Thursday, 15 November 2018

Richard's Sermon on Remembrance Sunday 2018

Remembrance Sunday 2018

I want to begin by recounting two very different memories of Armistice Day.

The first is a letter home sent by Jock Crawford, an officer who had served all four years of the war on the Western Front. Years later he would become the father in law of Diana Allison, whom many of you remember fondly and who lived until earlier this year just across the street in Glanville Road. It is a letter dated 12th November 2018 and was accompanied by a picture of Jock that captures the exact moment when the war finished – standing looking confidently at the camera and holding a  half eaten apple given to him by the Belgian villagers he has just liberated..
He writes (it’s a long letter, so I’m quoting just part of it): -
“My dear Mother,
How can I possibly express my feelings! I never dreamt that I would live to see this day. Yesterday I was the first British Officer to come into a town of 15000 in Belgium – I was kissed by everything between nine and ninety and taking it alround it was most harassing. The civilian have gone mad…Needless to say the troops got pretty ‘happy’ last night so I was kept busy seeing they kept quiet and never had a single drink!...My men are all decked up with the inevitable three colours Red, Yellow, Black (NOTE). Love to Mrs Wallis (NOTE) – I cannot help but think how hard it must be for her with the thought of the one who will never return.”

The second is the memory of Ruby Ord who was serving in France with the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.
I think it was a bit of an anti-climax. Suddenly you thought about, you see, all the people you had known who were killed, etc. They were just in the war zone, and they could come home in your imagination. But the Armistice brought the realisation to you that they weren’t coming back, that it was the end. I think that it was not such a time of rejoicing as it might have been. You were glad the fighting was over and that not more men would be killed. But I do think it was dampened down very much, in France. I think they had all the enthusiasm probably in England, but I think we were too near reality to feel that way. I didn’t, certainly. I did not go out of camp on Armistice Day.”

Joy and Relief and Sadness and Exhaustion all mingled together must have been a common feeling one hundred years ago.
I wanted to begin with these stories because in many ways this is a day that belongs to Jock Crawford and Ruby Ord and the many millions who lived through those four years, those who served and those whose lives were affected by the Great War; those who had the stories to tell, and, on this day which bears the weight of remembrance, those who never returned to tell them.
And incidentally, if you haven’t already done so, please do go down to the Village Hall after we have finished here and spend time at the exhibition put together by Tim Moreman. For there are plenty more stories told there – of those who died far too young and of those who lived on and were changed.

There is another reason for emphasising the idea of story. It is because who we are is fashioned by the stories that we tell about ourselves. The story of those four brutal years that changed so many of the old certainties and the struggle twenty years later against National Socialism,  together with the heroism and the cost that this brought out has become part of our national consciousness. It has become a story owned by us all, not just by the participants. The fact that we continue to tell these stories long after memory has become history is evidence enough of that.

For there is a connection between our self-identification as members of particular communities and the stories we tell about the past. I am who I am partly because I am a member of a country that has a particular story to tell about those four years and about those six years. It is by the things that we remember, and the way that we remember them, and by the things that we fail to remember, that we identify ourselves as belonging to this or that group. What we remember, or do not remember, moulds our reactions and our behaviour towards others at a deeper level than that of conscious reflection.

In itself it is quite natural and proper that that the various groups and societies we belong to should be characterised by their own particular myths and stories – that the story of Britain between 1914 and 1918 is different from that of France or Germany in those years. What we call sin wheedles itself in when that difference is turned into division, and when our different stories, with their distinctive emphases, distortions and omissions are put to use for the maintenance of grievance, for self-justification and for keeping other people in the wrong.
So this morning is quite properly a service of thanksgiving for this day, a day which has come to be a symbolic representation of all the relief and euphoria brought out by that end to an epic conflict and the cost which it involved.
At the same time we make our Act Commitment in the hope that never again will the different stories that different communities tell be allowed to divide us to the extent that they divided Germany, Austro-Hungary, Turkey from France and Great Britain and her allies. At another time of great upheaval and uncertainty in Europe, we commit ourselves to our own ongoing stories that recognise our differences but will not allow them to become divisive again.

For when we assemble to give thanks for the Armistice we cannot but remember also the catastrophe that Europe suffered while that victory was being fashioned. The figures are familiar and easy to reel off – 20 million dead across all theatres, half of those civilians, the world’s first genocide in Armenia, the end to dynasties and old orders and the economic crippling of this country. And then a botched peace that led to even greater suffering twenty years later. The peace that the Armistice heralded came at such a cost. That is why we must cherish a society at peace, no matter how flawed and tarnished we may believe it has become.

That is, to an extent, why I wanted to choose a bible reading that is full of hope. For services of remembrance and commitment such as today can only have any real and long lasting value if they impinge on how we go about our lives in the future. We heard from the last book of the bible and a passage that is often read at funerals – another occasion that bears the weight of both remembrance and hope. And the book of the Revelation of John is most certainly about the future. It is about the end of all things. The author looks forward to that new Jerusalem, to nothing less than the kingdom of God. John himself was living in a troubled age. The threat of persecution and extinction was never far away from the Christian communities to whom he was writing. And yet he writes to reassure them that no matter the evils of the past and the concerns about the present, that all is, in the end, in God’s hands and that his loving and sustaining presence with and loving and sustaining plan for his creation will not be broken. John’s words are reassurance to us that no matter what evils have been unleashed by the conflicts which we remember, that God will prevail, that the future is in his hands. He looks forward to and we can look forward to a time when the only story that we will want to tell will be that of the people of God and his abiding, loving presence with them.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Richard's Sermon on Pentecost Sunday 2018

Pentecost 2018: Holy Trinity and Christchurch

My father was once pursued out of church by the ‘rudest man in the Church of England’. Douglas Feaver, a former bishop of Peterborough rather rejoiced in that sobriquet. Some of his bon mots were: -
“to bury a few I haven’t managed yet.”
“Where did you find him, in a blackout?”

Bishop Douglas had retired to Bruton and used to attend my home church in Evercreech. One Sunday, as he was leaving church my father asked the bishop what was the Old Testament reading for the following Sunday (as Dad was due to read). Ezekiel 37 he was told. Then, as Dad walked down the path towards the gate, Bishop Douglas rushed after him shouting ‘The dry bones, the dry bones; tell them about the dry bones.’
I thought he was somewhat mad and was rather in awe of him.
The prophet Ezekiel someone else classified as somewhat mad. ‘Exhibits all the symptoms of acute mental illness.”
 Series of fantastic and sometimes lurid visions suggestive of a man who had consumed industrial quantities of cheese before bed time.
Weird symbolic actions – lying for months on one side and then on another to symbolise the years of Israel’s exile; cooking using an oven fired by human dung.
And yet  it is Ezekiel who gives us two of the most powerful, beautiful and thought provoking visions in the Old Testament.
Taken by spirit to the temple and sees a great river with its source in the very sanctuary, the home of God’s presence that flows out and waters the desert that turns the Dead Sea into a water that is teeming with life that brings fertility and life in its wake.
Chapter 37 and detailed vision of valley of dry bones – crying out for some good CGI and the bones that are clothed with sinews and flesh and muscle but still have no life until the breath of God’s spirit fills them. ‘Can these dry bones live’
Water bringing life
and breath bringing animation.

To these we can add wind and fire – Story of day of Pentecost; our birthday.

Wind, fire, breath, water – all of them active, all of them bearing the potential for huge power, all of them not in our control; all of them symbols for life. All of them symbols for the Holy Spirit.

This is what God’s Holy Spirit does. – sometimes gradually (dry bones) sometimes naturally (river), sometimes suddenly and without being called (day of Pentecost).

All of us have been touched by that same Spirit (baptism). Sometimes dormant (dry bones), sometimes flooding us, sometimes galvanising us for action.

Unexpected star of Royal Wedding – Michael Curry; St George’s probably never seen like of it. Quote from Dr Martin Luther King:
“We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”

Substitute ‘spirit’ for ‘love’
"There's power in love. There's power in love to help and heal when nothing else can.
"There's power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will.
"There's power in love to show us the way to live”
So on this Pentecost Sunday let us give thanks for the breath of the Spirit; fire of the Spirit; wind of the Spirit; stream of living water of Spirit.

And let us pray that through the Spirit all that is dead in our own lives and in life of Church may be blown away, burned away, washed away so that new life can flourish.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Richard's Sermon on "Overcoming Death" for Easter 5 2018

Easter 5 2018: Benefice Communion: 29 April 2018
Acts 8.26-end: 1 John 4.7-end: John 15.1-8

Almighty God,
who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ
have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life:
 That is what Joy has just prayed and you all responded ‘Amen’ so you must have agreed with it.

Overcoming death is one of the holy grails of human existence.

In the final book of the Harry Potter series we are introduced to The Deathly Hallows, three legendary artefacts granted to three brothers by Death himself that would make a wizard who held all three impervious to any threat. The final of these is an Invisibility Cloak which the youngest brother used to cheat the vain search of death until he was an old and content man.
Sadly there is no such thing as an invisibility cloak.

But you don’t have to go to such extreme lengths. Just look around you in church. We are surrounded, are we not, by the dead – those whose names live long after them. Stroll through the churchyard and read familiar or long forgotten names. Since time immemorial people have sought the means to ensure their memory lives on after their death. One of the earliest cave paintings is that of a human hand, perhaps the author just saying ‘I was here’.

But these days the attempts to overcome death have become much more sophisticated and scientifically based. Perhaps you heard or saw in the news yesterday that a team of scientists at Yale University have been able to switch on the brains again of decapitated pigs. “They have been able to get the circulation going through the brain and so keep the cells in the brain alive and capable of normal functioning for up to thirty six hours. The team themselves were the first to recognise what the huge ethical implications. But Prof Sestan, the team leader is among the first to raise potential ethical concerns. These include whether such brains have any consciousness and if so deserve special protection, or whether their technique could or should be used by individuals to extend their lifespans - by transplanting their brains when their bodies wear out.”[i]
So option number 1 if you want to overcome death – wait for Professor Sestan and his team to perfect their research. Then simply transplant your brain.

Another way might be via cryonics. Thousands of people across the world have chosen to have their bodies frozen straight after death in the hope that medical advances will be such in years to time for them to be reanimated. Recent advances have made it possible to freeze and reanimate embryos and even the brain of a rabbit by a process called vitrification, whereby the blood is replaced with a mixture of antifreeze-like chemicals and an organ preservation solution. But any real hope is a long way off folks. A recent Guardian article about the issue asked the question ‘Should I get my body preserved and came up with the wry answer ‘From a purely scientific perspective, your money is probably better spent while you are still alive.’[ii]
Option number 2 – Freeze your body and wait and hope.
A final way is to create a digital avatar that will survive you beyond death. There is a firm called Eternime[iii] which offers you the possibility (at a price) of taking all your social media interaction, memories of friends, recorded memories etc and creating a digital version of you that can live on for ever. In fact some scientists think we will soon be able to go even further – “there is a growing appreciation that our personality, skills and memories are to some extent defined by the connections between neurons. This has led some to speculate that rather than bringing the actual body back to life, the brain’s contents could be “downloaded” on to a computer, allowing the person to live as a robot in the future.”[iv]
Option 3 then – make yourself a digital avatar so people can relate to and with you after your death.
I don’t know about you but I think I’ll pass on all three options. All of them seem to flow not from essentially from a desire to conquer death but out of a deep seated fear of death and as long as we are afraid of death we can never overcome it. Thank the Lord that for those of us who are followers of Jesus there are more hope filled if not necessarily easier alternatives.
So option 4 – trust in the resurrection. For me this is what is the alpha and the omega of my Christian faith and what colours everything about me. Hope of resurrection gives meaning and purpose to all that I do. I hope that I will be raised. I have hope of a new heaven and new earth. I have hope of God’s kingdom in which there is no mourning or sadness.
And is that just wishful thinking, another in long line of ways for people to think they are cheating death, when really they are just cheating themselves?
Well, the reason I will say ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’ in few minutes time without crossing my fingers is because of Jesus’ own resurrection. The empty tomb, the resurrection appearances are all evidence that God and Jesus are more powerful than death. Christ is the ‘first fruits’, the trailblazer and there is the same promise to all who ‘abide in him’.
As St Paul writes to the church at Corinth, reflecting on how Christ’s resurrection is the cornerstone for their own hopes ‘O death where is your sting? O death where is your victory?’

Hope in resurrection leads to hope in life. If life does not end in a hole in the ground, then surely this gives meaning purpose to who we are and what we do now. Because I have hope for the future, because death is overcome in the future, then this gives meaning and purpose to the life that I have now.
Option 5 for overcoming death is to ensure that your life is so full of …well, life.
Jesus promises to those who are his followers life in all its fullness. There tag line for many years has been ‘We believe in life before death.’ So do I, and as long as we do, as long as we aim to put ourselves in contact with the one who is himself life in all its fullness then death itself will always be overcome for death is just a name for all that kills life.

And finally Option 6 is the simplest of the lot – Love. That may seem corny or hackneyed. But, as Song of Solomon beautifully reminds us ‘Love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave. Love given and love received – family love, love within church family, love for partner is surest fire way of ensuring that death has no hold on you.
The passage we heard earlier from the first letter of John is quite dense isn’t it. It feels like there is a lot packed in there. But that’s mainly because of the number of times that love or one of its derivatives is mentioned -  29 times in fact. That’s once in every just twelve words. That’s an awful lot of love. Do you think he is trying to tell us something.
In his commentary on Galatians 6:10, Jerome tells a famous story of "blessed John the evangelist" in extreme old age at Ephesus. He used to be carried into the congregation in the arms of his disciples and was unable to say anything except,
"Little children, love one another."
At last, wearied that he always spoke the same words, they asked: "Master, why do you always say this?"
"Because," he replied, "it is the Lord's command, and if this only is done, it is enough."3  

And he is right. It is enough.
If hearts are full of love then there is nothing to fear.
John’s train of thought runs thus -  the reason that we can have boldness on the day of judgement is because of the love that comes from God and is shown by Jesus and copied by how we are towards each other.
In other words, if our hearts are full of love then death itself is overcome and there is nothing to fear.

Options 1,2,3
Or Options 4,5,6
Which do you choose – the way of fear or the way of love? The way that is essentially selfish or one which adds value to others?

I’ll leave the last word to one who is much better with words than I am, the poet John Donne. This is his sonnet ‘Death be no proud’

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow 
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, 
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee do go, 
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. 
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, 
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well 
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then? 
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. [v]

[i] ‘Ethics debate as pigs brain kept alive without a body.

[iv] Guardian ibid.

[v] John Donne ‘Sonnet X’ in Holy Sonnets or Divine Meditations

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Richard's Sermon at the Advent Carol Service 3-12-2017

Advent Carol Service 2017
“Making Room” – Waiting for the coming of the baby

I’ve always been a sucker for advent – the little doors to open each day on the calendar, the ever dimming of the sun’s light that is overtaken by the growing beam of the Son’s light, and the sense that somewhere just over the next rise good news awaits. Christmas is for children, they say, but Advent is, in many ways, a grown up season, in which we are asked to dwell a little on the coming of Jesus at the end of all things and the four last things – death, heaven, hell, judgement, as a means of readying ourselves for Christmas and the coming of baby. The coming of Jesus at the beginning and the coming of Jesus at the end begins another Christian year. There is that dual focus in Advent – birth and death, as T.S.Eliot famously reminded us in his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi.’

In many a year I might have been tempted to dwell a little with those grown up themes but this year I’ve been particularly drawn to the idea of a season that ends with a birth because on Wednesday I was the Palace to learn about giving birth and midwifery. Before too many conclusions are drawn I should say that the palace was The Bishop’s Palace in Wells and that each year the clergy are invited to receive hospitality and spiritual refreshment there at a pre-Advent retreat. This year the talks were given by Tina Hodgett who is the advisor in the diocese for evangelism and her theme was ‘Midwifery, mission and metaphor’ Tina was speaking brilliantly and beautifully about the whole idea of birthing as a metaphor for the new things that God is doing – different forms of church ‘fresh expressions’ ‘pioneer ministry’ – the process of giving birth to these and changes we might have to go through during that process.
But it is surely a happy coincidence (or maybe not coincidence) that these are great Advent themes also. We often talk of Advent as a season ‘pregnant’ with great meaning. And after all, what does it end with? – a birth and the impact which that must have on us.
I was talking with Rosie Hasler as I gave her a lift to a meeting the day after, Rosie is, of course, a midwife herself and she pointed out that in midwifery you can’t do it on behalf of the patient but you can give them the tools and support to do it for themselves.
And just so we can’t and shouldn’t command presence of Jesus into lives, into situations, into world ourselves; but we can prepare our own hearts and help prepare hearts of others to receive him when he does. And that is why God has given us Advent.

The act of bringing new life into the world involves a great deal of waiting. You can’t hurry the baby along. During a pregnancy there are nine months (hopefully) of not being in control. May be you are able to know beforehand the gender of the child but at the moment that’s about it when it comes to knowing the identity of the person you have created. Mostly you just have to wait and wait. That’s somehow important. Sometimes babies are born early, too early, but you can’t decide after five months of a pregnancy – I can’t wait any longer, let’s get this baby out. The baby comes when its ready. All you can do is ready yourself and wait.

In one of those lovely coincidences that sometimes happen when you are mulling over a sermon, Lois Burn came up to Joy and myself at the Christmas Market yesterday and spoke of how she has bought some presents for two grandchildren, or great grandchildren. She wanted to know if there was a name for gifts given during advent. We decided in the end that ‘gifts of expectation’ fitted the situation, the time and the theme perfectly. Expectation is an Advent word but that is so difficult when all the time outward pressures are forcing us into anticipation.
Expectation is about waiting while anticipation is about bringing the longed for event forward. And we live in a society that is good at anticipating but not so good at expecting. It is easy to have a lazy rant about modern society but social media and ever faster communication, means that we can have things ‘now’. I love Amazon Prime and next day delivery and goodness knows it has saved my bacon on numerous occasions but it is a sign of an impatient society. I wouldn’t want to go back to it but there was something about waiting for that packet of photographs to come back from the chemist!
I’ve already mentioned the Christmas Market and it was, as ever, a super occasion but I have to say that a part of me was a little uneasy as I heard the carols sung by the children and played beautifully by Bill Sutton and saw Mike Gelder in that ridiculous Santa top!
After all it wasn’t yet Advent! That’s one of the difficulties of this ‘not yet’ time – we are pulled in different directions and perhaps we need to learning again what it is to wait and expect and not to anticipate
It is the job of Advent to remind us all how to wait and it is perhaps the job of church to remind the world how to wait.
Jesus comes when he is ready, not necessarily when we are ready for him.

Another thing about expecting a baby is the way that the impending birth forces everyone to make room. We have to make room in our calendars for this tine scrap. We have to make room in our houses – nurseries are created, rooms are mobbed around, space is found in cupboards for all that stuff that babies come with. And, of course the woman has to make room in her body. We make room for babies, which is why it is so symbolic that our Advent story ends with there being ‘no room’ for a baby. There is no room for you Jesus. We’re not ready.
Barn request – can’t accommodate you. Irony struck me as I pressed send. No room at the inn.
There is a poem that I have used before in this service by an anonymous seventeenth century author about how we do or don’t make room for Jesus: -

‘Yet if his Majesty, our sovereign Lord,
Should of his own accord
Friendly invite himself
And say ‘I’ll be your guest tomorrow night,’
How should we stir ourselves, call and command
All hands to work! ‘Let no man idle stand!
Set me fine Spanish tables in the hall,
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat,…

…. But at the coming of the King of Heaven
All’s set at six and seven:
We wallow in our sin,
Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn,
We entertain him always like a stranger,
And, as at first, still lodge Him in a manger’
The little booklet Love Life Live Advent has a task or a focus for each day of Advent – this is what it says for the 1st of December,
‘The importance of preparing yourself for God when he appears is a theme that runs throughout the Bible’ Going into the wilderness was one way of preparing (John the Baptist), since it removed distractions, allowing people to focus on God for whom they waited. Most of us can’t go into the wilderness but we can make a space that helps us to focus on God.’…Make a place in your home where you will think about Advent and make it special. Put your Advent calendar, candle, wreath etc there.’

And then there is the fact that pregnancy is a time of huge growth. Think of how much the baby grows in those 9 months from something smaller than a full stop to the fully formed mini human being.
Growth is often seen as a sign of health – growing plants, growing children, growing churches but it is difficult to grow if you are not putting energy in. They often say that a pregnant woman is ‘Eating for two’ don’t they and the reason that the baby is able to grow so rapidly is because of the energy that the mother puts in.
Like many families we have pictures of our children just after they had been born. They are very bonny and full of life but their mother looks gaunt and drawn. Over those nine months the little beggars had taken the lot from her (and from then on also!). They had taken every opportunity to grow.

Advent is also a time that has such potential for growth and it is important to use those opportunities to feed yourself. It is a shorter period than it often is this year – just three weeks so use it well. Feed yourself through times of worship, through times of quiet prayer, through joining a home group to learn with others, through reading, perhaps through looking at what ‘Love Life, Live Advent’ lays out or the social media and internet campaign #Godwithus

 But most importantly this Advent Wait, Make Room, Grow – the baby’s arrival will be all the better for it.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Richard's Sermon on 5th November 2017: False Prophets and Fake News

4 Before Advent 5th November 2017
‘False Prophets and Fake News’
Holy Trinity and Christchurch

Has anyone else been watching that excellent series on BBC4 about The Vietnam War. In a recent episode we were shown the leaking in 1970 of secret papers stretching back 9 years which showed that successive presidential administrations knew that no good would come out of the American venture in South East Asia, knew that they could never win the war and yet continued to pursue just that policy, telling the people all the while that things were going well, that victory was possible. When the papers were published, you can imagine the reaction. One former marine interviewed all these years later said “That changed our whole attitude to government. Up until then – ‘the president wouldn’t lie’. After that – ‘they always lie’.”
You will be pleased to know that this isn’t a sermon about politicians and particularly not about Donald Trump. But it is a sermon about false prophets and fake news. For there are many of the former and there is a great deal of the latter out there. And who should we look to for guidance and leadership? Who should we trust?
In two of our bible readings we hear warnings about false prophets and the fake news which they peddle. Micah lambasts those whose directions are based on bribes, the prophets who lead God’s people astray, who say nice things to those who are good to them and promise damnation to those who aren’t. And as the disciples marvel at the solidity of Herod’s great temple and Jesus contemplates its eventual but certain destruction he warns them about those who would lead them astray.

There are many waiting to lead us astray also.
Fake news feeds us what we want to hear, like the false prophets who say ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.’ Because that’s what people want to hear.
There are two classic means by which false prophets lead people astray.
a) Wittertainment – Everything is going to be all right. Usually forget the second half ‘…in the end and if things aren’t all right this is not the end.’
We want to hear that everything is going to be all right so, of course, we listen when someone tells us that.
b) ‘Come with me if you want to live’ – this is the siren call of the cult which peddles their way as the only way. Things are going to hell in a handcart so ‘some with me if you want to live.’

 It was important then for the disciples to discern between false and true prophets and it is perhaps double important for us in our age of instant social networks in which many gain their news and their understanding of the world from media platforms that link them only with like minded people, the echo chambers of Facebook, Twitter, online news providers and so on. We hear only what we want to hear and so it is doubly important to listen to, read about and understand different opinions, different ways, and different callings. For then we will be in less danger of falling prey to fake news and false prophets.

SO who can we look to for guidance and leadership? Who can we trust?
Jesus tells his disciples of how hard it will be to keep to his way and how easy it will be to be led astray, refuses to tell them that everything is always going to be all right. ‘Everything will be all right – but in the end; and this is not the end.’ He encourages them to endure and stick to the Jesus way. He is to be ‘the ever fixed mark’, the one they can trust, the one who is ‘filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might’ as the prophet Micah might have said.
Jesus tells us as he told his first disciples to keep to the Jesus way, to hold out, to endure even as numbers appear to dwindle and costs to increase, as many appear apathetic to his claims or baulk at the cost.

And we know that he is the true prophet because he does not ask of us anything he has not been prepared to give of himself, and we know that his news is good news and not false news because he has taken on even death itself and emerged triumphant.

Yesterday was one of my most favourite days of the year…the diocesan confirmation in Wells cathedral. Sixty five people, young and old, male and female, able bodied and those who struggled to stand all pledged themselves to the Jesus way and it was very moving. One of them is with us in church today. David knows the difference between fake news and good news, between false and true prophets. I am sure that we do also.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Richard's Sermon for Bible Sunday: 29th October 2017

So how well do you know your bible?

1.      How many books are there in the bible?
2. How many of these are in the Old Testament and how many in the New Testament
3. Do you know from which books of the bible these openings are?
a) ‘In the beginning….’;
b)‘The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place…’;
c)‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.’
d)‘In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.’
e)‘In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven.’
4. In what languages is the bible written?
5. Who are the four patriarchs?
6. Name four churches to which Paul wrote letters (there are seven in total).
7. Who was Philemon?
8. Name four prophets who have books of the OT named after them (there are sixteen in total)
9. What is the last book in the Old Testament?
10.Which of these is not a book of the New Testament?
a) Acts of the Apostles
b)  Epistle to Titus
c) Epistle of Stephen
d) Revelation of St John

1.      66
2.      39 +27
3.      Genesis + John, Revelation, Hebrews, Ruth, Acts
4.      Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic
5.      Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph
6.      RomeCorinthGalatiaEphesusPhilippiColossae, Thessalonia
7.      Man to whom Paul wrote a personal letter
8.      Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, Hosea, Zechariah, Haggai, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Obadiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Malachi, Joel
9.      Malachi
10.  c)

As we mark today Bible Sunday and give thanks for the revelation that the scriptures offer I want this morning to offer up three concerns.

The first is the worrying extent of biblical illiteracy
Bible Society YOUGOV report from 2014 interviewed 5800 adults and 800 children and reported on the worrying number of children who have little idea of bible stories that we might accept as classics.
For instance, A quarter of children (23%) indicate they have never read seen or heard Noah’s Ark or The Nativity (25%), rising to 38% for Adam and Eve and 43% for The Crucifixion

More than half indicate they have never read, seen or heard Joseph and his coat of many colours (54%), Moses parting the Red Sea (56%) and David & Goliath (57%)
Steve Legg story – ‘Why did Mary and Joseph name their baby after a swear word.’

But perhaps that biblical illiteracy begins with those of us who follow Christ and if we don’t know the bible very well, we can’t really complain about what is happening in society at large. I’m afraid that there is a worrying amount of biblical illiteracy within churches also. And with how things are in the wider society it is even more important that we do know our bibles.

The second concern is about the sort of knowledge we gather. For what we are about with our relationship with the bible shouldn’t really be about knowing the bible as we might know a set of facts.
Can anyone recite those four famous actions in today’s collect, that beautiful prayer written by Thomas Cranmer and used as the Bible Sunday Collect? We are to ‘read, mark, learn, inwardly digest’

So read – of course; on your own, in church, regularly, include listen, use a translation you can get on with;
mark, take note of -  definitely; BRF notes, bible study groups (home groups plug)
learn? Well you have heard me read a passage that I have learned and it’s not as difficult as you might think. Passage means so much more as you spend more time with it.
And inwardly digest, take it into you, make it part of you, so that you are nourished, strengthened, so that you grow.
‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’, as St Paul writes to the Colossians
There’s the nub. You can know everything about the bible, but unless you inwardly digest what is there, little better than ‘clanging gong or noisy cymbal’ to borrow another phrase.

The bible is to be a conduit of our relationship with God, one of the things which makes that relationship possible. It is what we digest so that we can grow into the ‘knowledge of the fullness of the stature of Christ’. Through reading, marking, learning and especially inwardly digesting we find out what God is like, we are put in touch with his nature;
Through reading, marking, learning and especially inwardly digesting we find out what his purpose is for his children;
Through reading, marking, learning and especially inwardly digesting we find out how to behave towards and live with each other.

The third concern is, in many ways, the opposite of the first.
Of course the bible isn’t God himself, isn’t the relationship itself, rather the means he has given us to develop that relationship. There are many churches which fall into the dangerous area of bibliolatry, not wavering from scripture at all so that it becomes a constricting cage and they end up worshipping the bible itself. Rather the pages of scripture are like a window through which we can come into contact with God’s beauty. We look through it, not at it.

The great New Testament scholar, Bishop Tom Wright, has suggested that the Christian life can be compared to taking part in an unfinished Shakespeare play. He asks us to imagine that there exists such a play whose fifth act has been lost. The first four acts provide great deal of characterisation and such excitement within the plot that it is generally agreed that the play should be staged. However, rather than leaving everyone guessing after the fourth act or asking someone to write a fifth act, it is decided to give the key parts to expert actors who would be told to immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and then work out the last act by themselves, to improvise it. This is the manner, Bishop Wright tells us, in which we might approach the Christian life. We have the scriptures and we have the Christian tradition and we have reason. Anglicanism is sometimes said to rest on the three pillars of scripture, tradition and reason. Perhaps we should think of it instead as our faith resting on the living word of God as interpreted through the Christian tradition and by our reason – it’s a sort of dynamic relationship.

And so, the scriptures and tradition will not necessarily tell us exactly what we ought to do in any given instance, but they will be the bedrock upon which we are called to improvise. The more we are steeped in the bible, the more we can read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, the truer will our improvisation be and the worthier will it be of the God we follow.

Richard's Sermon for the annual service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving for the Faithful Departed (All Souls): 29th October 2017

All Souls 2017

I am often asked whether taking funerals is the worst part of the role I have. Of course it isn’t ever easy but taking a funeral  is always actually a great privilege and because of that many ministers will say that they are among the most worthwhile things we do.  Besides, I always reply that it is far worse for those who are bereaved than it is for me; and so I am very aware on an occasion such as this, looking out at your faces and the stories that they reveal (or hide) that this will have been a difficult year for  you. You are the ones in the crucible, whether the one you love was 9 or 89. You are the ones touched most vigorously by grief. You are the ones struggling to come to terms with the void in your lives.
So I don’t want to let this occasion pass without saying thank you for being here to make your remembrances in public, to say your ‘thankyous’ for the years shared alongside others doing the same. Just being here is an act of courage in itself; and I am always humbled by the way that the loss of someone so dear is so often met with dignity, courage and patience.

Facing suffering or grief with virtue, being able to hold together in tension all that life sends our way, good and bad is what I want  to speak to you about today. After all, the death of a loved one is one of the most profound experiences we will ever go through. How we get through it and the mark that it leaves on us goes a long way to defining who we are.

We soon discover that, trite though it often sounds, life goes on. At first that in itself may seem all wrong.
It is more than 20 years since Four Weddings and a Funeral, but the W.H. Auden poem that was made famous by the film still has the power to haunt because it speaks of the sense of outrage that there can be that the normal stuff of life doesn’t stop just because our world seems as if it has ended.

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. “

He makes the same point, in a slightly different vein in another poem – about how, of course, the continuity of ordinary life goes on around us, when all we might feel is great discontinuity.

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

Twenty years ago I was at a wedding in Windsor. It was the 5th September 1997 and I can tell you the exact date because it was the day before the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales. Inside the hotel there was quite proper joy and celebration. Just across the road a long snaking queue of mourners waited to sign the book of condolence in Windsor castle. I wonder what they though of the smiling faces they could glimpse through the hotel window.  There was joy and there was grief. The Royal Standard hung at half mast above the great tower and mid way through the afternoon the most beautiful rainbow appeared directly above it. There was a sign of mourning, there was a sign of hope.

Life and death, suffering and jubilation, bereavement and joy; how often we live with these held in tension – being able to do so is part of what being fully human is all about.
One of the reasons that I am a minister of Christian religion (apart from the belief that this is what I believe God has called me to) is that in Jesus Christ - in his life, and especially in his death and resurrection, we see the one who makes whole those two facets of our existence, those two facets of what makes us fully human and fully alive; and I just want to put people in touch with him.

I said especially his death and resurrection because it is the cross and the empty tomb that enable us to grapple with how it is ok to be both joyful and grieving at the same time. For the cross of Jesus reveals a God who takes us, and who takes himself, into the depths of what it is to suffer, what it is to lose the one we love, what it is to watch them die; who takes us into the heart of human darkness.
Yet he is also a God who doesn’t end the story there, who knows that apart from those first apostles, everyone else who encounters the cross does so through the lens of the resurrection; knows that the pain, evil, death not cancelled out by the resurrection but rather transcended.

It is possible to hold them together. Life does go on. Joy can break out. The void left by the end of the life of the one we love will always be there, not filled, not cancelled; but we discover that their end doesn’t bring the end, that we can hold grief and joy together.