Sermons at Bolton Priory

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I suspect that most of us have some random memories from our childhood

For some reason I can remember being on the lawn in my pram!

But it was a later memory which came to mind when I read the NT reading this morning

I came from a Yorkshire business family

We always sat down to dinner and discussed the affairs of the world

I am not sure how the subject arose, but as a teenager, I happened to comment one night that wages were related to the cost of living

My father stopped me very abruptly and corrected me

“Wages are not linked to the cost of living” he said “they are related to profit”

I am not sure that either of us had the economic ability to substantiate our positions

Save for the fact that my father ran a successful business and I didn’t

But in my teenage naivety, it struck me that a worker had to support, not only themselves, but their family, if they had one

It is a question that has remained at the back of my mind ever since

And sadly, I still don’t have the economic ability to answer the question fully

However, rather than economics

I suspect that my observation arose from an innate sense of social justice

Which is often so much stronger when we are younger

But my parents would tell me that if I wasn’t a socialist before the age of twenty-one, I did not have a heart

And if I was socialist thereafter, I did not have a head

I clearly don’t have a head, because the older I have become, the more I drifted from my conservative roots

But it is a question which has intrigued me ever since

Of course, we live in a capitalist society which, broadly speaking, breaks down into two separate camps

First and foremost, there are the capitalists

Those who control the means of production and seek to profit from their endeavours

Capitalists are driven to maximise profits – not through greed necessarily, but because that is how markets work

And what every employer tries to achieve is to produce as cheaply as possible

Workers are therefore constantly required to work faster, harder and better

But this runs against the interest of the second camp, namely the workers

Who, by contrast, want wages to be as high as possible with a work life balance to make things tolerable at least

To sugar this pill, the prevailing philosophy has been that the wealth created would trickle down to the less well off in society

In fact, what has happened is that the rich have got richer and poor have got poorer

But it is not just the economic consequences which get increasingly hard to tolerate

It is the society it has created

As the demand for faster, harder, better has increased, the UK has seen the rise of the so-called “gig economy”

Characterised by workers who do not have a contract of employment,

But simply take on temporary and part time positions – stripping out yet more cost from the labour market

It goes without saying that such work is insecure and risky

A recent cross-party report concluded that such workers were “surviving not living”

Over half those in the gig economy earn less than the minimum wage

They are often required to work between 15-18 hours a day to cover the basic cost of living

The Pew Charitable Trust reported that 70% of gig workers could not even pay their bills

In the UK, 1 in 6 workers are part of the gig economy and in America it is 1 in 4

As for trickle- down economics, it’s a myth

Inequality has grown ever wider in this country even though wealth production has increased

As a noted journalist and commentator put it “it does not have to be this way”

But neither capitalism nor the gig economy are new

Today’s reading is about the gig economy in Biblical times

Labourers in vineyard who could be hired on a daily or even hourly basis

As we heard, some were still standing idle at the eleventh hour

But there is a twist

Because the owner of the vineyard chooses to pay everyone the same rate

Even those who had started much later in the day

But of course, this is a parable

And the story is not about capitalism, but about the Kingdom of God

And it does not matter whether you labour in God’s house all your life or just for a moment in time

The heavenly rewards are the same

But there are some lessons to be learned

First, it is a shock to find that we have not moved forward since Biblical times

Two thousand years later we still have a gig economy/and there is still abuse in the work place and grotesque inequality

It is morally indefensible to saying to the poor that your rewards will be in heaven

And incumbent on us all to strive to implement God’s kingdom first here on earth

But returning to the debate with my father when I was in my teens

Nearly fifty years later, I still hold to my position because I don’t think the issue is just economic but theological too

We should pay the workforce fairly because that is a Kingdom value

And whilst I may not have a head, I do, hopefully, have a heart

Ironically, one of the hardest things for members of the Armed Forces to do is to leave the service

The military is such an all-consuming way of life that many struggle to adapt to the outside world

The armed forces provide a structure and a way of doing business that is unlike any civilian equivalent

When you want to get something done

There is a command structure

There is someone to give the orders

And there are those who make sure that they happen

You generally know what you are doing and what part you are expected to play

Generally, we will “get the job done”

And when this structure is removed, it is not surprising that many lives fall apart

This cultural difference, which so many find so hard to navigate today, lies at the heart of our Gospel reading this morning

When Jesus meets a centurion

As the title suggest, a centurion was a commander of a military unit consisting of 100 men

And held a powerful position in the Roman Army

According to the Roman Historian, Flavius Vegetius a centurion had to be

“at least 30 years of age, literate…and be able to inspire his men in battle”

He was

“chosen for his size, strength and dexterity and for his skill in the use of his sword and shield”

As for personal skills, above all

“He had to be strict in keeping up proper discipline among his soldier”.

This was always going to be a most interesting encounter

But I am not sure that the Gospel account paints the full picture

I am a great fan of the film director Ridley Scott

And one of his masterpieces is the film Gladiator

The film starts with a battle scene against the Germanic tribes which graphically depicts what it meant to serve in the Roman Army

The command is given to “unleash hell” and the opening scenes are of the bloody battle that ensues

But whilst Roman soldiers are “unleashing hell”

Jesus is offering a diametrically opposite way of living - “unleashing grace” if you like

Ministering to the sick, seeking out those on the margins of society

And calling on mankind to love their neighbour and turn the other cheek

The pacifist meets the warrior – but the results are not what one might expect

First of all, the centurion shows much intelligence and empathy when petitioning Jesus

He is a tough man, used to battle conditions and is a member of the occupying power

The centurion could have readily issued an order for Jesus to come and attend to his servant

Yet the centurion shows him great respect

Instead of asking him to come to his house he simply says

“Lord…only speak the word and my servant will be healed”

The title “Lord” comes from the Greek work kurios - which means Sir

He was addressing Jesus as his superior, even though there was no immediate reason to do so

But equally, Jesus shows remarkable flexibility too

First of all, he breaks with societal norms by first of all coming to Capernaum

Capernaum had previously shown itself hostile to the teaching of Jesus

But Jesus was quite prepared to come to what could be seen as enemy territory

Secondly Jesus was clearly prepared to consider coming to the house of a non-Jew

Jews were not permitted to come to the house of a gentile but Jesus does not appear in the least bit interested in such rules

Thirdly Jesus’s response to the centurion is immediate “I will come and heal him”

Jesus is prepared to drop everything to come to his aid

But, in my view, it is the exchange of words which is the most remarkable

The centurion says

“I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me, and I say to one “Go” and he goes and to another “Come” and he comes”

But now he has to dispense with such command structures

Not just because the outside world does not work like this, but because it was not necessary

Instead, he says, “only speak the word, and my servant shall be healed”

In reply, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith”

The centurion gives Jesus an authority over and above anything that he might encounter in the Roman Army

And Jesus shows that he has compassion for his fellow men and women regardless of where they come from and who they are

The Gospel reading this morning is about a clash of cultures

The soldier versus the civilian

The soldier willing to tear up the rule book that has governed his life

And the civilian Jesus, who was always prepared to tear up the rule book when it came to his ministry

And, as a result, the centurions’ servant is healed

But the question of authority still lurks beneath the story

Because, at the heart of it all, the authority does not vest in the centurion

But in God and his son Jesus Christ

The command structure is reversed because

As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans “there is no authority except from God”

Whatever our background, whatever our profession, whatever chances or changes we encounter in life

If we accept the authority of Jesus Christ, he will always come to our aid

He will in military parlance, “get the job done”

Last Easter when I was staying in London, I decided to visit the National Portrait Gallery

Visiting art galleries is one of my favorite occupations

And, as I was staying in my Club, it meant walking down Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square

As I walked down the road, I unexpectedly bumped into an old friend

We had also been at university together and subsequently in the army

We had therefore known each other, on and off, for nearly forty years

And we exchanged a few pleasantries

My colleague said that he had now retired from the army and was enjoying some well-earned leisure time in Wiltshire

I explained that I had now been ordained was Rector of Bolton Abbey

This piqued the interest of my long-time friend and colleague

He explained that he was currently living outside Salisbury and was now worshipping at Salisbury Cathedral

He then asked me, tentatively, what I thought of same sex marriage?

This was an issue, he explained, that members of his congregation had been discussing in Salisbury

I told him that, whilst I would be happy to conduct a same sex marriage, it was not yet lawful in the Church of England

However, I said that, in my view, the Church faced a dilemma

Because, whilst the Church might believe that marriage was only between a man and woman

Marriage was not the sole preserve of the Church

The State also had a stake in marriage and was quite entitled to take a different view

I said that it the role of the Church was not to condemn, but to find the sacred in the secular

It is perhaps an understatement to remark that Christianity has had a long and tortured relationship when it comes to marriage

First and foremost, there are numerous families in the Old Testament who are polygamous

Esau, Jacob, David and Solomon to name but a few

And God does not bat an eyelid – indeed they are chosen of God

But this issue is not confined to the pages of the Old Testament

This was a problem for Bishop Colenso in the nineteenth century

He was Bishop of Natal –

Who refused to condemn Zulu polygamy even when Zulu Chieftains converted to Christianity

Causing a crisis at the First Lambeth Conference in 1867

But if you think this is no longer an issue, think again

I was recently talking to a Bishop in N Yorks who said that this was still an issue for the Anglican Church

Not least because polygamy is still prevalent in the Anglican Communion in Africa today

 

But even within traditional marriage, the goalposts move all the time

Whilst it is correct to say that marriage is understood as being between a man and a woman in the New Testament

This was originally governed by a very strict patriarchy

St Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians said that “the husband is the head of the wife”

And that wives “should submit to their husbands in everything”

He also condemns sex before marriage

And thus children born out of wedlock –

And whilst this so-called ideal might be honoured in some Evangelical marriages today

It bears no relationship to the vast majority of most modern marriages

Once again, as Rector, I don’t sit in judgement ready to condemn

But rather rejoice that so many still choose to get married in Church

 

But any discussion about marriage would be incomplete without same-sex marriage

This was first permitted in the UK as a result of the Same Sex Couples Act 2013

The understanding of marriage being changed once again

The Church of England is still trying to catch up – tying themselves in knots as they do so

Priests cannot marry their same sex partner but they can be in a civil partnership

However, in other parts of the Anglican Communion, you can marry your same sex partner

Bishop Jean Robinson in New Hampshire being the most celebrated example

 

But the reason why I have preached about marriage this morning is because of our New Testament reading

The wedding at Cana of Galilee is mentioned every time I conduct a wedding service

Held up, unthinkingly perhaps, as the model for all marriages – but it is anything but

Marriage in ancient Jewish Society is not what we would find acceptable today

In essence, it was an arranged marriage and would probably be illegal under the Forced Marriages Act 2007

 

And so returning to the conversation with my erstwhile friend

Marriage is not the sole preserve of the Church

Wider society also has a stake in this debate

Furthermore, marriage has always changed and will continue to evolve as it has done markedly in our own lifetimes

And whilst some see their role as trying to sustain what they call “traditional marriage”

In my view, that is a hopeless task because there is no such thing

We must instead, try and find the sacred in the secular

And just as our Lord was present at a wedding at Cana in Galilee two thousand years ago

So must Christ, the Church, be present today, however marriage is understood

And if he is present, then I have no doubt that water will be turned into wine once again

Today we meet together to say farewell to our brother in Christ, Alan

Husband of Jaqueline

Father of Dave and Paul and Grandfather of Jensen and Amelie

He lived on this earth for 97 years

Well in excess of three score years and ten which is mentioned by the psalmist (Psalm 90)

He has been truly blessed by the time allotted to him by God

I was very taken by the details of his life

As a former soldier myself, I read with interest that he was a fitness instructor in the Army Physical Training Corps

And eventually reached the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major

I am sure this will have had an influence on the family – not least his two sons

It was also good to hear about his love of military history as well as his sense of humour

Not least over the exploding Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie

He seems to have been a man of humour and a man of strength at the same time

And we give thanks for his life today and all the blessings he received from God

And the blessings he bestowed on others too

Like so many former parishioners, I did not know Alan personally

He moved away as he became much older and I have only been at the Priory myself for just short of five years

But I was interested to know that he was a regular Church goer as well as being a parishioner here at Bolton Priory

Alan’s life has been, not just a journey of ninety-seven years

But a journey of faith too

From Alan’s baptism to his funeral here today

And I think that the time and season of Alan’s death and funeral speaks directly to this journey

First and foremost, Alan died at the beginning of December during the season of Advent

The season of Advent is when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ at Christmas

It is a time of penitence and self-reflection

But. if it is represented by anything, it is by lighted candle in the middle of the Advent wreath – which I have lit today

The candle reminds us of Christ coming into the world

And of darkness being overcome by the light

But, above all, it reminds us to keep awake for the coming of Christ

None of us know the time and place of our deaths but we need to constantly ask ourselves, are we prepared?

Alan too made this journey of faith in his lifetime

By recognising the light of Christ and walking in that light during his earthly life

Keeping awake for the coming of Christ into the world

But when it comes to journeying, it should also be remembered that Alan’s funeral takes place during the season of Epiphany

A feast we celebrated just a five days ago

The Feast of the Epiphany, holds enormous importance in the Church

Because it is the day when we remember the Wise Men visiting the Christ child in a stable

Bring him gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

But the Feast of the Epiphany is important for other reasons too

First and foremost, the word Epiphany means “manifestation”

Because when the Wise Men visited the holy child, he was made manifest to the world, rather than just the Jews alone

This funeral service is also a “manifestation”

Because Alan’s faith, brings us all face to face with Christ himself whatever our faith or none

But, above all, Epiphany is about journeying - which speaks to all our lives

Because it is about the journey of life - from birth to burial

A journey which we all undertake, whether we consider ourselves religious or not

And, in some cases, a journey within that life to find Christ himself

The poet TS Eliot wrote a poem called “The journey of the Magi”

Where he made reference to this journey observing that it took place in the “very dead of winter” and that

“The ways (are) deep and the weather sharp”

This makes reference to the fact that this journey of life is not easy

And that a journey of faith is not easy either – for any of us

But he concludes the poem by commentating that the witnessing of the Christ Child changed the Wise Men forever

As a result of their encounter

The Wise Men “returned to their places, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods”

Put simply, having found the Christ Child – their lives are changed forever

As they now live in the light of Christ itself

And having learnt the truth - they can say triumphantly

“I should be glad of another death”

And so today

We say goodbye to Alan

Giving thanks for all the blessings he received and those which he bestowed

And we give thanks for a life of faith on which he journeyed all his life

And we give thanks that, like the Wise Men, he too can now see the Christ child face to face

May he rest in peace and rise in glory

I have just enjoyed some leave after Christmas and this is my first Sunday back in Church

Like all of you here today, we are all back for the New Year which now lies ahead of us

Today marks the beginning of the liturgical year, after the Christmas festivities

The beginning of a work year which will soon mark my five-year anniversary at Bolton Priory

And the beginning of a political year too

A year that will probably see profound political change

With a General Election likely in the United Kingdom and an American Presidential election that will definitely take place in November

Elections which may have a profound impact on us all

But as well as our social and political lives we also have a spiritual life - a life in the spirit

This is a not subject to anniversaries or elections in the same way, but a continuum throughout our lives

But our life in the Spirit does have a beginning, and that is at our baptism

And it is appropriate, perhaps, that we should be reminded of this at the very beginning of this New Year

And what better occasion than the Baptism of Christ, which we celebrate today

But this celebration of the Baptism of Christ begs the question as to what our baptism might mean for our lives

Particularly as we age

This is however a difficult question

I am always struck by the words of Jesus at the end of Matthews Gospel where he instructs the disciples to

“Go and make disciples of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28: 18-20)

However, Jesus gives us no further explanation as to what baptism means

As with so much else, we are left to puzzle this out for ourselves

Understandably, St Paul - as the immediate successor to Christ and his apostles - sets about trying to make sense of baptism

In his letter to the Colossians (2:12), he explains that baptism symbolises the mystical burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ

As he put it “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him in faith”

As such, in baptism we “put on” Christ and become members of his body, the Church

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury suggests that this “putting on of Christ” makes us, above all, messianic

Someone who is divinely inspired to change the world

Which he breaks down into three distinct elements – the royal, the priestly and the prophetic

It is often forgotten that by being baptised as Christians we all become a royal priesthood

As the Apostle Peter said

You are a…royal priesthood…his own special people”

As Rowan Williams explains, this enables us to be

“Sovereign with Christ – free of the powers of class, ideology and nationality”

Only in Christ, do we exercise true sovereignty and have the freedom to act accordingly

Only in Christ do we truly “take back control”

Secondly, baptism makes us priestly at the same time

At first blush, this may seem rather confusing

We have priests and we have the people and, if we are not careful, we can live separate lives

But, of course, we do nothing of the sort

Amongst other things, a priest is charged with trying to put together a broken world

But this responsibility extends to all the baptized as well

To be frank - we have broken our planet and we have broken and fractured relations across the world and our country

And there could not be a better year to remind us of our responsibility to repair this brokenness

Finally, Baptism calls us to be prophetic

This is not just about speaking out – but as Rowan Williams put it

It is about “patiently and steadily recalling the whole community to its own integrity”

It is so easy for a Society to lose its bearings

In my own field, I have to remind society that we tortured our enemies

We tortured them as prisoners of war and we watched on in Guantanamo, Pakistan and Libya

But this loss of integrity happens in all walks of life – In our hospitals, schools, churches and politics

No doubt many of you will have seen the superb drama about the Post Office Scandal

Where an institution, led by a priest, completely lost sight of its bearing

Prosecuting people who had done nothing wrong and seeking to destroy those who spoke out

The baptised in Christ should be saying to each other in this New Year and indeed in every year

“Don’t forget who we are in Christ”?

Our prophetic role as the baptised people of Christ is to restore the integrity of the community

This is a challenge to us all at the beginning of 2024

And so we begin this New Year

A year which will likely see great change and in which we must all play our part

But not just a matter of our civic duty,

But also as the baptised people of God

Putting on Christ and exercising our royal, priestly and prophetic role in Society

And perhaps there is no better way to describe this as through the wonderful exhortation of St Paul in his letter to the Romans today

Where he said

“I BESEECH you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service”

Today we meet together to say farewell to our brother in Christ, John

Husband of Myra

Father of Andrew, Helen and Ed and grandfather of Molly, Jack, Holly, Lucy and Emily

He lived on this earth for eighty-seven years

Blessed both in his work and in his domestic life

 

As we have heard, in his working life, he qualified as a pharmacist

Enjoying the managerial side and obviously showing a great deal of competence,

He was promoted to run a department before moving to Head Office in Nottingham

And then to be an area manager

 

In his personal life

He enjoyed a very happy childhood, particularly on his mother’s family farm

He then Met Myra whilst at college and, after they married, he was blessed with three children

After a very accomplished career

He took early retirement where he enjoyed a range of pleasures

Including walking, travel and bridge

I was particularly taken however by his love of fine wine and fine dinning

A wine cellar in his garage

And then occasional fine dining at restaurants such as the Box Tree in Ilkley

His long and happy life was crowned by a Diamond wedding anniversary in 2023

And even a congratulations card from the newly crowned King Charles III

As Andrew said, this was indeed “A life well lived”

And so we give thanks to day for all the gifts that God bestowed on John in his earthly life

Put simply, he has been truly blessed

Blessings and being blessed is the thing that stood out for me most about John

Not just in his secular life but his spiritual life too

It is so easy to forget that our lives are, not just about career and family, but also about the spirit

And, as we have heard, John has been coming to Bolton Priory for the past thirty years

And was even a sidesman at one point

I have only been at the Priory for five years and am, naturally, unaware of much of what has gone on before

However, both John and Myra have always worshipped faithfully at Church since I arrived

Regrettably, I did not get to know John particularly well

However, one thing that always stuck out for me was that John would always come up for a blessing when receiving Holy Communion

Rather than receiving the bread and wine, he would opt just for a blessing instead

I say “just opt for a blessing” because a blessing is a wonderful thing in its own right

 

But what is a blessing?

A blessing is described as “the authoritative pronouncement of God’s favour on people, place, events and even objects”

A blessing presupposes a benefactor and a recipient

In this case, the benefactor was God and John was the recipient

 

There are a number of examples of blessing in the Bible

In the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis tells us that God blessed all of creation

In the New Testament, blessings or being blessed are seen as the spiritual state of those who belong to God’s Kingdom

At the Feast of Candlemass, which we will celebrate shortly, Jesus was himself blessed for the first time by Simeon

And this act of blessing set Jesus apart and made him “holy”

It also elevated him from being a child – to a child who has been blessed

Blessing someone or something makes a difference

John too being set apart by the pronouncement of God’s blessing upon him

But of course, coming up for a blessing meant that John had not been confirmed

I am always impressed by those who show the integrity not to commit to something in their life of faith

Because, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we all suffer from doubt rather than certainty

That is part of the human condition

Over Christmas I read an article by an Albanian philosopher called Lea Ypi

She was discussing what it was to have hope rather than belief

And she described hope as an attitude that sits somewhere between desire and belief

And she said:

“We look for evidence in the world to see if it conforms to our wishes, and if we find it we have hope”

John had hope in the life and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ

And was prepared to publicly bear witness to that hope

A hope which we see confirmed today in his final initiation into the Church

 

And so today we say goodbye to John

Giving thanks for all the blessings he received and for those which he bestowed

And we give thanks for a life of faith on which he journeyed all his life

And the hope he expressed in the death of resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ

He completes his journey today

Entrusted into God’s loving arms and ready to partake in the heavenly banquet – the fine dining - that has been prepared not just for John

But for the rest of us too

It is perhaps an understatement to say that this has been a momentous year
Tragically, once again, there is war in the Middle East and still political unease at home
But in stark contrast, for the first time in seventy years, in 2023 we crowned a monarch
And for the first time in eighty-seven years, we crowned a King
And in the midst of this great constitutional change in our land, there was a very interesting comment by a journalist from the Washington Post
He had been sent from America to cover the Coronation and noted that
“For a country which is so secular, and where so few of you go to Church, you sure mention God a lot”
Indeed, it was a great irony
That, in an increasingly secular country, the Church played such an enormous role
In funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the subsequent Coronation of King Charles III

But these two events, perhaps, were occasions when the Christian faith of this country was most on show
Some likened the queues to see the Queen lying in State as a sort of “pilgrimage”
And many were seen crossing themselves and bowing in veneration
Her magnificent funeral service took place at Westminster Abbey
But it was more than matched by the subsequent Coronation
A service framed within a celebration of Holy Communion which, perhaps, came closer than anything else to touching the heart of this nation
When the King swore “To maintain the laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel”
And by doing so, put God and his son Jesus Christ at the very heart of all our lives
As one commentator remarked
“The death and accession revealed Britian to be a more religious country than the statistics of decline might suggest”
The monarchy is, perhaps, the only institution in our national life to reveal the simple, but paradoxical truth
That so often our Christian faith is hiding in plain sight
Some the great religious buildings of this nation were inspired by Christian monarchs
Such as Westminster and Dunfermline Abbey’s
But it is not just buildings/
Edward VI was instrumental in the Book of Common Prayer
And James I bequeathed to the nation the King James Bible –
Which we use today at Bolton Priory without really thinking about the King
But in addition to tangible property
British Monarchs have often displayed great personal piety and devotion in their private lives too
Queen Elizabeth described Jesus Christ as “the inspiration and anchor in her life”
And her elder son remarked that love was “at the very heart” of his Christian belief

You might reasonably ask why I am making so much of our Kings and Queens on this Christmas Eve/morning?
But the answer is simple:
It is principally because our Old Testament and Gospel readings seem so appropriate for a Coronation year
Because these Bible readings are also about a King
A King prophesied by Isaiah in the Old Testament
Who spoke of “authority resting upon his shoulders”
And the account by St Matthew in the New Testament, also telling us about a King
Lying, not in State, but in a stable
Where he too is visited,
Not just by ordinary people, but other Royals families
Bowing down before him and presenting gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh
Two thousand years ago, people coalesced around a King too
Their collective faith clear for all to see
And it struck me that the accounts of the birth of Jesus have so many parallels with our lives today
Christianity lies at the heart of our nation but we barely notice it
Because much of our faith remains hidden
There are great buildings whose genesis remains unknown
Hospitals and schools named after Evangelists and Saints but whom we scarcely stop and think about
Or individual piety too which is either unknown or which scarcely gets a mention
Our spiritual hearts masked by our secular lives

But Christmas changes all that
Rather like a Coronation, Christmas is one of the great religious events in the life of this nation
When we all come out to pay our homage to a new born King
Like the shepherds, we may be laboring in the fields for most of the year
But not at Christmas
When carol services are full and churches swell with worshippers’,
And when our hearts turn towards charity and love of neighbor
And, for one day at least, our hearts our turned towards God and his son Jesus Christ
Like our own monarchs, it takes a King to represent and articulate the spiritual feelings of the people
And when it does, it becomes clear for everyone to see just how much Christianity still lies at the heart of our nation
When, like the shepherds or the wise men
We too make the extra effort to bow down and worship Him
And say “Glory to the New Born King”

‘May my thoughts and words this day be acceptable to you oh Lord.’

My thanks to Nicholas for his introduction this morning. I hope I’m able to enlighten you a little as to what Advent means to me.

Let’s look at the Advent wreath and what it represents. The first candle a purple one symbolises Hope also known as the ‘Prophecy candle’ in remembrance of the prophets especially Isaiah who foretold the birth of Christ the Messiah.

The second candle, also purple, represents Faith. AKA the Bethlehem candle it reminds us of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.

The third candle is Pink and represents Joy. Again it is also known as the Shepherds candle. Additionally the third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday and reminds us of the Joy the world experienced at the birth of Jesus.

The fourth candle is purple and represents a time of prayer and penance as we wait for the birth of Christ. Known as the Angel’s candle it symbolizes Peace and good will towards man.

Finally the White candle, the ‘Christ Candle’ It is White and pure and assures us that Jesus is free from sin.

Now the wreath holding the candles. The significance here symbolises the circle of life. Think about it for a moment… There is no beginning or an end, neither is there a beginning or an end to our Lords belief and love for us… It is never ending.

Advent for me comes in two parts, a before and an after. It is very much about the 4th candle the Angel’s candle. All my life I have been a Christian from times as a child at Sunday school up to now it has been punctuated by me meeting some Angels in real life; and all my encounters with them have mostly been around Advent, Christmas time.

Going back 50 years, it’s a late November night, 11pm freezing cold on an isolated moorland road and a huge accident.

As I climbed out of my car I was surprised to see a man leaning over what was left of the wall I’d just destroyed. We actually spoke for some time until some other motorists eventually came along, he just disappeared then; that for me was my personal road to Emmaus.

December 28 years ago, I wasn’t in a good place when someone knocked on my door; delivering a Christmas card. They took one look at me and sent me away back here to Yorkshire, the alternative was they’d have me sectioned that night for my own safety.

2 years later on a pilgrimage back to my old church in Ilkley, St Margret’s, an acquaintance saw me and invited me to sit with friends. There was a psalm in the service; I opened my book and it fell open at Psalm 34 where someone had underlined in pen verse 18 ‘The Lord is close to those who are broken hearted and the crushed in Spirit he saves.’ The lady looked at me and said. ‘Peter, if you ever needed a sign, I guess that’s it.’

These are just 3 examples of Angels coming into my life at times of crisis. My last meeting with an Angel was in December 1998. I think God decided I was monopolising too much of his valuable time and perhaps I could use a dedicated Angel of my own; in fact I married this one and in May next year we will celebrate our silver wedding.

(Bear with me a minute, we’ve got a Blue Peter moment.)

Here’s an Angel and you can clearly see it’s virtually impossible to wrap an Angel up for Christmas with wings. Solution… Take the wings off!! I’m still looking where my Angels wings fit.

So that’s before, now part two; after.

Elaine and I were both committed Christians before we met. We also both have birthdays in December so our run up to Christmas doesn’t begin until the day after them. That’s when the tree comes out and is

decorated, when the presents are wrapped and put under the tree in an ever increasing heap now as more grandchildren arrive.

Ten years ago, one of our sons, who was working abroad at that time, wanted to be married here at the Priory the following year so we attended to represent him while he attended the Anglican Church where he was living. We came and we stayed, that’s really when the true meaning of Christmas changed for me and I started to see the more liturgical meaning of living through the season of Advent and understanding the meaning of the Advent wreath.

Right now, out there in Skipton or Harrogate or Ilkley most of the people rushing around doing the last bit of shopping are hooked on mass consumerism, the hype, the adverts for this great new toy or gadget or that new must have amazing interactive computer game. By the time we get to Candle mass they’ll probably be bored with it or it will be broken. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten just who’s Birthday it is we are about to celebrate in around 13 hours. Our lives are governed by time and your diary and we live at 100 miles an hour. STOP… stop rushing …. Listen, if you stand still and listen, you will hear the sound of peace. Elijah shouted at God in the wilderness, God answered him in a still quiet voice. STOP and listen and you will hear him speaking to all of us.

So the first Advent candle is for Hope, the second for Peace. More than anything this year my prayers are for a calmer more settled world and a plea to my God, our Lord that in some way he can guide the world’s leaders to seek a just end to all the terrible conflicts and unimaginable suffering of millions of people in the world that we hear about daily. Nearer to home we must think too of the families and homeless people struggling to live through the current cost of living crisis.

The third candle is the Shepherds candle representing joy at coming of Jesus the Messiah. We need to share our joy as Christians with

those less fortunate than us and, to that end, many of you have contributed to what has been a fantastic toy appeal to give some children a gift this year. This morning we lit the fourth candle, the Angel Candle to remind us to pray as we wait and watch for Jesus’ coming, to celebrate in the light of our Lord and to love our fellow man, and most of all for peace on earth.

Now we wait and watch for Christ’s coming tonight, that his White candle will be the light to lighten our darkness. All through this annual Advent journey there have been Angels in there somewhere either in the Bible or in our day to day lives.

I’m, going to leave you with a challenge. To you here in the congregation this morning and those watching the live stream or listening to the pod cast.

This challenge was given 2000 years ago by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Hebrews Chapter 13 verse 1, and it is still out there today calling you to act.

‘Keep on loving eachother as brothers and sisters in Christ. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some have done this and entertained Angels without knowing it.’

This is what Advent means to me, it’s what I watch and wait for. May the peace of our Lord be with you all at this time.

Prayer: Dear Lord, through this time of preparation, open the doors of our hearts to behold the beauty of your presence in awe and wonder. Amen

At a birthday our greeting is: ‘Many Happy Returns of the Day’: for ‘Days are where we live; They come, they wake us, Time and time over’[1]; we experience life through recursive patterns; we move through the cycles of day, month, and year. Each year children excitedly add just one year to their tally; but adults soon yearn to exchange addition for subtraction. We know this life will end. Grown-ups hear ‘time’s winged chariot hurrying near’[2]. As Samuel Beckett trenchantly asserted in Waiting for Godot: women ‘give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.’[3]

In the north of England, at the dawn of Christianity, a pagan king listened to Paulinus preach the Gospel. The king asked a counsellor what he made of this new teaching. Bede recorded the counsellor’s reply:

‘The present life of man upon earth, O King, ---is like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your  - -thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, - - - is safe from the wintry tempest, but ---- he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So, this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.’[4]

 A sparrow flying from darkness into light and back into the dark. If that is all life is, then mid-winter feasting on December 25th, cheered by blazing fires or candles amidst family and friends is indeed a comfort, and possibly still the nation’s favourite escape from a tough world, a much anticipated, brief respite.

But Paulinus brought good news, the Christian conviction that this life is also a journey to the life of the world to come. If that is the truth of our human condition, then we have both hope and accountability. We have life and a deeper purpose. In Advent this existential choice is ours. Either we prepare for Christmas as a dwindled fable adorned with reindeer and sleigh rides, yielding an over-large credit card bill; or Advent is a time to prepare to come and worship the child of Bethlehem as our God. In our day secularism presses hard and confronts the Christian community with the key question: ‘is it true?’ Are we putting our trust in a fairy-tale?

And is it true?  And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?[5]

There has been a time in my life when I have tried to evade that question, a time when I have rejected its truth claim as an antique fable, lacking historical credibility, and turned aside. The Advent cry, ‘Wachet auf’, ‘Wake up’, ‘Pay attention’ brings sadness, a sense of loss, when we feel the message is no longer alive for us, that we can’t make it our own. How far this year are we making it our own?

 How do we make sense of the central claim of the Christian faith, that Jesus of Nazareth is God in human form, God en-fleshed. Incarnation is an abstract word with a big history. How do we make sense of it? In his prison cell, John the Baptist wrestled with this question. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus who he really is. ‘Are you the one Who is to Come, or shall we look for another?’ (Mt. 11:3 and Luke 7) In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus himself ask his disciples: ‘But what about you? who do you say I am?’ This powerful question is the crux of Advent. We cannot take it on somebody else’s say-so: we must ask it for ourselves: ‘Who do I really think Christ is?’  Peter’s affirmation rings out: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’, (Matthew 16) Do I identify with that? Wholeheartedly, or with reservations? If I affirm Peter’s recognition, other questions follow: how far do I live in the light of that truth? And what do I need to do now to realise that truth in greater depth in my life? These are very challenging questions.

This is where that recursive circling round of the Church’s Year is helpful; it renews for us the love and mercy of God.  It’s as if our Lord is saying: ‘Yes, I know you are not very good at even the basics of being a disciple, but here’s another chance’. Though I know myself to be fitful, not faithful, our Lord in Advent says, ‘Why don’t you try again?’ Advent brings sharply into focus both the fierceness of God’s loving quest for our love, and the resistance that holds us back. This is the tension Advent invites us to confront: will we keep to a closed-in way of being, one that puts our own small interests at the centre? Or might we step out, make a journey into the wilderness, walk through this dark solstice, to confront the forces that impede the conversion of our inmost being?

A sonnet written in Spain in the Golden Age, translated by Geoffrey Hill, dramatizes the conflicts in the human heart: intuitively sensing itself beloved, and yet stuck, resistant, holding back, making a good intention, and then drawing away. The sonnet addresses Our Lord:

What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love? What kind of care

brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew

 

seeking the heart that will not harbour you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?
At this dark solstice filled with frost and fire
your passion’s ancient wounds must bleed anew.

So many nights the angel of my house
has fed such urgent comfort through a dream,
whispered “your lord is coming, he is close”

that I have drowsed half-faithful for a time
bathed in pure tones of promise and remorse:

 “tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.”[6]

And there’s the rub. ‘Tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him’. As a child I was told, ‘Tomorrow never comes’. All we ever have is the precious fleeting moment, ‘now’; and yet the fantasising trick of the mind is potent, projecting into tomorrow an idealised version of the self. The Baptist’s cry is ‘Wake up’, yet it finds me drowsy, half-faithful, making efforts ‘for a time’, taking a warm bath in thoughts of ‘promise and remorse’, and leaving the matter there. St. Augustine, that great teacher of how to be honest before God, recorded his youthful prayer, ‘Make me chaste Lord, but not yet’[7]. And so often I pray variants on that theme: ‘Make me prayerful, attentive, compassionate, contrite, but not yet’. I procrastinate: ‘Tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.’ So most deeply what Advent means to me is the urgent cry of John the Baptist: ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’: accept as gift the challenge of the present moment; on this day become more aware, in this present moment; respond here and now to the discipline of self-examination. Trust God’s promise of a new beginning, and so draw a little closer to that good place where with Mary we receive God’s gift of His presence amongst us and say in our hearts, and with full assent: ‘Be it unto me according to Thy Word.’ (Luke 1: 38)

Amen.

 

 

[1] P. Larkin, ‘Days’, Whitsun Weddings, Faber, 1964

[2] A. Marvell, ‘To his Coy Mistress’, ed. H. Gardner, The Metaphysical Poets, Penguin Poets, 1957.

[3] S. Beckett, Waiting for Godot’, Faber, 1956

[4] Ed., L. Sherley-Price, Bede, A History of the English Church and People, Book II ch. 13, Penguin Classics, 1955.

[5] J. Betjeman, ‘Christmas’, A Few Late Chrysanthemums’, John Murray, 1954.

[6] ‘Lachrimae amantis’, ‘The Tears of a Lover’, Lope de Vega Carpio, 1562-1635, Sacras Rimas Soneto dieciocho: ‘Que tengo yo que mi Amistad procuras’. Translated by Geoffrey Hill in Tenebrae, 1978. Tenebrae (darknesses) is a liturgical sequence that moves from the Crucifixion to Resurrection; a movement into darkness in order to find light.

 

[7] St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 8, ch. 7: Da mihi castitatem et continentam, sed noli modo.

Today we meet together to say farewell to: Ruth
Wife of Max
Mother of Barry and Graham /Grandmother of Faye, Amy and Mia
All of whom she was so proud
As we have heard, Ruth had a wonderful life spanning over seventy years
With so much packed into her life here on earth

Although I did not know Ruth, the things that stands out the most prominently for me – and probably everyone else today - is the fact that farming was in her blood
I was struck by the number of farms she had lived and worked at
Black Hill Farm, Black Foss Farm, Upper White Well Fand finally Chelker Hall Farm
Ruth was also hugely accomplished at farming – milking, feeding, rearing, tractor driving, silage making, grass raking and latterly accounting
From the start of her life to the end farming was in her DNA
The second century Saint, St Irenaeus said “the glory of God is man fully alive.”
And Ruth exemplified this in her everyday life because when she farmed, she was indeed “fully alive”

But farming was not all that she was and all that she did
Because, it is clear from the eulogy that Ruth was blessed with a loving family and friends
She liked dancing, travelling, sport and motor cycles
I spent the five years of my preparatory schooling on the Filey Road in Scarborough,
So I might have even heard Ruth heading up to Olivers Mount!
Ruth is a reminder to us all of how important the simple things in life are
And how love for your family, friendship and passion for your work are more important than almost everything else
And so today we give thanks for her life - for all the blessings which were bestowed upon her and which she bestowed upon others
And we give thanks for all the wonderful memories we treasure today

It is always difficult for a vicar to preach on the death of someone he does not know
Inevitably, I cannot possibly know those who were in the parish from previous times
But who have since moved away, as was the case with Ruth
But although others can speak as to the facts about her life
What shone out for me most clearly was her life in the Holy Spirit
When I saw Max and Graham at the parish office, I was very taken by their comments about how calmly Ruth accepted her death
She remained calm and tranquil, accepting her illness as part of her life
And this spoke to me as someone with a maturity of faith - reflected in the service today and particularly the hymns

Her first hymn, “How Great Thou art”
Was written to the words of a Swedish composer called Carl Boberg
Who explained his inspiration as follows:
“It was that time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest colouring; the birds were singing in trees and it was very warm; a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon and soon there was thunder and lightning. When I came home, I opened my window toward the sea. There evidently had been a funeral and the bells were playing the tune of "When eternity's clock calls my saved soul to its Sabbath rest". That evening, I wrote the song, "How Great Thou Art"”
This hymn seems to encapsulate everything about Ruth
Inspired by the natural world, in which she worked, it is a proclamation of God’s glory
And, in perfect keeping with today, as her soul is returned to her Sabbath rest

But the second hymn also speaks to the natural world and farming in particular
The hymn is closely associated with Harvest Festival, but it also speaks to the seasons of the year,

He sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes, and the sunshine,
And soft, refreshing rain.

When Ruth died at beginning of November, the leaves were still on the trees displaying their wonderful colours
But today, the trees have shed their leaves, and autumn has yielded to winter,
The Bible reminds us that everything has its season and, as a farmer, Ruth will have been more aware than most
But there are seasons in our life too
As she knew and accepted, that this was the end of her earthly life as it now yielded to a new season – in God’s heavenly Kingdom

But it was the final hymn which, for me, speaks more clearly than everything else
“Love Divine All loves excelling” is normally sung at weddings
But it is also appropriate for funerals too – indeed it was sung at the funeral of the late Queen
However, for me it is the final two verses which speak so strongly today

Finish then thy new creation:
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;

Changed from glory into glory
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.


Ruth has today completed her earthly journey, and is now “perfectly restored in Christ”
She is changed “from glory into glory” and takes her place in heaven
And may we all be “Lost in wonder, love and praise”

 

In the name etc

 

 

 

 

What does Advent mean to me?

Nothing! Absolutely nothing!

That is the answer I would have given to you, fifteen years ago.

Before I became a Christian, I had no idea what Advent really meant. I wasn’t even sure when it started or how long it lasted.

It had no real meaning or purpose. And I am sure that’s still the same for many people beyond the Church.

All I did know is that it was a time before Christmas that many of my friends would call ‘Merry Mayhem!’ That time of year when everyone would be rushing around buying Christmas trees, presents, cards and plenty of food and drink! Offices would have parties, shops would be open extra late, and churches would hold a sort of carol service to improve interest!

In one sense, all these people were right. They’re preparing themselves for that great day when gifts are both given and received. That’s good. But it is basically a period of perseverance and endurance. And yes, a time of waiting – but for them it was the boring bit before we get to the exciting bit. And the sooner the boring bit it was over, the better!

Thankfully, that’s NOT our experience, is it?!

The Bible says ‘Do NOT be conformed to this world. But be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may discern what is good and perfect and the very will of God...’ (Romans 12:2).

And for me, therein lies the real purpose of Advent. It’s the reality of knowing that you need to take time out, in which you can withdraw from the busyness and mayhem of the world in order that your mind and your soul become refreshed, renewed and focussed on and through the Spirit of God.

It is, indeed, a time of transformation. Whereby you may more fully appreciate the love of God in Jesus Christ and of his presence in the world.

And it is the reason I am now stood before you, as a person transformed by the reality and love of God as revealed to us through His Son.  

So, for me and for many, Advent is a time of reflection. A time to step back and take stock. A time of self-examination. Of repentance. A time of preparation and a time of expectation when you can actually fall to your knees in prayer, giving thanks for the coming of our saviour, and for all those who prepared the way for his arrival.  

Our Advent candles serve as a reminder of just how important all this is. But don’t be distracted by its own beauty rather than the beauty it represents.

The four candles! The four candles? The four coloured candles represent hope, peace, joy and love, achieved and received through the centrality of Christ in our lives – a light in the darkness, the light of the world. They also remind us of those who prepared for the coming of Christ: The Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary.

I have found that Advent can be a super-rich spiritual season, full of purpose and available to all if only we are prepared to take time out in order for it to take hold and flourish.

And it is through this waiting and learning that we begin to engage in the preparing.  

As we already know I am sure, we are not only preparing ourselves for the coming of the Christ child at Bethlehem, but also preparing ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ.

But what is often overlooked, I have found, is the third coming of Christ, or the intermediatory coming of Christ.

This Advent I have been reading some works by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th Century Benedictine Abbot, who wrote about this third, intermediatory coming of Christ. I like it because it highlights a simple yet significant aspect of our faith that is often overlooked or taken for granted during Advent. He writes:    

‘I have come to know a threefold coming of the Lord. This third coming takes place between the other two. The two are clearly manifest but the third is not. In the first coming the Lord was seen on earth and lived among us...In his last coming ‘all shall see the salvation of our God’. But the other coming is hidden. In it, only the faithful see him within themselves and their souls are saved.

In brief, his first coming was in the flesh and in weakness. This intermediatory coming is in the spirit and in power. The last coming will be in glory and majesty.

This third coming is like a road leading from the first coming to the last. In the first coming Christ was our redemption, in the last he will appear as our life. In this intermediatory coming he is our rest and consolation’.   

Our rest and consolation.

Advent is a time to utilize the gifts of this spiritually rich third coming, in order that we arrive prepared and ready for Christmas Day.   

To be honest, it is the spiritual life that has affected me more profoundly than any other. It was by engaging in the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, submission, prayer and meditation that I began to become fully receptive to the presence and love of God everywhere and in everyone.   

And the best place that I found to encounter it was at a monastery. It was the one place where everyone and everything was devoted to worshiping and praising God. It’s a bit like a spiritual fuel tank. A bit like Advent all year round. But it’s also a centre of submission, sacrifice and service to God.

And even though I have become a member of a monastic community as one who is joined to a monastery but lives in a parish, the level of their devotion is something that most of us, me included, might find difficult to achieve. But it really is something worth exploring if you feel drawn to the contemplative life.    

And yes, I am fortunate. It will be easier for me than it will be for many of you to engage in Advent freely and without pressure, especially those of our brothers and sisters who are church leaders, and whose journey through Advent can seem more like a marathon, rather than a period of waiting and hope.

Advent IS a period of waiting – which some people find uncomfortable, but it is not a passive waiting. It is an active, intentional period of waiting – a time when we can prepare our hearts and minds for the arrival of our Lord and King. It invites us to pause, to reflect, to re-orientate ourselves towards the eternal truths of God’s love and grace.

And it’s wonderful. For it leads us ultimately to a very real encounter with a very real God.

And that is why I am here today. And I hope that you too, will endeavour to encounter our living, loving God, that little bit more closely now, as we draw closer to Christmas.

Finally, I would like to share with you one of my favourite passages, a short verse but full of Advent significance, from Luke Chapter 1 and the Song of Zechariah:

   ‘By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who are in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Amen.

Good morning. If I may  -  a few sentences about myself that hopefully give a sketchy context to my thoughts about Advent… What it means to me and why.

I’m a family mum and grandma, now long retired from teaching headship of a tiny village primary school. My youth and previous lives included most church roles and lay offices  - serving as churchwarden for a couple of decades, alongside involvement in all aspects of the village community life.

But, with my retirement, I resolved to “read a lot, write a little and try to “join the dots“, that is, …. to search for relationships between the seemingly disparate areas of life.
For example – did all healing therapies and modalities have something in common? Were they linked to our spiritual lives, to an animating force in the world?
Why do we believe what we believe – – – and is that valid? How do we know it is? What sources do we consult?
Are there universal beliefs across a variety of faiths? If so how did this shared element come into being?. And so on.

One of my tasks as churchwarden was to prepare for church physically for the season of Advent by dressing the altar with its purple frontal. In the ancient church where I worshipped, once the chapel of a nunnery, the “no flowers before Christmas“ meant that the huge, grey, stone fabric hunkered down with increasing coldness. Yet the towering bleakness spoke to me of Endurance…, a sense of strength and continuity through the ages. Stripping back seemed to expose a kind of Constancy.
. The Advent mantra “come Lord Jesus…“ birthed a deeper consciousness, felt as a need to be thoughtfully alive, sensuously aware, ready to respond, to move or to make perhaps…  an journey, …perhaps an inward journey.
One learnt that Advent was a time to prepare our hearts and homes for Christ’s coming and birth into the world. But here in lay the seeds of some confusion.

Whilst the first Advent candle traditionally reminds us of HOPE  – the eternity of God’s love, - going about the in the everyday world one, was and is, faced by an overwhelming consumerism, an insatiable appetite.  Moreover today, newspaper headlines and soundbites seem bent increasingly on convincing us all that HOPE  is a commodity born out of desperation. Realism seems ‘the new kid on the block’ .

So, truth to tell,   Advent - and to some extent Christmas itself, …  have over the more recent years stirred up mixed messages, sometimes painfully, that I find hard to navigate. The whole season seems definitely “out of joint “ (Shakespeare) .

I read that the Advent theme of “repentance“ comes from a root word….’metanoia’ -indicating a summons …to a complete change of life… for the individual or society…..the absence of which today  is poignantly and clearly seen in the present human tragedy unfolding in the Holy Land itself.  Notice though, the interpretation of the notion of ‘repentance’ : …a change or turning around.
So, I ask myself – if at the beginning of this new church year – if we made a fresh ““image“,  … if we’ reimagined / re..imaged the word repentance… would that serve humanity more richly?
The very words we associate with our faith and our beliefs, they become our drivers, our construction tools and so, knowingly or otherwise, seed into our individual and collective consciousness.       Let me briefly give an example as food for thought.

Over many years I, probably like you, have listened to and deeply enjoyed the beauty and tradition of the service of ‘ Nine  lessons and Carols’  marking the prophesying and the coming of Jesus into the world. But again, … that little voice of disquiet inside me has grown louder over the decades… making me question whether my faith is indeed “always dynamic, permanently rebirthing,”; or is it locked up/ frozen in time.!

The amazingly accurate (in the sense of order and progression) story of creation in Genesis, places God at the top of a pyramid, humans in the middle –“ with dominion over the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.“ Jesus when he came was a
‘ whole-maker’…who gathered together the disconnected and wounded parts of individuals and communities. He created new viewpoints.
A Christ-coming, a moving into us ….surely is a call to change..’ to re-image’, make anew, ‘repent’ in an active form of the word.

Myth-making and the use of story is complex and revelatory… but it often requires nuance,  understanding,   and perhaps even…instruction. The power of the message enshrined in the words “dominion over“ perhaps doesn’t best counter the expression of attitudes all too prevalent in our society’s history and consciousness even today. Too often we see instances of human activity of omnipotence  in our dealings with the natural world … to our collective detriment, I’m sure you with all agree.

Psychology today warns us that…  our collective and individual mindset is formed by what we read, expound and say. Images formed in childhood and adulthood stay for life… unless there is periodic re- image making, “reimagining”; a kind of “repentance“: a  turning to the Light for a clearer, purer picture of life.
What if Advent actually rebirthed a level of consciousness that enlarged our spiritual practices, our images?
So it may not be so much a case of “hear again the voice of the angels“, but rather shift towards listening with more critical, fresh ears, embracing perhaps some discomfort of questioning, some inner turbulence which propels( if not a journeying to Bethlehem,)….then an inner journey.

Looking back over the last few years, perhaps my quest to “”join dots”, to see connectivity between things of apparent diversity has been something of a long Advent. It has been a journey…a kind of looking for stars to guide me, to open up one’s mind hoping to find an echo of the Christ-child born in a barren place.
So ..Briefly, I would offer an Advent gift to yourselves, a recommendation , this morning – should you care to pursue it.

A few months ago, a healer and spiritual guru friend I have known a long while, pressed into my hands are thin book entitled “Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections  on the Meaning of Jesus”  by Neil Douglas Klotz,  a renowned scholar, mystic and spiritual teacher who in 2005, received the Kessler-Keener Foundation  “ Peacemaker of the Year award“… for his work in the Middle East. (I actually believe it isn’t entirely a coincidence that his work has come to my attention at this time)

For me it was an Advent voice – a chance to re-image what I thought I knew ..or more accurately … to shine a light into an area of very limited knowledge. The foundation of all Douglas-Klotz’s work revolves around the fact that Jesus‘s listeners were poor, native ARAMAIC speakers – not versed in Greek or Latin. !! Moreover, Aramaic offers a very different way of looking at the world which was intrinsic to them but somewhat alien to us.  Life was an inter-related whole. Their notion of “separateness” did not correspond to ours.  Moreover all Sacred discourse was always to be heard and examined in the heart from least three points of view – the intellectual, the metaphysical and then the universal. Theirs was an oral society: sense …and then TRUTH was FELT as well as heard. Feeling truth was not less valid than intellectually expounding it. This has a whole raft of implications .

So, for me, advent has become something of an ongoing season: it is THAT energy, assigned for special consideration to the beginning of the Christian year… perhaps though to be carried through the rest of the year’s progress. It is a time of reawakening, asking for light out of darkness, and perhaps it is not only individuals that are summoned. Through the grace of HOPE, I wonder if such institutions as the COP conventions, governments of whatever designation, …and dare I say it …- even the church itself … may they address that which prevents us all reawakening,
re- image making. If not now…when? How we say what we choose to articulate matters.
It has brought us collectively to where we are.

For me, asking for Jesus “to come” in prayer and hymn, invokes a revelation, a desire for a larger, grander vision of what it would be like if we collectively raised our level of consciousness.  I suggest that this would be a stepping-stone beyond the ‘ sorry’ aspect of repent.
This is my Advent voice.



Sermons at Bolton Priory continued...

If you would like to read any of the sermons just click on the + to expand the text.

I am just in the process of ordering new Orders of Service for the Priory

This is for the simple reason that the old ones include prayers for Queen Elizabeth and therefore need changing

But it goes without saying that 2023 has been an historic year for the Monarchy

The Queen had been on the throne for so long that we had grown accustomed to her reign

Yet change, inevitably, came about with her death in 2022 followed by a Coronation the following year

Apart from a few protestors, the Coronation went well, and the heir to the throne was duly crowned in Westminster Abbey

The Coronation also meant that, for a day at least, the whole nation was focused on the King

And perhaps what Kingship might mean for the King and his people?

Whilst we might only have had one Coronation in the past seventy years

The Church celebrates the feast of Christ the King every year and reflects on what his Kingship might mean for our faith

At first sight however, it appears that the Kingship of Jesus Christ is much like our own

Someone of noble lineage taking their, so-called, rightful place on earth

This year we have had the reading from the Book of Jeremiah

Where he prophesies about the royal credentials of a future King of Israel

As he said “Behold, the days come…that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch”

At Advent and Christmas, we shall hear similar prophesies

We learn that Jesus’ birth will take place in Bethlehem which is the “City of David”

And hear the Angel Gabriel declare “To you in David’s town this day, is born of David’s line”

Matthew will remind us that Jesus was greeted by the “three kings” of the Orient

And even thirty years later, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd still shout “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord”

The Feast of Christ the King, which we celebrate today however, is altogether different

It was instituted by Pope Pius XI (eleventh) in 1925

In response to growing secularism and secular ultra-nationalism across Europe

At the time, Pope Pius XI (eleventh) said

“the manifold evils in the world were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ out of their lives;

The encyclical drew on the writings of the Early Church Fathers such as Cyril of Alexandria who stated

"[Christ} has dominion over all creatures…by essence and by nature”

But this also gives the impression that Christ ascended the throne by virtue of his birth alone

It is not surprising therefore, that the Feast of Christ the King has been described as

“possibly the most misunderstood of all feast days”

And I think this is for good reason

When there is a proclamation of Kingship, there is an automatic association with Kingship as we know it here on earth

A King like those who have gone before and since

But therein lies the mistake, the fundamental error

Because Jesus is not like other Kings

And perhaps the biggest clue of all are his birth and his entry into Jerusalem

He is not delivered by a Royal physician at St Mary’s hospital, but in a filthy stable

He does not arrive in Jerusalem in the state carriage, but on a donkey

And whilst people might hail him as King,

Christ himself does not conform to their notion kingship

St Paul articulates the difference very clearly in his letter to the Philippians, where he states

Though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

The hymn writer, Emily Elliot (1826-1897) , put it this way

“Thou didst leave thy crown and thy kingly throne when thou camest to earth for me”

The Kingship of Jesus Christ is indeed very different from the earthly kings who have gone before or since

There is no doubt however that the Kingship of Jesus is complex and ambiguous

There is a mixture of meekness and majesty, suffering and triumph and there is little wonder that there is confusion between the two

But Christ’s Kingship does beg the wider question as to whether our own earthly kingships, indeed our own Kingship is redundant or idolatrous?

If Christ is King, why the need for any more?

But Jesus never attacks earthly kings, telling us instead to render unto Caesar what is due to Caeser

And I think the message to earthly rulers, including Charles, is not that they are redundant

But can instead, provide a Christ like model for human Monarchy

Indeed, a conflation rather than a confusion of the two

And that is a monarchy based on Christ’s own “royal” attributes

Of justice, mercy, wisdom, peace, humility and sacrifice

Or in the beautiful words of the Book of Common Prayer

“That we may be Godly and quietly governed“

And if earthly monarchs’ model themselves on the virtues of Christ the King

There will be every room for Christ to fully establish his reign here on earth

Just before I was ordained, I went on a three-day retreat at Hilfield Friary

It is an Anglican Franciscan Order just outside Sherborne

Where the monks still farm the land whilst living together in community

All ordinands are taken away on retreat before ordination and Hilfield Friary was a perfect location for the retreat

Our Retreat leader was Canon Eric Wood who was then Rector of Sherborne Abbey

And, in a very kind gesture, he gave us all an Ordination Card in advance of the big day

I can’t remember what was on the front but, inside, he put a Biblical quote which rather took me aback

It was taken from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians

Where he states that “we are treated as imposters and are yet true”

The quote is about Christians in general and not just the clergy

But the quote was very stark

We were on the verge of responding to God’s call by offering ourselves for ordination

Yet here was St Paul describing us a imposters

Although this description is qualified by the phrase “and yet are true”

I was at a loss to understand what it might mean?

Commenting on the same passage, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams put it more forcibly when he said

“We are not merely harmless spinners of fantasy, we are deceivers and frauds, misleading men and women in the most vulnerable areas of their lives”

But he went on to say

“The accusation that we are imposters has not changed over time…do not let us delude ourselves that the Gospel and the world are any less in opposition than they ever were”

And, herein, lies the clue as to what St Paul might have been trying to say

When it comes to charges against the clergy, you don’t have to look much further than our own current politics

Recently, Justin Welby took the Government to task over its now, illegal, policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda

Pointing out the inconvenient truth that 'this is not how God calls us to treat one another'

But the vitriol he received for just proclaiming the Gospel was deeply unpleasant

I looked up some of the comments in the press

· We should kick the bishops out of the Lords

· Stay out of these affairs

· Get these meddling priests out

· The Church of England has lost all credibility

Really?

But one comment, in particular, caught my eye when a reader said

“Shut up and go and find somewhere else where you can continue to dress up…like stage acting which is mostly what you do”

Although this comment was made in anger. the reader was, inadvertently, reflecting the comments of St Paul two thousand years ago

The clergy do indeed “dress up”

We use borrowed finery and the ill-fitting trappings of spiritual authority

But lest we forget, we are commanded to dress up – “to clothe ourselves in Christ”

And to that extent we are all “imposters” as the spiritual authority belongs to Christ alone

But the charge of imposter reveals an even deeper truth about ourselves and the Gospel

The former Archbishop of Canterbury again

“Nothing is easier than to respond [to the world] by preaching a gospel that cannot be disagreed with, that is not open to the charge of deceit, because it affirms nothing”

“Such a Gospel degrades human beings because it is not the Gospel”

What is required instead is a Gospel which leave the preacher “exposed and helpless, unable to predict its workings”

This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ

And whether it is preached by Justin Welby or anyone else, it can leave us helplessly vulnerable - and it does

But, as I mentioned at the beginning, the charge of imposter is not just levelled at the clergy but against all Christians too

That means every one of us here this morning

St Paul makes no distinction

Indeed, in the Early Church, holy orders were very much in their infancy

It is not just the clergy, but also the laity who are also called upon to preach the same, implausible, Gospel

I was reminded, the other day, of the words of the baptismal service

Where it states in the liturgy

“Here we are washed by the Holy Spirit and made clean. Here we are clothed with Christ, dying to sin that we may live his risen life”

You too put on the improbable clothes of Christ

You too live the risen life

Next time a Gospel issue, like refugees, comes up over dinner or wherever, try proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ see what happens…

Today we have heard the Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah

The prophet who heralds the coming of Christ into the world as we will too, once again, during the month of Advent

However, despite prophesying the coming of Christ

Isaiah sets out the fundamental characteristic of the Gospel - that it will not correspond with our world,

Because as God says

“my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”

But if we do take heed of He that cometh, then

“the word be that goeth forth from your mouth, shall not return unto me void; but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it”

That is the Gospel message and political lesson for all imposters

Earlier this year I was coming back to Bolton Abbey in the car having just visited a parishioner in Ilkley

As usual, I had the radio on and was listening to a program about the novel Peter Pan

The book was written at the beginning of the last century and had the alternative title of “the boy who would not grow up”

It became so popular that it was adapted for the stage in the West End

But, problematically, the play contained the line “to die will be an awfully big adventure”

Whilst we have all been led to believe that changing words in book and plays is a new phenomenon

It most certainly is not

The irony was that many of the boys who saw the play

Went on to die themselves in the First World War

As a result, the words were removed

Such words being deeply hurtful and insensitive to those going to the Western Front

 

Listening to this fascinating detail brought to mind the film “All Quiet on the Western Front” which I had recently watched on Netflix

Based on the famous novel by Eric Maria Remarque and published in 1928,

The book describes the First World War from a German perspective

And, in particular, the extreme physical and mental trauma suffered by the young soldiers in the German Army

The book follows a soldier called Paul Baumer

And describes how young men, like him, believed that they were taking part in some grand adventure

But were instead, like the British counterparts too, exposed to the realities of war

The film and book is brutal and barbaric

And is a polemic against war itself

And whilst we might think that the type of war fought in the First World War is a thing of the past

The recent conflict in Ukraine has shown that it very much part of the present too

I recently saw some pictures comparing the two conflicts

The images of soldiers fighting in the trenches in Ukraine

Are like the mud filled trenches of WW1 and what our forefathers had to endure

The trees torn and lacerated in Chateau Wood near Belgium in 1917 are like the trees torn to pieces near Bakhmut today

The landscape pock marked near Izyum in Eastern Ukraine are like the cratered landscapes of the Western Front in 1917

But, above all, it is the appalling casualties that bear the closest comparison

The thousands of Russian soldiers sent to their deaths in wave after wave

Are all reminiscent of the “meat grinders” of the First World War

Which led to the deaths of so many of our forefathers and members of our parish

If you want to remind yourselves of what our brave soldiers had to endure in the First World War

Then all you have to do is look at Ukraine today

 

But lest you think that the end of the World War One heralded a less lethal world

Then simply avert your gaze from Ukraine and look to Israel and Gaza instead

From the atrocities committed by Hamas, reminiscent of the Third Reich

We can, at the same time, see the appalling suffering of a war conducted, to date, largely from the air

The scenes of buildings being struck from the cockpit of a fighter jet are truly chilling

Buildings collapsing to the ground after a missile strike – no doubt still with civilians inside

Streets full of rubble

And the inevitable casualties when we see child after child being rushed into hospital

The scenes we see in Gaza today are reminiscent of the Blitz in 1940

And the bombing of our own cities like London, Coventry, York, or Hull

Or Dresden and Hamburg –

Remembering that our so called “enemies” suffer like us too

But nevertheless, there is a still tendency on Remembrance Sunday to be like Peter Pan and think that this is some “awfully big adventure”

That was me too – the boy, like so many others, who would not grow up

Until I went to my first operational tour in the Balkans in 1995

I was working in the Ops Room when news came in of British casualties in NW Bosnia

A British reconnaissance vehicle had struck an anti-tank mine

Blowing the vehicle onto its side causing a second mine to detonate killing all the crew as well the commander of the vehicle

I recall to this day the medical personnel advising the combat medics how to evacuate the bodies blown to pieces by a mine

And it subsequently fell to me to write the terms of reference for the Board of Inquiry

Where details of the deaths, including photographs, were recorded in graphic detail

I subsequently stood in silence on the airfield watching the coffins being loaded onto a transport aircraft

As I found out, war is not some “awfully big adventure”

It is bloody and brutal and we should all resolve to work, collectively, to see that it is no more

 

Today we meet again as a nation

To salute all those who have given their lives for our country since 1914

Those who have been killed, wounded, bereaved, or have had their lives blighted for ever

And those civilians too who are the innocent casualties of war throughout the decades

It is naïve of us to think that war can be avoided, despite the fact that the grotesque effects are around us all to see

Even this morning

But the Bible does give us some hope

Hope that one day, that the wolf and the leopard will lie down with the lamb

And the eternal comfort,

That despite all the horrors of this world, ultimately, nothing can separate us from the love of God

Earlier this year, my wife and I had a lovely holiday in Montenegro

We stayed in a small village called Petrovac and spent our days either swimming, sunbathing or sightseeing

One of the trips on offer was a day trip to Albania, which makes up part of Montenegro’s Eastern border

The trip took us down the Montenegrin coast

Before crossing into Albania at a place called Murican

After visiting a castle in Murican, we went for lunch in the town of Shkodra

And, to my surprise, when the bus stopped in the middle of the town, there was a statue to Mother Theresa

Although she worked in India, she was Albanian by descent

And a statue in her honor was erected after she was canonized in 2016

It is also reminded us that in 1979, Mother Teresa received the Nobel Prize for Peace for her charitable work in India

 

However, this was not the only surprise on our day trip to Albania

During our free time in the city of Shkodra,

We visited a museum called “The Museum of Witness and Memory”

The Museum is on the site of a former Franciscan Monastery which was taken over by the Communists in 1946

With supreme irony, the building was transformed from a Monastery into a Ministry

The Ministry of the Interior where suspected insurgents were brought to be interrogated and tortured

Indeed, Shkodra was also known as “the prison city”

But what was even more remarkable about the museum

Was the astonishing number of clergy who were murdered by the Communist regime under Enver Hoxha

During the Second World War, the Italian fascists followed by the Germans, invaded Albania

But they met strong resistance from mainly communist partisans

The country was liberated in 1944 ushering in the Albanian Communist Party

But many resisted the new Communist regime too, including the clergy

The Hoxha regime tried to abolish the Church completely, declaring Albania the first atheist State in 1967

The resistance continued until the regime collapsed in 1990

 

But on this Feast of All Saints, I wanted to share a few stories with you this morning just some of the Albanian martyrs we learnt about at the museum

First of all, Alfons Tracki was a Catholic priest who joined the resistance in 1945

His “offence” was to give the last rights to a wounded soldier and was arrested for performing “an illegal priestly act”

He was sentenced to death in July 1946 and was executed by firing squad the following day

His last words were: "...

“I do not regret dying, as long as I'm dying together with my brothers, and I have contributed, as much as they have…for the religion of Christ."[

 

Maria Tucci, was a Catholic nun

She was arrested on August 10, 1949.

After refusing to answer her captor’s questions, she was tortured over and over again

She required hospitalization and died from her injuries on October 24, 1950.

She was just 22 years old.

 

Shtjefen Kurti was a Catholic priest who wrote to the Pope informing him of the persecution against the Church in Albania

As a result, he was imprisoned for twenty years

On his release in 1970 was asked to baptise a child which he did in secret

He was arrested once again

At the trial the judge asked him why he had baptised the child?

He explained it was part of his role as a priest

As a result, he was executed by firing squad in October 1971

As for Mother Theresa, she left Albania when she was eighteen and was never allowed to return

She was not even allowed to visit her mother as she was dying

As she said

“Dear God, I can understand and accept that I should suffer, but it is so hard to understand and accept why my mother has to suffer. In her old age she has no other wish than to see me one last time.

By the end of the Hoxha regime

38 members of the clergy had been murdered

including 2 bishops, 21 priests, 7 monks and even an oblate for the Franciscan Sisters of the Stigmata

The Orthodox Bishop, Kallistos Ware said

“no Orthodox bishops had survived and less than 21 priests were still alive, most of them too infirm to officiate”

However, as a result of their brave witness to the Christian faith

A beatification cause was opened in 2002 and all thirty-eight were beatified in 2016

 

On this feast of All Saints, there are some things we can take away from this group of martyrs today

The first is that we tend to think of Saints as belonging to a bygone age

However, the Albanian martyrs have all arisen from the last century – many in our lifetime

And represent an astonishing array of religious people prepared to die for their faith

Secondly, Albania is much vilified today

It is an unfortunate symptom of our politics that we always seem to need and find another culture or race to hate

But whilst we were condemning Albania, in 2016, the Pope described Albania as a “land of heroes” and a “land of martyrs”

And the final thing is that the witness of these brave men and women show us that religion can never be extinguished

As one of the martyrs said before his death

“I die innocent, I forgive those who have accused me and who killed me. Long live Christ the King”

Today is the Feast of All Souls

In the Western Church, this Feast Day is celebrated on the 2nd November

A day that was instituted by the Benedictine monk and Abbot Father Odilo of Cluny in AD 998

According to legend, a pilgrim was thrown onto an island during a storm

Where he had a vision of souls in purgatory

So when he returned home, he went to see Father Odilo

To ask whether there could be one day in the year where prayers could be offered for the departed

Odilo instituted the annual commemoration of all the faithful departed,

To be observed by the members of his community on the 2nd November

A custom soon adopted in the whole Western church

And a custom which we follow today over one thousand years later

 

This tradition took root

And, indeed, subsequently flourished in the Middle Ages

And then again after the devastation of the First World War

Indeed, in my first parish in Gillingham, there was the chantry chapel of the Good Shepherd

Which was built by Mr and Mrs Carleton Cross in memory of their son who was killed in France during the First World War

But saying prayers for the dead does not stand in isolation with the rest of the year

We have prayers for the dead in our intercessions every week

We pray for those “in heaven and on earth” during the Eucharist

And, of course, we offer prayers for the dead during our funeral services

As a community of faith

We are also a community of the faithful departed

Meeting as we do today to remember those we have loved and those we have lost

 

 

 

I noted from the list in the parish office that we had said goodbye to no less than fourteen of our number over the past year

That is a lot of people and a lot of grief and, of course, this will be compounded year on year

But despite our sadness,

This service must also be an occasion, not only of remembrance, but also one of hope too

 

First of all, this service is an act of Remembrance

A service when we remember, those we have known and those we have loved

To re-member something stands in contrast to the word dis-member

When we dis-member something, we pull it apart

But, when we re-member something we put it back together

As we do this evening

But remembering is not just about making sure we don’t forget

It is about bringing together the past, present and future

To be made whole once again - in paradise – which should be a great comfort to us all

 

But even though we remember our loved ones today,

We must remind ourselves that they are not absent either

In our Worship every week we say the words

“Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify the Holy Name ever more praising thee and saying”

These words are not gratuitous

“With angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” – means exactly that

In God and his Church, there is no division between the living and the departed

Whether alive or dead, we still “laud and magnify” God’s “Holy Name” together

In a sense, each and every act of worship is a service of All Souls too

 

But it goes further than that in our celebration of the Eucharist

The Eucharist is a foretaste of God’s heavenly kingdom

An eschatological event where heaven breaks into earth

You may have lost the company you loved here on earth

But that company is now part of a Holy Fellowship and becomes our “Holy Communion”

So when you make your communion,

Think not just of a Holy Communion with God and his son Jesus Christ,

But with all the company of heaven - which includes your loved ones

 

And so on this feast of All Souls,

when we remember those loved ones’ we have lost

Remember, above all, that all is not lost

We remember our loved ones and remind ourselves that we will all be together, one day, in paradise

 

But for now/

We still worship together

We are still in Communion together at Holy Communion

And we are still a Holy Family regardless of the thin line between heaven and earth

Together, we are the Body of Christ

 

As it says in the Eucharist;

We are the mystical body of all faithful people

I think I can assume that most of you will have watched the Coronation earlier this year

I was amongst you and was watching the liturgy with great interest

Particularly as this was the first, and possibly only, Coronation of my lifetime

But, in my view, one of the most surprising elements of the service was the presentation of a Bible to King Charles III

Not least because he probably has numerous bibles of his own already

The Bible was presented by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland who said to the King

“Sir, to keep you ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes”

Armed with the Bible, the King went on to swear a number of oaths, which included an oath

“[To] maintain the Protestant Reformed Religion”

 

Intrigued, by this part of the service, I subsequently looked up when this custom began

It was first introduced at the Coronation of William and Mary in 1689

The year of the so-called “Glorious Revolution” when the last remaining Stuart King went into exile

The presentation of a Bible was at the behest of the Bishop of London who had been an opponent of James II

And was seen as a way of distancing the Monarch from Roman Catholicism

As a result, the Act of Settlement was passed shortly afterwards,

Ensuring that the Crown could only pass to a Protestant line of succession

Which accounts for the fact that the throne subsequently passed to George I, Elector of Hannover in 1714

And why we have had a Protestant line of succession ever since

Charles simply being the latest in the Protestant line of Saxe Coburg Gotha

Or, as we like to call it, Windsor

However, as well as being fascinated by this part of the service, I could not help being struck by the irony of this new ritual at the same time

 

First and foremost, the introduction of this presentation of the Bible was thanks to William Compton, Bishop of London

You might have expected the Archbishop of Canterbury to have made this change

However, he refused to play any part in the Coronation as he had pledged allegiance to James II – who was still alive and now in exile

The Bishop of London was the most senior Bishop to have renounced his vows and was therefore able to take the service

But the man who was quite content to swear an oath one day and then renounce it the next

Now took it upon himself to remind the King of his divine duty to rule with integrity

As Compton put it

“[The] Book of the Law of God, was to be the Rule of his whole life and Government”

But I think it is obvious to all that this was an act of gross hypocrisy

By a man who had forsaken his own vows months earlier and who was now using the Bible to play politics with the Crown

 

Secondly, as I mentioned before

The presentation of the Bible was also introduced as a way of distancing the monarch from Roman Catholicism

Medieval Coronations had included making oaths upon the sacrament laid upon the altar

And this innovation marked a move away from the sacramental with all the theological hazards that lay therein

But it was not just about theological differences but also mixed up with a much baser motive

Namely a suspicion of foreigners

As Professor Ian Bradley put it

“A widespread popular and visceral anti-Catholicism at the time was reinforced by a…little Englander xenophobia and distrust of foreigners”

However, this “visceral anti-Catholicism and xenophobia” resulted, not in an English monarch but a foreign one instead

First Dutch and then German – indeed, we have a German Royal Family today

But there was a third element to this innovation which struck me as the most ironic of all

The presentation of the Bible was seen as a way of reminding the King of what the Bishop of London termed “The Royal Law”

As he put it,

“The Royal Law”, was to be the foundation of “the Rule of his whole life and Government”

This reference to “The Royal Law” came from a reference in the Letter of James which states that the Royal Law was

“[to]l love your neighbour as yourself” (James 2:8)

This reminder to “love our neighbour as ourselves” was, of course, highly commendable

But the presentation of the Bible at the Coronation was designed to do the exact opposite

Indeed, it reminded us that we did not love our neighbour, be they catholic or foreigner alike

It struck me as being the very antithesis of the Gospel message

 

Of course, these historic vestiges were absent from the Coronation Service this year

Mercifully, they have been washed away in the tide of time

But the presentation of the Bible was still part of the service

But a service which now had a very different complexion from any Coronation which has gone before

Because, for the first time, not only did faith leaders from other Christian denominations take part

But so did the other major world faiths as well

Indeed, the King stated last year

I am a committed Anglican Christian – [but] it is my duty to protect the diversity of our country, including protecting the space for Faith itself

The King went on

“This diversity is not just enshrined in the laws of our country, it is enjoined by my own faith too”

For the first time in our nations’ history, the Crown has taken upon itself a new constitutional role

A role which is inclusive, rather than seeking to exclude

In the words of our Lord “To love our neighbour as ourselves”

Or in the words of William Compton, “The Royal Law as the foundation of Government”

Today is Bible Sunday

It is a day of thanksgiving to God for the inspiration of Holy Scripture

To thank God for the existence of his Word in the form of the Bible

To teach, nourish and guide

And we give thanks to God for his gift to us all today

 

But as can be seen from our chequered history

The Bible has, so often, been used a political weapon against our so-called enemies

And to supress those with whom we disagree

However, despite the historic stains on our national life

It is hoped that the Coronation, this year, might mark the end of such divisions

And indeed, a new chapter

Where, in keeping with the Gospel message, old enmities might be put behind us

And where those of all denominations and other faiths

Might feel included in our national life as equal and valued partners

In 2014, I travelled by bus to the South of Gaza

I was on a tour of the Holy Land which was designed to show us as much of Israel as possible

And we were scheduled to see a crossing point known as Kerem Shalom

I remember very clearly travelling down the 232, which is the main highway down the Gaza strip

And, as I looked out of the window, all I could see was mile after mile of wall

Known as the “Iron Wall”

It runs for approximately 40 miles and effectively walls the Palestinians into Gaza

It does not just wall them in however, it is also monitored continually by camera and automatic machine gun emplacements

On the other side was the sea – blockaded by the Israeli Navy

 

The purpose of our visit was not to see inside Gaza itself, but to visit a check point known as Kerem Shalom

The crossing is at the very southern tip of the Gaza Strip and used by trucks carrying goods from Israel or Egypt

Ironically, the name of the check point means “vineyard of peace” but there was nothing peaceful about it

The check point is composed of a number of blast chambers into which trucks have to drive before being inspected

We were privileged – if that is the right word – to view the various inspection chambers

And then had a chance to speak to one of the soldiers working at the crossing

One of the group asked him why he worked in this oppressive environment?

And I never forget his answer

He simply pointed at his wrist with his fingers –

Never again did he want to be a victim of the holocaust

And to be tattooed with a number on his forearm

What happened last Saturday was, of course, akin to the holocaust

Described by one commentator as “the most lethal assault against Jews since the Holocaust”.

The death toll was horrific

At the time of writing this sermon the death toll stands at over 1,200

This was not just soldiers’ however – of whom 44 were killed

But, in the main, innocent men, women and children who had nothing to do with the security in Israel at all

But it was the not just the wanton killing either

Many of the victims were mutilated

There are photographs of a baby riddled with bullets, soldiers beheaded and young people burned alive in their cars

On top of that, 150 or so hostages were taken back to Gaza itself

As the Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken said "It's simply depravity in the worst imaginable way,"

These are, undeniably, acts of terror

 

But of course, this explosion of anger and barbarity did not come from nowhere

The conditions in Gaza are utterly inhuman and degrading too

Just imagine yourself for a moment, walled into some of the most densely populated territory on earth

And then there is the appalling treatment of Palestinians themselves

Which has become ever more brutal since Netanyahu came to power in 2022

Since his election, there have been more Palestinian deaths since the Second Intifada

Last year, was the deadliest year for Palestinian children in 15 years

With Israeli forces killing at least 34 children as of August 2022

It is ironic that, when a Palestinian child loses their life, seemingly no one cares

But when a Jewish child is killed then the world recoils in horror

At the root of all this tragic violence however is the failure to find a just and equitable settlement for both the Jews and Palestinians since 1948

And until there is a just settlement, the violence will continue to spill over

This is the deadly scenario which confronts us all this Sunday

These events have overtaken everything else in the world -other events now taking an back seat

Indeed, I even rewrote my sermon to take account of this fast-changing situation

But I was very taken by the fact that the two readings for the service today speak directly to the conflict

In the Old Testament reading, God is mulling over the destruction of two cities

And how to resolve the problem of the righteous being killed along with the sinful

He even considers the question of proportionality

Something which will lie at the heart of many of the decisions to strike targets in Gaza as we speak

Abraham comes to a deal with God and a few are saved

But eventually God, in his anger, destroys both cities – something which I think might happen in Gaza in the coming week

 

This is all terribly depressing

And confronts Christians with the problem of the vengeful God of our Old Testament

But the New Testament reading does provide Christians, and indeed those of other faiths, with a glimmer hope

As we have heard, Jesus meets a sick man with palsy and forgives him his sins

Jesus is chastised for his actions

But the transforming part of the story however, is that even a sinful man can be forgiven

And made whole once again

And perhaps this is where our hope lies this morning?

There are undoubtedly grave sins on both sides

But, if both sides can somehow confront their past and repent of their sins

Then, at least, there is the faintest of chance of creating a just and equitable society

Where the God of Anger becomes the God of Love

One of the most beautiful features of Bolton Priory is the Reredos

Coming from the latin word meaning back,

The Reredos is normally an ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of an altar

But Bolton Priory is unusual because the Reredos is painted on the wall instead

Indeed, it is right in front of you and we look at it every time we come into Church

Painted by Thomas Bottomley and R G Greenwood in the 1870’s,

I am occasionally asked to identify the plants and am confident I will now get them right

However, the really distinctive feature of the painting is the Madonna Lily

Indeed, there are five of them standing tall among the other plants

And every time you look at the Reredos, you do indeed “consider the lilies of the field”

Which is Christ’s instruction to us in the Gospel reading this morning

 

In the case of Bolton Priory, the lily represents the Virgin Mary to whom this church is dedicated along with St Cuthbert

But how did the association between Mary and the lily come about in the first place?

There is no biblical link between Mary and a lily

But the lily has traditionally been regarded as a symbol of purity which is why many paintings of Mary included a lily as a result

I recently saw Rossetti’s wonderful 19th century painting of “The Annunciation”

Where the Angel Gabriel presents a lily to the frightened, adolescent, Mary

Hagiography relates that St Gertrude received an apparition of our Lady in the 13th century

And that Mary herself requested to be honored by reference to a lily

She made it known that, if anyone saluted her as the lily, she would appear at the hour of their death

So that they may anticipate the very joys of heaven

If you are not into Mariology, I quite understand

I recently found a lovely piece by a 17th century Baptist preacher called Benjamin Keach

He was the pastor at a Church in Southwark and wrote a piece likening Jesus to a lily

And I thought I might share his thoughts with you this morning

He wrote:

A lily is a sweet and a fragrant flower with a strong scent.

 

Our Lord Jesus has a sweetness in His ministry. St Paul said, He gave “himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:2)

 

 

A lily is white and very beautiful.

What better representation of the purity of Jesus Christ, than the one “who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21)

 

 

A lily is very fruitful.

 

One root may put forth fifty bulbs.

Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, He brings forth much fruit (John 12:24).

 

 

A lily is the tallest of flowers and yet hangs its head down.

 

This a beautiful picture of the greatness of the Son of God, matched only by the greatness of His humility (cf. Phil 2:6-8).

 

 

The lily has many medicinal qualities.

 

According to ancient teaching, it could be used to restore a lost voice, help faintness, was good for the liver, and helped to reduce fluid retention.

 

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the great physician and capable of curing all diseases and maladies of the soul.

 

 

The Lily is a beautiful picture of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

I have found a perfect Friend in Jesus. He’s everything to me.

 

Thank You, Lord.

But as well as being likened to Mary or Jesus, the Lily can also stand on its own feet so to speak

It is a thing of great beauty in its own right

And Christ is right when he comments that “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”

 

I don’t have a great love for gardening myself

But I love being in the garden

And earlier this year I noticed that a single pansy has somehow seeded itself and made its home, on the corner of the lawn by the porch

It was an exquisite cornflower blue

Lighter in the middle with black lines radiating from the centre

It was tiny

But a thing of great beauty nevertheless

To which I extended my admiration every time I passed by

It only lasted a short time but not even Solomon could have been arrayed like one of these

Or radiated such joy

 

The word pansy comes from the French pensée – meaning to think

And perhaps therein lies the clue for this morning?

That whenever we see a lily

Either in Church in front of you/or in the field

We too should stop and think

If only for a moment

And “consider the lilies” too

Last year on Easter Day I rose very early in the morning

I was sleeping badly at the time and would often come to my office in the early morning

When I came downstairs on Easter Day, I noticed that the message button on my phone was flashing

I immediately thought that the call was some kind of emergency – had someone died?

I felt I had to check - so pressed play

To my surprise it was not a parishioner, but an SMS message instead

And the message simply said “Christus Resurrexit”

Someone had taken the trouble to proclaim the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ first thing on Easter morning

 

About three hours later - and still unable to sleep - I decided to switch on my radio

This time the Easter message was different

The news bulletin reported on the sermon which the Archbishop of Canterbury was about to deliver later that morning at Canterbury Cathedral

He was preaching on the Government’s proposal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda

A policy he described as “cruel”

Remarking that such a policy “cannot carry the weight of our national responsibility as a country formed by Christian values”

The sermon was duly delivered and heavily criticised

But since that sermon, the bishops’ have continued their opposition in the House of Lords

Twenty-six bishops’ sit in the House of Lords and provide an independent voice and spiritual insight to those who govern our country

They have stated publicly, that the Bill is “morally unacceptable” and that 'this is not how God calls us to treat one another.'

Their collective view being that

“the policy must stand the judgement of God, and it cannot”

As one might imagine, the politicians and press were quick to criticise

The Prime Minister accused Justin Welby of being “softer on Vladimir Putin than he was on the Rwanda”

Another veteran Tory MP accused the Archbishop of “sharpening political divisions” and “wanting to live with law breaking”

And the Home Secretary added to the fray by saying

“it’s surprising that those institutions that criticise the plans fail to offer their own solutions.” –

As if we had failed to think about it

But the most interesting debate, in my view, was an interview on the BBC

Mindful of the Easter celebrations,

The interviewer asked the Conservative Minister whether he would “send Jesus to Rwanda?”

The business minister responded by saying it was a “ludicrous question”.

 

I am sorry that the Minister thought that it was ludicrous

Because the question was nothing of the sort

Indeed, there is a strong indication as to how Jesus would have dealt with this matter from the New Testament reading this morning

As we have learnt, Jesus was confronted by ten lepers

Not only were the ten afflicted by leprosy but, to make matters even worse, they were Samaritans at the same time

One can only imagine what the headlines in the “Galilee Gazette” might have said today

Spongers, swarm, infestation,

A danger to public health and so and so forth

But stripping away all the rhetoric, the simple fact is that the lepers were excluded

Excluded from the centre of social, political or religious life

Just like a refugee

And just like the refugees, they too were shipped off to colonies – leper colonies

It might as well have been Rwanda

But paradoxically, that is exactly where Jesus is to be found

Indeed, he is in the midst thereof –

In the midst of the “paradigm shift” that is going on across Europe as we speak

But the New Testament reading this morning reminds us, above all, of the example of our Lord Jesus Christ

An example we should all seek to follow

It reminds us that Jesus hardly ever heals anyone with any social, moral or political status

But looks for the lost, rejected, marginalised and fallen instead

But Jesus is doing more that seeking out the marginalised,

He is breaking down barriers too

Whilst we are dumping people in colonies, Jesus is breaking those barriers down

But he is not just breaking down barriers, he is re-ordering society at the same

Demonstrating that we can all live together – we can make everyone clean

But above all, Jesus is prepared to take on the stains of his society by getting his hands’ dirty

Just like the Bishops in the House of Lords

They too were willing to take on the stigma of the refugee and seek to them redeem at the same time

And we salute them for adopting the model that Christ displayed in the reading this morning

 

But returning to the SMS message which I received on Easter morning

Above all else, the proclamation of the Resurrection stands at the heart of our Christian faith

Through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are all conferred with the dignity of His risen life

To quote the Archbishop just one more time

He said that the decision to transport Refugees to Rwanda

“cannot carry the weight of resurrection justice, of life conquering death…It cannot carry the weight of the resurrection that was first to the least valued”

So we give thanks this morning for the example Jesus provided to all Christian people in our Gospel reading this morning

And we give thanks to our Bishops and the people of God, for following faithfully in his footsteps

Sermons at Bolton Priory continued...

If you would like to read any of the sermons just click on the + to expand the text.

It is now many years ago since I was a student at St Andrew’s University

In many ways, I was a student like any other – worked hard and played hard

And, in my first year, I took New Testament studies which required a basic proficiency in Greek

During the Lent term, the set text was the Passion narrative in the Gospel of Luke

Which we had to be prepared to translate in the end of term exam

This obviously meant very close attention to the text – something which would never happen in one’s own language

However, this embrace of the text led me to experience the closest thing I could describe as an encounter with God

For one day, while working at the translation, I suddenly felt consumed with an intense joy

I was so overcome that I went out into the library garden where I felt the power of God more strongly than at any time in my life

I was, literally, radiant and it is probably the closest that I have ever been to God

 

I was very blessed to have this religious experience – but I had done nothing to deserve it

Years later, I read a wonderful book called “The Orthodox Way” by the Bishop and theologian Kallistos Ware

In his book he said

“Direct glimpses of the divine glory are sometimes conferred by God on a person as an unexpected gift, before that person has even begun to repent and to commit himself to the struggle of the active life”

That person was me

I had certainly not committed myself to “the struggle of the active life”

But, despite this, I believed I knew what it was to experience the radiance of love Divine

To quote the hymn, I felt “Thine own ardour glowing”

 

Whilst not wanting to elevate my experience

It is possible that the Old Testament reading this morning is in a similar vein

As we have heard, Moses ascended Mount Sinai with two tablets of stone where he encountered God in the midst of a cloud

It is there that the Ten Commandments were narrated to him by God

And where he was instructed to write them down

After this close engagement with the text, Moses descends the mountain

Where his friends and colleagues encountered him once again

Except now, they noticed that “His face shone - because he had been talking with God”

Indeed, “The skin of his face was shining and they were afraid to come near him”

 

This is not the only occasion when an encounter with God leads to radiance divine

A few weeks ago, I preached on the Feast of the Transfiguration

Taking an alternative view of what it might mean to be transfigured

But there is a remarkable similarity between the accounts of the Transfiguration and the Old Testament reading this morning

In the story of the transfiguration, we learnt that Jesus went up to high mountain

Where he too met with God and was affirmed by Him

As a result, “his clothes became dazzling white - such as no one earth could bleach them”

And such was the radical transformation “they [the disciples] were all terrified”

 

Whilst it is only natural for those who encountered such radiance to be taken aback

There is no need to be afraid

St Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians tells us this

“Whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over our hearts.  But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed… and we all, with unveiled face(s), behold the glory of the Lord

As he put it, “we are transformed…from one degree of glory to another” 

What St Paul is trying to tell us

Is that if we remove the veil from our own hearts and allow God to come into our lives

We too can be transformed, brilliantly

Returning to Kallistos Ware, my great spiritual guide and mentor

Whilst acknowledging that direct glimpses of God can be an unexpected gift

He also suggests a three-fold way that all Christians can gain glimpses of the divine glory for themselves

The first stage is repentance

By which we obtain purity of heart and are no longer the prisoner of passing impulses

Secondly, by obtaining the purity of heart that comes from repentance,

We can discover that God is present in everything

And so daily encounter God through our conscience and participation in His creation

And thirdly, when this is done

The Christian can meet His Creator face to face, leaving him or her transfigured and radiating a brilliant whiteness

 

What Kallistos Ware is describing is a journey whereby we too can be transformed from one degree of glory to another

But whilst it may sound simple, don’t underestimate the task

For he tells the story of the desert Father, who was the holiest and best loved of the old men in his community

When he came to die, his fellow monks surrounded his bed but they noticed that his lips were moving

They asked “who are you talking to, Father”

He replied

“I am talking to the angels who have come to take me, and I am asking for more time to repent”

His brothers said “[But] you have no need to repent”

But the brother said “Truly, I am not sure I have even begun to repent”

 

One of my favorite anthems when I was at school was by the composer William Boyce

He is not particularly well known

But was Master of the Kings Music and the organist at the Chapel Royal in the reign of William II

Given his Royal patronage, it is probably fitting that his music was used for a Royal wedding

And the allegro from his first symphony was recently played at the marriage of Harry and Megan

I did not know this until I looked up his anthem “O where shall wisdom be found”

And the reason I looked up the anthem was because it came to mind when I read the Old Testament reading this morning

In the reading, Solomon is asked by God what he would like in return for his devotion

And, instead of asking for a material reward, he asks for wisdom instead

We all know the phrase “the wisdom of Solomon” but what might this mean?

 

The question of wisdom is vexed

A few years ago, a book called “The Bell Curve” was published in America and it took the country by storm

The book tried to get to the root of what makes someone clever

In essence, the book claimed that intelligence is affected by both genetics and environment

In other words, your family can have a substantial impact on your intelligence

However, the findings of the book also attracted much criticism

And one can understand why

We all know of children of privilege who are not blessed with very much

And equally those who have shown enormous ability from some of the humblest backgrounds

The question of intelligence is remarkably difficult to pin down

I recently read a book on intelligence myself by a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh

Who tried to examine the question in greater detail

And asked a series of very interesting questions

  • Is there one kind of intelligence or many?
  • Are there sex differences in intelligence?
  • Do we get more intelligent as we get older?
  • Does intelligence increase from one generation to another – are your children cleverer than you?

But despite all his investigations he had to conclude that, although there was evidence of genetics at play, it was very hard to pin down

Importantly however, he pointed out that there is little known about other human abilities

Such as “creativity, wisdom, practical sense and social sensibilities”

It seems that science and social science have made little inroad into the question of intelligence

As well as the curious attribute of wisdom – though the two are not necessarily the same

 

Whilst the Social Sciences have made little headway,

Theology however does provide its own insights which are worthy of reflection

There is little doubt that wisdom is highly prized

In the Bible, wisdom is likened to a lavish banquet and the Book of Proverbs likens wisdom to fine jewelry (Proverbs 8: 19)

But, despite the prize, the source or essence of wisdom proves very hard to find

The anthem which I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon takes its words from the Book of Job

Who asks the question “O where shall wisdom be found and where is the place of understanding”

But he does not make much progress either

Job acknowledges that wisdom is not found in the “depths of the earth”

Nor is it found in “the seas”

He realizes that it cannot be “gotten for gold” but is unable to find an answer as to where it might be found

Job concludes that God has hidden it from our eyes and that only God knows the way to it

However, it is the New Testament which perhaps gets us closer than anywhere else

Because Jesus himself is seen as the personification of wisdom

We know from St Luke (2: 40) that Jesus was considered “wise” from the beginning

As he says in the first chapter of his Gospel

The Child continued to grow… increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him”

We know that he continued to grow in wisdom, as recorded by St Matthew who said

“He came to His hometown and began teaching…they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get his wisdom?”

St Paul in his Letter to the Colossians describes Jesus as the one

In whom “Are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”

O where shall wisdom be found?

It is to be found in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ

 

And so returning to our readings this morning

Solomon asks for wisdom and it is granted to him by God

He is famed for his wisdom and even today we refer to “The wisdom of Solomon”

But even Solomon, in all his wisdom, could not prevent himself from making a massive error of judgement

With catastrophic results

Put simply, his wisdom made him arrogant and he acted unwisely as a result

But Jesus, the embodiment of wisdom told us today that

[he] “that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted”

Above all, wisdom demands humility

The humility to know that we are nothing without the help and guidance of God

And the humility to recognise that Jesus Christ is the fount of all wisdom itself

Or as William Boyce put it to music all those years ago

“Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding”

In 2013, I was invited to Israel by the Council for Christians and Jews
It was a wonderful tour of the Holy Land which, inevitably, included a visit to Jerusalem
We stayed on a Friday night and had dinner with a Jewish family before heading to the Wailing Wall as darkness began to fall
It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life
There were exuberant crowds
People were praying with shawls, scrolls and phylacteries
And some were dancing in large circles
Later in the evening, I went down into the foundations of the Temple with the Bishop of Hereford, who was also on the tour
There we saw people, young and old, including children, praying fervently
The bishop remarked that he wished he could inspire such religious fervor back in England

The religious fervor we witnessed was that of the Jewish people
Who, in the main, had been able to return to Israel since the end of the Second World War
As a former parish priest once remarked to me “The Jews are back in history”
But the New Testament reading this morning takes us back even further
To a time when Jerusalem was, again, occupied by the Jewish people
Before the city was besieged by the Romans and raised to the ground in AD70
But this was not the end of sieges
Jerusalem was besieged and conquered by a Muslim Army in AD637
Falling to the Crusaders in 1099
Then being retaken by Saladin in 1187
And then by the British in 1918 when the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the WWI
You could also add the Arab Israeli War of 1948 to the same list
This quick overview is just a snapshot of some of the empires which have laid claim to Jerusalem over time
And provides a clue as to why there has been so much conflict
As the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore said “Jerusalem is the house of one God…[but] the temple of three religions”
And this multiplicity of faiths was almost, inevitably, going to end in conflict

To the Jew, obviously, Jerusalem is at the heart of their faith
Established by King David,
It is the capital of the promised land which was given to them by God
Where Solomon built the Temple and where Jews still await the coming of the Messiah
As I realized when I visited, the Jews have a very strong connection with the land itself
One of our tour guides was a young Jewish girl from Brooklyn in New York who said that she had come on holiday to Israel with her parents
And knew instinctively that Jersuslem was “her home”

But Christianity also lays claim to Jerusalem
Christians not only claim the same Biblical heritage as the Jews
But Jerusalem is also the place where Christ was crucified and rose from the dead
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking the site, is the holiest place in Christendom
And pilgrims can also visit the Upper Room, the Mount of Olives and Golgotha
There is little wonder that the Crusaders wanted to claim Jerusalem for Christ once again

But just to add to the complexity, Islam also lays claim as well
Mohamed made his night journey to what is now known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque
Where he prayed before ascending into heaven
As it says in the Quran
“Glory be to the One Who took His servant ˹Moḥammed˺ by night…to the farthest Mosque whose surroundings We have blessed. (Quran 17.1)”
One can perhaps begin to see why the visit by the far-right Israeli politician Itamar Ben Gavir caused such rioting earlier this year
As Jesus predicted, enemies have besieged Jerusalem and crushed it to the ground
And have continued to do so throughout the ages

So what are we to make of the New Testament reading this morning?
In the first instance, it is not unreasonable to assume that Jesus was able to foresee the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70
In this regard, he was no different from the Old Testament prophets who foresaw the first siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 590 BC
And whilst it is probably stretching things to suggest he could have foreseen the rise of Islam
He could clearly foresee the fighting that a fallen humanity was likely to occasion
Even upon the holiest city on earth

However, as Simon Sebag Montefiore also said, Jerusalem is “the only city to exist twice – in heaven and on earth”
And in this regard Jesus also points us this morning to where the problem might lie
For as well as foreseeing death and destruction, he reminds us that the House of God should be a House of Prayer and not den of thieves
In other words
We need to look towards matters heavenly rather than be subsumed with earthly matters, which only lead to strife and conflict
Given the history of mankind, this seems unlikely
Jerusalem is still a city of sieges and destruction and will likely remain so
And one can only hope and pray for a change
And whilst this might be depressing, the Book of Revelation however does give us some future hope however
When it tells us that
“[when] the first earth had passed away… I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven.…and I heard a loud voice saying … “See, I am making all things new.”
The New Jerusalem belongs to God’s peace, but is now hid from our eyes

One of the most contentious issues of our age is what is called transitioning
In our time, it is transitioning from one gender to another and it is a highly charged debate
Although I was only vaguely aware of this when I was younger, it is insubstantial compared to the issue today
Now transgender issues proliferate
There are issues in our schools, in our prisons and in our hospitals
There are arguments in the public space notably among writers and athletes,
Transitioning has never been more contentious
People, understandably, feel threatened on both sides of the debate
But I must confess that, above all, I remain confused

Today is a Feast Day about another transitioning issue, two thousand years ago
Not transgender, but transfiguration
Transfiguration is defined as a “complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state”.
And today is the Feast Day
It is a feast day however that is so often overlooked, as it seems inexplicable and sits so uncomfortably in our scientific age
Yet there are accounts of the transfiguration in three of the four Gospels
In each account we learn that Jesus is led by three of his disciples up a high mountain where his clothes became dazzling white
But there is a human impact to this transitioning
All four Gospels record that the disciples were terrified and fell to the ground
When Jesus tried to explain it, they decided not to speak about it to anyone
Put simply, they were confused,
Baffled by this change in form and appearance
However, whilst the reaction of the disciples is wholly understandable
We are in the fortunate position of living two thousand years later with the benefit of centuries of theological reflection
And whilst researching the matter, I was particularly taken by a definition given by Helen-Anne Hartley, the former Bishop of Ripon
She described the transfiguration as “focusing on Jesus’ identity and his place in the purpose of God”
And it was her mention of Jesus’ identity which intrigued me most

Because, when it comes to identity, all is not as it seems
Jesus may have the appearance of a man this is by no means the whole picture

First and foremost, he is not just a man but also the Son of God –
This is apparent from the Gospel reading this morning which is similar to Christ’s baptism
When God says for the second time “This is my beloved Son”
But this, not only makes Jesus a man and the Son of God, it also makes him part of the Holy Trinity at the same time
The Holy Spirit appearing this time, in the form of a cloud
Appearance is not all that it, initially, sems

But, as well as being part of the Trinity, it goes without saying that Jesus is also divine
Indeed, it is his divinity allows him to be transfigured in a way that made him dazzling white
Again, this may appear extraordinary, but it is not something which should surprise us
Because this ability to be transformed is not unique to Jesus - it is a property which belongs to us all
I am constantly reminded of this at the funeral service where the liturgy states that Christ
“will transform our frail bodies, that we may be conformed to his glorious body”
At the Feast of the Transfiguration, we get a glimpse of that glorious body
And remind ourselves that, our resurrection body will also share Christ’s transfigured body
When we transition from this world to the next
We too are not all that we might, initially, seem to be
But the Feast of the Transfiguration is not just about transitioning but also about understanding
As I mentioned a moment ago, the story of the transfiguration is also about cloud
A cloud which represents the Holy Spirit, and plays an important part in this story
Because, at the same time, it reminds us that what is revealed can often remain hidden at the same time
When Moses meets God on Mount Sinai, it is notable that he meets God in thick darkness
Where you can’t see anything
But this is where, paradoxically, the voice of God is heard most clearly
Similarly, on Mount Tabor, God is not revealed in the clear light of day
But in a cloud
Yet it is in this darkness, in this fog, that we come closer to God than we ever can imagine
And it is in this cloud of unknowing that God speaks to us so clearly

And so, on this Feast of the Transfiguration
It is only natural that we should find ourselves, like the disciples
Confused and possibly fearful
Trying to make sense of Jesus’ identity and his transition from the human to the divine at the same time
This human reaction is only to be expected

However, as we now know
In the fullness of time and listening to the voice of God
This is not something to be feared, but part of God’s divine revelation to us here on earth
The transfiguration, transitioning is
Not something to be feared/not something to rail against
But something we must try and understand, patiently
Discerning the voice of God in the midst of the cloud and confusion

Warnings about “false prophets” from Jeremiah >and< from Jesus.
“False prophets” don’t actually identify themselves as “false”, and in fact they hate the very idea of Truth. In the ‘Screwtape Letters’, Screwtape advises the junior devil Wormwood how to keep someone away from God : “Keep his mind off the plain antithesis between True and False.” C.S. Lewis’s ‘Screwtape Letters’ and his ‘The Great Divorce’ both point to the question at the root of today’s cultural and societal problems. The unhappiness of the person who is not seeking the truth.
St Augustine, before his conversion, had sought happiness and fulfilment in dissipation and pleasure-seeking, in philosophy and in false religions. In his Confessions he puts his finger on where people go wrong - in choosing to ignore the relationship that every man, woman and child has with the Creator God. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
Those who refuse to accept the existence of God, do not accept the idea of absolute Truth, necessarily have an ever-changing idea of Right and Wrong, picked up from the society around them and adapted through the individual’s relationship to society. Which makes them easily misled by Screwtape’s boss, “the father of lies”.
Today, for the first time in over a millennium, Christians are a minority in this country, and the cultural bedrock is under relentless attack from “false prophets”. Many commentators trace this shift to the misnamed eighteenth century “Age of Enlightenment”, when people falsely perceived ‘Faith’ as the enemy of ‘Reason’, and falsely began to think that human material science was the way to find Truth.
Pope John Paul wrote a useful encyclical Veritatis Splendor [the Splendour of the Truth]. And Pope Benedict’s Fides et Ratio [Faith and Reason] argues that not only >can< that Faith and Reason work together, but that it’s essential that they do so. Its opening sentence is : Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.
And last month Pope Francis issued an Apostolis Letter about the 17th century scientist and philosopher Blaise Paschal, highlighting his “pursuit of truth” and “use of reason”. I think the Holy Father rather overestimates Paschal’s usefulness in steering the modern world back to Christianity, but he did quote one bit of Paschal which struck me.
“What a fantastic creature is man, a novelty, a monstrosity, chaotic, contradictory, prodigious, judge of all things, feeble earthworm, bearer of truth, mire of uncertainty and error, glory and refuse of the universe! Who can undo this tangle ?”
That bit reminded me of the end of one Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems
Flesh fade, and mortal trash Fall to the residuary worm; | world's wildfire, leave but ash: In a flash, at a trumpet crash, I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, Is immortal diamond.
In a way Hopkins, by mentioning “Christ”, answers Paschal’s question [Who can undo this tangle ?]. But together they have what I think is a message the Church needs to use in dealing with today’s “false prophets”. All that is base and sinful in Man has been redeemed through the Sacrifice of Calvary. And all that is good and noble in Man can only find its fulness through Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, Who calls us all to follow Him. And whatever the state of the world, I don’t think we should doubt the natural, human, God-given desire for good. During the coronavirus, even those who’d never heard of a Good Samaritan started noticing and helping those falling through the well-meaning Social Welfare regulations. They were actually happier and more fulfilled in >using< their personal responsibility to do what is right and good.
That Hopkins poem has a long and complicated title. That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection He’s referring to the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who, within the context of the Greek pagan gods, held that all things are in a
constant state of flux, a constant state of change. Hopkins interpreted Heraclitus’s worldview as a bleak, one-way descent to oblivion, and it’s a view that many of today’s godless find themselves locked into. The Church needs to lead them to “the comfort of the Resurrection”. To recognise that God, Who is Absolute Truth and Absolute Goodness, not only exists, but that He invites us to enter His Divine Life by imitating and following His Incarnate Son, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
But Heraclitus >was< right about one thing, here on earth change never stops. In every age the Church needs to find the best way to proclaim the unchanging Truth of the Gospel of Christ, to work out how to deal with the latest fashion in “false prophets”. Change isn’t something to fear. Almost the first word Jesus says is His public ministry is “Repent”. I.e. “Change”. Provided change is in the right direction, helping us and others towards a deeper understanding of God’s love, it’s something that should be sought and welcomed. As John Henry Newman put it, “here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
It would be easy to be like Uncle Theodore in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, who just gazed out the morning-room window of the dilapidated family home and sang, “Change and decay in all around I see’.
Christians cannot avoid or ignore change, but, guided by the Truth revealed by Christ and recorded in Holy Scripture, they should try to make sure that any “change” is at the same time a “repentance” that brings us and others closer to God. Our lives as individuals, as members of a family, of a parish, of the wider community, should be a sort-of “applied ecclesiology”, trying to make ourselves, the Church, and the whole of society what God wants. No-one is going to have an instant, perfect solution to everything. Every change for the good will, probably sooner rather than later, have to be followed up with another change for “the even better”.
The “false prophets” are those who want change to be away from God, and St Paul warns us that we’re going to need ‘the whole armour of God’ to stand up to them, and that includes ‘having your loins girt about with truth’. And St Peter also has some sensible advice for dealing with “false prophets”
‘be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear’.
The RSV phrases it as ‘with gentleness and reverence’, the Jerusalem Bible ‘with courtesy and respect’, the Good News Translation ‘with gentleness and respect’. But you get the idea. With Truth on your side, you don’t need to bluster or get hot under the collar.
There’s no one-size-fits-all battle plan for every engagement with the “false prophets” of secular political correctness. If turning swords into ploughshares (Isaiah and Micah) doesn’t work, consider Joel’s suggestion of doing it the other way round, turning ploughshares into swords. On a good day you can happily follow Mark. he that is not against us is on our part At other times you may need to take the more wary approach of Matthew and Luke He that is not with me is against me And if ‘Peace I leave with you; My peace I give unto you’ doesn’t do the trick, you can always try, ‘I came not to send peace, but a sword’.
You can be pretty sure that “false prophets” won’t like you disagreeing with them, and they’ll probably find some “hate crime” to charge you with. They’re a bit mean like that. But the last book of the Bible makes plain that Truth is going to win in the end (>and< what’s going to happen to Screwtape and his boss). Jesus is God and God is Almighty In the meantime
‘Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven’. and ‘he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved’.

I am probably right in assuming that not many people here today have heard of Eularia Clarke

Indeed, unless you are interested in art, there is little reason to know the name

However, she was born in London in 1914

And, after an education at St Paul’s Girl School, she won a scholarship to Oxford to read theology

But she found the teaching of the subject very sterile

And took to taking life classes at the Ruskin School of Art at the same time

However, both her painting and theology were subsequently placed on the back burner

Marriage, children and then breast cancer all intervened and all took their toll 

And she only took up painting again after a visit to Lourdes in 1960

On her return, she began to sketch patterns of worship around her which then turned into illustrations from the Gospels

However, she always painted people in modern day dress and modern-day settings

And one of her paintings is on the front of your service sheet

It is a painting of the feeding of the five thousand

 

I first saw this painting whilst I was at Theological College and it had a powerful impact

Men, women and children alike are present and have sat down on the grass

Adults are talking and dozing, children are playing, footballs and bicycles have been discarded

A few, it seems, are paying attention to the priest – or is it Christ?

However, the crowd are not eating the bread and the fish referred to in the Gospel

But rather eating fish and chips

As you can see, there are portions of fish and chips throughout the painting

It is modern and contemporary - and puts the Bible in a modern context

As Eularia Clarke said,

“She saw [painting] as her ministry, seeing the Gospels come alive in the here and now rather than being a distant historical event”

Consciously or unconsciously what Eularia Clarke was doing was a form of what is termed “contextual” theology

This is a type of theology which is in dialogue with two realities

The experience of the past recorded in Scripture and the experience of the present

It is said that contextual theology is the “midwife” to ordinary Christian people

Giving birth to incarnational theology in our own time

Reflecting Christ’s continued incarnation at all times, in all culture and in all circumstances

Whilst, at the same time, acknowledging the sacramental nature of our present reality

 

So what then do we make of the Gospel reading this morning?

First of all, there may be some confusion between the feeding of the four thousand and the feeding of the five

The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle which appears in all four Gospels

But Mark’s Gospel contains a second similar story, which is the feeding of the four thousand

As the bishop and theologian Tom Wright said, in essence, this is an “he did it again” story

Yet another feeding of another multitude

And it matters not whether it was four or five thousand people, five or seven loaves or twelve or seven baskets

It is, in a sense, one and the same

 

As far as the past is concerned,

It is always hard to determine what actually happened in the Bible or what was meant as there is an intervening gap of two thousand years

However, what is clear today is that Jesus fed everyone present

This amounted to a crowd of four thousand people

This is roughly the equivalent to feeding everyone in Bolton Abbey and Addingham combined!

That is quite some thought

However, such an event must be considered miraculous at the same time

There is no earthly way that everyone present could have been fed by seven loaves and a few fishes

There was a divine agent at work and we bear witness to this miracle today

 

But what then of the present?

There are a number of methods which can be used to try and understand the scriptures afresh

One is called the transitional model

In simple terms, this is putting the Gospel into a contemporary setting – in this case, eating fish and chips at a church picnic

Something we are going to do after this Church Service -our own feeing of the crowd

I thought this was enriched by the anthem this morning “O taste and see” 

Taken from Psalm 23 it invites us to not only see God but to taste him as well

Whilst this might seem impossible, with the help of contextual theology we can literally taste Him at the Church picnic-

 

But as well as the past and the present because there is also a sacramental element

Which transcends both past and present

We heard the fascinating words in the Gospel that, after taking the seven loaves, “Jesus gave thanks and broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute

This has a wonderful resonance with the words of the Eucharist which we will all hear again today

“he took bread and, when he had given thanks, he brake it and gave it to his disciples”

But is there also a possible eschatological dimension to this event?

Perhaps the disciples and the people were being prepared for the end of time?

I am reminded of the words of the marriage service which says

“In your mercy, bring them to that banquet where your saints feast for ever in your heavenly home”

Perhaps we too are preparing for that today?

 

So returning to the painting by Eularia Clarke, it seems to have a wonderful timeless quality

Linking us to the Gospel story two thousand years ago

Whilst at the same time, relating to our own times and giving our own lives a theological resonance of its own

When we meet after this service to share lunch together

We are not just enjoying the fellowship of Christian men and women

We are following in the footsteps of the crowd two thousand years ago

Whilst recognizing the sacramental dimension to our own lives at Bolton Priory at the same time

A few years ago, I was invited to preach at Winchester Cathedral
It was a great honor but, naturally, I was nervous about the invitation
And even more nervous when I climbed the pulpit which towered above the congregation
I am pleased to say however that the preaching went well
And, when I watched myself later on YouTube, my nerves were very well disguised
My wife and I were invited to a civic reception after the service to meet the local dignitaries
And whilst we were enjoying the reception, one elderly and rather distinguished looking couple came up and thanked me for my sermon
They then asked, in all sincerity, whether I would like to be the next Bishop of Winchester

It was an amusing and flattering moment
But hopelessly out of touch with the way in which the Church appoints its Bishops
However, even though the Diocese was without a Bishop at the time
I had made the acquaintance of one of its former Bishops earlier in the day when I visited the crypt of the Cathedral
There in the crypt was a statue of St Swithun which was originally on the façade of the Cathedral
St Swithun was an Anglo Saxon Bishop who was consecrated in ninth century
And he certainly made his mark
As well as being the Patron Saint of Winchester Cathedral
There are approximately 40 Anglican Churches dedicated to St Swithun today
However, like so many English saints there is European dimension as well
For reasons unknown, Stavanger Cathedral in Norway is also dedicated to St Swithun
History relates that various relics of St Swithun found their way to different shrines
Which may account for the proliferation of names across the UK and elsewhere
However, even though the name is well known, not much is known of the life of St Swithun himself
However, according to folklore, he gave instructions before he died that he would like to be buried
“where his grave might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high”
His wishes were duly granted and he was buried on the north side of the Cathedral
But just nine years later his remains were transferred to a shrine within the Cathedral itself
It is said that it rained very heavily on the day he was exhumed and for the next forty days
Hence the poem
St. Swithun's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithun's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mare”
Although many would struggle to give you a date for St Swithun’s Day
It is the 15th July – and is celebrated as a lesser feast in the Church of England
As we all know, it rained yesterday and so it should rain for the next 40 days…we shall see

However, you might ask why we celebrate the lesser feasts in the Church of England at all?
The Church of England celebrates the saints in the same way that they are celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church
And for the same reasons
First and foremost, they are celebrated to commemorate the sacred mysteries and events recorded in our history
Celebrating the saints reminds of saintly individuals such as St Swithun whom might otherwise be lost
After all, if he wasn’t accorded a saints day, we might not be thinking about him today
But the celebrations of saints also seek to excite the spiritual life
Indeed, they are set out in a book for the clergy called “Exciting Holiness”
And whilst the accounts of various miracles attributed to St Swithun might be questionable
His act of piety and humility alone in choosing his burial place alone
Should serve to inspire us all
But I think that the celebrations of the saints also serves’ another purpose
And that is to look at the world through a different lens
The readings this morning are very depressing indeed, to put in mildly
Our Old Testament Reading records the first murder which occurs within the first four chapters of the Bible
The story of mankind had hardly begun before one human being had killed another
And the New Testament reading is of a similar vein
Referring to anger, insults, murder and imprisonment
St Swithun, by contrast, reminds us of a man who devoted his life to God, grew the Church and showed humility in death
Thank goodness we have something to celebrate

But a sermon about St Swithun would be complete without mentioning the weather
Whilst it is true that summer weather patterns established at the beginning of July tend to persist

According to the Met Office website,

“There has never been a record of 40 dry or 40 wet days in a row following St Swithuns’ Day since records began”

It seems therefore that the rhyme does not hold water…so to speak

That being said, there is something we can take away from St Swithun that could never have been anticipated all those years ago

We have just endured the driest June on record since records began in 1884

And record temperatures now engulf Europe

However, with almost perfect divine serendipity, St Swithun is also the Patron Saint of drought relief

And in our age of climate change, St Swithun’s Day probably could not be more perfectly timed

And more appropriate for our age

One of the occupational hazards of being a clergyman is the receipt of books
I love books /and I like reading/ but they take time and you need the time to read them
So often, I have been given a book and then been asked, shortly afterwards, whether I enjoyed it
Before I had a chance to read, never mind complete the book, I was reading at the time
I am pleased to say that I received some lovely books for Christmas
A history of the Crimean War
And then a fabulous biography of John Donne called “Super Infinite”
I read the history of the Crimean War over Christmas
And then it took me a couple of months to read the biography of John Donne
However, I was also given a biography of John Newton written by Jonathan Aitken
Which I was only able to start after Easter
So it was almost five months from receipt before I had a chance to start reading it

However, it was certainly worth the wait
For those of you who don’t know the story, John Newton was a clergyman of great repute
Who left two remarkable legacies
One political and the other religious
Politically, he is credited with stirring the conscience of William Wilberforce
Persuading him to stay in politics and bring about the abolition of slavery
Spiritually, he became revered as one of the founding fathers of the great spiritual revival of the eighteenth century
Which is credited as still fueling the world-wide growth of evangelical Churches today
However, above all he is remembered for being a\ hymn writer
And, in particular, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”
Written in 1779,
it is estimated to have been performed over ten million times and sung recently by such great voices as Aretha Franklin and Johnny Cash
However, this remarkable career and legacy masks a very undistinguished early life
As a young man, John Newton is said to have “kept bad company, run wild in the streets and was often heard swearing and blaspheming”
When his exasperated father found a job for him, he failed to turn up
And whilst serving as an able seaman in the Royal Navy, he deserted his ship and was demoted to the rank of ordinary seaman
He then transferred to a merchant ship where his bad behavior continued unabated
He was “slack, insolent and disobedient “and “did his best to corrupt others”
He was then tempted to seek his fortune in the slave trade
He did not fare much better here either, being first accused of theft and then dabbling in witchcraft
As his biographer’s remarked, his behavior “made him appear about as un-Christian or anti-Christian as it is possible to be”

But on a journey back to England, his life was profoundly changed when he picked up a book to pass the time of day
The book was one of the great Christian classics called “The Imitations of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis
It was to change his life
The book awakened him with the disturbing thought “what if these things should be true”
Which is a question for all of us
During the journey home, his ship was caught in a storm
And, for the first time in his life, Newton was forced to say “Lord have mercy upon me”
When they rode out the storm, he remarked he “could see the hand of God displayed in our favour”

This was the first time in his life that he had to rely totally upon God
But this did not lead to an instant conversion in the style of St Paul
But rather a gradual moderation of his behavior and a deepening of his convictions
By his own admission, he still struggled with “lusts and lotteries”
But his faith continued to grow,
And it led to the realization that, above all, he wanted to serve God
In 1764 he was ordained
And by the end of his life, such was his influence that he became known as “one of the second founders of the Church of England”
Not bad for a man who started his life so wretchedly
The reason why I have chosen to narrate this account of this faith journey is because the readings today are both about call
First the call of Elisha in the Old Testament and then the calling of the first disciples
But we don’t know much about any of them
This passage in the Book of Kings is the first time we are introduced to Elisha
And, similarly with the fishermen, who are called as soon as Jesus starts his ministry
However, we do know that the fishermen, along with the rest of the disciples, were as flawed as the next man or woman
Simon Peter, for instance, cuts off a man’s ear and betrays Christ three times
Yet he is completely honest at the outset, falling to his knees and saying “I am a sinful man”
Yet these were the men whom God called to serve him

This may at first blush seem surprising
By the time of the Epistles, the early Church is looking for men and women of unimpeachable and unblemished character
But this is not the Biblical model
St Paul put it this way
“My friends, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are wise by any human standard, few are powerful or of noble birth. Yet to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. God has chosen things without rank or standing in the world, mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order” 1 Corinthians 1 26-28
God does not choose paragons –
But men and women – like us – who are broken and flawed, unable to do what we do without the strength and support of God –
But called nevertheless
John Newton put it this way on his tombstone
“John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”
It has another name too “Amazing grace”

In 1978, when I was just sixteen years old, I remember my mother and her sister talking about the case of Louise Brown. 
As some of you may remember, she was the first test tube baby
An event which has been described as “among the most remarkable medical breakthroughs of the 20th century”
Indeed, one of the research team was later awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine
Louise Brown’s parents had been trying for a baby for nine years, without success
But a decade later were blessed with a child through artificial means
I remember my mother and her sister however expressing their concern over the method of conception
They were not alone
Pope John Paul II believed that such scientific advance could lead to women becoming “baby factories”
However, at the same time, he also refused to condemn the parents stating that they “simply wanted to have a child”
There was a mixture of compassion and concern combined

The world has moved on dramatically ever since
It is estimated that eight million babies have now been born as a result of IVF since 1978
And just under 400,000 in the UK since 1991
Today, IVF is part of the mainstream
Few of my generation or below will be without a friend or friends who have not benefitted from the procedure

As well as being one of the most remarkable medical break throughs of the last century
It has also brough enormous joy and comfort to millions of women
However, there is also another side to the issue and that is the number of women suffering from infertility
The number is sizeable
And clearly blights the lives of millions of women and their partners, around the world
And continues to do so particularly as fertility rates continue to drop
However, the problem of infertility is nothing new
It goes back to the time of the Bible and probably well beyond too
In the Old Testament we confront infertility almost at the very outset
In the book of Genesis, we learn that Sara, the wife of Abraham cannot bear him a male heir
And Abram remonstrates with God saying “what will I do, for I continue childless”
But Sara is by no means alone
Soon afterwards, we are introduced to Rebekah
The wife of Isaac, she too was barren and it was twenty years before they had children
Infertility continued down the line
Rebekah’s son married Leah and Rachel who also experienced infertility
Such was Rachel’s distress that she cried out to God “Give me children or I shall die”
Like Abraham before her, she told her husband to bear a child with her maidservant
But eventually, she too, was blessed with a son

But lest we assume that infertility just ran in one family,
There are many other instances too
In the Book of Judges, we learn that Manoah’s wife was infertile
The Book of Ruth records that Ruth was married for ten years and never conceived
Neither did the other Moabite woman called Orpah
And the story of the Shunamite women, which we read periodically, records that she too was without issue
Infertility stalks the Old Testament
And is likely to be, but a very small glimpse, into this social issue

The Old Testament reading this morning is also about fertility
The passage records both the pain of infertility and the joy of child bearing of a woman called Hannah
She is the second, and preferred wife, of Elkanah who “wept bitterly” as a result of her childlessness
Particularly when Elkanah’s other wife was able to provide an heir
She prayed fervently to God that she might be delivered of a child
And when her prayer is answered, she sings a song of praise to God – which we heard read this morning
“My heart exults in the Lord…I rejoice in my victory
For the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed”
Today we remember the visitation of Elizabeth to Mary
As we have heard Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth
Elizabeth too was now barren but finds herself with child after God’s intervention and Mary sings a song of praise
Both Elizabeth and Hannah realise that navigating this world can be difficult , but their hearts turn to God when their prayers are answered

But both stories beg the wider question
As to how women, and for that matter men, respond to infertility itself?
It is a difficult arena in which to venture
But there will, in all probability, be some of you here today who have first-hand experience
And I believe there are things which we can take away from the two stories mentioned

First and foremost, the Bible recognises the anguish and suffering which infertility can cause
And it shares that suffering
So often matters such as these remain hidden
But the Bible is open and forthright in its acknowledgment of infertility- and has been since the beginning

Secondly, there are those in the Bible who are without child and it is clear that sometimes we must wait patiently
Trusting in God himself – and remembering to give thanks to God for his blessing when a child is born

But thirdly, as Hannah herself says in her song to God
“The Lord is a God of knowledge”
We learn from the Bible that God himself found means to enable some women to overcome infertility
And we too have used our God given reason to overcome fertility problems today

But above all today/
We share the suffering of all those without child
And we give thanks to God for those to whom a child is born, through divine intervention or our God given reason

As a young man, many years ago, I decided that I wanted to leave my parents’ home and basically do my own thing. I wanted to prove to myself that I could survive out there in the real world. So, what did I do? I joined the finest of the three services – that being, of course, the Royal Air Force (wink to the soldiers).

I was 21, and in fact the oldest recruit in our intake. All the others were in their teens, and most were straight out of school. But we were all there for basically the same reason: to do something positive with our lives and survive out there in the real world.

But we also realised and accepted something else, just as important. We needed guidance. Because like the lost sheep in todays Gospel reading, most of us were still pretty wayward and inclined to do things without really thinking about the consequences.

And we had two principal avenues of guidance during training: the discip team – a Sergeant and a Corporal, who at the time seemed like the devil incarnate, and the chaplaincy team, who did actually bare a resemblance to normality.

But you know, many years later, I spoke to the discip Corporal, and he told me, in all honesty, that he loved his recruits and the part he played in developing their lives. Like the Good Shepherd who knew all his sheep, he got to know all the recruits’ names and their characteristics. Yes, at times he WAS tough because he knew that out there, life and service was going to be tough. But at the end of training, he could see that marked transformation from a rather unruly bunch of young men and women, into a disciplined, well-trained group. And he said they were the most satisfying and most accomplished days of his life. He too, would rejoice, in playing his part in guiding his flock of recruits into a group of disciplined adults.

And we see from today’s Gospel reading just how precious every sheep is to the Good Shepherd.

And like the Shepherd’s flock, Christianity is a family, a community to which you belong through belonging to Jesus. It is a community that is sometimes gathered; to worship, to pray, to encourage. But it is just as much a community when it is scattered; when we are living our lives of discipleship and faithfulness in our homes, or workplace of wherever we may be. A primary purpose of Church gathered is to equip us for Church scattered.  

Because no matter how tough life may be, how difficult we may find some people, it is through our guide that we are transformed into a family that welcomes everyone. That welcomes the wayward. That rejoices in the lost being found. That dares to show love and compassion to outcasts and help guide those who may not have had an opportunity to develop and improve their lives. Jesus shows us the way because he is the way. He is the Good Shepherd.  

And there is something very appealing about this, in that he calls ALL people to him. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are in life.      

The good news of Jesus Christ was a radically different message to that coming from the religious authorities of his day because he declared that God was actively seeking out the sinner. He summed up his mission, in that famous verse from Luke 19: 10 when he said that the Son of Man had come to seek and to save those who were lost.

In contrast, the Pharisees would look at those who had turned away from God and feel no pity. In their eyes, these people had made their own bed and now they could lie in it. They were outside of God’s fold and that’s where they could stay.

So, we must never miss the point that the shepherd sets out to find the lost sheep and will not rest until he has found it. It is that valuable to him. It is in this parable that the nature of God is revealed to us – every life is precious.

And how the shepherd rejoices when he has found the lost sheep! He calls his family, friends and neighbours and even organises a party. In the same way when those who are lost come home to God there is great rejoicing in heaven.

And it is through our own personal journeys of restoration and redemption with the good guide leading us, that we become effective and worthy disciples.

The word disciple itself, shares the same root as the word discipline. And here we can see a connection between two rather contrasting, but dedicated and devoted patterns of life: forces life, a life serving King and country, and the Christian life; a life serving all people. And the two are not mutually exclusive. We can, and do, do both! We are all leading lives of service.

A disciple literally means someone who learns. Someone who is guided by a tutor. An apprentice. I think some Christians are afraid to use the term disciple, believing that it means someone who has already attained a peak in faithfulness. Not true. A disciple is simply one who has chosen to be guided and nurtured by Jesus. The journey of a disciple, like an apprentice, can take years to complete, and many will say that the journey is in fact never ending, as we continue to learn more, and draw closer to God, day by day.

And it’s not all one sided! It’s not just our own efforts and actions that draw us closer to God as Christians. It is also God’s will, and it is through His Spirit that he chooses us and guides us, on what is often a very challenging journey.

In the parable of the lost coin, we see that the woman doesn't sit idly by, waiting for the coin to reappear. Instead, she lights a candle and searches the house diligently until she finds it. We see her joy and relief! In the same way, God rejoices when one lost soul is found and restored. Heaven itself celebrates as the lost are reconciled to Jesus. The joy of salvation is incomparable and spreads throughout the heavenly realms. Our Heavenly Father takes an active role in seeking out the lost. God's pursuit of us is intentional and relentless. He leaves no stone unturned, and no effort spared to bring us back into His loving embrace.  

Today’s Gospel reading is also known as ‘The gospel within the gospel’ That is, the good news: ‘There is more joy and rejoicing in heaven, over one sinner who repents (that is, who turns to Christ) than ninety-nine who have no need of repentance. That IS the Good News right there.

So, in conclusion, you could say that our journey of faith, our decision to be guided and taught, on whatever path we might choose, ends as it began – offering ourselves in service, in the knowledge of finding completeness, so that we too, may become a light and a guide to others.  

We meet together today to remember our sister in Christ, Barbara

Barbara died on the 20th May

It was unexpected

Many members of the parish, including myself, had visited Barbara in the previous few weeks and reported how well she seemed

It goes almost without saying that no one knows the time or place of their departure

But Barbara died just after Ascension Day

And just before the Feast of Pentecost, which we celebrated the week after she died

This is the time in the Bible when Jesus reassures us that we will not be left alone on this earth

And that, after Christ’s Ascension, the Holy Spirit will descend to be our Comforter

It is that self-same Holy Spirit which comforts us today

Comforting us in our time of grief

And comforting us with the knowledge that Jesus’ words are true


However, it was the Feast of Pentecost which spoke to me most clearly when I was preparing this sermon

Many of you will be familiar with the story

It while the disciples are together in Jerusalem that the Holy Spirit came upon them

As it says in the Bible

“Suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind”

And “there appeared unto them cloven tongues of fire” and that “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost”

And I think the descent of the Holy Spirit speaks to Barbara’s life today
Whilst the gift of the Holy Spirit is a gift to the Church, it is also a gift to each of us personally
We are personally blessed by God
And we are all bearers of the Holy Spirit or Spirit bearers
And Barbara exemplified the fruits of this gift in her life
As we have heard from the eulogy, Barbara herself did so many things for the Priory
She took part in guiding, flower arranging, counting, reading, helping to arrange the church fete
And so much more besides
Although I only arrived at Bolton Priory in 2019
Barbara was still very much involved in the daily life of the Church life -almost to the end of her life
All of which were a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, that came upon the first disciples in Jerusalem
And which descends on God’s disciples today
For which we give thanks

However, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost does not mean that we all receive the same gifts
St Paul tells us that “there are different kinds of gifts”
And, in the case of Barbara, she not only gave to the Church of her own,
But also jointly, with her husband Joe, who was the verger at Bolton Priory for no less than 30 years
The verger plays a pivotal role in the life of any Church
They set up services before worship and they put everything away afterwards
They enable worship
And have to have a very close eye on liturgical detail to ensure that the Church is well prepared in advance of worship
Apart from the Rector, no one else is so closely involved in the life and worship of the Church
But this is not a solo endeavor
Just like the Rector and his wife, it is inevitable that both the husband and wife are involved in this role together
They are a team who require team work
And Barbara will have been a great help and assistance to Joe during his many decades
For which we also give thanks today

But just as these gifts are not only an individual and joint endeavor
They are part of a collective endeavor
As all members of the Church together work to the Glory of God


It is very hard to evaluate the work that people give to the Church- because everything is of value, however great or small
However, Barbara was a member of this congregation when Bolton Priory was, literally, saved in the 1980’s
It is no exaggeration to say that Priory faced closure
And there was an urgent need to put a roof on the Tower which had remained roofless since 1539
Under the direction of Maurice Slaughter, there was an enormous effort to find the money and carry out the work
But it was done
And today Bolton Priory is listed as one of the thousand best churches in the United Kingdom
For which we give thanks to Barbara and all those involved in this wonderful work

I often look at the stone in the fabric of the Church and remind myself that every stone has to be laid upon another to make up the whole
If all we do is put one stone in place
Then we have played our part in building the Kingdom of God here on earth
It may seem small, but
Taken collectively, the gifts of the Spirit “are for the common good” for the Church is the manifestation of the Body of Christ
Where there is no division between the visible and the invisible, between the Church militant or the Church triumphant

These are magnificent and inspirational words
But Barbara has more than played her part in building and sustaining the Church here on earth
As a Spirit bearer, she has given her gifts individually, jointly and collectively
To sustaining Bolton Priory
And we give thanks for her life and all she has done today
As she returns to God’s heavenly Kingdom having finished her work here on earth

Some of you may have read the recent ONS report on the state of religion in the United Kingdom
If not, you may have seen the newspapers which proclaimed that this country now faces a “non-religious future”
The research found that more people under 40 now declare “no religion” rather than profess to be a Christian
Whereas, in the two previous decades, Christianity came out on top in every single age group
There are now just 10 million Christians aged under 40
And nearly 14 million profess no religion at all
On almost any metric, this shows a marked decline in Christianity in the United Kingdom
Professor Abby Day stated
“The baby boomers, the millennials and generation Z are all turning away from Christianity.”
The Church of England responded acknowledging that they need to connect with Generation Z
As they put it
“while they may be less familiar with its message, that doesn’t mean they are less open to faith”.

I was rather taken with this comment by the Church of England
Because, at the time, I was also reading a book on spirituality
It was written by a research fellow at Cambridge called Philip Sheldrake
He too noted that a marked decline in young people no longer calling themselves “religious”,
However, he noted that they were describing themselves as “spiritual” instead
In other words, like every one of us who goes to Church, who wish to explore and understand the ultimate purpose in life
But does this necessarily represent a decline in Christianity
Or simply a change of emphasis?
And does a change in emphasis mark a decline in faith
Or simply a decline in organised religion?

This is a complex arena, but I think we have to be cautious about writing off Christianity too quickly
Because spirituality is an integral part of our faith
Indeed, St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, himself makes reference to the “spiritual” and the “unspiritual”
Declaring that the spiritual “know…the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2: 14-16)
And if young people want to know the mind of Christ, then this is surely something to celebrate?

At the same time, there are many different manifestations of spirituality which, in my view, speak directly to our world today
Just let me share a few with you

First, there is mysticism
This type of spirituality is associated with the quest for communion with God or the ultimate reality
And goes back to the earliest Christianity itself
In the third century, St Augustine of Hippo said about God “If I have spoken about it, I have not spoken about it, for it is ineffable”
There has always been an awareness of the mystical and, clearly, this has not been dimmed in time
My son and his new girlfriend recently spent a few days with us and we spent a very challenging evening talking about the beginning of the Universe
Although their language was not couched in religious terms, it was still a quest to wrestle with the origin of the world
In which God may have played a part as creator

Secondly, there is ascetical spirituality
The word ascetic comes from the Greek word “askesis” which means training or discipline
And typically describes practises of self-denial, austerity and abstention as a path to spiritual enrichment
Monasticism is the most obvious example in Christian life
But this asceticism is also reflected by many young people today
Vegetarianism, cycling or taking public transport to cut down on fossil fuels, using second clothes or simply seeking the “good life”
Are all manifestations of an ascetical desire to liberate themselves from the destructive material pre-occupations of this world

Thirdly, there is what is termed prophetic-critical spirituality
Which in essence is a commitment to social justice
Lest we think this is something new, this type of spirituality goes back to the Old Testament
Where the prophets of Israel offered a radical critique of the established social order
Following on from that tradition, prophetic-critical spirituality has never been more alive
Today, social awareness and activism is at an all-time high
Climate change, social justice, health care and education are once again at the top of the agenda
Are the activists just a social nuisance or could it be that they discern “know the mind of Christ”?
I very much think it is the latter, but we fail to recognise it as such as they might too

You might reasonably ask why I have decided to focus on spirituality in my sermon today?
The reason was that, this week on Thursday, we celebrated the life of Evelyn Underhill
She was a mystic in the Anglo Catholic tradition of the Church and the first women to lecture the Church of England in spirituality
Her spirituality originated outside of the Church but came to enrich it
Importantly, for Underhill, Christian mysticism demanded the selfless service of others
Manifesting the mind of Christ in charity and social action
And, I could not help wondering what she would have made of the present time and the recent survey by the Office for National Statistics?

Of course, we will never know, but I suspect, like me, she would not be downcast at all
The fact that there are 10 million Christians under the age of forty is enormously exciting
And the fact that so many see themselves as “spiritual” as opposed to “religious” is exciting too
The fact that so many recognize the value of detaching themselves from the material
Committing themselves to social justice and seeking the ineffable
And are all signs, in my opinion, that faith is as strong as it has ever been
Indeed, it might be the case that religion has not been dimmed at all
As we heard from the reading this morning, we are all invited to God’s banquet
It may simply be the case that many have responded but are sitting on a separate table