Sunday Sermons

King's Lynn Minster

Sunday 5th July 2020 – 4th Sunday of Trinity

The Venerable Ian Bentley, Archdeacon Of Lynn

Greetings to all at The Minster and it’s great to be able to share worship with you this morning.

I am looking at this Gospel reading from Matthew. The famous Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, wrote a short story and it was set in a village in Russia; the snows were just melting, and two children go out to play; Akulya and Malasha. They have both been given new frocks and have been told to be very careful that they don’t get them dirty, but there are puddles around and they’re children and one jumps in a puddle, splashes the other and a fight ensues and, as they’re squabbling, so their brothers come out and they start fighting with each other because they see that one sister is fighting another sister, and so it goes on. The Dads come out, the Mums come out and, before long, the village is at war. Then, suddenly one person shouts “Stop, look” and points to where the girls are and, of course, they have now made up. They are playing with a little boat they have made out of a bit of bark and this person says, “little girls are wiser than men”. Little children; wiser than adults.

Jesus says, “I thank you Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to children”. Not the first time that Jesus has used children as an example of how to accept God; how to accept the Kingdom of Heaven. The context of this is that there has been a dispute going on between Jesus and the Pharisees and they have complained about Him eating with tax collectors and sinners and he says, “You are never satisfied. You moaned about John, who had this austere lifestyle and now you are moaning about me because I am eating and drinking with people you don’t like”. “Well I’ll tell you what you’re like”, he says, “you say you are wise, you hold these secret truths and then say to the people, we have the truth about God and we lay these burdens upon you”; the Yoke of the Law, it’s called and its into that he says “I thank you Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to the children”. The word ‘revealed’ here is the same Greek word translated elsewhere as Apocalypse; a sudden dramatic, earth shattering event. So, what’s so earth shattering about this? What does He reveal?

It’s a prayer and he starts with these words that I have read “Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth”. This is a title of God only used three times in the New Testament and Jesus is pointing to, if you like, this hugeness of God and then saying, “I reveal that to you”.

All of these things have been handed over to me by my Father, no-one knows the Father, except the Son and no-one knows the Son except the Father. If you see me, you see God”. No wonder the Pharisees were so cross with Him but He then goes on and says, “and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him”. No secret revelation. Jesus is simply saying to people, come to me and you will know God; all may come and, in coming to me, you can have the same relationship with God that I have. Stunning. Stunning information for people. A revelation: and it comes with a cascade of promises:

If you are weary.  Well, I guess many of us are feeling weary, we have just passed the 100 day mark of this lockdown. Some are beginning to come out of it and, for others, the end is not in sight. There is fear around; weariness. If you carry heavy burdens, Jesus says, then listen to me …. I will give you rest. Of course, the thing is with burdens, before we can have rest from them; we have to lay them down, we have to allow somebody else to share the burden, and that is what Jesus is offering.

The Yoke of the Law; that heavy burden that is being placed on people’s shoulders … he says, I will replace, because actually the Yoke works like this … you put an older Ox alongside a younger one, you yoke them together and the younger one learns from the older; and they share the burden and, as Jesus says, you share the burdens with me, as you follow me, as you come to me, so you discover that I am gentle and humble in heart and that is how God is.

You will discover rest for your soul.

The way he gives is both easier than the way of the Pharisee and harder. Easier because we are yoked with somebody who actually cares for us, who loves us, who likes us. It’s harder, because being yoked with Jesus means that we are prepared to actually follow Him; if you like, the yoke of Discipleship, learning from Him.

But it’s not really hard is it? He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows the way we should walk, the way we should go, the path ahead of us; better than we know it ourselves. Come to me, says Jesus, and I will show you God. Come to me and trust me, as a child trusts a parent. An amazing relationship that is offered; and it is yours.

Amen

 

King's Lynn Minster

Sunday 28th June 2020 – 3rd Sunday of Trinity, St Peter & St Paul

Canon Andy Bryant (Norwich Cathedral)

May the words of my lips and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

It is good to be with you this morning.  I send greetings from all my Chapter colleagues at your Cathedral. Please be assured we are holding you all in our prayers at this time.

When the orders came that all church buildings had to be closed because of the pandemic, some wonderful stories emerged of rural churches that could not find a key to lock their churches.  Nobody in living memory could remember their churches ever having been locked day or night.  Locking the building was simply something they did not do.

In today’s Gospel Peter is given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.  If you were given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven how would you use them?  I want to suggest to you that Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven precisely because Jesus knew Peter would never use them – at least never to lock anyone out.

Peter is the one who can manage to both get things so right and so wrong.  In today’s gospel he is the one who boldly proclaims Jesus as the Messiah.  But a few verses later, beyond where our reading ends today, Peter tells Jesus off for talking about his death and resurrection and is rebuked by Jesus with the words: Get behind me Satan. 

Peter, perhaps more so than any of the other disciples, knows the power of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.  It is no accident that it is Peter who has the dream of the unclean and clean animals and realises God is telling him that no one should be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven, neither Jew nor Gentile.  Knowing how often he himself had messed up and yet was forgiven, Peter would have known the Kingdom of Heaven was truly for all.  If a person like himself could be welcomed in the Kingdom of Heaven, how could he ever contemplate excluding anyone else?

Paul too was aware of the wonder and mystery of God’s grace – he who had once persecuted the Church discovers he is saved, not by any action of his own but rather by the unconditional love of God.

Yet the history of the Church shows us how often we have wanted to use the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to exclude.  The early Church was divided over issues of circumcised versus uncircumcised and over the food people ate.  Since then the Church has wanted to exclude people because of their religious beliefs, their political affiliations, over their racial origin, whether they were slave or free, catholic or protestant, or in recent times due to gender and sexuality.

In the face of the unconditional love of God, we so often have been excluding, quick to judge, creating divisions rather than healing them.  We have wanted to use the keys of the kingdom of heaven to lock some people out, forgetting that we are saved by God’s grace alone and not because of who we are, what we do or how we behave.

And once again we are having to face up to the racism that still infects both our society and our Church.  The fact that anyone could feel the need to carry a banner saying Black Lives Matter condemns us.  How have we found ourselves in a place where people of colour are still discriminated against and daily have to endure prejudice and racial abuse?  Worst still, we are too often unconscious of the ways we exclude, pre-judge or put down.

Faced with the sheer generosity of God’s love, it is as if we cannot quite comprehend it and feel that in some way it should be limited or contained – after all why else was Peter given the keys to the Kingdom if not in some way to police it.  However, I believe Peter was given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven not to police it but to liberate it from our desire to exclude; to open doors, not lock them.  Our task is not to protect the generosity of God but to demonstrate it in living lives of love.

The death of George Floyd has been an uncomfortable reminder of the inherent racism at work in our societies.  The unevenness of the impact of the pandemic has again highlighted the deep inequalities at the heart of our nation, and of our world.  Many have used the phrase “new normal” but whatever that may or may not mean, as Christians we cannot rest until there is justice and peace for all, and a right and equal sharing of the world’s resources.

And each time we hear again this gospel, or see an image of Peter holding a key, we need to remember the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are not for locking but for opening, opening up a vision for the world where all are included, where all are valued; each of us honoured as a beloved child of God.

 

King's Lynn Minster Sunday 22nd June 2020 – 2nd Sunday of Trinity

The Revd Peter Rowntree

When I was a very young man, early on in my Christian life, my spiritual director (a holy and an  experienced priest) spoke to me about my period of prayer before going to bed at night.  He advised me to do something that is obvious; he urged me to use that time to go over the past day and review it before God, in God’s presence.  Now I may not have been listening to him attentively enough but I got the impression that this advice was solely about using it as a time for confession.  Searching out the things that I had done wrong in the day; recalling the ways I hadn’t acted lovingly.  And so confessing all of that, before I could lie down with a clean and holy conscience.

And, I say that I may not have listened attentively enough for I now believe that I only got half the story.  True, of course, it is a good thing to confess to God the wrongs of life.  It both heals us and restores us.  But I soon realised that our loving God does not want us to stop at that and stay just with the sin of the day.  He urges us toward the more positive,too.

For, contrary to what we might assume, the truth actually is that God is not up there in heaven plotting how to kick the boot in, secretly watching so he can catch us out in anything bad.  Rather, instead, the truth is that not only does he love us but, as we have just heard in our Gospel reading, Jesus proclaims that God values us, too.  We are of value to him.  And the thing that amazes me the most is that he doesn’t just want to pour out blessings on us but that he wants us to co-operate with him in that work.  Collaborators rather than mere recipients.

In that reading, Our Lord points out a couple of sparrows. I like to picture that, as he was speaking, there were some of these everyday birds jumping about nearby; and perhaps he points to the sparrows and tells his listeners that God cherishes every one of them.  We may hardly notice them but Jesus speaks of their worth, their value. And he cherishes us in just the same way. Indeed, Jesus goes on to state that God is caught up so much in all that we are, that he even knows the exact number of hairs on our heads.

I believe that we are called as Christians to be balanced people. Balanced and mature.  Encompassing the whole picture.  And those sparrows and those hairs on the head remind us of how high we are in standing before our Father.  And this is equally true, too, even, may I say, even when we think about our wrongs and confess our sins. It is right and proper to do that.  It is right and proper to lay before God where we miss the mark.  But we only do that so that, through God’s forgiveness, we can throw it aside for ever and not allow it to damage us.  Only then, with this ridding of self-preoccupation, only then can we collaborate in God’s loving work.

Our Epistle reading this morning, from the Letter to the Romans, that speaks of this in the vivid context of the resurrection liberating us from death.  And the emphasis here is not upon the imprisonment but upon the freedom.  Near to the end of today’s Gospel reading there is a sentence that might easily disturb us.  Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  And that sentence may disturb us because, although it is a very characteristic way of speaking for someone of Jesus’ time, it is not usually the way we speak today. It seems to be so violent.  But I believe that this is not about people fighting against people at all.  And part of what he is trying to get across is that we are called to battle against anything within our own lives that diverts us from him and his work.

We are called to fight that through those very balanced lives which enable us to get on with our God-given task of doing what he does: Loving people into the kingdom.

Amen.

 

King's Lynn Minster Sunday 14th June 2020 – the 1st Sunday after Trinity

“Ask the Lord to send our the labourers...” praught by The Revd Angela Rayner

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

“There aren’t enough people...”, “There isn’t enough money...”, “We’re not as young as we once were…”, “The building isn’t warm enough, “It just won’t work here...”. Perhaps these Christian cries were envisaged by Jesus when he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few…”. “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few”. That Jesus knew this before Pentecost, well before the birth of the church leads us to ask about our labour and purpose. What is the church for? We’ve heard it again today, “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease. Teaching, proclamation and healing. There’s no mention of fund-raising or meetings, rotas or risk-assessments. We do these things only to assist our mission of teaching, proclamation and healing. But how, when the labourers are few? Jesus answers “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers…”. Ask.

As a Church, we will not develop or we will not grow until our bodies desire prayer as much as they do food. “Ask” says Jesus. Ask for labourers. Ask for money. Ask for help. It’s a slow work, that process of asking, getting down on our knees, finding we don’t know what we’re doing when we’re there, and discovering that we can’t get up again. But prayer reveals to us the desires of our hearts, and purifies them in the presence of God. Unless we lay ourselves open to this dangerous business, we won’t get anywhere. God’s answers might not be our answers, but God will answer. Such prayer isn’t the job of the clergy or one or two devout lay people; it is the task of each of us. Jesus tells us to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers, for that is what he does.

Jesus summoned twelve apostles from his wider group of disciples. They’re his neighbours, and far from perfect. They’re ordinary. Tax collectors, fishmen, encouragers and betrayers. They’re just like you and me. This mission that they’re given is the same as the one given to us. What is the mission of the church again? It is “proclaiming and establishing among all peoples the Kingdom of God”. Proclamation is not optional, but necessary if we are to avoid being a social club. For the church is a lifeboat, existing “to rescue people.” and lead them to God. The danger is that we “maintain our lifeboats, painting them, serving the people in them, and keeping them for ourselves”, when that’s not their purpose. The purpose of the Church is teaching, proclamation and healing. It is nothing less than establishing among all peoples the Kingdom of God. If we do not find a way to “pick up our oars and row”, then we’ll end up “lamenting the tragedy of church closures”. Our task, first and foremost, is to proclaim the Kingdom. We must send out the labourers!

Maybe you’re sitting at home laughing! Proclaim the Kingdom? We’ve barely left home since March. We’ve not seen anybody or been anywhere. These conditions are far from optimal, but Jesus grew his band of disciples from less hopeful beginnings. And I believe they grew rapidly because Jesus gave them clarity about his mission. There are, then, two areas of proclamation we might imitate. Jesus was clear about whom the mission involved, and then how to go forth.

First, those disciples knew their listeners. Matthew’s gospel is clear that they were to go first among the Jewish people. It’s a message echoed in Romans. First the Jews, and then the Gentiles. The Gentiles would receive the message only after the resurrection. The Jewish people were to receive it first, so that they could not say they were rejected by God. What might that mean for us? Do we need to look again at our parish boundaries? What is the shape of our parish? Its size? Who are the lost sheep in his place? These questions might be kept in mind, as we form a parish profile. Whom are we called to serve? Where are the least among us? The early disciples knew their listeners. If we are to proclaim the Kingdom of God, we must get to know our neighbours.

Second, Jesus gave the disciples very clear instructions. Take no gold. Take no bag. Take no spare clothes. Take no shoes. Go among the people who welcome you, and if the people don’t welcome you, find the ones that do. There is much wisdom here about travelling light. What are we clinging to that is hindering our journey? Do we really need all of those kitchen appliances or clothes or books? Do our possessions enable us to offer hospitality to others or prevent them from coming near? St Chrysostom called the apostles’ new instructions “a happy exchange”. “In place of gold and silver, they received power to heal the sick, to raise the dead… freeing them from all anxiety of this life”. Not all are called to the vows of the religious - to poverty, obedience and celibacy, but we can learn much from those that are.

Jesus’ disciples, then, understood their mission. They knew the people to whom they were called. And they knew how to undertake their task. It will be your task, alongside the next incumbent, to work on a vision for unfolding the Kingdom at the Minster for the next 5, 10 or 20 years. But if we know our parish and how God it is that God sends us out, we can be clearer about identifying the type of priest required to do that work.

Finally, though, there’s warning. We’ll only know for certain that we’ve successfully proclaimed the Kingdom when we are dragged before governors and Kings. We’ll know it’s God’s work when we find ourselves in trouble with the authorities, or betrayed by our families or close friends. Jesus warns us that we will be hated on account of him. But St Paul, writing to a Church at odds with itself, gently encouraged the people anyway, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Hope doesn’t disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit”. Friends, let us be hopeful, as we ask the Lord of the harvest to send out the labourers.

Amen

King's Lynn Minster Thursday 11th June 2020 – the Feast of Corpus Christi

“This is the bread that came down from heaven...” praught by The Revd Angela Rayner

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven…” said Jesus. And thus today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, or as the Book of Common Prayer would have it “the day of thanksgiving for the institution of Holy Communion”. It’s the day we give thanks for Jesus’ body as the living bread which came from heaven, which means today it is especially appropriate to proclaim that “Black lives matter”. “Of course black lives matter”, you might object, “but you shouldn’t make this about politics when it’s actually about the Eucharist”.

As it happens, the Eucharist is deeply political because it is the meal which forms the citizens - the polis - of Christ. I don’t mean the Eucharist is party political. It’s far more important than that. How did the Eucharist come to be? Through Jesus, who said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven”. And when we look to Jesus, it should not escape our attention that he was black. Jesus was from Nazareth in the Middle East. Today, he’d be held at airport check-points, pulled aside when many of us are nodded through. He’d have been stopped and searched when nipping to the supermarket. This Jesus, the one who said, “the bread that I will give for the world is my flesh” is the same Jesus that the world rejected. This Jesus was black.

Ordinarily, on Corpus Christi, we’d gather together. We’d hear the words, “behold the Lamb of God”, and gaze at Jesus in the Eucharist, and then we’d eat. For Sunday by Sunday, feast by feast, we form Christ’s body on earth. Through this eating, the Eucharist makes the Church. Being present at the Eucharist is deeply radical in these times; it makes us warriors against injustice. Gone are the days when atheism was a protest. As Christians, our Church body is itself a protest against the suggestion that some lives matter more. Certainly, we could go to the streets to proclaim it. But what happens when momentum is lost, when placards are abandoned, when the news has moved on? Do we want only to demonstrate against injustice? Or do we want to form a new society that includes every people from every nation? If the latter, then we need the Eucharist. It is the greatest protest we have. For, in the Eucharist, through the Eucharist, we are formed into a new body, as a new people to create a new politics.

When we are baptised, we receive the greatest gift in the world. We are received into Christ’s body. We relinquish our ties with our families. The Church receives us, and God asks for our lives. And yet, after baptism, those lives are still marred by sin and by struggle. And so we must re-member them regularly. Thus it is that, before the Eucharist, we admit our unworthiness, and our wrong-doing. By the Eucharist, sin is put to death. To become one body, we cannot reject our neighbours because they don’t speak English. Racism and fear are denied. The Eucharist collapses the borders of “them” and “us”. In the Eucharist, the “them” becomes “us”. For “very truly” said Jesus, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, you have no life in you…” After the Eucharist, there can be no “foreigner” in Christ Jesus.

Because we are given life through this heavenly banquet, we feel its absence keenly during lockdown. We long to be together again, to feast together again. My friends, I do not know what the Eucharist will look like when we can gather. I do not know whether first, we must meet in small groups. I do not know whether it will involve masks and perspex, and individually wrapped hosts. What we do know is that Christ promised us eternal life through it. He promised. Until then, we pray and wait. I continue to celebrate the Eucharist - not because priests are any more special to God - but because I was ordained to do so on your behalf. When Jesus said, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”, he was already baptised. Our connection through baptism means that if any member of the body eats and drinks, the rest also receive the benefit of that eating and drinking. That is how spiritual communion works.

But - and this is important - the Body of Christ is not only us, the people. Even with no people left on earth, the Church would continue to exist. The Church is, firstly, Christ’s risen and ascended mystical body. Through that body we become Christ’s body on earth by eating the risen body of Christ in the Eucharist. On Corpus Christi, we honour that Eucharist. We say that it matters. Jesus, made present through the matter of bread and wine, matters. In Jesus, black lives not only matter, but they are matter. It is through our eating of the one who came to us on earth as a black man, that we become the Church. Black lives matter. Without black lives, the Church would not have been incarnate in Mary’s womb.

On Corpus Christi, in many churches, it’s common to conclude the Eucharist with a procession. Jesus is carried in the form of bread and wine, in a monstrance - a precious container - on to the streets. He returns to the streets to walk among the people. Processions are Christian street protests with Christ at their heart. Of course, there are some in the Church of England who object. They argue that it’s an article of our faith that “the sacraments were not ordained to be gazed upon or to be carried about”. Article 25 is not wrong. The Eucharist was primarily ordained for our shared eating. But if that is its primary purpose, it is not its only purpose. For when we have consumed Christ, the over-flowing of our love for Him means that we will want to return him to the people. And when the people meet Jesus in the host, in the streets, and through our lives, I believe they will want to follow.

If we are serious in our proclamation that Black Lives Matter because Christ’s life matters, we will need to go beyond the ordinary. Beyond the removal of monuments. Beyond slogans. We’ll need to ask how our lives are comfortable at the expense of other lives. We’ll have to ask where our clothes are made and how our food is processed, and who might be enslaved by them. For this Jesus Christ, who gave us his flesh in the Eucharist doesn’t ask for a people who show up, sign up, and pay up. He doesn’t want the minimum. “This is the bread that came down from heaven... “ It spells trouble. For through it, Jesus tells us, he wants our very lives. Amen Christ had a black body The Church is Christ’s mystical body The Eucharist is the way we re-create Christ’s body on earth The Eucharist was not ordained to be carried around (39 articles), but this carrying it around stems from our eating, and not vice versa

King's Lynn Minster Sunday 7th June 2020 – Trinity Sunday

Canon James Nash, Rural Dean of Lynn

 

These are the first words of Isaiah chapter 40:

“Comfort, comfort my people says you God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins”

An awful lot has happened between the end of Isaiah chapter 39 and the beginning of chapter 40 none of which is recorded in this part of the Old Testament. Babylon has finally ransacked the city of Jerusalem and most of the people of Judah have been forced into exile.  And so a whole way of life for a whole people came to an abrupt end.   From chapter 40 the prophet Isaiah of the previous 39 chapters is no longer prophesying – instead another voice speaks to the Judeans – taking Isaiah’s name but speaking a message of hope, renewal and the return of God which is largely absent from the early chapters.

The people of Judah had been overwhelmed by the might of Babylon and later Persia, as empire overcame empire.  There’s no surprise that God’s people had lost sight of him, there’s no surprise either that they had become very worldly in their thinking.  After all, their lives had been overwhelmed by great and powerful nations who paid no heed to their God.   They have seen and experienced overwhelming and terrible power wielded by men.

The challenge for the Prophet Isaiah, is firstly to transform the perspective of the Judeans – to remind them that nations are as nothing in the sight of God. “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales” and “Before him the nations are as nothing”.   Isaiah’s second purpose is to instil God’s people with hope again.  God is returning, and his people will return from exile and they will be restored.  Ultimately, the promised return from exile and the restoration of the people of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ and the salvation he brings through his death and resurrection. 

I think it’s fair to say that lots of questions are being asked of God during these tumultuous times.  The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are already catastrophic, and there’s no doubt that the repercussions of this worldwide crisis will be felt for decades.  Some have asked whether God has sent Covid 19 like a plague to punish the human race, others wonder how God can apparently sit back and allow so much human suffering?

Tom Wright, a well-known scholar of the New Testament, points out that there is no Christian explanation for the pandemic.  The Church’s role is not to give answers, but instead our role is to lament - to grieve with those who are grieving, and to weep with those who are weeping.  Jesus himself wept over Jerusalem and he wept at the grave of Lazarus.

Our rationalist minds compel us to seek reasons for everything and anything, and to search for solutions and answers. For me, the experience of lockdown and everything associated with it has been as though a rug has been pulled from underneath my feet.

My diary has lines through every appointment and event I had planned.  Most of the activities of the Church in the Woottons are on hold – who knows for how long?  

The safety, security and certainty that used to be the fabric of my life, and of the lives of those people who surround me has crumbled.  How long is all this going to go on for?  What is life going to be like for us in 6 months’ time?  What is life going to be like for us in 6 years’ time?   I simply don’t know.  We simply don’t know.

Neil Bennetts, a contemporary Christian song writer was asked to compose a song for a commemoration for mums and dads who had lost for children.  Neil had no idea how respond theologically in the face of such raw grief and despair, but he knew that he should simply focus on Jesus and seek him in his worship. 

Listen to some words from what emerged from Neil’s struggle.  His song is called O Perfect Love:

O perfect love, O perfect sacrifice

Fountain of life poured out for me.
What heights and depths of heaven's mercy,
The faithfulness that I believe.
And to whom shall I run?
And in whom shall I hide?
Only You hold the truth I desire.
O perfect love, my prayer shall ever be
To be found in Jesus.

The message of God spoken through Isaiah is to rely on God, to trust in him and him alone.  O perfect love expresses the same sentiment – only he holds the truth we desire.

Of course our mission extends beyond lament. We keep on praying, we worship and we wrestle.  By wrestle I mean we wrestle with God wondering where he is leading us – This wresting is expressed by the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 8 when he writes that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”. 

He goes on to say, “Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently”

We pray to the Father, through Christ in the power of the Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit helps us to pray when we don’t know how to even begin.    If we pray according to the Spirit, then our prayer is focused on God and the hope we have in him rather than on our own human desires and solutions.  God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit invites our imperfect community to become part of his perfect community and it is here that we will find hope, peace and meaning.

James Nash 7th June 2020

 

King's Lynn Minster  31 May 2020
Pentecost

Farewell Sermon by Canon Chris Ivory on his retirement as Team Rector 

It is one of the ironies of our situation that we are celebrating the festival of unity in the context of separation. We can't do the things that we have read about – we can't gather as a crowd of people from all over the world, we can't go out and preach in the market place. Later, in words of the liturgy, we'll be invited to embrace one anther, but we can't, and it is very odd to say good bye when we're not together to say it. 

But we are right to celebrate this festival of unity that transcends the barriers that human beings erect, and which is also the festival of sending out, and of looking forward with unbounded hope, enriched and empowered by God's Holy Spirit, on a new adventure of life. The Holy Spirit liberates us from our fears, drives us to unlock the door and to stride into a world that we feared was hostile. 

That sounds a reckless thing to say as we live with the continuing fear of the virus and love demands that, at the least, we do put others at risk. 

Maybe one insight from the lockdown is that it puts us back into the Biblical world of the exclusion of people with sinister symptoms, or who might have been made unclean by them. They might have been excluded until they could show they were cured, like the lepers, or for a fixed period, a day, a week, or whatever. 

There is an ancient wisdom, or is it an instinct, in all this. Then again, those Christian pastors, who insist that congregations can meet for worship because they have faith that God will keep them safe, are falling into the temptation that Jesus resisted in the wilderness. The temptation to put God to the test. For Jesus, the temptation was to leap from the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that God would not let him be hurt. Now the temptation is to disregard the danger of spreading the virus; trusting that God will restrain it. But Jesus understood that's not how faith works – it isn't about demanding God does what we want. Christian discipleship is about following God's agenda, not expecting him to follow ours.

So what are we to do? It is always about discerning where God is at work ahead of us and joining in. We can see God's work in the small acts of care and concern for people, or where people put themselves at risk to care for the sick or frail. Equally we can see God in the work of those who help to maintain safe and civilised society – the refuse collectors, cleaners, food suppliers, delivery workers, and so on. So, showing our appreciation and assisting in whatever way we can, is part of our Christian discipleship; as is being aware, and responding in whatever way we can, to the needs of people throughout the world who lack the resources to keep themselves safe. 

At another level, perhaps the work of God can be seen in a shift in the values and priorities of our society. We can see more clearly what is important and what is superficial. Christian discipleship may require us to stand form for those values when the world returns to more superficial priorities.
I think the most significant of the events that Pentecost in Jerusalem, was that people from all over the world, who spoke so many different languages, understood in themselves, in their minds, in their hearts, the message of God's love and power that the disciples proclaimed. 

It started with that frightened group of people, gathered in secret behind locked doors, who were transformed by an experience of God that could not adequately be expressed in words. The inadequacy of the words reflects the limited capacity of human beings to experience. Wind and fire pick up Old Testament imagery to describe the overwhelming presence of God: images that express the life and power of God within the limitations of human beings to experience it. But remember, Elijah's experience, God was not the wind or the fire, but in the silence. The reality of God is beyond human capacity to know or to experience. Any experience of God is constrained by our capacity to experience, and is therefore always partial and distorted.

The disciples were transformed by an experience that they could only describe as wind and fire. They were filled with courage to fling open the doors, and they were impelled to go out and babble the good news of God. Those who were not affected by the Holy Spirit experienced what the disciples proclaimed as drunken nonsense, but those who were affected by the Holy Spirit, heard words about the deeds and power of God.

So, God was there before the disciples, it wasn't just about a small group of people, led by Peter, going out to preach to a crowd of uninterested tourists, it was about God pouring out his Spirit upon all flesh, people from all over the world; and about Peter and the others interpreting the meaning of this experience to the crowd. The action of the Holy Spirit was as much in those who hear and understood as it was those who spoke. 

And it was about uniting diverse humanity; reversing the divisions of Babel. In the prehistoric story of the tower of Babel, humankind was divided by a failure of understanding. Now the divisions are transcended by understanding given by the Spirit. The sign of the work of the Holy Spirit is the uniting of diverse humanity in common understanding.

So mission and evangelism are about seeking where the Spirit of God is at work in the world, and helping people to understand and respond to their experience of God. It may be a dramatic experience of God, but more commonly we find hints of God in the midst of dramatic human experience; life changing events; birth or death, perhaps. That's when we allow our experience of God to emerge, or allow ourselves to acknowledge it. 

The one who brings good news, is the one who enables an experience of God to be accepted, valued and understood, in whatever circumstance it is found. That is what Peter did and that is what we are each called to do, whenever we have the opportunity and the privilege to help people connect with their experience of God. Or maybe people need us to remind them of the need to allow space to experience of God – we cannot find God unless we allow ourselves to be found by him.

So for the Minster and our parish, we have come to a time of change, and inevitably a time of anxiety for all concerned, anxiety because the future is unknown. It is, of course, always unknown, but most of the time we rely on supports to navigate the way ahead, and when any guide disappears, some of our certainty disappears too. 

I'm sure there was never any wisdom in relying on me. What we all rely on is far more substantial and reliable than any human being, even if for a time a human being is called represent it. 

17 years ago, you invited me, with Christopher and Aunt Peg, to make our home with you in King's Lynn and you trusted me to lead the Church here for the next period of its long history. We came bearing some wounds from the refusal in some places to allow the possibility of Christopher and I being together – rejection that was, at one time, accompanied by unnecessary hostility and brutality, which wounded some other people as much as it did us. 

But we came to a community that was also wounded; wounded by the untimely death of Bill Hurdman, the previous Vicar. You were generously welcoming and, over time, our being together has been, I hope, for our mutual healing. There have been conflicts and sometimes unkindnesses on the way, for which I bear by far the greater responsibility. We have travelled quite a long way and achieved a few things together. There is more that I had hoped we would achieve than has actually been done, but I suppose that's inevitable.

North Lynn was always close to my heart, one of the few things I remember from when I was interviewed to be Vicar, was saying that if we were serious about our mission, the Vicarage would on the estate. Well there is now a Vicarage and a Team Vicar, in Becca Rogers, who is far more gifted than I would ever have been to take forward Christian mission there. I had hoped there would be a wonderful new North Lynn church building before I left – but at least it's well on the way.

It has been a great pleasure and privilege to be so much part of this wonderful town and Borough; being invited into so many aspects of its life, especially the civic life and the wider life of the Borough. This is a treasure of an historic town which is gaining pride in its heritage, and I hope will find increasing prosperity by celebrating that heritage. 

In the context of that venerable history, my time is insignificant. Since the Reformation there were 40 Vicars before me and before that there were at least 20 Priors– 919 years of Christian ministry. And the Vicar's stall, which had been the Prior's stall, the seat that has supported the bottoms of priests for 640 years, is a reminder to each successor that theirs is a small part, because, as St Paul told the Corinthians:

"Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose ... we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building. Each builder must choose with care how to build ... for no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it. 

None of us can know whether our contribution is of gold or straw – only the day of judgment will reveal it. But no doubt everyone who has taken that seat has simply done their best with what they had, to build on the foundation and that will be equally true of those who come after.

And so we all have to look to the future – to take the risk of living the life where God calls us and privileges us to be, knowing that to wherever he calls us, he is there before us and invites us to open our eyes to see him.

Towards the end of the service, we are asked to renew our acceptance of the life God invites us to live. "Empowered by the Holy Spirit, will you dare to walk into God's future, trusting him to be your guide?"

So in this leave taking we all have much to be grateful to one another for, but if we have learnt anything from one another it is to go forward into God's future trusting him to be our guide. 

Please pray for Christopher and I, but pray more for those responsible for discerning who will be the next Team Rector, as it will be, and that the whole community will have the courage, in the power of the Spirit, to go forward with whomever it is, wherever God calls each of you. Pray too for Becca, Angela, Fiona, Andy, Kelly, Peter and Peter, and for all who will continue to serve the ministry in the parish in the meantime.

Chris Ivory 31 May 2020

 

Sunday 24th May - The Ascension of the Lord
Canon Chris Ivory

“Jesus is truly Lord and King and he stands above our limitations; above what we know or feel now, above our limited experience, above our prejudices; and he calls us to a greater vision, to see beyond where we are now.”

I’ve quoted that sentence from Rowan Williams’ enthronement sermon at Canterbury too often, but I think it is a powerful summary of the heart of Christian discipleship and it often comes to my mind.

Jesus stands above, beyond, our limitations; above what we know, above what we feel, above our experience, above our prejudices. Our knowledge, our feelings, our experience, will not get us to Jesus, and our prejudices will always blind us to him. Jesus is always far more than we can conceive, or imagine. He is always calling us to a greater vision, to see beyond where we are now, but our pride in assuming that we can comprehend Jesus is the biggest obstacle to us seeing him.

That is what judgment is – not condemnation, but the revelation of our ignorance by the truth of Jesus. And this judgment is liberation for those who are genuinely humble, who recognise their frailty and limitations, but it is a terror for those who are proud; who rely on their own power and knowledge and virtue. This judgment is the greatest danger to those who think they understand God and can rely on his obligation to them rather than on his mercy.

In our society, any concept of truth, or of any reality beyond ourselves, or any sense of worship for its own sake, or of seeking God simply because God is God, makes little sense in our self-centered world view, where we think we can be in control of everything, and that everything must be for our benefit. That mindset increasingly infects the Church. We think we should invite people to become Christians because it will benefit them rather than just because it is true.

I am uncomfortable with the idea that the Bible can be used as a source of answers to our questions. What does the Bible say about this or that? Look up the key words to find the Biblical answer.

It’s misguided to assume that finding a word or two in a translation of the scriptures will give you much of an idea of the full light that the Bible might shine on any particular matter. It is dangerous to try to interpret any particular verse or passage outside its context: the book from which it comes, the type of Biblical writing the book represents, the whole breadth of the Bible and the traditions of interpretation, the limits of translation – these must all be taken into account.

But none of that gets to the heart of the problem. The real difficulty I see is that it starts from the wrong end, it starts with my agenda, the questions I want answering, whereas the Bible is about God’s agenda, what God wants to tell us. It is a reminder that we can barely begin to know what the questions are, never mind grasp the answers. I’m with Job, in the Old Testament, when God finally reveals himself, Job says, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know... I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I repent in dust and ashes.”

It isn’t that Job was wrong, indeed, at the end he is justified and his “comforters,” who defended God in the face of Job’s suffering, who were told they were wrong. The point is that the reality is so far beyond what Job could argue, that his arguments are simply trivial; they are eclipsed in the light of truth.

I can say with Job, of God, “I have heard you by the hearing of the ear,” but I can’t go on with him to say, “but now my eye sees you” except in glimpses and hints and distorted reflections, as St Paul says. The most nearly perfect picture I know of God is Jesus crucified, but how that truly represents the transcendent glory of God, is beyond my understanding, but what I can glimpse is that any picture of God that can’t include the reality of Christ crucified, is false.

The Bible is a compendium of styles gathered from a huge variety of historical, social and political contexts. Different parts written for different purposes and for peoples with different backgrounds, experiences and world views. It is perfectly possible to take parts of it to build arguments that are quite contrary to what we take Christian teaching to be – you can quite easily defend slavery and racism if you just select those topics. But if you take the whole thing as multi-faceted, diverse, poetic, daubings and hints of God’s self-revelation and of human attempts to record their perception of God’s self-revelation, then reading it, on its own terms, will lead us on to a greater, albeit fragmentary, perception of the infinite.

There is no single key to interpreting the Bible, it has to be wrestled with, and worked at, and that has to be in the context of prayer and worship, with humility, not thinking that the Bible is my tool, but that it is God’s way of showing me how I can his tool.

It has all kinds of allusion and imagery and story, not to mention irony. There is metaphor, parable and allegory. It is multi-faceted, with no clear picture, because the reality is far greater than can be expressed in one picture. I have a kind of notion of St John’s Gospel being a bit like a Picasso painting which tries to present the truth of a subject from different perspectives at the same time. It can be very confusing, but with study you can work out where words or ideas are carried through consistently and where things appear to be contradictory because they are looking at the same truth from different directions.

But we are celebrating the Ascension of the Lord, so why am I talking about the use of the Bible? I am trying to illustrate how we can begin glimpse the truth that the picture of Christ crucified and the picture Christ risen, ascended and gloried, are two images of the same truth. To see this merely as a sequence of events from crucifixion to ascension is to miss the main point.

You remember Jesus appeared to the disciples when Thomas was there – he wanted to touch Jesus’ wounds because they were the proof that the risen one is the crucified one. The wounds are not healed, but remain open for Thomas to put his fingers and hand in, only then does he understand the divinity of Jesus. The Lamb forever bears the marks of slaughter, is another image from St John’s writings.

The crucifixion and the ascension to glory, are two expressions the same truth that remain simultaneous in time, and in eternity. Wounded humanity is forever part of the nature of God.

How can this be? I do not know. I can only remain with Job in unknowing adoration.

“Jesus is truly Lord and King and he stands above our limitations; above what we know or feel now, above our limited experience, above our prejudices; and he calls us to a greater vision, to see beyond where we are now.”

John Mason expressed all this in his hymn, “How shall I sing that majesty which angels do admire.” We’ll sing or read it now in place of the creed, because as we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord the hymn expresses a truth, and a longing, that goes beyond what I can define in a creed.

How shall I sing that majesty
     which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
     sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around–
     thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound–
     thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,
     whilst I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
     but they behold thy face.
They sing because thou art their Sun;
     Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heav’n is but once begun
     there alleluias be.

How great a being, Lord, is thine,
     which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line–
     to sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
     a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
     thy place is everywhere.

John Mason (1645-1694)

Chris Ivory 23 May 2020

 

 

Sunday 17th May - 6th Sunday of Easter

The Revd Peter Rowntree

Next Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension, the day when we remember Our Lord withdrawing physically from his disciples. After so long in his company - after so much drama encompassing the depths of despair and the heights of rejoicing - this whole spiritual roller coast will in some ways come to an end.

And in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is preparing his disciples for that.

Almost all of us will have suffered a personal bereavement in our lives - the loss of someone close to us.
And we have had to come to terms with that sudden absence of someone with whom our lives have been intimately entwined. Jesus wants his closest friends and followers to be prepared for that when he is no longer physically there beside them. But his words are not just words of comfort at his absence - they are also words of hope. Because they are words - not just of consolation, but they are also words with a promise. The Promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit. And they will need that great resource - that great power. Because, although, as I said, his own earthly roller-coaster drama was coming to an end, their own personal roller coasters were going to grow and increase.

The Holy Spirit, the gift of Pentecost, is an assurance that, despite physical absence, God has not deserted them in that trial.

We should always remember, though, that this account was not written merely as a memoir by someone who was present. It is much more than that - because it was principally written to teach and to encourage the first Christians who followed on from them. A generation or so later. These were people who had not actually witnessed Our Lord in the flesh or personally heard him preach. And it was a particularly important message for them because their lives as Christians - those lives were difficult and hard. Many of them were a small often hated minority.

Today’s account re-assures them that God is as much close to them as he was to the Twelve in Jesus’ lifetime. Through the Holy Spirit given to them at baptism - the Almighty dwells within each of them, too.

Our modern world of 2020 is, of course, in some ways going through its own difficulties - its own roller-coaster drama. As is each of us in our own individual lives. And today’s Gospel passage has this same message for us.

In this time when so much of our attention is focused on Absence, we are blessed with this abiding Presence - God’s Holy Spirit.

This passage from Saint John begins and ends with a proclamation - a call to us - to fill our lives with love. And it is no accident that that provides a sort of framework to what Our Lord is saying. Because as always with our Gospel message - it is love that is the key to everything.

And it is in the moments of love in our lives, that the Holy Spirit breaks through with all her power and grace and encouragement.

Much of our future today lies enshrouded with mystery. We don’t know how things are going to pan out in the days and weeks and months ahead.

The disciples listening to the words of Christ which we have heard this morning, will have had that same uncertainty and perhaps trepidation. But, again, like them we have this promise - a promise that, no matter what, He is the constant unchanging loving presence - ever with us.

There is a danger that we regard this time of lockdown as something totally unusual and different in our lives. And it is true that there are things we cannot do - people we cannot meet - holidays we cannot take. For some there are even greater changes and depths - job loss, sickness, fear and bereavement.

And yet the challenges of life are ever like this. And in some ways today is no different at all to any day last February before all of this began. We don’t know now what lies ahead and, although we are more conscious of that in this situation, we didn’t really know what lay ahead for us last February, last year or when we were ten years old.

That great unknown may seem like a threat. But - today - with our Lord’s words - we are re-assured that it can have his great promise too.
Amen.

Peter Rowntree
16 May 2020

 

 

Sunday 10th May - 5th Sunday of Easter

Canon Chris Ivory

""We do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?"

The response of Jesus to Thomas's outburst brings a whole shift in our understanding of what religion is all about, it changes the whole emphasis of what it is to be someone who seeks God. 

If you want to know what is distinctive about Christianity then here it is – Christianity is about relationship: relationship with God, relationship with one another, relationship with the world.

"We do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" says Thomas – we might imagine that he added you "stupid idiot!" Jesus' reply was not a set of directions. Perhaps Thomas was expecting a road map, or even secret codes, or passwords, to open doors. Or maybe he knew better than that, but still expected something like: "you must be good according to the law, fulfil this and that regulation, go to the temple regularly, go to synagogue every sabbath", and so on. Up until then religion was impersonal, it was about rules and regulations, about being good according to a complicated definition, it was about rituals and formalities. 

But Jesus' answer was not that kind of answer at all, for him it is not about what you do, but about relationship: "I am the Way," said Jesus.

Jesus is talking to his disciples on the night before he died, the scene is the last supper and, at the heart of what we read for today's Gospel, is what Jesus said to Philip; the truth that if we want to see God the Father, we need look no further than Jesus. There is nowhere else to look, other than to Jesus to see what God is like. Jesus is God showing us himself in a way that we can understand. Jesus is God making himself comprehensible to us. So we have no more perfect picture of what God is like than what we see in Jesus and that picture is most perfect in his crucifixion. Christ crucified is the heart of what we may know about God. The resurrection may be the demonstration of his power, but the crucifixion is the demonstration of his nature. The crucifixion shows us how God relates to what he has made.

So if it is God's nature to make himself that vulnerable to us, we can only respond in like manner. We can never control Him by our dazzling brilliance, nor persuade him by our untarnished virtue; we will never know Him except in vulnerable love.

The truth revealed in Jesus is that God wants the best for us, that ultimate reality is on our side, he is our friend, more true than any other we may know. He binds our wounds, heals our hurts, forgives our sins and greets us as the father greeted his prodigal son, with open arms and abundant generosity. 

It's okay, don't worry, set your troubled heart at rest, there is room for you, and even for me, in God's house. That is the truth we may trust because that is the truth revealed in Jesus and to have seen him is to have seen the Father.

Jesus is rather generous in saying we may go on to greater works than he has done, if we trust in him; he's setting us a very high target. But whatever the work we are given to do, if it is not done with love, it is worthless. As St Paul says so clearly, "I may be a great prophet, understand all mysteries, know everything, have faith sufficient to move mountains, but without love I am nothing." Indeed the work of God is always in one way or another the expression of the love he has for us.

We've been celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe; the conquest of the evils of nazism. 

It wasn't the end of the 2nd world war. It wasn't the end of hardship, indeed in some respects rationing was even stricter for some time after the end of the war. Neither was it the final conquest of nazism, or other forms of fascism – that is an evil that continues to lurk beneath the surface of all human societies and threatens from time to time to re-surface in various sorts of nationalism and populism – the narrow, short-sighted, selfishness of the popular majority. 

What is to be celebrated, and what we so much need to keep in mind, is the self-sacrifice, for the benefit of others, that the war-time effort exemplified, and which characterised how this nation developed after the second world war. 

Who knows what the consequences would have been, but we could have kept out of it, we could have hidden behind the defence of the English channel. Probably the results would soon have been as disastrous for Britain as they would have been for the rest of Europe, but at the time, appeasement, peace in our time, might have seemed very attractive. 

But beyond the self-sacrifice of the war, was the generosity of spirit that resulted in the welfare state and the National Health Service, it was only possible to do it because there was a united commitment to the common good, the good of all people. Our society could easily have become divided again and different factions argued for what would benefit them. In the post war years, for a decade or more, there was a strong commitment to the common good, that made possible so much of what was achieved. A commitment that was an expression of the love that Jesus was talking about. The love of enemies, the love that kneels down to wash tired and broken feet.

That is the love that is springing up in all kinds of ways around us now, and it is the love that will challenge us to consider what sort of society we wish to be, when all the current crisis of over. The love that will challenge us to consider our values; what will our top priorities be in the years to come? What does it mean to live in the light of the love of God made plain in Jesus?

But for now, "do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me." says Jesus. At his last supper, Jesus gave us this sacrament to sustain us both in the vision and on the journey, it is about where we are going and how we shall get there, because Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. 

And in the meantime, Jesus assures us "peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid."

 

Sunday 3rd May - 4th Sunday of Easter

"They did not understand what he was saying to them..."
By The Revd Angela Rayner

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The first time I visited King’s Lynn Minster was September 2016. Before beginning theological college, I decided to make a retreat by bike from Cambridge to King’s Lynn along the river to the Great Ouse. Following the river was a sound plan. The problem was that I’d not properly read the map. The dotted lines which I thought denoted “cycle path” actually denoted “unmarked footpath”. Every 300 metres, a stile or a fence would appear. The only way around them was over them. In every field, the rucksack, the sleeping bag, the tent and the heavy Dutch bicycle had to be lifted over the stile, and strapped back together again. If I did it once, I did it 50 times, even through a field of cows. But retreats are sometimes like that. Life is sometimes like that. Sometimes we must clamber over multiple barriers to get where God has called us to go. And thus I must confess, as a person who always seems to end up scaling walls and climbing gates, rather than using doors, this is /not/ my favourite passage. The bandit does not really come out well.

But part of the reason we have a lectionary - a calendar that guides our reading of the Bible - is to prevent us hearing only our favourite passages. And this is not an easy one. One of the chief difficulties is that it seems contradictory. It starts reasonably well; Jesus is the shepherd. We know about King David and Psalm 23. The Lord is my Shepherd. “The ancient ideal of a good shepherd is fulfilled in Jesus”. No surprises there. By Christian logic, the Father must be the gatekeeper. Perhaps the Holy Scriptures are the gate. We are, naturally, the sheep. The thieves and bandits are the people who neglect the law and the commandments But barely a few verses on, Jesus turns everything upside down. “Very truly,” he says “I am the gate for the sheep”. No longer the Shepherd, Jesus is now the gate. Everyone who came before him is a thief or a bandit. Are there more thieves and bandits than we previously imagined? And how is it that the sheep go out to find pasture? Wouldn’t it be better for them to remain behind the gate? There are a variety of problems with this if we try to simplify it. It cannot be made into a neat picture. Perhaps part of the answer to these puzzles is that they require us to read the Bible in a non-literal manner.

It might be cheekily suggested that the only time Anglicans read the Bible in a non-literal way is when “we encounter a passage whose literal meaning we do not like”. We’re rarely taught to read the Bible in the same way as the Church Fathers and Mothers, or even the writers of the New Testament. It’s easier to focus on telling the stories of the bible or reading the bits that give useful advice. But then we come to a text like this, and it becomes clear that the plain meaning of the text can only be that there is no plain meaning! Imitating “St. Paul, the Church Fathers argued that a surface reading of the Old Testament - the “plain” meaning - missed what was most important in the Bible: Jesus Christ”. Our readings of the Old Testament can be transformed when we ask how each of its characters fore-shadow the story of Christ. This mode is reading, when we look beneath the plain meaning of the text, is often described as “allegorical”.

If you think I’m wrong, that this is sophistry, and a way of escaping the plain meaning of Scripture, it seems to have an ancient pedigree. Doesn’t Jesus himself ask us to enter the text with our imaginations when he uses these two images to describe himself? How, then, can he be the Shepherd and the Gate? Well, one answer is provided for us by 5th century St John Chrysostom who suggests, “When our Lord further on calls Himself the [Gate], we need not be surprised. According to the office He bears, He is in one place the Shepherd, in another the Sheep. In that He introduces us to the Father, He is the Door; in that He takes care of us, He is the Shepherd”. Is that the only interpretation? Probably not. The Fathers don’t seem to mind that the allegories sometimes yield slightly different interpretations. I suspect that is because the work of wrestling with the Scriptures in this way is a form of catechesis, of teaching. I wonder whether Jesus deliberately used a form of teaching that was not easy to understand because he wanted them to ask questions, to become immersed in the tradition he was passing down?

A word of warning must be issued here. The thieves and bandits still lurk! Even though reading the Scriptures allegorically does not necessarily result in everybody finding the same answers, it is still possible to go wrong. To avoid it , we read the Scriptures together, gaining the mind of the Church. Through the help of the Holy Spirit, we can read modern scholars, and ancient scholars, and discuss our findings with one another. I am delighted that even in these turbulent times, in which it is impossible for us to gather, the Bible Study group are still continuing - each in their own home - at 2pm on a Thursday to read the Book of Acts. Why not join them? It’s fine not to know all of the answers - Christ only reveals himself to us as we spend time with Him. He deliberately left us with words, and a liturgy too, that is full of mystery, because, I believe, He wants us to spend time with Him. And if we use this time, when forced to stay at home, to study, to pray and to meditate on God’s written word, perhaps our captivity will be taken captive. Such faithfulness, suggests Jesus, will result in abundant life. Perhaps the bandits aren’t the Christians who climb over gates and walls to seek Christ’s mysteries when the church buildings are locked. Perhaps the bandits are the ones who do not try pushing the Gate, believing that Christ can only be found when the church buildings are open.

Amen

Sunday 25th April - 3rd Sunday of Easter
by Canon Chris Copsey

How good it feels to be back in touch with you all again.

What a very different journey we are all on from only a couple of months ago. Lent and Easter have been very different.

What a Journey. A journey from the wilderness, to Jerusalem, to a trial, to the cross and to death for Jesus.

Today we meet the two disciples travelling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It is a story we know so well. We can well imagine how they might have looked -downcast, defeated, grieving. Moving away from all that had happened; their hopes and dreams crushed and shattered; the future bleak. A journey full of emotions and questions.

I guess each one of us, at some points in our lives, has been on a similar journey for many different reasons. It certainly has a profound resonance across our world in the present pandemic. People then, as now, distancing for safety. Not from a virus but from the authorities who might link Jesus and his followers. Yet on the road to Emmaus caution is thrown to the wind when the two are joined by Jesus (who they fail to recognise) and they pour out their story, the events that are so clearly imprinted on their hearts and minds.

Jesus offers the very precious gift of listening; no platitudes or brisk urging to move on…just listening.

Listening that is always vital but particularly today as we find ourselves in a time of frustration, anxiety and isolation. It is a powerful gift. This week, as a Chaplain, a story of bewilderment and anguish after a suicide unfolded on the phone. Unable to visit I could only listen. Later a message came, thank you for being there, just to listen. It is a gift for us all to offer and hopefully to receive.

To return to our travellers. Jesus listens to their story, their questions and their disbelief. Then he takes them back through the scriptures they know so well, unfolding the truth about the Messiah.

Finally Luke brings us to the moment of realisation, of revelation.

At supper Jesus breaks bread, blesses it and gives it to them. Love is given and received. A meal repeated down through time. Actions and blessings that hold the past, the present and the future.

We each make our journey in unique and different ways. Through all the decisions and choices, the challenges and opportunities we are not alone. God’s unlimited, powerful love, given in his Son, holds each one of us and nothing, nothing can ever separate us from that love.

What a Journey we are on!

Until we meet again, God bless you. Keep safe and well.  Amen.

 

Sunday 18th April - 2nd Sunday of Easter

"Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails, I will not believe"
By The Revd Angela Rayner

Imagine it is your first day at school or university, but you fall ill, and cannot go.  Or maybe you were due to attend a school friend’s wedding abroad.  You saved all year to buy a beautiful outfit, but when you reached the airport, the plane was grounded.  Frustration.  Disappointment.  Sadness.  We don’t even need to imagine.   Our lives are already full of losses - birthdays, weddings, anniversaries.  Our diaries have CANCELLED scrawled across them.  The weeks are becoming months.  We are separated from family, friends, and fellowship.  We are sick, isolated, and often fearful.  But we are not the first.  The first to miss out was Thomas.

“Thomas, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came…”  St Thomas had missed the party.  We don’t know the reason for his delay, but he’d missed seeing Jesus.  Do you know what it’s like to feel excluded like that?  All your friends shared something you missed for some unavoidable reason.  Everybody else had been present.  And, of course, they wouldn’t shut up.  Full of the good news - we cannot blame them - “we have seen the Lord!” they enthused. Enraged, confused, jealous, maybe even bitter, Thomas demanded more.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails and put my finger in the mark and my hands in his side I will not believe”.  Thomas set the bar high.  The disciples had only seen Jesus, but for Thomas that wasn’t enough.  Seeing wasn’t enough.

I think we can sympathise with Thomas.  Being able to wave at your neighbour over the fence, or hear your grandchild on the phone, or see your church on the screen is not the same as being present.  In everyday life, seeing matters, but touch matters more.  We sit next to one another in church, all bunched up at the back.  We greet each other with handshakes.  We eat bread, drink wine and feel the touch of a hand on the top of our heads.  These are little gestures, but they make us one body.  Without them, we all feel a little bit less.  A teacher explained to me this week that young children do not do social distancing.  If you fall over on the playground, you cannot be hugged from six feet away.  Children need to be picked up and comforted until it hurts less.  I don’t think adults are much different.  St Thomas certainly wasn’t.  “Unless I put my hand in his side, I will not believe”.  Touch matters.

Touch matters, I’m afraid, for the sacraments too.  We cannot baptise over the phone.  We cannot eat over the internet.  We cannot marry by text message.  This is a time of absence and one of loss.  It is a time of grief, even despite small joys.  The Eucharist continues to be celebrated, but what does that mean?  We are apart in time; this Eucharist was celebrated yesterday. We are apart in place; this Eucharist was celebrated in my home.  We are apart in body; I miss you.  And we are apart in substance; we cannot eat together.  These things matter for the Eucharist and the other sacraments because matter matters.  Sacraments demand touch.  They are sensual because Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us.  Thomas understood that.  He really understood.  He knew exclusion, knew he’d fallen on the school playground, knew he needed the comfort of touch.  And his admission showed his child-like faith.  “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails, I will not believe”.

Sacraments - outward and visible signs of inward and visible grace - require at least four elements.  Maybe you can think of more.  I think they require saints, seasons, space, and stuff.  Sacraments require saints; we can’t baptise ourselves.  Jesus made himself present to the disciples.  Sacraments require seasons or time.  We avoid marrying in Advent or Lent.  We admit new Christians at Easter.  Sacraments require us to occupy the same space.  Thomas was not present, and so he did not experience Jesus in the way the others did.  And sacraments require stuff.  The oil of healing or confirmation, the water of baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the consummation of marriage...  And yet these things are not available to many Christians at this time.  What are we to do?  We cannot pretend that matter does not matter.  Thomas would not have been satisfied with a video of Jesus’ return, or even a phone call.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand /and/ put my finger in the mark of the nails, I will not believe…”

It’s no coincidence that Jesus returned to the Upper Room.  By tradition, the disciples first had their feet washed and first prepared the Passover meal in the Upper Room.  There they saw Jesus after the resurrection.  There they elected St Matthias after Judas’ defection.  And, it was the place of Pentecost.  For the disciples, the Upper Room was the Church; their encounters, the sacraments.  And so they returned to that Room, even after the Messiah had been crucified, in humiliation.  Jesus had died.  Jesus had died.  The doors were locked... and yet there he was.  “Jesus came and stood among them and said “Peace be with you””.  His Body was the same; it bore the wound-marks, but it was different.  Raised. Imperishable.  

I wonder whether this story holds a clue for how to be people without physical access to the sacraments.  Sacraments only work because Jesus was raised.  But after the resurrection, he appeared in ways he had not before.  On both occasions, the Upper Room doors were either locked or shut.  “And although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you’”.  In continuing the Eucharist behind closed doors at this time, the priests of the church return to the Upper Room.  And there we physically receive Christ. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side” offered Jesus.  But through virtue of baptism, Thomas’ touch becomes the touch of us all.  Some must receive physically that others be blessed.  And “Blessed” said Jesus “are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”.  

The Eucharist can be received spiritually because priests offer physically what was physically offered by Christ.  Each day, I stand in this spot, and offer a Eucharist for the parish because it is through the Eucharist that we are incorporated more deeply into God’s life.  You’ll hear an extra line in the Eucharist this morning.  “Pray brothers and sisters that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father…”.  There is only one sacrifice; that of Jesus on the cross.  So why this line?  Because it shows that priests and people participate in slightly different ways in the Eucharist.  As a priest, I’m acting in the person of Christ as Head of the Church, asking that the Holy Spirit make this bread and wine, body and blood.  It is a sacrifice because it is making present again, “re-presenting” Jesus to the Church.  The entire Church offers the sacrifice in a slightly different manner.  Your praise, your sufferings, your work and your prayer are united with those of Jesus through baptism.  It is a sacrifice because living a Christian life is not easy.  My sacrifice is to make present the Christ who has died for us, and yours (and mine) is to pour out our lives by faith with thanksgiving.  We must do that spiritually, until united again physically through the Eucharist.

There is a vacuum, for sure.  There’s an absence, a loss.  Without a people to hear and to receive, priests speak only to God and to the angels.  But our offering of prayer is one in which every baptised person participates.  It is a trying time, but Peter’s letters spoke of trials also.  Our trials are different from those of the early church, but are trials nonetheless.  And Peter explains that when we suffer trials, the genuineness of our faith is tested.  When we remove from our lives what is extraneous, when we’ve watched all of Netflix, tidied every corner of the house, phoned all our friends, and there is nothing left to do, we are driven back to God.  It might be a time to open our Bibles, to memorise the words of Scripture, to walk outdoors.  We cannot reach out to touch one another, or put our hands out for bread or wine or a blessing.  But “Blessed” said Jesus, are those who believe anyway.  It’s that belief which we need to feed, to nurture through the Scriptures and through prayer, that when we meet again, our faith will be found genuine.  And so I invite you, offer a Spiritual Communion each day, in the knowledge up and down the country, priests are holding every parishioner, like Thomas, in Christ’s wounds.

Amen


Sunday 5th April - Palm Sunday

By Canon Chris Ivory

Do you want to see the face of God? Well here he is, rejected abused, mocked, constrained, nailed to a cross, but steadfastly loving; wanting nothing other than our response of love to his love. In the end, the centurion was moved to say that Jesus was God's son, but everyone else was blind and refused to respond; they showed no love or sympathy. The crucifixion is a rejection of the love of God as comprehensive as the human mind has conceived: the rendering powerless, defenceless, of the victim. It is intended to demonstrate the complete power of the crucifier over the crucified. 

And yet love is not diminished, love goes on giving, love wants nothing other than the response of love to love, and nothing can divert love from loving. Jesus is not diminished by what is done to him; his love is faithful and constant unto death. The stature of Jesus towers over the other characters in the story, not by power, not by control, but by love. One by one all the others demonstrate their blindness, their lack of love, their weakness, but Jesus remains steadfast.

We can have no more perfect picture of God than that of Jesus crucified. This is the perfect expression of the nature of God. It shows that God's nature is to love without limit, to give everything in the hope that his creation will respond with love. That love can't be extinguished, or defeated. God won't get fed up and go away. God goes on loving with love that will not be diminished by the worst that human beings can throw at it, even by rejection as comprehensive as crucifixion. This is the glory of God revealed in Jesus, his inextinguishable love for his creation. 

If you try to find that glory anywhere else, you will be mistaken. If you think that the abuse of Jesus is somehow a passing phase on the road to glory, you are mistaken. It is not that Jesus' purpose is fulfilled by being killed, his purpose is fulfilled in the love that led him there. And it is not enduring the pain and the brutality that is admirable, it is the refusal of love to capitulate to brutality, that reveals the glory of God.

Paul writing to the Philippians offers a meditation on the connection between Jesus' acceptance of abuse and his divinity. It isn't that Jesus' divinity is a reward for his submission to abuse. Jesus gave up the advantage of being divine for the sake of sharing the human condition. This was not some perverse sadism on God's part, but rather the perfect expression of the nature of God revealed in love. Jesus' obedience is obedience to God's nature, the nature of love, and he is vindicated by his endurance; his refusal to compromise or betray that love. And that is the reason we can see in Jesus the glory of God. The reason we worship Jesus as God, is because we have seen in him the perfect expression of God's love. It is because Jesus is the perfect expression of the nature of God, that we know that Jesus is God. 

It is the blessing of Holy Week that we can live close to this truth as we walk with Jesus day by day through the events of his suffering and death. As we remember this story following it day by day, it becomes part of our story. As we look at the nature of love, so we can grow in love. As we realise more of God's love for us, so we can grow in love for others. We are inspired to repentance, to change; we are encouraged and strengthened in love, by the realisation that God can never stop loving us.

But for now we have to find how to live that love within the very constrained circumstances of our lives. We can begin to find the way when we recognise the presence of Jesus among those who are suffering. Not just among those suffering illness or deprivation in our own land, but also in the refugee camps, in the midst of war, in the places with no security, or health care, or protection. We may also recognise the presence of Jesus among those who give themselves selflessly to care for those in need: among those giving themselves limitlessly in the jobs they normally do, but also among those who volunteer in various ways, and among those who quietly get on with caring for those to whom they are able to offer any assistance, support or encouragement.

Mother Julian of Norwich wrote: 

Would you learn your Lord's meaning in this thing?
Learn it well: love was his meaning.
Who showed it to you? Love.
What did he show you? Only love.
And for what reason did he show you? For love.
Hold on to this, and you will learn more of the same. 
But you will never, without end, 
learn in it any other meaning.
So it was that I learned that love is our Lord's meaning. 
And I saw full surely in this, and in all that God created, 
in us and for us; that he loved us, 
and his love was never exhausted nor ever shall be. 
And in this love he has done all his works.
And in this love he has made all things to profit us.
And in this love our life is everlasting.
In our making we had a beginning, 
but the love in which we were created in him 
was from without beginning; 
and in all this we shall see God, without end.

That is the love that blazes from Jesus on the cross, and the love that is reflected in our lives, however dimly, when we seek to live in the light of that love.

Canon Chris Ivory 4.4.20

 

Sunday 29th March  Lent 5 - Passion Sunday

If only you had been here my brother would not have died, says Martha, and Mary says the same. If only you had been here, things would have been different, the disaster would have been averted. I guess that many of us have said that, or something like it, at some time in our lives, if only things had been different. It's natural we don't want to be in painful or difficult situations. Nevertheless it is how life is. Bad things happen and perhaps it is only by living through the disasters that we learn to be human.

Jesus said he was glad that he had not been there, because now they would see the glory of God.

Christianity can never be an escape, it is not a preventative against bad things happening to us, nor a palliative for our pain when they do. Indeed our faith may bring us up against difficulties and pain that we might not otherwise have experienced. Disasters will happen; Lazarus did die, so indeed did Jesus.

If Lazarus had not died, there could have been no revelation of the glory of God. If Jesus had not died, there could have been no experience of resurrection: no hope, no joy, no salvation.

Perhaps this is also true of the many smaller crises of our lives. All our sufferings can be the occasions of new life, all our troubles can become signs of hope, our failures can lead us through to things that are unimaginably better than could have been without the crisis. 

We are living through a time of great difficulty, living in fear of serious illness; fear for our loved ones and for ourselves. Many families are severely stressed: worrying about money, or struggling to care for children forced to stay at home. Many are desperately trying to get help that seems inaccessible. We have no idea how it will end, or how long the crisis will last, nor what the economic, social and psychological aftermath will be.

In the early stages of all this, there was panic and behaviour that might have made us despair of humanity, but, unseen at first, and emerging latterly, there is so much more to clearly demonstrate what is good about humanity. There are so many heroic people working in hospitals and care homes and keeping all essential services going.

Jesus said I am the resurrection and the life. It is in him that the turn round comes. It is in him that signs of despair become signs of hope. It is in him that death becomes the signpost to life.
Whether recognised or not, the work of God is always to bring good out of bad, life out of death, love out of pain.

And so it was not because Jesus was not there that their brother died, as Martha and Mary thought, but rather, that because Lazarus died, the glory of God was revealed. None of this means that suffering is trivial, or that God intends human suffering. Jesus went about healing and freeing people, and calls us to do the same. Jesus offers us healing and forgiveness and freedom, and invites us to take our part in the work of his kingdom which brings that liberation to others.

But for today, the lesson is that by accepting the reality of our lives, with all the struggles and blessings that we face, our lives can become the material of God's new creation. By bearing with one another in the reality of our situation, we can be the builders of that new kingdom. So we can hope that when we emerge from the current situation we may be a kinder, more considerate, more compassionate, a more generous, society. We might learn to turn our backs on the brutal, selfish society that we are always in danger of becoming, and realise the importance of seeking the common good, and the inclusion and welfare of all people. Who knows, we might even learn to be better stewards of the earth.

So, although there are many dark days to come, we can look forward with genuine hope, that in the end, by the grace of God and the work of his love, life can look better than it was before.

 

Sunday 22nd March - Mothering Sunday

Today we celebrate Mothering Sunday – it is just as well that we know it as Mothering Sunday and not merely Mother’s Day, because the ways in which Mother’s Day is usually kept are just not possible this year. Families can’t get together to make a fuss of Mothers, or give them a treat by taking them out for a good dinner. But there is something about the history of Mother’s Day that might be helpful to remember this year.

Among the countries of the world, only in the UK and Nigeria is Mother’s Day conflated with Mothering Sunday, the rest of the world keeps it on different days – mostly in the summer. It is said to have been invented by Anna Reeves Jarvis – first kept on 8th May 1908, by a commemoration held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia for Anna Jarvis’ mother. She claimed it was solely in memory of her own mother, but she explained that her mother had thought that all mothers deserved a special day each year. I’m not totally sure why she trademarked “Mother’s Day” if she only had her own mother in mind, but I suppose it explains why she put the apostrophe in the wrong place for it to be about all mothers. However, it was Hallmark cards, following the First World War, that really invented what it has now become.

But the first idea of Mothers’ day had nothing to do with all that. Julia Ward Howe, who is famous for writing “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” was a feminist campaigner and suffragist, and pacifist, active around 1850-1870; before and after the American civil war. Mostly she was a writer and speaker, but she also organised an annual day conference for the mutual support of women grieving the death of their sons in the war, and to encourage them to work for reconciliation and peace - she called this Mothers' Day.

It wasn’t, at all, about breakfast in bed and being treated to Sunday Lunch – it started as mothers searching for a new vision of what it means to be a mother when your child is dead, of what mothering can mean in the context of bereavement and suffering particularly through political and social action. Perhaps that perspective offers us more substantial encouragement in our present situation than does the more cosy picture we’re used to.

The life of the Blessed Virgin Mary is an important model for us – on the one hand, she was the mother of Jesus who is the Christ. We, the Church, are the Body of Christ here and now, so we can understand Mary as mother of the Church and therefore as our Mother. And we can trust that she loves the Church in our time as much as she loved Jesus when she gave birth to him. But remember Simeon’s warning to her – “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” St Luke did not think Simeon was talking about her maternal suffering at the crucifixion of her son – as far as Luke is concerned, she was nowhere in the picture by then. It is the sword of judgment that Simeon is talking about – Mary too, will have to make up her mind about Jesus; her inner thoughts will be revealed. So perhaps Mary would understand the women who met with Julia Ward Howe, grieving the death of their sons, but seeking to turn their grief into working for reconciliation and peace. Just as Mary was among the disciples meeting daily to pray and praise God, and to live a life mutual support after the resurrection of Jesus.

If we are really to understand the power and importance of mothering, we need to comprehend the costliness of the love that true mothering demands. And we need to remember that mothering is not just about what is done by those who give birth, nor indeed exclusively by women; though for sure, women are the greatest exemplars of this love.

We need to remember the costliness of the love that has sustained and nurtured us when we have needed it most, and to give thanks for it. Perhaps we also need to remember the wounds we carry because we did not find that love when we needed it. The failure of love that we have suffered can teach us, as much about the love we need, as can the love we have enjoyed. The true source of love and its perfection is with God. The love we have experienced has its origin in God’s love for his creation, and we can feel the lack of human love because we know what it should be because of the instinct for love that God has built into his creation.

We see God’s love demonstrated in Jesus, in Mary, in good human mothering. And for now, day by day, that is the love we are called demonstrate, and we are empowered to do it, by God’s love for us.

We know what it looks like to be loving people. St Paul gives us a few clues: clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Be forgiving and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. We can endeavour day by day to live that love in the current constraints of life. Equally, we can recognise the fear that leads to the greed and selfishness that seems so prevalent at the moment. But be assured that love casts out fear and that the love of God will sustain and support us no matter what we face. And for today, let us remember and be truly thankful for all the love we have received, especially from our mothers and from those who have shown us a mother’s love.

Chris Ivory
21.3.20