Matthew 10:26-31, Sunday 21st June

One of the things we have enjoyed doing over the last few months in lockdown is getting together with a group of friends on a video call every couple of weeks and having a ‘Pub Quiz’.  It’s a lot of fun although it turns out that Lucie and I are not very good at pub quizzes – I think our best result was coming in third place, unfortunately that was on a week when there were only three teams!

Thankfully it’s not about winning, it’s about having fun taking part and it’s a great feeling when you are the only person who knows an obscure and completely useless piece of trivia!  With that in mind I thought I’d give you a quick Bible Trivia Quiz Question: What is the most common command in the Bible?

If you’ve read today’s Bible reading you’ll have a clue to this one – it’s nothing to do with rules and regulations, it’s not even anything to do with love.  The most common command in the Bible is “Do not be afraid”.  Hundreds of times throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, when God speaks to people he says “Do not be afraid”.

In our fairly short Bible reading from Matthew chapter 10 Jesus says “Do not be afraid” three times, and to understand why that is we need to step back a little and look at what is going on when Jesus is speaking to his disciples. 

Jesus and his disciples have been travelling around for a while now and word is spreading about the wonderful and amazing things that Jesus is doing.  However this means that more and more people are coming to him and at the end of chapter 9 Jesus said those well known words  “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”.

And so at the beginning of chapter 10 Jesus calls together the 12 disciples and he gives them the power to do all that he has been doing – teaching, healing, driving out demons, everything.  And he sends them out in pairs into the towns and villages to do this in his name.

But in the big motivational speech which he gives to the disciples before they set off on this already pretty terrifying adventure, he tells them “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves…be on your guard…you will be arrested…you will be betrayed…you will be persecuted in my name.”  You can imagine, I’m sure, just how comforted the disciples would have been by this!

And that is why, in today’s passage, Jesus says three times “Do not be afraid”.  First he says do not be afraid, you are not on your own.  Jesus reassures his friends that he is with them, even in the darkness.  Then he says do not be afraid, they are not all powerful. Jesus reminds his friends that whatever power their persecutors may have is nothing compared to God’s power which can conquer even the power of death. 

And finally he says do not be afraid, you are precious to God.  Jesus points out that God cares for each and every sparrow, which are sold two a penny in the market, so how much more does he care for them, his children.  Even the number of hairs on their head is known to God, Jesus says.

The world is a scary place at the moment.  But whatever may trouble us, whatever anxieties may lurk in some dark corner of our mind, if we follow him then we too can hear those reassuring words of Jesus – do not be afraid, you are not on your own.  Do not be afraid, that which you fear is not all powerful.  Do not be afraid, you are precious to God.

And if we can take those words to heart then we, the Church, the people of God, the followers of Jesus Christ will be able to share God’s love in every town and every village without fear. 

Amen.

Springtime in Lockdown – Sunday 14th June

At the edge of the Rectory lawn a Hawthorn stands in silence. Compared to her lofty neighbours – Oak, Ash, Beech, Sycamore – she cuts a diminutive figure and as they welcome the return of the springtime sun by trying to outdo one another in their green-ness, she quietly dresses herself in muted tones to complement her rich, dark thorns.

I wouldn’t like to guess her age, and she wouldn’t tell me I’m sure, but the lightning scars which wend their way around her body speak of a life well lived. Her branches hang loose and carefree down her northern flank. Wisely she no longer tries to compete with the Beech beside her for the best of the sunlight but she gets what she needs and she’ll see another season through.

She spends most of the year watching over the garden, occasionally offering the Buzzard respite from the relentless onslaught of crows or providing the barefoot children with a fortress from which to fire their water pistols. However, for just a few days between the golden daffodils and the vibrant bluebells the Hawthorn sets aside her usual demure attire and dons a vibrant red blossom dress to attract and seduce the murmuring hordes of pollinators who are helpless to resist her experienced charms.

And as I look, astonished by her transfiguration, I too am rendered speechless in the face of such holy beauty. As the poet Mary Oliver once said, “Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.” After a day of tears, this is a blessing I sorely needed.

* * * * *

The natural world – though that is too crude a phrase to truly do justice to the wild complexity of all that it endeavours to encompass – has a seemingly infinite capacity to astonish, to delight, to bless those whose eyes are open. And in doing so they can reveal to the world the one who is the beginning and the end of all things. In the days when God’s people could hardly dream of holding a Bible in their hands, let alone read it, they could see and hear and smell and taste and feel the fingerprints of their creator in the world around them.

It is not hard to imagine King David, long before the mantle of leadership was ever dreamt of, lying out on the hillside and gazing up at the stars, singing gently to his flock “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands”.

Or to picture Paul, sat on the harbour wall in Corinth looking out across the sea to the mountains beyond and making a mental note to remind the church in Rome that “since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

* * * * *

In Constantinople in the seventh century, as the age of antiquity gave way to what we now disparagingly call the dark ages, a young man named Maximus was leaving the life of a courtier behind to follow God’s calling into the wilderness. Taking with him nothing but his vast intellect, he settled as a monk in North Africa where he began to pit his wits against the religious leaders of the day.

He wrote prolifically, taking the wisdom of the first half millennium of Christian thought and distilling it into something coherent and so devastatingly potent that his enemies cut off his hands and tongue in order to silence him. Time would vindicate him, however, and his reputation soon grew to match his output.

Maximus came to understand that the essence of every created thing, its unique purpose and identity, is given to it by the creator who is the beginning and the end of all things. Every part of God’s creation can, by its very being, reveal something of the creator. An eagle echoes God’s majesty. A mountain echoes God’s patience. A hawthorn, for a few days a year, echoes God’s breathtaking beauty.

As Maximus put it, Christ “ineffably concealed himself in each visible thing”. A thousand years later the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would say that each creature “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places”.

* * * * *

It was a shock when we had to close the Church buildings. Between one Sunday and the next we had become a dispersed Church, kept apart from one another by the threat of an unseen virus. The plans that we had made for Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, were all thrown out of the window.

“The building may be closed but the Church is still active” our posters proclaimed, but it didn’t always feel like that. We were grieving, although we couldn’t necessarily put into words what we had lost. What would sustain us in our faith now that we could no longer gather around the scriptures, around the communion table?

And yet somehow we were sustained. We found ways to share the scriptures, if not the bread and wine, and despite our newly fragmented status we were sustained by one another. But above all, and perhaps most surprisingly, we were sustained in our faith by the blessing of Spring.

As the human world closed down, the non-human world was exploding with new life and now more than ever we had the time to notice it. It seemed, for those with eyes to see, that God was reminding us of Jesus’ command to consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and we did and we found there the fingerprints of our Creator.

* * * * *

A few days later I passed the hawthorn again. The red blossom dress which had so captivated me before had melted away and she was back to her old, unassuming self. And yet I knew that I was changed by the encounter, that I had been sustained by her beauty at a moment when I had needed that grace more deeply than I could know.

And so I offered a silent prayer of thanks to the creator whose heavenly beauty shone through the red blossom dress, and for the blessing that I had received simply by standing where I was and opening my eyes.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
and every common bush afire with God,
but only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.”
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Matthew 28:16-20 Sunday 7th June – Trinity Sunday

Reflection on Matthew 28:16-20
Sunday 7th June, Trinity Sunday

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

This well known passage is often known as “The Great Commission”, where after the resurrection Jesus calls together his disciples and sends them out to carry on his work in the world: “Go and make disciples of all nations”

Looking back on that commission with the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight, you’d probably say that those eleven disciples were pretty successful!  Within a few decades the Christian faith had spread across the Roman Empire (admittedly helped by a fair bit of persecution which scattered the believers here there and everywhere!). 

Within a few centuries Christianity was the dominant religion across much of Europe and was spreading well into Asia and Africa too.  And today Jesus is worshipped in just about every country in the world.  Go and make disciples of all nations, he said, and they did.

But, of course, the story is not as straightforward as that.  Because even as they gathered there on that Gallilean hilltop, overlooking the region where their adventures had begun some three years earlier, some of them still had doubts.  Despite all that they had heard Jesus say, all that they had seen Jesus do, all that they had done themselves, they still weren’t sure.

And Jesus knows this.  He knows that they are flawed and doubtful and lacking in confidence but he commissions them anyway because he also knows that if he were to wait until he found a group of perfect, faithful, confident followers he’d be waiting a very long time. 

The Church has never been filled with perfect people, instead God commissions ordinary people like you and me and those first doubting disciples to be his hands and feet in the world.  As the American Monk Thomas Merton said, “A saint isn’t someone who is good, a saint is someone who experiences God’s goodness.”

The Great Commission to “go and make disciples” is a commission to each and every one of us, however uncertain we may be, however unqualified we may feel.  All of us who call ourselves follower of Jesus have been commissioned by Jesus to go and make disciples – not just those of us who have theology degrees or dog collars – everyone!  As the saying goes, “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.”

Making disciples sounds like a scary thing but it’s really as simple as letting people know what your faith means to you.  I’ve been blown away by some of the stories people have shared with me about how they’ve heard from God in the past few months – through noticing something in the garden, through a word from a friend, through a picture in a dream – and strength they’ve drawn from those experiences of God’s goodness.

The Church of God is not, and has never been, the building, or the clergy, it’s the ordinary people going about their daily lives and sharing with others the goodness of God that they’ve experienced in their own lives.  It may not sound like much, but it can change the world!  Amen.

Pentecost Sunday – 31st May

Reflection on John 20:19-23
Pentecost Sunday, 31st May 2020

We watched the Disney film Frozen 2 this week – we love the first one so were excited to catch up with Ana, Elsa, Kristoff and, of course, Olaf the snowman – and although none of the songs were quite as catchy as “Let it go” from the first film, we absolutely loved it!

Now I don’t know about you but at the moment everything I read or watch seems to resonate with our current situation, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with Coronavirus or lockdown, and Frozen 2 was no exception.

There was one line in particular from the film which I was so struck by that I wrote it down straight away. It was from, I think, Elsa and Ana’s father, the king, and he said this: “When you can’t see the future all you can do is the next right thing”.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit to the whole Church. In our Bible Reading from John‘s Gospel Jesus breathes on his disciples (which is not something that we should be doing at the moment!) and says “receive the Holy Spirit”. This of course echoes the creation stories from Genesis where God breathes life, breathes Spirit, into Adam and Eve.

A few weeks later, after Jesus has ascended into Heaven, the Holy Spirit comes again but this time it is not just on the disciples, it comes on the whole Church and if you read the book of Acts you’ll see just some of the amazing things that followed.

The Holy Spirit, in the Bible, goes by all sorts of different names but one of the most common is, in Greek, paraklete (and no that’s not a kind of exotic pet bird!). The name paraklete derives from the word parakaleo, which means to call alongside. And so when the Holy Spirit is called the paraklete it means God coming alongside and calling out on our behalf.

It’s not an easy word to translate and so you’ll find it in your Bible in different places as things like comforter, helper, mediator, guide, teacher, encourager, or advocate. You might say that the Holy Spirit helps us to see, and to do, the next right thing.

On that first Pentecost the disciples were gathered together in fear and secrecy. They didn’t know what to do, they couldn’t see what the future would hold now that Jesus was gone. But when the Holy Spirit came among them like fire and wind they knew that the next right thing was simply to open the doors, go outside, and tell people about Jesus.

And all the way down through the history of the Church, Christians found themselves in the same position – locked away, fearful and anxious and uncertain – and over the centuries Christians found that although they may not have known what the future had in store, the Holy Spirit gave them the confidence and the courage to do the next right thing.

And now it is our turn, our moment of anxiety, as our Church buildings are closed and our future is uncertain. But we, like our sisters and brothers in Christ before us, have the Holy Spirit within us – the comforter, the guide, the teacher, the encourager – to help us, not to solve all the world’s problems, not to map out the next five years or even the next five weeks, but simply to do the next right thing, and then the next right thing, and then the next right thing.

And so we pray, with our fellow Christians around the world, that great Pentecost prayer: “Come Holy Spirit.”

Amen.

Rogation Sunday – 17th May

We’ve done something slightly different for our weekly worship this week.  It is Rogation Sunday and we would normally be visiting a farm and walking round praying a blessing on different things, so we have done that but from the Rectory garden instead!

After listening to this, we encourage you to do something similar where you are – perhaps in your own garden or field or street, and pray a blessing on the things that you see using these words:

“For a blessing on this…, hear us good Lord”

We’d love to hear how you get on!

rogation at home