Author Archives: Rachel Feltham

Lent 2 – 25th February – Penny Ashton

Lent 2 2024

Our readings today seem to focus on trusting God even when nothing seems to be happening or we don’t understand the plan.  We often use a prayer which contains the phrase ‘God is faithful and just’ in it, but it is not always easy to understand where he is leading us.

In our reading from Romans Paul is writing about faith using the example of Abraham.  In the Old Testament reading set for today we read of how Abram and Sarai are given new names and the promise of descendants.   It’s worth remembering that they have already travelled from Ur – probably in Iraq via Haran which is in modern day, Turkey through Canaan to Egypt and then back to Canaan.  Abraham had received promise of the land of Canaan for his descendants in a vision, but in today’s reading God seems to be more direct.  Sarai had no children, which in those days was considered to be a shame, and so she and Abraham had tried ‘help’ God to achieve his promise with Hagar.  Although this did result in a son for Abraham, it also caused all sorts of problems for them – which can often be the case when we try to take over from God.

But this time the promise is more specific – that Abraham and Sarah would have a son and many descendants – not just Abraham by another woman.  This promise was made not just to Abraham and his direct descendants, but, as Paul points out, to us as those who share his faith.  God’s promise is to make him the ‘Father of many nations’. 

In our reading from Romans Paul is contrasting faith with adherence to the law using Abraham’s faith as his example – he continued to have faith even though had not yet seen any result of God’s promises.  We need to remember that adherence to the law is not relevant at this point in history, as Abraham comes many years before law is given, but it would have been important to those people that Paul was writing to, as many of them would have been Jewish by birth.  The promise is given several times over several years before it is actually fulfilled but Abraham’s faith doesn’t seem to waver although Sarah is not always convinced. One occasion she laughed when she heard it, which is why Isaac was given a name that roughly translates as laughter.

Peter, in the passage just before today’s gospel has just made his great declaration that Jesus is the Christ and the son of God.  In Matthew’s account of this Jesus tells Peter that this knowledge was given to him by God, and promises to Peter that he will be the rock on which church will be built, and to him will be given the keys of kingdom.  And yet very shortly after this great high moment, Jesus is calling him agent of Satan.  We have noted before that the disciples always try to stop Jesus when he tells them of what is to happen to him, but Peter goes too far this time.  He has gone in short time from making a great declaration of faith to the complete opposite, of knowing better than Jesus.

Jesus then goes on to give the hard challenge to Peter, the disciples and the whole crowd – and by extension to us.  Nowadays we have rather glamourised the cross – we wear it as jewellery and as a badge of office and we perhaps forget quite how dreadful this kind of death was, and what Jesus was asking of people and of us when he tells us that we will have to take up our crosses if we want to be his true disciples.   Jesus chose to continue towards Jerusalem, and the end that he knew well was waiting for him there.  In a sense we could say that it was at about this point in his ministry that he began to take up his cross as he tells us that we will have to.  It is also possible that Jesus recognises in Peter’s denial of his coming fate, an echo of the temptations that came to him in the wilderness – a time that we have based the 40 days of this season of Lent on.  It is worth remembering that Jesus’ temptations did not end when he returned from the desert to Galilee. 

There is a recent modern day example of a similar act that we have been reminded of  this week when we have so recently heard of the death of Alexy Navalny, who was such an inspiration to so many in Russia, and who chose – after recovering from being treated for Novichok poisoning – to return to Russia, even though he must have been aware that he was heading back into danger and his possible imprisonment or death.

 We have a saying that problems or difficulties that arise in our lives are our cross to bear; often this is used today about ill health or unwanted problems in life, but that is not what Jesus was referring to.  Everyone has occasional difficulties in their lives, but this is something very different.  Jesus is telling us that we need to be willing to lose our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel or as some versions translate it, ‘the kingdom’, and this involves faith. 

One of the other readings set for today is the beginning of Hebrews 11, which contains a wonderful definition of faith as ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  (Hebrews 11: 1 NRSV).  Here again, Abraham is a good example.  He had faith in God and his promises even though they were as yet unfulfilled, and God credited his faith to him as righteousness. But having faith is not something we can claim any credit for as Paul explains in Ephesians; ‘ For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.’  (Ephesians 2: 8-9).  In a sense we have travelled in a circle – the faith we need is also a gift to us from God through his grace.

So, in essence, being good (keeping the law) will not get us any particular credit with God.  After all, there are a great many people who have no faith at all, and yet do amazing amounts of good for others.  We are only credited with righteousness by having faith, but that faith is freely given to us by God.  Everything is a gift,

Brian Draper in his lent reflections:  The Desert will Bloom #4 – The way of Jesus quoted an on-line post by Dan Sadler which sums it all up quite well:

‘Walk in confidence (for there’s nothing you can do to lose the love of God).’ And, ‘Walk in humility (for there’s nothing you can do to earn it).’

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

The Desert shall Bloom copyright Brian Draper

Lent One – 18th February

Lent one – 18th February 2024 – Rev Alison Way

Genesis 9.8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-end, Mark 1.9-15

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

Because Mark says so little about Jesus time in the wilderness, just two verses:-

12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

We have been given an insight by the powers that be that select our readings into the events immediately before and after this time of prayer and fasting, and preparation for Jesus’ active ministry of teaching and healing – proclaiming and enacting the good news of God.

Immediately before the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, he is baptised by John. A significant moment accompanied by a sign from God. The reading says Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. It doesn’t indicate that everyone else who was there saw it – just that Jesus saw it. But it is hard to believe the assembled crowd didn’t hear the voice or at least a noise – sometimes prior to this – the voice of God has been heard like the noise of thunder by others witnessing it rather than the actual words.

The voice came from heaven, said ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ These words were a real affirmation of Jesus journey to this point. We recognise in our own personal experiences that someone saying to us ‘with you I am well pleased’. Is usually a pretty enjoyable and affirming experience. As is knowing we are loved – when someone genuinely tell us they love us as we are or that we are their beloved, it generally feels good.

God saying to Jesus – You are my son is also pretty significant. Mark’s gospel does not try to explain Jesus’ parentage or the technicalities of his birth. That is left to Matthew and Luke to describe (and the accounts do really differ from one another). In the run up to next Christmas 2024 may I commend reading the first 3 chapters of Luke and the first 2 of Matthew so we can see the significant differences and the continuity within them.

Getting back to the point today – In Mark this ‘You are my son’ is very direct and clear and as we continue to listen to Jesus in Mark’s gospel over the weeks ahead of us, we will find there is lots shrouded in mystery and the disciples are regularly told to keep quiet about who is is and what he is about. In a way this makes this clear statement You are my son from the voice of God quite surprising. But also this statement is likely to have been lost – as those who heard it witnessed an isolated event and would not have been significant in Jesus’ onward journey, as it was some 40 days after this that anything else happens in the public domain.

I suspect virtually everyone here has experienced baptism and has been baptised (though the vast majority here in keeping with our anglican tradition will have been baptised as infants). And therefore are unlikely to remember their own baptism. At some point in each service I generally say – Hearing and doing these things provides an opportunity to remember our own baptism and reflect on the progress made on our journey with God.

When we are baptised in its own way God is saying to us as much as he did to Jesus, You are my child, beloved, with you I am well pleased. And we stay God’s beloved children all our lives, recognising his amazing, overflowing love for us, and God’s hand in making us for his purposes on earth – and each to a unique and special blueprint is part of what our baptism is about. God loves his creation and has made us as we are reflecting the sense that with each of us God is well pleased. However what we do with how God has made us is another matter.

We have been made to fulfill his way and purposes for us, which are just ours and just what we should be doing to further God’s kingdom on earth. We have a clear choice about how we live as one of his special children – Recognised and dwelling in the heart of God as part of his family on earth. Perhaps it might all be easier if once we were baptised, the Holy Spirit just took over all the choices and decision making, and we were no longer capable of making choices for ourselves as to how we live, breathe or have our being.

That would certainly stop us making so many poor choices and straying off God’s path for us, but that would also make us mindless automatons and would deny us any ability to show God any meaningful love in return for his passionate love for us. We have discussed before the difference about how we feel about things we are compelled to do rather than things we choose to do. Clearly and thankfully the work of the Holy Spirit does not just take us over like this, and we don’t become automatons. The Spirit needs our co-operation – the spirit can work in us and through us in ways that can amaze and surprise us. I am currently being reminded of this in our Alpha material as we work through the course. But we need to be open and willing and available and with heart’s desiring God’s way for us in his kingdom  (and not whatever we think we want for ourselves in little kingdoms of our own construction).

The second half of the sentence I say at every baptism gets to the heart of the challenge. As we watch someone else being baptised we are urged to ‘reflect on the progress made on our journey with God’. How are we doing with our choices? How does our life and our lifestyle look from the outside looking in?

As we know words are one thing- but our actions so often speak louder than our words. I suspect I have discussed before the difficulties I have experienced driving in a dog collar. Where my actions are what is on display rather than my words. And I first really noticed this now nearly 20 years ago when I was first ordained. I hope this is not too trivial an example. But it makes a valid point. I suddenly found myself – realising that with my dog collar on I really needed to drive like a Christian. With a dog collar on – people give you very dirty looks if you are discourteous behind the wheel! Or cut them up! And people look very surprised if you have done some frankly dodgy or an inappropriate manoeuvre and pull away dog collar to the fore.

The truth is that I need to drive like a Christian all the time, Dog collar or not. The dog collar has brought to the forefront of my attention that I am not always doing that! And no one much likes being found out. What this means is I am not always showing the personal integrity. I would wish to demonstrate and that would best show God’s love for his world. At one level this is a trivial example – but it makes a deeper point. If we love God and recognise his power and love in our life and love him first- our lives near to bear clear witness to that in everything. In the days ahead this means we are embracing the sense that what needs to be visible in the baptised Christians which make up the church and as such represents the church itself is lives that proclaim the good news of God. That live in accordance with what Jesus taught us and where we are guided and moulded by the Spirit’s influence within us. And living the way that God has for us and that builds up his kingdom on earth.

As I have said before when I talk about lives proclaiming the good news that isn’t quite what it immediately sounds like. I am not talking the stereotypes – of Christians standing on street corners and calling everyone who passes by to repentance and faith in God – though we do at times need to stand up and be counted and be clear about our principles. Nor should we aspire to be a Christian that bring their faith into each and every conversation irrespective of how insensitive or inappropriate that might be. Or Christians that see every encounter as an opportunity to convert someone rather than to love them as they are and as God made them

Remove those stereotypes from your head – Living lives proclaiming the gospel, the good news is about living with our love God first in our hearts and visible in who we are and how we are, and our actions to speak in accordance with our words, and that our words and our actions – speak first of our love of God

Yes back on my stereotypes – We will need to stand up to be counted for what we believe sometimes and that may not always be comfortable. Also we may need to help other people on their journeys of faith

and help them recognise God’s love for them too. But neither of these things will be our default setting. Our default setting will be loving God with all our heart, mind and strength, and loving our neighbours as ourselves, and in our loving our neighbours we want them to really understand how much God loves each and every one of us. And there are many many ways of showing that in our words, actions and lifestyles

Jesus after his time of prayer and reflection in the wilderness, proclaimed the good news as the teacher God made him to be would. Jesus needed to lead, preach and teach. We need to do what God has made us to do in his kingdom. God may not have made all of us to lead, teach and preach, but he has made us to do what we are uniquely suited for to further his kingdom and we all need to live thinking and adhering to Jesus example of a life lived with integrity. Jesus lived with his words being matched by his actions and his lifestyle. We need to proclaim the good news in the way only we can (whatever way that might be for each of us), but also with our words matching our actions and our lifestyles.

St Francis understood this in his own unique calling too – Preach the gospel he said – but if you must use words. Amen

Some material is copyright © the Archbishop’s Council 2000-2023 and The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible © 1989/1995

Ash Wednesday – 14th February 2024 – Rev Alison Way

2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our strength and our Redeemer, Amen.

Ash Wednesday comes around as we begin Lent, the traditional season of preparation for Easter, thinking through and dwelling on our Lord’s passion and the lengths Jesus was willing to go for us. The words of introduction I read earlier in this service described this as a season of penitence and fasting.

We will deal with the penitence after I have spoken today, with a period of self-examination and confession. Much longer than we normally do and aimed at wiping our slates clean with God (and maybe identifying areas where we might need to seek the forgiveness of people we have wronged). The latter is much more complicated sometimes, but necessary self-discipline when God points out in our hearts those things we need to address.

The second word there is fasting, which for most 21st century Christians is a pretty challenging word. At a trivial level I find fasting challenging as a Spiritual discipline, and my go to resource on spiritual disciplines – Richard Foster’s “A Celebration of discipline” remarks from the vantage point of 1978 (when this classic was written) that fasting was rather out of fashion (and in terms of consumerism our consumption has only got more complicated since the heady days of the seventies).

In our gospel reading today, we have some words of Jesus about fasting. First of all questioning our motives. Jesus was pointing out that false piety and practice (needing people to know we are fasting is not a good start). To use something that can be good for us, to our own ends is not the right choice! Or taking something like this, to get God to do what we want. Who has done deals with God, if I fast regularly, pray or read the Bible every day can this happen, please God? These kind of deals never work! We live in a consumerist, transactional world but we don’t have a consumerist, transactional God!

Richard Foster talks about the importance of fasting being about our relationship with God. He says ‘Fasting must forever center on God’. It must be God-initiated and God-ordained’.  He goes on to say that fasting reveals what controls us.

As Spiritual Disciplines go, I have to say I am not good at fasting. Like many adults I have a complicated relationship with food, and take some regular medication which makes this difficult (ie I take it twice a day, and I should not take it on an empty stomach!). But I was very interested that fasting has taken on a different meaning in the last few years, following some very wise words of Pope Francis in the early part of 2021.

Pope Francis said this – (and I have printed out some copies of it for you to be able to look at it now and take it home).

DO YOU WANT TO FAST THIS LENT?

  • Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
  • Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
  • Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
  • Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
  • Fast from worries and have trust in God.
  • Fast from complaints; contemplate simplicity.
  • Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
  • Fast from bitterness; fill your hearts with joy.
  • Fast from selfishness and be compassionate.
  • Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
  • Fast from words; be silent and listen.

Pope Francis Lent 2021

There is quite a lot of those. Any one or two of them would be good for us. Perhaps this Lent, each time we find ourselves heading towards one of the things we could fast from – take time to follow the second part of the sentence.

I want us to identify up to 3 of these this evening that we could fast from this Lent. Mark up and consider them on the sheet with the pen provided, whilst I play a piece of reflective music – Be still by Keith Duke and featuring Kevin Duncan.

This time has just between us and God, and I will finish this thought – by reading them again (asking the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to our love and our commitment to God).

DO YOU WANT TO FAST THIS LENT?

  • Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
  • Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
  • Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
  • Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
  • Fast from worries and have trust in God.
  • Fast from complaints; contemplate simplicity.
  • Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
  • Fast from bitterness; fill your hearts with joy.
  • Fast from selfishness and be compassionate.
  • Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
  • Fast from words; be silent and listen.

Pope Francis Lent 2021

Amen

A celebration of discipline – By Richard Foster – originally published in 1978

https://www.bangorparish.com/wp-content/uploads/Columban-Sr-Ash-Wednesday-Thoughts-for-Lent.pdf

Sunday before Lent – 11th February 2024 – Rev Alison Way

11th February – The Sunday before Lent.

2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9

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

We find Elijah and Elisha on the cusp of something really significant for both of them. An ending and a new beginning. For Elijah an ending of his earthly life – Being swept up to Heaven in a whirlwind, and for Elisha the beginning of his time as a prophet – asking Elijah for a double share of his spirit to enable him to do what was before him. We are also on the cusp of something significant with Lent starting on Wednesday and something different coming along in parochial matters as I move off to pastures new at Easter and the parishes enter a new phase with further parishes to work with on the horizon. In view of all this change and new things coming along, against the worrying backdrop of world events and the potential for escalating conflict rather than increasing world peace –  Let’s see what we can learn from Elijah and Elisha’s journey.

We find them on the start of their journey from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho and the river Jordon – This in total is about 35 miles (so very likely to have taken more than a day to do especially in view of what unfolds on the way!). Let’s think about each of these places and what is significant about them!

So the start was Gilgal. Gilgal was very significant – it was the first place that the Israelites camped after they had crossed the red sea and escaped from the Egyptians. They set up 12 stones taken from the river Jordan – (so it was a place of stones). From here Joshua set out with the people into the promised land. The stones were there as a big reminder of how God had saved his people, and God who acted on behalf of the people.

The spiritual meaning of Gilgal is rolling or rolling away or separation. God had rolled away their past, and the rule of Egypt over the people of God, and separated the people into a closer relationship with him.  Our Lenten fast will culminate in Easter, with another kind of rolling away for us (of the stone on the tomb) a physical sign of resurrection, which is how God has saved all people, and the way God wants us to understand especially how our lives should be separated via seeking the living God, as living sacrifices in our worship of God.

The next place Elijah and Elisha went too, was Bethel which means house of God. This is the place where Jacob had an amazing vision in a dream – of the stairway resting on the earth and the angels going up and down it. God made big promises to Jacob. When Jacob awoke he named it Bethel as he had had such a strong sense of the presence of the Lord.

In those days people would go to Bethel to ask questions of God and it speaks to us of the Lord’s presence. This is something we also really need in changing and challenging times ahead to live desiring and seeking the presence of God and being guided through the Holy Spirit. Attending to our spiritual disciplines in Lent (particularly prayer, worship and bible reading) would be such a good thing.

The third place listed is Jericho. What happened at Jericho? Walls came a tumbling down in the days of Joshua. This was the site of the first battle the people of God had as they entered the promised land. Remember this was 40 years on from the events at Gilgal – after years of nomadic wandering as the people of God. At Jericho we are watching the evidence of people walking by faith – not relying on our strength but leaning into God’s love for us. Really important in the times we are in at the moment that we lean into God’s love for us. We were talking about living by faith in Alpha this week, it has made me think how important it is for us to follow God’s prompting (and especially no matter how much it may not make sense to us at the time!). I have often described this as letting go and letting God – especially helpful when we really aren’t sure of the next step. Our most important action is to trust our God who loves us so much.

The final place Elijah and Elisha travel to is the river Jordan. What happened here – well two things – the start of Jesus ministry and his baptism. Baptism by baptism I add some holy water from the river Jordon to the font as we mark another Christian’s new start. Also what happened here was another miraculous parting of the waters – this time enacted by Elijah not Elisha so they could cross.

As we move towards Lent and remember Jesus’s walk and his journey of teaching, worship, praying, sacrifice and resurrection, we see the way God has saved us today (a little different from the exodus event for the people of God). We know the call of God comes to us through Jesus love for us. Elijah experienced this really dramatically at this point as he ascended into heaven.

This lent let’s spend the time recognising our lives as living sacrifices, seeking the presence of God, walking in faith and wondering at the length God went to through the saving love of Jesus Christ.

Let’s follow the call of God where-ever it may leave us in these changing times. Amen

References: Bible Study on Elisha’s journey by Ian Gordon.

Presentation of Christ – 28th January – Penny Ashton

The Presentation at the Temple

The timing of our different festivals in late December and early January has always confused me slightly.  After celebrating the birth of Christ on 25 December, we celebrate the coming of the magi roughly 2 weeks later, when it is possible that Jesus was 2 – 3 years old, before celebrating his baptism – which we know happened when he was about 30 years old a week later.  Today we revert to counting back to his possible date of birth and moving on 40 days, which takes us to 2 February, when we celebrate his presentation at the temple.  After this, things settle down a bit, however, and in just over 2 weeks’ time from now we shall again return to his adult life and start on the 40 days of Lent leading us up to Easter.

In thinking of today’s festival, it is interesting to speculate on what the attitude of Joseph and Mary must have been towards their infant son.  Although they received, and most certainly believed and obeyed the messages brought to them by the angel, I can’t help feeling that that they perhaps put the message to the backs of their minds and cared for Jesus as a normal child.  They do appear to be fulfilling the requirements of the law just as they would for a normal baby, and, as any new mother will tell you a normal baby gives you quite enough to think about and do without considering how God’s son should be raised.   I think this is likely, and relevant to our thoughts today, since it is more than likely that when Simeon first saw Jesus and recognised who he really was, in all likelihood what he saw was a crying baby.  I have never been too happy with the line in the Christmas carol that tells us that ‘Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’.  We know that Jesus felt hunger and thirst, fatigue and most certainly pain, and a baby has no way of making known how he feels other than by crying, although I am told that babies start to smile and make different sounds at around 5 weeks old, and at 6 weeks are beginning to be able to lift their heads a little.  Their eyesight is also improving, so that they begin to take more notice in what is going on around them, so it is possible that Simeon met a baby who was as interested in him as he was in the baby.

In a homily on this subject a couple of years ago, Pope Francis pointed out that we see the major characters in our gospel reading in two different attitudes.  The first attitude for each of them is one of movement.  They had all made a conscious effort to come to the temple on that particular day.  Mary and Joseph had come to offer the required sacrifice to ‘redeem’ their first-born son, as the law required, as since the Passover, all firstborns had belonged to God, and needed to be ‘bought’ back.  Mary also was required to undergo purification after childbirth, which was specified to be carried out 40 days after the birth.  So it was that Mary and Joseph had made the journey to Jerusalem – probably from Bethlehem, which was about 6 miles from Jerusalem, as we know that they were still there when the magi arrived – some time later.  Simeon, we are told was moved by the Holy Spirit to come to the temple on that day, and as he believed that he would not die before seeing God’s Messiah, and we think that he was by then old, he must have come with some expectation of an encounter.  We are told less about Anna, but we do know that she was a prophet, of a great age and that she seldom left the temple, spending her time in prayer and worship.  She had already come to the right building, but also managed to come to the right people within that large and crowded place. 

All four of these had moved in obedience to God, and the lesson for us is that we too should be prepared to move.  We cannot always expect people to come to us inside the building that we love so much – perhaps we should be more motivated to take what we believe out into the places where the people are, and where they feel comfortable.  Our faith needs dynamism – and we must be ready to be moved – as Simeon was – by the Spirit to take our faith where God wants us to go.  If Simeon had decided to stay at home on that day, he would have missed the encounter.  Fear of missing out – FOMO – is a 21st century phrase but has always been relevant.  We must be prepared to go to where God is at work, or we may miss out.

 The second attitude in which we find our characters today is one of wonder.  To Mary and Joseph, this must have been a simple requirement of their faith that they attend at the temple in Jerusalem to make the required sacrifices.  To Simeon, the day may have already been one of anticipation, as he knew that God was moving him to go to the temple for a purpose and believing that one day he would see God’s promised one, must have made almost every day one of excited anticipation.  For Anna, the place where she found the greatest joy was where she already was – worshipping God in the temple as she did daily. 

The temple that is mentioned in our reading is the one known as the second temple, or Herod’s temple.  It was originally rebuilt during and after the time of exile, and the account of this can be found in the book of Ezra.  King Herod extended and embellished this temple to such an extent that it appears not to have been completely finished by the time of his death in 4AD, and so it is possible that the outer court – or court of the gentiles – which was the largest part, was not only a busy marketplace, but also possibly still something of a building site.  God can be found in the noisy busy places, as well as in stillness, and so it happened on the day in question. 

Whichever part of the temple this meeting took place in, it would have been full of people busy about their business, and yet in the midst of it all, Simeon and Anna found Mary and Joseph and their baby, and recognised the significance.  They were moved initially to praise and wonder, after which Simeon went on to deliver disturbing words of prophecy to Mary, while Anna was moved to worship, and to sharing the good news of what she had seen with everyone she met, just as the shepherds had done on that first Christmas night.  We are not told much about the reaction of Mary and Joseph, but just as in the encounter with the shepherds, surely they were inspired to the same sense of wonder by these encounters, and again, as with the visit of the shepherds stored all these things in their hearts, and pondered them.

The attitude of wonder again should strike us, as it struck these four, very different people.  Just as we must allow ourselves to be moved by the Spirit as they were, so we must also take with us the sense of wonder that they surely felt.  Anna could barely control herself – we are told that she told everyone about the child.  Have we perhaps grown a little complacent in our faith?  Do we have the excitement that Anna had?  Excitement is not exclusively reserved for the young as she shows, and there is nothing more infectious than sharing someone’s enthusiasm.  Does our enthusiasm shine out when we leave this place and talk with our friends?  How different would the effect be on others, if everyone who was in church on Sundays burst out with renewed enthusiasm and excitement about meeting with God.  Something to ponder in our hearts perhaps?

Plough Sunday – 14th January

Isaiah 55:6-11, Matthew 6:25-end

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

This first reading for me is really, really familiar. It is one of the passages used as a canticle in Morning Prayer. In ordinary time it is the recommended one on Wednesdays and as one of the options for Lent! It contains 3 different voices, which is not that obvious.

The first voice is the people on earth saying – Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.

This passage was written at a difficult time for the people of God in their story in the Old Testament. They were experiencing the exile, a drift in difficult circumstances in a foreign land far from the land God had given them. An Old Testament understanding was they were far from God at the time – their measure of their relationship (the state of the temple was in ruins! and better times were a long way off).

As a result of the coming, life, sacrifice, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we now have a different understanding of God’s proximity to us. God is always only a prayer away through the Holy Spirit Jesus left with us. In a way we can understand this as the need to recognise God’s love for us in all things (no matter how good or bad they may seem to us at the time, and to always seek God, and God’s will  for our way ahead).

The second voice is that of the heavens – encouraging the people of God to follow God’s call on their lives (and not to give into the temptation of thinking their own way is best). The heavens say: Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Some of this discontent at the time amongst the people of God was about their current circumstances (thoroughly adrift in a foreign land), but also because some did not like the means of God’s plan at that time for them, and had turned to things of their own design and desire! A particular group had gone in completely the wrong direction, and their way of life and their convictions were getting in the way. The heavens are imploring them to change their ways, repentance will bring pardon and forgiveness (to those who resist God’s call, and insist on going their own way).

We need to be honest about God’s plan for us, sometimes it can be really clear, other times it can be very hazy, and yet other times it can be far from how we would like things to work out for us! God has a way of working everything for our ultimate good, but we cannot always see that. Going our own way can be very tempting in this kind of circumstance, but is never the best idea! The dilemma presented to the people of God at this time is really one of ours too – I mean – We really can’t expect to reap the benefits of the presence of God in our lives if we are not following God’s way for us. Thankfully the voice of the heavens reminds us that God is merciful and will abundantly pardon us when we go wrong too.  

The rest of the reading  comes from the voice of God and contains two distinct strands. The first part reminds us of our perspective and God’s in all his awesome wonder.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

I think this immense statement reminds us of our perspective – God’s view of us, the universe and everything is so much bigger than our own and beyond our capacity to understand from our linear existence. It reminds us of our need to be deeply respectful and mindful of the gulf (and to remain committed to following God’s plan for us and not inventing our own plan that appears to suit us better!)

I read in an online commentary this is about like God saying, “This is where you have work to do. You see, My thoughts aren’t anything like yours. I think differently about everything that happens in your life. My way out of your troubles is different than you would expect, too.”

The second part of what God says is the link to Plough Sunday as we have a reference to the world of sowing and growing, the rain and snow watering the earth, and the crops grown to give food to the eater. The natural cycle of how our world should work. Where God is saying to us. – For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Just as we prepare the ground, plant seeds and encourage growth from watering the earth, God is doing that with us. All his guidance to us however it comes, is for the purposes God wants to accomplish in us, to succeed in the things God would have us do. That is how God is at work within us, and we must follow his call and his plan on our hearts and lives. Sometimes we are given the gift of hindsight in how things work out, other times we just have to trust God’s purposes and perspective. Have faith the God who loves us in and through time and space – and to honour that love as Jesus puts it towards the end of our gospel reading – Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So this Plough Sunday, and as we consider what we will plant and grow for 2024 (and in a moment bless any seeds that have been brought for these purposes). Let’s always seek the kingdom of God and the seeds that God is planting in us for God’s purposes, our flourishing and his everlasting kingdom. Amen.

References: https://seminary.bju.edu/viewpoint/personal-reflections-for-hard-times-isaiah-55/

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible © 1989-1995 Isaiah 55:6-11

Christmas Reflection

Christmas Communion

Isaiah 9:2-7 Luke 21-14, 8-20

He is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace, Amen

We know the story

  • of angels bringing messages from God,
  • of a young couple travelling to Bethlehem to be counted,
  • of finding there was no room at the inn when they arrived,
  • of a very important and special child being born in a stable as Emmanuel – God with us
  • and of that child being visited by shepherd, who were also in turn visited by angels encouraging them to go and find the  baby wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger.

What aspect of the Christmas story we hear year in year out most speaks to our hearts? Maybe from what we have just heard as our gospel reading, or from the carols, or a nativity play we may have seen.

Maybe it is always the same thing that strikes us Christmas by Christmas, or maybe it is different things each year? What touches our heart is unique to us, and it is very appropriate to ponder and treasure the impact of this story in our hearts as Mary did all those years ago. Mary had a unique perspective of living it, we have a real need to live guided by this story and sharing the love we experience that came down at that first Christmas.  

It would be lovely if a few of us today shared what is the most special aspect of the Christmas story to us this year? I’ll give us a couple of minutes to talk about it with those around us – and then I hope some will share a short thought as to what is speaking to us this year.

As I often am – I am struck by the angels proclaiming peace on earth – which is something we so need in various parts of the world today, and especially in the lands’ of Jesus life and birth. It has been hard to sing some of the carols which take us to places caught up in all this violence and bloodshed. We need to pray and pray fervently for peace to prevail and peacemakers to find ways of bringing the warring parties together in reconciliation and to the benefit of all.

This is a powerful story – and it is not remotely surprising that this story – for many deeply familiar from their earliest days – that we all see something different in it. It is a wondrous story we will still teach to our youngest, and part of the fabric of our heritage in our country. It sometimes seems to be getting a bit buried in the commercialism of Christmas in our times, but it’s authenticity and integrity speaks through all that direct to our hearts!

We also see different things, because God made us all different from one another, and deliberately so. Each one a special child of God’s and loved thoroughly as we are, with our unique place on this earth and our particular set of jobs to do, and people to connect with (in the way that only we can!)

This is a story with many layers and deeper meaning embedded within (and I think there is always something special for us as we mark how a child was born for us, a son given to us (as those words from Isaiah remind us).

Christmas comes and goes, and sometimes it meets us in a happy place when the going is good, and other times when we are hurting, grieving or unwell, where it can magnify who is not there, or what we can’t do! The essence of the message of Christmas is the same whatever our circumstances – and is a source of the deepest hope in the darkest or lightest of times in our hearts and lives. In happy times, give thanks for God’s love for us, in difficult times, lean into God’s everlasting love for us and feel God’s peace in our hearts through the child in the manger who went on to save us for now and for ever.

I want to end these thoughts with a Christmas prayer written by Robert Louis Stevenson

Let us pray

Loving Father

Help us to remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the songs of the angels, the gladness of the shepherds and the worship of the wise men.

Close the door of hate, and open the door of love all over the world.

Let kindness come with every gift, and good desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clear hearts.

May thy Christmas morning make us happy to be thy children and Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

A Christmas Prayer by Robert Louis Stevenson from the Advent Manifesto by Martin Percy (BRF 2023)

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1989, 1995 ©)

Advent Sunday – 3rd December 2023

Advent Sunday – 3rd December 2023

In this Advent of expectation draw us together in unity, that our praise and worship might echo in these walls and also through our lives. In this Advent of expectation draw us together in mission, that the hope within might be the song we sing and the melody of our lives. In this Advent of expectation draw us together in service that the path we follow might lead us from a stable to glimpse eternity. Amen

Every 3 years this set of readings comes up and it reminds me of Advent Sunday in 2002 (and makes my stomach churn as I remember how excruciatingly nervous I was). This day was notable for the reality that it was the day I first preached an adult assessed sermon to a congregation of grown ups at a 9am communion service in Llantrisant in South Wales. I was on placement in my first term at theological college, and though in the long run up to going to college and the selection processes, I had led lots of worship aimed at families and youth (and in my work life numerous presentations and training sessions about software and consultancy skills) – speaking theologically to just grown ups was a whole other matter, very intimidating and as was expecting me to share wisdom in a sermon (the first term at college had proved my Biblical knowledge could be vastly improved too). One of my tutors had poured over the preparation with me and was in the congregation waiting to assess my efforts!

At the beginning of this week, I re-read what I wrote that day – which like all good novice sermons had 3 points and a clear beginning and a summary at the end. My points are all still valid that we need to be always growing, to be ready whatever comes along (and alert to God’s hand in it) and to live in the hope Christ left with us.  

Every Advent, we start back at the beginning readying ourselves to mark the coming of Jesus, and the wonder of it. It is hard to get our heads round imagining God preparing the ground of Jesus to come and working in a time ordered way (which is a dimension God is significantly beyond – not being limited to our linear existence but timeless – here yesterday, today and forever). God would have been lining up the prophets, putting the words they needed to speak in their hearts, and then selecting the key players (Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Shepherds, Magi) and the key venues and recruiting Gabriel to pass on his important messages.

It is hard for us to get our heads round this as we don’t know what life was like before Jesus came, we have only known how it is possible to know Jesus personally as the saving power in our lives. As St Paul put it in that first reading – Because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind.

Jesus came to open God’s heart of love to all of us and he came as a vulnerable child to do it. This advent we need to ponder the wonder of that deeply – be open and reach out with the love we know to those around us. Christmas affords many opportunities to explain the meaning of the season, we must use the ones we have.

While I was on retreat 10 days ago I finally returned to Glasshampton Monastery. This is a thin place, where the gap between earth and heaven seems smaller, and also it has been a quiet house of prayer for over 100 years, and is currently looked after by some Anglican Franciscan brothers (the same order as are based at Hilfield). It is very special.

And here is a picture of the altar in the main chapel. It is all quite plain – I love the arches that lead to the vestry (which look a bit like a house in Bethlehem, and the simple stone altar and platform (with matching tiles)). In this picture there is a San Damiano cross – this is a replica of the cross that spoke to St Francis in his earliest days – Rebuild my church was the message it had for him.

On my first visit to the chapel for evening prayer, I had a niggling feeling that something had changed I couldn’t put my finger on what. The next morning at the daily early communion, which started at 8am, I was suddenly struck as we gathered around the table for the eucharistic prayer what had been niggling me. Jesus was not there. In this picture behind the san damiano cross you can see a grey cross on the wall. Previously – if we look at this picture (which I took on my last visit in 2019) we can see there is a large (about 5ft) statue of Jesus on the grey cross – which used to dominate the space and was a very acute visual reminder of the lengths Jesus went to to save us.

I was quite flummoxed by the fact that Jesus was missing! But in a way that is one of the things we are remembering in Advent and how important it is to us that Jesus came in the first place, the difference he made and his rescue plan for all people. I found out subsequently from the brothers at afternoon tea (the only time they really converse each day) that Jesus had fallen from his position on the wall a couple of months earlier, and one of his arms had broken in the process, or had given into the strain of anchoring Jesus to the wall. There was a discussion about the fact that at his annual dust on Holy Saturday he had been noticed to be wobbly! They are currently finding 3 quotes for the rather specialist business of mending him.

In our run up to Christmas, the last thing that needs to be missing in our hearts and lives is Jesus. This is a time when we need to reflect on how we are growing, how alert we are to God’s love for us and what God is up to, and how hopefully we are living bathed in the light of Jesus great love for us. St Paul talks about strengthening us and strengthening our testimony to his love in our lives. We need not to be found to be missing either, but living lives where our faith is growing, we are alert and ready for God’s touch and above all hopeful (no matter what may come and go). Jesus love for us as I said earlier (and this is where I will end today) – is in all our yesterdays, all our todays, and all our tomorrows forever. Thanks be to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit he left with us.

Let us pray

God of hope, who brought love in to this world, be that love that dwells between us.

God of hope, who brought peace in to this world, be the peace that dwells between us.

God of hope, who brought joy into the world, be the joy that dwells within us.

God of hope, the rock we stand upon, be the centre, be the focus of our lives always and particularly this Advent time. Amen

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible 1989, 1995 ©

Prayers from an Advent Manifesto by Martyn Percy – BRF 2023 ©

Christ The King – 26th November 2023 – Penny Ashton

November 26th – Safeguarding Sunday, Christ the King

It is probably fair to say that the concept of safeguarding is a relatively new one – at least in Church of England terms.  By new I mean something we have come to learn about in the last 50 years – which is not new in normal thinking, but it sometimes takes the Church of England a while to catch up!  Being new does not mean bad – there are a great many things that we have learned in the past 20 years or so that are definitely for the good of all, but it does sometimes take us a while to get our heads around them, and safeguarding is one of those.  We always thought that we knew the people we met on a regular basis, and they were good and kind people, and I still hope and pray that while there is a lot that many of you do not know about me, and by the same token I do not know about you, in most cases the second part – about being generally good and kind holds true.  It is a sad reflection on the times that we live in however that this is not always the case, and as with so many things, the few can be spoiling it for the many. 

Safeguarding may be something that we have only recently had to learn about, but sadly it has been needed – although not always available for a very long time.  It is probably true to say that the first recorded occasion of coercive control occurred in the very beginning of our Bibles – in Genesis chapter 3 when the serpent casts doubt in the minds of Adam and Eve as to whether God had actually forbidden the fruit, and whether taking it would mean that they would die.  Doubt as to whether something you believe to be wrong actually is so, is often used in coercive control.  As we know from the story, once the commandment had been broken, Adam and Eve felt shame and wanted to hide themselves and what they had done.  I did not know until recently that the fig leaves which they used to make clothing contain an irritant and would have been quite uncomfortable, and the first act of safeguarding comes from God who makes the clothing of skins to replace them and prevent their feelings of shame.  This analogy does not bear taking too far, as just as all safeguarding issues are seldom as straightforward as they seem, neither is this one. 

If you read your bibles, particularly the history books of the Old Testament, you will find more occasions of abuse and of judgement.  King David – surely one of our heroes – abused his power as king when struck by the beauty of Bathsheba, and compounded the wrong when he gave orders that her husband should be sent into the thick of battle where he would certainly be killed.  The story of Abraham – father of the Jewish race contains many occasions when his actions are abusive – particularly in his treatment of his slave Hagar who twice found herself on the brink of starvation in the desert, once because she had run away and the second time because she had been thrown out by Abraham and Sarah.  Again, the story is complicated, but the one thing that stands out is the way in which God cares for Hagar, and later for her son Ishmael too.  The name Ishmael actually means ‘God Hears’ and this really sums up our subject.

Throughout history we may have been, or perhaps may have chosen to be ignorant of the abuse that was going on in our society, but God has not been.  There are people who have no cause to love the church, which is not surprising if you learn of the treatment that they had received at the hands of people who served the church, and who were sometimes respected and admired within it, but if they could look beyond the human made construction and organisation, they would find a loving and caring God who knows how they feel, and weeps with them. 

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, and next Sunday is Advent Sunday – the first day of a new year for the church, and as we do at the end of the calendar year and the beginning of a new one, it is perhaps a good time to reflect on the year that has passed and consider what we would like the next year to look like.  Perhaps we should also consider how we feel the Kingdom of Christ should look, and how we as subjects of this kingdom should be thinking and behaving.

There are many ways in which the vulnerable suffer abuse in our world today.  It is easy to categorise abuse as sexual, but there are many forms it can take, and many reasons why a person may be vulnerable.  Any one of us could become vulnerable to abuse due to ill health – either mental and physical, stress, disability, poverty or simply age.  Abuse can be physical, verbal, financial or spiritual.  It can be found in human trafficking, county lines drug dealing and modern slavery.  Nearly always it is hidden both by the perpetrator and their victim, and often leaves the victim suffering from shame, induced by the abuser seeking to put the blame on to them.  It is hard to forgive once discovered, but the tightrope we have to walk as Christians is the need to care appropriately for both the abused and the abuser.  Forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel, but that does not mean evading consequences or justice.  God is quite clear about that in the readings we have heard today – both in Ezekiel where God says ‘I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.’[1]  God is clear in this prophecy that the strong and rich will receive little sympathy from him if they gained, or kept their wealth through abuse of their power.  Our gospel reading is even more condemnatory using the words ‘accursed’, and ‘eternal punishment’ for those abusers who seem to be completely oblivious to what is right and what is wrong.

Safeguarding is not about ticking boxes, although at times it may feel that way.  It is not a form filling, paper-based exercise, although some of that is necessary.  It is also not about living in permanent suspicion of others.  It is surely about living with Christ as our King and acting that out in all that we say and do.  It is about being watchful, being aware of the weaknesses (often hidden) of others, about noticing.  Above all, surely it is about caring – making sure that we treat others the way that we would like to be treated.  It is about being servants of Christ the King.


[1] Ezekiel 34:22 © The Archbishops’ Council 2000- 2023,  The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995

2nd Sunday before Advent

2nd Sunday before Advent

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-end and Matthew 25:14-30

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

A story that ends ‘with weeping and gnashing of teeth’ as our gospel parable did today, is a sign that all has not gone well for someone. In this it was the slave that had not used his talent to serve the master. When this story comes up I am always struck by the use of the word talent. A  talent was a unit of money (probably worth what a labourer would earn over 15 years according to Tom Wright). So it would have seemed a lot of money to a slave, and 5 talents a huge amount! That understanding makes the master’s reaction to it being buried in the ground (and not used) much more understandable!

We understand the word talent rather differently – it goes with our gifts and talents. Talent being having a natural aptitude or skill at something. We all have gifts and talents (some things we are particularly good at) and some things we are not so good at, but recognise that other people are good at them.

Our mission as Christians – is to use all things we have been given (our gifts and talents) and even those things we are not so good at  to further the kingdom of God and share the good news of Jesus Christ.

When Rachel Pengelly was travelling with us (and incidentally I have heard on the grapevine she is doing really well in her curacy) – she preached on the passage from Matthew’s gospel – we call the great commission and how important these words are – as guidance on how we should lead our lives.

These are the final words of Jesus to his disciples then (and to us) before he returned to heaven. Let me remind us what they are:-

Jesus said.  ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Our  mission, and the mission of the disciples that have come before us, and the mission of the disciples that follow on from us – is to use our gifts and talents, strengths and weaknesses to share the good news of Jesus to others.

We are in the business of passing on the Christian baton (and helping others to know Jesus in their hearts and lives, and the hope, purpose and meaning that brings to life on earth).

This is our responsibility – and fulfils the first and second mark of mission that have been widely applied across the Anglican church for many years. These marks of mission go under the words Tell and Teach – tell is to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom and teach is to teach, baptise, and nurture new believers.

To this end, with our friends at the Roman Catholic church, as churches we want to reach out to our communities and run the Alpha course for adults in 2024. This is a very well known course, which starts with food and explores the basics of Christianity (and allows everyone who attends to ask the questions they have always wanted to ask to find out more). Today with the stuff we were given as we came in, is a leaflet called Try Alpha – Stay curious.  On the back it tells us a bit more about the content of an alpha course and what to expect.

What we need now is for everyone to pray about this, and to think of someone (or even better more than one person) they could invite. Someone who asks us about our faith perhaps – or someone who we know is finding the going hard, or is lacking hope in these difficult times we are living through. Someone who God has placed on our hearts, or someone we have been praying for to find faith for a short time or a long time.  

Pray about the asking and then give it a go, using the words God puts on our hearts. The worst that can happen is someone says NO, and yet they will know you care about them in a deeper way than they might have realised, and that you want to share in some way the best gift we have ever been given – the love of Jesus Christ in our hearts through the Holy Spirit he left with us.

Another way of doing this, as the leaflet suggests is to offer to bring someone to Alpha. Either way if you get a Yes, let  me know and I will be in touch with details of where it will be and when.

I appreciate this may feel like quite a big challenge, but talking about our faith and sharing it is part of the Christian way and has been for over 2000 years. Someone somewhere shared their faith with us – to help us get started. Can we remember who that was and the circumstances?

I know for me that it was the youth group and the people of St Dunstan’s Church Cheam. When I was just sixteen, and attending an all girls school, frankly I was keen to get to know some boys (hormones and all that). Anyway a friend invited me to the Youth Group, but in those days it was possible to insist that those who attended the youth group also went to Church twice a month.

Initially I did what was required only, and I was a bit mystified (especially as it was quite a high church) by all that was  going on! This story is about to show us how God can move in mysterious ways even when our motives (to get to know boys) are far from his plan for us!

Within a matter of a few months however, I was going every week. In the youth group, and church family  were people who greeted me warmly, wanted to get to know me as I was, and had something I knew I didn’t have.

I came to understand over time that that was the presence of the Holy Spirit. I had a moment just before my 17th birthday, where I invited Christ into my heart, as well as this being a gradual dawning experience of God’s love for me.

All our experiences of coming to faith will be different – but I know those people showed Christian love to me all those years ago – shared the best gift with me I have ever had – and which changed the course of my life pretty exponentially – as it has all turned out!

We often don’t know when we have been the catalyst for sparks of faith in others. However we won’t be if we don’t share our  faith gently and lovingly . We must not leave the gifts and talents we have been given for this in the bottom of the wardrobe (With those discarded Christmas gifts we have never used).

At this time, we need to pray for each other, and for the right moments to ask the people God puts on hearts to come to Alpha or to come to Alpha with us. I will end with a very familiar prayer which John McGinley recommends for those willing to step out of their comfort zones and one to the  path of following the footsteps of Jesus in sharing the good news, lovingly and kindly and hopefully.

Let us pray – May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again – may God hold you in the palm of his Hand. Amen  

References: New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995, Matthew for everyone part 2 – Tom Wright – SPCK, 2002, Mission Shaped Grace, John McGinley, River Publishing 2017