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Harvest Festival, St John’s.

by Rev Ellie.

(Deut 8:7-18, 2 Cor 9:6-15, Luke 12:16-30)

What does Harvest mean to you? What does it mean to town dwellers? What do you think it means to those who live their entire lives in cities? Who perhaps have never left the council estates? Don’t tell me that no one ever lives their lives like that because there are families, generations who have never seen the countryside. There are ministries and missions that aim to take children into the countryside, to give them, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.

Because there is something that no one can really identify and put their finger on that aids are relaxation, allows us to ‘chillax’ by taking a walk through the countryside. Something that grounds us, seeing plants and trees grow without hindrance, nurtured yet untamed.

Perhaps it is primaeval, knowing that plants just get on with growing, or a turn into a state of dormancy over the winter months without the need for constant input from humans. Of course, there are very few parts of Scotland that are truly wild, that haven’t had any input from humankind over the centuries. Most of our land has been improved or semi-improved over the centuries, or perhaps the land has been desecrated and semi-desecrated depending on whether you view it as human progress or human invasion of land and habitats.

Our need for food and a wide variety of food for our discerning taste buds requires evermore exploitation of the land and seas around us. We missed the Sunday set aside for celebrating creationtide, but I think it ties quite nicely with Harvest. Celebrating the good things that God has provided for us. Okay, so the potato harvest for some of us (me in particular) hasn’t been ideal (I have handfuls of small and tiny potatoes). And over the past few weeks we have seen silage, cereals, hay and straw all being either bagged or trussed up ready for the winter.

Our farmers have had a few hard years. Long winters, with extra food needed while livestock has been kept indoors longer than normal, drought, floods, unseasonably cold and dry summers that have limited the root growth of crops, thereby starting growth and the maturity of grains. I wonder how much of that has come to our attention? So what does harvest mean to you? Perhaps you could take your pen and paper and write down what you think it means? 

Our readings today paint a discordant picture… One with ‘entry to the land of wheat and barley, vines and fig trees and pomegranates, the land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing;’ one that is about the cheerful giver, giving as he or she is able; and a reading that decries the storage of more and more for oneself.

Thinking about the Gospel reading where the wealthy landowner has his life demanded from him reminds me of the time that the Jews were in Exodus, and eating manna. If they gathered more than they needed, the manna turned unusable. There was enough for everyone, and no one went hungry. But by all accounts, the manna wasn’t exactly going to meet the desire of those with discerning taste buds. But the people of the Exodus would enter the land of abundance.

If we take the last two readings – 2 Corinthians 9 and Luke 12, and break them down into the basic components, we are left with the attitude with which one views God’s abundance. Either we are cheerful in giving away what God has given us (and this feeds into the parable of the talents were one person buries the one talent given to him/her, and the other two invest their talents) or we become miserly and overprotective of all of what we have. What feeds into that is suspicion, suspicion of others that they might take away what we consider ours.

The harvest, and a celebration of harvest must once upon a time, been such a simple affair – simply celebrating what has come from the land, and what we can store up for the winter. Communities would have worked together – tattie harvesting (labelled by some now as enforced child labour), scything, and so on. The community worked together for the good of the community. Because as a community we have the strength to withstand in a way that isolated individuals cannot. That is why, even with the dispersed and get a church model that we have today, we must continue to check in with one another. 

Harvest for me includes foraging from the hedgerows. For me that starts in summer, with elderflowers so I can make my own cordial for the rest of the year. Elderberries, plums, blackcurrants, cob nuts (if you’re lucky) and so on. What do you do with your harvest?

What else can be considered to fit in with this harvest theme? Let us look at the second reading again.

The point is this: the one who says sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who says bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.

Paul isn’t writing about an actual harvest of greens here. He is writing about the attitude with which one approaches life. Your gain will be little in comparison to the one who says bountifully. God does not judge here – Paul does not say that something sparsely is wrong, but it is how the sewing is done that concerns him. Joyful giving of money, of effort, food, or kind words, of positivity overflows with many thanksgivings to God. I wonder what you sow? What do you sow into each other’s lives?

In our reading in Deuteronomy, we see part of the speech given by God to the people, through Moses.

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, the land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters, a land where you will lack nothing. You should eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you. Do not say to yourself, “my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth. “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

Everyone can enter this good land, but not everyone will appreciate what they are given. The warning is there from God: your wealth does not come by the power of your own hand. It is the lord your God who provides for you. Let us give thanks in the words of the apostle, Paul:

You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”

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Trinity 11: Sunday August 23rd, 2020 by Rev Ellie

Readings: Exodus 1:8 – 2:10, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1–8, Matthew 16:13–20

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’

I wonder how many of you at some point can say to yourselves that something was revealed to you by God and not by humans. Perhaps it was a feeling, or a dawning realisation, or a point that you can identify in your life where you suddenly knew God, or something of God in a way that you didn’t know before. 

Sometimes, I feel, we are too shy to talk about these moments. But in fact, these moments are the points in our lives that help us to build and move in faith. God is alive, he is lives in us and we in him. If we choose to, we can allow God to reveal Scriptures or situations to us where the first activity we are expected to do is to pray. Much of what God reveals is to us, personally, and to pray into that revelation. That is our faith. Our spirituality is bound up in our decision to follow Christ. 

During one of my holidays in a remote part of Scotland with no mobile reception, a friend of mine suddenly popped into my mind. I knew in that instance that another friend had asked her to marry him. When I returned home a few days later, I sought my friend and that engagement was confirmed. Sometimes we might have what we call ‘gut-instinct’. These, I believe, are part of the spiritual connection we have with others. Sometimes of course, we can go so far off in the other direction that there is no spiritual connection, but instead, what we are experiencing is all in the mind.

The mind and knowledge can be a mixed blessing when it comes to choosing to follow Christ. If we’re not careful, the mind leads the way. We aim to garner knowledge about God while choosing to be in utter control of our lives, thinking that is the way of Christ. Yet, Paul in his letter to the Romans – one of the last letters he wrote, incidentally – requests we should not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. In order that we might discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The mind, in control, seeks those things that the world expects – dominance, rule, importance, success. Fear can often accompany these, as losing control or importance downgrades us in the eyes of the world. But we are not of this world. We are in it, but not of it. Paul writes of grace:

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.’

Paul never met Jesus. Paul wasn’t taught by him – he wasn’t one of the disciples. Having learned the rabbinical teachings of the Law, he knew off by heart what we know as the Old Testament – the Hebraic Scriptures. These Scriptures were what he was using to persecute new followers of The Way – the new movement that gathered pace after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, before it was known as Christianity. Where therefore did Paul gather his knowledge, his theology?

It was grace that brought Paul to Christ. His single point of conversion on the road, followed by three years of unlearning and relearning the Scriptures. That shows us some of Paul’s character. He was so single minded and focused that it took a visual showdown to wake Paul up to the reality of a God who is loving, kind and compassionate. We will never know if there were several ‘coincidental’ encounters before Paul was blinded where God was trying to get his attention. Certainly, I always find with hindsight that there are a number of incidences where God has nudged me in one direction or another. But he gives me the choice whether to follow up on that nudge. 

Moments of epiphany like that aren’t always experienced. Some of us take years, if not decades, to realise who God is. Some people retain the mind as being the focal point of their worship of God, and some go with their heart. Often though I suspect that it is a mix of the two. We cannot simply make the difference of heart and mind a dualistic comparison. But it is something I think we need to be aware of. Knowledge of God is not the same as knowing God.

If we return to the Gospel passage, knowledge of God is quite clear in the first response Jesus receives. A hedging of the bets. “And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Knowing God comes in the next sentence. We will never know when that moment occurred for Peter. He might have been carrying around that understanding for some time before voicing it.

Then comes the revelation of that meaning. “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 

Reread my last paragraph again. And if necessary, again. So often we don’t think about our actions having consequences. Our words reverberating through space and time. 

Knowing God comes through prayer, through our lives and our devotions. Through the way we use our gifts according to the grace given to us. We are not limited by the list that Paul provides. These are examples of what is good and kind. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection. Be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 

Please pray with me…

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Reflection for Sunday 26th July. Acceptance and trust, by Alan Finch

Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

I was really intrigued by the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel so I went searching about for inspiration for this reflection and found some very interesting views on how to look at this story, and specifically a lady named Mandy Smith (on a website ‘crosswalk.com), who is an ordinary woman but who had an out of the ordinary take on the story which inspired this reflection.

So I begin by looking at the story in Genesis 29:15-28 where we see that Jacob was working for his uncle Laban who said that family or not you should not work for nothing; what payment do you want.  Jacob (who fancied Rachel) said to Laban that if I work for you for 7 years will you let me marry your daughter Rachel and Laban said – Deal.  When the 7 years were up Jacob asked for Rachel’s hand and a big party was held to celebrate the marriage.  Laban though had other ideas for he had an older daughter Leah and tradition in their country was that the eldest should marry first so Laban got Leah to go to Jacobs’s tent in the evening and sleep with him thus consummating the marriage.  In the morning when Jacob arose he discovered the switch and was more than just a bit hurt at being deceived and after some words with Laban agreed that he could marry Rachel but only after spending the marriage week with Leah AND work for another 7 years by way of payment.  

Jacob was angry about the deceit, and I reckon that must have been tough on Leah being classed as second best which would put a barrier between Leah and Rachel as they had to ‘fight’ for Jacob.  Indeed such was the rivalry that at one stage Leah bartered some mandrake root as a price to pay for Rachel to allow Leah to sleep with Jacob.   If that was not a complicated triangle enough both women had hand maids (servants) who they in turn got Jacob to sleep with (marry) and between the four women the 12 tribes of Judah were born.

Sometimes I forget that the bible has some ‘raunchy’ parts even by our standards today; love triangle(s) since there were 4 woman and 1 man involved together; Jealousy, deceit and throughout it all is the hand of God.  

Now I realise that times have changed (thank goodness I do not think I could cope with 4 wives!!) 

It must be remembered though that Jacob was no stranger to deceit, because he was the person who managed the process of deceiving his twin (but older brother) Esau out of his birth right. Now it is his turn to have the tables turned against him and it was Laban, the father of his beloved Rachel who does this by switching out one daughter for the other on the night Jacob expects to consummate a marriage with Rachel.  Maybe this was God’s way of reminding Jacob of his prior life when he schemed to displace Esau’s birth right? 

Well I suppose we might have little or no sympathy for Jacob given his previous behaviour but it becomes quiet clear as we read through this story that Laban and Jacob’s own mother were just as manipulative in getting Jacob deceived.  This is then a family of people who are deceitful even if they did not think they were being bad.  However it is very interesting that even if the family was ‘bad’ God can and does (thank God) still work through people’s imperfections and bring about good; important because it affirms that even when we disappoint God, the promises that God has made will still be kept.

And that’s not all – over time, Jacob also marries Leah’s servant Zilpah, and Rachel’s servant Bilhah, and as we all know, among these four wives he fathers twelve sons who become the heads of the tribes of Israel – Jacob’s new name, given to him by the stranger with whom he wrestles all night beside the river Jabbok (Israel means “he who wrestles with God”).

So Jacob was drawn to Rachel because of her beauty unlike God who looks inside and sees as greater worth to the kingdom, not the outward beauty but what lies in the heart within. We as humans do like to make our appearance as good as we possibly can because we know that what matters to another person is our outwards appearance, although as we all get older that will fade. Maybe we should be taking a leaf out of God’s book and look deeper into another person before judging them solely based on appearances next time. 

But be rest assured that God is in this story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel because we see how God worked through this family to bring about His will; by the sons born from all four women who eventually make up the twelve tribes of Israel. So for sure this story says that things aren’t always as they seem.

In the case of Leah, she was rejected, dealt with the emotions of jealousy, and her deep desire to be pursued and came to the realisation that although her own sister Rachel was wanted and pursued, Rachel herself had her own problems and feelings of jealousy and anger to deal with; and Jacob had not made those go away.  On the contrary he had in effect made them worse.  What Leah found was that putting her trust in her Lord meant that no one could take that trust away and that God (her Lord) was always true and would never stop loving her.

So we are then reminded that God’s plan for our lives doesn’t always end up with us being the most ‘fancied’ one or the main attraction or most popular, or the most beautiful.  Neither are we promised a pain free life but what we are promised to receive is much, much more.  We are promised in return for our trust in God, the security of God’s love.  We are assured that He will always put us first in His pursuit of us, and has a burning desire to use our lives for His glory; and in that we can be certain.

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Curate’s Letter: Life as normal? Or, life as God wants it?

One of the things I remember reading near the start of this lockdown was a conversation from a mother to her daughter. Her daughter was bored, soon after lockdown began. The mother urged her daughter to keep a journal because she said that in decades to come, the daughter would recall the events around the pandemic and relay them to her grandchildren. Into that journal would go the best and the worst, because that is what happens when you write a journal. Emotions and facts are poured into the pages, that as soon as the page is turned, are kept hidden, until someone years later opens the journal and reads of the struggle of life under lockdown.

Last month I asked if we were up for the adventure of life after lockdown before we know what’s coming. I’m still asking that question. Most of us probably want things to stay as exactly as we can control. But that’s not what life is about, is it? Life itself isn’t black and white, it’s neither one or the other. Controlling others’ lives is neither freeing for ourselves, or for the people around us. For example, dictating who should sit on church committees because ‘they’re not like us’ shows a distinct lack of compassion. Perhaps you think the word ‘dictate’ is too strong a word? Perhaps I should describe the mechanism of exclusion and elitism? Perhaps I should describe it as privilege, in the sense of white, middle-class, and in the ‘in-group.’

It should be a privilege to serve on Vestry, to come alongside others who, like you, are struggling in their spirituality but want to serve God. It should be a humbling experience to serve God in any way we can – whether that is in the community, or in church. We should be open to explore others’ points of view with a wide variety of backgrounds, colour and ability. We should be willing to include anyone who wants to serve God, understanding that in our diversity the church has a greater chance of survival.

As the different regions of the UK begin to ease out of lockdown, we wonder whether life as normal will continue? Perhaps, for some of you, life has continued as normal and you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. Perhaps you’re wondering when church as normal is going to get going. I put it to you that church ‘as normal,’ here in Caithness wasn’t exactly welcoming to many people I have spoken to. I would include words that I have used elsewhere – such as white and middle-class and who’s in (and therefore who’s excluded).

Over the past few months, I have rung around a great many people, seeing how they are – rather than focussing in on the few who I know struggle or are housebound. I have spent much of my curacy saying sorry to people who have been hurt by anger in the church, those who wish to control, those who wish to have things exactly the way they want, those who have excluded others on some extraordinary impolite basis. And I am still saying sorry. The numbers of people whom I have not reached has vastly reduced, and I now have over one hundred people regularly receiving from the church across Caithness. That doesn’t include associated people in the care homes or other community initiatives.

I can now count on two hands those across Caithness whom I have not managed to reach for one reason or another. To those, if you’re reading this – I would love to make contact.

I, personally, don’t want to go back to ‘church as normal.’ As it was. I would love to see a church that is vibrant, welcoming, as diverse as it can be. No longer white, middle-class and privileged. And I can imagine some of you saying that introducing change like that is too fast, or it’s up to me to do all those things. I am not the church. The two churches in Caithness are not mine, but then again, neither are they yours. They belong to God and we, as a team, need to steward them with hearts full of care and compassion. Reaching out to those who no longer pop in – either on a Sunday or any other day of the week. 

Another quote I saw early in lockdown was an imagined conversation between the devil and God. The devil claps his hands in glee at the church buildings with their doors shut, and says ‘See… I have stopped church in its tracks.’ And God turns around and responds ‘Ah, but now I have church in every home.’

The paradox of lockdown of the church buildings was done out of love, and the gradual and cautious opening up of them will be done with love as well. The Vestries are working through guidance that the College of Bishops have issued. They will need to discuss all of the implications and prove to their diocesan bishop that they can meet all of the requirements before the church doors open for private prayer. 

In the meantime, services and Evening Prayer continue online – with as much access as we can provide. More people are accessing services online than physically come into our church buildings. What does that say about our attitude to Sunday services and church in general? Last month I wrote that we have to learn to let go of that way of ‘doing things.’ We have to let our favoured ways of doing and being church slip away. Church is not there for our possession. The church is not an object that can be misappropriated for our own means.

Life as God wants it doesn’t have ‘I’ in it. It doesn’t have self-justification, and apologies – saying sorry  – doesn’t come with a ‘but’ in the sentence. Life as God wants it is full of grace, it listens and is compassionate. It reaches out, out of our comfort zones. Love is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the being of God, and the meaning of humanity. This love was poured out on us at Pentecost, and it is up to us all to share it with everyone. Regardless of status, colour or ability. With hearts full of care and compassion, the church – the people – is embedded into the community, rather than sitting on the side-lines watching the world pass it by. There is no age-limit to bringing in that sort of change. All that is required is a compassionate heart and a willingness to pray. 

This, then, is where we need to begin. To understand that church is not a business and cannot run on a business model. It is a living, breathing organic structure that needs to flex and change and adapt as circumstances require. Prayer should be at the heart of all we do and say – it is only by submitting ourselves to God as individuals that what we do and the way we see others will begin to change. Prayer will help our way out of lockdown, and prayer will enable the Church in Caithness to grow. Please pray with me…

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Reflection for June 21st 2020

Compassion, Kindness and Provision – Remembering the Persecuted Church

by Sue Berry

ReadingsGen 21:8-21, Matt 10:24-39, Rom 6:1-11, Ps 86; 1-10, 16 17. 

Today our reading in Genesis looks at the distressing circumstances faced by Haggar and her son Ishmael who have been cast out and left to wander through the desert. Whilst in Matthew’s gospel, the reading focuses on Jesus’ words of warning and encouragement to the disciples, about what to expect when the gospel is shared. He encourages them not to fear. Woven through both stories are the compassion, faithfulness and provision of God in the face of persecution. 

Abraham has two sons. The first, the son of a slave woman, is born out of Abraham’s and Sarah’s understandable doubts that God promises will be fulfilled. The second child is born to them in their old age against all odds. During a household gathering both Ishmael and Isaac are playing and enjoying themselves, all however is not well. Sarah does not want to see the son of a slave woman as a reminder of her long wait and sorrow to inherit along with her son. She wants this slave woman to be cast out; Abraham on the other hand doesn’t want to do it. Ishmael after all is his son too. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah wants. It is through Isaac the promise is fulfilled. However, God reassures Abraham that Ishmael too will be the father of a nation. Abraham rises early in the morning, puts food and a skein of water on her shoulders and sends away his son with the boy’s mother to wander in the wilderness. She has nowhere to turn no options to return to the household she’s left and is facing a perilous situation. 

Hagar places Ishmael under a bush not wanting to see him die. She lifts her voice and weeps. God hears the boy and an angel speaks to her asking why she is troubled, telling her do not be afraid. God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. She is instructed to lift up the boy and take his hand. They are given a miraculous provision of water and life.   God is bringing new life to both Abraham’s and his sons in their stories. Ishmael’s story tells us about God’s care and providence. We cannot limit God’s mercy. God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast and God saves.

In the passage from Matthew’s gospel Jesus brings a message of encouragement to his disciples and tells them not to fear. Three times in this passage Jesus tells them not to be afraid when persecution happens as the good news of freedom in Jesus is shared. Jesus assures them that the truth will be revealed there will come a day when things will be seen as they really are and the power of the persecutor and the heroism of Christian witness will be seen at their true value, each will have its true reward and justice. Jesus encourages them to change their focus and to have a reverent fear for the Lord God, who has the ultimate authority and who can take the ultimate actions in his judgements, which have eternal rather than temporal consequences.

In the early church the Apostles were to die for their faith as they shared the gospel of Jesus Christ. They underwent suffering and persecution as their stories unfold in the book of Acts and elsewhere. Persecution has followed believers down through history.

For millions of Christians around the world today, following Jesus is a highly dangerous activity and at the very least it means facing abuse and discrimination, imprisonment or even death. Many lose their livelihoods or their homes. Families disown their Christian members turning their backs, severing relationships and causing multiple hardships. Millions have to keep their faith hidden, because following Jesus puts them outside the law. Following Jesus sets people free. To those in power – the dictators and religious leaders, the violent extremists, the rubber-stamping bureaucrats, freedom is a toxic substance. Despite the danger Christians in these countries are still sharing the good news of Jesus. In North Korea, Iran, China, Nigeria and in places where persecution is happening – Jesus Christ is building his church. It is growing.

Jesus also reminds his disciples of God’s compassion and provision. In his illustration of the sparrow a bird that appears to be of little value. God sees the sparrow’s activity (the word fall in the reading means to hop around, alight on the ground to feed and so on) and cares for it. How much more then that He cares for people. In the Genesis reading we see Ishmael and his mother suffering through the actions of others, abandoned and rejected. In the second we see that persecution will come to the disciples; both had consequences and outcomes which God would work in and through. 

God is in control and sees the bigger picture. The instruction not to fear is highlighted in both readings. In these times fear has abounded much, affecting human behaviour with difficult consequences. Jesus wants us to know that he sees all the details of our lives. He wants to meet our needs, walk with us through the difficulties, bringing His hope, His compassion and His love to where we are. We are not forgotten; we are loved with an everlasting love and nothing can separate us from it. Whatever we may face we have one who intercedes for us Jesus Our Lord and Saviour. 

The following prayer reminds us of those who suffer, of all who are persecuted and those who are responsible. 

Father, thank you for inviting us into your family. Help us now to listen to your voice and know your presence each day. We pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who may be feeling lonely or isolated. We pray that they would be encouraged and supported at this time. We remember those are imprisoned because of their faith in You. We ask that they would be strengthened and know your presence. We pray for those dealing with trauma, violence and loss. We ask they would know Your comfort and peace. We pray for those who are vulnerable in the global coronavirus lockdown. Help Your Church to share Your Love and light, even in the darkest situations. Help us to live out our faith with greater boldness and passion. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen      

by Open Doors

If you would like to find out more Open Doors serves the persecuted church world-wide information and prayer resources can be found at www.opendoorsuk.org. The image is by Elizabeth Lay: God will take care of you.

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June 14th: The First Sunday after Trinity. By Rev Fran.

Genesis 18:1-15;     Psalm 116:1; 10-17;   Romans 5:1-8;    Matthew 9:35-10:8

Like many people in this unexpected new world we have, I have found that seemingly unimportant events happen which have had a greater impact than  I expect.    One early morning in the glorious sunshine of April, a sudden flash of gold held me mesmerised.    A pair of goldfinches (I think) were settling on the topmost branch of a bush in the garden.     Glowing and illuminated by the sun, they started to sing their hearts out.   Wonderful.

Another mesmerising event was to come across the Self-isolating Choir singing the Halleluia Chorus.   Another is that a pleasant person whom I have not seen for over a decade, delivered an order to my door.  Another is being able to attend worship services all over the world.    The list could go on and on.

Today’s readings from the Old and New Testaments reflect a brave new world for the characters in them. Abraham welcomed his visitors, not knowing who they were and his brave new world started then following from when God changed his name from Abram to Abraham many years previously.    In Hebrew the name Abram had the meaning “noble father” and Abraham that of “father of one great nation”.   He was to be the ancestor of Jesus as Matthew emphasised at beginning of his gospel and so  his nation was not to be a local but a global one – the  nation of those whose belief is that Jesus is the Son of God.  

Sarah’s name too had been changed from “princess” to “Princess” – and her brave new world meant that she gave birth (hard enough at any time, but worse the older a person is) and because of that meeting under the trees at Mamre  Abraham became the ancestor of Jesus, and the father of a nation of believers.   St Paul wrote to the Galatian believers, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).    Great changes indeed for Abraham and Sarah.

The Gospel reading tells of great changes  and brave new worlds for the many who were healed from “every disease and sickness”  by Jesus and for the disciples who were given authority to “drive out impure spirits and heal every disease and sickness”.   Social, possibly psychological, changes for the sick who could then go about a normal life of work, such as, attending the synagogue, being a member of a family, meeting their friends.  For the disciples too,   no longer pupils but recipients of the gifts of healing, of exorcism, of raising the dead.  A brave new world for them, socially, psychologically and emotionally, and they would need to be brave to use those precious gifts.

But one of the by-products of change can be loss.   For many in our new world,  the greatest loss is the loss of freedom, the loss of the familiarity of what was before the pandemic.    The things taken for granted, popping out to the shops, visiting neighbours and other small events, or the big things such as moving house,  visiting people who mean a lot in our lives, attending funerals, getting married.  

In its wake, change can bring grief to a greater or less extent.  Christians express their grief at not being able to attend church to worship and pray in the company of fellow believers.    Virtual services are a change and are inspiring, but they can emphasise what we have lost, not just a building, but the body of believers together and the loss of that togetherness may have psychological and emotional  effects.

The excerpt from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, headed “Peace and Hope” in my Bible, gives a message for this time in our history when he sums up our belief in his description of the faith which we have.   His letter talks of the faith which Christians have, that Jesus died so that everyone can approach God knowing that they are loved by Him, each and every one, in this new world of ours, and that the Spirit has been given to encourage and complete this knowledge.

To hold on and increase our faith in this time is a challenge which has been given   this year by the changes in society and life-style.   May we all accept this challenge  and help others to do so.

In his second letter to the Thessalonians (3:3) Paul reminded them that “The Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.”    Something for us all to remember. 

Above all, remember that God does not change.      Amen.

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Curate’s Letter: Living ‘in-between times.’ June 2020

“But 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

This seems like a completely different world to the one we’re in, one where the hypocritical shambles of the PM’s advisor, the breach of the instructions given, and the government’s defence of him has Twitter all aflame.

Jesus’ ascent into heaven looks like the epitome of social (or physical) distancing. His ascent, according to Paul, was way above the highest heaven – far above what humans could ever consider attaining though any spirituality. Jesus’ ascent wasn’t to put distance between him and us – there had been enough of that, with the God of the Old Testament. The angels standing with the men explain that to them, while they gaze at the sky. He will come again in the same way. The disciples lived in the now and the not yet – the ‘in-between times.’

But there’s a paradox in his ascent, because although he ascended to (what was understood as) heaven, which in first century thinking was above the clouds, he’s also present with us. Jesus isn’t found only in heaven. He’s here on earth, in the nitty and the gritty, in our homes, in our lives and the overwhelming sadness and grief that so many are experiencing during lockdown.

Lockdown is also a paradox because it is in love, and our compassion on others, that the disciplined decision was reached to help shield people from this virus. The churches are not shut to maintain distance but to keep you safe, yet our hearts break when we cannot meet in person. We live in the now and the not yet – the ‘in-between times.’

Yet through all of this, Jesus remains with us, while also being with his Father. The Bible is full of paradoxes, and this is no different. Jesus’ ascent points the way to Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes like a rushing wind. From that was the birth of the Church.

Back in the first century when the disciples were still gazing upward long after Jesus had disappeared from their sight, perhaps they wondered if they had to get to heaven to meet with Jesus and the Father. It’s not so much as about waiting to get to heaven, it’s about understanding that Jesus and God are present here and now as we go into the world and witness to God’s love. Our lives before death are as meaningful as life is after death – it’s not just about salvation. God is here, in our brokenness, in the ‘in-between times.’

Pentecost doesn’t come immediately. Perhaps that’s what the disciples were waiting for. Perhaps we would like something similar? To come out of lockdown with no fear for our lives and just return to what was our normality. But the longer we wait, we realise there’s a dawning realisation that we won’t be returning to the old ‘normal.’ That, like Jesus’ ascension, has passed. We have to learn, like the first disciples, to let the ‘old normal’ go, let Jesus go, let our favoured ways of doing and being church go. We simply cannot hold on to Jesus or possess him, or appropriate him for our own means. He showed us that. And the Church, the body of Christ, has to change too. 

In the ‘in-between times,’ as the disciples waited in Jerusalem, I’m sure they asked ‘What now?’ We’re no different. Lockdown has brought us and our ways to almost a complete standstill. Between Ascension and Pentecost there’s a wait. We don’t know how long the first disciples had to wait, and we have to wait alongside them. What is God trying to teach us in these ‘in-between times?’

Pentecost will come. The tongues of fire will land on the people, and their hearts will set aflame with the love of God. Better this, than Twitter aflame with judgement. Because judgement is not love. And we have the discipline of love, as disciples of Christ. Love in the face of danger under lockdown was to help shield the vulnerable, the weak, the poor and the frightened. 

Love is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the being of God, and the meaning of humanity. This is why we gather to encourage each other and help the community around us. This love is our witness in everything we do and the source of our compassion. This love is outpoured on us at Pentecost and enables the whole community to witness to each other and share the love of God.

In these in-between times, we wonder what the future holds for our country, our economy, our society and the Church. But we do know with certainty that Pentecost will come. It happened then, and it will come for us. We know that we are asked to be adventurous, to be creative and bold. We will probably make mistakes along the way, but the trick is to learn from our mistakes and head ever into the future, without looking back.

Ascensiontide – the in-between times between Ascension and Pentecost – asks us if we are up for the adventure before we know what’s coming. 

Reflection for Sunday 4th October 2020

By Alan Finch

Readings

Exodus 20:1 – 4; 7 – 9; 12 – 20; Philippians    3:4b – 14; Matthew 21:33 – 46

Theme

Give freely as we have freely been given from God.

When I read this parable of Jesus’ I thought, well I am sure that the letting agents across the land, especially the commercial property managers would probably explain today’s gospel parable from Matthew in two seconds flat. It is all about landlords and tenants after all. And there is an entire body of property and commercial law devoted to them and their sometimes numerous disputes.

In Jesus’ telling, a vineyard owner contracts with tenants for the use of his land – and then promptly leaves town for another country. The action happens at harvest time, about now I guess; when the same landowner sends his slaves or agents back to the vineyard to collect the rent – his share of the harvest in this case – from the tenants. But the tenants decide to take matters into their own hands. Apparently hoping to secure the property for themselves, they beat the first slave, kill a second and stone the third. Then they do it all over again, finally even killing off the landowner’s son in the hope of somehow gaining his inheritance.  What are we to make of this graphic tale of greed and mayhem, violence and murder?

At the very least we might be tempted to think the landowner in question ought to have done a more thorough background check before renting out his vineyard – the very source of his livelihood – to those scoundrels who ended up murdering his slaves and son.  Surely even in the ancient world people knew who was trustworthy or not.   Way before the Internet word got around, after all, and as it was based on first-hand experience more reliable than we get today across the web and certainly not a scam.

The question is why did they do it; the tenants that is?  They had to have been fairly bright people or they would not have gone into agriculture in the first place – then as now not an easy way to make a living. Did they really think they could get away with murder? Well, apparently they must have done, their greed got in the way of their common sense and reason. No doubt not the first time such a thing has ever happened – and not likely to be the last either.  

The point of the story seems so obvious to Jesus’ hearers that they leap to it without a moment’s hesitation. The landowner, they declare in moral outrage, “will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” The story must have also resonated with the early church community, for it is one of only a very few of Jesus’ parables recounted in all three of the so-called Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Alas, the news these days is sadly still full of just such parables of greed and corruption. We know them too well  With the current Pandemic still full on we see people taking advantage of the vulnerable, the lonely and those for whom everything has been taken away; job, income and even homes.    And many many people are and continue to suffer the consequences. So, yes, some people clearly do still think they can get away with it. And some indeed do. Sadly the world has not changed all that much in the time since Jesus told his parable.

We might conclude that it simply does not pay to be an absentee landlord. Better to stay home, lock the back door and mind the store. After all, there is no place like home. Surely, that is where one can feel safe and secure. Maybe so, but try telling that to someone whose has lost job, income and has been put under threat of potential eviction let alone those whose properties have been flooded, burned down by wild fires or damaged beyond instant repair and are likely to remain so for some time to come. Let’s face it. Even security at home is sometimes an illusion.

The parable, of course, is about us as much as it is about thieves – about us as much as it is about the “chief priests and the Pharisees” who come to recognise themselves in Jesus’ words. The priests and Pharisees want to arrest Jesus for his words and be rid of him. They knowingly seek to neutralise his potent message of God’s righteousness and Kingdom. What they do not know – and maybe we sometimes forget – is that it cannot be done.

No matter where we live or what we have, we are all no more than tenants in God’s Kingdom.  Everything we have comes from God nothing ever truly belongs to us. In the final analysis, everything we have has been given to us to look after as a tenant. Everything is borrowed for a time; we are as the saying goes living on borrowed time – quite literally. Like the priests and Pharisees of this story, we too might wish the world were different, that instead of being tenants we were owners and servants, masters. What is true and we need to remind ourselves of, is that through our faith in Jesus we are so much more than tenants or slaves because we have been made heirs to God’s Kingdom.

Unlike the landowner who wrongly concluded “They will respect my son,” when he decided to send his child as emissary after his slaves are beaten and killed. We may well have asked “What was he thinking?” It would have been much more sensible for the landowner to go to his priest, for then he might have been set right. “Do not send your son,” I am sure he would have been told and forcefully one would hope just “Call the police and report the incident. Begin eviction proceedings. Get back home.”

All good advice to be sure, but it is doubtful the landowner would have followed even his beloved pastor’s counsel. For the landowner’s economy is not that of this world. And perhaps it is just as well. He knows something we tend to overlook, that in the end it is not a matter of land, property rights, wealth, possessions or ownership. For a follower of Christ, it is ultimately not even a question of life and death. It is only the Kingdom that matters, a kingdom most decidedly not of this world.

“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says in explanation of the story, “will be … given to a people that produce the fruits of the Kingdom.” And the fruits of the kingdom of which Jesus speaks have nothing to do with grain or grapes, much less pounds and pennies. If we miss that, we miss the point of Jesus’ parable entirely. We miss the Kingdom at work in our lives. For, the Kingdom is, in fact, ours – but only to the extent that we give in turn to others of all that has been so generously given to us. In God’s Kingdom, So that we follow the instruction to love others as you would want to be loved; giving all we have been given because all we have is given by God freely – we then must give freely all that we have.

Michaelmas

Michaelmas. The feast day for St Michael is September 29th.  The timing of my ordination first as a deacon and then to the Order of Presbyters, along with those training for ordained ministry through the Scottish Episcopal Institute. 

Of course, this year, every person in those same transitions, and entry into the life and work of the church throughout the British Isles is being ordained at Michaelmas.

As such its importance in the calendar has grown for me. Its associated with beginnings, and endings in my ministry. It is also at a ‘hinge’ in the liturgical and seasonal year where we begin to think about Christmas – Christmas eve is only three months away – and as we enter harvest, we have the end of the growing season.

At my priesting last year, Bishop Mark spoke about the differences between being ordained at Petertide with that of Michaelmas. Those ordained earlier in the year were, in his mind, to be likened to an everyman for every person. They had to be all things to all people. This has been an incredibly traditional view of clergy – that they must be able to be the sort of person that every person they meet needs to see or talk to.

I agree that adaptation to different scenarios is important, but the request of being an every-man or every-person can be too great a burden for some. 

Michaelmas is, on the other hand, about the work that angels do for God. Celebrating the work that angels do isn’t exactly well received in Protestant traditions and certainly not by Presbyterians either. A summary of our readings shows that St Michael has four main responsibilities:

  • To combat Satan
  • To escort the faithful to heaven at the hour of their death
  • To be a champion of all Christians, and the Church itself
  • To call men from life on Earth to their heavenly judgement.

St Michael, one of the archangels, is mentioned in the book of Daniel, Jude, and Revelation. And that’s it. 

I am very grateful that I am not called to be an everyman to every person as I would find that very difficult, particularly as I am not a man. But I do think the need for adaptation, flexibility and allowance for spontaneity are very important for every clergy person regardless of hierarchy. The ability to be actively present in every situation that calls for it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The ability to adapt, be flexible and adopt new practices is by the grace of God. Whether one is ordained at Petertide or Michaelmas, the call is the same. To become more Christlike, serving God by the grace of God.

We have missed this year the opportunity to renew our baptismal vows, where we, paraphrased: ‘combat Satan’:

  • Where we turn to Christ, turning from evil, repenting of sin. Where we actively say together: “I renounce evil; I repent of sin; I turn to Christ; I will follow Christ.” 
  • Where I ask you all if you will proclaim the good news by word and deed, serving Christ in all people? And your answer is “With the help of God, I will.”

To serve God by the grace of God. The Holy Spirit is not going to make an appearance where rules are adhered to at the detriment of human relationships. Loving each other, [and keeping no lists of perceived slights]. 

In our readings from Genesis and John, we are told that angels ascend to heaven and descend from heaven. I see this as a route of pilgrimage, and help. 

Heaven was part of the dome that covered the Earth. It featured in the mythology of many different religions in the Ancient Near East. The book of Genesis as we know was written after the first five, if not nine books of what we know as the Old Testament, and was written to place the Jewish faith and people with that of their God. Heaven has always been ‘up there,’ with an opposite ‘down there;’  – the theologies of which I am not going to enter into today.

Angels may be superior in intellect, have the capacity to praise God, and ascend to heaven as well as descend. But I put it to you that through Jesus’ resurrection, we also not only have the capacity to praise God, we can also find the presence of God, and sit with him awhile. Conversely, we can also choose to leave his presence, choose to turn our back on everything that God offers us, given freely and willingly by His grace. Yet, in our baptismal vows, we choose to follow Christ. Our route of pilgrimage is to ascend to where God is – yet he is so often not where we think he ought to be. 

God is out there in the turmoil, the agony and anguish of those who have lost family and friends, he is in the absent hugs, in the lack of laughter from grandchildren and grandparents who might have sat at the dinner table on a Sunday. He’s in the queue with you, in the muttering and exasperation. And he is in our fumbled attempts of adaptation, flexibility and spontaneity as we try to adopt new practices to enable us to gather in our church buildings and worship once again under the same roof.

So with the guidance of St Michael and all the angels, let us remind ourselves of our baptismal vows, and keep loving and championing one other through the stresses of strange viruses, and the way in which our leaders feel we should move forward.

Reflection for Sunday 20th September 2020 by Barrie Cran

Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

It’s not fair!  We associate this with a playground yell or the tantrum between children.  But let’s be honest we all think it, probably quite a lot of the time, and certainly when we don’t get what we want.  Sometimes even when we do get what we want but then someone else gets even more!  Fairness is something we cherish, something we think is an important part of justice, something that the law of the land is meant to help sort out.  Fairness is biblical and Christian – well it should be!

So, today’s gospel is more than a bit shocking because it seems unfair.  And shocking it should be because, that’s right, the kingdom of God is not fair!  The Kingdom of God is built on Grace, not fairness.  Grace is not earned by time served, grace is not earned by labours, be they in the sun or the rain!  Grace is not dished out on a first come, first served basis.  Grace is freely given to all, whenever they respond to the call.

I guess the disciples were even more shocked by the unfairness of it all because this parable is aimed at them, not at the Pharisees or any other group.  They were after all the ones who responded first.  They were the ones who gave up everything to follow Jesus through thick and thin.  They could claim to have earned their place through loyal and even sacrificial followship.  I am not surprised they expected to be first when the rewards were dished out.  Indeed, we know that they argued about which of them would sit at the left and right of the Lord in his Kingdom.

But Jesus point runs counter to all that we hold dear in terms of fairness.  Things like a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work are meaningless in this story.  I am not sure that Jesus wanted to turn the labour market on its head and encourage people to think they would be paid for nothing.  But I think he did intend to turn the religious market on its head and promise us we would get paid, no matter when we accept the job offer.  The established workers had got their hopes up.  If these part timers are getting this much, then we must be in for a bonus.  But then there is disappointment.  They get their dues and that is it.  

We all get our dues from God but, in the words of Jonah “… I knew you are a gracious God and merciful”.  And Jonah, to be frank, was more than mildly miffed.  What Jonah wanted was a very earthly reward for his efforts.  Yes, he had tried to run away but, eventually, he had carried out his mission and brought God’s word to the people of Nineveh.  The outcome he expected was for them to be punished, that would be his reward for his labours, that is what he wanted.  But he succeeded and the people repented, and God was merciful.  And Jonah was extremely disappointed and upset because God’s vision of a positive, great even, outcome to Jonah’s mission was different.  God cares about the one hundred and twenty thousand people (and animals!) and he is delighted that they have repented.  Jonah has been a success.  God is delighted that the late comers to the event have accepted the offer.  After all Jonah’s trials and tribulations, recruitment has been a success.

But, of course, we are not like that.  We are generous of spirit and don’t mind someone else coming in and getting a slice of the cake.  It doesn’t matter to us that we have been faithful servants for years. We have attended services, bibles studies, courses, retreats.  I may have studied through early mornings and late evenings, done essays and summer school, had my sermons marked and all that.  Then someone just swans in and repents, and they are as good as I am!  I am sure we have all felt a little threatened when that happens.  When the new arrival upsets the apple cart and gets more attention, more action, more love.  To be honest I have been both sides of this.  I have been the established one who finds their position undermined; or perhaps more accurately PERCEIVES their position to be undermined by someone new with different ideas or a different style.  And let’s be honest, we may put a brave face on it, but we don’t really like it.  I have been the newbie who blunders in and makes mischief – even though I may not mean to.

So, when we get our hopes up about what is due to us, let us go back to the humility that runs through the Gospels.  Whether it is comparison of the generosity of alms from the rich to the poor widow, whether it is publicly overt prayers or humble contrition in private.  There is a consistent message that God is gracious and generous.  God chooses to be generous to everyone who comes, no matter when, no matter what we have been through to get to where we are compared to them.

I probably cannot prove this beyond reasonable doubt for the lawyers, but having met Christians in some strange places and difficult situations over the years, I am constantly humbled by the fact that it is those who have least who are the most generous.  It is those who face real, life threatening, persecution who are most welcoming and open minded. Those whose world appears most depressing and oppressive who are the most joyful and enthusiastic.  Those who have suffered long term illness or impairment who live life to the full.  Those for whom fairness is an abstract word because life has been unfair who celebrate and worship in love.

It is people like that who truly embody the words that “the last will be first and the first will be last”.  It is people like them who truly understand the Grace and Mercy of the Lord.  Oh, that I could be more like them……

AMEN

Reflection: Forgiveness, September 13th, by Alan Finch

Readings: Genesis 50: 15 – 21; Romans 14: 1 – 12; Matthew 18: 21 – 35

Today’s story told by Jesus takes place in two distinct places: first, inside the throne room of a powerful king; second, just outside in a palace corridor. It describes two views of the world, one the world as we know it and secondly the world as God wants it.

We begin in the throne room in our world which changes in an instant to a world that God wants it to be. On the other hand in the palace corridor, things start out as the world we know but fail to become the world as God wants it.

The king in the parable acts with magnanimity and compassion and when the slave begs to be forgiven the debt he owes, the king releases him and forgives the whole of his large debt. So far so good, however the failure comes when the man who is forgiven does not have the same grace and compassion toward those who are indebted to him. In this parable we see the true meaning of our words in the Lord’s Prayer where we humbly ask: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Christian Faith is full of paradoxes because we first have to act and then God acts for us; we have to forgive others before we can be forgiven our own sins by God.  So instead of God starting the process of forgiveness we are instructed to start the process by making the first move; that is to forgive those who have sinned against us.   

I do not know about you but in my experience forgiveness is as much, if not more beneficial to the one who forgives than to the one who is forgiven.  Jesus told it as a story that fitted the context of his time.   As the human understanding of psychology has increased we now can see that the act of forgiving, letting go of feelings of revenge and retribution, can bring great healing.

Forgiveness is the most basic Christian quality. Without forgiveness, we wouldn’t have Christianity as we know it. Without forgiveness, we would all be doomed to hell, condemned sinners without hope of any kind.  Knowing this, a proper understanding of forgiveness will transform our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves.  The meaning of the word “forgiveness” is: to dismiss, to release, to leave or abandon. We hear of judges dismissing the charges against a defendant. That person is then forgiven of any wrong doing or that a person that is released from an obligation, such as a loan or debt. That person is then forgiven. 

The word forgiveness also has the meaning to restore someone back to their original condition. The person who has been forgiven of a sin then restored to the condition of not having sinned: the sin has been dismissed and he has been released from any penalty. The case against him has been abandoned or dismissed.

Forgiving people can be one of the toughest things that Christ commands us to do, but it is something that we are commanded to do. 

In the passage today I hope we can find some practical steps that will help make it easier for us to be a forgiving person.  It is easy to carry a grudge against a person, but if we belong to Christ, then we will learn to be a forgiving person.

There are some very clear words about this from Jesus that we all know:  “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” or in the more familiar translation, “Forgive our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The door to joy and happiness is forgiveness.   First, when we forgive we join with God in doing one of God’s essential works.   Doing the will and work of God brings fulfilment to our lives.   Second, forgiveness brings peace to our relationships.   Any parent can tell stories of dealing with the injuries, offences, and disobedience of children.   Without forgiveness, children can’t be raised. Marriage, as our institution and way of being, can’t be sustained without mutual forgiveness. Married folk can’t keep from injuring each other and without forgiveness the injuries would become wounds and the wounds become fatal.

The cross is God’s ultimate act of love and forgiveness.  What God did through Jesus was pure love.  God said to all humanity, “There is nothing that you can do that will end my love for you.”  It does, though upset God when we don’t share the love and forgiveness we have received.  

Forgiveness is only possible if we remember God is within and our strength, and even when we cannot find the words He promised that the Spirit would help find the words, even when our act of forgiveness is rejected.   God knows our heart and so we can be forgiven.

Next time when we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, take the words “as we forgive those who sin against us,” into our hearts. Only then, can we begin to understand what forgiveness is all about.

So, forgive someone — today!

Praying in Community

Reflection for Proper 18, Sunday Sept 6th, 2020 by Sue Berry

ReadingsMatthew 18:15-20, Exodus 12: 1-14, Romans 13:8-14, Psalm 149.

All of the readings today look at different aspects of being part of a Christian Community, from obedience and unity to forgiveness and prayer.

In Exodus reading, we see the Israelites preparing to leave Egypt and begin their journey to enter the Promised Land. They obey God’s instructions to put blood on their doorposts and to share a community meal in their homes, before fleeing the horrors of slavery and oppression, endured in Egypt. God makes a way for them to move towards freedom, to a new way of living and being.

It’s a reminder of the provision which God has made for us through the work of Jesus on the cross; helping us to escape from our sinful nature. Each time we partake of the Eucharist it celebrates what Jesus has done and the divine exchange that takes place of repentance, forgiveness of sin and continuing transformation in becoming more like Christ. The meal is individual and communal.

The gospel reading in Matthew addresses conflict in the Church. It’s not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’. Jesus knew how our sinful nature ensnares us and that left unchecked within our own lives and that of our community, division and wounded-ness happen. Jesus gives principles to address such situations.

Paul in his Letter to the Romans also addresses such community issues, stressing love and forgiveness as essential in the life of a Christian. He reminds believers to love one another, for loving your neighbour both fulfils the law and honours the ten commandments. He ends the chapter by reminding them to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no room for the sin that can corrupt.

When Jesus is Lord of our lives, temptation loses much of its power. However, we still need God’s guidance to help us the wider church family, avoid dead ends and blind alleys. If we seek to be right with Christ in our relationships, He will help us to avoid hurting others and ourselves.

Matthew the final verses of the gospel reading, also addresses the prayer life of a Christian community which is for the benefit of all. Jesus was and is a man of prayer. He models for us the way to approach the Father with courage, hope, faith and love. He promises us that where two or three are gathered, there He is also. He’s even present when we pray alone. God answers with wisdom and in love, although it may not always be as we expect.

One inspiring account of church members praying together can be found in the story of two ladies who prayed for the people on the Isle of Lewis, one was partially sighted, the other infirm both were saddened by what they saw in the lives of young people in their community and how far the community had moved away from God.

Over a period of months, they sought God asking Him to bring change – the result was a visitation of the Holy Spirit and it came to be known as the Hebridean Revival in 1949. People met God in new ways, people were touched by the manifest presence of God. Lives were changed. The stories of what happened to people are well documented.

The enemy works to divide church communities, to stop the advancement of God’s Kingdom and a sharing of the gospel of Jesus. When we come together in unity to reach others with the love of Jesus beginning and continuing in prayer and action as the Holy Spirit directs, it is powerful and commands a blessing.

In the pandemic it has been difficult to meet in person but we can come together in prayer wherever we are. 

In prayer we align our lives with His purposes for His glory. 

Prayer opens our hearts to needs. 

Do we long for people to meet God? 

Do we long for change in the world we live in? In our families, communities and nation?

It starts with the church coming before God in prayer and unity.

We can pray for each other, our homes, families and friends, the wider church family, schools, businesses, workplaces, community groups, as well as organisations like Local and National Government. 

Ask God to bring His Blessing, Protection, Love and Care to all the people we are prompted to pray for so that they will find God where they are.

Prayer

Father, wherever our attention has wandered from your calling,

wherever we have fallen short of your will for us and failed to keep the spirit of the law of your love

Forgive us and transform us.

So that we walk again the path that leads to life.

Father we thank you

For the way you care for us and provide for all our needs

May we share the good news of your love by the way we respond to you and to one another. Amen

I AM:Moses’ encounter with God in the fire.

By Sue Berry.

Proper 17, Sunday 30th August 2020, Readings: Matthew 16:21-28, Romans 12:9 – 21, Exodus 3:1 – 15, Psalm 105:1-6,23 – 26, 45b

This week’s Old Testament reading highlights the story of Moses meeting God at the burning bush. For forty years Moses has lived a nomadic lifestyle, he raises a family, works for Jethro and tends and herds the sheep. A far cry from forty years earlier as a Prince in the court of Pharaoh from which he fled.

All that is about to change through an encounter with the Living God. On a day like any other he has taken the flock to the far side of the desert to search for watering holes and pasture. Wilderness terrain and its extremes are part of the daily experience. Life is fragile in this environment and experience is needed to traverse it. Moses prepares himself for the next part of his journey collecting the flock and walking through the Wadi’s towards the bottom of the great mountain. 

Suddenly something catches his eye a bush is on fire it remains alight. He turns aside to look at this sight more intently. God sees Moses’s response. As Moses walks towards the bush he hears his name called out loud from the bush itself. Moses responds with the words “Here I am.” Moses is told to stop and take off his shoes as he’s standing on holy ground. The enormity of the occasion begins to dawn on him. 

God tells Moses He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who has observed the misery and suffering of His people and that He intends to deliver them to a good land of abundance, flowing with milk and honey. 

Moses’s task is to go back to Pharaoh and bring the people out of the land of Egypt but he begins to give God reasons why he can’t do this. However, God has a plan and Moses is part of it. God tells Moses who He is

“I AM WHO I AM.” 

This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

It’s a declaration of who God is. He is giving humankind the opportunity to receive the covering, protection and blessing that His name provides. It’s an invitation for relationship.Nowhere is that desire for relationship more evident to us than in His desire to send His Son Jesus Christ to earth to make a way for us to have a relationship with him. Whoever believes in Jesus and what He has done for us will not perish but have eternal life. 

The cross was and is a door to heaven, a door to enter and come to the Father through, bringing us into a relationship with Him. God loves to draw near to His children and give them the benefits of His name. The Israelites were to come to know God through His name. He was their Deliver, their Healer. their Provider, their Peace, their Mighty Warrior and much more. God describes Himself to Moses in Exodus 34: 6 and 7 as being merciful, long suffering abounding in goodness, forgiving sin. He was their shield and their great reward.  

John in his gospel tells us of the seven I AM’s of Jesus, who used them to speak about himself.                                                                         

When God speaks about himself as I AM it means I will be everything you need. 

Each and everyone one of us has needs, He can speak into our individual situations…..

I AM your Healer

I AM your Provider

I AM Your Wonderful Counsellor

I AM the Almighty 

I AM your Comforter

I AM your Deliverer

I AM your Shepherd

That name never changes. There are many names for God many wonderful names. He will always be all we need if we let Him. 

Each time we pray the Lord’s prayer we remember this. 

Take one of God’s names and worship Him, thank Him and meditate upon it in His word.

This reflection can only give a glimpse of the I AM of God. 

My prayer is that it will give you a hunger to know more. 

Loving Father

We praise you and thank you there is none like you.

You created each one of us to worship and be in communion with you.

As we draw near to You, You will draw near to us. 

Help us to discover more of who you are.

And in so doing share your love with others.

We ask this now in the precious name of Jesus. Amen

Reflection for 16th August 2020

by Alan Finch

Readings: Genesis 45:1- 15; Romans 11:1 -2a,29-32; Matthew 15:10-28

Theme – To gain a new insight about the God-given preciousness of all people

In the second part of today’s gospel reading we find Jesus confronted by a Canaanite woman who was obviously distraught because her daughter was being tormented by a demon, and I guess that she had heard about this Jesus person and his powers of healing.  Likelihood is that she truly believed that what she had heard was true and whilst not necessarily understanding him to be more than a Rabbi and healer would I think have known about the Jewish search for a Messiah.  So, let us imagine that at the beginning of this encounter, Jesus was stuck in such a mind-set that his mission was towards the Jewish nation ‘the children of Abraham’. But she certainly would not go away when requested nor even when Jesus tells her that as a Gentile he was not there for them.  Nonetheless here he was at a place where Gentiles lived. 

There, he encounters this persistent woman and even if he had not had time to think much about Gentiles before then’ this may well have been his first chance to re-think commonly accepted views about Gentiles.   And as he thought it through, he kept silent to think how exactly he was going to respond to this persistent person confronting him. 

Perhaps he would have prayed about what he should do – about what God intended for him in this emotion-filled moment and thinking of him wondering how he could deny her request for healing her daughter. But, at the time, how could he fail to follow the traditional teachings? How could he even begin to concentrate on the needs of the Gentile world and still have time to complete his primary ministry among the Jews and reach Jerusalem – where his destiny lay? So, he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But when she persisted all the more, he makes the statement “It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”

But can you think of his surprise when she responded “At least give me a crumb, like a dog under the dinner table.” I would think his heart must have been truly touched and his love poured out.  Her words would have been flying right into the common understanding, almost as if to challenge this view and look at it from the opposite direction.   I am sure the woman’s words and imploring passion for her daughter would have reached right into Jesus’ heart and filled him with compassion and touched his very faith. It is then that he realises that standing before him was a Gentile whose faith and desire for God’s healing exceeded that of so many others.

So, he was changed. Putting his greater mission aside for the moment, he realised, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed.

What then if we can follow this interpretation?  We will see Jesus the man wrestling with his understanding of how to be the human face of God; see that he experienced growth in faith and understanding, that he gained a new insight about the God-given preciousness of all people – Jews and Gentile alike.

Though he had to continue his work among the Jews, the door was now open for ministry to and acceptance of Gentiles, as well. This was a major, fundamental change; in fact a revolution in the accustomed way of religious thinking of his day and all because of his internal struggle presented by the challenging power of a truth-telling foreigner. Surely this interpretation will give us the opportunity to come to much more inclusive understanding of the Christian Faith and we will then be able to see that today’s Gospel story as the foundation for the spreading of the Gospel way beyond the Jewish roots from whence it began. 

This interpretation and subsequent widening of the truth of Jesus’ mission through the Gospels is handed down the centuries to us to continue the work of the early church to spread the Good News of God in Christ throughout the world to everybody.

This is a transformational change that we are asked to face up to sometimes challenging our commonly held beliefs and ways of worship along with the very challenging actions that we see all around us in today’s society.  It is then important for us to use the Jesus experience to grow our own spiritual health in face of the current Pandemic. 

So how will this growth in our spirituality and faith in God help us get through each day?

Not an easy question and certainly I have yet to find easy answers, not glib ones but solid answers to a these seemingly straight forward questions but when I reflect on them and begin to feel the Lord’s presence in that challenge, I am filled with hope and energy to jump right back up and try my utmost to rethink what Jesus’ view of any given situation might be..  

But we cannot expect that even if we could find some kind of answer that life’s difficulties would disappear; Jesus was quite clear about this; being a Christian is not going to be easy but it will be fulfilling and set examples to those we interact with; that our God is one who forgives, one who wants us to be His own and that for each of us He has a purpose.  Sometimes we find that incredibly hard to accept, we are too small or do not consider ourselves to be leaders or how can my life make any difference in the big bad world of ours where war and human suffering exist and peace seems so far away.   It is though through every life, every person who interacts with another that the difference is made.  For some that is difficult to grasp or we think that no one is going to listen to what I have to say or think our suggestions are not worth voicing …..  BUT …. and this is a big BUT;  you and your belief in the Lord Jesus Christ as saviour and that it is through Him we can reach out to others with the support of the Holy Spirit, that is what makes you what you are, makes what you do; an integral (that is without your part the whole cannot be achieved) an integral component of another’s bringing to Faith.  

There is nothing more powerful for the Lord than to be a living example of what being a Christian means in practical terms.  No matter how intelligent, or educationally clever you might be if the practical outpouring of the Christ like life style is not obvious when you go into a place of work, a person’s home, a meeting on the street, doing the weekly shop at one of the supermarkets or local corner shop, or when visiting the sick or those in hospital then maybe you need to look carefully at what you are and question your yourself and ask; are you really a Christian or just thinking that you are.

We can learn, as always, from Jesus. In his encounter with the Gentile woman, he remained silent at first, letting her talk.  That surely is the model for listening to people who are not like us? Can we not learn from the encounter related in today’s Gospel reading that listening to the stories of others unlike us, engaging in courageous conversations, adopting open-mindedness, practicing tolerance, and living in mutual respect can lead to a better sense of loving community?   We know that no one should be counted as the underdog and that everyone – everyone – is a beloved child of God, deserving of God’s grace found in Jesus. 

We also know that God does not ask us to do what He knows we are not capable off, nor does He ask us to do or give beyond our means, but most of us have a notion of what is possible for us and I would say that as a rule of thumb for us all, is that we should push ourselves one step beyond where we think our limit is, and I am sure even then, that will still be less than what God knows we are capable of – but for us at that moment it will be a challenge and we will need to strive hard to get even to that point;  once there though, we will know that for next time, we can move even further on; this after all is a journey we are on; one that will lead to the Kingdom…

Reflection for Sunday 9th August 2020 by Barrie Cran

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9-18, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33

As I sit writing this there is a summer storm going through, the wind is howling, the rain hitting the windows hard and the family have lit the fire and settled down in front of the TV.  But if anyone has been out at sea in a storm, they will realise just how uncomfortable and frightening it can be, especially in an open boat.  There is nothing like a storm in the open ocean to make you realise the latent power of creation – indeed we used to say that “happiness is 500 feet (submerged!) in a Force 9”.  But the storms of life can be just as frightening and disconcerting.  Sometimes we bring them on ourselves by our choices, our actions, our words.  Sometimes life’s storms come from nowhere, taking us completely by surprise and, quite literally, blowing us off course.

I suspect that Elijah felt a little blown off course by the events leading up to todays reading.  He had stood up for the Lord and the result was rejection, violence and flight from his homeland.  This was not the treatment expected for the righteous.  The power of the Lord was needed; the power to show who was God, who was in charge.  There are many times in Hebrew literature where the power of the Lord comes in some major physical way, floods, droughts, fire and so on.  It is always tempting to think of God in terms of power and strength, of being an “impactful” God – and what can be more impactful than a wind that breaks rock!  But God actually appears in the calm, the “sheer silence” according to the NRSV.

We do find silence difficult, don’t we?  Have we ever sat in a silent period in worship feeling uncomfortable, wishing the minister would get on with it?  Have we ever blurted out something completely inappropriate or stupid (maybe even rude) to avoid the embarrassment of a silence in a conversation?  I know I have, and I know that my words have been far worse than any silence could be. 

For there is power in silence.  It requires strength and resilience, confidence and love to stand silently alongside.  To listen and hear.  To calm the inner turmoil.  It is so tempting to rush in an fix, impose our own views and solutions.  After all we are in the moment, we can see clearly, we understand, of course we do! But often we don’t really.  Often, we only partly listen.  We only see part of the picture, and rarely what me theatre loving family call “the back story”.  In our busy, turbulent lives silence is powerful but also threatening.  

How many of us actually seek out and revel in silence?  Do we have the radio or TV on?  Do we seek to speak to people (or hope they will speak to us)?

But sometimes we have to consciously turn away from the tumult, no matter how fun and productive it can be.  No matter how much we feel we are achieving.  Irrespective of the “good” we are doing.  We need to have the confidence to reach out through the storm and seek the silence and peace.  We need to know when to let the hustle and bustle, noise and violence pass us by and when to step out and listen to the silence, to let the silence fill us and not to try to fill it.

And that’s always our temptation, to try to fill it with our works, our voice, our will.  But actually, it’s not about what we do for God, its about what God has done, and continues to do for us. It is about salvation through faith in the true God who reaches out to us, who sent his Son to us, whose Spirit is with us still.  Our relationship with God is at His request. It may be our wish, but it is His doing.

So what should we do about it?

Well firstly we must take comfort in the silence.  So often when we pray, we want and instant and powerful response.  Elijah got it in the section before today’s reading but the effect was to turn the authority of the day, Queen Jezebel, to anger and violence and so he finds himself in a cleft in the rock surrounded by powerful forces of nature – but God wasn’t in them.  So, when we pray and seem to have sheer silence in return, we mustn’t give up or despair as God is in the silence and we must wait for Him there.

And we must have faith that God will be there for us.  Peter may have expected Jesus to somehow make him immune from the storm and walk across the water as though it were dry land.  But he doesn’t get that, the storm still rages, and Peter loses confidence, loses faith that Jesus will protect him.  So, we mustn’t lose faith.  There will be lots of times when it all seems like the storm is still raging, we know Jesus is there, but we can’t see Him, we can’t feel him.  And so, we try to calm the waters ourselves – and guess what?  It often fails.

And we will fail too if we think that we can calm the storms of our hearts.  We will fail if we think we can hide away, whether in a submarine or just behind a shell of our own making.  So, we must find time and space for silence.  We must work our way into it and cherish it.  We must allow the God of silence to work through and in us.  God is a god of power, but we find that power in quietness, we just need to look there!