Thursday, 28 July 2016

You cannot reap what you have not sown


The morning after Father Jacques Hamel was murdered by Islamist terrorists in Rouen, I received a phone call from my local BBC radio station. Would I be interviewed over the phone to comment? Thankfully I wasn’t asked specifically about Father Hamel’s murder. (What could I say?) Instead they wanted me to comment on the news that the British government had offered £2.4 million to make places of worship more secure. (The Guardian newspaper pointed out that there are an estimated 47,000 churches in the UK.) And that Britain’s anti-terrorism police were advising churches to be vigilant – not that there was any specific threat.

In the brief interview I made the point that by their very nature churches, and church communities, were meant to be places of welcome and refuge. (Though sadly we all know examples of those that aren’t.) Therefore, what could we do? I for one would not want us to lock doors and exclude people.

During the interview I mentioned that last Saturday evening I had been out on patrol with Chippenham Street Pastors. (I was mainly there to accompany a couple of Methodist VIPs – the President and Vice President of the Methodist Conference.) I had gone wearing my dog collar. Consequently, I was approached by several people and had some interesting conversations.

One was purely fun. A young man, who had clearly been enjoying himself, stopped us and said “Any idea where I can buy some fags?” He then spotted me and said “Now don’t you go and start telling me I’m killing myself!” I promised him I wasn’t going to do that. I’d identified his accent as Welsh and asked him where he was from and told him I was Welsh too. He then gave me the classic look only drunk people manage (the one where they sort of shut one eye in order to focus) and then broke into a big grin. What followed was a stream of nonsense really but eventually I was able to get through to him that just around the corner was a late night grocery store and he should be able to get cigarettes there.

“Cheers bud. I’ll come and find you later and give you one of my ciggies.” (He never did!)

The other conversation was a bit more serious. A man (in his late 30s early 40s) accompanied by another man (in his 50s) stopped me. “You are a priest” he said. “Sort of” I explained. “I am Catholic.” he said. “This is first time I have seen a priest on street in this country”. From his accent I guessed that he was Eastern European. His friend then chipped in (with a broad Wiltshire accent) “Peter’s from Poland. He’s a Catholic.” “Yes I am from Poland and am Catholic”. (In the helpful way drunks explain everything to the sober!)

We then had a long conversation during which Peter held my hand tightly. The upshot of it was that Peter had been living in this country for 13 years “But since Brexit I don’t feel welcome. Many people want me to go to Poland.” I told him that as far as I was concerned if he’d been here 13 years he was British and was welcome here.
“That’s what I keep telling him Father. This is his home now.” Peter’s friend said. “Maybe he’ll listen to you.”

I prayed for the Peter and assured him he was welcome. Though clearly Peter doesn’t feel that way.

If I had not been wearing my dog collar (and unusually for me a plain, black clerical shirt) would Peter have spoken to me? Probably not.
Jesus once told a story to illustrate who he regarded as true followers and those who he didn’t. He explained how people might ask how they would know if they had done the right thing in Jesus’ eyes. In reply he said:

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
37 ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”
40 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Matthew 25: 35 – 40

The sign of a truly caring Christian community (and indeed a truly caring country) is one that reacts in that way. That welcomes the stranger.

That then is what we should be doing as Christians. That is how we should be caring for others. That is the welcome we should be affording the stranger. How can we do this if we are shutting our doors? Or we are not prepared to speak to people on the streets?

Archbishop Oscar Romero was another Catholic priest who was murdered in his church. He once said:


If welcoming the stranger leaves us vulnerable to an attack by terrorists, or indeed anyone, then that is a risk we must take.


Sunday, 19 June 2016

Who is my neighbour?


This is a slightly abridged text of a sermon preached at Lyneham Methodist Church on 19th June 2016. It is based on The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 - 37)


‘And who is my neighbour?’ a Jewish lawyer asked Jesus.

The events of this last week have left me feeling sickened.

Just last weekend Omar Mateen entered a night club in Orlando Florida and murdered 49 people and injured many more. All week there was speculation of why he did it. Was he just yet another American gunman? Was he mentally ill? Was he a Muslim terrorist? Was he intent on killing Gay people because he regarded their actions as sinful? Was he in fact a repressed homosexual?

Only he and God know. And may God have mercy on him.

But whatever his exact motive, Omar Mateen clearly targeted the specific night club as it was a meeting place for Gay people. And within hours of the shooting the usual bigots had come out of the woodwork with their smears about the lifestyles of Gay people.

A politician in Texas Dan Patrick posted a Bible verse on his official Facebook page; a Bible verse that read: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows." Galatians 6:7

Mr Patrick has since claimed the timing was unfortunate. (See http://www.nytimes.com/live/orlando-nightclub-shooting-live-updates/texas-lt-governor-deletes-ill-timed-tweet/) He always posts a Bible verse on Sunday morning and it just so happened that this was the verse he’d chosen.
I can think of many other Bible verse that would have been better. How about Luke 10:27 “Love your neighbour as yourself.”?

Back home, the EU referendum “debate” become more and more heated. I don’t know about you but I have got thoroughly fed up with it. The constant sniping. The constant “The EU costs this” “Oh no it doesn’t” “The EU does this for us” “Oh no it doesn’t”. Pathetic.

But amid all that what has sickened me is the way a serious question about immigration – an issue that clearly does concern people – became racist. It is legitimate to ask about what EU rules on the free movement of citizens means for this country. But the debate has moved one from that.

The anti EU faction have it seems to me subtly linked immigration of EU citizens into this country with immigration by all people. Hence this week Nigel Farage standing in front of a new poster showing a long line of Syrian refugees with slogan “Breaking Point”. (A poster the Chancellor of the Exchequer compared to Nazi propaganda - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/19/eu-referendum-campaigning-resumes-as-jeremy-corbyn-and-michael-g2/)


‘And who is my neighbour?’

Then on Thursday came the news of the death of Jo Cox MP in the small Yorkshire town of Batley.

I’d never heard of Jo Cox MP. There I’ve said it. Until Thursday 17th June 2016 for me and most of the country, apart from her constituents and the “Westminster Village” she was just one of the few hundred MPs sat on the back benches behind Jeremy Corbin.
But from what we have heard, and seen, and read since, she was clearly highly thought of in her constituency and at Westminster. She clearly was highly thought of by her own party and by the Conservative party.

Considering I didn’t know her, and as I’ve said I had never heard of her, when I learned that she’d died I was shocked. It wasn’t just the fact that she was young. It wasn’t just the fact that she left a husband and two children. (Sadly in a world where we hear most weeks of murders one becomes desensitised.) No, what shocked me was that an MP should be attacked in this way. And I was shocked that the man accused of her murder – Thomas Mair - seems to have been connected with the extreme right.

A number of photos of him have emerged at rallies for the extreme right “Britain First” party. And this is the man who in court yesterday when asked his name said “My name is death to traitors and freedom for Britain”. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/18/thomas-mair-charged-with-of-mp-jo-cox

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve preached a sermon in several churches based on the passage in Luke 7 on the Faith of the centurion. And I made the point in that sermon that the Centurion is acting like the Good Samaritan 3 chapters before Jesus tells the story. For the Centurion has asked himself “Who is my neighbour?” He has identified that his neighbour is someone from a different land and culture – the people in Capernaum. And he has taken it on himself to help those people by building a synagogue for them.

The conclusion of that sermon was that as Christians I hoped we should be about building bridges and tearing barriers down not about building walls up. And as part of that process we should be asking the question “Who is my neighbour?”

This last week I feel my hope is unfounded when I’ve seen discussions amongst Christians on social media that would be worthy of the UKIP annual conference.

After hearing the news of Jo Cox's death, I was very much of the mind-set “What’s the point?” In fact, a friend of mine summed up my feelings really well with a comment on her Facebook page “I'm angry and questioning why this happened. If it is in any way linked to In/Out/Brexit/Remain then cancel the whole bloody thing.”

My mood wasn’t helped by a recent drive through north Wiltshire and Gloucestershire and seeing several UKIP posters saying “We want our country back!” That makes my blood boil “We want our country back!” Well it’s my country too and I like it as it is thank you!

But then on Friday morning (17th June) I heard an interview with an 18-year-old young man from Jo Cox’s constituency. From his name he is of Asian heritage and he said he was a Muslim. He had attended a prayer vigil in the parish church of St Peter's Birstall on Thursday evening. He was interviewed for BBC Radio 4 Today programme. He explained that he knew Jo Cox. He had met her when she was canvassing for the General Election. She’d got him interested in politics, he’d joined the Labour Party and since become a local councillor.

This young man was clearly close to tears. Hardly surprising given that a close friend has just died. What a legacy she’s left if she had made a difference to just one life. But in fact through her campaigning on the Syrian refugee crisis alone she has made a difference to countless others.

The death of Jo Cox has left me feeling angry and disgusted by what our country is becoming. But anger and disgust alone won’t change anything. I suspect that Jo Cox understood that. No doubt she was angry at the injustices in this country and around the world. According to the Bishop of Huddersfield in a radio interview “She was a woman of passion and a woman of compassion”

Jo Cox didn't sit back and shrug he shoulders. Jo Cox’s husband Brendon said of her:

“She believed in a better world. And she fought for it every day.”

I’ve heard no mention of whether or not Jo Cox had a Christian faith. But she clearly was familiar with the concept behind the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Remember the words Jesus says to the lawyer after Jesus has told his parable

“Which was one of the three was a neighbour to man who had been attacked?”
“The one who showed mercy”
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’



“She believed in a better world. And she fought for it every day.”
‘Go and do likewise.’


Last night, I was an event called “The Big Sing” at Zion Baptist Church in Trowbridge organised by a friend of ours. It was to mark the 200th anniversary of the church. It was a mixture of hymns and readings all linked with words reflecting on what it means to be the Church.

One of the passages of scripture was this one 1 John 4: 7 – 21

That passage really spoke to me last night. So much so that I came home and ripped up what I was going to preach on and have brought you this instead. Yhe final 3 verses of 1 John 4: 7 - 21 say:

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
The story of the Good Samaritan is founded on love. Love for God and love for our neighbour. “Who is my neighbour?” We know who is our neighbour. Everyone is our neighbour. Not just people in this church. Not just people in this village. Not just people in the country. All people are our neighbour. And we are called to love them.
How can you love your neighbour if you don’t speak to them? How can you love you neighbour if you turn your back on them? How can you love your neighbour if you close the door to them? How can you love your neighbour if shout abuse at them? You can’t be a neighbour if you don’t associate with people.
21 And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.


I said earlier that I have been sickened by the events of this last week. I have been sickened because of the violence associated with hatred that we have seen in Orlando and Batley.

Dr Martin Luther King said this:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.



19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. 1 John 4: 19 - 21

As you vote in the Referendum on Thursday remember those words. 21 And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
And as you vote think "Who is my neighbour?"

Friday, 17 June 2016

A woman of passion and compassion


I wasn't sure whether to write this blog or not. And in fact a Methodist colleague has shared something similar on line already. But for some reason I felt the urge to write something as a tribute to Jo Cox MP murdered on 16th June 2016.

Until the afternoon of 16th June 2016 I must admit I’d never heard of Jo Cox MP. There I’ve said it. Until Thursday 17th June 2016 for me and most of the country (apart from her constituents and the “Westminster Village”) she was just one of the few hundred MPs sat on the back benches behind Jeremy Corbyn.

But from what we have heard, and seen, and read, over the last 24 hours, she was clearly highly thought of in her constituency and at Westminster.

I’m always slightly wary when MPs unite to praise one of their colleagues who has died. I can’t help thinking of the “Not the 9 o’clock news” satire show of the early 1980s which showed a sketch of two MPs being interviewed. They both were ripping in to each other and their respective parties. Then suddenly one dies and immediately the remaining MP goes into rapture over what a marvellous man he was. “He will be sadly missed.”

And yet with Jo Cox the praise seemed genuine. She clearly was highly thought of by her own party and by the Conservative party. She really will be sadly missed.

Considering I didn’t know her, and as I’ve said had never heard of her, when I learned that she’d died I was shocked. It wasn’t just the fact that she was young. It wasn’t just the fact that she left a husband and two children. (Sadly in a world where we hear most weeks of murders one becomes desensitised.) No, what shocked me was that an MP should be attacked in this way. And, although we perhaps need to take some of the news story with a pinch of salt, I was shocked that the man accused of her murder seems to have been connected with the extreme right.

In fact, shocked is the wrong word. “Sickened” is a better word. I was sickened by the attack.

Like many people I’ve become weary of the EU referendum. I’m firmly in the remain camp. But both sides from the start of the campaign have thrown mud and smears and accusations. It has seemed far nastier than a General Election campaign. And throughout the issue has been immigration. With Leave wanting to emphasise (as they see it) the large numbers of immigrants coming to this country. Whilst Remain have tried to avoid the discussion and tried to focus on the economic benefits of staying the economic pitfalls if we leave.

But immigration has been the topic people have focused on. It is as if the Leave campaign started to chip away at the dam holding back a huge wave of public feeling opposing immigration. And no matter how Remain have voiced arguments showing the positives of immigration, that message has been lost.

I wrote a blog a week or so ago expressing the hope that as Christians we should see the need to build bridges rather than put up fences. I feel my hope is unfounded when I’ve seen discussions amongst Christians on social media that would be worthy of the UKIP annual conference.

Last night after hearing the news I was very much of the mind-set “What’s the point?” In fact, a friend of mine summed up my feelings really well with a comment on her Facebook page “I'm angry and questioning why this happened. If it is in any way linked to In/Out/Brexit/Remain then cancel the whole bloody thing.” We don't know that Jo Cox's murder was linked to the Referendum.

My mood wasn’t helped by a recent drive through north Wiltshire and Gloucestershire with “Vote Leave” placards everywhere. And the UKIP one that makes my blood boil “We want our country back!” Well it’s my country too and I like it as it is thank you!


But then this morning I heard an interview with an 18-year-old young man from Jo Cox’s constituency. From his name he is of Asian heritage. He had attended a prayer vigil in the parish church St Peter's Birstall. He was interviewed for BBC Radio 4 Today programme. He explained that he knew Jo Cox. He had met her when she was canvassing for the General Election. She’d got him interested in politics, he’d joined the Labour Party and since become a local councillor.

This young man was clearly close to tears. Hardly surprising given that a close friend has just died. What a legacy she’s left if she had made a difference to just one life. But in fact through her campaigning on the Syrian refugee crisis alone she has made a difference to countless others.

The death of Jo Cox has left me feeling angry and disgusted by what our country is becoming. But anger and disgust alone won’t change anything. I suspect that Jo Cox understood that. No doubt she was angry at the injustices in this country and around the world. According to the Bishop of Huddersfield “She was a woman of passion and a woman of compassion”

But she didn’t sit back. Jo Cox’s husband Brendon said of her last night:

“She believed in a better world. And she fought for it every day.”

Fitting tributes from two people who knew Jo Cox well.

I suspect in years to come some who knew Jo Cox well will be playing the game of “What if”. A game it seems often played about Labour politicians of passion and compassion (consider John Smith MP) who died before their time. That is a fruitless exercise. But it is a more realistic aim to wonder “What will be her legacy?”

I hope her legacy will be that the people of Batley will become more engaged with the political process as love it loath it, it’s all we’ve got. (Certainly the young man of Asian heritage is already part of that legacy.) And I hope that on a wider scale the people of this country will move away from the finger pointing and find common ground. Common ground where we all seek to love one another and our neighbours as ourselves. A common ground of building bridges not fences.

As I said at the start I did not know Jo Cox and I have no idea what she was like other than the bits and pieces said by constituents on the news. Nevertheless, I think that Pope Francis may have provided the yardstick by which she will be judged in future years:

Every man, every woman who has to take up the service of government, must ask themselves two questions: 'Do I love my people in order to serve them better? Am I humble and do I listen to everybody, to diverse opinions in order to choose the best path?' If you don't ask those questions, your governance will not be good.

A prayer

Almighty God, in whose prophets through the ages
we have seen your truth clearly outlined,
we pray for people of vision in our day
those who carry undimmed
the light of the longing for justice
those who speak in the councils of nations
to persuade and convince
those who lead and support in action groups,
political parties and networks
those who resist blind power and risk persecution
to show a new way. Amen


From The Pattern of our Days edited by Kathy Galloway. The Iona Community 1996

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Bridge builders not fence builders

This is an abridged and adapted version of a sermon preached at Sheldon Road Methodist Church Chippenham on 29th May 2016

One of the stories in the Gospels I find fascinating is related in chapter 7 of Luke’s Gospel. In the story a Centurion sends for Jesus to come and visit as the Centurion’s servant is gravely ill. The Centurion has heard that Jesus can cure people.

Very often when preachers speak about this passage they do so to talk about the Centurion’s faith. But when I read the story again recently I was struck by how the Centurion was crossing cultures.

I like Roman history and recently enjoyed watching the BBC series “Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome”. (I’m currently about half through the accompanying book.) It was a fascinating series and I have learned a great deal. The final episode proved to be the most interesting for me, as in it Professor Beard explored the Roman Empire’s relationship with faith and, in particular Judaism and Christianity.

As you may know, the Romans worshipped many gods. And if I understand Professor Beard correctly, Romans would make sacrifices to a different god depending on the time of the year or what they were doing. For example, if someone was about to embark on a sea journey then a sacrifice might be made to the god Neptune. And Romans were very adept at incorporating gods from other cultures (whom the Romans had conquered) into their own culture. For example, the cult of Mithras originated in Persia but was widespread throughout the Roman Empire.

Professor Beard argued that on the whole most Romans then were comfortable with worshipping many gods. And an important part of that worship was making sacrifices of animals.
Given this – the worship of multiple gods and the widespread use of sacrifices – Professor Beard argues that Romans were deeply suspicious of Judaism and, in due course Christianity. Both Judaism and Christianity of course advocated worshipping God solely. And whilst Judaism had sacrifices as part of Temple worship, sacrifices were not part of the Christian faith. This was something the Romans found very strange.

I say all this, to show that the Centurion mentioned in the passage from Luke must have been something of an exception, as he clearly has close ties with the Jewish community in Capernaum. In the story the Jewish elders say to Jesus about the Centurion:

‘This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’ Luke 7: 4 – 5

This doesn’t mean of course that the Centurion was a practising Jew. I suspect that would not have been permissible to a Roman officer. But clearly the centurion felt able to assist the Jewish community in Capernaum.

Luke doesn’t give us much information about the Centurion. There are several unanswered questions. As I’ve said we may wonder about whether he was a practising Jew or not. And then we might wonder why he was in Capernaum? And how could a Centurion afford to build a synagogue?

We can only speculate why the Centurion was living in Capernaum and we can have an informed guess about how he managed to pay for the synagogue. But one further question must be Why did he do what he did?

As I said earlier, it is unlikely that he was Jewish. In fact, careful reading of the passage seems to confirm this. If he was Jewish, he would have felt able to welcome Jesus into his home. But given that he sends people to Jesus with a message suggests that the Centurion was sufficiently sensitive to Jewish purity laws that forbade a Jew entering the home of a Gentile. He wanted the help of a Jew, but he knew that a Jew could not enter a Gentile home. Though as we know, Jesus was not concerned about such things.

So if he was not Jewish, why did he build a synagogue? It seems to me he was motivated by a sense of wanting to demonstrate an act of generosity or an act of kindness, to the community in which he lived. It had nothing to do with his own faith.

Back in 2013 I read an incredible story in The Guardian newspaper.

Bradford’s only remaining synagogue was faced with closure. It was a story familiar to many of our chapels. Falling numbers and lack of money to keep the historic place of worship open. But then some unlikely benefactors stepped in – representatives of Bradford’s Muslim community.

The secretary of a nearby Mosque aided by the owners of a curry house and a textile business raised funds and helped the synagogue members with an application for lottery funds. Zufil Karim who is on the board of the Bradford Council of mosques was quoted as saying:

"It makes me proud that we can protect our neighbours and at the same time preserve an important part of Bradford's cultural heritage."

Mr Karim also goes on to say how important it is for faith communities to get to know one another. The Christians, Muslims and Jews of Bradford have started to share meals and visit one another’s places of worship in an effort to understand one another better.

Perhaps the Centurion realised the importance of dialogue between cultures 2,000 years ago? We don’t know of course. But we can agree that he acted in a way that was “counter cultural” That is he acted in a way that went against the usual. For not only did he have close relations with his Jewish neighbours – so much so that they thought highly of him; He also treated his slave in a way that many would not have done.

Now of course was cannot overlook the fact that he kept slaves. And although the NIV and other translations use the word “servant” in all probability we are talking about a slave. As we can imagine slaves in Roman society were generally held in low regard. Yes of course they had a value it is though unusual for a slave owner to be so concerned for a salve’s welfare.

The very fact that the Centurion is concerned with the lives of others shows how he has an understanding of Jesus’ values and teachings. The Centurion demonstrates a love for his neighbour 3 chapters before the story of the Good Samaritan!

In his New Testament commentary on the story of the Good Samaritan John Wesley offers the following explanation for the words “Now go and do likewise”

Let us go and do likewise, regarding every man as our neighbour who needs our assistance. Let us renounce that bigotry and party-zeal which would contract our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race .... With an honest openness of mind, let us always remember the kindred between man and man; and cultivate that happy instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly bound us to each other.

The 18th century English may be difficult to follow exactly. But I think we can all get the meaning. It was Wesley’s view that as followers of Christ we are to regard all people as our neighbours. We are to turn our backs on those things that seek to impose barriers. We are to avoid becoming fixated on our own kind. We are to be aware of our own prejudices and put them aside. We are to remember that all people are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This is exactly what the Centurion was doing. Breaking down barriers. Crossing divides. Reaching out to those who were different. Avoiding “Us” and “Them”. The Centurion was practising those words of Wesley “cultivating that happy instinct whereby … God has strongly bound together”

In 1990 I visited friends in what was then still West Germany. They lived in Bavaria and in the funny period between the Berlin Wall coming down and German reunification they took me into East Germany. We drove along an efficient West German autobahn until we reached the border. (Near Hof.) There the autobahn stopped. A bridge between East and West (built before the Second World War) had been destroyed by the Russians. We left the autobahn and crawled along country roads until we reached the East German autobahn complete with cobbles!)

In 2000 we were back in Germany and I purposely drove the same section of autobahn. The bridge (the Elster Viaduct Pirk)had been rebuilt and in fact it was hard to tell where the frontier and its barriers had been.

I suppose there have always been divisions between people. Jew and Gentile. Slave and Free. Divisions of nationality. Divisions of religion. Brexit and Remain. And so on. But that does not mean that we as Christians should be comfortable with these divisions. As followers of Christ we should be working for barriers between people to be broken down not built up. As followers of Christ we should be bridge builders not fence builders. And we should challenge those things that seek to create division and work for those things that promote unity.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Save our steel

Who knows whether the steel works at Port Talbot will be saved? I hope so not only for those working there but also for the wider community. Because if the works close the impact will be huge.

Let me tell you a story and share a couple photos I've found on the internet.

I grew up in a village in the South Wales valleys called Crosskeys. It was a former mining village - though the mine closed in the early 1960s. Most men worked in other mines, or the steel works at Llanwern or Ebbw Vale. Though there were other employers and factories in the area.

My grandfather worked in Ebbw Vale works for 25 years having worked in the mines for 30 years. (He went down the pit aged 13!) He retired in 1973.

My grandfather lived in a town called Tredegar.
Tredegar is "over the mountain" from Ebbw Vale. (In the summer months my grandfather would often walk to work as he enjoyed walking.) It was a thriving town. The town had lots of shops. It had a cinema. A beautiful park. A small hospital. The first photo dates from that era. As a kid in the 60s and 70s I loved visiting Tredegar. In the school holidays I'd often go and stay with my grandparents for a few days. I used to be put on the 156 bus at Crosskeys and met by my grandparents in Tredegar.

My grandfather died over 10 years ago and I have not been to Tredegar since. But by the late 1990s (the time of the second photo)
it was a shadow of itself. Most shops were boarded up. The town had collapsed following the closure of the Ebbw Vale works in the 90s. (And to a lesser extent the mines in the 80s.) This is what happens to communities when a large local employer closes and nothing replaces it. A drive round the South Wales valleys tells you the same tale.

This is what will happen to the town of Port Talbot and nearby communities if the steel works is allowed to close. Of course some will find work in time. But will it be worthwhile employment? And in the meantime what happens to the shops and service industries reliant on the income generated by the steel works?

I know saving Port Talbot is a huge undertaking. But I just wanted to show the impact on a community if it goes down.

I hope that the government just doesn't let the market decide. People in South Wales know only too well what happens when governments listen to markets and not people.

Photo acknowledgements:

http://tredegar.gwentheritage.org.uk/content/catalogue_item/red-white-bus-tredegar
http://www.discoverthevalleys.org.uk/adams.html

Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Easter Roller Coaster


Easter weekend is traditionally the start of the tourist season. And I imagine therefore that there will be many people going to the various theme parks around the country such as Alton Towers.

I’ve never really got theme parks. I don’t understand why people pay a lot money to queue up to go on a ride that will last perhaps only a couple of minutes and in the process scare themselves witless. And they get off and go and do the same thing again! I suppose people ride roller coasters and such like for the thrill. The sheer excitement of being scared. People get a “buzz” from it. They enjoy the mixture of terror and thrills.

There’s a saying isn’t there? “Life is a roller coaster”. I suppose it means that like a roller coaster in our lives we have the highs and the lows. We have excitement but we also have moments when we are frightened too.

It seems to me that had roller coasters been invented at the time of Jesus Mary Magdalene would have related to that saying. Her life was a roller coaster and on that first Easter morning the roller coaster of her life was about to take on a whole new dimension.

Before I go on, just a few words about Mary Magdalene. Magdalene describes where she was from – the town of Magdala. Magdala was an important agricultural, fishing and trade centre in Galilee. We are told both in Mark’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel that Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven demons and that Jesus healed her. Today we take this to mean that she was suffering from mental illness. But in ancient times “demon possession” was a term used to describe physical or mental illness.

Of course we all know that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute don’t we? Wrong! There is nothing to suggest this in the Gospels. Over time it seems as if the early church confused Mary Magdalene with the unnamed woman in Luke who anointed Jesus and dried her tears with her hair. This woman was a prostitute and therefore Mary Magdalene became labelled as a prostitute herself which is very unfair.

Mary Magdalene became part of the inner circle of Jesus’ supporters.

Mary Magdalene’s life was a roller coaster then but for different reasons from those we may have thought
.
Come Easter morning Mary has been through the high of Palm Sunday and the gradual plunge of Holy Week leading to the full horror of God Friday. And now, at rock bottom she comes to the garden to visit the tomb where Jesus was buried hastily on Friday. She couldn’t visit on Saturday as it was the Jewish Sabbath.

And of course she still has another scare – worthy of the fastest roller coaster – the tomb is empty.

Given how frightened she is when Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus, her natural reaction is to want to cling to him. She needs the security Jesus offers. She doesn’t want to get back on the roller coaster once more.

But she is in for another surprise because Jesus says to her “Do not hold on to me”. Jesus tells her she needs to let go of him. She won’t find security by holding on to him or by trying to hold on to how things were. Rather she needs to trust in God for her onwards journey. A roller coaster journey but a journey that will be more secure by placing herself in God’s hands.

I’ve only been on a roller coaster or a scary theme park ride two or three times. (I don’t count The Water Chute at Porthcawl!) The most memorable was once on a visit to Germany. I was persuaded to go on something called a Pirate Ship. You are strapped in to the “vessel” and then it gradually swings like a pendulum.


It doesn’t quite go upside down but near enough. At the widest swing a number of the people around me raised their hands in the air. We were all strapped in of course. But I clung on tightly to the bar in front of me. I didn’t have the confidence they did. To me letting go was far too risky.




When we feel there is a risk or something feels unsafe we want to cling on. This is the way of things in church too. But Jesus comes to us and says

‘Do not hold on to me’

We can be unsure of our ability to trust in God especially when letting go seems risky or we feel unsafe or when we are unsure of the future. Yet the reality is that God’s love is always there for us. The Easter story shows us as much.

One of the reasons I don’t like roller coasters or the Pirate Ship is that I really don’t like heights. Somewhere at my parents’ house is a photograph of me taken at the top of the Eiffel Tower on a school trip in 1980. It was a glorious summer’s day but all I could do was cling to wall. I couldn’t bring myself to cross the viewing platform to take in the spectacular view of Paris. By holding on to the wall I felt – relatively – safe. But by being safe I missed out on the opportunity to see a wonderful view of Paris.


Not being prepared to let go; clinging on to what is safe means we miss out on the opportunities Jesus presents to us. We need to let go to enjoy the new things Jesus leads us to.

Mary’s encounter with Jesus meant that she was told by Jesus to go and witness to what she had seen and encountered:

17 Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ John 20:17

We forget that Easter is a time of action after the waiting time of Lent. Often we forget this. In Lent we frequently get called to take action whether by giving something up or doing something. Yet it is Easter that should be the time of action.

If the disciples who encountered the risen Jesus hadn’t taken action by bearing witness to him, we wouldn’t be here today.

Imagine what difference it would make if we responded to the resurrection by committing ourselves to witnessing to the risen Jesus in the way Mary Magdalene did. And imagine what difference it would make if we made a commitment to witness for 50 days - in the same way many of us take on an action for Lent. Imagine if we heard those words of Jesus speaking to us saying:

“Do not hold on to me. Go instead to my brothers and sisters and tell them the Good News.”


Mary’s encounter with Jesus and his direction to her to GO! came after a time of waiting – albeit a brief time.

Simon Peter and John the beloved disciple left her in the garden as they went back to where they were staying after seeing the empty tomb. Mary waited. And in this waiting she encountered Jesus.

There is a need for action. But sometimes there is a need for waiting too. Our actions as Christians need to follow on from times of waiting for God; Waiting for, and looking for, our own encounters with him.

That waiting may be long or it may be brief. But waiting is important. Sometimes we can be tempted to dive into something. But we need to wait to hear God’s word. Telling us what we need to do.

Even though Mary Magdalene doesn’t understand what is happening in Jesus’ death, she remains faithful to him throughout everything. She remains faithful. She comes to the tomb the faithful servant when others are hiding behind closed doors or have fled.

Mary doesn’t have the great theological insights that Paul will have. Mary isn’t destined to be a preacher and evangelist like Peter. She doesn’t write one of the Gospels. But she has faith. She is one of the everyday ordinary Christians serving their Lord. Day in day out. Week in week out. Christians like you and me. Christians who continue to serve faithfully even though our understanding of faith or our sense of God’s calling might be limited.

But knowledge and understanding is not the same as faith. Faithful actions can speak much more of our belief, our theology, than many learned books or great minds.

There’s a story told about Albert Einstein. Einstein was traveling from Princeton University in America on a train. When the guard came down the aisle to check the passengers’ tickets, Einstein couldn’t find his. He looked everywhere but there was no ticket. The guard was gracious; “Not to worry, Dr. Einstein, I know who you are, we all know who you are, and I’m sure you bought a ticket.”

As the guard moved down the aisle, he looked back and noticed Einstein on his hands and knees, searching under the seat for his ticket. The guard returned to Einstein; “Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don’t worry. I know who you are. You don’t need a ticket, I’m sure you bought one.” Einstein arose and said “Young man, I too know who I am; what I don’t know is where I am going.”

We may wonder where we are being led. At times we may wonder whether we have done the right thing. We may wonder what on earth we are doing sat in the front seat of the roller coaster! But the good news of Easter is that we do know where we are going. We have been told by the Saviour that his life and death has promised us life eternal. Nothing can change that. Whatever else we do is immaterial. As Paul puts it in Romans

We may be certain of this: neither death, nor life, no angel, no ruler, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor anything created, can ever separate us from the love God which we have seen in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 8: 38 – 39 (amended)

Nothing changes that promise. Unemployment doesn’t change that promise. Neither does divorce, or bankruptcy, or cancer, or depression, or felony, or failure. Through elation and deflation and every emotion in between, this truth remains; we know whose we are and we know where we are going, because the Son of God has promised. And this, my friends, is faith.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Music Never Dies

This is the (slightly adapted) text of a sermon preached at the funeral of an elderly gentleman – Joe - who was a highly regarded music teacher. (Joe is a pseudonym.)

Music has a way of moving most people unlike anything else.

An American psychologist called Anne Rosenfeld has called music "the beautiful disturber" She comments,

"Music can move us to tears or to dance, to fight or make love. It can inspire our most exalted religious feelings and ease our anxious and lonely moments. Its pleasures are many, but it can also be alien, irksome, almost maddening."
(Psychology Today, December 1985, p. 48)

Best of all, music is a channel for the grace of God. Music can be a way for us to feel the presence of God. In listening to music we can be transported to somewhere else. A place where we sense God.

The German theologian Martin Luther once said:

“I have no pleasure in any man who despises music. It is no invention of ours: it is a gift of God. I place it next to theology. Satan hates music: he knows how it drives the evil spirit out of us.” Martin Luther

I have to disagree slightly with Luther. Firstly, the music of the bagpipes has more to do with Satan than God in my opinion! And while I agree that music is God given, I would argue that theology and music aren’t side by side as Luther suggests. Rather they are interlinked.

Of course when we think of all the different types of music there are in the world, depending on our own personal tastes we may find some music less conducive to contemplating God than others. But it seems to me if the music we listen to gives us pleasure, and puts us in a better frame of mind, then the music is God given.

During one of the conversations I had with Joe, I asked him what kinds of music he liked. He said “I like all kinds of music as long as it is good.” Though as Joe’s son said to me when we met “What Dad meant was ‘I like all kinds of music as long as I tell you what is good!

Joe was I gather a great lover of Bach and most German classical music. I’ve heard him say “I don’t like that French stuff!” With this in mind I’m sure Joe would approve of something the great Johann Sebastian Bach himself said:

“Music is an agreeable harmony for the honour of God and the permissible delights of the soul.”

I don’t know if Joe liked jazz. There is a story that the great American jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was playing in a small jazz club in New York in 2001. He was playing a soulful, mournful ballad called "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.”

At the song's most heart-rending point, a mobile phone rang completely spoiling the mood. Marsalis froze. This rude interruption could have ended the concert. Marsalis could have walked off stage in disgust.
After a few seconds, however, Marsalis did something amazing. Without missing a beat, he picked up on the tune of the phone's ring and incorporated it into the song he was playing. He performed variations on it - blending it with what he'd planned to play - and then drew the whole ballad back to the original theme.

The stunning result brought down the house. Wynton Marsalis transformed a rude interruption into a moment of glory. He didn't allow an unexpected shock to stun or silence him. Instead, he turned this setback into a comeback.

Source http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/wyntons-blues/302684/

That's what good musicians do.

We gather today because life has been interrupted. The discordant, shrill ring of death has seemingly overcome the music and melody of life. Hearing and experiencing death's ring makes us angry and frustrated. We want to know who's responsible for this interruption. Death makes us wonder whether we'll ever have a "ghost of a chance" of understanding, of getting back in tune with life, of feeling the music once again.

But we need to recognize that God improvises a different tune, a variation on a theme. Somehow God, the master Musician, is able to take the discordant ring of death, the interruption and turn it into something beautiful. That's really what resurrection is about. Jesus walked out of the tomb, showing us that even death doesn't stop the music. The song goes on, perhaps a bit differently, more improvised, more subtly beautiful, but it goes on.

The death of someone close to us can force us to walk away, or it can be an opportunity for improvisation - to find new ways of celebrating life amid tragedy. In Romans 8:28, the apostle Paul put it this way:

Romans 8:28 Good News Translation (GNT)

28 We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him,[a] those whom he has called according to his purpose.


That's a powerful image. No matter how hurtful, how tragic, how unfair or how out of tune we might feel, God can work variations on the theme of life within us and turn it into something beautiful.

God's direction for us today is to follow his lead, to improvise, to start something new.

Music never dies. And because of God's promise of the Resurrection, neither do the people we care about. That is our hope for Joe and it is our hope for ourselves too. Amen.

Acknowledgement: Photograph of Wynton Marsalis from The Guardian web site.