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Midnight Mass 2014

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

24/25 December 2014





Christmas Eve 2014


So this year John Lewis introduces us to wee Sam and Monty the penguin. They are great friends. They build Lego together and play football. Sam drops fish fingers into Monty’s open mouth. But as the advert rolls on we realise that Monty is getting distracted; he watches couples kissing, couples holding hands. Sam, perhaps nudged by the soundtrack, decides that Monty is looking for ‘real love’. With great selflessness, he buys Monty a penguin friend for Christmas. The final shot is of Sam under the tree, with two stuffed animals in his hands – weather-beaten Monty kissing spanking brand new Mabel. Sam’s expression speaks of the sacrifice involved in moving from imaginary to real friendship.  And the whole of this Christmas ad asks, what is friendship?  What is real love?  And of course it all begs the question of what exactly John Lewis has to teach us about love.

Well someone at John Lewis is no doubt paid a minor fortune to ensure that the annual ad captures not only the moral high ground, but also the zeitgeist of the year. And judging by other retailers’ Christmas ads, friendship across various types of divide is much on our minds.

Sainsbury’s too, dramatizes the moment when a relationship changes: when enemies become friends, at least for a moment, at least on Christmas. It is of course exactly 100 years tonight since that extraordinary Christmas truce of 1914 broke out across the front lines, from the North Sea to Switzerland, especially in places where Catholic German soldiers heeded their Pope’s call for a Christmas ceasefire. Ordinary soldiers defied their superiors to rise up out of the trenches, and to find some common ground. Most of these truces featured the Christian burial of the dead who lay all about in no man’s land, the exchange of chocolate and cigarettes, and then a game of football on the cleared land. No matter which football game is reported in letters home, the Germans always seemed to win 3-2.

The Waitrose advert shows a shy young girl entering into an unlikely alliance with a check out lady, as she attempts to perfect the art of gingerbread biscuits… a friendship crossing barriers of race and age. The people in the Aldi ad transcend distance, and express surprise as they sit down to eat with unusual companions.

The major retailers have now taken over the management of Christmas from the churches, but their adverts still try to emulate that line from the carol ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ by expressing the hopes and fears of all the years, or at least of this year in new and inventive ways.

So this year, 2014, what are the adverts telling us? I think they’re telling us that we’re rather anxious about friendship. In our culture where now every relationship is deemed easily sexualised, simple friendship starts to seem impossible. Sam and Monty suggest as much; friendship is somehow childish; growing up involves finding romance; the ad’s momentum moves inexorably towards a John Lewis wedding list for the penguins, and yet the portrayal of friendship between Sam and Monty is so compelling. In a year when UKIP has come to prominence, and the Scots pull away from the rest of the UK, we are understandably anxious about our place in Europe, about friendships forged across national boundaries. The Christmas Truce becomes a memory which inspires not just nostalgia, but also hope a century later – a reminder of all we share with the Germans. At a time when there are growing fears about immigration and terrorism and anxieties about social mobility, relationships crossing ethnic and class division become ever more precious, ever more worthy of celebration. Then there’s the growing experimentation in making friends online. How can technology enable us to cross divisions; what does it mean to have friends we’ve never met, and cannot know for sure are even real?

What is ‘real love’ in 2014? And how is it connected to Christmas?

Last week a 6ft 5 performance artist who looks like Jesus was flown over from California by an advertising agency in need of a publicity stunt. His name was Kevin. He wandered around Oxford St on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. An article in the Sunday Times described the reactions he received. ‘Everyone wanted to touch him’ -- so it took a long time for him to get through the crowds.  Outside Carphone Warehouse a drunk shouted ‘Sweet Jesus’ and fell onto the pavement. The reporter lost Jesus in Selfridge’s Beauty Department (and I’m sure she’s not the first to do so). Fortunately she had the wit to follow a trail of smiling faces and eventually found him in the Louis Vuitton concession where he had been doused with different kinds of perfume, and given eye cream samples. Most people realised this was not the real Jesus, says the reporter, but weirdly many of them reacted to him as people did 2000 years ago to the real historical figure known as Jesus from Nazareth. A woman called Hyacinth, wearing a terrible wig, stands behind him quietly waiting for a hug. ‘It’s not the real Jesus’ she says, ‘but it’s good to have him around’.

Tonight we celebrate what is rather grandly known as ‘the mystery of the incarnation’: this is the central belief and unique message of Christianity. In Jesus, says Christianity, we see God; we see the fullest expression of God possible in human flesh. For centuries BC and AD people have imagined what God or the gods were like. Jesus came along and said, ‘this, This is what God is like’.

And bizarrely he did not take over the government and form something less corrupt. He did not form an army and take over the world, or even liberate Palestine from its Roman occupation. He did not write books.  He did not even start a new religion. That came much later, when his followers were ejected from Judaism. He simply went around making friends. He had an incredible gift for friendship. Everyone, from the rich to the poor, from the crooked to the straight, the distressed and the sorted, men and women, children and elderly folk; they all seemed to like him.( Apart from a few religious people, ironically, who unfortunately had a lot of power.)  Wherever he went Jesus made friends. He had a circle of really close friends, and a wider group of people who travelled with him. He had local groups of friends. According to St John, Jesus said that you might expect God to think of humans as servants or slaves, but I Jesus, I call you friends.  From the moment when Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and pressed him to her bosom, Jesus allowed us to touch him. Later crowds would jostle against him, everyone wanting to reach out and touch him. Women would anoint him with perfume, just as the Magi had, perhaps, many years before.

We have 4 written records of what Jesus was like; the four gospels collected into the Bible. We have centuries of people’s experiences of friendship with Jesus, many of them written down. It’s not easy being friends with someone we can’t see or touch. It’s not scientific. And crazy people can easily imagine all sorts of things about Jesus; that’s why we need to focus on those written accounts of the real Jesus. But it is not impossible to bridge the huge divide between each of us, firmly rooted in a physical body, and someone who is divine, who is spirit. It’s made easier because we know that God took the initiative in bridging that gap – coming out of the trench, so to speak and holding his hands up in surrender as he invites us out into no man’s land to play.

And what experience shows us is that friendship with God facilitates friendship with those other people who are most different to us. People who are really friends with God, who work at closing that gap, tend to take the small differences between human beings in their stride. Research published last week showed that Christian churches are the best place in our culture to find friendships across divisions of social class, ethnicity and age. If you look at any peace initiative anywhere in the world, you will almost always find Christians working to bring people together. Last week President Obama credited Pope Francis for the rapprochement between the US and Cuba: the Pope, he said, ‘Holds out a vision of the world as it could be, urging us not simply to accept the world as it is’.

After the Christmas Truce of 1914, the Generals of every nation ordered their men back into the trenches. They redoubled their efforts to demonise the enemy and apparently in Christmas 1915 British soldiers were replaced at the front line by soldiers from other parts of the Empire who didn’t share a common Christian Christmas culture with the Germans. Today there are very powerful voices, the Generals of our culture, who practically forbid us from reaching out to God. Voices claiming to represent Science or Enlightenment, voices urging us to accept the world as it is, or at best, to shop our way out of it. God is the enemy. Religion is the cause of all wars and evil, they scream. Get back in your trenches. The idea that God could be your friend is ridiculous. Go back into the filth of your trench.

And yet here you are, at midnight on Christmas Eve 2014, flirting with the idea that God has come to earth offering peace and offering friendship. You’ve put down your drinks, stopped eating, stopped watching Christmas tele, you’ve even stopped shopping online, though some of the sales have started. You may tell yourself you’re here because it’s traditional. But actually, these days, what you’re doing is subversive. You’re out of your trenches, encountering something strange and mysterious and different from yourself. You’re singing about the world as it could be. That is what those soldiers did 100 years ago this night. That is what the Christian church is called to do, in every age, in every place. We hold out the vision of what the world could be. We insist that friendship with God is not only possible, it is necessary, if each of us is to know Real Love, and all of us are to live together in peace.






'The mystery of God's wisdom in all its rich variety'

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

3 January





Sermon One: the mystery of God’s wisdom in all its rich variety

One of the big sacrifices for me in becoming a priest is the fact that Christmas is no longer a time when I can go to America. So it’s quite possible that I’ll never again experience the gathering of the clans which characterised all the Christmasses of my childhood.

This year I made another sacrifice and sent my daughter instead. Here is your Christmas present I said to all my relatives, and truly they wanted no other. She is our only begotten child, and in many ways is the expression of all that is best in her parents. Now having had news from her of all the family, and hearing from them how much they enjoyed seeing her, I feel the closest I can to having been there myself.

Her visit I like to think, is a faint echo of the drama played out when God sent his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to be with us on this planet. God sent the best possible physical expression of who he is to the earth. That is the fundamental Christian belief.

And inherent in the drama of Jesus’ life amongst us is the message that God wants to have and develop His relationship with humankind, just as my sending LIvvy to America is an expression of my desire to keep the family ties strong.

Distance, as many of you with families abroad will know, distance leaves space for fantasies to grow up. Millennia of fantasies about God have flourished. God as a pantheon of many gods representing various aspects of human life, or an opposite vision of God as a clockwinder, winding the universe up and then leaving us to get on with it. God as a bearded old man or a warrior in the sky. Distant. Controlling. Maybe even malevolent. Lording it over us, demanding ceaseless worship and obedience.

Jesus of course was none of these things. The picture of God he gives is entirely different. The God that Richard Dawkins disses… that’s a God dismissed by Jesus Christ as well. Because the central overwhelming fact of Jesus, is that God wants a relationship with us. God wants some give and take, some banter, some feasting, some dancing, some deep conversation. God wants some healing, some forgiveness, some overcoming of the wrong that is. God wants some connection, some challenge, some storytelling, some riddles.

Alistair Campbell’s main claim to fame was his memorable claim that Tony Blair’s Labour administration didn’t ‘do God’? Probably he was trying to create distance between his government and the politicians of America who often ‘do God’ in ways many find disturbing.

Well here you are in church, suggesting that you in some sense or other ‘do God’; my guess is that though you tolerate an American priest, you don’t want to ‘do God’ in an overly American way. A good question to ask at the beginning of the New Year, as we reflect on what we’ve celebrated in Christmas is what does  it mean for you to ‘do God’.

Two visions of doing God are given to us in today’s reading. The first is the journey of the Magi. They are wise men. Interested in the big questions. Guys who look up. Who read meaning into the stars. When they see a certain star, they interpret this as an invitation to follow. They end up in Palestine, looking for a newborn King. Herod and his advisors point them towards Bethlehem. You know the story. Eventually they find Jesus, present their gifts, and then, having been warned in a dream, they ‘go home by a different way’.  I love that last line of the scriptural story.

This story is a sort of template for the spiritual life. We look up. We notice something. We follow it. We are surprised by what we find. We bring gifts, make a response. We go home by another route. We’ve been changed.

This story is played out in the lives of wise men and women everywhere. It can be interrupted or derailed at any point. Many people never even look up. Interesting to think about where you are in today’s reading. Have you looked up? Been interested in what you see? Have you set off on a journey? Have you ever asked for directions? Have you found something amazing? Have you presented yourself and your gifts? Are you now travelling home by a different way?

The story of the Magi needn’t be literally true. Because it’s not about Caspar, Bathlazar or Melchior: in fact these aren’t names you’ll find in the Bible. Think about why tradition has wanted to name those original Magi. Perhaps it’s important that they, as figures who embody the Christian journey, have names… Names from across a variety of cultures and classes. Names who each bring a different, but precious and meaningful gift. Our names. Each of us, wise men, and wise women. Although as the tea towel or FB post point out, wise women would have asked for directions earlier, done the washing up and brought gifts Jesus could actually use.

The other template for the spiritual life this morning is St Paul. Who also famously looked up, was blinded by the light, and changed the course of his life. Here in Ephesians he speaks in his typically convoluted way about the nuts and bolts of finding a different way home. His encounter with God convinced him that Jesus was not just for the Jewish people, but for everybody. And  Paul’s mission was to make the Gospel relevant to those who didn’t come from a Jewish background. Who ate pork, kept their foreskins, and didn’t entirely shut down for the duration of the Sabbath. And for his pains, he ended in chains, denounced by the Jewish leaders to their Roman occupiers. Here he writes to the church in Ephesus about the mystery of Christ, about the way in which he seeks to understand where it leads. He is thinking about his mission in life, and also about the mission of the church. And he says in verse 10 that it is through the church that the wisdom of God in its rich variety can be made known. I love this idea. We in this church already exhibit a rich variety as we express who we are. But we also make known the rich variety of God’s wisdom by embodying it in our different ways, in our own spheres of influence. By taking the gift of Christ out to our families, our streets, our workplaces, our friends.

So there’s two kinds of action going on as we ‘do God’.  First we, in our wisdom, bring our gifts, in their rich variety, to Christ. Gold, frankincense, myrrh.  We bring our gold, the unique talents we’ve been given, some of our financial wealth too. We bring our frankincense, a resin used in incense and also in ancient medicine. It symbolises our prayer and desire to help. We bring our myrrh, the oil used to anoint the ill and the dead; our suffering too is something we are encouraged to present to God.

In the second action of the spiritual life, we take away some of the rich variety of God’s wisdom, embodied in Jesus Christ. We pass it on into a new context, as we go home by another way.

And notice… we may feel that in both these things, the bringing of gifts, the taking of gifts away, it is we who do the acting. But in actual fact, we are being led, we are being fed, we only give back to God, that which he has given to us. Paul repeatedly talks about the grace of God, given to him, so that he can give it away to us.

Next week, I’ll talk more about his amazing concept of grace because it’s grace that is at the heart of our relationship with God.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. Those wise Magi, yes they’d worked hard, loading up their camels, going on a long journey, wrapping up those presents… but I suspect in the end they realised it was all grace. The star, the light, the opportunity to travel, the knowledge that God would come as a baby into our world, the sign that we are loved therefore by God, the dream of travelling home by another way. All grace. How do we do God? We put one foot in front of another. And it seems an effort. But when we look back at our footsteps we realise that actually we’ve been carried, as surely as those wise men were carried by camels, and those gifts were carried by kings.




Keep Awake

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

30th November 2014





After travelling for 10 years, the Rosetta robot landed, as planned, on a comet moving at 84,000 mph.  Weather reports flow from 16 quadrillion computer calculations per second [a quadrillion having 15 noughts].  Despite such achievements, potentially devastating global self-destruction threatens, and the shocking death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes emphasises our individual vulnerabilities.

It is Advent Sunday – so what?  Is there a persuasive Christian message of universal hope and security?  A survey of this year’s 10M Advent calendars shows few have Christian messages; some have content unfit to mention.  Our prevailing culture is indifferent, even hostile, to the Christian message. 

This Advent, a Christian communications network is producing some “confrontational chat shows” on radio “involving the Three Wise Men, the Archangel Gabriel, and the donkey that Mary rode to Bethlehem”. A stand-up comedian is also involved.  It will take some exceptionally good jokes to present persuasively the original message of those, iconic stories from another age.      

Outside our Black Friday kind of society, people are choosing to become Christians despite intense persecution.  The Chinese governments since 1947 have done their utmost to eradicate religion.  40 years ago, there were about 1M Christians in China; today there are well over 100M.

In 1980, there were about 500 Iranian Christians; today there are 370,000 - the world’s fastest-growing Church.  300,000 newly-translated Iranian Bibles will be printed over the next three years.  At last month’s launch, the first one was handed to the widow of a scholar murdered in Tehran 20 years ago, a month after he had publicly accepted the task of translation.  What is the attractive message amidst such persecution?

The task of the four Gospel writers was, despite the persecution around them, to record what Jesus had done to attract the first Christians.  These Gospels are still our basic tools and, over the next year, St. Mark’s, the earliest of them, will be our main Sunday source of information about Jesus.  Mark wrote his Gospel in stressful times for Christians.  Many scholars think St. Mark was St. Peter’s interpreter in Rome, and that, after Peter’s and Paul’s executions, he skilfully arranged Peter’s first-hand recollections into his pioneering ‘Gospel’.       

The emperor Nero – who had ordered Christians to be thrown to the dogs – was followed by devastating civil wars, and the Romans demolished Jerusalem utterly following a major Jewish revolt.  Those choosing to follow a Jew who had been crucified by the Romans as a rebel were obvious targets.  Mark wrote to encourage his fellow-Christians to despise the worldly vanities exposed by Jesus, and to face the consequential persecution. 

Mark’s direct focus is on the mysterious reality of what Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’.  To help us internalise that kingdom’s reality, Mark begins by urging us to change our focus from ourselves to this kingdom’s wider perspective, and then uses, as practical illustrations, snapshots of Jesus dealing constructively with all kinds of real people, condemning dull religious legalism and self-righteous idealism alike.  

Mark tells of Jesus’ pointed use of everyday stories to provoke people to see the world differently, rocking pre-conceptions with ideas for which there are no precise descriptions – so that we have to think about the stories again and again.

Mark tells how Jesus helped people whom the powerful edged out of society - the sick, the poor, children, women, immigrants; our current affairs show that this is not an out-of-date list.

He tells how Jesus recognised ordinary people’s potential, calling them by their names, training them in teams, patiently coping with some very trying enthusiasts, but also encouraging them after their failures – all lessons for today’s church.

He tells how Jesus promoted thoughtful prayer, so that we are alert to the right course of action when challenged.  Archbishop Welby is actively encouraging us to do just that.

The snapshots explore deeper themes than we at first realise. Mark’s simple-seeming, rapid snapshots of Jesus as healer and teacher expose us to a reality alarming beyond our normal expectations.  Jesus’ challenges to religious and secular traditions were rejected by many powerful people, and constantly misunderstood by his disciples.  

After the snapshots, Mark shows Jesus steadfastly maintaining the same vision despite being stripped of everything people value.  If we face up to Mark’s factual climax, the crucifixion, the snapshots make sense, and our outlook will be profoundly changed.  

Unlike the cosmic revenge longed for in today’s OT lesson and Psalm, and the OT precedents recognisable to Jewish disciples in the apocalyptic language of today’s Gospel reading, God’s power in the crucified Jesus is not an inflated version of human power.  Mark’s factual Good News, as in the other Gospels, is about its hero’s public execution!  How do we make sense of that? 

Why should we trust Jesus, whose insights have led to his crucifixion, unless the mysterious reality he called ‘Father’ justifies him and we experience resurrection?  Canon White, the Vicar of Baghdad who is directly experiencing such awful times, recently said on Radio 4: “When you have lost everything, only God is left for you”.  Mark’s snapshots should have prepared us for this human being, stripped of security, loyalty, and life itself, as the focus of what is eternally and supremely valuable. 

If we apply what we contemplate in the crucified Jesus to what we see in people around us, we have, because it is so demandingly extreme, the true basis of ethics.  Any person is valuable, irrespective of colour, creed or other human status.  Not for nothing did Jesus tell how the Good Samaritan reacted to a similar sight.  Not for nothing did Jesus, in last week’s Gospel reading of Matthew’s version of today’s reading, declare that what we do for the least of people is what is consistent with God’s kingdom.  The crucifixion is consistent with all of Jesus’ teaching. 

Jesus’ Way is thus the true humanist approach to life!  And Jesus’ promise of life beyond death to the thief dying alongside him, and his own acceptance of death, only make sense if Jesus’ crucifixion is transformed by God in the stark way Mark describes at the end of his Gospel.

The Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, when aged 14, was deposited with his three younger brothers at his grandmother’s house in a poor part of Salford.  His father had disappeared and, shortly afterwards, his mother died from a genetic condition that later took the lives of two of his brothers.  His grandmother’s cheerful acceptance sustained him.  Christians visited his school and inspired him to join them.    

His advice is particularly apposite to our use of Mark’s Gospel:  “People need to be given the space to realise theology is full of mystery to explore. What holds people back from that exploration is fear of getting it wrong. We are always going to get it wrong because we are dealing with things none of us fully understand. …

My grandmother was one of the formative influences for the type of theology I do, because I never want theology to be just a set of ideas; it has to relate back to real lives.”   That describes Mark’s genius precisely.

A Northants vicar recently published his determinedly-honest autobiography.  The theologically-illiterate media milked his account of having been a major pop star, with a life of sex, drugs, a suicide attempt and a false claim of having AIDS to attract attention. What gains little publicity is his description of these as “symptoms of hollowness”.   

He had attended church as a youngster, and he experienced Christians giving devoted care to friends suffering from AIDS.  Searching for meaning, he was pointed by a friend to a Church service.  “I was pierced to the soul …  a shutter was flung open, and light flooded in and I could see.”   He now has a research degree on the Greek text of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and he is host of a weekly Chatshow with 2m listeners.  His autobiography’s title is “Fathomless Riches”

Many other individuals in our own society, as well as in places like Iran and China, are responding to the Good News which Mark explains.  Of 67,000 new Church of England members last year, nearly half were new Christians, and over the past 10 years adult baptisms have increased by 32%.     

As we prepare to welcome Jesus’ advent, as a baby and in mysterious judgement and glory, we must “keep awake”, alert to the reality of God’s Kingdom around us as we think deeply about the Gospel snapshots of Jesus and, in the light of his death especially, face up to challenges that could otherwise diminish us.     

Let us prepare for the Feast of Christmas in the words we sang earlier - “Born thy people to deliver; born a child and yet a king, born to reign in us for ever, now thy gracious kingdom bring”!

Difficult Questions

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

26th October 2014





Matthew 22: 34-46

David Teall

Much of the news in September and October each year is dominated by the Party Conference Season.  One by one the Party Leaders appear on our screens making promises of what they will do to make this country a better place, and one by one the political commentators and the leaders of the other parties do their best to trip them up with difficult questions. 

Challenging others by asking difficult questions is a recurring theme in chapters 21 to 22 of Matthew’s gospel which we have been listening to over the last four weeks.  Following the description of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of Chapter 21, the gospel records several difficult questions, some addressed to Jesus and some by Jesus to others.

In Chapter 21 verse 23 the chief priests and elders asked Jesus: ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’  Jesus dealt with this by a ploy that any politician today would be proud of:  he asked them a question about an unrelated subject that they simply could not answer.

Following this neat deflection Jesus posed a number of difficult questions through his favoured device of telling stories to which his listeners could relate in the parables of the Two Sons, the Wicked Tenants and the Wedding Banquet.  He also fended off a question on tax with that memorable line: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”  When reading these verses I can’t help but wonder how Jeremy Paxman would have coped with Jesus if time had not separated them by 2000 years!

The opening line of today’s Gospel reading refers to the one difficult question in chapter 22 that is not included in the table of Lectionary readings, a complex question about resurrection posed by the Sadducees to Jesus.  The Sadducees were the aristocracy of Judaism who traced their origins back to the family of Zadok, David’s High Priest.  Tom Wright describes them as the ‘let’s keep things as they are party’ who felt threatened by the Pharisees, an unofficial but powerful pressure group of Jewish legal experts who were intent on imposing their very precise interpretation of ‘The Law’ on the whole of Israel.

It is against this background that a group of Pharisees challenged Jesus with the question:  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

So, how difficult a question is that?  How many commandments were there in the Hebrew Bible for Jesus to choose from?  Any offers?

It makes a good Quiz question this as it all depends upon how we define the word ‘commandment.’  If we consider any time that God speaks and says either ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that’ to be a commandment then there really are quite a lot.  Even with this broad definition there are still plenty of debates to be had about what is a commandment and what is not so there is no absolute answer to the question.  However, many Jews consider the answer to be 613 of which 248 are positive (thou shalt) and 365 are negative (thou shalt not).

What we know as the Ten Commandments actually account for 14 of the 613 commandments.  The total comes to 14 rather than 10 because the statement about not worshipping idols includes 4 separate commandments: not to worship other gods, not to make images of them, not to bow down to them and not to serve them.  Similarly, the statement about the Sabbath includes 2 separate commandments: one to keep the Sabbath holy and the other not to work on it.

So, after that little diversion, back to the Gospel reading:  how did Jesus answer the question “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  This time there was no side-stepping: he gave the perfect Jewish answer that not even the Pharisees could question:

‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

We hear these words expressed as a Summary of the Law every week as we prepare to make our confession.  We tend to think of them as the words of Jesus but they are not, for he was quoting from the Hebrew Bible.  The first, or Great Commandment is taken from Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 and the second, sometimes called the Golden Rule, from Leviticus 19: 18.  Taken together they neatly summarise the Ten Commandments each one of which is an example of one of these two commandments put into practice.

The importance of the Great Commandment is in its exclusivity.  We are to worship the one God to the exclusion of all others and we are to worship Him with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and (in Mark) with all our strength.  When this was first written in Deuteronomy there were regular problems caused by the worship of other Gods, often known as Baal, but we should not think that this is just a problem of the past.  To worship something as a God means to allow that thing to rule our lives.  In our modern 21st century lives there are all too many candidates for this type of worship: money, personal possessions, fashion, drugs and alcohol to name but a few.  Not all of these are necessarily evil in themselves for few if any of us here could exist without money or personal possessions at all.  It is only when our love for these things starts to direct our decisions and so rule our lives that we have broken the Great Commandment.

One of the great benefits that comes from recognising and worshipping God as our Father is that it helps us to know and to understand our place in his universe as one of his children.  Without this knowledge there is a danger that we might start to believe that we are masters of the universe and so become arrogant and self-centred.  Or, by contrast, we might look at the vastness of time and space and feel utterly insignificant and unimportant.  By recognising ourselves as one of God’s children, known by name and loved by him, we can avoid both of these pitfalls.  We are all children of the same God, equal in his sight and all with a rightful place here on earth to do his will: no more and no less.

Whereas the importance of the Great Commandment is in its exclusivity, the importance of the Golden Rule is in its inclusivity.  When we are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves, that command includes every one of our fellow human beings regardless of race, colour, creed, nationality or place of residence.  We cannot pick or choose those whom we love for everyone is our neighbour.

The word ‘love’ in both the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule is translated from the Greek word agape, the unconditional, self-sacrificing love that God has for us.  It is with this same love that we are commanded to love both God and our neighbours.  Furthermore, as if the command to love our neighbours with this type of love were not demanding enough, the Golden Rule goes much further for it includes the phrase: ‘as yourself.’

This means that whatever we might wish for ourselves we must wish for our neighbours.  Whatever we value for our own use we must be willing to share.  Whatever we might fight to protect ourselves from we must protect our neighbours from too.

So is any of this possible or is it just a theoretical exercise?  Are human beings ever able to show the agape form of love towards God and towards each other?  The answer is an emphatic Yes and is most clearly demonstrated by the Saints whom we rightly revere and celebrate today / next week.  We can also see demonstrations of agape love at times of disaster when people such as Alan Henning, who would describe themselves as very ordinary, often do quite extraordinary things.  From their actions we know that such love is possible, but what can we do to help ourselves show this sort of love in our everyday lives?

One possible answer can be found in the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians from which we heard this morning:

We had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.  Though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you, not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

“To be as gentle to others as a nurse caring for her own children.”  Can we do that for all our neighbours ... ... ...
or is that too difficult a question?


Words: 1,532

15th Sunday After Trinity Year A

Given by: 

Philip Davies

Date given: 

28th September 2014





As we pause to take on board the complexities of the big underlying issues of Parliament`s decision on Friday for our country to join the air strikes on ISIL in Iraq, we should think about the wider impact of this action and beyond the argument that this is taking place to make life safer on our own streets because that consideration starts with concerns mainly about personal interest and the need to just make only our own lives as secure as possible.

By contrast, in a tribute to the film director Richard Attenborough the play write Trevor Griffiths said of Attenborough, whose films included Gandhi and Cry Freedom, “For him it was about doing what was right and what was needed and this was never initially to do with you, it was always first about the other. The creation, another person, another country or an abstract concept like slavery or racism. You have to do what is necessary and the right thing, and part of that for Attenborough as a storyteller is to tell the truth.”

Jesus was a great storyteller and while 5 of his stories, the Good Samaritan, the Sower and the Seed, the Lost trilogy, the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Sheep and the Goats might be the A List, this autumn our Sunday readings remind us of many others of these unique, challenging stories which seek to tell the truth about the world as it is and about how it could be for the better.

In addition to the stories we also have collections of wisdom sayings that help us in this journey towards truth.

One comes in the passage from Ezekiel and this has not stood the test of time. The prophet critiques the phrase “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children`s teeth are set on edge” which has the message that children can only be what their parents aspire to or wish for. The prophet says of this No No No, life is about learning to take personal and individual responsibility and that the learning of the greater good is the key, so people are not left to dwell on life with a sense of malaise and hopelessness, that we can do nothing to make a real difference. Jesus would say this of the teachers of the law in his day, that they hid behind a continual critique of everyone who tried to do the right thing and just left the people with a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness.

Next week`s Gospel includes a wisdom verse from Psalm 118 which Jesus knew and helped him to teach his followers about how his death would not be the end of their journey towards finding the truth instead only the beginning. Before that we have these provocative parables that begin with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where on seeing a fig tree with no fruit he compares this to the fear inducing, disempowering teaching of the religious leaders. And in our passage today these leaders start on Jesus seeking to undermine where his vision and hope come from. The exchange has a hint of comedy as he returns their question and they are left to say “We don`t know”.

So he tells some stories, some parables.

In the first one two sons, representing all humanity, are asked to sort out the needs of the world. The first, perhaps overwhelmed by the task, says no but goes away, thinks about it and comes up with some plans. The second, perhaps thinking he should do something or like the world leaders this week at their climate change conference expected to do something, says yes and then does nothing about it all. In Jesus time some members of society took the blame for people`s fears and isolation, today rather than tax collectors and prostitutes it might be migrant workers and displaced people. Understanding and recognising the human need of every person was behind the way Jesus sought to show the inclusivity of God`s love and he targets the religious leaders of his day for their lack of humanity and compassion.

And he continues with a second story, even more provocative towards these religious leaders. In it he directly challenges their motives and challenges their negligence and hypocrisy. (“Good as New” translation). And the wisdom verse from the Psalm 118 which resonated so much with the early followers, quoted in Acts and the letter of Peter.

The speaking up and acting for the forgotten, those stigmatised by attitudes of a particular time and those marginalised through poverty, this became the cornerstone for a way of compassion at the heart of Christian discipleship. In recent times Mother Teresa advocating and acting on behalf of the poor, Desmond Tutu on behalf of those prejudiced against through racism and apartheid and now in his 80s he is speaking up for those most affected by climate change. And that cornerstone concept we find visible in the leadership of Gandhi, thinking of his inspirational life and his challenge to each individual to themselves be the change they would want to see in the world.

A website worth a visit is “The Charter for Compassion” built around these words of Gandhi and around the common golden rule of all major faiths to do unto others as you would want them to do to you and so treat others with the concern and kindness you would like them to show towards you.

In the great poem, the hymn of Philippians, it is said of Jesus; “...he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus understood fully what his own journey was about and where it would lead and this is shown in the way his radical message of hope found in his stories provoked those who had the power to take his life.

His followers later understood this too and in their lives were able to show God being at work in them. From the stories Jesus told they understood that it was a radically different way of life that would be needed and Paul gives a voice to this that was true for them and remains at the heart of how as followers today we should be. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, be of the same mind, have the same love, in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interest of others. Letting the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Great Faith

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

17th August 2014





     Abominable violence and desperate misery dominate the world news, and personal disasters attack our self-confidence.  In these circumstances, can the Church’s faith in God’s eternal care revive us from helplessness? 

     A little girl wrote to God, asking “How did you get invented?”  Archbishop Rowan Williams replied: “… I think God might reply a bit like this:- 

‘Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised.  They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was very beautiful, or really mysterious, and wondered where it came from.  They discovered me when they were very, very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.  Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible…’   

And, [he continued], [God] invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions.  …  I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf.”  Quiet thoughtfulness, asking awkward questions, and reading what people wrote when doing their best to communicate experiences of God’s goodness, are a sound way of grounding our lives in reality.

     When political and economic forces were tearing Jewish society apart, Jesus, an intelligent, questioning nobody, but rooted in the OT’s writings, questioned and then explained in simple terms the Law and the Prophets’ descriptions of how God’s community should live.  Jesus’ teaching challenged individuals to question the stupidity of evil, and therefore change from perverse self-centredness to generous support for others.  In so doing, he declared, they would find strength in the eternal realities underlying Jewish faith, and encourage others.   

   Why then did Jesus at first refuse to help the foreign woman in today’s Gospel story [Matth. 15: 21-28]?  A recent BBC programme about Indian railways showed an imitation British town created by the Raj in the beautiful, cool Nilgiri Hills as one of their holiday retreats.  There was even a “Please Keep Off the Grass” sign!  Prioritising our homeland can provide a limited means of escape from the world’s reality, but that was not why Jesus was reluctant to help the foreigner.  Matthew has already described Jesus rejecting such prejudice when Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s servant [8: 5-13].   

   Matthew copied today’s Gospel story from St. Mark’s Gospel, so he regarded it as important in his account of how Jesus - an individual completely devoid of social status or organisational power – became recognised as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets for Jews and Gentiles alike.  Let’s look at the story’s context.  

   Like a competent insurgent general, Jesus had to create a strategy for training trusted helpers, and for persuading people against their selfish instincts and habits.  Jesus had to be realistic about what was possible; concentrating on his fellow-Jews was not only common-sense, but followed OT teaching that Jews were to be an example for others.  

   God’s concern for all people was clearly asserted in the Genesis declaration [1: 27] that “God created humankind in his image”.  Today’s readings from Isaiah [56: 1. 6-8] and Psalm 67, together with other psalms [eg 46, 48, 76, 87] and prophetic teachings [eg Isaiah 2:2-5 and Micah 4:1- 2], also emphasise the importance of Jewish example.  Jesus was, at this stage in his task, still concentrating on persuading, as today’s reading puts it, “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”.   

   Matthew organised his Gospel to show how Jesus had to think through and develop his strategy in stages, each stage followed by a collection of Jesus’ relevant teachings.  The Gospel is not an incoherent lucky-dip!  Our Easter and Pentecost have interrupted Matthew’s time sequence, but we have already covered in this year’s Sunday readings how Jesus began in his home territory, Galilee, and then Matthew collects basic teachings like ‘the Sermon on the Mount’.  Jesus, in the next stage, authoritatively deals with individuals’ needs, and teaches his helpers how to do the same.

   We are now in the middle of Matthew’s next stage - the growth of powerful opposition, and Matthew often emphases that Jesus strategically withdrew whenever his activities might attract the authorities’ attention [eg 4:12; 12:15; 14:13].  In this stage, Jesus’ parables will follow about how, despite rejection, God’s kingdom grows.  Jesus is developing helpers strong enough to stand the heat.  

   Last week’s parabolic story of Peter trying and failing to walk on water in a storm [[14: 22-33] illustrates this.  Jesus told Peter “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”.  Shortly after today’s story Peter, at ‘The Transfiguration’, will recognise Jesus as fulfilling the Law and the Prophets.  Then Jesus will feel able to end the ‘cat and mouse’ game with the authorities, and openly challenge them in their Jerusalem strongholds.  In Matthew’s triumphant Gospel ending, a community of faithful followers, available to make disciples of all nations, has been created.   

   Now, back to today’s reading in the context of Jesus’ strategy.  The paranoid Galilean king has just executed John the Baptist.  Jesus, still avoiding confrontation, has retreated to a non-Jewish region outside Galilee, where he hopes to be unrecognised.  A local woman noisily addresses Jesus as “Lord, Son of David”, recognising what his disciples still haven’t accepted about him, and they are embarrassed. 

   Jesus welcomes the woman’s “great faith”.  According to Matthew, Jesus had said of the Roman centurion: “I have never found anyone in Israel with faith like this”.  Contrast Peter’s “little faith” in last week’s episode.  These are early examples of the strategy’s potential.  The strategy has worked, but in today’s challenging world, individual Christians still need great faith to question what is happening, thinking out a strategy for applying the radical Gospel taught by Jesus, and rejecting the odds-and-ends of institutional clutter that clog the Church’s effectiveness. 

   A couple of weeks ago, Pope Francis visited a Pentecostalist church, and asked forgiveness for previous Roman denunciations of Pentecostalists.  He told them the same Holy Spirit creating unity in the Church was also the source of a “very rich and beautiful diversity within it.  Some”, he said, “will be surprised: ‘The Pope went to visit the Evangelicals?’  But,” said the Pope, “he went to see his brothers.”   

   Every year about 10M adults in England are using services provided by church people.  This is more than half of those using voluntary food banks, lunch clubs, night shelters, relationship courses, financial advice, credit unions, access to the internet, etc.  For example, St. Albans Churches’ social action committee has a telephone help-line open every day and over 200 volunteers helping those who have no one else. 

   The author who researched this said “… it’s not just what churches do, but how churches think and operate, that helps them give something distinctive to their communities.  They do offer material and practical support, but they also offer relationships and social connection, in a word, neighbourliness”.  Such special emphasis on the whole person flows directly from Jesus’ teaching and example.

   Like the woman in today’s story, there are many not denominationally Christian, whose “great faith” stands comparison with Jesus’ approval of hers.  In Galilee today, despite current fighting in Gaza, two Palestinian brothers [Nabeel and Saleem Aboud-Ashkar], well-respected international musicians, coach talented Palestinian and Israeli youngsters at the Nazareth Conservatory, which they founded in 2006.  They, in turn, owe much to an Orchestra previously established by another Palestinian and another Israeli [Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim].

   One brother asserts “how little Arab and Jewish people know about each other,  … The first time I stood in front of Jewish kids, coaching a quartet, it was one of the most unusual moments of my life.  There’s so much separation between the communities here, so little interaction, and so many stereotypes and misconceptions …  Yet after an hour or two, it felt like any other rehearsal.” 

   An Israeli musician [Dan Sagiv] trains 70 Hebrew and Arabic school-teachers to use the same music curriculum.  “I believe,” he says, “with my skills I can change how society looks.  There’s a lot of people doing political discussion, and not enough doing structural work from the bottom.”  These pioneers have questioned apparently overwhelming evil, and then built on their own individual skills to overcome it.

   As we celebrate ‘Communion’ we are not taking part in some arcane cultural rite, but committing ourselves in great faith that God can, by our living in the Jesus way, change ourselves and society.  Quiet thoughtfulness, studying those who did their best to communicate their experiences of God’s goodness, and asking the awkward questions that result, remain the best ways of grounding our lives in eternal realities.  

   Remember the old African proverb: “If you think you’re too small to be significant, you’ve never spent a night in a tent with a mosquito”!


Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

6th July 2014





It is clear that more complex robots will increasingly undertake many activities we humans do.  In a recent experiment, people conversing unknowingly with a computer believed it was human, its responses were so intelligent.  An electronic scientist friend was telling us recently about a robotic drone, programmed to kill an individual identified by its owner as an enemy without further human intervention.  Our friend was so horrified that he had formed an international scientific group to expose and combat this development.  He thought the science was inadequate to cope with the morality involved.   

Being human isn’t just, or even primarily, about being clever.  Inhumane behaviour is often very clever, like the Nazi systems for exterminating Jews.  Wisdom is not limited to measurable facts; the broader and deeper our appreciation of other people, the healthier and more effective our lives will be.

To help us widen our perspective, so that we can overcome our reluctance to do what we know to be right, Paul, in today’s passage from Romans, encourages people to follow Jesus, whose grip on life had been so clear that he had faced out a brutal death.  Jesus focussed his understanding of absolute and universal goodness in the “Father” whose love continually permeates all creation.  In today’s Gospel Jesus, in prayer, refers to his “Father” five times [vv25-30].       

If we believe that Jesus was right in this assessment of reality and we take seriously the Church’s function as his continuing agency, a recent survey of British church attendance makes challenging reading.  It shows a continuing downward slide, slowed only by immigrant Christians and adventurous innovations such as pub and café-churches.  The forecast is dire – down to 8%of the over-15 population by 2025.  If this decline were just a matter of cultural religiosity – the maintenance of habitual rituals, the retention of ancient buildings – it would be regrettable, but not life suppressing.  Because the decline denies Jesus’ realistic insights, it leaves people open to attractive vanities.   

And people are surprisingly ready to worship false gods.  When consumerism fails, spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo often takes its place.  It may be an extreme example, but a woman was recently imprisoned after telling anxious people their problems would be resolved when their money had been used as a spiritual ‘sacrifice’ at a sacred tree in the Amazonian rainforest.  Should the PCC here be worried about organising yesterday’s Gift Day, or do we find the Way promoted by this Jesus agency in this building is not a fraud?

Jesus lived in a small Middle-Eastern country battered for centuries by violent conquests.  The latest conquering foreigners, the Romans, had stayed on, confident that, in the real world, violent imperial authority was their divine destiny.  Their presence provoked some violent opposition, commercial compromises and delusions of national integrity preserved by hollow religiosity.  The recent murders of four Jewish and Palestinian schoolboys is raising similar tensions there to those encountered by Jesus.  Jesus promoted emotional maturity where the unity of humanity in the Father contradicts violence, greed and nominal legal righteousness as means of salvation.    

John the Baptist and Jesus came from another culture which understood reality in terms of the Old Testament’s Wisdom.  When John was having doubts whether Jesus was leading people to this tough understanding of reality, Jesus pointed to the people he had helped, and commented that Wisdom was recognised by her deeds.  When he invited the weary and heavy-laden to “find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy …” [Matthew 11, 29-30], this was not sentimental claptrap at a revivalist meeting, but a challenge to conscious involvement in the universal Father’s goodness which would result in emotional security.

But Jesus’ public appeal had very limited success.  Today’s lesson sheet omits verses where Jesus admonished communities which had not responded to his challenge.  The underlying problem was that people had a very different understanding of reality, promoted by apparently wise, intelligent and successful people. Today’s equivalents are not difficult to spot.  In addition to ‘kick-arse diplomacy’ and consumerist exploitation, excessive wealth and hollow ‘celebrity’, with their individual counterparts, there is an all-pervasive, pseudo-intellectual philosophy based on reductionist ‘science’ which treats people as robots. 

If you walk along Stamford High Street and meet the Big Issue seller, on what robotic, objective intellectual basis do you decide whether or not to buy, and why does St. Paul advise that “God loves to see people give with a smile? [2 Cor. 9,7].  The generous, self-sacrificing Jesus Way, by complete contrast, is very clear.  The Good Samaritan, when he saw the injured traveller, was filled with compassion, not by a clever analysis of the situation.  Indeed, the original Greek says the sight of the injured man knocked his guts sideways!

From now on, our Sunday readings from Matthew’s Gospel will be about Jesus serving people’s personal need, exposing the vanity of reliance on wealth, social status or physical power.  And when people still didn’t understand him, often including the disciples, he determinedly continued the challenge even to his brutal death.  His awareness of the reality of the Father’s love overcame his opponents’ temporary power base.   

Perhaps we are reluctant to meet Jesus’ challenge, or to maintain the discipline involved.  Jesus can seem an impractical idealist, even when we glimpse the truth of his stance.  I read recently about an extrovert entertainer [Merrill Beth Nisker aka Peaches Canadian] from a conservative Jewish-Canadian family.  She was described in the newspaper as a gender-bending electroclash artist famed for her hyper-sexualised lyrics.  [don’t ask – I don’t know either!] 

She describes herself as a born-again Christian, and performs her own solo-version of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.  “I don’t see it” she said “as a religious piece; I see it as a person with a good idea trying to make good with humanity, who gets misinterpreted and crucified.  I’m not into any organised religion, but I am into people being who they really are.  And Jesus was a guy who had a really good idea.  I mean he was a bit crazy, and he went too far… but it’s really interesting, his story.” [Guardian 14:05:14].   She is commendably open about her approval of Jesus, but do her limits reflect ours?    

From his experience of applying his Christian principles in extreme circumstances Nelson Mandela wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, ….” [Long Walk to Freedom]  That is the Jesus Way!

It is almost 50 years since a coal tip slid into the mining village of Aberfan, killing 144 people, 116 of them children in the village primary school, amongst them the second son of the Rev. Kenneth Hayes, the 36-year-old minister of Aberfan Baptist Church.   He soon found out that his son was missing, but he decided his role was not to dig for bodies but to do what he could to comfort others.  He also led the ultimately successful fight to make the Coal Board pay compensation, and against the Government’s miserable insistence that the Disaster Fund should pay the cost of removing other nearby tips.    

On the Sunday following the disaster, his son still unburied, in his sermon he said “as far as I’m concerned we’ve still got two boys.  We’re only separated for a time.”  Thirty years later, in a filmed interview, he spoke about those terrible days and about verses from Romans which had been his text, and which will soon be our Sunday Epistle:  – I am certain that nothing can separate us from the love of God, neither death nor life, …”   That, too, is the Jesus Way!

Who hasn’t heard of Stephen Sutton, who was diagnosed aged 15 with fatal cancer and died in May aged 19.  He said: “I don’t see the point in measuring life in terms of time any more.  I’d rather measure life in terms of making a difference.”   As his mother put it: “while he may have had cancer, cancer did not have him”.  That, too, is the Jesus Way!

When, through our negligence, weakness, or own deliberate fault, we avoid the challenge of Jesus’ yoke, remember the Father’s constant forgiveness and joyous restoration of our humanity which makes the burden light.  When Jesus first made his challenge there was only himself and a small motley crew of other insignificant people.  He, and they, remained faithful to his vision, and others eventually caught up.  So should we.

Dealing with Doubt

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

27th April 2014





Easter 2  John 20: 19-31

David Teall

In my days as a teacher, if you were feeling mischievous and you felt the need to liven things up a little in the staff room, one of the best ways of doing so would be to announce that you thought all teaching next school year in, let us say, Year 6 or Year 7, should be topic based.  The world of education contains within its vaults examples of some extremely effective topic-based teaching schemes and not a few unmitigated disasters.  You will be pleased to know that I am not going to dwell on this subject for too long but I would like to draw from its debate the difference between two distinct approaches to teaching and learning: nibbling round an apple and serving slices of cake.

Nibbling round an apple involves revolving it five or six times biting just a little deeper each time.  By the time you reach the core you have covered the same ground many times, but you have never been asked to bite off more than you can chew.  Serving slices of cake, by contrast, involves dividing the material to be devoured into slices each one of which includes material from every level from the outside to the centre.  To eat the whole cake you only need to go round it once, but some of the slices can look daunting indeed when placed in front of you on a plate.

The truth is, each of these approaches has its advantages and disadvantages.  Some subjects lend themselves more to one approach; some to the other.  What inspires one class may leave another cold and what works for one teacher may not work for another.  Good teachers in good schools learn what works for them and adapt it day by day to suit the children entrusted to their care.  Failure strikes when well-intentioned enthusiasts try to impose what worked in one set of circumstances upon an entirely different scenario.

Much the same applies to our learning about God and developing our Christian faith.  We are all different.  What works for me may not work for you.  Indeed, what works for you or me today may not necessarily work for either of us tomorrow.  What we each need to do is to learn what works for us and have the confidence to know that God will walk with us as we travel the journey, no matter how convoluted our personal path may be.

At this time of year in particular it is important to remember that we do not have to understand and accept and believe everything all in one go.  Some of the concepts we are confronted with at Easter are difficult so we do not need to despair if we find them so.  We do not need to devour the whole slice of cake at one sitting; we can nibble around the apple a little at a time taking as long as we need to reach the centre.  On some issues that may take a lifetime.

For me, our reading from Acts this morning comes very much into this category.  Listen to a couple of phrases from it again:

This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.

And later, in the quote from Psalm 16:

“He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.”

I still struggle with both of these verses, so how do I deal with that?  How do any of us deal with verses in the Bible or aspects of our faith that we find difficult?  Do we hide our doubts lest they somehow betray us as a lesser Christian?  Or do we just ignore the bits that we don’t like and cherry-pick our way through the Bible accepting the bits that we understand and simply disregarding the rest?

Whilst both of these approaches may offer a way out of an immediate problem, neither of them will increase our knowledge or understanding of God.  Like Thomas in our Gospel reading, we need to confront our doubts for, in doing so, we give God the opportunity to reassure us.  There are various ways in which we can do this.  If we are gregarious by nature we can discuss our doubts with others, maybe over coffee after church or by attending a course or by joining one of our Home Groups.  If we don’t feel comfortable in a group situation we can approach a trusted person and discuss the issue on a more personal basis.  And, whoever we are, we can talk to God in prayer taking our lead from Thomas who was never afraid to ask questions of the Lord.  God understands our doubts and frailties so we need never be afraid to lay them before him.

But what if we do all of these things and we still have doubts?  What then?  I would suggest that this is the time to remember that we do not need to devour the whole slice of cake at one sitting; we can nibble around the apple a little at a time taking as long as we need to reach the centre.  Furthermore, if the going gets tough, we can turn the apple around and nibble at it from the opposite direction.  This is an approach I have personally found helpful in dealing with doubts about the resurrection.  Rather than dwell on the account of the resurrection in the Bible
I start with the here and now:  I know for certain that Jesus Christ is alive today because I have a relationship with him.  If he is alive today something very special must have happened after his death on the cross to make that possible.  I don’t need to understand the precise details of what that was: it is the reality of his presence in my life that is important.

If our doubts persist we need to find a way to set them aside for a while, not, I would like to suggest, by placing them in a box labelled Impossible or Ignore but in one labelled In God’s care.  Over the years, as we continue to pray and nibble around the apple, new insights will hopefully enable us to remove previous doubts from God’s care and place them firmly in the box we label as our Faith.  As Paul put it in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.


Words: 1,098

A Prelude to Holy Week and Easter

Given by: 

Philip Davies

Date given: 

6th April 2014





Lent 5 Year A

What will you be celebrating on Easter Day? And why? I think the gospel passage this morning takes us a long way in finding an answer to these questions. It is an extraordinary account for many reasons. Most of all because at the centre is the bringing back from the dead a man who has been in his burial tomb for 4 days. There is probably no rational explanation unless he was buried by mistake but even if an explanation could be found it is the meaning of what goes on here that we are most of all left to consider. This passage coming just before Jesus` arrival in Jerusalem, part of the narrative unique to John`s Gospel which focuses on the intimacy of Jesus` relationship with his friends and the dialogues when he talks about them and all his followers dwelling and being bound together with a strength of love not to be found anywhere else.

We actually know very little of Lazarus, more about his two sisters, Mary and Martha. I think this is significant because much of the account is about them and written from their perspective. We can speculate about Lazarus` death which appears to have been sudden and he seems the sort of person who lived a bit on the edge of things perhaps he was disabled or had a mental illness. Most of those who Jesus restored to acceptance by a community began on the edge, like the man blind from birth. Each account contains the element of exclusion by the majority of people`s attitudes and prejudices and backed up by the legalistic blame culture fuelled by some of the religious leaders. I think Lazarus bound in his tomb could represent others similarly bound by the intolerance and fear that take hold in cultures where difference and diversity is not valued. The people who have stood by him and continue to do so are his sisters.

We find quite a lot in the gospels about these 2 women. The scene where Jesus has a meal at their home and Martha is too driven in trying to get everything just right that she does not have time to enjoy the company of Jesus. The same Martha who in today`s reading testifies, and she is one of the first to do so, that for her Jesus is God`s Son, the Messiah. Then there is the later story of Mary covering Jesus feet with expensive perfume and drying his feet with her hair; she is the one person who seems to comprehend that Jesus is moving towards his death. And it will be women who stay close to Jesus on his journey to the cross and in John`s Gospel  we have another Mary, Mary Magdelene who is the first person to meet the risen Jesus in the garden.

For Mary and Martha the death of their much loved brother was a tragedy. The emotions of their grieving described in the passage are clear, there is anger that Jesus did not come earlier, there is the weeping including by Jesus and though there is an acknowledgement that the teachings of their faith tradition gave hope of a resurrection at the end of time, it is the reality and finality of loss, and of being overwhelmed by it, that make the now a desperate time for those closest to Lazarus.

Let`s remember also that women in particular in first century Palestine were left very vulnerable by the loss of a close male relative and not just financially. Culturally women were usually excluded from playing a full part in the community but in Mary and Martha we find two people who constantly challenge this second class perception of women. They are determined that their lives should not be defined only by the circumstances of their brother`s death and its impact on them and others. Probably it is this that is the most striking thing within the whole account that it is they, Mary and Martha, who come from the story unbound; they who find a way to live again and they who find courage and strength and show to others goodness and love.

Jesus tells a parable shortly afterwards about a grain of wheat first dying in the ground so that fuller life can emerge and this gives a picture of what I think goes on for Mary and Martha. The grieving sisters brought back to fullness of life through the unbinding of the memory of who Lazarus was; and I think we can leave open a suggestion that one meaning of the passage is that it will be the memory of the life he had, probably one in which he faced many challenges, that will holds firm for them in the future, rather than the impact of his death.

60 years or more years after the days of the two sisters and Lazarus, this passage is placed by the Gospel writer as a prelude to the death and resurrection of Jesus. There must have been a massive impact on others in the future with this remembrance of  the two women who had experienced and lived with close family loss and who also partly through this came closer than anyone else to understanding who Jesus is, what is life was for and what his death and resurrection will mean.

So in the end I think the passage is placed here because the Gospel writer wants to help us understand more about the death of Jesus and the tragedy this was for those who loved him most. And then also to show how the followers were unbound by the resurrection and then able to live and grow together in love as they lived as Jesus` risen body, the community of the church. As people living in a world of pain and as people showing Jesus` compassionate love for all.

For us as that community today, this raises great and big challenges. It asks of the church to prioritise its work alongside the grieving, the dying, those who live with mental illness and in being alongside all those who society finds most difficult to integrate and include.

It also asks us to question the values of consumerism that make people want something because someone else has it and has given a value to it. The different way is to consider how Jesus defined value and gave value to human need and human loss. Giving value to lives not defined by the aspiration of wanting money and possessions but built around the accepting, inclusive and releasing love that Jesus showed. At its centre the willingness to put others first, a recognition that sometimes sacrifice is needed and most of all as was seen with Mary and Martha to be with another person in helping and supporting them to begin to live fully again however raw and fragile emotions are and however long the journey ahead may be.

Come change our love from a spark to a flame

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

23rd March 2014





David Teall

In September 1972 I started my new job as Head of Biology at King’s School, Peterborough.  For a while I commuted from Stamford but, the following year, Pat and I moved into our newly-purchased property in Huntley Grove, about a hundred yards away from the back door to the science labs at King’s.  The house needed a lot of work to turn it into our vision for a home which we couldn’t afford to have done, but were confident that we could do ourselves.  So it was that, on the day we received the keys at about 4 o’clock one afternoon, we set about pulling down an old lath and plaster partition wall to enlarge the kitchen.  We were soon completely absorbed in what we were doing for it was something that we had planned for what felt a very long time.  Eventually, when the wall was down and we had swept out the room, we decided to have a bonfire in our back garden and burn the old laths.  Being thin and very dry they burnt a treat with flames climbing high into the night sky.  The fire seemed a fitting finale to our evening of work.  Then, to our surprise and horror, we found ourselves confronted by a very angry neighbour who was not in the least impressed by our fire.  “What sort of time do you call this to have a bonfire?” he yelled.  We looked at each other with not the slightest idea of the time between us.  “About 10 o’clock” I replied hesitantly.  “10 o’clock! You must be joking!” retorted the neighbour.  “It’s 2 o’clock in the morning!”  We hastily snuffed out what remained of the fire, made profuse apologies and drove back to Stamford reflecting upon our first evening in our new home and how we had managed to keep going until 2.00am without our evening meal and without noticing just how late it had become.

Some 35 years later I found myself engaged in another first, though this was in the morning, not the evening.  It was the 24th February 2008 and I was here at this lectern delivering my very first sermon.  Many of you were here.  Easter was at its very earliest that year and it is at almost its latest this year, so then as now, it was the Third Sunday of Lent and the Gospel reading was John’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  A brief two sentence reminder then, of what I had to say then:

There are several gems within the conversation which I could expand upon but they are all eclipsed by what is arguably the most dramatic scene described in the New Testament:

Jesus volunteers the information that he is the Messiah:   ‘I am he,’  he said  ‘the one who is speaking to you.’

For me, that remains the most important sentence in the reading. but it was only the beginning of a remarkable story.  Immediately after Jesus had made this revelation the disciples returned and his conversation with the Samaritan woman ended.  Its repercussions, however, were only just beginning.  The woman rushed back into town, so enthralled by her conversation with Jesus that she forgot the original purpose of her journey and left her water jar by the well.  When she arrived she told the people about her encounter with the Messiah and persuaded them to go out to the well to meet him themselves.

What an amazing transformation!  Here was a woman who was ostracised by her own people because of her immoral way of life.  So afraid of their taunts she had come out to the well in the heat of the day, rather than the cool of morning or evening, just to avoid making contact with them.  Now, here she was, rushing back into the town to address them and tell them of her encounter at the well.  Jesus had chosen to reveal that he was the Messiah, not to his Jewish friends, the disciples, but to a Samaritan woman.  She, in response, had become the first Evangelist, spreading the word of Jesus to all whom she met.

The Samaritan woman was not the only one who was deeply affected by the encounter:  Jesus too was excited.  As the towns’ people came out to see him his disciples urged him to eat, but he would not.  He knew that his mission was to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God to all people, not just to the Jews. He had spent 30 years preparing for this moment, and now it was happening.  Of course he was excited, so excited in fact that he stayed in the town for two days to continue his conversations and, as John tells us, “because of his words many more became believers.”

Two days, of course, is a long time.  Talk for much more than 10 minutes here at the Lectern and you can guarantee at least one person will be taking a sneaky look at their watch!  What on earth did Jesus talk about for two days?  John does not tell us, but he does tell us the result:  “Now that we have heard for ourselves,” the Samaritans said, “we know that this man really is the Saviour of the World.”

The Title “Saviour of the World” would have been well known to the Samaritans for it was claimed by the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus for himself.  Now, after two days in the company of this itinerant Jewish preacher who had first appeared in their midst begging for water from a woman of ill repute, they were ready to proclaim him as the Messiah, the true Saviour of the World.  Not just the Saviour of the Jews, but the Saviour of the World including, of course, the Samaritans, and you, and me.

In contemplating the enormity of this it is interesting to note that the Samaritans were expecting a teaching Messiah, like a second Moses, rather than the Jewish hope of a conquering Messiah, like a second David.  Perhaps that helped them to recognise and accept Jesus as their Saviour.

Week by week, as we come to church, we hear the words of Jesus that were recorded by the Gospel writers specifically to enable future generations to hear what had excited them so much.  We hear them, yes, but are we excited by them?  Do they have such an impact upon us that we forget what we had planned and rush off after the service to repeat them to our family, friends and neighbours like the Samaritan woman?  Are we ever so excited by the prospect of building the Kingdom of God that we cannot eat because we feel compelled to continue the work, just as Jesus did after his encounter at the well?

We Brits are not terribly good at being excited are we?  Apart from certain sporting events and the occasional pop concert we prefer to keep our emotions under wraps.  I recall a swimming gala at the all-girls school where I taught in Sussex when the Headmistress stopped the proceedings to admonish the girls for cheering and whistling which she considered unladylike.  “You may clap” she conceded, “and you may say Hurrah – once.”

The message of today’s Gospel reading is clear.  We should be excited about the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We need to stop hiding the light of Christ under a bushel or a dirty old bucket and stop being apologetic about our faith.  In the words of our Gradual hymn, we need to change our love for Christ and for one another from a spark to a flame.  And if that flame leaps up so high that our neighbours can see it from the next street then let us say Hurrah for that – but only once, of course!

Note:  The Gradual Hymn was Beauty for brokenness by Graham Kendrick which includes the chorus:

God of the poor,
Friend of the weak,
Give us compassion we pray,
Melt our cold hearts,
Let tears fall like rain.
Come, change our love
From a spark to a flame.