Monday, 31 December 2012

Living stones

For over 800 years people have worshipped in the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Horton. The well connected inhabitants of Horton House supported church and village, and filled the chancel with memorials, not least a large and fine alabaster memorial of two members of the Parr family lying in an attitude of prayer. Their one day to be royal niece may have visited, prayed there, worshipped there. Years later, when the Victorian era villagers wanted to make the Parr resting place even lovelier, they perhaps did not realise that they had employed what we would call cowboy builders. The builders did make the church look very fine, but proper working buttresses and proper tying of chancel to nave might have been a higher priority. The work they did outlived them; perhaps that is all that mattered to the ones wielding the chisels and the hammers.

Fourteen years ago the shortcuts taken by those builders began to show up. A sheet of plaster fell from the wall, cracks appeared in finials, stonework started to crumble. The church was closed, unsafe for public use. The hopes of many that it could be repaired and restored led to a fundraising campaign that drew people together. But it gradually became clear that you could never raise enough money to put right the many problems the building had collected. The annual spend to maintain the church would be exorbitant.

Today the story of worship at St Mary Magdalene's came to a quiet but loving close. As the church commissioners scheme to close the church came into effect, 49 people from the village and neighbouring villages gathered in windy, drizzly cold on the path near the front door. There they remembered that religious buildings do come down, but that the church is made from living stones, and the church goes on beyond buildings. They considered the pilgrimage that the living church is making and made a cairn, a way marker near the church door that will remind all who see it that pilgrims have passed this way on their journey. Each stone reminds those who placed them there of important moments and happy moments, when that church mattered to them as much as it did to the Parr family. But the journey doesn't end here, only the story of the building does.

Horton's worshippers travelled on to join their neighbours from Piddington and Hackleton. Their parish of Piddington came to an end too today, as they willingly brought to an end a part of their pilgrimage in order to journey forward together with their fellow pilgrims from Horton. Their church now belongs as much to the Horton worshippers as to those of Hackleton and Piddington. The new parish, Piddington with Horton, began as the pilgrim worshippers gathered in the church to renew their baptismal vows, to pray for their ongoing pilgrimage in Christ together, and to celebrate a new phase in the story of Christ's living stones in this place.

I hope never have to oversee the closure of a church again. Once in a lifetime is enough. But if I do, I hope that it will be with the same love, hope and grace that my brothers and sisters here came together today. May our Lord bless them as they move on together, living stones building his kingdom right here, right now.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Tweeting Christmas

My midnight mass congregation on Christmas night looked delighted when I invited them to get their smartphones out and tweet the sermon #christmasstartswithchrist. Especially the group in their early twenties who had come straight from the pub and weren't used to going to church. Their pleasure was expressed vocally, and why not? Joining in with the Sermon tweeting project for Christmas challenged me to think hard about what the message was this year. Taking Hebrews 1:1-4 and John 1:1-14 as preaching texts, this was the word that was tweeted by various good people in Piddington church this year. Credit to Joanna Hollins who gave time to doing some Bible study and active thinking with me which developed this message.

Today I am making an unusual invitation. if you have a smartphone with you, turn it on! Because today I am inviting you to log into twitter and to tweet the sermon. If you have twitter at home but not here, feel free to tweet something about this sermon later on, or in the morning. Tonight the  Archbishop  of Canterbury is preaching his  last sermon in Canterbury Cathedral, and that sermon is being tweeted, as is the sermon of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, and sermons of many other bishops and priests around the country. In this diocese Bishops Donald and John are both joining in, and they are keen for lots of Peterborough churches to make their appearance in the twitter feed. Everyone who takes up this invitation is asked to use the hash tag #christmasstartswithchrist. So we are joining in too.

I am intrigued by the power of social media. Youtube, Instagram, twitter, all spreading messages to large numbers of people in almost no time. All these words can be a force for good or for mischief. The words of many and the words of very few can have equal influence, it seems. During the last couple, of years we have seen revolutions sparked and organised using twitter. The Arab Spring. The riots of summer 2011. After the riots the volunteers in numbers cleaning up the cities were also called together using Facebook and twitter. A single voice, like the abusive one that taunted diver Tom Daley during the Olympics can be heard by millions, and new crimes have been devised to try and control this kind of abuse.

My mum used to quote 'sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me'. You would need, as Rowan Williams implied, the hide of a rhinoceros to be able to take in words without being hurt. Sometimes I think words can be far more damaging than sticks and stones. A broken arm will mend in time. I'm not sure a broken heart ever really does. Words burrow deep inside, and hang around. A little girl told by her parents that she is thick will feel that hurt and believe the words even if she gets university degrees and does well professionally. The word, burrowed deep within, still has the power to affect her. The nasty tone of voice, the powerful criticism, the certainty of rightness that characterises so many comment feeds on news blogs or twitter conversations may represent a minority, but it has a power that is immense. But equally powerful is the word spoken for good. The word of encouragement, the word of praise, the word of celebration. The little girl who was told she is thick can get over that damaged self belief with the help of others speaking words of encouragement and telling her that she is of value. A friend of mine received an abusive Christmas card this year. The words on the card hurt him badly, and he quoted them on Facebook. Because he did that, he received many many messages from friends and others who appreciate him, and even a few people who didn't know him. All offering words of love and support. The power of all those words could overcome the nasty words.

The reading from the letter to the Hebrews talks about God sustaining all things by his powerful word. John goes further. He reminds us that in the beginning was the word. This doesn't just mean that at the beginning of the earth a mysterious character going by the name of word was hanging around. When God created the earth he spoke it into being. 'Let there be light', he said, and there was light. The light came into being in response to the word of God. So the word spoken by God represents the action of God's spirit in bringing life. A word that can bring stars into being is a powerful word indeed. And that word was with God and that word was God. And, John tells us, that life breathing word became flesh and came to live among us. The power of the word in Jesus became clear in his life. If Jesus says the word, the centurion's servant is healed. If Jesus says the word, the paralysed man is forgiven. The word that gives life, that brings healing and forgiveness to anyone who will listen, was spoken by a man who lived just as we do. So often he said, listen! Let him who has ears hear!

When the word first came into the world, that power was hidden from plain hearing. A ordinary baby, the only sounds he could make were the same cries and mewls that any baby makes. And don't believe the Christmas carol. Jesus would have cried. He was an ordinary baby with the same needs as any other baby. Mary and Joseph probably suffered that same exhausting nights of trying to quiet the child while not having any idea what the problem was that so many parents have lived through. The powerful word of God, that spoke life into the world and brought eternal life to all people, became a human being, and for a while at least, a very vulnerable one.

The word Christmas reminds us of that powerful word. We celebrate in this mass or communion service the presence of Christ in amongst us. The word became flesh. Christmas starts with Christ not only in the technical wordy spelling sense, but in the truth that Christ first came to live among us and because of that great gift we have something stunning to celebrate. The powerful word among us gives us hope and calls us to follow him. And as the people who recognise Jesus Christ as the life bringing presence of God in the world, we have a responsibility.

As Christians we represent Christ to the rest of the world. We tell His story, especially at this time of year with our carol services and crib services and performances in schools. But it isn't only when we are storytelling or standing up in church that our words make a difference. Every word we speak to others represents God to them. If we speak a kind, loving or encouraging word, we show them the heart of God. If we speak a sharp, short tempered or judgemental word, we risk giving others the impression that our God is unpleasant, judgemental or vengeful. When we speak, with our voices or when we speak using a keyboard or a pen, as Christians our words always represent God to others. We can become the powerful word of God bringing healing and forgiveness. Jesus Christ can act through our words, if we let Him.

The powerful word of God brings light and life. This is the heart of the Christmas message. Yes, it is about a baby. But the point is that that baby was also, completely and wholly, the creator of the universe. That baby grew up and learned to speak and the word of God became the spoken word of a man. Sometimes you hear people saying 'if Jesus were around now, what would he say?' I once took part in a service with my youth congregation led by a colleague on the theme 'what would Jesus tweet?' But here's the thing that Christmas reminds us. The word of God is with us. Present tense. Admittedly not in the same way that He was present to the shepherds or the disciples, but present nevertheless. That presence, real and strong, through the Holy Spirit, is the reason why every one of us becomes the mouthpiece of God when we speak out. So watch your words! And listen to the words of others, because the word speaks in them too. Remember the great power of all that you say, write, tweet. Don't let fear of that responsibility silence you, but use your words well. Some times it will be your words that bring light, life encouragement or joy to someone. Whenever you do that you will be bringing the powerful word into the world again. You will be the Christmas messenger.

May God bless you all as the powerful word brings you life and hope this Christmas, and as you speak the powerful word of Christ to others. Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

All sewn up

Life is a rich tapestry, I have often heard said. It's a tapestry in the making of course, the picture in its full detail only making sense when it is finished and you can step back from it and take a look at the whole. Most of the time we see only the small section that is currently working itself out. We may have a small number of threads on the go: family, friends, work, leisure.
At the moment the work bit of my life seems to have a lot of threads on the go. A church closure and the resultant closure of two parishes and emergence of one larger one; a building project; a parish joining the benefice and finding its place within this bit of God's family; a parish that is emerging, bruised, from a time of losing members in a hurtful way; schools work; questions over what the emerging mission priorities in the benefice might be; the need to pull together a coherent programme for the coming year.    Then there are the pastoral threads: the funeral in preparation, the families that are struggling; the people who are simply lonely.
at my desk, in the car heading between visits and meetings, in churches, it is hard to see what all these threads might be about.
Refilling the jug, there is a brief glimpse of what this bit of the picture might be. Emerging from the threads is something bigger than my role, or that of the others involved. God with us, Emmanuel, is the constant, calling every one of us to come with Him and to be a part of the Kingdom of God. Those threads, one day, will be a part of a picture of the Kingdom.  They'll tie up with the other threads that people around me are shouting about: women bishops, gay marriage, climate change, and whatever else is today's fashionable concern. Important they all may be, but only as threads in the larger tapestry of the Kingdom. What really matters is the big picture, and as we work the threads that God asks us to deal with right here, right now, we need to keep the big picture in mind, so that our part of the tapestry does not become a part that has to be unpicked and sown again.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Refilling the jug

So many people, in so many jobs, lifestyles, callings, pour themselves out for others every day. They do it willingly, lovingly, without thought for themselves.

In my job I'm called both to pour out love and compassion, and to see where others do the same. Very often I see loving people giving of themselves so generously that there is very little left at the end of the day. The danger in that is that once everything is poured out there is nothing left for oneself or for others.

So I regularly talk to people in all sorts of callings about the image of a jug. They are called  - as I am - to pour themselves out for others. But the jug is only any good if it is full. It is no good working so hard, so long, that there is nothing left to give. And empty jug is pretty, perhaps - but even a pretty jug is merely an ornament if there is nothing in it.

For a calling is to be lived to the full, we each need to take time regularly to refill the jug. That is precisely why Our Father God commanded that we take a day a week to stop work and rest. Holidays, retreats, time for personal prayer, moments to reflect, to look at the view, watch the butterfly or take a breath - all of these things are essentials, not luxuries. The more you are called to give, the more you need to ensure that your jug is full.

This blog is about refilling my jug. It is my opportunity to step back from the ceaseless round of parish life and take a good look at what God is up to in it. It is my space for reflection on what my jug contains and where it is poured out. If it helps others to refill their jugs too, I'll be absolutely delighted.