Camels and Possessions – Fear and Trust

IMG_7742Fans of the children’s stories about Kipper the dog may know that Mick Inkpen, its author and illustrator, has also worked his magic on some Bible stories for children with a friend Nick Butterworth. One of these is called ‘The Little Gate’. It tells the story about a camel, loaded high with carpets to sell at market. He comes to small gate in the city wall, called the Eye of Needle, because it is so small. Try as he might, this camel is too big with his heavy load to get through the small hole. It’s a bit like the children’s game with trying to get differently shaped and sized items through various holes. That big camel is not going through that small door.

The story, which featured in our Gospel reading (Mark 10:17-31) is not really about a camel and we who’ve heard it many times before, know this so well. It’s about our attachment to goods, to riches, to money and possessions. If we lighten the load and live simply, we are not weighed down. Carved over the front door of the Deanery is a sign in Latin which translates roughly as ‘live as if you are about to move’. Not the most welcoming sign as you move in and a bit disconcerting as we moved box after box into the house. But it’s a strong challenge: how much stuff do we really need?

One of the things about moving house every so often is that it gives an opportunity for a massive clear out and we have done this each time. But not books. There are some things which just don’t get thrown out. And I know that one day I will have to face this quart-into-a-pint-pot moment, but I am sticking my fingers firmly in my ears for the time being and singing ‘la la la’, to pretend it won’t come, to try to make it go away. I tell myself my books are different; they don’t weigh me down, unless I want to move them, and they are really a resource I refer to. And so I justify their importance. There are probably lots of other things which have loaded up my particular camel as I approach the narrow doorway.

None of us can take any of the stuff we acquire with us on the final journey. And all of us will have to leave them outside if we are to get in, as the camel finds he has to do in the Mick Inkpen and Nick Butterworth story. The deeper challenge to the ‘live as if you are about to move’ or the heavily loaded camel is whether there are things, possessions, love of money which get in the way of being faithful to Christ? Digging deeper, the question is to ask what these things are covering up, helping us avoid facing because deep down we are scared. Fear often makes us reach for the blanket or cushion on the sofa to hide behind and that’s where the love of possessions and money gets us. It’s a smokescreen, something to cling to because the stark reality of being very exposed and vulnerable is too hard to face.

Later this week there will be a memorial service for a friend of ours in London. She was a Franciscan Sister; one of those holy people who opened her mouth and peace and stillness was brought into the room just by her tone and quiet manner. In the October lockdown last year she generously recorded a sermon for me to use in an online sermon around the feast of St Francis, and as soon as she spoke I could feel the empty church where Susan and I sat alone for the live-streaming both stilled and filled with a deeply spiritual presence.

Franciscans are known for their vow of poverty or simplicity. They embrace the letting go because they trust in God and for Helen Julian this moment came at the end of August when she had to let go in the ultimate sense as she died of cancer, aged just 63. We give thanks for having known her and the true gifts she gave, which were without price but more valuable than any price-tag could show.

The notion of embracing poverty is deeply problematic because no one really does it, not willingly that is. Poverty grinds people down and there are many facing stark choices between eating and heating this winter. I don’t think that is what is meant and even monks and nuns, friars and sisters, have what they need, they just set their sights so much more modestly and are prepared to leave it, to pick up what they find on the way but not hoard. 

Living as though you are about to move is a spiritual attitude of trust in God, knowing that God is where our true hope and security lies. Because, as we found with some of the carpets in the Deanery, moth really does consume. We have had to replace some and have some others repaired with a rather cool cookie cutter, which cuts out the threadbare bits and then patches are stuck-in taken from under furniture which will not be moved – not until we leave and then the next person will wonder why there are these little circles cut out in odd places. If you are here then, which is not likely to be anytime soon, you can let that person know.

Living lightly, holding on to things without too strong a grip is a spiritual exercise which also helps the planet. Our excessive consuming, throw away lifestyle and built-in obsolescence is choking the world. We have to learn to live differently and moving from petrol to electric, from fossil fuels to renewables will bring with it a changed way of living. And so it must. Since I’ve changed my phone this week, I find the spotlights shining brightly in my eyes as I say this. The more we try to grasp for ourselves, the less we have; the more we live modestly, the more we all have. Planet and people benefit in this radical economy.

What would you, do you, have you found particularly hard to hold to lightly? What fills the bags on the back of the camel that will make moving through a narrow gate a struggle? And that harder question, the one that will require the longer think, what are these things compensating for, what fear are they covering? Because one day, all fear will end and these things will not go with us as we travel through the narrowest of gates into the wonder that awaits us; as in the words of the memorial in the north aisle, we ‘exchange time for eternity’.

It is hard to cling to riches and truly enter the Kingdom of God, because they block trust, cover the gaps in our real confidence in God. That affects so much in how we live with generous and thankful hearts. True love casts out fear, but first it has to be filled with the love of God to truly trust. This is a spiritual challenge more than a financial one – money is just one of the ways it shows itself. How we approach this reveals how much we really have faith and confidence in God. Though I do want to exempt books and gadgets.

Sermon for Trinity 19, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 10th October 2021

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Electric Vehicles and Creation

IMG_7698When I can think of one, I am quite fond a good visual aid. Something that sticks in the memory and helps us connect with the deeper message of a Bible reading or theme. This evening’s Old Testament reading (Exodus 24) gave us a vivid image of sacrifice, with lots of blood being splashed about. It is ripe for a ‘Horrible Histories does the Bible’ series – if there is one and, if there isn’t, there needs to be. On reflection, though, it is perhaps better that I don’t look for a visual aid tonight.

The reading is a reminder that sacrifice was a messy business and the slaughter direct and violent. It comes from a past age which was much more hands-on with food production, with the realities of animal use and husbandry, and the fluids of life and had some very different attitudes. For all of that, we have sanitised all aspects of this to a point where we can easily forget that life is at its core flesh, bone and blood. There are parts of the world much more in touch with this than we are, probably more of the world than is not, and those who work in healthcare will know it better than most. When caring for a very ill person, there is a lot of washing. 

This disconnect from the fluids of life also separates us from some of the balances that need to be kept in check, the cycles of nature and the interdependencies that are crucial for life. It makes us think we are immune to climate and weather, to storm and drought. We can even think we are immune to disease, something shaken very deeply by the pandemic. During September our worship has an additional theme of creation. So, while it might seem unlikely, these readings this evening are linked with it – using the imagery of sacrifice, mountains, clouds and healing (Matthew 9:1-8).

Over the summer, Susan and I have been exploring buying an electric car. Due to the shortage of semiconductors, small electrical components that make it work, there will be a delay in it arriving, but we’ve begun the switch. Some have asked us why we have gone straight for electric and not hybrid. There were four reasons for doing this.

Firstly, the more we’ve looked into it, hybrid doesn’t actually save the emissions that we thought it did. That sowed the seed for making the jump.

It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time but wondered if the cars have the reach we need and if there are enough places to charge a car on a journey. There have been great developments in this over the past few years and the technology has come on. One of the responses to the Prime Minister’s press spokeswoman’s comments in August that she wouldn’t have an electric car because they didn’t have the reach she needed came from the electric vehicle trade. They pointed out the improvements and that you should stop after so many miles or hours driving anyway, so use that time to charge up – lots of service stations, supermarkets and town centres have charging points now. There are even some in the car park down Stow Hill.  The infrastructure is expanding, it has become more realistic to make the switch.

Some of this will require a different way of thinking and living, though. And that’s part of the point. We have to learn to live differently, even at a different pace. Living in tune with nature also means that we live at the rhythm of body and blood flow. The constantly on-the-go lifestyle is not good for ourselves or the planet. Pausing to breathe puts us more in-tune with creation.

Thirdly, we know that the change from fossil fuels is one we all have to make. In August a report was issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with frightening conclusions. Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying; the world is in trouble environmentally. We have to make changes now. So we will do our bit. We know the science, we know the trajectory, we know how scary it can be. But we also have agency in this and can make changes; we just have to do it. We do have a choice and can make a difference.

The fourth element is economic and perhaps the trickiest. While there are grants to help with purchase and installation of charging points at home, electric vehicles are more expensive. It is worked out that over time the cheaper running costs will work out better, but there’s an upfront cost. So, the challenge with all purchases is to find the cash to do it and if more are going to be able to do so, the price has to come down to make it more achievable.

Reach and the availability of charging points, changes to how we live and the pace of living, the overwhelming environmental challenge and the economic factors: these four elements have come together in our minds to make the switch. They stem from knowing that we have to live in harmony with the earth because we are made of the same elements and rely on the earth for our existence. Stories, as in our readings, of bone, flesh, blood and fluids on the altar or on a stretcher, connect us with God’s creation, with our stewardship of it and the choices to make a difference.

Sermon at Evensong, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 26th September 2021

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Salt and Fire

IMG_7694Our Gospel reading this morning (Mark 9:38-50) gives us a chemistry lesson. Sodium Chloride, the chemical name of salt, cannot lose its saltiness without changing its properties and thereby ceasing to be salt. The only way salt can lose its taste is if it has additives or impurities. This is Jesus’ point. It’s impurities within us which impede us in living holy and just lives.

This is also a MasterChef moment. The quality of the dish will be determined by the quality of the raw ingredients and how much is used. Fish and chips are not the same without some salt (and vinegar and ketchup of course). It brings out the flavours, which is what seasoning does. 

The thread of Jesus’ teaching is to ask what affect we have? Are we someone who behaves as salt, brings out flavours and makes a difference for good? And do we get the balance right, because too much salt tastes unpleasant and is harmful. So how we do things makes a difference too.

That came through with the first reading, from the book of Numbers (11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29). From chemistry to cooking, we now turn to management training. Moses is trying to do it all. He is taking too much responsibility onto his own shoulders and gets a lesson in delegating and training up others. Bearing the burdens of what is described at the beginning of that passage as a rabble, is too heavy for him to carry. The response of his mentoring session with God is to get him to identify and train up others. Make others into salt to change the flavour of the community, send them out and start to make a difference.

And if we wonder how much of a difference we have to make, never underestimate the power of small actions. That is St David’s mantra, with his final words to his community of ‘Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things that you have heard and seen me do’. Joy, faith and small acts (which are actually the steps of giants). Flavour the world with joy, with faith that gives purpose and hope, and small acts that make a big difference.

Both our Old Testament and Gospel readings have people concerned that others are doing what the main character is doing – the people worried about a couple of prophets and Moses wishing there were more of them; Jesus’ disciples concerned others are emulating them even though not part of the group and Jesus reminding them that others joining in is rather the point. 

Jesus takes this further to not only want others to join in, to copy, but goes on to give a warning that we can become the stumbling block, be off-putting, be too salty, even or perhaps not salty enough. Metaphors always need so much explaining, but our chemical make-up, the chemistry of the bake, will always be a mix of what is helpful and what is unhelpful. All of us are works in progress in God’s kingdom. And that is why we begin services like this with confession and reflection on how we are shaping up. The Seasonal Kyrie confessions, which have become popular can help us focus on particular areas, though some of them don’t have enough fire to purify the salt, they strike me as being too bland to really get you thinking. I want to feel like I’ve confessed, not just made a credal statement.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably find that the things which are getting in the way are on a repeat, we confess them, call them to mind time and time again. The difficulty, and it may take skilled help, is to reveal if they are poison from within or from without. Are we excessively guilty because someone has instilled in us that something is a sin when it is not. That then becomes the impurity that needs driving out to leave purer salt, to set us free. It might be that something is so ingrained as a way of behaving, of being, that it will take careful loving to overcome it. You get the point. Feeling guilty is not a sign of sin any more than not feeling guilty is a sign of virtue! All we can do is measure up against how we read and re-read the Bible and reassess this over time, and adjust accordingly. Lots of people carry heavy burdens imposed by other’s prejudices and twisted vision and those responsible have become the barrier Jesus warned about. I come across this so frequently. Some who bear the name of Christ really do more harm than good.

I was struck by a prayer which Bishop Cherry used on Friday during the early morning Eucharist. She prayed for those for whom each day brings a struggle, and that the simple things can be the result of overcoming great obstacles, can require great courage. None of us know what it takes for another to even get up in the morning and one person’s achievement can look modest but be the result of tremendous grace, far more than the so called high achievers. The salting in the fire, which Jesus mentioned, is a powerful image of the struggle and pain involved.

For all of the self-examination and testing in our readings, all of them imply that we are not written off. There is a chance to change, to grow in God’s grace and be more of the person God has made us to be – nothing short of a child made in God’s image. The impurities can be driven out.

The Gospel passage ends with the simple phrase: ‘have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another’. May the grace of God dwell within us richly that others may see this and give glory to God. May we be salt that makes a difference for God’s Kingdom and the flourishing  of those we meet.

Sermon for Trinity 17, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 26th September 2021

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Same-sex blessings and the bible

IMG_7367On Monday, the Governing Body of the Church in Wales made history. It voted by a very secure two thirds majority to authorise an Order of Service for Blessing Same-Sex Relationships. For technical reasons this is an experimental rite, so it can be tweaked in the light of using it, but I don’t think anyone seriously thinks the concept is experimental. This is a major change in policy and practice. I spoke in favour of the proposal during Monday’s debate and I want to spend a moment this morning exploring some of my thinking and why I believe this is not binning the Bible but it is the result of going into it far more deeply than mere surface reading. 

There are some very loud voices that would have everyone believe that you either follow the Bible as they read it or you are not a real Christian. To be a Bible Christian is seen by them to go with condemning same-sex relationships. To affirm them is to ignore the Bible and sell out to the spirit of the age. I reject that false split very strongly.

I have been ordained for nearly 30 years and in each place I have ministered there have been faithful members of the congregations in long-term committed same-sex relationships. Some kept it secret out of fear, borne out of painful experience. For some the world has moved on and they can now risk being open in a way they previously dared not. Some have taken leadership roles in churches, and all have been much loved members of the communities.

It is observing these relationships and many before them, the quality of their commitment and love, that convinced me that we needed to look more deeply at the Biblical texts. I think of two men in a former parish and the naturalness and tenderness of their love. I think of two women, one of whom told me about how they met and she knew in that moment that no man would ever make her feel as the other did. This was who she was and not some random lifestyle choice. Many have spoken about attempts to ‘heal’ them, ‘convert’ them; of being shunned and driven out, rejected and told that they were an ‘evil influence’. There may well be people here or viewing online who can relate directly to these experiences.

The pastoral, how life really is, should always make us ask deeper questions about the Bible, not thinner ones. And this debate was a case study in different approaches to the Bible. The more we look at the key texts often used to condemn same-sex relationships the less they say what they seem at first to say, mainly because we view them through layers of interpretation. The Biblical case to affirm same-sex relationships is a cumulative one. It is not one based on one text. We are looking for a path through the scriptures which leads us to a different place; which transforms us and how we view one another.

There are parallels with the changes in how we see slavery, apartheid, buying things on credit, divorce and remarriage, the death penalty – we don’t stone people, birth control, the place of women in society and the church. Take slavery, at no point in the Bible does it say that slavery is wrong. In fact, it is an assumed part of life. We have to look at a wider sweep and see compassion, equality from all being children of God, and justice. This case had to made against strong voices opposed to it. 

There are seven key texts often pulled out of the Bible to prove that same-sex relationships are not compatible with a Christian way of living. If we look at them deeply, we find they don’t actually say what they are assumed or made to say. Passages in Genesis (19:1-29) and Judges (19:1-30) actually condemn gang rape. Two texts in Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) are more about abuse and are not about consensual activity. Passages in 1 Corinthians (6:9-10) and 1 Timothy (1:9-10) again touch on exploitation. Romans (1:26-27) is concerned with idolatry and pagan cultic erotic practices. This is not the place to take these in great detail, but the point is that they are not the proof texts they are taken to be. When we go into these they are not condemning same-sex, stable committed relationships at all.

Whenever we read the Bible we have to ask a series of questions: what does it actually say, remember we read a translation and don’t always have the best one in front of us; who was it first written for and what situation is it seeking to address and why, that takes a lot of scholarship; how would the original audience have understood it and only then can we ask what its relevance for today might be. Every text has a context in which it was written and in which it is read, so we have to dig deeper not shallower.

The Bible is actually silent on committed, faithful and stable same-sex relationships. It is not an option or something the writers address. It was Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Wales and of course Canterbury and Bishop of this diocese (Monmouth), who wrote over 30 years ago in his 1989 lecture ‘The Body’s Grace’ about the Biblical traditions and concepts of love, of grace, of commitment and how we live in that grace, and how these open up a deeper window onto same-sex partnerships for Christians. There have been forests of printed works by medics and psychologists expounding on developments in understanding. I have felt for a long time that what we need is a way of recognising and promoting stability and fidelity.

The liturgy authorised on Monday is a pastoral provision. Pastoral is always about how we care in the Gospel. Some have said that we should really have gone the whole way and approved marriages. I think that is a wider discussion, not least because marriage is not the clear concept that we like to think it is. But that’s another story. The decision made on Monday was to bless relationships, to enable people to live consecrated lives in God’s grace, where unions formed to be faithful and stable can be affirmed for their reflection of God’s love. That is what I believe them to be and that is why I voted for pastoral liturgical provision.

The Bible always has the ability to shock and surprise us, for its grace and challenge. The letter of James (3:1-12) spoke about blessing emanating from a spring and that calls on us to not take short cuts. We need to be so infused in the Spirit that lives and breathes in the Bible that it shapes and colours our outlook. If we need a shorthand, the word love is probably a good one to start with. Not soppy love, but love that has the passion of the cross (Mark 8:27-38) and brings life in all its fullness. May we flourish in that life and love and longing for God’s grace to dwell in us abundantly, so much that it overflows to transform the world. Blessing same-sex relationships does not mean binning the Bible, rather it flows from a deep reading of its grace and love, that wherever these are found God is present at work in their lives and that the so called condemning passages actually have something else entirely in their sights. In the words of 1 John, used at the beginning of the marriage service: 

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16b)

Sermon preached at Newport Cathedral on Sunday 12th September 2021

*If you would like to follow up any of these references in more detail the following recent publications may be of interest:

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Blessing Same Sex Relationships

IMG_7589I wish to speak for a moment in favour of the pastoral provision that we have in front of us. And I speak as someone who has been ordained for nearly 30 years.

In each place that I have ministered there have been faithful members of the congregations in long-term committed same-sex relationships. Some kept it secret out of fear, borne out of painful experience. For some the world has moved on and they can now risk being open in a way they previously dared not. Some have taken leadership roles in churches, and all been much loved members of the communities.

It is observing these relationships, the quality of their commitment and love, that has convinced me that we need to look more deeply at the Biblical texts. I think of two men in a former parish and the naturalness and tenderness of their love. I think of two women, one of whom told me about how they met and she knew in that moment that no man would ever make her feel as the other did. This was who she was and not some random lifestyle choice. Many have spoken about attempts to ‘heal’ them, ‘convert’ them; of being shunned and driven out, rejected and told that they were an ‘evil influence’.

The pastoral, how life really is, always makes us ask deeper questions about the Bible, not thinner ones. This debate is not about binning the Bible, it is about going into it far more deeply than mere surface appearance; and looking at what it does say and what it does not. It will not do to perpetuate the narrative that some are faithful Bible-believing Christians and other are ignoring its difficult bits. I am a Bible believing Christian too. The Bible is complex and we need to look at its deeper narrative than just take phrases and texts in isolation. It is a rich tapestry of writings and developing thought and it can surprise us deeply with its grace, with what it can say to a different social context. Many of the so called ‘clobber texts’, those used to condemn, are much more complex than they are often said to be.

I do not expect there is anyone here who has not long-since thought deeply about these matters. Former Archbishop and Bishop of Monmouth, Rowan Williams’, wrote over 30 years ago in his 1989 lecture ‘The Body’s Grace’ about the Biblical traditions and concepts of love, of grace, of commitment and how we live in that grace, and how these open up a deeper window onto same-sex partnerships for Christians. There have been forests of printed works by medics and psychologists expounding on developments in understanding. What was not on offer in years past was a faithful, committed union of same-sex persons. I have felt for a long time that what we need is a way of recognising and promoting stability and fidelity.

This liturgy is a pastoral provision. Pastoral is always about how we care in the Gospel. If we vote against this provision we will say quite unequivocally that same-sex relationships have no place in the church. They are not blessed, they are not compatible with a Christian way of life, with being disciples of Christ. We will be saying that they are a perversion, something shameful, a distortion of what it means to be created in the image of God and to be someone who seeks to grow in the likeness of Christ. I do not believe this position is right and came to this conclusion a very long time ago. There are hate-filled voices who use religious language to justify their abuse and even violence against same-sex attracted people. Read some of the abuse received by the broadcaster and priest Revd Richard Coles and you will see it displayed for all its ugliness.

To vote this down will be pastorally damaging and missionally destructive. There is an alternative way, we can turn rejection into welcome, transform the encounter as Sandra Millar spoke about earlier this morning. I have people awaiting the outcome of this vote.

Be under no illusions we stand in a place where the world we aim to speak to is ahead of us, not least among the younger generations. To vote it down also gives amunition, however unintentionally, to the hatred, continuing to justify it even if only in the background.

The discussion about marriage, while it is related, is a different one and not the one in front of us. This is about relationship and how people can be enabled to live consecrated lives in God’s grace, where unions formed to be faithful and stable can be affirmed for their reflection of God’s love. That is what I believe them to be and that is why we need this pastoral liturgical provision.

Members of this Governing Body, I urge you to vote in favour of this Bill.

Text in favour of proposal to permit in the Church in Wales a Service of Blessing following a Civil Partnership or Marriage between two people of the same sex for speech at Governing Body of the Church in Wales, Monday 6th September 2021

The vote was passed by two thirds majority. Laity 49 for, 10 against, 1 abstention; clergy 28 for, 12 against, 2 abstentions; bishops 4 for.

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Syropheonician woman: Generosity learnt at home, lived

IMG_7346The gospel reading gives us one of those game-changer moments, where an outsider is brought to sit at the table (Mark 7:24-37). A Gentile, a Syropheonician woman, an outsider and not a high status one either. In terms of that terrible phrase ‘deserving poor’, in the pecking order, this woman is not even at the table it would seem. She is with the dogs in the corner and has to argue that even they get the scraps that fall onto the floor. It’s easy, knowing as we do how this story ends, to think we surely know better, but I’ve heard some comments in the news and various forms of media which are not that dissimilar.

On a news broadcast the other day people were being asked what they thought about helping the Afghan refugees, those who have fled the Taliban. One or two were quite clear, it’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs; it’s not right to give the resources already under pressure to those who have come from another country; they are needed for ‘our’ people. Let’s ignore any obligations we may have from how these refugees have worked with our troops and served the interests advanced by our democratically elected government in Westminster. And given that 170 pets were rescued leaving humans behind, the dogs imagery has bite.

The cry often goes up, ‘charity begins at home’, as if this is an unquestionable truth. We have to learn charity somewhere and caring for those we live with and grow up with is part of becoming who are. But as is so often the case, this is so that we know how to live and this caring becomes the training ground for how we approach the world, not a restriction on it. In the economy of God’s grace the scraps left over provide an abundance greater than when we started. Jesus has already fed the 5,000 (6:30-44) with the 12 baskets of left-overs, and he will shortly feed 4,000 more with a similar result (8:1-9), this time filling 7 baskets with surplus provisions.

The ending of our time in Afghanistan has left an unsavoury taste in many people’s mouths. Proper care for those who have been given shelter requires some careful thinking: where they will go and how they are to be provided for, leaving as they will have done with nothing but what they could carry. These people will be traumatised on top of being in need of clothing, toiletries and shelter.

The Letter of James is clear. Blessings without love in action are no blessings at all (James 2:1-10, 14-17). Clearly not everyone can do everything for everyone. But we can be part of a movement that assumes from the charity we have learnt in our Heavenly Father’s home that this will be how we will care. And so, we have an appeal for clothing and toiletries to be sent to those arriving here from Afghanistan. They are not the only ones in need, and we have regular calls for donations to the foodbank, but they are in desperate need.

And this is not meant to be an either/or game. We either feed and clothe our home grown destitute or foreigners who have recently arrived in our midst. It is where there is need that we aim to meet it. We are quite a rich nation even with our challenges, and even if that wasn’t the case, the generous are generous before they look at their bank balances. Poorer communities know their interdependency and so can have learnt and practiced these skills more.

With generous hearts, September has in recent years been taken as a time to focus on creation. This time of year is when the harvest is being gathered in and traditionally we celebrate the fruits of the earth. It’s a natural moment to think of God’s bounty and our dependency on it. It is not a giant leap from there to reflect on climate change and the environmental emergency facing us. We can live grasping and hording, protecting for ourselves with little thought of the consequences for others, but let’s be honest, we are seeing where that has got us. We are seeing that we really are in this shared earth together and the interdependency runs through everything. As we learn at home to be generous and thereby shape how we live and approach others, the challenge of climate change requires not just small changes but for these to colour how we approach everything else, to be part of a groundswell of challenge and change.

What seems like a strange encounter with a foreign woman, being treated worse the worse than the family pets, brings us a radical shift in how we live for justice, equity and in the generous love of God in Jesus Christ.

Sermon for Trinity 14 (Creationtide), Newport Cathedral, Sunday 5th September 2021

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Judging faith by how it behaves

IMG_7485Rules, restrictions and freedoms have been hot issues recently – with Covid, with oppressive regimes, with ministerial behaviours (on the pitch and off it, so to speak). At one end, blind following of rules makes us slaves and not free people. The opposite is that we decide that we can do whatever we like, because we are free. That is a recipe for abuse and oppression. My freedom becomes your restriction. Rights bring responsibilities and we all have to learn that what we do and any freedoms we have affect others – sometimes in unseen ways that we remain ignorant about. For some things we can’t just leave it all up to individuals to decide because that quickly becomes the tyranny of the strong or a recipe for chaos.

Our readings this morning play around with understanding the place of rules, laws and codified behaviour. We start with verses from Deuteronomy (4:1-2, 6-9), about the place of the Law, observing statutes and commandments. It sounds so clear. But it goes on to warn to take care lest you forget why these laws are there. They serve a higher purpose and are not the purpose themselves. They are to help the people remember all that they have seen, and to make sure that doesn’t slip from their minds, through how they live and interact with one another and others. They are to teach their children and their children’s children; to pass it on.

James, the Epistle which may have been written by one of Jesus’ brothers, is very concerned for faith to be shown in actions, to be lived. ‘Quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger’. Oh, how we need that in a world of social media, anger and frustrations over pandemics and politician double standards. This one is quite a challenge today. Decisions by governments have proved to be literally life and death for people in Afghanistan, but there are wider political forces at work, deals previously made which now can’t be easily unmade, even with the will to do so. There is room to listen even if you have a clear view of competency or incompetency. American policy is being played out and the UK is not the key player, in fact we have had a wake-up call in how much we rely on the USA in military action. President Biden has a longstanding policy to withdraw from Afghanistan and he has been doing what anyone who was listening to him would have known he would do, and some of that was set in train by his predecessor. There are complexities which make the caution to be quick to listen and slow to anger relevant, at least make sure it is targeted appropriately.

This passage from James (1:17-27) is an encouragement to live faith, to live the story of faith and not just be robots. Grace means we have to work out the difficulties. How to do that and not be sullied or stained by the world is rather a moot point. I suggest it requires deep rooting in the grace and wisdom of God in Jesus Christ. Frayed and strained tempers often spring from fear or frustration and, as we are seeing in Afghanistan, there are times when there is much to fear and be frustrated at. It has entered a very scary and dark place. It pushes spirituality beyond platitudes to face the starkness of the worst humans can do.

We come to the Gospel reading (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23). Truncated and filleted verses about washing and cleanliness – all of which seem extremely good advice, not least in a pandemic when we have to sanitise at every turn. This, though, is not health advice. What is being referred to is ritual cleansing. And Jesus, as ever, goes beyond the letter of the law to look at what is at work in the background. How is grace being lived out in the following of these laws? He snaps back about evil coming from inside a person, not outside with the absence of ritual – a warning for liturgical purists. The point and purpose of an action over its performance. (Though doing is an important part of learning, particularly if you are a kinesthetic learner, someone who learns by doing.)

Reading these passages through the eyes of James, Jesus’ younger brother – how we put what we believe into practice and how it blesses, brings life – hits the touchstone of whether we have really got the point. We are known and judged by our fruits. It is by this standard that the regime now let loose in Afghanistan is seen to be repressive and tyrannical. It will bring oppression for women and girls who have grown up with 20 years of relative freedoms to work, to engage in political and communal life. It will be a dangerous place for anyone whose sexuality varies from their norm. It will be a place where dissent in so many ways – thought, belief, political philosophy, dress, music – will bring harsh punishment and treatment. Dark days lie ahead for those who remain in that country and we have seen the beginnings of this. Music has already been targeted and we have seen here how soul impeding that is over the last year. They claim religious motivation, divine laws, and so it is particularly important that we who likewise claim religious inspiration for our actions make it clear we stand for something very different. Rules alone don’t cut it.

It is hard to see the rays of hope in what is happening in Afghanistan, but there are a few. Those who say that the Taliban want international relationships, if correct, will provide a pressure point. But so often that can come with other agendas too and so our own motives need to be ones that seek life and blessing, not just opportunity and domination.  We have form here in the West. The history of colonialism is not a good one and brings a legacy that can have repercussions in our own time. The human spirit crying out for a different way will not be crushed for ever, it never is, even if the oppressors seem to have the upper hand now. So many acts of simple human kindness, some at great cost, so many we will never know about. And the acts of bravery in staying to help others, not least our own Ambassador.

The ‘strict letter of the law’ often carries other views, like a Trojan Horse. Rather than pure, they are often coloured by something else, something unacknowledged. Misogyny, racism, prejudice and assumptions which become oppressive for what they don’t take into account, can all slip in too easily if they lie in the background. That is why the purpose matters over the letter. In Christ that purpose always brings life in its fullness, blesses, lets grace loose on us, in us and through us. This is to be evident in how we behave and live it out.

Sermon for Trinity 14, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 29th August 2021

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Carrot over Stick every time in God’s household

IMG_7291Carrot or stick? Which is the first you reach for when you think something or someone needs to change or mend their ways? Which you pick first may well say quite a bit about your own upbringing and whether you had highly critical and fault finding, blaming parents or ones who encouraged and brought out the best in you through showing you a better way and drawing that out through love. Of course, all parents know that children can be frustrating and sometimes just impossible, drive you completely up the wall, and sanctions of some kind may still be needed.

One of the surprises for parents is finding that your own experience of being parented comes out. Do you smack, do you not? And whatever your high ideals your own experience of parenting will come crashing through for good or ill. Smacking, as with caning, just doesn’t work. It teaches the child nothing except fear and I am old enough that when I began my secondary education caning was still being practiced; it was abolished while I was there. It took place in the woodwork room woodstore and we would observe from our workbenches that it was the same boys who came in each time for their punishment. It didn’t change them – they needed to learn a better way and that was not the way to teach them.

And having been smacked by my father with a wooden ruler with a metal strip in its core, it was part of my upbringing, I knew I needed to draw on a different model when I became a parent. We realised very early on as parents that there is a different way to parent and one that helps children grow and develop much better. Yes, time out in their rooms, but not violence and certainly not with a metal core ruler. That is just a sign that anger issues being out of control, and it doesn’t help.

This has been in the news with whether or not offenders should wear hi-vis jackets to be identified and, well, the dog whistle of crime and retribution has raised its head. The response from John Timpson, the shoe repairing and key cutting magnate, was to point out that he has a policy of employing ex-offenders and they dress just like all his other employees. You will not be able to tell the difference. He knows that people change when they are showed a better way and given a new start.

I learnt the same in my first full-time job, working for Langley House Trust in a Half-way House for ex-offenders in Dorset. The ‘mother of the house’, Maureen, had a very simple philosophy. To her, the men in our care were all deeply damaged. And the worse their behaviour, or more difficult the person, the more damaged she saw them as being. And so, what they needed was more love not less. On one occasion one of the men broke up a snooker table and threw it through a window in a fit of rage. When the police first arrived he took a swing at them with a table leg. When they went back into the room ready for a fight, they found him sat on the floor crying like a child. The following morning, when he came back from the police cell to collect his stuff, I was rendered speechless when he opened his bag and brought out a selection of kitchen knives. “These are for you” he said – he knew we were getting married soon. And we still use them.

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4:1-16), knows a thing or two about how to bring out the best and appeals for grace to abound. He encourages the churches in this letter, in what may well have been one designed to be circulated widely, to live lives worthy of their calling. They are to display humility, gentleness, patience and bear with one another in love.  We all share the same hope because all of us share the same flaw in sinfulness, and therefore share the same hope of forgiveness and salvation in the love and grace of God. 

It is a passage overflowing with grace. We are to grow into maturity of faith, displaying the full stature of Christ, to be Christ-like in the person we become and seek to be renewed and refreshed as. There are so many attacks on this – the echo chamber of trolling and bad temper which can be Twitter and Facebook. Angry headlines that are designed to incite base passions that don’t display our kindest or generous souls. We can be tossed to-and-fro and blown about by these strong winds, by trickery of incomplete and distorted stories, craftiness and deceitful scheming, as Paul puts it. 

His remedy is to speak truth in love, to grow and by implication help one another grow, to be shaped by Christ. This a passage that includes the different roles and gifts for ministry in the church – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. And it is often taken as a manifesto for different jobs and activities, displaying that all ministry takes place within the context of the whole people of God. And that is what is really meant when the church talks about discipleship, we are all aiming to grow into the stature of Christ, to be built up as his followers and body in the world today. But it is all rooted in and built on this notion of loving and growing in grace.

Whether we have a clear role description for what we do, or don’t have such a formal role, all of us can and must do this: build up one another in faith and hope and love. 

And briefly, we see this in the Old Testament passage (Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15), where the people of Israel are going through one of their periodic whinges about being hungry and tired and bored. “Are we nearly there yet” is the only bit missing. Admittedly there are passages where God sends snakes to bite them. But on this occasion they get quails and manna – whatever that is. When they ask that, ‘what is it?’ they are told it is the food God has given. Whinging met with gift, with grace.

Food appears in the Gospel (John 6:24-35). Jesus has fed them and still they ask for a sign and a repeat free lunch. He moves their gaze beyond their stomachs to the eternal. It is a Eucharistic passage and as we gather round the table of God’s grace we are fed to live the life of grace and show it, demonstrate a better way. Carrot over stick every time in God’s household. Probably worth having a carrot nearby when engaging on social media, to help us remember and reflect grace and love and hope as people shaped by Christ.

Sermon for Trinity 9, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 1st August 2021

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James the Apostle – Pilgrimage and the meaning is in the waiting

IMG_7305Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. Today we remember St James and two of our readings give a snapshot of his brief role in the story of the Gospel. A fisherman with his brother John, in his father’s business, they were called by Jesus right at the beginning of his ministry, as the first of his disciples while mending their nets. They have the nickname ‘Boanerges’, which means ‘sons of thunder’, possibly a reference to their impetuous and fervent nature. It might also hint at their parents, afterall it is their mother who tries to fit them up for top jobs.

James seems to have been part of an inner core of Jesus’ disciples, present at the Transfiguration, at his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane – when ironically Jesus prays for the cup to be taken away from him. That’s the cup he drinks of that he tells James and John they will have to drink too. And James does.

He became the first leader of the Jerusalem Church. Paul is taken to James after his conversion and when Peter escapes from prison, he asks for James to be told, not knowing that he has been killed by a sword-thrust on the orders of Herod Agrippa, sometime around AD44. He got to drink from the cup and he got to hold the top job. There is something about leadership that brings difficult decisions, having to stand up and be counted, be in the firing line when things go wrong, when attacks come for speaking out. It is no different today if a Christian leader uses their position to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak out for the defence of the weak and call to account.

The great shrine for St James is Santiago de Compostela in North West Spain. It is one of the great pilgrimage sites of the medieval world – ranking next to Rome and Jerusalem. It claims to hold the relics of St James, having been transferred there from Jerusalem in the nineth century. The evidence for that is thin. But it remains a major focus of pilgrimage today and the Camino de Santiago remains popular, even the subject of some interesting TV programmes of modern pilgrims from all backgrounds and faiths walking together and talking as they go.

The big symbol of pilgrimage to Santiago is the scallop shell, possibly because it represents the setting sun’s rays fanned out, and also because they are readily available at nearby beaches. It is also a handy tool for baptism and I tend to use one whenever I baptise, because it is a reminder that life is a pilgrimage of faith, of doubt, of struggle and courage to drink what you’d rather not drink, of hope and trust in Jesus Christ.

Earlier this week, I came across the poetic Kyrie confession we used at the beginning of this service. It was shared by a priest in the Bro Tudno Ministry Area in the diocese of Bangor, in North West Wales. It uses the poetry of RS Thomas and George Herbert. You may know the poems it reflects. The first is about the meaning being in the waiting, by implication found when we still ourselves from the inanities and vast myriad of pressures and commitments, of stuff we fill our time with. The stuff that stops us reflecting, thinking, going deeper into God.

The phrase ‘the meaning is in the waiting’ comes from a poem by RS Thomas – the final line in his poem ‘Kneeling’. I’ll end with it in a moment. He talks about how being stilled turns the air into a ‘staircase for silence’ and this being the gateway to perception and presence. Staircases are resonant with Jacob’s ladder and his dream of angels ascending and descending. Jacob is the Hebrew version of James. It is in the silence that God can speak, it is in the different rhythm of the pilgrim that meaning is clarified, often when we are least expecting it.

I am beginning to read Rowan Williams’ latest book – Looking East in Winter. It’s a slow read and has already had me looking up words I don’t know in a dictionary and following up a reference in one of his other books – so this is going to take me a while. It is about Eastern Christian mysticism. In one passage he refers to one writer who contrasts the ascetic, who put crudely wants to escape from wordly pressures, and the contemplative who stays with them, delves into them and in so doing finds them to be a mine of treasure or a well to revive and water us, to see beauty.

This is a particularly striking image for where we are. The call of the pilgrim is not to escape but to change the journey. It is to find in this moment the signs of beauty we otherwise walk past unnoticed, the signs of grace where gift becomes a moment of God’s touch, the rays of sunlight that shine through the darkness illuminating and making it clear that darkness never overcomes or wins. It is to see this moment as a sign that nothing in all creation can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, as Paul put it.

As we do this, we find that the meaning is in the waiting, because waiting is where we are for we are always awaiting the final fulfilment of God’s eternal kingdom. It is the goal of our journey, it is the source of our life, it is the hope which brings us to being and holds us. It is the cup offered to James and from which he drank, knowing then that status is but an ephemera, the meaning is much deeper. And so, I end with RS Thomas’ poem, ‘Kneeling’.

Sermon for the Feast of St James, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 25th July 2021

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Reasons to persuade everyone to learn to sing (William Byrd)

IMG_7300I received an email this week telling me that today is National Ice-cream Day. I have no idea who decided this, though it was a chocolate manufacturer who told me, but I am not going to argue and after the service we will celebrate it. Something that will be particularly welcome on a hot Sunday afternoon. What could speak of summer more than ice-cream and struggling to eat it before it melts. 

A few years ago, on my sabbatical, when the temperatures were breaking records, I decided to conduct some research into which was the best ice-cream to eat. Squirty, whippy stuff was particularly bad; it put up no resistance to the power of the sun’s rays. It was the Cornetto style cones that seemed to fair best. Ice-cream brings a smile and it feels like a treat.

We need those treats every now and then, to experience the joys of life, the things which brighten and boost a sense of feeling good. This is especially important when we face the unknown and this pandemic seems to have a way of bringing surprises and setbacks. When it is a particular effort to find the joys, the rewards can be all the more.

I caught an interview yesterday with a woman who has stage 4 cancer. She has lots of bad days and can struggle to find an hour or so of energy. There are days she finds she has to break down the day into small goals and take what she can find – bigger goals just seem too unobtainable and large to tackle or believe are possible. It’s a mindset that she has had to develop and train herself to develop the habit.

We might not all be facing something so enormous, but still can need help and there are some tools we can draw on and use. One of them comes in this incredible service of Choral Evensong. It brings music in abundance and the act of singing changes our mood. After I preached at the RSCM online Welsh Festival last month, a friend sent me something written a very long time ago, by the Tudor composer William Byrd. It could have been written yesterday and there are scientific explanations behind what he wrote. It comes from the preface to his collection ‘Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes and pietie’, published in 1588. He sets down reasons to persuade everyone to learn to sing. Whenever he says ‘man’, he means all people – men and women, boys and girls.

“First, it is a knowledge easily taught, and quickly learned, where there is a good master, and an apt scholar.

2. The exercise of singing is delightful to Nature, and good to preserve the health of Man.

3. It doth strengthen all parts of the breast, and doth open the pipes.

4. It is a singularly good remedy for stuttering and stammering in the speech.

5. It is the best means to procure perfect pronunciation, and to make a good Orator.

6. It is the only way to know where Nature has bestowed the benefit of a good voice:

which gift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand that has it: and, in many, that excellent gift is lost, because they want Art to express Nature.

7. There is not any Music of instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voices of Men, where the voices are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.

8. The better the voice is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God therewith:

and the voice of man is chiefly to be employed to that end.

Omnis spiritus Laudet Dominum.

[“Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6)]

Since singing is so good a thing,

I wish all men would learn to sing.”

When the bible writers were looking for a way to express worship, praise, marvels and salvation, they naturally turned to song. Our first reading (1 Chronicles 16:23-34) began with the exhortation to ‘sing to the Lord all the earth’ and through that to tell of marvels and salvation.

The second reading, moved from compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, to expressing gratitude through singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, so that in whatever we do we may be thankful (Colossians 3:12-17). Singing is a balm for the soul, especially in tough times, but also when we just want to let out a burst of praise and thanksgiving. In turn it lifts us and we need that lift. We have been given voices to lift up the praises, it is in our nature to do so, and something deep about what it means to be human is missing when we don’t or are not allowed to do so. The human souls needs it and when times are tough a song in the heart and in the voice changes how we see it and how we are.

So I give thanks for “quires and places where they sing”. In the final words of our Psalm this evening, quoted by William Byrd at the end of his reasons to sing:

“Omnis spiritus Laudet Dominum”

Let everything that hath breath, 

praise the Lord . (Psalm 150:6).

Sermon for the final Evensong of the Choir year, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 18th July 2021

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