Wake Up

You have just held aloft the world cup for England or bowled the perfect googly at Lord’s to win the ashes.
Won bake off! or the Monaco Grand prix.
Written the perfect bit of computer code or won the nobel prize for chemistry.
Designed a new gadget that will change the world or are simply on a white sandy beach with palm trees in the background and a glass of champagne in your hand.

But then this wonderful moment is interrupted by this strange buzzing sound, or perhaps voices or music, or “This in the news at 6 o clock on Sunday 28th November”.

Our dreaming is interrupted by the cruel sound of the alarm clock calling us to wake up.

For a moment you are lost, a little bewildered as the boundaries between dream and reality are blurred but eventually you realise you it was just a dream.

Some of us have vivid dreams. Dreams that are remembered and recalled the next day. Some of us never remember our dreams. Yet we all dream.

And if we don’t remember our night dreams, we have dreams in our waking hours too. Dreams
about who we think we are, what we hope for and what we want to do.

Of course we need dreams but sometimes even in a small way we can build lives on them.

They become a kind of elusive fantasy as we imagine a life that is always somewhere else, and never happens for all sorts of reasons.

So that we never really live in the present.

Into this talk of sleep and dreams and fantasy, in the midst of the dark and cold nights of November and December when we wrap ourselves in our duvets and don’t want to get out of bed comes the season of Advent.

An alarm clock season, calling us to be alertness and to be ready as we think of Christ’s coming.
St. Paul memorably plays with the imagery of being awake and asleep in his letter to the Romans when he writes of how ‘it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’ .

The collect for Advent Sunday draws on Paul’s language as through it we are invited to ‘cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’ When? ‘now’ the collect goes on ‘in the time of this mortal life.’

Advent is the alarm clock season, a call to wake up…..now!

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Unlearning what we have learned

‘And immediately they left their nets and followed him.’ Words that are both inspirational and a little unsettling.

Why unsettling? Well, because it all seems so sudden and I wonder would I have done the same? I’d like to hope so but I know too my caution, my need of security and love.

Now of course, I can explain a bit the style adopted by the Gospel. I know it was written with urgency and that the word ‘immediately’ occurs 40 times in the book.

But would I leave everything I knew and follow Jesus? So, it’s one of those reading I need to live with, a challenge to my sometimes over cautious heart.

But I find some consolation in the reading from the letter to the Hebrews, not so much in terms of content more context.

For here are words with less urgency than those of Mark but are also about following Jesus.

The words of the letter can seem strange read in isolation so it’s sometimes helpful to remember that this book was likely written for priests of the temple.

For there were priests like the fishermen who had encountered the Lord and wanted to follow him. And so the writer is helping them.

Priests of course were important people who led the worship in the temple. Experts in the rather blood thirsty business of animal sacrifice. Offering ‘blood that was not their own’ as today’s reading put it to God.

And this language of sacrifice became that which helped them make sense of who Jesus was, describing him as the one who ‘has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.’

It can sound very strange to us but as I’ve said I’m not so interested this morning in the content more the context. The context that the priests were having to re-learn who they were.

And it’s this sense of re-learning that draws the two readings together for me.

For though in the Gospel there is a sense of the immediacy of everything, something that should challenge us as they ‘left their nets and followed him’. They too had to re-learn who they were, if they were to ‘fish for people.’

But, what has all this got to do with us?

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God doesn’t do walls

The Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, is a community quote ‘rallied around one inspirational idea: ‘Together is better.’ And I begin and end this morning’s sermon with a prayer of theirs that I found the other day

God of the histories we tell,
God of the histories we don’t:
on either side of a border, you are there.
May we, in living out our faith,
never pretend that there is a way
to make ourselves purer, or more righteous, or holier
by separating ourselves from those
that you will never stop loving.

We’ll come back to that prayer at the end, but for now join me on a visit to our loft at The Vicarage. A loft I vowed when I moved in that we would never fill. Hmmm.

Now in my defence it’s not full and we have got rid of a lot of stuff but there’s still stuff we want to keep but have nowhere else to store it, sound familiar to anyone?

And amongst those things are some toys and games the children had when they were younger.

Listening to Neil MacGregor’s wonderful radio programme ‘The history of the world in a hundred objects’ on my travels on Monday I was reminded how objects take us to a time and place.

So, the other day whilst taking something up I found the box of those large colourful duplo lego bricks. And through them was transported back to a time a few years ago now. To living room floors where great constructions were built.

With duplo big is best, so you almost always build big towers or big walls.And its walls I want to dwell on today because it seems from a young age we learn and like to build walls.

Something that we pick up again perhaps in our own homes especially in a place like this. For if you spend a bit of time walking around this parish, you will see how a great deal of effort goes into the walls, or fences, or hedges that divide us from our neighbours.

There are good reasons for this of course. We like our privacy, need our own space and lets be honest neighbours are not always easy to get on with.

So, the often quoted words of the poet Robert Frost in his poem ‘Mending Wall’ ring true ‘Good fences makes for good neighbours.’

Walls are necessary then indeed we are gathered within them today, a temple we love. And it was, to turn to the Gospel for today the temple at which Jesus was looking sat on the Mount of Olives.

The disciples were impressed by them ‘”what large stones and what large buildings!”’ Jesus though isn’t and and as he looks into the future he says ‘Not one stone will be left here upon another.’

The verses that follow are challenging as he talks of wars and nation rising against nation. We look back from a different vantage point yet today of all days we know there is truth in his words.

I wonder how many of those conflicts began in some way because there was, not always physically of course a wall that divided and separated people in one way or another.

And if we think of ourselves today we can be impressed by walls for they give us a sense of security. Across the pond an election manifesto pledge of the last president was to build a wall.

And here we return to Frost’s poem who goes on to ask‘Before I built a wall I’d ask to knowwhat I was walling in or out.’

Walls serve a purpose, they can be helpful but they can also divide and separate, something we know too from history.

Just think of the Berlin Wall and how when it fell it meant so much more than restoring the connection between East and West Berlin. This fall of this wall symbolised freedom.

St. Paul knew something about this imagery himself for when he wrote to the Christians of Ephesus he said that Christ ‘has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.’

And that Christ is who we come here to meet his morning. The Christ in whom there are no borders and barriers, who breaks down the walls that separate us. Something that is symbolised by our gathering together around his table where all are welcome.

And as we are fed our vision is renewed and we strive to see the world as God sees it. Where there are not winners and losers, or goodies and baddies but beloved people in every place and continent, on either side of the walls we build.

The tight rope we walk in our worship today is to honour those who have given their lives for the freedom we enjoy but not to think that God is on our side. To sing ‘O God our help in ages past’ as if that means God was our help and no-one else’s.

For the walls we build, the conflicts we fight, the lives that have been lost grieve God’s heart of love.And if we look at ourselves in the mirror for a moment and ask how often do we build high walls to protect or to hide that which we find difficult?

Perhaps it’s necessary but let us never forget that God is not held captive by the walls we create, but on both sides gnawing away at the foundations until they crumble.

The Corrymeela community has a history of working for reconciliation in Northen Ireland. That land has known the cost of building walls. That land knows that we are ‘better together’.

And one of the key figures in the story of that community Ray Davey having witnessed the destruction of Dresden from a prisoner of war camp knew that what he had seen could never be the way, that we were and are ‘better together’.

And it is to a prayer of that community with which I end on this remembrance Sunday when we look back with a strange mix of thankfulness and sorrow and forward defiantly hoping still that the walls that continue to divide and separate will crumble and fall.

God of the histories we tell,
God of the histories we don’t:
on either side of a border, you are there.
May we, in living out our faith,
never pretend that there is a way
to make ourselves purer, or more righteous, or holier
by separating ourselves from those
that you will never stop loving.


An uncomfortable answer

‘”what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’ What answer did the man described in the Gospel this morning expect? We sense his enthusiasm to meet Jesus. He runs. He kneels before him and asks ‘”what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’.

Here was a man who lived what looked like a good life. And yet Jesus says he lacks one thing and challenges him to sell what he has ‘and give the money to the poor’ and then to ‘follow’ him.

Perhaps the man hoped the answer would be more positive, keep doing what you are doing but no, he got an uncomfortable answer.

And here we draw together this Gospel and our first reading from the letter to the Hebrews which talks of the word of God as ‘living and active’ as something that is ‘piercing’ that ‘judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’

It’s a strange reading in a way written as if the word of scripture had a single voice. But the scriptures don’t work like that. The written words were inspired over centuries by different people at a different time within a different context and yet there is still truth in these words.

For scripture taken seriously does have this remarkable capacity to both challenge and inspire. Which brings us back to this Gospel and the man who asks what he must do to ‘inherit eternal life.’

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Small changes

The parable of the Snowflake. I promise we will come back to the Mustard Seed but for now, The Snowflake. It goes like this:

‘Please tell me the weight of a snowflake’, the Fieldmouse asked the Dove. ‘Well’, said the Dove, ‘I would guess that it weighs about nothing more than nothing’. ‘Hmm. Then I have seen a miracle’, said the Fieldmouse. ‘I was sitting here yesterday when the snow was falling and I counted the flakes as they landed on the branch of the tree. There were exactly 1,374,921. And then one more snowflake fell – nothing more than nothing, you tell me – and the branch of the tree snapped off and fell to the ground.’

Small things really can make a big difference.

It is a real pleasure to be here with you this morning as you focus your Eucharist on how we might live out our lives as Christians in the midst of both Climate and Biodiversity Emergencies. This is, without doubt, the biggest challenge that humankind has ever faced. I don’t wish to diminish in any way the real difficulties and enormous sadness that Covid has thrown in our direction, BUT unless we collectively get our act together pretty soon Climate change will make Covid seem like a very small problem.

I’m sure you are well aware of the issues. They have, thankfully, been very much in the news recently as COP26 gets closer – that crucial Climate change Summit taking place in Glasgow in November. (By the way, thank you to those of you who provided refreshments for the Young Christian Climate Network walkers as they passed through Whitkirk last week.)

Here is just a quick reminder of some of the issues that COP 26 has to deal with:

  • As we have so far failed to control emission of global warming gases like Co2 and methane, the earth is continuing to heat up at an alarming rate. It is already 1.2 degrees hotter than in pre-industrial times, and present data suggests we are heading for an average rise of 3.5 to 4 degrees. That doesn’t sound too bad, until we remind ourselves that global warming leads to dramatic changes in climate. One climate scientist estimates that unless we act, a third of the world’s population – 3 billion people – could be living in desert by the end of this century.
  • As deserts expand there will be more famine AND as parts of the world become less and less habitable, there will be mass migration of people across the globe, seeking out the ever-shrinking environments that will support life.
  • Global warming means that ice is melting rapidly in polar regions and sea levels are rising. Our most vulnerable sisters and brothers are already suffering, in Bangladesh for example, with increased flooding of coastal areas and river basins. I read recently that one very well respected climate scientist has suggested we may need to relocate our capital city to somewhere other than London as that could disappear if rising sea levels are not  dealt with.
  • And then there are the rainforests – sometimes described as the lungs of planet earth. We continue to chop them down, mostly to graze cattle, or to grow crops to feed to intensively reared animals, or to grow palm oil. And as we chop those precious trees down, we displace indigenous people, we release more global warming gasses into the air, and we destroy the biodiversity on which we depend. WWF research suggests that about 10,000 species a year become extinct, and they are confident that this massive rate is not one of the natural extinctions that have happened from time to time in earth history, but that this is being driven by human activity – by our activity. 

I truly haven’t come here this morning to fill you with gloom and doom. BUT we do need to face the truth of climate change head on. Because only then will we stir ourselves to the action that is needed. And our Christian Faith gives us a million and one reasons to get stuck in to the task of caring for creation. (I won’t mention them all!)

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Yorkshire has, according to an article I read been ‘crowned as the most trustworthy accent in the country.’
Now I’m not sure which Yorkshire accent those participating in the survey listened too.

The Yorkshire accent in Barnsley is different to that in Sheffield or here in Leeds. But nevertheless the Yorkshire accent won with the poor old Brummies coming last.

And we all know that accents do make a difference. As does the tone in which something is said.

We don’t want someone who is overly jolly giving us bad news like Dr. Hibbert in the Simpson’s cartoon series who always manages to laugh when giving a patient bad news.

Nor do we want a comedian presenting the news. The best newsreaders have a calm authority, think of Trevor Barnes or Huw Edwards or Anna Ford.

And there is something reassuring that can be conveyed through a voice. I think of Mark Carney the former governor of the Bank of England who always seemed to instil confidence, at least in me.

Then there are those actors of stage and screen think of Jean Luc-Picard, the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, also known as the actor Patrick Stewart. You always thought with him in command then things would work out. Of course Star Trek is fiction but you know what I mean. Accents, voices, the way something is said matter.

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And God waited

And God waited. Waited for Mary’s reply.

Most of us know our patron Saint’s story well. We know of the Angel Gabriel’s visit and Mary’s reply.
We know she went to see her cousin Elizabeth and the words of our Gospel for today that flowed from that encounter. We know of the birth of Jesus, his presentation and time in the temple.

These the stories in which Mary is in the foreground shape our understanding of her. We could go on to stories from Jesus’ adult life, the cross and beyond but I want today to focus in on that moment in her story when God waited.

Gabriel delivered his message and though he offered words of comfort to Mary there came and we cannot know how long it lasted a silence as God waited. Waited for these words ‘”Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”’

In other words God waited for Mary to say yes. Waited for this young unmarried girl, who was ‘much perplexed’ by what was being asked to say yes.

And her yes reverberates down the ages to us today as we give thanks today for how her story continues to speak to our own. Of how it we reflect on God’s love and God’s invitation to us.

For this love does not demand or compel obedience. It is a love that is infinitely patient that invites and waits for us to say yes in our lives.

And though Mary was caught up in the providential timing of God, something that Paul writes of in that first reading ‘when the fullness of time had come’ her initial yes was something she then repeated every day of her life.

A yes she repeated through her pregnancy, the birth, the early years of Jesus’ life – and we know how demanding that must have been. Into his adulthood, the cross and beyond. Mary kept saying yes to God.
But this ongoing song of yes grew out of that first yes, perplexed and unsure as she was no doubt was. And though the circumstances of our lives are rather different, her story speaks to ours.

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Loving through disappointment

“Oh James, I am so disappointed in you” said his father. We are eavesdropping a scene between father and son. We don’t know what James has done but we do know that his father is disappointed.

I reckon most of us whether as a child or as a parent have heard or spoken these words. Words that are usually accompanied by a heavy sigh not spoken in anger but in sadness. “I am so disappointed in you.”

It’s one of the facts of life that whether we like it or not we are to a lesser or greater extent motivated by our relationship with our parents.

Even the child who grows up separated from their parent imagines what they might be like and how they might please them.

Even the child who grows up in an unhappy home will often promise themselves that the home they fashion for their partner and family will be nothing like the experience they have had.

And those of us fortunate enough to have had nurturing family homes all pick messages often as children, spoken and unspoken for good or for bad that shape the people we are. Amongst them those words with which I began “I am so disappointed in you.”

But why take this step into the world of therapy. Well, it’s because I have been thinking of that first reading about the death of Absalom.

It’s a strange tale, at least when heard in isolation. So let me unpack it a little.

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