: singing the verses of the bible so that they might the more be a part of their minds and their lives. The word translated ‘gratitude’ is the word ‘eucharist’, the name for our celebration when we come to the Lord’s table.

For a short hour this morning we too turn aside from the world and its agendas and focus on the Son of God. We come to be refreshed, to learn from one another and encourage each other, to remember and celebrate the wonder of life and of creation, and the love and grace of God which we have received, and to be thankful.

So may we focus on Christ today and every day, that when the times of trial come faith may continue to guide us, hope never leave us, and love sustain us.

29th October 2023. Celebration of All Saints and All Souls.

Prayer for today:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for Bos Wigmore, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan, Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett, Hayley Gennery, Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead, Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde.

Among those who have recently died we remember Audrey Henderson, Hendrik Nieuwland and Bill Harvey, and also 

Margaret Robson, Isla Baynes, Muriel Clark, James Henry Short, Millett Ridley, John Pickworth, Joyce Best, Douglas Capes and Keith Herdman, whose year’s mind is about this time.

We are also asked to remember: Harry Davison, Robbie Hutchinson, John Gilbert Graham, Anthony and Julia Graham, John William and Lilian Lowdon.

If there are any whom you would like remembered in prayer during this morning’s service, please write their names on the paper provided, bring this to the altar before our prayers of intercession begin and, if you wish, light a candle for them.

Readings:

Revelation 7: 9-17

I saw a multitude, too great to be counted, from every nation and tribe and people, and they stood before the throne and before the Lamb. They carried palm branches in their hands and cried out, ‘Salvation comes from God our King, and from the Lamb!’

And round the throne stood all the angels, and the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honour, power and might be to our God for ever and ever. Amen.’

The one of the elders asked me, ‘Who are these, clothed in white, and whence have they come?’ I said to him, ‘You, sir, know this.’

He replied, ‘These have come through the great persecution. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God and worship him night and day within his temple, and the one on the throne will shelter them. No longer will they hunger or thirst; the sun will not strike them, for the Lamb on the throne will be their shepherd. He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.’

Psalm 34

I will bless the Lord at all times:
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul shall make her boast in the Lord:
the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he heard me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
They looked unto him, and were lightened:
and their faces were not ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him,
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him,
and delivereth them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good:
blessed is the man that trusteth in him.
O fear the Lord, ye his saints:
for there is no want to them that fear him.
10 The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger:
but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.

Matthew 5: 1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. Then he sat, and his disciples came to him. He taught them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn: they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful: they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when they revile you, persecute you, and speak evil and falsehood against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Thoughts at All Saints

In the early years of the 1400s a little book appeared which has continued to influence people on their Christian journey up to the present day. It was written by Thomas from Kempen, a town near Cologne, a priest and one of the Brethren of the Common Life. In short chapters it seeks to guide the reader to a closer following of the christian life by focusing on the person of Jesus.

All Saints is a time when we are reminded not only of those we consider to have been saints, but also that each one of us has been called to be a saint. In our baptism we were consecrated as holy to God and each one of us is called to fulfil our vocation and calling in our own way. The letters of St. Paul were addressed to ‘the saints’ of whichever church he had written to. This is not a judgement on their virtue as people – in many of his letters Paul is critical of the people he is writing to – but illustrates how he sees them: as a people chosen by God, who have made a response of faith to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

All Saints reminds us that we too were called, and this is our daily journey as God’s holy people. To find our way we need to trust our guide; this is Jesus Christ and that daily journey must involve engaging with his word in the gospel, and focusing on him in prayer.

Like Thomas and his Brethren we need one another for guidance, encouragement and understanding, and All Saints is also about giving thanks that we are part of that great communion which none can number, of every race and tribe and people.

The words of Jesus for us today are from St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus sat and taught his disciples.

The word ‘blessed’ has a rather theological and remote sound about it; in other translations and in other languages, French for instance, it is given simply as ‘happy’.

It is good to be reminded that being a saint isn’t about hair shirts and getting through life with gritted teeth and ceaseless effort.

Jesus is telling his followers how to find true happiness.

But how to be happy with Jesus? How to be happy on that journey?

What is striking about the words from our reading is that they do not immediately equate with success, whatever that may look like: those who grieve; those who are meek; those who are persecuted; those who hunger and thirst; those who are poor in spirit.

They contain an acknowledgement of our dependence upon God and they place God and the needs of our neighbours at the centre.

True happiness, that is to say, blessedness, does not consist in the pursuit of ambition or the satisfaction of our appetites.

Many years ago when I was a young naval officer I thought I knew where I was going in life. I was engaged to a very brilliant young woman and I was saving hard to buy a house and provide a home and all the things I thought were needed for a happy life.

However I was also very immature and really unfit to be married to anyone. My fiancée had more honesty and courage than me and broke off the engagement. I was of course terribly unhappy, and didn’t know what to do with myself.

A good friend, who was then a Captain in the Church Army, told me I needed to go and look after other people, and so I spent that Christmas not at home, but in a Care home in Ryton, looking after retired miners and others. Was I happy? I certainly had some peace for the first time in a long time, and in the service I was able to offer a sense that I was worth something.

While I was in the North East I met an old friend of my parents, and she advised me to go and work as a volunteer with the Cyrenians, providing homes and support for single men.

I have to say I had some great times; maybe I did provide some help and service, but I also received a great deal.  I was taught to cook by some of the residents, and I came to realise how precarious life can me. Those men were not so different to me: how easily illness, family traumas and other misfortunes can lead to isolation and homelessness.

So this All Saints may we reflect on our calling as saints;

May we focus on Jesus, look on him, listen to his voice, draw near that we may more closely be imitators of him.

May we encourage one another, and be signs to one another of what it means to be happy, to be blessed, to find our joy, our purpose, and liberation in the service of God and of our neighbour.

22nd October 2023. 20th Sunday after Trinity

Prayer for today:

God the giver of life, whose Holy Spirit wells up within your Church: by the Spirit’s gifts equip us to live the gospel of Christ and make us eager to do your will, that we may share with the whole creation the joys of eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Among those who are sick we pray for    Bos Wigmore,  Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan,  Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett , Hayley Gennery,  Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead,  Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde .

Among those who have recently died we remember Hendrik Nieuwland and Bill Harvey, and also Theresa Gibson, Annie Parker, Kathleen Webber, Betty Common and Ivon Moore, whose year’s mind is about this time.

Next Sunday will be the celebration of All Saints and All Souls, and a time to remember  all those who have gone before us.

Readings:

Isaiah 45: 1-7

‘This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armour,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
I will go before you
and will level the mountains;[a]
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honour,
though you do not acknowledge me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things.

 Verses from Psalm 96

O sing unto the Lord a new song:
sing unto the Lord, all the earth.
Sing unto the Lord, bless his name;
shew forth his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the heathen,
his wonders among all people.
For the Lord is great, and greatly to be praised:
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols:
but the Lord made the heavens.
Honour and majesty are before him:
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Give unto the Lord, O ye kindreds of the people,
give unto the Lord glory and strength.

Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name:
bring an offering, and come into his courts.
O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness:
fear before him, all the earth.

 

 Matthew 22: 15-22

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the poll-tax[a] to Caesar or not?’

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’

21 ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.

Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’

22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

 Thoughts on today’s readings

Our first reading has a strange, almost disruptive sound about it. Here is an oracle describing the pagan Persian emperor Cyrus as God’s anointed – the words for that are ‘Christ’ and ‘Messiah’, and it seems all the stranger because it comes after a chapter and another word of God emphasising how God created Israel and chose them from the moment of their birth. Yet read on and it is clear that God has not chosen Cyrus for his own sake, despite all the riches and victories with which he will be blessed. The words emphasise that Cyrus has been appointed by God to help his chosen people Israel, and so that the whole world may know that the God of Israel alone is God. Again what is remarkable is the statement that all this will happen even though Cyrus does not know the one God.

In St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ dispute over the payment of the poll tax to Caesar, the evangelist begins by emphasising how isolated Jesus has become. Here are not only Pharisees but also supporters of Herod, who would normally be arch-enemies, united against him. Behind the flattery of their opening words is something uglier: they are trying to trap him with his words. The Roman coinage for paying the taxes were inscribed with the words, ‘Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus’. For many Jews, the depiction of a living figure was idolatry, and the claim that he was divine was blasphemy; hence the point of the coin. Jesus senses the hypocrisy of their posturing. What is the credibility of their outrage, if they are prepared to carry and use the very coins which have been issued on the authority of the same Caesar? They have no answer and go away.

Behind the questions these readings may raise about the legitimacy of authority and the requirement for christians to pray for those in authority is a question about the source of authority and the mind and purpose of God. There is no evidence that Cyrus ever declared his faith in the God of Israel; nevertheless the words in Isaiah state that, whether he acknowledged it or not, Cyrus had been chosen by God to fulfil his purpose for his chosen people. Behind these words is an understanding that God was not like the gods of the pagans: the god of a particular people or of a particular place, or to be petitioned for particular areas of life, the harvest for instance.  This is God who was before all things and is the source of all things and can work in and through all things and indeed through all people, and that includes pagan kings and emperors.

Jesus who is for us Christ, the anointed, the Son of God and the revelation of the face of God, reveals also the nature of God and the purpose of God to us. He was not sent for his own benefit or that he might be blessed with ease and plenty, but gave up his life for the world which was his and which was his creation. In the action of this love, unselfish, unquenchable, and stronger than death, the purpose of God is revealed. Born in poverty, dying in obscurity, the Word of God reaches out his arms to embrace the whole world. And so, unwittingly, even those who  called him a blasphemer and shouted for his death, and the soldiers of Caesar who stretched out his arms on the cross have been instruments of God’s purpose.

And so when we worship, may we embrace the whole of God’s world. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; tremble before him, all  the earth.

 

Sunday 15th October 2023      The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Our service this morning is led by the Revd Canon Chris Simmons

Hymn 4           Lord, as the day begins

The Collect

O God, forasmuch as without you we are not able to please you; mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

The letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, verses1-9

My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Canticle: A Song of the Lamb

 Let us rejoice and exult                                              and give glory and homage to our God.

Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,   whose judgements are true and just.

Praise our God, all you his servants                           all who fear him, both small and great.

The Lord our God, the Almighty reigns:                     let us rejoice and exult and give him glory.

For the marriage of the Lamb has come                    and his bride has made herself ready.

Blessed are those who are invited                             to the wedding banquet of the Lamb.

To the One who sits on the throne                            and to the Lamb

Be blessing and honour and glory and might,            for ever and ever. Amen

Let us rejoice and exult                                              and give glory and homage to our God.

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, verses 1-14

 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

Reflection

This morning’s gospel is a real cracker, and a real shocker. In fact, if I were less of a coward, I would have processed in this morning wearing some rough old trousers and a T shirt, and waited for the horrified reaction – the vicar’s stand-in couldn’t be bothered to put on the proper robes for the occasion! (The silly old fool’s finally lost it!)

The way Matthew tells the parable of the wedding feast is challenging at three levels: first, it is so violent and so far-fetched as a story – a king who reacts with such arbitrary and disproportionate retribution. Are we to believe that this is the picture of God that Jesus intended to communicate? Second, therefore, there is an intellectual challenge for gospel scholars. Is the story right, or has there been some kind of distortion between what Jesus originally intended, and what Matthew wrote? Third, in the way the story ends – with words of exclusion and condemnation – there is a challenge to a powerful present-day fashion, the desire to be inclusive whenever we can – because of course inclusiveness is the great guarantee of our own salvation.

Now God’s love is not exclusive. The whole point of the ministry of Jesus is to show that. But is that a threat or a promise? In his life, Jesus offered God’s love to everyone he met – but we know that generally speaking respectable, upright, sane people treated him as a threat, while disreputable, downcast and diseased people greeted him as a promise. That pattern is reflected in the first part of the story of the wedding feast. The king’s generous invitation is treated with absolute contempt by his first choice of guests, so others, not so worthy, gathered in at random from the streets, come in to fill the empty places and taste the delights of royal hospitality. Easy to see that in the context of his own time, the authorities – particularly the religious leaders – would have found that an offensive story. They knew it was aimed at them.

But it doesn’t particularly offend us today because broadly speaking we probably don’t think of ourselves – or at least, I don’t think of myself – as belonging to either group. It’s just a story.

Well, yes, it is “just” a story, and we need to keep reminding ourselves of that. But the whole point of the stories Jesus told is that we should go on thinking about them until we have made the connection between Jesus and ourselves. Again, we need to look at the words of Jesus in relation to his actions. When the extortionate tax collectors and the hardened prostitutes and the chronically ill and the seriously deranged came to Jesus he didn’t say to any of them, “you’re alright as you are”. Change was part of the deal for them, and it still is for us. That’s not exclusiveness, that’s God treating us as mature people, able to acknowledge that actions have consequences.

To put it in terms of the story, the only person to be thrown out of the party was the one who thought he was all right as he was. He was literally not prepared to change! To put it in a word, judgement: real, and fundamentally self-imposed. Does God love serial killers and child molesters and ruthless businessmen and manipulative mothers? Yes. His love is not exclusive. Can a good God allow them to stay at the party if they don’t change? Of course not. God’s kingdom – and remember, Jesus said God’s kingdom is within us and among us – is infinitely capacious, but it’s still not big enough for good and evil to have equal place in it. One will have to leave.

The personal and political consequences of this are dynamite. The truth is that God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which love and justice and mercy and truth and holiness reign unhindered. They are the clothes you need to wear to the wedding, and if you won’t wear them, you’re saying you don’t want to stay at the party. That is the reality, as much for our kingdom (Christian nation OK as we are, thanks) as for ourselves, and we must not deceive ourselves or anyone else by pretending otherwise. So:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

The Prayers of Intercession

 Of current concern: the many signs of climate change; the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

We pray for the sick, and for their healing according to God’s will, among them Bos Wigmore, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan,  Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett , Hayley Gennery,  Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead,  Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde

We remember those who have died recently, among them Tom Cowing and Hendrik Nieuwland, and those whose year’s mind is about this time, among them Edward Ellis Pickworth, John Carter, Shirley Nichol, Jeanette Shotton, Dorothy Johnson and Philippa Jane Dodwell

Hymn 308       Just as I am

The Post-Communion Prayer

Holy and blessed God, you have fed us with the body and blood of your Son and filled us with your Holy Spirit: may we honour you, not only with our lips but in lives dedicated to the service of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hymn 563       Rejoice! The Lord is King

Next Sunday is the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity

The Bible readings will be

Isaiah 45:1-7 and Matthew 22:15-22

They will help us think about the source, extent

and limitations of earthly power

 

24th September 2023. 16th Sunday after Trinity.

Prayer for today:

O Lord we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you: and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also have the grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Please pray for Sam Little and Adam Holt who will be married here tomorrow.

Among those who are sick we pray for Tom Cowing,  Bos Wigmore, Daniel Bradley,  Hendrik Nieuwland, Prue Critchley, Ned Ryan,  Daniel Bosman, Suzie Dent, Nick Cook, Christina Baldwin, Lorraine Dodd, Kathleen Lee, Carol McKendrick, Roy Walker, Stuart Bell, Maggie Bennett , Hayley Gennery,  Elizabeth Sambell, Katherine Patterson, Heather Loughead,  Carol Allen, John and Gwyneth Wilde .

Among those whose year’s mind is about this time we remember June Evans, Elisabeth Patterson, Jessica Cosens, Nancy Charlton and Ian Heslop.

Readings for today:

Jonah 3: 10 – 4: 11

Unwillingly, Jonah had obeyed God and gone to Nineveh to proclaim God’s message that the city would be destroyed. The king and the people repented and, when he saw this, God changed his mind and did not do it.

Jonah was filled with anger and rebuked the Lord. ‘Is this not why I fled far away to Tarshish? I know you are a gracious God, slow to anger, merciful, steadfast in love, always ready to turn aside from punishment. Lord, take my life; it is better for me to die than to live.’ The Lord replied, ‘What right have you to be angry?’

Jonah left the city; he made himself a shelter to the east of the city and sat, waiting to see what would happen to the city.

The Lord created a bush; it grew up over his head and shaded him, and Jonah was happy about the bush.

But at dawn the next day God sent a worm that attacked the plant, and it withered and died. At sunrise God sent a scorching east wind. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he was faint. Again he cried to the Lord, ‘It would be better if I was dead!’ The Lord said, ‘It is right for you to be angry about the bush?’ ‘Yes,’ replied Jonah, ‘angry enough to die.’ The Lord said, ‘You are angry over a bush, over which you did not labour, which grew in a night and perished in a night. Then should I not have pity for Nineveh, which has over 120000 innocent children, besides many animals?’

Verses from Psalm 145

I will extol thee, my God, O king;
and I will bless thy name for ever and ever.
Every day will I bless thee;
and I will praise thy name for ever and ever.

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
and his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall praise thy works to another,
and shall declare thy mighty acts.
I will speak of the glorious honour of thy majesty,
and of thy wondrous works.
And men shall speak of the might of thy terrible acts:
and I will declare thy greatness.
They shall abundantly utter the memory of thy great goodness,
and shall sing of thy righteousness.

The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion;
slow to anger, and of great mercy.

Matthew 20: 1-15

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers to work in his vineyard. They agreed on the usual wage, and he set them to work. He went out again at 9 o’clock and saw others standing idle in the market place. He said to the, ‘Go and work in my vineyard; I will pay you whatever is right.’ And so they went.

He returned at noon and at 3 o’clock and did the same. At about 5 o’clock he went out and found others standing about. ‘Why are you here idle all day?’ he asked. ‘Because no-one has hired us,’ they replied. He told them, ‘Go and work in my vineyard.’

When evening was come the owner said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and going through to the first.’

Those hired at 5 came, and received the full day’s wage. When those who had come first were paid, they thought they would receive more, but they too were paid the usual wage. They complained against the owner, saying, ‘These have only worked one hour, but you have made them equal to us, who have borne the heat of the day.’ But he replied, ‘Friend I have done you no wrong. Did I not pay you as agreed? Take what is yours and go. I choose to give to these last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what is mine? Are you envious because I am generous?’

And so the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Thoughts on today’s readings:

We do not generally associate the Bible with comedy, but if the Bible has a comic story, perhaps it is the book of Jonah, with its grotesque and extraordinary tale of the cowardly prophet who responds to God’s call by heading as far as possible in the opposite direction (Tarshish was the western edge of the then-known world, on the coast of what is now Spain), who is swallowed up by a whale which then vomits him up on the beach. Now we read how he does preach God’s warning to this city, which was hated and feared by the Jews. They promptly repent and are spared. Jonah’s extraordinary reaction is, ‘Why did I bother? Why did I go through all this? I might have known you would not destroy the city after all!’

God points out to Jonah the irrational contradiction between his sorrow over the withered bush and his callous disregard for the lives of many thousand of people and living creatures. It was God who created the short-lived bush. Are not the people of Nineveh his creation too? And what of the remarkable aside: ‘besides many animals’?  All life in that city is the life that God has given. Jonah felt sorrow over a bush: surely God can feel pity for this vast city.

For me the story illustrates the word of God in Isaiah 55, verse 8:’My thoughts are not your thoughts; my ways are not your ways.’

The story challenges our assumption that we know or understand God’s purposes, that we assume that what we want, what we think is in our interests, is the will of God. I am reminded of the little girl at our school who used solemnly to pray ‘I will be done!’

The story is a challenge to all that is self centred in human nature, and, yes, all that is self-centred in those whom God has called into his service. It is a challenge to our assumption that our ideas of what is fair and just coincide with the will and mind of God.

That too is part of the point of the parable of the Kingdom in our reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel, though it is placed where it is as an illustration of the statement of Jesus, ‘The last shall be first, and the first last.’

Again we have this story illustrating the offended sense of fairness and justice of those who have laboured all day when faced with the grace and generosity of the master.

They would not have been offended if they had been unaware that those who had only worked an hour were being paid the same as them. It is because they are comparing themselves to others that, as the owner puts it, their eye is evil.

Why should they be angry because the Lord is generous?

The point is not unlike that in the parable of the two brothers: the worthless brother, who returns penitent, is welcomed with a feast; the story leaves it open whether the older, hard-working brother finds his way into the hall, or whether anger, jealousy, pride and his injured sense of justice keep him outside.

The point again, is that the prophet was not called for any other reason than to do God’s will and to be his messenger.  Having his focus on the Lord alone allows the prophet to be grateful for being called, and to give thanks for the signs of God’s grace and love for all his creation.

The disciple is not called in order to fulfil their own ambitions and destiny but in order that God’s work for the kingdom may be advanced; how wonderful is the variety and multitude of those who are called.

The Church doesn’t exist in order to ensure its own survival but to be a sign to the world of God’s free and undeserved love, grace and salvation.

For when our work is done, and we have gone to our rest, God will still be calling others to serve. They will do so in ways very different to ours, and the Church of the future may be almost unrecognisable to the one we thought we knew. But if the work is God’s work, and if in this his mercy, his love and grace are active then I for one, who know all too well how undeserved I felt my calling to be, rejoice and give thanks.