Gen 15.1-12, 17-18, Luke 13.31-35

The sermon this week is in the series called 21st Century Anglicanism.  So, just a reminder that for Anglicans, when we consider issues, whether what happened in New Zealand yesterday, or climate change or Brexit or education we look through three different lenses – scripture, reason and tradition.  Other churches may have different emphases.  For the RC church tradition is especially important eg the pope’s encyclicals; for some protestant churches it’s sola scriptura (only Scripture).  We Anglicans, however, try to hold these three strands together.  It’s worth looking out for these when you listen to sermons in an Anglican church.

Today my topic is lament.  I’ve tried to use the three lenses, though with a very light touch.  Tradition – lament has been part for our church history from the start because of our roots in Judaism.  Lament was and continues to be a feature of Jewish faith and practice.  Every year, for example, Jews lament the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC to the Babylonians.  70AD to the Romans).  There is a whole book of Lamentations in the Old Testament.  Traditionally Chritians have included lament in the liturgy on Good Friday.

At café church on Thursdays there is usually some conversation in response to the gospel passage.  The other week we touched on a theme that regularly troubles us- why do some people have more than others, get what they need more than others even though they are clearly not good people?  And, connected with that, what’s the point of being good?  And then, in a flow that happens at café church, and with a connection that I have now lost we moved into a lament over our schools and the way that subjects like music, art and drama have been squeezed out of the curriculum.  There was a noticeable shift in the tone of the conversation.  The talk about the unfairness of life in general was a complaint, a sort of groove we can get into when feeling fed up.  The tone of the lament was different.  Suddenly we were all focussing on something precious that we felt had been lost.  There was a new clarity in our tone.  We’d noticed something together and together we articulated what the shrivelling of the arts in our school meant to us.

Lament – not something we hear very often.  In today’s gospel we see Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, longing to see Jerusalem move towards life, but knowing that it was heading the other way, and expressing his grief.  As he travels towards Jerusalem we see him getting more and more in touch with his calling to suffer and die for his people.  Nothing deflects him from this, not even Herod’s threats.  Yet at the same time he can see that his own people, will ignore his message, turn away from him.  it’s hard to imagine what that is like.  You’re giving your all to something/someone and continuing to get no response.  One way of dealing with this is to lament, as Jesus does here.  He cries out in the same way as some of the prophets – Hosea 11.1-3 ‘When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  but the more I called Israel the further they went from me.’  Isaiah 65.1-3 –to a nation that did not ask for me..that did not seek me.. that did not call on my name I said ‘here am I, here am I.  Like the prophets Jesus speaks as though it is God himself addressing his people with yearning, and also despair.

Other laments in the Old Testament, typically in the Psalms, are corporate expressions, lamenting loss of homeland, health, livelihood, or dealing with the impact of conflict.  – Ps 42 ‘all your waves and breakers have swept over me..I say to God, ‘Why have you forgotten me?

Prophets like Jeremiah lamented God’s call to him to be a prophet, (15.10 He laments to his mother, ‘alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land contends!’) as well as lamenting the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians– a whole book – Lamentations.

Lament, unlike mourning and grief always has a sound.  We may mourn and grieve without anyone knowing, holding it inside ourselves.  Lamenting, though, pushes out our inner pain in sound, and is often very noisy.  We may be lamenting a broken promise, the loss of someone dear to us, a deterioration in our health, a missed opportunity, the lack of something, as with Abram who longed for a son and some land to call his own…

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is about a missed opportunity.  He is using a image of God found elsewhere in the OT – God rather like a bird protecting her young under her feathers.  It is an image of gathering, as opposed to scattering, which is what an enemy does, and which is what will happen to Jerusalem in the future.  Jesus wants to gather them, to draw them into a way of being with God that is the equivalent of living under the shelter of his wings.  What is described in the OT as living in God’s covenant – the one made with Abram, Jacob, Moses…but they don’t ’notice the invitation, it passes them by, they ignore it, and he laments at that missed opportunity.  They had not seized the favourable moment, had not noticed God’s coming to them in him.

Perhaps Abram stands out because he noticed the vision that came to him, and he believed what God communicated to him through it.  Unlike Jesus’ contemporaries he did not miss the moment when God visited him.  He received a blessing.

Jesus, while lamenting his people’s lack of awareness that in him the time had come, nevertheless sticks to his own sense of timing.  He does live under God’s wings.  He knows he has come from God and is returning to God (John 13).  Secure in this identity nothing, deflects him from the path leading to Jerusalem and his death.

In making a promise to Abram – a covenant- it is God who takes a more costly path, causing himself to be the join, as it were, between the 2 halves of the animals.  What actually happens is a mystery to Abram – he is asleep, in darkness, and afraid – often signs in scripture of God’s awesome presence.  Likewise with Jesus, in sticking to his path towards Jerusalem and the cross he is enabling a new join to be made between God and his people.

Lamenting is an appropriate activity in Lent.  It is very much about being real with God about regrets, missed opportunities, sadness at those things that are wrong whether with ourselves, or our society.  To lament is to be fully human.  As we lament we can get in touch with the cost of putting things right which is obliquely present in our two readings.  It is God who joins the 2 halves of the sacrificial animal to seal the covenant and it is Jesus whose death enables the renewal of that covenant.  As we follow Christ towards Good Friday we too are invited to share some of that cost.  A lament puts us in touch with longings we may have to see things getting better, but first we want to be really honest with God about how painful something may be for us.

It’s ok to call out.  It’s ok to shout our need.  Many of us are like the prophet Elijah – terrorised by Queen Jezebel and disappointed by the lack of progress in what he sees as God’s cause he hides in a cave.  He doesn’t want to talk to anyone about what’s going on for him.  But God gently draws him out (the still, small voice) and then he laments, ‘they’ve been killing all your prophets and now only I am left (a bit of an exaggeration).  God listens and then suggests a way forward. So, in Lent, let’s lament aloud to God.  Get in touch with what’s bugging you most and tell him about it.  then listen.  Let’s get real.

It can help to write your lament as well as speak it. (Or sing, dance, paint it?!)

Tracey Emin at her exhibition "Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner" at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 - 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, Turner Contemporary

‘Deny’ … the challenge of giving up the idea of a challenge.

Mark 8:31-38, Genesis 17:1-7 , 15-16

Lent is the season which is all about denial of the self and the mystery of God.

When it comes to the mystery in this challenging text I’m reminded of Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Before we begin let’s set the stage…. ‘lets talk about the Gospel of Mark’ –

Having been side-lined for a long time, more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Mark’s gospel. What it lacks in detail it gains in intensity. Most scholars put the writing of Mark at or around 60-70 AD/CE, about the time of the Judean revolution (important!) and acknowledge it as the first of the synoptic gospels. Mark’s writing is spare, urgent, and dramatic. Its narrative pacing of ‘straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency. Mark ‘was not concerned to produce a detailed report of the proceedings but to sketch a course of events significant for the salvation of humankind’. The emphasis of Mark’s text seems to be upon action and discipleship; he makes claims upon his audience, his Jesus leaps from the page – evoking transformation.

Mark’s writing could be described as a narrative of death.. a dramatic story and unfolding drama.. heading to a final moment of destiny. Mark cleverly puts together stories which lead the reader into rising tension.. he knows where the story will end.

An inversion of the world, radical (and open to misinterpretation).

Mark’s gospel is about re-interpreting the world.. his vision is truly apocalyptic – a revelation – that God’s kingdom is coming/has come and everything can change. But can his followers grasp this… can we still grasp this today? Mark is radical, revolutionary and subversive; Mark heralds a gospel of non-violent resistance to the forces of military, economic and religious oppression that the people of Judea were experiencing. (CM)

Blindness. Three predictions. Take up your cross. Blindness

It’s worth noting that this passage is the first of three predictions about Jesus own death…  Mark is a clever writer, piecing together short anecdotes to create a compelling whole story; the three predictions are book-ended by two stories of blindness.. is this an accident or is Mark making a point about how it’s so easy to misunderstand/not-see the good news, how the shift in consciousness (a battle of cultures if you like) is so alien to what we are used to?

What makes sense to us is not what makes sense to God. Mystery.

So Jesus lets the cat out of the bag about his bleak ending, and is ‘rebuked’ (epitiman, ‘shut up’) by Peter, (‘don’t be so foolish Jesus’). In response, Jesus publicly rebukes Peter, (epitemesen ‘shut up’, usually used against demons) the argument is strong and vehement…

God’s kingdom is the inversion of the world; what makes sense to us, self-preservation etc is not the same here. The love and life of God which Jesus speaks of is liberating, risky, going beyond our comfort zones – it relocates our identity with ‘the other’, and the (absurd) logic of this is beginning to loom disturbingly in the disciples minds. Despite the fact that the crowds are following and they are seeing many signs and miracles, the kingdom of Jesus is not like other kingdoms.. the reign of God wont see Jesus enthroned as a new leader (as they might have expected)… instead he announces his own killing? Something is really wrong.. Maybe Jesus is mistaken?

 Life as self (psyche)… a shift in priorities. The other is our life. Humans. Relating.

Today’s sermon is supposed to be about ‘realistic Christianity’, yet the challenge in the next section, (as Jesus draws all his listeners in) is even more bewildering and seems far from realistic.. We are suddenly confronted with talk of giving up your life to find it… this feels like too much, you can imagine the heat rising in the back of the neck, the discomfort, ‘now we are all too deeply involved… is there still a way to get out?’

Whilst it is certainly true that many people have, (and still do today) lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.. and we may remember them in our prayers this morning. But I don’t think this is the first thing Jesus is thinking of…

‘Life’ (psyche) also means soul or self.. what we might see is that Jesus is saying we must give up our selfhood.. our self-reliance, our self-madeness, our strong exterior.. our hope of control.

And if we did dare let go – where do we find ourselves? With ‘the other’.? with other people? with God..? This is about vulnerability and realising it is not us who hold even our own lives together.. we are not islands.. with live in relation .. we become human by being together.. (this church bears witness to such a community) the Eucharist reminds us weekly that we give ourselves away – yet receive our self back as a gift.

Living beyond ourselves. Not masochism.

And as in Judea in 1st century so today there is a clash of cultures between those who perpetuate the dream of self-reliance, protectionism and closed borders – of all kinds; and those who choose to live openly, with the risk of the other and the unknown. We see this from the success-filled messages of social media to politicians who are not allowed to show any weakness etc.. Thank God for the antidote of poets and artists who reveal more subtle images of humankind.

Selfhood and Service

So let us hear this passage afresh… not an injunction to become a masochist, to invite pain or even death.. nor to think we can do things for God. Instead it is about shifting out priorities away from purely ourselves and recognising that we only become ourselves by virtue of others around us; even the stranger… it is from this vulnerable openness that our humanity properly flourishes, the human self becomes a we-self; identity found through intimacy… and it’s from that place of com/passion that all kinds of giving will occur.

The tragic shooting in Florida last week gave us the story of the gym coach Aaron Feis who ran towards the sound of gunfire to protect children and in so doing he lost his own life. He wasn’t seeking to die, he would happily have remained alive if he had the choice.. but his deep instinct was that the children’s lives were of value, and that he naturally, humanly, responded as he did. (There is much more to say of this sordid affair and the sordid response from men in power in American who are already silencing the voices of the voiceless… and yes please do read everything you want to into this!)

Jesus is reminding his followers that the gospel affects everything; upturning our understanding of politics economics education science art and people.

Faith not as construct but as gift.. beyond understanding, towards mystery.

So the kingdom of God is not contained, it defies usual logic, it shifts our priorities. Jesus could not be contained in Mark’s gospel.. and he cannot be contained today, even despite our best attempts to pin him down in theology and worship. Faith today is often neatly packaged.. “Jesus is the answer”, we may have heard, yet Mark shows over and over again that Jesus is far more the question, than the answer…

Scholar Ched Myers echoes the crowds at Golgotha; ‘If only Jesus would come down from the cross so we might believe (15:32)! Who of us’, he asks, ‘is really prepared to accept that by remaining there he shows the way to liberation, to acknowledge that in this moment [of redemptive suffering] the powers are overthrown and the kingdom [of God] is come in power and glory’ [cf. Mk. 13:26] …
Too often our religion appears to reduce this radical message to something neat and contained.. something polite and sanitised, whilst Mark is busily stirring up a revolution!

Embraced in grace. No presentation of good self, but our whole/broken self.

But that doesn’t make this inaccessible… in fact the opposite is true. The point of all this dialogue is that by ‘letting go’ of the self, our self-reliance.. and by letting go of the idea that Christianity is a task to maintain… we instead find ourselves held and loved. The illusion of distance from God becomes apparent. It is those who live openly who will live fully; and those who shore up defences who will shut down their own lives and others around them.

(Funny too that Abraham and Sarah were both deeply flawed people who, yet, still received a blessing; they allowed themselves to be open to a wild notion – though it took a lifetime to learn)

This apocalyptic good news is that God breaks into our worlds with love and grace. We don’t need to pretend.. we don’t need to present only our good self to God… we don’t need to do anything for God, we don’t need to make ourselves out to be something we’re not.. we need instead to let go of the ego, and realise – as difficult as it is – that we are wholly understood and totally loved; we are welcomed, warts and all – unmade bed and all, to feast on Christ, to share supper with him… and within that grace, (not prior to it) we may yet find ourselves – and our world – transformed with hope.

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

Yes. It’s in this strange, terrifying world-shattering presence that we are finally disarmed, and instead find ourselves held in love, grace and a peace which surpasses all understanding. And that might be just fine!


Picture Credit – Tracey Emin at her exhibition “Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner” at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 – 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, courtesy Turner Contemporary.

Ring The Bells

Genesis 28:10-19a, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Ring the bells

It’s good to be home. Rosemary and I got back yesterday after nearly 6 weeks covering the leave of absence of 2 Korean doctors at LAMB Hospital, Bangladesh, where we used to work some 30 years ago. Times have moved on, as they do. The project has grown hugely, now employing some 1700 staff in hospital and community activities. Medicine has changed too, and these two retired GPs found themselves frequently out of their depth and it was with relief that their Korean colleagues arrived back from leave and they were free to literally fly away. Thank you so much for your prayers and support over this time, we have needed it.

A couple of weeks in, we came across this short verse from the song ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen. You may know it, you may even think it’s a bit clichéd, but it spoke to us: Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in. It’s funny how a few words can really help, and they did. Instead of being overwhelmed by what we couldn’t do, we did what we could – we rang the bells that still can ring and forgot our ‘perfect offering’. I want to try and tie that in to today’s gospel reading, what is known as the parable of the wheat and weeds.

A parable is a short story that conveys a deeper meaning, often spiritual or moral. Jesus told 46 parables that we know of, and most of his teaching is tied up in them. His stories used images that would have been very easy for his hearers to connect with, even if understanding them was another matter. But the stories stuck with people, as good stories do, and the hearers would mull them over, talk about them, trying to mine the real meaning. Jesus’ disciples often missed the point, and with this parable they couldn’t work it out and asked Jesus directly to explain it to them. I believe that this parable confronts us with a very relevant and up to date question: why is everything such a mess? And what do we do about it?

First though, let’s understand the context. In ancient times, there were often rivalries between farmers. One way of ‘getting back’ at your rival might be to sow weed seeds in his fields. So Jesus is hitting on his hearers’ experience here, and there were probably a few wry smiles and mutterings along the lines of ‘that so-and-so did that to me last year’ and perhaps a few red faces too, of people who had done exactly that. It’s thought that the weeds might have been darnel, and you can see in the picture that they do indeed look like wheat. So, a farmer and his farm hands wouldn’t know until it was too late that this had happened. In the parable, the farm hands report that there are weeds in your fields! Shall we go and pull them up? No, says the master, you’ll uproot the wheat as well. Leave it until the harvest, then we can sort them out. Well, Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what the parable meant, so they asked him to explain it. In a few words, Jesus tells that the one who sows the good seed is Jesus himself; the field is the world and the good seed are the ‘children of the kingdom’; the weeds are the children of the evil one, the one who sowed them was the evil one, and the harvest is the end of the age. He goes on to explain that there will be a fierce and fiery judgement for them. In black and white terms, it’s about how can it be that good and evil exist together, and what do we do about it?

Now I am going to put the judgement bit on the ‘back burner’ for now, and I want to stick with the question, why is everything such a mess? And what do we do about it? First to explain a bit about the ‘children of the kingdom’. The ‘Kingdom of God’ is the dominant theme of Jesus teaching. Despite that, there isn’t universal agreement about what it means. Here’s the explanation, in a nutshell, that at least fits with this story! At that time, the Jews were expecting or hoping for the arrival of the Kingdom to do away with the Roman occupiers and re-establish a King in Israel, a bit like in the times of David and Solomon. That was not what Jesus was about. What the Kingdom, according to Jesus, may mean is that God’s sovereignty and presence was made real in the ministry of Jesus and in those who followed him, the ‘children of the kingdom’. But there’s an ‘already but not yet’ quality to it; although that’s true, the full reality of the kingdom has not dawned. That is still in the future.

So, if the followers of Jesus, the children of the kingdom, are the good seeds, the real wheat, who are the seeds of darnel, the weeds? Everyone else? Other religions? Men with long beards and women with headscarves? Heretics? Islamic terrorists? Climate change deniers? People who don’t agree with us? Atheists?

The first point of this story is that you can’t tell. The wheat and the weeds look the same. The second point is that even when you can, you are not allowed to do anything about it. You simply wait. Who really knows who is a child of the kingdom and who isn’t? Who knows if this person is wheat or weeds? God alone is the judge of that, and the parable tells us that sifting out will happen, just as at the harvest the weeds can safely be separated from the wheat. I used to be so sure who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. And now, I have no idea. Our recent time in Bangladesh, meeting Muslims and Hindus who all ‘walk the talk’ – live lives of sincerity and integrity, who forego considerably higher salaries to do their best for people who have next to nothing – makes me realise that the kingdom may be bigger than I thought.

We Christians – and for that matter, people of other religious traditions as well – we are at our worst when we draw lines, when we say, ‘I’m in, you’re out’. When we make subtle or not-so-subtle judgements like this, and then start to act on them, we fall into the trap of the farmer’s servants who wanted to start ripping up the weeds right away. It’s too soon. We risk our own downfall by failing to behave as children of the Kingdom. And the King, like the farmer in the parable, is patient.

On a large and horrible scale, we can see the folly of drawing lines between people being played out in the Middle East and then across the world in London, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Madrid, Berlin and New York by misguided people who have been overtaken by an ideology that sees the world only in terms of black and white and believes that it is their role to enact the judgement of God on people they deem to be ‘out’, however violent that is. And then there’s the knee-jerk reaction of drawing our own lines. That reaction is behind the travel ban in the US, and closer to home, creates pain amongst communities and individuals who do not share our way of life. This is not the way of the Kingdom. And look, could there possibly be a clearer proof of how destructive pulling up the weeds can be? Just think of what is politely called ‘collateral damage’, the vast numbers of innocent civilian casualties as various military powers – including our own – attempt to ‘root out’ terrorism. ‘Root out’. How ironic.

The Kingdom of God can be an uncomfortable place. The rules we play by are different. In his parables, Jesus lays before us simple stories that paint a different picture. There’s a temptation to think the parables are purely a sort of tale with a moral, a bit like Aesop’s fables. They are much more than that. The parables each have a twist, a point where the story turns towards the unexpected, not at all what the listeners were thinking might happen. In this parable of the weeds and the wheat, it’s at the point where the farmer’s servants come charging in, breathless with the announcement that an enemy has sown weeds in your field and just look! I guess at this point the farmers in the crowd listening to Jesus might have expected him to say something like this, ‘Go and find that enemy and bring him here, I will deal with him! And get to it, get rid of those weeds from my field!!’ In fact we don’t hear a word about the enemy, and the servants are just to do nothing and wait until the harvest, because it was so much the opposite of what they expected. Just what kind of a farmer is Jesus? I wonder if that’s why the disciples couldn’t understand the parable at first. What kind of a doormat is Jesus, letting his enemies walk over him like that? Can we even see here a prefiguring of the cross? For Jesus let the story play out in his own life, he did not fight his enemies back, going to his death which turned out in the end to be not the end.

This is the Kingdom. The sovereignty, the rule of God, manifest in the life and ministry of Jesus, is not played out by going for the enemy, or by drawing lines: ‘I’m in, you’re out’, or by trying to uproot those we perceive to be ‘the enemy’. No, we are to continue doing what wheat is supposed to do: stand straight, grow, and bear fruit. Sometimes we will find that very frustrating and paiful. It is difficult to be faithful, to hang on, in a world with so much mess and violence and pain.

So I come full circle. I know it’s a bit trite, a bit of a cliché, but these words of Leonard Cohen’s contain a profound truth, a message to us, the wheat struggling to grow in a field full of weeds. Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.


Richard Croft





The meaning of the magic hands

Guest Speaker: The Very Revd John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry Cathedral

Gen 21.8-21, Matthew 10.24 – 39

Gary’s First Communion

I’m delighted to be here today, to be part of this awesome occasion – awesome for Gary, for all of us, for God who comes amongst us and becomes present in our midst in a particular, a real (tangible) way in this communion we are soon to share.

Many of us here have been privileged to share with this extraordinary man though many years of journeying to this stage. Some of you will have walked the journey for longer than I have, but my first encounter with Gary was around 1995, over 20 years ago, when a very long haired young man turned up on my doorstep in Uxbridge, West London. We had both been told that we would enjoy meeting, and sitting down together was rather like putting a match to dry kindling as conversation immediately took off into areas of exploration, mystery, wonder, excitement, possibility … out of which some of my most precious and stimulating experiences of creating and leading worship emerged.

Over the years of love and friendship, conversations turned increasingly towards ordination – and the Tiny Tea tent at Greenbelt was witness to increasingly urgent questions of ‘could I’, ‘should I’ – do I really believe enough? That of course was mostly me – Gary’s vocation was never seriously in doubt. And over the years his wonderful and precious family have continued to shape and direct that vocation, and to ground it in its own context.

So here we all are, ready for something new. Gary will speak words of offering and blessing, and those of us who dare will receive the precious life of God afresh into our mortal bodies. All are invited, by the way – there are no barriers imposed upon us here.

What’s going on? What has given Gary ‘magic hands?’ What’s changed since the service yesterday afternoon?

Well, everything and nothing. The ministry that Gary has as a priest is not ‘his’ – it’s Christ’s, and Christ has committed it to the church. The church, in its discernment and wisdom, has recognised that God has called the church to ask Gary to be one of its representatives, to bring that ministry to life – to make it real and present, here and now.

Sometimes we imagine that ordained ministers are God’s special envoys, a bit like mini Terry Waite’s. That a priest is the direct representative of Christ. That’s quite a dangerous idea: it places too much responsibility on the individual, and not enough on the church. It’s the church as a whole that are the body of Christ, the church as a whole which has been given Christ’s authority to absolve, to bless, to break bread in his name. Gary’s task is to speak the words – to move his hands – but they are all our words, all our actions, given us by Jesus Christ himself. And it’s his task to help us never forget that – to lead and enable the church to be the church, the body of Christ.

Sometimes that won’t be easy, Gary. It won’t have escaped your attention that today’s readings reflect the reality of conflict in the human and Godly family. All too often, the conflict we have to bear as ministers is within the Christian family, not outside it. Sometimes we are responsible. How and why is that? How come that the peaceful Jesus, meek and mild, comes out with such extraordinary statements as those in the gospel today – I have not come to bring peace, but a sword?

There are many reasons, and over the coming years you will experience and sometimes suffer many of them. Perhaps the key now is the constant difficulty of keeping God’s family outward facing – welcoming, embracing, including. It’s always a struggle to welcome the person who presents as an outsider, who may become an insider, and through whom we change. The church tries to offer a model of how to live for God and others, and someone who suggests that the way we have learned to live for God, perhaps even the way we have believed, is not, after all, the only way – maybe not even the right way – is never going to be an easy, comfortable thing to hear.

To talk to Gary is often to be disturbed, stretched, embraced, by truths which seem somehow just out of sight. It does appear to be his particular and delightful calling in the life of the church – to bring colour, surprising and different patterns, love and joy into sometimes dusty corners.

When Gary takes the bread in a few minutes, as we gather around this altar, in this holy place, let’s thank God not only for him, and for Rachel and all the family – but for one another, and the word wonder of ourselves and God’s work within us. As he takes the bread, perhaps we can see in it signs of our lives, and all that we have done with them, made of them, offered afresh to God to be broken open again to his light. As he takes the wine, mingled with water, can we see it as signs of all that we have lived through – the joy and the pain – transformed in the love of God to reflect his passion for us and the world. As he has already spoken words of absolution, and as he comes to speak words of blessing, may we know ourselves known and loved and held by God, and filled once more with his life and light for the world.

Above all, may Gary’s ministry help us to be the church that Jesus calls us to be, to the Glory of God and in the life and light of the Holy Spirit.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.


Faith as a Wager

Genesis 18:20-32
Luke 11:1-13

+ In the name … ( )


slide02It may be worth offering—as I begin my ‘campaign’ of speaking within the church—that when I speak ‘in the name’ of the trinity, it is as the trinity is; a relationship, a self-giving openness which invites our participation.

In other words I am not speak to you, I hope my approach is understood as speaking ‘with you’.

The ideas I suggest might be helpful, or they may frustrate; they are offerings, suggestions, different perspectives. I am trying to open a dialogue.

If you find yourself thinking ‘I don’t agree with that’, then that may well be the point when you are hearing God. I don’t mind, I am not trying to convince anyone of anything, rather simply trying to introduce ideas, which help draw us nearer to experiencing God in ways we might understand for our lives.

This is a very Anglican way. Preaching is very important, but its not didactic, this is a discussion; it only works if we all think, respond, disagree and engage.

The word is not a spoken word; it is a word that exists somewhere between the voice and the hearer, between action and contemplation.

slide03In that light I might suggest that today’s thought is that Faith is a wager.

I have to confess this teaching on prayer from Jesus and me have… ‘some previous disagreements’.

Come back with me, some 16 years.

It was New Years Eve, the millennium, and I was in Guys hospital and watching my son struggling to live.


We already had experience of Hayden life-threatening neuromuscular condition; disability and most alarmingly breathing problems. Many resuscitations, many interventions. It was a extremely traumatic time for Rachel and me.

On this occasion, half way up Guy’s Tower, he was struggling to breathe even whilst on a ventilator. It was a desperate moment.

slide04 I tried to offer a prayer….

But the darkening clouds of disbelief, which had loomed for a number of years, finally released their full deluge. The prayer was empty, I had lost faith, the universe was silent.

The problem I have with this reading is that it was this verse which rattled around my head as I sat by that hospital bed; fathers? Eggs? Scorpions, ask, receive? home much more would your heavenly father give?


“THIS IS NOT TRUE!” was the cry of my heart.

I know I am not alone here, and that many, if not all, people in this church have known moments of pain, doubt and disappointed prayer. we live in a world which has seen terrible atrocities, genocides, cancers, tragedies. Some stay ‘strong’, others do not, others name the pain…

As did Job, or Jeremiah, or the writers of the Psalms. For each of these faith is not an answer; it is a question.

Jacob Epstein – Jacob and the Angel

It is a struggle to wrestle meaning from a seemingly meaningless universe; as much a complaint against heaven as it is a song of joy. A cry of anguish as much as a prayer of hope.

And as we considered last week sometimes one is another way of expressing the other. The call of doubt is a way of framing hope; for the call of Job telling God he is a liar – is a cry holding God to account, it is a cry that is a cry of faithfulness. A faithfulness that enters relationship, and is therefore open to surprise.

The psalms are full of such disorientation; we thought we had faith in God, but now we doubt it. For me, God was not the refuge from the storm, God was the tempest.

So at this point – beyond belief, at the point where faith has broken – I found myself once more drawing back to thinking about God. Like poor old Richard Dawkins, the issue of God just wouldn’t go away.

The irony tslide09hat losing God helped me to reconsider God again; to find God in conversations, in silence and in that nameless wonder within poetry, art and music.

The simplicity of trite answers had gone, but the struggle to think about God called… to return to ‘faith after faith’ is a process which has * been recently called ‘anatheism‘, the return to God after God.slide10

Anatheism is way of letting go of the metaphysical ‘super-hero-sky-god’ and instead looking for the emergence of G-d in the flesh of earthly existence.

Suffering breaks down our conceptions of God, like the apophatic path we talked of last week; suffering reminds us that our ‘concepts of God’ are inevitably limited. But suffering also connects us to others, there is a solidarity in suffering that connects us to one another – and to God.

Letting go of such ‘God’ images – all images – we find that within the humble, beautiful, fragile and broken body we glimpse something of the G-d whose absence we have faced; and whose presence is revealed in weakness and vulnerability.

The Anglican church is learning to become diverse, broad and eclectic. 21stC Anglicanism might open the space between faith and nonfaith; about taking the risk, the process of negotiating the lines between belief and unbelief.

Like Paul Ricour’s ‘second naïveté’, after all the questions and doubts can we return to faith in the 21st century, a post/modern faith beyond both dogma and doubt.

The question is honest, real, relevant, and vital…

Faith is an impossibility for many people outside of this building and for some inside this building; of course it is, As Keirkegaard says, it’s an absurdity!

slide11It is vital because, as philosopher John Caputo says, ‘religion is for lovers of the impossible.’

But within that absurdity, the wild impossible dream, there is something compelling, engrossing, captivating, entrancing, a dream of God’s kingdom. It is the God who emerges after God. The God who meets us in the vulnerability and wager of relationship.

We heard last week of Abraham encountering three strangers at the Oaks of Mamre. He was faced with the choice, (a wager); hospitality or refusal. In the end hospitality won. It was the act (not the theory) of love, where God was revealed.

And interestingly this week we see Abraham again, this time pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah, negotiating with God, trying to strike a deal. And the interesting note is that God responds. I’m suggesting this is beyond the unchanging immutable ‘sky-God’ of fundamentalism and dogma, the God who is certain, fixed, contained. Negotiation suggests a more realistic wrestling with God.

This God is meeting Abraham in a way which goes beyond belief or even faith, instead meeting God in trust, openness and in the arrival of the ‘the other’.

Like the good Samaritan, meeting God in the stranger, in the risk;

Emmanual Garibay - Emmaus
Emmanual Garibay – Emmaus

or like the Emmaus story, meeting God in the stranger, and revealed in the Eucharistic celebration.

It is like the act of drawing together around a table and saying ‘though we are many we are one body’—despite all our differences—which makes the community become the church.

It is a trust based on desire for God. And as we said last week, desire is borne as much from loss, from absence and silence as it is from presence.

So maybe the way we think about God is changing, maybe that’s what 21 century Anglican offers, a new way of understanding God, beyond the boundaries of belief and non-belief; about meeting God in the everyday and in the sacred in the process of trust and desire, and in the human savoring of life;

‘give us this day our daily bread….’

So to return to Jesus… and this problem text.

(Or is it a problem?)

It too is a negotiation. Our lives echo the hollowness of a promise of fulfillment, and yet Jesus is stressing the importance of prayer, of desire.

What was Jesus thinking when he suggests that these prayers will be answered…?

Right at the end the text might give a clue…

“how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The gift we receive in prayer is not the sky-God, super-man who is going to change circumstances… our cosmology has changed so much, our views of who God is have changed so much it is hard to hold such a worldview.

But in naming our desire, the love of the impossible, maybe we discover the Holy Spirit, the spirit of life. Prayer remains; as a way to connect, to one another, to needs to hope to desire and to lament. Prayer connects us to ‘the other’; to love; and ultimately to God.

By embodying the act of compassion, taking it into ourselves so that we too are moved by the needs of others, in dwelling on the vast, breathtaking awe of the universe, and in the wonder of the divine beyond naming; so we discover something of God in whom we live and move and have our being.

The Spirit calls from the streets, the Spirit is wild, the Spirit may even lead us into the desert, beyond ‘belief’ into a wild place with God. (as she did with Jesus, and she did with me!)

Prayer is about our desire, not the answer;

prayer is about our being within the ground of being;

prayer is a wager of impossibility, mystery and delight.


GS Collins 24/07/16

Beginnings – Sunday 22nd February 2015


Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15



In the year 445, St Patrick baptized King Aengus of Munster in Ireland. St Patrick had in his hand a sharp-pointed staff and by mistake, without noticing, he stabbed the King in his foot while he was conducting the baptism. The King made no mention of this, and St Patrick only noticed what he had done when the baptism was over. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what had happened?’ he asked. The King replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ritual’.


The gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent is a very compact 7 verse section of Mark. The 7 verses neatly cover three key events right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and the start of his work of preaching and teaching. Over the next 6 weeks we will travel with Jesus to the cross and then on Easter day to the empty tomb. But today, it’s all about beginnings. Some of you will remember that our previous Vicar, Tony Vigars, encouraged us to follow a series of studies called, ‘His story, our story’. It was based on the idea that somehow, in the story of Jesus, we find our own story. That the story of our life, and that of Jesus’ life, somehow match or mirror each other. Let’s see how we get on as we explore that idea with today’s short passage in Mark.


The wilderness experience is at the heart of the gospel reading, framed by the baptism and the start of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. That theme of wilderness is perhaps what Lent is most about. Lent is a period of 40 days – that’s not counting the Sundays – which is the same as the length of time that Jesus spent in the wilderness, being tempted and tested. Why 40? It’s a day for every year that the Israelites spent in the wilderness as they wandered from Egypt to the promised land – read about it in Exodus. That number 40 then connects us with Jesus in the wilderness and then right back to the book of Exodus, and 40 years spent in the wilderness. The word Lent, just in passing, simply means ‘spring’. We start Lent in the cold days of late winter and it takes us into the heart of spring with the re-emergence of the created living order in the bright spring sun. There’s another journey.


Before we get to the wilderness, let’s pause at the Baptism. As Jesus arrives on the scene – and in Mark’s gospel he just appears as if from nowhere – he submits to the baptism of John the revivalist preacher, aligning himself with the new movement of repentance and turning back to God. As he comes up from the waters of the Jordan, a dove flies down and lands on him, symbolizing the coming of the Spirit and a voice is heard: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (11). Those words and the presence of the Spirit are gifts to Jesus as he faces testing and trial and the start of his ministry. What more did he need? What more could God the Father give than his love, his assurance, and his very presence through the Spirit? Brothers and sisters, that assurance comes to us also. Here is where these events recorded on paper come alive for us and mirror our own experience. Most of us probably can’t even remember our own baptism – some will be able to – but we too can allow ourselves to hear those same words spoken to us: ‘You are my Daughter or Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’. Let those words rest on you, let them settle on you, like a, I don’t know, a dove. Let that assurance touch you, allow the Spirit to take that right into your heart: know that you are beloved.  The baptismal font is at the door of almost all churches and cathedrals because baptism is the sign of entry into the fellowship of Jesus. There’s a tradition of sprinkling yourself with a few drops of water from it as a reminder, and echo of your baptism and a few weeks ago Christine encouraged us to do that here at St John’s as part of the service. Do it again! Do anything you can to remind yourself of your baptism, and of those words of assurance and love.


You might think that after that high point Jesus would go on in triumph to conquer the hearts of his people and perhaps duff up the Romans while he’s at it. Counter-intuitively, the Spirit himself ‘immediately drove him out into the wilderness’ (12). There had to be a testing of Jesus’ calling and commission. He went out into a literal wilderness, a wild place, an empty place in order to confront his demons – the short-cuts to fame and success that would avoid the cross. The temptations of the flesh and and heart which could side-track him from his mission. The account in Mark is literally one verse only – we don’t get the detail that we do in Matthew and Luke. I’m not going to go to the detail, I want to use the barrenness of Mark’s words to reflect a bit around this theme. Firstly, there’s a very real sense in which the testing was necessary, to prove himself. How do any of us know we can do anything until we’ve been tested? Jesus’ mission was a spiritual one, so he faced spiritual testing.


Just as we too have been baptized, have received the Spirit and the assurance of God’s love, so too will we have wilderness experiences, times of trial and testing. That doesn’t mean something has gone wrong!  Wilderness times come to all of us – they can come from bereavement, loss of a job, retirement, the pain of mental or physical illness. Anywhere where we feel rootless, emotionally or spiritually alone. Strong temptations can come on us in those times – temptations to kick over the traces, to find solace from somewhere else or someone else. Where is your weak point? How well do you know yourself? We used to talk about temptation coming from the world, the flesh and the devil. Let me bring that up to date and then you’ll know what I mean – money, sex and power. They are, I believe, the root temptations for all of us – the places we are most likely to compromise. Richard Foster wrote a book called exactly that, ‘Money, sex and power’. We studied it in home group several years ago – it’s an excellent book. I bet that if you think about your weak spot, your Achilles heel, it’ll involve at least one of those, if not all three. We should guard ourselves and fight the temptation to succumb, to give in when we are at a low point. That will make us stronger, more ready for what we are called to.


For many Christians in the world today, the wilderness experience has a much sharper edge than what I have described. We heard last week of the terrible murder of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians in Libya who were executed for no other crime than that they were Christians. When I heard about it I texted my friend and work partner George, who is himself a Coptic Christian. ‘My dear friend’ he texted back, ‘The whole world has gone to the devil. Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy’. The church in the Middle East and North Africa is facing terrible hardship at this time. Some of us heard Mona Siddiqui at the University comment a couple of weeks ago that the West seems to have forgotten about the existence of the historical Christian communities in those places. Perhaps during Lent we can remember the wilderness times that they are passing through and pray for them.


There’s a silly story about a man who had two dogs, a black one and a white one. Whenever his friend visited, he noticed that the two dogs were fighting. Sometimes the black one was winning, and sometimes the white. He asked them man, ‘why is it that one week the black one is winning, and the next week the white?’ The man replied, ‘It depends which one I feed the most’.


Lent provides us with an opportunity to draw on resources to build ourselves up, to feed ourselves. I’m going to suggest a few practical ways we can do that. Personally, I’m using the ‘Daily Prayer’ app on my iPad. It’s brilliant! It gives you prayers and readings for every day for morning, evening and night. I’ve only been using the morning ones but I am finding it really, really good. Then there’s ‘Pray as you go’ – these are 10 minutes of music, reading, reflection and prayer that you can get on your computer, tablet or mobile. You can use earphones and listen while you travel to work on the bus or train, or put it on speaker in the car. Lots of great books – Rosemary and I are getting so much from ‘Finding Sanctuary’ by Abbott Christopher Jamison. Rowan Williams’ book, ‘Finding God in Mark’ has daily readings from the gospel through Lent. And lots more, of course. Carpe diem – seize the day! Take the opportunities that are out there.


So Jesus passed the test. After the baptism, the testing; after the testing, the mission. Jesus started his public ministry of teaching, preaching, healing which in three short years would lead to the cross. The phases of calling, assurance and trial were necessary.


In the year 445, St Patrick baptized King Aengus of Munster in Ireland. St Patrick had in his hand a sharp-pointed staff and by mistake, without noticing, he stabbed the King in his foot while he was conducting the baptism. The King made no mention of this, and St Patrick only noticed what he had done when the baptism was over. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what had happened?’ he asked. The King replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ritual’.


He was right.


Richard Croft