Sermon Pentecost 16A (20th September 2020)

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Phil 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

When I worked in the University of Glasgow, every year it was up to each of us to decide whether or not to apply for promotion or an extra increment or whatever we thought we deserved. In short, in order to get on, you had to blow your own trumpet loudly and often.

Applications were filtered by the head of department, who wrote a supportive (or otherwise) statement before passing it on to the relevant committee who ranked them and made awards within the cash limits they had.

I had a colleague who did this every year and was generally successful in getting something – until the head of department changed. Under the new management he didn’t get anything and he wasn’t a happy bunny. You see the new head of department didn’t think that the system was fair – especially for those who worked hard and achieved good results but when required to ‘puff up’ what they’d done, just couldn’t do it. The new boss coached them in ‘selling’ their contribution and insisted they submit an application from time to time.

Well after being knocked back a couple of times, my colleague declared that what was happening was grossly unfair, resigned and took up a job at another University at a lower salary.

I was also knocked back under the new regime and since I wasn’t in the habit of applying, I was rather cross and went to see the head of department and she said (yes in case you hadn’t guessed the old HoD was a man and the new one a woman) “I can see why you’re angry, I would be too, so go on have a good yell at me”. I said “no you tell me why and I’ll decide whether or not to yell”. So she told me that from her perspective, three other people had been deserving of promotion for some time, but not applied and once they’d been dealt with it would be my turn.

I’ll let you figure out whether I yelled or not.

Fairness isn’t an absolute, it depends on both the situation and a person’s perspective. The colleague who left had a very different perspective from the new head of department, those who didn’t apply for promotion and from me – lots of different perspectives.

Today’s readings are all about fairness and perspective. First we have Jonah. Jonah is a prophet and God’s told him that he is going to smite Nineveh and its people unless they mend their ways. Jonah takes great delight in proclaiming this and quite contrary to expectation, they do exactly what they’re told, mend their ways and go around in sackcloth and ashes.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

Jonah isn’t happy that they’ve listened to what he’s said and mended their ways, he’s worried that he’s going to look a right idiot, because he’s forecast destruction and it hasn’t happened. From his perspective, he’d rather God sent judgement than mercy, even if it calls into question his skills as a prophet.

In our Gospel, we meet an employer who takes on workers and offers them a fair wage. Three times he decides that he needs more workers and offers them a fair wage too. The first set start at the beginning of the day and the last ones just an hour before evening. The employer pays them all the same wage, starting with those who’ve only worked an hour. The other groups then expect to get more, more than they agreed when they were hired, since after all, they’ve done more work.

Those who started early aren’t complaining that they didn’t get what they were promised and what they agreed to, but that they didn’t get extra because they worked longer, than those taken on later. They’re not happy for those who finally got work later on, but grumpy that these folk get the same wage.

Was is the fault of those who spent most of the day without work? The short answer is we don’t know, but when I hear politicians say that the unemployed are all lazy scroungers, I do become a little uneasy. There may be some that are, but there’ll be many who aren’t and whose lack of work causes them and their families much pain, anxiety and stress.

One thing that the present pandemic has thrown into sharp relief is the many inequalities and unfairnesses in our society.

The Book of Jonah is wonderful in that it tries to get us to understand how God tries to work with us in spite of our resistance! God even provides a shady bush so that Jonah can have a grandstand view of this wonderful transformation of Nineveh, but he just can’t take pleasure from it. Jonah’s in a massive sulk! It’s easy to blame Jonah for being so petty, none of us do that sort of thing do we, not even my ex-colleague? But it’s about putting aside our own concerns, just long enough to see the things that God’s doing, right in front of our noses.

When God tries to reason with Jonah, comparing his suffering to the much worse suffering of many thousands of others, Jonah simply doesn’t want to hear. He’s locked in the perspective of his own misery and self-pity. God’s ways are not our ways, God’s perspective is not our perspective.

Both the parable in the Gospel and the story of Jonah make the same point: they show us our tendency to see the world through the lens of our own self-centredness. We are generally moved by the fate of starving millions or those caught up in hurricanes or earthquakes, or those killed in horrific accidents or terrorist outrages, but if something relatively trivial happens in our own lives, our suffering can eclipse all of theirs.

Our faith urges us to try to love others at least as deeply as we love ourselves, to feel their pain at least as acutely as we feel our own. And it can be done – some of the most truly inspirational (and coincidently happy) people I’ve ever met were people who could escape from their own perspective and empathise with the situation that others have found themselves in.

It’s worth remembering that whatever new restrictions come in over the next week or two, some people will be affected in perhaps life-changing ways, whilst others will be merely irritated – an important distinction for us all to recognise.

Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 15A (13th September 2020)

Sermon Matthew 18.21-35

A certain ‘High Church’ parish priest had recently welcomed her new curate and he was spending his first week observing her activities in the parish. On Wednesdays it was the practice of the priest to offer confession to her parishioners and, with the permission of those coming to confess their sins, the curate sat in silence listening to the conversation.

“Mother, forgive me, for I have sinned.” said the first penitent. The priest asked, “What did you do my child?” The man confessed, “I have lost my temper and sworn at other drivers”. The priest asked, “How many times?” and the man replied, “Three”. The priest said, “Say two Hail Mary’s, put £10 in the collection box and go and sin no more.”

A few minutes later a woman entered the confessional. She said, “Mother forgive me, for I have sinned.” “What did you do?” asked the priest. “I have lost my temper and sworn at other drivers.”… “How many times?”… “Three times”… The priest said, “Say two Hail Mary’s, put £10 in the collection box and go and sin no more”.

Now just after that the priest was called away to an emergency, but the curate was sure that he had got the hang of it, and said he would be happy to carry on offering confession.

A few minutes later another woman entered the confessional. “Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” In his most solemn voice the young curate responded, “What did you do?” The woman replied, “I have lost my temper and sworn at other drivers.”… “How many times?” asked the curate…. “Once” replied the woman. Thinking carefully about how he had heard the priest respond earlier, the curate said, “Go and do it two more times, we’ve got a special on this week – three for £10!”

My apologies for opening with a rather corny story this week, but it does make you think, doesn’t it? What is confessing sin and forgiveness of those sins all about? Are all sins to be forgiven? Should we keep forgiving sins, even if they are repeated?

“How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Jesus answered Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

For Jesus, forgiveness is not a quantifiable event. It is a quality; a way of being, a way of living, a way of loving, a way of relating, a way of thinking and seeing. It is nothing less than the way of Christ. And if we are to follow Christ then it must become our way as well. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

I suspect that everyone, is in favour of forgiveness, at least in principle.

I love this quote from CS Lewis “Everyone, says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until there is something to forgive”.

What do we do then? What do we do when there is something really serious to forgive?

Do we have to forgive the drunk driver? The ‘misleading’ politician?  The racist? The bully? The abusive parent? The greedy corporation? And this weekend, as we recall the atrocious events 19 years ago – even the terrorists of 9/11?

Today we stand at a difficult, seemingly impossible, place. We stand in between the 19th anniversary of the September 11 tragedy just two days ago and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The memories, the images, the anger, the fear, the pain and losses – with all of these things in our hearts, we hear Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness. Both are real. Both are true.

The deeper truth is that we would still be standing in the same place even if September 11 had never occurred. We stand at that place every day of our lives.

Reflect on the history of the world, the history of humanity and we see the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, racial discrimination, the slave trade, economic oppression, more recent wars and torture in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Reflecting on our own lives, we find broken promises, hurt feelings, betrayals, harsh words, physical and emotional wounds. I am sure that every one of us could tell stories of being hurt or victimized by another. Beneath the pain, the wounds, the losses, and the memories lies the question of forgiveness.

Some, quite understandably, will succumb to the natural reaction to strike back – seeking revenge. Some will run away from life and relationships. Some will let the darkness paralyse them.

We don’t say that out of criticism or judgment of anyone, but out of our own experience. I suspect many of us have done them all. We know how hard forgiveness can be. Most of us struggle with it and often avoid it. But we also know that none of those answers are the way of Christ. All of them leave us stuck in the past, tied to the negative effect of the actions of another, and bereft of the future God wants to give us.

Forgiveness is the only way forward. That does not mean we forget, condone, or approve of what was done. It does not mean we ignore or excuse cruelty or injustice. It means we are released from them. We let go of the thoughts and fantasies of revenge. We look to the future rather than the past. We try to see and love as God sees and loves. Forgiveness is a way in which we align our life with God’s life.

God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness are intertwined with one another. That is more than apparent in today’s parable. The king forgives his slave an extraordinary amount. Ten thousand talents was about 3000 years of work at the ordinary daily wage. It seems there is no debt too large to be forgiven. This man, this debtor, was forgiven. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. That’s how our God is. This slave, however, refused to forgive his fellow slave 100 denarii, about three months of work at the ordinary daily wage. And too often that’s what our world is like. And sometimes it is how each of us can be. In that refusal the forgiven slave loses his own forgiveness.

So how do we begin to forgive?

Well there is no easy road to forgiveness and please don’t let anyone tell you, “Just surrender it to God. Forgive and forget.” Simplistic trite answers only demean those who suffer and pick at the wound.

Forgiving another takes time and work. It is something we must practice every day. It begins with recognition and thanksgiving that we have been forgiven. We are the beneficiaries of the crucified one. Hanging between two thieves he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” That is the cry of infinite forgiveness, a cry we are to echo in our own lives, in our families, our work places, and in our church.

Forgiveness does not originate in us. It begins with God. That’s what the slave who refused to forgive didn’t understand. It was not about him. It’s about God. We do not choose to forgive. We only choose to share the forgiveness we have already received. Then we choose again, and then again, and then yet again. For most of us forgiveness is a process that we live into.

Sometimes, however, we just can’t. The pain is too much, the wound too raw, the memories too real. On those days we choose to want to forgive. Some days we choose to want to want to forgive. But we choose because that’s the choice Christ made.

How many times must we choose to forgive? Tell me this. How many times have you been hurt by the actions or words of another? How many times has anger or fear controlled you? How many times has the thought of revenge filled you? How many times have you shuddered at the sight, the name, or the memory of another? How many times have you replayed in your head the argument with another? That’s how many times you must choose to forgive. With each choosing we move a step closer to forgiveness.

“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Amen

May God Bless you and all those you love this coming week.

Fr Simon

Rewilding the Church

I have been sent a book for review entitled “Rewilding the Church”. In it Steve Aisthorpe sees the Church as having slipped out of kilter with its head – Jesus. He uses the metaphor of the rewilding used to restore a balance between nature and its environment, to suggest the corrective that we need to get back on track. He writes: “The New Testament’s vision of Church is not a herd of people with common beliefs or shared behaviours. Rather, it is a community centred on Jesus [which] draws them together in a shared quest of Christward transformation.

The last six months have had a profound effect on all our lives. Gone are a lot of the certainties that we’ve come to rely on. One of those certainties was that there would be services of worship, according to a regular pattern, in eight locations around Sutherland and Tain.

For much of that time, there’ve been no services and, even though there has been a resumption in Dornoch and Tain and also three church buildings open for Individual Prayer, there are a number of places where we can’t yet meet and people who for many reasons can’t be present even though they would like to be.

We’ve all spent much of more time on our own with God these last few months and the gatherings online, the broadcast services and now the hygienic, distanced and masked services aren’t the same as the familiar experiences we were used to and it can all seem very strange indeed.

Increasingly in our society, there are people who used to go to church who now describe themselves as Christians who do not go to church. What does our experience of the last six months say about such a position? Have we not all been Christians who do not go to church? Overwhelmingly the people that I talk to in our congregations speak about missing the fellowship of worshipping and praying together. They’ve come to realise just how important community is in being followers of Jesus. We seem to be very keen to get back to meeting up for prayer and praise, rather than only engaging with God on our own. Far from being the end of the Church, lockdown seems to have made us all appreciate the time that we spend together as the Body of Christ, the Community of Faith.

The balance between being with God on our own and being together with God is described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, always the one to express things neatly in just a few words: “Let him [or her] who cannot be alone beware of community … Let him [or her] who is not in community beware of being alone.

Steve Aisthorpe concludes that “Rewilding the Church is not about implementing our best ideas with unusual passion; it requires stopping or slowing down, a conscious setting aside of preconceptions and a determination to discern what God is doing and our role in that.” Now is probably an ideal time to do just that.

Blessings
James

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

Almighty and everlasting God,

who revealed the glory of your beloved Son

when he was transfigured on the holy mountain:

mercifully grant us such a vision of his divine majesty,

that, being purified and strengthened by your grace,

we may be transformed into his likeness, from glory to glory;

through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, world without end.  Amen.

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

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.