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Making Sense of Jesus

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

4th March 2018





As we read, watch or listen to current 'news' we face a blizzard of broken relationships - international, political, commercial, ethnic and personal - and of wrongs that need putting right - plastics, pollution, injustices etc..  It can be very depressing, despite wonderful examples of personal generosity we also hear about.

What can we do about it?  Traditional Church influence in the West is collapsing - it is now very fashionable for people to say they are 'unbelievers'.  They deny the existence of any permanent moral authority whilst, perhaps, acknowledging the need for some mutual care - within reason, of course!   Perhaps, in practice, that is your view?

By contrast, today's Psalm [19] speaks of the physical universe's order [which, in a scientific age, we assume] and it also emphasises that the ordering of human relationships has to follow the same authority.  Our OT reading was the now largely-forgotten Ten Commandments [Exodus 20: 1-17] , which theoretically dominated Western civilisation for centuries.

But imposed religious practice concentrates on outward observances, and its frequent use to prop up the governing authority does not encourage human flourishing.  This is true not just of Islamic Republics or the Christian Inquisition; Temple-based religious power is one of the three main challenges that Jesus confronted in the wilderness.  By contrast, Jesus put the flourishing of each individual at the centre of his strategy. 

This was not some vague humanism confined to our brief physical life; we can only understand Jesus' approach in the context of what, eg in his opening of the Lord's Prayer, he called 'heaven'.  For Jesus, healthy human relationships have a range which makes death a delusional limit, and so he challenged people to be more realistic about their lives and change their limited mind-sets.  Even in purely physical terms, self-centred thinking is daft - you probably think you are sitting still, but you are on an Earth that is spinning you daily counter-clockwise at about 100mph, whilst taking you on an annual trip round the sun at 67,000mph! 

Can Jesus, with his conviction that rich human life stems from costly acceptance of anyone within our range - our neighbour - shake us into greater enjoyment of our human potential, releasing us from selfish follies of materialism and imprisonment within self-imposed religious and ethnic brands?  

Jesus grew up in a community whose traditions declared they would lead humanity into such richness of God-intended life, yet their circumstances were grim.  The Romans were not the major problem - they were just the latest deluded military conquerors, and the Gospels give them only walk-on parts. 

The Temple,  newly re-built by King Herod, in many ways played a good and central part in the lives of ordinary people like Jesus' family and friends.  Recently we heard how Joseph and Mary took Jesus there in ritual recognition of his birth, meeting the devout Anna and Simeon [Luke 2:22 38].  Luke also tells us that Jesus and his family went to the Temple every year, Jesus absorbed in challenging religious experts when he was only 12 [Luke 2: 41-52].  During his ministry Jesus frequently used the Temple as the appropriate place to argue and teach.  

Centuries previously, after the most important citizens had been exiled, their descendants returned [as Philip mentioned last week] with a refined version of traditional religion.  This zealous, self-perpetuating group of wealthy families, from which the High Priests and their hangers-on were drawn, insisted on their exclusive status and religious correctness, though some of them were not like that, e.g John the Baptist's father [Luke 1: 39 et seq.] , or Nicodemus [John 3: 1-21, 7:50 and 19: 50-52] . 

   This asserted monopoly of technically-correct religion inevitably belittled those whose lives did not comply, thus misleading most ordinary people into missing the generously encouraging divine presence Jesus called 'our Father in heaven'.  Conflict with Jesus, himself from an ordinary background and focussed on the unrealised potential of those around him, was thus inevitable.  The dispute was about life, not abstract theology.

   Throughout the Gospels, on page after page, we have Pharisees, Priests, Levites, Doctors of the Law, condemned by Jesus in the strongest terms:   "They talk, but they don't perform.  They bind heavy burdens, and place them on people's shoulders, but they don't want to shift them themselves by so much as a finger", records Matthew [23: 4].   Open your Gospels to get the scale of Jesus' criticism.   The end of chapter 11 of Luke's Gospel [ 37 et seq.]  is a particularly lengthy example.

Here are a few reminders;

Jesus' story of the ineffective Temple prayer of a self-righteous Pharisee and the effective penitence of a despised Tax Collector [Luke 18: 9-14];

his story of a ritually unclean Samaritan, whose spontaneous generosity fulfilled his humanity, compared with a Priest and a Levite on their way to officiate at the Temple, ignoring the blatant needs of a ritually unclean, half-dead traveller [Luke 10: 25-37]; 

when a Samaritan woman challenged whether true worship was confined to Jerusalem he insisted that sincerity in worship, not location, was what mattered [John 4]: 1-30] .

 In today's Gospel story [John 2:13 - 21], Jesus leads a riot in the Temple. 

The Temple was divided into sections for priests, Jewish men, Jewish women, and foreigners, and being Passover it was full of visitors.  In the foreigners' section, supposedly "a House of Prayer for all Nations" [Psalm 69:9], guides organised parties of sightseeers; birds and animals were sold for sacrifice; and because the Romans prohibited Jewish coins, and Roman coins idolatrously bore the image of Caesar, a commercial currency exchange provided religiously acceptable coins from nearby Tyre.   Jesus told the traders to "stop making my Father's house a market-place."  All four Gospels tell us that Jesus drove them out.  [Matt. 21:12-21; Mark 11:15-18; Luke19:45-48].

Jesus could only have led such a physically powerful attack in such a prominent place if he had active public support, and Luke tells us that immediately afterwards "Every day Jesus taught in the Temple. The chief priests, the teachers of the Law, and the leaders of the people wanted to kill him, but they could not find a way to do it, because all the people kept listening to him, not wanting to miss a single word." [19:47]  

The Temple authorities were furious.  "What miracle [they asked him] can you perform to show us that you have the right to do this?  Jesus answered 'Tear down this Temple, and in three days I will build it again.' ...  But the Temple Jesus was speaking about was his body."  [John 2, 18-19, 21.].  This cryptic text from our Gospel reading is at the heart of Jesus' activity from Lent [throwing himself down from the Temple roof] to Easter [his constant forgiveness whilst suffering].  What does it mean? 

At a recent Synod, the Bishop of Carlisle used Jesus' message that every human being is made in the image of God and is of unique and equal value.  It is easily said, but its application is challengingly difficult and costly.  The Bishop was speaking out of concern for Down's syndrome foetuses revealed by ante-natal screening.  Work on that for yourselves.  Jesus was no populist; he knew he would have to demonstrate in his coming execution that the cruelty did not affect the permanent, heavenly, significance of his life.  By contrast, the Temple was merely a building, and the Romans destroyed it a few decades later.  

 By accepting with determined humanity the murderous hatred of those whose privilege he disturbed, Jesus exposed a shallow world of power and greed, and replaced it with the real world which releases our human potential.  In a good paraphrase of today's Epistle, Paul puts Jesus' challenge starkly: "The message about Jesus on his cross is meaningless to those who are going nowhere.  But to those who are on the path to completeness, it shows how resourceful God is."  [1 Cor. 1: 25,  Good As New (2004)].  Can we expand our awareness of people as our path to completeness?

When a young couple were having dinner, sitting in an Ipswich restaurant's window seats, they spotted a homeless man outside and asked the waiter if they could buy something for the man to eat.  The waiter was unresponsive, so Gareth dashed to MacDonalds.   Unable to get the homeless man out of their heads, Gareth and Sarah started a Facebook page for donations of clothes and sleeping bags, but  realised the acute need for homeless people to have dry, secure places to sleep. 

The owners of a double-decker bus for sale on eBay gave it them for free.  Gareth, a skilled tradesman, put in a kitchen, bathroom, lounge and dining area, and 14 secure sleeping pods, using equipment donated by local businesses.  Other costs were covered by crowdfunding.  A homeless individual thus became the measure for life-fulfilling action.

Burnley churches created a food bank, but soon realised that many poor people were socially isolated, so their members began to deliver food to those who did not go out.  As needs of individuals became more apparent, volunteers became Street Pastors, supported victims of domestic violence, and organised youth work.

A retired Leicester GP, working in a makeshift camp for Rohingya refugees, recently wrote: "One little girl stands out.  She was paralysed from the waist down and, before she came to the hospital, had developed dreadful bedsores which became infected.  She was so brave coping with the dressings and made real progress over six weeks.  We arranged for her to have a special mattress [and] now she sits on a chair.   One young boy has deformed feet [and] couldn't run away from the soldiers ...  who shot him in his club foot  ... 

You look around sometimes and tears come to your eyes.  It's absolutely terrible.  You just do what you can.

May Jesus' example expand what we can do, and so deepen the coming joy of Easter.

Jesus' Big Idea

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

2nd July 2017





Today's Gospel is a poor translation of a Jesus saying [Matth. 10:40-42] and, on first reading, it is almost incomprehensible!  It is a summary and, if it is to help us meet our personal challenges, or to cope with the shocks of constant news of violence or undeserved suffering, we have to work at its relationships with other Jesus sayings and stories to capture its meaning.  But why bother about a 2,000 year old saying?

These days, all religion is commonly ridiculed as an irrelevantly vague delusion about a beneficent, all-powerful ruler somewhere in the stratosphere.  A recent newspaper article is typical, arguing that people made workless by robots could entertain themselves in virtual reality fantasy:  "What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together.  ...  In the past it was with the human imagination and with sacred books, and in the 21st century it can be done with Virtual Reality visors and smartphones....  the meaning we ascribe to what we see is generated by our own minds.  ...  To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. ...  [It] is always a fictional story created by us humans." 

This analysis is partly correct;  our minds do generate meaning from what we see, and scientists make important physical discoveries, e.g. using a micro-chamber smaller than a poppy seed to watch details one-thousand of the width of a human hair, as wisps of cloud grow from ice crystals and provide controls on our weather. Science is an effective disinfectant to enotional silliness, but it is dangerously wrong to relate conclusions from physical measurement to the understanding of our emotional lives.  Scientists and theologians increasingly discuss how these separate explorations have inter-related truthfulness. What we value most is not just physical. 

Unreliable information bombards our understanding.  Two months ago, three books were published with the same title: "Post-Truth", dealing with fakery, alternative facts and selective facts.  Facebook is advertising tips for spotting false news, e.g. be sceptical of headlines; investigate the source; inspect the evidence; look at other reports.  The Gospel accounts have been studied critically for 20 centuries to bridge cultural changes since they were written, and their account of Jesus enriching the lives of those who met him passes the Facebook tests. 

In church we continue to honour Jesus because, in response to a similarly challenging world, he emphasised the potential of any individual experiencing the emotional reality he called "the Kingdom of Heaven".  In stories, and by courageous example even through crucifixion, he explained its basis of practical love.  This is not the same kind of 'love' as in the current sale advert "More of what you love for less", nor the Antiques Roadshow presenter's declared love for some attractive curio, but that of the two great commandments.  Jesus challenged people to stop messing-about on the Kingdom's fringes and encouraged them, when they failed, to try again.    

Awareness of the Kingdom's abiding reality provides the same energy that propelled Jesus, and a frame of reference which agrees with how he valued things and people, providing the same reassurance against our mortality.  A recent newspaper article highlighted new forms of funeral service requested by mourners, involving fictional heroes like Superman.  The continuing Kingdom, experienced in today's reality, provides realistic hope for our future. 

Those with Jesus knew instinctively that his practice of Kingdom values flowed from ancestral wisdom and was 'right'.  If being 'right' had significance when Jesus' physical life was so easily snuffed out, they reasoned that his essential self must live on, gloriously, in the Kingdom.  The New Testament does not describe the Resurrection event but what led up to it and  then its consequences.  We see in St. Paul's almost contemporary letters how powerfully Jesus' friends experienced his vindication within the Kingdom.  We must make a personal judgement whether we, too, accept this foundation for faith in Jesus' way of living.

About 50 years after the Crucifixion, St. Matthew recorded important memories about Jesus for his faith community.  Although Jesus encouraged individuals to live in the Kingdom, the text preceding today's reading shows that Jesus organised his followers to work together.  It is within the personal and thoughtful life of a faith community that we are most likely to find those from whom we can learn who Jesus was, and work out the relevance of his teaching.  That is the point of today's Gospel.

Other Gospel passages [e.g. Matth. 10 24; Luke 10:16: "whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me,, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."; John 13:20:  "whoever receives one whom I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me."; Mark 9:37; 41 and Matthew 18:5: "whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." ]  similarly show Jesus using a Jewish legal rule that an agent, for all practical purposes, is the same as the boss.   In today's dense text Jesus first encourages his followers to act as intermediary agents between people and God, and since we should represent the boss properly, we should learn from others with greater experience in the Kingdom – described here as "prophets" and "righteous". Then there are the "little ones" – beginners exploring Kingdom values.  Jesus  warned against causing "these little ones who believe in me to stumble" [18:6 ].

We must use our judgement.  History, and current child abuse scandals, support another warning: "beware false prophets who come among you – by their fruits you will know them"[7:15-16]; he spoke harshly too about religious hypocrites. 

Kingdom values are universally valid, and we can see them in the weekly Radio 4 Appeal, in generous responses to the Grenfell Tower fire, and in the Finsbury Park Imam's courageous intervention against mob violence.  Jesus offers us no excuse for religious brand-imaging, but life in our church community should strengthen us to use Kingdom values in the individual and collective challenges and opportunities that come to us.  Here are some examples to stimulate our thinking: 

Despite ISIS killing 45 people in two churches, Pope Francis made direct contact with ordinary Cairo people in a flimsy open-topped golf-buggy.  He made a joint declaration with the Grand Imam of an Islamic centre where scholars counter those manipulating Quu'ranic texts to justify violence.  He challenged Christians to forgive those who wronged them, saying:  "The only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity".  He prayed with Coptic and Eastern Orthodox church leaders, the first such co-operation since their predecessors had disagreed 1,600 years ago!

The Rev. Harold Good, a former President of Irish Methodism, and his friend the late Fr. Alec Reid, a Roman Catholic priest who ministered to two British soldiers being murdered by a mob in the Troubles, are less well-known.  They worked for peace, and were trusted to certify the decommissioning of IRA weapons.  Recently they worked together to end Europe's longest civil war, and when he had certified  the decommissioning of Basque independence weapons, Dr. Good said to a 20,000 crowd: "May I plead with my Christian fellow-clergy, please take the message of Jesus seriously and become more fully involved in this ministry of healing."  

In northern Nigeria over 1M people have fled from Boko Haram and it has been too dangerous to provide vaccination programmes.  A MSF paediatrician wrote: "We're ... seeing around 60 malnourished children each day ...  When I went home to Ireland I remember looking at all these Irish kids, thinking 'they're so fat!', but ... they're just healthy." 

Some years ago in Serbia, a pro-democracy movement opposed to Slobodan Milosevic promoted political change by using humour.  "We took an oil barrel, taped a picture of Milosevic to it and set it up in Belgrade's shopping district. ...  Next to it we placed a baseball bat.  Then we went for coffee and watched the fun unfold."  Perplexed police arrested the barrel, and successful opposition became organised.

Ahsanullah is a teenager who fled from Afghanistan, after the Taliban had killed his father and threatened him.  After a journey crammed under a car's back seat, police beatings, and walking miles through wet forests, he jumped from a lorry near Dover, alone and without possessions.  He surrendered at a police-station, and recounts with awe how he was treated as a human being, one policeman ruffling his hair and telling him they'd 'sort it'.  Now Ahsanullah is in Leeds, one of the unaccompanied children being looked after by the Children's Society, an organisation long supported by this church, so thankyou to Barbara for her work here over many years, and an unashamed commercial to contact Louise if you want to help the Society.

These are just some examples of how the Kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven.  In today's Gospel reading Jesus challenges us, through involvement in our church activities, to discover the Kingdom for ourselves, individually and together.

Faith takes Guts

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

2nd October 2016





Today’s Bible readings are about having the guts to deal with the evil that bedevils human life.  Because God is concerned for our proper development he will inspire, energise and forgive us, but it is our responsibility to stand up for what is right insofar as we have opportunity.  Our faith is that God is as he is in Jesus, and God didn’t destroy Jesus’ powerful opponents in Jerusalem. 

For several weeks, in our Gospel readings, Jesus and the disciples have been moving towards Jerusalem - Jesus very determinedly and the disciples very unwillingly.  Jesus has repeatedly warned them what will happen there [Luke 9:22], and in today’s reading [Luke 17: 5 – 10] it is not surprising they ask him to increase their faith in him, so they can cope with his apparently mad plan to confront the paranoid authorities.  An exasperated Jesus tells them that because they don’t have faith the size of a mustard seed, they are like inefficient and ineffective slaves! 

His talk of ‘slaves’ is a shock but, if we think about it, we are all enslaved by ‘reality’.  For example, physical reality gives us no choice; if we walk off a cliff we hurtle downwards, because of the reality of gravity.  Just as physical reality enslaves us, so unreality in our relationships with ourselves and other people produces unavoidable consequences.  Jesus called his understanding of proper relationships the heavenly Kingdom of God, encouraging his disciples to do the Father’s will on earth as it is done in heaven.  Only this understanding of an unconfined reality can explain Jesus’ otherwise feckless initiatives against evil, but it challenges the primacy we accord ourselves.

Pride in our individual identity comes naturally.  I was recently at the Wothorpe shop counter when another shopper, holding a jar labelled “Easton-on-the-Hill Honey”, said “Oh!  Local honey!”  “No!” said the assistant.  “But it says it’s from Easton”“This”, replied the assistant firmly, “is Wothorpe”.  Such innocent localism easily degenerates.  There are many jokes on the lines of the question: “What’s the difference between Finnish and Swedish people?”  The Finnish answer is: “the Swedes have good neighbours!” 

Self-centredness runs away with us.  The broadcaster Jeremy Vine recently showed a video of a car driver repeatedly threatening him with violence because his cycling had obstructed her.  In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe’s budget includes no capital expenditure for schools, but £300,000 for presidential car maintenance.  Recent reports of commercial and sporting greed, and of widespread ‘trolling’, expose the scale of anti-social behaviour.  5tn plastic pieces floating in the oceans typify human ecological carelessness.  OXFAM and the UN currently report “the worst refugee crisis in recorded history”, and the deliberate bombing of Aleppo hospitals defies description.  

Based on the heavenly values of God as our shared ‘Father’, Jesus taught we should live simply, overcoming evil with good by loving and repeatedly forgiving our enemies.  This was what he was planning to do in Jerusalem, combatting powerful oppressors by maintaining his personal integrity as he dealt with them despite their provocations in his trial and execution.  Reality for Jesus was Heaven’s limitless eternity.  Physical death was an insufficient reason to avoid the challenge.  No wonder the disciples dithered. 

In today’s reading from the Letter to Timothy, St. Paul, whilst he awaits death in a Roman prison, declares his faith in Jesus: “I know the one in whom I have put my trust”, and “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  When Paul contemplates his future he thinks about Jesus who “ended the power of death and through the Gospel revealed immortal life”.  

Today’s reading from the prophet Habakkuk provided early Christians with one of many OT precedents for their courageous faith.  Habakkuk was disgusted with contemporary injustice, and correctly foresaw that his fellow-Jerusalemites were heading for Babylonian destruction and exile.  He first questions why God doesn’t intervene directly, but then he rolls up his sleeves and courageously denounces the proudly powerful evildoers, calling for people to delight in and trust the way of the Lord.

In the ongoing history of those who have courageously shared Jesus’ mind, most examples are lost in obscurity, but here are some snapshots that illustrate the power of what Paul called “the mind that was in Christ”:

John Mason, the writer of our next hymn, was born here in Northamptonshire during the bitter Civil War.  He wrote the hymn in 1683 when the country was still bitterly divided into strong religious and political lobbies, and the Scientific Enlightenment was beginning to challeng conventional religious orthodoxy.  Mason followed the lead of a group of Cambridge theologians who were convinced of the compatibility of reason and faith, and they courageously challenged irrationality, concentrating on the practical application of Jesus’ example.  Mason’s hymn expresses the heavenly reality which makes sense of Jesus’ example.

A recent newspaper report told how the African hospital founded by Albert Schweitzer in 1913 can no longer pay its way because Government funding has failed.  Schweitzer was an internationally-acclaimed scholar and organ recitalist when his horror at European exploitation in Africa led him to study and qualify as a medical doctor, so he could establish the hospital and treat people even though they could not afford to pay.  He wrote that he undertook this individual initiative to “make atonement for all the terrible crimes” committed by Europeans in Africa.  I still remember the Children’s Encyclopaedia photograph of his piano, with its specially-added organ-type pedals, being carried up-river on a canoe, so he could practise for his money-raising European and American recitals whilst isolated in his Equatorial African medical practice.

In October next year it will be 500 years since Martin Luther challenged established church teaching and practice, provoking most un-Jesus-like behaviour.  Courageous church leaders and scholars have been working against the grain of 500 years of rationalised prejudices by concentrating on Jesus’ example.

The Waldensian Church was founded in the 12th century and was much-persecuted.  Last July it was headline news in Italy that Pope Francis had visited the Waldensians’ annual Conference, where he asked forgiveness, and accepted blessing by the Church’s woman president. 

German Catholic Bishops recently reported on the question “Was the Reformation really necessary?”  They state frankly that there was merit in Luther’s challenges, and that those who wanted reform rather than break from the Church were not given a fair hearing.  Luther, the Catholic Bishops write, should be seen as “a religious pathfinder, Gospel witness and teacher of the faith.”  One bishop said “we must contemplate our Christian faith and the errors of the past, admitting our guilt and repenting on both sides for the past 500 years.” 

Leaders of the German Evangelical Church and the Catholic Bishops are planning a joint pilgrimage to the Holy Land as “a common prelude to the joint Festival of Christ agreed on by both Churches thinking back to the common roots of our faith”.  America’s largest Lutheran denomination has approved a list of 32 statements on ministry agreed with the American Catholic Bishops.  At the end of this month the Pope will attend a Catholic-Lutheran prayer service in Sweden to mark the official start of the Reformation Jubilee.  The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury meet later this week, not just to talk, but to commission 19 further pairs of Anglican and Catholic bishops from across the world to work together in their dioceses.  Overcoming evil within the Church is an obvious priority.  Are we prepared to overcome our deep prejudices?  

It is also our individual responsibility to choose a Jesus-based method when we have opportunities to heal individuals and society.  The Pope recently said: “We do not love concepts or ideas; we love people.”   Responding to press questions about reforming the global economic system, he replied: “Neither the Pope nor the Church has a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or … solutions to contemporary issues  …  [but] human beings and nature must not be at the service of money.”  He condemned “… using … methods which damage Mother Earth in the name of productivity [and] deny many millions of our brothers and sisters their most elementary economic, social and cultural rights.  This system”, he continued “runs contrary to the plan of Jesus.  Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labour is a moral obligation.  For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment.”

Evil is not difficult to recognise, and the Church, when it is faithful, gives us a clear lead.  When confronted with evil, can we have faith that Jesus was right, and adopt his mind-set?  We can then be efficiently effective slaves within the eternal security of the Father’s heavenly reality. 

Karin's Farewell Sermon

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 






Trinity 6: Karin Voth Harman’s Final Sermon

Apparently, that roguish composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, used to come home in the early hours after a long night of drinking, stagger over to the piano and torment his father by running off a series of scales on the piano. But he would leave off the final note of the scale.

Do, re, mi , fa, so, la, ti…

He’d play the scale over and over louder and louder until he knew that his strict and disapproving father would be truly awake. And then young Mozart would dance off to his bedchamber.  And the elder Mozart would lie awake tormented by that unfinished scale …Do…..ti…

Eventually he would stagger down in his dressing gown and pound the final note into the piano. Do.

Unfinished business of any kind can keep us awake at night, has kept me awake quite a few nights recently. First trying to work out how to complete the tasks, handover the files, and say the thing this morning that would send you off with a sparkling high note ‘do’. Those concerns were then overtaken by Brexit uncertainty as I’ve wondered in the wee hours how this whole thing might play out. Is there a grumpy old man or woman somewhere who might suddenly appear and play that note of reassurance?  Who will save the Torys? The Labour party? The United Kingdom?

I’ve been glancing frequently at a quote which hangs on a yellow postit note off the bottom of my kitchen cupboard. It’s by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and it begins:

Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.’

I’ve found it helpful to hold onto this thought as I try to cope with great change. The important things are not actually completed, even in a lifetime. The pieces of work which we undertake, these are just part of something happening on a much bigger scale. And we do not hear that final resolving tonic note. Therefore we are saved by hope. We are not saved because we can present to god or mankind on a platter all the wonderful things we’ve done. We are saved by hope.

Why am I a Christian? Because the very best repository of hope that I can find is in the rich and varied words of the Bible, especially as they describe the life of this man called Jesus of Nazareth. His life, which claimed to show us God, and his spirit, which he said would be with us forever, remains a source of profound inspiration not only to me, but to many, including non-Christians like Mahatma Ghandi, who have spent their lives working for a better world.

And far from imagining God as a grumpy old man upstairs who will stagger down at the end of time and set everything right, Jesus shows us a God who is beneath and beside us, initiating the scale, underwriting our hope, and coaxing us up the ladder.

The gospel story this morning tells of Jesus sending 70 of his disciples off, in pairs, to prepare the way for God to work. That’s quite an important detail in the reading, you’ll see it in the first verse of the section from Luke on your pew sheet. Jesus sends them off in pairs, to go to every place to which Jesus himself also intended to go.

The work of God is never solo singing. We are sent out together, not to build something on our own, but to prepare ground in which God can more effectively work. We simply hold a place open for God, by keeping hope alive.

Having spent time with Jesus and learned much from him, these pairs of people, probably men and women, rich and poor, old and young… they set off into the unknown.  Jesus is absolutely frank about the risks saying, ‘ I’m afraid I’m sending you like lambs into the midst of wolves.’  But don’t cling to the stuff that makes you feel more comfortable in times of crisis – extra shoes, credit cards and snacks. Instead, travel light, and just see what happens – if people don’t welcome you, well, shake the dust off your feet and travel on. If people do welcome you, enjoy your time with them. Oh, ‘and do as much healing work as possible, because that is a tangible sign of the hopeful reality of the kingdom of God. Say to everyone, you can be part of the kingdom of God.

A man walked from London to Liverpool recently and wrote a piece for the Guardian this week concluding, ‘I understand why England voted Brexit’. He found lots of places where people didn’t feel part of Europe, didn’t feel part of a United Kingdom, and certainly didn’t feel part of the kingdom of God.

Archbishop John Sentamu also recently walked through the vast northern regions for which he is spiritually responsible, you may have seen some of his journey on tele. He was repeating what many of his spiritual forebears did when Christianity first came to Britain,… walking or sailing around, visiting isolated communities, little coastal towns, settlements high up in the mountains, telling them that they were part of the kingdom of God. This is how Christianity first spread in this country, by monks and priests on the move.

Cathedrals were built like upside down boats and seen as motherships for the different regions of Britain… sending out little boats, building smaller upside down boats like the one we’re in now… the emphasis always on movement and taking this good news out.  But eventually every parish in the UK had a church building, and we started to look inwards, to see the church as a place of stability, rather than a vehicle to travel in.

But the church has never really been about, cannot be true to Christ if it is all about stability. Jesus was a wandering man, who said in gospel we read last week, ‘foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to rest his head’.  He saw himself as more mobile than foxes running over fields, or birds migrating across continents.

The church exists primarily to send labourers out into the fields where the harvest is ripe. And that is scary, but also hopeful.  There are wolves out there, but there are also people desperately needing what we can offer to them in Jesus’ name.

Our gospel story this morning ends with these 70 wanderers coming back to Jesus, not discouraged, but full of joy saying, ‘wow, even the demons submit to us’. In the 21st Century we might translate that as ‘wow, even the things we were most afraid of, they did not get the better of us in the end’.

At this moment in history there are many demons to confront:  financial instability, political infighting, racism, anger across the divides in our country, a terrible national football team.  England needs real leadership, it seems, more than ever.  On Friday a theatre company easily recruited hundreds of volunteers willing to dress as a ghost army of soldiers who died at the Somme a century ago. They fanned out across the country to remind us of our history, to urge us not to repeat the past. And if you were able to meet them in person, or even to see them on media, you will have been deeply moved.

We’re so good on the past in this country: it’s easier to navigate, even its most difficult bits. But Jesus calls us to go out and lead people into the future, to fan out and listen and bring healing in the face of demons we now see exposed. We need an army of living soldiers who will hold out good news – literally the gospel -- to those who feel they have nothing to hope for, and to those who feel the pity and the glory was all in the past.

This life is not about us preaching and arguing until people say ‘doh’ as the scales fall off their eyes,…Nor is it an easy passage up the scale until we hit that final ‘do’ at the top.  Nor is it, stretching this pun way too far, a mad dash to accumulate as much dough as possible. It’s about the movement… about going up and down, in and out with a bit of improvisation, travelling together and returning to Jesus with the joy of knowing that ‘even the things we feared most, did not get the better of us’.  To journey hopefully, said another wise sage, is actually better than to arrive.

Nothing worth doing in this world is ever achieved in a lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.

At the end of his letter to the church in Galatia, St Paul writes the words we’ve heard read this morning: ‘Do not grow weary of doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those in the family of faith.’

Over the past five years I’ve had the incredible privilege of working alongside Philip and all of you in this family of faith. As I leave I’d like to recreate and celebrate the scale of what we’ve done together by inviting you to play along with me and do something a little bit risky, a little bit out there, not very British.

One of the first things I took on when I arrived was our group for our youngest members of God’s Family and their parents or carers. Others had started this work, and others will continue it. I’d like now to honour all those who have been part of Twiglets, either here in KC or more recently in EoH. If you have ever been to Twiglets or helped out with Twiglets can you stand?  Can you also stand if you think you might like to be part of Twiglets in the future? Can we thank these people for giving hope to young mums, beleaguered grandparents, and the newest members of our community?

About 4 years ago, we popped a box in the back of the church, called it a food bank and began to encourage donations. The church across this country has mobilised this work of feeding the hungry. And our box, along with so many others, has regularly been filled by small donations, and emptied. It is a visible, indeed edible expression of God’s love for those who often sadly feel too ashamed to come to church. If you have ever contributed to this box, or indeed benefited from it, could you stand, as we thank those who have given this sign of hope and acceptance to our whole community?

3 years ago we started the Community Café which has been a wonderful intergenerational blessing at the heart of this village. The continuing success of this café has depending on loyal regulars, and a big rota of volunteers. Can you stand if you’ve ever attended café, or helped out with all the serving, washing up, lugging of chairs and table it involves? And can you stand if you intend to help out with café in the future, either by attending or serving? And can we thank those who have created this very tangible sign of a more inclusive world?

One of the things I love most is the experience of worshipping God together with people of all ages. So much of my work has been devising family services and special events for families in the smaller villages, or third Sunday services here in Cliffe or Messy Church. All of these kinds of worship are totally dependent on teamwork. One priest clutching a service booklet will not suffice. Can you stand if you’ve ever contributed by singing, by leading, making something, or baking something for one of these all age services or events? Can you also stand if you’d like to get more involved in Messy Church, or family services in the future? Can we thank those who hold out hope to our children?

‘Do not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all… ‘

There are many other ways in which I could have asked people to stand this morning to express their commitment to the work of God. Many many people are part of God’s song across our churches here in this part of Northamptonshire. I thank you for allowing me to sing with you and to stretch you maybe further up the scale than you thought you could sing.

But I leave you with that tantalising high note, the final ‘do’ hanging. Because the song never finishes, the resolution is always just a bit above our vocal range. I myself always struggle with the high notes. But that’s OK, because God is not a grumpy old man upstairs asleep. He is awake and will one day finish with a great flourish, the songs we have started here in this place. AMEN

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. 

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History

Jesus is Risen; He is Risen Indeed!

Given by: 

Philip Davies

Date given: 

27th March 2016





A Reflection on these words and their abiding in our hearts and mind, and in our priorities for our living.

At the beginning of Lent we were thinking about the beginning of Jesus` ministry which finds him for 40 days and nights in a desert, a wilderness landscape. Here we found him contemplating rocks and boulders, the harsh reality of being alone without signs of hope or change; and we thought also of his sitting under a starlit sky like Abraham considering the billions of bright lights in the sky as being like the billions of people all sons and daughters of God.

“What hope for all of these and their planet, now and in the future, he must have thought?”

From that wilderness Jesus sets out for three years when he shows how this hope can be found, by his way of living, by his teaching and by his bringing together all who responded to his message of inclusion, openness of heart to all especially those who were excluded and shown prejudice.

Much of this time he spends near water and water bringing life becomes a sign of people turning away from ways that are selfish, greedy and intolerant and their taking on the faith of Jesus, and through baptism by water identification with the living of the faith of Jesus in perseverance and humilty.

On Palm Sunday, Holy Week begins with the entry of Jesus to Jerusalem by which time he must have known that those opposed to him especially the fearful religious leaders would find a way of working with the Roman governor to have him killed. Jesus` words to the religious leaders who criticise and belittle the joy of his followers were these “I tell you, if they (the people) were silent, the stones would shout out.” And when they hear the parable of the vineyard and the tenants the Pharisees realise all that Jesus stands for is a direct challenge to their hopeless and joyless ways and they wait for their moment to have him killed.

By Maundy Thursday we again find Jesus outside and this time in a garden. The Garden of Gethsemane. In a place where we find him very fearful about what is to come. Although surrounded by his friends he is deeply lonely and troubled, and when he wakes them he says words that are echoed in one of our translations of the Lord`s Prayer, I pray that you may be delivered from the time of trial.

But both Jesus and those who follow him will face the times of trial and for Jesus it will be on Good Friday the unjust trial with the false accusations and fear mongering of the religious leaders, the cruelty of the soldiers of the emperor, the ineffectiveness of the Roman Governor and then the terrible death of crucifixion when and where in the place of the skull he dies. His final words completing his earthly ministry praying forgiveness for those responsible for his killing and he commits his soul to God.

Easter Morning Casper Friedrich


Easter Day gives us another landscape to consider, again the landscape of a garden. And early in the morning perhaps with birds singing, the first light dawning and the freshness of a new day, women come bringing their spices to anoint the body of their dear and greatly loved friend, the man who had shown them the fullness of God`s love and how to show this by their living.


Coming with their feelings and emotions of loss and because of these more attuned to finding comfort in the setting of the garden and with a sense of God`s presence. And we recognise also their devotion continues to be to the one who by his living had changed their lives.




Three women are named in Luke`s Easter day narrative, as being amongst those who come, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and Mary Magdalene. In John`s narrative an encounter is described between Mary and Jesus and the meaning of this passage seems to be that John having started his gospel with the word present in the beginning, now has that word being with the woman in the garden, to show the reconciliation of people with each other and with God, the working together for the sustainability of the planet and the peaceful living together of its peoples that this is the foundation of the new way of living made possible through faith that Jesus is Lord, that he lives, the living Lord.

And in Luke`s Gospel read today, we find these words “Why look for the living among the dead?” Jesus will not be found in the crushing of the innocent and the forgotten by attitudes and actions from intolerance or prejudice; he will be found within the depth and breadth of the widest mutuality of human love and the new covenant of living out the forgiving love of God. The man who to suffering went lives and he goes on ahead for them, for us, and for all.

Is this it? Is this enough? “An idle tale” is how Luke describes the response of the first hearers but as time goes by the message is understood and Peter, John, others and later Thomas share the faith of Mary Magdalene and the other women. Jesus is Lord, the life he lived, the way he showed, the faith he had is now theirs and their lives will be the hands and feet of God in bringing hope to all people that all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

The fullness of God`s love shown by Jesus dwelling within them in their hearts and it lives in all who follow as they did believing that God can make all things new, that Jesus will be the guiding light now and for always and that by living within this light people will be the change that our world needs.

To work together like the vision in Isaiah in the sustaining of the life of our planet, to change economic systems so that all people are fed, to change priorities of the powerful so that people everywhere have access to clean water and proper medical resources and that ways are found where war and terrorism and their consequences become a thing consigned to past history and become words and concepts that future generations will no longer have to use.  

It seems to be a long way off but when we say “He is Risen Indeed; Jesus is Lord” we join with all who seek to make this vision real.

You say Goodbye, and I say Hello

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

31 January 2016





Candlemas 2016


Today we celebrate the feast of Candlemas… the moment when the light of the infant Christ lights up the face of the elderly Simeon, the ancient Anna. And they in turn bless the new child. Old and new brought together. You can read this as some theologians have done as the moment when the Old Testament gives way to the New. You can read this a story about the Body of Christ, the church, as three generations come together in the temple and bless each other. Or you can take a leap of faith as I’m about to do and read it as gospel,  or good news,  for those getting on in years. Simeon and Anna are of a great age and they probably thought their story had ended years earlier. Anna in fact had sort of ceased to be a viable citizen in her community’s eyes decades earlier when her husband had died.  No one will have expected Simeon or Anna, these old wrinklies, to feature in the story of the new born King.

And yet they do feature. And very powerfully so. This bit of Luke has so much resonance that the church has decided to remember it every year at the feast of Candlemas. This week all the year 4 school children in the Prince William catchment area will be put on coaches and taken to St Peter’s, Oundle for the annual Candlemas celebration, where the story of Simeon and Anna will be re-enacted by some of them, and handed down to all. For these children this gospel will perhaps speak of the role of their grand and great grandparents in blessing their lives.

As they get older and become parents, grand and then great grandparents themselves, the story will change again. And the older they get the more prominent will become the most famous verse of this passage, verse 29: ‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word’. I quote this in the King James version, because in this version are these words sung every evening by choirs performing the nunc dimittis in cathedrals and churches throughout the land.

It’s beautiful, the nunc, as it’s affectionately known. But it’s also a momento mori – a reminder that we all must depart this life, and it begs the question, what does it take to depart this life in peace, according to thy word?

For Simeon the answer is quite clear. He can depart in peace, because he has now seen Jesus and recognised Jesus as the light of salvation. He has taken this ordinary looking child in his arms, and seen through the swaddling clothes to the blood stained grave clothes which will soon wrap this same body. He has seen beyond the grave clothes to the defeat of death and inauguration of a new Kingdom, God’s Kingdom, which is the Resurrection.

It’s that faith which now lights up Simeon. It’s the faith that realises that God wasn’t kidding when he told Simeon he wouldn’t die until he’d found this salvation and seen the Messiah. Saying hello to this messiah, Simeon realises he can now say goodbye.

Paintings of this moment abound. The most famous perhaps is Rembrandt’s, which I so enjoyed seeing in the flesh in an exhibition a year or two ago. I remember standing in front of it in the national gallery finding myself humming the tune of the Beatles’ song ‘You say goodbye, and I say hello, hello…’

In the Beatles’ song, goodbyes and hellos are at sizes and sevens. The feast of Candlemas  brings them into congruence. Into peace.

And that in a nutshell is what so much of life, and especially so much of old age is all about. Finding ways to keep saying hello, even as we are having to say goodbye. And finding peace even as we depart.

Anyone lucky enough to live to a great age has to say a lot of goodbyes. You ask my 90 year old mother in law how her Christmas was and at some point in her answer she will tell you that she had cards announcing the death of 4 or 5 of friends and worryingly, no Christmas card from another 4 or 5 who she’d expected to hear from.

Some of you have been to so many funerals, you should be training clergy like me how to do them. You know so much about bereavement you could write the book. Some of you are in the process of saying goodbye to bits of your body, and goodbye to bits of your memory. All of us at some point or another have to say goodbye to the illusion of control over our own destiny.

And that is why you who come to church and are amongst us as you age have so much to teach the rest of us. Even when you can no longer make it to church, your legacy lives on. It’s amazing how much Kath Fenn continues to minister to those who care for her, continues to be talked about despite being housebound now for many years. John Craig who many of you will remember sat in that back pew where his daughter Libby now sits – he was a walking sermon, even when he could barely walk. He once told me that the key to keeping your sense of humour as you aged was to live realistically -- not to stir up desire for the things you could no longer have, for things you could no longer do.  And then with a twinkle in his eye he told a few stories about the benefits of loss. He woke one morning to the sound of water plopping into his back room through a burst pipe. There was absolutely nothing he could physically do, so instead of running round trying to find solutions like he would have when he was younger, he just went into the kitchen and had some breakfast.


A man who’s doesn’t come to church and has never been to community café came in on Friday to meet with me about something. From the top of the steps there by the door, he looked over the café crowd --  pregnant women, mums holding babies, toddlers rushing around chasing Charlie the dog – over to the tables where people of more advanced years sat chatting away. And his eyes lit up and he said, ‘wow – what a big spread of ages. You hardly ever see that anywhere else. ‘

Well Church is the place where you do see it. According to a recent study, in Britain places of worship, and football stadiums are the two places where the generations are most likely to be found together.

At the beginning of life we offer welcome and nurture; Church is a place where we discover and say hello to all the gifts God has given to us. We say hello to his word for our lives. And we try to find how our lives will take their place in God’s story.

At the end of life, Church should be the place where we learn to depart in peace. As we welcome in the next generation, holding and blessing the babies as many of us do at café here on a Friday, we prepare ourselves to depart in peace. If you’re heading towards the end of life, ask yourself what it would look like for you to depart in peace, according to God’s word. What has God’s word to you been and how have you been part of God’s story? Has his word been fulfilled in you? Or is there still unfinished business? Perhaps  you’re still looking for God’s purpose for your life? Your life might be end loaded of course – like Simeon’s or Anna’s – they had to wait right till the end for the revelation, for their bit in the story. But they were expectant, looking into the eyes of the people they met, and looking into the pages of scripture, for that word.

I remember holding my baby daughter in my arms thinking something along the lines of ‘now I can die in peace, because I’ve replicated myself’. That child is now grown and I know I’ve not replicated myself.  The meaning of my life has many more words in it than her name, important as that is. Life is a long journey to find the words of God which are uniquely spoken to each one of us.

I want to live my life so that I can say with Simeon, ‘let your servant depart in peace and according to your word’. Your word has been fulfilled in me. This is God’s promise to each one of us. We can depart in peace, knowing that we’ve fulfilled some, probably not all, of God’s plans and purposes for our lives. As we celebrate Candlemas this year, 2016, let us remember that good goodbyes begin by saying hello and holding out our arms to the Christ child.




Midnight Mass 2015

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 






Midnight Mass 2015 Sermon



In an ordinary British house, on an ordinary street, a young boy and girl while away the long dark hours of December.  The lad is face down into an electronic device. The girl, in contrast, looks out through the window at the moon, and curious, she picks up a telescope to look a bit closer.

And thus begins her odd relationship with an old man on the moon, as told by the 2015 John Lewis Christmas advert.  While the Scandi singer croons ‘you’re half a world away’, the single minded child  tries every which way she can to bridge that gap – paper airplanes, a  message wrapped round a homemade arrow.  All the time holding up that telescope to her eye. Finally, after the successful delivery to the moon of a John Lewis parcel, the old man and the child ‘meet’, as they gaze through their respective telescopes, a tear rolling from his eye; hers lit up with the joy of at last making contact.

Inevitably this heart-warming tale of extra-terrestrial connection has prompted a load of spoofs… themselves testimony to the power of the John Lewis marketing department in shaping our Christmas story these days.

With the blasting off of Major Tim Peake, and the return to cinemas of the beloved Force, there is, inevitably, a Star Wars spoof in which the old man is Darth Vadar, fixing his coordinates on the girl and blowing the earth to smithereens.  And there are a few spoofs which reflect our current obsession with historic abuse, asking why, exactly, is that old man on the moon? Perhaps he has ulterior motives? 

The creatives at Aldi must have been waiting with bated breath for the John Lewis advert to air, so that they could spoof it. Their Christmas ad reminds us that a telescope costing £109.95 at John Lewis, is not so astronomically priced at Aldi.

And I like their focus on the telescope, rather than the old man. Because the real mystery is not so much why the man is on the moon, but rather, how is it that this child can come to see him?

How much does the advert’s telescope really cost?

A telescope so powerful that it will draw your eyes away from the all singing all dancing Ipad, and permit you to glimpse the loneliness of another human being?

Loneliness has recently been identified as a major health risk. Equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or being an alcoholic. It’s worse for your health than obesity or taking no exercise.

And yet it’s a very hidden ‘dis-ease’ and one which is all too easy to overlook.

The John Lewis ad, and others this season, such as the C0-0P’s,  pick up on our growing levels of awareness around an epidemic of loneliness, particularly amongst the elderly.

You may have seen the German ad, doing the rounds on social media which sort of brings down to earth the old man in the moon. In this clip an elderly man eats Christmas dinner alone, year after year, whilst his high flying children pursue their careers around the world. ‘The more I did, the less I cared’ sings the English backing track. So one year the aged gentleman sends cards to his children announcing his death and giving a funeral date. And of course as they receive these cards, his family drop everything and return home. Guilt and grief ridden they tentatively open the door to his flat. And find to their great surprise a festive Christmas table laid with candles flickering.  Grandpa pops his head out from the kitchen and enters, beaming, with a platter of turkey.

Watching clips like these, on one’s ipad, it’s easy to somehow be fooled into thinking that we are making a difference to the epidemic of loneliness out there. We press ‘like’ and feel somehow we’ve made a moral difference.  But of course we’ve done nothing to help. In fact we’ve spent time we might have spent with our lonely neighbours face down in a screen. What will prompt us to pick up a metaphorical telescope and look out to the lonely wherever they are, and then to engage in that vigorous and imaginative activity we see modelled by the heroine of John Lewis?

The story we celebrate tonight is the story of a birth into the world of a light so great, so luminous, that seeing, not just believing, but seeing was changed forever. In cultures which required the old to wander off and die of exposure, and the disabled to be similarly abandoned, into many cultures which refused to really see women or small children as fully human, the Christian story shouted ‘Open your eyes’. See that we are all, each and every last one of us, made in God’s image and precious to God from before birth to beyond death.

The three Kings of the story, often pictured with telescopes in hand, learned to look up, and follow the star to a place where they could throw down their old instruments and gaze close into the face of the Christ child as they knelt before him. The Shepherds, guarding their flocks, looking closely at those sheep, were suddenly asked by a host of angels to turn their eyes to the skies. Looking up, they received a message telling them to hasten to Bethlehem. In one nativity play performed here in recent years, the shepherds, like the little John Lewis girl, rode in on scooters, emphasising the momentum created by the joyous Christian message. The power of the Christmas story to encourage us to change our focus, expand our vision, and motivate us to action which brings us closer together.

What did that baby in Bethlehem, so lit up by the star, and the host of angels, and the love of  bewildered parents and shepherds do when he grew up? He went around healing, most often blind people. And talking about how all of us need to open our eyes.  In his famous story about who enters the kingdom of heaven and who does not – the sheep and the goats—he says that the good have fed, clothed and visited Jesus himself, but the bad have not. And when both sheep and goats ask, ‘but when did we see you and feed, clothe or liberate you?’ Jesus replies, ‘Whenever you did these things to the least of your fellow human beings, you did them to me’. Jesus continually taught that the image of God resides in the most isolated, overlooked human beings. His life and his teaching became a telescope through which, if we pick up and use it, we can learn to focus on others and to bring them close.

We may train our telescopes on the night sky, looking for proof of the divine, as did the first astronauts into space. But if we are looking through the lens of Jesus, we will find when we focus that lens, that we are seeing our neighbour. Even those ‘half a world away’.

Why do we need Jesus? Because we cannot buy that kind of telescope at Aldi or even at John Lewis.  The moral telescope which leads us to try to connect with one another. Some of us, perhaps, have inherited one, and we naturally tune into the lost and lonely. But most of us are more like me watching the ads, or that John Lewis brother slouched on the couch,  head down in our own increasingly screen oriented lives.

If we sometimes feel adrift from humankind, as if our digitally filtered life on this planet has deprived us of the brilliance of the night sky, the smell and companionship of mules and horse, the plain food and physical weariness which has characterised the lives of almost all previous generations, we need more than ever the stories of the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The truth of these stories reminds us of the true elements of life. The realities of body and spirit. Our place in the universe, connected to the sheep, the camels, even to the asses, connected  to the spiritual realities personified by the angels, connected to one another across the barriers of gender, race, class, nationality, all of these connected through Jesus , to God.  The stories of Christmas and Easter tell us there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly palpable to human beings. Half a world away a small baby was born in Bethlehem. His story became a telescope through which we are enabled to look out. To look up. To simply see. And to bring others closer.  Why not hold that gift to your eye this Christmas morning? AMEN



Contemporary Challenges

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

4th October 2015





Pope Francis’ little Fiat in the White House motorcade dramatically expressed the counter-cultural Christian principles he brings to the world’s attention.  He represents the western churches’ recovering confidence in the basic Jesus Way.  It is the proper role of church leaders to assert Christian principles strongly.  We foot-soldiers have to apply the practical consequences, using our individual consciences and our influence in local political processes.      

Arguments about practical application are evident throughout the history of both Bible and Church.  In our Gospel reading about Divorce, set against contemporary Jewish practice of the husband’s unilateral right to end a marriage, Jesus’ starting-point is a plainly-stated principle.  St. Paul [1 Cor. 7:10-16] and St. Matthew [5:32; 19:3-12], extend the discussion in their versions of what Jesus said. Currently, in both the Roman and the Anglican worldwide Communions there are forceful arguments about practical applications of the principle.

The Pope has recently highlighted current challenges, such as Climate Change, Economic Injustice, and Refugees, and asserted relevant Christian principles.  Taking the perplexing challenge of refugees, let’s use today’s Biblical Lessons to highlight a fundamental principle which we should apply.

Today’s OT Lesson is from the Jewish Book of Beginnings, or Genesis [2:18-24]. This collection of writings established the basis of Jewish religion, using merely as vehicles pre-scientific stories told in other communities for the Jews different understanding of humanity’s purposeful relationships with God. Struggling to establish unintended scientific consistency wastes time when we should be grasping Genesis’ life-giving insights.

Genesis insists that the underlying reality of God’s heavenly kingdom is in great shape. It is our job to bring into line what is here on earth, as our Lord’s Prayer reminds us!  Humanity is represented in the Creation stories by Adam and Eve. Each person is individually created, but Genesis describes the co-operative arrangements we individuals must establish – marriage, languages, nationalities, work, etc – to enable us to live individually alongside each other.

In a world dominated by other priorities, Jewish leaders rejected the self-centred focus of neighbouring tribes and their local gods.  Despite some dodgy episodes, the insignificant Jews accepted responsibility for showing other people how to live in the only reality of one God.

The OT is culturally remote from us, but we can absorb its ancient wisdom by following the Jesus tradition.  Our Epistle reading, originally addressed to Jewish Christians, [Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12] puts it succinctly: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways …, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”  The Gospel writers, familiar with the OT, show Jesus as the embodiment of the Jewish God.   Again, it is an individual, Jesus, and his involvement with others, that is significant.

The dominant Biblical principle, therefore, is that each individual, of any race or creed, matters to God and is accountable to God.  Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote: “Calling the Church ‘Catholic’ is a matter of grasping that it teaches the whole truth in a way that involves the whole person and is addressed to the whole of humanity.” Despite this Christian Catholicity, we retreat so readily into the comfort zone of familiar groups – our locality, our nation, our religious sect. Biblical charity may properly begin at home, but it never ends there.

William Tyndale expressed this principle less abstractly in the prologue to his 1526 translation of the NT: “‘Gospel’ is a word that signifies good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, … makes us sing, dance and leap for joy.”  In conversations and donations we, as individuals, can enjoy promoting such tidings but, in this desperate refugee situation, surely this church community can collate our individual efforts into a more effective, collective response.  

The World Council of Churches has asked member churches “for both humanitarian support and advocacy with governments”.  Both the Pope and Archbishop Welby, whilst pressing Governments, are also taking in Syrian refugees.  Where refugees are in Europe already, local churches are providing emergency aid, such as baby bath centres, medical services, water, food and clothing, induction and language courses, in railway stations, camps and transit zones.  What can we do?

If we are to play our part in confronting this and today’s other urgencies wemust think and confer together.  When a university committee faced a financial crisis 100 years ago, all except one member complained how terrible the situation was, but made no practical suggestions. The silent one was Ernest Rutherford, the father of modern physics.  When pressed, he eventually said “We must sit and think”! Remember what Jesus said about assessing the cost before building a tower [Luke 14:28-30].

In our individual thinking, we should first reconnect ourselves to our faith.  Bernard of Clairvaux, a thousand years ago, asked activists: “How long can you give everyone else your attention – but not give yourself any?…  ” 

How sure are we that Jesus was right about the nature of reality? Can we develop habits of useful contemplation about life?  How can our Church better help our thinking? Whom can we ask for guidance and encouragement?  What are fellow-Christians saying and doing?

What alliances can we make? Jesus chose a remarkable assortment of allies. What positive principles can we confidently articulate, to share with each other, and with Jews, Muslims, people of other faiths and none, whose outwardly different traditions often inwardly encourage the same divine principles as our own? The inefficiency of thoughtless religious monopoly is in addition to its false comforts! Birmingham churches are linking with a secular civic organisation to provide a better response to this refugee catastrophe.

Some institutional religious co-operation is already emerging.  The Council of Christians and Jews is currently focussing on the forcible removal of Christians from the faith’s Middle Eastern place of origin.  At the start of the 20th century, roughly 20% of the Middle Eastern population were Christians; today it is around 5%.  In 1987, 1.4M Christians lived in Iraq; now it is only around 300k.   In Syria, around 700k Christian refugees have fled from ISIL.  In the camps surrounding the war zones, around 40% of refugees are Christians.   

The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, has said: “Peace is the ultimate hope of monotheism, with its belief that the world is the product of a single will, not the blind clash of conflicting enemies.”

Many refugees are Muslim.  Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are mono-theists too, sharing our roots in the OT.  There are many Muslims in nearby Peterborough at various stages of integration into English life.  Exploring what unites us through practical responses to human need seems a far better way of reaching mutual and enjoyable understanding than the present cultural stand-off.  As Mrs Merkel has said to those worried about the Islamicisation of Europe: the best answer is to practise the Christian faith!  

We are a small village; perhaps we think we can do very little.  Hear what has happened in an isolated Swedish village less than half the size of Cliffe, and the home of a friend.  There is one small church congregation.  In 2011, the immigration authority placed nine asylum-seeking families there whilst permission to stay was considered.  Most had been city dwellers; all of them were exhausted.  They had temporary accommodation in vacant flats called ’Legoland’, that no one else wanted.   

At a village meeting, the Local Authority representative described the refugees’ needs, such as winter clothing, but also a place to meet.  The congregation created the equivalent of our Friday cafe which, as time has passed, has welcomed families from Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Ukraine.  Some have been returned to their country of origin, others granted permits to stay.  Through all the relief and pain of arriving and leaving, the warm hospitality has continued, both asylum seekers and volunteers discovering the individual in each other.  

During term time retired teachers give the adults informal Swedish language lessons.  There is football training in the village Sports Hall for children over ten and their fathers.  Help is given by a retired farmer, a former Chairman of the Parish Council, using his laptop to process translations of official documents from schools, doctors, lawyers, and the immigration authority.  A pregnant woman was taken by car, with her husband, to a town hospital - where the baby was safely delivered.  On the way home the thankful father, a Muslim, asked to be taken first to the Church, to offer his thanksgiving prayers. 

The team of volunteers has grown; goodwill and generosity in the wider community increases.  Last July there was a party to celebrate four years of hospitality and hard work.  ”We have met people of other faiths and cultures” says the church’s leader, ”we are learning to accept each other, we like each other, ... For us life has become more meaningful.”  

Tyndale was right.  “‘Gospel’ is a word that signifies good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that makes the heart glad, and makes us sing, dance and leap for joy.” As major challenges confront us, what are we waiting for?

How can faith inform our response to the migration crisis?

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

6 September 2015





Trinity 14, Proper 18B

Benefice Service KC 2015


Psalm 146; James 2:1-10; 14-17; Mark 7:24-end


Writing in the Spectator this week the columnist Matthew Paris complains that Christianity is no help at all in his moral dilemma of what to do about the migrant crisis. He wants to know what his duty is in this situation and for whom he is responsible.  Family, friends, community, nation, anyone of any nation photographed by our media, everyone everywhere in need? Where do we stop responding?

I wonder how you’ve responded to the biggest news story of this week, of this summer. What do you think, what do you do when you see pictures of floating bodies, upturned dinghys, and crowds of desperate folk? Did that response change when you saw the small body of Aylan Kurdi? And has your Christian faith informed how you respond, emotionally, politically, practically to the current crisis?

Perhaps your response has been something like mine… At first, as news broke of record numbers of people trafficked across the ocean from Libya to Italy, I felt concern and distress, but very much pushed the problem into the realm of ‘things so big that governments must deal with them’.  And the primary emotion I felt was anger. Why were European leaders so weak and pathetic? And why were Britain’s leaders simply shrugging, noting that we’re not part of Schengen, and sending more armed men to Calais?

If you’re like me you didn’t actually need to see a photo of a drowned toddler to tell you there was a problem.  But the problem seems so overwhelming. When I’ve seriously considered the complexity of trying to save desperate people without encouraging millions more to migrate, I honestly want to put my fingers in my ears and go ‘la la la’; I feel deaf and I feel mute. What can I say, what can I do? The situation is so complicated, and responses that are both wise and compassionate, so hard to come by.

But this week I have had to grapple with Mark Chapter 7, which was assigned to this Sunday about 50 years ago by some big post Vatican II committee of Catholics, then tweaked by a huge committee of Protestants.  Most of the church in Europe, the US and Canada will be preaching on this text today.  That is a rather extraordinary coincidence. And I do think this gospel speaks to the questions Matthew Paris asks -- though he is unlikely to hear my sermon or any others as he’s an atheist who presumably doesn’t attend church. This scripture does offer a uniquely Christian perspective on how to discern our moral duty in extraordinary circumstances.

The reading today features a woman from the precise area now flooded with refugees; the region of Tyre, in modern Lebanon. She is a Syrophoenecian -- the ethnic ancestor of today’s Syrians and she is asking for crumbs from the table. And then there’s the deaf and mute man from Sidon, also in Lebanon. His ears and mouth are closed. Jesus puts his fingers into his ears and says the opposite of ‘la la la la’ He says:  ‘Ephphatha’ -- which translates as ‘be opened’.

Two stories from the region which is so troubled today. And two unusual phrases to guide us as we construct a moral response.

The Syrophoenician woman has the unique honour of being the only person in scripture to ostensibly change Jesus’ mind. Their conversation goes to the very heart of the questions Matthew Paris asks in his column. She is a pagan, a wealthy pagan, and doesn’t fall into the brief which Jesus thinks he has. He has come to minister to the Jews and to the poor. He has travelled to the foreign region of Tyre, it seems, to recover from the ardours of his peripatetic ministry. He’s on holiday, perhaps with dark sunspecs in some kind of disguise. The text says that he did not want anyone to know that he was there. This desperate mother, however, somehow gets wind of his presence, runs and bows at his feet, begging him to deliver her little daughter from an unclean spirit.

The astonishing thing about this story is that Jesus does not react with the compassion we see everywhere else in the gospels. He basically says no, and compares her to a dog. He invokes the idea of scarcity and fairness. It’s not fair to take the children’s food he says and throw it to the dogs.

Now this kind of thinking is completely familiar to me, for I too often refer to scarcity and fairness when considering whether or how to help.  I don’t have enough to go around. If I do this for you, it’s only fair to do for everyone. I can’t make an exception or I’ll be overwhelmed.

Personally I’m relieved as I look at today’s scripture to see that Jesus understands this mentality. Because it’s my mentality. I need to conserve my energies for those I’m called to serve, so if you don’t live within one of my parishes, forget it.

But look says the woman, I’m only asking for crumbs. Every dog lover knows that dogs sit in perpetual hope under a table, and as long as they don’t whine too much, we don’t really mind. The famous prayer of humble access has cast centuries of British Christians as dogs or syrophronecian women.  In this much loved prayer from the Prayer Book which has survived into the modern service we insist that ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy.’

I honestly think that it is this idea of crumbs under the table which meant that all the revisions of the prayer book have kept this prayer since 1662. Because this is an extraordinary idea.

Many in our saturated society will be offended by the idea of getting only the crumbs. They want to tuck into the meat and all the trimmings, a selection of puds. Givers are criticised for offering only the crumbs under their table, when what those in need need is more and more and more.

Yet it is this idea, the crumbs thrown to the dogs, that changes Jesus’ mind and can allow us to consider how we might care for those beyond our immediate community. The fact is that most of us consume our resources as if we have none to spare. We shovel in our food and count out our money carefully, making no mess. Nothing left over for others to use or potentially exploit. We are governed by strict internal logic about scarcity and fairness. And we make no room for grace. We live our lives to the full so that we have no margins of free time, and no extra in the bank.

In the Old Testament, careful laws were laid out to ensure that people left some crumbs for others. Tithing, or giving ten percent of everything you earnt or produced meant that Israelites could not totally consume their own resources. 10 percent is the crumbs from your table. It’s the amount which ensures you are never enslaved to your possessions. There were also rules in the Old Testament about leaving a margin of unharvested crop around the edges of your field, so that the poor could go and glean some food for themselves. My modern version of this is to throw a few cans of food for our food bank into every shopping trolley of food I buy. Crumbs from my table. But crumbs which combined with crumbs from your table and your table are feeding the hungry of Kings Cliffe.

In the prayer of Humble Access we affirm that none of us are worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, yet because of his great mercy we are invited to feed on the body and blood of Jesus. And really we only get a little crumb of food in communion, and perhaps a crumb of comfort or inspiration from a line of a hymn, or a word in a prayer that seems to jump out at us.

But these are powerful crumbs, powerful even for those outside the church, who don’t take part in the feast of the Eucharist.  Our villages have more goodness in them, and everyone’s children grow up with ideas about love and forgiveness and grace which they would never enjoy in a purely secular culture. The crumbs from God’s table cascade down and become seeds of the kingdom of Heaven.

This idea of leaving crumbs for those others who are not feasting at our table is central to the question of how to care for those beyond our inner circle.

But there’s more. Mark’s story gives us another strange phrase to consider – the onomatopoetic word, untranslated – Ephphatha. We don’t know if it was an Aramaic word, or indigenous to the region of Sidon in which Jesus encountered the man who was deaf and mute. But the gospel writer leaves it in the vernacular, rather than translating it into Greek.

It’s important I think to note the detail that Jesus took the man away from his friends and healed him in private. This is a recurring pattern in Jesus’ ministry. He prefers to help people in private and then tells them to keep it quiet. His own life was under constant threat and every time he healed someone he gave his enemies more ammunition. But this quiet goodness has something crucial to say to us today. Jesus took the polar opposite approach to our contemporary obsession with sharing everything we’ve done or ‘liked’ on Facebook or other social media. He did not take his moral cues from internet petitions, public opinion polls or a Twitter feed. He was the very opposite of today’s moralists who surf the waves of public opinion, saying all the right things, rarely doing anything costly.

In this story he puts his fingers into the man’s ears, on his tongue. He looks up to Heaven, and sighs, as if realising the cost of healing this foreign man, and he says ‘Be Opened’. Now can we take this phrase into our moral response to an unprecedented migration of peoples into Europe? I’m not convinced that we can translate Ephphatha to mean no border controls. But it is certainly a rebuke to me when I put my fingers in my ears, metaphorically, and sing ‘la la la la ‘. It’s a command to use my senses to take in the needs of the world, and to speak and act in response. But more importantly, it’s a command to be open to the Spirit of God, so that I can hear and respond to God’s voice.


The Christian message to a world wondering how to respond to any complex issue is this; Let crumbs fall from your table, and then be open to the Spirit’s leading. That means creative, individual responses, rather than a one size fits all formula about how to help. Christianity is frustrating that way. It doesn’t specify an exact amount of time and money to give away –but it does give us guidance in how to find our own response. In this Chapter 7 of Mark’s gospel, we see Jesus leading us towards a sustainable way of being full of mercy. Jesus did not abandon the focus on Israel and go whizzing around the whole world with his message. He did not spend all his time healing and feeding the hungry, which must have been really annoying to those left unhealed and unfed. But Jesus was modelling to us how to live a good life. This included frequent breaks from activity, times of prayer and refreshment, good times with his friends, parties, dinners, fishing. Even foreign holidays.

But always a nature full of mercy, an openness to the world, even to change, and always crumbs under his table.

When you realise that you only have to offer a crumb to the world’s problems, not a full blown 5 course solution, you will be free to allow the spirit to lead you in response. As today’s reading from the epistle of James reminds us, faith without works is dead. But when faith gets working, people really come alive.  Yesterday I noticed an extraordinary thing on my facebook feed. Whereas usually my friends are posting about their holidays and their cats, their special nights out and thoughts on the labour party leadership election, yesterday there was a steady stream of ideas… ideas of how we might respond to the crisis in migration. A woman vicar rejoiced that her ‘Project Paddington’ to send teddy bears to refugee children has suddenly taken off and schools all over the country are pledging support. A Vicar’s 5 year old daughter posted a letter to Justin Welby asking if the church could use their house for refugees when they move out in a few months’ times. A move to offer refugees Air B and B places was online. Another friend posted the idea of offering refuge to healthcare professionals who would pledge 5 years’ service to the NHS. And others were offering their church communities, even their own homes to refugees. There’s a lot of hope out there – hope that we can actually be part of a solution to an overwhelming problem. We may not have all the answers, but our crumbs are valuable. Backed up by dogged determination, we can release the unclean spirits. What would it do for worldwide Christian Muslim relations, so troubled at the moment, if Christians were to lead a European wide effort to welcome Muslim refugees onto our shores and into our church communities?  How might that transform our sense of identity as a nation, and as a European union? In a country struggling to articulate what it is to be British, we could become a people whose nature is always to have mercy. A people whose faith is not dead, but is working proof that the Jesus who met the Syrian woman 2000 years ago, is still responding compassionately to her plight. Think of the hope for the whole world we could inspire if we would commit to an active, intelligent and creative response to the situation we now find ourselves in.  ‘Ephphatha’ Jesus says, I believe, to each of us today. ‘Be opened.’


'What is a Parable?' Mark 4

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

14th June 2015





What is a Parable?

Mark Chapter 4


A parable is like a rugby ball moving across a back line. Someone picks up a little story, runs a little way with it, and passes it out to the side. The next person picks it up, runs, all the while trying to make progress down the field. As it travels it gathers interpretations, it’s been touched by many hands.

So many times in scripture we see Jesus in front of a large crowd, throwing out parables. This 4th Chapter of Mark begins with the one about the sower, and the seeds going on rocky ground, thorny ground and so forth. There’s a little break in the chapter where he calls a scrum and explains to his closest disciples what the story means. Then the ball is back in play and finally we get the two parables read this morning – the growing seed and the mustard seed. The chapter ends by saying that Jesus never spoke to crowds except in parables. That was his game.

That might have been his game, but to us the word ‘parable’ sounds a bit foreign. In fact it is foreign. We don’t have a comparable word in English. Parable is from the Greek para (alongside) and ballo (to throw). Parables are stories thrown alongside our lives. We are encouraged to pick them up, run with them, see where they will take us.

And today it’s my turn to pick up the paraball, and try not to fumble it, or kick it into touch.

Now I have lived and worked in schools for 28 years and have spent a considerable amount of time watching rugby, a game I still don’t completely understand. So I have no idea whether the rugby analogies I’ve  just used make total sense. But I don’t care too much, because that’s kind of the spirit of parables– they don’t hook neatly into any total interpretation or even analogy. They tease us a bit. The idea I think is to get us moving, to invite us into the game… Stories thrown in alongside our lives…. Not stories that tell us exactly what to do.

Which is really hard for those of us looking to the Bible to find all the answers and a complete map of the kingdom of God.

Instead what we find is the encouragement that, even when we can’t see it, something supernatural  is happening. God is on the move, we are in the game, there will be a triumph eventually because  growth is all around us….

But growth is hard to pin down. It happens at different rates and in different ways.  A person plants a seed. How they want it to grow. But can they micromanage that? No they can’t . They can only sleep and rise, sleep and rise, and wait. Low and behold, the seed which they cannot see becomes a seedling. The earth seemingly produces of itself … First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear….It’s a mystery we celebrate in those songs of harvest. Every parent finds out this truth. There are lots of obvious ways we can stunt our children’s growth (as the parable of the sower suggests) but cultivating growth is more mysterious. We watch carefully and occasionally need to water or prune, but the urge to grow and develop – that momentum – is inside each human being just as it is inside each plant. When we apply this insight to the Kingdom of God, as Jesus did, perhaps we conclude that God is the principle of growth towards goodness in the world; our job is to work with God, not to make everything happen out of our own energies.

The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that, furthermore, each kind of seed tells a different kind of story about growth. The mustard seed is absolutely tiny yet grows into a whacking great bush. Interestingly Matthew and Luke when they tell this parable, upgrade the bush into a tree, to fit in better with the fact that Jesus is obviously referring back to the Ezekiel passage which was also read this morning. But whether it becomes a mustard bush, or a noble cedar, each seed can bear some kind of fruit or another and become a place where birds take refuge. In the diversity of the plants around us, and the astonishingly different ways in which they grow, bud, leaf, fruit and provide shelter, we can read a whole host of parables about how human growth takes place.

A local Headmaster (actually my husband) once received a letter from a parent of a lower sixth boy which made precisely this connection.

“It can be frustrating,” this parent wrote, “trying to get through to boys of sixteen, and at times it seems as if they have fallen into a deep sleep (like the princess of the fairy tale), with progress all but invisible and certainly unmeasurable. But it would be wrong to suppose that growth isn’t taking place underneath – I certainly sense this subterranean blossoming in my son, even though he is young for his year and, on the surface, might seem to lack the maturity of his peers.”   “The picture can in fact be downright misleading, as there is little sense of what is taking shape on the level of the soul. The example of the Chinese bamboo plant is perhaps apposite here. Once the seed is planted and the tiny shoot appears above the soil, nothing happens for the next four years, or at least nothing appears to happen. All along, however, the plant has been laying down an extensive root system, so that in the fifth year it can grow up to three feet a day until it reaches ninety feet in height! I like to think my son has laid down an extensive root system which will stand him in good stead once he leaves school. He may even end up imitating the bamboo plant and suddenly reveal himself (hopefully not quite so drastically) in his fifth and final year!.”

We sleep and rise – or as new parents fail to sleep and rise, and we watch the next generation grow. We look at ourselves in the mirror, barely recognising the person who has lived fruitfully for many years, lines on our faces witnessing to the cost and the joy.  (The Psalm this morning you may have noticed promises growth that goes on well into old age: in old age the righteous still bear fruit, they are green and full of sap!)  We sleep and  we rise – this was the ancient Hebrew way of counting times in terms of ‘sleeps’. ‘There was morning and there was evening, intones Genesis 1, ‘and God saw that it was good’. We know now that through those millions of years of creation, things changed incredibly slowly.  But grow and develop they did, into a natural world of the most astonishing beauty. And our job is to try to get out of the way, so that we don’t destroy it.

At the heart of the Kingdom of God is a relentless momentum towards growth. We can trust that if we do not snatch the seed away, put rocks in its way, or overpower it with weeds, it will grow. We can trust the work of God in ourselves, in the natural world and in others. As gardeners in his Kingdom, our job is simply to remove the impediments. And to take heart from the parables being thrown alongside us. Out of the corners of our eyes we see them in the stories told by cedar trees and grains of wheat. Out of the corners of our ears, whispers of encouragement from the Creator.  We do have a job to do in this kingdom  – that plant needs some water, some weeding, that one needs a bit more support. We are promised a great Poldark moment, when we throw off our shirts and begin to scythe. The harvest will finally be ready. The promise fulfilled.

And on that image let us end and say AMEN.