Just for Christmas?

The Church of England has recently published its most recent report on church attendance. You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s not exactly good news. Church attendance continues to decline. Of even greater concern is the fall in the number of children in our churches. In ten years, adult Sunday attendance has fallen by 15%. Children’s Sunday attendance has fallen by 24%. The numbers coming to us for baptisms, weddings and funerals – a mainstay of our church’s ministry – have also fallen (by 22%, 27%, and 28% respectively). Church attendance at Easter has fallen by 16% and there isn’t a diocese in the Church of England that can report an increase in Sunday attendance.

There are a few brighter spots, however: one is the size of what is called “the worshipping community”. This is the number of people who come to church each month, including to midweek services. That has stayed about the same for the past few years, despite the fall in weekly Sunday attendance. (In other words, the number of people who come occasionally is no less, even though the numbers in church on any given Sunday are fewer. People who are part of our church community come less often than they would have done in the past.)

Another bright spot is Christmas. Christmas attendance has “bucked the trend“. Over the decade it has increased by 1%, which is not huge, admittedly, but after a dip in attendance at the start of the period, the numbers attending a service at Christmas have grown to 2.68 million in 2017, the highest figure since 2006 (and a 13% increase since 2013). Clearly, not all who attend midnight mass or a Carol Service regard themselves as practising Christians. For some, it’s an annual ritual irrespective of belief. But at the same time Christmas services demonstrate that the church still has something which is attractive to those who are not part of our regular worshipping community. We have seen the same with the attendance at our Remembrance and Armistice services. (94 people attended an evening service at St Matthew’s on Remembrance Sunday to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice.)

What is it about Christmas? I suppose the familiarity is comforting. If you come to a Christmas service, you’ll probably recognise at least some of the hymns. The story is well-known and, as someone commented, it’s difficult for clergy to mess-up the nativity (whatever they might do for the rest of the year).

I’m writing this at the vicarage in November (it’s a miserable day today, too!). Just down the road there is evidence of new homes being built. I realise that development in any community can be controversial but as the church we look forward to welcoming our new parishioners when they move in. I was interested to discover that the two new developments close to St Matthew’s church have names:

Saviours Place and Kings Quarter

I’m not sure where those names have come from. (I’m aware from David and Margaret Hart’s history of St Matthew’s that, in 1527, there was a chapel in Stretton known as the Oratory of St Saviour, but I’m not sure if the housebuilders were aware of that.) It occurred to me that those names might help me to prepare my sermon for Christmas midnight. You can probably fill in the gaps yourself, but I see it going something like this…

In the gospel of Luke, we hear the message of the angel to some terrified shepherds: it’s “good news of great joy for all people”. A Saviour has been born. But where is the Saviour’s place? Not Jerusalem, where power lies, but the little town of Bethlehem, the city of David. Centuries earlier, the prophet Micah had seen a ruler whose origin was “from old, from ancient days” who would come from little old Bethlehem. Bethlehem is the home of Joseph’s ancestors, including King David, so he and Mary go there to be registered at the Emperor’s command. While in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to be delivered of a child, her first-born. She wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn”.

The Saviour’s place is not in the centre of power but tucked away in insignificance, in a manger in Bethlehem.

Another ancient prophet, Isaiah, had also painted a picture of one who would occupy David’s throne and establish his kingdom. A child would be born whose arrival would come like light to those in darkness. Among his kingly titles, he would be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. The angel Gabriel had told Mary that she would conceive and bear a son to whom God would give the throne of his ancestor David.

Matthew’s gospel tells us that wise men from the east will come to Jerusalem looking for the one born to be king. They have seen his star rising and want to pay him homage. Jerusalem is just the kind of place to find a king. But Jerusalem already has a king. His name is Herod, and he and his court are terrified at the news of a potential rival. Who is this that threatens Herod’s position and power, and where might he be found? The king’s advisors tell him about the word of the prophet who said that Bethlehem was the place where a king might be born, and that’s where the wise men go to find him. Herod says he wants news of the infant king’s whereabouts so that he too can pay his respects. He wants to do nothing of the sort, of course. He just wants rid of the threat to his power, and will stop at nothing to hold on to his throne.

Herod fails to eradicate his young rival (the holy family go to Egypt as refugees). As an adult, Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has arrived. It’s not like the kingdom that Herod ruled over. It’s not a place with boundaries. It is the recognition of God’s reign, and Jesus is its centre. The Kingdom of God is within you, he says. You could reach out and take hold of it. Where I am, the Kingdom of God is.

Jesus is proclaimed as the messiah – the Christ – a title which means that he is anointed to be King. But what a strange king he turns out to be! Starting his life in a manger, not in a palace, this king practices his kingship by taking the role of a servant, not a boss. And as our servant, he humbly surrenders himself – out of love for us – to the earthly powers, “even to death on a cross“. The only crown he ever wore was not of gold but of thorns. Pilate’s ascription to him of the title ‘king’ is made to mock him and his people.

The resurrection changes everything, of course. Except that those wounds of love are somehow taken into the Godhead. Jesus, our Saviour, is our wounded King.

As well as welcoming those who come to the Kings Quarter and to the Saviours Place, the church is here to proclaim, not itself, but our Saviour King, and his message of love and welcome to all who want to find themselves finally at home.

Happy Christmas!

Alan Jewell

Ruth’s Ordination at Chester Cathedral

Ruth writes:

On Saturday 2nd June I was ordained priest in Chester Cathedral. The service was very moving and emotional and was the culmination of my year here in Stretton and Appleton Thorn serving as a deacon. It was lovely to have the support of so many family and friends as I made my promises before the Bishop.

So what happens next? Well I’m still a Curate licensed to serve at St Matthew’s and St Cross and will continue to work alongside Alan, who is definitely still the Vicar of both parishes! But I am now able to preside at Holy Communion and conduct Weddings and I look forward to continuing my ministry in the churches and wider community.

Over the past few months I’ve had the chance to reflect on the ministry God has called me to. The Ordination Service includes a detailed explanation of the role of a priest:

Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ forever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins. With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love.
Common Worship: Ordination Services. The Archbishops’ Council 2007

This is a daunting list of responsibilities and there have been moments when I wondered if I was up to the task! However, there are two things that have comforted and consoled me as I prepared for Ordination.

Firstly, during the Ordination service in response to the Bishop’s questions, I replied, “By the help of God, I will.” An important reminder that this can’t be done alone, by anyone, however gifted. I need the grace and power of God each day, because without Him I can achieve nothing.

Secondly, I am comforted by the last line of the quote above:

“With all God’s people, priests are to tell the story of God’s love.”

Sharing the story of God’s love isn’t a task reserved for those who have been ordained; it’s the responsibility of all baptized Christians. I can’t do this alone – in my own strength without God. I can’t do this alone – without you. We are in this together. So I ask for your prayers for me – as this next stage of my ministry begins to unfold. But also I pray for you too– that God’s surpassing power may be shown in your lives as you tell the story of God’s love to the world around you.

Revd Ruth Mock

‘Mystery Worshipper’

Back in the late 1970s, there was a quirky Christian magazine called Ship of Fools. It didn’t last long in print form but resurfaced as a website on April Fools’ day 1998. One of its regular features is a report from a ‘Mystery Worshipper’. Like the ‘mystery shoppers’ who go into department stores and report back on the service they experience, the Mystery Worshipper attends a church and writes about what they find. The Mystery Worshipper records everything from the welcome they got on arrival, the style of worship, and the length and quality of the sermon, to the coffee served afterwards.

It’s quite difficult to be a Mystery Worshipper when you’re wearing a clerical collar and there’s a seat at the front that’s reserved for you, but occasionally I get the opportunity to attend a service as a regular punter. We were able to do this after Easter, when we were on holiday in Australia. Now to be fair, when I’m on holiday, I don’t always go to church. Shocking, I know, but sometimes it’s nice to luxuriate on a Sunday morning with coffee and pastries. On this occasion, however, we managed to stir ourselves in time to catch the train into Melbourne city centre and arrive for the main morning service at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral.

St Paul’s is the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne and the Province of Victoria, and is the seat of the Archbishop of Melbourne, who is Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia. (Fun fact: the word cathedral comes from the Latin cathedra which means a ‘seat’. The cathedral is where the bishop’s seat is located, from which the bishop teaches and presides over the diocese.) From its service sheet, we learn that St Paul’s is “home for worshippers from more than two dozen nations” and is situated on the traditional lands of the Aboriginal Kulin nation. On the sheet and verbally in the service, respect was paid to “the traditional owners of the land”.

The service we attended was 10:30 AM Choral Eucharist. As we were there on the Sunday after Easter, the cathedral choir was on holiday. The music, however, was ably lead by the Cathedral Consort – which I guess is the ‘B Team’, but very good they were. The music ranged from a 16th century anthem by Orlandus Lassus, and pieces from Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis (1959) to hymns by Charles Wesley and John Bell, a good catholic mix.

The service was led by the Precentor, the Revd Canon Heather Patacca. The preacher should have been the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, but, we were told, he was off sick. Instead, we were to hear one of the assistant clergy, whose regular responsibility was for the 9:00 AM ‘Family Friendly’ Eucharist. I was looking forward to the sermon because I wanted to see how a ‘family friendly’ priest would address the Choral Eucharist congregation, but I was disappointed that, instead of speaking her own words, she simply read the text of the Dean’s prepared sermon. The sermon ended dryly with, “the Dean would like to invite you to consider…” In their defence, the Dean had prepared a series of addresses on the Gospel of John for Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and this was presumably a follow-up to that, as the gospel reading was from John (20:19-31 – Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples and then to Thomas). In my humble opinion, a sermon is not a text that can be read, but something that happens when the preacher and the congregation work together, and, as they say in certain circles, “God shows up”. I’m happy to elaborate on this if requested!

When we turned to the Lord’s Prayer, we were each invited to say it in our own language. As we were in Australia, most of the worshippers spoke English, but the service sheet gave the opening words to the prayer in French, Spanish, German, and, what I later learned were Malay, Maori, Chinese and Japanese. This was an interesting expression of the cathedral’s emphasis on the diversity of its congregation. It was also good to share the Peace with those around us.

The invitation to communion was inclusive (“all baptised Christians”) and came with a word to the wise: “Please keep your valuables with you”.

I’m afraid we didn’t stay for coffee – or ‘Morning Tea’ as the Australians call it – not because we didn’t feel welcome, but because the sun was shining, and we wanted to be outside. We enjoyed brunch at a riverside café instead.

One of the things that caught my attention at the cathedral was their use of ‘Tap and Go’ technology: their collection plates are fitted with a device that reads credit cards and automatically takes a donation of $20, which, they say, is the average weekly contribution made by their worshippers. As well as on the collection plates, ‘Tap and Go’ devices were located in various places around the cathedral. It’s a thought! (But if we install those in our churches, what amount should they be set to ask for?)

In the Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper reports, there are a few questions which must always be answered:

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

For me, as so often, it was the music, particularly the Benjamin Britten and the anthem.

And which part was like being in… er… the other place?

Nothing really, although, as I said, listening to someone reading a sermon they haven’t written, doesn’t do a lot for me.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, it was good to feel at home so far from our actual home.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days’ time?

Probably the ‘Tap and Go’ technology.

Alan Jewell

Experience Easter

On the day before Palm Sunday, a group of church people, directed by Ruth Mock, came into St Matthew’s to prepare for ‘Experience Easter‘. They went to work with fabric and greenery, pebbles and props to create a series of six displays which were to be used to tell the Easter story, from Palm Sunday to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. And a fabulous job they did, too – the church looks great!

‘Experience Easter’ came (like a lot of good things) from the Diocese of Gloucester as an attempt to engage children and adults with the message of Easter. We live in a world where, increasingly, people are not familiar with even the basic elements of the Christian story. ‘Experience Easter’, as its name suggests, it not just about telling the Easter story: rather it aims to get participants to ‘experience’ the dynamic of Holy Week and Easter in a journey through six ‘stations’.

  • Hopes and Dreams

We start with the ‘Hopes and Dreams’ of Palm Sunday. Those who take part in ‘Experience Easter’ are asked what they hope for, what they dream of. Some talk about their career ambitions – especially if they want to be a pop star or professional footballer. Others share their hope that a family member will recover from illness.

We tell them that the inhabitants of Jerusalem dreamt of a day when God would send a saviour to rescue them from their oppressors, the Roman Empire. Riding into the city on the back of a donkey, Jesus looks like a saviour – albeit an unlikely one. He is greeted as a king by cheering crowds. Going against everything we usually say to children when they come into church (‘be quiet!’), we invite the children to wave palm leaves and shout as the crowds did: HOSANNA! They process around the church and are then invited to sit (near the font) to hear about ‘The Servant King’.

  • Servant King

What kind of king did Jesus know himself to be? And how can a king be a servant? Jesus kneels in humility, like a lowly slave, and washes the feet of his disciples. We explain to the children that, in Jesus’ day, when you arrived at someone’s home you would do so on foot. Having walked through the hot, dusty streets – trying your best to avoid the ‘messages’ left by donkeys and other creatures – your sandaled feet would be in quite a state. Your host might instruct a slave to wash your feet before dinner. But who would choose such a job? In this station, the leader offers to wash the feet of one of the children taking part. (It’s a moving experience to be the person doing the washing.) Drying the child’s feet with a towel, we explain that Jesus said he was giving an example: that those who follow the Servant King should also serve. We ask the children to think how they might serve others.

  • Remember Me

In the next station, we gather around a table set for a meal – the last supper at which Jesus explains to his disciples that he will die, giving his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out. The station is called ‘Remember Me’ and we ask the children if they have something at home that reminds them of someone special. Children talk about photographs of pets and grandparents that have died. Others have precious objects, like a teddy or necklace that belonged to a family member. Jesus takes bread and wine, gives thanks to God, and shares them with his friends. ‘Do this’, he says, ‘to remember me.’ We give the children a small piece of pitta bread and some blackcurrant squash (no, not real wine!) to eat and drink, and invite them to remember something about Jesus.

  • Alone

After the meal, Jesus goes into the garden of Gethsemane. There he wrestles with the agony of what he must face. But his friends can’t even stay awake to support him and one of them will betray him. This station is called ‘Alone’. Children from Year 3 at the school had prepared poems about loneliness and they show a deep and moving appreciation of what it feels like to be lonely. In our Garden of Gethsemane, we read words of scripture that Jesus may have thought about: how God is always with us, even in our darkest hours and that, with God in our lives, we are never alone.

  • Sharing our Sorrows

Next, we move to the Cross. As you can imagine, this is a difficult subject for all of us, never mind primary school children. But even young children have the capacity to engage with difficult things. We ask them to sit in silence, holding a small cross, and looking at the wooden cross which stands in the pulpit, draped with red fabric. We ask them to share what the scene makes them think or feel. A number of them talk about the sadness, to think that Jesus died in pain. We explain that the station is called ‘Sharing Our Sorrows’ as we think of how God comes into our world with all its darkness and brokenness to share our lives, sorrows and all. We invite the children to bring their thoughts and prayers (and the crosses they have been holding), and to leave them at the foot of the cross before moving on.

  • Resurrection

     

If this was a Holy Week service for adults, we might end there and invite people to come back to church on Easter Sunday to hear the next part of the story. But we don’t do that with children; we don’t leave them with the sadness of the cross. The final station is, of course, ‘Resurrection’. We have a beautiful Easter garden with an empty tomb set up in the sanctuary of the church and invite the children, like those women on the first Easter day, to look into the tomb. What do you think those women felt? Afraid? Worried? Excited?

‘Experience Easter’ ends with the children being given time to ask questions and to look again at the six stations that tell the story. They are also given a small chocolate egg to take away and challenged to remember, when Easter comes and they open their Easter eggs, the story that they have shared through ‘Experience Easter’.

Many thanks to those who created the six stations and to those who have loaned items to decorate them. Everyone who comes into church will appreciate what has been achieved. ‘Experience Easter’ is a wonderful thing and I hope we will be able to repeat it in future years.

I’m writing this in Holy Week: for me, the full experience of Easter still lies ahead. But our prayer is that many visiting the church for an Easter service, or simply coming in to look around at the stations, will experience the Easter message for themselves: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world for good.

Happy Easter!

Alan Jewell

The Twelve

Mark 14:12-16, 22-25

Last week we heard the story of an unnamed woman who anointed Jesus – he says – in preparation for his burial (Mark 14:3-9). Her giving was lavish and extravagant, to the annoyance of some who were there, but accepted by Jesus. I wondered if, instead of a frugal Lent, we might have an extravagant, lavish Lent – a Lent filled with extravagant, lavish love for God and for others.

Today we think about Twelve men. They have names we might know, although it’s not easy to compile a definitive list. Two of them – Peter and Judas – we will come back to on these Wednesday evenings. Tonight we think about ‘the Twelve’ as a group. It seems that Jesus had a purpose in choosing precisely Twelve apostles, or ‘messengers’ (Mark 3:16–19; Matt 10:2–4; Luke 6:14–16; and Acts 1:13). They are called by Jesus. They spend time with Jesus and are instructed by him. They are promised a role in the coming kingdom (Matt 19:28) and are sent out by him preach and heal. But why 12? What is the significance of their twelveness?

In the Hebrew Bible, the people of God consisted of the 12 tribes of Israel. Way back in Genesis (35:22–26), the patriarch Jacob (AKA Israel) had 12 sons who became the heads of 12 tribes which made up the people of Israel. The number 12 turns up in various places in the OT symbolising the whole people of God. In Exodus (24:4), Moses “built an altar … and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel”. Joshua was told to choose 12 men, one from each of the tribes, to take a stone from the river Jordan and to set them up as a memorial to their crossing the river (Joshua 4). In calling 12 men, Jesus seems to be gathering around himself a new people of God. In the OT story, the 12 tribes became divided and factional: the united kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon became a divided kingdom, one northern (Israel) and one southern (Judah). Both north and south went into exile and were dispersed. The idea of drawing the 12 tribes back together became a potent one.

So, Jesus chooses his 12 and sends them out as missionaries to the contemporary people of Israel. In the OT, God’s calling of his people, from Abraham onwards, was never just about them: the people of God were supposed to be a blessing to the whole world.

I’ve just finished reading a book about mental health and I’ve started a book on politics – they are different subjects but there have been some interesting overlaps. Both books talk about community. Our ancestors were social beings. The human race has done so well as a species because we learned to cooperate. On the African savannah our ancestors were surrounded by large, fierce creatures. They managed to survive because they learned to hunt together and to defend themselves as a group. They learned the value of looking out for one another. Both books talk about the loss of community that began in the C20th and has accelerated in the C21st. We live much more separate lives – we have become ‘atomised’. My dad left school and did his apprenticeship at Dowty Rotol. They made parts for aeroplanes. When he retired, he had never worked anywhere else. Every morning he got on the bus and went to work. Every evening he came home on the bus. Some Friday evenings he would take us to the works sports and social club. In the summer, there were fetes and at Christmas, a party for the children. When we went on holiday, usually to Butlins, he would invariably meet someone he knew from work. My children, by contrast, have already had more jobs than my dad had in the whole of his working life. We talk about the gig economy. Zero hours contracts. Work is precarious. Increasingly, people work from home or on a rented desk. Work is no longer providing community.

We think of loneliness as being a problem of old age. And it is. But it’s also a problem for younger generations, who have social media but no social lives. Who have facetime, but no face-to-face time. The image of the modern family is of parents and kids, even in the same room, all looking at different screens. We no longer gather around the telly to watch the Morecambe and Wise show, we binge watch box-sets on demand. Families don’t eat together like they used to.

When I was at university, the personal stereo – the Sony Walkman – was invented. Seeing people walking in the streets with their earphones in, someone I knew commented, “defeated the object of being human”. And now we all do it.

The two books I have referred to both see this as a loss: one talks about the damage we are doing to our mental health, the other to the loss to society of shared experience. Both books say that building community is a project vital to our wellbeing.

But isn’t that what church has always been about? Community? Like the 12, centred on Jesus, learning from him, and sent out by him to mission and service. The time we spend together, the experience we share, the support we give and receive, equip us better to live our lives and to love one another, including those outside the church fellowship

The numbers attending worship are dwindling – partly because of the phenomena I’ve mentioned – and yet the need for community has not diminished. The 12 weren’t perfect – we know that – and neither is the church, present company excepted. But what we have found is – we believe – what the world needs. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t know that it needs what we have! And we are not very good at sharing it.

Jesus calling the 12 is a clue: although our faith is personal, the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone. It is meant to be lived in community; that community is not meant to be a fortress that keeps others out but a beacon of light that welcomes others in. And he calls them together around the meal table.

The Woman with the Alabaster Jar

Mark 14:3-9

When I was in the first year of secondary school, I knew that we were grown up now because our RE teacher, Mr Potter, said to us, conspiratorially, “of course, boys, you know that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute”. I have to say, I didn’t know that: it had never been mentioned in primary school. But it made me feel like an adult to have this information shared with me. By the time I was an adult, I learned that Mr Potter, RE teacher, was wrong. He wasn’t alone. He was repeating an error made in the C6th by Pope Gregory the Great. It turns out that the church hasn’t always been good in the way in which it handles the stories of women. Gregory had confused Mary Magdalene, the disciple from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, with a number of other women in the gospels. As we hear the story of the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany, let’s try to hear her story and not get distracted by any other stories from the gospels.

Mark is probably the earliest gospel: Mark (the author) invented the genre. And the earliest part of Mark’s Gospel is probably the passion narrative (chapters 14 to the end) – which existed before the gospel as we know it, either in written or spoken form. This part of the story is told in more detail than all of Jesus’s life up to this point. In fact, Mark’s Gospel is 16 chapters long and by the start of chapter 11, we are already entering Jerusalem, the beginning of the end (apparently).

Mark gives us the story of Holy Week day by day, from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the resurrection of Jesus. So, two days before the Passover, the chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus and have him killed. Not during the festival or there may be a riot. So, Mark tells us, it’s Wednesday of Holy Week (as we would call it). Jesus is in Bethany, at the home of ‘Simon the leper’, eating a meal, and a woman arrives with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, which she pours on Jesus’s head.

It’s perfumed oil, made from an exotic plant. At St Matthew’s a couple of years ago, in Holy Week, we thought about the stories of the passion narrative in terms of our senses – sight, sound, taste. touch… – and we used this story to think about the sense of smell. In our world, scented candles, aromatherapy oils and diffusers are common. But Mark tells us that the woman had an alabaster jar of “very costly ointment”. She broke open the jar and poured the contents on Jesus’s head. This is an extravagant gesture. The scented oil was worth more than 300 denarii. A denarius is a day’s wage for a labourer. This perfume cost getting on for a year’s wages.

What a waste! The disciples say. What a waste! We could have given that money to the poor! Jesus’s reply (“you always have the poor with you”) could sound callous. His point is not, There will always be poor people, get used to it! What he says is, you will have many opportunities to give to the poor – his assumption is that giving to the poor is a natural part of what it means to be a follower of his – but at this precise moment, what this woman has chosen to do is to make a “lavish offering of inspired devotion”. It’s spontaneous and generous and extravagant. She may not have understood what she was doing but Jesus gives an interpretation: she has anointed my body for burial. She has done what she could. At this precise moment in the story, what more could anyone have done, other than anoint his body in preparation for burial?

At this point, I could break into a sermon about giving: this woman gave a year’s wages. How much do you put in the plate on a Sunday? I want you to get out your chequebook – we don’t take cards and you won’t have enough cash on you – and prove your love for God by making an extravagant donation!

But I’ll spare you that. The story of Jesus feeding the 5000 is a story of extravagance – there were 12 baskets left over after everyone had eaten! Jesus turning water into wine is a story of extravagance – 120 gallons of wine, after everyone has been drinking for days! This woman gets it.

When we are afraid, we live in a world where resources seem limited. “There’s a limited supply of happiness. If you’re happy, that takes away from my happiness.” But it doesn’t work like that! If you can be happy for other people, you’ll discover there is an unlimited supply of happiness. (“I’m happy for you” is sometimes said through gritted teeth. But what a skill to master! You’re happy. I’m happy! There’s an unlimited supply of happiness!)

How much love is there in the world? A limited supply? If you’ve got love in your life, does that mean there’s less for me?

No. As the children’s song has it:

It’s just like a magic penny,

Hold it tight and you won’t have any.

Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many

They’ll roll all over the floor.

For love is something if you give it away,

Give it away, give it away.

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

 

We often think of Lent as being about abstinence, being frugal. But what about an extravagant Lent? A lavish Lent? A Lent filled with extravagant, lavish love for God and for others.

The unnamed woman with the alabaster jar gets it. And, Mark tells us, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”. And it is. And her story challenges us to get it too.

Love Is In The Air…

This year, Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, falls on 14th February, otherwise known as St Valentine’s Day. This may cause problems for devout romantics as we try to reconcile our Lenten discipline with the extravagance of love… (Maybe transfer your Valentine’s celebration to the day before and take your beloved out for pancakes?)

We will be marking the start of Lent (on Valentine’s Day!) with a service of Holy Communion, with the imposition of Ashes, at St Matthew’s at 7:30 PM on Ash Wednesday. Then, on the following Wednesday evenings during Lent, we will have our usual service of night prayer (also known as ‘Compline’). If you have never been to one of these, I recommend them: it’s a short service (about 25 minutes) of quiet reflection and prayer.

I am also hoping that we will have enough takers for a Lent Course. This will probably be held on Tuesday evenings at the vicarage. If you are interested, let me know and I will confirm the details for you.

For the romantics, with thoughts of love around this time, we are again holding our Weddings Afternoon at St Matthew’s. It will be at 2:00 PM on Sunday 11th February – the nearest Sunday to St Valentine’s Day. As in previous years, we have invited couples who have booked weddings at St Matthew’s to attend but the occasion is open to anyone who would like to join us. I’m sorry to say that we have very few weddings currently booked – there are just 4 at St Matthew’s and 2 at St Cross for the whole of 2018.

The dearth of weddings being planned may make you wonder whether love is, actually, all around or not. Of course, people still fall in love and get married. But increasingly, they don’t make the connection between romance and family life, and what the church has to offer. The most recent statistics show that only a quarter of weddings (26%) include a religious ceremony. These days, the choice that couples have is greater than ever – from hotels to stately homes and other venues. The Christian Church needs to make more of the fact that the very heart of our message is love:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4.16).

Making that connection – between the love of God and people’s daily lives is our constant challenge – demonstrating that our faith in the God who is love makes a positive difference to the lives that we lead.

One of the problems with Lent is that it might look like we are not really good enough for God; that we have to improve our lives before God will find us acceptable. But that is not the message of the Gospel. Before his public ministry begins, Jesus is baptised by John in the river Jordan. As he comes out of the water, he hears a voice from heaven:

‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.11)

This is before Jesus has done anything! Before his public ministry of teaching and healing; before his miracles; before his death and resurrection. Before any of that, God affirms that Jesus is God’s beloved Son and that God is already pleased with him!

As we make our journey through Lent and as we celebrate the love that we have for one another, maybe we need to hear God’s affirming word to us:

You are my child. I love you. I’m pleased with you!

And on that basis, let’s get on with loving God and loving one another. Not in order to win God’s favour but in simple gratitude for knowing ourselves loved. We need to know that love is, actually, all around!

Alan Jewell

Two stories…

In Mark 3.7-12 we read of the crowds following Jesus. There is “a great multitude”; we hear of “great numbers” and Jesus is concerned that he will be crushed by the crowd… And then we look at the church that we belong to. At our church council meetings, we receive a report on attendance. Spoiler alert: attendance is dropping. Year on year, fewer people are coming to church. As a vicar, that’s discouraging. And it’s not just us. In 2011, the Church Growth Research and Development website described the Church of England as being in the ‘Last Chance Saloon’. That was six years ago. Things have not improved. Of particular concern is the attendance of children. In the decade to 2016, adult attendance dropped by 13%. With children (under 16s), the fall was 22%. The average Church of England church has three children in it. 25% of churches have no children at all. (Last Sunday, at St Matthew’s, there was one child. I think there were two at St Cross.)

As you know, we are about to employ a children and families worker to try to address this situation. But what of the church we hope that children and families will join?

In Mark 3:8 we read that the crowds had heard all that Jesus was doing. That’s why they turn up to see and hear for themselves What is our community hearing about us and about Jesus? What they hear is a church that often inward looking, fighting its own battles – many of which are irrelevant to the wider world – and on its way out. Those of us who are part of the church know that there is good news too: in church, people find love, welcome, acceptance and purpose.

There is healing too – maybe not as spectacular as the miracles we read about in the New Testament – but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. People find support which helps them to live their lives.

I was reading an interview with Russell Brand. You may know him as a comedian, actor, writer and political activist. Many churchgoers would find his comedy and his persona crude, coarse, and vulgar. He is a brash, shocking character who has struggled with addiction. He was in a self-destructive cycle and was rescued from addiction by a 12-step programme. But this interview quotes him as saying something which may be most shocking of all:

“My personal feeling is the teachings of Christ are more relevant now than they’ve ever been.”

As an addict, he believes that the world of today is addicted to instant gratification. How do we break out of that cycle? By inviting God into our lives. That’s what he learned from his 12-step programme and he’s become an evangelist for it.

I’m not holding up Russell Brand as a perfect example of orthodox Christianity – far from it! Who knows whether his transformation will last and what long-term impact it will have? But the story he tells about Christian faith and spirituality is far more positive than many we hear.

Brand believes that investing in Christian spirituality has saved him. That’s old-fashioned language, ‘saved’! Most Christians don’t talk like that any more. But Brand believes that what he has discovered personally has the power to transform the world. He says the Lord’s Prayer every day and found himself asking, what does it mean to pray “Thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven”? It’s not enough to be transformed oneself. We need to seek the transformation of the world in which we live. The world is addicted to instant gratification and needs to be saved.

So there are two stories about Jesus. The one the church tells which is often negative and unappealing. And there’s the one told by those whose lives have been transformed by their encounter with the God who is made known in Jesus Christ.

Salvator Mundi

Sermon preached at St Cross, Appleton Thorn at 11:30 PM Holy Communion on Sunday 24 December 2017 / Christmas Night

Introduction

On 15th November this year, a painting came up for sale at Christie’s in New York. The successful bidder paid $450 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold. In 1958, it had gone for £45, which, with inflation, is a little under £1000 in today’s money. So, what happened? In 2011, the painting was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Before that, it had been believed to be by one of his pupils or some unknown artist, possibly a copy of the original. (Some art experts are still not convinced that it is a genuine Leonardo, so, you pays your money…)

The picture is called Salvator Mundi – Saviour of the World – and was painted around 1500. It’s a picture of Jesus Christ, holding the cosmos in his left hand and raising his right hand in blessing. Jesus is the Saviour of the World and he could be yours for $450m.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser, writing about Salvator Mundi makes a connection between what was happening in Italy in the early 1500s, when Leonardo was active, and what was happening in Germany not long after. In 1517, an Augustinian monk in the university town of Wittenberg had been struggling with how to get right with God. If God is righteous, what chance do we stand?

The monk’s name was Martin Luther and he had concluded that

despite his rigorous standard of living, nothing he was capable of as a human being would ever be good enough for God. And that, if God was entirely just – that is, if God judged us according to our merits – then all of us are in deep trouble.

Luther was reading St Paul’s letter to the Romans and trying to understand the expression, “the righteousness of God”. He took this to mean that God is just and punishes the unjust. How could God do otherwise? Luther knew that, as a monk, his life was impeccable. And yet he also knew himself to be a sinner. Nothing he could do would ever satisfy God. Luther the monk didn’t love God. In fact, he hated God because he believed that God was and ought to be angry with him.

And then Luther looked again at St Paul’s phrase, “the righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17) and the idea that “the just shall live by faith”.

Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…” (Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther)

In other words, Luther the impeccable monk knew that he wasn’t good enough for God. Imagine trying to save up to buy the Salvator Mundi. It doesn’t matter how much I save or how hard I work, even if I save and work to the day I die, I’m never going to achieve the $450m. I don’t stand a chance! Luther knew that he could never earn God’s salvation. What he discovered in scripture was that God is not just ‘righteous’ but also merciful. You’ll never be able to afford the Saviour of the World – no matter how good you are or how religious – but what if the Saviour of the World offered himself to you as a gift, a free gift? This insight, that God offers us salvation not as a reward for being good, but as a gift to be received by faith, transformed not just Luther but the world in which we live. It was the rediscovery of this idea that began the protestant reformation 500 years ago.

Conclusion

The Good News of Christmas is that the Saviour of the World comes to us as a gift. God isn’t waiting for you to be good enough or religious enough. The New Testament says that it was while we were still sinners, that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

That’s how we know God loves us. The Christian life is not about being good or being holy or righteous or religious. It’s about being loved. And loving in return. And love cannot be bought or sold. It can only be given and received as a gift.

And, unlike Santa, there is no naughty list, no nice list, there is just a ‘loved’ list. And your name is on it. Whether you are naughty or nice, your name is on God’s list. The point of the Christmas gospel message is that it is a free gift. Jesus, laid in a manger, the servant of all, obedient to death on a cross, risen, ascended, glorified, is yours.

Additional Collect

Eternal God,
in the stillness of this night
you sent your almighty Word
to pierce the world’s darkness with the light of salvation:
give to the earth the peace that we long for
and fill our hearts with the joy of heaven
through our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Good Old Saint Nick!

On Saturday, I was given a Christmas quiz to complete. (Yes, Saturday. The day before Advent had even begun, but let that pass.) One of the questions was

Where did the original Saint Nicholas come from?

As the former vicar of a church dedicated to St Nicholas, I was fairly confident that the answer was, as is often the case in early church history, “In what is now Turkey”. Nicholas turns up on Christmas quizzes because his name is where we get ‘Santa Claus’ from, of course. (In my previous parish, we had to get ‘Santa’ to fill in a child protection registration in order to appear at our Christmas fair. Not the real, Santa, you understand, he was too busy, but a stand-in. Employer: St Nicholas’. Job applied for: Saint Nicholas.)

The real Saint Nicholas was the bishop of a place called Myra (in what is now Turkey). He was born to wealthy parents but orphaned as a teenager. In the year 303 CE, the Roman emperor Diocletian passed laws making it compulsory to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Those who refused were imprisoned and could be executed. Nicholas was imprisoned but released when Constantine became emperor in 306.

It is said that Nicholas attend the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine in 325. He was a fierce defender of orthodox trinitarian Christian faith. So much so, that there is a story that he slapped the heretic Arius. Well done, Santa! Despite that:

“He is reported to have been a kind and generous man, with a great love of justice, and to have intervened on a number of occasions to save people who had been unjustly condemned.”

The Saints of the Anglican Calendar, Kathleen Jones, Canterbury Press, 2000

He died in Myra and was buried in the cathedral but his remains were whisked away in the eleventh century CE to Bari in Italy. Some say his relics were stolen but it’s alright because Saint Nicholas himself appeared in a vision to tell them that he needed to be taken away before the Muslim Turks invaded.

The first biography of Nicholas was written 200 years after his death and many of the stories associated with him come from an account written in the thirteenth century.
The best known of them involved the saint saving three girls, whose poor father could provide no dowry in order for them to marry, from a fate worse than death by lobbing bags of gold into their home. This is supposed to be the origin of the pawnbroker’s sign – three gold balls – and is associated with the idea of giving gifts. He is also supposed to have rescued three boys who had been butchered in order to be sold as ham by a wicked butcher. Restoring boys to life who have been butchered and salted for ham is an interesting idea: first they were cured then they were healed.

In St Nicholas’ Church, Halewood, there is a set of three windows behind the altar with Saint Nicholas flanked by couple of angels. (The windows are by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.) Nicholas is depicted holding a baby and visitors assume that the child is Jesus but I don’t think it is. I think it is just a child being held to show the saint’s love of children. If I were talking to a group of children visiting the church, as they did from our own and other primary schools, I would point out that, in our church, there was a child in the centre. In the same way Jesus put a child at the centre when he said

‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (Luke 18:16)

As churches we are struggling to get children and young people to be a part of our family. (To be honest, we are struggling to get the parents of children, even grandparents.) But we have the legend of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, and the example of Jesus who welcomed the little children, to help set our agenda.

Without children in the church, we are missing out. Jesus says

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Luke 18:17)