Prize open the purses and wallets of the faithful of St. Mary’s Whitkirk and as well as the debit and credit cards, the membership for the gym and the wadge of hard-earned pound notes there will be reward cards.

You know the sort of thing, buy 354 coffees and get one free. Those cards that reward you for shopping at a centre retailer – one not too far from here.

And we have them because we like the idea of something for free. A good reward scheme in a way motivates us to buy from one shop rather than another – “oooh, I can get my reward points there”.

I wonder if we live a bit of a reward card faith? I wonder if there is a bit of us that thinks if we store up enough good deeds we’ll be ok. So that when we come to the pearly gates and present our loyalty card, we can proudly say to God “look at all I have done for you” and so are ushered off to endless bliss.

Well, if so – then hear the Gospel for today. It’s a story in which James (our Saint for today) and John’s Mum – we don’t know her name wants the best for her sons, wants Jesus to promise a reward for them if they follow him.

It’s understandable enough a Mum who wants the best for her sons. Except Jesus refuses to give her what she wants. Instead, he tells her that what she asks is not his to grant.

He goes on to say to both her and the disciples who become part of the conversation that ‘whoever wishes to be great amongst you must be your servant.’

So in this Gospel Jesus makes no promise of reward. But instead offers a way of living and loving rooted in mutual service.

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How we like to kill that of which we are afraid

Russia is a country that’s always interested me. Perhaps it was because it was a land of mystery behind the iron curtain as it was then. Perhaps it was the movies or story books. Whatever it was, Russia interested me and still does, I hope to visit one day.

That interest was re-kindled recently watching and reading Jonathan Dimbleby’s BBC series of 2008 entitled ‘Russia’. It was made not long after the Communist regime came to an end, a time of openness and new possibility.

Alas things have changed since then, and I suspect the same travelogue would be much harder to make now. But gave a picture of a huge and diverse country, its people and history.

Part of that history was the Gulag’s. Those bleak places where dissident’s were sent. Where writers and poets, thinkers and priests, anyone in fact who was thought to undermine the authority of the regime.

In one-episode Dimbleby visited one of those camps, deserted but still a chilling reminder of what we can do to one another. What power will do to hold onto power. History tells us that this example is not isolated for other regimes and governments have sought to deal with dissent by locking it away or killing it.

And though we might condemn it and wonder why there is a bit of us that knows why it happens. Of how we sometimes struggle to deal with those with whom we disagree.

Of how there is a bit of us that would happily not speak or engage with those people who annoy us or make us feel uncomfortable something I think John the Baptist could do.

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Not fitting in and weakness

Not fitting in and weakness – two themes to ponder this morning from the readings, themes that are subtly connected – not fitting in and weakness.

Not fitting in – is something that most of us have some experience of. Whether it is starting a new school or new job or joining a new group, or even coming to church. We know that sense that we don’t fit in. We don’t know anyone. We don’t know the rules.

But eventually we adapt, we form new friendships and we do fit in. And generally in life we like to fit in. And what is true now was true in the time of Jesus. Jesus in the Gospel this morning is back in his hometown. He goes to the synagogue on the sabbath just as he always has.

But this time something changes. His teaching is different. He has an authenticity and wisdom that astounds those present. And from being someone who fitted in ‘they took offence at him.’

It’s interesting that this trip to the synagogue precedes the sending out of the disciples in the second half of our reading this morning. They, you recall have witnessed what happened in the synagogue.

And Jesus sends them out by two and the Gospel makes it clear that they will not fit in everywhere, that some will take offence at them.

As followers of Jesus today this experience of not quite fitting in is around for us sometimes. For though we generally want to fit in there are times when it can come into conflict with what we think Jesus would have us do.

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Giving thanks… whatever

Many of us have had, either one or both doses of a vaccine that we hope and pray will lessen the continued impact of Covid-19 on our lives. Those of you who have not yet – soon will.

And its clear that the vaccine has made all the difference, and though the virus will continue to evolve the vaccine works. Those who developed, manufactured, delivered and administered it deserve our thanks.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that charities like Christian Aid identified this moment in which we want to give thanks and donate money to support those less fortunate then ourselves.

But if we feel the need to give thanks for the vaccine at the moment just imagine the response of the poor woman described in our gospel this morning who has ‘endured much under many physicians’.

Just imagine her desire and need to give thanks for the miracle she received from Jesus just by touching ‘his cloak.’

Then there’s Jairus whose daughter who is at ‘the point of death’. He pleads with Jesus to come and though he arrives too late to everyone’s ‘amazement’…‘she got up.’

What would Jairus have wanted to do in response to Jesus giving him his daughter back? Surely from that moment on he would’ve been for ever thankful and spent his life telling others of the miracle that happened that day.

But Jesus says ‘tell no one’. He does so because he knew that his teaching could so easily be distorted by these acts of love, for faith in him is more than miracles. It was and is about transformation of life, a way of living and loving that changes everything.

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The Kingdom of God is…

‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God’ asks Jesus in our Gospel today. To answer his question he uses a parable to help his listeners understand because it’s not a kingdom as we often think of it. Nor is it a place, as we understand place. Nor is it just a fantasy or an idea that makes us feel better.

It is so much for when we pray ‘thy kingdom come’ we are praying that God’s reign over all things will in time be established.

What that looks like is beyond our imagining except every now and then we get little clues. For example, in those random acts of kindness and love from both friend and stranger that surprise us. These help us believe that what we hope and dream of, what we long for might just come true.

They are to use the imagery of our Gospel little mustard seeds of the kingdom, gifts through which we contemplate what is to come. And yet the imagery Jesus plays with in this parable is not just about the future. It’s about what was to happen next for those first followers of Jesus.

For they in a way were tiny seeds, frightened people, fragile and precarious living in a hostile culture. But they became so much more for from tiny seeds came the church that has ‘”put(s) forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”’

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Getting into the pool

It’s stating the obvious but you can’t learn to swim on the side of the pool. Where I learned to swim is now a Weatherspoons pub. It amuses me to think that where I earned my beginners certificate is now a dining room. I recall Mrs. Belk and Mrs. Shapland our stern and despairing instructors.

I reckon those of you who had swimming lessons with school will have similar memories too. It’s one of those formative experiences but it’s a skill that once learnt might just save your life.

And although on dry land we could learn all sorts of theories about swimming. The different strokes, the ways to breathe, the theory of how to do a flip turn, These won’t mean anything unless we get in the pool. Unless we take the risk and push out into the deep and try to swim.

It is possible to study theology, the things of God as if you were on the poolside. You can learn all sorts of academic theories, who said what and when, you could pass exams and though it might be very interesting something is missing.

It’s a bit like having learned the strokes and got changed into your swimming gear only when having looked at the water that you decide to return to the changing room for fear of getting wet.

You cannot swim without getting into the pool. You cannot really know about God unless your prepared to enter a relationship.

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“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth”

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
But seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
As living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
And He bends you with His might
That His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
So He loves also the bow that is stable.

These beautiful words of poetry, words of truth – were written by Kahlil Gibran. They are much loved by my mother who came across them when learning what it is to be a parent.

And she has shared them with us her children in one way or another, and each of us – now parents ourselves have pondered them as we try and make our way bringing up our children.

The words remind us that though children might be born of their parents, they are not to be treated as a possession but to be let go for ‘Your children are not your children’.

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Friendship with God

Jesus said ‘I have called your friends.’ It was a testament to the power of friendship, and perhaps the insulating properties of alcohol that on the May Day Bank Holiday with the wind blowing and the rain falling that there were still people sat outside the Brown Cow having a drink.

It’s good news that doors that were once closed are opening again. We have missed those gatherings with friends we once took for granted.

Perhaps we have re-learned through this pandemic the value of friendship. Maybe old friendships have been re-kindled as we have rediscovered their value and along the way we have found new ways to nurture our friendships. For friendship matters.

My cell group made up of four dear friends and fellow priests whom many of you know is hugely important to me. And though we have had to meet remotely over the pandemic we have re-made our rituals. So instead of going out for a curry at the beginning of our twice yearly 48 hours together, we’ve had a virtual curry via the internet.

The friendship I share with them is one of the treasures of my life, it is priceless in its value. We have shared so much. Carried one another’s burdens. Loved and laughed. Challenged and consoled. We hope to meet in person again soon and there will likely be tears I have missed my brothers.

So, friendship is a great gift that is hard to define yet means so much. It is then no accident that Jesus in this remarkable 15th Chapter of John’s Gospel reflects in part at least on this theme of friendship.

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