Sunday, June 19, 2016

Homily / Sermon : 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time


If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

It never ceases to surprise me that when people take the existence of evil and the experience of suffering as a reason for not believing in God.

Now I’m not referring to the person whose faith is shattered by tragedy, or who descends into depression after a series of unfortunate and dispiriting events. Loss and disappointment leave deep wounds and weigh heavily upon the spirit. It is often hard for people in such circumstances to grasp meaning or to hold on to hope.
No, what I am referring to is the sort of person, usually comfortable and self assured, who says to the believer - “how can you believe in a good God when bad things happen?” They see it as a strong argument, indeed even perhaps a proof, that God does not exist.

But so often, the reason why someone sees no point in believing God is because they think they no need of him. They are so comfortable in their lives and their approach to life, that the idea that there might be a higher power is unsettling and even inconvenient.

In fact, look around the world, watch the news, and you can see that people turn to God most not when they are comfortably off, when everything is going well, when they are free from worries. No, it is at times of anxiety, and danger when the Churches are fullest.

After atrocities like the recent shootings in Orlando, and the terrible murder of the MP Jo Cox this week, and similarly after natural disasters and atrocities, the immediate human response is to light candles, to visit places of worship, to gather together in prayer, even for people who have only the vaguest sense of faith or belief.

As people have less and less attachment to a particular church, it is noticeable that when someone has died there is little demand for a non-religious, humanist service, but more and more often for a “celebration of life” which includes some small aspects of faith, or ceremony, or religion.


In bereavement and loss there is comfort in prayer. In worrying about the future we turn our hearts to God. In distress and perplexity there is little left but to pray.
God is known best not by the comfortable, but by those in discomfort, not by the well-fed, but by the hungry, not by the rich but by the poor - poor in spirit, poor in hope, poor in circumstance.

And why? Not, I think because such people are weak, and to be pitied? Perhaps - but more likely because those who know their own weakness are those who know that there is something greater, something more powerful. Only those in need know their need of God. It is only in the experience of suffering, in the struggle against evil, that the hope of victory is known.

We sometimes put this in very simple ways: “No gain without pain‚” or, “Only those who are flat on their backs look upwards”. But it is true, only in the carrying of the cross do recognise both our weakness and our hope, our suffering and our joy, our presence and our future.

For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, that man will save it.


Pictured below:
MPs light candles for Jo Cox in Parliament Square

MPs light Candles for Jo Cox

Monday, June 13, 2016

Homily / Sermon : 11th Sunday of the Year (C)

Click here to listen

‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is that is touching him and what a bad name she has.’ (Luke 7:39)

Bad reputation

Twice in today’s Gospel we are told that this woman ‘has a bad name’. It’s ironic really, because we don’t actually know who she was. Traditionally she is associated with St Mary Magdalen, but in fact that seems unlikely. Mary is mentioned just after this story - no indication that we are talking about the same person.

So we know her name is bad, we just don’t know what it is.

That is the thing, of course about reputation. A person has many different characteristics, yet it is just one that they may be remembered for. This woman was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. She was probably someone’s mother and someone’s wife. She may have been loving and caring, generous and sensitive. She might have been a victim of cruelty or bound by poverty. Who knows? How can we know? - we only know that her name, her reputation, her status was bad, and the Pharisees were appalled at the encounter between her and Jesus.

Perhaps she had done wicked things. Perhaps she was dishonest or irresponsible. Or perhaps she was just different, unconventional or rebellious.

The trouble with reputation is that it reduces a person to a word, takes away the real name for the sake of the bad name, turns a human being in all the variety of her qualities to just one adjective, one negative, bad.

But this changes.

Her actions, her contrition, her penitence, and then God’s forgiveness and reconciliation, have this extraordinary effect that they restore her to her human dignity. They free her from the shackles of reputation, because of this great movement of love. Her loving worship is itself an act of healing.

By showing her love for Christ, she invites the greatest gift of love - the granting of forgiveness, and her wholeness is restored.

Her sins, her many sins, must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love.

The Lord is my Shepherd - reflection

Reading and Reflection at the Summer Memorial Service,
Carmountside Crematorium, Stoke-on-Trent 12 June 2016

The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23 AV)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Translation is the Authorised, or King James, Version. 


IMG 3854

I chose that reading because I guess it is very familiar to almost all of us. This psalm, in an Old English translation, was put into verse to make what may well be the best known hymn in the English language.

“The Lord’s my Shepherd, I shall not want

He makes me down to lie …”

You may well have chosen this hymn for the funeral service for your own loved ones - and if you didn’t, you almost certainly have heard it or sung it at the funeral for another. It is chosen for weddings, too, and on many other occasions.
You may be surprised though, to learn that it has only been sung in England relatively recently, and the story of its popularity is particularly relevant today.
It is of course taken from an ancient writing. The 23rd Psalm is Jewish poem thought to have been written by King David about 800 years before the coming of Jesus. It was translated into English about 500 years ago, and then put into a rhyming form by the Scottish Presbyterians, in the 17th Century. And there it stayed, known and sung in Scotland, but not really anywhere else.

But then, in the last century, a young girl whose family originated from Germany, who was born and grew up in England, got to know this hymn when she went to Church on her family holidays in Scotland. In the years before the war, She became close to a young man of Greek birth and also Danish background, whose family had fled political turmoil in Greece just before the war, and who had sought refuge in Britain. During the war he served in the Royal Navy, and regularly exchanged letters. Once the war was over, he asked her father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and for her wedding service she chose this little known hymn.

That was the moment when the “Scottish Hymn” (as people came to call it) came to be known to a much wider audience - throughout the whole the United Kingdom, and indeed the world - because that wedding, on 20 November 1947, a moment of colour in the drabness of the early years after the war, was broadcast on the radio and throughout the world.

The immense popularity of this hymn today, The reason why you chose it or heard it in your Church or at a wedding or a funeral is in large part down to that young girl.

That young girl was, of course, Princess Elizabeth, she who became Queen Elizabeth II, and it is her 90th Official Birthday which is being celebrated up and down the country this weekend.

And because she chose it for her wedding, it has become loved and cherished by so many ever since.

But why did she choose it? And why did it then become so popular, so well known? No doubt for its pleasant and easy tune. No doubt for its simple, yet memorable language.

Yet there is, I think, more.

Queen Elizabeth is both a very public yet also a quite private person, and she speaks rarely about her own opinions and beliefs - yet we do know that her Christian faith is something which is very important to her. We also know that for all the material comfort and privilege she has enjoyed, she has not been spared from the anxieties of family life, nor indeed the pains of shocking bereavement and loss, all too public, all too tragic.

And these ancient words which have come to us across the centuries and through the variety of faiths and languages and cultures touched her and so many of us.

… I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ...

In loss we suffer pain, we walk through darkness.

And yet we also find comfort. Much of that is in the memories which we cherish. That is partly why we are here today.

But there is more. In the middle of our darkness we find another comfort too …

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil :
for thou art with me.

We find comfort not only in remembering, but also in sharing our sorrow with others. Coming together with others who grieve is a help in our sadness. Even in the depth of our tears, we find a sense of peace. The touch, the embrace, and the presence of others who know loss too, can give us hope.

Whatever our belief in God (or not), however strong or weak our own faith, however clear or confused our own ideas about this life and the next, those around us give us a glimpse of a hope and a comfort which is a natural accompaniment to the happiest of our memories.

Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life …

It is an intuition, a hint, a Hope, that as the goodness and mercy, the closeness and caring and compassion of those who are around us may help us through our darkest hours, our own valley of the shadow of death, so perhaps there may also be a goodness and mercy from those who have gone before us, a hope - however difficult to understand - that they are still close to us, and that we will be with them once again.

Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life …

This is the hope of which this ancient text speaks. These are the words which moved the Princess Elizabeth more than 70 years ago. These are the words which touch the hearts of so many, and which are so familiar to us today.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Homily / Sermon: 10th Sunday of the Year (C)

When The Lord saw her, he felt sorry for her. "Do not cry" he said (Luke 7)



Crying, weeping, is an expression of emotion, of grief  which we have all experienced. It is something over which, when it has hit us personally, we have little control. When we weep, we do so not because we want to, but because we must. 


There are many references to weeping in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament. They are always expressions of loss, of bereavement, the pain humanity bears in every age and in every circumstance when we have lost those we love. 


In the Gospels, though, references to weeping are few, and very striking. The first time we hear of weeping is at the terrible slaughter of the innocents, by King Herod. Later we hear of the weeping of those who mourn for the daughter of Jairus, and later still of the women of Jerusalem who weep for him as he carries the cross on the way to Calvary. 


In most these cases, like the one in today’s Gospel, Jesus asks the mourners not to weep. He tries to soothe their hearts and quiet their cries. 


But there is of course the most famous reference to weeping, the shortest verse in Scripture, and perhaps the most tender, when Jesus hears of the death of his friend, Lazarus. In St John's Gospel (11:35), we are told "Jesus wept". It is a brief statement, with no description, no detail, no elaboration. There are no lightning bolts, no thunderclaps, no voices from heaven, no wailing. Just these two words, We do not need to be told any more than just this. Jesus wept. 


And here, in today's Gospel, is another moment. This time it is Jesus speaking to the bereaved mother. And again it is a simple and plain statement. No elaboration, no explanation, no reasoning, no detail. No theological exposition, no meditation on human mortality. Its tenderness is expressed through its brevity. 


In both occasions we witness the simplicity and yet the depth of Jesus' compassion. In both cases we are about to witness a great miracle, a miracle of rising from the dead, miracles which point to the great miracle of Jesus' own victory over death. Yet the words which we begin these extraordinary events are simple, and tender and human. 


They reveal to us this great truth about our Lord. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. And he has a human heart which is united to his Divinity. A heart which is stirred by the sorrow of the bereaved, by the loss of a loved one, by the death of a friend. A heart which knows our pain and which offers us a hope. 


A heart, so full of love, that love is poured out on us all.