The Rural Dean’s Christmas Message: Midnight Mass 2015

“The flowers and candles are here to protect us…” This was a dawning realisation expressed by a young Parisian immigrant child in conversation with his father, an exchange captured in a short You-Tube interview taking place amid the crowds in the Place de la Republique on the day after the terrorist attack a few weeks ago in November. (The film clip is available to view on St Oswald’s Facebook page, and I recommend you have a look at it when and if you have a quiet moment in the post-Christmas lull). As the interviewer gently asks the child whether he understands what has happened, the four year old boy, held in the arms of his father, is acutely anxious about the “very, very bad people with guns” who were threatening to kill everyone, and about his family possibly having to leave their home in order to escape the violence. His father tenderly but hastily reassures him that they don’t need to move house, because “France is our home”. When the child then whispers, “But what about the bad men with guns, papa?”, his father does not sugar-coat the pill, simply repeating softly in sadness, “There are bad people everywhere…”

Then, in an inspired moment, the father points out to the child, still very worried about the bad men with guns, “They might have guns, but we have flowers! ” The child looks back over his shoulder, but clearly needs some convincing about the validity of this statement. Frowning, he stammers out, “But, but, flowers don’t do anything!?” He’s lost for words. His father immediately replies, “Of course they do! Look, everyone is putting flowers over there. It’s to fight against guns.” “To protect..?” asks the child. He is silent for a moment, then asks, “And the candles?” “The candles are to remember the people who are gone,” says his father. Another moment of thoughtful contemplation follows, and then the child turns directly to the interviewer and unexpectedly says, quietly and confidently, “The flowers and candles are here to protect us.” His father quickly whispers, “Yes!” And there is a beautiful exchange of a slow, shy smile between the two of them. The interviewer asks the child, “Do you feel better now?” And the little boy says, “Yes, I feel better.” He turns his small trusting face back to gaze on the candles and the flowers, which suddenly have kindled a fragile but blossoming hope within his fearful young heart.

That small boy, I think, speaks for many of us, adults, teenagers and children alike, when faced with dreadful situations shown daily on our television screens from across the world. Or when we encounter in our everyday lives difficult or distressing things much closer to home, in our families, workplaces, schools or local communities. We often have to be helped by others to find any glimmer of light in those dark places, whether in our inner being or in the complex world around us, or else we might otherwise stumble and fall. We all, at some time or other, need the encouragement of other people who care about us, to get us through and to help us see more clearly the bigger picture. This Christmas, many of us venture in through the open doors of our local churches, to find inside a light to help guide us in our common human search for making sense of things and for “feeling better” about it all… Lit by the candles of hopefulness and surrounded by the flowers of faith, even those held in tentative fingers by our companions gathered here tonight, I pray you will discover here your feet returning afresh to a well-trodden path which leads you into the light and tries to make some better sense of the confusions and sadnesses of our world.

Another short film-clip on our Facebook page features the simple yet profoundly wondering lyrics of the song “Mary, did you know?” sung by an A Cappella group called Pentatonix. This too is well worth listening to. The words echo those of the prophets as found in the Book of Isaiah from ancient days, and the song also picks up on Jesus’ own sense of his calling and purpose in life as we can hear later on in Luke’s Gospel, when as an adult Jesus stands up to read from the sacred scroll in the synagogue. The words of the song go like this:

Mary, did you know That your Baby Boy would one day walk on water? Mary, did you know That your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

 

Did you know That your Baby Boy has come to make you new? This Child that you delivered, will soon deliver you.

 

Mary, did you know That your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man? Mary, did you know That your Baby Boy will calm the storm with His hand? Did you know That your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod? When you kissed your little Baby, you kissed the face of God?

 

The blind will see. The deaf will hear. The dead will live again. The lame will leap. The dumb will speak the praises of The Lamb.

 

Mary, did you know That your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation? Mary, did you know That your Baby Boy will one day rule the nations? Did you know That your Baby Boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb? The sleeping child you’re holding, is the great I AM!

© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

 

(Some of the imagery here, strange to us but familiar to the ancient Hebrew people, is of a sacrificial lamb given up to enable restoration and reconciliation with one another and with the mysterious God whose name was almost too sacred to speak aloud…)

That same God, the one who is our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, may be glimpsed here tonight amidst the busyness and crowdedness of our everyday existence. That same God waits for us to enter into honest conversation with him, as (like the best of parents) he holds us tenderly, and desires to protect us from all that otherwise would harm us.

Jesus, who Christians believe is the Son of God, was born as a vulnerable questioning child into our dangerous and violent but also beautiful world, to show us the better way of truth, kindness, compassion, co-operation, courage and peace, and somehow, mysteriously, revealed to be in himself the Light and Hope that will ultimately lead all human beings safely home to God in heaven.

May we once again find ourselves just as awestruck as no doubt Mary was that first Christmas night, daring to recognise here God in Christ placed into our own hands, in the ordinariness of bread, broken for us, fragmented and shared out. May we glimpse God’s renewed purposes for our lives as, mysteriously through this Holy Communion, we find integrity and wholeness, both within and between us.

May the holy angels and all God’s saints, living and departed, remain our joyful companions as we go out from here, restored and refreshed for our different journeys through this often troublous life, and may God bless each one of us, friend and stranger alike, with true peace and heart-felt hope, this Christmas and always.                        Amen.

Advent Sunday 2015

Canon Roy Arnold

Today we begin another year in the long history of the Christian Church on this Advent Sunday 2015… but first there is a farewell to note today… because this is Angela’s last Sunday with us before she moves to Hampshire to be near her son Simon in his new home at Upham, near where Mike Hall used to live.

Angela came to Bollington to look after her young grandsons – now fine young men – after the sad death of their mother and not so long after the death of her own husband John who was Vicar of a lively Church in Hounslow in the Diocese of London.

Her introduction to Bollington was by Jessie Beard on the doorstep with a cake, more than 20 years ago, since when Angela – in her own quiet way – has added her friends in Bollington to a wide range of friends elsewhere. And as well as looking after her family (some of them in Australia and some near Bristol) she has sailed up the Amazon and to the Galapagos Island as well as frequent visits to the Isle of Wight.

I would like to personally thank Angela for her generosity (not least to St Oswald’s Church) and to us, and no doubt many of you as well, for her Prayers and for her friendship. We wish you well Angela in your new home although we shall miss you, and we hope you will pop back to see us often.

The picture shows Angela (second left) standing by the handrails at the chancel steps.
Her gift to the parish, much appreciated by many of us!


Appropriately enough, turning to our Reading for this Advent Sunday, we read of St Paul thanking God for dear friends in Thessalonia and saying how much he has been missing them and hoping for their return. And on the subject of a returning friend he goes on to remind us of the important teaching of the Church that one day Jesus himself is going to return, not as a baby again but as our Judge.

Despite the fact that most of our great Advent hymns remind us of this Second Coming of Jesus (to judge both the living and the dead) we always seem to end up with Advent as a preparation for Christmas, rather than the Second Coming of Jesus. Yet as we avidly watch the news on TV night after night, we may well wonder what our world is coming to. But then we are normally rescued from such shock and awe with yet another advert or shopping at Sainsburys or Strictly Come Dancing… unaware of the trap that awaits us, which is the Doomsday trap.

Surprisingly the early Christians stood up and raised their heads because they believed that their redemption was drawing near. 2000 years later – perhaps tired of waiting – we get on with other things, and leave all this End of the World business to such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But I rather believe it is not to be ignored not least because it is a significant part of the teaching of Jesus; foretelling that He will come again and to all people who live on the face of the earth and we will all stand before him as our Judge.

The question is… what will he judge us on? I guess the answer to that will be on the evidence of the way we have lived our lives, and such things as love and simple kindness and forgiveness.
Psalm 90 advises to count our days and apply our hearts unto wisdom, which might be a good idea so that we may love mercy and walk humbly with our God. Our Post Communion Prayer for today when we get to it reminds us, not to be dozing in sin but to be active in God’s service and joyful in his praise, which I believe Jesus wants his Church to be; doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

As to whether Heaven exists (or not) is a matter of faith and hope, but if heaven does exist, how can we ensure that we actually get there. Perhaps shocking to us, the young Muslim gunmen in Paris last Friday but one believed that it was by killing their perceived enemies and then themselves into the bargain that was for them they believed, a guaranteed way to heaven. But we have been taught differently; that our way to heaven is the way of love – by being peacemakers and thirsty for right and justice to prevail, and by being merciful and kind.

And so in this season of Advent when we consider the thought of God’s judgement of us all and when our politicians are pondering whether to bomb ISL, we pray that they may judge aright and not least remembering St Paul (quoting the Old Testament) may bear in mind the words “vengeance is mine says the Lord. I will repay.”

Vengeance is mine says the Lord. I will repay.

It is God who will have the last say.


1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

 

All Souls’ Day 2015

Canon Roy Arnold

Filmgoers among you may have seen “The secret life of Walter Mitty” re-made in 2013 starring Ben Stiller but (showing my age) I remember Danny Kaye in the 1947 version seen at the Empire Cinema here in Bollington. It is about a man with a very vivid imagination who sees himself as a wartime hero, an eminent surgeon and a gangster. The original story was by James Thurber who was a cartoonist, author and humourist. In 1927, Thurber writing to his brother said this:

“It seems to me that life goes by like a flash of rain and that’s all we amount to in this world. But I think there ought to be more point to it all, so I live in the hope that the adventure of death is somehow equivalent to the adventure of life. It would seem strange to me if God made such a complicated world and such complicated people in it and then had no more to offer than a total blankness at the end of it all. So I live in the curiosity and the hope and the excitement of what there may be afterwards, and thus I have got myself to believe that those who pass on perhaps pass on to something as interesting but lovelier and more happy than this life”.

A very funny man – James Thurber – being very serious, as we are here tonight. Remembering and praying for our departed loved ones. But not only praying for them, but praying with them; which is a major theme of All Souls Day, that those on earth and those in heaven are joined together when we pray to God, with our departed loved ones on one side of God and we – for the time being – on this side.

Which is a very comforting thought – that our departed loved ones are joined with us when we pray and especially when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, to the God who is our Father in heaven, but accessible (through Jesus Christ) to you and me on this earth. Which will be the case until we also get to heaven (if we do) and join with our loved ones in God’s glorious new world. And if we travel on with hope and faith and love in our hearts I believe we will get there in the end.

We will get there in the end.

On the Anniversary of Roy’s Ordination

Canon Roy Arnold

We had a good Easter in Bollington and Kerridge in 1962 at the three Anglican churches (St John’s, St Oswald’s and Holy Trinity) with a total of just short of 400 communicants. 400! They even ran out of service books at St Oswald’s. This year – 2015 – we had a total of 125 communicants.

Two years later than 1962, on this actual day 27 September 1964 in Bristol Cathedral, I was ordained as a priest in the Church of England. Sad to say, these past 50 years and more have seen a dramatic fall in the number of those attending Church everywhere. This hasn’t been all my fault and I can say that the Churches where I have served increased slightly in size, but the fact is many fewer people go to Church nowadays. Not only in the Anglican Church but in the Methodist Church and even the Roman Catholic Church and generally throughout Europe. Apart from the fact that people die or move away, I would say that this has come about by a massive change in the way most people live their lives, and shopping, entertainment and sport, car trips (or even car cleaning) take up a major part of people’s weekend lives and the thought of a Day of Rest and Worship have gone by the board. “For the world is too much with us… getting and spending” as the poet Wordsworth says.

Getting and spending… and yet, and yet… There does remain some hint of thought for others. I am thinking here of the generosity of people (church folk and others) when there are appeals for money in times of national and international disaster and in this we may call to mind Christ’s words from our Gospel this morning. Those words about giving a cup of water to anyone who is thirsty. People’s donations represent (albeit at arms-length) that kindness and care. I have a strong personal remembrance that when I was in hospital once and my blood sugar was down, the Night Sister said “Get Roy a warm milky drink and a biscuit.” You know, I have never forgotten this simple act of kindness, that someone had thought to give ME a drink…. as Jesus instructed people to do. I wouldn’t know whether that kind nurse was a church person or not but (as we heard Jesus say in our Gospel) any act of kindness and gentleness and caring counts, whoever does it, whether they be Christians or Muslims or persons of little or no faith.

That, I believe, is why we must not entirely despair at the thought of dwindling congregations, sad as the thought may be, and in any case – as I once read – trends in society may empty churches but may also fill them. What we must be aware of – whether we are ordained or lay people – is the danger of becoming stumbling blocks – as Jesus put it. We must do our very best to be reasons why people would want to come to Church, and not to trip them up on their way here. And, of course, we must try our very best to get more people to Church; simply this is what Jesus wants us to do – to hear the good news that He brings about the love of God and His call to share that love in our own lives, through simple acts of personal kindness and thought for others like that cup of cold water (or milk and a biscuit). Acts of kindness and gentleness and love to people of all ages; children, yes, and those with the care of children – but we must not concentrate on one group and forget about the others.

Looking back over these past 50 years, (I think,) in an effort to get more people to church, we have spent too much time on re-ordering our worship, and on new translations of the Bible and other General Synod preoccupations. But I believe that one thing from General Synod has been truly worthwhile, and that is the Ordination of Women and the hope thereby of a kinder and more gentle approach to Ministry and a more inclusive Church. But whether we are women or men-folk of the Church (lay-folk or ordained), let us remember this: we shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore we can do or any kindness that we can show to any human being, let us do it now. Let us not defer or neglect it for we shall not pass this way again.

That is for sure. We shall not pass this way again.


Mark chapter 9:38-end

John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

‘For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’

Saint Monica of Hippo

Canon Roy Arnold

I served my first curacy in Bristol where I discovered that in Bristol gym pumps became dabs, plain tea cakes became baps and unsmoked bacon was known as green bacon, and that natives of that city have a habit of adding an L to words which end with A. So (for instance) when they say the word AREA they pronounce it as AERIAL. I remember an old lady once telling me that her son in the army served in Indial, Burmal and Malayal and suffered from Malarial as a consequence.

My first Vicar knowing all about this was once taking a Baptism and the baby’s name was Monica and when he asked the question: “Name this child”, the parents solemnly answered MONICAL to which my Vicar replied “I don’t mind calling her MONACLE so long as she doesn’t make a SPECTACLE of herself during the service!”

Well today we remember another Monica; Saint Monica who was born in North Africa in the year 332 and went on to be the Mother of St Augustine of Hippo (not to be confused with Augustine of Canterbury). Augustine of Hippo – one of the most famous teachers of the early Church – always attributed his conversion to Christianity to the prayers of his mother Monica, not least when he started to stray from the straight and narrow, which is why she has always been held up as a real example of a mother’s love and prayers.

And when you think of it our prayers for family and friends are truly expressions of our love for them; and I believe there may be few things more important that we can do than to pray for our loved ones and anyone else that they may come to know – as we have – the love of Jesus and the true value of his Church. Maybe we don’t do this enough, and I must admit that I have totally failed in this. We pray in a general way for their wellbeing and health and safekeeping… but as to praying for their spiritual wellbeing and perhaps conversion we maybe fail in this important aspect of their lives.

Monica didn’t fail in this for her son Augustine, and without a doubt we must try to follow her example, even though Augustine was not without his faults. He certainly would have opposed the Ordination of Women and it was said that he would never sit on a seat when a woman had sat on it, which goes to show that even saints are not without their faults even when his mother (a woman) had done so much for him – and as Veronica does for us all.

 

Those who abide in Me

Revd Michael Fox

There is a song from 1980 by the punk band The Clash – I expect you all still remember it – called Should I Stay or Should I Go? It was very high energy and I’m not going to sing it to you, but the lyrics went:

Darlin’ you got to let me knowTheClash
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

Joe Strummer seems to be putting his fate into the hands of (I presume) a young woman, but he sums up an anxiety that affects all of us in some way – where do I belong? Is it with this person, this community, this group or with that one? Am I wanted here, or would I be better off somewhere else?

Indeed staying anywhere, or with anyone, for any length of time is increasingly difficult for us in a commitment-phobic world. There is a restlessness that afflicts humans sooner or later and sends them wandering off looking for better pasture. Perhaps it stems from the genes inherited from the period when humans were hunter-gatherers, roaming the prairies looking for woolly mammoths.

The word abide is old-fashioned now, but it has lots of meanings – to dwell, to rest, to continue, to be true to, to remain, to wait, to await… We say “I will abide by that decision,” or “I can’t abide punk rock music” and I suppose in both cases we mean ‘live with.’ And of course we use the word ‘abode’ – jokingly nowadays – to mean home: “Welcome to my humble abode.”

And at the moment there is a so-called ‘migrant crisis’ where people are fleeing war, oppression, hunger, poverty – they are leaving home and all that word implies of roots, shelter, identity, security, and casting themselves upon the waters, in small fragile boats. They face an unknown future, unknown dangers including drowning, tear gas and stun grenades, hunger, thirst, hostility, rejection.

If you saw the BBC’s Songs of Praise programme with its report on the migrant camp in Calais – the link is on our St. Oswald’s facebook page – you’ll have seen that in the midst of an area known as ‘the jungle’, in Calais, a muddy, rubbish-strewn encampment of tents, some made from corrugated plastic or old iron, there is a church – a makeshift, wood and plastic building that stands shakily in the midst of the camp. One of the French Christian volunteers who helped the Christian migrants build the church says on camera “These people wanted a church before they wanted a home.”

CalaisJungleChurchInside this little church Christians from Ethiopia and Eritrea, Syria and many other countries meet to pray and worship. There are beautiful pictures – one of St. Michael after whom the church is named. They worship and pray together with the many French and English Christians who come to bring aid and fellowship and hope.

One young man, a theology student from Ethiopia, is one of leaders of the church there. He says he has fled from persecution but he will not make any attempt to enter the UK illegally. Another young Christian man also fleeing persecution in Eritrea has tried several times to board a train illegally. When challenged he says he is seeking a better home, a safer home. He prays every day and then he says, “I have another house – it’s heaven.”

It seems to me that little church – St. Michael’s – is the embodiment of what John, in his gospel this morning, is telling us about abiding. Those who meet together in the fellowship of the Eucharist know what it is to dwell with Christ. However tough life is, however lacking in security, their commitment to follow him and to worship him and to receive him is a sign that they are in the dwelling place of God himself.

The Eucharist, the practice of eating bread and drinking wine in memory of the crucified Christ and in fellowship with the risen Christ, is clearly what John, writing in the hungry times of the first century AD – is referring to. Some people think John was writing in Syria, the very place from which many modern-day migrants come.

At the back of John’s image of finding fellowship with Christ in the Eucharist – of living, staying with, awaiting, staying true to Christ – is the experience of the Jews wandering in the wilderness, being fed with the manna from heaven. God provides for them and sustains them in their desperate need. They were in a strange land, and they were migrants, aiming to live in someone else’s country.

For John, Jesus is the manna that God gives to all humanity, regardless of who they are, of where they are living. He is the spiritual food that gives us life. And it’s significant that the word John uses for abide in this section is used 40 times throughout the gospel – his Gospel is all about what it means to live with Jesus, and for Jesus to live with you. Of course the breaking of bread, the sharing of a meal, is one of the most basic things we do in our homes.

Those of us here this morning, we have homes. Some of us may have just moved in, with all the excitement of a new space, new neighbours, and the adventure of a new life in a place we have chosen. Or we have been in our home for many years, seen our families grow up, experienced joy, and also sadness and loss. It has been a refuge and a shelter, a place for us to be ourselves. It answers our most basic need. Perhaps, even, we are facing a move from our familiar home and facing the loss of familiar surroundings and friends’ faces.

I wonder how many of us would say, with the migrants of Calais, that we wanted a church before we wanted a home? But when we meet to celebrate the Eucharist, as we will do in a few moments, we enact the meeting of our earthly home and our heavenly one, as that young man in Calais reminds us.

Perhaps that will help us to remember to keep our earthly home always open to the stranger, the migrant, to the needs of others for shelter and food. But most importantly to remember that whether we stay or go, it is Christ who sustains us, shelters us, and who is the true meaning of ‘home’.

Amen

 

Memories

Canon Roy Arnold

Well we are few and far between today. We have two of our flock cruising the river Thames at Henley while some are in Guernsey. One has gone to see the Duke of Westminster (well, his garden to be exact). Two are looking after their respective grandchildren and we thought we should have been looking after our youngest daughter’s cat, but seemingly that is next week.

Others are on holidays and sadly some of our very faithful members are not at all well but thankfully we have our Vicar and Dave back from Belgium and Margaret Booth has come rushing back from Malta, and, as it happens, Holidays come into my sermon as they did with Michael last week – for I want to talk about MEMORIES.

One of God’s gifts to us is the gift of MEMORY. Without our memories we would be lost and have to learn again every morning how to do the most basic of human tasks such as how to dress ourselves or use the toaster; let alone how to drive a car or to read and write.

And then there is the wider scope of memory, whereby we remember things that have happened to us in the past – of things happy or sad. Even on this very day – July 26 – I have memories buzzing round in MY head of holiday times and of Bollington Wakes Week (which always was in this last week of July), when all the mills shut – and the shops – as Bollington folk went off to the seaside; and with Palmerston Street lined with Coaches to take them there “to be beside the seaside”; where a happy time was had by all.

But my next memory of this very day is definitely not a happy one: this day 19 years ago was when we buried our daughter’s ashes in the Columbarium here in Bollington. Rachel our second daughter had died in a cycle accident.

All of us (I guess) have sad memories mixed in with our happy ones. And perhaps it is our memories, happy or sad (of people or events), which make us who we are and how we see the world. It is worth noting, that I am saying all this in a church, because, when you think of it, churches are stacked high with so many memories (happy or sad); memories of Births, Marriages and Deaths – Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals.

And as well as churches holding our own personal memories it is, of course, here it in church that we keep alive the memory of God and of His son Jesus Christ our Lord, which is our aim in this very service of Holy Communion. “Do this in remembrance of Me” is what He said, and what we say and do in this service.

But harking back to the memories of seaside holidays, do you remember how the sun shone and the sea sparkled? Although it was so far out at Southport (where I spent several holidays as a child) you could hardly see the sea. But then in contrast, I remember a holiday in Scarborough with the sea in all its fury; with the waves smashing against the promenade and sending its spray high into the air – like that storm on the Sea of Galilee of which we heard in our Gospel this morning and the disciples fearful for their lives. But then came Jesus surprisingly walking on the waves, as somehow – equally surprisingly – He has walked into our lives (yours and mine). Impossible but true; and in part He has entered our lives because the stories of Jesus became embedded in the memory of the Church. Stories passed on through the long ages to me and you; the memories of what He taught people, and about His miracles, and of how He told His first disciples and us to “Have faith and be not be afraid”

As in another seaside story when Jesus was in the same boat as the apostles and when they were very frightened until He stilled the storm. Reminding us that Jesus is ALWAYS, ALWAYS in the same boat as us. In dark and stormy times and in those golden and special times, for God – through His Son Jesus and His Holy Spirit – has somehow ALWAYS been with us; as one of my favourite quotes from the bible reminds us that Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday and today and forever”. Experience tells us that He has been with us in the past (as we remember) and hope whispers that He will be with us in the future.

But then the past is yesterday and the future is tomorrow and the reality is we are left with is the Jesus who is with us today. So while today is still today let us remember His presence with us now.

I heard the voice of Jesus say: “I am this dark world’s light.
Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise and all thy day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus and I found in Him my star, my sun.
And in that light of life I’ll walk till travelling days are done.


John chapter 6 vv 1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

Giving – Where today is your heart?

Venerable Ian Bishop
Archdeacon of Macclesfield

I’d like to make four observations about the story of Adam and Eve that we’ve heard this morning.

Firstly just how much we take God’s abundance for granted.
If the writer of Genesis was telling us anything about the creation that God had put together, it is that it was pretty good! Abundant, peaceful and beautiful. God had made a place for men and women that was all they needed.

Of course we can’t help it… When we have much we take it for granted. Our hearts should be full of thankfulness for what we have, but more often than not we find ourselves looking at what we don’t have. You’ll know we live in a materialistic culture that tempts you and entices you, that invites you to take what you can’t afford and buy what you just don’t need. Like the serpent in the garden whispering away -“Hey this looks good – go one try it — you know you want to!”

But Jesus said “You cannot serve both God and money”. If we get drawn in we forget to be thankful for what we’ve got and we find ourselves driven to acquire what we haven’t got. And that means we take our eyes off God because we’re too focused on the baubles of earth. The apple that we’re not supposed to take.

Which partly makes my second point. You see we’re never content with what we have. My favourite verse in the whole of the Bible is in 1 Timothy 6:6 when Paul writes to a young man saying “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”

What is truly the right way to live for people of faith is to find contentment through holiness. Jesus said “where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” Never was that better illustrated than in the garden, as Eve took the one apple she had been asked not to take; she took the treasure and gave her heart away. Contentment was lost, the innocence of the garden was replaced with knowledge of fear of what they had become. One thing I have learned through years of following Christ is that I am most content when I am on track with him. When I entrust my treasure, my family, my money, my time and gifts to him and live his way — then I am most content.

Which leads on to my third point. Which is that when it comes to making decisions, we are lousy judges of what is right and wrong and we get it wrong too often. It was a bad decision in the garden, the first of a billion bad decisions people have made in life. It might have been the first — it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

To be sure we make lots of great decisions. Church folk I think probably on balance make a lot better decisions than people who don’t go to Church. God called Adam and Eve to look after the creation, and I think the people of faith generally get that. We are a generous people, in any year the people of faith in this country give way more to charity than Children in Need will ever raise, we look after some of the most amazing buildings in this country at no cost to the nation, we employ thousands of people who care for the poor and the weak, who go out and look for the lost and the lonely, who bring hope to the sad and joy to the depressed. And then there is the army of volunteers like you, who roll up their sleeves and make our communities work, who contribute time and energy that builds a better world and remakes the creation.

The people of God are astonishing. But we still make bad decisions about what to do with our money and our time and our energy. As you read the stories of the early Church you see that it was characterised by an astonishing generosity. I think Churches get it — just not enough — their treasure is a bit in the bank with Jesus but mostly not, and that means their heart is missing from Jesus’s safe keeping as well.

The Bible sets a very high standard. Deuteronomy 14 sets a figure of 10% for the people of God in their giving. 10% of what you earn should be given back to God. And before you moan about that, remember Jesus also told the rich young man to give away everything and then follow him, and he commended the widow who gave a mite — all she had. At least I’m only suggesting 10% for starters!  Think what that would mean for you?

I see the giving figures across the Diocese and I’m astonished how little people do give.  So many people give less than £5 a week. But what is £5 worth today? It certainly doesn’t make up 10% even for someone on a basic pension. And then every now and again you see someone giving much much more than that — and it usually isn’t the one with the most money — instead it’s someone you wouldn’t expect, but who gets it.

The theologian Helmut Thielicke once wrote (in a time when we still used cheques), “Our cheque books have more to do with Heaven and Hell than our hymn books.” And he was correct.

I remember when I was taking a funeral of a very wealthy man once, I was chatting to the undertaker in the car on the way to the cemetery, and the undertaker asked me — “how much did he leave?” To which I was able to answer, “Everything!”

But most don’t get it, and my fourth and final point from the reading this morning is this.  We are always trying to make excuses. In the garden, the man blamed the woman, the woman blamed the serpent and the fact was that they all got it wrong and should have just owned up.

I know that if I sat you all down this morning and asked you to give more I would probably get a Church full of excuses, so I won’t ask. Instead I reckon that most of you should be giving at least twice what you’re giving regularly and that still probably won’t be 10% – but it would be a start.

Many of you won’t be giving by standing order — which you should be, otherwise someone has to trudge to the bank every week.. Save your treasurers aching feet and sign a standing order.

Some of you won’t have signed a Gift Aid form — which is a nonsense because that way the Government adds 25% to what you give (if you pay tax!)

It has never been easier to give. You may — like I do – have the ability to have your giving deducted from your pay before it lands in your account. I like giving that way because it reminds me that the money was never mine anyway — it’s God’s.

As more and more churches face uncertain financial futures, and I know St Oswald’s is one,  I’m reminded of the Vicar who stood up before his congregation and declared “You will be glad to know we have found the money to solve the financial crisis at the Church.” There were hopeful smiles all round the congregation, until the Vicar said with a beaming smile, “It’s there in your pockets!”

Let me draw my four points together.

Never forget the context in which we live; God has created a world of abundance – we need to live with hearts full of thankfulness.

Sadly we’re rarely content — but make contentment your aim

We do often make lousy decisions and many excuses, but the best way is to be generous.

Remember when the wealthy tax collector Zachaeus threw a party and gave away half of all he had to the poor. That was when Jesus said “salvation has come to this house today.” Budgets are moral documents, the way we use what God has abundantly given tells us where our hearts truly are.  So let me leave you with a question — where today is your heart?

Genesis chapter 3 vv 8-15

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’

The Lord God said to the serpent,
‘Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.’

Precious in the sight of God

Canon Roy Arnold

I think that I can take it for granted that most of us now have had enough of Elections! It’s sad that something so important can seem so tedious, but I want you to spare a thought today for those who have been unsuccessful in their attempts to get elected in Local Government Elections, but especially in Elections to get into (or back into) Parliament. When I was at General Synod a few years ago I had a long conversation with someone who had just lost his seat in Parliament. He was – to put it mildly – absolutely devastated by the experience of going from someone being in power to being just one of yesterday’s men; from being one of the chosen (elected ones) to being unemployed (give or take a few directorships), not to speak of the loss of self-esteem.

But actually I want to contrast this man’s experience to our Bible readings for today, where we were reminded by God and God’s Son Jesus who said YOU DID NOT CHOSE ME; BUT I CHOSE YOU. Do you see what this means? That God chooses, and we all of us (as it were) GET IN; we are all of us elected, not because we deserve to, but simply because GOD loves us. And this is God’s gracious experiment with humanity, which he began long ago it with his first Chosen People the Jews, whose story is told in the Old Testament. Of how they were by and large disobedient, so much so that God had to send his only begotten Son – Jesus – to redeem (that is to rescue) Mankind and (in the process) to make us into a new and enlarged Chosen Race. Jews and Non-Jews and the whole human race, and all this bearing in mind that God in his great love for us does not force our obedience.

He actually wants us to be his friends – and certainly not his slaves – hence his gift to us all of Free Will. In other words, although he has chosen us, he gives us the choice NOT to be his friends, which most of us do from time to time – in choosing not to be friends with God – in things petty like sheer meanness and peevishness, or by totally fundamental mistakes like the Holocaust or World Wars, ignoring the command of Jesus THAT WE MUST, WE MUST, LOVE ONE ANOTHER. First loving and serving God and then our neighbours.

Psalm 146 reminds us of this when it tells us: As long as we have any being we must sing praise (and worship) our God… not putting our trust in princes nor in any human power (Conservative, Labour, not even UKIP) for there is no help in them. And the psalm goes on to remind us that what counts is providing justice for those who suffer wrong and bread to those who hunger (as we aim to do through Christian Aid Week which begins today) lifting up those who are bowed down… with the strangers in our land and the orphan and the widow.

Because our God (out of his great love) chose us to be his friends, and friends and followers of Jesus his Son, and to go out into our everyday lives to tell other people about Jesus; not by door-stepping them or delivering pamphlets, or arguing with them or threatening them, but instead by helping them when they need help and maybe (secretly of course) praying for them, or by lots of ways trying our very best to follow Jesus ourselves. But (surprisingly) not by trying and trying to love God and Jesus but by LETTING GOD AND JESUS LOVE US.

That is our task – to let God love us. To let God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit love us, being open to the love of God. For it is only when we know ourselves to be loved that we can (as God’s chosen and elected people) be loving ourselves. And knowing that we are precious in the sight of God.

Acts 10:44-end
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

1 John 5.1-6
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

John 15.9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

 

The light of Christ

Canon Roy Arnold

The other night when I couldn’t get off to sleep, I went downstairs to make myself a hot drink. I sat to sip it (without the light on) by the window when I noticed – to my surprise – a sinister black plant on the window ledge. I recognised it after a moment or two, as the crimson Poinsettia we had at Christmas. In the dark its bright red petal-leaves had taken on the blackness of the night.

Well last week was a pretty dark one I think – despite the brightness of the weather – with the terrible news of the young Jordanian pilot put to death, and the ongoing story of apathy in the face of the abuse of children and young women at Rotherham in South Yorkshire. Obviously sometimes we seem to take too much notice of breaking news from far away, while failing to recognise good news from around the corner, but there are occasions when the darkness can enter our own lives and homes when death or serious illness comes calling.

But our Gospel for today (from John ch 1) reminds us of the light which shines in all our darknesses, which light is Jesus, and which the darkness failed to overcome. In that reading from St John’s Gospel (which we normally hear at Christmas), the light from the infant Jesus seems like a little lantern in the dark corner of the stable at Bethlehem. But a light which grew as Jesus became a man, and shone out in his teaching and his gifts of healing, and finally in the expression of his love on the Cross, and three days later his gift of New Life for us all in his Resurrection.

In the Season of Lent – now almost upon us – we shall hope to prepare ourselves for Passiontide and Easter and maybe learn that the darkness of our world is down – not to a cruel and capricious God – but to the darkness which is within ourselves when we fail to see and follow the Wisdom and the Love of God. The Wisdom which is calling out to all of us as we heard in our first reading from Proverbs. But our Gospel for today told us that when Jesus came to live among us, his own people – the Jews – failed to recognise him because their minds preferred the darkness to the light. Like the fanatic Muslims and the young pilot they so brutally killed and like the Nazis whom we remembered last week who killed six million Jewish people – their minds darkened by thoughts of revenge or totally misguided ideologies and motives.

We are told in the New Testament of how Jesus came to Jerusalem for the last time, when he looked out over the city (knowing the terrible fate of the city and most of its people). We are told in just two poignant words: “Jesus wept”. He often must weep still at the thought of how the heart of humanity (which of course includes me and you) can so easily let the darkness overcome us, either by apathy, despair or downright evil.

All the more reason that we must try and try to follow this man called Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God and who came to be that light for all people. And who (even when his own people and we all rejected him) faced up to his death on the cross and said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”; then went on to bring us out into the light of Everlasting Life.

I was long asleep (I guess) when the dawn broke and the Crimson returned to the Poinsettia flowers and Christ’s glory filled the skies. Christ the true, the only light. And the Sun of righteousness triumphed o’er the shades of night.

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Proverbs 8: 1, 22-31

Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

John 1: 1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.