Epiphany 3 Year C – 27th January 2019
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court - Rector)
I read of a comment overhead in the high street of an English county town not long ago, and it went something like this. Talking to a Church-going friend of hers, one lady was heard unburdening herself of her various woes. Her friend helpfully suggested that she might go to see the Vicar about it. ‘Oh no’, she replied, ‘I couldn’t do that. I’m not at all religious.’ ‘Don’t worry’, came the reply: ‘our Vicar isn’t at all religious either.’ Perhaps that’s one of the nicest things anybody could say about their minister, as it seems to me that one of the reasons why the Gospel doesn’t command the respect it should in our nation, is that we are all suffering from too much religion, and not enough faith; and some of us from too much Church (or mosque, or synagogue), and not enough God. And that may also be one of the reasons why the Christian Church is so divided, why the Body of Christ – which Paul talks about in his Letter to the Corinthians - is so fractured and torn. I know at first hand the pain caused when the first priests left the Church of England over the ordination of women after the vote in 1992. But I also well remember reading an interesting and witty comment from a Roman Catholic journalist at the time. ‘Never mind’, he said, ‘at the next Vatican Council all our bishops will be bringing their wives with them – and at the Vatican Council after that they’ll all be bringing their husbands.’
Some people think that religion isn’t something you should joke about like that. Some people think it’s alright. But I believe if our faith is strong enough it can withstand having its leg pulled - just as we laugh sometimes at other institutions such as politics and politicians – and there’s no shortage of material there at the moment! Only God is ultimately to be taken with great seriousness, and the trouble is that we sometimes have a tendency to treat other things with the seriousness that’s really due only to God. That’s the great modern idolatry – we take the things we think hold the key to our personal happiness, and set them on pedestals, where they wait to be bowed down to. That’s when our ideas both about God and about religion tend to go badly wrong. So to keep itself from blasphemy, religion - like religious people - needs to be able to laugh at itself. I like the cartoon that once appeared in Private Eye, with a trendy minister in the pulpit saying ‘Of course, God isn’t an old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud in the sky.’ And up above him was an old-man-with-a-long-white-beard-sitting-on-a-cloud kind of God looking down and saying ‘How does he know?’
Laughter dissolves barriers and spells acceptance, and perhaps it’s only when we cease to take ourselves so seriously and share with other people the joys of our faith that we begin to hear for the first time echoes of the laughter that I suspect goes on all the time in heaven, and then I understand what Julian of Norwich meant when she wrote over six hundred years ago that the Company of Heaven is itself ‘right merry’. And it is in this kind of laughter, holy laughter, that we discover also the acceptance of God. Time and again in his Thoughts for Today on Radio 4, Rabbi Lionel Blue was able to dare some ideas quite close to the bone - because I think he understood both the laughter of heaven and the cry of the anguished human heart – and how the first is the best healer of the second. He used to tell of stories that sustained his fellow Jews in the ghettoes, in the concentration camps and, yes, even on the way to the gas chambers; and time and again, you’d find you were crying tears of laughter with him, which helped wipe away some of the tears of pain. He helped us understand that it is sometimes in those mingled tears of laughter and of pain that we suddenly and unexpectedly discover we have been healed.
And talking of healing, we know so much more now about holistic approaches to what ails us in the body than we did in ancient times. So it’s interesting to see the imagery Paul uses for the body of believers in his Letter to the Corinthian Christians. He reminds us of our inter-dependence as followers of Christ, just as the human body is inter-dependent on its various organs and limbs. And in and through this imagery he also speaks about balance. The parts that make up the body can only function to their fullest capacity when they coordinate rather than dominate. Paul goes on to extend the metaphor by saying that the eye cannot say to the ear, nor the ear to the eye “I have no need of you”. And just so, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the various expressions of Christianity today need one another more than ever.
The times in inter-Church relationships when that inter-dependency has struggled most to witness to Jesus’s prayer that we may all be one, has been when one denomination has said of – or to – the others: “We have the whole truth – we are the one true Church”. I talked a moment ago about laughter in heaven, but I can’t help thinking that it’s at times like that when God must weep the biggest of His tears. Unity is not at all the same thing as uniformity – that is, doing things the same way or believing articles of faith in the same way. It was just this that provoked Jesus to say some of the things He did say to – and about – the religious people of His time – and they were far from complimentary!
Jesus came to free us from religiosity (if that’s a proper word), and to show us that there is another way. And that way demonstrates very clearly that God always has the last word – not us. He will always have the final word because He is God. And we believe that the words that Jesus spoke were God’s words of liberation from what had gone before – but even many of the people who heard Him speak couldn’t accept what He had to say. Perhaps that’s why He said at one point: “I have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now”. In this week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the watchwords are, ‘open ears and open hearts’, so that we – the Church, the body of Christ – may hear those other things the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us, and find the courage to act upon them, so that we witness to what we believe in common, and not to the walls we love to build, which only serve to separate and divide us. Amen.
Epiphany 2 – 20th January 2019
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court - Rector)
“Do whatever He tells you.”
I expect if most clergy were asked to recount the embarrassing things that have happened to them in Church or whilst going about their other work, the stories would cover several pages – perhaps a book even! Indeed, when I come to write my own memoir, it will be full of them. I even have a title for the book – ‘A Little Father Up North’! My own personal faux-pas are legion – such as asking people before a service once at Kinlochbervie to please check that their mobile phones were switched off at the beginning of the service, and then halfway through the intercessions – just at the quietest moment - a phone was heard to ring – it was mine! Have you any idea how hard it is to get at a mobile phone, tucked safely away in one’s trouser pocket, whilst wearing vestments? I read the other day about a minister who had to take a funeral out of his area, in a crematorium that was unfamiliar to him. He had one of those lovely modern phones with satellite navigation on it and he used this to guide him to this unfamiliar location. Unfortunately, he hadn’t allowed time for traffic which was very busy that day. He wasn’t late, thank goodness, but he was only just in time. He jumped out of the car grabbing his phone and his robes. He got himself changed and composed himself, went to greet the family of the deceased, and as he walked into the chapel in front of the coffin at the start of the service and was about to utter the words, “I am the resurrection and the Life, says the Lord” the satellite navigation on the phone in his pocket, which he hadn’t switched off, announced to all and sundry in a loud clear voice, “You have reached your final destination!”
You would want the ground just to swallow you wouldn’t you? Modern technology – it can be a tremendous help, but it also seems tailor-made to embarrass us. It’s bad enough when we embarrass ourselves in front of one or two people, as I’m sure we all have from time to time, but public embarrassment and humiliation in front of a crowd can be really hard to deal with. And so it was for the parents of the bride and groom at that wedding in Cana. No mobile phones, of course, but something potentially more embarrassing occurs. The wine at the reception runs out. Think back to your own wedding day, and how it would have made you feel if halfway through the wedding breakfast the bar ran dry. Now in a 1st century Middle Eastern context, with its emphasis and obligations about hospitality, the embarrassment and humiliation would have been profound, and would have haunted the family in their small community quite possibly for the rest of their lives. But Jesus’ Mother notices before anyone else and She looks at Jesus and, despite His protestations, tells the stewards, “Do whatever He tells you.”
I would hazard a guess that there is not one person here who has not experienced – figuratively at least - the wine running out in their lives. Perhaps it’s come in the form of embarrassment of one sort or another, humiliation, vulnerability, anxiety, fear, illness, depression, losing control. When the wine runs out there is so much we have to cope with. But what happens next? Where do we go with all these feelings that overwhelm us? Where do we go with our doubts, our hurts, our losses, our broken relationships, our vulnerability, our addictions, our humiliation? What do we do?
As so often in trying to live the Christian life, looking to Mary is a good place to start. “Do whatever He tells you.” You want the wine to flow again, better wine, the very best in fact? And what does Jesus tell us? How does He turn our water into wine today? There is a clue in our reading from 1st Corinthians this morning. In this passage of his letter St Paul tells us that, “there are many varieties of gift, 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. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This statement is developed later in this chapter, which will be read next Sunday, which speaks of us all being part of the body of Christ - of equal significance and importance in God’s eyes, and all of us called to play our part in keeping the body, the Church, alive and healthy.
We, the Church, the body of Christ, we need to be the kind of people who, like Mary the Mother of our Lord, notices. It’s She who notices when the wine has run out. There are times when we are so caught up in our own internal worlds that we fail to notice; and sadly, there are times when the Church doesn’t act like the body of Christ at all. For instance, when we don’t come together and use the gifts we have each been given by God for the common good. There are times when we don’t always notice anything outside our own sphere of family and friends and personal dilemmas. We come to Church, we take part in the liturgy, we hear the sermon, we receive Holy Communion, and we go home. But do we really notice one another?
When we do notice others and begin to see beyond our own lives into the lives of others, then we can’t fail to care for one another, love one another, and turn water into wine for each other. It is not a lack of compassion that stops good people from being kind and caring and gentle and forgiving; it is a simple lack of noticing and seeing beyond ourselves. “Do whatever He tells you” Mary says, and what does Jesus tell us to do above everything else? Love God and love one another. And what does this mean? It means we start to notice each other for a start just as God notices us.
My teachers at school used to regularly say two words to me that have stuck with me throughout my life. Two words that I used to found irritating as a boy but which are in fact wonderful and important words. “Pay attention”. It is only when we pay attention and notice one another that kindness, compassion, forgiveness and love begin to flow and we become the body of Christ that offers new wine to each other and to the world beyond these walls, in His name. This is a life-time’s work and duty. We won’t always get it right every time; but the clue and demand of the Gospel is to never stop trying –
even if it all seemed to go wrong last time, never give up. Mary’s instruction to the best man at the wedding in Cana to “Do whatever He tells you” can only be possible if we’re listening – paying attention – and the way we do that is to listen carefully when we say our prayers, and to make our regular daily prayer-time a top priority. It surely cannot be mere chance that God gave us two ears, but only one mouth! Amen.
END “Do whatever He tells you.”
I expect if
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord – 13th January 2019
(preached by the Rev’d David Higgon – Associate Priest)
Last week I went back to the village I was born and grew up in, to attend the funeral of an old friend Judith Szweduik.
The service was in a church that I was last in some 45 years ago when was I was best man at Judith’s weddings. So there I was in my dog collar and when I was invited by the vicar to come forward to read the lesson I was introduced as the Reverend David Higgon.
After the service people tentatively spoke to me. Some had a vague idea that they knew me from the past but couldn’t put a finger on from where. Then at last the penny dropped.
Where I come from no one knew me as David yet alone as Reverend David – the only people who called me David were my family.
I was known as Dai and to people that I was in school with I was Dai Llygoden.
But it wasn’t the name that caused confusion, it was a the dog collar, wasn’t Dai llygoden a bit of a rebel, a trouble maker, a well know atheist.
The dog collar is a symbol of sobriety and morally uprightness that they didn’t associate the person they knew as Dai Llygoden.
Names and symbol are important to our identity both, important to us as individuals and as members of a community. You can change your name but its very difficult to change a nick name because that is given to us by others and reflected how people see our nature and our character or where we come from.
It is by our names, where they be Christian names or nick names, that we are known for good or ill. I believe God knows us and calls us by name as he calls Jesus at his baptism. As Jesus is anointed by the spirit, a voice calls him ‘my son – the beloved’,.
It is interesting that some people refer to a Baptism as a Christening – there is no real difference, but in a christening, an infant is given their name..
One of the key features of a baptism or christening is to welcome the baptised into the family of God.
All present whether they are parents, god parents or members of the congregation, commit themselves to supporting and upholding the baptised on their life’s journey, as part of God‘s family.
It is comforting to be recognised and to be identified by name in your community. It is comforting if we are known and recognised for who we are.
Being recognised as Dai Llygoden rather than Father David didn’t matter. What mattered for me was that I was welcomed back into a community that I had lost touch with and I found this to be very comforting, I was with my own again.
Names can be far from comforting if they are used to exclude us from community. They can be used to undermine and exclude an individual because of some physical defect or because of where they are from, or to depersonalise them to treat them not as an individual and a human being but as an alien, as an outsider, as a deterrent to stop others trying to enter the country.
I need to constantly remind myself, especially when confronted by the media declaring that there is an illegal immigrant crisis that I have a commitment not only to the baptised – but a commitment to welcome to all - whatever their country of origin whatever their faith and to welcome them as human beings into our community..
In baptism we are called into the mystical body of Christ; we are called by God and affirmed in our own identity as children of God
And we are called to affirm others - to be a positive affirmation of each person’s worth in the sight of God.
At times we all need the reassurance that we are loved - especially the vulnerable and the outsider. .
I spent most of my time as a prison chaplain trying to do just that. To encourage those excluded from society because of their crimes that they were loved and cared for by God through his Son Jesus Christ.
That they were not just a prison number , that they are named and known by God and that they are loved by God.
We can have a good name in a community ir a bad and name. You know the saying - Give a dog a bad name and hang them.I think this particularly appropriate for people who wear dog collars
Not many would give any prisoner a good name but it is worth remembering that to have a good name is not really about what people call us . It is about the attributes that we display to others. As Jesus told us, we will be known by the fruit we bear - whether it is bad fruit or good fruit and Paul tells us that the fruits of the spirit are love , Joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.
This is what should distinguish us as people of faith whether or not we wear a dog collar.
This is what it means for me to have a good name - irrespective of what other people call us , It doesn’t really matter to me if I am known as Father David or Dai Llygoden. What matters to is that I am known by name to God and that I attempt (and often fail) to live my life in relationship with others as a reflection of the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit.
The Epiphany – 06.01.2019
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court, Rector)
Text: For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’
To relieve the boredom of trips on my exercise-bike at home, I usually listen to radio programs I have downloaded onto my i-Phone. And because bicycling away and not going anyway can be a rather mindless activity, I regularly end up listening to something equally mindless. Tony Blackburn’s Sounds of the Sixties fits the bill well. And as the public responds by sending in comments, many of them text or ring in to say they’re away on holiday – or travelling home after one – and how the music and banter of the show has enhanced their journey. Just as often, they’ll say they are away to celebrate an anniversary or to mark a special birthday. On this basis, I wonder if perhaps I could excuse myself for going away for a few days myself this coming week – as it’s 10 years ago today that Bishop Mark came (here) to St Mary’s (Ullapool) to license me as one of his priests in this diocese. (10 years – it hardly seems possible! And yet, when I look at the journey this little congregation has made in that time, you wouldn’t recognize it as the same place. Some of you will remember how it was here then.) And like journeys usually do, it has been one with it thrills and spills, its wrong turnings and trying to get back on track; and we continue to learn and grow together as we try to travel the road of the Gospel.
And, of course, our celebration of the Epiphany here today is all about a journey – that of the Magi to the house in Bethlehem to worship this Baby, for a reason that they almost certainly didn’t fully understand. The story of the visit of the Wisemen begins in Jerusalem – having already followed the star all the way from their homelands in the East. But what was it that made them follow this star – and why this one particular? Perhaps the best we can do in trying to answer that sort of questions is to say that this story is rich in mystery. In fact, the mystery is deepened by the fact that God is not mentioned as the originator of this wandering star – though as we read this story we might already have made that assumption.
In Jerusalem, these non-Jewish Wisemen make enquiries about the whereabouts of the new king. This throws Herod – who is, after all, King of the Jews – into a panic, but he makes himself out to be interested and welcoming to this potential usurper, and asks the whereabouts of the birth. He then sends them off with his blessing, asking that they return to him with news of the Child. Of course, the tragedy of Herod is that in spite of his many advantages – being Jewish, having the scriptures and the scholars on hand to interpret them for him – his only real concern is with the threat the Child might pose to his own position. The depth of his insecurity is made clear by his terrible slaughter of the innocents after the Wisemen depart.
The Magi, however, continue on their way, and are thrilled when their star stops over the little town of Bethlehem – just as foretold in the scriptures. They find the house where the young family are staying, enter in, kneel down in homage and bring out their gifts. In Matthew’s account, no words pass between them – at least none are recorded as being exchanged – Mary and Jesus appear to do nothing whatsoever, and Joseph is nowhere to be seen. This enigmatic story ends with the Wisemen returning home without re-visiting Herod, having been warned in a dream not to do so. Again, as with the star, we’re left to make up our own minds about the origin of this dream – it isn’t directly attributed to God.
What has this story got to say to us then? I suppose there’s a sense in which we journey in the Wisemen’s shoes. We’re on a faith journey, which is full of mystery and unexpected twists and turns. Just as we are left to attribute (or not) the advent of the star and the Magi’s dream to God, so in our lives God’s action don’t come with gift labels attached! It’s often left up to us to discern God’s working and leading in our lives. So perhaps we can liken God’s Holy Spirit - who guides us through the various circumstances of our lives – to the guiding star in the story. Or we could offer a more concrete interpretation than this, and see the star as in some sense Jesus Himself, whose word guides us through life. And that brings us to the ‘third star’: the Bible – since that’s where we find the words of Jesus. Perhaps the best approach is to see the star as relating to all three – the Holy Spirit, the Saviour Christ and the words of scripture, offering us the guidance we need on our pilgrimage.
Finally, this strange story presents us with two models of response to God. On the one hand, we have the scheming and corrupt Herod, who is prepared to manipulate anyone and kill the new king to protect his own power and privilege. On the other hand, the Wisemen standing as model spiritual explorers who, with little firm information to go on, embrace the adventure and the mystery of the star and the perilous journey involved in following it, along with trust in the revelation that had been given them. It was this that would lead them to meet and worship Jesus. As our journey into the New Year takes it first uncertain steps, let’s keep travelling together, finding in God and in each other the perseverance of the Wisemen to lead us to Jesus, and to walk more closely with Him.
Advent 3 (Year C) – 16th December 2018
(Preached by Fr Nicholas Court, Rector)
Text: Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Fr David and I were talking the a week or two back, on our way to Lochinver for their Sunday service, about the great Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. We said things like: “They don’t make them like that anymore”. I hope it’s not giving away too much of the film to say that it’s told in flashback, set in a prison cell where a man reminisces back through the circumstances that had brought him to this sorry state. Played by Dennis Price, Louis D’Ascoynes is writing it all down in a memoir, and is condemned to hang the next day for murder. As the story unfolds we learn that the narrator’s mother was an aristocrat, but that his father was a foreign commoner. Disinherited and shunned by his mother’s family – the snooty D’Ascoynes – the condemned man confesses in his memoir how his resentment simmered to such a pitch that he became determined to seize what he saw as his rightful inheritance, whatever the cost – even if it meant murdering his entire family in the process!
It doesn’t really sound ideal material for a comedy, does it? Perhaps because the story is narrated from a prison cell we know from the outset that the narrator isn’t going to get away with his crimes; and the comic genius of Alec Guinness (who plays no fewer than eight members of the D’Ascoyne family) turns it into the hilarious account of some dreadful people getting their come-uppance. But the same story has been told elsewhere with rather more tragic emphasis. Again, it’s not giving away too much to say that Tess, in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is born into the impoverished Durbeyfield family. She is persuaded by her father that they are related to the wealthy D’Urberville family, and when the family falls on hard times, Tess is sent to ask for help – with disastrous consequences.
Both Tess and the narrator of Kind Hearts and Coronets believed they had the right to something because of their perceived ancestry – of who they were. Those who went out into the desert to try to challenge John the Baptist in the wilderness 2000 years ago, would have believed that God was on their side too. They were, after all, the goodies – the chosen people – the right sort of person to be. The God of the Old Testament had been a fiercely partisan God. Take, for example, the Exodus, when God led them out of slavery in Egypt, providing them a pillar of cloud by day and then one of fire by night to keep them on the right path, parting the Red Sea for them and sending manna from heaven to feed them on the way. But he had also been their God in hard times. In slavery, in exile and now - in the days of John the Baptist, when the land was under Roman occupation - the people needed to know that their God was still defending them. What they had missed – or conveniently forgotten – was that God was also the creator of the whole world – not just theirs!
There’s a curious mix of fiery Old Testament language and more temperate New Testament imagery in this passage from Luke’s Gospel. John the Baptist is not afraid to call a spade a blinkin’ shovel! He clearly had no interest in the cult of popularity! “You brood of vipers!” he says to them, warning them of the judgment that is to come upon them. But when they ask him what they are to do to put things right, his mood suddenly changes; he tells them to get back to the basics of honest living, simplicity and modesty. That old covenant – the one of the Old Testament – has been superseded by a new covenant that God will bring in with the new age – a covenant of love-made-flesh – but he is speaking to a people steeped and still trapped in the old ways.
We all know – do we not – how difficult change can be. It might even mean accepting things and living with situations that have been taboo until now. Well there’s nothing new under the sun. Those who came to John for baptism found themselves queuing up on the same river-bank with tax collectors and other outcasts – and it must have made them feel distinctly uncomfortable, because in their eyes - by their own action - those people had placed themselves outside that clique of the ritually and socially pure. What were they doing here?! Of course, this was the perfect preparation for one of the things that would mark Jesus’ ministry – particularly as we read about it in Luke’s Gospel. John’s ministry demonstrated that the time was approaching for major change and a change of mind-set, a time when barriers would have to come down so that God could burst those neat and convenient confines of race, class and ancestry. And in this absolutely pivotal verse of the Bible, John insists it is no longer enough to rely on family background. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, he tells them; “for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
John confronts us too with a challenging question. “What is the sum of a human being? Is it his or her ancestry, heritage, pedigree or bloodline – or something much deeper?” There’s no doubt that a stable family situation can have a grounding influence, but it’s when we consider that that’s enough to raise us above others that we become unstuck. Genetically we may inherit our looks, our intelligence and even parts of our character from our parents, while their material circumstances may also dictate whether we are born into safe circumstances, eat nourishing food, have a stable roof over our heads, access to decent healthcare and education and so on. Whilst all of these things may be important, they don’t bring us one step closer to God.
Talking of having a stable family and a stable roof over our heads points us inevitably to one place and one time – the place and time to which Advent should lead us – Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. It’s a place where shepherds will rub shoulders with kings and wisemen; where priceless gifts will get laid on a stable-floor among the straw and the manure and smell of belching beasts. It’s in a place like this where God chooses to turn to us and ask: “And what do you think you’re doing here?” To which I suspect He hopes we will reply something like: “Not because of who I have been or who my parents were, but because of who I might become if I make you the centre of my being, my purpose in life, and my most precious treasure.