Easter 5

Stephen, Gareth, Deacon and Dalmatic

A joke that falls out of Christmas crackers: ‘How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizza? Deep pan, crisp and even!’ As the carol tells us, he was the king who looked out on the feast of Stephen.

We read of Stephen first, in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The first generation of followers of Christ – a fledgling movement within Judaism - were beginning to establish themselves in Jerusalem. There's an energy about them: some of their adherents are prepared to assert themselves and challenge the status quo; others are more cautious, and critical of those of their number whom they regard as undermining their Jewish roots. Tensions are emerging. There seems to have been a particular issue regarding the daily distribution to the destitute, particularly for the widows. The Greek 'christians' complained that their Jewish fellows were benefitting. So the brethren chose Stephen and six others, whom the apostles authorised, laying their hands on them and commissioning them to serve ('diakonein') at table. These servants were key personnel. It's from this beginning that the Church traditionally derives its order of Deacons.

St StephenStephen is usually depicted in art wearing a Dalmatic, the deacon's vestment. Ever since then, individuals have been called, and entrusted to carry out specific tasks and duties; and in the case of ordained and authorised ministry, that role is affirmed through the bishop's action of laying on of hands.

Passionate and articulate, it was inevitable that Stephen's activities would attract attention, and his words soon put him on a collision course with the religious leaders. Dragged before the ruling council, he's accused of blasphemy against God and Moses, and for undermining the Law and the Temple. Stephen gives as good as he gets, and his detractors are enraged by his confidence and robust defence. They've heard enough, and he's dragged out of the city, and stoned to death. The early Church never forgot that moment. He became the first Martyr, a Greek word meaning 'witness'. They were burying the first person to give their life for their faith in Christ. To be a follower of Christ has been risky from the start, and as the Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt's recent Report revealed, its no less true today.

He concluded that as much as a third of the world suffers from religious persecution, and Christians are among the most persecuted. That said, over the centuries the Church has also hurled its stones against people of faith. The Church's Prayer Book once prayed for Jews, Turks, Infidels and Hereticks, “that they might be liberated from their ignorance, hardness of heart and contempt for the Gospel, and saved among the remnant of true Israelites”. Sticks and stones may break bones...but words can wound as well as inform. And sometimes even those who should have known welcome and affirmation have left, feeling ostracised and vulnerable.

Stephen's story lays bare the joy and cost of following Christ, and God calls us to faithfulness and commitment; to telling the truth that is in us.

Mr Jones

 

Recently I watched a DVD with the uninspiring title, 'Mr Jones'. It's based on the life of Gareth Jones, who's played by James Norton. Jones was born in 1905. He was a brilliant linguist and became foreign affairs advisor to Lloyd George. He witnessed many of the momentous happenings of the early 1930s, and his diaries provide an insight into the complexities of international relations at this time. Working as a journalist in Germany at the time Hitler became Chancellor, Jones found himself flying with him and Goebells. The following month he went to Moscow, hoping to interview Stalin about his economic programme and 5 Year Plan. His critique proved unpalatable, and some of those around him sought to play down the gravity of the situation. Thus Gareth became the outsider, gripped by the courage of his convictions, principled, fearless, telling it as he saw it. He was murdered, shot days before his 30th birthday.

David Lloyd George later wrote in the Evening Standard, 'Gareth shrank from no risk...I had always been afraid that he would take one risk too many. He allowed no obstacle to turn him from his course...He had the almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered'.

Stephen, Gareth, men of conviction and courage, and for whom the truth was non-negotiable. Stephen's death reflects that of his Lord: commending his spirit to God, and praying that his murderers be forgiven. We note that one of those holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen was Saul, that great persecutor of the early Church. And marvel, that very soon Saul would become Paul, one of the most remarkable leaders and defenders of the faith. Jesus said, “...I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14.12)

Easter 4 2020

Easter 4

The red numbers on my bedside radio told me it was 4.42am. I was woken by a sound coming from downstairs. As I listened more closely, it proved not to be the threatening sound of a burglar's footsteps, but simply 'Wesley' whimpering. Like a light-sleeping parent, I was soon alert, attuned to his voice, and his needs.

This 4th Sunday of the Easter season is known as 'Good Shepherd Sunday' because of the Gospel reading for the day. In Chapter 10 of John's Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as 'The Good Shepherd' (vs 11); and Jesus uses the images of shepherd, sheep and sheepfold to show his love and concern for us. One of the earliest Christian carvings is of Jesus as Shepherd. Many of us will recall from Sunday School days a framed picture: a blond Jesus immaculate in white, with piercing blue eyes and trimmed beard, a lamb resting on his shoulder. This romantic image is a world away from the reality that Jesus knew. It does not include living on the edges of society, the vulnerability and dangers of living outdoors, the odours, the loneliness and challenges of living with sheep rather than humans. The shepherd had no prominent place in their society at the time of Jesus. Because of the nature of their work, they were unable to fulfil their responsibilties to worship, and were regarded as unreliable witnesses. How remarkable, then, that it was first to some shepherds watching over their flocks that the birth of Christ was announced.  Sheep

We are familiar with sheep in our locality, and there are many lambs in our fields at present. In Beaulieu, Jenny Dolbear commented that her sheep definitely have a leader of the pack; they tend to follow the same paths within a field, and find the best grass; they instictively know how to look after their lambs, and when confronted by predators they can be fiercely protective. She has a pet sheep, who knows its name and responds just like a dog.  

Those observing and listening to Jesus were filled with questions: 'Who is this? Is he God's prophet? Could this Rabbi be God's chosen Messiah or not?' In the Bible, the ideal king is pictured as a shepherd, modelled on David, the former shepherd-boy. Facing the problems of keeping a nation together, he came to see that it was not that different from his task of tending sheep. The prophet Ezekiel has a striking account or careless shepherds neglecting their sheep (Ezek. 34.1-10), criticizing the priests and prophets of his time who neglected their duties. Some of Jesus' most stinging criticisms were aimed at the religious leaders, and those who thought they were religious, but whose preoccupations were with being noticed, and feathering their own nests.

Jesus warns against those who have no real commitment to those in their charge, seeking only to take advantage of them, and exploit them. Recently, our institutions, including the Church, have been forced to confront their failure to protect and safeguard those in their care. With more robust measures in place, and greater transparency, please God,we are more aware of our awesome responsibilities as pastors and church communities.  Jesus the good shepherd window

It is worth noting that when Jesus was speaking about the Shepherd, he standing in the Temple. The sheep around him were not skipping playfully around the Galilean countryside, but being prepared for slaughter; integral to the worship of the Temple. As they will be offered up in sacrifice on the altar, so will Christ be offered as a sacrifice. In his selfless offering, Jesus the takes the place of the victim, literally laying down his life for the sheep; the Good Shepherd has become the lamb. Jesus personifies tenderness, toughness and self-sacrifice, and his leadership involves physical involvement and self-sacrificial love. The life of this Good Shepherd matters less than that of his sheep. 'Paschal Lamb, thine offering, finished once for all when thou wast slain, in its fullness undiminished shall for evermore remain.' George Bourne (1840-1925).

The Ordination Service draws on the image of the shepherd as the ordaining bishop outlines the extensive pastoral profile to the congregation. To new parish priest is to be committed and trustworthy, and willing to search out those who are lost, guiding them through confusion. 'Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ's own flock, bought through the shedding of his blood on the cross....Serve them with joy, build them up in faith..'

The 4th Sunday of Easter is set aside in the Church's calendar to encourage all of us to think about Vocations. For some, this is a specific calling to authorised ministry - ordained or licensed. For others, it could mean serving God through faithful discipleship in everyday life. Everyone has a vocation, and by virtue of our baptism we are called to be faithful witnesses to Christ. As Archbishop Welby has said, 'Our first calling is to live life in all its fullness and to represent Christ in the world'. Each of us has gifts that we can use in his service. God never calls us to be something or someone we are not. Whatever stage we are in life, God is always calling us deeper into his life and work; inviting us to help build his kingdom of love and joy and justice.

Last week, I spoke of two faithful women who helped nuture my vocation when I was a teenager. They would never have described it in those terms, but their prayerfulness, and ability to come alongside me at an impressionable time in my life, made a difference. As did those other faithful souls, among them remarkable priests who had taken to heart their Lord's commission. Over these many years, the congregations committed to my charge have moulded me into the parish priest I have become. Thank God for you all.

On this Vocations Sunday, think about what God might be calling you to do for him, his Church, his world. Give thanks to God for all that he has done in your life, and continues to do. As St Irenaeus once said, 'The glory of God is a human being full alive.'

Father John

 


Philip Baxter – Director of Music

Philip has announced his retirement and it will take effect from the end of July. We were fortunate to secure him, and we shall miss his musicianship and leadership. Within twelve months of Philip's return from a decade in France, his sinus and breathing problems re-started. He has decided that a move to a drier climate would be beneficial. He is hoping to relocate to Spain, an area he knows, where he has family contacts, and where there is a flourishing Anglican church. At present we do not know when our church services will resume, but we shall hope to make a proper and public presentation to Philip at some stage.


 

Easter 3

EASTER 3 2020

Captain Tom Moore is a remarkable man, whose drive and determination has inspired the nation; becoming an unlikely celebrity on Breakfast Television. At the beginning of April, the 2nd world war veteran began to walk his garden on a zimmer frame, with the intention of raising £1000 for the NHS before his 100th birthday. To date, donations have exceeded 28 million pounds. Deeply moved by Tom's story, the singer, Michael Ball, dedicated Rogers and Hammerstein's song, “You'll never walk Alone” to him, which was later recorded, and incorporating Tom's voice. On Friday, and days off his 100th birthday, the version reached no. 1 in the UK Singles Chart. Happy birthday Tom.

“You'll never walk alone” is a song deep in the nation's psyche. It comes from one of my favourite musicals, “Carousel”, which premiered in 1946. Set in a New England fishing village, Bobby Bigelow, a carnival barker, meets Julie Jordan. They marry and Julie becomes pregnant. Desperate for money to support his family, Bobby is killed in an attempted robbery. Later, he is granted permission to return to earth to make amends to his widow and their daughter. Appearing at his daughter's graduation, Bobby encourages her to have confidence in herself because she will never walk alone. Following Gerry and the Pacemaker's version, the song became the rallying call for Liverpool's Football fans; as well as speaking of hope and encouragement following the Hillsborough Stadium incident.

It is late afternoon, and two of the followers of Jesus have left Jerusalem and are going to Emmaus, a village some seven miles away. Cleopas and a companion, possibly his wife, are discussing all that has been happening. Traumatised, they need to go over it again and again, hardly able to comprehend it all. As they walk, Jesus joins them, but of course they do not know that it is him. As far as they are concerned, Jesus is dead and buried, and with him many of their hopes and expectations.

The episode reminds me of my pilgrimage a few years ago to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. 'El Camino', the way of St James. As I walked the miles of rough terrain towards my destination, frequently fellow travellers would drew alongside with a cheery greeting, 'Buen Camino'. Some happily walked in silence. Others talked eagerly about this and that: sharing personal details, employment, hopes, dreams. It is sometimes easier to share with strangers: you can say what you like, be open, because you are less likely to meet them in the future....The two travellers don't hold anything back from Jesus: they feel badly let-down, and their hopes have been shattered. Their faith in God has been undermined and damaged. What a poignant wistfulness there is in their sorrowful phrase, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel...”.

As the impact of the Covid-19 was beginning to dawn, I recall one of medical experts being interviewed on the radio, and out of the blue she was asked whether the presence of the virus undermined a belief in God. I sympathised with her, and it seemed a daft question at such a time. But the dialogue on the Emmaus Road seems to encourage difficult and challenging questions of this sort; no need to brush them under the carpet. The Emmaus Road story positively encourages us to voice our frustrations and anger and bewilderment. We are eavesdropping on the questions of two questioning travellers – and they are seeking to make sense of it all. Just like we are in our present circumstances.

When life seems desperate and unpredictable - and we feel we don't have the skills and resources to help as much as we would like - simply listening and being there, staying with the questions, the pain, the anger of a fellow human being - may be as much as we can do. As he drew alongside his fellow travellers, Jesus began by simply listening – listening is a Christ-like activity, and it's fundamental to our discipleship. Frustratingly, at present, human touch is largely denied to us. But never underestimate those few words on the phone, a letter, an email, a wave, a 'Cooee'; it can bring immense comfort, a sense of 'you're not walking alone'. And it can be the start of a healing process that is going to take who knows how long. We must never be embarrassed to share our vulnerability; it is not a sign of weakness, rather it is a sign of maturity and strength.

Path 2.2

Jesus spends the whole day with his companions, walking with them, listening to them, explaining the psalms and prophecies of the Old Testament, to prepare them for the blinding moment of recognition. That moment of recognition captured so powerfully by the artist Caravaggio in his 'Supper at Emmaus'. And what is a companion - literally someone who shares bread. The two travellers seem to recognise Jesus in this familiar gesture - the risen Lord once again blessing, breaking and sharing bread with them: he is the companion who has travelled with them, even though, understandably, they didn't know it.

At the Eucharist, the meal is prepared for us, and we're drawn into communion with Christ, and with each other. We nourish ourselves on the Scriptures, entering into the mystery of the sacrament, and encounter the Lord who eats and drinks with us.

So let's begin each new day with hope, may our hearts burn within us, because we know that Christ our companion is with us, walking unseen beside us, encouraging us to interpret everything that may happen; casting his light on every encounter and every challenge.

“Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart, for you'll never walk alone”.

April 2020

Fr John's Reflection for Palm Sunday

Recently as I returned home following my daily exercise with 'Wesley', we found ourselves being pursued through the village by some fourteen donkeys and half a dozen horses! They were evidently making their way back to Hilltop, and no doubt disappointed at not having been fed by visitors -  in fact, the Verderers tell us not to feed them at any time. Donkey 2

This Sunday is Palm Sunday and a donkey features prominently. St Matthew's account describes how, as Jesus and his disciples reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, he told them to go into the village to collect a donkey and a colt. Having fetched them, the disciples place their cloaks on the animals. Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the crowd laying down their cloaks and placing palm branches. The biblical scholar, bishop Tom Wright, reminds us that cloaks and palm branches had a particular resonance in Israel's history - a triumphant Judas Maccabaeus had been welcomed in similar fashion into Jerusalem. 'Hosanna to the son of David', the crowds shout as Jesus rides on. Surely the Davidic king had at last come to terminate his peoples' oppression. Jesus has come into the holy city – remember, a destination over which he shed tears – but he won't be enthroned like David or Judas Maccabaeus; rather, his throne will be a common criminal's gibbet.

This Sunday we were to be gathering at the village school from where we would have embarked on a donkey-led procession. Such processions are now out of the question, and the distribution of palms. Be assured those palms will be available when once again we can be together.

Thus we embark on the beginning of Holy Week, in which both the glory and tragedy are bound in together, for overshadowing the splendour of the welcome to the Messiah is the shadow of death to come. The 'Hosannas' of Palm Sunday give way to the cries of 'Crucify him!' at the end of the week. Appropriately, our palms are shaped into crosses – a reminder of the fleeting nature of the welcome that Jesus received. Just so, the enthusiasm of the crowds, as they surrounded and cheered Jesus, seated meekly on a donkey – the sign of peace, not war, changed and faded. By the end of the week he would be crucified, and many of the same people were in the crowds that mocked and assaulted him.

As I type this, I look out of the window; a lovely day outside. And as I look out, I become aware of those thin lines running vertically and horizontally through the window panes; the window defined, marked, by the cross. I look outwards to the village, my community, my world, as it were through the cross. Divine love was lifted up on a cross, so that everyone, each of us, might be united with that wonderful and self-sacrificial offering.

May I suggest a task for this Sunday – make yourself a simple little cross; a couple of sticks, bind them together with sellotape or cotton. And at 9.30am precisely set off on a mini-procession around your garden, or indoors if you like. I'll walk around the Rectory garden at the same time, and in faith and imagination we'll be with those Jerusalem crowds. As you walk, see your Lord riding on a donkey, and say those Palm Sunday words that are so familiar to you: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest”.