Clergy Blogs

Periodic contributions from Revd. Giles King-Smith, Vicar of the three coastal parishes. We also continue to show contributions from the late Associate Minister Revd. Linda Walters

Slaving away

I was struck by words of Jesus at the end of today's Gospel reading: "Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives" (Matthew 24:46). Leaving aside the question of whether I'm happy to be described as a slave, there is the thing about working hard being a pre-condition for Jesus' approval "when he arrives".

I'm not a great fan of hard work (as you might have gathered), and in this context I'm reminded of the T-shirt worn by some Christians to send themselves up: "Look busy, Jesus is coming!" Does Jesus really want busy, scurrying followers? Is he impressed by how much I've achieved (or not) "for the Kingdom"? Or is the real work to be done something quite different from our idea of unrelenting activity?

Perhaps the real work is to develop a quality of life, founded on compassion and generosity, which mustn't be shirked but cannot be measured. The previous verse gives us a clue: "Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time?" In other words, am I (are you) working to sustain and strengthen and encourage all those around us? Not ceaseless busy-ness, but care and kindness at the right time. We can do this, indeed we are already doing this, one way or another - and it's not insignificant, it's the work of the Kingdom of God.


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A Steady Faith

I'm not particularly fond of royal pageants, of pomp and ceremony, fly-pasts and flag-waving. And I'm not inclined to put the Royal Family on a pedestal - like the rest of us, they fall off too often. But I am in awe of the Queen's faith. For all the privilege and deference and ease of life that she enjoys, this is someone who has given her life to public service, to the constant practice of making others feel better by her presence. And she has endured setbacks and scandals, turmoil and grief; but always there has been a sense of something strong, a core reliance on God that is unshakeable - and inspiring. Not a showy faith, but a steady faith - that is something to celebrate.

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Why are we here? an Easter sermon

Why are we here? I was going to say “Why are you here?”, but that does sound a tiny bit aggressive, and not at all welcoming. So – why are we here? And I don’t mean the big existential question about our place and purpose in the universe, but the slightly more modest one: why are we here in church today?

Well, as always, the non-reasons are a good starting place. First of all, we’re not here because we’re good people. Obviously, being good is a good idea, and most of us are probably pretty good most of the time – but that’s not why we’re here. If it was why we’re here, then the Church would be the unbearably smug, exclusive club that some people think it is. I wouldn’t want to say that we’re here because we’re particularly bad – I’ll leave that between you and God – maybe more that, now that we’re here, our place on the sliding scale between bad and good doesn’t really matter.

And we’re not here because we have our faith all sewn up, all sorted. The strength of our faith is – like our personal attractiveness or our humility – not something we can really know, certainly not something we can measure. And it’s not something fixed or static; like us, our faith is a work in progress, and that progress can, at different times, be snail-like or be supersonic. Our faith includes, and benefits from, doubts and struggles and times of wondering if we should give it all up and take up needlework or fly-fishing instead. We’re here with our ragged faith, because in God’s sight ragged is glorious.

And, of course, we’re not here because we’re especially rich or gifted or popular or beautiful. We may be some of those things, but too much of that stuff can easily take us to a place where we don’t really need God or Church any more.

So – why are we here? I guess there will be lots of small, personal reasons for coming to Church today, involving family or habit or duty or curiosity; but, underlying all of that, maybe a long way down in us, is a sense that it matters, it absolutely matters, that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

It absolutely matters that, in a world full of overwhelming sadness and pain, in a world where cruelty and injustice seem so powerful, we are able to discover, in this one astonishing event, the truth that good is stronger than evil, life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hate.

During Lent, as the horrific war in Ukraine has gone on, I’ve kept going back to the question we find in the Psalms: why do the wicked prosper? Or, to put it another way, why doesn’t God intervene to send the Russians packing? Is the God we worship, the God of justice and truth, a weakling? Or is he absent, indifferent to our plight?

The answer is in Jesus himself. In him God chooses to share our human vulnerability and our suffering. He places himself, not above us, not far away somewhere, but with us – right here with us. And the power he wields is entirely the power of love – which, of course, in the turmoil of our world, can seem weaker, fatally weaker, than the power of … power. But, for all the headline defeats it suffers, that power of love never, never stops, never gives up, is never ended. We see it in extraordinary acts of bravery and generosity; we see it in everyday, unremarkable acts of kindness and compassion. As Natali, who has just arrived here from Ukraine with her family, said to me yesterday: “There are more good people than bad people”. And those good people, even halfway good people like you and me, wield no weapons of war, and never have the shallow satisfaction of imposing their will on others. Instead, they have no power but love – the same love from which each of us comes, the same love we will in the end return to. Jesus Christ rises from death to tell us, to show us: Do not be afraid when all seems lost, love has won. That’s why we are here.  


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What kind of power?

What kind of power do we want?

The power of miltary might, designed to crush and destroy, often dangerously untethered from moral guidance or restraint?

Or the power of compassion and generosity, intended to care and heal, attuned to the needs of others?

What kind of power do we want to see in our world, what kind of power will we stake our lives on?

These questions can no longer be avoided. 

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Relentless kindness

Today I visited someone from one of our congregations (hello, Lionel!) in a care home in Ilfracombe. It was very good to see him, after a few weeks, and to share in a simple Communion service; but what really struck me was the kindness and patience of the staff. 

What a job they are doing! And what organization and discipline it takes - especially over the past 2 years - to keep so many frail and elderly people safe, and to do it, mostly, with a smile and an encouraging word.

And this is all hidden. Most of us don't see this unceasing, relentless need for basic care to be given. Our old people vanish, as it were, from our communities, to be looked after out of sight, by unsung heroes.

So that's why I'm singing their praises...

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What is truth? (This is my truth tell me yours)

I've been thinking quite a bit about truth - mainly because I found myself talking about it to a group of Year 11 students at Ilfracombe Academy. Obviously, truthfulness, or the lack of it, has been an inescapable theme of the news for a while now. Whatever transpires in the next few weeks or months, trust in the honesty of those who represent us has been undermined/tarnished/destroyed (choose your own verb here). Can we any longer expect our leaders, and other public figures, to be truthful? 

But I was thinking more about truth itself, and how we define it. Famously, when interrogating Jesus, and hearing him say that he had come to bear witness to the truth, Pontius Pilate asked (with a shrug, we imagine), "What is truth?" - so becoming the godfather of the post-modern view that nothing is absolutely true, everything is relative. And yet, clearly some things are demonstrably true and some are demonstrably false: in my study I have a ruler that says "On the Straight and Narrow" (no idea why), but I do not have a shock of jet-black hair. You can come and check both if you want.

But, beyond the checklist of things that are verifiably true or false, there is a great big grey area where truth, for each of us, depends on how we see things. If you were to record a church service, some things could be classified as objectively true: the length of the sermon and the exact words used, the hymns we sang, the number of people in attendance, and so on. But a lot of other stuff wouldn't show up on the recording: the prayers said silently, the train of thought of each person, the emotions aroused by the service. And all of these would also be true - and often more true, more real to us, than the bare facts of what could be seen and heard on the recording.

And the truth of my experience of that service will not be the same as yours. There's an album by Manic Street Preachers with the brilliant title, "This is my truth tell me yours" (notice, no comma, all said in one breath). On one level, this sounds like an acceptance that there is no one truth - enter manic street preachers, furiously insisting that Jesus is the truth. But, reading it more carefully, this little phrase acknowledges that we all see things differently, and encourages us both to speak our truth boldly, and to respectfully hear others as they speak their truth.

Of course, there are lies to be resisted, especially where they lead to injustice. In this sense, we know that truth is what remains when people stop lying, and we recognise it and need to insist on it. But, in our God-given freedom, we are also able to bear witness to the truth as we perceive it, and to allow others to do the same. Provided we are not afraid of it, this multi-faceted truth is cause for celebration; and as we explore it, we may find a closeness to one another that transcends our different versions of the truth.



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Desmond Tutu - Alleluia!

What a man! What a Christian!

There is so much that could be said - and has been said - about Archbishop Desmond Tutu; and a great deal of it focuses, rightly, on his implacable, courageous opposition to apartheid and all its works.

But, thinking about him since his death on Boxing Day, three things come to mind:

1) His passion for a Church - an ideal Church - which would welcome and accept all. No barriers, no one excluded because of race or character or gender or sexual orientation - and this last category made him deeply unpopular with many other Church leaders. But it was no mere liberal fad; rather, the heart of the Gospel for him was the Christ who came to live alongside, and give his life for, the human race, the whole human race. Nothing less will do.

2) His well-documented rootedness in prayer. This is where his strength and his fearlessness came from: a deep, unshakeable sense of communion with God. 

3) Joy - laughter - mischief - fun! Desmond Tutu made being a Christian seem attractive and enjoyable. He seemed to be fully alive, firing on all cylinders, and his engine was an irrepressible joy. He knew we are foolish, laughably so, and we continually make a mess of things; and yet Tutu brought us the echo of the laughter of God, who delights in us and never despairs of us - because his love reigns.

And, most encouraging of all - bearing in mind that Desmond Tutu was no plaster saint, but a flawed human being like you and me - we can all aim to emulate him in these ways. We can all practise accepting, welcoming love of others, whoever they are. We can all find time to be with God and discover a deeper sense of his presence with us. And we can all laugh, and treasure laughter as a sign of God's joy.

The laughter in heaven just got a little louder!

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Be born in us today

The other day, in the car, I tuned in to Radio 4, halfway through what sounded like an interesting discussion with a group of American citizens. I missed the presenter's opening question, but from the answers I heard, I assumed they'd been asked something like, "What would be your Christmas wish for your country?" It was clear that two of them came from opposite ends of the political spectrum and were highly unlikely to agree on anything. After they'd had their say, the presenter asked a third person, "What about you?", and he answered, in a tone that made me laugh, having listened to the other two - "Peace on earth!"     

It didn't sound like he expected peace to break out any time soon in the United States, but his choice of words certainly evoked the spirit of Christmas; in the words of a favourite carol, "Hush the noise, ye men of strife, / and hear the angels sing." Even though our world is far from peaceful, even though we joke about Christmas as a time when families struggle to co-exist peaceably, we recognize in the Christmas story the longing we all have for a time of innocence, of straightforward joy, of peace and goodwill amongst all peoples. We wish it were so, and we realise - when we are able to stop and listen to the story of the birth of Jesus, and to hear afresh the familiar words of the carols we sing - that this is God's purpose also: to bring peace, to see enemies reconciled, to enable all people to know themselves loved and to learn how to love one another.                                 

In Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, God chooses to lay aside the power and majesty of the Creator, and to become small, vulnerable, dependent. As you know, human babies are helpless for longer than pretty much any other creature: they can't do anything for themselves, apart from crying, eating ... and the other thing. (As an aside, we have had two small granddaughters staying for Christmas - four and a half months and seven weeks old, respectively - and I am so glad I made it clear a while ago that my nappy-changing days are over!) But my point is: if we believe that Jesus shows us a God who comes as a baby to share our human life - "little, weak and helpless", without any safeguards or provisos - then we have to re-think everything about how we imagine God, and therefore also everything about the way we use power. In Jesus Christ - and not only in his birth, but in everything else about him - we see a love that gives away all power, a love that has no interest in dominating or coercing. A love whose only aim is the welfare of the other - of all the others, whatever their politics, whatever their colour or age or gender, whatever their faith or lack of it, whatever their bank balance (or lack of it). The power of God is love, and nothing else.                             

And the invitation at Christmas is the same as ever: to allow the love of God to be born in us. In the words of St. Augustine, "What does it avail me, that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me?" There is a deep yearning in our hearts for peace, for harmony, for love to reign; and - while the way of love is never a quick fix, and often a hard slog - if we know we are walking the right path, with a light to cheer us in the darkness, then we will have joy, a joy no one can take from us. Wherever we are, whatever we are facing, we are invited to hear the angels sing, and to receive their promise of peace.




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Ask for what you want

Gospel reading and online sermon for Sunday 24th October - hopefully still of interest...?                                                                                                Mark 10: 46-52    They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. 


Such a simple story, tucked in at the end of the chapter, easy to see as just another of Jesus' healing miracles. But there's so much there. Here are 5 quick thoughts: 

Bartimaeus shouts. He knows that he needs to shout, or he will be passed by. He can't afford to be polite, because his need is urgent. So, while I'm not (literally) blind, or in desperate need at present, there are people, and issues, about which I feel strongly, even passionately. Am I able to shout, to beg, in order to make sure I'm heard? Not that God is deaf; but, as with Jesus' meeting with the Canaanite woman, perhaps he wants to draw out of me passionate, determined, and - if necessary - impolite prayer. No use murmuring "Help!" - you have to shout, and if necessary go on shouting.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Bartimaeus embarrasses those who want to ensure that the Rabbi's visit to Jericho goes smoothly. So they try to shush him up, just as Jesus' disciples had tried to keep the children away from him. But stage-managed processions are not Jesus' thing - in other words, they're not God's thing. When we try to make things go well, for appearances' sake, God sees through it and cuts through it, to get to what really matters: ordinary people who need to be healed, accepted, loved.                                                                                                                                                       

"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he has just asked James and John, drawing out of them their wish for the best seats in heaven. Bartimaeus gets his wish; but Jesus doesn't always give us what we want, as the two disciples discovered. He does, however, want us to answer that question honestly - to tell him what we really want. Not to second-guess the right thing to ask for, but to be straight with him. And then, whether it's actual healing of some kind, or (as with James and John) a lesson to be learned, or (as so often in our lives) the strength to endure suffering or loss, he will give us what we need, what our souls need.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Not for the only time, Jesus tells the person he has just healed, "Your faith has made you well." You dared to ask, to step out in faith, and now you have not only physical healing, but also wholeness, salvation. You are put right in every way, and all you needed to do was ask, long and loud if necessary, without letting others discourage you, and bringing the thing you really want.                                                                                                                                                                   

And finally - often we don't know what the people Jesus met did next. But here, we learn that Bartimaeus "followed him on the way". Remembering that the first Christians were known as followers of "The Way", we imagine for Bartimaeus not just a physical journey, but a faith journey, walking on to whatever God has in store for him. To follow the One who makes us whole - we are in that company, with all the other blind beggars who have been given sight and joy and hope.


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Wanting to be important

Gospel Reading and Online Sermon for 19th September - hopefully still relevant after that date!

Mark 9:30-37: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.                                                                             

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."


It's the second time Jesus has told his disciples what will happen to him, and still they don't understand. Would we do any better? It's easy to look down on these disciples - how dense are they? (In Mark's account, the answer is: very dense.) But in truth, they are being presented with something so strange and unexpected, so counter-intuitive, that in a way it would be wrong if they did get it, if a collective light-bulb went on and they chorused, "Oh yes, Jesus, you're turning the world upside down, you're subverting everything we think we know about power and status and success, to show us all a new way. Oh yes, we're totally on board with all that!"                                                                                                               

Instead, they expect him to triumph, to sweep all before him, and where does being executed fit into that narrative? On the contrary, as far as they're concerned, positions in the Cabinet are up for grabs, and so we have muttered arguments about status, as they walk, hoping Jesus won't notice - but Jesus always notices! And he gets a live teaching aid: a child - no legal status, no protection, basically the possession of its parents, regarded as utterly insignificant. This is who they need to welcome, accept and honour, Jesus says, if they want to welcome, accept and honour him. If they want to be top dog, they have to be the underdog - and not grudgingly, we might add, but with the heart of a willing servant.                                                                                                                     

A little later, after another skirmish about status, Jesus will tell them that he comes to serve, not to be served. On the cross he will enact this service, which entails humiliation and suffering, death and apparent defeat. He will give up his life, out of love for us all. And so, every time I see, or hear of, someone pursuing power, pushing others out of the way or trampling them under foot to get it - and sometimes it's me doing it - I remember Jesus, giving up everything to teach us how to love one another. And every time I see, or hear of, someone putting others first, showing kindness and generosity in even the smallest way, often unnoticed but nonetheless real - and sometimes it's me doing it - I remember that this self-giving love is what will last, that Jesus is risen. Love wins, and we will win if we learn to live in love, leaving behind our self-seeking because we have glimpsed, we are caught up in, something so much greater, so much more beautiful and true...


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How to be fearless

Well, of course I can't tell you how to be fearless. But I can tell you that fearlessness looks a lot like Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, the two teenagers who battled it out in the US Open Final on Saturday. I'm sure they were nervous beforehand, but once it started, what we saw was a simple commitment to play their best - a focus on the job in hand which left no room, seemingly, for anxious thoughts or self-doubt. Perhaps the fact that no one expected them to be there helped them be fearless; as Emma Raducanu said, "I don't feel any pressure. I'm still only 18 and I'm just having a free swing at anything that comes my way."

I want that - no pressure, just have a free swing! Somehow it fits with Jesus telling his followers not to worry, just to deal with things as they come. That sense of freedom, which I only have from time to time - that is how it is in the Kingdom. I won't win the US Open, but I can have a free swing at life...

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Be kind

Mark 6: 30-34

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told them all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourself and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things. 

I'm not by any means a devotee of "Thought for the Day", but quite often I just happen to turn on Radio 4, and there it is. And sometimes it's an absolute gem. A couple of weeks ago, I dropped in halfway through a reflection by Akhandadhi Das, a Hindu theologian. He was exploring the difficulties that may come from lifting Covid restrictions, as some want to dive headfirst into freedom (at last!), while others remain anxious about too close contact, and others still are continuing to wear face coverings in certain situations, as a mark of consideration for those around them. He raised the worrying prospect that to mask or not to mask might become a source of confusion and division; and then, right at the end of his three minutes, he landed on the theme that has run like a thread through the past year and a bit: kindness. And what he said stuck with me, like an arrow that hits the mark.

He said: "If you have to choose between being right and being kind, be kind."

You and I might want to respond by saying something like - "Following Jesus Christ gives us the way to be right and be kind." But I think any honest, humble examination of the story of the Church, while rejoicing in the immense range and quality of kindness in that story, would have to admit that, when push comes to shove, Christians have often insisted they are right, at the expense of kindness. From the huge aggressions and injustices which scar our history, to the astonishing damage that can be caused by just one person who is prepared to trample many others under foot to get their way, because they're convinced they are right, we see what happens when kindness is sidelined. And further, the global climate crisis we are facing is, from one perspective, the result of our collective failure to be kind to the creation of which we are part.

And of course, what the pandemic has shown us is that nothing trumps compassion, nothing should take precedence over a generous spirit, nothing beats simple, unspectacular, consistent kindness.

So here we are in Chapter 6 of Mark's Gospel, with Jesus and his disciples, as their mission to plant the Kingdom gathers momentum, and they are pursued by crowds of people who are desperate for healing and hope. And Jesus' first thought is to ensure that his friends have a chance to breathe and to be refreshed. "Come away", he says, "to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." Often in ministry, lay or ordained, we make Jesus into a hard taskmaster, and forget that he said, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Crosses there will be to carry, but we are not called to Christian masochism. Jesus' kindness to his weary disciples is a challenge to us - to learn how to be kind to ourselves.

His second thought is for the people - "because they were like sheep without a shepherd". They draw out of him, as his first response (which is God's first response to all of us in our need): compassion, kindness. He will feed them in body, mind and spirit, and then send them home. He will go up the mountain, alone, to pray, and then astonish his friends by coming to them over the lake and calming the wind so that they can reach the other side. And on the other side there will be more people in need, more healing, more compassion. The first thing Jesus offers people is kindness. We might want to offer people "The Gospel" as a neat package; but Jesus starts by expressing, without reservation, the kindness of God.

Let me press the point. This kindness is not an add-on, an afterthought - and it's not conditional, not an "I might be kind to you" sort of thing. This kindness is the unveiling of the motherly, fatherly heart of God towards his creatures. And while we may want to insist on repentance, on the necessity of turning back to God if we are to be able to receive his love, what we see in every encounter of Jesus - with great crowds, with groups of followers, and with random individuals - is in the first place: genuine interest, a deep understanding, and a warm, heartfelt acceptance. And this kindly attention to people in all their frailty and need is what changes lives, drives away fear, instils courage and hope.

The tough bit is this: insofar as you and I kid ourselves that we're self-sufficient, and fetishize our own idea of health and strength and wisdom, we will not be in a place to receive this kindness. This is where all the tickers of right-religion boxes fall foul of Jesus. This is why the Pharisee leaves the temple as far from God as ever, while the tax-collector discovers a mercy beyond his imagining. And here, in this Gospel story, Jesus offers God's kindness to his disciples and to the crowds that follow him, because they are "weary, worn and sad". Life is tough for them, and there can be no pretence of being in control, of being on top of things. They are in a place of dependency. And so are we: if we can only see it, every breath we take is a miracle, a fragment of grace that doesn't happen because of our own strength or wisdom.

God waits for us to let him be kind to us. And then he waits - as long as it takes - for us to learn to choose being kind ahead of being right.


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Glory all around

This post consists of the Gospel Reading and address for the online service on Sunday February 14th:

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

It's easy, when we read such stories as this, to think of our lives as being far removed from these extraordinary events. It's easy to gasp in awe at Jesus' Transfiguration, and say - well, nothing like that has ever happened to me. Easy - but wrong. For, like every Bible story (and every character we meet in the Bible), this one invites us to make the connection with our lives and our world. That's the unique, sustained power of the Bible: we are presented, over and over again, with the intersection, the meeting place, between God and human beings. And then we are asked to move beyond our reactions as spectators - admiration, scorn, fear, joy, wonder, laughter, surprise - to apply what we have viewed to ourselves, and so to discover what God is saying to us, right here, right now.

Of course, it's hardly likely that the extraordinary experience of those three disciples with Jesus on the high mountain will be replicated in your lives or mine - though, of course, nothing is impossible for God! But what we will see, if we have eyes to see, if we are looking, is a succession of what we might call glimpses of glory: moments (and usually just moments) when something of God's glory and beauty and light is revealed to us, and we realise, just as Peter, James and John did - this is real, there is something wonderful, astonishing and lovely, just beyond or behind the everyday facade of our lives. It could be a poem, or a landscape, or a piece of music, or a storm, or a birth - or sometimes a death. Yesterday, walking the dog through the dunes, it was a glance up at the slope, covered with vegetation, between the path I was on and Marine Drive. I saw the incredible range, even in winter, of the colours, textures and shapes, and for a moment I was transfixed, and filled with thankfulness for God's presence, somehow luminous in this tiny patch of nature. And then it was on with the dog walk.

And that's the other thing we learn from the Transfiguration, and specifically from Peter's reaction. He wants to make it permanent, this glory; he wants to make dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah; he wants to find a place where God can stay. But it can't be so: he and the others must come down off the mountain and re-engage with ordinary life in all its mess and muddle. It's the same for us: we can't hang on to these flashes of glory, we have to move on. But the good news is that we move on in some way fortified by what we have experienced. For an instant, we have understood that God is real and present and with us, just as the three disciples did when Jesus' glory was unveiled to them. We have the reassurance that, whatever life's troubles and pains, glory awaits, glory is behind everything, and all shall be well.

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Love for truth and justice

I've just recorded a video message for the year 10 pupils at Ilfracombe Academy. I'm their year Chaplain - we have a system of chaplains for each year group, to take assemblies, visit classes, be a resource for RE lessons, and so on. At the moment, we can't go into school, so all that remains is an online assembly. To be honest, I'm not sure which is more daunting: standing in front of 120 teenagers, wondering how they are going to react, or spouting into a laptop camera, with no idea how they will be reacting when they see the video.

Anyway, aside from my little neuroses ... the theme I was asked to speak on was "Love". In the cycle of assemblies, this topic is always scheduled for the week nearest to Valentine's Day. But, of course, we all know that love is more than hearts pierced by Cupid's arrows - or heart-stopping moments of sending and opening anonymous cards. So I started talking about wider ideas of love: in particular, of what it might mean to love truth, to love the poor, to love justice. And about the opposition this kind of love can provoke, and the cost to those who insist on loving in this way.

For Christians, Jesus shows what this kind of love looks like, and what it stirs up in hearts gripped by fear. Truly inclusive love, that welcomes in the stranger, the outcast, the sinner, is deeply threatening to those whose security depends on setting limits to the scope of love. Jesus' execution is an act of fear. The powers that be, religious and political, cannot tolerate the consequences of the big, the boundless love he represents. 

Plus ca change ... In our day, that bigger love is embodied by many courageous seekers of truth and justice. Not all of them, perhaps not many of them, are Christians; but I believe they are planting the Kingdom of God. Alexei Navalny returns to Russia, as soon as he has recovered from the poisoning that carries the Kremlin's fingerprints; he is arrested within minutes of setting foot on Russian soil, and now faces a lengthy jail sentence. This defiant courage, which I find almost incomprehensible, must have its roots in a passionate love of truth and justice.

Less dramatically but with equal persistence, Marcus Rashford will not give up on his campaign to eradicate child poverty. In him, too, there is the sense of a non-negotiable commitment to truth and justice, a love for what is right. Like Navalny, he can't stop - it matters too much, it is rooted in his experience, so to deny it would be to deny himself.

I am happy that in people like these two, and in many more whose names I will never know, the God of truth and justice, the God of love, is planting seeds of his Kingdom. It doesn't matter whether or not they invoke Jesus Christ; they are following in his steps by showing this bigger love, this hunger for truth and justice. Acknowledging this, I ask myself: how much do I love in this way? Can I move beyond admiration for others to acting, giving, insisting on what is right and good and true? 

And can I believe - holding before me the risen Christ - that love wins?

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What kind of freedom?

One of the key arguments used by those who have opposed the present lockdown - and by those who have accepted it, but who foolishly suppose that the roll-out of a vaccine should mean an immediate release from Covid restrictions - is that curbs on our freedom are intolerable and should be resisted.

But there are many different ways of understanding "freedom", and some of them are no more than a smart-looking disguise for selfishness. If freedom means nothing more than being allowed to do whatever I want, then the sum total of all our individual freedoms will be a state of anarchy in which the weak go to the wall.

If, though, I can value freedom from illness, freedom from hunger, freedom from danger - freedom to live, in other words - then perhaps I'm coming closer to a freedom which can be pursued for the benefit of others rather than simply for my own satisfaction.

In God's society (which we call the Kingdom) every freedom is judged by how it measures up to love. 

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Learning to receive - a Christmas sermon

"To all who received him ... he gave power to become children of God" (John 1:12)

Of course, not everyone has received him, not everyone has accepted the gift of God himself, coming to us at Christmas.

And even if we count ourselves as committed Christians, or if we've been faithful members of the church for most of our lives, it may be that we're not very good at receiving. After all, the wisdom is that we're meant to give, and to do so without counting the cost, without thinking about what we might get back. When giving, the left hand shouldn't know what the right hand is doing. St. Paul quotes a supposed saying of Jesus (not found in the Gospels): "It is more blessed to give than to receive." End of story, game over, you might think.

But I think there's a catch here. I think you can't really give unless you've also received. If you're so focused on giving - because it's the right thing to do - that you find it hard to receive, you will run out of gas, sooner or later. And more importantly, you won't be entering into the two-way relationship of generous love which God invites us to have with him and with each other.

A friend who is a priest found herself in Costa in Barnstaple, after a particularly frustrating shopping expedition, having a good old moan about everything to the barista as she gave him her order for coffee. When she had finished, he looked straight at her and said, simply, "This one's on me." What I didn't ask her is whether or not she had her dog collar on - but either way, what was happening for her was that the barista was inviting her to receive a gift, and her priestly self found it surprisingly hard to accept his offer (though she did), because somewhere in her was the insistent habitual thought that she should be the giver.

Receiving, after all, can make you feel vulnerable, whereas giving can reinforce your self-esteem; it feels worthwhile and virtuous. At worst, giving can be a means of control. But to receive, you need empty hands, you need to let someone else do something for you. You have to let someone else give you a little bit - just a sliver, just a taste - of new life. It doesn't have to be a big deal, it can just be a matter of noticing and accepting a tiny act of kindness or generosity. And then - being thankful. Without thankfulness we're dead, we're finished, especially in grim times like these. Winter closes in, and we need to be thankful for the sparks of light that we're given.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for his opposition to Hitler, wrote: "How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from him the little things?" Of course, at Christmas we are given a huge thing - God Himself - but in our everyday lives God's cosmic generosity plays out as an endless series of smaller gifts, too many and too frequent to be counted, easily missed by the heart that doesn't know how to receive. Or the heart that has known too many setbacks and disappointments, too much grief or guilt, so that the idea of simply being given something, with no strings attached, is absurd, and it's always safer to assume you'll get nothing,

So I suppose I'm asking: in the light of Christmas and the great and lasting gift it reminds us of - God's loving solidarity with us in our human frailty; in this light which even the darkness of winter cannot put out, how can we set ourselves to be willing receivers of God's goodness and love? How can we notice the small kindnesses, the glimmers of hope, the moments of beauty and peace, which come our way, and open ourselves to accept them gladly?

By watching, by listening, by refusing to despair, by keeping going, by valuing the small things in life, by believing - and discovering - that our God is not far away, safely ensconced in his heaven, but is with us, with every one of us, waiting for us to notice and respond to his generous, self-giving love. By realising how much every single person matters in the sight of God; and how all our interactions, our care for one another, our enjoyment of one another, are not add-ons or irrelevancies in the bigger picture of life - they are the reality of God's love entrusted to us.

Nothing has been more heart-warming this year than the gratitude of those who have come through the Covid ordeal because of the skill and commitment of the medical staff who have cared for them. They know that in their weakness they have received a great gift. We too, whatever our state of health, are weak and vulnerable; and we too are offered a great gift - Jesus Christ, God himself, to be with us forever. Let us learn how to receive all that we are given by him, with heartfelt thanks and with lasting joy.

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Who are you?

Online Sermon for Sunday December 13th (3rd in Advent):

Gospel Reading: John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Therewas a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said,

"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord"", as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.


"What do you say about yourself?" they ask John the Baptist. We imagine that he has infuriated them, these delegates from Jerusalem - every time they suggest an identity for him, he says, "No, that's not it." So they demand some kind of answer; they need him to define his role so that the bigwigs back in HQ can have some idea what on earth is going on out there at the river Jordan. John gives them an answer, but it comes out of a different frame of reference from the one they are working with. They want to find a title for him, they want to place him in a hierarchy of religious importance. Instead, he just tells them what his job is - to prepare for the One who is to come. John isn't interested in his own status; his focus is firmly on the God-given task he is to fulfil.

I don't know about you, but I've spent a lot of time and energy in my life trying to work out who I am. Trying to get my story straight about myself, if you like; trying to nail down my identity, so that at least something can be clear and certain in the midst of life's confusion. And I wonder sometimes how fruitful all that effort has been. Often the best I can do is, like John, to look at the options and say, with a shake of the head, "No, that's not me." Maybe you are less prone to navel-gazing than me. But most of us care about, or worry about, our position, our status, and that would be part of our answer to the question, "What do you say about yourself?" Most of us would want to give an answer that says something about our self-understanding and our standing in the world.

But John, I think, challenges us to answer in a different way. This charismatic, uncompromising figure turns out to be defiantly uninterested in his own identity and status as ends in themselves. He says, in effect - don't mind about me, I'm just a signpost pointing to the one who really matters. If you want to work out exactly who I am and how important I am, you're barking up the wrong tree. The only significant thing about me is what I am meant to do - my function, my calling.

So perhaps you and I need to spend less time worrying about who we are and where we stand in relation to others, and more time focusing on what God is calling us to do - saying, in effect: never mind about me, what matters is my willingness to point to Jesus, to help others find the goodness and joy of God in the midst of life's troubles. Just as John steps back to let Jesus take centre stage, so my little noisy ego needs to make way for the wonder of God. It's another lesson in humility, in other words (will they ever stop?). And another chance to reflect on the example we are given by God's prophets: full-throttle boldness and strength of purpose, allied with a deep-down refusal to play the me-first game. Like John the Baptist, we are called to refuse the lure of preoccupation with ourselves, and instead make more room for God.



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Everybody's tired now

Even if we're not all physically tired (unlike those who work in hospitals and care homes), there's no doubt that the last few months have taken a heavy toll of people's mental and emotional resources. Navigating our way through the various ever-changing restrictions, being separated from family and friends, adapting to new ways of doing our work, worrying about the future ... it all adds up. People are tired. Certainly, if I ask my clergy colleagues what their overriding feeling is at present, the most common answer is that they are tired.

And so self-care, far from being the preserve of pampered narcissists, turns out to be a necessity, a lifeline. Jesus, after all, reminded us of the commandment to "love your neighbour as yourself", suggesting that if we can't look after ourselves we're not likely to be much use to anyone else. But how can we do this?

A couple of suggestions. First, slow down and take time out from life's busyness. For some of us, this will mean walking amidst the spare beauty of winter. For some, ten minutes gazing out of the window at a tree, a bird, the sky. For some, the silence and stillness of sitting, expecting nothing of ourselves, and discovering that God is with us.

And second, could it be that quite a bit of the stress we feel is because we try to do too much? Could we learn to be content with just a few small accomplishments, rather than constantly worrying that we're not doing enough? I found these words of Richard Rohr helpful - they're a prayer, really: "Help us to know what is ours to do." That will be enough - and then, rest.


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The art of not interrupting

We're all pretty good at interrupting. Some have it down to a fine art - though maybe "fine" isn't quite the word for the kind of display of full force interrupting we saw from President Trump in the first debate with Joe Biden last month. "Steamrollering" is more like it. 

And when Biden finally lost patience and shouted "Will you shut up, man?", apart from a millions-strong collective roar of approval ("He just said what I've been longing to say for so long..."), perhaps there was a moment of recognition, for some of us, that we have wanted to say this not only to loud-mouthed politicians, but to so many other, lower-level interrupters whom we have resentfully tolerated in our lives. And further, that there might just be a few people who have longed to tell us to shut up...

Sometimes, in meetings, it's a good thing - especially when the subject for discussion is an emotive one - to insist that, at least first time around, everyone present has a chance to speak uninterrupted. Apart from anything else, doing this reminds us how unusual it is for this to happen, how normal it is for us to interrupt. And then, we realise the power, the freedom, of not being interrupted - and how different it feels to listen when we are not waiting impatiently to say our bit.

To interrupt is to say, in effect: I'm not as interested in your words as I am in mine, I'm not as interested in you as I am in me. While there might be good reason for me to take this attitude (at least in my own mind), and while it might simply be true (and to be admitted in rueful honesty) that I find myself more interesting than others, when I interrupt I'm missing out, big time. I'm missing the full delight of the unexpected person opposite me, and the unexpected things they say. I'm missing the chance to connect more fully with our common humanity, and to relish more fully our differences. I'm missing the possibility that God, the living God, might be presenting himself to me in the words of that other, ordinary, easily interruptable person. And, in the rush to assert myself, I'm missing the soul-deepening invitation to wait - to wait and see what happens, to let life and conversation open themselves out, to let God create.

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Joy for ever - a sermon for All Saints and All Souls

For his fifth birthday, my grandson Otto was given a small keyboard. No doubt in time he will learn to play some tunes on it, but for the moment he simply presses a button, and the keyboard strikes up with a well-known tune. I'm not sure how much joy these endlessly repeated melodies will bring his parents (mind you, they gave it to him!), but I was interested to hear that his favourite number is a version of the main theme from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - the Ode to Joy, as it's known. And I found myself remembering a Prom performance of the Ninth which I saw and heard a couple of years ago at the Albert Hall - a wonderful experience. Beethoven's last Symphony, supposedly composed when he was completely deaf (though recent research has cast doubt on the extent of his impairment), expresses an astonishingly powerful, defiant joy - a great shout of "Yes!" in the face of life's hardships and sorrows. Less overtly religious than, say, Handel's "Messiah", the last movement stands alongside the Hallelujah Chorus as an affirmation, an assertion, of that life which cannot be quenched, even by death itself. The resurrection, in other words.

On November 1st we remember all the saints who didn't make the headlines, and who don't have their own special day of remembrance. And All Saints slides quite easily into All Souls on November 2nd, when we call to mind those countless souls, including many we have known and loved, who live in the glorious light of God's love, now and for ever. So how should we remember them? In some cases, inevitably, with a lingering sadness at the loss we have suffered and the apparent finality of our parting from them; but also - as we think of all the saints, and of all those souls who have shown us something of God's love and beauty - with gratitude. And with joy. These lives have expressed something of the joy of the Creator, and the joy of Jesus Christ risen from death. Unless we sugarcoat our memories, it's not perfection we see in them, but some sense, not always obvious but always there within, of a person who is loved and who is able to love. Someone who carries the unmistakeable imprint of the love of God. And this inspires joy, because, like Beethoven, we see that, truly, nothing can separate us from the love of God - this unstoppable, death-defying, timeless power in which we live and move and have our being, now and always.

I used to feel sorry for the dead. I thought they had lost something which I, living, still had. But little by little, as I've pondered the mystery of life after death, it has dawned on me that the risen life, the life of heaven, is anything but a pitiable state. If, as I believe, the beauties of this life, from crashing waves to silent communion, from wide-eyed childhood to lives of humble service, are all hints of the glory to come, then that glory in its fullness must bring a delight and joy beyond measure. No need to pity the dead - better, perhaps, to imagine them pitying us in our struggles. Rather, this is a time to rejoice in the wonder that awaits us, which they now know in full.

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