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Sunday 6th June 2021

The Inside Out Family: Mark 3.20-35

Please forgive me, but I have decided not to preach today on one of the thorny issues in our gospel reading, such as who or what is Beelzebub – or what might or might not be the ‘unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit’! Instead, I will focus on a theme that is probably much more on our thoughts and can be as equally challenging: our families.

I wonder what words or phrases come to mind when you think of the word ‘family’?
It might be words like supportive, loving, caring – or words like demanding, distant, or abusive. We each have such unique experiences of family life that it can be difficult to imagine ourselves in a very different family situation, particularly one of many hundreds of years ago. But today I would like us to both look back at the family in Jesus’ time and look forward to our church family and community in the future.

I have had the privilege over the last few years of working with several hundred people from our global family of United Bible Societies on how we communicate effectively across cultures. As in any family, we find that misunderstandings can quickly break apart healthy relationships. We use a tool called ‘the colours of worldview’ to explore how we each have different perspectives on life that colour everything from decision making to how we view relationships and family. One of these worldviews has been in existence for hundreds of years and was particularly strong amongst families in Jesus’ time: the worldview of honour and shame.

Let’s look at the first few verses of the Bible reading to see how this comes into play.
‘Then Jesus went home. Again, such a large crowd gathered that Jesus and his disciples had no time to eat. When his family heard about it, they set out to take charge of him, because people were saying, “He’s gone mad!”’
What has driven Jesus’ family to travel thirty miles from Nazareth to Capernaum to stop Jesus? And the phrase ‘taking charge of him’ is vastly underplaying it. It’s the same word used here as when Jesus and John the Baptist were arrested. So why travel so far to restrain and arrest Jesus?

To understand this better, we need to imagine ourselves into the worldview or mindset of these first century people. In those days, family was everything. A person’s identity was valued by their standing within their family, and whether they had brought honour or shame to it. And it wasn’t the nuclear family we think of today, but an extended one with cousins and uncles and aunts. Often nowadays people define us by what job we do, our salary or even what football team we support. In Jesus’ time the answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ would be ‘I’m the third son of …in the lineage of …’ Some of you may have experienced this worldview in your own family or in other cultures.
There was also a clear distinction between who was inside and who was outside the family. This is one reason why there is such a strong urging in the Bible of the need to support orphans and widows, as they had no family support to rely on.

In this Bible passage, Jesus’ family is worried that he will bring dishonour to them by being called mad, or even worse, possessed by spirits. By association, his loss of honour will do lasting damage not only to him but to his whole family.  And if Joseph is no longer alive, which seems likely from his absence in Jesus’ later years, then Jesus would be the head of this family unit. His actions will bring honour or dishonour on the whole family.

At the end of the passage we hear that Jesus’ closer family of his mother and brothers have arrived too. They don’t go in and confront him, because they don’t want to shame the family in front of others, but they want to call him outside to take him away.

Jesus’ response is remarkable:  A crowd was sitting around Jesus, and they said to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, and they want you.”
Jesus answered, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”  He looked at the people sitting around him and said, “Look! Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does what God wants is my brother, my sister, my mother.”

From Jesus’ subsequent actions, particularly his care for his mother even as he lay dying on the cross, it’s evident he wasn’t disassociating himself from his blood family. But Jesus’ words are radical in the way that they are breaking apart the old way of being family and reshaping it anew. It’s no longer what family you are born into that matters. Your status isn’t built on your blood relatives, but on doing what God wants, the will of God. Being part of God’s family is not limited any longer. It is open to all, to everyone to be part of it.

Recently, Claire asked us what words best describe the kind of church family we are and the kind of church family we wish to be. Some of the people in our church Facebook group responded by using words and phrases like: ‘your loving church family’, ‘embracing, connecting, accepting’, ‘love, warmth, caring for each other and for the environment’
These are all great descriptions of how we view our church family and what we want it to be. But I want to look at this from a different angle and ask instead, how can we enable these all to develop within our church and how can we welcome people into our family?

I’d like to return if I may to the intercultural programme I mentioned earlier and share one of the tools we use. It’s a simple way to help us reflect on how we communicate with people who might have a different worldview and background to our own. It’s called the ‘triple A’.

Where it all needs to start is with the word: Awareness. In our programme we talk about how we are all intercultural learners. It all begins by being aware of the different worldviews people have and valuing this diversity. It’s also an awareness that people might be looking for something very different from our church family. In our Bible reading, we heard about those who had a narrow worldview and mindset. They found Jesus’ message disturbing and uncomfortable. It challenged their worldview of what family meant. How can we develop this awareness, to learn and value the difference of others as we encounter them in our community and in our church family?
The second word is Acceptance – an acceptance of the other person as they are and not expect them to have the same worldview as ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them. It’s about understanding and accepting this difference. Churches over the centuries have tried so hard to be welcoming of others, but at the same time so often shoot themselves in the foot in the process. They often use rules that exclude many people, in an attempt to define who is inside and who is outside our church family. You may be able to think of a number you’ve encountered yourselves in churches. Here are a few quick examples of recent church bylaws, which illustrate this, (but thankfully I don’t think are in our own rules and regulations!):

‘An active church member is defined as one who gives at least one penny a year.’

‘Men serving communion are required to wear a coat and tie.’

‘No church member can drink alcohol except during the Lord’s Supper.’

But it’s often the unwritten rules or habits we create that can prevent people feeling accepted and part of God’s family. What might these be in our own church, or in our own attitudes to what we expect of people, if they are to be part of our family?

In our Bible reading, Jesus says that whoever does God’s will is his brother and sister and mother. And what this ‘doing the will of God’ is, remains a little mysterious. Jesus perhaps deliberately does not go into great details here. If we are to take its broadest meaning, of doing what pleases God, then it’s something we frequently encounter in the people around us, in their care for each other and our environment. We can celebrate and learn so much from how God is already at work in our community in ways that might surprise us.
The third word is a more unusual one and perhaps may be the most challenging. It’s the word Adaptability. When we encounter people who are different to us, they can often challenge our assumptions, our beliefs, our opinions and so much more. It can be uncomfortable to reflect on how we might need to adapt and change too.
Claire recently wrote a reflection for Pentecost for us in our church newsletter, referring to a book called ‘Being interrupted: reimagining the church’s mission from the outside, in.
It’s a challenging read to say the least! It looks at how it’s often through interruptions to our usual routines that we encounter God at work in our church and community.

Jesus’ own life was one of constantly being interrupted by people demanding to be fed, to be healed, or in today’s reading to be challenged about what it means to be part of God’s family. And the amazing thing is that it’s often through these interruptions that we discover so much about God at work. In today’s case the interruptions lead Jesus to challenge the idea of who is inside or outside God’s family.

It made me stop and think about how willing I would be to see this happen in our church, and I found that a very challenging thought. How much should we allow our own church routines and life to be interrupted by others? How adaptable are we to allowing the gifts and hospitality of those outside the church family to shape us in the future?

As we pray and consider our next steps as a church, what we stand for, what our mission and our life might be, I pray that we might continue to develop this sense of awareness, acceptance and adaptability so our church family would be a place of open welcome. In the words of the first hymn that we sang or heard today:

You are welcome here, come as you are.
You are welcome here, with open arms.
Bring your burdens, bring your pain,
Bring your sorrow and shame,
You are welcome here, come as you are.



Hamish Bruce                                                                                                             06/06/21


The resurrection that no one can stop

Acts 4: 5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

(Plus John 10:11-18)

I’m continuing to ask, as I asked on Easter Day, what is the Good News for us this morning?

So this is what we’re considering this morning. First, the fact of the resurrection: it’s happened – it’s OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Second: some people are going to come up against it. Third: What happens today when that righteous power that raised Jesus from the dead, meets injustice? Fourth: What is the challenge for us who live 2000 years after the resurrection? And Finally: What is the Good News for us?

Today we continue in Acts and we see Peter and John brought before the religious authorities after encountering a man who couldn’t walk, begging at one of the entrances to the temple. It’s always awkward to see somebody begging so close to a religious building. It makes us feel bad. One can hardly ignore it. It makes me recall a time when Chris and I were in Chartres Cathedral on Easter Morning. On the way into the cathedral, just at the door, there was a man begging and taken by surprise, I filed pas like everyone else, and did nothing.

But it played on my mind, and as we went out, overcoming my inward battle, I parted with the large slice of home-made pizza we had bought at the nearest boulangerie before the service had started.

Peter and John do something a whole lot more useful though. “Silver and gold I have none, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk!” At once the man’s feet and ankles are made strong; he jumps up and begins to walk. He enters the Temple we are told: ‘walking and leaping and praising God’. As a healed man he can now take part in Temple worship; he can get a job and make his way in the world. His begging days are over.

The power of the resurrection coupled with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the believers is OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. That’s the picture we see here this morning. It’s like something’s been let out of the bag and it cannot be put back in again.

The healing of the crippled man is the very next thing recorded after Pentecost. So, the resurrection life – the life of the Spirit is OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. But some will try, and this is what we see in the reading from Acts.

Peter and John heal, in the name of Jesus, the man at the Beautiful Gate. When the people hear what’s happened, they run towards the scene utterly astonished, and Peter gives an impromptu sermon. At this moment, the priests, the captain of the Temple and the Sadducees come out ‘much annoyed’ (for this, read ‘steaming with fury’). They’re annoyed because of two things: Peter’s teaching the people and claiming that in Jesus there is resurrection. Not just Jesus’ resurrection but the possibility of resurrection for all.

So the religious authorities react in the way that people of power do when they’re threatened, which is: to use force and try and put the lid on it. They arrest Peter and John and put them in jail overnight. Meanwhile, the number of those that come to faith as a result of Peter’s sermon, is 5000. The following morning the prisoners are made to stand in front of the ruling elite, who enquire how they have done this healing. And we are talking about The Elite of the Jewish religion. We hear a lot about elites these days. Elites do whatever they want, with minimal regard for the consequences on ordinary people.

Many harmful readings of this episode in Acts have led to condemnation of the Jews as a people – but the New Testament shows that it is the powerful Elite, who claim to know God, whom Jesus stood against and who now stand against his followers. This is about a power struggle and about the powerful Elite sensing that something greater than them is afoot. It is difficult not to call to mind here the verdict against Derek Chauvin, the police officer who this week was charged with the murder of George Floyd, a black man who was arrested and forcefully pinned down until he literally expired.

Which leads us onto a question for today. What happens when the righteous power of the resurrection is out there, and no one can stop it, and that power encounters injustice? The short answer is: conflict. Nick Page, in his book Kingdom Fools, about the unlikely rise of the early church, says that ‘the resurrection is a political message. The early church preached resurrection. That is what Peter and John are saying to the temple powers: the man you killed came back from the dead’ (p.32).

The Roman Empire was built on the premise that if you dissented, you were got rid of. Some societies work like that still today – we know who they are; we often mention the people who live in societies like that in our prayers. But here are two disciples of Jesus, who are not theologically educated, preaching to rapt crowds and performing an astonishing sign, like the ones performed by Jesus. And it is seen as a direct challenge to the Elite.

The verdict against the police officer who killed George Floyd is a landmark moment. What was going on when the largely black crowds gathered outside the courtroom heard the verdict of guilty? They couldn’t help shouting and pumping the air because although the power of God is OUT THERE, the struggle against injustice is slow and often feels brutal. With regards to racism, the struggle is particularly highlighted at the moment. The world is crying out for justice.

This is where a lot of us might begin to squirm, because the Church of England has put its own hand up this week and the Archbishop of Canterbury has said the Church is ‘deeply institutionally racist’. Some of you will have watched the Panorama programme on Monday about this and heard the stories of Black and Ethnic minority priests in the Church of England and some of their depressing experiences. And this at the same time as a Government appointed commission has reported that the UK doesn’t have any institutionalised racism, apparently. I’ll leave you to decide what’s going on there.

The scenes of jubilation outside the courtroom where Derek Chauvin was convicted were not about glee at his suffering, but about a sense that justice had been done, and against the odds. The Black community is used to justice not being done, because the system has often let them down. I was caught up in those scenes of joy because justice is at the heart of God, and the resurrection declares that Jesus is Lord, and Lord over unjust white privilege and violence. To say Jesus is Lord, even Lord over death, is to say Jesus Christ has ultimate authority, not anyone or anything else. And that changes everything.

So, what are the challenges for us who live 2000 years after this initial release of resurrection power? I think we have to be honest and say that while the healing of the crippled man is an exciting story, normally we don’t see this kind of miraculous healing in our situations today. Perhaps we should be more expectant. Maybe our lack of expectancy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, it is more complex than that in the West. If we think of that first resurrection power spilling out and the transforming effect it had on the first century society we read about in Acts, we can trace a direct line to the kind of Christ-inspired works of charity, mercy and healing that most people now take for granted as being the hallmarks of civilised society. Universal education, healthcare and end of life care flow directly from the ongoing impulse to heal and save that Christ event propelled into the world, and which eventually flowed out of the monasteries and abbeys of Christian Europe into mainstream society.

In addition, in the 21st C we are rightly cautious about how we proclaim Christ as Lord because we need to find to ways to live in peace with our neighbours of other faiths. The kind of Christianity that aggressively defends orthodoxy, whilst dallying with unchecked temporal power led us at one point into the Crusades. Today the Far Right want to appropriate the English flag of St George to nationalistic ends that have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. So we might want to ask ourselves in this context, what does proclamation of the good news look like in a multi-faith society and how do we sit with the verse in Acts that declares ‘there is no other name under heaven, given among mortals by which we must be saved’?

So we have these challenges: we’re a long way historically from the resurrection and things are complicated because Christendom got tangled up with white privilege. In addition, we already have a sophisticated healthcare system and are unused to instant miraculous healing. And finally, although we want to affirm that Jesus is ‘the only name’, we are also called to humility in a multifaith setting.

So, if this miraculous healing feels like a long way off, what, then, is the good news? The Good News is that it’s still OUT THERE. The power of the resurrection is still reverberating through history and we are witnesses to it because Christ lives amongst us. That is the definition of a church – the gathered people of God, the body of Christ. Every time we meet in his name, he is present. He is present in bread and wine and in our worship and fellowship. He is present in our care one for the other; in our giving and protesting, as we try to make a difference in the world.

And he is still calling others to follow him – those who are ‘not yet in the sheepfold’, as he puts it in John 10. ‘My sheep hear my voice’.  We’re still living within the ramifications of the resurrection, both personally, whenever we are faced with loss or a seemingly hopeless situation, and corporately as we seek to work with God’s Spirit in the healing of the world he came to save. He is alive and we are witnesses to his life. As we are formed by his Spirit, others will know that he is alive and so we pray that God will bring us into fellowship with those others he is still calling.


(image credit: BBC news website)


Sermon for Epiphany 1B: Baptism of Christ 10.01.21

Zoom Church St John and St Stephen’s, Reading

Acts 19:1-7

19While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ 3Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ 4Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7altogether there were about twelve of them.

Mark 1:4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

The Baptism of Jesus

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’


At the beginning of this new year, it might be a good time to take stock and ask ourselves ‘where are we today?’ Well, we’re online. Again. We’re in lockdown no. 3.

We’re in January, the month in which the saddest day of the year falls in approximately 10 days’ time. We’re at the start of the third decade of the 21st century. We’re in the middle of possibly the worst stage of the coronavirus pandemic with the NHS reportedly ‘on the brink’. But we’re also at the start of a nationwide roll out of the vaccine that will get us through to the other side. And we’re in Epiphany.


Where is our world at the moment? There’s been a programme on radio 4 asking this question – you might like to have a listen on iPlayer. The daily 15-minute slot aired Monday – Friday each morning at 9.45 am. In each episode someone who leads in their particular field read their essay entitled “A letter to the 21st Century” on its coming of age (turning 21). I had a vested interest in tuning in as Tuesday’s essay was given by the Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund and cited climate change as the most pressing issue of our time. The essay happened to have been written by my daughter!


Where is our community of Newtown at the moment? Well, I walked down to the church the other day and noticed the Sun Street Community Centre all beautifully refurbished and ready, right down to the green baize grass outside, but looking suspiciously as though there was no one inside, no doubt due to the current restrictions. Meanwhile the gas tower art exhibition which we would have hosted last summer has moved online and is still attracting a lot of attention; it’s as though a community has gathered around this important landmark and we all wonder if 2021 will finally be the year when it disappears. And thirdly, also online is news of a new youth and community hub opening in Cholmeley Road, and a Facebook video of the refurbishment and where it has got to so far. That was news to me. And have you noticed how someone is painting the utility covers at the side of the roads across our parish, with interesting and uplifting words: Look. Hope. Unity.


In the wider community this week Reading was shattered to hear of the death by stabbing of a 13-year-old boy in Emmer Green. Three other young teenagers were taken into custody in connection with the murder. How is it in our town that 13-year-olds are wandering in a park in daylight carrying lethal weapons they intend to use? What has happened in our society with our young people to make this possible?


And where are you today? Tired? Hopeful? Despondent? Worried about 2021? Are you in a better place than you were last spring when all this began, or a worse one?

Are you sad or bereaved? Perhaps you’re waiting for medical intervention or recovering from some? Perhaps worship and homegroups being online has been the best thing as far as you’re concerned. Perhaps it’s been the worst. Whatever, it’s always good to take stock. So, where are we?


As mentioned, liturgically we’re in Epiphany. We’ve celebrated God’s light being revealed to those who were not naturally God’s people – the Magi from the East. And today we see Jesus coming for baptism. It may not be obvious what the link is, but if we stick to God’s glory being revealed in different ways to different people, we’ll be on the right track through Epiphany.


So where is Jesus today, in this reading? He is at the very start of his ministry.

For Mark, writing his somewhat breathless account of Jesus’ life, the nativity is dispensed with and John the Baptist opens the first chapter. Jesus is baptised within the first 9 verses – there’s no hanging around. So, Jesus is at the start of his public ministry. What else is going on?


He is straddling the two covenants – or two testaments – the Old and the New. And as such, his baptism is significantly different from the baptism that John had been offering to the Jews. John knew the significance of this different type of baptism; he said: ‘the one who is more powerful than me is coming after me…I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ (Mark 1:7-8).


And the apostle Paul knew the difference too. We read in Acts that during his missionary travels he came across ‘some disciples’ who had been baptised with water, but not the Spirit. It’s a very interesting little passage. For some reason he asks them ‘did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ I wonder why he asked them that? Was it somehow obvious to Paul that these disciples were missing something? We don’t really know, but it’s an interesting thought. They are disciples of Jesus, but they don’t have the Spirit. It’s puzzling and also challenging. Is this a thing, to be a disciple but miss the main point; to be a disempowered disciple?


I’m wondering if that should make us think a little? Are there disciples in our churches who have somehow missed out on receiving the Holy Spirit? It’s always struck me how outsiders to the church assume that everyone believes everything inside the church. Sometimes there can be more evidence of God outside than in.


Anyway, Paul asks them his question, ‘did you receive the Holy Spirit?’ and they respond: ‘We haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’. (Which kind of makes me laugh, in a sort of desperate way; it’s like every vicar’s worst nightmare. I’m imagining a scenario where there’s a special church event which the vicar is worried no one will attend, and the vicar approaches you and asks: ‘are you coming?’ and it’s not just a ‘no, I’m not coming’, but ‘I haven’t even heard of it’!)


This phenomenon of disciples who’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit or who have in some way misunderstood the faith, should encourage us that no amount of heterodoxy should debar anyone from being blessed by God.


Which reminds me of a somewhat uncomfortable occasion when I agreed to take a baptism of a baby at rather short notice. The mother had had a series of very difficult life events, and had fallen out with her local priest. I’d already baptised one of her children and this second time around, I think we only had one session of preparation at which I was mostly trying to remember if this was the same partner as she had had the time before, or someone different, and what surnames I should be writing in the register. As the special Sunday drew near, I fell ill, and my colleague had to step in to take the service at the last minute. Our small congregation had swollen to five times its size as the mother had invited everyone she knew, and in every sense, it was a BIG OCCASION. My colleague, who’s a bit more relaxed than me, assuming I’d done some thorough theological preparation with the family, asked the mother if she’d like to say a few words at the font. The mother duly stepped forward and announced to the whole congregation how happy she was that her child had been baptised, because when baptised children die, they automatically turn into angels.


When this was reported to me later, I nearly died of ministerial embarrassment. But I have to say I remember that lady as the most enthusiastic champion of infant baptism I’ve ever come across. And a natural evangelist (hence all the guests). It was obvious that God was at work in her life.


So back to Jesus. Here he is, standing before John the Baptist, submitting to baptism, and as he rises out of the water, we are told the heavens are torn open and the Spirit descends like a dove. Two events contrasted by their similes: the ‘tearing open’ phrase is from the Greek ‘skizomenous’ from which we get schizophrenic (split personality) and schism (an irrevocable split in the Church). And then the Spirit descends gently. It rests upon Jesus, as portrayed in many a classical painting (one of which Richard Croft led us through in his sermon this time last year). In fact, the Spirit could also be said to have ‘gone into’ Jesus if you look at the pronoun used in the Greek.


So here is Jesus, at the still point of receiving the Spirit before he goes into action.

Moreover, he hears the voice of God declaring ‘this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’. At this still moment, the source of Jesus’ power is revealed as love. Being beloved. The love of the triune God that holds everything together invites me in, invites you in. And this love is offered to Jesus before he does one day of ministry. Before the teachings, before the healings, before he confronts the wilderness.


This is the source of all we do, too: God’s prevenient, unconditional love. Contemplating God’s love leads to action, and action leads back to love. That’s how we function as the body of Christ in our fellowship. Do you know that assurance of God’s love, that even when you’re at the end of your own resources (and especially at this point) you are still precious in his eyes. Each of us needs to hear that voice: this is my beloved son; this is my beloved daughter; this is my beloved child.


Where are we today? Like Jesus, we are perhaps also at a crossroads. In lockdown 1 we mourned the loss of a normal church life. In lockdown 3 we have a chance to think about our identity – personally and as a church. We are called to be, and to do, just as Jesus was. As we consider who we are and where we’re going we might take comfort from what is emerging from the political upheaval in the States this week, that many of us will have followed on TV.


After four years of Donald Trump ends in the violent storming of the Capitol, I am forcefully struck by the evil of White Supremacy, of how it has a strangle hold on so many people still; how it brainwashes people and makes nationalism into a god; how it is intrinsically antithetical to the Way of Jesus.


I encourage you to catch up on what’s been happening in the state of Georgia as two new Senators have been elected this week. In the past two years, after narrowly missing out on being elected herself, black lawyer and activist Stacy Abrams began grassroots community organising. This was to encourage people of colour who felt like it wasn’t even worth voting, to cast their vote for change. She ran a movement called Black Voters Matter and for two years she and her team encouraged black people find their voice. I suspect this went largely unnoticed by the press. Van Jones, a political commentator, lawyer and author, said this on Wednesday, after their successful campaigning had delivered two new Democrat Senators: ‘Black joy won over White rage in Georgia’. One of the new Senators, Pastor Raphael Warnock, paid tribute to his 82-year-old mother who grew up in the Jim Crow South: ‘The other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.’


This is something new emerging from chaos and injustice.


This is where we are today: poised on the brink of racial justice emerging from an unjust world that has been brutally unmasked by Covid. And we’re poised to address climate breakdown as the clock ticks away this decade. And perhaps the Church is poised to rediscover her identity, not in prestige or power, but as ‘the beloved’.  None of this emerging renewal will come cheap. At the beginning of this new year, let’s hear again that voice that grounds us and readies us for action: ‘this is my beloved child: with them I am well pleased.’

healing hands

Sermon for St Luke the Evangelist, Trinity 19 October 18th 2020


2 Timothy 4:5-17

5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Personal Instructions

9 Do your best to come to me soon, 10for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. 12I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. 14Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. 15You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.

16 At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

Luke 10:1-9

The Mission of the Seventy

10After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”


Today the church remembers St Luke, one of the four evangelists who wrote his account of the life of Jesus. Luke’s gospel emphasizes the universal nature of God’s invitation. His gospel is packed with stories about money, wealth and the importance of generosity. There’s a lot about joy, meals, women and prayer. Jesus is portrayed as a healer and saviour and since the same word in Greek covers both healer and saviour (sozo) we already get a strong hint that when we consider healing as a topic we are looking at something holistic.

A bit like the topic Mission, Healing is far too large a theme to be tackled in one sermon, but I’m hoping to offer some starting points that might be pertinent as we live through this pandemic. Healing, sickness, wholeness, heath and health services are very much on all our minds at the moment. What can the church say about healing? What do we believe about healing? This is also a question about what sort of God do we worship. Is he good? Does he want our good? Does he want our good now? Or to put it another way: when we come in desperation with an illness or condition, often the pressing questions, going on at some deep level are:

Can God heal?

Will God heal?

Will God heal me?

We will all have different experiences of healing, and most of us won’t even agree on how to define the word. I asked two people, whose judgment I trust and who have had a lot of experience of the Christian church, to give me their initial reaction to the word healing. One was in her 40s, one in her 20s. I asked them, if you were going to church and you knew that the theme was healing, what one thing would you want to hear and what would you not want to hear?

That might be a good question to ponder for a moment yourself….

I’m not going to share what they said, but it was clear that they hadn’t always had positive experiences of being prayed for when there was something wrong with them. One had watched a member of the bible study group slowly die of cancer and the other is living with an autoimmune condition that she directly links with church related trauma. Healing is such a difficult topic.

So this is NOT a theologically thorough overview, but a series of reflections on some photographs that have come to mean a lot to me during the pandemic. I hope this methodology might be a better fit to a topic that cannot help but be, not just theological, but personal. So the photos you’ll see are among the 100 finalists of the Hold Still portrait competition. Hosted by the National Gallery and publicised by the Duchess of Cambridge, the photos are a chronicle by ordinary people, all across the UK, of life under lockdown. They show moving shots of healthcare workers, separated relations, children studying at home and parents under strain. I thought they might provide a contemporary backdrop for our reflections on St Luke and the ministry of healing


Luke was known as the beloved physician. What a lovely phrase – we have some beloved physicians amongst us of course at St John and St Stephen’s! Luke probably never met Jesus but in the beginning of his gospel he explains to someone called Theophilus, that ‘since many have undertaken to write an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed onto us by those who were… eyewitnesses… I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you…’ I think we all want our doctors and consultants to be orderly people able to give an orderly account of our diagnoses and prognoses. We might sense the nascent scientist in Luke, if that’s not too much of an anachronism. One thing I find encouraging about Luke is that he practised the art of healing as a physician but wrote about the miraculous healings that Jesus did. It’s a healthy combination and one we can maintain when we pray for those who are ill – we pray just as much that the healing work of Doctors will be inspired – as well as the inner work of peace & wholeness that we seek from God.

After a long week looking after patients, an Orthopaedic Consultant and his Surgical Trainee wanted to lift the mood of not only themselves, but their colleagues and patients on the ward. It’s easy to forget how much we need our mouths to communicate and convey emotion, until there is a mask in front to prevent it. I took this picture to show that our NHS and our nation can still find light in the darkest of times. Keep smiling and be haPPE!


Luke’s story of the Christ spills out into the book of Acts as he chronicles the spread of the gospel across the known world. Paul spearheaded this movement, of course, and it would seem he had a close relationship with the beloved physician. In the Epistle to Timothy we see the elderly Paul in prison and in the last phase of his life. Everyone has either deserted him or left for another city. ‘Only Luke is with me’ is a rather poignant sentence that stuck out for me. It shows us Paul’s very human side. We know that Paul dealt in the miraculous; whether exorcisms, visions or deliverance from deadly snake bites or near death experiences, amazing things happened around him. But here he is, like many today, perhaps simply a bit lonely.

This is a studio portrait of Tendai, a recovery and anaesthetics nurse, who was born in Zimbabwe, and now lives in my local town – Reading, Berkshire. I wanted to portray her caring side as well as a look of concern and uncertainty that many of us have experienced during this pandemic. It’s why I chose a lower than normal angle and asked her to look off camera, placing her half way down in the frame.


We are mindful that it has been costly for our health workers to offer themselves for the healing of others; often they have done so while being burdened and stressed themselves.




‘Only Luke is with me’. This plaintive sentence made me think about the long nights that Covid sufferers have endured, when the presence of one other person is so vital. The pm spoke of this – it’s the night-time when you most need someone watching over you, and for much more than just medical reasons. Those ‘someones’ were nurses and doctors who often put in 12 hour shifts to care and go beyond for the sick and dying, and who are still doing so as our hospitals fill up once more. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in hospital, dreading the onset of a long night – a dark night of the soul, if you will – if you have, it will have been a doctor, a nurses or perhaps a midwife who sat with you and brought you the comfort you needed. I once waited for nightfall on a bed in the Royal Berks, when I knew that I would go into labour and deliver a stillborn baby. Every four hours another lovely midwife would appear and offer me their presence in that dark room, a presence I so badly needed in that time of fear and desperation. I remember all their names.

During the pandemic, my staff were split into small teams, we worked 12-hour alternate day and night shifts. Early on, I wanted to record my team in action, something to give them at the end to remember our experiences by. I did this and it was popular. On this day, I was leading the day team. I walked in to take handover from the night team that Allen was leading; as I sat opposite him… I thought: ‘There’s a picture’:  a determined healthcare worker at the end of a trying shift. …. I never saw panic at work by anyone – no matter how bad things were, I only saw a calm professionalism. I think this picture captures this. It reminds me of good colleagues and I cannot put into words the feelings towards my team, I don’t need words, this image says it all.




Something that has exercised Christians down the years, myself included, and maybe you as well, is the difference between healing and cure. Our reading from Luke specifically says that Jesus sent out the seventy to cure the sick as a sign that the kingdom of God had come near, and this seems to accord with the ministry of Jesus as well. The charismatic movement, birthed in this country in the 60s and 70s, brought miraculous physical healing back on the agenda, and perhaps you have had experience of this kind of instant healing (or cure).


Somehow for me, extrapolating directly from Jesus’ day to our own and expecting the miraculous to be our normal fails to take on board the intervening 2000 years when the monasteries and later the hospitals sustained a ministry of healing that still continues today, even if somewhat cut adrift from its Christian roots. I might like to pray for your broken arm, but I would also urge you to go to A&E and get it looked at by a specialist. But God is a holistic God, as this portrait shows.


As a photographer, I had the privilege of being given the opportunity to follow a care worker visiting a client during the pandemic. They do an amazing and underrated job and I wanted to highlight this. I felt this image captured the caring and compassionate side… Fabiana, who cares for Jack, was with him in his room. She says: ‘I care for him and he makes me happy in these terrible times. The first thing he says to me, when I open the door, is ‘ I am so glad to see you’ and with that he makes all the hard work we have been doing worthwhile. With the lockdown, there can be no family visits, so we are the only people he sees all day. It is my job to make him feel better even if only for a few minutes, to make sure he is clean, fed and he has taken his medication. I make sure to make a few little jokes to make him laugh a bit. I love what I do, I love my job, I love caring for the elderly.’




I wonder if you noticed how our first reading mentions suffering in the first line? Interesting for a Sunday when we think about healing. ‘As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully’, writes Paul. He goes onto say he is being poured out like a libation – a drink offering to the gods – except in Paul’s case he’s offering his life to the One God and that life is nearly at an end. I love the mixture of exalted statements of faith “I have fought the good fight” and his very human plea (one which we can all echo in these days of isolation) “Do your best to come to me soon”. Why do we suffer? What might be emerging from our experience of suffering on a global scale? Is it the case, as some argue, that Jesus’ ministry was primarily about being saved, rather than healed? Or is it impossible to disassociate one from the other?

And what about sin? Sometimes, I wish the Lord’s Prayer could be re-written for these times of mental health epidemic, from ‘forgive us our trespasses’, to ‘heal us from our wounds’. If you’ve ever come up close and personal with your own failings, as well as feeling they’re wrong, you might consider how before the wrongs you committed, wrongs were committed against you. The bullies were bullied, the abusers abused. Like in King Lear, sometimes we’re ‘more sinned against than sinning’.

Henri Nouwen wrote about the concept of the wounded healer. This idea saves us, as Christians, from being inwardly focused. We are always made whole in order to offer wholeness to others. We don’t thrive despite our wounds but out of the core of them. That’s why healing is a complex and paradoxical subject, because inner healing and wholeness grow out of facing our most painful experiences and letting God transform them. The world is crying out for people who have brought their own suffering to God in order to stand with others in suffering.

A raw picture of the hopelessness and desperation I feel during this lockdown, as a shielded person with leukaemia. COVID-19 has taken far more from me than leukaemia has. Stuck on statutory sick pay, facing losing everything I worked hard for gets too much sometimes. I was training to be a pharmacy dispenser before the lockdown began and had taken less than a week’s sick leave from work during and after my diagnosis. Then COVID-19 struck and having to shield cost me everything I had worked hard for. I know this is not a positive photograph, but it is reality for many people in my situation. It is my new normal and I felt compelled to photograph myself in that moment, perhaps so that someone would see me.



So this has been a brief skate through a dense subject. Healing: Can we pray for it? Can we ask to be delivered from Corona Virus on a personal or even global scale? Where is God in it all?

Here are three simple suggestions to that question.

Where is God in the pandemic?

Firstly, God is in the love. As John the Evangelist wrote: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God”.

A little girl says ‘be safe daddy and hugs him as he goes out to start another shift as a medical worker. he gives her an all encompassing hug.


Secondly to the question: Where is God?

God is in the suffering.


And thirdly “Where is God?”

God is in the hope, in the rainbow after the storm. If we lose hope, we lose everything. May the God of all hope fill us with joy and peace in believing, and may God strengthen us wherever we offer ourselves and our healing wounds to a hurting world. Amen.



Sermon for Pentecost: St John and St Stephen’s Zoom Church May 31 2020.

pentecost sermon slides

AND so we come to Pentecost – the Feast that the Jews kept to celebrate the final coming in of the harvest. In the book of Acts Luke writes that the disciples were gathered in one place awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It’s doubtful they even had an inkling of what to expect when the Spirit came, but they were at least being obedient – Jesus had said ‘stay in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high’, and that’s what they were doing.

By this stage some commentators think there were about 120 disciples. Although Peter addresses the ‘men of Galilee’ in his subsequent speech we know that apart from the Twelve, there were several women, including Mary his mother and others who had supported Jesus from their own resources, plus those to whom Jesus had appeared after his resurrection.

Paul mentions a collective resurrection appearance to at least 50, so as we imagine the upper room at Pentecost we can probably feel free to imagine a few more than the 11 who’d followed Jesus closely to the end.

I asked for images of the Holy Spirit, and was grateful that so many people responded – thank you. In this Acts account, as the followers of Jesus experienced the Spirit in a new way, they heard the sound of rushing wind, they saw what looked like fire appearing amongst them and they spoke in new languages, which seemed to be represented by the way that each had a fiery tongue rest upon them.

So that’s three images or experiences already – a rushing wind, fire and tongues, or new languages, that enabled other people to hear messages from God in their own language as the disciples spilled out into the open spaces where so many had gathered for the festival.

The crowd included Jews from all over the known world: from Greece, from Arabia, from Rome, from Africa and from Asia.

When I asked for images of the Holy Spirit, the question was, really, what is God the Spirit like for you? Which is really the question, what is God like, for you?

It’s a very important question: maybe the most important question about you: how do you imagine God?

How we see God may determine how we see a lot of other things as well.

One of our problems is that we have imbibed all sorts of unhelpful images of God, which can lead to unfruitful spiritual lives.

We cannot just make up what God is like – nor can we hope to pin down entirely what God is like (that wouldn’t be a very transcendent God) but we can try and piece together some pointers from the bible and from the life of Jesus and from our own lives as we explore what God is like (or what God the Spirit is like).

One intellectual blockage to a healthy God-image is the sacred-secular divide.

At some point in the 18th Century, during a period ironically named The Enlightenment, we separated out the sacred and the secular in a way that is never apparent in the bible, and relegated God to the side-lines.

Everything that could be empirically proven we labelled ‘objective’ knowledge and everything else, including religion, was seen as ‘subjective’ and pertaining only to the narrow field of ‘what happens for a small number of people in church plus some other odd beliefs’.

This was handy, because it meant you could decide that God didn’t exist.

Making God an object (that you might or might not believe in the existence of) is a category mistake. God is primarily relational; God can only be known in relationship. God is personal and God is relationship. You cannot know God unless you are saying yes to God.

Saying ‘God is relationship’ may sound rather peculiar to us, but we are Westerners who have become attuned to a high degree of individualism that is unknown in the fellowship of God’s followers wherever we read about them in the bible.

Western individualism with its competitiveness and disconnectedness means it’s hard for us to imagine God as a community of persons who love and serve each other, but this is what modern Trinitarian theology (which is actually not that modern, but Patristic) is increasingly discovering.

SLIDE 1. This is Rublev’s icon – shared by Richard Bainbridge. In it we have an imaginative representation of God in three persons. Left to right we see Father, Son and Spirit. They are gentle, still, contemplative and seem to be deferential to each other in the stance of their bodies. It is also perhaps evocative of the OT story where Abraham and Sarah receive three angelic visitors and offer them hospitality. Or were they in fact visited by God?

In the icon, the cup of the Eucharist is recalled and in the centre of the image, a space, where we are welcomed in to join the fellowship. The Trinity offers us relationship.

It’s an expansive image that has many layers but it’s perhaps a helpful one to start with.

Richard Rohr, in The Divine Dance, suggests that starting with the One (One God) and trying to get to the Three (three persons) is problematic when thinking about the Trinity.

Rather, if we begin with the biblical evidence for the three ‘persons’ it may be easier to then unify them to find The One.

We have a lot of scriptural evidence to suggest God is community: Jesus referred to himself as being in relationship with God, as a father is with his son. Furthermore the Scriptures tell of the Spirit of God who hovered over creation, and was given at Pentecost, who indwells God’s people and empowers them to share the Good News.

With three persons (Father, Son and Spirit) but only one God, we can now say God is Three-in-One. But in what kind of relationship are the persons of the Trinity? Is it equal or hierarchical, and where do we fit in? This too is an important question that our church architecture often answers by suggesting there’s a boss (God) and He’s pretty far away from us most of the time.

However at St John and St Stephen’s we’re lucky – we’re in the round! I like to imagine our circle at the Eucharist as like the circle of the Trinity where God the Father, Son and Spirit serve and love each other and open up to let us in too, whenever we say our halting yes.

So it turns out it’s rather difficult to ask ‘what is the Holy Spirit like?’ without asking the question ‘what is God like?’ (Apologies for straying a bit into next Sunday’s theme of the Trinity).

Thinking about the icon that Rublev painted is a far cry, I’m sure you’ll agree, from the sort of Old Man in the Sky images of God that some of us have had to shed (or maybe we haven’t yet been able to?)

Healthy ideas of God were radically warped through the course of history by, among other things: Monarchy, Patriarchy and Empire. This kind of God was modelled on an absolute Monarch who dishes out rules and punishes those who break them.

“History has so long operated with a static and imperial image of God – as a supreme Monarch who is mostly living in splendid isolation from what he – and God is always and exclusively envisioned as male in this model – created (Rohr and Morrell, The Divine Dance, pp.35-6).

If God is a monad (not a triad) then God is self-sufficient and there’s no room in God for me or anything else from creation.

‘The principle of one is lonely; the principle of two is oppositional; the principle of three is inherently moving, dynamic and generative’ (as before, p. 42).

So our images of God are terribly important. Even the idea of God as Father is very problematic in our days because of absent or abusive fathers. Father images need to be balanced by the female metaphors of God as giving birth to a people; nurturing a people, feeding a people and even missing a people but always remembering them.

Some of the contributions sent to me underlined this – God perceived of as feminine was thought of as very positive, if surprising: ‘that’s the part of God I can feel at ease and safe with’ (like a kindly grandma who always watched over you). Sue Oates.


Powerful images of God as overwhelming us, needed to be re-imagined as not macho, but full of an energy that animates, and gives us the strength to carry on in life situations which are tough and for the log haul: ‘it’s the power to endure, to suffer for others, to keep going however hard the road, not to become hard and bitter but continue to love – these are the ways the spirit speaks to my heart’ (Liz B.)

What are some other images that have been shared?

I wonder if any will resonate with you?

SEE SLIDES for contributions from others: the Holy Spirit as the inspiration for different types of praise in the bible: (slide 2)

Hullah – to rave about God

Yahah – to worship with open hands

Barak – the privilege of blessing the Lord

Tehillah – sing to the Lord

Toddah and Shabach – to shout, or address with a loud voice, confident that all is well before victory comes

Zamah – to pluck the strings of an instrument in praise of God

Hallelujah – spontaneous cry from one who is excited about God (from Judy)


  1. A painting of Hannah at prayer, the shaft of light coming from the top left, God hearing our distress and mounting a cherubim and soaring across the sky (Psalm 18) – imagining the pray-er as her sister who went through a difficult time some years ago (from Julie).


  1. The infinite nature, peace, welcoming, protection, love, wonder and more that the HS brings to us (plus image – Alan D.)


  1. The Holy Spirit brings us together (Taize picture, Cathy)


  1. ‘Perplexing’ and ‘elusive’ – Genesis: the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters; empowering key OT individuals and hovering over Jesus at his baptism, then sending him out to the wilderness. Offering ‘life in al its fullness’ (John 10) Richard B.


  1. The dove at Jesus’ baptism (Richard B.)


Looking at other images and experiences that were shared by St John’s people: they roughly fall into the following categories:


A.The Spirit as experienced like the elements, e.g. fire, wind, water


E.g. A candle, giving light, comfort and peace, glory and splendour, warmth and peace. ‘It shines inside and helps me to trust, and gives me hope. I wait for the Lord and he gives me his Holy Spirit. It is enough’ (Carol M.)


During a difficult time, one evening the Spirit was perhaps in ‘the billowing of curtains, and an invitation to ‘reach out towards whatever it was’ (Chris Jupp).


Like a mighty wind that you cannot see but you can see the effects of it on others – in changed lives, fruits of the Spirit and people using their gifts (Chris A).

Relaxing on the patio with a beer, nothing urgent to do, being at one with nature, attending to creation, the Holy Spirit in the air, always at work (Spence).


Like water going through a colander – we’re the colander and we keep close to God the water (the Holy Spirit) continually passes through us, washing, cleansing, reviving. There’s a need to be fully immersed all the time – so the colander needs to be in flowing water so to speak (Paul Oates).


  1. The Spirit affecting people and encounters, calling us into relationship: e.g. the Holy Spirit as a friend, Helper and Comforter; also the AA Milne poem about “Binker” – ‘Binker is the reason why I never feel alone’: Sue Bruce.


Encounters brought about by the Spirit – the ‘coincidences’ that happen, the joy in worship of a new believer and the joy exhibited by Yemeni Christian refugees, despite going through real hardships (Peter C.)


  1. Other images for the Spirit: ‘The Divine artist deep inside you. “We’re called to paint our life’s picture in the image of Christ” quote from video clip: “A Prayer Video for Pentecost” featuring Patrick Van der Voorst) shared by Rachel T.


The Holy Spirit is a person, not an ‘It’, otherwise it wouldn’t be trinitarianism, it would be binitarianism’ (Kit Alcock).


Thoughts on planting out seedlings. ‘My prayers are like seedlings. I don’t have to find the energy and ideas to will them to grow and develop. I can just plant them and leave the rest to him/her’ (Chris M.)


And lastly we have the beautiful, peaceful image of Jesus simply breathing on his disciples when they were in the room where the door locked for fear of the Jews which we had as the gospel today (this is going back in time to a few weeks before Pentecost). He says ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ and he gives them his peace (the word for breath and spirit being the same in Hebrew).


There are of course an infinite variety of images and experiences of the Spirit, of God, because we are all so varied in our understanding and our character, our life experiences and God knows what we need, how we best hear God’s voice.


It is interesting at this time of year when we have a chance to focus on the third person of the Trinity, to ponder how our own images of God might be changing and developing, perhaps even to ditch some unhelpful ones and embrace new ones.


As we have seen, our images of God tend to direct our spiritual lives and in fact our entire life in the world. They affect how we see others, how we relate to the environment, and how we relate in this world of extreme conflict, in how we deal with ‘the other’ – the person who is different from me.


The trinity shows us how diversity can thrive within unity, how there is room for all, a message we badly need to hear in this week when we have all been appalled at another needless death of an African American at the hands of a white American police officer who showed no mercy. Is it so hard for us to relate to each other mercifully, as God has related to us in Jesus?


How will the pandemic change our view of God? Will we, I wonder, find a new emphasis on the ‘weakness’ of a divine Saviour who didn’t count equality with God something to be grasped, but who emptied himself and was obedient to death, even the death of the cross?


Will we find a God who is willing to be divested of power because of the ultimate importance of waiting for a beloved world to turn back, a God who knows just how impossible it is to force love?


Conscious of the huge amount of suffering in the world, I have felt perhaps a new tenderness in God, which has gone hand in hand with being tender towards myself when I have been, not strong and faithful, but weak, fearful, feeling a bit hopeless and being tired a lot of the time!


An image of God that I will share, finally, comes from a Big Sing meeting that John Bell led in about 2004 or 5, in a big evangelical church in Reading. I took a friend from Shiplake who was really musical and we both loved it nbecause we both loved singing.


Standing up on the dais to address the 100s of people there, John Bell began by announcing ‘let us pray’. Everyone’s heads went down, and we went onto auto pilot (you know how this can happen in church…) and then John, in his very Scottish and deliberately provocative way, addressed God loudly as ‘Midwife of change’.


You could have heard a pin drop! I was thinking about ordination at the time, and I felt a huge shiver go down my spine at that very moment: the Holy Spirit?


If your images of God are shifting, that could be a sign that you’re growing spiritually, or are entering a new season in your walk with God. Are your images shifting?


My prayer this Pentecost, is that we all experience something new in the air when it comes to the Holy Spirit, and may we as a church fellowship have the courage to proclaim by word and deed, that God is community, and therefore we are community and in this ever growing, ever changing community, there is indeed room for all.





Lord, immerse us in the ocean of your love

Bathe us in your cleansing rivers

Soak us in your healing waters

Drench us in your powerful downfalls

Cool us in your bracing baths

Refresh us in your sparkling streams

Master us in your mighty seas

Calm us by your quiet pools.



(from Sue Bruce, from The Community of Aidan and Hilda)

Additional slides for Claire’s sermon can be found here

waiting picture

MARCH 29th – Psalm 30: How long to sing this song?

As you have read or listened to Psalm 130 – what word or phrase speaks strongly to you right now? What rings true to how you feel, or to your own situation?


I’d like to share some brief thoughts on three of the words or phrases in this psalm and how they might speak to us in the times we live in. In almost all societies around the world you’ll find three kinds of songs – there are lullabies, songs for weddings and laments. Today we are going to look at Psalm 130, one of the so-called Psalms of Lament. These songs have been used for hundreds of years to help people navigate through personal or national suffering. I hope you will find these thoughts helpful as we navigate our own unique situation.


Out of the depths

The first is the extraordinary phrase we read at the beginning of the psalm: ‘Out of the depths’ – ‘Out of the depths I cry to you’. It comes from the Latin phrase ‘De Profundis’ and is from where we get our English word profound. Many poets from Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti to Federico Garcia Lorca have been inspired by these words and written poems entitled De Profundis. For some of us, we might be feeling (or might later feel) a profound sense of loss, despair and anguish. For me it’s the basic things that I took for granted that I miss and long for: being able to hug my sons and my parents, playing music with my friends, sharing the peace and communion with my church family.

The laments remind us that we can be honest in how we feel, to God and with each other. It’s a cry out to God as we struggle to live with unanswered questions and unexplained suffering. I find it soothing that within the Bible we are given words that can be shockingly brutal and brutally honest in expressing how we feel to God.


I’ve recently been reading a book on the psalms called ‘It’s ok to be not ok’. It’s written by a Philippine Christian who was caught up in 2009 in Tropical Storm Ondoy, where over 700 lost their lives. He speaks of how he went to church the next Sunday and was struck by how the church had no songs to help express the grief the congregation were feeling. There were many ‘happy’ songs of praise and thanksgiving sung, but he went away with the question ‘Why is there nothing in our worship about what we have experienced?’ The theologian Walter Brueggemann in his book The Psalm & The Life of Faith calls it ‘the costly loss of lament’. If we are not allowed to lament, then all we have in times of trouble is an empty celebration of joy and well-being, completely disconnected from our present reality. The lament states that things are not right, that they should not be as they are now, and that there is a longing and hope they won’t remain so forever. They are a plea to God for help in a time of intense trial. They also suggest perhaps controversially, it is God’s obligation to change things.  ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord: O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.’



The second word that stood out for me is the word ‘wait’. It’s perhaps not surprising, as it’s repeated five times in just two sentences: ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.’

There is one question that is repeated time and time again in the lament psalms: How long? How long must this go on?’ In this psalm there’s a sense of yearning and longing that you can see in how the psalmist repeats that phrase ‘more than watchmen wait for the morning’. A longing we may feel as we yearn for an end to this isolation.

You might have read a Facebook post by our vicar Claire on Wednesday, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was to be with child and to give birth to a son, called Jesus. Alongside the painting of Botticelli’s Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, Claire posted these words:

‘Today the Church marks the Annunciation by the angel to the Blessed Virgin Mary – I guess because today is exactly 9 months till Christmas Day and that’s the length of a pregnancy. The planting of a seed, in silence and obscurity, that will bear the most amazing fruit later. I’m wondering today about how this could be a message of hope for us in these weird and difficult times when we just want it all to be over as soon as possible. But it’s always in the waiting that we grow, and then always (and only) through great love and great suffering, such as Mary underwent.

It’s always in the waiting that we grow, and then always (and only) through great love and great suffering, such as Mary underwent.



The third word that stood out for me in this psalm is ‘hope’.

You might have noticed this word appears twice in the psalm.

‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I put my hope.’

And then the focus at the end of the psalm in the words:

‘O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.’

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself often waking up early in the morning, just before dawn and being amazed by the sound of the birds heralding in the new dawn. There are signs of hope around us, in the natural world, in the kindness of friends and strangers, in the amazing work of our NHS and front-line services. But, of course, the greatest hope we have is in our Lord that we serve. In our gospel reading we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus. I was particularly struck in reading this next to Psalm 130 how Jesus embodies the answer to the lament – that Jesus experienced the sorrow and pain of loss and the longing for it all to change. In him, God has come alongside us. In him there is hope through this pain and the hope of a resurrection of our world from our present sorrows.


I pray for all of us that we would encounter this living God of hope in whatever we encounter in these coming weeks – in the depths, in the waiting and in the hope that is to come.

Keep us, good Lord,

under the shadow of your mercy

in this time of uncertainty and distress.

Sustain and support the anxious and fearful,

and lift up all who are brought low;

that we may rejoice in your comfort

knowing that nothing can separate us from your love

in Christ Jesus our Lord.



Hamish Bruce – Sunday March 29th 2020


Living water

St John and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, March 15th 2020, Lent 3

Psalm 46, John 4:5-42



What a strange time. We can’t go anywhere, talk to anyone, turn on the TV, radio, internet or look at your smartphone without a blaring mention of coronavirus. Now let’s add to that the now visible effects of global heating – flooding, Antarctic melt, rising sea levels, and then the uncertain impact of Brexit (which we’ve almost forgotten now!). I’m feeling a bit like I’m on a ship going through very choppy waters: the ship has been sailing pretty steadily, got a bit rocky in the last couple of years, now it’s going crazy, the deck is shifting under my feet. Where are we going? Which coastline are we sailing to? We have got used to safety and security in our little island for years. But it’s changing. I want to acknowledge all of this, as we are, I am sure, all feeling and thinking it. What do we do? Well, we do the right things – handwashing, reducing physical contact and so on. We also continue to trust in God, that’s why we are here this morning. Not just a pie-in-the-sky hope but trust in his presence here and now.


God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Psalm 46)

This Psalm reminds us that the sensation of uncertainty and fear is not a new one – in fact, it is normal. The Psalm directs us to God. That is exactly where we need to go. To find him, let us go to a small corner of the near East, to a country under a brutal occupation, whose kingdom has indeed tottered and fallen, to Samaria, whose people were neither Jewish nor pagan, but a mixture of the two; to a well at midday; where we can find a woman in her middle age or maybe a bit more, who has lived perhaps a bit too much. She’s feisty, spirited, ordinary, and she has come to draw water: but not at the usual time, in the morning, but at midday, because she’s a bit of an outcast, a pariah, so she has to come when the other women aren’t there. She is a bit socially isolated. She’s ritually unclean to observant Jews: they wouldn’t touch her. Ring any bells? She finds a man sitting on top of the well, a Jewish man, without a bucket, who speaks to her and says, simply, ‘Give me a drink’. She’s amazed. Jewish men don’t talk to Samaritan women, especially women like her. In shock, she blurts out, ‘What? You’re talking to me, a woman from Samaria, and you’re a Jew?’ Then the strange man begins talking about living water, if you knew who it was that asks you for a drink, you would ask him for one! She’s lost. Confused. Thrown off balance. She begins to babble that you haven’t a bucket, it’s a deep well, what are you talking about? where do you get that living water? But the man, (BTW it’s Jesus) goes on – he’s raving now – about how if you drink the water I will give you, you will never thirst again. What, can that be true? Surely not. Well, now I think about it, that would be handy, I’d like some of that! Then, out of nowhere, he asks me to call my husband. I haven’t one just at the moment of speaking. And he goes, no, you haven’t, you’ve had 5 husbands, and the man you live with now isn’t your husband. How did he know that? This is getting embarrassing. Seems like he’s some sort of prophet. Let’s change the subject. We have a bit of a back-and-forth about where the best place is to worship God. At least it stopped him talking about my crap life. To cap it all, finally, he claims to be the Messiah, the Christ. Can that be true? My head is spinning!

Last week Claire spoke about Nicodemus the Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night to try and understand him. He ended up being more confused than when he started, when Jesus told him that he needed to be born again, and poor Nicodemus, this learned teacher, took it all too literally and just couldn’t get his head around the idea of entering into his mother’s womb a second time. Who could? He could not comprehend the metaphor, the idea of re-birth. Jesus was talking, as Claire reminded us, of the inner life. This story of the woman at the well, which immediately follows the Nicodemus story, is also one of confusion. Only this time the character is an unnamed, ordinary woman, not an important man with a name; a Samaritan not a Jew; it’s daytime, not night; and instead of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus deliberately, this woman comes to Jesus ‘by chance’. But the confusion is the same. The woman cannot understand what Jesus is talking about when he offers her ‘living water’. Only when Jesus touched on the matter of all the men she had lived with in her life, she got that pretty quickly, and tried to change the subject.

There is so much that could be said about this wonderful encounter. I am struck by how Jesus asks for help because he is in need – he is thirsty. It is very human. It’s midday, it’s hot, his disciples have gone off to find food and taken with them the leather bucket that you would need to get water. Wells in that part of the world didn’t have a bucket attached to them, you had to have your own. So Jesus asks this woman for help. Quite often, we Christians in an effort to do good like to give help – which puts us, subtly or not-so-subtly, in a position of power; we have something for you. Your job is to receive. In this story, it’s the other way around. The unnamed, socially outcast Samaritan woman holds the cards: or more accurately, the bucket. She has the power to help Jesus. The dynamic of the encounter is inverted.

And what happens? How does this apparently chance meeting play out, in its essence? An unnamed person with a messy life, a social outsider, receives, in exchange for a bucket of water and some conversation, an offer of a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. It’s no wonder she had trouble understanding. Whoever spoke of anything like that to her before? She could not understand the metaphor, the symbol. Why did Jesus use this kind of language? Why couldn’t he be more literal, more concrete, black-and-white, easier to understand? Well, how could he? This is heart language, it’s about something that takes place in the heart, the soul, the inner life: the springing up of living water, gushing up to eternal life, refreshing the spirit, cleansing the soul, bringing joy. When the Spirit of God moves in our hearts, there will be some kind of felt experience. The mind doesn’t really get this, and our Samaritan lady was stuck firmly in her mind with literal thinking about water that you put in buckets and drink. Then, perhaps surprisingly, Jesus asks her to call her husband and she’s on the spot. Her personal life is a wee bit messy. She changes the subject, opening a theological conversation about where the best place to worship God is – this mountain or Jerusalem? Again, this is all in the mind, and she is resisting where Jesus is going. I wonder whether Jesus, in saying what he did, was trying to open up her heart by going directly to an uncomfortable area of her life. A bit of self-examination. Did it work? Maybe it did! He goes on to answer her theological question by telling her that ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth’ (24). Again, this is heart language. Then in response to the question about the Messiah, Jesus tells her straight, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’ (26). Wow. Well, something has moved her, quite literally. The woman who came to draw water actually leaves her own water-jar behind (28), in her excitement to get back to the city of Sychar and tell people she has ‘met a man who told me everything I have ever done! He can’t be the Messiah, can he?’ (29). Seems like something touched her quite deeply. She becomes the first female evangelist – the story tells us that ‘many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony’ (39).


This encounter is one of sheer, undeserved, unsought-for, unexpected grace. It is so like God. Here are some lovely words written by St Ignatius in his spiritual exercises that ring very true, considering all of this: ‘It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy. God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause…It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty’[1] These moments come to us often when we are off-balance, surprised. Something catches us – a piece of music, poetry, a beautiful sunset or a plant, a word of scripture – and we are touched, moved and drawn to God.

Much to ponder on here. Jesus speaking across so many barriers to this woman. Jesus in need, thirsty, asking for help. The promise of living water to quench another kind of thirst. The awkward question. Her messy life. Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. The move from the mind to the heart. Her excitement. Leaving behind the water-jar. Rushing to tell people.

Are you thirsty?

Richard Croft

[1] The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, #329, 330

Gormley-Another Place

A multitude of saints

John 11:32-44 NRSV

32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

So today is All Saints Day.. The celebration that gives thanks for ‘All the Saints’.. and the big point of All Saints is the removal of notions that saints are only these premier league icons.. and reminds us that all are saints.. all those who have gone before us… our friends, parents, loved ones. It’s a daytto reflect, to give thanks, to acknowledge our losses and grief.. and day to take stock, and yet still to give thanks that tose we ave lost are the gifts

I was reminded of two artworks by the Sculptor Antony Gormley; The Field and Another Place, both echo something of humanity.. and the sainthood.. there is something haunting about te stories of people.. the multitude of voices that ave inspired us… pointed our eyes away (to Another place?) to something beyond and unexpected.. or something small vulnerable and seemingly insignificant (field)– yet which still amasses in our presence (so that one cannot enter the room – notice).


I wanted to work with people and to make a work about our collective future and our responsibility for it. I wanted the art to look back at us, its makers (and later viewers), as if we were responsible – responsible for the world that it [FIELD] and we were in. I have made it – with help – five times in different parts of the world. AG


At Fireside we start with a lighting ritual were we acknowledge that wisdom belongs to all. Te gift/mystery of god (pictured in a lighted candle)is reflected as a light in all gathered for discussion.. The light is given and reflected in everyone.

And what do people point us towards.. where do the saints tell us to look?

Gormley-Another Place

The idea was to test time and tide, stillness and movement, and somehow engage with the daily life of the beach. AG

For Gormley they point beyond. They cause a reflection on the life and world we are saturated in.. they provoke wide-eyed wonder, the magic of the everyday. The saints point to G-d.

These two instances, Gormley’s Art – and the Fireside Candle remind us that the kingdom Jesus points towards is a kingdom here, and in the midst of us. It is not some far off heavenly thing waiting to happen.. the life of God is given now.

Of course the story of Lazarus also reminds us that death and suffering are very real, the pain is vivid and no amount of ‘spiritualising’ will remove Grief, sadness, disruption and disturbance. And Cost. The story we have heard is full of humanity.. you can easily picture the noise, the commotion, Mary falling at Jesus’ feet, the confusion – could more have been done? The incredulity, the disgust, the clamor… all very human!

We don’t romanticise the tears of Jesus. Pain is real. Pain of misunderstanding, disagreement? of grief? The life of God – even Gods tears are found in the fabric of Gods creatures, women and men, and children and parents.

We might also ask where Jesus tears come from – thinking Christologically – from the divine, or the human? Ow many times have you heard it explained that this is how God understands human grief.. but maybe its how humans might understand God’s grief?

Once again… God and humans working together revealing glory, wonder, humility, tragedy and awe.

And finally, we must remember that this is John’s gospel.. rich in sign and symbol. For John miracles are less about events that break the flow of nature – thay are signs which point somewhere else.. the raising of Lazarus is a reminder of another (soon to come) moment of tomb, cloth, stone – of weeping women and resurrection…

This story remind us that Jesus is calling us now.. the story of Lazarus works for all saints day.. because it is about the unexpected life of God emerging wherever it wills – from even the darkness of a tomb.. God,s gift this very day is the fullness of life.. not an immunisation from its challenges – but a savouring of the life which is divine, holy, and a gift. The saints.. all saints would tell us the same..


GS Collins. Cafe Communion. Nov 18