Make sure you get this right! – Sermon October 25th 2020, Trinity 20

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-end


We heard read just now from the gospel of Matthew.  Matthew, the hated tax collector who was summoned by Jesus to leave behind his shallow life of avarice and greed, called to his life’s true vocation as a disciple of Jesus with the simple words, ‘Follow me!’ (Matt 9:9). Why did Jesus do that? Out of love, of course. And why did Matthew follow him, share 3 years of his life with him, write a book about him and ultimately give his life for him? Out of love.  It is in his gospel, Matthew’s gospel, that we read of the Pharisees who asked Jesus the question: which is the greatest commandment in the law? And Jesus replies with those words we know so well, quoting from the OT in Deuteronomy and Leviticus: ‘“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’ (Matt 22:34-40). I wonder how Matthew felt on writing those words as he reflected on his own conversion to love.


How do we hear the command to love? How does it sit with us? I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of being commanded to love. How does that work? Does it sound a bit like the sergeant major? ‘Pull yourself together, Croft! Stand to attention! Polish those boots of yours and put your cap on straight! And love God and your neighbour!’  This came up in conversation with Hamish Preston one day and he pointed out to me the way that it really does sound quite military and therefore it jars a bit. It’s more like this, to love God and neighbour is the absolute heart of the matter. You cannot, you must not miss this. Jesus said it himself, on this hang all the law and the prophets – that is, everything you know about God in the Bible is focussed here. If you want to live life right, properly ordered, aiming in the right direction, it will begin and end with the love of God. Get this right and the rest will follow. And God isn’t some slave-master, demanding our servitude; he is not insecure, somehow needing our love; no, in fact if we catch the faintest glimpse of God we can’t help ourselves.


Every morning an email from Christian Art plops into my inbox and I read it as part of my prayer. Reflecting on the greatest commandment, this is what Philip van der Vorst, who is training for the catholic priesthood in Rome, writes:  Today’s reading goes to the very heart of all Scripture. Jesus tells us what our central duty, responsibility, and even privilege in life is: ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.’ Jesus doesn’t mention the soul, the heart and mind as if they were separate categories of love, it is one love. But by spelling out heart, mind and soul, Jesus stresses that we are to love God with every part of our being. The depth of our love for God should sit in each of these areas. To love God with our heart means that our life revolves around Him. He is the center of our daily life wheel. He is at the forefront of all that we think and do. To love God with our soul means there is genuine emotion and passion towards God. This doesn’t mean that our love for God is to be controlled by our feelings. But it is yet important to find God in our emotional nature. And then to love God with our mind, does not just include the intellectual life, but also a sense determination, active choice and using our free will to seek God. Loving God with all our mind balances out our emotions and steers the direction and path on which we walk, pursuing God. 


The love flows both ways, of course and we can only love at all because God loves us. The apostle John put it like this in his first letter: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). I have a book by Brother Roger of Taizé entitled, ‘God is love alone’; the title says it all! At the very heart of God, in all his awesome power is something that we too share: love. This is true of God since mysteriously, the One God is Three: Father, Son and Spirit: the community of God, the Trinity, bound together by love and in love. Our communities: families, friends, neighbourhoods, churches are all reflections, images of that love that spreads out so generously from God Himself.


How do we begin to love God? It must be something that comes from our hearts, although the outworking of it will be in our actions. Coming to love God isn’t so much something we do, as something we allow to happen. What I’m going to say now has been said so often in this church that it almost feels like a cliché! I refer to Jeremy’s sermon of a couple of weeks ago when he spoke of finding time for prayer; and Mark’s sermon on 24th August when he talked about contemplative prayer. It’s about deliberately putting ourself in a place of stillness, gently letting go of worries about yesterday, today and tomorrow and being quietly present with God. Allowing God to slip in gently into our lives. It’s about noticing – noticing the beauty of an autumn day; not just an idle glance, but a long look, and allowing the thought to come in, that this is an expression of the love and beauty of God and allowing that to warm our hearts. It’s about taking precious words of scripture and lingering over them, perhaps even memorising them, repeating them to ourselves, allowing them to soak in and move us. As I said earlier, it’s about allowing ourselves to catch a glimpse of God: once we do that, we can’t help but love him.


The outworking of the love of God in our hearts (which is the same as the presence of Christ within us) will, indeed must show itself in love of our neighbour – and indeed, in love of ourselves, for Jesus tells us that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. I’m proud to say that we are pretty aware of this at St John’s and there is a lot of love being shown in various ways: helping with shopping, doing the decorating, giving lifts, delivering prescriptions, visiting, supporting, involvement in Communicare, Hope into Action and so on. I’d like to reference another sermon that was preached recently, a very moving one by Ian Maynard when those of us who have white skins, like me, heard what it can be like not to have a white skin, and felt very uncomfortable in the process. I was powerfully reminded that all forms of prejudice and racism are the opposite of love.


I’m guessing here, maybe wildly, that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is not one of those places that your well-thumbed Bible opens itself to. But I was struck by our first reading today and the way it revealed the tender heart of Paul as he spoke of the way he conducted himself among the men and women of Thessaloniki: ‘…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.(1 Thess 2:8,9). Isn’t that beautiful? The scary apostle Paul himself knew love.


Sir Paul Nurse is a Nobel-prize winning biologist. Recently, on a podcast I was listening to, he described the pot plant sitting on his desk as his relative! In the sense that all living things on the earth, whether plant or animal, insect or fungus, fish or tree, human or pot plant are biologically related. We are all related! Did you know that we share 25% of our genes with plants?? What would it mean to regard the whole created order as our relatives – or perhaps as our neighbours. Because that’s exactly what they are!! And in so doing, love them. In saying this, Sir Paul was, probably without knowing it, echoing the words of St Francis of Assisi, who named all created things as Brother, Sister, Mother or Father and thus related himself to them. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, humanity has increasingly regarded the planet and living things on it as a commodity to be exploited – and we are now reaping the whirlwind of that, quite literally.  Maybe if we, as a human race, can come to regard the creation as a relative, a neighbour, a loved brother or sister, we can begin to turn back the tide of climate change. So let us see our planet and everything on it as our relatives, our neighbours, our friends, gifts, and love them.


I’m going to end with a poem. I want to balance the command to love with an invitation to first of all receive love. A child cannot learn to love unless he or she first receives love: then it’s possible to return it. In the same way, we will not be able to love God or our neighbour or indeed even ourselves if we don’t first receive the love of God. So sit back and listen, and maybe even go back to this poem and let it feed you. It’s ‘Love’, by George Herbert. You’ve heard it before. In this poem, think of Love as God.


Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked any thing.


A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?


Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.                                                                                                        Richard Croft

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 – Sunday 11th October 2020 – Trinity 18

Philippians 4:1-9: Rejoice Always


I am going to be looking at our epistle reading today, from Philippians, rather than at the parable of the wedding banquet.  I really like the letter to the Philippians, in that it is so personal, and Paul clearly likes the church there.  When he wrote the letter, Paul was (most likely) under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28v16).  There had been a Jewish plot in Jerusalem to kill him, which ended up with him being taken into custody by the Romans, and when he appeared before the Roman governor of Caesarea, he had appealed to Caesar, and been taken to Rome (Acts 23-28).  The Philippian church had sent a gift to support him (4vv10-20), and this was a thank you letter, and to let them know how he was.


The letter is generally very encouraging, and does have some wonderful bits in it.  In 2vv6-11 there is the marvellous Christian hymn about Jesus that starts: Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…  We have been working our way through Romans in the past few months, and that feels much more like a theological treatise.  It is good stuff, but hard work, quite difficult to follow.  Philippians is much more personal and accessible.


Our reading is the final page of the letter: parting greetings and instructions.


Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 


This is an extraordinary statement for a Christian leader.  It would, as Sir Humphrey says in Yes, Minister, be “brave”.  You hear people say “Do as I say, not as I do”, but this is “Do as I do”.  It is a challenge, and one that I find humbling as I deliver this sermon.  But it speaks of the way faith should spread into our whole lives, changing us, making us more like the Lord.  We will not always succeed in being like Jesus, be then God’s love and forgiveness is always there to come back to.


The church in Philippi was not perfect.  Two women, Euodia and Syntyche are having some sort of dispute.  We do not know what it was about.  Interestingly, Paul does not take sides, but urges them to be of the same mind as the Lord.  And he asks the others in the congregation to help them do this.  Again, there is clear affection there too, as the women have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.


Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 


This is another glimpse of how a love for Christ can spread into all parts of our lives.  IN EVERYTHING, by prayer and supplication (and in a minute we shall look at Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS).  God is always with us, and we should cultivate an awareness of God with us, and a response to it.


We had an interesting discussion with friends last weekend about church: what it should be, and where it will go post COVID.  One point that came out strongly is that Christian life is most definitely not just about church.  Attending church, in church or on Zoom, is one expression of faith, but should not be the only one.  Church may be a starting point for faith, but not the end.


For me, there have been some positive features about the coronavirus lockdowns.  I am no longer speed three nights a week in Bristol to work in the office there.  But because I have no commute, either to Bristol or in Bristol, it is easier to fit in some quiet time with God in the morning, before I start work on the computer in the bedroom.  Regular prayer is a good thing.  We can make it into an ought, and sometimes it will feel like an ought, but it can be very precious and sustaining.  It will take different forms for different people.  Within the church, I know of people who take a time to read a devotional book, study the Bible, pray as a couple, spend 15 minutes just being silent, listen to the Pray As You Go podcasts, meditate on a gospel story; and there will be many others.  Hard work sometimes, apparently unfruitful sometimes, but over the long term, a source of strength and a way of letting God in.


Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice. 


I came across an unpublished poem by G.K. Chesterton:

You say grace before meals.

All right.

But I say grace before the play and the opera,

And grace before the concert and the pantomime,

And grace before I open a book,

And grace before sketching, painting,

Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;

And grace before I dip the pen in the ink. 


John Stott was an Anglican priest who was, for many years, at All Souls, Langham Place, in London, though with an international ministry.  He was the Queen’s Chaplain for most of his life, and many of you will be familiar with him through his books and talks over many years.  He was also a keen birdwatcher.  In my quiet times this week I have been using a book written by him called, The Birds, Our Teachers.  Since I am also a birdwatcher, this appealed to me on several grounds.


In the introduction he says that he considers that Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 6v26, Look at the birds of the air, means that all Christians should be birdwatchers, which seems perfectly reasonable.  The book talks of lessons that we can learn from birds, a study he calls ornitheology.


Stott quotes a Ghanaian proverb, Even the chicken, when it drinks, lifts its head to heaven to thank God for the water.  [].  This view of chickens is a good reminder of giving thanks in everything.


Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 


Mark talked in a sermon the other week about deciding not to watch the news because it was so negative.  What you concentrate on will be what your mind is full of.  So consciously turning towards that which is good, which can mean doing good rather than avoid anything upsetting, is another way of turning ourselves towards God.


And the reward: And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 


Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen



black history month

Race, Diversity and Racism – Taboo, Toxic, Overplayed? – Sunday October 4th 2020

This talk is titled Race, Diversity and Racism- Taboo, Toxic, Overplayed?

Any time the subject of race and/or racism comes up for discussion, public debate or argument, there is a temptation for people to look for an easier subject to talk about like say climate change or corona virus.

It is becoming so difficult to talk about anything remotely linked to race in a clear headed and rational way, that maybe the words Race and Racism, should be pixilated or asterixed whenever they are used.

Despite this being a difficult subject to approach, one thing that is certain is that issues relating to race have become a regular part of our news in many ways alongside documentaries relating to work, sport, health and many other areas of life.

In recent months, there have been a steady increase in programmes on Radio and TV, relating to areas of ‘Black Culture’ and ‘Black History’.

As we are now in October, Black History Month will bring even more programmes looking to grab our attention and interest on a variety of issues.

With this in mind, I would strongly recommend that you try to catch up with a documentary I saw recent, presented by Suzy Klein and Sir Lenny Henry, about little known Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American classical musicians, which looked into how they have been ignored or forgotten. This is worth seeing via the BBC I-player, not only relating to their absence from popular culture in their time, but also this being continued to this day and the pushback in some cases, when broadcasters look to change this situation.

As I said before it does bring many challenges and in some cases denial of there being a problem. I recently saw an Afro-Caribbean man, I wish I could remember his name, say on breakfast news, that there is no such thing as racism in the UK, that the UK is a tolerant country and it is Black Lives Matter that is the cause of racism at present.

This happened about 3 weeks ago and I am still stunned by his assured manner when delivering what to me was a bit of a bombshell. I wished I live in the UK that he believes exists.

In my view, there are two types of tolerance; one which accepts all people wherever they come from alongside their culture and history. The other is a putting up with people, ideas or lifestyles that are different from you with outward acceptance but inside, a combination of distrust and despair that the town, the city, the country is not what it should be and would be better if x or y was not here.

I don’t want to overload you with statistics but this is just a snapshot of modern life which may have some influence on the situation this country is in.

First up are the annual Stop and Search Rates as of March 2019

Ethnic Group Rate of Stopped and Search per 1,000 people Total

Stopped and Search

Asian 11 41,472
Black 38 70,648
White 4 187,761

Police Powers & Procedures in England & Wales

Housing in England

  Black Caribbean





Rent Privately 18% 16%
Rent Social Housing 45% 16%
Own Home 37% 68%


Feeling of Belonging to Britain

2016/17 2017/18 2018/19
Asian 84% 84% 83%
Black 81% 82% 75%
White 85% 86% 85%

Community Survey


As always with statistics, a point could be made for a positive or negative reading of the figures but to me it is the last set of statistics which makes me feel slightly uneasy and concerned.

This feeling is not eased with the rise of hate crime towards ethnic minorities, after the Brexit Referendum Vote, which alongside events in the States has led to the increased prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which I will talk more about later.

Some of you may be aware of the TV Programme, Long Lost Family, (one of Elaine’s favourites), where people who were adopted and/or abandoned when very young, look to find their birth mother or father or siblings they knew about. In essence, it is about looking to gain a sense of belonging and identity.

This is the aim of both Black History Month and Black Lives Matter looking to provide a positive identity and a sense of belonging. This is obviously not a consideration restricted to any particular group of people but it is an ongoing pre-occupation for those constituents of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities (BAME).

I would suggest the rise of Black Lives Matter, its current prominence at both a national and local level has seen a fundamental shift in the discussion, debate and affirmative action relating to race.

This is a quote from Catherine Ross – Founder Director of The National Caribbean Heritage Museum which will hopefully give an explanation about Black History Month and Black Lives Matter.

2020 has held a mirror up to the world and forced many to see the reality of racism in all its guises. From Black people dying disproportionately in the pandemic, to the horrific murder of George Floyd and no justice for Breonna Taylor – the 26-year-old emergency medical worker killed by police in her own home.

 In the UK, the scale and impact of institutionalised racism has been laid bare, with young Black men stopped and searched 20,000 times in London during the coronavirus lockdown (the equivalent of 1 in 4 young Black men), along with Black MPs, barristers, senior police officers, sportspeople and many more.

#BlackLivesMatter protests around the world sparked a commitment among many individuals and organisations to educate themselves about Black history, heritage and culture – as part of understanding racism and standing in solidarity against it.

If that commitment is to transcend beyond social media into real change, everyone, from all communities, needs to embrace Black History Month as a starting point for exploring, discovering and celebrating Black history, heritage and culture – both past and contemporary. From the incredible achievements and contributions, to the many untold stories and barriers to progress – the day-to-day reality of institutionalised racism.

Crucially, this year’s Black History Month is a time to shine a light on our shared British history and tell the whole story honestly and truthfully, to decolonise and reclaim history, and tell stories from the perspective of all people – not just the rich white men in power. The felling of contentious statues and monuments is just the start, now it’s time to ask communities how colonial objects and symbols are used to tell the true story of history.

Black History Month 2020 is also a time to look forward and celebrate the here and now – and the future possibilities. In years gone by, October has been the only time of year when the UK talks about the achievements of Black people in Britain. Hopefully, the events of 2020 will be a catalyst for Black history to be shared much more widely – in museums, galleries, schools, universities, public spaces and communities.

Black people have always made history and always will – but it’s equally important that Black people take the lead on how that history is discovered, explored, researched, recorded, archived, curated, exhibited and shared. That means supporting Black-led heritage organisations and professionals; making national and local institutions much more accessible and representative; and empowering communities to define and share what Black history means to them.

Black culture isn’t just a commodity to be appropriated and monetised, and Black history isn’t just a month to be ticked off a calendar dominated by a white-washed version of history.

Black History Month 2020 is a time for people to come together and hopefully learn lessons for the present and the future. It’s a time to honour the commitment to learning and standing united against racism. It’s a time to reclaim history and re-imagine how our shared history will be told in the future.”

I am aware that this quote I have just read may be unpalatable to some. There seems to be a strong undercurrent of anger, defensiveness, resentment and distrust of anyone who says that we need to look at our history and bring it into the spotlight for good or ill.

The cry of All Lives Matter has been used as a counter call. I believe this is based on fear and a misunderstanding of what is the aim of Black Lives Matter. It is about a need for respect and dignity not recrimination.

It is about those of BAME origin who achieve their aim and become lawyers, not having to endure being told that they should be in the dock, when they go to court.

It is looking to being able to do your job in the Health Service, without being told by patients that they don’t want your black hands treating them.

It is about young Black footballers not being treated differently and not being abused for buying a house for their mum, when their white team-mates are seen as heroes for doing the same thing.

It is about not being told that you should stick to your own kind when walking in the town with your white girlfriend. Or to go back to your own country, when this is your country or your adopted country.

This leads people to feel that the country they live in and love does not love them.

Irrational maybe but heartfelt and believed all the same.

I don’t see Black Lives Matter as a move to look to replicate the Government administration in the drama and book Noughts and Crosses, or to rewrite history.

The band Public Enemy addressed what I see as an irrational fear through these lyrics in Fear of A Black Planet.

People livin’ in fear
Of my shade
(Or my high-top fade)
I’m not the one that’s runnin’
But they got me on the run
Treat me like I have a gun
All I got is genes and chromosomes
Consider me Black to the bone
All I want is peace and love on this planet

(Ain’t that how God planned it?)

When I think about this counter argument, I consider when people raise money for a charity. When asked to support the charity, let’s say Macmillan, I doubt that any one has ever said in response, why not raise money for British Heart Foundation as well, as people suffering from heart problems are just as valid as cancer sufferers.

No one questions the motivation of those supporting Macmillan, so this should also apply in this case. It is the matter that is closest to their situation and not a comment on or being disrespectful to other situations or people’s lives.

I look to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his words read earlier by Vicki. We need to be aware of our past and our present in order to look to a better future. This relates to the historic and current world-wide involvement in slavery and the treatment of immigrants and people in general throughout the ages up to the present day.

I don’t say this is easy to achieve, I am 58 and it’s been a live topic all my life. However, we are called to be salt and light in this world and I am inspired by Patrick Hutchinson who saved Bryn Male from what would have been serious injury when a Black Live Matters march was met by a right wing counter march in June.

You could see it as a modern version of the Good Samaritan and a bright light.

Michael Johnson

Slide & story

I started with a question but I realise I have not really answered it.

That in a way is the point when looking at this divisive and unnerving subject, which has put what could be seen as an indelible stain on the world’s soul.

As with the Covid Crisis, it can only be solved if everyone works together. Unlike, the Covid Crisis, people of all races need to be convinced that a world united to end the misery and division caused by a different kind of virus is a benefit we can all share in.

I want to be positive and believe it is not indelible and can be overcome – with this in mind, I believe these words from a song called ‘Black Myself by Amythyst Kiah, can be encouraging.

I don’t creep around, I stand proud and free,

Cause I’m black myself,

I go anywhere I wanna go,

Cause I’m black myself

And I’ll stand my ground and smile in your face

Cause I’m black myself

I washed away my blood and tears

I’ve been born brand new

But there’s still work to do.

I will finish this talk, the same way that this service with the words of Martin Luther King Jr as a prayer

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.



Lessons for the Journey – Sunday 27th September, Trinity 16A

Lessons for the Journey

Exodus 17:1-7

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

In the Lectionary we’ve been in Exodus for a few weeks now. This morning is no exception. The alternative was a short passage from Philippians, which is a message about being of one heart and mind, and in Matthew’s gospel we have an exchange between Jesus and his accusers on the subject of authority.


At first the readings don’t appear to have much in common, but I think there’s a lesson in each for us at this time as we simultaneously emerge from lockdown and head perilously close to it again.


So I’ve called this talk: Lessons for the Journey. In Exodus the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, and this seems rather a good description, I think, of what it’s felt like to be church in the last six months. We’ve had to leave what we knew of as normal, without really knowing what our destination will be. It is certainly difficult to make plans whilst in this in between stage, so do keep praying for the Church Wardens, Christine and myself as we navigate this period, with the help of Tanya and the music leaders and IT gurus amongst us.


The escape from slavery in Egypt is one the foundational stories of the Old Testament, but it’s about a lot more than gaining physical freedom. There must be some human tendency, I think, to forget the gains we have made and the blessings we have received. It seems that as soon as we get what we longed for, we want to go back to what we had before.


The Israelites had longed for freedom; they’d no doubt prayed for it over many generations. And God heard their cry and sent them deliverance in the form of Moses and Aaron, to get them out of Egypt.


But it seems no sooner were they out of Egypt, they wanted to return. ‘The people complained against Moses, and said “why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our livestock and children with thirst?”’ This was one of the first of a catalogue of complaints against Moses that would continue for 40 years.


As Danielle Strickland has pointed out, in her book about Exodus, you can take the people out of Egypt but you can’t take Egypt out of the people. The Israelites’ wanderings in the desert turned into a long lesson that God was trying to teach them: that is, where God leads, he always provides. The wilderness taught them the very hard lesson of trust. I’m not sure they even got it by the end.


And perhaps that’s a good place for us to start in terms of lessons for our journey. Many people feel like they’re in the wilderness at the moment. It’s an in between time – we’re not out of the woods yet as far as Covid goes – but at the same time, we’re in a different place than we were six months ago. I’m not sure if to you it feels worse or better than in March when all this began…


Being in between demands a spirituality that can thrive in a liminal space. Liminal comes from the Latin ‘limen’, meaning a threshold. A liminal space is where you have left the shore of the old place, but have not yet arrived at the new place. You have to let go of what you had before, but before you can embrace what is coming, you are living with neither one thing nor the other. That was me this time last year as I spent exactly two weeks not technically being the minister of either Whitchurch or St John and St Stephen’s! Being in liminal space can be daunting, but it can also be liberating.


In the wilderness the Israelites were free outwardly, but it would take a lot longer to become free inwardly. They had lived in subjugation for so long, they had forgotten how to take responsibility for their own moral actions, and they complain to Moses like children. Instead of trusting God’s provision they feel God has abandoned them to an early grave.


As we are in between what we remember as normal, and what things are beginning to feel like now, we are also in liminal space and need to trust that where God leads, he also provides.


I wonder, what has been your experience of God’s provision?  Do you feel that you need to take matters into your own hands when it comes to a crisis, or do you find it easy to trust that God will provide? I don’t know about you, but my experience of God’s provision is that sometimes it feels as though it’s a bit last minute; it doesn’t necessarily look like how I imagined it would be, and it tends to emerge piecemeal rather than ready-made.


But emerge it does, and often when we are listening to one another and sharing what we really need from each other. This is what we’re trying to do as a leadership team as I meet weekly with Christine, Ian and Rosemary.


Our church family is being moulded through this crisis. New IT skills are emerging (painful though it may feel sometimes!); we are making new connections with people who have not felt able to come to church in recent years, and we are thinking about a more diverse worship offering.


I wonder how your spirituality is developing in this time? Maybe you can find someone to talk this through with. On Tuesday a group of us met to be trained as encouragers/mentors so that eventually you will be able to have a one to one conversation with someone who’s mature, about your walk with God, and it might prove quite life changing in this liminal time.


So to briefly look at the other two readings: and here’s one thought from Philippians and then one from Matthew. “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”


Boris Johnson read this passage at a recent Battle of Britain Commemoration Service (slide).


This is basically our country’s mantra at the moment, straight from the bible! Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer has said it is our ‘collective responsibility’ to manage the present Covid upsurge and Boris Johnson has said we must ‘Act now together’. The gift of the church to the world is that we know where the impetus to consider others before ourselves comes from. Its origin is not a begrudging sense of duty, but nothing less than the self-emptying of Jesus Christ – technical term: ‘kenosis’. If Christ, who was divine, emptied himself of power in order to serve others, we can take our example from him.


Which leads us finally to Matthew, and the true nature of authority. Authority is also a hot topic at the moment. It is alluded to in each of the three readings; in fact you could say it’s the thread that ties them together. In complaining at Moses, Exodus makes it clear that the people were really complaining at God, and rejecting his authority. They do the same when later they ask Samuel for a king to be set over them, like the other nations have. And the moral of that story was: be careful what you wish for.


Christ’s authority is predicated on his self-emptying. Only by going down, can he go up, as it were (to use the language of Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upwards). Death precedes resurrection and only Christ’s sacrificial death disarms the principalities and powers. Yes, every knee will bow: this is the wish of all tyrants that every knee would bow to them, but only Christ will legitimately receive universal homage.


In Matthew, Jesus is challenged to defend his authority. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” is the Pharisees’ question. He answers with another question and a parable. In effect the three readings pose these three questions: Was Moses’ authority from God? Was John the Baptist’s authority from God? Was Jesus’s authority from God? The answer in all three cases is yes. But only those with obedient hearts were able to perceive this. That’s why following God is less about ‘can you answer these questions correctly?’ and more about ‘is your heart in the right place?’


It’s like a man who had two sons, says Jesus: their father asked them for help in the vineyard. The first said okay, but didn’t go. The other initially said no, but later he went. Which one is heading into the kingdom, is the question. The Pharisees didn’t recognize God in John the Baptist and they don’t recognize God in Jesus. And they’re the religious ones! All is not as it seems in the kingdom, and all is not as it seems with regards to authority.


Authority is being tested in our public life as never before. The safeguarding of our common life in this country depends more than ever on people being obedient to political authority. It’s something we may not have given much thought to before Covid, but when our personal and social freedoms are limited by rules pertaining to the virus, the authority of our leaders, and our own obedience, is really tested.


We don’t easily follow leaders who seem, for whatever reason, not to deserve our obedience. That’s why when public trust in leaders is low we’re in trouble. As well as structural authority, we recognize authority based on experience and then inner authority, which is harder to define. The crowds followed Jesus, not because he had authority bestowed upon him by an outward structure, and not even because he had the relevant life experience, but because he had that inner authority – wisdom-authority. The word ‘authority’ in Greek is ‘ex-ousia’ meaning out of one’s being.


We tend to recognize spiritual authority when we see it in someone. It’s often not vested in the loudest person, but in the one listening, the one waiting for the right moment to offer a pearl of wisdom. It’s not something we can manufacture; instead it is born out of lives joyfully submitted to Christ.


So, Lessons for the Journey: Firstly we need a spirituality that is able to deal with liminality. Secondly in our present crisis, it is noteworthy that being unselfish is suddenly very much in vogue. And finally, the kingdom is indeed, as Peter pointed out last week, a topsy-turvy one: like Christ, we have to go down before we can go up. Spiritual authority comes from an inner attitude of humility and obedience to Christ. This is only kind of authority with which we can speak or act as Christians at this time.







  1. Jesus was a shocker


Jesus was a shocker, and I use the word not in that playful way which I might use when my grandson has done something naughty but actually quite clever.


No, Jesus was deep down shocking, truly taking people’s breath away, as when he called into question the legitimacy of long-held religious traditions, or challenged commonly accepted displays of pride, pomp and prejudice.


The chapter before the one in which today’s gospel comes provides three very striking examples of this and provides useful background for the gospel we shall study in a moment.


The first arose out of a question put to him by a group of Pharisees and was listened to most attentively by Jesus’ disciples.


Can, went the question, you divorce your wife on any grounds? (And the grounds could be something as simple as burning the evening meal or being observed chatting with a strange man in the street) At that time divorce could only be initiated by the husband and was, if anything, easier than today. Jesus took his hearers back to the beginning, to God’s words of a man ‘leaving and cleaving’ in an enduring relationship that might – and only in very particular circumstances – be ended in divorce. So stunned were Jesus’ disciples by his words that they joked that it might be better after all not to be married than to be saddled with a marriage from which one could not escape!


The encounter with the Pharisees was followed by the appearance of children brought to be blessed by Jesus whom his disciples did their best to chase away. Jesus stopped them and said that it was to ‘such as these’ – the very young but also the vulnerable, powerless, forgotten, side-lined, ignored and sometimes abused – that the Kingdom belonged. They remain deeply challenging words.


If Jesus’ attitude to casual divorce and his commendation of children and the like stunned his hearers, his statement, ‘Truly it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,’ left them flabbergasted. The words were, of course, Jesus’ sad comment on the departure of the rich young ruler. To the disciples the words sounded so hard; the young man was zealous and enthusiastic, and wasn’t wealth a sign of God’s blessing anyway? Peter remonstrated, ‘We’ve left our boats and business. What’s in it for us?’ Jesus assured him that he and his fellows would be rewarded in due course and ended with the words which introduce our gospel, ‘The first will be last and the last first.’


  1. No way to run a business!


The setting for today’s parable is grape harvest. Palestinian vineyards were famous and their wines popular. A conscientious vineyard owner comes early in the day to recruit labourers from the local market square. It is still a familiar scene in many a Middle Eastern city. Carpenters can be seen standing with a bucket, saw and spirit-level, decorators with a paint roller, others with shovel and pick.


It is striking that in this parable it is the vineyard owner himself who hires the labourers. He agrees with the first ones he hires the wage for a day of one denarii. It was, I gather, a reasonable wage. We may remember the Good Samaritan in that parable left the innkeeper with two denarii for the lodging of uncertain length of the one whom he had brought to the doorstep.


Three hours after the first hiring, the vineyard owner himself is back again to hire more workers with whom he agrees an appropriate wage and he returns again and again at intervals to recruit more. It is extraordinary behaviour. There is no suggestion that he was incompetent, and he would surely have known at the beginning of the day just how many men (possibly women) he needed. And then, incredibly, as the day cools and the sun begins to settle, he returns again to the square and there he finds some men still

there, desperate and dejected, wondering how they can return home to their hungry families empty handed. Similar thoughts must pass through the minds of millions of day workers deprived of work around the world today.


The vineyard owner asks why they are still there? ‘Because’ they say, ‘no one has taken us on,’ – perhaps it was because they looked already pretty spent and useless. Have you ever had that feeling of being the last one selected in the playground for a team? I have. The owner of the vineyard took them on, furthermore, he respected their dignity; he did not give them a handout but rather a hand up. It was compassion not necessity that drove him back to hire labourers.


  1. A digression – about parables


Last Sunday I was almost at church when I realised I had not got my face mask, and I turned home not wanting to look forgetful in front of the churchwardens, whom I was actually quite sure would have made provision for forgetful people anyway, and I was really quite keen to show off my nice bronze coloured face covering. As I walked home to get it, I remembered Jesus telling a parable of the fate of someone who was ejected from a wedding for not being properly dressed and wondered if he would tell a parable of face masks.


He probably would not repeat his one about the lost coin because coins are getting to be obsolete, but missing car keys or the mobile would surely feature. Little matches the joy and relief when they are found and that, amazingly says Jesus, is how the joy is in heaven when someone turns back to the firm and tender grasp of God. (Luke 15 vs 7)


Helmut Thielecke, the German theologian, philosopher and most courageous pastor to his Stuttgart congregation through the Second World War said of this parable, ‘The setting is very worldly. It tells us nothing that is religious – of incense or miracles – and on the contrary it speaks about the labour market, – the unemployed, an employer and the talk is of hourly wages, labour contracts and rates of pay.’ Jesus was where people were at, so often the church is not.


Near the beginning of lockdown some months ago, we listened to John Bell of the Iona Community – sometimes controversial, always worth listening to – addressing the situation of the pandemic and considering what the response of the church at large might be to it. ‘Are we aiming to go back to the old normal?’ he asked. He drew his listeners’ attention to the ministry of Jesus, whom, he said, spent a hundred times more energy in dealing with people – teaching, healing, evangelising, comforting and befriending – than he did on bricks and mortar. John Bell went on to ask, ‘Are we going to shape the life of our churches according to the priorities of Jesus or remain obsessed with the upkeep of buildings and structures, some of which have long been obsolete?’


Yesterday, Nancy and I were introduced to a delightful Iranian Christian couple, who have been living in the UK for just 18 months, having been forced from Iran by the regime after 15 devoted years of service in the leadership of the church in Iran, which with no buildings, its members subject to constant harassment and intimidation, has yet learned to live courageously with deprivations and uncertainties, and through the blessed Zoom and continuing ministry in tens of thousands of homes, added some half million new Christians to the church in the last 10 years.


  1. Last thing – The parable concluded, and an understanding offered


The parable concludes with the vineyard owner’s steward settling the wages in accordance with the owner’s instructions, beginning with the last hired who were paid exactly the same as the first leading to cries of protest, which we can surely imagine. A fair wage for a fair day’s labour! The unions will hear of this! What was Jesus getting at? And who had he in mind when he told this story? Some say he was getting at the disciples who resented the attention given to very new converts. Some suggest it was Jesus’ Jewish followers who objected to the inclusion among their number of Gentiles. I am not sure who he was getting at – perhaps neither of these groups. I do think it is all about grace and the amazing, undeserved generosity of God, who gives us more than we can imagine or deserve.


The 70 year-old Christian, who has seen a thing or two, known grief and disappointment, slip-ups and folly, but also the over-arching, unfailing kindness and faithfulness of God, does not for a moment resent the exuberance of new-found faith of a teenager, thrilled that he or she has come to know Christ. Such cannot be earned; it can only be accepted with wondering gratitude and awe.


These continue to be uncertain days in which we live but heaven is not under lockdown; the lines are open; God’s voice is not muffled by a mask. He still, like the vineyard owner, turns up in the heat of the day to the weary, and at dusk to the discouraged and, by others, forgotten.


Paul, in prison, longed for friends he could not see, his life was precarious and could be ended at any moment with the swipe of a Roman sword, but from his prison he wrote to friends he loved, these words: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4 vss 4-7)

So be it!





September 13th 2020, Trinity 14 –  To err is human, to forgive, divine


This is a difficult passage. Difficult for two reasons. Firstly, because the subject matter, forgiveness, is difficult. None of us find it easy to forgive. And forgive 77 times, as Jesus said? Really? What am I, a doormat? Secondly, because it’s quite a tough parable, ending as it does with these harsh words: ‘In his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or your sister from your heart’. Does that really seem like Jesus? A few weeks ago in our home group meeting, we read the Lord’s prayer and reflected on it. That line, ‘forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Mt 6:12), underlined in Matthew’s gospel, ‘if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (6:15) caused much heartache. Here’s a thought: Matthew was a tax collector for the Romans before Jesus called him. He knew from bitter experience exactly what happened when people didn’t pay their debts. He was also deeply conscious of his own unworthiness to be called to follow Jesus, to experience forgiveness, acceptance, love and a new mission in life. I wonder if a bit of Matthew’s past is colouring his telling of this parable. This parable doesn’t appear in any of the other 3 gospels. The other gospel with the Lord’s prayer in it, Luke, doesn’t have the line at the end that Matthew does, ‘if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’. I wonder if it’s Matthew’s way of underlining the message, don’t miss this!! Bearing all that in mind, let’s listen to what the parable is telling us.


Each of the parables of Jesus contains a ‘what??!’ moment where his listeners would have gone, ‘what? Did he say what I think he said? In today’s parable there are two! The first is where the slave, who owed his master 10,000 talents, was let off the hook, released from his debt, forgiven. This amounted to 100 million denarii. A denarius was a day’s wages for a labourer. So, billions of pounds in today’s money. Jesus’ listeners would not have expected that – they expected the slave to be sold, along with his family, made to somehow pay the debt (which he never could have done). God is like that master who forgave the debt! We cannot pay our way into his favour, release ourselves from the debt we owe: it is given as a free gift, and must be received in the same way. There is no other way. The second ‘what??!’ moment is where the forgiven slave goes out and promptly screws over a man who owes him a few measly pounds. The callous injustice of that catches up with him and his master sentences him to horrible punishment. Unforgiveness has a dark, negative energy that can infect our souls and kill them; it can take is into our own personal hell, and we all know this. We know too that to lash out and exact retribution will just start off a cycle of resentment and retaliation. Someone said this: ‘Not forgiving puts both parties in prison’


I had a lovely patient, a Filipino lady. Her husband had died, and she had met another man and started a relationship. At first all went well and she told me how happy she was. But things turned sour, and the man stole her money. She left him, but became deeply unhappy and angry, and would weep with me and express her bitterness when I saw her. Months passed, then one day, she came to see me for no other reason than to tell me that it was all behind her. Radiating joy, she told me what had happened. As a devout Catholic, she attended mass every week. That week, the priest, in his sermon – on forgiveness – quoted these words of Alexander Pope: ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine’. Those words changed her. She saw that she could not forgive, to let go, without the help of God. And there she was, in church, at prayer, at communion, and she handed the whole sorry story over to God and received, in that moment, the grace to indeed, forgive and let go. To not let that man’s actions continue to have power over her, to steal the joy and contentment in her life. It was a deeply moving moment. The grace of the moment spilled over into me. It still does. Look, it’s spilling out here, now.


And there it is. This is a one-point sermon, and the point is that what may not be possible for us, can be possible for God, if we will let him. Forgiveness is not easy, it is hard and it takes courage and resolution. It goes against our natural instincts. If we don’t do it, it will suck the life out of us. We will need to pray. Richard Rohr suggests that we should take time to actually feel in our body the pain and hurt of whatever it was that happened and then, gradually and with intent, bring that to God. Quite often, I think we’re not very good at actually telling God what it is we want. But this could be a very clear prayer: ‘Lord, I have been really hurt by this. I can feel the pain in my body, in my heart. I don’t want to live like this any more, I want to let it go. Please, take this away. Give me the grace to forgive.’  We may need to do that many times, it may not be as instant as it was in my lovely patient’s experience. We could even then go the extra mile and pray for the person who hurt us. This is to go even further against our instinct. It is like trying to straighten out a bent metal bar: we have to bend it in the opposite direction in order to straighten it.


So what do we make of our gospel reading, its harshness? Well, let’s not tune in so much to the negative but take into our souls the positive, the great good news – the unconditional, free, full acceptance by God as loved daughters and sons. Let us heed the warning, though, and take the time to come to God with what and who has hurt us. Do I think we can be consigned to everlasting torment because of something someone else has done, and our failure to forgive? No, I don’t. In the end, I believe that mercy wins. But let me end with these words: ‘To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to find that the prisoner was you.’


Living the cross shaped life

Today we’re thinking about something I’m calling the Cross-Shaped Life.

What does a cross-shaped life look like and what is it like to live one?

I’ve taken the phrase from the gospel today where Jesus warns his disciples he’s going to the cross. Peter, after scoring an A in discipleship last week, gets downgraded by the algorithm to a D, after clashing with Jesus over this.

Peter rebukes him: ‘God forbid that this should happen to you Lord.’ Basically he doesn’t want Jesus to suffer, but Jesus has to point out to him that the Messiah will embrace suffering in order to redeem it.

But Peter doesn’t understand, and none of the disciples really get it either. I’m sure if we had been in their shoes we wouldn’t have understood it. It’s only with two millennia of reflection on the cross and resurrection that we can even begin to spot what Richard Rohr calls this ‘universal and deeper reality at the heart of things’ (The Universal Christ, p.91).

Our reading from Romans is headed ‘Marks of a True Christian’. Sometimes it’s obvious that some of the things that apparently parade as true Christianity are not. One of the worrying things about the US Christian scene is the huge over identification of the Evangelical Right with the Republican Party, which tends to lead to a highly suspect kind of Christian Nationalism. Its general support for President Trump leaves many UK Christians totally bemused.

Conservative Christians in Korea, meanwhile, have been attending mass anti-government rallies and spreading the Corona virus as they do so: is this the mark of a True Christian? We might admire their desire to stand up for their beliefs, but are they just bringing the gospel into disrepute? It’s sometimes less easy to see what is or isn’t true Christianity.

So we have this morning a practical list in Romans of the qualities Paul assigns to a Christian fellowship, and in Matthew, we have the way of the cross that Jesus actively embraces; and not only embraces, but encourages all his followers to embrace.

What does it look like for us to live a cross shaped life, in the footsteps of Jesus?

Three suggestions.

  1. A cross-shaped life is one where we’re loving, but also canny about evil.
  2. A cross-shaped life is one where we’re open and undefended.
  3. A cross-shaped life is one where we’re willing to let go.


Loving AND canny about evil.

All you Scots out there will know that to be canny, means to be knowing: it can also mean pleasant or nice; but canny in the sense I’m using it means that we’re not simpletons about evil. Whilst we pursue goodness and peace and all the other qualities one would hope for from Christians, we also have insight into the things that are profoundly wrong in the world: ‘hate what is evil, hold onto what is good’.

There’s a balance here. There will be resistances to the love of God and some of them are violent. The Christian way, though, is to bless enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

With the advent of social media it’s become increasingly hard to resist the easy polarization of goodies and baddies. Putting people into camps is much easier than being honest about our own shadier side. To overcome evil with good, and to pray for enemies, is a very high calling, and somewhat marks the New Testament out from the Old.

But to save us all from becoming like the elder brother who felt superior to his younger prodigal sibling, being canny about what’s wrong should start with our own self-awareness. The person of faith, one would hope, puts their own house in order before starting to demolish other people’s.

That’s why we have a moment of reflection before the Confession each Sunday. I don’t know about other service leaders, but I never quite know how best to introduce this part of the service. There are official words of course, but you can invite people in your own words too.

Ideally we need a balance between being constantly reminded that we’re sinners, and being glib and shallow about confession, because the words are so familiar.

The trouble with a general Confession is that it is general. It’s designed to be said in community and that can be a powerful thing. But where does it leave us as regards to the specific ways we each avoid God and pursue our own programmes for happiness?

I think about the Epistle of James, where the faithful are encouraged to ‘confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed’ (5:16) and the Roman Catholic practice of confessing to a priest. Maybe we each need to find a confessor? How well do you know yourself that you might be able to notice an area of your life that has yet to be redeemed? It might be an uncomfortable thought. Perhaps you feel it wouldn’t be appropriate. Mostly we need other people to point out our failings, but who has the courage or the diplomacy for that?

I think of an unwelcome time in my thirties when a close friend and I fell out over something, and she told me, on no uncertain terms, that I was moody. I was horrified, and also surprised because I thought of myself as very sociable; but after a while I realised she was right. I had to re-think some aspects of my behaviour that I had not been aware of.

And there was an equally unwelcome time in my twenties when a work colleague whom I was supposed to be supervising told me I was bossy. I was horrified on that occasion as well; especially as she then went on to say she wasn’t the only person in the staff room who thought so.

Moody AND bossy. It’s rather an unfortunate combination really. In my 40s I studied the Enneagram, and for those of you who have an acquaintance with Enneagram wisdom I can say that being moody and bossy just about sums up being a FOUR with a THREE wing. Although it was painful, those two observations by a friend and a colleague proved humbling, and I still remain grateful to them for their insight and courage.

Do you know which are your blind spots? The people who do know them, probably better than you, are the people you live with and work with, the people you spend the most time with (and especially your grown up children!) It’s rare to find someone who can tell you without losing you. But to be loved even when our faults are known, is the only love worth having at the end of the day.

So a cross-shaped life is about being loving AND canny, particularly about our own stumbling blocks. The genius of the Enneagram, for anyone who wants to look into it further, is that those very stumbling blocks can become your pathway into greater wholeness, as you allow them to come into the light of Christ.

Open and Undefended.

When we’re conscious of so much that is evil in the world, it’s often hard to remain open and undefended.

We’ve all met highly defended people. They’re like a fortified castle, prepared at all costs to defend borders. They’re difficult to get to know and wary of sharing themselves for fear of rejection.

Understandably, defences come up when we’ve been wounded or we feel our personal security is compromised. But in order to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep’ we need to remain open. It’s a very hard balance.

It’s never easy to walk a difficult path alongside someone who’s in pain or difficulty, and we see in the gospel the deep and understandable unwillingness of the disciples to identify with Jesus as he heads towards his Passion.

Peter is rebuked in the strongest words, for trying to prevent Jesus from suffering, words like those Jesus used to Satan in the wilderness: ‘Get behind me!’ He is told ‘you are setting your mind, not on divine things but on human things.’ Human things here, I presume, are the normal human impulses: to minimize pain and maximize happiness. That is the programme we’ve all been on in the West for at least the past 300 years. But the Christian is on a different programme.

Undefended people don’t plan to get back at those who have harmed them. They might distance themselves completely from the one who has done them harm (and it might even be vital to do so) but they don’t plan revenge; that would only eat them up from the inside. With a firm belief that justice originates in the heart of God, the Christian can know that justice will be done, but done God’s way.

There’s an interconnectedness in the Christian vision of humanity that acknowledges that everything we do impacts somebody else. Issues of climate and race are issues for all of us. There’s an African name for this interconnectedness: Ubuntu – everything you do affects me; everything I do affects you. It’s the opposite of the kind of zero sum games that students have been forced to play as they scramble for university places. It’s the opposite of how our parliament is arranged with one side versus another facing each other across the benches like adversaries trying to score points off each other.

During the Pandemic, we caught a glimpse of how life might be if we didn’t live as though there was only one winner, but if we acknowledged that we are all reliant on each other; on our delivery people, our shop assistants, our cleaners and our health workers, simply to navigate day-to-day life. We’ve realised during these times that the more a role is about caring for others, the less it seems to be paid.

So living a cross-shaped life means living an open life, an undefended life as far as it is possible.


Willing to let go.

In Jesus’ own words: ‘if any want to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. It’s an important principle for individual Christians but we might try as well to think what this means for a church congregation – to deny itself, take up its cross and follow Jesus.

At this time, as we try and imagine what it’ll be like to go back to worship in the building it might mean we need to let go of certain expectations, and empty ourselves to receive whatever it is God wants to give us.

If you’ve visited the church on a Saturday for private prayer you’ll have experienced sitting very quietly, a little apart from anyone else, with your facemask on, and being still and prayerful. It’s actually been an experience that’s grown on me. Wearing a facemask tends to limit your speaking, and maybe we have to attend more closely to the other, as we cannot make out their expressions in the normal way.

My personal experience in shops has been that this doesn’t make people any less friendly. You can normally tell when someone is smiling, by looking at their eyes.

I can’t help thinking that less speaking and more paying attention to ‘the other’ might be a very good way forward for the Church of England. Jesus chose silence before his accusers, and his inner potency was not lessened because of it – rather it was increased.

If we feel, once we’re back in the church building wearing our masks, that we’ve been effectively gagged in worship, it might be an interesting reflection to consider what that means for our inward communication with God and for how well we listen, and for the state of our hearts. It will certainly not be the case that ‘the still small voice’ is in any way gagged in our midst.

As Jesus said ‘whoever wants to save their life will lose it; but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. That’s the ultimate letting go. And it leads not to death, but through death to life.

So, the cross-shaped life: Loving but canny about evil; open and undefended; willing to let go. May these qualities mark our church together life as we go into the months ahead.


who do you say

Who do you say I am?

*It’s the annual fortnight of examination results. They’ve even reached into our Gospel reading. Peter is clearly sitting GCSE discipleship, for he’s given a multiple-choice question rather than an essay: “Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus. “Some say, John the Baptist, others Elijah… [I say] you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”, answers Peter for an A.

*Last week I spent two days in a makeshift call-centre on campus helping out with clearing. I was answering enquiries from students whose grades were not what they were predicted and who were searching for alternative universities. As you’d expect there was a frantic element to it – often parents in the background acting as support as young people tried to plan their next move.

*This year there was the added unhelpfulness that a few days later the government changed the goal posts. I know that I personally declined several students who did not make the required grades for Reading with their algorithm-adjusted results, but who would have met them with their teacher-assessed grades. Reading, like many Universities, will now be trying to navigate this mess.

Tensions continued in many households, including ours, as families then awaited GCSE results. Two days before they were due to be released, the assessment criteria were also revised. We now await the result of BTecs.

*You may have noticed in news reports at the time young people speaking of their lives being ruined. Despite the hyperbole, I have some sympathy for we have created a society where social advancement is strongly linked to academic achievement. In short, there are some professions and routes of life that will not be possible to enter unless you can demonstrate you have achieved certain benchmarks – as I was sadly all too aware, as I told several sixth-formers that they hadn’t met these and couldn’t come to Reading.

The debacle of exam results has shown one thing quite clearly, and it follows on the back of the Black Lives Matter protests earlier in the year: and this thing is that behind the façade of meritocracy (that idea that individuals are judged on the basis of their own merits) there can lurk deeper social judgments that are beyond a person’s control: judgments based upon a person’s skin colour; assumptions about that quality of students a particular school can be expected to produce. These hidden judgments – by race, by postcode – can skew matters in such a way that the talents of an individual are overshadowed in profoundly unfair ways.

*It’s an insidious form of injustice and perhaps even an unintentional one. In the case of the A-Levels my brother-in-law, who is a statistician, put it this way: ‘sure, you can make a statistical judgment based on previous years about what level candidates at any given school might be expected to produce overall. But it’s impossible to take that figure and break it down and then individual pupils grades. It leaves no room for acknowledging the achievements of individuals.’ (The error of this approach is indicated in the cartoon on the screen: “Average depth 3 feet”, reads the accurate but completely misleading sign).

*Individuals pupils aren’t statistics. It’s the theme, ironically, of this year’s Orwell Youth Prize short-story by Jessica Johnson, A Band Apart (it’s online, by way, and worth a read).

A friend shared their response to these kinds of hidden injustice in the form of an icon and an accompanying version of the Hail Mary prayer:

*’Hail Mary,
full of grace and courage,
destroyer of Babylon,
defender against White Supremacy, injustice, hatred…
pray for us who suffer under the powers of algorithms…’

‘Who do you say I am?’ Is a person the grades they have received? As useful as testing may be, examinations (it seems to me) should be the servant not the master of our children. They ought to be a way of tailoring further study to meet the existing needs and talents of a student. They should not be a life-long verdict on someone’s worth.

*It ought to come as no surprise to us that many of the dystopian novels and films produced over the last 20 years have focused on stories that pit young person against young person in some imagined competition where only one can win (think of the Hunger Games). But we read this morning in Paul’s Letter to the Romans that society is best described not as a race, but as a body. There are many members in this social body, all of whom are valuable in different ways, all of whose gifts are essential.

*We, who several months ago found ourselves queuing outside supermarkets desperate for toilet roll and pasta, we who now rely on delivery van drivers (like these photographed by Richard Mackenzie), we have perhaps had a brief glimpse of a different order of social value that the examination system entirely overlooks; and it’s an order of real value that is entirely overlooked in the way we pay people.

*Paul writes, ‘do not think of yourself more highly that you ought… but with sober judgment’: Covid might well have sobered us up to think more clearly about what is really of value. Perhaps, perhaps, there may be lasting adjustments to the way we assign value to particular occupations and those who do them.

*‘Who do you say I am?’ We Christians struggle and yearn for a just society where individuals are rightly valued – in their salary, in their social status, in their legal rights – and with that we find common cause with others who are discontented.

But we add something else to the question of true identity that is distinctive: who God says we are.

*‘You are the messiah, the Son of God,’ says Peter of Jesus. He echoes a statement about Jesus’s identity that crops up at key times in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Jesus’s identity as God’s beloved child is revealed at the start of his ministry in the baptism, and it is affirmed in the middle of his ministry at the Transfiguration. And alongside these public moments, it seems clear from the intimate way Jesus had of speaking of God as ‘Abba Father’, and from his habit of spending time alone in prayer, that Jesus chose to focus on this identity, to nourish it, inhabit it, make it his own.

Whilst other identities – other value judgments – were passed upon him (‘you are a prophet, the messiah, the son of David’), Jesus chose to accept this particular answer to the question of who he was above all other answers. And, firmly rooted in his identity as God’s beloved Son, he was freed up to transform the lives of those around him.

*Identities, labels, exam results, all these and other voices clamour to assign meaning to our lives – yes: they open some doors and close others. But amidst all these voices which claim to answer definitively the question of who we are, it is shown to us Christians that we can choose to learn to listen, as Jesus did, to another voice: the voice of God. And this voice will proclaim our deepest identity, our true worth, as beloved children.

*I am speaking, of course, about the form of prayer called contemplation. Contemplation is simply to practise learning to listen to God speaking to us as beloved… Each of us will do this listening in different ways, some sat still; others walking in nature; some reading scripture and so on… But the key to contemplation is to listen, again and again, in such a way that all other identities, all other values placed upon us are set in their proper place, and we are freed up, from tugging fears and anxieties, to be our creative selves.

Exams will come and go; successes and (so-called) failures will pass; but in the end, ultimately, we trust in the everlasting arms of the God who truly knows us, and loves us. And this morning that is the God into whose arms we commend ourselves, and our brother Bill. ‘Who am I?’ ‘You are my beloved child’.

sailing boat

Walking on Water

Trinity 9, 9th August 2020

Jesus must have been extraordinary.  This week I was reading, not today’s passage, but one from Luke (7:36-50) about the woman who came to Jesus when he was eating at a pharisee’s house.  She wept at his feet, wiping them with her hair and putting precious ointment on them.  The book I was using focused on the woman’s forgetfulness of herself, unembarrassed, lost in her devotion to Jesus.  But it made me wonder just what Jesus must have been like to inspire such devotion.  It is a story we have heard many times, and we know what happens, but suddenly you see it with fresh eyes, and think, this is really unusual.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus walking on water, is similar, familiar from Sunday school onwards, but extraordinary.  It follows the feeding of the five thousand.  Then, it was late in the day when Jesus fed the crowd, and they would have gone home in the last of the daylight.  Jesus sends the disciples off too, and it say that by evening he was there alone.  He went up into the mountains to pray, and must have been there for many hours, because the passage tells us that it was early in the morning when he came walking towards the disciples on the lake.  (And note, this was what he did after teaching the crowd for a whole day.)

These events take place at the north end of the Sea of Galilee.  There are slightly different locations in the different gospels, but the feeding of the five thousand seems to have been on the north-east side of the lake, around Bethsaida (Lk 9:10), and the disciples sailed across to the north-west, around Capernaum (Jn 6:15) or Gennesaret (Mk 6:53).  It is about 5 or 6 miles.  The wind was against them, so it was slow progress, and the boat was fighting against the waves.  This is not a storm, and unlike the story of the calming of the storm, they were not in trouble.  Many of the disciples were fishermen and familiar with the lake and with boats, but they are in a workboat, stable but slow.  John’s gospel says they had gone 3 miles or so when Jesus caught up with them, after rowing much of the night (Jn 6:19), so they could not have been making much headway.

When Jesus approached them in the early hours (the original says it was in the ‘fourth watch of the night’, which is between 3-6am), the disciples could not work out who, or what, he was.  You would not really be expecting someone to be walking on the water, and they thought he was a ghost.  Jesus calls out to let them know it is him, and to tell them not to be afraid.

So what is this about?  Is it just Jesus using his superpowers to take a shortcut?

I am reminded of other improbable abilities.  One I really like comes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent, the main character, learns how to fly.  The Guide helpfully explains that, “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack.  The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.  Clearly, it the second part, the missing that presents difficulties.”  Arthur manages it by falling, and then being distracted on seeing his towel, which was lost some time and several planets before.  This causes him to miss the ground, and he finds himself flying.  It is a great bit of invention by Douglas Adams, in that is manages to sound strangely plausible.  But it is not something you should try at home.

The Hitchhikers Guide is fun, but not meant to be taken seriously.  Presented with the story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, we need to look for something deeper.  The gospels do not give us magic.  This is not waving a wand to save effort or do the impossible.  And this walking on water is a one-off.  Jesus does not do it again, and we have no record of the disciples or the early church using it as a means of getting about.

In the miracles we generally see some other purpose.  In Jesus’ healing there is both compassion for people, but also signs of God’s presence and power.  There are a few miracles, like the transfiguration (Mt 17:1-8), the coin in the fish’s mouth (Mt 17:24-27), or the cursing the fig tree (Mk 11:12-25), that seem simply to be signs.

What are the signs here?

The sea was seen in Judaism, and by many of the societies around Israel, as a force of chaos, home of monsters.  In Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth by overcoming this chaos and putting the waters in their place.  Psalm 29 says You rule the raging of the sea, when its waves surge you still them.  In the Old Testament, God alone has the power to subdue the seas.  Here we see Jesus walking on the sea.

When Jesus approaches the terrified disciples, he calls out “Take courage!  It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”  The “It is I” in our translations hides the force of the Greek, which is literally “I am”.  “Take heart, I am; have no fear.”  This points through the Aramaic Jesus spoke to the way God refers to himself in the Old Testament, “I AM”.  Jesus is able to do this because he is God.

This is certainly how the disciples took it.  Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.

Peter joining Jesus on the water is not in the other two gospels that record this miracle (it is not in Luke).  It is often presented as the meaning of the story: keep your eyes fixed on Jesus; have faith; if you feel overwhelmed, call upon Jesus and he will save you.  These are all good lessons, but seem secondary to the main meaning.  Even in Matthew the passage ends with the disciples’ awe at Jesus.  Their response is worship.

At the end of the calming of the storm, which appears a few chapters earlier (Mt 8:23-27), the disciples’ reaction was Who is this man?  Even the wind and the sea obey him.  This time, they have moved on, Truly you are the Son of God.  Again, we are so familiar with these stories that we forget that this is an extraordinary thing to say about, or to, someone you know.  The disciples came to believe, however imperfectly, and through however many misunderstandings, that this man they had spent years with was actually God.

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen