Author Archives: Rachel Feltham

Christmas 1 – 27th December

There is a service video link here https://youtu.be/rqekLvVBfec

Penny chose this  poem for our reflection and is included in the service.

What Kind of Messiah

By Godfrey Rust

What kind of Messiah does anyone want? What sort of Saviour will do? Before we subscribe and get dunked in the font, what kind of Messiah are you? What kind of Messiah does anyone need in our postmodern hullabaloo? What qualifications will help him succeed? What kind of Messiah are you?

Will you stop us from worry and calm us from fear? Will you free us from debt and fatigue? Will you send Boris Johnson* packing next year? Will you put us on top of the League? Will you heal our diseases with mystical magic so we’ll live to 102? Will you make it all better when things turn out tragic? What kind of Messiah are you?

Will you find me a partner and get me a job? Will you save me a good place to park? Will I be superfit even though I’m a slob? Will you keep me a berth in the ark? Will you answer my prayers (but not everyone else’s)? Will you make all my wishes come true? Will you bless all of Liverpool*’s strikers (not Chelsea’s!)? What kind of Messiah are you?

Will you be kind to Hindus and good atheists? Will you send all the bad ones to hell? Will you show Richard Dawkins he doesn’t exist? What is it you’re planning, do tell! Will you stop every war, every flood and tsunami and remove the excess CO2? Will you fix all the people who’re driving me barmy? What kind of Messiah are you?

Will you make sure my mortgage rate doesn’t go higher? Stop me drinking too much alcohol? Can I win EuroMillions and go and retire to a house on the Costa del Sol? Will you bless my belief and ignore my behaviour and vindicate all that I do? Oh, just be my own private and personal Saviour— what kind of Messiah are you?

© Godfrey Rust 2012, godfrey@nullwordsout.co.uk

Christmas 2020 – 24/25 December – Rev Alison Way

Isaiah 52.7-10, Hebrews, 1:1-4, John 1:1-14

Link to video reflection: https://youtu.be/iyrU6aT21sY

Link to all age video reflection (Based on Luke 2:8-17) https://youtu.be/e9SSm78k5vY

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen

We know the story of Christmas probably inside out and backwards – though we have been a bit starved of carols this year. I will preach this sermon at St Michael’s and we will have just heard – O holy night from Aled Jones (here is a youtube link to him singing it with Katharine Jenkins – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYK3sllLD3U) It paints a picture of the angels on the night of Jesus birth. We can see it in our mind’s eye and heart’s imagination, but at this special time it is also good to hear the magical and mysterious words of the beginning of John’s gospel. Where we move from telling the story literally to words with deep imagery and artistry – pointing to the deeper truths of Christmas. This passage from the beginning of John’s gospel explains why Jesus came to save us all and bring us all into the light of God’s love, once and for all and forever!

This reading though deeply familiar, is still yet veiled in mystery. Somehow within it are hidden depths, which are there to challenge our minds. God’s love for us is also in every word to touch our hearts. Something that resonates with the presence of God inside each one of us – his Spirit that inspires us tells us how Jesus came into the world. Also how sending his Son was an entirely different approach than the ones God had tried before.

Remembering God had tried making promises and agreements with his chosen people, and providing guidance on the way to live. God sent prophets, spiritual leaders and even kings to help his people, but again and again his chosen people had turned away from him. Despite all the difficulties and set backs, God still wanted to open his love up to everyone not just the chosen few. So simply and completely he sent his Son to us Jesus.

And yet this passage also brought together the approaches and the patterns of reason in the world John was writing into all those year’s ago. Let me explain what I mean.  These words of John’s gospel start at the beginning. In fact  – In the beginning to be precise, and the beginning is, of course, a very good place to start! For the early Jewish followers of Jesus they would have heard echoes of the start of the story of creation in Genesis, which also starts in the beginning. Early Jewish followers would have known the word of God was powerful and they would have agreed that in the beginning there was indeed the word, because God spoke words and things happened. God said let there be light and there was. God said let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind and there was. The early jewish followers would have known that the word (the spoken word and the power) was with God and to them it was self-evident that all things came into being through him.

But there is another layer here because not only would the jewish followers have understood the concept in the beginning was the word – so also would the Graeco/Roman ones and the parts of the world approaching life through Greek and Roman thought patterns when Jesus was born! Even if they understood the concept a little differently. These followers understood the word as the divine force to do with wisdom and reason and for them it was an entirely natural way of talking about God. John beginning his gospel like this to his Greek and Roman readers, In the beginning was the word was again a clear and clever reference to God, and as this reading unfolds it clearly it describes how Jesus, the Son of God, the outworking of the word came to earth.

It goes on in verse 10 He (the word/Jesus) He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. Frankly this combination of ideas about the word in John’s gospel is a stroke of genius as  it is seemlessly marrying together powerful cultures and ideologies completely alien to each other – across the Jewish and Greek/Roman divide. In all cases really getting to the point about what God was doing in Jesus at the first Christmas but in different ways. This master stroke in the choice of words brings together cultures that we know didn’t mix well and in places were deeply hostile to each other.

Unfortunately in our world and our society today we still know enough don’t we about mixing different cultures and ideologies and just how challenging that can be. Finding ways of unifying ourselves to the common good and shared meaning are extremely important and never more so than in our world today in our pandemic times. Sadly over the years there has been many a conflict based on often unfounded fears of difference, when in reality the common ground  was just a misunderstanding away! The lands around Jesus birth – still speaks to us with seemingly irresolvable conflicts between cultures that rumble on and on. We pray for peace there this Christmas and for peace in all the other places in the world where there is conflict too.

Having touched on how this wonderful passage from John’s gospel played out to the people of Jesus’ day. Let’s just take a moment now to dig more deeply into this rich passage and the concept of the word for us, the people of God today. We know that the words we say and use are immensely powerful. They bring meaning and understanding, and in this case hope, love and purpose. Sharing that meaning and understanding is as John’s gospel would have it is the life that is the light of all people. By saying Jesus is the Word – it is saying that Jesus is at the heart of all meaning and understanding and the essence of our communication with one another and our lives. As such this is a very, very powerful statement indeed.

For me one of the critical points of understanding in the Christian faith is the recognition of Jesus occupying the central part of our lives. When we share with those around us we gain meaning, understanding and love from those we meet. All of which start from God’s love for us and all his children. Our capacity to love and be loved is rooted and grounded  in God’s love for us. It is in all our experiences of compassion and care that God is really present with us. The God who was with the word Jesus from the beginning and the God we know in every breath and dwells with us through the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus left with us.

This passage also brings together aspects of the Trinity, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The word (Jesus) the Son was with God and the word Jesus gave us the power to become children of God – which is a reference to the Holy Spirit. Jesus as word – meaning and purpose to life, is also the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot and will not ever overcome that. This also is something we need to be extremely thankful for. Through the Holy Spirit, we know God is with us in the good times and the bad and there is nothing no matter how bleak or painful that God cannot love us through and gently guide us through.

One of the main conduits of this providential care is those we are given to travel with. Christianity is not and never has been a solitary pursuit, but  one founded in relationship with one another, our companions on the road and in relationship with our loving God . We may be socially distanced from one another in 2020, but love brings us together. God will be with us forever loving us in this world and the next. That love is something that no darkness can take away. Our experiences today of all this are just a foretaste of the intimacy and joy that dwelling in and with God for eternity will be like.

 In Church – We often say the words Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit etc, but there is a slight different variant of that Glory to God, source of all being, eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Brings to the fore Jesus as the word –

  • The word is all our experiences of love, meaning and understanding.

  • The word is for yesterday, the word for this moment and the word for all our tomorrows in this world and the next.

  • Thank you God for Jesus coming into the world at the first Christmas our eternal word, our meaning and our light. Amen

 The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 – Worship words – Text copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000-2020

Advent four – Rev Alison Way – December 20th 2020

Luke 1:26-38

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer Amen

This reflection is different from the one I will be doing in the churches today. “Do not be afraid” appears 366 times in the Bible. That is once for every day of the year (even on a leap year like this one!) This phrase – Do not be afraid almost invariably happens when something pretty spectacular has just occurred. Like an angel appearing to an ordinary girl like Mary in our reading today, and fear is a pretty natural human response!

Fear is an interesting human state, in fact, as fear is both a state of mind but also has a effect on our physicality. Fear induces in us a reaction that produces the hormone adrenaline, which prepares the body to flight (run away) or fight. So, when we get frightened or encounter frightening situations our bodies prepare in ways that other emotions to do not effect us.

I think it is interesting and actually I find it a bit mystifying that doing frightening things is viewed as a pleasurable activity by some! Or something they will pay good money for! For example – I do not understand why people enjoy going to horror films or scary films at all. I cannot think of something I like less! I think long and hard about watching something with lots of suspense in it too – and hands appearing from behind walls etc…. I also do not understand the human capacity to go on scary fairground or theme park rides and think that is fun! And that goes too for extreme scary sports like white water rafting or bungee jumping. For me every day life can be scary enough from time to time, and this has been particularly true in 2020 without seeking out additional frightening experiences!

Life was certainly quite scary for Mary in our gospel story today. Imagine in our early teens for a moment being faced with a radical change of plan like this from an angel – a messenger from God? This encounter with the angel turned Mary’s life upside down and with a high prospect of it all going rather pear-shaped in her culture as a result to boot. As we know the end of the story, we know God’s plan had its own way of working itself out.  But Mary did not know this as her part in the story of our salvation began. She did not know Joseph would stand by her and that that would prevent her from at best being ostracised by civilised society and to at worse being stoned for infidelity!

This makes her response to the encounter – here I am – let it be to me according to your word all the more impressive and determined. Mary sets an interesting example of how to handle fear – which appears to be pretty much step up to it and face it!!

But when we are handling fear in our lives. How do we do? There is an acronym for the word FEAR that will help us explore this more deeply, where fear is False Extremes Appear Real.

Let’s start then with False – fear is often a terror that what probably won’t happen will. A right level of caution is always appropriate but a wrong level of unreasonable anxiety is destructive. We have additional complications about falseness and truthfulness in our society today. It can be very difficult to find and stick to the truth.  The phenomena of labelling some ‘fake news’ when it doesn’t reflect what we want to be true is at the root of some of this. Wanting it to be true and it being true are two different things. I long for a day when we don’t get ourselves in such a muddle over truth being absolute rather than relative as we now at times want it to be. The knack here is to keep things in proportion and on the side of the truth (not the relative truth), and remember a healthy dose of common sense can be useful!

Let’s move on to the next element of the acronym, from False to Extremes. Fear envisages a worst-case scenario in which absolutely everything that can go wrong does. Dale Carnegie – of how to win friends and influence people fame, also wrote a book about handling fear. He suggested that one of the ways of doing this was to imagine all the worst possible scenarios and then work out how you can handle them. This can lead to paralysing inactivity as we work all that out and at worse a significant neurosis. Very occasionally in life, everything does seem to go wrong all at once in life (and 2020 has had elements of this about it!) But, that is the extreme and certainly not the rule and many a cloud does have a silver lining even if it is a bit obscured to begin with. Also some of the strangest and scariest things we encounter at the time can be things we look back on with great joy!

The final part of the acronym from False and Extremes – is Appear Real. Appear Real – fear focuses on the imagination and flights of fantasy rather than reality! When people witness a frightening incident their descriptions of it can be wildly different.  One of the reasons for this is that as time passes recollections are clouded by interpretations beyond the event itself. So we say what we have reasoned happened rather than what we actually saw.

The fact that God via the angel in this case says Do not be afraid or in the authorised version Fear not so often means God understands our propensity for nervousness and fearfulness. Faith is born out of our knowledge of God’s love for us and is the heart of our relationship with him. In taking even small steps into the unknown guided by God – we will find that he is with us in every step (even if we don’t know where the next step will take us!) At the moment we are on the cusp of a new beginning as the vaccine roll out begins to happen, but there are still many things we do not know about how all this will be long-term. I think it is important to remember to keep fear in perspective.  With fear when False Extremes Appear Real.

We need to remember how it must have been for Mary as she lived the story of how Jesus came as the Son of God to earth and her role within it. This story helps us to live our stories. She didn’t know the twists and turns of her story any more than we know the twists and turns of ours. And yet Mary has the wisdom to say Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word. Let that be said in our hearts just as much in response to our uncertain times. Here we are, the servants of the Lord, let it be to us according to your word. Amen

The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 – Some material from rootsontheweb.com

Advent 3 – Penny Ashton

Advent 3 – Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-end and John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Link to the video of this reflection: https://youtu.be/-mhkKKMEzqE

I often think these days that the current younger generation will be much more patient and able to deal with waiting than people of my age.  We all grew up with electricity, but whereas I am used to gadgets that switch on when I push the switch, modern electronics take time to get started.  I can write down a phone number in a matter of seconds, but if I want to save it to my phone or computer, then I have to wait for it to boot up and for the application I want to open before I can actually make the note.

When John started preaching, the Jewish people had been without a prophet for some 400 years since the time of Malachi.  What we don’t know is whether they had grown tired of waiting or were looking for a prophet to bring them fresh word from God.  Whatever the answer, they would definitely have been surprised and excited by the appearance of John, and the religious authorities who had been keeping things going in the meantime were quick to want to check him out.  John, however does not seem inclined to give them any useful answers, as he is only willing in the account we heard read today to tell them who he is not.  If you read on in this chapter you will read John’s testimony concerning Jesus, and his account of Jesus’ baptism.  John is very clear about his purpose – he is to prepare the way for Jesus by preaching repentance of sin and baptism, and when that is done, he is to fade into the background.

Is there a lesson for us here?  More than once in our bibles we read accounts of people approaching the disciples and asking in various ways to see Jesus.  Nobody seemed terribly anxious to see Peter or Andrew or James – and nowadays the world does not really need to see Penny or Alison or you either – although they may not entirely realise it, they want to see Jesus still.  John is a good role model for us all here.

I sometimes wonder if the Roman emperor Constantine did the Christian church any favours when he made it the official religion of the empire.  He certainly enlarged it massively at a stroke by enrolling his entire army, but the long-term effects have been to make our faith respectable and this is not always healthy.  I have read that St Benedict who lived in about 500AD was amazed when sent to Rome to be educated by the number of churches that had been and were still being built.  We do love our buildings!  And yes – I love this church at Pen Selwood too.  But do our churches distract from our message?  For five months of this year, our church buildings have been closed to public worship – for three of those months the buildings were completely shut and locked and even now access to them is very limited.  Do we feel that God went away in that time?  Did we say with the exiled people of Israel – ‘how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’?  We learned new ways – developed new skills, perhaps our church life will one day return to its former structure, but I rather hope it doesn’t.  Change is never comfortable, and I am sure we would not have changed greatly in this year, but it has been forced upon us.  Once again I remember the comment that someone put into our Vision Survey in 2018 – Whilst we all love the comfortable old, we would like to embrace the exciting new.  During lockdown earlier this year we heard a lot of talk about the new normal, as people learned different, new and often better ways of doing those things that they weren’t able to carry on in the normal way.

I wonder if we ever consider these days quite how counter cultural Jesus and John the Baptist were in their day.  Without going into the rights and wrongs, I wonder how much difference there really is between turning over tables in the temple court and pulling down a statue in Bristol.   Some things cause deep offence to some people, and if you want your protest to be noticed, sometimes you have to upset people – whether by blocking the traffic in London, removing a statue in Bristol or returning large quantities of unwanted plastic to the shop that insisted on packaging everything.

Our reading from Isaiah gives us a good steer of what God is actually looking for in his kingdom.  Jesus read some of these verses in the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry:

‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,’.  The result of his preaching that day was to be thrown out of the synagogue, and almost off a cliff.

If you use email then I expect that you, like me receive several emails daily from charities in desperate need of funding.  Television advertising is heart breaking to watch, and our news recently has been full of the campaign of Marcus Rashford for children to receive the free meals at home that they are given when at school.  We are about the 5th richest country in the world, and still there are children going hungry.  We pride ourselves on being open, welcoming and tolerant, and yet people in positions of power and authority are still being investigated, and inquiries show that many of our establishments are still institutionally racist.  In the last week, 25,000 people have learned that they will probably be made redundant – and they are only a part of the damage that has been done this year.  Charities that give advice and help with debt problems have never been busier, and the Trussell Trust, that runs many of our food banks tells me that they are expecting to give out a food parcel every 9 seconds this winter.  I also know that people are wonderfully generous.  Last month the Children in Need appeal raised the amazing sum of £41m.  By now it is probably more than that, but I also know that next year they will be looking for more.  Where did we go wrong?

Before you start looking for a handy cliff, I should stress that I am not seeking to blame anyone for these things – for once I am not even blaming the government!  But there must be more that we can do.  Each one of these people in need is made in the image of God, and deeply loved by Him.  I know that many of the problems of the last year have been caused by the pandemic – but I also believe that many of them were accidents waiting to happen – it just took the push of a virus to set the dominoes falling.  We have much to be thankful for.  We live in a beautiful part of a country where we are free to worship, where we are free to call out our leaders when we see shortcomings.  Where the intention of the welfare state is that no-one should fall through the cracks and have nothing – it is not perfect, but it is at least trying.

We cannot escape the fact though that our churches are becoming emptier – and not just at the moment because people fear infection.  There must be something that we are not getting right – and I wonder if it is because our lovely stone walls prevent people from seeing that what they need and really want is to see Jesus.   We look respectable, comfortable – but should we look loving?  Should we take a leaf out of John’s book and point out that we are not, and don’t have the answer – but we do know, and can point to the one who does?

Advent 2 – Rev Alison Way

Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

Link to the video of this reflection: https://youtu.be/UN25YTLHgbc

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight – O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen

I was talking about Isaiah last week in my reflection for Advent Sunday. The passage for last week came from the time when God’s chosen people have returned to Jerusalem after the exile, and are rebuilding the temple (but the people had lost their way with faith in God yet again). Where as this week’s reading comes from more hopeful times – a bit earlier in the story when God’s chosen people were on the cusp of returning from the exile to Jerusalem).

For devotees of Carol Services this reading is very familiar and often one of the chosen ones. It starts in a place that makes us feel good too – Comfort, O comfort my people – says your God. The verb is even in the imperative – showing it to be a command. That is like saying – “better times are coming, breathe in God’s love for you now”. We can resonate with this kind of message as we so need this kind of comfort today. Comfort from God is a breath away if we get in touch with our inner sense of God travelling with us through the Holy Spirit Jesus left with us. This is a very deep well always available to us. Sometimes we just need to pause and pray it into our hearts. This has been most obvious in our pandemic days. As vaccine hopes are peaking over the horizon, let’s lean in to it once more to give us the strength we need to endure (however long it takes us). God’s strength and hope is for us

In places the Holy Spirit is called the comforter, and in this part of Isaiah the verb comfort is used repeatedly to signify encouragement or restoration to new life, but it may also denote that a need for a change of mind or direction is required or some element of repentance. In a way, our recent times have also made us think about all we have taken for granted up to this point, and some ways we will want to change to make the future for ourselves, our nearest and dearest, our communities and our world better. It may be that our pandemic times have made us realise things we had not previously – and I think where it is needed reflection and repentance is very good for our souls. It shows God where we now know we need to proceed differently from now on, and helps us to be open to the Holy Spirit’s work with us and within us.

The next few verses of the reading – are ones we read knowing they point to the coming of Jesus (rather than the immediate events of God’s chosen people as the original readers would have interpreted them to be). Where it starts A Voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. I am not going to talk about who the voice was today, to allow Penny to major on John the Baptist next week in our Advent journey. I want us instead to think about preparing the way. This time of year we generally do a lot of preparations – all kinds of things (cooking, shopping, decorating, writing cards, buying and wrapping presents, and so forth)… I suspect some of it is scaled back for most of us in our pandemic days. But I wonder if we should think about how each thing we are able to do is bringing us closer to the real message of Christmas, how God’s love came down with one intent to save us.

There have been wilderness aspects of our last year’s experience. I don’t think I have ever in my life time spent so much time by myself. I shall be hugely thankful for times when we can more easily mingle. Currently having to set out that we cannot socialise at all inside the church buildings because we are in tier 2 is a horrifying thing for me to say. I so wish this was not the case – as fellowship is such an important part of our journey. We may not be able to chat together in person and inside in the way that we might want but we can pray together and strengthen each other for the journey in that way.

The next part of the verse says “make straight in the desert a highway to our God”. What does that mean? For the original listeners it would have been heard as a call to return to Jerusalem, and in some cases it is translated as highways indicating the dispersed nature of the people of God in exile across the Babylonian empire when this part of Isaiah was inspired. It sounds like a need to make a journey – in the people of God’s case a journey leading back to Jerusalem.

For us we tend to think more of God’s action in sending Jesus, as being the straight highway to God. A direct and decisive intervention pointing to God which we mark each Christmas. A straight highway is not a bendy country lane – but a broad wide and the most direct path possible through the desert times to better places ahead. This must be making us think about how our lives are being lived currently. From the outside do they look like broad highways pointing to God’s love for us or would we look more like a narrow, bendy country lane where the importance of God’s love for us is not so obvious. Being focussed and direct about God’s love for us is also better for us in other ways, as it stops us letting other things crowd in and get in the way too.

These weeks leading to Christmas do afford us opportunities to be more explicit in how we live and what we say. Celebrating Christmas is not cancelled no matter how much we can’t do what we would normally do! There are layers of tradition and family myths, which we are all going to miss that aren’t practical or safe in 2020! There are people we aren’t going to see and activities we aren’t going to be able to indulge in. In this genre is our annual warm bath in a range of mostly Victorian Traditional Carols inside the Church.

Singing the story TOGETHER in Church (not being sung too) is very much part and parcel of Christmas. From our enforced abstinence in this activity inside the church buildings in 2020 we will really know how important this is to us and next year (hopefully) singing TOGETHER will be part of everything we can do then. Yet we still can sing these things in our households, and through various different outlets videos/tv services etc (I will be pointing us to sources of these as we get closer to Christmas too). It is the togetherness that is really missing, and it is a togetherness that points to God. A large packed church full of people singing Hark the herald angels sing – transports us in a different way into the immanence of God’s love for us. There is no doubt that I will (and many of us will) really miss that. It can feel a bit like being there on the hillside as the angels impart the good news of Jesus birth to the shepherds. Let’s remember that feeling and as we remember know deep in our heart that the good news of Jesus birth is still the best news we ever had. In 2020 – let’s hold on to that and hold on to it fast.

A bit further on in the Isaiah passage it brings home to us what the good news is. It says Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all the people shall see it together. For Isaiah’s original audience – the dispersed people of God in exile in the Babylonian empire – this is all about the sign of God’s presence and power once more being visible and experienced in Jerusalem as the temple is rebuilt. I wonder what they made of the second bit of that verse that ‘All people shall see it together’. I suspect they may have interpreted that as being all the scattered people of God would be together and see it and not that it meant something much more radical than that – that Jesus was coming for everyone. That the “All” was so much more inclusive. Remembering even from the very beginning we remember that Jesus’ birth was revealed first to shepherds amongst the poorest and marginalised groups within God’s chosen people and then to wise men from the East – who were beyond God’s chosen people in every sense!! As Jesus was born from the very start it was clear he was for everyone – a saviour for the world.

As we reflect on ‘all people shall see it together’, let’s remember the message of love coming down this Christmas and every Christmas is for everyone, and use it to inspire us to beacons pointing to that love in all that we do.

Let us pray: – God, you have comforted your people, making paths where there seemed no path. You have lifted up valleys, relieved droughts, and made high places low. You have gathered your people in the eternal place of love. You speak to our hearts, and you forgive us for our wandering ways. Your light and love and faithfulness and work are true, ever true, always lasting. We praise you, for the goodness you are, and the pathways you make before us. Amen.

The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995

Prayer adapted from Rootsontheweb.com

Advent Sunday

Advent Sunday – Year B – Rev Alison Way

Link to the Advent Sunday Service and video reflection: https://youtu.be/aszbKE-h_p4

Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-end

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight – O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen

The singing of  “O Come O Come Emmanuel” – with its reflections on the historic titles we give to Jesus and its lilting melody and unmistakable minor key herald the start of the new church year – and the start of Advent. Our time of prayer and preparation as the days shorten but with the light of Jesus once again shining in our hearts. As it did when he first came to earth as a vulnerable baby to save us over 2000 years ago.

Jesus came at that time – as the Messiah – promised of God – to sweep away the old and bring in a new way of all humanity being loved and cherished by God. Sweeping away the old – includes all the time that had passed with God working through Abraham and his descendants. Their journeys to and in the promised land – and the times of exodus and subsequently exile and eventual return to Jerusalem, and the building and then the rebuilding of the temple.

With the coming of Jesus – God is working in a new way – and our reading from Isaiah today is from those times after the return from the exile in Babylon. A lot of people much wiser than me have drawn parallels between the exile experiences of the people of God and our recent times with coronavirus. For example, Samuel Wells who is the vicar of St Martin in the fields along Maureen Langdoc came up with 10 practices for our Covid days inspired by theological themes from the exile. These are:

 

  1. Resist denial: practise truthfulness.

  2. Resist assuming control: develop patience.

  3. Resist the impulse to be right: discover humility.

  4. Resist anxiety: find courage.

  5. Resist fleeing from yourself: become your own friend.

  1. Resist the suffocation of technology: embrace joy.

  2. Resist the assumption of scarcity: celebrate abundance.

  3. Resist self-centredness: embody charity.

  4. Resist greed: realise simplicity.

  5. Resist despair: choose hope.

https://www.abc.net.au/religion/practices-of-resistance-coronavirus-lockdown/12164370

The reading from Isaiah starts with ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’ – in its own way that is exactly what God did when Jesus came. It was not done in the dramatic way Isaiah imagines – no mountains quaking or fires, but through a young faithful woman – messages of angels, visiting shepherds, a travelling star and wise men from the east.

Isaiah is writing of the times when despite everything that has occured – when God’s chosen people have returned to Jerusalem after the exile, and are rebuilding the temple. Even after all that, still the importance of God in the lives of the people is not central.  Things are better than they once were so they have slipped back into apathy. God recognises something new and different is needed and it comes quietly at first – as Jesus is born as a vulnerable baby all those years ago.

I will come back to Isaiah – but we also get a sense of Jesus’ time on earth building to a crescendo in our passage from Mark’s gospel. In the action, this is not long before Jesus is taken to be crucified. He is trying to get across what he is there for. The language (as it is in Mark) is more hidden and mysterious – but there is clarity there. My words Jesus said – will not pass away. And indeed it is testament to their importance that we continue to study then and find new meaning for each passing generation. Jesus words here are a call for us to stay watchful and alert to the good news of Jesus. In our preparations for Christmas I think this must be a call to us to stay focused on what Christmas is really about – how God’s love came down to earth on that first Christmas for us all.

Back in Isaiah – one of the phrases that most struck me was in verse 8 – Yet, O Lord you are our Father; we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Powerful words indeed – are we clay in our Father, the potter’s hands. Are we letting God shape us and guide us in these difficult days – are we open and malleable to his shaping. There have been moments in our journey through 2020 when some of the basic building blocks and things we hold most dear have been stripped away. This has been difficult and challenging – have we stayed open to the still small voice of God’s guiding in our strange and confronting times. Relying on God will give us through his Holy Spirit the strength for each step we need to take. Staying focused on each step also helps us not to over-reach.

I like a good plan – and I confess I have found it confronting and stressful that we cannot really progress in that way at the moment. I look at our plan for Christmas celebrations (which seem a pale imitation of what any of us would usually do or want to do) apprehensively knowing it could happen or it could not happen – or even something else quite other could happen. I have never quite known a time like this. Its more than doing a jigsaw puzzle with out the picture, its doing a jigsaw puzzle without the picture and with the pieces fading in and out and changing all the time!!!

What can we do in these circumstances – what we can do is practice what Jesus says in our Gospel – staying alert and watchful. Staying focussed in the present in the moment, looking for the good, being kind and thoughtful. Being thankful for each day and the presence of God with us. Being ready to do what God wants of us. And remembering all God has done for us – particularly in sending Jesus to us.

This brings me to our second hymn (which will sing near the end of this video service). This hymn captures the big picture of Jesus’ love for us in a sublime way – equally associated with this Advent Sunday. It is The Wesley classic (words by Charles music by John) – “Lo, he comes with clouds descending”.

I don’t know if you remember me saying at my licensing back in February here that “At the name of Jesus” – set to the tune Camberwell was my second favourite hymn – well “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” is number one in my book. This hymn is a mix of imagery of what Jesus did for us on the cross – a subject we talk about a lot and also imagery we talk about a lot less frequently  – watching and waiting for Jesus’ second coming – as the gospels and John’s revelation also predict. This is very much the stuff of Advent and Advent Sunday in particular. That challenging extract of Mark’s gospel we have just heard is also riddled with images of the second coming to. For example amongst the action described was the Son of man coming in the clouds.

Talking about the second coming of Jesus is quite tricky – and in the past this subject has been rather abused to engender fear and submission to inappropriate regimes. Obviously the gospel writers, wrote what they did expecting the ‘second’ coming to come soon.. This is reflected in the part of Mark’s gospel that says Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 2000 years on this leaves us a bit mystified, from the position where the second coming has yet to come. One of things this means we particularly need to do is get in touch with our mystical side and put down our reliance on logic and rationality. There are deeper things afoot here.

So what is this deeper meaning then. I think we need to acknowledge something of the awesomeness of God.  How God’s interventions such as when Jesus came in the first place can be very dramatic, unexpected and in ways beyond our comprehension. Also when God intervenes again as God will at some point when the way we live now inspired by the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus left us comes to end –  however this intervention comes to be from God– it will be dramatic, unexpected and beyond our earthly powers of comprehension

Understanding this, means living ready for everything and anything from God – surely something 2020 has taught us over and over again. With our eyes firmly on Jesus and the promise of eternal life. For Christians death brings the promise of intimacy with our loving God.  The second coming if it happened in whatever way it might in our life time, would bring this intimacy too and this is the hope we live our lives with. In that sense the second coming is not something to be feared, but something to be marvelled at and wondered about. The prospect of the second coming should be something that brings how we live our lives into sharp focus.

The guidance from Mark’s gospel this morning is this as Christians to expect challenging and difficult times and to face them in readiness, courageously and determinedly. We also need to be sure of our foundations, and not to place too much store on the things of this world. To concentrate on our relationship with God and the things to come.

Remember as I said earlier – Jesus said Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Jesus is asking us to be ever watchful, alert and ready and to pray for strength from the Holy Spirit. All of which is very sound guidance in how we approach our lives, when we think about what Jesus has brought to our lives now and what the second coming could bring. Fundamentally, this passage is a wake up call asking us to live with a real sense of expectancy – alert and ready to how God has intervened, is intervening and will intervene in our earthly existence. Jesus Christ, yesterday, today and forever. And how our priority must be to live clinging to God’s values and not our own. We need to live and pray as my favourite hymn Lo he comes ends –

Saviour, take the power and glory – claim the kingdom for thine own. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! – Thou shalt reign and thou alone. Amen

 

The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995

Christ The King

Christ the King

As this Sunday was previously known and loved as the Sunday next before Advent, often know as Stir up Sunday, I have included the words of the collect for today and the post communion prayer – which was formerly the collect here.  These well-known and well-loved words have always been for me a beginning of the anticipation of Christmas.  

God the Father,

help us to hear the call of Christ the King

and to follow in his service,

whose kingdom has no end;

for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, one glory.

 

Stir up, O Lord,

the wills of your faithful people;

that they, plenteously bringing forth

the fruit of good works,

may by you be plenteously rewarded;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 Collect and post communion for Christ the King

Common Worship.                  

Reflection for Christ the King

Ephesians 1: 15-end, Matthew 25: 31-end

For someone like me who preaches occasionally it is surprising how often certain occasions come more than once.  One example in my case is the feast of St Michael and all Angels and the other is Christ the King – in four years of preaching, they have both occurred 3 times.  It would be reasonable to assume that I have managed to acquire an understanding of them by now, but unfortunately, I am as much as sea as I ever was.

Regarding the Kingdom Season – from All Saints Day to Advent, the Church of England says this about today: ‘The annual cycle of the Church’s year now ends with the Feast of Christ the King. The year that begins with the hope of the coming Messiah ends with the proclamation of his universal sovereignty. The ascension of Christ has revealed him to be Lord of earth and heaven, and final judgement is one of his proper kingly purposes. The Feast of Christ the King returns us to the Advent theme of judgement, with which the cycle once more begins.’ I should therefore take this opportunity to wish you all a happy new year, as our new church year begins next Sunday.

I often feel that to celebrate the kingship of Christ should be to point out something that we were aware of all along.  The book of Revelation makes it plain that however many battles there may have been or may be to come, and however often we feel that the forces of evil are getting the upper hand, the final victory has already been won and Jesus is most definitely reigning triumphant.  The original film of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has a repeated line in it which I like – ‘it will be alright in the end.  If it’s not alright, then it’s not the end’.

If we are to celebrate Christ the King, then what should His kingdom look like?  Jesus often spoke in parables, and while it could be said that all his parables relate to the Kingdom, there is a large group of them in which he specifically refers to the Kingdom of God.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels, Jesus frequently gives an illustration beginning with the words ‘the kingdom of God is like…’.  We need to be careful about how we read these, as Jesus is not saying that the kingdom is like a mustard seed, yeast or a valuable pearl – more that the whole story illustrates something about the kingdom although I was interested to read only this morning that mustard grows almost as a weed in the Mediterranean world.  Rather as I suspect we think of horseradish or wild garlic, once you had mustard growing, although it was useful and good for the health, it was almost impossible to eradicate.  Perhaps the kingdom is like mustard seed after all – it seems to flourish most when under persecution and has not stopped spreading for 2000 years.

If the kingdom parables illustrate different aspects of the kingdom, our gospel readings since All Saints Day give us an idea of how inhabitants of the kingdom are expected to behave.  Over the past few weeks, we have read from the beatitudes and the parables of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and last week of the talents.  One thing that is plain in all of them, is that God’s kingdom is not something that is to come, His kingdom is now.

The season concludes today with the King sitting in judgement at the end of time.  The story is well known to us all, and never fails to make me feel uncomfortable – I don’t know what its affect is on you.   In biblical times, the handing out of justice was a task of leadership – the early leaders of God’s people were called Judges and you can read about some of them in the bible book of that name. The degree of justice depended very much on the calibre of the individual ruler.  We now have Magna Carta to thank for the beginning of the separation of government and the judiciary and the ruling that everybody, even the monarch is subject to the rule of law.  At the time I am writing this, the governments both in this country and the USA are in some disarray with what would appear to be power struggles, both in 10 Downing Street and in the White House.  This is despite the fact that numbers infected with and dying from Covid 19 are going up at an alarming rate, and the negotiations on Brexit seemingly nowhere near completion with less than 50 days to go before it happens.  It is at times like this that I am profoundly grateful that Christ is King, and the things of this world will pass away.

We have a hope – we are a people of hope, and our hope is wonderfully described in our reading from Ephesians.  I always enjoy reading Paul’s writing when he gets carried away with the glories that are to come, and seems to run out of superlatives to describe the wonders that God has in store for us.  Let’s hear it again:

‘with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’.  I do hope that for the rest of the day, the hymn ‘At the name of Jesus’ will be in your head after reading that – I wish we could sing it now!

Head over all things for the church which is his body – the church which is made up of the saints on this earth.  The church which is us.  We have a hope, and we have a king.  May it be our constant joy to live as people of his kingdom.

2nd Sunday before Advent

In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Link to the online service of Spiritual Communion

 https://youtu.be/V0Kso58KFc8

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Talent is a word that has morphed somewhat!! We have a regular television programme – called Britain’s Got Talent, where acts from the sublime to the ridiculous show us their party pieces… More correctly a talent is special often an athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude for something. A natural endowment to something – Mo Farrah to running first, Katharine Jenkins to singing. In both those cases, they have trained and honed their gifts, but they have definitely been based on a natural disposition to run long distances or sing beautifully in the first place!

The truth is that everybody has talents! It can be in every day things like ironing, baking, gardening and listening. Or in more complicated things like: –

  • Owning and operating bits of equipment to do specific jobs

  • Expertise in specific areas

    Some people are great at hospitality or administration

  • In sport, creative arts, music,

  • With computers and

  • Even in prayer (we will come back to that)

Nobody in my opinion has no talents at all. I’m not very keen on how showbiz – celebrity stuff has overtaken the word talent either. We need to celebrate how God has made each one of us – different, unique and special.

Jesus told a parable in our readings today about talents too, and this gets to the point where we are clearer about how this word talent has changed its meaning. A talent in Jesus day was a sum of money. In fact, an awful lot of money! One commentary I read said that 5 talents was the equivalent of being a multi-millionaire in those days. Another said one talent was the equivalent of 15 years wages for a labourer. When Jesus told the parable he was talking about high finance and not so much gifts and abilities.

The story is about a wealthy man who invested his money by loaning it out to members of his staff. Three of them were lent huge amounts of capital and told to trade with it. Two of the three were remarkably successful. They returned the initial interest and the profit to the boss and in return they were moved on to better things, to administer a larger section of the boss’ business.

The third was intimidated by the task and chose not to rise to the challenge and buried the money, made no profit and returned it untouched. He received a pretty severe telling off and was punished for his timidity and lack of imagination. It ends badly with weeping and gnashing of teeth – which is never good in Jesus’ parables.

In the parable the sum of money could represent our knowledge of God. The Jews learnt from their scriptures about a God, who loves us, save us and cares how we treat each other. but they were given this knowledge, not just for their own benefit. They were expected to spread it to others too. To keep our knowledge of God to ourselves is selfish– timidity won’t get us very far. We need to spread around what we have learnt of God’s love to our families, friends and neighbours. That is one basic meaning of this parable

It is also tempting to apply it to our gifts and abilities too and the word talent in the wider sense we use today. What we are good at or clever at becomes what we are talented at. We mustn’t bury the talents we all have, and we must put them to work serving God as God intended. Everybody can do something perhaps not brilliantly well, but sufficiently well to be appreciated.

I challenge us all today to review how we are using talents our gifts and abilities a fresh. Particularly how we could use them to show our love for God and to put them to work to serve his kingdom. Talents are not to be left at the bottom of the wardrobe of our lives like that unwanted Christmas present from our Great Aunt. We need to use them to help us all show how God loves the world and how much we love God especially in our pandemic times.

Another thing we can all  work on is our practice of prayer. We all have different gifts in prayer, and being prayerful is a deep seated natural instinct. The Archbishops have asked us to pray every day (at 6pm if we can). I wrote about this in last week’s newsletter and circulated the resources and it will be mailed out this week to those who need it. I would like to take this opportunity for you to read what they said… From 4th November so a little time has elapsed but still plenty of days ahead to pray in!!

Please read the Archbishops letter…… 20201104 Joint letter ABC ABY to the nation

To finish I found a very short story, which illustrates the point of the parable of the talents rather well. Somewhat surprisingly it is about 2 frogs! We may not think that frogs have a lot of talents. But if they live up to their “frogginess” which includes their talent to swim, it can make a huge difference to the outcome as you will see. It begins….

Two frogs fell into a tub of cream. The one looked at the high sides of the tub which were too difficult to crawl over and said, “It is hopeless.” So he resigned himself to death, relaxed, and sank to the bottom.

The other one determined to keep swimming as long as he could. “Something might happen,” he said. And it did. He kept kicking and churning, and finally he found himself on a solid platform of butter and jumped to safety. Amen

References: Story from rootsontheweb.com

Remembrance for Wincanton – Rev Alison Way – Nov 8th

Link to Act of Remembrance for Wincanton https://youtu.be/u_78X2vPfxE

Link to the Service for Remembrance for Wincanton  https://youtu.be/bGtOub4Bl_M

Matthew 5:1-12, John 14:27

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Poppies – We wear poppies for Remembrance. Alongside these simple paper and plastic poppies – are newer products like wristbands, and glittery poppy brooches, or poppies for cars and lorries. This year in our strange COVID times we have been encouraged to print, colour and display poppies in our windows by the British legion (or to make poppies from plastic bottles/paper plates to display).

As I am sure you know – The poppy was chosen as the symbol for Remembrance because of what happened in the battle scarred lands where World War One took place. When the battles moved on and the land stopped being used – that soil that had formed the trenches contained thousands of poppy seeds, all lying dormant. They would have lain there for years more, but the battles being fought there churned up the soil so much that when the conflict stopped in an area the poppies bloomed like never before.

One of the most famous bloom of poppies was around Ypres, a town in Flanders, Belgium. This was crucial to the Allied defence. There were three battles there, but it was the second, which was calamitous to the allies since it heralded the first use of chlorine gas in the conflict. This brought forth the poppies in greatest abundance. Even from the deepest of calamities, new life can and did grow in the poppies. The poppies inspired the Canadian soldier, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, to write his most famous poem in 1915 after seeing poppies growing in battle scarred fields..

In Flanders Fields            

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae (1872 – 1918)

An American woman Moina Michael from Georgia, was the first person to wear a poppy in remembrance. In reply to McCrae’s poem, she wrote a poem entitled ‘We shall keep the faith’ which includes the lines:

And now the Torch and Poppy Red – We wear in honor of our dead.

She bought some poppies, wore one, and sold the others, raising money for ex-servicemen.  Her colleague, French YMCA Secretary Madame Guerin, took up the idea and made artificial poppies for war orphans. It caught on. In November 1921, the British Legion sold them for the first time some 99 years ago

Remembrance is important – We have been handing the baton of remembrance using poppies from one generation to the next since then. Remembrance is about walking in the footsteps and through the stories of those who have gone before us. Standing shoulder to shoulder with them and living learning from their experience. It is important to keep passing the poppy baton on to our children and our children’s children. As we look at our poppies – lets explore the different facets of remembrance.

Think first about the black centre – a bit like a big full stop. Each full stop in  each poppy marks a life lost, lost in conflict in service of their country. Private William Deane is the youngest of the fallen from Wincanton in the first world war. Just 18 years old – a young life coming to an abrupt full stop – and we could feel strongly that it was a young life that had hardly started. From Tony Goddard’s “More than just names” – Both William’s parents died when he was young, so he and his brother Charles were brought up by his Auntie Mabel living in South Street. William lied about his age and joined up at just 17 in Yeovil in 1915. He died in Roeux Wood near Arras on 3rd May 1917 just 10 months after arriving in France.

More recently between 2008 and 2014, I lived and ministered in villages close to now Royal Wootton Bassett in the days of the many repatriations. This brought home to me in a new way the cost to many families today of conflict. Parents and grandparents who had lost children, children who had lost a much loved parent. Friends and families now living on treasuring the memories of someone so dear. Let’s also use the full stop centre of our poppies to help us also to remember those who died in more recent conflicts and those living with that loss and grief today.

Let’s next think about the redness of the poppy’s petals. The redness reminds us of danger and harm. In our mind’s eye let’s remember those still involved in conflict today. The petals as a visual reminder of the blood spilt. Injuries sustained in and through conflict change the lives of those impacted for ever. Thinking back – we remember particularly the impact on the whole person of shell shock and post-traumatic stress disorder. Things after the first and second world war that the society of the day did not understand in the way we do today. Things that caused hurt and stress in family and community life.  And in our present – Help us also to remember too those who have been injured in more recent conflicts and those living with significant challenges and disabilities today, and those who support them.

Next we turn to the stalk of the poppy – reflecting on it as the peace in which we stand. Peace won for us by the actions of those who have gone before us, those known to us and those we never knew. Help us to learn from the past and do all that we can to make the world a better place to live in for the future. To always have hearts seeking reconciliation and peace.  In the sermon on the mount Jesus said Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God. Let’s resolve afresh today to live as peace makers and peace bringers to those around us. In our difficult covid days let us lean into the peace of God that passes all understanding. Peace that Jesus spoke of and peace Jesus has left with us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, if your poppy has a leaf, let’s use that to signify our walk together and our growth together as a community in this place – loving our neighbours and caring for those who are most vulnerable. Remembrance reminds us of the sacrifice and the selfless example of our forebears. Help us to learn from this the need above all to work together for the common good as they did.

As I conclude these thoughts with a prayer – We may wish to put our hand over or around any poppy we are wearing as we pray – Let us pray

God of life, from generation to generation you have held all creation in the palm of your hand. As we cradle our Remembrance poppies: hold us close to your heart this day as we remember those who died in conflict, particularly those who lived before us in this place.

God of life, as we cradle our Remembrance poppies: may the persistence of your healing love continue its work in the lives of individuals and communities still living in the aftermath of conflict particularly our veterans, and all those who have lost loved ones or those living with the impact of life-changing injury. Surround and protect them with your life-giving Spirit.

God of life, as we cradle our Remembrance poppies  – Grant us the strength to always work together for peace and for the common good. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

References

https://www.britishlegion.org.uk/get-involved/remembrance/about-remembrance/in-flanders-field

More than just names – the Wincanton Roll of Honour for the Great War by Tony Goddard

The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995

Prayer adapted from Rootsontheweb.com

 

All Saints Day – Rev Alison Way (November 1st)

Video Reflection is found: – https://youtu.be/CkLlYXYJ41c

1 John 3;1-3, Matthew 5:1-12
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen

Our gospel today is the start of the first big block of teaching from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. These are words from one of the earliest times in his ministry that Jesus shared his teaching. It is a teaching from a mountain, which to the people of his day would have been indicative that this was important. For the gospel writer Matthew links with the Old testament are crucial. We will remember many things that happened on mountain tops in the journey of the people of God and particularly of Moses!  But not exclusively him! This mountain top location gives more gravitas and authority to these words of Jesus. Jesus positions himself for maximum accessibility, so the crowd and his disciples can hear what he has to say

Jesus started in a very interesting way with a passage of scripture we have come to call the beatitudes. A beatitude is a description and commendation for a good life. If you like

Jesus is offering and inviting his hearers into a way of being in the world that will result in their true and full flourishing now and in the age to come” (Pennington)

The beatitude statements have two parts. They address a lived experience in our lives. Some positive like being pure in heart, being merciful and seeking peace. Some are aimed at more troubling times like persecution or mourning or low mood and then a promise or an encouragement based on God’s kingdom values and not more earthly values. A simple way to understand them is as ways to be ‘be attitudes’. Attitudes which help us to be. Ways of being a human well.

I did some work with some 9-10 year olds on these statements a while ago and asked them to explain what they thought these statements meant in their own words. How they were things that could be and attitudes to life they had. For example, based on blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. One of the wise children said – I think this means that you not only live in peace but bring peace to others. Children can be very much wiser than their years!!!

Now to get abit more technical – these things are macarisms (though this might sound like some wisdom of Paul Mccartney) – It isn’t!  This is based on the first word of each statement in the original language Makarios. Getting technical – A macarism is a pronouncement based on an observation that a certain way of being in the world produces human flourishing and well being. It was a common way of teaching and ancient tradition in jewish sages – offering practical wisdom on how to live in accordance with God’s plan.  This way of speaking is not so common today.

All this makes these our beatitudes a series of promises and challenges we need to take note of. The added complication here is that they are also speaking into the difficult times the followers of Jesus were experiencing. At the time Matthew wrote this gospel things were tough and persecution an every day threat for these Christians. At that level they are also speaking to us in difficult times.

The beatitudes offer a radical vision of the people of God. A redefinition – setting the scene for the new way Jesus was bringing. On the one hand they are wisdom based statements and on the other they have a forward looking element – All this reflects the now and not yetness of the kingdom of God – and that phrase the kingdom of heaven crops up a couple of times in different ones! This is all about how fortunes will be reversed in God’s economy (the upside down topsy turvey messages common in Matthew’s gospel). There is an element of living wisely now and a good promised future from God will come.

The fundamental difficulty with understanding for us is how to translate the first word, which in the Bible we use  is translated as blessed. This is abit awkward as we associate that word with God’s positive intervention. If we are not careful this can come across that God has made it so we are poor in spirit, mourning etc, but it doesn’t really mean that. Difficult times come along for the best of us. Don’t we know that in 2020!!! God has not made it so for us – on occasions it is about our own poor choices. Sometimes it is just how it is. We cannot make life all roses and apple pie! In any case God does not work in this tit for tat way but walks with us in the difficult times and works in us by his grace and spirit

Another unsatisfactory option is to translate the first word as Happy – which The Good News bible does. Though that might work with the more positive circumstances and statements – It clearly doesn’t work for the ones addressing difficult times. In deep mourning or low mood happiness though not impossible, is usually pretty suppressed in my experience!

These statements are really not to do with the pursuit of happiness or with fortunate external circumstances. The fascinating commentary I read by Jonathan Pennington said that we would understand the beatitudes better (and their original intent) if we translated the first word as flourishing. How God’s spirit can work in our lives in everything that comes along (good and difficult). This fits with the promises God has for us – the now and not yetness of our walk in God’s kingdom now but more fully in God’s kingdom when we die or when Jesus returns.

For example – Flourishing are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God – sounds ok. Unpacking that a little more in mourning and hard times our lived experience of God’s love in our hearts can grow.  That sense of God’s comfort can be most tangible. In seeking peace (even when that is difficult) God’s love in our hearts can grow. Probably we can all recognise difficult times where we have lent into our faith and drawn great strength from it and grown despite and even through the difficulties. In the upside down topsy turvey of the gospel message of Jesus, this is about seeing ways through to our flourishing in what comes along (because life does have ups and downs).

In a way Jesus in these opening words is giving a vision of a way of being in the world that will result in our flourishing, acknowledging our growth and development in the good and the bad times of our lives. In all the words we have heard today – we are hearing Jesus call out to us. To follow him in ways that will lead to our flourishing and the flourishing of others (no matter what comes along). It is a clear reminder as the saints today to hear Jesus call out to us to follow him in ways that will lead to our flourishing and the flourishing of others (no matter what comes along)

End with one of 2 well known prayers from St Teresa of Avila

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you.
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Those who know God lack nothing:
God alone suffices. Amen

RESOURCES:

https://www.churchofengland.org/our-faith/living-out-our-faith/beatitudes

The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995

The sermon on the mount and human flourishing – Jonathan Pennington