Saints and Souls

In the Church calendar, the first of November is All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows. In the early church, when believers died for their faith, they were commemorated on the anniversary of their martyrdom. With an increasingly full calendar of saints’ days, and the possibility that there might be some Christian martyrs known to God but not to us, the Church added a celebration of all the saints, which at some point settled on 1 November. If ‘All Saints’ feels a bit like the Church’s ‘Hall of Fame’, what about those who have died whom we knew and loved, regardless of whether or not the Church might regard them as ‘saints’? For them, we follow All Saints’ with All Souls’ Day, a commemoration of the faithful departed. (In a more ‘catholic’ understanding, we might pray to the Saints and for the Souls!)

In practice, we will mark both All Saints’ and All Souls’ days on the nearest Sunday (3 November this year). In our morning services that day we will consider the example of the saints who have lived out their faith in their day – “lights of the world in their several generations” as the 1928 prayer book put it – and pray that we will have God’s grace to follow them in our lives. The day also reminds us that the Christian life is lived as “members of a company of saints whose mutual belonging transcends death”. In the evening, we remember and give thanks to God for “those we love but see no longer”, the ‘souls’ whose memory we treasure.

In my preaching on All Saints’, I often like to say that the ‘Hall of Fame’ view isn’t necessarily very helpful or biblical. Sometimes, the example set by saints in their own day doesn’t transfer well to our experience. Take Saint Simeon Stylites. He was born in about 390AD, the son of a shepherd in what is now Turkey. As a 13-year-old child, Simeon heard a sermon on the Beatitudes and “developed a zeal for Christianity”. At 16, he entered a monastery but his extreme austerity led his brothers to ask him to leave. He shut himself up in a hut for 18 months and apparently went through the whole of Lent without eating or drinking. He then moved to a mountain in what is now Syria; but even there he couldn’t escape from the crowds of pilgrims who came to ask for his counsel and his prayers.

So Simeon did what any of us might do. He spent the rest of his days out of reach on top of a pillar. There he could stand and pray, experiencing the scorching heat and numbing cold, kept alive by gifts of food sent up to him. He still couldn’t escape attention (some said he did it for attention!) and even emperors sought his counsel. Walls were built around his pillar to keep people away – especially women. (He wouldn’t even see his mother until after her death when her coffin was brought to him so he could say his goodbyes.) (See this article by Margaret Visser.)

As I said, sometimes the examples of the saints of history are not all that helpful. The second thing to note is that the New Testament doesn’t recognise a ‘Hall of Fame’ model of sainthood. In fact, we are all called to be saints (Romans 1.7, 1 Corinthians 1.2). Many New Testament letters are addressed to “the saints” in a particular place (e.g. Ephesus, Philippi or Colossae) with no distinction between those who are doing a cracking job of it and those (the majority, I think) who were struggling. These ‘saints’ are not those who have died and passed on to glory. They are living out their calling in this world with an imperfect faith and the constant experience of ‘falling short of God’s glory’ (Romans 3.23). They will also catch glimpses of God’s grace and know that they have this “treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4.7). I also like to point out that the New Testament always uses the plural form – ‘saints’, never the singular, ‘saint’. In other words, being a saint isn’t something that we do on our own. It’s always something we do together. Which is why we have a church to belong to. God might occasionally call someone to live their Christian life atop a pillar, but I doubt that that would be true for many. No, we are called to be saints together, encouraging one another in the tricky business of living out our faith in a world that needs a demonstration of what love looks like. There are no solitary saints. Come to a church service near to you and get your encouragement to live out your calling to be a saint!

Alan Jewell

All Good Gifts Around Us…

In 1843, the Revd RS Hawker[1], a parish priest in Cornwall, decided to hold a service in church to give thanks to God for the harvest. Secular celebrations of ‘harvest home’ had long been held but Hawker is usually credited with beginning what we now know as the Harvest Festival – an annual service of thanksgiving in church. (Hawker, a poet, was also the author of the Cornish patriotic anthem, ‘The Song of the Western Men’, published anonymously in 1826.) He adapted the older tradition of Lammas or ‘Loaf Mass’, when, in thanksgiving for the first-fruits of the wheat harvest (at the start of August) a fresh baked loaf made from the harvest was presented as part of the eucharist. This had been a traditional celebration, known to the Anglo-Saxons as Hlafmaesse.

In the 1940s, there was an attempt to revive the old Saxon agricultural festivals, including Plough Sunday and Rogation Sunday. Plough Sunday is the first Sunday of Epiphany, marking the end of the 12 days of Christmas and a return to work – the plough and seeds would be blessed to ensure a good harvest. Rogation seems to have its origins in Graeco-Roman religion where processions were held to invoke divine favour and the protection of crops. (The Latin word rogare means to ask.) Christian processions around the parish boundaries were made with prayers for God to bless the land. Some parishes still ‘beat the bounds’ in the week before Ascension Day.

The Reformation tried to put an end to the more superstitious practices associated with the agricultural year, and to make a distinction between praying to God, the Creator, and pagan cults of fertility; but many local customs and festivals trace their origin back to some of these traditional commemorations, or at least to their revival in the Victorian and later eras (such as Walking Days and Bawming the Thorn). In 2006, the Church of England published resources for the agricultural year as part of Common Worship: Times and Seasons. This recognises that our scriptures (Jewish and Christian) “give eloquent expression to the creative power and wisdom of God.”

“It is therefore a natural instinct for worshipping communities to develop patterns of worship and prayer around the agricultural year.”

Common Worship: Times and Seasons, the Agricultural Year

The cultures in which our scriptures were produced were ones in which people lived much closer to the land than most of us do today. The Jewish festivals with which Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar were closely tied to nature and the seasons. Our supermarket culture, in which we can buy strawberries at any time of the year, grown somewhere in the world and transported for us to pick off the shelves when we want, is a very modern phenomenon. We are very distant from the realities of seedtime and harvest. But in our day younger people, especially, are reminding us that human activity now endangers the very ecosystem that sustains our lives and that of the planet. Perhaps within our church year, we need to look more closely at our dependence on God our creator and the world we have been given to care for as stewards.

In October, we mark the harvest season with services in both churches. At St Cross, the harvest festival will be at 10.30am on Sunday 6 October, followed by a lunch in church. At St Matthew’s, there will be a harvest festival service at 10.30am on Sunday 13 October. In addition, we have a Church Family Harvest Extravaganza at 3.30pm on Sunday 6 October.

Please come and join us for any of the above and let’s reconnect with the LORD our maker:

In his hand are the depths of the earth;

the heights of the mountains are his also.

The sea is his, for he made it,

and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

From Psalm 95

The Revd Alan Jewell


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hawker_(poet)


[i] Sources: Common Worship: Times and Seasons, the Agricultural Year © The Archbishops’ Council 2006 and published by Church House Publishing. The English Year, by Steve Roud © 2006, published by Penguin.

The Big Welcome

It’s five years since I became vicar in the Benefice of Stretton and Appleton Thorn. My institution took place in a service at St Matthew’s on 10 September 2014. Doesn’t time fly! If you have heard me speak about that occasion, you will know that my clearest memory is of getting whacked in the face with a bell rope. I was carrying out the new incumbent’s traditional job of tolling the bell to let the parish know that it had a vicar. I was determined to give it my best shot, as people say that the number of times the bell rings is the number of years that the vicar is planning to stay. To begin with, I couldn’t hear anything so I pulled a little harder until I knew that the bell was moving. I also knew, from watching Dave Allen on the tele, that church bells are capable of lifting you off the ground if you are not careful. What I didn’t realise is that, unless properly controlled, the rope can whip back and smack you about the face, which is what happened to me. The Archdeacon and Rural Dean were the closest witnesses: they saw the whole thing but were not injured in the process. To be honest, it was only my pride that took a blow, but it’s quite something to be welcomed with a slap in the face!

For someone whose youthful ambition was to be a rock guitarist, it’s also humbling to think that some of my favourite moments from my time here so far have involved not the guitar, but the ukulele. The guitar (especially the electric guitar) is a cool instrument. But no one ever looked cool playing the uke, and that’s part of its charm. It’s a fun instrument and it makes you smile. At Praise and Play in both churches, I enjoy sitting on the carpet at the front of church, and singing with the little ones and their carers. I have on one occasion played the uke at a wedding – at the Bride’s request – and once at a Baptism – at the child’s mother’s request.

The uke also features in another of my favourite regular activities, The Singing Kettle, where we meet once a month in the church hall and sing through some old favourites, mostly from the 1950s given the age of the audience and the musicians, but older and newer songs too.

You may also be aware that the past five years have not been without their struggles, both personally and professionally. I won’t dwell on that here, but I am happy to acknowledge the support that we have had, and I hope that the next five years will see progress and growth in the life of both churches.

At St Matthew’s, we have now launched the Big Welcome project. When I first made enquiries about the post here, I was interested to see that St Matthew’s had plans to develop the building, to make it more accessible and welcoming, not just for regular churchgoers but to the community we are called to serve. It is an ambitious undertaking and not everyone is persuaded, but the Chancellor of the Diocese issued the Faculty which gives us permission to do the work on the basis that the parish has

“demonstrated clear and convincing justification for the changes proposed… (which) will better serve the ministry and mission of the church in the parish and area.”

With the permissions in place (from the Church and the Borough Council) it is up to us to raise the funds if the reordering is to go ahead – no easy feat, granted! At Walking Day, there was a presentation (by Eric and Kylie no less!) and display. We have had leaflets produced outlining what we hope to do and inviting people to show their support by returning a pledge card.

At its heart, I think this is a matter of what we believe the church to be and what we think we are here to do. I know that, like most churches in the country, we are struggling with numbers and with fabric and finance. (Both churches have had damage done to their churchyard walls within a matter of weeks!) But I don’t see any point in simply battening down the hatches waiting for the storm to blow over. We need to engage with our communities and I believe that the Big Welcome project is part of our vision to do that.

At the time of writing number of fundraising events and ideas are being planned – from mugs and pens, to a barbecue, quizzes and a band night. Please look out for details of these and support them if you are able.

I hope that you will return your pledge card, if you haven’t already done so, and commit yourself to pray, to work and to support the Big Welcome project.

Alan Jewell

Derek Redmond’s Emotional Olympic Story – Injury Mid-Race | Barcelona 1992 Olympics

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

https://youtu.be/t2G8KVzTwfw

The unforgettable story of Great Britain’s 400m runner Derek Redmond, whose hamstring snapped during his event but was determined to finish the race at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games.

“Derek Anthony Redmond didn’t win a medal at the Barcelona Olympics. In fact, the British 400m runner didn’t even make it past the semi-final stage. But it was his determination to finish that will live forever in the minds of millions. Injury forced the Briton to withdraw from the 1988 Seoul Games just ten minutes before the start of his 400m heat, so Redmond felt he had everything to prove in Barcelona four years later. Not to his peers, that is but, as he later admitted, to himself. Redmond wanted a medal whatever the colour and he started well, qualifying for the semi-finals by clocking the fastest time in his heat. As the gun signalled the start of his semi-final, Redmond charged out of the blocks, making good speed over his first 250m. At that point his right hamstring snapped. The one-time British 400m record holder pulled sharply up as the rest of his field ran away from him, leaving Redmond on his knees and crippled, his Olympic dream over. What followed, however, is one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history. Redmond got back to his feet and tried to finish the race. In an act of true courage against adversity, Redmond could only hop on one leg towards the finish line. Pain etched on his face as each step became more painful than the last, Redmond would not give up. He had promised himself and his father, that he would finish the race ‘no matter what,’ and he would keep that promise. Halfway to the finish line on one leg and crying with desperation, Derek was joined by his father Jim. The moment Redmond crossed the finish line brought sixty-five thousand spectators to their feet in a standing ovation, many also in tears. Few can remember that Steve Lewis of the USA won the semi-final in a time of 44.50. But no one who saw it will ever forget Derek Redmond’s courage on the day he defined the essence of the human and Olympic spirit.”

The Rich Fool

You Fool!

Up and down the country today, preachers are standing in pulpits declaiming these words to their congregations, making sure not to catch anyone’s eye. It’s cathartic, but, of course, it’s not the preacher speaking. This is scripture.

“You fool!”

In fact, Jesus tells us that if call someone a fool, you should go to hell (Matthew 5.22). If you call someone a fool, you are saying that they are worthless in God’s sight, and, clearly, that’s not our call.

In the Psalms we read that

Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
(Psalm 14.1 and 53.1)

You might think that this is a criticism of atheism – that those who don’t believe in the existence of God are fools – but that’s not what the psalmist is saying. The fool is not someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God (the idea would have been unthinkable) but someone who does believe in God but lives as if God did not exist. And that is the man in our parable. He lives his life as if God doesn’t exist and other people don’t matter.

In the Old Testament Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) there is a lot of reflection on what it is that makes someone foolish or wise. Proverbs (9.10) tells us that

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…
Proverbs 9.10

Wisdom (the opposite of folly) is founded on a relationship with God. Jesus makes the same point in his parable of the wise and foolish builders (Matthew 7.24-27). The wise man or woman builds a house on the rock which is like building your life on the words of Jesus. When the storms of life come, the house stands firm. The foolish builder builds on shifting sand and the house collapses. What they have built crumbles to nothing. It’s not that the foolish person didn’t hear the words of Jesus. They did. But they chose not to act on them.

The rich person in today’s parable should have listened to the preacher of Ecclesiastes whom we hear in today’s Old Testament reading (Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14, 2.18-23)

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1.2

Here’s something I learned: the word which is translated in our bibles (NRSV) as ‘vanity’ (NIV: ‘meaningless’; GNT: ‘useless’) is the Hebrew word hebel which means ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’. Everything, says the Teacher, is vapour or breath. Nothing lasts forever. Everything is fleeting and insubstantial. Which is to say that

“Without God, ‘everything under the sun’ is as significant as vapour.”

That’s what the rich person in our parable hasn’t grasped. He thinks that his grain and his goods, stored in bigger barns, will make him happy. The wealth he has accumulated means that he can “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” It won’t. God says, “You fool!”. ‘When you die – which will be very shortly – they will mean nothing to you.’

Today’s reading from Colossians (Colossians 3.1-11) lists the things that don’t belong to those who “have been raised with Christ” – the things because of which “the wrath of God is coming” (‘anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language’), and among them is greed. Which is idolatry – putting something before God. Unlike the character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street who says

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Conclusion

You will know the expression “money is the root of all evil” and you may think that that is a quote from the bible. Or from Pink Floyd.

Money, so they say
is the root of all evil today

But that isn’t what the bible says. What the bible (1 Timothy 6.6-10) says is

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil
1 Timothy 6.10a

Not money but the love of money. What the letter to Timothy says is that godliness with contentment is our goal – “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” (v8)

9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

Jesus warns us about the love of money. If we reject his warning, we are at risk of being fools.

As someone said

The best things in life aren’t things

Thy Kingdom Come

In 2016, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York invited Anglican Christians throughout the world to pray for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. They encouraged individuals and churches to make this prayer a focus in the time between Ascension and Pentecost, following the example of the disciples in the first two chapters of the New Testament book of Acts. At the start of Acts, we are reminded that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to “wait… for the promise of the Father”. Jesus had said that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit”.

The Archbishops’ initiative, called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, has gone beyond Anglicans and has been taken up by Christians of other traditions and denominations in 100 different countries around the world, with support from, among others, Pope Francis.

Today (30 May 2019) is Ascension Day when we hear the story of Jesus’ return to heaven. (I was talking to someone recently who remembers that when he was at school, they used to have trips out on Ascension Day – I don’t think that happens any more, although this year it falls in school holiday time.) Having watched Jesus ascend, the disciples return to Jerusalem and were ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’, waiting for the coming of the Spirit.

The promise of Jesus to the disciples was that

‘…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ Acts 1.8

At Pentecost (Acts chapter 2), we see how that promise began to be fulfilled, with thousands hearing and responding to God’s message. In the rest of the book of Acts we read how the early church – including a reluctant convert named Saul – began to bear witness to Jesus ‘to the ends of the earth’, at least as far as Athens and Rome.

Eventually the gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ – came to us, in Stretton, Appleton, and Appleton Thorn. The book of Acts doesn’t get quite this far: we need to tell our own stories of how the gospel was preached to us and how we responded to its invitation, and of how the Holy Spirit has led us to this point. And we need to pray for others to hear and respond – not simply to become churchgoers, but to experience the transforming power of God’s love.

The challenge is to think of five people you know, and to pray for them to come to faith in Jesus Christ. As you read these words, does anyone come to mind? A member of the family, a friend or neighbour, for whom you could commit to pray? Just a few minutes a day is all it takes! At its heart, we echo the prayer of the earliest church:

Come, Holy Spirit

Let your kingdom come

This year, Pentecost falls on Sunday 9 June. As well as our usual church services that day, there will be a united service for members of Bridgewater Churches Together at Hill Cliffe Baptist Church. The service starts at 6.00pm and all are welcome. (There will also be an evening service at St Matthew’s at 6.30pm that day which will provide an opportunity for us to pray together.)

On Sunday 16 June, the churches of the Great Budworth deanery are meeting for a service in the chapel at Arley Hall. In the past, this has taken the form of Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer, but on this occasion it will have a contemporary feel, using newer worship songs as well as some well-known traditional hymns. I have been asked to put the service together, so those who came to St Matthew’s on the evening of 26 May will have an idea of what we might be doing! Bring your own picnic to enjoy from 5.00pm: the service starts at 6.30pm.

Please set aside some time to pray for those you know to come to faith, and join us in prayer and worship: come Holy Spirit and let your kingdom come!

Alan Jewell

Jesus Walks on the Water

(Mark 6.47-end)

Along with turning water into wine and feeding the 5,000, the idea of walking on water is one of the best-known stories about Jesus. Although, I suspect that football fans who claim that their hero ‘walks on water’ might not know where that idea comes from.

The story takes place in the evening and through the night. Immediately before this, Jesus has fed the five thousand. In Matthew, Mark and John, these two stories also go together. (Luke doesn’t include it.) John’s gospel (6.1-25) tells us that Jesus realised that, after feeding the crowd, they wanted to make him king, and that is why Jesus beats a hasty retreat. In Mark, Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes up on the mountain to pray (6.45, 46) The disciples – never mind the crowds – don’t understand what sort of Messiah Jesus is, so he needs to get away from their inappropriate expectations, and try to persuade them that his is the way of service and suffering, not of whipping up populist mob mentality.

While Jesus is alone, the disciples are out on the lake (the Sea of Galilee), crossing to the other side and struggling with the conditions, battling with the wind and the waves. It’s early in the morning (between 3 and 6am) and Jesus comes towards them, walking on the lake.

The idea of Jesus walking on water is a striking image. The disciples think they have seen a ghost. They are terrified! Jesus has to speak to reassure them:

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.

In v48 we read that ‘He intended to pass them by’. It sounds as if Jesus did not mean to help them. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to them. Or maybe this is to remind us of the story of Moses (Exodus 33.12-23) who saw God’s glory pass by. (Jesus comes alongside them.)

We saw in last week’s gospel (Mark 4.35-end), Jesus calming the storm, that the sea in the Hebrew mind, represents chaos and danger. (The Hebrew word of water – mayim – comes from a root – mem – meaning chaos. So, creation and the flood…) Here, Jesus has sent his disciples into chaos! (“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”) In the account of his stilling the storm, Jesus sleeps and castigates his disciples for their lack of faith. Here, he appears to be passing them by. But he gets into the boat and the wind ceased. Jesus brings order to the chaos.

I said last week that Jesus doesn’t promise to calm every storm in your life. But he does promise to calm you in the storms that surround you. We may say, with the disciples, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” We need to see Jesus walking towards us through the chaos, getting into the boat with us and saying:

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”