Sermon for Pentecost 9A – 2nd August 2020

Matthew 14.13-21

Greetings to you from Big Barns! We hope you are keeping well in body, mind and spirit and we are looking forward to seeing you face to face as we return to worship in our church buildings in the near future.

I’d like to begin this week’s sermon by telling you a story about three little mice who sadly died and went to heaven. After a couple of days, St Peter called on them and asked them how they liked being in heaven. The mice said that it was OK, but since they had such short legs, it was really difficult for them to get around because heaven was so big.

So, St Peter told them that he thought he would be able to help them. After a little while, an angel came to the mice and gave each of them a set of roller skates. Right away, the mice put the roller skates on, and that meant that they could zip around heaven, really enjoying themselves.

Mouse roller skating embroidery designA little later, a certain cat died and went to heaven. After a couple of days, St Peter called by and asked the cat how he liked being in heaven. The cat answered by saying, “Oh, boy, do I like being in heaven! I’m having a great time and I’m really enjoying myself. And most of all, I love those meals on wheels.

Today’s gospel is about another meal – though not quite a meal on wheels. And this meal is perhaps one of the most well-known meals in history – the feeding of the five thousand. But before we get to the miracle in this story, we find Jesus withdrawing to a “lonely” place with his disciples. We are told that this happened on receiving the news of John the Baptist’s execution.

We know that in those times Galilee was quite heavily populated and Jesus had already become a well-known figure. So, what was the reason for this withdrawal? It could have been to provide a period of rest and reflection for Jesus and his disciples, a time for the disciples to be taught by their master. However, a more obvious reason was to avoid possible danger after the execution of John the Baptist and there are several times the Gospel records Jesus prudently getting out of the public eye when things were getting too hot.

However, on this occasion, Jesus and his companions had been spotted as they slipped away. So, while they made for the other side of the lake by boat, “the people…leaving the towns, went after him on foot”.

When Jesus stepped ashore, he was faced with a large crowd. His immediate reaction was one of deep compassion and he began to heal the sick among them. This contrasts with Mark’s version where Jesus’ compassion leads to teaching the crowds. The healing, of course, in its own way was a kind of teaching, as the teaching was also a kind of healing. Jesus’ aim was always to restore people to wholeness in body and spirit – that is the meaning of salvation.

At this point in the story it is worth reflecting ourselves on how we react to sudden and unexpected calls on our time and energy. Are we always filled with compassion for those who ask for help? Especially if those asking are strangers or people we do not particularly like? How many real opportunities for bringing some wholeness into a person’s life have been lost because a request was made in conflict with plans that we have already made, not least religious plans? (Remember the priest and Levite who ignored the mugging victim on the road to Jericho because they were on the way to the Temple?)

There are usually two possible reactions to calls for help. On the one hand, we can completely ignore such calls when they conflict with what we have planned to do. In this case, we always put our own perceived needs first and we are not going to put ourselves out for others. Once we begin to react like this, we won’t often be asked for help and it is hardly the Christ-like response.

On the other hand, we may be one of those people who simply cannot say ‘No’. In which case, we put aside what we have planned and go to help the person, even though we do not want to do so, and may feel highly resentful. On the outside we will be all smiles while on the inside we can be in knots of anger and frustration. The final outcome of this kind of response is “burnout”. If we are this kind of person, it is very important for us to be seen as ‘super helpful’ and we will sometimes make any sacrifice to preserve that image. Such persons need to be needed and, deep down, they are answering their own needs rather than those of another.

Obviously neither of these responses is appropriate and they are not the ones that Jesus made.

It requires great sensitivity and discernment to know when we are required to show compassion by giving all the help we can, even at some inconvenience, and when we show equal compassion by encouraging people to stand on their own feet. We are not personally  responsible for saving the whole world and sometimes, difficult as it can be, we will have to watch many people go without our help. But there will be times when we are the only individual who can help this person now. Recognising these moments needs a combination of honesty and firmness.

There are times, like today, when Jesus immediately responds to the people’s needs. There are others when, in spite of their requests, he either withdraws to a solitary place alone or goes elsewhere (see  Mark 1:35-38 and John 6:15 for such examples).

Another reason why we are sometimes reluctant to give help is that we think we have nothing to give. In the gospel story, as the day wore on the disciples became anxious about the crowd. “It is getting late, this is an isolated place, send them back to the towns for food,” the disciples urge Jesus. “There is no need for them to go; give them something to eat yourselves,” Jesus tells them. “But we have only five loaves and two fish,” they answer. Jesus is teaching them self-confidence and urging them to share the little they have. They will be surprised how far it will go. And, if we do the same, we can be pleasantly surprised too. We, like the disciples, are called again and again to make a connection between Jesus and others, offering the little we have with total generosity.

The story of the feeding of the five thousand tells us clearly that God really cares about his people and that there is enough and more for everybody. But it also tells us that a great deal of God’s care and compassion for the world is devolved to us – his followers. A great deal of the human suffering in the world has been caused by the actions of humankind but can equally be relieved by the actions of humankind. Jesus did not feed the crowd directly. He left that to his disciples. He still does. It is too easy to blame God for problems and suffering in the world, too easy to blame governments, too easy to see these things as other people’s problems. But they are also ours, they are mine and they are yours. And so together, we are called to feed the poor and cloth the naked – to stand against injustice and inequality in whatever small way we can.

Most of us haven’t taken part in the Eucharist for a considerable amount of time. And as we look towards getting back into our church buildings and being able to do just that, I encourage you to commit yourselves afresh to share in God’s work – a commitment to clearly communicating and demonstrating His compassion to all.

Our God is a cares about that which He has created. But, much of the time, he needs our hands, feet and mouths to show people just how caring He really is. Think on these things – and when you next take part in Holy Communion, be prepared to take His love beyond the altar, the bread and wine to the places in which you live and work. Have in your mind to be ‘recharged’ and then, as you meet people, both those you see every day and those you have never met before, my friends – ‘give them something to eat’!

Blessings to you and all those you love this week,

Fr Simon

Community in the Body of Christ

Churches across the land are struggling with the question: “should we open or should we not?” One line of argument is: “You don’t need special words, a special place, special objects or special people to talk to God. God loves you and is listening. So just do it. The church buildings may be shut, but the ears of Heaven aren’t.” All of that is of course true, however, the spirituality that we’ve inherited in the Episcopal Tradition isn’t simply about an individual, personal, relationship with God. Our tradition is centred around a Community relationship with God and with each other, culminating in our sharing in the Eucharist together; entering into the Community of the Trinity which lies at the very heart of our faith.

Much of St Paul’s writing is to and about Community. For Paul Salvation is the work of God that brings people into a right relationship with both God and with one another. In brief, we’re being saved from the broken relationships with God and each other that can and do unleash the forces of sin and death in the world.

At times, Christians have sometimes reduced Paul’s message of salvation to something like: “Believe in Jesus, have a personal relationship with Him and you’ll go to heaven when you die.” This is true, as far as it goes, but … in his letters, Paul never stops talking about relationships among people and between people and the rest of God’s creation, as he wrote in his letter to the Colossians:

Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.” Col 3:13-15

Paul emphasises the multiplicity of gifts in the Body of Christ, the Community of Faith, and that one part of a body can’t operate alone but all parts need to work harmoniously together, no part being superior to any other.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. … For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” 1 Cor 12

A couple of weeks back, St Finnbarr’s and St Andrew’s started opening for what the Scottish Government calls ‘Individual Prayer’, however our opening shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of ‘privatised prayer’. In order to be able to open, the members of those two Communities have had to work hard together to put in place plans and prepare the buildings, so that those using them can do so safely. People from within and beyond our Church Communities have appreciated our hospitality in opening them and several people have felt able to take their first steps outside their homes in four months, into the sanctuary of well prepared spaces, where prayer has been offered by the Community for well over a century.

In the coming weeks, some of our congregations will be able to meet again for services of worship and for that we should give thanks, but there’s still much to do to create the environment needed. So as we look towards opening buildings for worship, we do so as a Community working together. The challenge is, as it was in opening for Individual Prayer, to provide a prayerful, safe environment. Unless we can achieve that we’ll remain closed. Finding God in Prayer and Worship is surely more likely at home, than in an environment that looks like a combination of a crime scene, a shop and a hospital.

What we need to keep uppermost in our minds, is that all that we do should be grounded in prayer and guided by the desire to provide spaces and communities where people can be present to God and God to them and where people feel able to pray and worship together. In this, we all have our part to play.

Blessings
James

Sermon for Pentecost 8A – 26th July 2020

1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

On Thursday we had an on-line quiz night, which as great fun – thanks Beatrice and Janet for all your hard work and all those who were able to take part for making it such fun. In one of the rounds we all had to tell three stories from our past; two had to be true and one false. The challenge for everyone else was to work out which one was untrue. In preparing for this, I found myself with literally dozens of different ideas and just couldn’t decide which ones to choose. Selecting two true and one untrue happening proved to be remarkably challenging from what has clearly been an eventful and perhaps mis-spent life.

As I stared blankly at the list of readings for today, I was faced with much the same problem. Do we go with Solomon asking God for wisdom rather than riches, or do we go with the verses from Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans which are so familiar at funerals or do we go with five parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in quick succession like automatic gunfire?

King Solomon looks pretty straight-forward, with a good solid moral message. After all a passage with the line “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” is something we could all wish for in our leaders. But remember, this is the Bible and 1 Kings 3, as in life, is more complicated. In order to do justice to this chapter, we have to understand the ambiguities and complexities associated with this passage, so bang goes that chance of sermon occupying less than half a page.

To get some context, we would have to read the few verses before and after our passage to get a fuller picture. They point us to the good the bad and the ugly of Solomon:  Our passage ignores the verses that refer to Solomon also receiving riches and a long life in addition to the wisdom that he asks God for. Why? Because a link between prosperity and obedience whilst very much at the heart of some Biblical writings is not a simple cause and effect and if I started down that line, you’d be lucky if we were done in 50 pages.

Immediately preceding Solomon’s dream in verses. 5-12, there are allusions that hint at some of the negative aspects of Solomon’s reign, namely his tendency to worship other gods and that foreign wives were responsible for leading the Solomon and many other kings astray. It does of course serve to remind us that the leaders described in the Bible, as in life, more often than not are a mix of complex motives. So, we should be careful not to romanticise politicians and recognise that any leader has the potential to be corrupt and to abuse power.

Subsequent chapters of the Solomon story are available now, at a Bible near you. In them you’ll find that King Solomon might be remembered as the one who built the temple for God, but … this act of piety is accompanied by the reality that he used forced labour to do it. There’s nothing new in the idea that numerous innocent people might be harmed in political leaders’ attempts at greatness!!

So what do we get from all of this? That people are generally a mix of good and bad motives or intentions and that people have the potential to do good, but also harm.

In the unresolved tensions of the story of Solomon we see that it’s in the messiness of life that God acts, popping up when we least expect and turning our expectations upside-down. It’s significant that it’s God who approaches Solomon and grants him a wish, regardless of his failures and frailties as a human being, so there’s hope for us as well. Hope for us as we open ourselves up to God in prayer amid the messiness of our own lives.

Prayer of course isn’t really about words, in spite of all the books of words entitled ‘Prayers’, but I suppose that words do help to stop our minds wandering. Teach us how to pray, the disciples ask Jesus and in response he gives them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. So this difficulty is nothing new, in our second reading. Paul has some quite helpful words for the Christians in Rome:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Sighs too deep for words”, that just about sums it up. The problem is however not that we know what we need and merely lack the right words for requesting it. As James Dunn puts it, we “do not on our behalf know what to want,” let alone how to ask for it.

These last few months in ‘lock-down’, have been, to say the least, rather unusual, perhaps even strange. I don’t know about you but for me, as we start to emerge from the restrictions, that’s even more strange. In the midst of our disorientating confusion, it’s the Spirit that comes to the rescue and on our behalf, aligns what we want deep down to pray about, to God’s will for us and for our world. But we do have to make the space, to give the Spirit a chance and so allow God to come into our lives, and suffer alongside us. He won’t shield us from all suffering, but He will save us from suffering alone.

When I feel a sense of helplessness with much of what is happening in the world, when on our behalf, the politicians and the diplomats seem unable to get to grips with very real problems. When there is so much going on where on the face of it God seems to be absent, I find that it helps to remember what Paul goes on tell the Romans in words so familiar at funerals:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God’s love is with you and with me. God’s there to be present for us in our lives. So when things seem bad and we seem powerless to do anything about it, then there’s always the option of turning to God in prayer as opposed to despairing.

The American monk, mystic, poet and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton speaks about this when he writes:

If I have this divine life in me, what do the accidents of pain and pleasure, hope and fear, joy and sorrow matter to me? They are not my life and they have little to do with it. Why should I fear anything that cannot rob me of God, and why should I desire anything that cannot give me possession of Him?

Exterior things come and go, but why should they disturb me? Why should joy excite me or sorrow cast me down, achievement delight me or failure depress me, life attract or death repel me if I live only in the Life that is within me by God’s gift?

Prayer is central to a Christian life and prayer is about being attentive to God’s presence with us, so why not spend a minute or two being attentive to God’s presence with you just now; remembering that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, it might just grow into a sizeable plant with birds nesting in its branches. That faith might just multiply like yeast cells and leak out beyond our walls and leaven the world around us as it emerges from ‘lock-down’ and needs hope that there is indeed a bright future.

This is hope in the sense that Paul is talking about. It’s also what Jesus is describing in today’s parables, the hope that comes from God’s love, a hope that defies rationality. In that sense there remains cause for hope even when it’s difficult to see where we are going. Keep cheerful, support one another and I hope that I’ll be able to see you all very soon. In the meantime, call to mind some of the wonderful stories of incidents and encounters that have made up your life and you’ll see what I mean about it being difficult to choose just one or two.

Amen.

Churches in the light of Covid, Seasonal Flu and the Common Cold

The Christian Community

God of heaven and earth,
in these times of isolation, apart from loved ones
distant from friends, away from neighbours
we thank you that there is nothing in all of creation,
that is able to separate us from your love.
And may that love which never fails continue to be shared
through the kindness of strangers looking out for each other,
for neighbours near and far all recognising our shared vulnerability, grateful for every breath, and desiring a full and healthy life for all.
Enfold all your children in your loving embrace.
We ask this through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord. Amen.

A Christian Community gathering for worship, prayer and fellowship is as old as Christianity itself and something we all cherish and value. The Corona Virus pandemic has had many effects on our lives and the way we interact with each other. We’ve yet to see the full implications of the direct effects in relation to health and the indirect effects in relation to different groups in our society. One thing is certain, that how we meet and how we use our Church buildings and other places of worship needs to be carefully reviewed in order to ensure that we don’t put one another at risk.

Our Liturgies quote Matthew’s Gospel (22:37-40) in saying

Our Lord Jesus Christ said: The first commandment is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all Your strength.’ The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.

An oft quoted Covid prayer draws on this when it says: “We are not people who protect our own safety: we are people who protect our neighbours’ safety.” However, as our Governments have made clear, an important part of how we protect our neighbour, is through our own behaviour. As our Bishops also pointed out in relation to closing our churches, “we do this not out of fear but out of love”.

Many of the precautions that we need to take as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic, are ones that we should have been taking in the past to protect each other from Seasonal Flu, the Common Cold and the other respiratory infections that can have such a devastating effect on the elderly, the vulnerable and those in poor health.

What we need to keep uppermost in our minds, is that all that we do must be grounded in prayer and guided by the desire to provide spaces and communities where people can be present to God and God to them, where people feel able to pray and where we can all learn to pray that little bit better.

Our Individual Duty to our Neighbour

As part of our love of neighbour and love of God, each one of us has a duty to:

  • Stay at home if we, or any member of our household, has any symptoms of a respiratory infection – a persistent cough, an elevated temperature (and in the case of Covid-19 and a number of other viruses – a loss of sense of taste or smell). Many of us (clergy and worship leaders especially) have not been very good at doing this, persevering with “duty” when we might pose a risk to others in doing so.
  • Maintain an appropriate Physical Distance from others. Without prompting we need to be respectful of each other’s space with sensitivity and be happy to maintain a suitable distance, taking account of individuals’ needs as well as any health guidance that we’re given.
  • Follow good hygiene practices to help prevent spread of disease:
    • Wash our hands frequently and carefully with soap and water for 20 seconds. At the very least this should be done before leaving for Church (or other social gathering) and immediately on returning home and especially by those handling the Eucharistic Elements.
    • Whilst out, carry and use a hand gel with at least a 70% alcohol content for at least for 30 seconds, if we have no access to soap and water.
    • Be careful to avoid touching our eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
    • Wherever possible stay a safe distance from people who appear to have symptoms of a respiratory illness.
    • Cover our nose and mouth with a disposable tissue when sneezing, coughing, wiping or blowing our noses. Dispose of used tissues promptly. If a tissue isn’t available, cough and sneeze into the crook of our elbow (not ideal but better than hands which immediately touch other things). Wash with soap and water or use alcohol hand gel to clean our hands at the first opportunity.
  • At times when there is significant risk of infection such as the Covid-19 Pandemic or a Seasonal Flu outbreak, where we might be unwittingly carrying infection, we should also wear a face-mask in public spaces and know how to put it on and take it off safely for maximum protection of both our neighbour and ourselves.

God give me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it be,
Trusting that You will make all things right. Amen.

Our Duty as a Church Community

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:45-47)

As Christian Churches Clergy, Vestries and people we have a responsibility to people who meet in our buildings and join us in the other places where we meet. That responsibility is a core part of our Mission and Ministry and times of crisis provide opportunities for a reconnection with our wider communities.

In our Churches we have a duty to make it as easy as possible for individuals (Church members or not) to exercise their duty to protect one another, we should:

  • Organise our activities to ensure a resilience which doesn’t place pressure on Clergy, Worship Leaders or others facilitating activities to turn up when they have symptoms of respiratory illness. How this is done will depend on Church circumstances and the activity, but the procedures should be documented, agreed and well understood.
  • Re-think and agree all aspects of maintaining distance in Church Worship and in Fellowship (especially how the Peace is shared), so that those taking part feel close to each other but also safe and comfortable.
  • Apply appropriate hygiene practices in the Eucharist and in the making and sharing of refreshments as part of our welcoming Fellowship.
  • Review the need to touch or handle objects or surfaces that have been touched or handled by others in the recent past, so as to reduce the risk of passing infection from one person to another.
  • Review how our Church premises are cleaned and kept tidy, so that all those entering and using them may do so with confidence that they can focus on Worshipping and Praying to God in the Community of Faith

Keep us, good Lord, under the shadow of your mercy
in times of uncertainty and distress.
Sustain and support the anxious and fearful,
and lift up all who are brought low;
that we may rejoice in your comfort
knowing that nothing can separate us
from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Loneliness, Solitude, Joy and Serenity

solitude

The other day I was sorting through some booklets about a range of subjects and two particularly attracted my attention. The titles of these two were: ‘From Loneliness to Solitude’ and ‘The Gift of Joy’; seemingly quite unrelated, until I started reading them.

For the last thirteen weeks things have been rather different for all of us. We can’t meet up in the way that we could and can’t meet others in work or social activities in the usual way. I know that lots of us have found that really hard. In some sense we feel we’re no longer the people that we were. Sadly, the loneliness that’s long been a problem in our society has also increased markedly with ‘lock-down’ and ‘social distancing’.

The author of ‘From Loneliness to Solitude’, Roland Walls, was Priest-in-Charge of the Rosslyn Chapel in the 1960s and subsequently went on to found a Monastic Community in an old miners welfare hall in Roslin, just around the corner. He writes in 1976:

Loneliness is the biggest, most extensive personal problem of our cities and while ‘telly’ and radio help to keep you in touch with the world, the daily screenful of busy, exiting, active people is in such strange contrast to the armchair, the biscuit on the plate and a mug full of coffee; it makes it worse to be alone in view of so much happening.

If he were writing today, he would doubtless have included social media and all the other digital ‘communication’ tools that serve to keep our daily screens full. He goes on to say that we’re lonely because we’re made for ‘infinite possibility’ and at times we experience the painfulness of emptiness, because there’s a void ‘aching to be filled’. Whatever we may think and whatever we may try, that void can only be filled by God. It’s a God-shaped hole if you like. However the response of most of us to that void is to try to fill it up with busyness, but that doesn’t work, it just covers it up, but it’s still there just as empty as ever.

At this point, we shift our attention to ‘The Gift of Joy’. Curtis Almquist, its author, tells us that “Joy is something of a rare commodity” and the primary reason, he says, is that “Joy takes time”. He talks about an old ‘monastic insight’ that to find joy you need to do one thing at a time. When you’re walking, just walk; when looking, just look; when listening, just listen. Whatever you’re doing, having a cuppa, watering the plants, stroking the cat, just do that and savour it. Quite the reverse of busyness.

Be present in the current moment, don’t dwell on what has or has not happened in the past or worry about what’s to come, just savour the smell of the flower, or the sound the birdsong, or the taste of your lunch. Whatever happens next can wait whilst you enjoy the present moment. Joy also requires us to accept what is and not grieve for what is not. To experience joy we have to accept how little of what happens in our lives we have real control over and be comfortable with that.

That lack of control is glaringly apparent to anyone who had any plans prior to March this year. As one version of the Serenity Prayer goes:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it be,
Trusting that You will make all things right. Amen.

Blessings
James

Corpus Christi

The Feast of the Thanksgiving for Holy Communion, commonly called, Corpus Christi was first celebrated in the 14th Century. It began as a local custom to celebrate the Mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and slowly spread throughout the Church, finally being added to the Kalander in the 15th Century.

William Harry Turton’s hymn “O thou who at thy Eucharist didst pray” sung to a lovely tune (Song 1) by Orlando Gibbons.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of Corpus Christi (literally the Body of Christ), that people associate with this feast day, is the great processions through cities, towns and villages.  The Blessed Sacrament is held aloft by a priest, in a monstrance, as a public statement that the sacrifice of Christ was for the salvation of the whole world.

A Corpus Christi Procession

Monstrances are one of those liturgical curios that appear sometimes, but in our tradition not very regularly.  This one belongs to Jamie (who drafted a substantial part of this piece for us).

Jamie’s Monsterance

The Host (the consecrated Bread) sits in the glass plate in the centre with ‘rays of glory streaming out from it‘. A reminder of the Glory of Christ, present in the Eucharist, and the glory of the Heavenly Banquet that we join when we take Communion together.

Traditionally, at the end of the Mass on Corpus Christi the Host (the consecrated Bread) is placed in a monstrance and the congregation spend some time reflecting on this Mystery of Christ made present in the bread and wine.

The officiating Priest would then take the monstrance and carry it aloft down through the church and out into the streets – with servers throwing rose petals down in front of it to make a carpet – a bit like confetti at a wedding – with bells ringing out to tell everyone that Christ was walking among them in the Eucharist.

Celebrating in Valencia

It’ll be an irony not lost on many that the Feast of Corpus Christi has something of a hollow ring to it this year.  It’s a feast when we give thanks for the gift and privilege of Holy Communion, which we normally share on a regular basis.  So what does it mean to give thanks for something we can’t (at present) receive?

Corpus Christi represents more than just the Church giving thanks for the way that Christ remains, with us always – even unto the ends of the Earth. It’s a celebration that we, the Church, are united in and as the Body of Christ.

As Corpus Christi comes around this year, we have to do things differently.  And perhaps this involves reflecting on what being unable to meet up and share Holy Communion together these past months has meant.  It’s left a yawning gap in the lives of many members of our congregations. But of course, God’s not gone away, Christ is still very much with us.  And of course when we do reunite to break the bread and pour the wine together, we can have a thanksgiving as never before!

The Touch of Love (or a touch that kills)

Revd Canon Dr Sarah Hills, Honorary Canon for Reconciliation at Inverness Cathedral writes…

A touch of love or a touch that kills?

I have been feeling, like very many of us over the last week, angry, sad, bewildered. George Floyd in Minneapolis died being held down, kneeled on, struggling for breath. Touch comes in different forms. George died from a touch that killed him. That touch was sustained, unwarranted, brutal and deadly. That touch of a policeman’s body was seen by those around them in the street that day. It was seen by millions on TV. And that touch has come to symbolise much that is wrong in our world. Hate, racism, division, arrogance, even evil. And then Donald Trump touches the bible in front of an Episcopal church. Another touch – calculated, shocking, sinister. The bible is a book about love. The gospel message found within it is one of inclusion, not division. Of love triumphing over death. Of righteous anger, forgiveness and justice. Of diversity and welcome and healing. Of reconciliation. But these are not only words. These cannot only be words. The bible embodies these words in the touch of Jesus Christ. His touch of love for us. And he let us touch him – his cloak, his side, his hands and feet.

In Church in Holy Week, we recreate Jesus’s act of touching his disciples as he washed their feet, days before his own death. I find this act of foot washing on Maundy Thursday one of the most moving and poignant services. Touching another’s foot, drying their toes carefully, feels like one of the most sacramental of acts. An act of service, of devotion, of intimate connection. The feet come in all shapes and sizes, some toes painted, some misshapen and painful looking. Feet with a story to tell. Where have these feet walked? Who with? Why? Have they had to run from danger? Or made prints in the sand on the beach? Touches of love.

My father died at the end of March. I had not been able to say goodbye to him, and so I really wanted to see him at the chapel of rest. I did – but what I most wanted to do was to touch him. And I did. I held his hand, kissed him, and said goodbye. Of course, that last touch was not the same…but it was a touch of love.

I wonder if George Floyd’s family were able to give him a last touch of love, after the touch that killed him?

Our need for comfort through touch, through hugging a friend, through sitting on a parent’s lap, through holding a dying hand, is about goodness. It is grace filled, and in theological language, sacramental. It is about love being made visible.

It is an abhorrent distortion of this touch of love to kill someone because of their race. Or their colour, or creed, or sexuality or gender. Or for any reason.

I am a white South African, full of privilege. I am a mother and wife, delighting in our two boys and our Labrador. I am also Vicar of Holy Island, Honorary Canon of Inverness Cathedral and Canon of Reconciliation for the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. As a reconciler, it seems no accident that I find myself on Holy Island, a liminal place straddling the land and the sea, a beautiful place where pilgrims come to have their hearts and souls touched. A place founded by St Aidan in 635AD, an Irish monk sent from Scotland as a peacemaker.

My life is full of privilege. I know that. Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing this piece. But I believe that as a South African who grew up in Northern Ireland during the troubles, now priest and reconciler living on a holy island, that I have some duty to say something. And so I offer this in humility. Not because I am an expert. Not because I have experienced the racism that George Floyd and millions of others have. But because I am confused and heartbroken. I feel the need to offer something of myself through writing this in order to work through what is going on around us, and in case it resonates with anyone else. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has said that to be silent in the face of oppression is to choose the side of the oppressor. This oppression has benefitted me and all of us who look like me.

This last week I have been forcibly reminded of the time of apartheid in South Africa that my parents and countless others fought against. Of numerous deaths because of race and colour. Deaths due to the touch of blows, of batons, of bullets, of electric shocks. I was born in South Africa, and my parents were both involved in anti-apartheid activities. We left when I was a young child and went to Northern Ireland where I grew up. As a medical student I spent time in back in South Africa working in a rural hospital in the 1980’s. While there, I found myself joining in protest marches with thousands of other South Africans, demonstrating against apartheid. During one of the marches, the police fired on us. I joined other medics in the back streets of the township treating those who had been shot. I touched someone’s shoulder as I fought to remove the bullet lodged in his muscle.

Afterwards, the bullet out, we exchanged the touch of a bloody and careful hug. He and I were fortunate that day. George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Stephen Lawrence, Ahmaud Arbery, Belly Mujinga, Steve Biko, the people on the bridge in Selma, and thousands of others were not.

My dear friend Glenn Jordan died yesterday. He was a true reconciler, a brave and beautiful man. Funny, hopeful, deeply humble and one of the most profound and poetic thinkers I have known. I remember him sitting on our sofa here on Holy Island, glass of whisky in his hand, touching my heart, and all of ours there that evening. I suggested a swim off St Cuthbert’s beach below our garden the next morning. The touch of the icy water, then the touch of our frozen hands as we high fived afterwards. The touch of love. I never got the chance to hear what Glenn would have to say about the situation we find ourselves in this week. In the USA, and if we are honest, everywhere in our broken world. We have lived, we continue to live with conflict, violence, and the touch of death. But I know that Glenn would not want me to stop there. Nor would my father.

The touch of love is here to stay. The touch of love enables us to be angry. And so we should be. To grieve. To lament. To search for justice. For all those suffering racism, brutality and discrimination throughout our world. For our children and our children’s children. And these things – grief, lament, searching for justice and even forgiveness, we must do. Without them, reconciliation is useless. But if we can hold fast to the touch of love, reconciliation will come. Maybe not today. Or tomorrow. But it is there in the hope that Jesus Christ brings us. The touch of love is stronger than the touch that kills. Always. And forever.

I end with a prayer from the ‘father of reconciliation’, Desmond Tutu

Victory is Ours

Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
Amen.

Sarah Hills

The Blessed Trinity

On this Trinity Sunday, Simon sings the words of John Henry Newman to an arrangement by Patrick Appleford.

Firmly I believe and truly
God is Three and God is One;
and I next acknowledge duly
manhood taken by the Son.

And I trust and hope most fully
in the Saviour crucified;
and each thought and deed unruly
do to death, as he has died.

Simply to his grace and wholly
light and life and strength belong,
and I love supremely, solely,
him the holy, him the strong.

And I hold in veneration,
for the love of him alone,
holy Church as his creation,
and her teachings as his own.

Adoration ay be given,
with and through th’angelic host,
to the God of earth and heaven,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

A Growing Family

On Sunday (31st May), which is the Feast of Pentecost, Revd Nicholas Court (above left) who has served the North-West corner of the Diocese (with congregations in Ullapool, Achiltibuie, Lochinver, Kinlochbervie and Tongue) for the last 11 years, retires. I’m sure that you would all join with me in wishing Nicholas and Gilly a long and happy retirement, even though until the end of lock-down Nicholas will still be helping to provide pastoral care in these areas. However from Monday (1st June), the congregation of St Mary-by the-Cross, Tongue will join our family of congregations in East Sutherland and Tain.

For the benefit of those of you who are unfamiliar with the Episcopal arrangements ‘up north’, I have assembled a little history and description, with the help of a number of people, as will become become obvious.

Anna and I have been regular visitors to Tongue for the last 30 or more years, since her parents Alan and Irene bought a house beyond Melness. There was no Episcopal worship for some while and so they (and Anna, the boys and I when we were visiting) made the 120 mile round trip down to the monthly service in Kinlochbervie. The Services there were at first in the Fishermen’s Mission, then the Old School Restaurant and finally in the Community Centre. Over the years, KLB was served by Revd Chris Dormer, who travelled from Ullapool, then Revd Cliff Piper, who travelled from Tain and then Revd Mel Langille, who travelled from Golspie.

From June 2003, Services started at the Fir Chlis, House of Prayer and Retreat, run by Kathleen Pannell, who had found a ‘half built property just outside Tongue village’ overlooking Ben Loyal, a year earlier. Kathleen takes up the story.

We moved in on 24th March 2003 and on June 22nd Fr John Stevenson from St. Peter and the Holy Rood, Thurso celebrated the first Service of Holy Communion with about 20 communicants. I opened Fir Chlis up as a Retreat House, inviting people to ‘Come away to a deserted place, and rest a while’. Fr John continued to come once a month to celebrate Mass and when I was blessed with hosting a priest on retreat, we would be blessed with regular, sometimes daily, Mass.

Fr Len Black took over from Fr. John at some point when the Episcopal church was trying to find its way in a changing world, but the congregation was truly set on a firm footing when I met Fr Nicholas in April 2010. The congregation of St. Mary by the Cross was officially constituted on 5th April 2012 by Bishop Mark and numbers attending have grown significantly since. During 2017/2018 we counted up that more than 75 folk had attended the monthly services here at one time or another, many travelling miles to attend, and folk from several different denominations too. It’s been such a joy to host these services month on month, to witness people growing in their love of the Lord through His gifts of Bread and Wine.

St Mary’s now enters a new phase of its life, at a time when although the future looks very uncertain for us all, it is more important than every that we trust in our faithful and loving God. As St Paul wrote to the Romans:

We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” and:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

On behalf of all of us in East Sutherland and Tain, may I extend a warm welcome from our family in Tain, Dornoch, Lairg, Brora and all the places in between, to ‘our friends at the very top’ in Tongue.

Blessings
James

Stations of the Resurrection

During the 40 days from the Resurrection at Easter until the Ascension, Jesus appeared many times to individuals and groups, as our Eucharistic Prayer for this season puts it so beautifully:

Making himself known in the breaking of the bread,
speaking peace to the fearful disciples,
welcoming weary fishers on the shore,
he renewed the promise of his presence,
and of new birth in the Spirit
who sets the seal of freedom on your sons and daughters.

Using some of the passages describing these events, together with short reflections and prayers and some rather wonderful paintings by the French Artist Tissot, Stations of the Resurrection provides the opportunity to see how Jesus came to the Disciples as they tried to make sense of all that had happened and tried to return to their old lives.  Their dreams had been shattered and they found themselves feeling ineffective and discouraged.  If that is how you are feeling in Lockdown then maybe it will give you renewed hope in the future.