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Christmas Eve 2014
St Barnabas, E17.

Theme: Targets!

I wonder if you have met all your targets this Christmas Eve? Presents wrapped? Stockings filled? Bird in the oven? Fridge stocked? Booze in? If so, well done! You get an A! And you get an A star, on top of everything else, for making it to Midnight Mass!

Or maybe you are like me…half the things I had hoped to do are not done. I am yet to send cards, call loved ones, meet deadlines, and more. But for my super-organised wife, our Christmas Day would be pretty grim as I have done almost nothing to contribute to the family joy for tomorrow. Perhaps you are with me, pretty much an E minus when it comes to Christmas.

We live in a very target driven world do we not? I expect many of you experience this at work or at school. If you are a teacher, you have the worst of it, since education is one of the most target driven areas of life in the UK today. And I have to confess that we are not free from it in the Church.

In our Diocese of Chelmsford we have a strategy. We are constantly being encouraged to transform, change and re-imaging, not least to get the punters through the doors. The diocesan bishop sent a letter in his Christmas card to the clergy this year and in it he spoke of several examples where large people have been baptised, confirmed, ordained, licenced, commissioned…the numbers are fantastic. We have not merely met, but exceeded out targets!

Some people like to count things. Headteachers are taught to like to count things. Clergy are taught to like to count things. But on Christmas Eve we come up against a problem and the problem is this…the story of Jesus’ birth tells us many things, but it does not tell us how many sheep were in the stable. Seemingly, numbers were not important to God when he choose the birth of Jesus as a means of bringing healing to the world.

Numbers were important to the Roman Empire. Numbers are often important to people with power. Counting things makes the powerful feel even more powerful. Counting how many people the Roman Empire were ruling in Judaea made the Romans feel good, so they made the people whose country they were occupying move around a bit, move to the towns of their ancestors so they could count them there. That felt good.

Mary, young and vulnerable was forced to travel. As many people living under tyranny today, as people living under tyranny in Palestine today, as migrants fleeing war, hunger and disease today, she was forced to move. She was forced to move just so she could be counted. And so, she and Joseph went to Bethlehem, where so many others had also travelled to be counted that there was nowhere to stay. So Mary gave birth in a stable. We know all this from the gospel reading we heard tonight, but we still do not know how many sheep were in the stable.

Edward Dowler, a priest elsewhere in London, wrote a fabulous article in the Church Times this week. Of education he said, ‘In 21st Century Britain, children’s educational progess and attainment are assessed by a hyper-statistical approach… which presages a reductive view of the human person.’ And of the Church, he wrote, ‘There are particular dangers for the clergy in the hyper-statistical approach, when the focus of our work changes from doing, faithfully and joyfully, those things that we are called to do, and becomes instead meeting targets, data, and outcomes… It may …breed an insidious form of clericalism, as we come to view members of our congregations, not as fellow pilgrims and members of the body of Christ, but as customers, or statistics on a spreadsheet.’ Ouch!

It get better: Pope Francis this week attacked his own curia, pointing out 15 ailments plaguing the operation of the Vatican’s staff. Apart from some classics such as ‘deifying leaders’, ‘the illness of the funeral face’, ‘gossip’ and ‘appearances, the colour of one's robes, insignia, and honours’ becoming the most important aim in life, (ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch) Francis attacked "The ailment of excessive planning and functionalism: This is when the apostle plans everything in detail and believes that by perfect planning things effectively progress, thus becoming a sort of accountant." OUCH!

Now, what the Pope has said about the curia could easily be said about elements of the Church of England, perhaps about your work or school environment, even about our relationships with friends and family. We are all prone to behaviours that have the potential to diminish others and thereby diminish ourselves.

Jesus was born among those counted by a tyrannical occupying power, but he did not come to heal the wound by statistics, by data or targets. It did not matter to Jesus how many sheep were in the manger. God chose to bring healing to the world through Jesus not through strength but through weakness. Jesus was born with and of the poor, born homeless, forced to move with his parents to Egypt as a refugee, ultimately put to death by one of the cruellest forms of execution throughout history, a slow, painful death nailed to a cross. God chose to heal the world not by the power of force, not by military might, but by showing that however cruelly and brutally he was put to death, nothing could kill God’s love for every one of us, including, most of all, those counted as the least by the success criteria of worldly values.

The challenge of Jesus birth and death then is a challenge to our world of targets and an affirmation of the wonder, beauty and worth of every human being. It is a challenge to us not to diminish others and it is the challenge of knowing that whatever our performance, whether you are an A star or an E minus, you are absolutely and unconditionally loved by God.






Steven Saxby, December 2014.
Sunday 14th December 2014, Advent 3

St Barnabas, E17.

Theme: John, Jesus, and House of Cards & the Green Report


One of the advantages of the internet is getting to see what other clergy post on Facebook while they are musing on writing their sermons. This week a friend of mind posted an amazing letter written in the United States by someone called David Lose.


The letter addresses preachers and is written in a context where the writer is very aware that they are only two months shy of the nearest presidential primaries. Now we all know there is nothing to which more media time is devoted, even here in the UK, than the question of who will be the next president of the United States. To me it represents not just a fascination with the States but a fascination with the question of leadership.


The author of that letter writes of being reminded of the presidential race a few years back when Al Gore was advised to portray himself more as an "alpha male". This is a term which originated from studying the behaviour of wolves in their natural habitat. The researcher noticed that among the wolf pack there was always one male who dominated all the other males and therefore had mating-rights to all the females. He designated this wolf the "alpha male" and David Lose writes how this term "alpha male" has come to describe our ideal of leaders. ‘Whatever else we want from our leaders,’ he says, ‘we seem to crave from them strength, direction, assertiveness, and confidence’.


I don’t watch much TV but it was my birthday about a month ago and I was keen to get the box set of a TV show that I’d heard so many people talking about, even overheard many talking about on the tube. So it is that we have now finished watching my birthday present: the whole first and second series of House of Cards. Those who’ve seen it will know that it portrays someone, Frank Underwood, who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of power. Here is a ruthless individual, who is quite prepared to destroy others in his relentless climb to the top. Here is indeed an “alpha male”! And unless we are tempted to project all our negative stereotypes on the United States, it is worth remembering that the US House of Cards is based on a UK series from a few years ago of the same name, and that Frank Underwood is merely the US version of the British alpha male, Francis Urquhart.


This week the Church of England issued a high profile document known as The Green Report. It was a report chaired by one Lord Green on the topic of senior leadership in the Church of England. In short, it proposes a new programme of leadership development for before those clergy take up senior positions as archdeacons, deans and bishops, and the creation of a national pool of 150 or so clergy from which senior appointments would be made. Much in the report is, in my view, to be welcomed, not least the desire to see senior leaders better trained in the competencies required to run large organisations and oversee personnel in ways that meet the proper expectations of a good leader. We should not pretend that the Church is examplary in this field nor that we do not have much to learn from wider society. But I think it is fare to say that the report has caused a bit of a storm online, not least on the Church Times twitter feed, and my guess its because aspects of it have touched on a raw nerve about how the church currently appoints its senior leaders.

For the recommendation that the talent pool be created by diocesan bishops nominating clergy regarded as standing-out among their peers is not very far from the system we currently have. There is no clear grading in the CofE as, say, in the Civil Service or teaching, so for those wishing to make their way to the top, the only thing for it is to get noticed. And some clergy will go to extraordinary lengths to get noticed: publicity of their church, and of themselves, becoming Area Dean, becoming a Canon, even getting elected to General Synod. Yes, the report touches a raw nerve, in my humble opinion, because it exposes something uncomfortable for some clergy and perhaps for some of you, that the alpha male model of leadership is the way of the world and even of the church. We may not like, but it’s how it is, many of us collude with it and some of us even seem to work it for our personal advantage.


Into the world of House of Cards, of real-life politics, of the Church of England, of our work environments, of our school environments, of the survival of the fittest culture of Bake Off, The Apprentice and even of X Factor (even though we Walthamstow people are all rooting for Fleur East this evening), into this world where the alpha male model secures the best route for climbing to the top, comes today the challenge of the third Sunday of Advent, the message of John the Baptist: "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,' "


"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness"…this is John’s response to those asking who he is. They have been sent to find out what he is doing, preaching out in the desert, gathering people, baptising them and declaring a message of repentance. ‘Who are you?’ they ask. What kind of leader is this, they wonder. Is he the messiah, perhaps, the chosen one, the one predicted to lead the people of Israel into freedom? He denies he is the messiah, and so, they ask, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He says, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answers, "No." Then they ask him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" And John, says "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord,' " Make straight the way of the Lord,' He is not there to lead them but to follow another, he is there to prepare the way for someone else, to make straight the path for one to come. "I baptize with water”, says John, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." John is there to prepare the way for Jesus.


Our gospel reading today should have stopped at verse 28, but I added a bit more of John’s account of John and Jesus, for it seems to me that the next section presents a key challenge for us when it comes to thinking about leadership. Is it the alpha male to whom John points? I love the way, returning to David Lose’s letter, how he engages with this issue. He says, ‘Jesus … teaches and preaches with authority. Further, he feeds the hungry, heals the sick, stills the raging storm, even raises the dead. By almost any standard Jesus presents himself as the alpha male of all alpha males. But hold on. He also eats with outcasts, parties with the socially undesirable, and refuses to acquire status or possessions, certainly not the qualities we associate with leaders. He was frequently seen in the company of women -- some of ill-repute ... to honour, affirm, and esteem them. And finally, he dies the death of a criminal, executed for a capital offense, hung on a cross on a garbage heap outside of Jerusalem. On this account alone, he is certainly no alpha, no leader, hardly worthy of sympathy, let alone loyalty. This doesn't seem like the same Jesus that John points to, does it?’


He goes on ‘But maybe we shouldn't be so surprised by these contradictions. For at the end of the Bible, in the closing verses of Revelation, Jesus himself gives us a clue to his identity when he declares, "I am the alpha ... and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." Here, then, is a different kind of leadership, that of the suffering servant, and a different type of power, one that manifests itself in vulnerability. And, if you look hard, you'll find that this type of leadership, this kind of power, radically calls into question and even judges so many of the ideals prized by our culture.’


David Lose’s letter points to Jesus as the alpha and the omega, the first and the last. I have added the extra section from John’s gospel to show how John the Baptist points to Jesus as the lamb. We are all familiar with the image of the shepherd in the Bible. Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep. The image of shepherd is applied to bishops too, with a strong expectation that they should care, support, uphold, walk with, even carry, those who are the most vulnerable…and I hope this aspect will be strong in any training programmes designed for future senior leaders. But Jesus is not only presented as a shepherd but presented too as the sheep, as the lamb, as the one exercising vulnerability. That is the message of the Christmas story: the messiah does not come in a show of strength, but comes born into the brokenness of our world, born in the vulnerability of a stable, born into a people suffering under the brutal tyranny of an occupying power.


Jesus is not just the shepherd but the lamb, certainly not the cunning wolf or the alpha male who ruthlessly climbs to the top of pile, but the one who offers his life for us, who comes alongside us in our weakness and offers us a new model for being in community with others. That is the vision of leadership the gospel offers us today, that is the challenge of the one we worship as the first and the last, the lamb upon the throne.


Steven Saxby, December 2014.


6th July 2014, St Barnabas, E17.
Theme: Burdens

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

I have a question for you this morning? I ask it of you and I am asking it of myself too. And the question is this: what is weighing you down? What is causing you stress? What feels like a burden? What makes you feel that you are enslaved, not free? What is weighing you down?

Are you feeling weighed down by troubles? Weighed down by worries over your job, over money, over studies, over your future direction, over things to do in the house or things to do elsewhere? What is weighing you down?

Are you feeling burdened by family matters? By strain in your relationship with your spouse, your partner, your boyfriend, your girlfriend? Are you weighed down by relations with your friends, neighbours, work colleagues? Are you weighed down by your concern for a loved one who is troubled in mind, or without direction, or under the influence of addition, or a loved one who is ill or is dying? What is weighing you down?

Are you weighed down by loss? Loss of your job, loss of opportunity, loss of face, loss of a loved one? What is weighing you down? Are you weighed down by oppression? Feeling enslaved by an oppressive boss or colleague? Not feeling free because of an oppressive partner, or parent or child?

Well, whatever is weighing us down today, Jesus has a message for us and this is it: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Take my yoke upon you? What on earth does that mean? Some of you may be familiar with agricultural terminology but I am not, so I had to look it up! And here is what I discovered. A yoke is basically a long piece of wood and in Jesus’ day it was most often placed across two oxen as they were ploughing a field or carrying a heavy load, so that they would be bound together, to work together. Imagine if you can that piece of wood across the back of the necks of the oxen, forcing their heads down, pressing upon them as they pulled a plough or carried a heavy load. No wonder the yoke is used in the Bible as an image of oppression, an image of slavery. In Galatians chapter 5, verse 1 we read, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.”

And of course the yoke has been used throughout history as a means of binding slaves together. I guess many of us might be familiar with those images of slaves bound together by yokes, by long pieces of wood over their shoulders, just one of the many hideously cruel forms of restraint used against people forced into slavery, as they, like oxen, were forced to plod on in drudgery weighed down with the burden of their captivity.

Are you weighed down by others? One of my favourite speeches is the speech that Martin Luther King Jnr gave in Harlem upon his return from Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In Harlem he said, ‘I do not speak as one who has never know the burdens of life.’ He talked about how he had faced so much opposition, “jostled by the chilly winds of adversity”, how he had received threats on his life. And he talks about how he struggled on motivated by the cause, motivated by those who need hope, by those who need to find a way out, by those in need of freedom from oppression. This is the burden on any one who stands up for justice. I have experience in some part myself and it isn’t nice when people revile you and slander you… it is too big a burden to bear on your own.

Are you weighed down by yourself? By your inability to do what you would like to do because somehow you seem enslaved to yourself? You want not to do something and you find yourself doing it. Or you want to do something and you find yourself not doing it. If so, you are in good company for this is precisely what St Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans. He says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” and he says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul accounts for this by the sin that dwells within him and that this sin is somehow at war within himself with his own inner sense of the law of God. He knows within himself what it is right to do or not do, but he has within himself another force at work, the law of sin, battling within and leading him to do that which is wrong. I have in mind that image from cartoons or comedy shows, where someone is contemplating an action, and over one shoulder is that person as an angel telling her to do one thing, and over the other shoulder the same person as a devil telling her to do the opposite. Paul describes just such an inner dynamic, ‘For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!’ Wretched it feels indeed to be weighed down by such an inner sense of not being free to be the person we would like to be because somehow we keep doing the opposite of what we really want do to. Paul talks of this as a kind of slavery. We are enslaved to the tendency towards sin within ourselves but help is at hand. ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’, he asks, and replied to himself, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ It is through Jesus that we are set free, through Jesus that we the burden of sin is lifted from us, through Jesus that we are given relief from all that is weighing us down.

The image that Jesus gives us is not of removing the yoke, not of taking our burdens away, but of us being yoked to him, so that our burdens are eased, so that the pressure of all that is weighing us down is lifted by walking alongside him. Jesus was also familiar with the agricultural practice of breaking in a young ox by yoking it, attaching it to an older, stronger ox. The younger ox would be walking alongside the older one learning from it, lightly yoked to it, as the older one would bear the weight of the plough or other heavy load. Hence the yoke for the younger ox would be easy, its burden would be light as it learned from the older ox.

Our first reading this morning reminds us that it is not only individuals who are weighed down but peoples also. The Israelites were weighed down by their experiences of captivity and slavery throughout much of their history. Zechariah writes in the period following the exile in Babylon, in the period when the Jews were returning to and rebuilding Jerusalem. Scholars believe that when he says, God will set their ‘prisoners free from the waterless pit’, that the waterless pit is a reference to Babylon. In any case, these prisoners of hope, or prisoners who wait in hope, as some translations put it, these prisoners of hope are rescued. Zechariah uses the image of a king riding to rescue them on a donkey, the same image Jesus drew upon this image when we rode a donkey into Jerusalem some five hundred years later, when he proclaimed freedom to the Israelites who were then living under the oppressive rule of the Roman empire, and went further by proclaiming freedom to the whole of human kind by showing that the ways of peace and not the ways of violence would be key to the reign of God.

In any country today, among any people today, among the Palestinians oppressed in East Jerusalem today, among the Syrians, Iraqis, Ukrainians, Sudanese and others caught up in political violence, among millions crying out in hunger, among the fifty million displaced refugees of our world today, many literally imprisoned in refugee camps, among all imprisoned by the injustice of our world, there is the challenge to us to stand with them as prisoners who wait in hope and to let Jesus share the weight as we work for peace and justice in our world. It is Jesus who has already borne the burden of our sin on the cross, Jesus who has already shown us how to love and share with one another, Jesus who has already shown us that the future lies not in violence but in peace, Jesus who offers freedom not only for us as individuals but for the whole world.

Jesus’ offer, Jesus’ promise is there…the challenge for us is to respond. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me… .” “Come to me…”: we have to make the move towards Jesus, if he is to give us rest. “Take my yoke…”: we have to put the yoke upon us freely if we are to be bound with Jesus. It is our choice to walk alongside him, to learn from him, not in submission with a co-slave, but in trust with one we can call friend and brother. This is not a release from our burdens, this is not an escape from a troubles, this is not a retreat from working for justice and peace. This is an invitation to feel our burdens eased, to feel some of the weight lifted, as we patiently plod on, side by side with Jesus, as we walk along and learn from Jesus so that we might receive from him inspiration, guidance, support, wisdom and above all the love of Jesus to see us through and keep us on the right path. We may not be given much rest for our bodies, the pains, the challenges, the troubles remain, but we are given rest for our souls, the comfort of knowing that we do not struggle alone and that we struggle guided by the wisdom and love of God.


What is causing you stress? What feels like a burden? What makes you feel that you are enslaved, not free? What is weighing you down? Whatever it is or whatever number of things it is…the offer is there, the offer of rest, the offer to learn from Jesus, the offer to encounter the one who is gentle and humble in heart, the one who gives us rest for our souls, the one whose yoke is easy, and whose burden is light.


Steven Saxby, July 2014.


Easter 4: 11th May 2014 –

Read here Souls to the Polls

Listen here Soul to the Polls


St Saviour’s and St Barnabas 9.30am+11am

This Wednesday, on 14th May, the church commemorates St Matthias. It is a special day for me because it marks the anniversary of my ordination as a priest. But it is special to me for another reason. Some of you may have gathered that I am not one of those Christians who believes that Christianity and politics do not mix. I am with Desmond Tutu when he says, “when people tell me Christianity and politics do not mix, I ask them what Bible they are reading”. And it always strikes me as significant that as, in this country, normally have elections towards the end of May – this year the elections on 24th May to the European parliament and London borough councils, that we remember on the 14th of May the story of St Matthias.

For I think I’m right in saying that the account in Acts Chapter 1 of how Matthias came to be an apostle, the one who took Judas’ place amongst the twelve and then shared with them in all the activities mentioned in our first reading today, that that account is the only occasion in the Bible which tells of an election taking place. It was quite simple: there were two candidates, Barsabbas and Matthias, the remaining 11 apostles drew lots and Matthias was duly elected.

This is not to say, however, that it is the only reference to “election” in the Bible. For the other sense of election, the sense in which a group or individual is chosen by God, elected, is a sense that runs throughout the Old and New Testaments. The Israelites were chosen, elected, by God to be a special people, to perform a special role in salvation history. When the majority of the Israelites are unfaithful, God then chooses, elects, a faithful remnant. In the New Testament there is lot about Jesus being the chosen or elected one and in turn about Jesus sending out the disciples as those chosen, elected, to preach and baptize.

Both these very different senses of election referred to in the Bible, the disciple’s election of one candidate over another and the election by God of a group or individual to fulfil his purposes, have, I believe, something to say to us as we approach election here in the UK in 12 days time and as we think of various elections taking place throughout the world. Both kinds of election represent what we might call two strategies for Christian engagement in political life, including but not only including, casting our vote.

The first is a strategy of getting stuck in and getting on with making choices, indicating preferences - however limited, unsatisfactory and tedious the range of options may be. No politician or political party will stand up to all the ideals a Christian might like to see represented in political life. Nor will any one person or political programme ever solve all the problems of the world. But this does not excuse the Christian from making particular choices for or commitments to those individuals or programmes which they think can make some difference. Apathy or indifference is not an option for the Christian. Just like the first disciples, we can rarely expect God to directly intervene and make our decisions for us. There are times when, just as with the election of Matthias, we are required to make our own preferences, make what we think are the best choices, even though we may well discover them to be the ones we might regret in the course of time.

And yet we make such choices aware of a second strategy, the other sense of election, aware that whatever choices and decisions we make, ultimately it is God, even with the imperfect choices we make, the mistakes we make, who will bring about that which he desires. Despite all that the Israelites did to reject God, God did use them to bring about his plan of salvation; despite the disciples misunderstanding Jesus, despite that small scared group fleeing at his arrest, denying him, giving up hope, despite some, as we heard earlier, still doubting even as they saw him ascend into heaven, we know in this Eastertide that it was this group who God did indeed use to begin his work of making his love known to all peoples. So there is a proper strategy, and no less in politics, of allowing God to do what he will do with human beings in this moment of our history, aware that this may well be in spite of all our expectations and preferences, all our mistakes - in spite, indeed, of the people we elect to govern us.

I hope you will have realized by now that neither of these strategies will necessarily guide you towards voting for one particular party rather than another. Even though we must each make a choice, we each do so aware that the world will ultimately only be saved by God in the manner of his choosing. We are caught between time and eternity, between living with the imperfections of the present and the promise of the perfect redemption of the world that is to come; caught between making the choices we can amidst the complexities of this world as it is and upholding the ideals which will only be fully realized in the world to come. Between what we choose, desire, elect for ourselves and God’s choice, desire and election for us.

So, with all that I’ve said taken for granted, let me tentatively suggest three key ideals that might inform the decisions we have to make in this imperfect present as we approach the general election. Someone once said, as it happens, in C19th Russia, “the doctrine of the trinity is our social programme” and although I’m not presenting that particular programme now, each of the three ideals I shall present to you takes its cue from an aspect of the God we worship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: first, the ideal of human life; second, the ideal of human love and third, the ideal of human community. These are all areas of concern where it seems to me that the contrasts between Christian ideals and secular worldly values are at their sharpest, areas that require prayer not only before we enter the ballot box but that will require prayer and action even and perhaps especially after the result of the election is known.

First then, the ideal of human life, an ideal of which we’re most aware when we worship God as Father. Human life from a Christian perspective is to be viewed as a gift from God, something to be treasured, to be enjoyed for what it is. Each human being is created by God, by a loving Father who wants to enjoy a relationship with each of his children. Everyone is “special”, made in the image of God to reflect his glory. This, of course, is not always how secular thinking views the world. Increasingly, secular science is exploring the means by which human beings can be altered before life, so we can give birth to the babies of our choosing, exploring the means by which those who will drain our energy and economic resources can be appropriately disposed of.

The Christian ideal of human life calls into judgement any policy, whether indiscriminate abortion, human genetic modification, or euthanasia which seeks to devalue human life, to see it as anything less than a gift. And more so, the ideal of human life puts particular demands on our politicians to ensure that the needs of those who might be dismissed as peripheral to the running of society - whether young, elderly, disabled, migrant, sexual minorities, the mentally ill or whoever - that their needs and the needs of those who care for them are taken seriously and that they are enabled to play a full part in our society, so that others may receive from then the gifts that our heavenly father has given them to share.

Secondly, I suggest that we keep in mind the ideal of human love, of which we’re most aware when we worship God as Son in the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ love knew no bounds. In the gospels that love is shared with all, but the gospels make us particular aware of Jesus’ love for those excluded from society, and not least those excluded from society through poverty. Our gospel reading today gives us that amazing image of the gate, the one who provides the path towards abundant life. What a contrast this is with the love most highly prized by so many in today’s secular world, namely the love of money, a love that doesn’t stop to count the cost for those who go without, not only in this country but in so many parts of our world.

This ideal of human love, a love that particularly stretches out to those in economic need, brings great judgement on so many of the ways in which our world is run: the provision of sub-standard services in our economically deprived communities, the payment of low wages, the organisation of the benefit system, the collection of debt from developing countries, the unfettered growth of multi-nationals, the arms trade. The ideal of human love places demands on our politicians to consider the needs of the poor, the distribution of resources, the opportunities for work and study, the amount we spend on defence, the way we interact with other nations, particular the poorest nations of our world.

And finally, I suggest that we keep in mind the ideal of human community, of which we’re most aware when we worship God as Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured into the hearts of the early church, both Jew and non-Jew and they found themselves speaking in many different languages. Worshipping God as Spirit reminds us that he intends us to celebrate human community in all its diversity, that the community to which we belong as Christians is a world-wide community of many nations and languages. What a contrast this is with some attempts to narrowly define the community to which we belong so that we can easily fear and exclude others.

The ideal of human community brings judgement upon attempts to define community narrowly and demands that our politicians recognize the value of human diversity, indeed that we celebrate it as a gift from God. It demands that we find ways of celebrating multi-cultural Britain, that we listen properly to the claims of those, wherever they’re from, who have been persecuted or who’ve suffered from the loss of liberty, or the inability to live decently through war or famine. It demands that we regard the earth’s resources as intended for the whole of humanity. It calls into question our policies on immigration and enlivens our concern for the environment.

I’ve presented three ideals based on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity which I believe bring judgement upon many of the values of our increasingly secular society and place particular demands on our politicians as they seek to live up to these ideals as best they can in our all too imperfect world. It is for us in 12 days to take our souls to the polls and choose who those politicians will be, but it is also for us as Christians to work as best we can both before and after the election to influence people of all parties, with ideals inspired by our understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Steven Saxby, May 2014.


Prompted by Bishop Stephen's visit to Walthamstow and walk through the Forest, I've dug out an old sermon preached at Gypsy Smith Stone, where this sermon was preached, and where the bishop paused on his walk...click here.

Easter Day 2014
St Barnabas, E17.
Theme: Easter Joy (even happier than happiness)
Happy Easter!! I guess we shall hear those words are lot more today and over the next days: happy Easter! I guess we’ve heard them a lot over the last few days, even before Easter day arrived. Easter is after all, for many, simply a holiday time, not marked by any religious practice. I am one of those people who gets a bit irritated when people wish me Happy Easter before I have celebrated it in church on Easter morning. But since I and others were here in church from 5.30am to remember that first early morning when Jesus rose from the grave, I am very happy to say: Happy Easter.
I want to ask us a question, however, and get us to think a bit about what we mean by calling Easter “happy”. Happy is word we’ve heard a lot over the last months with the sensation which is Pharrel Williams singing “happy” and the “happiness movement”. In case you need a reminder… (play excerpt from the song)… . And so my question is “what is happiness to you when we think of it in relation to Easter?”
Something that troubles me a bit about Easter is that we sometimes get to it too easily. Getting to Easter was not easy for the first disciples, it wasn’t easy for Mary the mother of Jesus, it wasn’t got to easily by Mary Magdalene and the other women who were first to witness Jesus’ resurrection, and getting to Easter certainly wasn’t easy for Jesus himself. On Maundy Thursday I preached on the film Calvary and you can read the sermon on the parish website for no extra charge. There I preached on how the film contains a resurrection moment but one that is only reached after much pain and sacrifice. I argued that we do not reach Easter Day without Good Friday and that it is only via the cross that we reach the true joy of the resurrection.
Although we say Happy Easter, the word more often used in the Christian tradition in relation to Easter is “joyful”. As the song goes, “this joyful Easter day, away with sin and sorrow”. What “joy” seems to communicate more clearly than “happy” is that our Easter gladness is not a mere feeling of happiness it is rather a deeper awareness that we experience joy, not instead of our sadness, but in spite of it. Easter joy is the joy of knowing that we are still sorrowful about the things that trouble us in life but that we trust our sorrow is not the last word, that because of Jesus defeating sin on the cross and rising again, we can have confidence that trouble, sorrow, sin, even death, are never the last word.


I love this poem by Edwina Gateley called ‘Celebrating Women’:


We told our stories -
That’s all.
We sat and listened to
each other
and heard the journeys
of each soul.
We sat in silence
entering each one’s pain and
sharing each one’s joy.
We heard love’s longing
and the lonely reachings-out
for love and affirmation.
We heard of dreams
shattered.
And visions fled.
Of hopes and laughter
turned stale and dark.
We felt the pain of
isolation and
the bitterness
of death.
But in each brave and
lonely story
God’s gentle life
broke through
and we heard music in
the darkness
and smelt flowers in
the void.
We felt the budding
of creation
in the searchings of
each soul
and discerned the beauty
of God’s hand in
each muddy, twisted path.
And his voice sang
in each story
his life sprang from
each death.
Our sharing became
one story
of a simple lonely search
for life and hope and
oneness
in a world which sobs
for love.
And we knew that in
our sharing
God’s voice with
mighty breath
was saying
love each other and
take each other’s hand.
For you are one
though many
and in each of you
I live.
So listen to my story
and share my pain
and death.
Oh, listen to my story
and rise and live
with me.


Today we rise with Jesus, we rise in joy, rise above our troubles, rise not least by paying loving attention to one another, we rise not by denying our sorrows, but by the confidence that they need not defeat us. This is not escapism or just putting on a smile, this is true joy, true happiness. Happy Easter, for this truly is a happy day!


Steven Saxby, April 2014.Maundy Thursday 2014 (read below or click here)
St Barnabas, E17.
Theme: Calvary

Warning: film spoiler…someone dies in Calvary (but then that is not entirely surprising given the name of the film).

‘Jesus knew’, so John’s Gospel tells us, ‘that his hour had come to depart from this world…’. It cannot be easy to know that you are going to die. The gospels also tell us that after the meal we remember this evening, Jesus’s last meal with his disciples, that Jesus prayed to God: "Abba, Father," he cried out, "everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me…” He then said, “yet I want your will to be done, not mine." Jesus had a vocation. He knew his death had purpose. He had a choice and he chose to be obedient to God, even unto death.

Last night I watched the film Calvary, I think one of the best and one of the most challenging films I have ever seen. It begins with a priest in a confessional box. We learn later that this is Father James, a good priest serving in a beautiful landscape but in a challenging, socially deprived rural community in the east of Ireland. What happens in the confessional box is that Father James is told that on Sunday week, down on the beach, the person speaking to him will murder him.

It cannot be easy to be betrayed, not least by a friend or by someone you’ve tried to help or to whom you have been kind. Our Bible passage from John this evening tells us that ‘the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas…’ to betray Jesus. Judas, one of the trusted disciples; Judas, a bit of a radical, one of the Iscarii, a militant terrorist group seeking the violent overthrow of the Roman occupying forces; Judas, whom Jesus risked making a disciple: Judas was the one to betray him.

In Calvary we do not know who it is that threatens Father James until the end of the film. The priest tells his bishop that he does know but that he will not reveal his identity, seemingly out of respect for the seal of the confessional. Early in the film Father James listens to his fellow priest complain about the people who have confessed to him and his fellow priest reveals details about their confessions which clearly breach the seal of the confessional. Later, his fellow priest leaves the parish and Father James tells him that he regards him as someone who lacks integrity and that he thinks that is about the worst thing he could say of a person.

Integrity is what Jesus has in facing his death bravely, in preparing not only himself but preparing his disciples for his death. He shares a meal with them. He washes their feet, showing that he does not regard them as servants but regards them as friends. He asks them to remember him, remembering his body every time they share in bread and his blood every time they share in wine. He suggests that they can continue to be united not only with him but with one another when they share in his body and blood, that they can in some way be the very body of Jesus, continuing to be active in the world. And he tells them that the key to all they do is to not only love God but to show the world that they love one another.


Integrity is what Father James has in Calvary as he journeys through the week, of what threatens to be the last week of his life, as he approaches the Sunday on which his potential killer has earmarked for his death. The threat becomes more real throughout the week, not least when the church is burnt to the ground and when he finds his beloved labrador with its throat cut in the garden. It is a hard, hard week for Father James as he deals with many difficult pastoral problems. It is a week in which he is visited by his daughter, as we discover he became a priest after his wife’s death and has difficult conversation with his daughter following her attempted suicide. They discuss how she felt abandoned twice, first when her mum died and then when her dad became a priest. It is a difficult week as he tries to give others an opportunity to show remorse for their wrongdoings and receive God’s forgiveness, as he is taunted for his faith by some of the villagers and even beaten up by the landlord of the local pub.

How would you react if you were given a sign that to be faithful to your vocation you had to look death in the face? How would I react? Would we run away? What might be the circumstances in which our faith might be so tested that we knew we had no choice but to deny our vocation or to face death? Maybe it seems an odd question but is a question many Christians have faced throughout history and which many face in the world today where they live in places where Christians are persecuted. We have Koreans with us this evening and we are mindful of the persecution of Korean Christians. It is a question for many living in places where the struggle for justice brings risk and yes risk even of death. We have Filipinos with us this evening and we are mindful of those murdered for opposing various outside interventions in indigenous areas of that country. How would you react if you were given a sign that to be faithful to your vocation you had to look death in the face?

Death is not the last word for Christians but that does not mean it is easy to face it or to embrace it. And it is not easy for others to cope with it, the ones left behind. Father James does face his death. He is tempted not to. On the Saturday he nearly boards a place to Dublin to escape the parish and escape the risk. But on the Sunday morning he says his prayers and he walks to the beach, where after a while he is approached and we discover the identity of the one who threatened to kill him. He pulls out a gun and there on the beach he shoots Father James in the chest. The bleeding priest, even then, says it is not too late for the one who’s shot him to stop, but the person takes his gun and shoots Father James in the head, blows his brains out, shoots him plain dead.

There was no more speech in the film. It ended in silence, a silence respected by the audience as we quietly left the cinema. But the death was not the last scene. We are shown images of all the people we meet in the film, all touched in different ways by the Father James. We are shown images of the empty places associated with the priest. And then we are shown his killer receiving a visit in prison from Father James daughter, and a tear is her eye as she seeks some form of healing, some moment of redemption not only for her but also for her father’s killer. We learnt earlier that she not received forgiveness from her father but also forgave him. And we also know from the start of the film that Father James’ killer was a victim of horrific abuse as a child at the hands of another priest.

There is no resurrection without the death of Jesus. And neither is there any hope beyond the grave without him dying on the cross. It is by the death of Jesus that sin is defeated, that evil is never the last word, that there is always the opportunity for us and even the vilest offender to receive forgiveness because of the abundance of God’s love. And there is no death of Jesus without the last supper, no witness to the resurrection other than by those first disciples who, even though they fled, even though they denied him, then had the integrity to live and even to die for Jesus so that the truth of God’s love might be known throughout the world. We cannot get to Calvary without this supper and we are taught to live post-Calvary as those for whom nothing matters more than the world knowing that because God loves us, we too can share his love with one another, even to the ends of the earth.


Steven Saxby, April 2014.

Sunday 9th March - Lent One

A Heart for Mission: inspiration from Myanmar - a great sermon by David Haokip.



See the powerpoint - here.


Sunday 2nd March 2014
St Barnabas, E17.
Theme: On fear… fobias, credit unions, Farage, War, Homophobia and LOVE


‘While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.’

Peter, James and John were overcome with fear. Wouldn’t you be? I know I would! Imagine yourself in their position. You go for a hike up the mountain, a nice, refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of life. How pleasant for them to get away from those crowds which were constantly pressing-in on Jesus. How great to get away from those Chief Priests always out to trick him. It must have been fantastic to get away from the constant fear associated with living under cruel Roman occupation. The four of them were alone, away from pressure, away from fear …a lovely break up on the mountain top! And then, something happens! Suddenly, Jesus is transfigured, changed before their eyes. His clothes become dazzling white; his face shines like the sun; next to him appear the figures of Moses and Elijah, long-dead prophets from the distant past; a cloud overshadows them; and then the Voice of God speaks from the cloud. Peter, James and John fall to the ground and they are terrified, they are overcome with fear!

Let me ask a question which I know some of you have heard me ask before, “What do you fear?” What makes you afraid?” Father Lionel’s excellent sermon last week helped us think about what causes to worry, but today’s question is slightly different, “What do you fear?” or “What makes you afraid?” Of course, we may fear the things that worry us, but I suggest fear goes deeper than worry. To be anxious is one thing, to be afraid is more serious, more prone I suggest to thoughts and actions that are not entirely rational.

Take a fear of spiders, for example. Who here is or ever has been afraid of spiders? OK, some spiders bite, some are deadly, so maybe the fear of spiders has a rational basis. But I know I have been afraid of tiny spiders which have absolutely no chance of causing me harm. And yet I have screamed on seeing spiders and have seen others reduced to tears or induced to panic-attack! The fear is somehow irrational, but it goes deep, and overcoming that fear, which I have now done, takes a bit of inner work and a bit of outer courage. They call the specific fear of spiders arachnophobia…and it is one of many kinds of phobia that can have a paralysing effect of people’s lives. There are so many of these phobias and there are specialist organisations and self-help groups that help people to overcome phobias. Here are just some phobias from phobialist.com:

Ablutophobia- Fear of washing or bathing.
Acarophobia- Fear of itching...
Acerophobia- Fear of sourness.
Achluophobia- Fear of darkness.
Acousticophobia- Fear of noise.
Acrophobia- Fear of heights.
Aerophobia- Fear of drafts, air swallowing, or airbourne noxious substances.
Aeroacrophobia- Fear of open high places.
Aeronausiphobia- Fear of vomiting secondary to airsickness.
Agateophobia- Fear of insanity.
Agliophobia- Fear of pain.
Agoraphobia- Fear of open spaces or of being in crowded, public places like markets. Fear of leaving a safe place.
Agraphobia- Fear of sexual abuse.
Agrizoophobia- Fear of wild animals.
Agyrophobia- Fear of streets or crossing the street.
Aichmophobia- Fear of needles or pointed objects.
Ailurophobia- Fear of cats.
Albuminurophobia- Fear of kidney disease.
Alektorophobia- Fear of chickens.
Algophobia- Fear of pain.
Alliumphobia- Fear of garlic.
Allodoxaphobia- Fear of opinions.

The list literally goes on and on and on….and I do not want to trivialise these phobias, but acknowledge that these fears are real, that they can eat away at people’s live, but also acknowledge that, sometimes with help, they can be overcome.

And I’ve shared all this as a means of giving some background to encourage us to thing about some other kinds of fear and how they might be overcome as well.

Last week, I joined our local Credit Union…this was in the response to the challenge put to us by our Archbishop, Justin Welby, to support Credit Unions. So I went up to the bottom of Church Hill there and I signed-up. I realised if I transfer my debts to the Credit Union that I will pay back on them at a lower rate of interest than on my bank account and that I will be supporting an ethical form of banking. But it took me a while to get to the front of the queue because there were others there waiting to process loans from the Credit Union and I could not help but over-hear others in the queue talk about their financial desperation. I got a small glimpse into some very real fears among the people there about the pressures on their lives … and I thought thank God the Credit Union is there to provide calm reassurance and practical help. So many in our community, including in this congregation, are in the grip of fear over money, not least when in debt to loan sharks or the legal loan companies like Wonga. The Credit Union offers a way out of this fear and I hope many of us might join it as a means of overcoming our own fears about money and helping others to do the same.

And then we are very aware of another kind of fear in our country, not least in our media, the fear of foreigners: xenophobia. Last week Nigel Farage of UKIP launched his party manifesto for the euro-elections and predictably it includes a tough stance on immigration. But also, it seems to me, there is a deeper fear about multi-cultural communities. He described parts of England as “unrecognisable”, presumably referring to places like Walthamstow. And one has to ask, ‘what drives such fear?’, ‘why is Farage so threatened, so afraid by what he sees in communities like ours?’ I would love to invite him here to show him what a beautiful community we are. I wish he’d come along to enjoy our Love Migrants Party, which is not only featured in our wonderful parish magazine but also got a mention in this week’s Church Times! Perhaps we could help him to see things differently, but I guess it will take a fair bit of work from him and us to help him overcome what seem to be deep-seated fears of people from other countries. His kind of politics so often fuels racism, which is why I am glad Ulrike is here today to promote the anti-racism rally on 22nd March, and which I hope many of us will attend.

Another fear we are very aware of is the fear generated by war. We are so aware of the tensions in Ukraine and I noticed the words of a Bishop there saying the political tensions there will not end until there is a spiritual re-awakening in the country. I was also struck by this Christian Aid advert “Fear Less” talking about their work in healing the scars of war.

And a the final fear I have been very aware of this week, is the fear of gay people: homophobia - not least in relation to what is happening in Uganda and Nigeria at present. There both parliaments have recently passed legislation criminalising gay activity. In Uganda so-called “aggravated homosexuality” can lead to life imprisonment. This was, at least, short of the proposed death penalty for homosexuality, but a Ugandan newspaper has published a list of “200 homos” sparking a witch hunt. And in both Nigeria and Uganda there are already so many stories of gay people being beaten, even beaten to death for being gay. What is going on? What fear drives such hatred? And how can it be overcome?

Here in the UK, the Church of England House of Bishops have issued guidelines against clergy or ordinands engaging in same-sex marriage when that becomes legal in this country later this year. And it is hard for those supportive of gay people and LGBT people themselves not to receive these guidelines and much of the Church’s official position on human sexuality as homophobic, based on a fear of gay people. This will be an issue of much debate for me and others on the General Synod over the coming years. A recent report, the Pilling Report, has been published to help us discuss these matters and it is going to be hard work in a context where there is such fundamental disagreement and fear on all sides. I don’t mind admitting that I am pretty scared of some of those who speak out so aggressively against gay sexuality in the General Synod, but these are people with whom I will have to engage in facilitated discussion and I will need to remind myself of my desire for such discussions to take place in a spirit of mutual love.

Which brings me to my closing remarks: how can we overcome fear of others, fear of those who seem against us, and their fear of us when they feel we are against them? The answer is known to us through scripture and in one sense therefore the answer is easy. We find it in 1 John Chapter Four when we read, …’17 By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because He first loved us.’ It is love that overcomes fear! And we seek to love others because we know from our experience that love is transformative. We seek to love others because we know how God’s love transforms us. We seek to overcome fear of others by love, because we know that God overcomes our fears by his love for us.

Let us return to Peter, James and John. They are terrified, they fall to the ground, they are overcome with fear. And what does Jesus do? He comes to them, he touches them, he shows them his love and compassion for them, then he says to them, “Get up and do not be afraid”. And when they look up, the passage tells us, they see no one except Jesus. We might say, all they see is Jesus, as if all fear can be overcome with Jesus’ love for them firmly in their gaze. It is not necessarily as easy as it sounds, but the answer to our fears and overcoming fear in others is right there before us: LOVE! It may seem romantic, but the power of love works. I saw it at work in the love of those Credit Union staff helping to restore calm to people full of fear; I saw it at our Love Migrants party where people of many cultures celebrated together with no fear at all; I see it in the work of those who work to heal the fears caused by war; I see it at House of Rainbow fellowship which includes people who’ve fled Nigeria and Uganda in fear because they are gay, and who are shown the welcome, love and acceptance, not only of others but, most importantly of Jesus. Jesus, as the disciples knew and as we know, has the power to cast out fear. If we keep our eyes firmly on Jesus so that we can see his loving gaze looking firmly on us, we have a strategy for addressing our own fears and the fobias of others, confident that “perfect love casts out fear”.

Steven Saxby, March 2014.

Sunday 5th January 2014
IFI Cathedral, Manila
Eve of the Epiphany

It is wonderful for me to be with you here in Manila and to preach on the eve of the feast the Epiphany. As I settle-in to my visit from the West, it is good to be reflecting on what the story of the visitors from the East (the Magi - 3 Kings - Wise Men) has to say to us, and not least to the relationship between my home context and the IFI (Philippine Independent Church).

Although I have yesterday, tired and after 14 hours of travel, mine was a relatively easy journey over a very long distance. It is easy to take long-distance travel for granted these days. For the Magi, their journey would have been hard and long, probably taking several months. And I here because of the relationship between the IFI and my churches back home in Walthamstow, London, churches where many have made difficult journeys as migrants. Not necessarily complicated, physical journeys, although that is true for some, but difficult emotional and spiritual journeys.

These are journeys that often involve leaving behind a spouse, leaving behind children, arriving from rural areas to a big city (as is often the case with some of the Mountain Province Filipinos at St Barnabas) or arriving from a big city to a rural area in the UK, often subject to low-pay, to long-hours, to inadequate living conditions, to ill treatment by employers, often isolated from any kind of community life.

And it is for this reason that we have made it part of our mission in Walthamstow to serve migrants, not least from the Philippines. At St Barnabas there have been Filipino families in the neighbourhood for over 30 years, others have joined them and St Barnabas has become the UK spiritual home of Anglicans from the Episcopal Church of the Philippines. At our neighbouring St Saviour’s, Father Salvador Telen has established the chaplaincy for the IFI-UK. At both churches we have done a number of things to support migrants, not least forming the Walthamstow Migrants Action Group.

But back to the Magi for a while…There are various questions about the Magi: who were they? How many were there? Where were they from? What did the gifts represent?

First, we are not certain what kind of people the visitors really were. It is only in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth that we read of the visitors from the east and we don’t really read about wise men at all, but rather, in the best translations anyway, of the magi - who no doubt were wise, but may have been many other things as well. Indeed, there’s a lot to be said for an ambiguous term to describe these mysterious characters who followed the stars and listened to their dreams.

Secondly, we are not certain that there were three. Perhaps it fair to assume that if each bore one gift as in the school plays, the classical paintings and the Spanish processions that there were three, but the text itself does not give us a number, the masculine plural in the Greek tells us that there were at least two but it could have been any number more, and as far as the grammar is concerned there is no reason to believe that a band of magi, collectively bearing the three gifts did not include women.

Thirdly, we are not told very clearly from where the magi came. We’re are told somewhat vaguely that they came from the east. But what does that mean? East of Jerusalem? China, India - if so were they Hindu, Buddhist? Or did they come from the Philippines? More than likely, Matthew expects the reader to make the literary link between the gifts borne by the magi and the treasures associated in Jeremiah and Ezekiel with the rulers of Arabia - ancestors of Islam.

Fourthly, it is not as clear in the gospels as it is in the carol We Three Kings as to what the gifts represent? Traditionally, each of the gifts has been given symbolic significance, each a kind of prophecy related to what Jesus be and do: Gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity, myrrh for suffering. But others have speculated further and our former Bishop of Barking has described each a potent symbol of power: economic power, religious power and media power. These three gifts speak powerfully to the migrant experience. The media often portray migrants negatively (as is very much the case in the UK at present). Economic issues come into play when considering migrants. And what of religious power? How can such power be used to benefit migrants? One grat example of this comes from Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudiam (section 210). He writes:

210. It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits. I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others. Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers, a Church which considers herself mother to all. For this reason, I exhort all countries to a generous openness which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity, will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis. How beautiful are those cities which overcome paralysing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favour the recognition of others!



The Epiphany is also a story of religious power with two key messages in support of migrants.


The first important message in Matthew’s presentation of his story makes it clear that the magi are to do with revealing something about who Jesus is. The magi come not to reveal themselves, but to reveal something about Christ - indeed perhaps that’s why Matthew is vague about the magi - Jesus is the focus of the story. And whoever they are, the light draws then to Jesus, he fills them with joy, they kneel down to worship him and they, who were probably used to receiving gifts, offer their gifts to him. That is why the season is called Epiphany, word that literally mean manifestation – it’s about making manifest, making known who Jesus really is. Jesus is revealed in vulnerability and we are called to attend to all who are vulnerable in society, not least migrants.

The second important message made clear by Matthew - and here is the real highlight of the story - is that the visitors reveal something quite specific about Jesus - something that would have come as a shock to Matthew’s first largely Jewish readers. Jesus is made known not only to the Jews but also to non-Jews, to gentiles. Indeed, the inclusion of Herod in the story shows Matthew demonstrating that some Jews were to reject Jesus and yet, these mysterious visitors from the east, certainly non-Jews were able to recognise what Jesus was and in doing so foretell how Jesus would bring salvation to all of God’s people, Jew and Gentile.

These two messages speak powerfully to me in the midst of the work we are doing in Walthamstow to support migrants and not least our support for Filipino members of the IFI. Jesus reveals himself among the vulnerable in society. Jesus becomes a migrant himself when his parents are forced to flee with him to Egypt to prevent his death. And Jesus reveals that God’s love is for all and that people of all nations are to learn from and live with one another as we reveal God’s purposes in our lives and in our world. It is an honour for me to be here and to have this special association with the IFI both here and in my own part of London. I pray that this relationship, grounded in the message of the Epiphany, will help us all as we make God manifest by worshipping his son Jesus, and living out the gospel not least in support for migrants.

Steven Saxby, January 2014.


Sunday 28th December 2013
St Barnabas, E17
Christmas One – Bethlehem

Here are some alternative words to a well-known carol:
(http://www.waja3ras.com/2008/12/alternative-christmas-carols.html)

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and restless sleep,
A missile glideth by.
And over dark streets soundeth the mortar's deadly roar,
While children weep in shallow sleep
For friends who are no more.

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
A curfew's laid where children played -
Now only tanks roll by.
And in their homes sit starving
Thy people; and they say:
"One man from us blew up a bus;
Why must the whole town pay?"

How ruthlessly, how ruthlessly
The F16s bombard!
What God imparts to human hearts
This arrogance so hard?
They terrorise a people -
A war-crime and a sin;
However tall they build their wall,
Revenge can still get in.

(last verse at the end).


When I first heard those words, I was outraged. How dare anyone change the words of one of the best loved Christmas carols I thought! Worse still, how dare anyone change the words of that carol, such a gentle lullaby, such a comforting hushaby carol at Christmas time, such a necessary escape from the rush of Christmas, such a welcome opportunity to switch off from all our troubles and the troubles of the world and be lulled into sleep!

We needn’t worry too much. The words are temporary words which were written to highlight the plight of those living in Bethlehem, officially under Palestinian jurisdiction, but terrorised by the might of the Israeli state. This year large crowds, including tourists, gathered in manger square in Bethlehem, but just a few years ago the Israeli authorities effectively cancelled Christmas in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was “still”, but for very different reasons from those in the mind of the Victorian author of the Christmas carol. This year people were able to cross from Jerusalem to Bethlehem but to do so they had to undergo security checks through one of only three gates opened in the huge wall Israel has built to separate itself from Bethlehem. As with other parts of the Palestinian Authority, Israel controls all access to Bethlehem, access to all utilities, access to all food, medical and other supplies. Tourists would have experienced more relaxed measures but the wall that separates Palestine from Israel is one where Palestinians crossing it daily are subject to exhaustive and humiliating security checks as they live under a virtual apartheid.

This year, as other years, we sang Christmas carols from the hymn sheets produced by the charity Embrace the Middle East (formerly known as Bible Lands). This charity works to highlight the plight of people living in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Israel/Palestine, where it supports various charities seeking to provide some hope in the midst of those troubled countries. For example, it supports Refuge, a charity providing comfort, medical help and education to refugees who have crossed from Syria into Egypt, this at a time when Egypt itself is in political turmoil. This region, the land of the Bible, is in a political mess with Israel’s continuing persecution of the Palestinians, with Lebanon and Egypt undergoing national crises, and Syria with a one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of recent times, with over 100,000 dead and millions displaced missing or dead since the start of its civil war.

I spent a year of my life living in the next room and sharing a kitchen with a trainee priest from Nazareth, the wonderful Yazeed Said. He taught me to make Arabic coffee, falafel and Arabic salad. After we both ordained, he was, for a time, the Acting Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and he sent me a Christmas message then with these words, “The more you live in this land the more you can see how such biblical dramas appear in the context of this land’s struggle. We have come to see that in the midst of darkness, of loss, and destruction, God appears.”

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” How easily we are offended by someone changing those lovely words, especially to “How ruthlessly, how ruthlessly the F16s bombard”! On one level we do not want to be pointed to pain and suffering this Christmas, even in the land of the Bible, especially in Bethlehem. On one level, we are easily attracted to the cosy, peaceful image of Christmas presented by the Victorian hymn-writer.

It’s extraordinary in a way that the original words of O Little Town of Bethlehem ever took hold. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” Whoever heard of a woman giving birth in silence? And yet that is the image of Christmas with which we are so often comfortable, that people look to the church to present them at Christmas. What’s desired is a serene Mary and a baby - “no crying he makes” – lying silently in the manger. The crib is a popular, comforting image at Christmas. But what possible comfort is the first Christmas if it was completely devoid of the pain of childbirth and of a baby who cried? How can a birth, a mother and a baby bearing no resemblance to human reality – beautiful as it may be to sing about – be a gift to the human condition?

It isn’t so much that the image of a restless Bethlehem takes us away from the first Christmas, rather it points us precisely to what the first Christmas was really like. It points us to the horrific account in today’s gospel of what happened in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth: ‘When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."’ It is not a cheerful message. Not one we particularly want to hear just after Christmas – it is unwelcome news – unwelcome news like the typhoon in the Philippines, unwelcome news like the conflict in South Sudan, unwelcome news like the storms that have left many in this country without electricity, unwelcome news like our own personal tragedies and losses- – and yet there it is in the gospel for today. We cannot ignore it. Just as turning off the TV will not make the bad news away, so closing our Bibles on this disturbing Christmas story of the massacred innocents will not deflect from the fact that this story of innocent suffering in there in the Bible.

And it is there precisely because Jesus was born not into the picturesque world of the Victorian Christmas card, nor into the world where a cute Christmas is a desirable consumer choice, nor even into the cosy world where we choose to cut ourselves off from the reality of a hurting world – but because Jesus was born into a time of political unrest, tyrannical leadership and horrifying stories of innocent suffering. It was the real world into which Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the comfort of Christmas precisely that Jesus was born into this world and came to transform it.

To quote Yazeed once more: “We have come to see that in the midst of darkness, of loss and destruction, God appears.” That is why the church persists in Bethlehem, even in the midst of such difficult circumstances. That is why the plight of Christians in the Bible lands matters so very much. That is why none of us can lose hope even in the midst of the terrible suffering we witness in today’s Bible lands. That is why we may well want to make a permanent change to the last verse of that popular carol and replace it with the last verse of the alternative version with which I began:

O promised child of Bethlehem,
Tear down the iron cage,
The walls of hate that separate
And harden and enrage;
Bring justice and make equal;
Come down from far above;
And come to birth upon this earth,
As hope and peace and love.


Steven Saxby, December 2013.

24th December 2013
St Barnabas, E17
Christmas Eve – Midnight Mass

We’ve finally arrived at Christmas, after journeying throughout this Advent with the great themes of faith, hope, courage, peace and, tonight, the theme of joy! The overall message this Advent has been that we wait in faith for the God who comes to us and works from within the brokenness of our world to bring healing and justice. That, I have been saying, is what gives us hope that the world can change. That is what gives us the courage to co-operate with God. That is why we work for peace in expectation of the joy to come. And tonight that joy has arrived, the joy we associate with the birth of the baby Jesus.

So, what is this joy? I am not talking about the cheesy-grin joy that pretends that there is nothing wrong with the world. I am not talking about the short-term joy associated with fulfilling our physical or material needs. I am not talking about the shallow joy of putting on a brave face while hiding our inner brokenness. I am talking about deep joy, the joy of Jesus, the joy that knows that life is hard, the joy that knows that human beings hurt, the joy that, nevertheless, does not accept suffering as the last word and does not allow suffering to define us as human beings.

Of all the Christmas card, e-mail and FB messages I have received this year, the one that has made we think most is this: 'May the Peace of God DISTURB you this Christmas!' For sure, Christmas is a happy time for many of us, whether Christian or not, a rare opportunity in the year to spend real, quality time with loved ones - a chance to eat, drink, be merry, play games, and show our love and appreciation for one another through the giving and receiving of gifts.

But Christmas also brings into focus many of the things that trouble us in our lives. For many, including me, Christmas is a time which brings the deeper tensions and pain of our lives to the surface. For some it is painful to be apart from family, or to deliberately stay away from them and/or to be remembering loved ones who've passed before us.

Facing this pain is not to be out of the "spirit of Christmas”, it is rather to engage with its true meaning, to get with “the reason for the season”. Christians believe that in taking human flesh in the birth of Jesus, God embraced all that hurts us in this world. In being born a vulnerable baby to an unmarried teenager, in being born homeless and being forced into exile as a refugee, God embraced the pain and suffering of human life and sought to transform it from within.

That is the joy of Christmas, that through the life of Jesus, the life of God embracing the suffering of the world, we have a sure hope that suffering is not the end...'that weeping may endure for a night, but joy come in the morning...'. But it is more that, it is the awareness that we will never see an end to suffering in this world but that as we live between the now of the world as it is and the not yet of the world to come, that even now we need not be defined by suffering, but can choose instead to be defined by joy.

I spent a year of my life living with a community of Franciscan brothers and sisters in Plaistow. Quite often a member of the religious community would use the expression “perfect joy”, often with a cheeky smile when in engaging in a mundane or horrible task, like washing-up or cleaning the loos. I came to learn that this was not just a joke but an attempt to find joy in the difficulties of life, and that it was applied to not just to household chores but to the business of experiencing suffering. This was a house full of people with deep personal hurts: some homeless, some refugees, some struggling with addiction, all of us bearing inner pain and struggle in our hearts. It was nevertheless a place of much joy, where tears of sorrow could be turned to tears of laughter. Someone (Douglas Steere) once said that, ‘To “Weep for joy” is ever natural because joy lies both between and beyond both tears and laughter.’ I certainly experienced that in that Franciscan house.

I learnt there that joy was not a joke to those brothers and sisters but one of the three notes, one of the three characteristics by which these followers of St Francis attempted to live their lives. In the Principles of the Order, often read during the daily prayers, they would hear these words: ‘Finally, the brothers and sisters, rejoicing in the Lord always (Phil 4.4) must show forth in their lives the grace and beauty of divine joy. They must remember that they follow the Son of Man, who came eating and drinking (Luke 7.34), who loved the birds and the flowers, who blessed little children, who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners (cf Mark 10.16), who sat at the tables alike of the rich and the poor. They will, therefore, put aside all gloom and moroseness, all undue aloofness from the common interests of people and delight in laughter and good fellowship… This joy, likewise, is a divine gift and comes only from union with God in Christ. As such it can abide even in days of darkness and difficulty, giving cheerful courage in the face of disappointment and an inward serenity and confidence in sickness and suffering. Those who possess it can be content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever they are weak, then they are strong. (2 Cor 12.10)’


This inspiration, to seek to show forth joy, comes from the life of Francis himself and, not least, from his own reaction to the news of what is surely one of the most acute experiences of human suffering, the awareness that he was going to die. When the doctor first examined the 44 year old Francis, he told him that he hoped that, God willing, Francis would soon be well. When Francis insisted on hearing the truth, the doctor told that he had an incurable disease and would be dead within a short period of time, to which Francis responded with the words “Welcome, sister death”! The story is told that Francis uttered these words with great joy, that rather than be defeated by suffering, and by the greatest enemy of human life, death itself, he embraced death as a sister; he transformed the suffering of death by an attitude of deep joy, joy from the faith that suffering is real, that death is real, but that neither is the last word for the follower of Jesus.

Now I am not seeking to offer glib words for those experiencing suffering, and certainly not seeking to offer comforting words to those going through the real agony of facing death, but I am saying that I want to have that faith, the faith of Francis that death is not the end. I do not want my life to be transformed by suffering but choose instead to live in the faith that even the greatest suffering of my life is capable of being transformed by the attitude of joy, the faith that we can know deep joy even in the midst of all that causes us pain and anxiety.

Christmas makes us attentive to the suffering of our lives and our world and this Christmas we cannot but be aware of those who are suffering not only on the streets of Walthamstow, those helped by the Christian Kitchen and living in Forest YMCA, but those suffering in the Philippines, in Syria, in South Sudan and, indeed, in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus.

We are right to be disturbed at Christmas by this suffering, but also to witness, through our Christmas celebrations, to a deeper joy, the deep joy that comes through a commitment to alleviate suffering in the faith that suffering is never the last word. Indeed, if we do not witness to this joy, then we hardly offer joy to others. We can hardly claim that the situations that cause us pain and anxiety in our families, in this neighbourhood, in our world, are capable of transformation, unless we ourselves seek to live lives marked by joy, marked by our attempts to express joy even in the suffering of our lives. In his book ‘Growing in Joy’, Robert Morneau gives a one sentence definition of joy and it is this, ‘The virtue of joy is habitual action that leads to the enlargement of life for oneself and others in that its expansive energies give us zest in living and hope in dying.’

So, I hope the peace of God will disturb us this Christmas, inspire us to live in faith, hope and courage, and lead us into deep joy. As we eat, drink and be merry, may we be attentive to suffering but not defined by it, believing that the Christmas message is indeed joy to the world!

Steven Saxby, December 2013.


Sunday 24th December 2013
St Barnabas, E17
Christmas Eve – Midnight Mass

We’ve finally arrived at Christmas, after journeying throughout this Advent with the great themes of faith, hope, courage, peace and, tonight, the theme of joy! The overall message this Advent has been that we wait in faith for the God who comes to us and works from within the brokenness of our world to bring healing and justice. That, I have been saying, is what gives us hope that the world can change. That is what gives us the courage to co-operate with God. That is why we work for peace in expectation of the joy to come. And tonight that joy has arrived, the joy we associate with the birth of the baby Jesus.

So, what is this joy? I am not talking about the cheesy-grin joy that pretends that there is nothing wrong with the world. I am not talking about the short-term joy associated with fulfilling our physical or material needs. I am not talking about the shallow joy of putting on a brave face while hiding our inner brokenness. I am talking about deep joy, the joy of Jesus, the joy that knows that life is hard, the joy that knows that human beings hurt, the joy that, nevertheless, does not accept suffering as the last word and does not allow suffering to define us as human beings.

Of all the Christmas card, e-mail and FB messages I have received this year, the one that has made we think most is this: 'May the Peace of God DISTURB you this Christmas!' For sure, Christmas is a happy time for many of us, whether Christian or not, a rare opportunity in the year to spend real, quality time with loved ones - a chance to eat, drink, be merry, play games, and show our love and appreciation for one another through the giving and receiving of gifts.

But Christmas also brings into focus many of the things that trouble us in our lives. For many, including me, Christmas is a time which brings the deeper tensions and pain of our lives to the surface. For some it is painful to be apart from family, or to deliberately stay away from them and/or to be remembering loved ones who've passed before us.

Facing this pain is not to be out of the "spirit of Christmas”, it is rather to engage with its true meaning, to get with “the reason for the season”. Christians believe that in taking human flesh in the birth of Jesus, God embraced all that hurts us in this world. In being born a vulnerable baby to an unmarried teenager, in being born homeless and being forced into exile as a refugee, God embraced the pain and suffering of human life and sought to transform it from within.

That is the joy of Christmas, that through the life of Jesus, the life of God embracing the suffering of the world, we have a sure hope that suffering is not the end...'that weeping may endure for a night, but joy come in the morning...'. But it is more that, it is the awareness that we will never see an end to suffering in this world but that as we live between the now of the world as it is and the not yet of the world to come, that even now we need not be defined by suffering, but can choose instead to be defined by joy.

I spent a year of my life living with a community of Franciscan brothers and sisters in Plaistow. Quite often a member of the religious community would use the expression “perfect joy”, often with a cheeky smile when in engaging in a mundane or horrible task, like washing-up or cleaning the loos. I came to learn that this was not just a joke but an attempt to find joy in the difficulties of life, and that it was applied to not just to household chores but to the business of experiencing suffering. This was a house full of people with deep personal hurts: some homeless, some refugees, some struggling with addiction, all of us bearing inner pain and struggle in our hearts. It was nevertheless a place of much joy, where tears of sorrow could be turned to tears of laughter. Someone (Douglas Steere) once said that, ‘To “Weep for joy” is ever natural because joy lies both between and beyond both tears and laughter.’ I certainly experienced that in that Franciscan house.

I learnt there that joy was not a joke to those brothers and sisters but one of the three notes, one of the three characteristics by which these followers of St Francis attempted to live their lives. In the Principles of the Order, often read during the daily prayers, they would hear these words: ‘Finally, the brothers and sisters, rejoicing in the Lord always (Phil 4.4) must show forth in their lives the grace and beauty of divine joy. They must remember that they follow the Son of Man, who came eating and drinking (Luke 7.34), who loved the birds and the flowers, who blessed little children, who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners (cf Mark 10.16), who sat at the tables alike of the rich and the poor. They will, therefore, put aside all gloom and moroseness, all undue aloofness from the common interests of people and delight in laughter and good fellowship… This joy, likewise, is a divine gift and comes only from union with God in Christ. As such it can abide even in days of darkness and difficulty, giving cheerful courage in the face of disappointment and an inward serenity and confidence in sickness and suffering. Those who possess it can be content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever they are weak, then they are strong. (2 Cor 12.10)’


This inspiration, to seek to show forth joy, comes from the life of Francis himself and, not least, from his own reaction to the news of what is surely one of the most acute experiences of human suffering, the awareness that he was going to die. When the doctor first examined the 44 year old Francis, he told him that he hoped that, God willing, Francis would soon be well. When Francis insisted on hearing the truth, the doctor told that he had an incurable disease and would be dead within a short period of time, to which Francis responded with the words “Welcome, sister death”! The story is told that Francis uttered these words with great joy, that rather than be defeated by suffering, and by the greatest enemy of human life, death itself, he embraced death as a sister; he transformed the suffering of death by an attitude of deep joy, joy from the faith that suffering is real, that death is real, but that neither is the last word for the follower of Jesus.

Now I am not seeking to offer glib words for those experiencing suffering, and certainly not seeking to offer comforting words to those going through the real agony of facing death, but I am saying that I want to have that faith, the faith of Francis that death is not the end. I do not want my life to be transformed by suffering but choose instead to live in the faith that even the greatest suffering of my life is capable of being transformed by the attitude of joy, the faith that we can know deep joy even in the midst of all that causes us pain and anxiety.

Christmas makes us attentive to the suffering of our lives and our world and this Christmas we cannot but be aware of those who are suffering not only on the streets of Walthamstow, those helped by the Christian Kitchen and living in Forest YMCA, but those suffering in the Philippines, in Syria, in South Sudan and, indeed, in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus.

We are right to be disturbed at Christmas by this suffering, but also to witness, through our Christmas celebrations, to a deeper joy, the deep joy that comes through a commitment to alleviate suffering in the faith that suffering is never the last word. Indeed, if we do not witness to this joy, then we hardly offer joy to others. We can hardly claim that the situations that cause us pain and anxiety in our families, in this neighbourhood, in our world, are capable of transformation, unless we ourselves seek to live lives marked by joy, marked by our attempts to express joy even in the suffering of our lives. In his book ‘Growing in Joy’, Robert Morneau gives a one sentence definition of joy and it is this, ‘The virtue of joy is habitual action that leads to the enlargement of life for oneself and others in that its expansive energies give us zest in living and hope in dying.’

So, I hope the peace of God will disturb us this Christmas, inspire us to live in faith, hope and courage, and lead us into deep joy. As we eat, drink and be merry, may we be attentive to suffering but not defined by it, believing that the Christmas message is indeed joy to the world!

Steven Saxby, December 2013.
Advent 4 - The Bishop of Chelmsford - Peace

watch here


Sunday 15th December 2013
St Barnabas, E17
Advent Three: Courage


Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is sometimes called “Gaudate Sunday” because of an ancient tradition that the opening, sung words on this Sunday are the words ‘Gaudete in Domino semper’ which in English is ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. We might also then call today “Rejoice Sunday”. It is a turning point in Advent from the more sombre preparation thus far, to a more upbeat sense that our Lord’s approach is now really drawing near…just ten days till Christmas…and this upbeat, lighter tone is also marked by using rose as a lighter liturgical colour, hence the pink vestments we are wearing today. It’s as if we can rest a bit at this stage in Advent, but there is no rest from the Advent themes upon which I have been preaching.

For those who’ve travelled with my Advent sermons so far, you will remember that on Advent Sunday I preached on…faith…, that last Sunday I preached on …hope…, that we will come to think on peace and joy next Sunday and on Christmas Day but that today it is the turn of…courage! The overall message is this: in Advent we wait in faith for the God who comes to us and works from within the brokenness of our world to bring healing and justice. That, I have been saying, is what gives us hope that the world can change. That is what gives us the courage to co-operate with God. That is why we work for peace in expectation of the joy to come.

Today then we think on Courage! Let me share some words on courage from The Wizard of Oz. It is the so-called cowardly Lion who says,

‘Courage! What makes a King out of a slave?
Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave?
Courage! What makes the elephant charge his tusk, in the misty mist or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk?
Courage! What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder?
Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder?
Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the "ape" in apricot?’
What have they got that I ain't got?’
…’Courage!’….’you can say that again!’

What does courage mean for us as Christians? In the Christian tradition, courage, or fortitude, is regarded as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The catechism of the Catholic Church describes it thus: ‘with the gift of fortitude/courage, we overcome our fear and are willing to take risks as a follower of Jesus Christ. A person with courage is willing to stand up for what is right in the sight of God, even if it means accepting rejection, verbal abuse, or physical harm. The gift of courage allows people the firmness of mind that is required both in doing good and in enduring evil’.

Of course courage is not unique to Christians and Thomas Aquinas warned that courage without justice is an occasion of injustice, whereby a strong person can use their courage to oppress someone who is weaker… something we see when a boss, a bully or a dictator uses courage in the wrong way. For Christians, however, courage is to wedded to justice and to be a tool for living the Christian life, enduring evil at times, speaking and acting for justice at times, at times standing firm in one’s faith even in the face of opposition.

Courage is often linked with prophecy, with the prophetic voice of the one who speaks out against injustice. On this Sunday we remember John the Baptist as the one who prepares the way for Jesus. Jesus himself speaks of John as we heard in our gospel reading, ‘"What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'’ John was a person of courage. It was John who spoke out against King Herod when Herod married his deceased brother’s wife, something explicitly forbidden in Jewish law. It was his courage in speaking out that led to John’s imprisonment. And contrast his courage with the moral weakness, the lack of courage showed by Herod when he agreed to his wife’s sick request via her daughter, for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Courage is associated with the prophets and courage is associated with the martyrs. One of my favourite saints is the martyr St Perpetua, an amazing example of courage. Perpetua showed the courage of total commitment to God and she was willing, if not eager, to bear the cost of discipleship. At the age of 22 she started her preparation for baptism, she became a catechumen. But Carthage, in the year 203, was a dangerous place for catechumens. The Emperor Septimus Severus had forbidden fresh conversions to Christianity; when Perpetua and her four companions became catechumens, they rendered themselves liable to the death penalty. Perpetua refused to denounce her faith and she was indeed sentenced to death. As part of the entertainment at the local amphitheatre, Perpetua was thrown into the arena to be mauled by wild animals. However, she was so caught up in religious ecstasy that she didn't even notice when she was tossed about by a mad cow! Having survived the wild animals, she was to be finished off by a gladiator. When he hesitated, she joyfully guided his knife into her own throat. Now that's what's I call courage, the courage of the martyr!

Courage is associated with the prophets, with the martyrs and, indeed, with heroes of our own time. Today the world witnesses the burial of Nelson Mandela, a man of courage if ever there was one. He not only showed courage in opposing Apartheid but he also showed courage in leading the new South Africa with a spirit of peace and reconciliation. No one expected that and it took enormous courage for Mandela to tread that path and show that kind of leadership. That kind of courage, moral courage, courage wedded to justice is what changes the world for the better, what transforms our sorrows and struggles into the peace and joy of transformation.

I often think that moral courage is lacking in today’s world, and not least in the leadership of the Church. So often I see leaders anxious to protect their own interests or the interests of the institution that they neglect to speak-out for and stand-up for those who are vulnerable. So often I have seen that kind of moral cowardliness and it can be pretty depressing! But thanks be to God for the new Pope! What a courageous moral leader he is! Here is someone who identifies with those who are vulnerable, who wants the Church to be a Church not only for the poor but of the poor! Here is a Pope who received huge criticism for washing the feet of Muslim convicts on Maundy Thursday and for going to Lampadusa island to show his support for refugees. Thanks be to God for Pope Francis and may his moral leadership inspire all church leaders to re-assess the extent to which they show moral courage.

Courage is for the prophets, courage is for the martyrs, courage is for great leaders and great popes…but courage is also for all of us. We may just be thinking that we don’t have courage, that we can leave it to others, that like the cowardly lion we can hide behind others who’ve got what we haven’t got.

Well maybe we do not all need to show courage to the same degree in all circumstances and maybe it is for some more than others to show courage in the midst of their Christian discipleship, but all of us I suggest should be prepared to show courage as and when circumstances dictate. I am sure we all find ourselves at times going along with a conversation, perhaps with malicious gossip or someone’s expression of prejudice, feeling uneasy but lacking the courage to speak out. Or perhaps we find ourselves in a situation where a people are being bullied at work or school and we lack the courage to do something about it. Or perhaps we lack the courage to be honest about who we are with others. I am reminded of an organisation for gay Christians which was called “courage” and gave people tortured by anxieties the courage to come out as gay. Courage can manifest itself in all sorts of ways.

In the New Testament, the word courage occurs only 9 times. Jesus uses it to say to his disciples, ‘take courage, do not be afraid’, Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians to encourage us to be firm on our faith, it is used once each in Philippians and Hebrews, and then it occurs four of those nine times in the Acts of the Apostles and my favourite use of it is this from Acts 4: 13, ‘When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus’: Unschooled, ordinary people, who had been with Jesus. Courage therefore is for all Christians…it doesn’t require an education, it isn’t for special people, it is just for people who like his first disciples and like us today have been with Jesus.

Staying close to Jesus is what can give us confidence that we will use courage when we need it. We do not need a Dorothy to convince us that we are not cowardly lions after all… all we need to do is receive courage as a gift of the Holy Spirit and use it to co-operate with God in playing our part in the transformation of the world.


Steven Saxby, December 2013.



Steven Saxby, December 2013.
What role should the churches play in supporting asylum seekers, migrants and refugees?

11th December 2013

Steven Saxby – Walthamstow Library
I am grateful for this opportunity to be alongside friends from other faith communities and with many good people of Waltham Forest to address the question, “What role should faith groups play in supporting asylum seekers, migrants and refugees?” I speak as someone who’s been engaged in supporting asylum seekers, migrants and refugees for a number of years and not least, most recently, as the parish priest of St Barnabas Church and as a founding member of the Walthamstow Migrants’ Action Group.
My contribution will focus on the role of the churches in London and I will use some examples from my experience to illustrate the ways in which many churches are already supporting migrants (including vulnerable migrants such as asylum seekers, refugees and those who are undocumented). In doing so I hope my contribution might be of use to other churches and indeed to other faith groups and I am glad of this opportunity to learn from others today so that we can develop our own work at St Barnabas. I know others, including Christian charities, mosques and other faith groups do similar and other things, but I offer today five ways in which I think churches make a massive contribution in supporting migrants.
First, for those migrants who are already church-goers, finding a church in London is a means by which migrants connect with an important aspect of their identity. The church is, of course, an international organisation and in London it is possible to find practically every branch of the Christian family. So at St Barnabas we have a congregation consisting of people from many parts of the world. This includes a large group of fellow Anglicans from the Philippines, Anglicans from Barbados and other parts of the Caribbean, Christians from Uganda and other parts of African, Pakistani Christians, Roman Catholics from Ireland, Hungary and other parts of Europe, Pentecostal and Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet states, and all over, who all come to St Barnabas because it is the church in the neighbourhood where they live and provides them with a place to fulfil their spiritual needs, to come and worship God and bring to God all the joys and struggles associated with their lives, including their experience as migrants.

Secondly, churches are places where migrants can build community with others. This is so important for people who are often arrive in London alone and lonely and sometime after a great deal of trauma. Social isolation is a big issue for migrants and often a cause of depression and despair. This is why migrants will often seek out people from their communities back home and why in London we have so many ethnic church congregations, ranging from the Ethiopian Orthodox to Chinese Pentecostals, from Lithuanian Catholics to Burmese Baptists. Anglicans from the Philippines have made St Barnabas their UK spiritual home, as they worship alongside others of many cultures. It is great to see the real joy of an isolated Filipino when they discover people from their own community and, indeed, find that much of the cultural life of back home is represented within community gatherings here in London. The same is true for African gay and lesbian Christians, many of them here as asylum seekers for fear of death or torture at home because of their sexuality, who worship with us once a month as part of the House of Rainbow Fellowship at St Barnabas.

Thirdly, this fact of the church being an international community has something powerful to say to those who would wish to put up boundaries to stigmatise migrants. It is because the churches are communities where people of many nations come together with a common identity that we can bear witness to central tenants of our faith, namely that God loves all regardless of nationality and therefore that churches should be places of welcome for all. In churches there is no such thing as immigration status since we are all co-citizens of heaven. Since our faith teaches us that God welcomes all, that the Bible teaches us that God wants us to welcome the stranger, that Jesus himself was forced to live as a refugee in Egypt during his childhood years, that the final vision of peace, the New Jerusalem, in the Bible is one where all nations come together, we are compelled to welcome the migrant. Maybe that is what inspired those who named an obscure village “welcome place” (or “Walthamstow”) as people moved here from elsewhere many years ago and that is why our church is committed now to Walthamstow as a welcome place for all.

Fourthly, because the churches, who are communities of migrants and non-migrants, are compelled by the Christian faith to welcome the stranger and to care for the vulnerable, it is no wonder that churches are often at the forefront of practical initiatives to support migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees. I first became involved in migrant support through the Newham Churches Immigration Support Group about fifteen years ago. We undertook a number of actions as migrants and non-migrants supporting asylum claims in particular. These included writing letters, making petitions, attending court hearings, accompanying people when reporting at police stations, and setting up places of sanctuary in case they were needed. Much of this work goes on across London, not least the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service and others. Practical work also includes projects like our local Christian Kitchen, providing vital help to homeless migrants. And practical initiatives also flow from listening to the experience of migrants and working together in churches to address the needs of migrants in the congregation. At St Barnabas, where as members of London Citizens we have conducted listening exercises among our congregation to identify our needs, this has included workshops on helping migrants access health services, help with accessing legal advice and on how to react if subject to stop and search by immigration officers.

And finally, churches can be engaged in taking political action to try to support the plight of migrants, especially those who are vulnerable. This is why St Barnabas has teamed up with others in trying to address migrant issues in Walthamstow and has helped form the Migrants’ Action Group. It is also why we are part of London Citizens working with communities across London to try and challenge injustice in the capital not least on migrant issues and why we are involved with Migrants Voice, the Migrants Rights Network, RAMFEL, Kanlungan, the London Churches Refugee Network and others in challenging some of the unjust proposals contained in the government’s Immigration Bill. It also why we’ve been active in resisting the aggressive stop and search tactics of immigration officers, not least here at Walthamstow Central, and resisting any collusion with the government agenda that suggests migrants should “Go Home!”

On various levels then many churches are supporting migrants and I pray that many more churches will join with others to develop our support, especially at a time when migrants are under so much attack from racist elements of our society as well as the media and our very government. As we prepare for Christmas, churches prepare to welcome the one who was born a homeless stranger and became a child refugee…. may we show that we care for migrants, just as God shows his love and care for us.
END

Sunday 8th December 2013
St Barnabas, E17
Advent Two: Hope

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Last week I suggested how during Advent we wait in faith for the God who comes to us and works from within the brokenness of our world to bring healing and justice. That, I said, is what gives us hope that the world can change. That is what gives us the courage to co-operate with God. That is why we work for peace in expectation of the joy to come. I mentioned that these great themes of Faith, Hope, Courage, Peace and Joy would form the topics for our Advent and Christmas sermons this year. And so this week, having preached on faith last week, it is the turn of hope!

And what a time to be thinking about hope, in these days following the death of someone whose life was a symbol of hope, who is an inspiration to those who struggle throughout the world. Nelson Mandela, an amazing man, has, after some time of illness, finally gone to rest and yet we know that as we prepare to bury Mandela next week, this is a man whom history will remember for centuries or more, whose legacy will not die, whose example will continue to bring hope to so many throughout the world…but more on Mandela later.

Last week we considered faith and faith is closely related to hope. Hebrews 11: 1 tells us, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Faith gives substance to the things for which we hope. Faith gives us the assurance that we do not hope in vain. Hope, of course, is not the property only of Christians but as Christians we hope in the light of faith, believing that such hope is not mere wishful thinking but is an assurance that the wrongs of this world will be defeated, because that is what Jesus has ushered in through his defeat of sin on the cross. And although we are between, as I said last week, the “now” of the world as it is and the “not yet” of the world as it is promised, we have faith that it is not in vain to hope for a better world, that it is worth striving for peace and justice because our faith in God assures us that even when things are at their darkest, even when a way out of a desperate situation seems impossible, we know that with faith in God it is possible!

This kind of hope has its roots deep in the Jewish scriptures and not least within the writing of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah speaks of one who will come from the stump of Jesse, that is from the father of David. Jews apply this text to the expected messiah and for Christians we read this as a reference to Jesus, who was indeed a descendant of David. Isaiah is writing at a time when the Israelites were in exile. Some time after they had entered into their promised land, they were the victims of war by surrounding foreign powers and they were taken out of Israel, taken far away where they then captive in Babylon and forced into slavery. It was a very dark time for the people of Israel, reminiscent of their time of slavery under the Egyptians. As the psalmist and Boney M remind us, “by the rivers of Babylon they sat down and wept as they remembered Zion”, remembered the home land from which they were far away. It is in this context that Isaiah says one will come who will bring forth righteousness, “he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”

Not only this, in the midst of a time when the small nation of Israel was a pawn in wars between the Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian empires, Isaiah says the one to come will bring peace, such that “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.” What a vision of peace! It would seem impossible and yet Isaiah encourages the Israelites in the depths on their despair to hope for such a peace, to have faith that such a peace will come.

I became involved in the Anti-Apartheid movement when I was about 14 years old. I can’t quite remember how but I do remember that it was a decision very much inspired by understanding from the Bible that God loves all, that God desires justice. I saw the terrible injustice of Apartheid, a system not only of racial segregation but rule by a cruel and brutal regime which was known to have tortured and killed thousands of its opponent in South Africa. The struggle was personified by the imprisonment of Mandela, who at that time had been in prison for 23 of his 27 years in captivity. I was involved in various rallies and actions and would regularly join others outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square. There we would chant, “a non-stop picket on the embassy, right until the day Mandela’s set free”. I must admit, I thought “this is mad!” I could not see an end to Apartheid, supported even by our own government under Margaret Thatcher; I could not see any prospect of Mandela being released from prison. Nevertheless, I went back again and again to join with others in keeping the hope alive. And I remember so well the day of Mandela’s release when I was 18, remember running down to the city hall in Durham where I was living at the time as a student and watching, on a large tv screen, the release of Mandela! Something we thought impossible came to pass!

The role of faith in the creation of the new South Africa should not be under-estimated. Many of the white supporters of Apartheid took their faith seriously, not least the members of the Dutch Reformed Church. They believed Apartheid was Biblical and a lot of work took place between that church and other Christians on convincing them what they finally admitted, namely that they had it wrong. That admission and the eventual renunciation of Apartheid by the DRC made a huge difference as support for Apartheid at home and abroad began to crumble.

And faith played a big part on the attitude Mandela adopted on how to transform a deeply divided society, a society in which the black majority had been oppressed for so many years, a society which could have easily turned those divisions into civil war. It is well known that Archbishop Desmund Tutu had many conversations with Mandela and is credited with helping Mandela to adopt the attitude of reconciliation for which Mandela became so famous. Mandela forged a country based on the hope that it would be a place of peace for all, black and white, a rainbow nation, with 11 official languages, with a beautiful new flag, with a government of peace and reconciliation, with an embrace of the cultures of all South Africans, symbolised so famously by Mandela appearing the springbok shirt of the all-white South African rugby team! I was in South Africa for three months in 1995, while Mandela was president and it was such a joy to see on the news every day how Mandela was out and about, giving affirmation and hope to a new country.

Of course, Mandela did not solve all the problems of South Africa but he has provided an enduring example of hope, hope that even the most dismal political conflict can be resolved and can be resolved in a spirit of reconciliation and peace. But let me re-iterate, the Christian faith was a critical factor in forging the new South Africa. We have faith that hope is not in vain, that the most challenging situation can be transformed, because we believe that is what Jesus has done for us by his death and resurrection.

What then can we do for Jesus? Let us be beacons of hope, let us bring hope to the darkest of human problems, let us proclaim the hope that is a core element of the Christian faith, let us be Mandela’s for our time, let us keep the candle of hope burning, not just this Advent but as part of our commitment to follow Jesus every day, year on year, until we are called to join Mandela and all who’ve born witness to that hope, in the fullness of the time to come!

Steven Saxby, December 2013.
Sunday 1st December 2013
St Barnabas, E17
Advent One: Faith

Today we enter the season of Advent. Advent means coming. It is a season of waiting, waiting for the coming of Jesus. We wait for the baby who waited himself in his mother’s womb to become one with us. And, amazingly, we wait in the faith that this baby is none other but God, the God who stoops down to be one of us so that we might know forever that God understands all our vulnerabilities, understands the failings of our world, and works from within to bring healing and justice. That is what gives us hope that the world can change. That is what gives us the courage to co-operate with God. That is why we work for peace in expectation of the joy to come. Faith, Hope, Courage, Peace, Joy: these are the great themes of Advent and the themes I invite you to explore with me through our Advent and Christmas sermons this year.

So, today’s sermon is on “faith”. What kind of faith do we declare this Advent season? We speak of these great themes. We talk of hope, we talk of courage…we speak of justice, as Jesus of the Prince of Peace, as the one who brings hope to the world. Are we blind to the world around us? Do we not see the suffering of the world? Do we not see that nations are continually at war with one another, that so many go hungry while others live in luxury, that our world is far from being a place of peace and justice?

We do see these things… and yet, we have faith that they are not the last word. Indeed, it is because we declare faith in Jesus that we are attentive to the injustice and violence of our world, that we do pay attention to homelessness and food poverty, to the neglect of children and of the elderly, to the exploitation of workers and the plight of migrants, the pollution of the seas and destruction of the rainforests, to all that shows our world failing to live out the purposes for which it was intended. We do see these things. We see them because God sees them. We see them because we know that in coming to be born among us, God made a decision to identify with our world as it is and to bring change from within.

He was born in Bethlehem, born to a people living under the cruel oppression of an occupying power, born as a homeless stranger, born to an unmarried teenager, forced to live his first years as a refugee. We wait for the one whom in coming, comes as one who identifies with the vulnerable, identifies with the powerless, identifies with the oppressed, identifies with those subject to violence and injustice, identifies with all our frailty and all our feelings of being out of control. This is the Jesus in whom we have faith!

And we also have faith in the Jesus who died on the cross, who rose again, who defeated sin and death, not by a great show of military might, but by self-giving love. We have faith that Jesus’ death shows us a new way of being within the world, shows us that love triumphs over hate, promises us a new kingdom of peace and justice. And yet, that is not something that comes immediately, it is something for which we have to wait. At the beginning of advent we remember that in particular, that we are in a time of waiting, waiting for Jesus to come again, waiting for him to bring in that future kingdom we are promised, waiting for the second coming of Jesus.

In other words we are between the “now” of the world as it is and the “not yet” of the world as it is promised. I have taken inspiration this year Advent from resources produced by Church Action on Poverty and each week we will be using prayers from Church Action of Poverty when we light our advent candles. This is an organisation completely in tune with so much of the desperate poverty in our society and not least at a time when more and more people are being forced into greater poverty by the welfare reforms of this government. Its newsletter tells many stories, including that of Kath from Stockton on Tees who turned to high-interest loans to try and cope with her shortage of money and found found herself enslaved to debt. And yet the newsletter encourages us to keep alive that dream that we can build a just society where no one goes hungry, where no one is a slave to loan-sharks. This is what Christians, not least our Archbishop and our MP are doing in calling for the reform of money lending and we can thank God that the government has listened and agreed to cap on loans, leading at least to some reform of a broken society where many are trapped in poverty. We dream of a society where this will not be so and waiting, waiting in this time, waiting in the midst of the pain and suffering, violence and injustice or our world is what it means to have faith. Do we give up? No! We hold fast? Are we affected by the things we know are not right? Yes, acutely affected, cut to the core, we too feel the pain and yet we are not crushed: we have faith. Faith, Paul tells us, is the assurance of things yet unseen and we have that assurance. We have that faith that something better is coming and that all our efforts in co-operating with God to make peace, justice and love are signs, signs of what is to come, acts of faith, symbols of hope, works of courage, moments of peace and joy.

We are not optimists or pessimists, we are realists. We know the world as it is and we have faith that it will not remain as it is but will give way to something better, something glorious, where peace will reign, where swords will indeed be turned to ploughshares, where Jerusalem and the whole earth will know peace, where the works of darkness will be no more. We do not know when it will come…we are told it will come at an unexpected hour…but we have faith that it will come. And in the meantime we can take our inspiration from Isaiah, that the thing to do is plod on, to walk in his paths, to steadily make our way towards that promised place, represented by making pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We just keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, plodding on and on, but not in despondency, not weighed down by our problems and the problems of our world, but determined, steadfast, walking in confidence that Jesus will come again, walking in the belief that war or injustice shall be no more, walking with all our pain and vulnerability, walking in advent hope, walking, walking and waiting, waiting in faith!


Steven Saxby, December 2013.
Speech on the Review of the Workings of the General Synod – GS 1914A – 19th November 2013
Steven Saxby – Chelmsford – 85 - in a maiden speech
This is only my second time at Synod following election to a vacancy in the Diocese of East London and TOWIE (i) , so lots of people have asked “what’s it like?”, and my answer has been “it’s pretty awful”. What worries me most is that I might get used to it and come to think that it isn’t that bad after all, but for the time-being I can afford to be provocative.
It is not that I am intimidated as a new member by the procedures and so forth. Much of that is familiar from my days of being active in a student union. It is not that I don’t like parliamentary procedure – I absolutely love - I just don’t think that the Church of England should conduct its business like a student union or try to ape parliament.
So, what would I like to see? I would like the Church of England nationally to do business like a church. And I suggest three marks of being the church that we might seek to embody in any reworking of the current model.
First, let’s be relational – we have already seen the fruits of this through the group-work that has started at General Synod. Thanks be to God! What we are discovering is that the quality of our common life is enhanced by our attention to each others’ stories and perspectives. I spend half my week working over the road from an office in Central Hall. It is used for national gatherings all the time and I notice that they almost always, as did the International Nuclear Group last week, sit together around round tables. Why don’t we do this in here? Why not be relational all the time? Let’s aspire to be a church where our love for each other flows over to those who encounter our work at national level, and let’s do that after the pattern of the Holy Trinity who is loving-relationship flowing over into the world.
Secondly, let’s be theological - I suggest we develop processes which help us learn from our experiences, bring this into conversion with scripture and tradition (you know, actually open our Bibles and talk about Jesus together) and then pray together for the Holy Spirit to guide us as we then distil our common learning and use that as the basis for action. I helped re-shape my own deanery synod in this fashion, using the model of the pastoral cycle, and I reckon we can do it at national level too! We are a gathering of the church so let’s gather in such a way that we use the resources of the church to enhance our action in the dioceses and communities we represent.
And finally, let’s be inspirational - I suggest actually that we ditch the General Synod altogether. Why not have a conference of bishops, like the Catholic Conference of Bishops, but with women and surrounded by a small council of advisors, who would sort out, in private, the necessary but dull and detailed matters of internal church life?
And then let’s have a broad-based church assembly, modelled on the assemblies of Citizens UK or the People’s Assemblies, whereby we bring together the diverse membership of the Church of England to tackle matters of importance to our communities and where we invite those in power to come and do public business with us.
Let’s engage on credit unions, for example - not by a tokenistic 90 minute slot amidst all the dreary business of the current model - but by bringing representatives of our membership from our poorest parishes together, bringing families with their young children, bringing migrants, bringing vulnerable older and other people, and bringing the Chief Executive of WONGA here to be brought to account by them. The assemblies of Citizens UK, where 500-2000 people gather together, many of them from churches, show this sort of thing can be done and I see no reason why we should not be doing it as the Church of England, acting in the public square and using a relational and theological model of working together to provide inspirational leadership within civil society.
So, let’s not just re-work but let’s ditch the General Synod. Let’s make a great leap forward. Let’s prepare to put ourselves out of the business of boring ourselves and the nation, so we can start doing the real business of working for the common good in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
END

(i) TOWIE refers to the television programme ‘The Only Way Is Essex’. This reference was to an earlier decision to allow dioceses to be named after a geographical area in which the Bishop of Chelmsford referred to the ‘The Diocese of Chelmsford, The Church of England in East London and Essex’.
Sun 10th Nov’ 2013 - Remembrance Sunday,
St Michael’s, Walthamstow

Let us pray that the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts may be acceptable in the sight of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Remembrance Sunday and my message for today is this: we come to remember the past - but it is also important that we recall what is going on in the present AND that we remember for the future.

First then, we come today to remember all those who have died in past wars, especially - as is our responsibility - to remember those who died in the service of this country. We are reminded again of the powerful image of the fields of blood which became fields full of poppies. We engage in our Remembrance Day ceremonies on the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, the day on which the First World War came to an end. We remember service men and women who have died in the World Wars but also in more recent conflicts involving this country. We try to remain aware of the sheer horror of war, the terrible suffering endured by those on the front line. We try to honour the sacrifice made by those who died in the service of others. And this is, of course, a difficult task: difficult for those of us too young to remember past conflicts; painfully difficult for those who have served in War and bring their own memories of friends and comrades lost in action. It is important that we keep the traditional two minute silence, as we did at 11 o clock - for keeping silence reminds us that no words can do justice to the horrors endured in war, the magnitude of lives taken, the pain felt by those who mourn loved-ones. All we can do in the face of such vast human suffering is to keep silence and each year to renew our pledge - “we will remember them”.

We come to remember the past, but we also come acutely aware of the present, to remember that, even as we gather here, our country is engaged in conflicts overseas and that British forces, mostly young men and women from working class communities in this country, are on the front line risking their lives in the service of this country. We know that hundreds of British service personnel have died in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, and we must remember them. And we know too that hundreds and thousands of men and women have died in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Palestine, in Congo, in so many recent conflicts around the world – most of them civilians, many of them children – and we must remember them too. I grew up in what we used to call “peace time”; my children are growing up seeing images of people dying in conflicts around the world, hearing news of British service men and women being killed on a regular daily basis. And then we wonder that so many young people are engaged in their own violence of the streets. Today’s children are growing up being told that we are all involved in a global “war on terror”. It is fitting that we gather today as a very diverse group of people. In previous years I have sometimes led the Remembrance Sunday service at Walthamstow Town Hall, as Father Alex is today, and there people are gathered from different faith communities – Christian, Jewish, Muslim -, different branches of the Christian family, different countries. We live in a community where many people come from countries even today torn apart by violence, as will be true for some of you here. And it is important today that we stand together, united in our diversity, to say together that we do not want violence whether here or abroad to play any part in dividing us as individuals, dividing our communities, dividing the countries with which we have associations. As we gather here we somehow need to hold together the painful truth that however well we may relate to each other locally, we live in a world torn apart by violence. And at the same time, we owe it to those serving abroad and all caught up in the conflicts of the present to say “we will remember them”

We gather to remember the past and with an awareness of the present, but we also remember for the future. There lies at the heart of our remembrance a paradox, the paradox that we come to remember war but that our aim is to strive for peace, for a world where violence is a thing of the past. The Christian tradition is very clear about this. God created a world at peace; violence is a consequence of human rejection of God. As the Bible tells is, it was only after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden that violence came into the world. Indeed the first story after the fall is the story of the first violence, of Cain killing his brother Abel. Violence is a consequence of sin and this is a message that runs all through the scriptures Christians regard as holy. The Prophet Isaiah gives us a picture of future peace when he says: “God will settle disputes among great nations. They will hammer their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning-knives. Nations will never again go to war.” And for Christians Jesus is the Prince of Peace foretold by Isaiah. Jesus himself said “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”. For Christians Jesus choosing the path of death on the cross rather than the path of rebellion against the oppressive Roman government of his day, this path of peace sets the pattern for Christian engagement within the world. Violence is a consequence of sin and if throughout human history some wars have seemed necessary from a Christian point of view, which they clearly have, then it is only as a lesser of two evils that war can be judged to have been necessary. War in itself is never good, it does not reveal God’s intention or promises for his creation, it is only ever a consequence of a world that groans in sin and waits in eagerness for the fulfilment of God’s promise of peace. Some years ago I joined an organisation called the Movement of the Abolition of War. At first the idea struck me as naive. So often we are led to believe that war is part of human nature, that it is a permanent part of the human condition. But why should war be a permanent feature of human society? Why shouldn’t we strive for a world without war? If we believe that war is a consequence of sin, that it is a feature of human beings turning away from God, that it does not express what God intended for his creation – then it is totally consistent with our ideals that Christians should strive for the total abolition of war. War is comparable to slavery, it is a consequence of a world gone wrong. Harry Patch, one of the last remaining World War I veterans, who died aged 111 last year, said this, “It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it.” And we can agree with Harry Patch that there is no justification for the glorification of war or the remembrance of war for its own sake. Christian remembrance is always remembrance for the future, for a future which God promises will be a future of peace, a future in which war will indeed be no more.

We remember the past, we recall the present and we remember for the future.

I want to make a final point about the National Anthem. We sang the National Anthem at the beginning of today’s service as has been the tradition here as part of the remembrance liturgy. Singing the National Anthem represents our identification with the country in which we live and of which we, despite our countries or origin, are citizens. Our identification with this country takes our responsibilities for this country seriously, including our responsibilities to critique and seek to change those aspects of our national life which are less than ideal. When thousands of people marched in protest at the war in Iraq they were exercising their responsibilities as citizens to call our government to account, even, in the end, if it failed to listen. The third verse of the National Anthem, rarely sung, says of the Queen “may she defend our laws and ever give us cause to sing with heart and voice, God save the Queen”. It expresses the sentiment that the Queen shares with us in the responsibility of making sure this country does what is proper. So our identification with this nation, expressed in the singing of the national anthem, is part of the process whereby we remember for the future. It is a reminder of our responsibilities to ensure that this nation is called to account and of our commitment that it should be an expression of God’s ways of justice and peace. And singing it in no way diminishes our commitment to other countries nor to our concern for the whole world. The best nationalism is expressed in the context of internationalism where what we desire for this nation is in harmony with what is best for the world.

And so, as we prepare to engage in the traditions of Remembrance Sunday, as we remember the horrors of war in the past, let us also be acutely aware the horrors of war today and let us commit ourselves, as citizens of this country, to make the whole world a world of peace and justice.

SS - Sunday 10th November 2013
Sermon for Bible Sunday
St Barnabas, Walthamstow
October 2013


Today is Bible Sunday. If you can't remember celebrating it before, it's not surprising: Bible Sunday is relatively new. It's one of the bonuses that has come with the Church of England taking on the Revised Common Lectionary a few years back. In one respect it’s an unusual celebration: we read the Bible every Sunday and every Sunday we give thanks for it when in response to the words 'This is the word of the Lord' we say 'Thanks be to God' and in response to 'This is the Gospel of Christ' we say 'Praise to Christ our Saviour'. Yet in another respect Bible Sunday is a very welcome celebration, it’s an opportunity for us to celebrate more than a particular choice of readings. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the Bible as a whole.

And what a book to celebrate! Indeed, calling it a book seems inadequate. The Bible is, after all, a collection of books: 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New; a collection composed over a period of one thousand five hundred years by writers from all walks of life, in various times and places, of different cultures and tongues; a collection brought together over sixteen hundred years ago and translated since then into over sixteen hundred languages; a collection of different styles of writing - of history, letters, biography, poetry, theology, songs, philosophy, law, wisdom, prophecy; stories of adventure, of war and peace, of murder and rape and incest, of travel and romance, of faith and hope and love. It is no great wonder then that the Bible, the Church's book, the Word of God, is the World's best-seller!

The Bible as a book is certainly something to celebrate. Yet as Christians we don't just celebrate the Bible as a good read; we celebrate it for what it does for us; as a set of stories that binds us together; as a means for interpreting our world; as inspiration in our struggles for peace and justice; as guidance on how to live our lives well.

There's a story of a very rich man called Bernard who couldn't decide whether he should join St Francis and become one of his brothers. So he prayed that God would show him in three openings of the Bible what God's will for him was. The rich Bernard opened the Bible a first time and saw the text 'If you wish to follow be perfect, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor'. Then he opened the Bible a second time and he saw 'Let him who would come after me deny himself and take up his cross...'. And then Bernard opened the Bible a final time and saw 'Take nothing for your journey.'

The Bible gives us guidance in how to live, but very rarely does the Bible speak so clearly to us as it did to Brother Bernard. It is easy to think of issues on which people draw on the Bible to support different points of view: baptism, divorce, sexuality, war, women priests - these are just a few. I remember hearing a debate in South Africa when I was there after apartheid. It was about the use of Romans 13. Some said this was a good text to use to encourage people in the new South Africa to pay taxes and support Mandela's government. Others pointed out that in the old days they had attacked the white governments’ use of that same text because that government used it to discourage black people from protesting against the apartheid regime. And what do any of us make of Jesus telling his disciples to turn the other cheek, to sell all, to let the dead bury themselves, to render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar? How can we apply Jesus' difficult words to our lives? Tony Benn tells a story about a certain Miss Babcock who took Bible classes at his nursery school. During the first lesson Miss Babcock said 'God was angry'. Tony Benn interrupted saying 'No, Miss Babcock, God is love'. He was soon removed from the class.

There is, it seems, no simple way of reading the Bible. Even the academics argue about how to do it! Some go for historical-critical methods, some advocate literary interpretation, others promote feminist or Marxist or structuralist readings, others suggest a reader-response approach, still others call for reading the bible with post-modern imagination!

Yet, that there is no single, simple way to read the Bible is no reason not to celebrate it. Indeed, the difficulty of understanding the Bible is part of what we celebrate. The Bible is God's gift and it is a gift we, as God's creatures, have the ability and responsibility to wrestle with. Part of the joy of the Bible is that we are able to find in it a different word for different situations. Part of the gift of the Bible is that it brings us into disagreement with each other so that we are forced to pay closer, often painful attention to what God's will is for us and for those we engage with.

Perhaps we can also take some encouragement from the special prayer for this Sunday. Although the idea of a Bible Sunday is quite new, the collect for it, the special prayer for this Sunday, isn't new. The prayer was moved from its previous position where it was just used to celebrate God's Word in the Old Testament to where, now, it celebrates the Bible as a whole. But it's the same old prayer which as, the collect for the Second Sunday in Advent in the Book of Common Prayer, reads as follows:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.


Those words about inwardly digesting the scriptures may, if taken literally, lead more to stomach pains than spiritual comfort. I did hear of a man recently who literally smoked the Bible! He took a small Bible on his world travels and found the paper was the ideal size and thickness for rolling his tobacco in. Before each roll-up he would read the page he was about to smoke. He eventually read the whole Bible and was, apparently, converted to Christianity. But the real point about praying to hear, read, learn and inwardly digest the scriptures for our learning is that we need to remain open to what the Bible has to say to us even when we find it difficult.

The collect, the special prayer also reminds that above the difficulties of particular texts stands what we believe is the overall message of the Bible: the blessed hope of everlasting life given in Jesus Christ our Saviour. We read the Bible as the narrative of what we believe as Christians. In this sense, the Bible is less a collection of stories and more the single story of our faith. It is the story of God's loving engagement with the world, of the God who created the world to be good, who kept faith with his creation even when it rebelled in sin, who chose a special nation to be a light to other nations, who sent his Son to redeem the world and give us that hope of everlasting life in which the creation is restored to the goodness for which God intended it.

This, of course, is an on-going story and struggle for us. For us, the Bible is not just a record of human failures and triumphs in the past. The many stories of the Bible are, we believe, drawn together into a single, strong rope, bound together and unified in the central figure of Jesus Christ, in the Word made flesh, who we hope will triumph in us as, together, we seek to read and live and pray as one.

Steven Saxby - Walthamstow, October 2013.

Sunday 15th September 2013 – Theology and Anthropology,
St Barnabas, Walthamstow.

Our readings this morning speak again of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness for us. Jesus talks of heaven’s joy at someone turning towards God as comparable to a shepherd finding a lost sheep or to a woman finding a lost coin (perhaps part of her wedding dowry). God is merciful. He loves us unconditionally. He forgives us when we sin. We turn away from God and he seeks us out, seeks to bring the lost back to the experience of his love.

Today’s readings carry on a theme which we have been exploring for several weeks and upon which I have preached a few times, including my sermon on the Father’s Love and my last sermon on The Gift (which I see Liz has kindly printed in the September Parish Magazine – available at the back and only 30p!) So, I want to do something different with this morning’s sermon and take this opportunity to share with you some of the study and some of the thinking that informs my ministry as an Anglican priest and which I use to encourage us in our life together as a church community here at St Barnabas.

In particular I want to share an approach to life which is not specifically religious but is, I believe, at its best when in the service of the virtues held within the Christian community. And this is the approach of what is called ‘social anthropology’ or ‘social ethnography’, terms which are basically to do with the practice of paying attention to what is the case within a social situation.

I was formally introduced to this approach by Tim Jenkins one of my lecturers at university who is himself an Anglican priest but is also a trained social anthropologist. I was fortunate to have quite a bit of exposure to his ideas not only during his lectures but also during his sermons, for he was the Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge and I had a little job on the side there, supporting him in the leading of some service as the Dean’s Clerk. I say formally introduced as I realize now that his approach is, as he suggests, fairly typical of a certain kind of approach to ministry, an approach which is characteristic of the Church of England vocation and which the priests who I had grown up with had themselves embodied. It was they who inspired me to become a priest and I realize that the approach they embodied is an approach which, although I have developed it in my own contexts, is basically an approach which still inspires me and informs my own ministry – it is essentially what makes me tick as a priest.

I realize too that I came to pay more attention to the value of social anthropology through the secular studies I undertook in cultural heritage a few years ago. Indeed we were required to undertake an ethnography of a particular social environment, to spend time in a place, pay attention to what was the case, describe how people interacted with each other and, indeed, consider the virtues embodied in the place – but more of this a little later. We also had to write an extended description of a local area, for which I chose this neighbourhood, a process which was highly significant in leading me to apply here to be priest at St Barnabas.

Tim Jenkins explains this all in much more detail in his book “An Experiment in Providence – How Faith Engages with the World”. So what is this approach all about and how is it relevant to the life of a priest? Essentially it is about paying attention to what is the case, to what folk are getting up to, to how they are leading their lives and, theologically, it assumes that God is already at work in the world even the bits of it that we as the church are not engaged with.

Now you may be thinking “so what?” isn’t that obvious, what’s the big deal? Well, if you are than that probably means that you are a pretty typical Church of England Anglican – you expect to find God at work in the world around us, expect to pay attention to what is out there, seek to find out how God is at work in others. But this is not the approach of all church communities. Many Christians take the view that God is not at work outside of the church and that it is the job of Christians to take God out into the world. Christianity, for them, is a project to be imposed on the world not recognition of what God is already doing within it.

Now I am exaggerating these differences slightly and I also have to acknowledge that it would be wrong to say that the approach I embody is the only model of Church of England ministry, but it is fair to say that the approach I am describing has a strong history within the Church of England and that it is a distinctively Anglican model of ministry, at least in the Church of England context, and one hardly found at work in the ministry of those within other denominations in this country.

I hope I have conveyed the kind of approach which informs my ministry, an approach concerned with paying attention to what is the case, to how God is already at work in the world around us. What then does a ministry look like that is informed by this approach? Well, let me take my own ministry here in this parish over the last four years as an example and, hopefully, what I am seeking to convey will become even clearer.

During my time here I have tried to be involved in this local community, to pay attention to what is the case, to what God is already doing here. In this way I have been like many traditional Church of England priests but, I acknowledge, not like all Church of England priests today. I have been something like a chaplain – not just to the congregation – but have aspired to be such for the whole community. It is not easy of course in a parish which is so diverse, but as much as possible I have tried to make myself known in places where people gather together, to learn about what makes them tick and, from this basis, I have found many opportunities to engage in ministry with them.

So, I have spent time in cafes in this parish – and since there are no pubs in this parish, in pubs nearby. I have got to know people, less through holding prayers there, but more from talking with people. I travel by foot, by bike, by bus and most journeys I find myself talking to people from the neighbourhood. Since working half the week in Westminster, I have had several good conversations with neighbours as we have headed into town on the tube. I have engaged with the schools in the parish, including serving as a school governor at Edinburgh. I have taken funerals and weddings for people who have had no previous connection with the church. I have encouraged people in the neighbourhood to work together, not least through the CitySafe and Street Party initiatives.

This then, among other tasks, is how I conduct my life as a parish priest – engaging with people where they are, seeking to find where God is at work in their lives, providing resources, where appropriate, to help them in the business of human flourishing. This is not unique to me here, it is an approach embodied by many Church of England priests. Nick Holtam, now Bishop of Salisbury, previously Vicar of St Martin’s in the Fields, described something very similar in his book ‘A Room with a View: Ministry with the World at Your Door’ – for his parish the context is Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery and the South African Embassy; for ours it is Thomas Gamuel Park, Edinburgh Primary and Queens Rd Mosque – very different contexts but the same ministry principles.

This is what I get up to. How then does this impact upon our life together at Barnabas? Well, let me make four short suggestions.

First, ask yourself what your approach is to those around you. How do you seek to live out your Christian engagement with the world? Are you someone who seeks to find out what is going on, discover what is the case, how God is at work in the lives of those around you? Or, are you someone who engages in the complimentary approach of seeking to take a message into the lives of those around you? Or, are you even someone with the capacity to do both? In other words, I am asking what is the character of your Christian vocation as it is lived out in relation to others? How can we bring your experience to the service of the whole of our church community here?

Second, it is important to recognize that paying attention to what is the case, to seeing God at work in the neighbourhood, does not mean that we do not also seek to use that experience to shape our community for the good. Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank express this well in their book For the Parish, where they say, “Out situatedness means more than being rooted in a community but also involves mappings of the ways in which knowledge and power operate in trajectories, as any child who has had to negotiate a safe way home from school will understand. It does not mean merely being at home in the world, but having a set of co-ordinates by which to understand its complexities, its fears and terrors.” And I would add, it means seeking to change the neighbourhoods and, indeed the world, for the better too…which is precisely why we this form of Church of England ministry aligns excellently with the practices of community organizing.

Third, one of the insights of social anthropology is that every social environment creates for itself its own culture, its own rules, its norms and ways of being. Now, for my studies I had the difficult task of conducting an ethnography of a public house and I had to spend time there observing how people behaved and thinking of the social rules at work in that particular environment. The anthropologist Kate Fox has written a wonderful book called Watching the English with a chapter on Pub Talk and she describes many of the behaviours and unwritten rules which I discovered at work in the pub which I studied - things like the invisible queue at the bar, how strangers at the bar will talk to each other, how people buy each other drinks and call each other nicknames. She describes the pub environment as a “social micro-climate”, an environment, if you like, with its own weather just as a dog track or a hairdresser’s would have its own different set of rules, its own climate. Now the relevance of this for us, it seems to me, is that a Sunday morning church experience is likewise a particular kind of social environment and people within it behave in certain ways. We need to be conscious of this, for unless we are careful we shall – as can happen in an unfriendly pub – form habits which shut people out rather than habits which make it easier to draw people in.

And finally, I would suggest that the relevance of my approach as a priest in the parish and the various interactions that you have with people in the community are all experiences which we bring with us when we meet here on a Sunday morning. They form the raw material we need to be an Anglican parish church, to be a church which is able to bring the needs and thanksgivings of our community and its people before God. This is what it means to “pray for the parish” and this is, I would suggest, one of the key things which makes an Anglican parish church, rather than any other kind. It is precisely because we are engaged with the world out there and that we seek to represent that world to God when we gather here that we can call ourselves the parish church community of St Barnabas. And none of this, of course, is at odds with the unconditional love of God about which our readings speak today. Jesus encourages us to seek out the lost and I can think of no better way to do that than being attentive to the manifold experiences and needs of the neighbourhood in which we as a church community are located and bringing them here to mass where we can pray for the transformation of all that is lost to return to the warmth of God’s love.
Steven Saxby, September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013
St Barnabas, E17.
Theme: The Gift (read below of click ... here)

"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

I invite you to join with me this morning in giving some thought to that verse of scripture which ended today’s gospel reading. There is no beating about the bush here in terms of what Jesus is saying: we should give without expectation of return. This is not the only place in the Bible where we encounter this teaching. In Acts 20:35, we have the scripture, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”, words from a speech by Paul which he attributes to Jesus and in Matthew 10:8, Jesus himself says “freely you have received, freely give!”

These phrases resonate strongly with us because they are deeply embedded in our Christian cultures. There are other phrases in English culture which support the idea of giving freely without expectation of return. One I discovered was from a nursery rhyme, used by English children from at least a hundred and twenty years ago. The phrase is “Give a thing and take a thing to wear the devil’s ring!”, meaning if you give a gift you should not expect to receive it or anything equivalent to it back in return. And I guess various folk here might know similar phrases from your own cultures, such as the phrase in Spanish "Santa Rita, Santa Rita, lo que se da ya no se quita."

But these phrases promoting the notion of giving freely, do not sit comfortably with some of our human tendencies or indeed with how humans tend to organise themselves within societies. We are suspicious of free gifts, often suspecting, as often turns out to be the case when provided by marketing companies, that there is a catch somewhere further along the line. As much as we might want to “never look a gift horse in the mouth”, our suspicious minds often lead us to think, “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. We live, after all, in a capitalist society where banks, companies and now even charities and what we used to call “public services” such as health-care and education, are seeking to make money out of us. In such a context, the notion of free-giving struggles to survive.

And this tendency is not necessarily particular to advanced capitalist societies. It is something anthropologists have discovered in what we might call more basic or simple forms of social organisation. The anthropologist Maucel Mauss, wrote a classic study called The Gift in 1925 on the form and reason for exchange in what he called archaic societies. He studied tribal societies in North America and the Pacific. He concluded that within these societies, a gift not only carries obligations for the giver, but also for the receiver and furthermore sets up a relationship between the giver and the receiver. In other words, he suggested that one cannot give without the expectation of return and that the return of a gift established a relationship between the giver and receiver. I guess we can think of examples of this ourselves in the way in which we have given and received gifts, not least from loved ones as a means of cementing relationships, but also of how in refusing a gift we are refusing to enter into relationship, such as when we might choose not to return a gift to an unwanted admirer or from neighbours who want to get closer to us then we would like to get them.

These ambiguities about gift giving also seem to manifest themselves in language, at least in English. In English with words such as “gift”, “give” and “present” there is a tension in our language that suggests we see giving as a kind of taking. We “give” something to someone, but we also use the expression “give way” or talk of a tree that “gives”, each indicating a reception of something. The theologian John Milbank points this out in a little essay called “Can a gift be given?” and he shows that there is a tension between different ideas of giving in our culture. He shows too that gifts can be regarded as good or bad and even that the old English word “gif” can mean a gift but can also mean “poison”.

What we discover through a study of language, and of the way humans organise themselves in societies, is that there are two dominant views of gift that pervade our culture. One is that giving involves contract and therefore that a gift must be reciprocated; the other, that it is possible to give freely without expectation of return. I have hesitated to say the former is related to our human nature, but it is definitely a human tendency and a tendency away from the second view, which Christian tradition would argue is a natural state, created by God, that we are to give without expectation of return.

Any why are we encouraged by Jesus to give without expectation of return? Simple: because that is what God does with us. “Freely you have received, freely give”. And it is not, of course, that this giving is without reward: but the point is that the reward is from God and not necessarily from the person to whom we give. It is not that we cannot receive back from the person. Indeed we might desire that they too would come to know the joy of giving freely to others, but that we do not expect return from them. We can, however, expect return from God: today’s reading tells us, “And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” but again we do not give because we expect God’s reward in the future, but because we have already received it in the past and continue to receive it in our lives. Last week’s collect expressed it perfectly: ‘Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than either we deserve or desire”. We already gain from God, have already gained from God, already freely received and that is why we freely give. In the death of Jesus we have received more than we could ever hope for, total love and acceptance, total freedom to come before God and be pardoned from our wrong-doing, not once, not seven times, not seventy times, but over and over, because loves us, loves us more than we deserve and gives to us more than we even desire.

St Francis, that most Christ-like of saints, understood this so well… he who by the world’s standards had everything, gave it all up to embrace a greater richness given by God. He not only gave freely but said, in the poem attributed to him, “it is in giving that we receive”: giving is a kind of receiving because in giving freely we experience - not return, not reward - but awareness, awareness of how much we have already freely received from God.

Now I know that this is not merely abstract for us: it is what we do; it is how we live out Christian community. It is why we give to those in need. It is why we welcome the stranger in our midst. It is why we welcome pilgrims and can be received as pilgrims. It is why we buy each other drinks and givers each other flowers. It is why we come together at church socials or events like the community picnic today and share food. But it is also in tension with so much of how we are encouraged to live in a society where others are out to exploit us economically, where strangers are seen as a drain on resources, and we are right, at times, to view the so-called “free gift” with suspicion. However, it is incumbent on us to live the alternative represented by the free gift, to keep alive the theology and the practice of giving freely. I increasingly enjoy Rosalind Brown’s reflections in the Church Times and this week she writes of once joining a church where on the first Sunday there she was invited to lunch by a family and was regularly invited to lunch there in what was, unsurprisingly she says, a growing church. It was a church living the theology of giving freely.

And so, let us hear again the words of today’s gospel and consider how we are applying them in our lives: "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Steven Saxby, September 2013.


St Saviour’s and St Barnabas, Walthamstow
11th August 2013

Transfiguration - Retreat

Today we think about the story we’ve just heard of Jesus spending time on a mountain with some of his disciples. While they were there something amazing happened to Jesus. His appearance changed, his clothes became as white as lightning and two other people from the Bible, who’d been dead many years, Moses and Elijah, appeared beside him. This amazing event we call the transfiguration. Jesus changed before the eyes of his disciples. Jesus was transfigured, he was transformed and shown to look as if he was already sitting on his throne in heaven.

I want to talk this morning about a way we can open ourselves up to being transformed or transfigured. I want to talk about “retreat”. Jesus was on a retreat when he was transfigured. We are told that he spent some time on the mountain top with his disciples in prayer. They certainly spent one might there, maybe they were there for longer. However, it is clear they made a retreat, they came away from all the hustle and bustle of their normal lives to spend time with God in prayer.

In the Bible the mountain is a place to meet God. Moses and Elijah both met God on the mountain top and we can assume that is why they appear with Jesus when he meets God on the mountain top in the transfiguration story.

A retreat doesn’t need to be on a mountain top - there are many places to go on retreat in all sorts of settings - but a retreat is a getting away from the normal hustle and bustle to spend time with God.

I want to say a few things about what a retreat is not. A retreat is not rest. Rest is very important in our lives. In this country we are not very good at resting. We are pushed hard at work and school. Many of us have demanding lives. That’s why August is such a good month, an extended opportunity to slow down. Perhaps you’re good at resting. If so, share your tips with the rest of us. For we all need to build plenty of rest into our everyday lives. Retreat is not everyday rest but a special going away, yes to rest with God and sometimes to do some work with God as well. Retreat is not holiday then either, not a prolonged opportunity to relax or pursue our interests but a time to make an effort with God in a focused way. Nor is Retreat a pilgrimage, not a journey to a place but a focused bit of time staying in a particular place. Rest, holiday, pilgrimage, these are some of the things a retreat is not, so what is a retreat and how can we go about preparing for one? I’ve taken some advice here from material produced by the Retreat Association.

A retreat is a period of quiet reflection in which we can deepen our relationship with God and our awareness of God's presence and activity in our lives. In laying aside the preoccupations of day-to-day living we are free to be inwardly still, and to think, feel and pray. Through the retreat we may have a sense of affirmation of how we are living, or we may feel challenged to make changes or new commitments.
There are many different kinds of retreat. In led or preached retreats, for example, there are talks, given to the group as a whole; in activity or theme retreats prayer develops from work with paint or clay, observation of the natural world, or the like; in individually guided retreats there are daily one-to-one meetings with the retreat-giver. Different approaches suit different people: you may like to try several.
Some retreats are largely, or entirely, in silence: the people making the retreat do not talk with each other. Despite the lack of conversation, however, there can be deep sense of companionship. At mealtimes there is usually music or a reading to listen to.
On a group retreat there will be periods of worship together. If making an individual retreat it is good to go where it is possible to join in with prayers, for example staying as a guest of a religious community. Such a community will normally provide someone as a link for you if you wish to talk confidentially about things while on retreat.
Now what should you take on a retreat? Well, find out whether there is anything you are asked to take. Take comfortable clothes, and weatherproof outdoor clothes and footwear. You may like to take a notebook. If you enjoy quiet creative activities such as art, knitting or tapestry, you may like to take the materials. A retreat is an opportunity to listen inwardly, and reading can be a distraction - be very sparing in what you take.
What about the silence? What should we do in this? Well, relax! You may like to rest and sleep. As you move around, use your senses - pay attention to the sights, sounds and smells. You may like to express any thoughts, feelings, perceptions or insights, in words (prose or verse) or in images (such as drawing, painting or clay). If you read, read only a little and then ponder the meaning of what you read, your reaction to it, and its significance for you. Activity is good if it deepens your retreat: if it starts to take over, set it aside.
And of course you can also pray - for others, for yourself, or in quiet contemplative awareness, open to the Spirit. At the end of a period of prayer, look back over the prayer time and recall what happened. Notice what you felt, and especially anything that surprised you. You may like to record the details in a journal, so that you can go back to them later.
Try to let go of any anxiety, and just relax in the quiet. Be sensitive to others, but behave naturally towards them. If someone smiles at you, feel free to smile back. In the silence, however, you will not know how each person is feeling, so if someone seems to be preoccupied or unaware of you, don't take offence.
If there are talks, try to open yourself to them: let the words touch your heart and mind. Feel free to take notes, but let listening and responding take precedence. Try to be punctual for any group sessions: if everything starts on time everyone will find it easier to relax into the retreat. However, don't feel you have to go to everything or conform to any expectations. Be open to your own needs and the leadings of the Spirit.
The silence will usually finish some time before the end of the retreat, perhaps in time for conservation over the final meal. Before this happens, look back over the retreat. What have you experienced? Have you received or resolved anything? Is there anything you have decided to do? Is there anything about which you remain unclear, or for which you are waiting?
Back at home, daily life will quickly re-impose itself. If you have kept a journal, though, you will be able to remind yourself of the retreat: you might like to put a reminder in your diary to reread the journal in a couple of months' time. You will need to find ways of integrating insights and commitments from the retreat into your ordinary living.
There will be opportunities to tell others about your experience. Be as open as you feel able to be, but recognize too that some moments or sensation may be too subtle or too personal to convey to others.
Peter, James and John found there experience on the mountain top to be so amazing that they wanted to stay there forever. They suggested to Jesus that they make some shelters for them all to stay in. And Luke makes is clear in adding that Peter did not know what he was saying that he was being pretty dumb. The transfiguration was an amazing moment in Jesus life, it was a moment of affirming who Jesus was as God’s voice instructed the disciples to listen to his son. It was a retreat from the everyday but the point about retreats is that they equip us to go back to the everyday. Like the Sunday eucharist, they provide us with strength to face the challenges and appreciate the joys of everyday life. We cannot live on retreat and we may not always be transformed by a retreat but a retreat is a real opportunity to open ourselves towards God doing something special in our lives.
It can be daunting if you’ve never been on retreat to make that first retreat but in my experience people who do so then make a retreat year after year. Feel free to talk to me more if you’d like to explore going on retreat. You are never too young or too old for a retreat and the magazine Retreats lists all sorts of retreats for all sorts of people.
I’ll end with a prayer from the Retreat Association:

God of stillness and creative action, help us to find space for quietness today that we may live creatively, discover the inner meaning of silence,
and learn the wisdom that heals the world. Send peace and joy to each quiet place, to all who are waiting and listening. May your still small voice be heard through Christ, in the love of the Spirit Amen.

SS/11/08/2013

Sunday 4th August 2013
St Barnabas, E17.
Theme: Dropping judgement for love


Last Monday, Pope Francis made a comment that took many by surprise. In answer to a question from a journalist, he said this, “If a person is gay, and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” Let’s be clear, the Pope has not delivered a new teaching on homosexuality. There is no indication that he is planning to drop the Roman Catholic Church’s official stance…but…and this but is very significant…he has changed dramatically the church’s tone. The previous pope never even used the word “gay” and, indeed, consistently used negative and condemnatory language when talking about gay people. Pope Francis has changed the tone, and in a way that is similar to his approach on other issues, he has, as one commentator expressed it, put “people above dogma”.

In today’s gospel reading someone puts a question to Jesus and Jesus’ response is not dissimilar to the response given by Pope Francis. Jesus replied, “Friend, who set me to be judge or arbitrator over you?” or to paraphrase, “Friend, who am I to judge?”
I invite you to take a deeper look at this passage with me and to consider it in relation to what I am calling “dropping judgement for love above”.

Let’s first consider the question asked, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Biblical scholars comment on this request in the context of what they have discovered about inheritance practices of the time. It was the custom for inherited land to be kept together, to be passed down to the whole family. The land, money and property were regarded as a means of keeping the family unit together. But there was a provision, only if the oldest brother agreed, for the inheritance to be divided and the man seeking Jesus’ intervention is asking Jesus to rule in his favour, seemingly against the rest of the family’s wishes, that the inheritance, and hence the family, should be divided.

So, how does Jesus respond? The first thing to note about his response is how he addresses the younger brother. He has called Jesus “teacher” or “rabbi”, appealing to Jesus’ authority…Jesus responds by calling him “friend”. There is no attempt here to laud it over the man, no attempt by Jesus to assert his authority over him. Jesus calls him “friend” and speaks to him as a friend. He does give advice, as we shall see, but it is given as friendly advice, not as an order for the man to obey instructions but as the words of one friend to another.

Second, Jesus uses that phrase akin to asking “who am I to judge?” He changes the tone. He does not respond with an austere judgement. He does give a judgement but he gives it, as we will discover, in quite an indirect way. The intention of the advice is not to put the man right or wrong according to dogma, but to use holy wisdom to help the man direct his life towards human flourishing. He will say to the man, “take care” and in giving his advice, Jesus is offering a perspective which is intended to care for the man, or more specifically to encourage him to care for himself.

Third, Jesus gets to the heart of the issue. He says to the man, “take care” and he sees that what the man has to take care about is greed. Jesus says’ “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Now he does not say to the man, “you are greedy”… but he encourages him to take care of all kinds of greed.

Then fourth, rather than talk about how the man is being greedy in seeking his share of the inheritance, Jesus tells a story, he tells a parable, tells it as an encouragement to the man he has called friend to think about his life and whether he is placing too much importance on possessions. Jesus makes the point through the story that possessions give temporary pleasure but do not make for that longer-lasting deep peace and contentment that are the marks of heaven. Jesus encourages the man to cultivate those things which would make him rich in the sight of God and not to store up treasures only for himself.

In summary, a man approaches Jesus looking to service his own needs, to get that to which he was entitled under the law but at the expense of causing damage to his family relationships. It is not without significance that Jesus says of the man in his parable ‘he thought to himself’… in other words he came to his own decision rather than reaching a decision in the context of discussion with his family or community. Jesus sees the man is potentially destroying himself by his greed and egoism, by his “I want” attitude. Jesus calls the man a friend and offers friendly advice. He does so in the unthreatening form of a story, with the aim of helping the man to take care of himself in the best sense of ensuring that he acts in a way pleasing to God and not merely out of his own selfish desires.

What are we to make of this for our own lives? How do we respond to others? Sometimes, what might be called “a severe mercy” or “a tough love” is the right response. As friends and family members, we need at times to give judgements to others to help them help themselves. But how we judge is the key. Is our emphasis on dogma or the person? Are we delivering judgement for their good or for our good, or even for the good of the institution, be it the Church, our workplace, our family reputation, whatever? Are Jesus’ response to the man is as much a lesson for the one giving judgement as the one receiving it. Do we not need at times to drop our own desire to defend a position or defend an institution as much as the man needed to drop his claim on the possessions he desired? Well, who am I to judge? Instead let me tell us all a little story, the message of which I direct as much to myself as to the rest of you. It is a story from another tradition, but I hope we can apply it to our lives as Christians.

A man approached the Buddha with flowers in his hands. As he got near, he heard the Buddha say “drop it!” He could not believe he was being asked to drop his flowers. He thought maybe he was being invited to drop the flowers in his left hand so he dropped those and held on to the ones in his right hand. Still Buddha said “drop it!” This time he dropped the flowers in his right hand and stood empty handed before the Buddha. The Buddha smiled, looked at the man and said, “drop it!” What am I supposed to drop said the man, I dropped all the flowers already! “Not what you were holding”, said the Buddha, “but the one holding them!” (De Mello, The Prayer of the Frog, p195).

What are we being asked to drop as we seek to put love before judgement in our lives as Christians? Let us ponder this question and once we have identified it, I invite us all to “drop it!”

Steven Saxby, August 2013.


Sunday 14th July 2013
St Barnabas, E17.
Theme: Good Samaritan: Who is my neighbour?


Not so long ago, I was asked to visit one of our neighbourhood primary schools and share something about “the church in action” with a class of ten and eleven year olds. I was pre-warned that they had been considering the story of the Good Samaritan and that they had prepared some very good questions, questions like “how do you help other people at St Barnabas Church?”

I was quite challenged but this task. “What are we doing?”, I asked. We have no food bank (although we are now supporting the local foodbank, - www.eatorheat.org), no shelter for homeless people, no drop-in for elderly people, no playgroup (even though we now have a pre-school in the hall), no counselling service, none of the those kinds of things often associated with the church serving its local community. But then I remembered our engagement in London Citizens [http://www.citizensuk.org]
and how the methods of community organising have helped us transform our relationship with our local neighbourhood. I showed the children a video clip about CitySafe [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SS-KaJjQrpgand] explained that we had set up a CitySafe scheme here in the Markhouse Ward where we now have a number of Safe Havens in local shops, cafes and public buildings, places where people can retreat for safety if they feel vulnerable. I explained this was, for us, a practical outworking of the story of the Good Samaritan - a story which is after all a story of a man being viciously mugged and robbed – a response by us to the issue of crime on our streets and the desire to establish a neighbourhood in which everyone feels safe. Of course, there is more to do on this and it’s good that the Queens Boundary Community Organisation [http://queensboundary.wordpress.com/], which we have helped to start, is holding a meeting in our Foster Hall this afternoon on issues of community safety, to which all are welcome between 2-4pm.

That was my response to the school children, but I want to explore another aspect of the parable of the Good Samaritan this morning as I invite you to reflect on the core question which led Jesus to tell this story. A lawyer, asked Jesus which was the greatest of the commandments. Jesus reflects back the question and says the lawyer gives the answer that the greatest two are to love God and love your neighbour. The lawyer then asks this question, “And who is my neighbour?”

“Who is my neighbour?” “Who are our neighbours?” It is to this question that Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan and what Jesus does in telling this parable is something to which it is worth us giving close attention.

The Samaritan’s actions are good, in that it is he who helps the wounded man, takes him to a place of comfort and protection and pays the innkeeper to take care of the wounded man’s needs. His actions are good in contrast to those who should have helped but did not do so. Both the priest and someone from a priestly family, a Levite, passed by on the other side, they simply ignored the wounded man and left him suffering, potentially leaving him to die. But why did Jesus choose a Samaritan in the telling of the story? Surely any other person would have done? If the story is about the failure of the holier-than-thou to help, any humble believer could have served to make the point. Jesus could have even picked a tax-collector or a prostitute to illustrate his story. He mentions them often enough and they would have made the point that those who we might have expected to serve their own economic interests were more ready to help than those whose special responsibility it was to practice their religion in acts of loving service. But Jesus chooses a Samaritan as the Good person of the story and it is worth assuming that he did so quite deliberately.

Who were the Samaritans? I should really say “Who are the Samaritans?” for the Samaritans still exist today as an ethnic group within Israel/Palestine. Today their numbers are very small, under a thousand, but in Jesus’ day there were over one million Samaritans. They claim ancestry from Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh and although closely related to Judaism, the Samaritans have their own distinct religious customs. They claimed their religion was the true religion of Israel, preserved by those who were not taken off to exile in Babylon in the year 597BC. This claim led to intense rivalry between the Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day. That is one of the reasons why his disciples are shocked when Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The Jews of Jesus’ day pretty much hated the Samaritans and so for Jesus to choose a Samaritan as the Good person of his parable is for Jesus to make a deliberate point about loving action for others transcending ethnic and religious divides.

So “who is our neighbour?” when we phrase this question in ethnic and religious terms? Last week I did a little research into this question and it might interest you to know the results, at least as they appear from the statistics issued from the 2011 Census [http://www.neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk/dissemination/LeadTableView.do?a=7&b=6508220&c=E17+7HA&d=27&e=13&g=6338751&i=1001x1003x1004&m=0&r=0&s=1373819490160&enc=1&dsFamilyId=2525&nsjs=true&nsck=false&nssvg=false&nswid=1280]. According to those statistics, for the Markhouse Ward here, which is roughly coterminous with the parishes of St Barnabas and St Saviour’s, the population here is just under 14,000. Religiously, just under 40% call themselves Christian, just over 32% Muslim, 2.3% Hindu, fewer than 1% call themselves Sikh, less than 1% Jewish, less than 1% Buddhist and nearly 17% say they have no religion. In terms of place of birth, we find that a bit over 7,000, a bit over half of that 14,000 were born in the UK, with other prominent groups being as follows: 2,336 born in the rest of Europe, 2,224 born in the middle east and Asia and 1, 031 born in Africa, 1,179 from Pakistan, 618 from Poland, 397 from the Caribbean, 110 from the Philippines, 109 from South America and 22 from Zimbabwe just to pick out some of the places represented in this congregation. Looking around today, I wish I had to hand the specific figures for other countries represented here this morning: Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados, Turkey, Uganda, Sierra Leonne, Brazil, Dominica, Jamaica and Ireland. This morning we are 15 countries from for continents represented here in church and that is just this morning.

I mention these statistics because it strikes me that we often talk of being multi-cultural in general without paying attention to being multi-cultural in particular. Many of those who are loudest in their defence of multi-culturalism are people whose relationships with people of other cultures are quite weak. I have been in meetings with people defending multi-culturalism where practically everyone there is white British. By contrast, we may not think of ourselves as embodying multi-culturalism when we come to church but this congregation and others like it in Walthamstow are some of the few places in our community where people of different cultures genuinely come together and make friends across cultural boundaries, where we genuinely embody what it means to answer the question “who is my neighbour?” The World in Walthamstow photo project [http://www.walthamstowmigrantsaction.org.uk/8.htmlof] which many of you are aware, and is part of the Migrants Action’ Group we have been instrumental in forming, is an attempt to showcase the diversity of our community in particular and not just in general, to see how many people we can find here in Walthamstow to represent the nations of the world. So far we are up to 107… and rising, we are, as I have said before, over half-way to the New Jerusalem.

I had two experiences yesterday which to me also embody something of the spirit of Jesus’ parable. Standing at a bus-stop with an elderly white lady and seeing the bus come towards us driven by an Asian man, I was heartened when she said to me with real joy, “oh, its my favourite bus driver” and to see them greet each other warmly on the bus. And in the afternoon when I posted a photo on Facebook of my bike repairs in the garden, I was touched by a young Asian guy in the neighbourhood offering to help. It was a pity I saw his offer only after I had repaired the sixth puncture! Such instances, in the midst of everyday life in Walthamstow, reveal to me an outworking of the question “Who is my neighbour?” and I will try to remember them the next time I am summoned to a primary school to talk on the church in the community.

It is not just responding in practice to community need, as important as that is, and which we are seeking to do through CitySafe and other community initiatives, it is also making friendships beyond our own religious and ethnic boundaries that constitutes an outworking of the question “Who is my neighbour?” Some of you know that we were funded for a CitySafe and Peace Garden [http://www.saintsaviourswalthamstow.co.uk/10.html] initiatives by the Near Neighbours Fund [http://www.cuf.org.uk/near-neighbours] , a government pot of money which encourages people to work together in their communities. David Barclay, writing about Near Neighbours, in this essay, ‘Making multiculturalism work: enabling practical action across deep difference’ [http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/publications/2013/06/19/making-multiculturalism-work] suggests such projects enable the creation of what he calls “political friendships”, co-operation which puts the pursuit of the common good ahead of differences based on religion or ethnicity… but I suggest that these friendships are not necessarily only political, project-based or goal-driven but often genuine friendship fostered in the heart of enjoying difference and learning to live with multiple identities in the realities of complex social space. That’s my academic language for describing what we do here in this parish. Of course, we do not always get it right and I warm to Bishop Stephen’s response to the accusation “the church is full of hypocrites” that “there is always room for one more”… we do not always get it right, but what I am describing is an aspiration, often practiced, to be faithful to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan and his instruction to the lawyer and thereby to us, to “go and do likewise!”
Steven Saxby, July 2013.
Sunday 23rd June 2013
St Barnabas, E17.
Theme: Healing our demons beyond the comfort zone!

Jesus liked a party… we have the evidence from the story of Jesus’ first miracle, where he turned water into wine at a wedding feast… not just a little wine but something like 800 litres! This was not the action of a party pooper! So, we can imagine that Jesus will be looking kindly on us this afternoon, even though there will be no wine, as we hold our neighbourhood street party here. Last year we saw 700 people come from these nine streets close to the church and we saw our own miracle of plenteous food for the BBQ, cake, soft drinks, and ice cream all from the generosity of people in this neighbourhood. We hope for the same again, even more, and have the benefit today of the sun: thanks be to God!

We can imagine also that Jesus will look kindly on a short sermon so that we can all get to the party as soon as possible after church… so, let me TRY to preach for a little less than usual.

I invite you to reflect with me on another miracle, the miracle of Jesus and the man known as “legion”, and to see if we cannot make some connections between that miracle and our neighbourhood party today.

What then do we note from this story? First, we can note that Jesus is in foreign territory. He has crossed into Gerasene, gentile territory, which for Jesus, as a Jew, was a place he was expected to avoid and which, in Luke’s gospel, he only visits this one time. Second, he engages with this man who was living as an outcast of society. He was living on the edge of the city, living among the caves where the dead were buried, moving around naked…cast out, cast down, cast off. Third, he was tortured by demons, very many demons, powerful demons, with the power analogous to a Roman legion, demons which overwhelmed him and controlled him and brought fear to others. His very identity had become wrapped up with these demons such that he even called himself “legion”, not, we can assume, his real name.

So Jesus, goes out of his comfort zone, goes out to the margins of the community, goes to a man avoided by everybody else, goes to confront the demons and dramatically sends them into a herd of pigs. In doing so, he restores the man to his sanity, his dignity, his humanity.

What does it mean for us to follow this example? Where are the places beyond our comfort zone that we might go? Might they even be here in our very community? How easy it is for us to live even in a multi-cultural neighbourhood such as this and not really engage outside of the people we already know and with whom we feel comfortable, very often from our own ethnic groupings. Might today be an opportunity for us to reach out to neighbours, to engage beyond our usual boundaries, to have conversations and make connections that we might not normally make? Do we not sometimes fear others in our community? Do we not sometimes demonise others? Do we not need to seek release from our own demons, the things in our hearts and minds that imprison us and isolate us from others? What can we do in our engagement with others to bring healing and dignity, not only to others but also to ourselves?

The turning point in the life of St Francis of Assisi was when he saw a leper on the road side, someone again cast out from society. Francis got off his horse and greeted the leper with an embrace. Francis not only approached and touched the outcast, just as Jesus approached and touched “legion” but he embraced him… he went out of his way to show that he acknowledged the man with leprosy as a man, as a person, indeed as someone capable of showing Francis the love of Jesus, of helping Francis to heal the demons within him and he healed by the touch of the ones others called untouchable.

I want to share that I and some others from St Barnabas took part in two quite amazing experiences yesterday. The first was attending lunch as Lea Bridge Rd Mosque as part of the Waltham Forest Faiths Friendship walk. There people from all faith traditions had made an effort to come together, to walk together and visit each other’s places of worship. We had a beautiful welcome at the mosque and I was met with a lovely embrace from the Imam who called me up to sit next to him at the top table and say some words. The second was our big launch of the Walthamstow Migrants’ Action Group where people from so many backgrounds met together and joined together in food, dance and music, but also in discussion about how we can work together to support the vulnerable in our communities and unite together to challenge racism and injustice, especially that targeted against migrants. It was one of those evenings where we really got a taste of the beauty of humanity and the hope that those who are possessed by hatred will be healed by the embrace of those who work for peace and harmony.

And I believe we are in for another beautiful experience this afternoon, an opportunity for us to go beyond our comfort zone, a moment for us to allow Jesus to exorcise our demons, an opportunity for us, in the midst of our sometimes crazy, fearful and divided world, to restore sanity, dignity and humanity within the very midst of our own neighbourhood. As Jesus might have said: “let’s party”!

Steven Saxby, June 2013.


Sunday 16th June 2013
St Barnabas, E17.
Theme: Fathers’ Day; Father’s love.

Since it is Fathers’ Day, and even though this is not part of the liturgical calendar, I am going to share a couple of stories about the love of fathers, which I hope will help us to reflect on this mornings’ readings about the amazing love of our Father God.

The first story is one from my own childhood. I remember around the age of 10 my dad sending me up to the newsagents to buy him something … I am pretty sure it was a packet of cigarettes in the old days when things like that were possible. Anyway, he gave me a £10 note, which in those days was a lot of money… I made my way to the shop with the note in my pocket. It was quite a walk, about 15 minutes or so, along a straight road. I arrived and put my hand in my pocket… the money was gone! I looked all around the shop, no joy! In a state of panic, I retraced my steps, looking for the money on the ground, but I did not find it. I returned home, naturally expecting my father to be extremely angry but to my surprise he wasn’t – he just said, Ok let’s try to find it. We walked all the way from our house to the shop searching but did not find the money, we walked back dejected but half way home we saw the note just laying there on the side of the pavement. We went back to the shop where my dad bought his cigarettes and bought me some sweets. I learned a lot about a father’s love that day.

Our first reading today is a story of someone who came to appreciate the love of God. King David was by no means a perfect king and probably the most damning story of his reign is the way he conspired to have Uriah killed in battle so that he could take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba to be his own wife. This is why Nathan rebukes David in today’s reading and why the Lord punished David. However, God later forgives David and it is through the union of David and Bathsheba that David is blessed with his son and heir Solomon. So when David wrote the words of today’s psalm, he wrote them from the depths of his own experience, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered… While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord," and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”


Through the Bible we learn that God is loving and hence forgiving. And today we learn something else in the story of Jesus and the woman who washes his feet. She is condemned by the Pharisees as a sinner, but Jesus accepts her attention towards him gladly, because he knows it comes from a heart that is grateful for his love and compassion towards her. Jesus tells a parable to illustrate this of two people owed a debt and asks which will be more grateful, the one who owes a little and has his debt wiped out or the one who owes much and has his debt wiped out. Let me try to make the same point with a contemporary dad parable of my own… and unless anyone should think this story is about me and my children, let me give the disclaimer that this story bears no resemblance to any actual persons living or dead..

There is a father who allows two of his children to have a mobile phone and generously pays for their contract at £10.50 each a month, a contract giving so many minutes of talk time and an allowance of 500 text messages…. subject to terms and conditions blah, blah, blah. One month, the father discovers that one child has sent a couple of photo messages, not covered by the contract and charged at 50p each, which cost the father an extra £1. He also discovers that the other child has exceeded the text limit and has sent an extra 30 texts, all charged at 10p each, hence adding an extra £30 to the bill. The father makes both children aware of this issue and, being an all compassionate, wise and loving father, restrains his anger, issues no punishment but asks them not to do it again. Now which of these children is more grateful, the one who spent an extra £1 or the one who spent an extra £30?

Now the point Jesus seems to be making here is not just about the love and compassion of God, but also about the love and compassion generated within us when we experience God’s forgiveness ourselves. We love more because we know we are loved. We forgive others because we are first forgiven by God. As Paul says to the Galatians, we live our life of faith as a response to the love we receive from God. This is what the Pharisees do not get, but what is illustrated so well by the woman they criticise, the woman who shows her gratitude for Jesus’ compassion by washing, kissing and perfuming his feet.

Before I finish, let us consider the question, appropriate for fathers’ day, “why do we call God ‘father’?” What the church teaches on this is twofold. First, we call God father because we need some way of describing God in terms of what we understand as human beings. God is loving, caring, protective etc. What does this look like to us in human terms? It looks like a good father. So in giving the description of ‘father’ to God, we suggest God represents all those good things we understand from our fathers about love, care, protection and so forth. Now, this is not without its problems because many of us do not have entirely positive experiences of our fathers. Despite my story from earlier and knowing I am loved by my father, there are also times when I have felt let down and disappointed by my dad. And for some with very bad experiences of fatherhood, the language of God as father can be a barrier. The same can be true of calling God mother, of course, but the point remains that we call God Father (or mother) as a means of showing that we see in God those good qualities we associate with love and care from our human experience.

And the second reason the church teaches that we call God father is because it is a word that suggests God is in relationship. God is loving community within God’s self and the way we express this is to talk of the love between a father and a son. We could say mother and daughter equally but since God becomes human in the male person of Jesus, we talk of Jesus as son and he himself calls God father, or really calls God Abba, which is more like calling God “daddy”, such is the intimate relationship between God the Father and God the Son. This is a relationship of love that flows over, flows over into the love generated by God the Holy Spirit at work in our lives … so it is that more loves, generated more and more love…What the woman in today’s story does is respond to God’s overflowing love for her, by allowing her love to overflow to Jesus!

As we think of our fathers today and give thanks for whatever love we have received or receive from them, let us even more give thanks for the love that flows from God and inspires all of us who know that love to share that love with others.

Steven Saxby, March 2013.

Sunday 31st March 2013
St Saviour’s and Barnabas, E17.
Theme: Easter Day: Half way to the New Jerusalem.

This morning we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and in doing so we celebrate being half way to the New Jerusalem!

I’ve been reading a fabulous book entitled ‘Jerusalem: the Biography’. In it, the author, Simon Sebag Montefiore, describes Jerusalem as ‘the only city that exists twice, in heaven and on earth’. His book is about the amazing history of this earthly city, a history which is, of course, vitally important to Christians as the site of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus entered Jerusalem, the event we remembered last Sunday, Palm Sunday, very aware of its history, of its importance for his own Jewish people - of the history of immense joy and immense suffering of his people there over the centuries, very aware of the reality of Jerusalem in his day as a place under the cruel occupation of the Roman Empire. I could read out some of the horrifying acts of cruelty committed by the Romans and, indeed, other rulers of Jerusalem over the centuries, but there are children present and it is Easter Day! But, take it from me, Jerusalem has been the scene of some of the worse examples of “man’s inhumanity to man”, and, of course, is still a place of oppression today where Palestinians suffer terrible injustices and daily humiliations at the hands of the State of Israel.

Jerusalem then hardly seems a place of promise, but that is exactly what it is – not the earthly Jerusalem - although we all long of course for that land where Jesus preached peace to be a place of peace and justice - not the earthly Jerusalem, however, but the heavenly Jerusalem, the place about which Isaiah speaks, a New Jerusalem, the heavenly city in a new heaven and a new earth, a place of joy where ‘no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress’ – this is the New Jerusalem to which we can look forward.

And I see “we” because the New Jerusalem is a place of promise for us all. The Book of Revelation echoes Isaiah’s teaching about the New Jerusalem, describing it as a place where all nations will come together and live in peace, the peace indeed described by Isaiah where ‘the wolf and lamb shall feed together’. The New Jerusalem is what God has in store for us, it is what is promised for us at the end of time, it is our goal, our destination, our destiny.

What made the death and resurrection of Jesus something of importance for the whole of history was that his death was for all. He died and rose for all people. This is what Peter is talking about in the Acts of the Apostles, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” That was really an amazing thing for Peter to say. He was raised as a Jew. He was taught that he was part of God’s special people, that the promises of God were for the Jews only. God had to give Peter a vision three times before he understood that God was telling that the message of Jesus was for all people, people of all nations. Jesus’ death was not just important for the Jews, it was of universal significance, Jesus died for all. The Jewish people remained and remain special to God, as the nation to enlighten all nations, the nation from which Jesus died to show God’s love for all. Jesus died to show God’s promises of peace were for all people.

The resurrection shows God’s power, shows God’s defeat over the powers of hatred. Jesus submitted to a cruel death, he showed God’s love by humility, by love, by peace – God raised him to show the triumph of this way, the triumph of peace of violence, the triumph of justice over exploitation, the triumph of love over hate. The resurrection of Jesus was a sign in time of a cosmic reality beyond time. Love triumphs in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that is a heavenly reality, but here on earth we have to wait for that triumph to be worked out within the rest of history, we have to wait for the old heaven and the old earth to pass away before we know the true splendour of that new heaven and that new earth.

That is why we are only half way towards the New Jerusalem because we live with the reality of being in the now, as we wait for the cosmic reality of the not yet. But to be half-way is a wonderful thing. Here in the midst of the continuing horrors of life, we know we are half way when we see those joys of life, those glimpses of the promises of the future. When we encounter the vulnerability of a new born baby, when we see the joy of a child, the beauty of someone at peace with old age, when we experience the wonders of people from such different contexts making community together, not least here in Walthamstow, not least here in church.

Some of you know that I am working on a photography project, entitled The World in Walthamstow. It is based on a photography project last year called the World in London, which depicted one person from each of the 204 nations which participated in the Olympics. I wondered could I find the World in Walthamstow and having been snapping away, and to date have photographed people who live, work or have visited Walthamstow from 99 different countries. I am nearly over half way, nearly over half way to discovering the world in Walthamstow, nearly over half way, I think, to the new Jerusalem.

I mean that seriously because it is in the context of communities such as this where can get those glimpses of the kind of existence to which God is calling us. We will all be migrants in the New Jerusalem and I fear that some people, not least some of our politicians, are going to be in for a big shock when they see that what God is calling us to is to be hospitable to one another, for all nations to come to God and live together in peace with God and one another.

So let’s celebrate this morning and celebrate Easter not just as a high point of the Christian year, but let us celebrate who we are and what we are modelling, for it is here in communities like ours, that we can see those glimpses of the future to which we are called, see the reality of God’s love in Jesus for all people, see the promises of peace and justice, and see the not yet in the midst of the now as we get a little closer to the new Jerusalem.


Steven Saxby, March 2013.
Maundy Thursday 2013
Lighthouse Methodist, E17. Theme: Bread of Life

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take it; this is my body."

It is a real joy to be at Lighthouse Methodist this evening and wonderful for us from St Barnabas to be sharing in the events of Maundy Thursday together with those of you from the congregation here. We are one, united in our common love for Christ and our desire to share his love in this neighbourhood where we live, work and worship.

We share a common Christian heritage, expressed slightly differently in our distinct forms of worship and witness, yet we are one and there is no better night for us to be together across different traditions than the very night when Jesus prayed that his followers might indeed be one.

Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take it; this is my body." What does this mean for us then, as we gather here this evening. I invite you to reflect with me on Jesus taking bread and calling it his body, via another phrase of Jesus – which I suggest amounts to the same thing – namely Jesus’ phrase ‘I am the bread of life’,

Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life’ and it is one of the phrases from the Bible that we know so well that it is easy to take it for granted, something that could trip off the tongue. But what do we make of it when we reflect on it more deeply?


It is certainly a phrase that resonates, that invites us in, encourages us to explore its meaning. There is a story of a missionary in India who gave out copies of the Bible to passers-by. One passer-by, took the Bible and ripped it to shreds. Some time passed and someone else picked up a small piece of paper which he realised was from the torn-up Holy Book distributed by the Christian missionary. The fragment of paper contained only the words, ‘I am the bread of life’. So moved was the person by these words that they sought out the missionary to learn about Christianity.

So, what can we learn about those words? I invite you to reflect on three suggestions. First, that bread is essential to life. Second, that we need more than bread to live. Third, that Jesus invites us to be life-giving bread for others.

First then, bread is essential to life. It almost goes without saying but it has to be said before anything else. When Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life’, he is calling to mind the way bread represents our basis need for food. It is not specifically that we need to eat bread – we could as easily rely on rice, or pasta, or potatoes - but that we need to eat, and bread represents food. There is a phrase in English that bread is ‘the staff of life’, it is necessary like a staff or stick to support us. We cannot live without food. Of course Jesus recognises this when he teaches us to pray, ‘give us this day our daily bread’. Many of us take food for granted but for many in many parts of our world, that prayer is a heartfelt prayer for survival. There is a story of some child orphans after the second world war in the care of the army. The children could not sleep and so the army called in a psychologist. The suggestion was to give each child a small piece of bread to hold in their hands before going to sleep. This indeed helped the children to sleep as these children who had been deprived of so much needed that basic assurance that they would have food the next day. So, Jesus in saying ‘I am the bread of life’ calls to mind the basic need for food as a way of illustrating that just as food is basic to life, so what he offers is basic to life. At the last supper, Jesus reinforces his message with a practical application: his disciples are to eat bread and in doing so to fully identify the need for bread with the need for Jesus himself.

Second then, what Jesus’ words represent is that we need more than just bread to live. We cannot live without food but life is more than bread. One of the best illustrations of this to my mind is the poem, "Bread and Roses" by James Oppenheim. He published it in The American Magazine in December 1911, which attributed it to "the women in the West." It is commonly associated with a textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts during January–March 1912, now often known as the "Bread and Roses strike". The poem goes like this:
As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for -- but we fight for roses, too!
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler -- ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

We need food to live but we need more than food, we need those other things which bring our lives to life. It is easy to think what Jesus offers is spiritual food rather than physical food, but I do not think that is what Jesus is getting at. Rather what he represents is all that is needed for life to flourish. He does not say simply, ‘I represent bread’ but ‘I am the bread of life’. Jesus’ giving of bread, and wine of course, takes place also in the context of Jesus washing his disciples feet, of showing his love and care for them, just as Mary did when she poured that perfume over Jesus’ feet. Yes, the money could have been used for the poor, but yes also is the need for human beings to receive love and compassion, to receive the occasional pampering, to wash each others’ feet. Every year I go on a four day pilgrimage and one of the most satisfying things at the end of an eighteen mile long walk is to have someone greet you with a hot bowl of water and wash your feet. We need bread, but we need more than bread to live, we need love and love shown in acts of loving kindness, whether the giving of roses or the washing of feet.

And this brings us on to our third consideration: Jesus invites us to be life-giving bread for others. Jesus gives his life and, in doing so, identifies his own body with the bread he asks us to share in his memory. Over the centuries Christians have had big debates on what this means. Is it just a remembrance meal? Is the bread symbolically changed? Is it physically changed? I love the way Geoffrey Howard reflects on this in his book ‘Dare to Break Bread’. Here is a priest describing saying the Eucharist after some days of fasting while on a retreat in the Sahara desert. And this is what he says (p48): ‘I hold the bread in my hand and I see there the God who created, sustains and saves the world. I see food for the hungry, strength for the weak, power for the powerless. I see am not bothered whether bread has become body or whether it remains plain bread. Let the theologians argue. Those issues are as sterile as the stones of this place. All I know is that I look at bread but see God.’

When we see the bread of the mass, of communion, of the eucharist, of the last supper, of these Maundy Thursday agape mean, when we see that bread, we see God. But, furthermore, what God does is make us the bread we share. We become the body of Christ, we become the living bread to be offered for the world. So what does that mean? Well, that is something for us to work out for our daily lives. How can we be engaged with others, helping to meet basic needs of providing bread where necessary. Gandhi said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” But also helping to provide those other things, bread and roses, to share love, joy and peace in our community through our daily acts of love and kindness? How we do it is for us to work out – I pray we might work out to do engage in our community not least by working more closely together, that is for us to work out - but that we are invited by the one who calls himself the bread of life to be life giving bread for others is what we celebrate every time we share in the holy meal of the Eucharist, every time we remember Jesus saying “Take it, this is my body!”

Steven Saxby – March 2013


Mark 14: 26-31

26 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

27 "You will all fall away," Jesus told them, "for it is written: " 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.' 28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee." 29 Peter declared, "Even if all fall away, I will not." 30 "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "today--yes, tonight--before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times." 31 But Peter insisted emphatically, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the others said the same.
Sun 3rd March 2013 – Lent Three
St Barnabas’, Walthamstow

“Oh Lord, what are you doing to me?”

Those are the words of a great soul song.

“You’d never place gold-dust in my hair; you made me the child of a no good man; my only love, a precious gift from above, now he is leaving day by day, hear me crying, slowly dying… Oh Lord, what are you doing to me?”

I love the raw emotion of that song and it resonates with times when I call out to God something akin to those words, “Oh Lord, what are you doing to me?”

Do you ever feel life that? That somehow or the other you are being tested or made to endure some suffering and you ask “Why?” “Lord, why me?”

If so, you join millions through history who’ve expressed the same sentiment.

Imagine how you it would feel to be the mother of one of those Galileans mentioned in today’s gospel reading. It is bad enough that you are part of a people who’ve endured hundreds of years of persecution and are now under the cruel occupation of the Roman Empire. How would you feel to learn then that your son, killed for whatever reason was then one of those whose blood the Roman Governor Pilate mixed with animal blood to make his sacrifice to the gods. Forget the horse-meat scandal, that is nothing compared to this. This is a matter of Pilate mixing animal blood with human blood to make a religious sacrifice which was already an insult to the Jews of Jesus’ day. All Jewish people would have been horrified but imagine being a relative of one of those who blood was used in that disgusting way. “Oh Lord, what are you doing to me?”

Or imagine being one of those affected by the death of a loved one killed in that other calamity mentioned in today’s gospel, the tragic death of 18 people killed by a tower falling on top of them. Imagine being one of those left behind after that? “Oh Lord, what are you doing to me?”

And, of course, we call to mind all sorts of contemporary examples. I was reading yesterday about people’s whose homes were destroyed in Palestine recently to make way for the building of new Israeli settlements. I was given information yesterday by Amnesty International, on the day that Robert Mugabe held a lavish party to celebrate his 89th birthday, about police harassment of human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. We are reminded in the news of the deaths of those 37 or more hostages killed at the gas plant in Algeria. And so the stories go on and on. And all in the midst too of our own struggles and sufferings and the problems face by our loved one and neighbours. “Oh Lord, what are you doing to me?”

And it must be tempting to think, even to say to God, “is this a punishment?” “Am I suffering because I have done wrong?” “Are these disasters, some kind of punishment for wrong doing?” And it is interesting to note that Jesus addressed that very question. , "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you”.. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you…”. So Jesus is very clear that these sufferings, these horrors inflicted by others or these disasters, were not the result of human sin. But, there is a but, but, he says, do not let that make you complacent about following God.
For the other temptation is to say, “Oh well, if these bad things are not the result of sin, then it doesn’t matter if I sin or not, whether I am affected or not by disaster is a matter of chance. ”

Jesus is not saying, however, sin as much as you want, he is very clearly saying, keep on the right track, follow God, and, he is saying you can expect punishment if you do not follow God’s ways.

But then, there is another but… Jesus tells a parable. He tells the parable of the fig tree. Now this is a very curious parable and it takes a bit of working you out as to what Jesus is really trying to say, but I think what he is trying to say is something like – “however loosely you have followed God in the past, God is giving you another chance”.

The way I imagine this parable is that God the Father is the owner of the tree, Jesus is the gardener and the fig tree stands for each of us. Of course, we should not really think of God of the Father and Jesus as other than God but these two personifications allow us to imagine something of the inner dynamics of God’s understandable desire to root out all that is sinful and God’s desire to be compassionate, to give us another chance. Yes, God does punish sin and we are reminded in the 1 Corinthians 10 of God doing that in a very dramatic way in one of the stories of the Israelites. But, God seeks to do something in becoming human in the person of Jesus. God establishes a new pattern for human beings to be given another chance, time and time again, by forgiveness through Jesus Christ. There is that tendency is God to come along a cut us down, as he one might cut down an unproductive tree, but there is also that tendency to give us another chance, as one might put a but more manure round a tree and in the hope that it will do better next year, and it is that tendency which wins out through the new covenant given us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Even Jesus, of course, had his “Oh Lord, what are you doing to me?” moments, when he cried out to God the Father in the garden of gethsemane and, of course, from the cross itself – but it the resurrected Jesus who appears to the first disciples as a gardener who sets the new relationship between God and his people. We are to have trust that disaster, whether global or personal, is not a punishment for human sin but we are to make that commitment to trust in God and follow his ways, knowing that God is patient with us and will continue to give us another chance to bear fruit. The next time therefore, that we cry out “Oh Lord, what are you doing to me?”, let us perhaps call to mind also the words from today’s psalm
“1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. 3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. 4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. 5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips 6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; 7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. 8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”


SS - Sunday 3rd March 2013.
Sunday 24th Feb 2013
St Barnabas, E17.
Theme: Lent Two - Fear.

What do you fear? Of what or whom are you afraid? Why are you frightened?

I ask these questions because our readings today address directly the issue of fear. In Genesis God re-assures Abram with the words, “do not be afraid”, words spoken to others throughout the Bible, not least to Mary when she received the news that she was to give birth to Jesus. Psalm 27 makes the statement, “the Lord is my light and salvation” and then asks “whom shall I fear?” St Paul encourages the Philippians to stand firm in the face of fear and, in our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of his own firmness in the face of fear, even in the response to a threat upon his very life. So what are we to make of fear? What do you fear? Of what or whom are you afraid? Why are you frightened?

“Why are you frightened?” was the very question Jesus asked his disciples when he appeared to them after his resurrection. It seems like a strange question for Jesus to ask his disciples – Why are you frightened? After all they have been through, the years spent with him, seeing him do amazing things, expecting him to do even greater things, and then watching him be arrested, tortured and put to death, all their hopes dashed, as they fled in fear, abandoning him, even denying him in his time of need. Why are you frightened? They had been terrified by all that had happened and now, the one they knew had hung and died on the cross appears among them and asks, “Why are you frightened?” Wouldn’t you be? I know I would!

Why are you frightened? Or to put it another way, what makes you afraid? I once put that question to a group of people, asking for their immediate responses. One replied "everything", another, straight afterwards, said "nothing". A child told me he was afraid of dinosaurs. Let me ask you now? What makes you afraid? … As we can see responses to fear are very varied, fear takes many forms, different people experience different kinds of fear.

There's a kind of fear associated with fears of mice, of spiders, of heights, of lightening, of the dark, and so on. Most of us, I suspect, make light of such fears. I have a fear of moths. An event in my teenage years has left me with it and, as long as I'm not left alone in a room with a moth, I'm fine. To some such fears are irrational. To some they are no more than learnt responses to particular stimuli. Yet others see these fears as quite logical: mice, or at least rats, carry deadly diseases; spiders, or at least some spiders, or poisonous; people, sometimes, fall from heights; lightening, sometimes, strikes; and we all know what moths, or at least some moths, are capable, sometimes, of doing in the dark!

It's easy to joke about fears of moths or spiders, but for some, even these fears are quite serious. Indeed, there are some counselling services specifically concerned with trying to help people who have serious fears of this kind.

Whatever kind of fear we experience, our fears - to us at least - are frightening. However small or large they may be, our fears demand that we take them seriously.

We may fear those things which we suspect will change our lives for the worse; the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, not having enough money, results of a medical test, humiliation, defeat, the death of a loved one. We may fear the unknown, the insecurity of not knowing what will come next. Sometimes fears of the unknown turn nasty. We've seen people, racist people like those in the EDL, begin to hate those they fear and then to discriminate, to pre-judge. Sometimes we may even fear ourselves, our own capabilities. Should we take the next step or stay comfortable right where we are? Yes sometimes fear is indistinguishable from cowardice, the fear to stand up for ourselves or others, the fear to break bad habits, the fear of getting involved in case we get hurt. Ask yourself, what, deep down, do you fear?

Many in our communities face very real fears indeed. Those who live with bullies at work or school, those who live with violence at home, those who fear immigration authorities, those who fear torture, even death if sent back to their countries. And think of Christians in some parts of the world and the torture they endure for their faith. We may sometimes fear what people will make of our faith, whether they will mock and humiliate us – but such fear is a far cry from the kind of fears many Christians around the world have to bear. “Why are you frightened?”

Why are you frightened? It was obvious to Jesus why his disciples were frightened, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Was it a ghost? So he says to them, “touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then they are overjoyed – they cannot believe it, this is too good to be true. So, we read that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”, Jesus asks another question. Now here is one of my favourite questions of all time, “Have you anything to eat here?” And there is something very comforting in that question. Jesus calms the fears of his disciples by meeting them in the ordinary. He joins in the BBQ, eats some of their broiled fish and sits down with them to talk about the scriptures.

We can imagine that they looked back on that experience later in their ministries, when they had to face all kinds of difficulties, humiliation - for some prison, for some torture – that they looked back on that question and were comforted that just as Jesus was with them in that moment of terror, so he was with them in a different way as they faced all kinds of trials and hardships for his sake.

We can assume too that they remembered another incident. Jesus had gone off to pray and instructed the disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee without him. They were out in the middle of that huge inland sea when again the wind picked up, perhaps they were already afraid for the lives when they saw a figure, walking on the water, "It's a ghost", they cried, only to discover it was, in fact, Jesus. "Do not be afraid", he said, but no doubt they were petrified then also.

"Do not be afraid." What are we to make of Jesus' words to Peter as the disciple stepped out on the water? At first he was fine, Peter focused on Jesus and found he too was walking in the water. But then he was distracted, he felt the wind, he looked at the waves and he began to sink. Peter stretched out his hand and Jesus rescued him. "Why did you doubt?" Jesus asked, putting a similar question to Peter as the one he’d asked all his disciples, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”

Why are you frightened? The good thing about our readings today and the two stories we have considered involving Jesus asking “Why are you frightened?” is that the reality of fear is not denied. Fear is a real emotion and can affect us in all sorts of circumstances. Fear is not denied in our readings, fear is faced head on. It is recognised and responded to with a positive attitude of placing our trust in God. It that sense, this sermon is a development of my message last week, that the best way to address our negative thoughts and emotions, including our temptations and our fears is to place our trust in God.

So, let me conclude by leaving you with this image: Perhaps we can imagine ourselves in Peter's situation. Perhaps the wind and the waves stand for our fears. We can't ignore them. But perhaps we can focus our attention elsewhere. Perhaps we too can look to Jesus for that confidence to rise above our fears. Sometimes we'll fail. Sometimes, paralysed by our fears, we too will sink beneath the waves, jostled by the wind. But sometimes, with the vision of Jesus before us, with his loving arms to rescue us, perhaps we too will be able to overcome our fears, to work for a different outcome than that which terrifies us, to sing with the psalmist: The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear; the Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?

Steven Saxby, April 2013.

Sunday 17th February 2013 – St Barnabas, Walthamstow
Theme: Lent One -Temptation

I always used to apply my mind, in preparation for the beginning of Lent, to what I was going to give up for this season on 40 days before the celebration of Holy Week and Easter. This was less through the influence of the church and more through the influence of my great aunts in Canning Town. They never went to church but they always observed Lent by giving up something. I'd spend every school Easter break with my great aunts and, like them, I usually gave up chocolate. One year I gave up tea and one year I even gave up beer. That year, I convinced myself (if not others) that, technically, Guinness, as a stout, doesn't really count as beer. I didn't drink any beer during that Lent but I did drink a lot of Guinness!

I used to think that there was a certain spiritual discipline in deliberately putting myself in the way of temptation. After all, that's what Jesus did. He went out into the desert, and, as we heard in the gospel reading, he was tempted by the devil. He himself gave up things as he fasted for forty days and forty nights. I knew I would struggle to give up chocolate, tea, beer, or whatever for forty days - but each time I resisted the temptation to indulge myself, I imagined I was developing my strength as a Christian to resist other, more serious temptations.

Later I realized that Jesus had a big advantage over me. He stands alone as one who was "tempted as we are, yet without sin". I realized too that giving up chocolate never did help me to resist other temptations and I found that if I did deliberate put myself in the way of other temptations I was quite simply all the more likely to give in to them. I found myself agreeing with Oscar Wilde: "I can resist everything, except temptation."

There's no mistaking the power of temptation. To quote a song from the seventies, "Temptation: you can take it or leave it, but you'd better believe it." There's a story of a monk living in the Egyptian desert. He was so tormented by temptation that he could bear it no longer. So he decided to abandon his cell and go somewhere else. But as he was putting on his sandals to leave, he saw another monk, not far from where he stood, putting on his sandals too. "Who are you?" he asked the stranger. "I am yourself" was the reply, "If it is on my account that you're leaving this place, I want you to know that wherever you go, I'll go with you."
And resisting temptation is all the more difficult in an age when we're actively encouraged to give into it. Remember the slogan of that advert for cream cakes? "Go on, be a devil." There was also the one for Walkers Crisps, when even Mr Nice-guy Gary Linecker couldn't stop himself stealing a packet of Walkers first from a young football fan, and, in a later advert, from a Nun. Then there are the dieting clubs which allow their members so many "sins" per week. These are trivial examples but they typify the more serious and sinister ways in which we are tempted by advertising and the media, let alone ourselves and others, into giving into to temptation. When Jesus said "Lead us not into temptation" he must have meant us to pray for the strength not to give into temptation, as a man once said "You can't stop the swallows from flying over your head, but you can stop them building nests in your hair". And yet, even that seems difficult. I want to resist sin, but I am aware of my weakness; my efforts to resist temptation seemed doomed to failure; I am unable to become the spiritual macho man I would prefer to be.

So, what encouragement can I, and perhaps you, take from Jesus’ own example in today’s gospel reading, as we seek to grow closer to God in this season of Lent? Let’s look at the kinds of temptation Jesus resisted and what they might tell us about how to resist temptation ourselves.

Jesus’ first temptation is to become concerned with his own fulfilment. The devil asks him to prove his divinity by turning stones into bread. This must have been very attractive to Jesus after forty days without food. Is this attractive for us too? How tempting is it to concern ourselves with our own needs, forgetting the needs of others, forgetting just how much we have to thank God for? Whatever our response, Jesus refuses to use his powers to satisfy his own needs. He knows that if necessary God will provide for him.

His second temptation is to place his allegiance to God below that of another power. The devil asks Jesus to subject his divinity to the power of the devil. Again is this tempting for us? To put God below other powers, the power of money, of politics, of sex, of greed, of our own ego? Whatever our response, Jesus rejects the devil’s offer of worldly power and sets his sights clearly on God.

Jesus’ third temptation is to use miraculous means to solve human problems. The devil ask Jesus to establish his divinity by throwing himself off the temple, be caught by the angels and thus be instantly recognised as the messiah. Is this a temptation here for us as well? How easy is it to seek the quick solution, the thing that makes us look good, however unsatisfactory it is for others? Whatever our response, Jesus knows that God has chosen another way for him, the way of the cross, a way that will bring salvation to all people.

Jesus' temptations give us some guidelines as to the sort of temptations we should avoid, but all three of them also provide the same answer as to how to avoid temptation. The answer is less about trying to tackle temptation head on. No, the answer is altogether more simple: it is about putting our trust in God. There's another temptation, this time a good one, to learn to trust God and by doing so to grow in the ways of God. This does not mean that we should not give up anything for Lent; doing so may serve as a good reminder to us of our need to trust God. But that is the point, trusting God is what provides protection; as we trust God so we will develop those fruits of the spirit that lead us to walk in the ways of truth, of justice and of love. The solution to avoiding temptation therefore is strangely and simply to expect less of ourselves and more of God.
Steven Saxby, February 2013.St Barnabas, Walthamstow
3rd February 2013, 11am

Candlemas, Groundhog Day and Respect

This morning as we celebrate this feast of Candlemas, I invite you to reflect with me on the word “respect”.

That’s a word we sometimes hear on the streets. Occasionally, people greet each other with that word “respect” or use it as a mark of admiration. But more often we hear things like “there’s no respect” or “show some respect” and we feel that there’s little respect shown these days.

Putting on my new glasses today, I was reminded of an incident on a bus where a group of school children, from a so called “respectable” private school in the Walthamstow, boarded the bus and showed real disrespect for everyone else on the bus. As I was leaving the bus, one of them even called me four eyes! Well, I have been called worse things but what shocked me was the lack of respect shown by a child towards an adult.

It used to be that respect was guaranteed for certain people in our society, not least older people, but this kind of respect seems to have disappeared. I even am told that people used to show lots of respect for the clergy!

Rowan Williams, speaking about respect, said respect seems to relate what we think it is worth bowing down for. And part of our problem today is that people bow down to all sorts of things, not least to money or celebrity or violence, but do not always treat other people with respect.
He also suggests that giving someone respect is about recognising that the person is someone able to talk with God. He says “I think that real respect begins when I recognise that everyone – and for that matter every bit of our universe – has a relationship with God that’s quite independent of their relationship with me, or with any system of earthly dignity or power. And if God speaks and listens to each one, each person has the right to claim a listening ear from the rest of us.” (Temple Address: "Becoming Trustworthy: Respect and Self-Respect", 10 November 2005.)
So why think about respect on this feast of Candlemas? Here are my three reasons.
First, the story of Candlemas is, on the face of it, a story of Mary and Joseph showing respect, showing respect for the Jewish traditions. It was their duty to go the temple for the purification ceremonies. Our gospel reading tells us that they did what was written in the Law of Moses and therefore that they took a pair of doves or two young pigeons along to present at the temple. This was the custom, the tradition – Mary and Joseph were showing their respect for this tradition and there is a lot that we do in church and society that is about showing our respect for the way things have been done by others before us. That does not mean tradition cannot change but when it changes it is best that it changes in a way that gives respect to what has gone before.
Secondly, we have in the story mention of two people who are good role models for the kind of people we should show respect. We have in the story Simeon and Anna. We know Anna was very old and we assume Simeon was too. These were two old people who spent a lot of time in the temple talking to God. They were very wise people for they were able to tell that Jesus was the messiah promised by God. They must have seen thousands of babies brought to the temple, but without being told, they knew Jesus was the one. I don’t expect Simeon and Anne were given much attention by anyone else - they were just two old people who spent all their time in the temple. I don’t expect they would be given much respect today. They are like anyone today who in our society does not get a decent hearing, especially those, like the elderly but also those who are homeless or disabled, those who are very young and others, like those migrants who are on the margins of society. The Children’s Society a few years ago had a caption next to a troublesome child saying “what I need is a good listening to” and that is true for many in our society today. So Simeon and Anna are good role models for us of folk we should give respect, people who spend time listening to God and who could help us listen to him too.
And finally, the Candlemas story is a story of how Simeon and Anna realized that Jesus was someone worth “bowing down” for. Simeon describes Jesus as the light who revealed God to all the nations and it is for that reason that we use candles at the end of this service to show that Jesus is that light. And Anna spoke to Mary and Joseph about how Jesus was the child everyone was waiting for. I realized for the first time yesterday, that Candlemas, which we are keeping today but which actually falls on the 2nd February is the same day as the American tradition of Groundhog Day. In America, they follow a tradition that if a groundhog emerges from its burrow on 2nd February and finds it cloudy then there will be an early spring but if it sees it’s sunny and the groundhog therefore sees its shadow then there will be six more weeks of winter. This tradition actually comes from the earlier saying, “If Candlemas be fair and bright, come winter have another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, go winter and come not again.” The US tradition, is captured brilliantly in the 1993 film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. In the film, the Bill Murray character is a nice guy but totally self-obsessed. At one point he calls himself an “egomaniac” and and Andie MacDowell says,” yes, egomania is your defining characteristic”. What happens in the film is that Bill Murray keeps encountering the same day over and over again, every morning he wakes up and the radio tells him it is February 2nd, Groundhog Day. No matter what happens that day, he goes to bed and wakes up the next morning to find it is still February 2nd. At first he thinks this is awful but then tries to use this situation to his advantage, particular to learn as much as he can about what the Andie Macdowell character likes so that he can impress her and get her to fall in love with him. He gets a bit further everyday but always fails because all he is really trying to do is satisfy his own desires. What makes a difference to her opinion of him is when he starts to be considerate to other people. Eventually he finds himself making a series of errands every day to help other people – he captures a boy falling from a tree, pumps up a car flat tire for three old ladies, helps a young woman go through with her marriage to her fiancé, saves a man from choking on his dinner and so on. This earns him the respect of those in the small town where he is stranded in the same day over and over again and then wins him the affection of the woman he has grown to love. It is when she falls in love with him, after he has become considerate of others, that he eventually makes up and finds it is no longer Groundhog Day but February 3rd. I think that film pretty much captures the meaning of those words I read from Rowan Williams earlier, “I think that real respect begins when I recognise that everyone – and for that matter every bit of our universe – has a relationship with God that’s quite independent of their relationship with me, or with any system of earthly dignity or power. And if God speaks and listens to each one, each person has the right to claim a listening ear from the rest of us.”
Today, we bow down as Mary and Joseph did in the temple to show their respects, we bow down with others who can help us talk to God, and above all we bow down to Jesus who is worthy of all our respect!
SS/23/01/2013
Wed 30th Jan 2013 –
Holocaust Memorial Event, Shoreditch

I feel immensely privileged to be speaking at this Holocaust Memorial Event. I am grateful to the Waltham Forest Amnesty and Waltham Forest Unite Against Fascism for the invitation and to the London Churches Refugee Network on whose behalf I speak this evening. And I am grateful to all of you are here. It is so important that we remember the Holocaust, the Shoah and Porajmos - the Nazi extermination of Jewish people, Roma and Gypsy people, disabled and gay people - and not just as a terrible calamity in the history of humankind, but also because when we remember we remember not just for the sake of the past but for the sake of the present and for the sake of the future.

We remember for the sake of the past because we cannot fail to recall the horrific murder of so millions of people. I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz a few years back with the Holocaust Memorial Trust, I have visited the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem and, indeed, our own excellent Holocaust Memorial exhibition in the Imperial War Museum. There were such horrific experiences for me, so it is unimaginable for me how much more horrific are the experiences of those whose memories and more personal. Our only response can be to keep respectful silence in memory of those who died and at the depths of degradation of which human beings can be capable.

We keep silence for the past. But we speak in the present. We speak out against properly against those who continue to perpetuate the racism of the past and particularly the anti-Semitism of centuries which must now be consigned to the dustbins of history, as we strive also to combat Islamaphobia and all hatred directed against particular peoples such as the Roma or gay people. How sad that in making a valid point about the suffering of Palestinians, Lib Dem MP David Ward used the language of “the Jews”. How sad that the Sunday Times published a cartoon which rightly caused outrage by evoking the concept of “blood libel”. When is our society going to learn that we must guard our speech and action carefully and not perpetuate the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism of Western European culture. I speak as a Christian within a church which has struggled to get its own language and thoughts in order in relation to its own birth as a religion from the Jewish faith and thank God that we now increasingly embrace the Jewish heritage of Christianity as something to be celebrated.

And it is that very Jewish heritage which the Christian tradition draws upon in setting forward a vision for the future of humanity which I want to call to mind as we think now of the importance of remembering for the sake of the future. Of cause, we seek to learn and re-learn the lessons of the Holocaust as we commit ourselves to not making the mistakes of the past. But I suggest, with the Jewish and Christian tradition, that our future lies in holding before us a vision of a communities, conscious and celebratory of difference, but united in working to build a world which is free of racial hatred, intolerance and prejudice and marked by tolerance, mutual respect, compassion, solidarity and peace. The Book of Revelation, the last of book in the Christian Bible, draws on the book of the Prophet Isaiah, a great Jewish scripture, in putting forward a vision of the future where all nations come together in peace. In the Book of Revelation this vision is described as a New Jerusalem and it is essentially the goal of human endeavour to seek to unite ourselves in peace with people of all nations and, in doing so, unite with God.

Imagine, what our remembering would be like if we remembered for a future like that? Is it achievable? Yes! And, I say that not just from naivety, but I say it aware of the continuing intolerance and hatred of those like the EDL, but also aware of the beauty of those in my community of Walthamstow who came together to prevent the EDL spreading hatred on our streets. We saw then the beauty which I see every day in Walthamstow and which I am trying to capture in a photography project – “The World in Walthamstow”, where I already have photos of people from 93 separate nations all living in Walthamstow. It is the beauty of a community where people enjoy diversity, who celebrate and protect each other. Where we have formed a migrants action group so we can really call our community by its original name of Welcome Place. In Walthamstow, as elsewhere in London, we see the beauty of that kind of community and where we can remember for the sake of the future, in the knowledge that we are at least over half way to the New Jerusalem.

SS - Sunday 30th January 2013.
Sun 27th Jan 2013 – “Promise Sunday”
St Saviour’s and St Barnabas’, Walthamstow


After much anticipation, we have arrived at our “Promise Sunday” here at St Saviour’s/St Barnabas. This is an opportunity for each of us to think and pray about the various ways we can give to the Church, both through helping with things that need to be done for the Church and through our financial giving. Over the last two weeks, we have been preparing for this day and now, here we are, ready to renew our commitments to give to the church through giving of our money as well as our time and talents. You should each have a Promise Sunday sheet and I am going to refer to that and to our readings to help us renew our promises this morning.

I am going to make three points about prayer, money and talents. And so, here we go:

First, prayer – it is important, I believe, that our commitment to giving is grounded in prayer. We are not considering giving to a mere human institution but to God’s church – we want this church to survive, indeed to grow more and flourish more, but if this is not grounded in prayer it is worthless. That is the lesson of our first reading today. The book of Nehemiah tells us of the people coming together in prayer and rededicating themselves to God. I love the book of Nehemiah. It tells of the Israelites returning to Jerusalem. Remember they had been taken into captivity by the Babylonians. They were there for many, long and hard years. It was there that they sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept as they remembered Zion, remembered Jerusalem. It was a sad story but Nehemiah tells of the happy return. The Israelites return to Jerusalem, they rebuild from the ruins, rebuild the city walls, rebuild the Temple, commit themselves to social justice and re-establish themselves as a nation. And how they re-establish themselves is by listening to God’s word, by praying and re-dedicating themselves to God. And I believe this is what every church needs to do every so often. In the Methodist tradition, this is something the church members do every year at an annual covenant service, similar to our service today. At this service they use the prayer I have printed on the sheet. It is a prayer written by John Wesley about 230 years ago. It has now been incorporated into Anglican liturgy for recommended use at an annual service such as this and I will encourage all to pray it together at the end of this sermon.

Second, I need to say a few things about money! I do not wish to repeat the sermon I preached a couple of weeks ago. If you missed that, please read it on the website or get a copy from me, as it sets out the reasons why we need to increase our giving here. I want to say rather a few things about the practicalities of giving and these are they:
- a) it really helps if people give to the church every single week and not just the Sundays you come here. This is a spiritual issue: our giving to God is part of our commitment to God. The church encourages us all to think: “How much can I give to the church each week?” And then to ask again, “Could, I perhaps give more than is comfortable, give a bit more to the church and sacrifice a luxury or two? Once we have made a judgement about how much we can give, the issue is then to commit to giving that every week, even if we are not at church. So that is why we are encouraging people to sign up to the envelope scheme, whereby you are given a set of envelopes, one for every Sunday of the year and you put your amount in each week. Do not just take a box, make sure you give your name to us first so we can match up the number on the envelopes with the person giving. Only two or three people in church know how much goes in each envelope and they keep that information confidential. Another way to give each week is to set up a Standing Order, whereby an amount goes every month from your account into the church account and we have forms for people to set up standing orders if they wish.
And b) it really helps if people who pay tax in the UK, sign up to give using the Gift Aid scheme. This costs the giver nothing but adds 25% to the value of what is given, as the Inland Revenue put in the extra. So, if someone makes a one off gift of £100, the church can claim an extra £25 of that from the Inland Revenue. Whatever you give over the year, can be added up and then the appropriate amount claimed. But, we can only claim this if you have signed a Gift Aid form and then give using an envelope, either a yellow one with your name on, or one of the weekly envelopes with your number on.
But c) and this is the most important point, this giving is about your commitment to God. That is the point of the widow’s mite story. It is not to encourage you to give all you have to the church, it is to point out that the rich were only giving to show off, their giving was shallow in comparison to the widow. She gave in secret and we are elsewhere told all our giving to God should be in secret, she gave in secret out of commitment. They gave in public to show off. Do consider giving, not as an obligation or to impress others, but as part of your loving commitment to God.
And d) consider a one off Gift today if you can make it and allow me to encourage you with the story of the twenty pound note! A five pound note is about to be ‘retired’ from circulation, having become worn and grimy. As it is on its way up the conveyor belt towards the great pulping machine in the sky, it finds itself next to a £20 note. “Well”, says the £20 note to the fiver, “looks like we are on our way out, but I’ve no regrets, I’ve had a good life.” “Oh yes”, says the fiver, cheerfully, “where have you been then?” “I’ve been to the Ritz lots of times. I’ve been in the pockets of sixteen millionaires. I almost made it into Buckingham Palace once. I did see the inside of a few Bookmakers, but I try not to think about it too often, And once, I was even used as a tip by a certain well known film star. What about you?” “Oh,” says the fiver, “I’ve not done anything exciting like that, but you could sat I’ve led a good life. I’ve been on more collections plates than I can count in more churches than I can remember.” “I’m sorry”, says the £20 pound note, “What’s a collection plate?”

Now, finally, let me turn to the point about time and talents. Here in the sheet you can see a number of areas where you can offer to contribute to the life of the church. But do not feel limited to those. If you have gifts you think you can give, let us know what they are. Our reading from I Corinthians is about how all our gifts are good given and given for the church to work together as the body of Christ. God has brought you here. Each one of you has something to give. Do offer to help by filling in this form, ticking some of the things we have suggested or putting down other talents you can offer to the church. And again, consider this is about your commitment to the church.

Once again, then, our giving begins in prayer. I hope you have been praying in preparation for this Promise Sunday. Please make that commitment today to give what you can to this church in money terms and in terms of giving your time and talents. Please do not leave this church without filling in the form and giving it to one of the clergy or wardens. To help us make that promise today, let us pray that prayer together:



I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.


SS - Sunday 27th January 2013.
Sunday 20th Jan 2013 - St Barnabas, E17
Wedding at Cana – time & talents

“We are invited to a wedding.” That’s what I say to my wife on those occasions, normally at least once a year, when I open an invitation to a marriage or civil partnership ceremony. We are invited to a wedding. Over the years that has involved me going as a guest, sometimes going as the officiating priest [, once going as the best man]!

“WE are invited to a wedding.” That is something I encourage us all to consider this morning as we continue to think about giving. Next week will be our Promise Sunday. We are asking everyone at church to consider what you can promise to give to the church. Last week we focused on financial giving. This week we are thinking about time and talents. Next week we will make our promises. And as we reflect on the giving of our time and talents to the church, I encourage us to hold that image before us, that we are invited to a wedding.

I wonder what goes through your mind when you are invited to a wedding. I’ve given some thought to what goes through my mind, and here are three phrases that sum up how I tend to respond to a wedding invitation.

First, I am grateful for the generosity. I’m immensely grateful whenever I have been invited to a wedding, to share in such an important and memorable occasion in the lives of the couple. In these days, when typically a lot of expense on behalf of the couple is associated with inviting people to the ceremony and celebrations that follow, it is a real privilege to be invited to a wedding. [A few months ago, I went to my cousins wedding. She lives on a low income but went to great trouble to save her hard earned cash and invite lots of guests to share in her important day. I am grateful for the generosity she showed that day.]

Second, I feel privileged to share in a family occasion. I’m really excited anytime I am invited to a wedding. I suspect I’m not alone here in loving a good wedding. I particularly love the timelessness of weddings, the way the day is punctuated by a series of rituals, accompanied by different types of food and drink, speeches and music. But what I love most of all is the privilege of sharing in a family occasion. If it is friend’s wedding, normally you will get to meet relatives on both sides who you’ve never met before and you are afforded a new insight into the family dynamics of your friend and get to see new aspects of their personality. Isn’t it a privilege to share in such a family occasion?

Third, I feel the need to prepare myself. You can’t just turn up to a wedding. A wedding involves a great deal of preparation, even for the guests. [I particular remember that wedding when I was best man as that involved me in a special responsibility and a lot of extra preparation. I had several conversations with the groom in the run up to the wedding, I had to go to the stag night, hire a vehicle for the marriage weekend, arrange childcare for the children, buy a present, then we had to go shopping for new outfits, and, of course, I had to write a best man’s speech.] Although I feel grateful and privileged to be involved, weddings involve quite a bit of preparation.

Today’s gospel reading is about Jesus at a wedding. The wedding is at Cana, a village not so very far from Jesus’ home town of Galilee. We are not so sure why he is there, and there with his mother and his disciples, but in those days (as in many parts of the world today) a wedding involved a very large gathering of people. In a village like Cana, we can assume that pretty much the whole of the village was invited as well as people with connections to the family from further afield. And weddings would last over a few days: a real celebration for the whole community. So imagine the embarrassment when the wine ran out. We have been reflecting on the gratitude for the generosity shown to us at weddings. But imagine a wedding, perhaps you’ve been to one, where the wine runs out! Just as today, it would be a shocking affair.

Aware of the potential embarrassment to the wedding couple of the wine running out, Mary mentions it to Jesus. He seems to dismiss his mother’s suggestion that she is asking him to do something about it and says to his mother, “Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not come yet.” Nevertheless, Mary then says to the servants “do whatever he tells you”. Do you remember what I said about getting an insight into family dynamics at weddings? Here we get a very intimate insight about the relationship between Jesus and Mary. She eggs him on; he resists; she persists; he responds. Remember this Gospel is written by John, Jesus’ beloved disciple and the one he trusted from the cross to take care of his mother. So John knew them both intimately and that intimacy pours out onto the pages of his gospel.

And then remember what I said about preparing for a wedding? Well, here we find Jesus unprepared for what he is about to do. Mary knows his power and urges him to use it for the benefit of others. Now it is often said that Jesus loved a party! His first miracle was to turn water into wine and not just any wine – wine that was described as the best of the evening. And it wasn’t just a glass or two. Jesus turned six stone water jars into wine, the kind we know stored 30 gallons of water, that is 180 gallons or 818 litres of wine! That would have kept the party going for quite some time and it shows once again the generosity of God, his goodness overflowing towards us, just as when Jesus fed the 5000 and there was plenty left over then. But the point in all this is that Jesus didn’t feel prepared and yet his hour had indeed come for him to reveal something of who he was. Epiphany is all about Jesus being revealed for who he really is – in the visit of the magi, in his baptism in the Jordan, in his miracle at Cana. And what the gospel says today is, ‘This was the first of the signs given by Jesus: it was given at Cana in Galilee. He let his glory be seen, and his disciples believed in him.’

With that wonderful story of Jesus at a wedding in mind, here is an invitation for you: join me, if you will, on a short tour, a tour through the Bible looking at the relationship between God and weddings. We’re not so much concerned here with the obvious and frequent references to people in the Bible getting married, but rather with the way wedding imagery and language is used in the Bible to tell us something about God. So, if you’d like to fasten your seat-belts and we’ll begin the tour.

We start in the Old Testament with Isaiah 54:5 and here is how the prophet describes God’s relationship with the people of Israel “your Creator is your husband”. We move rapidly to Jeremiah and there the Lord says this about his people “I shall make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah but not like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt, a covenant which they broke, even though I was their Husband.” Next we move on to the prophet Hosea and here we find that the book begins by talking about marriage, indeed the unfaithful wife of Hosea is compared to Israel as the unfaithful wife of the Lord, but God is so loving to the Israel that he takes back this unfaithful wife, declaring, “I will betroth you to myself forever”.

As our tour shifts to the New Testament we find this wedding imagery continues and that Jesus on various occasions refers to himself as the “Bridegroom”. The disciples ought to be happy that Jesus is with them for “the time will come when the bridegroom is to be taken away from them” and yet this time of sadness will pass for we are also told in the parable of the 10 wedding attendants that the Lord will come again, come indeed as a bridegroom at an unexpected time when only those who are prepared will be able to run out and greet him. Moving on to Ephesians we find that St Paul makes the explicit link between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and his church and at the end of our tour, in the Book of Revelation, we are given that glorious image of a wedding banquet in heaven where Jesus is the Bridegroom and the Church is the Beautiful bride.

We are invited to a wedding. The tour we’ve been on presents us with a clear pattern throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament God himself is described as the Bridegroom to a sometimes unfaithful Israel; in the New Testament God in the person of Jesus becomes the Bridegroom to the church. It hardly needs pointing out that the church has also been at times unfaithful to Christ, that the church at times has been far from beautiful and yet we’re given that wonderful image at the end of time of the bridegroom coming again and restoring the church to her beauty as the bride of Christ, celebrating with him in the heavenly banquet.

We are invited to a wedding. How about considering again those three phrases I mentioned earlier about gratitude, privilege and preparation in the light of Jesus wedding at Cana, our wedding tour of the Bible and our focus on giving?

First then, gratitude: just as we are grateful when invited to a wedding, let us be truly grateful to the generous God that we’ve been invited to participate in his work. The church is a gift of God to the world. The church is not just a human institution. It is given by God to be the body of Christ in the world today. As our reading from Corinthians makes clear, we are given different gifts by the Spirit to use within the life of the church. Church is not a building we come to for a spiritual high. Church is us. Church is the people of God working together to fulfil God’s purposes. Bishop Stephen said when he visited us here, ‘the service doesn’t end when we leave the mass: that is when the service begins’. He said, ‘a Sunday service should not be the warm bath at the end of the week, but the cold shower at the start of the week’. We are here to serve God, not ourselves. And therefore, should we not be responding to God in gratitude for his generosity by giving generously of our time and talents to the life of the church? Jesus was shaken out of his relunctance to get involved. Let us not be relunctant to offer what we can to the life of the church.

Second, the privilege of sharing in a family occasion: our invitation is an invitation to participate with God as the family of the church. Just as we see that beautiful insight into the loving relationship between Jesus and his mother in today’s gospel, we are invited to be drawn into loving relationships here within the life of the church. Yes, serving the church is not just about doing jobs; it is about building relationships. We sometimes say in church, ‘we need more servers, we need more readers, we need more people to make the tea, we need more people to clean the church, to lead and help with the children’s work, we need more people to care for the grounds, we need more people to be active in CitySafe or the Migrants Action Group.’ We do need more people to be involved, yes, but not just to do jobs, but to build relationships. If we are to be the body of Christ we do not want to be a body where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, but a body that works together, where we are in relationship with each other. Through building loving relationships we show more effectively God’s love to the world around us. A couple do not need lots of guests to witness a marriage, two is all that is legally required. But when a couple get married they typically want others to share in the beauty of their relationship. So it should be with the church. We can gather fifty people here every week, shut the doors and worship God without anyone else in the community knowing. But, we want others to know the beauty of God’s love for us, we want to share it, to draw others into it. That is why we ring the church bell(s) and try to be active in the community, to share the privilege of being the church family with the world around us.

And finally, the need to be prepared: to be prepared for that great heavenly banquet promised as the end of time. As I mentioned earlier, the Book of Revelation gives us that image of the church prepared as a bride to meet her husband. This takes place in the New Jerusalem, where all nations are gathered together in unity and peace. Now I happen to think that we are pretty much half-way to the New Jerusalem here in church, where we gather all nations in peace and unity. And let us have that final destination in mind as we consider our giving of time and talents in church. Each one of us has a part in preparing the church to be the bride ready to meet Christ. We want that bride to look as beautiful as possible. We want to be ready. Let us pray, that we may be like those wise wedding-attendants in one of Jesus’ parables, that we will be truly ready to run out and greet the bridegroom when he comes. We are invited to a wedding, and not only that, we are invited together as the church to be the very bride of Christ, to be intimately feasting and dancing with him at the heavenly banquet. Are you ready? Are you giving of your time and talents in a manner that is worthy of preparing for that heavenly banquet? This is a question for all of us to reflect on, and hopefully renew our promise to give our time and talents next Promise Sunday, so that we may help prepare for that great feast ahead of us!

We are invited to a wedding, may we reflect on our time and talents feeling grateful, privileged and prepared to respond to that invitation, “Yes my Lord, we will be there!” SS, Jan 2013.

Sun 13th Jan 2013 – Prep for “Promise Sunday”/Giving
St Saviour’s and St Barnabas’, Walthamstow


In two Sunday’s time we will be having our first “Promise Sunday” here at St Saviour’s/St Barnabas. Holding a Promise Sunday on 27th January, will give us an opportunity to think and pray about the various ways we can give to the Church, both through helping with things that need to be done for the Church and through our financial giving. And today and next week, we will be thinking about how we can prepare for that Sunday, thinking about what promises each of us might be able to make to support the work of the body of Christ in this place.

I am very keen on the expression “Promise Sunday”. It is a good one, I believe, because the notion of promise runs right through the Bible. God’s people are the people of the promise, the promise being salvation through the messiah. Jesus comes as the fulfilment of that promise. The Holy Spirit is described in Ephesians as the Holy Spirit of Promise; the Spirit upholds the promise that redemption is available to all through faith in Christ. And God’s promise is self-giving as all of our readings today make clear on this feast of the baptism of Jesus. Isaiah reminds us that it was God who created us, that everything we have is by virtue of God’s self-giving to share his love with the world he creates. Our psalm talks of how God blesses his people with his gifts of strength and peace. Our reading from Acts talks of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. And Luke’s gospel tells us of God’s giving of his own son, his beloved with whom God was well pleased, given for the salvation of the world.

God gives his Son; the Son sacrificed his life; the Holy Spirit brings life to the people of God. So I hope that in preparing to make our promises in two weeks’ time, we will be mindful of how much God has given us in line with his promises. The first principle of Christian giving is that we give in gratitude for all that God has already given us. “All things come from you,” we sometimes say at the offertory, “and of your own do we give you.”

Why does the Church need people to give financially and to give of their time and talents? Quite simply: because we are the Church in this place. The Church here will only be what we make of it. It is easy to think of a Church of England church as a branch of a national organisation, in our case a unit of the Diocese of Chelmsford. But essentially we are on our own and whatever we make happen or fail to make happen in this place is our responsibility.

It is hugely encouraging at St Saviour’s/St Barnabas’ that a great many people are involved in giving their time to the life of the Church. I cannot emphasise strongly enough that the church is all of us, the body of Christ, all working together. We all contribute by our presence here on Sundays, by our prayers throughout the week. There are some who have been active in other ways over the years to whom we owe much and should now expect to enjoy nothing other than their presence among us. Otherwise, we really would like everybody to contribute in some way to the various tasks that help to maintain and develop the life of the church. If you are fairly new here, please do not be shy to volunteer. A predecessor of mine in another parish used to advocate a job for everybody and everybody with a job – and that is not a bad way of instilling in to us the biblical principle that we are the body of Christ and that we all need to work together as the Church. We do want people to consider how they might give of their time and talents to the church and that is something we will be thinking more about next week and encouraging everyone to talk to the priests, wardens and others about what promises you can make to support this church. Please don’t be shy to let us know how you think God might be calling you to play a part within the life of this congregation.

Now I hope I have made the point strongly enough that Promise Sunday will not just be about what we give financially. However, it is in part about what we give financially and on this I have the unenviable task of having to say three important things.

First, I need to emphasise that the Church of England as a whole is in a pretty vulnerable situation and that this is inevitably has consequences for us. Historically the Church of England was able to rely on historic legacies to pay its clergy. Over the years this money has run out and now the clergy have to be paid from money collected from the congregations. Here at St Saviour’s/St Barnabas we have already had to accept, as have several other parishes, our share of reductions in clergy, reducing to an allocation of half a stipend for this church, currently with me working full-time across two churches and with the benefit of a house for duty priest on top, with Fr Salvador receiving the benefit of living rent free in St Saviour’s vicarage.

However, we still pay less than half of what it actually costs for the diocese to provide this parish with stipendiary priest and this is because we are supported by wealthier parishes within the diocese and within the Church of England as a whole. A simple look at the amount the diocese has asked us to contribute over recent years demonstrates that we are increasingly be moved towards a situation where we will need to become more and more self-sufficient, basically to a situation where we could actually afford to pay the actual costs of the ministry with which we are provided. Now this is not a plea from me asking you to cough up for my stipend. It is rather me putting before the probability that unless in a few years time you would be able to pay what it costs for the diocese to provide the ministry with which we are provided, you would be able to take it for granted that a priest would or could be provided. Now you might say, “Well, perhaps we don’t need a priest to function as the body of Christ in this place?” and that may well be the case. Or you might say “We would be content sharing a priest with more than one other parish”, which might not be a bad thing. All I am trying to do is give you the opportunity to prepare for the kind of choice you’d like to make. And my point is simple, if this parish wants to maintain something like the level of resources it currently receives, it will have to move towards a position whereby it is able to finance them.

That is the “why” of the financial promise we are asking people to consider. The second important thing I have to say is about the “how much” of the financial challenge that I believe is facing us. We do have a few years I believe to meet this challenge. Currently the Diocese asks us to contribute about £20,000/£15,000. The Diocese says that taking into account a priest’s modest stipend, the provision and maintenance of a vicarage, pension provision, training and funding new clergy and payment of diocesan staff, it costs about £50,000 to fund each priest each year. Now perhaps the Diocese is being too generous, but this is the system as it stands. It would not be at all unreasonable to anticipate that we would be gradually asked to move close to half of that £50,000 figure over the next few years. And this is only what we pay for our clergy. On top of this, of course, we have to keep this building in good condition, pay for the costs of heating the church, the music, the flowers, the candles, the pewsheets, insurance, electricity, all the things we might take for granted as just being provided but which are only paid for by this church. We do have the benefit of rental income from the hall (and 212 Markhouse Rd) and the PCC is looking at other ways to maximise this income. This/last year at we have/had to pay nearly £9,000 for essential electrical works, and that money again needs/ed to come from our own funds. There is the possibility of attracting grant funding as we did with the new heating system here/as we may need to do with some roof repairs here but the fact remains that generous giving from the congregation will need to be a major source of income for this church as we go forward.

And so to my third and final point, how are we to increase our income, if we want to make the choice to continue with the kind of resources we currently enjoy, keep our church standing and functioning and, dare our say it, develop our resources to serve the community even more. How are we to increase our income over the next few years? Is this achievable - and, if so, how? Well, I do believe it is possible and I believe the PCC is moving in the right direction to make it possible. We are looking at a number of ways in which we can try to increase our income and we would gladly share these with you.

We are committed as a PCC to the notion that the burden of the extra amount we need to generate should not all be borne by regular givers. However, it will remain the case that regular, committed giving will continue to be the mainstay of our income and we want to encourage everyone to try and increase this giving more. It has increased slightly in recent years but to nothing like the level needed to cover the extra we are already being asked to pay. So we do want people to think and pray about their giving to the Church. If you cannot afford to give more, please do not feel pressurised to do so. I do not know nor want to know the details of individual givers but I do have access to the overall giving profile. This tells us that a small number of people are hugely generous towards the church. On the other hand, the vast majority of those who give regularly give under £5 a week and if each of these were able to give just a few pounds more each week it would make a huge difference throughout the year. Then we want to make sure that we are making the most of Gift Aid, whereby for each £1 we collect from a tax-payer, we can claim an extra 25p from the Inland Revenue. Details about Gift Aid and details about setting up a direct debit will all be provided on a sheet soon. Do talk to our treasurer Sandra/Jane, who will say a bit more at the end of the service

I do believe, however, that the most effective way of us ensuring that we remain financially secure for the future is for us to remain rooted in the notion of “promise”. We give back to God in gratitude for his faithfulness to his promise to us. I pray that above all we will be inspired by the Holy Spirit of promise to respond as the body of Christ and indeed to make new disciples, to bring others into the body so that they may share with us in thanking God for all the promised blessings that he has bestowed upon us: as he promised to our forebears to Abraham and his children for ever!

SS - Sunday 13th January 2013.
Sunday 30th December 2012,
St Saviour’s and St Barnabas’, Walthamstow

The boy Jesus, loyalty and trust

It’s hard to interpret today’s gospel reading without admitting that the boy Jesus is in some measure disloyal to Mary and Joseph. OK, so Jesus is only 12 years old when he travels with his parents to Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph are not a little careless in taking a whole day to realize that Jesus is not with the party returning to Nazareth. Moreover, Jesus was being super-religious, not hanging out on a Jerusalem street-corner getting up to teenage mischief but sitting among the teachers of the temple, listening to them and asking questions. Perhaps Mary might have been proud to discover her son in the temple, but her reaction to finding him is what we would expect of a mother, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety?” In other words, “Jesus, you are a very naughty boy; you should have come with us, or at least told us where you were going!” It is plain that Mary thinks Jesus has been disloyal to his parents and even the gospel writer is at pains to point out that, despite this episode, Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”

Now if you are/were a parent or godparent bringing a child for baptism, with the boy Jesus as, what one Christmas carol, calls “our earthly pattern” of a good child, you might wonder for what you might be letting yourself in. For this child far from mild and obedient is, in today’s gospel story at least, not a little rebellious. His response to his mother, is not “sorry Mummy” but “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Not only does the boy Jesus show a total disregard for his parent’s anxiety, he suggests his true home is not with them but in the temple, calling it “my Father’s house”. One can only wonder whether, once away from the religious teachers and others in the temple, Joseph didn’t give the young Jesus a clip round the ear.

In all seriousness though, if Jesus is the model of human loyalty, then it is quite understandable that those of raising children in the faith might be anxious about what kind of loyalty our children might develop. Is there a risk that these children might, like Jesus, place loyalty to God above that of parents and others? The answer, of course, is “yes” and If we are not prepared to take that risk then there is little point in baptizing a child. If we are not prepared to take the risk that a child we nurture in the faith might one day take that faith so seriously that they would put loyalty to God above loyalty to loved-ones, then we are not taking seriously the promises that we make when a child is baptized. Most of the time, of course, loyalty to God and loyalty to loved-ones are not in conflict with each other. But, unless we are prepared to risk that this might be the case, then I suggest that our ability to trust in the loyalty of our children is compromised. In other words, taking the risk that our children might put loyalty to God above loyalty to us, is to lay the foundations for loyalty that is deeper and more valuable than we might otherwise expect.

Loyalty seems to be a word that rarely enters into public usage these days. The language of “loyalty cards”, a means of companies tracking spending patterns to maximize profit, cheapens the concept of loyalty as reduced to an aspect of capitalist culture. And is it any wonder that we hardly speak of loyalty in an age when public trust has been so undermined? There was a time, not very long ago, when we trusted public institutions to deliver public services. But who trusts British Gas, BT or the Post Office now that they have become private companies? Does anyone now think that a Bank Manager is someone we would turn to in order to help us guard our financial interests? No, the role of banks seems to be to make as much money from us as possible. The financial crisis is as much as anything a crisis of trust, something the Occupy movement has helped us to see. And this is all in a period of the politicians’ expenses scandal, the scandal of the press as exposed by Levison, cover ups at the BCC over Jimmy Saville. Who can we trust? Even the church seems woefully out of step with the public in its deliberations over women bishops and gay marriage. No wonder that the latest census shows a significant drop in those who identify with the Christian church.

And yet, I suggest that the church might have a very significant role to play in the recovery of public trust but that such trust can only be recovered if we are willing to take the risk that a children might place loyalty to God above loyalty to us. Yesterday, the church celebrated the feast of St Thomas a Becket. Here was a man who is an interesting model of loyalty. He grew up under the auspices of the church and was given responsibilities by Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. Who entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and also sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. Theobald in 1154 named Becket Archdeacon of Canterbury, and other ecclesiastical offices included a number of benefices, prebends at Lincoln Cathedral and St Paul's Cathedral, and the office of Provost of Beverley. His efficiency in those posts led to Theobald recommending him to King Henry II for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor, to which Becket was appointed in January 1155.
As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king’s traditional sources of revenue that were exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. King Henry even sent his son Henry to live in Becket's household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses.
Such was Henry’s trust in Becket that he was happy for him to be made Archbishop of Canterbury, However, after he became so, he came into conflict with the King, refusing to put the Kings interests before those of the church (and God) Thomas was now serving. He put his loyalty to God before that of his friend the King, ultimately leading to his brutal assassination in Canterbury Cathedral.
This may not be the most comforting story for a family to consider at the baptism of a new Christian. But the point is this, loyalty to God is a sign of something to be deeply trusted. This loyalty, even unto death, is after the pattern of Jesus’ own example. This loyalty borne out of a deep love for God is a sign of true loyalty. What what our banks look like if governed by loyalty to economic justice rather than the relentless pursuit of profit? What would politics look like if politicians sought to implement heavenly values rather than party and personal interest?
The reformation of society will only come from a new form or loyalty, about which the church has something to teach and which it seeks to practice every time a new child is baptised.
Sunday 12th August 2012
St Saviour’s and Barnabas, E17. Theme: Bread of Life

Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life’.

Two friends in a cafe were drinking tea. One sipped the tea, turned to the friend and said, “Life is like a cup of tea”. The other looked at the tea, took a sip, pondered, took another sip and replied, “What do you mean?” The first friend, took another sip of tea and replied, “how should I know, am I an intellectual?”

Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life’ and it is one of the phrases from the Bible that we know so well that it is easy to take it for granted, something that could trip off the tongue like the comment above. But what does it mean? Well, I don’t think we all need to be intellectuals to reflect on this phrase this morning and try to apply it to our lives.

It is certainly a phrase that resonates, that invites us in, encourages us to explore its meaning. There is a story of a missionary in India who gave out copies of the Bible to passers-by. One passer-by, took the Bible and ripped it to shreds. Some time passed and someone else picked up a small piece of paper which he realised was from the torn-up Holy Book distributed by the Christian missionary. The fragment of paper contained only the words, ‘I am the bread of life’. So moved was the person by these words that they sought out the missionary to learn about Christianity.

So, what can we learn about those words? I invite you to reflect on three suggestions. First, that bread is essential to life. Second, that we need more than bread to live. Third, that Jesus invites us to be life-giving bread for others.

First then, bread is essential to life. It almost goes without saying but it has to be said before anything else. When Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life’, he is calling to mind the way bread represents our basis need for food. It is not specifically that we need to eat bread – we could as easily rely on rice, or pasta, or potatoes - but that we need to eat, and bread represents food. There is a phrase in English that bread is ‘the staff of life’, it is necessary like a staff or stick to support us. We cannot live without food. Of course Jesus recognises this when he teaches us to pray, ‘give us this day our daily bread’. Many of us take food for granted but for many in many parts of our world, that prayer is a heartfelt prayer for survival. There is a story of some child orphans after the second world war in the care of the army. The children could not sleep and so the army called in a psychologist. The suggestion was to give each child a small piece of bread to hold in their hands before going to sleep. This indeed helped the children to sleep as these children who had been deprived of so much needed that basic assurance that they would have food the next day. So, Jesus in saying ‘I am the bread of life’ calls to mind the basic need for food as a way of illustrating that just as food is basic to life, so what he offers is basic to life.

Second then, what Jesus’ words represent is that we need more than just bread to live. We cannot live without food but life is more than bread. One of the best illustrations of this to my mind is the poem, "Bread and Roses" by James Oppenheim. He published it in The American Magazine in December 1911, which attributed it to "the women in the West." It is commonly associated with a textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts during January–March 1912, now often known as the "Bread and Roses strike". The poem goes like this:
As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for -- but we fight for roses, too!
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler -- ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

We need food to live but we need more than food, we need those other things which bring our lives to life. It is easy to think what Jesus offers is spiritual food rather than physical food, but I do not think that is what Jesus is getting at. Rather what he represents is all that is needed for life to flourish. He does not say simply, ‘I represent bread’ but ‘I am the bread of life’.

And this brings us on to our third consideration: Jesus invites us to be life-giving bread for others. Jesus gives his life and, in doing so, identifies his own body with the bread he asks us to share in his memory. Over the centuries Christians have had big debates on what this means. Is it just a remembrance meal? Is the bread symbolically changed? Is it physically changed? I love the way Geoffrey Howard reflects on this in his book ‘Dare to Break Bread’. Here is a priest describing saying the Eucharist after some days of fasting while on a retreat in the Sahara desert. And this is what he says (p48): ‘I hold the bread in my hand and I see there the God who created, sustains and saves the world. I see food for the hungry, strength for the weak, power for the powerless. I see am not bothered whether bread has become body or whether it remains plain bread. Let the theologians argue. Those issues are as sterile as the stones of this place. All I know is that I look at bread but see God.’

When we see the bread of the mass, we see God, but what God does is make us the bread we share. We become the body of Christ, we become the living bread to be offered for the world. So what does that mean? Well, that is something for us to work out for our daily lives. How can we be engaged with others, helping to meet basic needs of providing bread where necessary. Gandhi said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” But also helping to provide those other things, bread and roses, to share love, joy and peace in our community through our daily acts of love and kindness? How we do it is for us to work out but that we are invited by the one who calls himself the bread of life to be life giving bread for others is what we celebrate every time we come here to share in the holy meal of the Eucharist.

End- Steven Saxby August 2012.


Sunday 5th August 2012
St Barnabas, E17. Theme: Transfiguration

About this time last year, London was aflame. I am sure you remember those images from the London riots of fires in various parts of London - and in other parts of the country - during that week of unrest. Do you remember how you felt back then? How disturbed were you by the sight of those flames? What feelings were generated within you? I was scared. What was becoming of our city? Where would it end? Would things spiral further out of control? Would I and my family be safe? The sight of those flames seemed to show something of the worst of what people can do to one another, how they can show disrespect for each other and showed something of how depraved had become aspects of our common culture when people were that disconnected that they could behave as if there are no boundaries around what is and is not acceptable in society. It was a bleak moment!

And this time last week London was aflame in a very different way. Then we saw over 200 flames in cooper bowls representing the nations of the world, rising together to form one united flame, the Olympic torch, a symbol of the peace of the nations. And can you remember how that made you feel? How inspired were you by the sight of those flames? What feelings were generated within you? I was motivated! I caught a glimpse of what might be possible if the nations of the world would come together in the cause of peace and justice, a sight of the vision of human beings living in respect with one another, with all the diversity of human experience. A vision of a people connected by the shared pursuit of the common good, a vision of a world where the boundaries of nations are not barriers to building to working for the best possible societies for everyone. It was a glorious moment.

It was glorious but it was only a vision of the world we could live in, not the world we know today is marked by war, by hunger, by the exploitation of our planet. There are many very bad things in our world today but the world is not all very bad; the London riots were a bad reflection of London but they do not reflect the many excellent aspects of living in this great city. So, we are between times. We are between the now of what we know, a world of good and bad and the world as we believe it could be, a world symbolised by that Olympic flame of peace and justice for everyone. And that living between the now and the not yet is what we experience as Christians and what the scriptures encourage us to engage with. We are encouraged to pray God’s “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”, to strive on earth to make the values of heaven evident here and to recognise that the imperfect world of today will give way to a perfect world of the future. In the language of the Bible this is expressed in various ways, it is expressed today in the message of the Transfiguration and it is expressed also in the language of the new Jerusalem about which I shall say more soon.

The Transfiguration is a glimpse of what is to come. In the very middle of Jesus’ ministry, in the midst of his ministry of teaching and healing, Jesus goes up a mountain to pray with three of his disciples (Peter, John and our very own James the greater). And there they encounter flames: the flames of Jesus transfigured before them. Moses appears, calling to mind the flames of the burning bush, and Elijah appears also, calling to mind the chariots of fire that carried Elijah into heaven. What Jesus’ disciples are given is a vision of who Jesus really is and a vision of what is to come. This is no other than the son of God and one with God and the Spirit in the Holy Trinity, this is the one who now living among them as a human being is to be gloriously exalted in heaven. Straight after their experience, they descend down the mountain and the first thing that happens is they are straight away into the ministry of healing, straight from the vision of things to come into the reality of where they are, straight from the vision of the world as it will be when all is united in worship of God’s exalted son, to how things are in first century Palestine, where the Jews are occupied by an oppressive Roman power and where people are suffering from diseases and problems of many kinds.

So our experience is the experience of Jesus’ disciples. We catch a glimpse of the glory of God when we worship here at church, we are caught up in that vision of what is to come, of the not yet, but we live in the now in the midst of our community and city with all its joys and all its challenges. Martin Luther King Jnr expressed it so well when we received the Noble Peace Prize. He came back from Oslo and delivered a speech in Harlem. He said “I have been on a mountain top, having transfiguring experiences. I have had dinner with kings and queens, met with prime ministers of nations”. He said, “I have loved it on the mountain top, I would like to stay here on this mountain top, but the valley calls me. There are those who need hope, there are those who need to find a way out. I would like to stay on the mountain top but I have got to back to the valley!” And isn’t that our experience? We would like to stay on the mountain top, we would like to dwell in the house of the Lord, to dwell with that vision of Jesus in all his glory but we have got to get back to the valley of the communities and people and loved ones that we are called to serve in our daily lives as Christians. We would love to stay with the vision of the not yet of the future, but we are called to serve the now of the present.

It was from underneath a mountain that I heard the words of the hymn Jerusalem just over a week ago as I prepared to come out from under the tree and descend down the mountain for my performance in the opening ceremony. The words of that hymn Jerusalem from a poem by William Blake express the very same sentiments of our experience living between the reality of the now and the vision of the not yet. Blake expressed his anxieties about the pain caused by the industrial revolution not least its destruction of parts of England’s green and pleasant land but he holds forth the vision that nevertheless Jerusalem can be established in England, meaning that the vision of the new Jerusalem that the Bible holds before us can be worked for here on earth, not least in England. The Biblical vision from the Book of Revelation is that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, with a new Jerusalem symbolised by the nations coming together in peace and justice. We often think of Jerusalem as simply an image for heaven but it represents the city of the new heaven and the new earth, the vision of a city to come when war, hunger, and all the evils of the world will be no more.

St Paul’s described the Christian journey as a kind of sport, in the letter to Philippians he says, “I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” As we are aware of all the sports taking place in this Olympic period, as we are aware of all the prizes being distributed, all the bronzes and silvers and golds, let us be mindful of the race we are running as Christians: it is the race to usher in the ways of God, to make the vision of the not yet a reality in the now.

At the time of the London riots, I remember being disturbed not just by the lack of connection of others, by those raiding shops and so forth, but by my own lack of connection. As I walked out in the neighbourhood, I asked myself “do I really know people in my community?”, “do I talk to people about their sense of disconnection?” “what am I doing to make a difference, to build relationship?” Well, I am glad to say, my engagement with this neighbourhood has been transformed in the last year by the work we have done with others on City Safe, on the Street Party etc, and I now feel the neighbourhood is almost a completely different place to live and that if the riots of last summer were repeated, my sense of safety here would be very different through the community building we have done together. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that we have tasted a bit of the new Jerusalem here in bringing people together from all sections of our community to co-operate together in peace and unity. But this is just a taste and just a start in terms of what is possible for us in addressing issues of safety and justice in our neighbourhood, just a taste of what, inspired by God, we can do to bring a taste of God’s kingdom here in Walthamstow as well as in heaven.

So, let us continue to press on for the prize, the prize of bringing the new Jerusalem alive in the hearts of the people, let us ignite the flame of peace within the lives of those we engage with as Christians. to quote William Blake once more, let us all say,

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.


End- Steven Saxby August 2012.







Sunday 15th July 2012, St Barnabas’, Walthamstow

The Book of Psalms


I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air. They fly so high, they reach the sky. And like my dreams they fade and die. Fortune’s always hiding. I’ve looked everywhere. I’m forever blowing bubbles. Pretty bubbles in the air!


Thank you for joining in with my favourite song, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”. It is my favourite, not only because it is the West Ham theme tune, but also because this is a song my aunties would sing to me when they tucked me into a bed, a song with which people from my culture are always happy to join in, but also a song with a bit of a story, the expression of a bit of feeling. Is it happy? Is it sad? Does it express despair? Does it express hope?


Do you have a favourite song, not necessarily a hymn? Have a think? What is it? Does it have a message? Is it hopeful? Is it a song of lament, of despair? Is it happy? Is it sad? Does it lift your spirits in some way?


I am encouraging us to think about songs because today I invite you to reflect with me on a book of songs within the Bible. This is a book from which we read every Sunday, the Book of Psalms.


Today we read a section of Psalm 24 but every week we read a portion of the Book of Psalms, sometimes called the Songs of David, a book of 150 songs attributed to King David but clearly put together from a range of different sources, attributed to David because of his role in establishing the temple in Jerusalem where these 150 songs were then used to enhance the worship, much as we sing hymns in church today.


Some of the psalms are very familiar to us. Take Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want’, there is a psalm many of us know, even know off by heart, but I guess there are many psalms that most of us do not know well and so today is an opportunity for us to reflect upon them as a whole, to reflect on the Book of Psalms as a and how we might use this wonderful collection of songs to help us live our lives.


I am serious about saying the psalms can help us live our lives because the Book of Psalms is a book which contains a whole range of human emotions. One Jewish writer said “we are born with this book in our bellies…It is not a long book, 150 poems, 150 steps between life and death… it is more than a book, it is a living being who speaks, who speaks to you, who suffers and cried out and dies, who is raised again and who sings on the threshold of eternity”.


Today we read a bit of Psalm 24. This is clearly a happy song, song of praise to God about the greatness of God. It is song that sings of God being ruler of the earth and king of his people. And this is typical of a certain type of psalm that we find throughout the Book. It is similar to the hymn we will sing at the end of our service today, ‘Immortal, Invisible, God only wise’. But this is just one of a number of types of psalm that we find in the Book.


We also have plenty of psalms in the book praising God for the wonder of creation. Another of my favourite songs is the song “I believe” – it says “every time I hear a new born baby cry or touch a leaf or see the sky, I know why I believe”. It is very basic to enjoy the world God has given us, to be amazed at the sea, the stars, at little flowers and tiny insects. And many of the psalms are just like that. Consider Psalm 104 which starts, ‘Praise the Lord, my soul! O Lord, my God, how great you are!’ and later in the psalm, ‘You have set the earth firmly on its foundations, and it will never be moved’.


But not all of the psalms are full of joy. There are songs which express being near to God, psalms use for pilgrimage and then some psalms very clearly express anxiety, concern, worry, lament, sorrow, despair. Take Psalm 22, which begins with those words Jesus used from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ This is not a psalm that starts with praise to God at all, rather with a cry of anguish. This psalm does end with a cry of confidence that God will save the one who cries out in anguish. It ends, ‘People not yet born will be told, “The Lord saved his people”’. We might compare it to the Liverpool anthem, ‘you’ll never walk alone’, it expressed anguish but also confidence that God is there in our difficult times.


And many of the psalms have that pattern, a personal cry for help ending with a more collective assertion of confidence that God has not abandoned his people. It is as if a personal song has been adapted for use in collective worship. But one the psalms, Psalm 88, seems to have very little, if any, hope at all. It is a cry without a clear answer. It includes the words, ‘Lord, I call to you for help, every morning I pray to you, Why do you reject me, Lord?’ It is a psalm, almost like the song I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, a song of carrying on, to pray (or blow bubbles) even when no good, no fortune seems in sight. Psalm 88 is a song with little or no hope but a song that is not read in isolation, rather one that sets within the breadth of the psalms, sits there as reminder that sometimes our expressions of despair are not eased by our praise to God.


We have been considering the psalms in our Monday evening Bible studies over the last few weeks. And in our discussion we have been aware of a number of things. We have been looking at these different kinds of psalm, including songs of joy, songs of hope, as well as songs of lament, songs of despair. It is not always easy to read a psalm when its message seems opposed to what is going on your mind. It is not easy to read a song of God’s saving justice for those in need, when we are mindful of the atrocities in Syria; not easy to read of the glory of God’s creation when parts of our country are suffering from flooding; it is not easy to read a song of sorrow when you are feeling great about something in your life; not easy to read of despair when you feel God is answering your prayers.


But the psalms express all the emotions of life, at times they chime with us, at times against us. In all this they point us to the songs of joy or sorrow that others may be expressing even when we are not. In all of this they are there as a resource to help us in any situation in which we might find ourselves. And, of course, they are a resource for collective worship, used for that today as they were over 3000 year ago. And it is within the context of our collective worship that we as individuals bring a whole range of different emotions and feeling any given Sunday and we do so knowing it is OK to bring whatever we are feeling to God and whatever others are feeling because this kind of collective expression of diverse emotions is exactly what we express every week by our use of the Book of Psalms.


Earlier, I asked if I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles is a happy or sad song and my view is that it is both. It is a song that somehow suits the mood of either a glorious West Ham victory or a shocking defeat. In that sense it is a fabulous hymn, a modern day psalm, so why not end our reflection on the psalms by singing a song which expresses much of what we find in the songs of David:


I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air. They fly so high, they reach the sky. And like my dreams they fade and die. Fortune’s always hiding. I’ve looked everywhere. I’m forever blowing bubbles. Pretty bubbles in the air!


Steven Saxby – 15th July 2012.




Thursday 7th June 2012
Whipps Cross Hindu Temple – Near Neighbours Event

The church youth worker from my teenage years, who is in this room, has reminded me that I wrote an article for our inter-church, youth magazine entitled “I’m Inta Inter-Faith”. His memory is that the article was the reason for the magazine being banned from my own church. My memory is that it was banned because of a page called “Smyth’s Slander” which made some disparaging remarks about our parish clergy. I mention this to illustrate that despite my early, theoretical commitment to inter-faith relations, my practical commitment came about much later through a personal, first encounter with a Muslim neighbour. In 2001, against the wider background of the northern riots and the media portrayal of Muslims after 9/11, I formed a friendship with a man called Abdul Aziz.

It was this friendship which inspired me to come to Waltham Forest in 2002 and work for the Faith Communities Project. For the next seven years I worked with others on a range of inter-faith initiatives, all aimed at bringing faith community leaders together on Borough-wide issues.

But just over 3 years ago, I applied to become parish priest of St Barnabas Walthamstow - a small parish with a relatively large Muslim population. A key reason for me applying for that post is that I wanted to be part of the fostering of more congregation-to-congregation contact between Muslims and Christians. That said, my good intentions soon met the realities of parish and wider commitments and it has not always been easy, even at St Barnabas, to make sufficient time for the fostering of inter-faith relationships between our church and the nearby mosque.

This is the context in which I am hugely grateful to the Near Neighbours Fund. For what that fund has done for us is give us extra capacity to engage in a piece of work within our neighbourhood which is bringing local Christians, Muslims and others into contact with one another. We chose to focus on issues of safety. We seconded a London Citizens organiser to work among us for three months who engaged in one-to-one conversations with local people. We then brought these people together for a meeting which led to an action when more than twenty of us met and then went out in pairs to talk to over 40 local shop keepers and café owners. We spoke to them about safety issues and obtained their agreement to work with us on making our neighbourhood a safer place to live.

Lina Jamoul has been working with us on the project. Lina, you are an organiser with London Citizens, you are a Muslim who has been working with us for a while at St Barnabas Church. What has been your response to seeing Muslims and Christians work together in our neighbourhood?

And will you briefly share with us what we will be doing on Saturday when we will launch CitySafe Markhouse followed by a Peace Picnic in Thomas Gamuel Park?

I want to say as well that the Near Neighbours funding has helped us produce newsletters which have brought local people together to work on a wider range of neighbourhood issues. We are improving our public flower beds, we have established a parent and toddler group and, most excitedly, we are planning a street party on 8th July to celebrate our wonderful multi-cultural and multi-faith neighbourhood. Our next step will be to establish a local community organisation which can continue to co-ordinate CitySafe and a range of other local initiatives, continuing to bring people of different faiths together and deepen their commitment to one another. It has been a huge joy to see people from different faiths get to know their neighbours and work together for the common good, and for this we appreciate very much the support of the Near Neighbours Fund.


Steven Saxby, June 2012.

St Saviour, Walthamstow, 9/5/12, 9am - Rogation Sunday

or click here for the ROGATION SERMON



Today is Rogation Sunday. We get the word rogation from the Latin “rogare”, meaning “to ask”. Traditionally what the people asked for on this day was a blessing on the crops. For the church, Rogation Sunday came to serve another purpose, the marking of the parish boundaries by walking the boundary and beating it with sticks. Today begins a series of rogation days, all placed before Ascension Day on Thursday. The reason why people thought it good to ask for special blessings on these days before Ascension was because we read in scripture, in Ephesians 4v8: “When He ascended on high he led a host of captives and gave gifts to his people.”

George Herbert, the seventeenth century poet and country parson, commended the beating of bounds for four reasons: “1, A Blessing of God for the fruits of the field. 2, Justice in the preservation of bounds. 3, Charity in loving, walking and neighbourly accompanying one another with reconciling of differences at the time if there be any. And 4, Mercie, in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of largesse, which at the time is or ought to be used.” Well times have changed! We no longer distribute alms around the parish, although people often come into church asking for food. However, many churches in the area, during this month, have been collecting alms for Christian Aid. We have no fields of crops for which to seek God’s blessing, although there is much food grown here, not least on the four allotment sites in our parish). The parish boundary is uncontested, so there are no disputes to resolve. And if we were to walk around beating young boys to impress the parish boundary upon them, as was the ancient custom, we would find ourselves in court for a serious breach of child protection!

What then, is the point of us marking Rogation Sunday today? Well, I am not a poet, but allow this 21st century urban parson to suggest four reasons why Rogation Sunday is important within our contemporary situation.

First, Rogation Sunday draws our attention, quite properly, to our local situation. We live in world where the local is often undermined: it is the global that matters. And yet, the global only exists through the local. There are no general places in the world, only particular places that make up our world. The Church of England maintains a parish system, whereby every single square inch of this country falls within an Anglican ecclesiastical parish. This means that there is no part of this country that is not the concern of some church community somewhere and isn’t prayed for and served by that community. Now there are some practical applications to this when it comes to people accessing services from the Church of England and an obligation for folk to form a relationship with their parish church if they are seeking Anglican baptism or marriage; likewise there is the provision of funeral services for all who live within the parish boundary, regardless of whether they go to church. For us, as a community seeking to reach out, the parish boundary means there are limits to our responsibility in terms of how many people to whom we seek to communicate, hence making it possible for us to deliver occasional parish newsletters to every home within the parish. This is the Church of England taking the local seriously, not to the exclusion of the global – we pray about global issues all the time and we are, of course, a community of people from around the world – but as part of our concern for the local and the global. It used to be said “think global, act local” – but now some say “think global and local, act global and local” as we realise how connected local and global issues are and how much need there is for action that takes both into consideration. This is why I am delighted that we are engaging in CitySafe, a campaign to work with others on safety issues within our local community, and pleased that we are engaging in our ways to take the needs of our local community seriously. Rogation Sunday is part of the dynamic by which the Church of England takes both the global and the local seriously.

Second, Rogation Sunday proclaims something of God’s, and hence our, concern for all things. What a shallow faith we would hold if we felt God was only concerned with what goes on here in Church. No, God is concerned with every aspect of life and no less with all what goes on this parish of St Saviour. Concerned with all of it’s 9000 or so people, 15% over 60, 22% under 16; a parish where statistics tells us 50% are white, 26% Asian, 18% Black , where 47% profess to be Christian, 25% identify as Muslim, and 14% say they have no religion. God is concerned with the schools in the parish, not only our church school, but Barncroft, Kelmscott, South Grove, and Low Hall Nursery. Concerned is concerned with Kelmscott Leisure Centre, Queens Rd Community Centre, the Adult Disability Centre across the road, the Commongate Hotel, St James Station, numerous businesses, shops, takeaways, gyms and cafes, all those who use Walthamstow Marches for leisure. God is concerned with those who worship in Lighthouse Methodist Church, South Grove Presbyterian Church and the various church groups who meet in community centres and in the factory units of the Argyll Road Estate. God is concerned with those living in their own homes and concerned with those living in social housing, concerned with refugee people living in the parish, concerned with the folk in the old peoples homes and care homes homes, concerned with violence on the streets and concerned with violence behind closed doors. All these things are concerns of people living in this parish, all are God’s concerns and part of our job on Rogation Sunday and throughout the year is to seek to hold all these things together with God in our prayers.


Third, I want to suggest that Rogation Sunday is important not only because it makes us attentive to the local and because it helps us be aware of God’s concern for all things, but also because praying for our local community actually does make a difference. A familiar scripture are those words “ask and it will be given, seek and you will find”. It sounds simple doesn’t it? And yet, our experience tells us that it isn’t that simple. In days gone by, and in some places still, the people would pray for a blessing upon the crops, and yet we know that the crops would not always be successful. We may pray for local businesses today and see some of them go under next year. We may pray for an end to violent attacks and yet there might be another one next week. So what is the point of all this prayer? Surely, we don’t always ask and then receive what we want? Well, there are two keys to understanding this. One is that God does not will bad things for us. We live in a fallen world, a world where bad things happen, a world with the free-will to chose to rebel against God. The other is that prayer is not about presenting a wish list to God for all the things we think he should give us, much as a child might give a list to Father Christmas. No prayer is essentially about holding every situation together with God, proclaiming that there is no situation to which God cannot speak. Our specific prayers for things we believe to be God’s will, peace in the community and so on, are appropriate. But prayer is not a magic wand. Prayer is as much about us being involved with God in seeking to transform society as it is about praying for it in church on Sunday. We will receive what God wants for us, but it may involve us in acting and not just praying. And we may discover that what we receive from God is not quite the thing we think he should give us. Prayer changes things when it brings us into active co-operation with God to bring about change. Prayer changes us because it focuses our attention and it changes others as we give them the hope that change is really possible.

So Rogation Sunday draws our attention to the local, it proclaims God’s concern for all things, it encourages to pray and make a difference to our community and

Finally, I do want to repeat one of George Herbert’s reasons for engaging in Rogation Sunday. Things have changed a lot since the seventeenth century, but this simple thing is very true. It is something I expect those of us who beat the bounds to experience today here in urban Walthamstow just as much as George Herbert’s country parishioners experienced it nearly 400 years ago: Charity in loving, walking and neighbourly accompanying one another! Walking together really does help us to develop bonds of friendship and love. I look forward to walking with some of you after our mass on this Rogation Sunday! If you can’t come, please pray for us as we walk, neighbourly accompanying one another, and pray for this Parish of Walthamstow St Saviour. SS/13/05/2012

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Sunday 22nd April 2012
St Saviour’s, E17 and St Michael’s, E17.
Reading: Luke 24: 36b-48
Theme: Fear.

'Why are you frightened?’ 

It seems like a strange question for Jesus to ask his disciples – Why are you frightened? After all they have been through, the years spent with him, seeing him do amazing things, expecting him to do even greater things, and then watching him be arrested, tortured and put to death, all their hopes dashed, as they fled in fear, abandoning him, even denying him in his time of need. Why are you frightened? They had been terrified by all that had happened and now, the one they knew had hung and died on the cross appears among them and asks, “Why are you frightened?” Wouldn’t you be? I know I would!

Why are you frightened? Or to put it another way, what makes you afraid? I once put that question to a group of people, asking for their immediate responses. One replied "everything", another, straight afterwards, said "nothing". A child told me he was afraid of dinosaurs. Let me ask you now? What makes you afraid? … As we can see responses to fear are very varied, fear takes many forms, different people experience different kinds of fear.

There's a kind of fear associated with fears of mice, of spiders, of heights, of lightening, of the dark, and so on. Most of us, I suspect, make light of such fears. I have a fear of moths. An event in my teenage years has left me with it and, as long as I'm not left alone in a room with a moth, I'm fine. To some such fears are irrational. To some they are no more than learnt responses to particular stimuli. Yet others see these fears as quite logical: mice, or at least rats, carry deadly diseases; spiders, or at least some spiders, or poisonous; people, sometimes, fall from heights; lightening, sometimes, strikes; and we all know what moths, or at least some moths, are capable, sometimes, of doing in the dark!

It's easy to joke about fears of moths or spiders, but for some, even these fears are quite serious. Indeed, there are some counselling services specifically concerned with trying to help people who have serious fears of this kind.

Whatever kind of fear we experience, our fears - to us at least - are frightening. However small or large they may be, our fears demand that we take them seriously.

We may fear those things which we suspect will change our lives for the worse; losing a job, not having enough money, humiliation, defeat, losing a loved one. We may fear the unknown, the insecurity of not knowing what will come next. Sometimes fears of the unknown turns nasty. Perhaps we've seen people begin to hate those they fear and then to discriminate, to pre-judge. Sometimes we may even fear ourselves, our own capabilities. Should we take the next step or stay comfortable right where we are? Yes sometimes fear is indistinguishable from cowardice, the fear to stand up for ourselves or others, the fear to break bad habits, the fear of getting involved in case we get hurt. Ask yourself, what, deep down, do you fear?

Many in our communities face very real fears indeed. Those who live with bullies at work or school, those who live with violence at home, those who fear immigration authorities, those who fear torture, even death if sent back to their countries. And think of Christians in some parts of the world and the torture they endure for their faith. We may sometimes fear what people will make of our faith, whether they will mock and humiliate us – but such fear is a far cry from the kind of fears many Christians around the world have to bear. “Why are you frightened?”

Why are you frightened? It was obvious to Jesus why his disciples were frightened, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Was it a ghost? So he says to them, “touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then they are overjoyed – they cannot believe it, this is too good to be true. So, we read that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”, Jesus asks another question. Now here is one of my favourite questions of all time, “Have you anything to eat here?” And there is something very comforting in that question. Jesus calms the fears of his disciples by meeting them in the ordinary. He joins in the BBQ, eats some of their broiled fish and sits down with them to talk about the scriptures.

We can imagine that they looked back on that experience later in their ministries, when they had to face all kinds of difficulties, humiliation - for some prison, for some torture – that they looked back on that question and were comforted that just as Jesus was with them in that moment of terror, so he was with them in a different way as they faced all kinds of trials and hardships for his sake.

We can assume too that they remembered another incident. Jesus had gone off to pray and instructed the disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee without him. They were out in the middle of that huge inland sea when again the wind picked up, perhaps they were already afraid for the lives when they saw a figure, walking on the water, "It's a ghost", they cried, only to discover it was, in fact, Jesus. "Do not be afraid", he said, but no doubt they were petrified then also.

"Do not be afraid." What are we to make of Jesus' words to Peter as the disciple stepped out on the water? At first he was fine, Peter focused on Jesus and found he too was walking in the water. But then he was distracted, he felt the wind, he looked at the waves and he began to sink. Peter stretched out his hand and Jesus rescued him. "Why did you doubt?" Jesus asked, putting a similar question to Peter as the one he’d asked all his disciples, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”

Why are you frightened? Let me conclude by leaving you with this image: Perhaps we can imagine ourselves in Peter's situation. Perhaps the wind and the waves stand for our fears. We can't ignore them. But perhaps we can focus our attention elsewhere. Perhaps we too can look to Jesus for that confidence to rise above our fears. Sometimes we'll fail. Sometimes, paralysed by our fears, we too will sink beneath the waves, jostled by the wind. But sometimes, with the vision of Jesus before us, with his loving arms to rescue us, perhaps we too will be able to overcome our fears, to work for a different outcome than that which terrifies us, to sing with the psalmist: The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear; the Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?

Steven Saxby, April 2012.

11th March - Lent 3

Lent 3 – John2: 13-22

Jesus Clears the Temple Courts
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[c]
18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Surely it’s an easy Gospel reading this one, thieves and brigands turning the temple into a den of thieves, of course Jesus was right to turn over their table and chase them out.

We’d never be like that, oh no, you wouldn’t catch us doing that, we come to God’s house and keep it as a house of prayer, just take a look around you and you can see what I mean. Prayer and worship are clearly what this place is all about, absolutely no need for anyone to be getting hot under the collar and turning over the tables here.

Amen!


But when I read this passage and thought and prayed about it, I had to ask the question, what is it saying to me? Maybe it’s too easy to look at it superficially, just to see Jesus chasing out the people who were doing something wrong.

We don’t read the Bible just to find out about what happened a long time ago; and to see what mistakes the people made or what God did for them; that would be using the bible like a history book. No, we look to the bible as the word of God, speaking to us, right where we are, right now. We look at what was happening in a story, and put it in the right context; and we see how the people reacted. But then we try to apply it to our lives today. We don’t ask what it meant for them, we ask what is this saying to me?

So what were these people doing in the temple on the day Jesus turned up?

The first thing to note is that the money changers and the people selling animals all had permission to be there. The only currency that could be used in the temple were Tyrian shekels, so in order to pay you temple tax and buy your animals for sacrifice you needed to change your money into the right currency. And you had to buy your animals there, people travelled long distances to the temple, so it would not have been practical for them to bring two doves or a lamb with them all the way from Galilee. So Jesus is not cleansing the temple of the tyranny of commercialism. He’s not chasing out the people selling dodgy souvenirs in the gift shop.

Perhaps it’s not the easy, ‘the people were doing terrible things in the temple,’ story that it first appeared to be.

Jesus turning over the tables should be seen as a more symbolic act. He has come into the world and is going to turn things upside down. Here He’s not just telling them a parable, He’s acting it out. He’s turning things over, to show that things are different now He’s here.

What the money changers were doing wasn’t wrong, but what they were doing was no longer necessary. There would be no need to keep coming back to the temple and offering sacrifice over and over, that was no longer necessary now that he was here.

There would only need to be one more sacrifice, the sacrifice that would end all sacrifices. Things were going to be different. And this sacrifice would not be just for the Jews who came to the temple, this one would be for all people, things were going to be turned upside down.

To emphasise this John specifies that this all happened against the backdrop of the Passover. He is implying that the words and actions of Jesus at this time are connected to the Passover festival. The festival of Passover is a celebration of the freedom of the Jewish people from slavery, but now that Jesus is here this is going to be different, things are going to be turned on their head. From now on there would be a new freedom to celebrate, a freedom for paid for once and for all.


After Jesus had disrupted the proceedings in the temple court, the people started to question Him. ‘What sign can you show us to prove you have the authority to do this?’ they ask. Perhaps what He had done and said had got them thinking, or maybe he had ruffled a few feathers. Maybe what they’re really asking is ‘who do you think you are, coming in here and causing a commotion?’
And his answer? It’s not a straight forward one for them to hear. ‘Destroy this temple,’ He says ‘and I will rebuild it in three days.’ What? It took 46 years to build!

But He is not talking about the temple of stone in Jerusalem, he is talking about the temple that is His body. A connection that they aren’t able to make until after His death and resurrection.


Now that Jesus is here, God is no longer to be found in the temple, confined to the holy of holies, God has a new temple. God is here, living among the people and the temple he now lives in is the body of Jesus Christ. A temple that will at first appear to have been destroyed will be raised up in three days.

And when that day comes, there will be no need for traders in the house of the Lord. There will be no need for any more sacrifice. The Holy Spirit will follow and, from then on, each one of us will be the temple in which the Holy Spirit of God can live, and it will be through us that God can work.

So what could this passage be saying to us, as we journey through Lent, preparing to celebrate the raising up of the temple of Jesus Christ at Easter?

Lent, for us, is a time of preparation and prayer for the celebration and commemoration of the raising up of Jesus. And as we know, Lent comes from a Saxon word for “spring”, a time of new life. Preparation for spring? Maybe what we need is a bit of a Lenten ‘spring clean’.

Our bodies are the temple in which the Holy Spirit of God lives, and Lent is a time when we can look at what needs to be chased out of our temple. What can we turn over and discard, what things are no longer required in our lives? What things are cluttering up and getting in the way of our walk with God and our usefulness to him?



While we’re on the subject of cleaning, I guess I could let you in on a little secret, if I’m absolutely honest and tell you that I’m not all that happy with the person that cleans my house. It all looks nice when you walk in but maybe if you look under the rug you’ll find it wasn’t lifted so it could be hovered underneath, things are tidy, but really everything has just been tided into neat piles that look OK, but haven’t really been sorted out.

But how can I tell the cleaner? Will he listen? I’ll have to approach the issue gently because I know he can be a bit of a sensitive soul. It’s going to be a bit awkward, when the person who cleans my house is me. Maybe what I really need is some help from someone who knows how to really deep clean.

My life, like my house I guess, has quite a bit of clutter. No money changers or dove salesmen last time I looked, but if I look close enough I know I’ll find lots of things that are no longer required. And maybe a few things that, at first glance, have good reason to be there, but maybe if I dare to take time and think about it I’ll find that really they’re getting in the way, taking up time and space that would be better taken up if I turned them over to God. It’s God who knows what I really need and what I really need to get rid of.



But enough of my domestic untidiness, what could the story be saying to us today?

What a special day it is, for Kaylon and his family as he is going to be baptised, and a special day for us too as we welcome a new member into our Christian family. We’re going see him as he is symbolically washed clean of sin and, alongside his parents and godparents, we will pray that the Holy Spirit will come into his life and live in and through him, we’ll pray that he will become a temple for the Spirit of God.

As we join in the prayers, let them be prayers for ourselves too, and reminders to us, that through our baptism, the Spirit lives in us too.

Our bodies too are temples of the Holy Spirit, and as we journey towards Easter, and the raising up of Christ from the dead, let us pray that God will show us where we can make space, what we can tidy up and which things we can turn over to God.

What are the things in our lives that can be got rid of the things that are no longer required? Maybe there are tables that need turning over after all, this Lent, let us have faith and ask God, which one should I turn over first?

Chris Smaling - ordinand 

26th February - Lent 1

In our study of Physics, we learn that in every force there is a counterforce: in every action there in a reaction usually equal in strength and magnitude. (exhibit a a punch or a karate chop). In Marine Biology what do we call the fish that moves this way (hands on action); the cuttlefish or squid... in the Philippines, we generally called that fish ‘pusit’... the movement of its tentacles is graceful yet with a strong force that propels the fish forward of backward. Going forward, we call the fish ‘posit’ going backward, what do you call the fish... ‘opposite’.
In the universe as epitomized by the movie sequel Star Wars, Empire Stirkes Back, Return of The Jedi, etc... there exist a Force which allows users to perform supernatural feats: eg telekenesis, where the users can move spaceships and other huge objects from one place to another without touching the objects, clairvoyance, precognition and mind control. This force amplifies certain physical traits such as speed and reflexes and can be improved thru training. Such generally is used for GOOD. Diametrically opposed to this Forces of Good is the Dark Side where its adherents and users when perversed are imbued with hatred, aggression, malevolence and any other things that contradicts what is good. The Dark Side are the proponents of evil. Constantly these Forces of Good and Forces of Evil are trying to eliminate each other; either aiming to control and dominate the universe. Both try to tempt and influence each to join their Force; impossible for both to live harmoniously. The sequel was climaxed by the death of Dartsvader and the Sith, the leaders of the Forces of Evil. Not complacent in their temporary victory, the Forces of Good through Yoda, the Jedi over all leader PREPARE the universe for the expected and eventual coming of the Forces of Evil.
We are now in the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a forty day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Week, the count excludes Sundays. I am not quite confident but in my readings, I have not come across Lent in all the books of the bible, the Old Testament, the Appocrapha and the New Testament. Lent is derived from an old English word Lencten meaning spring. Before, the four seasons were called Winter, Lent Summer and Fall. Considering that Lent is only a forty day period, scholars then changed lent to Spring. Thus the song You’ve Got Friend by James Taylor goes “Winter, Spring Summer or Fall; All you’ve got to do is call...” Jesus and He will be there to raise you up, when you stumble, to heal you when you are sick, give you joy in place of sorrow, give you hope when in despair. But of course you have to have strong faith in Him, open your heart for to enter and religiously live by his two great commandments.
From the start of the 4th century, Christendom started observing the Lenten season. Its celebration basically has been marked by fasting, penitential prayers and almsgiving. Add the fact that during Lent, Carnivalism was strictly observed, where carnival is meant the removal of meat... or no meat diet during the Lenten period. Why was 40 days designated as the Lenten period. This has biblical references: Noah stayed in his Ark for forty days and forty nights during the great flood; Moses stayed at Mt Sinai, fasted, talked with the burning bush, received the Ten Commandments for forty days and forty nights; Elijah walked and climbed Mt Horeb for forty days and forty nights: and Jesus stayed in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Today, not only prayers and fasting Christians do in observing Lent: Christians use this period as a time for soul-searching; a time for instrospection; a time for repentance and a time for self-examination. All these they do in preparation for Easter, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The gospel this morning initially speaks of a force, a power endowed to Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit after his baptism in the river Jordan by John the Baptist; that Jesus is the Son of God in whom “I am well-pleased”. With the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus could have gone straightaway to the countryside, the villages and the cities and continue his ministry of healing and creating miracles with greater impact. But it was not so; He would have been misinterpreted as the Walking Hospital, the earthly messiah and the knight in a armour. His mission on earth should have been subverted that instead spreading the good news and strengthening the people’s faith in HIM, He would have been looked upon only as a spiritual healing leader and not as the Resurrection and the Life. Thus the Holy Spirit forced Jesus Christ into the wilderness for further preparation before spreading the Good News. There in the wilderness the forces of evil thru Satan tempted Jesus Christ. Within forty days in the wilderness, three times Jesus was tempted and three times he was victorious. We are all human beings, subject to human frailties. Life in itself is a struggle and following the Christian way if a harder struggle teeming with temptations and death is a common occurrence. Jesus Christ is more than a human being, he is the Son of God clothing him the power to ward off temptations.
Mark did not elaborate the temptations of Christ but referring to the gospel of Matthew and Luke, allow me to paraphrase the three:
First: Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. Warding this off, Jesus anwered. “You cannot leave by bread alone”. Bread sustain your body and sometimes used to mean money. Thus bread and money connotes economic power. Satan offered economic power to Jesus in exchange for Jesus to turn stones into bread.
Second: On a of a hill overlooking the cities and the realms of an earthly kingdom, Satan tempted Jesus saying: All these kingdom, its glory and authority i will give to you, if you bow down and worship me”. Jesus answered: “It is written, Worship the Lord your God , and serve only him...” Politicians’ utmost goals are the power and authority that go with personal glory fame and authority. Jesus Christ was offered political power.
Third: On the pinnacle of a temple, Satan said: “If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here, for the angels of the Lord will lift you up before you touch the ground”. And Jesus replied: “It is written, Do not put the Lord your God to the test”... Note in this this third temptation, Satan did not offer anything in return for Jesus’ jumping... I presume the offer was social acceptance.
With the power of the Holy Spirit with him, Jesus can easily do what was tempted of him to do. But Jesus was resolute in warding off the economic, political and social temptations using all biblical verses from the Old Testament in answered Satan. When Satan left, Jesus stayed in the wilderness ministered by angels. Upon knowledge of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus came out of his isolation and starting the Good News telling the people to repent and have faith in the Good news.

Cyril Salvador - Reader


St Saviour’s + Barnabas, Walthamstow
12th February 2012

“The Word became flesh”

'The Word became flesh': that's a risky theme for a sermon. 'The Word became flesh' - not more words, not a statement to be read out, not a chapter from a book - but flesh. Well, let me begin with a story about my own flesh, which, as you will discover, is beginning to suffer from its advancing years! I have had pain in my right foot for several months now and last week I realised the pain had spread to my lower right leg. I plucked up the courage to limp along to Whipps Cross Hospital where after a surprisingly short wait and even a lovely cup of tea provided by a hospital volunteer, I saw a nurse who diagnosed ‘plantar fasciitis’, commonly known as “policeman’s foot”. Basically I have damaged the muscle tissue on the base of my foot through overuse, too much walking, just like policeman in the days when they would walk the beat. A friend of mine who had the same thing told me how his doctor had said, “The bad news is it’s very painful; the good news is it will heal in around 18 months!” Naturally, I found that thought rather depressing, not least because it counts me out, for some time at least, from going on very long walks, one of my favourite activities. But more depressing was consulting the “policeman’s foot” website which told me that the condition is common for people once they pass the age of 40. Now 41, I can see the future mapped out before me: I have started to degenerate; age is taken its toll on my hitherto fit and healthy body; my frail flesh has begun to weaken.

In a sermon on the topic of flesh [Rowan Williams, “Hearts of Flesh” in ‘Open to Judgement’: London, 1994], Rowan Williams makes a number of useful points on which I invite you to reflect with me this morning. His first point, as the story of my poor foot illustrates, is that flesh is what we are. It is what we live in, ‘Warm, mobile and frail’. In other words, when the Word becomes flesh, it becomes what we are. The same God who created all things in the heavens and on the earth, the same God who breathed life into humanity, becomes Himself real, live human flesh - the stuff babies are made of, the stuff the baby Jesus was made of. God became flesh: the stuff I am made of, and - if I may be so bold as to suggest it -, God became flesh, the stuff that you are made of! But Rowan Williams suggests that we might be tempted to ask, “What’s the big deal?” We are already flesh. Why such a big fuss about God giving us in Jesus what we have already got? He goes on to suggest that the reason this gift is so special is precisely because we are suspicious of our flesh. We do not really trust that flesh is good. We identify flesh with our decaying bodies. We do not really love it.

Perhaps we can see what Rowan Williams is driving at: very often we think of flesh as negative, especially in contrast with “spirit” which we regard as positive. It is easy for us to think that the true realm of our existence is not in our frail, decaying bodies, but in the spirit realm; not in the natural but in the spiritual. There is some encouragement for us to think like this in the writings of St Paul. On more than one occasion he contrasts spirit with flesh. But it is quite wrong to think that St Paul sets up an opposition between 'flesh' and 'spirit'. What is wrongly supposed it that everything fleshy is bad and that only that given by the Spirit is good. Paul recognised that human flesh is created by God, indeed that human beings were created in the very image of God. Yet what Paul also recognised is that human flesh is corrupted by sin and that human flesh is only released from that sin by participating in the divine, by being made Holy, by being sanctified by the Spirit. Flesh is not opposed to spirit, but is made holy by it.

God becomes flesh. God becomes, in other words, what we are. It is strange, strange but true, that what God loves, is what we are. God loves what we are, loves our frailty, loves our vulnerability, loves our trust, loves our joy. And for us to love God, we need also to love ourselves, to love our own bodies, to endure and enjoy our frailty and vulnerability, yes, even to love our flabbiness, our arthritis and rheumatism, our eczema, our brittle bones, our rotting flesh, to love it all and to entrust it all to the love of God. ‘If we cannot love our mortal vulnerability, our own frail flesh’, says Rowan Williams, ‘We shall love nothing and nobody.’ This is what Francis of Assisi realised when we he was converted by an encounter with a man suffering from leprosy. Francis realised that the call to love everyone and everything means to love someone in particular; to love the person, to love them for what they are, and to love them in their sickness and suffering not only if they are fit and healthy. As Rowan Williams put it, ‘when St Francis embraced the leper and put his lips to kiss his sores, he loved a man whose very selfhood was to be met in, not behind or above, that material wretchedness’.

One of my favourite photos at home is a photo of me holding my younger brother for the first time, just a few hours after he was born. What I love about the photo is that it is so easy to recognise that as I was holding my brother in my arms - I was 18 at the time -, as I was aware of the vulnerability of that tiny child, as I was aware in that moment of his absolute trust in me, that on my face is an expression of complete amazement, total delight, sheer joy! 'The Word became flesh.' What I see in a new born child, what I saw in my little brother, have seen in my own children, is the frailty, the vulnerability, the trust, the joy, the fear, the hope, the panic, the calm. But what does a new-born baby see when it looks up, as it tries to focus on the face of the one holding it? What did Jesus see in the face of Mary? What has your new-born child or a baby you've held seen in your eyes? I can only suggest that what my brother might have seen in my face, without being able to name it, was the frailty, the vulnerability, the trust, the joy, the fear, the hope, the panic, the calm. For human beings don't grow out of being frail or vulnerable flesh, nor even of being trusting or joyful flesh. Some of us are pretty good at hiding our vulnerability: we swim, jog, play football, look healthy; we look happy, smile, laugh, dance, sing, say "I'm fine thank you". Don't be fooled! Look closer, some of the time, and you'll see the anxious frown, the tearful eyes, the wearied smile. And some of us are pretty good at hiding our joy. We sit still, feel sorry for ourselves, complain to others, frown, scorn, sneer, cry, say "I'm miserable". Again, don't be fooled! Look closer, some of the time, and you'll see the light step, a glint in the eyes, dimples.

God lived among us as one of us. And as one of us, Jesus lived, as we live, with the consequences of human sin. Born in the poverty of a stable, narrowly escaping an infant death during the Herod's massacre of the innocents, living as a refugee in Egypt, and later, mocked and beaten, hung naked on an instrument of torture, pierced with nails and left to die. Both at the beginning and the end of his earthly life, Jesus experienced the consequences of human sin, including the ultimate consequence of human sin, death. The line of one hymn sums it up perfectly: "Hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered". But that is the point, God becomes flesh; God identifies with our experience, with our vulnerability, with our pain. For what is the alternative to being vulnerable flesh? The opposite of flesh is not spirit, whatever some take St Paul to say, but rather as Ezekiel tells us, stone. The opposite of flesh is stone and as Simon and Garfunkel tell us 'The rock fells no pain'.

Human beings are not stone, but flesh. Human beings are what hurt, as human beings we feel pain, and as people who feel our own pain, so are we able to share with others in their pain. It is the vulnerability of God in human flesh, from birth in a manger to death on a cross, that points us not only to the vulnerability of ourselves but also to the vulnerability of others. 'The Word became flesh' is a fact that we celebrate not only at Christmas but every Sunday is we gather as the Body of Christ. For it not as the Church triumphant that we meet, not yet anyway, that promise that we shall all be restored to the fullness of the stature of Christ is yet to be fulfilled. No, right now, we meet as the broken body of Christ, the frail and vulnerable, yet still trusting, joyful body of Christ that lives in this world, that feels its pain and that co-operates with God in the hard work of bringing his peace and justice to a world corrupted by sin. That is what gives us joy, what encourages us to love ourselves and, yes, even our falling-apart bodies, for in loving who we are, we share in God’s love for us and his love for all those he came to save.

Steven Saxby - February 2012.

House of Rainbow
3rd February 2012 - Union of love

God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.

Now as you know I am a Church of England priest and I always so much enjoy, walking up the aisle in front of the bride, waiting for her to stand next to the groom, the entrance music stopping and then proclaiming: God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.

For those words from 1 John 4.16 are normally read as the first words at the beginning of a Church of England marriage service. And the reading 1 Corinthians 13 is often read too – why? Marriage is, to quote our theme today, a “union of love”.

I shall return to these words of scripture later but before I want to share a little story with you from a film I watched recently, the film Of Gods and Men. Of Gods and Men is the story of a group of Christian monks living in Algeria in the 1990s. These monks are living among the Muslim population of a remote village and are an important part of village life. One of them is the village doctor and the locals approach him for all sorts of advice. In one scene a young Muslim woman sits alone with the old Christian monk and asks him, ‘How do you know when you are in love?’ There is silence for a while and the film-watcher is led to wonder, “How will he know what to say to her?” He then says in a very matter of fact way, “There’s something inside you that comes alive. The presence of somebody is irrepressible and makes your heart beat faster, usually. It’s an attraction, a desire. It’s very beautiful. No use asking too many questions. It just happens. Things are as usual, then suddenly, happiness arrives or the hope of it. But you’re in turmoil. Great turmoil. Especially the first time.” There follows a conversation about a boy the girl’s father wants her to marry, someone she has no such feelings for. Then there is some more silence. Perhaps the girl, like the viewer, is thinking “how does he know all this?” and then she asks the monk, “Ever been in love?” to which he replies, “Several times, yes. After then I encountered another love, even greater. And I answered that love. It’s been a while now. Over sixty years.”

It is a beautiful scene and I would like to draw three things from it for our reflection this evening.

First, being in love, as the monk says, “is very beautiful?” Let me ask you, “Ever been in love?” Then you know what the monk is talking about. Your heart beats faster. But you’re in turmoil! Well, you know what it is like. And all the evidence I have come across is that it is no different if a man loves a woman, or a woman loves a man, or a man loves a man, or a woman loves a woman – falling in love is falling in love – it’s turmoil, but it is very beautiful! Maybe you know W H Auden’s poem in which a small boy asks, “O, tell me the truth about love”:

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O, tell me the truth about love.

Or his other poem, popularized in the film Four weddings and a Funeral, talking of the end of a relationship:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

Being in love turns your life upside down and to experience the pain of a loving relationship coming to an end can feel like the end itself. And then there is love tested over many years of faithful relationship, with highs and lows, but all the time developing a love that is stronger and deeper. This is the kind of love we hear about in 1 Corinthians 13 – love that is patient, that is kind, that does not envy, does not boast, is not rude, is not self-seeking, which is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth – again, a description of a love that is very beautiful! Whatever and whoever falls in love, being in love is very beautiful. That is my first point.

And my second point is this: again, to quote the monk, “I encountered another love, even greater”. What was that love, that love that he answered? It was God’s call on him to totally dedicate his life to God. Now there is no greater love than the God’s love, no love greater than the love of God! Let me quote another poet and his poem, ‘For the Love of God’: ‘to love is not an option, actual understanding is a blessing of love…. Love at all cost, love is love, love eternal, not an option!’ And in a note to the poem’s title, the author of the poem writes, ‘There is a greater need to love one another, for love is of God. The anointing to love was manifested long before the beginning of the recorded beginnings.’ Beautiful words from a beautiful poet – oh, the poet by the way is Rowland Jide Macaulay. Let us be serious, those words in the note are very profound: “The anointing to love was manifested long before the beginning of the recorded beginnings.” Why is that true? Because God is love! The attribute of love is so tied up with the character of God that we do not say God is part love or God has a sense of love, no, God is love! And here is something important for us to remember – when God creates us, he creates us in his image: human love flows from the love of God; humans love, because God loves. Why is love so basic to who we are? Why can we not live without love? Why does love overtake, overwhelm, overcome us? Because God makes us to love. God is love and we are made to love. Love is the thing more important than any other thing. This greater love, the love of God, is the greatest thing there is. As St Paul says, ‘without love - what am I? - I am like a resounding gong or a clanging bell’: just a load of noise. Love shapes who we are. It makes us who we are. Without love - what does Paul say? - without love, I am NOTHING! And - love does not fail. Are their prophecies? They will cease. Are there tongues? They will be stilled. Is there knowledge? It will pass away! But love? It will never cease. It will never be stilled. It will never pass away. For three things last forever: faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is LOVE! That is my second point, that there is nothing greater than the love of God.

So what of my third point? We have considered that being in love is very beautiful; we have considered that there is nothing greater than the love of God. Let me draw out a third point from the story of the girl and the monk - and my point, is about the union of love. That film, Of Gods and Men takes an interesting turn when a group of militant Islamicists begin to kill all non-Muslims living in the country. This is a true story. Those monks really lived in North Africa in the 1990s and their lives were in serious danger. The film shows the fear of the monks when they realize they might be killed. It shows some thinking they want to leave but then how all the monks decide to stay. They cannot leave the people they love; their service to the people of the village, their presence among them is their calling. Their response to the greater love of God, leads them to loving service of their fellow villages; they cannot leave them. To turn back on them would be to turn away from those the God of love has called them to love. So we can see that their love of God is not in opposition to their love of people, it is in union, it is a union of love. It is a true story that those monks were killed by militant Islamicists. They became martyrs. They were killed for their faith, for their love of God. I urge you to watch the film. It is an inspiring story of faith. But it is important to remember this. We are not all called to be monks. We are not all called to be martyrs. Monks and nuns are a sign in the world of faithfulness to God – they are a sign for those who are not monks and nuns to live faithfully. They show us in a concentrated way what is possible in our everyday lives. And one of the things they show us that is that love of God is not in conflict with human love, it is in union, it is a union of love. Love is good; love flows from God. Ok, relationships can be destructive but true love, like that described in 1 Corinthians 13 is what God’s love is like. That love cannot be wrong. It cannot be against God to know that experience of being in love with another; it is in union with God. There is a lot of talk in the media currently about gay marriage with some saying it cannot be like straight marriage. How can it be otherwise? Love is love; there is no distinction. Love is not prejudiced! How sad that Archbishop Sentamu has said otherwise, but how wonderful that over 100 Church of England from the Diocese of London have signed that petition calling for civil partnerships within Church of England churches! They give me hope, for they know that whatever kind of love we are talking about, love cannot be in conflict with God but is in union. Our love for our lovers is a union of love with our love of God! I look forward to that day when I can stand in front or a couple, whether male and female, male and male or female and female, and proclaim at the start of a wedding ceremony:

God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.

End

St Saviour’s + Barnabas, Walthamstow
22nd January 2012

The Joy of Jesus/Wedding at Cana

The story is told of a pious old man who prayed five times a day while his business partner never set foot in church. On his 80th birthday the pious old man prayed thus:

“Oh Lord our God! Since my youth, not a day have I allowed to pass without coming to church in the morning and praying my prayers at four other times throughout the day. Not a single move, not one decision, important or trifling, did I make without first invoking your name. And now, in my old age, I have doubled my exercises of piety and pray to you ceaselessly, night and day. Yet here I am, poor as a church mouse. But look at my business partner. He is always out enjoying himself, drinking, attending parties, doing things I would never do, and yet he’s rolling in wealth. I wonder if a single prayer has ever crossed his lips. Now Lord, I do not ask that he should be punished for that would be unchristian. But please tell me. Why, why, why have you allowed him to prosper and why do you treat me like this?”

“Because,” God said in reply, “you are such a monumental bore!”

That story is told not so much to condone thus who live a godless, enjoyable life but to call into question those whose faith is lacking in joy. We are now in the second week of epiphany, a season when we continue to celebrate the gift God gave to the world in his son Jesus. As one famous song puts it “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth and heaven rejoice!”

Our gospel reading tells the story of the Wedding at Cana. The reason for hearing this story within the season of epiphany is because like the two other stories of epiphany - the Visit of the Kings and the Baptism of Jesus - the wedding at Cana tells us something about who Jesus is, about what kind of gift God has given the world at Christmas. The wedding is the scene of Jesus’ first miracle - the first indication that Jesus is not only king, not only a prophet, not only the Son of God, but God himself. Later Jesus will do things as dramatic as healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, calming storms, raising the dead, but even the more basic miracle at Cana, the miracle of changing water into wine is a sign that Jesus is God himself.

And yet the wedding at Cana reveals something else about Jesus, something that is easily brushed over with all the excitement of the miracle he performs. Yes, the miracle at the wedding reveals something about the divinity of Jesus, but Jesus’ mere presence at the wedding reveals something else, something about the humanity of Jesus. The word is made flesh at Christmas, God becomes human, and here at this wedding feast we are given an indication of what divine humanity looks like. This is not the only place in the gospels where we see Jesus enjoying himself, enjoying the company of others, enjoying food, enjoying wine. But the image of Jesus as a guest at wedding is a special one.

A first century Jewish wedding was a real joyous occasion, it was indeed a feast. We can imagine the guests laughing, singing, dancing, eating plenty of food, drinking plenty of wine. We know they drank plenty of wine at the wedding in Cana as the wine ran out. And where was Jesus amongst all this? At the clergy’s area study day recently the Bishop of Barking told how the wedding at Cana is his favourite story in the gospels. He also told of a meditation someone once conducted in which people were asked to imagine themselves at the wedding of Cana and then to imagine where Jesus was at the feast. One participant explained afterwards how he had pictured Jesus sitting in a corner with a frown, disapproving of every one else enjoying themselves.

But the scripture indicates that Jesus was enjoying himself at the wedding. He was a guest at this feast. He was there with his mother and disciples. And what is his response when the booze runs dry? At first a reluctance to use his power, a feeling that the time is not yet right, but then - a change of heart?, an abundance of generosity? perhaps the realisation that this was indeed a golden opportunity for his first miracle? - whatever the reason, Jesus’ response is to turn water into wine, not just a couple of bottles either, but six stone water jugs normally used for ritual washing - we know they were large jars, we know that was a lot of wine! And it wasn’t cheap stuff either, but good quality wine - wine that prompts the man in charge of the feast to confront the bridegroom about why he has left the best wine until last. Jesus made sure that the party was going to continue and no doubt get better for a good few hours more.

What makes the wedding at Cana so special is not only that it reveals the divinity of Jesus but that it reveals Jesus as a full human being, a human being who enjoyed himself, enjoyed the company of others, enjoyed the pleasures of life. This is the Jesus whose example we follow, not a bore but someone who was fun to be with. There’s a double edged challenge for us here - for we know that many of the things the world deems pleasurable can take us away from God, but we also know that if we show no joy in our lives then we will not convince others that Jesus really did bring joy to the world.
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In the principles of the Anglican Society of St Francis, the rule book of Franciscan brothers and sisters, joy is given as one of the three notes of the order and members of that order will regularly read the following words. They are words for those who commit their lives to the order but words that stand as good advice to anyone who commits his or her life to following our Lord:

“Brothers and sisters, rejoicing in the Lord always, must show forth in their lives the grace and beauty of divine joy. They must remember that they follow the Son of Man, who came eating and drinking, who loves the birds and the flowers, who blessed little children, who was the friend of publicans and sinners, who sat at the tables alike of the rich and the poor. They will. therefore, put aside all gloom and moroseness, all undue aloofness from the common interests of people and delight in laughter and good fellowship. They will rejoice in God’s world and all its beauty and its living creatures, calling nothing common or unclean. They will mingle freely with all kinds of people, seeking to banish sorrow and to bring good cheer into other lives. They will carry with them an inner secret of happiness and peace which all will feel, even if they may not know its source.”

Steven Saxby

St Saviour’s + Barnabas, Walthamstow
8th January 2012

God of new beginnings


This book normally sits on one of my bookshelves at home. It was written by Roger Sainsbury who used to be the Bishop of Barking and, as far as I am aware, it is the only book he authored. I have read it but I can’t remember too much of what it says. It is a slim book, a simply produced paperback and not very well known. But this this little book has a big impact on me because of its title, “God of New Beginnings”. That title often leaps out at me from the bookshelf, “God of New Beginnings” and I invite you to reflect with me on that title this morning.

God of New Beginnings – I suggest this is a great message for us to hear on this of the Feast of the Baptism of Christ. Our gospel reading this morning reminds us of that story of Jesus being baptised by John in the River Jordan. It’s a curious event. John is calling people to be baptised so that they may repent of their sins and turn again to God. Repent literally means turn around and it is good to remember that. To sin is to turn our back on God to choose other ways instead of his ways. So to repent is to turn around, to turn our backs on other ways and turn our faces back to God’s ways. But Jesus is without sin. He is described as one tempted as we are yet without sin. So what does it mean for Jesus to be baptised? What new beginning is represented by Jesus’ baptism? Let me return to this in a moment.

God of New Beginnings – I suggest this is a great message for us to hear in this season of Epiphany. The Epiphany is not just the visit of the magi to see the baby Jesus. What they see in that visit is what Jesus is – king of kings, son of God, God himself born among us. And what this whole season of Epiphany is about is the manifestation – for Epiphany means manifestation – the manifestation of Jesus’s identity, the unveiling, the revealing of who Jesus is. In the visit of the magi, in his baptism, in his calling of the disciples, in his first miracle at the wedding of Cana, all events we recall in these weeks of Epiphany, we see who Jesus really is – he is king of kings, he is the son of God, but supremely he is God himself, made manifest in human flesh. Jesus is not half human/half God, not 50/50, he is not God appearing to be human, he is fully human and fully divine. And that is why Jesus’ baptism represents a new beginning. God in Jesus, though without sin, knows all the emotions associated with human sin. He knows what it is to be tempted, he know what it is to feel abandoned by God, he knows the fear of being cut off from God, the coldness of turning one’s back to God’s ways, and in his baptism, Jesus fully identifies with all that we experience when we receive that fresh anointing of God’s spirit, when we turn to him again, when we realise again the depths of God’s love for us. There is nothing we can do to separate us from the love of God. Jesus’ baptism declares that new beginning, in rising from the waters of his own baptism, Jesus rises as we rise every time we experience God’s loving forgiveness towards us, and what God says of Jesus, he says of us all, ‘This is my child, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’.

God of New Beginnings – I have read this book is there is a great little story in it where Roger Sainsbury recalls his days as a priest in Canning Town. An angry publican whose wife had just left him approached the priest. He showed him the writ from the solicitors setting out the reasons his wife was seeking divorce: physical assault, smashing up the furniture, non-payment of bills, etc. He then said, “I don’t know what they are talking about, I have never done anything wrong in my life.” The priest thought there was no use asking him to repent there and then for his wrongs so he scribbled on a piece of paper, “if we confess our sins… he will forgive”. The publican screwed up the paper, muttering something about religious rubbish, but he then started attending the church and one day, took out the paper, showed it to the priest and said, “I believe it, I have confessed and I feel forgiven”. You can imagine God saying, “This is my child, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Well chuffed!

God of New Beginnings – what God offered the publican, he offers every one of us. We may sometimes be like him, feeling we have done nothing wrong. We are all capable of self-deception, of hiding from ourselves, things about ourselves we would rather not see. But none of us is perfect, none of us is without sin. We cannot avoid, living in this world, being pulled away from God, being pulled in the other direction, turning our face away from him. That is why we repent of our sins at the beginning of every mass, we need to turn again to him again as we prepare to meet him in Word and Sacrament. And then some of us may have the opposite tendency of feeling at times that we are so unworthy of God, that we have sinned so badly, that we are afraid to turn back to him, afraid to look into his face, to see there the truth that he sees, the truth about the wrongs we have committed. “Lord, I am not worthy” we may cry – but God is a God of New Beginnings – he offers us every day, the opportunity to turn back to him, to receive his loving mercy. We are not worthy, but God loves us and forgives us. He loves us before we repent and therefore we can be confident of his forgiveness. That is why we can say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” That is why we have the audacity to turn back to God, not because we deserve it, but because he wants it, he wills it.

God of New Beginnings – this is a great message for the New Year. I am sure I am not the only one here who has in mind new resolutions, new plans and aspirations for 2012. But the message that God is a God of new Beginnings is not just one for us to begin with at the start of a new year. It is one for us to begin with every day of our lives. God offers us his forgiveness every day, there is nothing we can do to separate us from the love of God. He invites us every day to be restored to him, to rise as Jesus rose from the waters of repentance so that God may utter those words, “This is my child, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”.

End


St Saviour’s + Barnabas, Walthamstow
25th September 2011

Choices

What do you choose? That is the question I invite you to ponder with me this morning. What do you choose?

We are all familiar with making choices aren’t we? I expect no day goes by without us having to make some kind of choice, of having to choose one thing over the other. Every morning I face a very important choice when I enter the kitchen for breakfast – “do I choose toast or cereal?” We make all sorts of choices throughout each day. I guess many of us have been presented with a selection box of delicious chocolates and have uttered the words “choices, choices”. Maybe it doesn’t matter very much what we choose for breakfast, which chocolate we choose or whether we choose to watch X Factor or Strictly, but some choices matter – sometimes our whole future hangs on a choice; some choices are life changing. What do you choose? What life changing decisions have you made?

There is a radio programme called The Choice. Each week someone is interviewed about a life-changing decision they made at some point in their lives. Examples of past interviews have been with a soldier who went absent without leave, with a woman who donated a kidney to a stranger, with a gypsy boy who ran away from his family. None of these were easy choices. The last, Mike Walsh, has written a book about his choice called Gypsy Boy, one of the books I read by the pool when I was on holiday. In it he describes his love for his family but his need to get away from some family members for his own protection. He knew leaving his community would hurt others but that staying would hurt him. He chose to run away. He made a life-changing choice.

Today’s gospel reading gives us the story of a choice made by two brothers. Jesus tells the story of a father asking his two sons to do something for him. One says he will not do it but then goes away and does it; the other says he will do it but then goes away and doesn’t do it. Jesus then asks his hearers the question, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” And they reply? “the first.” Both made a choice. The second chose not to do what he said he would do; the first chose to do what he said he wouldn’t do. Jesus point is that the first one saw the need to repent of his actions. He had done wrong in refusing to agree to do what his father asked him. He recognised his failing and he then did the deed he had been asked to do. He is a good example of the saying. “Actions speak louder than words”. But it is more than that, it is an example of someone making a choice to turn from a wrong decision and make a right decision.

Let me share with you a choice I made recently. Not so very long ago, I had a meeting here with some of my clergy colleagues within the Deanery. After the meeting one of my colleagues said something to which I took offence. I objected to the comments but my colleague repeated them. I believe I was right to take offence at the remarks. They were repeated again and then something else happened: I lost my temper. For a week or so I reflected on this experience. I do not like the feeling of not being at peace with someone. I asked myself if I should apologise. No, I said – the other person was in the wrong. I was still uneasy. I asked a couple of other people, “Should I apologise?” “No”, they said, “That person should apologise to you!” I was still uneasy. What happened next is that I laid the issue before God in my prayers. A little while afterwards, I wrote to my colleague and apologised for losing my temper. When we next met, we were restored to our normal relationship and I felt liberated from the burden I had felt previously. This may not strike you as a life changing experience but in a way it was. For to live with the burden of broken relationships is not to live as God intends us to live. To live with broken relationships is not the way of life that God invites us to choose and which God himself chose by choosing to offer his own life for us on the cross. He died so that sin would be defeated, so that broken relationships could be restored, so that we can be set free from the burdens of sin.

Ezekiel puts the issue plainly to the Israelites in our first reading today. Each and every person has a choice. It is not true, as the saying he mentions goes, that ‘The Fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge’, i.e. that children inherit their parents’ sin. No, every soul belongs to God and every person can turn to him individually, free from the burdens of the past and be restored to new life with God. Ezekiel makes it plain that every person faces a choice, to choose sin and die or to choose repentance and live – “turn from your wickedness and live he says”. Paul in the reading we heard from Philippians also talks about making choices. We can choose to serve our own interests or we can choose to look to the interests of others. And encouragingly, Paul says that it is not only we who make this choice, but that God is at work in us, helping us, encouraging us to choose what is pleasing to God. “God is at work in you,” he says, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure”.

That is my experience that God does these things; that I make choices, like my choice to apologise to my colleague, that are willed by God, that are against my own selfish interest and are for his good pleasure. I trust that many of you here have experienced that too. When we lay things before God he gives us solutions we would not have imagined for ourselves but which work for his good pleasure. What to you choose? Or rather, should I say, “Who do you choose?” for choosing to follow God’s ways is really choosing to pattern our lives after the life of Jesus Christ. He shows us the way by the way he lived his life. I love the way this is expressed in gospel song, “I’ve decided to make Jesus my choice”. ‘Some folk would rather have houses and land; some folk choose silver and gold. These things they treasure and forget about their soul. I’ve decided to make Jesus my choice. The road is rough, the going gets tough and the hills are hard to climb. I’ve started out, a long time ago, there’s no doubt in my mind. I’ve decided to make Jesus my choice.”

Today the family of Dean/Nicole are bringing him/her for baptism. They have made a choice. They may not be clear in their own minds about why they have chosen baptism. I trust that God has been at work in them to bring Dean/Nicole to this day. But they are making a choice. They are choosing to give their child a new life! To commit their child to living by the ways of God, to reject all that leads to death and by choosing that which leads to life – new life in Christ! And they are choosing Jesus, choosing for their child to live a life patterned after that of Jesus, not least a life marked by the qualities of repentance, love and peace. They have decided to make Jesus their choice for their child.

This baptism today is a great reminder to all of us of the choices we are faced with every day, the everyday life-changing choices to pattern our lives after the life of Christ. So I hope we will leave her today more clear about the answers to those questions. What do you choose? I choose life! Who do you choose? I have decided to make Jesus my choice!

End

Sunday 31st July 2011
St Saviour’s + St Barnabas, Walthamstow,
Matt 14: 13-21

"As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick.”

It must have been a pretty overwhelming experience for Jesus. Matthew’s gospel tells us how Jesus was constantly being approached by people of every kind of disease and sickness. If we go back a few chapters in Matthew, we find that Jesus - in a very short period of time - is approached by all sorts of suffering people. First, a leper; then a centurion, asking Jesus to heal his paralysed servant; then Peter's mother, in bed with a fever; two demoniacs confront Jesus; another paralysed man is brought to him; a synagogue leader asks Jesus to come to his daughter who's just died; a woman with haemorrhages touches Jesus; two blind men come to him; then another demoniac and so on. All the time Jesus heals those in need as news about his powers spreads throughout the district and we learn that Jesus is confronted with crowds of people of every disease and every sickness. He must have been overwhelmed. It’s not surprising then that Jesus tries to get away. We read in today’s passage that he withdrew in a boat to a lonely place. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him such that when he got off the boat, arriving at the place where he had hoped to find some peace, he saw before him a great throng of people. Later we are told that there were over five thousand people present, that is five thousand men plus women and children: an overwhelming experience.

And it can be pretty overwhelming for us. So often we are presented, as we go about our daily lives, with those in need. We may visit a friend who’s having a bad time, pass by a homeless person in the street, receive a call that a relative is in hospital, sit down at the end of an exhausting day to be presented on the news with so many stories of suffering in this country and around the world – the suffering in the Horn of Africa, the massacre in Norway, continuing violence in Afghanistan, stabbings and shootings in our own Borough here in Waltham Forest. There is so much suffering around us and within our world, that we too can be easily overwhelmed. Indeed we so see many images on our screens of people in need and receive so many requests for help that I'm sure we all, at times, do feel overwhelmed by so much suffering and, if we're honest, sometimes shut our ears and eyes to those who cry out for help. Jesus’ compassion seems endless. When he gets off the boat and see thousands of people, his response is not to get back in and try to find another lonely place; rather we learn that he had compassion on the crown and healed their sick. Jesus’ compassion seems endless we often suffer from what is sometimes called "compassion fatigue", we switch off, overwhelmed by so much suffering.

What encouragement then can we take from today’s gospel reading, from the example of Jesus’ compassion and from his response to the great crowd having nothing to eat, namely his feeding of the five thousand?

Well, there are two things that stand out for me from the gospel reading today.

The first is that, with God, a little can go a long way. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand plus people is found in all four gospel accounts, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In each account we have the information that Jesus fed the crowd with five loaves and two fish. Now, I was taught that food shared goes further but it is obvious that five loaves and two fish will not go far among over five thousand people. Jesus performs a miracle in multiplying the five loaves and two fish so that there was not only enough but twelve baskets left over! Jesus is God in human form remember. God has made the heavens and earth out of nothing, he had fed the Israelites in the desert with bread from heaven, so to multiply five loaves and two fish for over five thousand people is pretty easy in comparison. But in this case, Jesus does not create the food from nothing; he creates it from the five loaves and two fish. In John’s gospel, we are told that it was a boy who offered his five loaves and two fish and I love the faith of that boy. Here is a child who offers his small offering of five loaves and two fish in the faith that Jesus can do something with it to feed the crowd. Rather than be overwhelmed by the task, rather than take his own food away to eat privately, the boy has faith that Jesus can make something of it, can put it to good use to respond to the overwhelming needs in front of them. And I suggest that is one thing we can take from today’s gospel reading, that just as a little food was used to do great things, so whatever response we can make, whatever small deed of kindness we can do in response to suffering, is a contribution worth making, is a little response from us, but one God can use for great things.

And the second thing I take from today’s gospel is that the response we make with God in response to suffering is not one we make alone. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand plus has parallels with other parts of the Bible. We can see in one way that it looks back to the experience of the Israelites in the desert, when they were fed with manna from heaven. In that sense it speaks of the benefits of us trusting that God will provide for those in need. But the miracle of the five thousand plus also points forward to another part of scripture. Note what Jesus does with the five loaves and two fish. We are told that he took the loaves and fish, looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, then gave them to the disciples to share with the crowds. Taking, blessing, breaking, giving – these are the actions, are they not, of Jesus at the last supper, at the first Eucharist. These are the actions that form the structure of the meal the church is to repeat every time in meets in memory of Jesus, the actions we repeat here every week when we share in the Eucharist together. In other words, Jesus encourages the response to suffering to be the response of the church. On our own, our response to suffering seems overwhelming, our ability to make a difference so insignificant, but as part of the church, as part of that body of people throughout the world who work together and stand together in response to suffering our impact can be great indeed.


My parish where I was born in Plaistow was, a few years ago, renamed the Parish of the Divine Compassion and it celebrates its patronal feast when others remember the feast of the sacred heart of Jesus. What better image for a parish named the Divine Compassion than the image of Jesus' own heart, a heart that never ceases to feel compassion? As we seek to respond to suffering in our lives, our communities, our world, let us remember that however small our response it is significant and that as the church we can make a difference, that we can truly emulate the sacred heart of Jesus as we respond in compassion to the needs we encounter.


Steven Saxby, July 2011
17th July 2011, 11am

St Saviour (9am) St Barnabas (11am), 17th July 2011, 11am
Weeds – Matthew 13


In our gospel reading today, Jesus shares the parable of the weeds, then goes on to explain its meaning to his disciples. I invite you this morning to reflect with me on the meaning of that parable for us. To help us, I am going to share something about my own ministry as an Anglican priest and some suggestions for our ministry together as the Church of England in this part of Walthamstow.

In the parable, a man sows some seeds but while he is sleeping his enemy comes along and sows some weeds among the seeds. When the man’s servants discover that weeds are growing among the seeds, they report to their master and suggest that they pull up the weeds. This clearly seems like the obvious thing to do. But the master tells them to leave the weeds less, in pulling them up, they should pull out some of the wheat of the good seed at the same time. When Jesus explains the parable, he says that seeds are the children of the kingdom and the weeds the children of the evil one. These are in the world together and it will be for God at the last judgement to sort out the wheat from the weeds, therefore the wheat is to remain there growing among the weeds.

This parable clearly has some implications for us as a church. If the church is the wheat it cannot avoid growing alongside the weeds of the world. We may be tempted to cut ourselves off, so as to avoid being alongside the weeds. Indeed there are some Christians who do cut themselves off, who try to have as little contact as possible with the world around them. But the parable encourages us to remain in the world, to be among those who are different from ourselves, to live our Christian vocation alongside rather than apart from others, and to trust that God will take care, in the last days, of separating out that which is good from that which is bad.

I want to suggest this morning that this model of being the church, a church active within the world, is the model of being the church normally practiced by the Anglican Church of England (even if that has not been so evident here at St Saviour’s in recent years). The Church of England has traditionally sought to be present and active within the world, not least through its activities in the local parish. It has a model of ministry active with the world, not cut-off from it. This is the model of ministry with which I have grown-up and which determines the way in which I exercise my ministry as a priest. And I suggest that it is a model of engagement with the world which is critical for our congregation here and what it means for us to call ourselves an Anglican Parish Church.

My own experience of coming to faith was through coming into contact with the Church of England being active within my local community. I attended a school in which the local Vicar would take assemblies and I became interested in this Vicar and what he and the rest of his congregation were doing in the community. They were involved in supporting vulnerable people in care homes. They were active in providing activities for children and young people. They were responding to local issues such as homelessness and were also concerned and vocal about national and international issues, not least the UKs support for developing countries, at a time, like now, where many people in the world were dying through starvation. And as a young person, whose parents did not go to church, I was very drawn to this community of people and came to share in their life through attending my local church. I soon learnt that these people were motivated to care for each other and for the world around them because they understood that God loved them, that God showed his love for them, not least through the life and death of his Son, Jesus and therefore that Jesus’ example was one to follow. And I soon learned to accept that God loved me, to begin to follow Jesus’ example myself and to realise that I was being helped to do so by the Holy Spirit. Through all of this, my involvement with the Church was never about cutting myself off from the world. On the contrary, the Church provided a means for me to be more fully engaged with the world and this experience, of a fairly typical Church of England parish, inspired me to become a priest and that model of engagement with the world is critical to how my ministry as a priest is exercised today.

What it means in practice today is that I see my role as a parish priest as something like a chaplain – one present to respond to spiritual and other human needs - not just to the congregation of the church, but to the whole community the parish is designed to serve. For the Church of England operates a parish system. Every spot of land within England falls within a particular parish. Traditionally the boundaries of each parish were marked by the parishioners on Rogation Sunday, which falls in May or June each year, in a ceremony called the Beating of the Bounds. This ceremony served as a reminder to the congregation of the geographical area for which their church was responsible. It is a great sadness that this ceremony has become less and less popular within the Church of England and I am very keen that we should revive it here for next Rogation Sunday to remind us of the boundaries of this parish.

The parish system ensures that every piece of land is within a particular parish and hence that everyone belongs to a Church of England parish and that every home and institution within a parish is part of that parish’s concern. The parish system affords those living in a parish certain rights, for example to be baptised and married in their parish church and, where applicable, to be buried in its churchyard. But the system also imposes certain obligations on the church community, not least to pray for all those who live and work in the parish.

This system, this parish system of the Church of England, also affords many opportunities. If the priest and people are attentive to the community, to what is going on within the area, to how the church might be involved, to how the church might seek to help address the needs and celebrate the joys of its local parish, then opportunities to enhance the life of the church will follow. It a tremendous privilege, for example, for a group from the church to enter into a residential care home at Christmas and bring the joy of the season to those who are often distressed, suffering and isolated. It a wonderful experience to welcome school children into a church, not just from church schools, but from schools in the community where many children will never have entered a church before and to see on such visits how children are attentive to and amazed at the stories of Jesus. It is great to welcome people from the community for baptism and marriage when they wish God to present and to bless key moments in their lives. And, of course, it is a huge privilege to stand alongside the bereaved at times of loss and to offer the church’s ministry of prayer and care at times of loss, not least through the church’s provision of funeral and memorial services. This is the Church of England being active within its community and from it flows other opportunities to work with local agencies on tackling local problems, hence my engagement locally with the police and others through the Markhouse Safer Neighbourhood Team and our engagement at St Barnabas in the work of London Citizens, where we work alongside other churches, other faith organisations and other community groups on issues of concern to all people living in London.

All of these activities within and with the community do not detract from our mission as a church, they fulfill and enhance our mission as a church. It is through these activities that people very often come themselves to be part of the life of the church, as was the case for me and I guess for many of you here. But the Church of England does not engage with the world because it sees the world as a means getting more people to attend church, even though that happens. It is rather because the Church of England is responsive to God’s call to be present in the world, to be the wheat among the weeds. Our challenge here is to constantly ask ourselves, how are we fulfilling that mission and that call of God to be present in the world around us.

SS/17/07/2011


St Barnabas, Walthamstow, 10th July 2011, 11am

Soil – Matthew 13


I am so happy to be here at St Barnabas this morning, my first Sunday back after my three months of sabbatical leave. I am so happy to see all of you here: members of the congregation whom I have missed so much during my time away; members of my family whom with whom I am once again worshipping, here in our home church; visitors here today, including our dear friends from Italy who are staying with us in the Vicarage this week. I am so happy. My Italian friends asked if there would be subtitles with this sermon and so … (io sono contento)!

And my message to us all this morning is (siete fango) … which means, I hope, “you are mud”! Some of you are looking puzzled, not least because mud is sometimes used as a negative word in English. But mud is not always negative; many of us will know the song “mud, mud, glorious mud” and my message is that you are glorious mud (siete fango glorioso). For mud can be just another way of saying “soil”. “You are soil” (siete suolo). And why are you mud, why are we soil? Because that is to what Jesus compares us in today’s gospel: “As for what is sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it.” Oh sorry, (I sottotitoli hanno smesso di funzionare) – the subtitles have stopped working!

You are mud; you are soil; you have heard the word and understood it. Is that not why you are here? At some point in your your life, you have heard the word of God and you are still here; you are still engaged with God; you have kept the faith.

Jesus tells a parable, a story, with a hidden meaning. On this occasion, Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the meaning of his parable of the sower. He explains. The seed along the path is like one who hears the word but does not understand it and is corrupted instead by evil things. The seed on rocky ground hears the word with joy but does not really understand that it will carry the believer through troubles, and so falls away when troubles come along. The seed among thorns hears the word but cannot relate it to the rest of life and so does not bear fruit because it is too preoccupied with money and other cares of the world. But you are like the seed in good soil, and Jesus refers to the soil itself, as the one who hears the word and understands it and because he understands it, and because, over time, this seed stays with God, this is a soil where evil is resisted, where troubles are endured, where God rather than money or other cares of the world is primary; this seed in this soil bears fruit and yields, a hundredfold, sixty, thirty - produces in whatever measure, a good crop.

Now, let me ask you are question - or really a few related questions? How did you receive the word of God? What influenced you? Who influenced you? How did you fall in love with God? I ask these questions because it is easy for us, over time, to take our faith for granted. It is easy to get used to our religious habits, to get into a pattern, for our faith to become kind of ordinary and to forget that somehow, somewhere at some point in our lives, gradually or sometimes in an instance, we fell in love with God. And I suggest it is important for us to remind ourselves that our faith stems from that love affair and that the love we have for God, because we understand his love for us, is what motivates us to share God’s love with others – it is what makes us good soil that produces a good crop – helps us bring others to share in that love also.

It is important for all of us to be reminded of the source of our faith and I suggest it is particularly important for priests because it is easy for priests and others who, as it were, “work” for the church to become “professional Christians”. That is why in this Diocese the clergy are encouraged to take a three month sabbatical every ten years, so that we can be refreshed and reminded if you like, that before we are religious professionals, we are ordinary Christians – people who began a love affair with God and need to sustain that love affair if we are to encourage others to fall in love and stay in love with God too.

Sabbatical leave is not all Sabbath. It is not all rest and retreat. The Church of England is not immune from the Protestant Work Ethic and so in order to have a sabbatical we need to convince the Diocese that we will undertake some study or professional development which will enhance our ministry. That is one of the reasons I went to the Philippines and you can read all about that in May’s parish magazine but my sabbatical included a lot of rest and it included many opportunities to remind myself of the routes of my faith, of the origins of my spiritual journey, of when I fell in love with God and how I have stayed in love with God over the years. So it was a great experience for me to go to different churches on Sundays, to sit in the pew, to remind myself of what it was like for me in the days before I became a priest to worship as an ordinary member of the congregation. It was refreshing for me to visit Plaistow a couple of times, to pray there in the Franciscan house which is in the street where I was born, and where I spent a year living and praying with the brothers before I was ordained. It was super to go again on the walking pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, an experience which has always been a time of spiritual refreshment for me. And in recent days, it has been super to be with Italian friends, friends I met twenty years ago in Taize, an amazing place of prayer, and another place where my love affair with God was refreshed and renewed. Also, to be reminded of the place where Nico, Fabiola, Mimi and Vito live in, the very south of Italy in the beautiful city of Bari which I have visited and experienced there the wonderful spirituality of that place, not least in their church community of Santa Scholastica. And it is fabulous to be back here in this church, a place where I truly meet with God and where I feel empowered, as I trust you all do, to go from here sharing his love with others.

So my sabbatical has refreshed me, not least by reminding me of important times in my life when I have renewed my love affair with God. So, what about you? When did you receive the word of God? Where have you felt spiritual refreshment? How does this church help you to share God’s love with others? One of the most important aspects of my sabbatical was giving me an insight into some of the places where the spiritual journeys of some of you here began. I was so glad to be in the Philippines and visit the places which were only names for me before – Baguio City, Sagada, Besao, Bontoc – places which I have now visited and shared in the worship, have been given some glimpse into the places where many of you began your love affairs with God. And the same was true of my time in Barbados as I visited Vernese’s home church of St Phillip the Less, the church of St Barnabas which Ken and Vernese worship when they return to Bardados and when I made my pilgrimage to Bank Hall in St Michaels, down Hillagon Rd to find the Bethaline New Testament Pentecostal Church, the church Elaine Bayley attended as a child. I stood there in the deserted street, just as the rain started to pour down, and I prayed, “Thank you Jesus for this church, for if it were not for this church where Elaine came to faith, she would not be sharing her faith with us at some St Barnabas today. This was where she came to faith; this is where she fell in love with you; this is where she learnt how much you love her; this is the mud in which the seed of your word grew and has produced good fruit; thank you Jesus!”

What of you? Where did your love affair with God begin and when, where and how have you sustained your faith? Whatever your answer, I thank God that you are here today. The fact you are here, shows you have a story, shows you know that God loves you and shows you have the capacity to share that love with others. You are mud; you are soil; and thanks be to God that he is at work in you to produce a hundredfold, sixty, thirty or, in whatever measure, a good crop from the fruits of your love! SS/10/07/2011


Sunday 9th January 2011, St Barnabas, Walthamstow, Baptism of Christ
Gospel: Psalm 29; Matt 3: 13-17

Imagine yourself as a person who came to church for the first time just before Christmas. As such you would have followed the stories leading up to and surrounding the birth of Jesus: the visit of the angel to Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the stable, the visit of the shepherds. Imagine you were so interested in the story of Jesus’ birth that you came for a second time last week and learnt more about the story, hearing with the rest of us the story of the visitors from the East. And then imagine you came again this week, still interested in this baby, to discover the topic is the baptism of Jesus. If you weren’t familiar with the gospel story we heard earlier, you might expect the story to be about Jesus being baptised as a child, only to discover the telling of the story of Jesus in church week by week has suddenly jumped from the stories about the baby Jesus to stories about a grown man. You might find this a little confusing, to say the least. But imagine further that you kept coming, that next week you were to hear about Jesus calling his disciples and the following week about Jesus’ first miracle. You might then think, fine, we’re certainly on to the stories about Jesus as a grown up. And then imagine you were to come again the following week on 2nd February and discover that the story was again one of Jesus as an infant, of his presentation in the Temple. If you were such a person, I wonder then if you wouldn’t be utterly confused!

Indeed, even those of us who are not new to church might find ourselves a bit muddled, asking “Why does the church tell the story of Jesus in this way? Why do we find today’s story of Jesus’ baptism, followed by the story of the calling of the disciples and then by the wedding at Cana, all essentially sandwiched between the stories associated with Jesus as a baby?” The answer, of course, is that all of the stories that we consider in this season of Epiphany have something to do with the gradual unfolding of the significance of the birth of the baby in Bethlehem. Epiphany isn’t just about the visitors from the East, it is a whole season of reflection on what Jesus’ birth means, on why it is significant, on what difference is makes not only to us but to the whole world.

That explains why our psalm talks of God’s creation and why we often here the creation story in our readings at this time of year. As we continue to ponder the significance of the birth of Jesus, a new beginning for the world, we are taken back to the very beginning - “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” And we are reminded that the new beginning that the birth of Jesus brings to our world, echoes the creation of the world itself: “God said “Let there be light, and there was light”. The beginning of John’s gospel makes this link even more explicit: he starts “In the beginning was the Word” and continues by stating “that in him was life, life that was the light of humankind”. But the introduction to John’s gospel embraces the same story with which Matthew tells today, the story of Jesus’ baptism - a story which confirms for us the reality of that new beginning, that fresh start for humankind, brought about by the birth of Jesus.

Our gospel today tells us the familiar story of Jesus’ baptism - there's John's recognition of Jesus, the discussion between the two cousins about whom should baptize whom, the baptism itself, the opening of the clouds, the descent of the dove, and the voice of God.

I’m a great fan of Peiro della Francesca’s painting depicting the baptism of Jesus. Others have pointed out that, as a whole, the painting is serene in tone. The only onlookers are the three angels who look not a little perplexed as to what is going on. The dove floats above calm and silent, the river Jordan is no more than a pool of water before the feet of Jesus and John. The main drama and movement in the painting is in the water trickling over Jesus' head, gently falling from the bowl used by John. It’s a great painting, well worth the trip to Trafalgar Square just to take a look at it in the National Gallery. But the same scene has been portrayed much more dramatically than the painting. At least one film has great storm accompany the opening of the clouds, as God's voice thunders through throwing dazzling light on Jesus and proclaiming "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

The baptism of Jesus takes place immediately before he is led into the wilderness. Jesus memories of his baptism were very fresh during his period of testing and one can imagine that he gained a great deal of strength though looking back upon that experience. I'm sure we can point to significant moments in our own faith journey, perhaps our own baptism or confirmation, perhaps other events in our faith journey. Like the scene of Jesus' baptism, these moments might have appeared calm and serene or they might have appeared incredibly dramatic. But however they appeared, remembering such moments can be a great source of comfort and help to us when our faith is being tested.

And once again, it is not accidental that the story of Jesus baptism, a story which inevitably points us to our own commitment, to our times of testing, to our times of sorrow and joy, is set alongside those cosmic themes of darkness and light mentioned in that the Psalms and Genesis. What is it that God creates? “the heaven and the earth”. God creates everything and again as John puts it again “through him all things came into being and not one thing came into being except through him”. It is worth pointing out that this is not the story that everyone tells about the world, many at the time these words were first written down, as today, believed that the world is a in constant struggle between two creative forces, the separate forces of dark and light. Watch Star Wars again for a modern and popular version of this dualistic thinking. But the Christian story is that every thing is created by God. This in itself may not seem like good news, but the point is that God shapes his creation, he separates the light from the darkness and to quote John again “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it”. In other words, darkness is a given in God’s creation, but it is also determined by God that the darkness will not overcome the light. In the context of all our personal sorrows and the many tragedies of our world, even in what sometimes seems the hopelessness of many situations - of the threat of war, of environmental disaster, of the missing child, of a chronically ill friend or relative - darkness is never the last word.

And what does God do for us weak, sinful creatures who are too stupid to grasp this basic fact of his creation? He sends us his son – he himself is born as one of us, he himself stoops to our level, he who is without sin even identifies with us to the point of being baptised as a sign of washing away his sins – no wonder then that the voice thunders from the clouds, that God literally tears apart the skies, burst through to announce “you are my son, the beloved, with who I am well pleased.”

Still a bit confused? I hope so. For however clearly God has spoken to our world, however clearly he’s shown us that we are not to give in to the darkness with which we so often align ourselves, however, brightly the light of Jesus is shining in the darkness, it is still a fact so wonderful, so amazing, so loving of God, that it is almost impossible for us to understand. That is why we probably should all be a bit perplexed by the way the church inserts today’s story and others between the stories of Jesus as a baby. Perhaps we should all be a bit like those angels in the painting, standing by, looking on, and looking quite confused as we continue this Epiphany to ponder the significance, the wonder, the power, the joy, the miracle, the good news of the birth in Bethlehem.

Steven Saxby – 9th January 2011.

Sunday 26th December 2010 - St Stephen's Day

This morning, I invite you to explore with me the subject of our feast, namely Stephen. This is not a practical exercise so I will not be asking you to throw stones at me when I have finished speaking but it is an opportunity to take a closer look at Stephen and his relevance for our Christian lives. We know him in the life of the church as St Stephen, Deacon and Martyr. His feast day is today, the 26th December, Boxing Day, so it may not be surprising if you’ve never heard a sermon reflecting upon St Stephen. So who was he and what is his relevance for us today? There are two major aspects to his significance for us, identified by those two words “deacon” and “martyr” so it will be useful to consider his two roles in turn.

Stephen comes to prominence within the life of the early church in events which scholars suggest took place within a year of Jesus’ death. We learn about him through St Luke’s sequel to his account of Jesus’ life, the New Testament book known as the Acts of the Apostles. This book makes brilliant reading as it recounts the inspirational stories of the first Christians, not least of Stephen. The first Christians lived as a community, sharing their possessions and look after the vulnerable among them. But a dispute arose when the Greek Christians accused the Jewish Christian of overlooking their widows when the daily food was distributed. The apostles, led by St Paul, recognize that supervision of the provisions is necessary but do not want to be distracted from their ministry of preaching and healing. So it is that they appoint 7 “deacons”, literally “servants” to supervise the care of the vulnerable and other practical matters. Chief of these is Stephen, described by some throughout history as an Archdeacon.

The office of deacon remains one of the historic orders within the Church of England: deacon, priest, bishop. Sadly, however, the role of the deacon is rarely understood. All priests normally spend a year as a deacon before ordination to the priesthood and too often the deacon year serves no more than as a year of waiting to be ordained priest. There are a few, too few, in the Church of England who regard themselves as permanent deacons, a role that is better defined in some other churches, including some Anglican churches overseas. The permanent deacon, where such exist, has a clear responsibility to care for the vulnerable. I remember spending time with a parish in San Francisco and Larry, the permanent deacon there, taking me to the homeless shelter where he would lead Bible study. I was fortunate myself to have longer time as deacon and was able to engage thoroughly in diaconal ministry through helping in the nightshelter, working with refugees and leading work on two advice centres in the heart of areas of high economic deprivation.
But every priest remains a deacon and should remain committed to the role of the deacon as it is set out at his or her ordination. Here is what is read out by the Bishop when a deacon is ordained:

Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.

Now it ought to be obvious that deacons represent a ministry which is shared by the whole people of God. In some ways the role of deacon is similar to that of Lay Reader or Church army Evangelist but also of the way we all seek to make God’s love visible within our communities and seek to bring the needs of our communities into the life of the church. The liturgy of the Eucharist has a special role for the deacon. It is hard for us to appreciate this in a church without a deacon but our Readers and sometimes our priests when there is more than one of us will fulfill the liturgical functions of the deacon which are to introduce the confession, read the gospel, invite the congregation to share the peace, receive the offertory and give the dismissal at the end of the service. In other words, these are all functions which seek to connect the liturgy with the people and the people with the liturgy, to emphasis the bringing of the communities’ needs and the role of the church to serve the community – go in peace, says the deacon, to love and serve the Lord and behind all of these lies the inspiration of the very first deacon, St Stephen.

But Stephen, was more than the first Christian deacon, he is also remembered as the first Christian martyr. It is clear from the start that Stephen is special. He is described as a man full of the Holy Spirit and eminently suitable as the leader of the first seven deacons. However, he clearly transcends the role of deacon and becomes known for performing great wonders and signs among the people. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, he is a brilliant public speaker, something tested in public debate with leaders of various synagogues and something evident in the speech which leads to his death. This is speech is laid out in Acts where he hear Stephen recount the history of the Jewish people and indicate that there have always been Jews who have rejected God’s word and persecuted its prophets. He speaks out with such courage to the leaders of Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, with such conviction that they have rejected Jesus as the Messiah, that they are stirred up into a rage and drag Stephen out of the city to have him stoned to death. In all of this we are told that Stephen’s face shone like an angel and that his last words, echoing those of Jesus on the cross, are words of forgiveness for those who have put him to death.

Stephen as deacon is a role model for us all as we seek to bring the community’s needs to the life of our church and seek to serve the community as the church. But what sort of role model is Stephen as martyr? Stephen is the first Christian martyr and he stands at the head of that great cloud of witnesses through the ages, the white robed army of martyrs in heaven, who have died for confessing their faith. Martyrdom is an extreme measure for extreme times. Few are called to be martyrs but at times of persecution throughout history and even now in certain parts of our world, martyrs arise as a response to extreme circumstances. Above the west door of Westminster Abbey, there are now 10 statues of 20th-century martyrs from various parts of the world, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer - murdered by the Nazis, Martin Luther King – the assassinated for his advocacy of civil rights for black people in America, Óscar Romero – the Bishop in El Salvador, shot for his speaking out for the poor and Wang Zhiming – a Christian killed in the cultural revolution..

It is hard to imagine any of us being placed in such extreme circumstances as Stephen or these 20th century martyrs but each of us does have a responsibility to stand up for our faith and to stand up for those who are oppressed and vulnerable. In this way Stephen the Deacon in his care for the poor, leads us naturally into a concern for social justice, sometimes demanding that we speak out for what is right even if what we have to say is unpopular and even if it leads us to be dismissed and derived by others. In small ways we may well find that we die a bit to self in standing up for others and is a small way we are able to emulate Stephen, not only the first among the deacons but also first among the martyrs of the Church and an inspirational example as we seek to live out our faith in today’s church and world.

Steven Saxby - December 2010.

Sunday 17th Oct 2010
St Barnabas, E17.

Justice“Now will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night?”

I invite you to reflect with me this morning on the topic of justice. Justice is at the heart of our gospel reading today. Jesus tells a story about a widow seeking justice from an unjust judge. Because the widow pesters the judge he eventually grants her the justice she deserves. Afterwards Jesus says “will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night”? And then, “I promise you, he will see justice done to them and done speedily.” But the beginning of our gospel reading tells us that the main subject of the passage is not justice but prayer. Luke writes, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart”. The implication is that just as the widow did not lose heart, neither should we. It is not that we need to pester God with our prayers, for God is not unjust like the God in the story, it is rather that we should persevere like the widow, continually making our prayers to God just as she perseveres in making her plea to the unjust judge.

I could say a lot more about the need to persist in prayer and, of course, we have a fabulous example of persistent prayer in the story of those Chilean miners, whom throughout their ordeal, underground for weeks and weeks, persisted in faith and were diligent in their prayers. Thanks be to God not only for their release but for their faithful witness throughout their time of suffering and anxiety. Let the people say Amen! Amen!!

I could say a lot more about the need to persist in prayer but I have preached on that topic fairly recently and fairly regularly so I want to shift to that other topic, the thing the widow pleaded for, the thing Jesus urges us to pray for, the thing God seeks to grant to his people and that is – justice.

Justice, of course, is something we mostly associate with crime. In government we have a Secretary of State for Justice (doing half of what used to be done by the Home Secretary) and that person, Ken Clark’s, responsibilities are largely to do with what we call “the criminal justice system” and concerns about how to prevent and how to punish crime. It is these concerns we mostly associate with the word justice.

I stand before you as a victim of crime. It is true. Since I have been living in Walthamstow I have had about 6 bicycles stolen, 2 from my garage right here next to the church! OK, the crimes against me have been minor and I guess many of you have suffered similarly from minor crimes. But I guess some of you have been victims of much more serious crimes and I guess all of us in some way or the other have suffered injustice in our lives. I dug out some statistics for crime in one of the wards of Walthamstow. This are not up to date but they give a flavour of the levels of crime we experience here. In a three month period from the end of June to the end of September this year there were some 327 reported crimes, and this in only one of the twenty local authority wards in the Borough. Of these there were reports of 52 thefts from vehicles, 42 residential burglaries, 22 common assault, 14 robberies of the person and so it goes on: 327 reported crimes in three months just one bit of Walthamstow. The good news, so we are told, is that crime levels have stabilized, crime is not currently on the increase. Clearly, however, we have a long way to go in our efforts to reduce crime.

I said, “we have a long way to go” and that was deliberate. For crime reduction is unlikely to come about by a simple reliance on the powers that be. Crime is a problem for the whole community and whilst the police and others have a crucial role to play, it will take the whole community to tackle crime. Now you might be wondering what on earth this has to do with coming to church on Sunday – but I hope not.

Crime destroys relationships, this is a point made by the organisation Restorative Justice, about which I'll say more in a moment. It is not only victims who suffer but the families of offenders and all in society who feel vulnerable because of the extent of crime on our streets. And since Christianity is about seeking to bring human beings into right relationship with others and with God it should be clear that this break down in relationships is of very real concern to Christians. Indeed, at the heart of crime is the evil, whether committed purposefully or as a consequence of societal forces, which leads one person to do wrong to another. So tackling crime is a key concern for Christians. And I would like to encourage all of us to think about what we can do to help tackle crime, not least by local efforts through Neighbourhood Watch schemes, making sure we report crimes, and by support for the Markhouse Safer Neighbourhoods initiative. In addition, there are things we can do as a church, not least helping to support initiatives aimed at providing positive activities for young people, something we are attempting here with providing space for a youth club to meet in our hall.

But I also want to encourage us to think about the issue of justice, to consider what kind of model of justice we will promote and support as Christians. I say this because there are different models or justice, not all of which concur with what the Bible and church tradition have to say on the subject.

Let me then say something about God's justice and if we turn to our Bibles we discover that justice is intimately connected to three other words, all of which it may help us to keep in mind as we reflect further on the issue of seeking justice.

First, justice is intimately connected with God’s holiness. We read in Isaiah 5:16 “God the Holy One had displayed his holiness by his justice!” Justice is a quality of God. Just as God is love, God is Justice. This justice transmits to God’s creation - in the image of God he created them- human beings were made to reflect, among other things, the justice of God. So like God human beings have a moral dimension, they are created to reflect God’s goodness. God’s relationship with Israel as a special people meant that they were distinctive for the moral code given as a gift by God, a code that set a high store by justice, both on judging justly and on ensuring that no one should suffer a result of anybody else’s greed. Throughout the Old Testament we find a special concern for the widow and the orphan and the unique concept of Jubilee, the equal re-distribution of wealth after every 50 year period. God is Justice and in the New Testament we see that justice is to be an overriding characteristic of God’s new kingdom. Jesus says: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice (or righteousness) sake, they shall have their fill.” How can we make sure that the justice we seek is God’s justice?

Secondly, justice is intimately connected to forgiveness. Although God created human beings to be reflect his justice. We know that human rejection of God, human sin, has led human justice to be a very poor reflection of God’s justice. We see this with God’s special people. Time and time again, the people fail to live up to the standards set by God and yet time and time again we find God exercising an extraordinary forgiveness. At times, as is his prerogative, he punishes the people for their lack of justice, but so often we find his mercy. Ezra 9:13-15 puts it like this: “after all that has befallen us because of our evil deeds and our deep guilt - though you, our God, have punished us less than our inequities deserved and have allowed us to escape like this.... Lord, God of Israel, you are justice.” Once again this is reflected in God’s new kingdom. After those words about justice in the Beatitudes Jesus says; “Blessed are the merciful, they shall have mercy shown to them.” How can we make sure that we seek to execute justice with mercy?

And finally, God’s justice is intimately connected with God’s peace. The Book of Isaiah is written in three parts, the final part is addressed to the Israelites after their return from Exile in Babylon. They returned to a Jerusalem that lay in ruins. So this final part of Isaiah’s prophecy is full of words encouragement to the Israelites that God will fulfil his promises, promises made earlier in Isaiah that Israel will be re-built. Isaiah writes in chapter 60 verse 2 “though the night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples, on you the Lord is rising.” We read near the very beginning of Isaiah, in chapter 2, that God’s vision for Jerusalem is as a place of everlasting justice and peace. It is said that nations will come streaming to Jerusalem where the Lord will settle disputes among great nations and where they will beat their swords into ploughs and the spears into pruning knives. Chapter 60 speaks words of encouragement to the returned exiles, they are to have hope that God will fulfil his promises of justice and peace. As Christians we read Isaiah in the light of the cross and resurrection of Christ, aware that the promises originally made exclusively to Israel are universalised in Revelation and held up as a final promise justice and peace for the whole of humankind. God’s justice is restorative. It restores to humankind God’s initial intentions that his creation should reflect his justice and his peace. And this word peace, shalom, is multi-faceted. It does relate to international conflict but it also relates to the local sphere of peaceful relationships and individual wholeness. How are we to pursue a justice that has peace as its goal, a justice that builds up, a justice that restores?

Now how does this all relate in practical terms to life in this country and indeed in our world. Well, without saying too much about other models of justice which chiefly work on the principle of retaliation, I want to promote the notion Restorative Justice, a biblical understanding of justice, one which has been advocated by Christians in this country for many years and which is, indeed, now being practised within our criminal justice system. I don't have time to say too much about it but I would encourage you to found out more. But the basic goal is to restore the relationship that has been broken by crime. There are five R's promoted by the organisation Restorative Justice and these are they:



A. Retribution. This is punishment appropriate for the offence, but it is not vindication, continued anger, or retaliation. Those actions tear the victim away from a right relationship with God.

B. Repentance. This is necessary for personal accountability.

C. Reparation. Offenders must repair their relationships with God, their victims, and the community.

D. Restitution. This involves paying back the victim.

E. Reintegration. Lasting restoration involves reintegration of the offender back into society, through acceptance by other believers and encouragement in their walk with Christ.



Now this model is beginning to be used. Offenders and victims are being brought into conversation and many times, not always, there is a real sense of appreciation by the offender of how their actions have impacted upon the victim. How I would love to have a conversation with the people who stole my bikes!

Seriously, crime and justice are issues for us living as Christians. Let us help to tackle crime and let us contribute towards a vision of God's justice for our communities, our nation and our world. In doing so we shall be co-operating with God in seeing justice done to all those who pray for it. Jesus said, “Now will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night?”

Steven Saxby, October 2010.

26th Sept 2010 – St Barnabas
Dives and Lazarus

Luke 16: 19-31 (the parable of Dives and Lazarus).

May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This magnificent parable of the rich man and Lazarus forms part of a speech which Jesus delivers to the Pharisees. Throughout the Gospel narratives, the Pharisees fail to grasp what to Jesus is self-evident in the Law and the prophets. In the parable, Abraham refuses to warn the rich man’s brothers that their lifestyle will lead them to join him in the place of torment: "They have Moses and the prophets" says Abraham "they should listen to them". Jesus gives his summary of Moses and the prophets elsewhere in the gospels. In his response to a question put by a Pharisee about the Law he says, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind'. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'' On these two hang all the Law and the prophets."

To love God with all of one's heart, soul and mind, with total commitment: the good news is that this is not by means of a rigid set of rules. Rather, it is a way of living, a way which requires different responses in different circumstances. The bad news is that it can be challenging indeed to live up to that command to love one’s neighbour. The rich man is the parable is sometimes called Dives, since “dives” is the Latin for rich. We may not have the vast wealth of the rich man in the parable, but how easy it is for us to ignore those in need? This week I first looked at this passage on Tuesday evening. By then I had already feasted that week at an Igorot Party, had a delicious Lithuanian on Monday lunch time and been to my favourite eatery for Crepe Suzette on Tuesday. So you can imagine how the words pierced my heart when I read about this man who used to “feast magnificently every day”! And how many times in those three days did I pass-by someone in need, a homeless person, a woman working the streets, someone with a dependence on drugs or alcohol, a migrant worker with no source of support? On Thursday evening I was asked by the Mayor of Waltham Forest to attend the Town Hall. There some of us in the Borough met with a Pakistani Minister of State who had come to the UK (as a guest of our Archbishop) to raise awareness of the plight of the millions still suffering in Pakistan as a result of the flooding there. These people are not literally on my doorstep, but the media is there to make me aware of their suffering as if they were. Had I also ignored this suffering in front of my eyes? Once I started to think about it, I had to ask myself, “Am I like Dives? Do I ignore Lazarus in my daily life?”

Let’s look a bit more closely at that parable. We come across Dives as someone who is totally self-obsessed, caught up in his own world. He dresses in expensive clothes, he feasts sumptuously every day. Despite his great wealth he does not help Lazarus, the poor man who sits at his door every day. Even when he is in Hades, Dives' first thoughts are of himself, as he asks Abraham to let his tongue be cooled by water from the tip of Lazarus' finger. In a fantastic exposition of the parable [given as part of a speech in Harlem after King received the Noble Peace Prize], Martin Luther King Jr gives his reasons why Dives went to Hell. He says,

Dives went to Hell because he passed by Lazarus everyday and he never saw him. Dives went to Hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible. Dives went to Hell because he allowed the means by which he lived to out-distance the ends for which he lived. Dives went to Hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. [Dives went to Hell.] Dives went to Hell because he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gulf which separated him from Lazarus.

It is quite likely that Dives would have thought of himself as a religious man. Yet it is quite clear that he did not follow the second greatest commandment; he loved himself, but he did not love his neighbour. But the general thrust of Jesus' message in the gospels is that we cannot love God unless we show our love for others. Furthermore, love of God is at its best when it shows itself in love for the most destitute in society, for people like Lazarus 'a poor man... covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table', who was so deprived of his human dignity that he was pitied by the dogs who 'would come and lick his sores'. Jesus clearly chose the name Lazarus to make a point as the name literally means “God comes to help”, as If Jesus is making the point that the rich are saved from their self-obsession by their opportunities to show compassion towards those in need.

None of us need reminding that this city, this country and this world include people whose every day experience is one of destitution. We need only walk around in central London or sometimes in Walthamstow to see people who have no homes to live in. There are people in this city whose experience is not so far from that of Lazarus. The very least we can do is not to allow them to become invisible. I remember once seeing a woman ignore a seller when he asked her if she wanted a copy of the Big Issue. He then shouted after her: 'at least you could say "no"'. Yes, the least we can do is to acknowledge the human dignity of homeless people. But we are called to more than that. We are called to an active love. We are called to do something, even if it only helps a few people. Our contribution might be to buy the Big Issue; it might be supporting homeless or other destitute people in some other way. It might include us taking collective action together as a church to support migrant workers or young people in our community or to join an organization like London Citizens. It might be showing our love for people we meet; it might be working at the level of trying to change public policy, by the fostering of a politics of love. Each of us needs to make our response in our own way, to respond in the light of our own circumstances. But we also need to keep the words of the Gospel fresh in our minds. In the same exposition of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Martin Luther King recalls one of his visions:

It seemed that I could hear someone standing before the God of the Universe saying: "Master, I've done my job. I've gotten a lot of education; I've been to the great universities. Yes, Master I've done well and I've been able to rise to the great heights of economic security". It seemed that I could hear the Master responding by saying: "But I was hungry and you fed me not; I was sick and you visited me not; I was naked and you clothed me not; I was in prison and you were not concerned about me: therefore you are not fit to enter the Kingdom of Righteousness"'

This task of loving our neighbours can seem daunting for many reasons. It can seem daunting because of the sheer amount of pain and suffering and oppression in the world. This is why concentrating our energies on particular people or particular issues is necessary. It would be pride for anyone to think that he or she could take all the world's problems upon his or her shoulders. But it would be as wrong to think, that because we cannot do everything, that we can excuse ourselves and do nothing. All of us can, and do, do something. We can all do the 'little things' and in doing those we can, indeed, achieve great things. But even this can seem daunting. Many of the people we are called to love are wounded by the lack of love that has been shown towards them in the past. Loving our neighbours can be hard work. It can be painful. It can expose us to things inside and outside of ourselves that we would rather ignore. But in this task we are not alone.

Yesterday, those of us in Canterbury Cathedral, heard these words from Jeremiah which tell us that the task before us is far easier for those who trust in God. As for 'those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land'. However, when it comes to 'those who trust in the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by the water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit'.

Brother Roger of Taize used similarly wonderful tree imagery in one of his writings called Choose to Love. This choice, the choice to love, is open to everyone but this isn't a once and for all choice. This choice to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds and to love our neighbours as ourselves is a choice that confronts us every day of our lives. Yet it is a choice we can make safe in the knowledge that we can trust God to support us. And so beautiful is the invitation to choose love, that one wonders how anyone can refuse it. So, let us end with those words from Brother Roger and let us pray that they, like today’s story of Dives and Lazarus, may inspire us to respond in our lives to those in need.

Like an almond tree that blossoms at the first hint of spring, the deserts of the heart burst into flower when a breath of trusting wafts across them. Borne forward by this breeze, who would not wish to alleviate human suffering and trails? Even when our feet stumble along a stony path, who would not wish to put these ...words [of Christ] into practice... : "whatever you do for the least, the most destitute, you are doing it for me..."

Steven Saxby - 2010

Sunday 11th July 2010

St Barnabas Walthamstow

 

“Who is my neighbour?”

 

The story we’ve just heard, the story of the Good Samaritan, is surely one of the most well known of the stories Jesus tells in the gospels. It has become so familiar to us, that it may be hard for us today to recognise the power of this story, the force of Jesus’ message and its significance for us today. So I pray this morning that we can all hear this story afresh, all feel the challenge it presents us with and all be inspired to respond to it in our lives.

 

Jesus tells the story because he is being asked questions by a lawyer. We are told that this lawyer is deliberately seeking to disconcert Jesus, to trap him perhaps in to saying something that others can use against Jesus or just to show off his own intelligence. He asks Jesus a question - and not an easy one - , “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus reflects the question back, “What is written in the Law?” And the young lawyer gives a perfect, text-book answer. He quotes two passages from the Hebrew scriptures which summarise perfectly the commandments to love God and neighbour, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbour as yourself”, words which are often quoted in church liturgies today. Jesus compliments the lawyer and tells him that if he follows these commands he will have life. But the lawyer goes on; he asks another question: “Who is my neighbour?” And it is in response to this that Jesus, as he often does in response to a question, tells a story.

 

It is the story of man travelling from Jericho to Jerusalem who falls into the hands of robbers, of brigands. It is not surprising that he did so. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was a treacherous one. The distance was about 17 miles and ran through rocky and desert country, where it was easy and common for robbers to lie in wait for passers-by. But the man in our story is not only robbed – they take all he had, left naked according to some translations – but also beaten and left half-dead. What would my or your response be to seeing someone left naked and beaten, barely alive in the street? Surely we want to help or at least call someone to come and help. Well there was no-one around on this road, no-one to call so the choice was to help or not. And Jesus tells of a priest walking by. Imagine the first listeners to Jesus story. Imagine their horror at this man lying half-dead, imagine their relief as Jesus tells them that a priest comes along and then imagine their shock when it transpires that this priest does not help, but passes by on the other side. Next Jesus says that a Levite comes along, another member of the religious class of Jesus’ day. Surely he will help, but no, he too sees the man lying dead on the roadside and passes by on the other side. Jesus’ hearers would be in a state of shock!

 

Jesus knows how to tell a story doesn’t he: like any good joke or story with three parts, Jesus builds up to his climax. A priest has passed by, a Levite has passed by, now a Samaritan comes along. Jesus was an Israelite, a Jew and he spent most of his time teaching other Jews. So Jesus was very aware of the manner in which the Jews regarded the Samaritans, which was basically that they hated them. The Samaritans were group, a tribe if you like, of people living in the north of Israel in the region of Samaria. They were considered half-breeds by the Jews as they descended from those Israelites who then inter-married with incoming gentiles when the bulk of the Israelites were taken into exile by the Assyrians. The hatred between the Samaritans and the Israelites ran very deep. We are told in John’s gospel when Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan women at the well of how shocked she is that Jesus is speaking to her, precisely because Jews and Samaritans were known not to associate with each other. So back to Jesus’ story and along comes a Samaritan. Here is someone Jesus’ listeners would expect to pass by, especially after the priest and Levite have done so, but no it is the Samaritan who stops to help the wounded man. He really does help him too, pouring oil and wine on his wounds and bandaging them, putting the wounded man on his own donkey, taking him to an inn, looking after him himself, then leaving money with the inn keeper to take care of him, promising to pay more later if necessary. Here is real compassion and generosity shown by the Samaritan. Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three was a neighbour to the man in need and when the lawyer answers “the one who showed him mercy”, Jesus says “Go and do likewise”.

 

It is an amazing and a powerful story which must have stunned Jesus’ first hearers – for what Jesus says is that it is a Samaritan, one of a group the Israelites hated, who was a neighbour to the man in need. But what is the significance of this story for us, how do we engage today with the question “Who is my neighbour?”

 

I invite you to join me in reflecting on this story in two ways: first, through looking at a specific example of a group of people in need within our society today and, second, through asking “How can we avoid being like the religious ones who passed-by on the other side?” and “who are the ones being true neighbours to those in need with whom we should be in partnership?”

 

The example I wish to offer of a group of people in need today is that of migrant workers. Such people are as present to us today as the man lying half-dead was to those religious leaders who passed by on the other side, indeed we are a congregation, the majority of whom are immigrants, many of whom came here for work, and including some who experience the social issues of many migrant workers here in the UK today. It is totally understandable that migrants come to the UK to work, largely because the lack of economic opportunities and social welfare back in their home countries. The experience of migrant workers in the UK is not easy. Many are working without the protection of unions or legal employment contracts. Many are working very long hours, many far below the minimum wage, often in circumstances that are neither healthy nor safe. It is easy to underestimate the extent to which large parts of the UK economy are dependent upon the labour they provide. Harsh working conditions, long hours, lack of security, low pay, fear of deportation for those who do not have settled immigration status, separation from their loved ones back home, loneliness and social isolation – and on top of all of this, discrimination even demonization in the media and by far-right political parties! Here is a group of people in need. How are we responding?

 

Are we like the religious leaders who passed-by on the other side? We know nothing about the motivation of the half-dead man for being on that road. It would be easy to dismiss him as a fool for travelling on a dangerous road on his own. But the Samaritan does not question the reasons for him being there, he simply responds to seeing someone in need. I have heard suggestions, shocking suggestions really, of discrimination, even inside the church against migrant workers, even of discrimination between people who have legal status and those who do not. Surely that is bringing the values of the world into the life of the church, the church where we are all equal and united in our communion with the Lord! I even heard a suggestion that we should not marry in church, as we often do, people whose immigration status is not settled. There is pressure from the government for us not to do this but the church has its own authority to marry people in the UK and does marry people without settled immigration status because the Church of England is not an arm of the Home Office but a religious institution whose criteria for marrying people are to do with the commitment of the couple declared to each other, a congregation and God. Yes, of course, we are always under pressure as individual Christians and as a church to bow to the pressure of the world, to bring values contrary to the gospel into the life of the church, to internalise divisions from the wider society which have no place within the life of a Christian community. That is precisely what Paul addresses in the church in Corinth in that reading we heard from 1 Corinthians 11 last week and that is why this gospel challenges us today – it was not the ones who were expected to help those in need who did so, they passed by on the other side.

 

So how might that affect our role in responding to the needs of migrant workers? I am keen for us to ask this question to those who are in need among us and identify as a church some more practical ways of providing help and support. I say more because I know a lot is done already to help people in need of accommodation and work, to offer mutual support at times of family isolation, to offer joy and laughter through social activities. All of this is offered well, for example, from within the Igorot community to other Igorots. How can we extend this to other migrant workers in this area and across all ethnic communities? What more can we offer by way of medical and immigration advice, access to health and legal services, help with issues related to citizenship and integration into UK culture? I believe these are the sorts of questions we should be asking, with a view to us providing some support here at St Barnabas for the migrant workers in our midst and in our community, people for whom life is likely to become even more difficult in the light of government spending cuts. There is a lot of need right in front of our eyes: let us not pass-by on the other side!

 

And finally, to our opening question “who is my neighbour?” The answer to Jesus’ question was the Samaritan and the implication for us is two-fold: one, let us not be like the ones who should have been neighbours and were not; but, two, let us work with those who are being neighbours to those in need, including those we might not necessarily expect to work alongside. The Jews did not want to associate with the Samaritans. Jesus called for a breaking down of barriers and modelled this in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. Who do we avoid in our community? Who do we separate ourselves from? One obvious answer would be our Muslim neighbours, who form a significant presence within our community but with whom we have few formal links as a church. [One reason why it is so encouraging that last evening Caribbean, African and Asian women from this congregation joined with Asian, African, Caribeean and European women from all faiths for an event in our hall.) And there are others in the community too with whom we might have as little contact today as the Jews did with the Samaritans, others who may be helping those in need, other Christians, trade unionists, people of all faiths and none, people in the community full of compassion and goodwill.

 

I am very inspired by the work of London Citizens which is a coalition of all such groups in the community. Started by a Church of England priest here in East London back in the early 1990s, The East London Community Organising (TELCO) became London Citizens and now operates across the whole of London and with sister branches in other parts of the UK and the world.  Its work has involved ordinary people challenging central government, local government, big businesses and others on issues of common concern, including campaigns on housing and low wages. One of its most successful campaigns has been the Strangers into Citizens campaign which has worked to highlight and serve the needs of migrants in London. Here is an example of an organisation of people in the community seeking to be neighbours to those in need. Maybe we should consider becoming part of this organisation here at St Barnabas. I would be glad of your thoughts.

 

I have used migrant workers as an example of a group of people in need and present in our community today. Clearly there are many other groups of people and individual who we met in need on a daily basis. We cannot personally offer help to everyone and yet we can help some and help more people together if we work as a church, together seeking to do what Jesus calls us to do within this neighbourhood.

 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone in need in this community were to be ask, “Who is my neighbour?” and were to answer “the Church of St Barnabas and St James”!

 

End -  Steven Saxby, July 2010.

 

Sunday 12th June 2010
St Barnabas Walthamstow

“Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd”.

I’ve begun with those words from the gospels as they seem to link perfectly the feast we celebrate today (the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) and the scripture readings for the feast which speak about the image of God as a shepherd to his people (most obviously in those wonderful verses from Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd).

It must have been a pretty overwhelming experience for Jesus. Everywhere he went he seemed to be presented with people in need. Not long after he’s cured one person, he is presented with another and then after what must have been an exhausting day, in one passage he is presented late in the day, indeed, after sunset not only with all the sick but also with those possessed by demons. In another passage he is presented, again late in the day, with thousands of people with nothing to eat. How did Jesus cope?

And it can be pretty overwhelming for us. So often we are confronted with the needs of others as we go about our daily lives. We may visit a friend who’s having a bad time, pass by a homeless person in the street, receive a call that a relative is in hospital, sit down at the end of an exhausting day to be presented on the news with so many stories of suffering in this country and around the world, not only with sickness, but sometimes with actions that call to mind those possessed by demons. How are we to cope?

Well let me share three words which I believe are key to the way Jesus coped and suggest that these three ways are also ways open to us, individually and in our work together as a church. And the three words that I think sum up Jesus response to need are “compassion”, “prayer” and “action”.

Compassion is a word that is often associated with Jesus in the Gospel. When Matthew describes Jesus being presented with many sick people he writes that “Jesus had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless”. But Mark’s Gospel tends to describe what Jesus is like through his action and we can see that Jesus is compassionate, for example, when we read about the way he cured Simon’s mother-in-law: “he went to her, took her by the hand and helped her up”. It’s a very personal, moving account of Jesus’ personal touch, his bedside manner if you like.

Being compassionate is not easy in today’s world. Like Jesus, we are very aware of people in today's world who appear harassed and helpless. Indeed we so see many images on our screens of people in need and receive so many requests for help that I'm sure we all, at times, feel overwhelmed by so much suffering and, if we're honest, sometimes shut our ears and eyes to those who cry out for help. You've probably heard of the phrase "compassion fatigue" and indeed that phrase has found its way into the dictionary described as "indifference to frequent charitable appeals".

I take some encouragement in my attempts to be compassionate from the image of the compassionate heart of Jesus. My home parish in Plaistow was renamed the Parish of the Divine Compassion and it celebrates its patronal feast when other remember the feast of the sacred heart of Jesus. What better image for a parish named the Divine Compassion than the image of Jesus' own heart, a heart that never ceases to feel compassion?

The heart, more than any other symbol is a symbol of love. Think of some of the expressions associated with the heart. Of how the things we love most are described as close to our hearts. Of how giving without reservation is described as with our whole hearts. Of how we occasionally speak of broken hearts. Think of your own hearts and how the image of your heart is an image of your very self, a place where your memory, imagination, feeling and thinking all come together.

If the image of our own hearts is so powerful, how could we attempt to describe the image of the Sacred Heart, of the heart fo Jesus? There is such an attempt in the writings of St Teresa of Avila. In one of her visions she describes herself entering into the body of Christ through the pierced wound on his side. She then describes herself as entering into Jesus' heart and finding it not only a very beautiful place but also a place big enough for the whole of humankind. This image of the compassion of Jesus is one of great encouragement as we seek to emulate the compassion that Jesus showed for those in need.

Compassion is just one of the words that sums up Jesus’ response to those in need in the gospels, another word to sum up his response is “prayer”. What inspiration can we take from Jesus in responding to those in need? We can be inspired that Jesus took time out to be alone with God. Of course, it wasn’t easy for him to find this time and in today’s passage (as he may have done often in his ministry) he had to get up very early in the morning to find time to pray. I find this a challenge (especially as I am not very good at getting up in the mornings) but if Jesus who was already so close to the father felt the need to do it, how much more should I feel this need and make sure that out of the busyness of responding to others’ needs, I take time to draw refreshment from the source of love and compassion, namely our father in hevaen.

“Compassion”, “prayer” and a third word that sums up Jesus’ response and can inspire us is “action”. I mentioned earlier that Mark’s gospel is full of action. It is full of phrases like “immediately Jesus did this” and “at once they left there and went somewhere else”. It is an action gospel. Of course we’ve already noted that Jesus’ took time out of his action to be compassionate, to give a personal touch to his response to those in need and that he took time out to reflect and pray, but we cannot escape the importance of action in Jesus’ ministry. The end of today’s gospel shows that everyone was looking for Jesus, no doubt they wanted more of him, to spend time with him, but Jesus is eager to carry on with his work of preaching and healing and to take the massage elsewhere so that others may see and believe. It may be tempting for us to stand still, to be content with the help we’ve already given to others, but Jesus calls us on to keep up the good work, not to burn out, not to be become inactive through being overwhelmed but to carry on in his compassion, rooted in lives of prayer, in that active work of responding to those in need.

We are given a wonderful images of the love of God in action today: the image of God as the Shepherd who cares for his sheep, an image so strong in that 23rd Psalm, an image often applied to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Image in our lady chapel of the shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders – as Jesus speaks of it in today’s gospel, a very practical image of compassion.

But of course, we do not do this on our own, acting just as individuals trying to be like Jesus – if were to try and do such no doubt any one of us would burn out. Jesus' power and authority to heal those in need is, in the gospel passage, given to his disciples. And in each generation, the church, the disciples of Christ in each age, receives again that authority to heal those in need. In today's church that power and authority is less visible in the hands of a few wonder-working disciples and more visible in the collective actions of the whole church as the body of Christ. Just think of what the churches are able to do here in Waltham Forest as part of the local body of Christ. In my work helping churches here to link with the wider community, I’m so impressed, for example, with how churches join together to provide shelter for the homeless every winter, of the work with young people, of many other church initiatives in this Borough and of how churches join together in helping the world's poor through support for Christian Aid and similar agencies. There is so much we can do, when we work together as the body of Christ. Compassion, prayer, action: as we continue to work and pray together as a church and with other churches may we remember that we are part of the body of Christ and that what keeps that body alive is a loving heart, rooted in a life of prayer, a heart which never ceases to feel and act with compassion for all who are in need today.

Steven Saxby, June 2010.

St Barnabas, Walthamstow
9th May 2010, 10am

Rogation Sunday

Today is Rogation Sunday. We get the word rogation from the Latin “rogare”, meaning “to ask”. Traditionally what the people asked for on this day was a blessing on the crops. For the church Rogation Sunday came to serve another purpose, the marking of the parish boundaries by walking the boundary and beating it with sticks. Today begins a series of rogation days, all placed before Ascension Day on Thursday. And the reason why people thought it good to ask for special blessings on these days before Ascension was because we read in scripture, in Ephesians 4v8: “When He ascended on high he led a host of captives and gave gifts to his people.”

George Herbert, the seventeenth century poet and country parson, commended the beating of bounds for four reasons: “1, A Blessing of God for the fruits of the field. 2, Justice in the preservation of bounds. 3, Charity in loving, walking and neighbourly accompanying one another with reconciling of differences at the time if there be any. And 4, Mercie, in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of largesse, which at the time is or ought to be used.” Well times have changed! We no longer distribute alms around the parish. However many churches in the area, during this month, have been collecting alms for Christian Aid. We have no crops to seek God’s blessing for (other than those grown on the allotments in our parish). The parish boundary is uncontested and if we were to walk around beating young boys to impress the parish boundary upon them, as was the ancient custom, we would find ourselves in court for a serious breach of child protection!

What then, is the point of us marking Rogation Sunday today? Well, I am not a poet, but allow this 21st century urban parson to suggest four reasons why Rogation Sunday is important within our contemporary situation.

First, Rogation Sunday draws our attention, quite properly to our local situation. We live in world where the local is often undermined: it is the global that matters. And yet, the global only exists through the local. There are no general places in the world, only particular places that make up our world. The Church of England maintains a parish system, whereby every single square inch of this country falls within an Anglican ecclesiastical parish. This means that there is no part of this country that is not the concern of some church community somewhere and isn’t prayed for and served by that community. Now there are some practical applications to this when it comes to people accessing services from the Church of England and an obligation for folk to form a relationship with their parish church if they are seeking Anglican baptism or marriage; likewise there is the provision of funeral services for all who live within the parish boundary, regardless of whether they went to church. For us as a community seeking to reach out, the parish boundary means there are limits to our responsibility in terms of how many people we seek to communicate too, hence making it possible for us to deliver occasional parish newsletters to every home within the parish. This is the Church of England, taking the local seriously, not to the exclusion of the global – we pray about global issues all the time and we are, of course, a community of people from around the globe – but as part of our concern for the local and the global. It used to be said “think global, act local” – but now some say “think global and local, act global and local” as we realise how connected local and global issues are and how much need there is for action that takes both into consideration. I am pleased that last Sunday we were able to provide an opportunity for the local council candidates to meet with local residents in our hall and I hope we will be able to work well with our new councillors in coming years to tackle issues and celebrate success in our local community. Rogation Sunday is part of the dynamic by which the Church of England takes both the global and the local seriously.

Second, Rogation Sunday proclaims something of God’s, and hence our, concern for all things. What a shallow faith we would hold if we felt God was only concerned with what goes on here in Church. No, God is concerned with every aspect of life and no less with all what goes on this parish of St Barnabas. Concerned with all of it’s 6000 or so people, 15% over 60, 22% under 16; a parish where statistics tells us 50% are white, 26% Asian, 18% Black , where 47% profess to be Christian, 25% identify as Muslim, and 14% say they have no religion. God is concerned with the parish’s two schools, Edinburgh and Thomas Gamuel primaries. Concerned with the cemetery, the Coroner’s court, the offices of Children’s Services, the Sleeping Beauty Hotel, numerous businesses and shops. God is concerned with those who worship in the SDA, Boundary Rd Evangelical and Melchizedek Spiritual Baptist churches, as well as those who worship in the local synagogue and mosque. God is Concerned with those living in their own homes and concerned with those living in social housing. Concerned with the refugee living in the parish. Concerned with the folk in the old peoples homes and care homes homes. Concerned with violence on the streets and concerned with violence behind closed doors. All these things are concerns of people living in this parish, all are God’s concerns and part of our job on Rogation Sunday and throughout the year is to seek to hold all these things together with God in our prayers.


Third, I want to suggest that Rogation Sunday is important not only because it makes us attentive to the local and because it helps us be aware of God’s concern for all things, but also because praying for our local community actually does make a difference. A familiar scripture are those words “ask and it will be given, seek and you will find”. It sounds simple doesn’t it? And yet, our experience tells us that it isn’t that simple. In days gone by, and in some places still, the people would pray for a blessing upon the crops, and yet we know that the crops would not always be successful. We may pray for local businesses today and see some of them go under next year. We may pray for an end to violent attacks and yet there might be another one next week. So what is the point of all this prayer? Surely, we don’t always ask and then receive what we want? Well, there are two keys to understanding this. One is that God does not will bad things for us. We live in a fallen world, a world where bad things happen, a world with the free-will to chose to rebel against God. The other is that prayer is not about presenting a wish list to God for all the things we think he should give us, much as a child might give a list to Father Christmas. No prayer is essentially about holding every situation together with God, proclaiming that there is no situation to which God cannot speak. Our specific prayers for things we believe to be God’s will, peace in the community and so on, are appropriate. But prayer is not a magic wand. Prayer is as much about us being involved with God in seeking to transform society as it is about praying for it in church on Sunday. We will receive what God wants for us, but it may involve us in acting and not just praying. And we may discover that what we receive from God is not quite the thing we think he should give us. Prayer changes things when it brings us into active co-operation with God to bring about change. Prayer changes us because it focuses our attention and it changes others as we give them the hope that change is really possible.

So Rogation Sunday draws our attention to the local, it proclaims God’s concern for all things, it encourages to pray and make a difference to our community and

Finally, I do want to repeat one of George Herbert’s reasons for engaging in Rogation Sunday. Things have changed a lot since the seventeenth century, but this simple thing is very true. Some of us have experienced it on our walk to Westminster or the more recent walk from Trafalagar Square to St Barnabas. Christine, Joshua and Eli will experience it at the end of the month on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. And I hope next year we can experience it after church, today in urban Walthamstow, what George Herbert’s country parishioners experienced nearly 400 years ago: Charity in loving, walking and neighbourly accompanying one another! Next year let us revive that tradition and take to the streets with our sticks as we celebrate an urban Rogation Sunday!
SS/10/05/2010

St Barnabas, Walthamstow
2nd May 2010, 10am

Barnabas and Paul – Acts 13, 14, 15


Last week, this week and next week our second readings are from the Acts of the Apostles. The readings are from chapters 13, 14 and 15, chapters which tell the story of Paul and Barnabas.

I invite you to reflect with me this morning on this story of Paul and Barnabas, a story of a remarkable partnership in mission and ministry. Paul, of course, is the better known, the “Apostle to the Gentiles”, and much of the Acts of the Apostles is taken-up with the accounts of Paul’s various missionary journeys. Paul made three such journeys, as well as his final journey to Rome, but it is good for us to note, here at St Barnabas Church, that the first of his missionary journeys was made with Barnabas.

I am going to draw six points out of the story of Paul and Barnabas. Some of these are points we have been discussing in our Tuesday evening Bible Studies, so I am grateful to others for contributing towards the points I am going to make. And the hope with all of these points is that we might be able to reflect on the how the story of Paul and Barnabas might connect with our own experience as Christians engaging in mission and ministry today.

First then, we note that Paul and Barnabas were urban Christians. We have already learnt some things about Paul and Barnabas separately when we encounter them in Antioch, a city way to the north of Jerusalem in what at today we call Syria. Scholars date the events of chapter 13 as being about 6 years after the conversion of Saul, his dramatic experience on the road to Damascas, that led him to take on a new identity as Paul. But after this experience Paul lived in his home city of Tarsus for some while before the Christians in Antioch decided to fetch him to Antioch so that he could share in their ministry. Barnabas was already well respected as an early church leader, someone who’d given his own money to help support the early church and who was entrusted with looking after church finances, the reason our statue of St Barnabas has him holding a money bag in one hand. And it was Barnabas who was sent to Tarsus, in modern Turkey, to bring Paul down to Antioch.

These two were then sent on a journey to take the gospel – and note our statue has Barnabas holding the Gospel in his other hand – to take the gospel to other cities and towns. They travel, via Cyprus, where Barnabas was born, to the heart of the civilised world of their day, to Perga, another city called Antioch, to Iconium, to Lystra and Derbe and then back through all these places in what is now Turkey to return to Antioch in Syria.

So, to repeat, my first point is that Paul and Barnabas were urban Christians. Acts chapter 11 tells us that it was in the CITY of Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. Christianity started in the cities of Antioch and Jerusalem and spread to the great cities of that time. These were major cities of the ancient world, highly developed and innovative places, places of high culture and sport, of many religions and philosophies, of social problems, poverty, exclusion, prostitution, temple sex, child exploitation.

My second point is that Paul and Barnabas were part of a multi-cultural church. Like our city and most cities in our world today, the cities Paul and Barnabas encountered were multi-cultural. Paul and Barnabas were themselves part of a multi-cultural group of Christians in Antioch even before they were sent out to other areas. At the beginning of Acts 13 we’re told who are the prophets in the church of Antioch: there’s Barnabas, who we know is from Cyprus; Simeon called Niger, an African; Lucius of Cyrene, another African; Manaen who’d been brought up with Herod, a high class-Jew; and Paul who we know was a Roman citizen from Tarsus in what is now Turkey. That was the early church: multi-ethnic - and it became more ethnically diverse as it spread throughout the ancient civilized, multi-cultural world.

My third point is that Paul and Barnabas operated in a multi-faith context. Christianity was, of course, a totally new religion. It confronted the great religions of its day and it won people of other creeds and none to the truths of the gospel. It’s worth looking at the whole of Acts chapters 13 and 14 to see just what Barnabas and Paul got up to: they go to Cyprus and have a confrontation with a magician; they go on to the pagan cities of modern Turkey; they confront Jews, Greeks and other gentiles. We’re told they spoke out fearlessly and thus it was that the word of the Lord spread throughout the whole region. Barnabas was a devout Jew, a Levite, someone qualified to be a Jewish priest. They could have preached to Jews alone, but no, they confronted people with widely different religious opinions from their own, they confronted the faiths and philosophies of the ancient world with the truths of Jesus Christ and - to top it all - they were largely successful. At the end of chapter 14 we read that on their arrival back in Antioch they assembled the church, gave an account of all God had done through them and how they had opened the door of faith to the gentiles.

My fourth point is that as well as encountering success they also encountered failure and hardship. On their journey Paul and Barnabas are winning over gentiles and Jews to the message of Jesus Christ but they also encounter opposition from Jews and gentiles. Here’s what we read in Chapter 14: 1-7.
1At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. 2But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. 4The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7where they continued to preach the good news.
Paul and Barnabas flee Iconium because there are people in the city seeking to stone them. They go on to Lystra but then they are pursued. Verses 19 and 20 say:
19Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.

... . So they encountered opposition and yet they continued in the work.

My fifth point relates to this, even though they encountered opposition they continued in the work and continued to encourage others. After they leave Lystra, they go to Derbe and then they make their way back to Antioch in Syria but on the way, excepting they do not return back via Cyprus, they stop in all the places where they were before and spend time with the people who’ve become Christians there, encouraging them in the faith. Chapter 14, vv 21 and 22 say:
...
21They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said.
Barnabas, of course, was known for his encouragement. If we consider the biblical passages relating to Barnabas the first thing we discover is that he wasn’t actually called Barnabas. We’re introduced to him in the Acts of Apostles Chapter 4, verse 36 and it says there that he was a Levite born in Cyprus and called Joseph - Joseph was his real name - but it goes on, the apostles called him Barnabas which means “one who encourages”. One who encourages - what a wonderful nickname to be given by the apostles. Barnabas encouraged some of the earliest Christians in the very first churches around Asia minor, and there is much encouragement for us in looking at this ministry of Paul and Barnabas.

But now for my final and really most important point and it is this, that the ministry and mission of Paul and Barnabas was led by the Spirit. In ch 13, v 2, we learn that it is the voice the Holy Spirit speaking to the church in Antioch which says “set apart for me Paul and Barnabas”, they are led by the Spirit on their journey, they use the power of the spirit in their work and they always seek the wisdom of the spirit in guiding their actions. It is not insignificant, I think, that they work as a pair, they work in partnership and they discern together the wisdom of the spirit. They were not perfect – indeed the sorry end to their partnership is that they part company over a dispute, a dispute about whether John Mark should join them on their second journey. Here we get a real insight into the humanity and ordinariness of these men, who though great friends and partners in the gospel, quarreled and parted company. Still they work in pairs Barnabas with John Mark, Paul with Silas, and one can imagine as each continued in his ministry that they often looked back with fondness to the work they did together, work which at its best was filled with the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I have made six points about the mission and ministry of Paul and Barnabas: it was urban, it was multi-cultural, it was in a multi-faith context, it involved hardship, it involved encouraging others and each other, and it was inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. Clearly these are all aspects of mission and ministry relevant to our work here at St Barnabas, we shall be reflecting on them more in a final Bible Study on these chapters on Tuesday evening and anyone is welcome to join us, but I hope we can all reflect on these points in the coming weeks and years as we seek, like Paul and Barnabas, to make Christ known to others.



SS/02/05/2010

St Barnabas, Walthamstow
21st March 2010, 10am

Condemnation v Compassion – John 8:1-11

Allow me to out before you a problem. I’ll be honest enough to admit that it is my problem, and I’ll be bold enough to suggest that it is also your problem. And it isn’t only our problem, but it is a problem we can recognise among others – members of our own family, friends, and neighbours. Indeed, it is a problem we can see at large in our society, between communities, and globally between factions, tribes, and nations. What is it? It is the tendency to exercise condemnation rather than compassion, to criticise rather than to understand, to judge rather than to love. Do you recognise the problem I am describing?

And what is the cause of this problem? Well, some would say it is “human nature”. Human beings are genetically programmed, they say, to get the better over one another. In a world where only the fittest survive, any opportunity to kick your neighbour when he is down in the gutter is likely to advance your own prospects of survival. That is one view of the cause of our tendency to choose condemnation over compassion.

But Christianity says something different. We are created to love, since our creation is in the image of God and we are made to reflect his God. Therefore, our tendency to judge rather than to love, is a consequence of human beings turning away from their human nature, it is a consequence of sin. So often we think of sin as doing something we know to be wrong and that it true to the extent that sin is a turning away from God - the perverse rejection of the good God has in store for us - towards that which is not of God. Do you remember St Paul’s famous words talking about his struggles with sin, “for what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do”? That is the character of sin, it drags us down to where we do not want to be and it is perverse because it is not what we were created to be, hence our joy that in Christ we are rescued from our sin so that we may be alive with God.

God gave his people Israel, a wonderful law, a law full of compassion and yet even this was turned into a law used for condemnation. That, of course, is what is going on in today’s Gospel reading. Let us try to get inside this story and allow it to help us reflect on this problem of condemnation versus compassion. A woman is brought to Jesus who has been caught in adultery. Note that it a group of men, the scribes and the Pharisees, who bring the woman and that it is only the woman they bring, whereas presumably a man had also been involved in the act. We know, as the saying goes, that “it takes two to tango”. The woman is brought to Jesus and they make her stand there in front of everybody. Just imagine how humiliating it must have been for the woman. First, the embarrassment of being caught in the act; then the utter humiliation of being dragged through the streets, into the Temple, the most holy and public of places, and made to stand in front of everyone.

The woman was humiliated but she must also have been terrified. It is true that the penalty for adultery in the Jewish Law is death. It is true today, but it does not mean that it was and is practised. The law was there to protect, to protect marriage, to protect compassion. The rules for actually putting someone to death were exacting - two witnesses were needed of good character and the defendant must have been immediately warned beforehand. However harsh the warning, the practice was and is to exercise compassion. And yet here we have a mob, seeking to adhere to the very letter of the Law and to do so , we are told, precisely because they are out to trick Jesus. The woman is a mere pawn in their game, more degrading for her still. She stands humiliated and terrified by this mob, a mob standing there ready to stone her to death.

And then comes Jesus’ response and words which have become so familiar to us, he looks up and says to the scribes and Pharisees, “If there is one of you who has not sinned let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Here we have the brilliance of Jesus – what an amazing thing to say – he reminds them that they too are sinners and then he begins to write on the sand. Traditionally we understand that what Jesus did was write in the sand the sins of those standing ready to stone the woman. And then, one by one, we are told, the crowd leaves, beginning with the eldest, until only Jesus and the woman remain.

Jesus has won, his brilliance has defeated the Pharisees and scribes. Once again, they have failed to trick and trap him. And yet he doesn’t make this clear to the woman. Instead - almost as if he affords her some dignity in the context of her humiliation - her looks up and asks, “Women, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir”, she replied. “Neither do I condemn you”, said Jesus, “go away, and don’t sin anymore.” Such compassion! Jesus does not condone her sin – “sin no more”, he says – but he does not condemn the woman, his response to her is of compassion - of forgiveness, of love.

I know that the Sunday School leaders have a brilliant exercise planned for The Barnabarians this morning. They shall be looking at teddy bears and the leaders will say that the teddy bears have done naughty things - stole another’s sweets, told a lie, etc. Then the children will be given stones and asked if they should throw these stones at the naughty teddy bears. The response the leaders hope they will get is for the innocence of the children to say, “no, of course not,” doing a naughty thing does not justify such a punishment for the teddy bears; rather, compassion is what is required. Is it stretching the imagination to far to compare the love of a child for its teddy with the love Jesus has for us? There is no reason for that love and nothing that will stop it – Jesus’ love flows from the love of God. God’s love pours over from the love exercised with the Trinity, to the love shown for his creation, the love shown for us, and not just for human beings generally, but for each one if us, each one of us uniquely loved by God.

So, what of our initial problem? Why do I, why do we, why do our loved one, friends, neighbours, why in our society, why in our world, do we choose condemnation over compassion?

Allow me to offer two reflections flowing from today’s Gospel reading. First, it is easy for us to identify with the woman in the story and criticise the scribes and Pharisees, but how often are we the ones who condemn others? And, who the people today - in our relationships, in our families, in our communities, in our world - who bear the weight and humiliation of our condemnation? Without actually being ready to stone someone to death, we can all be a bit like the Pharisees at times can’t we? Lent is a time for us to examine ourselves and, we can pray that we may be guided by God’s Spirit less towards condemnation and more towards compassion.

And my second reflection is this: the love and compassion Jesus showed towards that woman, is the very love and compassion Jesus shows towards us. Of course we sin, and of course we sin again and again, but time and time again the love of Christ, the compassion of Jesus, is there for us. The events we begin to recall next week, the events of Holy Week show us how far he was prepared to go to demonstrate his love for us, to suffer for us, even to death on a cross, the ultimate sign of his love and compassion.


We have a heard a wonderful story this morning and perhaps it is one worth us reflecting more upon in the week ahead. Maybe we can try even more to get inside this story, to identify with the times we can be like the Pharisees and scribes, to identify with the times we, like the woman, are in need of the love of God, and to hear those words of liberation, applied not only to her, but also to each of us, “Neither do I condemn you, go away and don’t sin any more.”

SS/21/03/2010


St Barnabas, Walthamstow
7th March 2010, 10am

Call of Moses – Burning Bush

‘... and he called to him from the middle of the bush. “Moses, Moses!” he said, “Here I am,” he answered. “Come no nearer,” he said. “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground... .”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today I invite you to reflect with me on the story we heard in our first reading, the story of the call of Moses. I shall attempt to draw out some points from this reading for our reflection. My aim is to encourage us all, inspired by the story of Moses’s calling and entirely suitable during this season of Lent, to think deeper about the ways in which God may be calling us, calling us, like Moses, to respond “Here I am”.

By any account, Moses is a fascinating person and a truly inspiring character. Let’s pay attention to our reading and remind ourselves of some of the aspects of the story.

The first thing we read is that ‘Moses was tending the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law’.

Moses, then, appears to be a shepherd. However, we know from the earlier chapters of Exodus, a great deal more about his background. Moses was born in hard times. His people, the Israelites, were living in Egypt. You may remember that the Israelites went to live in Egypt when Joseph had become effectively the prime-minister of Egypt. The Israelites enjoyed a time of great prosperity there and grew in numbers and wealth. But then came along an Egyptian Pharaoh who had not known Joseph, who resented the success of the Israelites, who made them work as slaves at very heavy labour, and who sought to curb their numbers by having all the new-born, male babies of the Israelites killed. These were the harsh circumstances into which Moses was born and the reason why his mother took the drastic step of putting his body into a basket in the river, with the hope that the baby would be found on the other side by Pharaoh’s daughter and that she would take pity on the child. This Pharaih’s daughter did and Moses was raised as her son, as a grandchild of the Pharaoh. Members of Moses’ family worked for the Pharaoh’s daughter and they must have told him about his real identity as an Israelite. So it was that when he was grown up, we read that he went out to see his own people. It is easy to imagine the outrage he must have felt at seeing his own people treated so harshly and we can see why he reacted as he did, killing an Egyptian when he saw him beating on his fellow-Israelites. It was this event, Moses’ killing of an Egyptian, that led him to flee from Egypt. He left behind all his wealth, privilege and status and became an exile in the desert. Moses meets Jethro and marries one his daughter’s, Zipporah, declaring of himself, “I have become an alien in a foreign land”. So, Moses appears to be a shepherd, but we know his background was much more complex.

The second thing we read about Moses is that his father-in-law, Jethro, was priest of Midian. I wonder if you can picture in your minds a map showing the north-east tip of Africa. The most north-easterly country is Egypt. Most of Egypt is on the west side of the Gulf of Suez which runs from the Red Sea and connects to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. But to the east of the Gulf of Suez is a triangular shaped bit of desert, the Sinai desert. Now Jethro was priest of Midian, further to the east still, in what today we call Saudi Arabia, but Moses was tending a flock in the Sinai desert, some distance from his new home. So, knowing Jethro was priest of Midian tells us Moses was far from both his old home in Egypt and his new home in Midian. But we also learn that Jethro is a priest, so this gives us some information about Moses’s religious life. The Midianites worshipped their own god, not the God of the Israelites, the God Moses is soon to encounter as the living God in the burning bush. And it is fair to assume that growing-up as an Egyptian, Moses would have known other gods too, the gods of the Egyptians. So Moses is about, possibly for the first time in his life, to encounter the God of the Israelites, the God of his ancestors, the true, living God, and to do so in the most dramatic of ways, hearing the very voice of God speak to him from a burning bush.

The third thing we read about is Moses’ encounter with this blazing bush. We are told this is the angel of the Lord in the shape of fire and Moses is curious, “I must go and look at this strange sight”, he says. This is taking place at Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. It is to this very mountain that Moses will later return after he has led the Israelites out of Egypt through the Red Sea, on this very mountain where he will encounter God again and receive from God the two tablets upon which will be written the Ten Commandments. But Moses doesn’t know any of this now, he does not know what he is encountering as he approaches the bush. He hears a voice calling him. “Here I am,” he answers. He is told to take of his shoes, for he is standing on holy ground. And then the voice declares that he is the “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”. Moses then realises in whose presence he is and he covers his face, afraid to look at God.

Next, we read about what it is God wants Moses to do. Now imagine how Moses must be feeling at this point. Here is a man who has been fairly broken. He has been raised with a strange identity, privileged as a Egyptian but really an Israelite. He has had to flee from Egypt, not rejectted by his own people and now a marked-man in the eyes of the Egyptians. He now sees himself as an alien in a foreign land and is spending his time wandering in the desert with flocks of sheep. He is cut-off from his own people, whom he knows are enduring terrible suffering, working as slaves in Egypt. You can imagine him in the desert, depressed at the state of his people and at the events of his own life. And then the Lord calls his name and he realises he is in the very presence of the living God. How must he have felt? Over-awed, excited, privileged, elated, as well as terrified. Then he hears the Lord say a wonderful thing, “I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt. I have heard their appeal to be free of their slave-drivers. Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings. I mean to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians to bring them up out of that land to a land rich and broad, where milk and honey flow.” Wow! Moses must have been overjoyed. Here is the Lord promising liberation for Moses’ people and an implication for Moses that he can join with them without having to return to Egypt.

Now if we look at our reading as it is printed in the missals it looks like Moses immediately says, “I am to go, then to the sons of Israel...” but note that our reading is verses 1-8 and verses 13-15, so what does it say in verses 9-12, the bit missing? It is here that God says to Moses, “And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” Imagine how Moses must have felt now! He has just heard this great news and then he hears that he is the one who has to bring this great news about! He, who has fled Egypt because he knew the Pharaoh would kill him because he had killed an Egyptian, is to go back to Egypt, face Pharaoh and tell him to let the Israelites leave Egypt! This is hardly a promising prospect for Moses.

And so the next thing we read is about Moses’ spectacular attempt to get out of doing the task God asked him to do. First, he says, “Who am I to go?” and God says, “I will be with you”. Then Moses says, “Well who shall I say sent me?” and God reveals his name to Moses. Next, and this is after today’s reading now, Moses says, “What if they do not believe me?” and God gives Moses various miracles he can perform to prove that he is from God. Then Moses declares that he is not a very good public speaker, so God tells him to take his brother Aaron who can speak for him. Finally, in a last desperate bid to avoid the task, Moses actually says to God, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it” at which point God gets angry with Moses and tells him again that he is to go and that he, the Lord, will be with him.


This, then, is the story of the call of Moses. What points can be draw from it to help us reflect on our own call? Here are a few which occur to me.

One, God calls Moses as someone with quite a complex background. So however complex our backgrounds, whatever has happened in our past, God is still interested in what we can do for him.

Two, God uses all of Moses’ previous experience and calls him for a task suited to his experience. Who else would have both a burden for freeing the Israelites and an ability to communicate with the Pharaoh, but this Israelite who had grown up as an Egyptian?

Three, God meets Moses afresh. This man who has known and probably worshipped other gods, comes to a fresh encounter with the Living God. Whatever our faith background then, God can meet us afresh and bring about new things in our lives.

Four, once we respond to the living God we are committed, from Moses’ first “here I am” and even with all his efforts to get out of the task God had in store for him, God’s call cannot be resisted!

Five, as with Moses, God may call us to do things we would never expect to do and never believe we could do and yet, and here is the last point...

Six, whatever God requires of us, he will be there to support us and give us the resources we need to fulfil the task, just as he did with Moses.

Now you be wondering, “how is all of this relevant to me?” in which case keep reflecting during this season of Lent and remain open to what God may be asking you to do. It may be, of course, that God has you doing just what he wants of you, in which case, don’t be surprised if one day calls you to another role. Or it may be, that hearing about Moses’ call, you are inspired to answer an inner calling from God to enter into something new, maybe even enter into some form of new ministry within the life of the church or service within the world. Whatever is your experience today, I trust you can take inspiration from the story of Moses the one who was committed to God from the very moment he uttered those words, “Here I am”. SS/07/03/2010

St Barnabas, Walthamstow
28th February 2010, 10am

Transfiguration - Retreat

Today we think about the story we’ve just heard of Jesus spending time on a mountain with three of his disciples. While they were there something amazing happened to Jesus. His appearance changed, his clothes became as white as lightning and two other people from the Bible, who’d been dead many years, Moses and Elijah, appeared beside him. This amazing event we call ‘the Transfiguration’. Jesus changed before the eyes of his disciples. Jesus was transfigured, he was transformed and shown to look as if he was already sitting on his throne in heaven.

I suppose many of us will have seen those children’s toys ‘transformers’, robots that can be changed into superheroes. And I guess many of us have seen the adverts for cars, transformed to dance around like people. But how many of us are prepared to be transformed by God acting in our lives?

I want to talk this morning about a way we can open ourselves up to being transformed or transfigured. I want to talk about “retreat”. Jesus was a form of retreat when he was transfigured. We are told that he spent some time on the mountain top with his disciples in prayer. They certainly spent one might there, maybe they were there for longer. However long, it is clear that they made a retreat, they came away from all the hustle and bustle of Jesus’ work of teaching and healing to spend time with God in prayer.

In the Bible the mountain is a place to meet God. Moses and Elijah both met God on the mountain top and we can assume that is why they appear with Jesus when he meets God on the mountain top in the transfiguration story. But Moses and Elijah also met their maker on mountain tops, with Moses having a peaceful death and Elijah being taken straight up into heaven. So it is not surprising that Moses and Elijah discuss with Jesus the manner of his death. Today is not the feast of the Transfiguration, we encounter this story here in Lent as a reminded that the story includes this element of Jesus looking towards his own death. His retreat is a form of discerning his true purpose. So it is for us that Lent is a time of reflection and discernment and a good time to think about how going on retreat is an ideal way for us to discern what God is asking of us in our lives.

A retreat doesn’t need to be on a mountain top - there are many places to go on retreat in all sorts of settings - but a retreat is a getting away from the normal hustle and bustle to spend time with God.

I want to say a few things about what a retreat is not. A retreat is not rest. Rest is very important in our lives. In this country we are not very good at resting. We are pushed hard at work and school. Many of us have demanding lives. Perhaps you’re good at resting. If so, share your tips with the rest of us. For we all need to build plenty of rest into our everyday lives. Retreat is not everyday rest but a special going-away – yes, to rest with God but also to do some work with God as well. Retreat is not holiday then either, not a prolonged opportunity to relax or pursue our interests but a time to make an effort with God in a focused way. And retreat is not pilgrimage, not a journey to a place but a focused bit of time, even though this could involve being on the move. Rest, holiday, pilgrimage - these are some of the things a retreat is not. So what is a retreat and how can we go about preparing for one? I’ve taken some advice here from material produced by the Retreat Association.

A retreat is a period of quiet reflection in which we can deepen our relationship with God and our awareness of God's presence and activity in our lives. In laying aside the preoccupations of day-to-day living we are free to be inwardly still, and to think, feel and pray. Through the retreat we may have a sense of affirmation of how we are living, or we may feel challenged to make changes or new commitments.
There are many different kinds of retreat. In led or preached retreats, for example, there are talks, given to the group as a whole; in activity or theme retreats prayer develops from work with paint or clay, observation of the natural world, or the like; in individually guided retreats there are daily one-to-one meetings with the retreat-giver. Different approaches suit different people: you may like to try several.
Some retreats are largely, or entirely, in silence: the people making the retreat do not talk with each other. Despite the lack of conversation, however, there can be deep sense of companionship. At mealtimes there is usually music or a reading to listen to.
On a group retreat there will be periods of worship together. If making an individual retreat it is good to go where it is possible to join in with prayers, for example staying as a guest of a religious community. Such a community will normally provide someone as a link for you if you wish to talk confidentially about things while on retreat.
I have come to enjoy what I call “walking retreats” where I walk for most of the day - sometimes alone, sometimes with others – and build reflection and prayer into the walking experience. I shall be out walking all day tomorrow in preparation for a walking retreat in March and April, walking the length of the Essex Way, an 80 route from Epping to Harwich.
What should we take on a retreat? Well, find out whether there is anything you are asked to take. Take comfortable clothes, and weatherproof outdoor clothes and footwear. You may like to take a notebook. If you enjoy quiet creative activities such as art, knitting or tapestry, you may like to take the materials. A retreat is an opportunity to listen inwardly, and reading can be a distraction - be very sparing in what you take.
What about silence? What should we do in this? Well, relax! You may like to rest and sleep. As you move around, use your senses - pay attention to the sights, sounds and smells. You may like to express any thoughts, feelings, perceptions or insights, in words (prose or verse) or in images (such as drawing, painting or clay). If you read, read only a little and then ponder the meaning of what you read, your reaction to it, and its significance for you. Activity is good if it deepens your retreat: if it starts to take over, set it aside.
And of course you can also pray - for others, for yourself, or in quiet contemplative awareness, open to the Spirit. At the end of a period of prayer, look back over the prayer time and recall what happened. Notice what you felt, and especially anything that surprised you. You may like to record the details in a journal, so that you can go back to them later.
Try to let go of any anxiety, and just relax in the quiet. Be sensitive to others, but behave naturally towards them. If someone smiles at you, feel free to smile back. In the silence, however, you will not know how each person is feeling, so if someone seems to be preoccupied or unaware of you, don't take offence.
If there are talks, try to open yourself to them: let the words touch your heart and mind. Feel free to take notes, but let listening and responding take precedence. Try to be punctual for any group sessions: if everything starts on time everyone will find it easier to relax into the retreat. However, don't feel you have to go to everything or conform to any expectations. Be open to your own needs and the leadings of the Spirit.
The silence will usually finish some time before the end of the retreat, perhaps in time for conservation over the final meal. Before this happens, look back over the retreat. What have you experienced? Have you received or resolved anything? Is there anything you have decided to do? Is there anything about which you remain unclear, or for which you are waiting?
Back at home, daily life will quickly re-impose itself. If you have kept a journal, though, you will be able to remind yourself of the retreat: you might like to put a reminder in your diary to reread the journal in a couple of months' time. You will need to find ways of integrating insights and commitments from the retreat into your ordinary living.
There will be opportunities to tell others about your experience. Be as open as you feel able to be, but recognize too that some moments or sensation may be too subtle or too personal to convey to others.
Peter, James and John found there experience on the mountain top to be so amazing that they wanted to stay there forever. They suggested to Jesus that they make some shelters for them all to stay in. And Luke makes it clear, in adding that Peter did not know what he was saying, that he was being pretty dumb. The transfiguration was an amazing moment in Jesus life. It was a moment of affirming who Jesus was as God’s voice instructed the disciples to listen to his son. It was a retreat from the everyday but the point about retreats is that they equip us to go back to the everyday. The transfiguration always reminds me of Martin Luther-King’s great speech in Harlem after he had received the Noble Peace Prize. He said, I have been meeting Kings and Queens, I have been on a mountain-top having transfiguring experiences. But then he says, I have been on a mountain-top, but I have got to get back to the valley, back to the valley of pursuing the justice and peace. Retreats are transfiguring experiences. Like the Sunday Eucharist, they provide us with strength to face the challenges and appreciate the joys of everyday life. We cannot live on retreat and we may not always be transformed by a retreat but a retreat is a real opportunity to open ourselves towards God doing something special in our lives.
It can be daunting if you’ve never been on retreat to make that first retreat but in my experience people who do so then make a retreat year after year. Feel free to talk to me more if you’d like to explore going on retreat. You are never too young or too old for a retreat. I can provide you with a good magazine on retreats and a link to the Retreat Association. This Lent may be a very good opportunity for you to decide to make a retreat.
I’ll end with a prayer from the Retreat Association:

God of stillness and creative action, help us to find space for quietness today that we may live creatively, discover the inner meaning of silence,
and learn the wisdom that heals the world. Send peace and joy to each quiet place, to all who are waiting and listening. May your still small voice be heard through Christ, in the love of the Spirit Amen.
SS/28/02/2010

Sunday 31st Jan 2010
St Barnabas, E17 - 10am.

Jesus in the synagogue - 'The Bible for Sinners'

Our gospel reading this morning is the continuation of the gospel story we heard last week, the account of Jesus in the synagogue back in his home town of Nazareth. I invite you to join me in taking a closer look at the story. I shall then draw out four points from this bit of scripture, making reference also to this book by Rowland and Roberts entitled ‘The Bible for Sinners’.

So let’s take a closer look at that gospel reading from Luke, chapter 4. Today we heard the story reading from verse 21, but the account of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth began last week from verse 14. Here’s what happens. ‘Jesus, with the power of the Spirit in him, returns to Galilee’. He has not long come from his baptism in the Jordan and those 40 days in the wilderness where he was tested by the devil. We learn later that he had already started healing people and we are told that he was gaining a reputation throughout the region of Galilee, with everyone praising him. Then he comes to Nazareth, the town where he grew up and on the Sabbath day he goes to the synagogue. Jesus stands up to read and he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. From this scroll, he selects these words:

 
The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
For he has anointed me,
He has sent me to bring good news to the poor,
To proclaim liberty for captives,
And to the blind new sight,
To set the downtrodden free
To proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.

After he has read, he sits down and everyone is looking at him. We can assume that they are waiting for him to speak, to deliver some interpretation of the scripture and he then says “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen”. All that was in last week’s reading and we continue this week hearing that, ‘Jesus won the approval of all’ not some, but all, that ‘they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips’. Then someone says, “This is Joseph’s son, surely?” Now we cannot know the way in which this remark was made. Was it positive, ‘hasn’t Joseph’s son grown into a fabulous man?’ or negative, ‘who the hell does this bloke we’ve known since he was a lad think he is?’ Jesus then says, ‘No doubt you will say to me physician, heal yourself.’ He knows they have heard of his miraculous healing elsewhere and he predicts that they will ask him to do the same in Nazareth. But Jesus then says “I tell you solemnly, no prophet is ever accepted in his own town.” He goes on to talk about two stories from the scriptures, both stories of prophets bringing relief not to their own people but to foreigners. Elijah does not go to the widows of Israel but to a widow at Zarephath and Elisha goes not to the lepers of Israel but to the Syrian Naaman. Remember that before he told these stories all had been amazed at his gracious words but now everyone is enraged! They rush to their feet, hustle Jesus out of town, take him to the highest point of their town with the intention of throwing him down the cliff, except that Jesus slips through the crowd and walks away.

That is the story in last and this week’s gospel readings. I shall now draw four points from it and offer them for your reflection, while also making reference to this book ‘The Bible for Sinners’.

The first thing I want to draw attention to is that within this story we find Jesus engaged in interpreting the scriptures for the context in which he lived. When he chooses that passage from Isaiah, he says of it, ‘this text is being fulfilled today even as you listen’. He then uses two stories from the scriptures, stories about the prophets Elijah and Elisha going to the aid of foreigners rather than the people of Israel, to make a point to those listening to him, to illustrate his point that no prophet is ever accepted in his own country. Jesus is interpreting scripture. Now the crowd react very positively when he says the words of Isaiah are being fulfilled in their hearing but after he speak about Elijah and Elisha they become enraged. It is interesting to note this. They first agree and applaud his interpretation; they then become enraged by his interpretation. My own take on this is that they are quite happy to hear the words of Isaiah and to hear that they are to be fulfilled, but they become enraged when Jesus starts to talk of himself as a prophet and one who sees himself in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha as being sent not to his own people but to non-Jews.

This book, ‘The Bible for Sinners’ is a fabulous read not least because it grapples with some of the contentious issues around today concerning the interpretation of the Bible. Drawing upon Jesus’ own teaching that he did not come to ‘the righteous’ but to ‘sinners’, it questions the way those in authority within the Church often determine the interpretation of the Bible and use it to oppress rather than liberate people. For many church leaders, the Bible has become a weapon with which to control human action, rather than a something which gives life to the people of God. This is particular evident in the way in which the Bible is used against divorce, against the leadership of women in the church and against sexual minorities. On the positive side, it points to examples throughout history and today where the Bible is interpreted by the poor and oppressed as a tool for liberation. Seemingly Jesus’ hearers in the synagogue were happy to hear that the downtrodden would be set free. They, after all, lived under a cruel, oppressive Roman regime. But they were less happy to hear that this liberation was also for people they wished to exclude – happy for it to be for them, not for others, especially not for non-Jews. Imagine BNP voters in Barking and Dagenham greeting the news that they will be delivered from their poverty but then becoming enraged that this would also be offered to immigrants.

My first point is that Jesus interpreted the scriptures. My second point is that he did so with ‘the power of the Spirit in him’. It says this right at the beginning of the story. Jesus returns to Galilee ‘with the power of the Spirit in him.’ How should we interpret the scriptures? ‘The Bible for Sinners’ points out that the Bible is not a book which always gives way to a straight-forward interpretation for today’s context. It shows that, throughout history, the Church has recognised the need for discernment in working out how to apply the Bible to its contemporary context. The authors use a description by the respected Evangelical scholar Tom Wright, now Bishop of Durham, of the Bible being like a five act play with the fifth act missing. We need to discern the end of the play by applying what we know of the story so far to our own situation. The authors agree with this approach to interpreting the scriptures and show that this has been a common way of the Church doing so, that it is, for example, the methodology of the Roman Catholic Church today. The problem, of course, is that the Bible lends itself to different interpretations for today’s context. How else would we have such disputes in the church today over women in the church and human sexuality? The authors depart with Tom Wright and the Roman Catholic Church in denying that the ‘fifth act’ can only be interpreted by those in authority. As mentioned earlier, they are arguing for “sinners” rather than “the righteous” to render up interpretations of the Bible. But all agree that this process of interpreting scripture must proceed by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus was in the power of the Spirit, so any interpretation of the scriptures, whoever seeks to offer it, must proceed from prayerful attentiveness to what the Spirit is saying to the churches today.

So where does this leave us? We are not the experts, but we too are charged with the task of interpreting the scriptures, by the power of the Spirit, for our context today. We are not bound by the interpretations of those in authority, but we are not free to interpret the scriptures however we please; being open to the Spirit involves us seeking to discern in love what the scriptures have to say to us and our world in the midst of all our joys and struggles. And this brings me to my third and fourth points.

Third, we can take Jesus’ own interpretation of the scriptures as our pattern for interpreting the scriptures today. We have already noted that we should seek, like him, to interpret scripture in the power of the Spirit. But note what else Jesus does when he uses the scriptures: he uses them to preference those who are oppressed. In fact, a key insight of Rowland and Roberts’ book is that Jesus’ approach to interpreting scripture is much more radical than the way in which the Church has used the scriptures over the centuries. For example, when Jesus is criticised for healing on the Sabbath, he rejects using the scriptures as a means of denying the liberation of those in need of healing. Jesus mixed with those considered unrespectable in his day - with drunkards and gluttons, with tax-collectors and prostitutes - and yet the Church, over the centuries, rather than always siding with those who are excluded from society has often sought to further marginalise and oppress them, often quoting the Bible as a means of doing so. When Jesus reads scripture in the synagogue, he chooses that text about liberation – setting prisoners free, bringing recovery to the blind, good news to the poor. In other words, Jesus uses the scriptures as a tool for liberation and rejects using the scriptures to further oppress people. This is our pattern for interpreting the scriptures, after the example of Jesus himself bringing liberation to those who are downtrodden. In Jesus’ day it was tax-collectors, prostitutes, those with skin diseases, the woman caught having an affair. Who today, who in our society, who among us are the ones for whom the Bible can bring release from exclusion and prejudice, from fear and abuse, from poverty and oppression?

And so to my fourth and final point: Jesus was courageous in his interpretation of the scriptures and that courage also sets the pattern for how we should interpret the scriptures today. Jesus was riding high on popularity when he came to his home town. He chose a passage of scripture which resonated with the oppression of his people. All approved and glorified him. Jesus could have left at that point or said no more and he would forever have been fondly remembered in his home town. But no, he carried on and he enraged his hearers. He knew they would not at all like what he was going to say. And yet he showed tremendous courage. They were so enraged that they attempted to kill Jesus - such was the courage with which he delivered his interpretation of scripture to his hearers. ‘The Bible for Sinners’ gives examples of people through history who have showed tremendous courage in interpreting the scriptures. That courage was sometimes in the face of severe opposition from the Church authorities. In another book edited by Rowland called ‘Radical Christian Writings’, he gives numerous other examples and shows how people through history have interpreted the Bible and stood courageously against state authorities or the general mood of the day. Think of Martin Luther King and his use of the Bible for civil rights, of Desmund Tutu and his use of the Bible against Apartheid. Now, I do not want to be prescriptive about for whom we should be courageously interpreting the Bible today to support those who are downtrodden or excluded. I have my own views and I know you will have yours. What I would love is for as many of us as possible to engage in Bible study together, to interpret the Bible together in love, bringing our own experiences as the raw material for our interpretations. The Bible is ours; it is not the property of the Church hierarchy. Let us embrace it as a liberative tool to help us in our lives and to bring freedom to others.

I have offered my interpretation of the story of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. I hope I have encouraged you to interpret this story in your own way to speak to your context. But I hope too, that we might all be led to interpret the scriptures as Jesus did - in the power of the spirit and with courage to bring liberation to all those who are downtrodden today. 


Steven Saxby - Jan 2010.

Sunday 24th Jan 2010
St Barnabas, E17 - 10am.

Amen

Amen. It’s a word we’re all familiar with. Amen: A word which we say throughout the mass. Perhaps it is a word we’re too familiar with, a word which we take for granted, which we use automatically, especially in church. I’m sure at some point we’ve all stopped to ask ourselves “what does Amen actually mean”, perhaps we’ve even looked it up in the dictionary and been satisfied with the definition “so-be-it”.

Our first reading this morning gives us an opportunity to spend a little longer reflecting on that word Amen. For the occurrence of the word Amen in Nehemiah chapter 8 is one of the relatively few occasions where the word appears in the Bible. In this verse and others the word Amen actually conveys much more than “so-be-it”, even though it rarely appears in the Bible, where it does occur it is used in a variety of ways and it is my hope that as we reflect this morning on the appearance of the word Amen in 2 Corinthians and elsewhere in the Bible, we may be led into a more thoughtful and fruitful use of the word Amen in our worship.

I’m going to focus on four ways in which the word Amen is used in the Bible and instead of making the traditional points 1, 2, 3 and 4, I’ll instead make points A, M, E and N.

A. Amen is used in the Bible as a word which expresses assent. It is indeed used in some places in the Bible, but by no means all, as a means of saying so-be-it, of the people giving their assent, expressing their agreement with what is being said on their behalf. Turn, for example, to what I think is the earliest appearance of Amen in the Bible, to Deuteronomy 27. There we see the various curses on disobedience - where Moses degrees that the priests will regularly recite the curses and after each one “all the people will answer ‘Amen’.”

And I suppose that is our most familiar use of Amen in our worship. A prayer is said and the congregation answer “Amen” - “so-be-it” - a kind of “hear, hear”. Indeed if we were to conduct evensong exactly as we are directed to in the Book of Common Prayer, almost the only thing the congregation say throughout the service is Amen, as a response throughout the service to prayers said by the priest.

We do use Amen to signal our assent to prayers said together or on our behalf during our worship. But this is not the only way in which Amen is used in the Bible and so to point M which is that Amen is used as a manifesto word in the Bible.

What I mean by a manifesto word is that Amen is used not just to signal what the people agree with in the Bible but us also used to signal where the people stand, what they believe in. This is how the word is used in Nehemiah chapter 5. We see in verse 12 that the leaders make a pledge to stop oppressing the poor, they say to the prophet Nehemiah “we’ll do as you say” and in verse 13 “everyone who was present said “Amen” and praised the Lord. And the leaders kept their promise” In Nehemiah 8, the use is similar. The people assent to the Law that has been given and they commit themselves to obey it. They say “so be it” to the instructions to follow the Law.

And this is the context in which the word Amen appears in 2 Corinthians chapter 1. Paul is explaining why he has had to break a promise he made to return to the church in Corinth. The explanation is that it was for their own benefit for him not to return, but he wants to assure them that he made the original promise in good faith, that it was not a fickle “yes” which really meant “no”. I’m sure we’re all familiar with people saying yes to something but having no intention of honouring their promise. Paul breaks his promise for a good reason but he made it in good faith. He did not speak a yes and a no - for Christ is not yes and no but God’s yes, God’s promise of what is good for his people, we can say Amen because through Jesus we are confident of God’s promise.

Amen is an indication of where we stand - we do not fully understand every prayer to which we respond Amen. Some of the prayers we use in church, the collects in particular, take some deciphering before we can understand what we’re really saying Amen too. Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 14.16, Paul warns us of the importance of not saying Amen to something we do not understand at all. He asks those who speak in tongues without interpretation “how can an ordinary person in the meeting say Amen to your prayer of thanksgiving?” And yet there are times where it is appropriate to say Amen where we do not fully understand something, not as a means of saying we understand it, but making the pledge to understand it, to make statements of faith, statements like the creed, which we can never fully understand but which signal our commitment, signal where we stand. In such contexts Amen is our declaration, our manifesto for living in accordance with God’s promises.

And so to point E, which is that Amen is used in some places in the Bible as a word to say everything. Amen is one of those rare words like Alleluia, which sums up our praise, sums up what has been said before. When at the time the Prayer Book was written few were able to read and so join in with the creed, the Gloria and other prayers, it was enough for those people to sum up all that had been said by the priest in that single word “Amen”. This is how Amen is used in Revelation 19.3. All that has been said before is summed up by the 24 elders in the repetition of the words “praise God” and “Amen”.

Indeed much more is made of Amen in some worship contexts where it is used exactly this way. I’m thinking of the way the words “Alleluia” and “Amen” are used continuously throughout many Pentecostal services. Also of the emphasis given to the Amen at the end of the Eucharistic prayer. That Amen is properly known as the great Amen and in the early church it was never a timid little Amen as might be said at other points but was the Amen, the Amen that signified everything that had been said by the priest in the thanksgiving prayer and it would literally have been shouted out by the congregation. You get something of this in churches where the great Amen is song, and especially in South American services where the Amen is song over and over again, rising ever more majestic to the sound of strumming guitars, signifying a word of praise that summarises everything that needs to be said.

And finally, to point N, which is that Amen is used in the Bible as a name, a name for God. This point underpins why it is that we can use Amen as a response to God’s yes in Christ and indeed as a word that sums up all our praise to God. The recognition of God’s truthfulness, God’s faithfulness to his promises is so central to the Biblical understanding of God that Amen is even used as a name for God. Take a look at Isaiah 66. 16 and we see written in out Good News translation “Whoever takes an oath will swear by the Faithful God” but the original Hebrew for that word translated as faithful is Amen and used as a proper name for God “the God Amen”. Later in Revelation 3.14 we find John instructed to write to the angle of the church in Laodicia “this is the message from the Amen - used here as a name for Jesus.” We can say Amen through Christ, precisely because we can be confident that the God of truth, the faithful God, the God Amen will remain faithful to his promises.

You may or may not forget that I’ve used the words assent, manifesto, everything and name to signify some of the different ways in which the word Amen is used throughout the Bible. But I hope you won’t forget that Amen is used in the Bible to mean much more than just “so-be-it”. Let us pray that as we continue to use the word Amen in our worship we may continue to use it as a means of saying yes to God, of declaring where we stand, and as a means of signifying our praise to God, who we can call upon as the God Amen.

Steven Saxby - Jan 2010.


Wedding at Cana

“We are invited to a wedding”. That’s what I say to my wife on those occasions, normally at least once a year, when I open an invitation to a marriage or civil partnership ceremony. We are invited to a wedding. Over the years, that has involved me going as guest, sometimes going as the priest asked to take the wedding, once going as the best man!

I wonder what goes through your mind when you are invited to a wedding. I’ve given some thought to what goes through my mind, and here are three phrases that sum up how I tend to respond to a wedding invitation.

First, I am grateful for the generosity. I’m immensely grateful whenever I have been invited to each of a wedding, to share in such an important and memorable occasion in the lives of the couple. In these days, when typically, a lot of expense on behalf of the couple is associated with inviting people to the ceremony and celebrations that follow, it is a real privilege to be invited to a wedding.

Second, I feel privileged to share in a family occasion. I’m really excited anytime I am invited to a wedding. I suspect I’m not alone here in loving a good wedding. I particularly love the timelessness of weddings, the way the day is punctuated by a series of rituals, accompanied by different types of food and drink, speeches and music. But what I love most of all is the privilege of sharing in a family occasion. If it is friend’s wedding, normally you will get to meet relatives on both sides who you’ve never met before and you are afforded a new insight into the family dynamics of your friend and get to see new sides to their personality. Isn’t it a privilege to share in such a family occasion?

Third, I feel the need to prepare myself. You can’t just turn up to a wedding. A wedding involves a great deal of preparation, even for the guests. I particular remember that wedding when I was best man as that involved me in a special responsibility and a lot of extra preparation. I had several conversations with the groom in the run up to the wedding, I had to go to the stag night, hire a vehicle for the marriage weekend, arrange childcare for the children, buy a present, I remember Christine made a beautiful card, then we had to go shopping for new outfits, and so it went on. Although I felt grateful and privileged to be involved, that wedding in particular involved me in quite a bit of preparation, not to mention having to recall my friend’s most embarrassing moments as I wrote the inevitable best-man’s speech!

Today’s gospel reading is about Jesus at a wedding. The wedding is at Cana, a village not so very far from Jesus’ home town of Galilee. We are not so sure why he is there, and there with his mother and his disciples, but in those days (as in some parts of the world today) a wedding involved a very large gathering of people. In a village like Cana, we can assume that pretty much the whole of the village was invited as well as people with connections to the family from further afield. And weddings would last over a few days: a real celebration for the whole community. So imagine the embarrassment when the wine ran out. We have been reflecting on gratitude for the generosity shown to us at weddings. But imagine a wedding, perhaps you’ve been to one, where the wine runs out! Just as today, it would be a shocking affair.

Aware of the potential embarrassment to the wedding couple of the wine running out, Mary mentions it to Jesus. He seems to dismiss his mother’s suggestion that she is asking him to do something about it and says to his mother, “Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not come yet.” Nevertheless, Mary then says to the servants “do whatever he tells you”. Do you remember what I said about getting an insight into family dynamics at weddings? Here we get a very intimate insight about the relationship between Jesus and Mary. She eggs him on; he resists; she persists; he responds. Remember this Gospel is written by John, Jesus’ beloved disciple and the one he trusted from the cross to take care of his mother. So John knew them both intimately and that intimacy pours out onto the pages of his gospel.

And then remember what I said about preparing for a wedding? Well, he we find Jesus unprepared for what he is about to do. Mary knows his power and urges him to use it for the benefit of others. Now it is often said that Jesus clearly loved a party! His first miracle was to turn water into wine and not just any wine – wine that was described as the best of the evening. And it wasn’t just a glass or two. Jesus turned six stone water jars into wine, the kind we know stored 30 gallons of water, that is 180 gallons or 818 litres of wine! That would have kept the party going for quite some time and it shows once again the generosity of God, his goodness overflowing towards us, just as when Jesus fed the 5000 and there was plenty left over. But the point in all this is that Jesus didn’t feel prepared and yet his hour had indeed come for him to reveal something of who he was. As I have said before, Epiphany is a all about Jesus being revealed for who he really is – in the visit of the magi, in his baptism in the Jordan, in his miracle at Cana. And what the gospel says today is ‘This was the first of the signs given by Jesus: it was given at Cana in Galilee. He let his glory be seen, and his disciples believed in him.’

With that wonderful story of Jesus at a wedding in mind, here is an invitation for you: join me, if you will, on a short tour, a tour through the Bible looking at the relationship between God and weddings. We’re not so much concerned here with the obvious and frequent references to people in the Bible getting married, but rather with the way wedding imagery and language is used in the Bible to tell us something about God. So, if you’d like to fasten your seat-belts we’ll begin the tour.

We start in the Old Testament with Isaiah 54:5 and here is how the prophet describes God’s relationship with the people of Israel “your Creator is your husband”. We move rapidly to Jeremiah and there the Lord says this about his people “I shall make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah but not like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt, a covenant which they broke, even though I was their Husband.” Next we move on to the prophet Hosea and here we find that the book begins by talking about marriage, indeed the unfaithful wife of Hosea is compared to Israel as the unfaithful wife of the Lord, but God is so loving to the Israel that he takes back this unfaithful wife, declaring, “I will betroth you to myself forever”.

As our tour shifts to the New Testament we find this wedding imagery continues and that Jesus on various occasions refers to himself as the “Bridegroom”. The disciples ought to be happy that Jesus is with them for “the time will come when the bridegroom is to be taken away from them” and yet this time of sadness will pass for we are also told in the parable of the 10 wedding attendants that the Lord will come again, come indeed as a bridegroom at an unexpected time when only those who are prepared will be able to run out and greet him. Moving on to Ephesians we find that St Paul makes the explicit link between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and his church and at the end of our tour, in the Book of Revelation, we are given that glorious image of a wedding banquet in heaven where Jesus is the Bridegroom and the Church is the Beautiful bride.

We are invited to a wedding. The tour we’ve been on presents us with a clear pattern throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament God himself is described as the Bridegroom to a sometimes unfaithful Israel; in the New Testament God in the person of Jesus becomes the Bridegroom to the church. It hardly needs pointing out that the church has also been at times unfaithful to Christ, that the church at times has been far from beautiful and yet we’re given that wonderful image at the end of time of the bridegroom coming again and restoring the church to her beauty as the bride of Christ, celebrating with him in the heavenly banquet.

We are invited to a wedding. How about considering again those three phrases I mentioned earlier about gratitude, privilege and preparation in the light of Jesus wedding at Cana and of a wedding tour of the Bible?

Gratitude for generosity: just as we are grateful when invited to a wedding, let us be truly grateful to the generous God that we’ve been invited to participate in his purposes.

Privilege to share in a family occasion: our invitation is an invitation to participate with God and the love he enjoys within the Trinity and which overflows to us. Just as we see that beautiful insight into the loving relationship between Jesus and his mother in today’s gospel, even more are we drawn into the insights between Jesus and his father, the love between God the Father and God the Son. Let us pray that we may continually feel privileged by the invitation to participate with God in the dynamics of his overflowing love!

And finally, the need to be prepared: Let us pray that we may be prepared, prepared on a daily basis to worship and serve God and prepared also for that great heavenly banquet. Let us pray, that we may be like those wise wedding attendants in one of Jesus’ parables, that we will be truly ready to run out and greet the bridegroom when he comes. We are invited to a wedding and not only that, we are invited together as the church to be the very bride of Christ, to be intimately feasting and dancing with him at the heavenly banquet.

We are invited to a wedding, may we feel grateful, privileged and prepared to respond to that r.s.v.p., “Yes my Lord, we will be there!”

Steven Saxby - Jan 2010.

Baptism of Christ - 2010

St Barnabas, Walthamstow, 10th January 2010
Baptism of Christ

John declared before them all, “I baptise you with water, but someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

There’s a story of a famous, radical priest who would often climb into the pulpit and shout “Fire! Fire! Everywhere but in the Church!”

Well let me ask you and ask us all: Does your baptism in Christ set you aflame? Are you bringing the fire of God to others? Is the church setting the world alight?

John the Baptist, or John the Baptiser, had a fabulous ministry. People went to him in large numbers to be baptised. They went out to meet him in the desert. They were washed by him, purified of their sins. And even Jesus, considers it fitting that he should be baptised by John. But the baptism of Jesus is different from that of John in several respects. First, John baptised his own people – it was Jewish people who went to John for baptism. But as Luke points out in that section of the Acts of the Apostles (our second reading today), the baptism Jesus offers is open to all, anybody of any nationality who fears God. It’s great to hear that, not least in our multi-cultural congregation and community. Baptism is the rite of welcome into the life of the church and that welcome is one we are to offer, as Christ did, to all people, of every nationality, recognising as Acts says ‘that God does not have favourites’.

Secondly, John washed away the sins of those who came to him seeking purification. But the baptism offered through Jesus is something even more radical, even more powerful. John is keen to emphasise that he is simply the one who points the way to Jesus. John has become popular with the crowds but he deflects the attention away from himself, even using the fantastic, exaggerated image of not being “fit to undo the strap of his sandals”. John says that the one coming, Jesus, will be much more powerful than he is and that is reflected in baptism. John’s baptism washes away sins, but Jesus’ baptism not only does that, it actually leads us to be totally re-born. Paul writes in various places of how in baptism we die with Christ and are raised to new life with him, and that imagery of death and re-birth is very much reflected in the baptism liturgy we use today. That is what we are promoting when we encourage people to consider baptism for themselves or for their children, not just the forgiveness of sin, but being re-born in Christ, being born to new life in him.

And the third thing to notice about the difference between the baptism of Christ and the baptism of John, is what John himself describes – he baptised with water, Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit and with fire. I am often astonished by those who say the church did not invent the Holy Trinity until the Council of Nicaea in the C4th. Now it is true that the church took three hundred years of reflection and debate, years of humans seeking to understand the mystery that is God, before proclaiming the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. But the awareness of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit was always present in the mind of the Church and not least because it is thoroughly scriptural and no more obvious than in the gospel reading for today. Luke tells us very clearly, Jesus is at prayer, after his baptism by John, “and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily shape, like a dove.” And then the voice of God the Father descends from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you”. There it is, very plainly, in the scriptures: God the Son, with God the Holy Spirit descending upon him, and the voice of God the Father from the heavens. Simples!

John baptises with water; Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Now, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ own baptism, even descending upon him in the form of a dove. And we believe that when someone is baptised it is by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is what makes Baptism a sacrament in the eyes of the Church, it involves the presence of the Holy Spirit descending upon the one being baptised. Again this is all reflected in the baptism liturgy so when we encourage people to baptism we encourage them to partake of the Holy Spirit. That is why, incidentally, we need not be overly anxious when parents bring a child for baptism and we may feel they are doing it for social reasons, that they are not really committed to bringing the child up in the faith – that child when baptised receives the Holy Spirit and we can trust that it is the Holy Spirit which will be at work in the life of that child.

So far we have noticed three things. 1) John baptised his fellow Jews; Jesus’ baptism is for all people. 2) John washes away sins; in Jesus we are washed of our sins and baptised into new life. 3) John baptised with water; Jesus’ baptism is baptism by the Holy Spirit. These are the three things we have noticed but we have still not heard much about that other aspect. John said Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. What of that fire? Let me try to warm you up a bit as we focus a bit more on fire!

The church was of course born with fire! On the day of Pentecost, the day on which we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming down on those first 120 disciples, the Holy Spirit descended, not this time as a dove, but in the form of tongues of fire coming down from heaven, separating out and landing on each one them! The church was brought to birth with fire! And fire, throughout the Bible, is associated with the presence of God.

In Exodus 3, God appears in the burning bush in the form of fire. In Exodus 19, God appears to Moses again, this time on Mount Sinai and we’re told he descends on the mountain in the form of fire. In Leviticus 6, the priests are instructed to set up a fire on the altar of the Lord and told ’the fire must always be burning on the altar, it must never go out’. In Isaiah 60 and similarly in Revelation 22, it is implied that the everlasting light that shines out to the nations is that of God in the form of fire. Have we got the point? Throughout the Bible, and there are many other passages which show us the same thing, the holiness of God, the presence of God is associated with fire.

Let us return to the questions I asked earlier: Does your baptism in Christ set you aflame? Are you bringing the fire of God to others? Is the church setting the world alight?

I discovered only last week that during our midnight mass here, while I was reading the gospel in the middle of church and quite unaware of what was going on behind me, a member of the choir, quite literally, was on fire for God!! One of the candles caught her robe and it caught light. Now what would you do in that situation? I know that I would panic. But she didn’t. She stayed calm. She patted down the fire but more than that, she replaced being on fire in the literal sense with being on fire in the spiritual sense, her calmness and her faith, led to feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit. She was on fire for God!

Sometimes, most of the time, a fire is a tragic thing for a church! But occasionally - this is off the record - a fire in a church - whether partial or totally burning the church to the ground - is the occasion for a creative re-ordering or a new, more appropriate building. Take the example of St George’s, Shernall St, where a glorious new church rose up from the ashes after the previous building was burned down! What I want to draw out in all of us is the question, how can I, how can we - without literally burning down church buildings or setting ourselves alight - how can we actually be a church on fire, so that we can light up the world around us?

The image of fire may seem fierce - and sometimes fire, even holy fire, the fire of the Holy Spirit - is fierce. It may be fierce in a positive way - like the fire of a coal furnace, creating energy that we receive in a controlled, helpful way. Or it may be fierce is a destructive way, like an out of control forest fire, destroying at random, possibly making way for something better to develop but maybe destroying that which we will mourn the loss of. But fire can also be gentle, providing not only warmth, but comfort and inspiration. Have you ever found yourself staring at a fire, maybe a bonfire transfixed, in awe at its wonder and beauty? Fire can be fierce but is can also be gentle: there are different kinds of fire.

And one thing we need to remember in the context of our baptism in Christ is that there are different kinds of disciple - the very fact that the tongues of fire led the disciples to speak in so many diverse languages suggest there is no one way in which every Christian is expected to bring God’s fire to the world - as Paul puts it to the church in Corinth - there are many gifts, many ways of serving the Lord, but ... there is the one Spirit. In other words, it may be your gift as part of the church to bring the gentle warming, comforting fire of the spirit to those around you, or it may be your gift to bring disturbance, to set the world around you ablaze.

Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. In doing so, we focus on the baptism he received from John but also on the baptism we receive through faith in Christ. This is a baptism for all people, this is a baptism which brings re-birth in Christ, this is a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. So, let us use this occasion to ask ourselves again, to be challenged by the baptism of our Lord, and seek to say Amen to those questions. Does your baptism in Christ set you aflame? AMEN. Are you bringing the fire of God to others? AMEN. Is the church setting the world alight? AMEN!


Steven Saxby - January 2010
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Epiphany Sunday 2010

I was struck this year by how many of the Christmas cards we received depicted the three wise men. In all of them it was three, dressed as kings carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Its a very popular, very strong image at Christmastime - as certain as Mary wearing blue and the cute cow in the stable. One year I made a point of experiencing a Spanish Epiphany. Its then that the Spaniards really give gifts to each other, emulating the gifts of the wise men to Jesus. There was a real sense of carnival, the streets were full of thousands, there was a massive procession of bands, huge puppets, dancers, horses and at the end, the climax of the parade came the three elaborately dressed kings, riding on camels. And yet, however strong an image we way have of the three kings or wise men, its revealing to take a closer look at the gospel for this morning and remind ourselves of how much vaguer the biblical account is than the one impressed upon our collective consciousness.

First of all, it is only in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth that we read of the wise men (and by contrast only in Luke that we read of the shepherds). Of course, we don’t really read about wise men at all, but rather, in the best translations anyway, of the magi - who no doubt were wise, but may have been many other things as well. Indeed, there’s a lot to be said for an ambiguous term to describe these mysterious characters who followed the stars and listened to their dreams. And then, we are not told there were actually three magi. Perhaps it fair to assume that if each bore one gift as in the school plays, the classical paintings and the Spanish processions that there were three, but the text itself does not give us a number, the masculine plural in the Greek tells us it was at least two but it could have been any number more, and as far as the grammar is concerned there is no reason to believe that a band of magi, collectively bearing the three gifts did not include women. Furthermore, we are not told very clearly where the magi are from. We’re are told somewhat vaguely that they came from the east. But what does that mean? East of Jerusalem? China, India - if so were they Hindu, Buddhist? More than likely, Matthew expects the reader to make the literary link between the gifts borne by the magi and the treasures associated in Jeremiah and Ezekiel with the rulers of Arabia - ancestors of Islam. And what do these gifts represent? Traditionally, each of the gifts has been given symbolic significance, each a kind of prophecy related to what Jesus be and do: Gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity, myrrh for suffering. But others have speculated further and our own Bishop of Barking has described each a potent symbol of power: economic power, religious power and media power. Perhaps they were simply the best the world of Jesus’ time had to offer. What we might ask would be laid at Jesus’ manger in today‘s world?

And yet, amidst all the questions that the biblical account of the magi raises, there are at least two things that were quite clearly in Matthew’s mind when he wrote down his account, things indeed for more important than the details about how many visitors came, who exactly there were, where precisely they came from and what there gifts represented. First Matthew’s presentation of his story makes it clear that the magi are to do with revealing something about who Jesus is. The magi come not to reveal themselves, but to reveal something about Christ - indeed perhaps that’s why Matthew is vague about the magi - Jesus is the focus of the story. And whoever they are, the light draws then to Jesus, he fills them with joy, they kneel down to worship him and they, who were probably used to receiving gifts, offer their gifts to him. That is why the season is called Epiphany, word that literally mean manifestation - its about making manifest, making known what Jesus is. And secondly, and here’s the real highlight of the story: Matthew is clear that the visitors reveal something quite specific about Jesus - something that would have come as a shock to his first largely Jewish readers. Jesus is made known not only to the Jews but also to gentiles. Indeed, the inclusion of Herod in the story shows Matthew demonstrating that some Jews were to reject Jesus and yet, these mysterious visitors from the east, certainly non-Jews were able to recognise what Jesus was and in doing so foretell how Jesus would bring salvation to all of God’s people, Jew and Gentile. Perhaps its these points that we can bear in mind as we take down our Christmas cards, look again at those famous paintings and fondly remember the school plays and Epiphany processions?

Steven Saxby - 2010

Sun 25th Dec’ 2009 – Christmas Day,

I pray that the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts may be acceptable in God’s sight. Amen.

What present are you giving to Jesus’ this Christmas? Hold on to that question. What present are you giving to Jesus’ this Christmas?

I belong to an e-mail group of clergy and others and one of my comrades sent his present to the group, a re-working of the hymn O Come, all Ye Faithful. In his version, the second verse begins:

“Sing, choirs of vagrants,
sing in desperation,
sing, all ye denizens of streets below,
"Glory to God
Glory in the highest!"
O come let us adore him

Those words are a good reminder of how God comes, not least, to the poor at Christmas. Born in the poverty of a stable, his first visitors are the poor shepherds in the fields. In one version of the retelling of this story, in a medieval mystery play, the shepherds present their gifts, small things, but all they have: a bunch of cherries, a small bird, and the last says:

Hail, darling dear, full of Godhead!
I pray thee be near when that I have need.
Hail, sweet of thy cheer! My heart would bleed
To see thee sit here is so poor weed,
With no pennies.
Hail! Put forth they hand.
I bring thee but a ball:
Have and play withal,
And go to tennis.

And yet the Christ-child is visited not only by the poor and lowly shepherds with their simple gifts but also by the wise and powerful with their highly symbolic and valuable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh.

And yet, even the wealthiest can be poor. One of our Christmas Eve rituals is watching “It’s Wonderful life!” When George Bailey’s father dies, George says to the powerful Mr Potter - the twisted old man, taking over the town without a care for its people - George Bailey says to Potter, “My father died a richer man than you’ll ever be”. And we can see how poor Potter is, due to his lack of compassion, compared to the caring Peter Bailey.

And Christ is visited at Christmas by us as well, we who whether poor or rich, come with all sorts of vulnerabilities and weaknesses, our own poverty. We heard in our gospel reading that the Word was Made Flesh and it is to our weak, frail, vulnerable, hurting flesh that Jesus comes and comes to transform.

What present are you giving to Jesus’ this Christmas? Why not just give of yourself? Just come to Jesus as you are. However, poor or rich you may be feeling at this time, whatever the strains or joys in your life. Draw near to the child in the manger and let him transform you. Why not come to Jesus with these Christmas carol words in mind?
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.


SS - Sunday 25th December 2009.

St Barnabas, Walthamstow - 29th November 2009 - Advent

"Who are you?" On one level that might seem like a straight -forward enough question. And were a new acquaintance to ask, "Who are you?" you'd probably give the relatively simple answer: "I'm Don", "I'm Edna", "I'm Vera"... But suppose a good friend were to put the question, "Who are you?" How would you respond then?

There's a story of a very ill woman who was lying in a coma. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Judgement Seat.
"Who are you?" a Voice said to her.
"I'm the wife of the mayor", she replied.
"I didn’t ask whose wife you are but who you are."
"I'm the mother of four children," she said.
"I didn't ask whose mother you are but who you are," said the Voice.
"I'm a schoolteacher."
"I didn't ask what your job is but who you are."
And so it went on, but whatever she said she didn't seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question "Who are you?"
"I'm the one who goes to church every week and helps those in need," she said.
"I didn't ask what you do but who you are."
She evidently failed the test, for she was sent back to earth. When she recovered from her illness, she was determined to find out who she was.
[Taken from De Mello, Taking Flight, pp140f.]

Who are you? Who am I? These seem particular good questions to ask on Advent Sunday. Today our focus is on the second coming of Christ, on what we call the last judgement, the time when each of us, like the woman in the story, will be asked to give an account of who we are before the Lord. In the reading we heard from Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonia, he urges them to “make more progress in the kind of life that they are meant to live”. In the gospel reading, Jesus urges his disciples to stay awake at all times so that they can “stand with confidence before the Son of Man.” So our Christian lives are a preparation for us standing before the Lord at the Last Judgement and giving an account of who we are.

Who are you? I suggest this morning that this question and our preparation for the last judgement are closely related to matters which we in the church refer to as issues of 'vocation' or 'calling'. Some years ago, I happened to be reflecting on those issues when I received a phone-call from a friend of mine. At the time he was a Franciscan brother and his phone-call seemed heaven-sent. He said to me: "What are you doing this afternoon?" I replied, "I'm reflecting on vocation." "Good," he said, "How would you like to come and watch a game at Upton Park?"

After the game, as we attempted to drown our sorrows in the Boleyn Pub over another West Ham defeat, my friend surprised me by turning to me and saying “I don't really believe in vocation. What he meant, I discovered, was that he didn't subscribe to the idea of vocation that sees God's finger descending from the clouds and plucking some unsuspecting character to play a difficult role in the divine drama. That way of seeing vocation is, I suspect, quite familiar to many of us. We often see vocation as being about priests and bishops, about monks and nuns, about the great characters of the Bible, but far less about us, about us ordinary folk. Even when we do accept that we have a part do play in God's great plan to redeem the world, it seems that ours is a very minor one.

For my friend, as for me, vocation is about that for some but has much more to do with asking the question "Who am I?" And the answer to that question for my friend, for me, for each one of us is hugely complex. For us, as for the woman in the story I told earlier, it can seem more difficult to answer "Who are you?" than to describe ourselves in terms of our family relationships, our work, our hobbies, our church commitments, where we live, what we do, who we spend time with, and so on. Of course all these things do - to a large extent - shape our lives but no single aspect of our lives seems to give a satisfactory answer to the question "Who are you?"

Of course, we are called to different tasks and to different responsibilities. The church needs priests, monks, nuns. It needs Readers, Evangelists, Pastoral Assistants, Servers, Organists, Choir members, cleaners, intercessors, flower-arrangers. It needs Christian men and women to be active in the world. It needs people to be involved in public life, as school governors and politicians. It needs people in various professions as teachers and nurses, in finance, in administration, in shops and factories, in Walthamstow market – all being salt and light, living out Christian values and sharing them with others. We have vocations to our lifestyles whether we are single or married or in civil partnerships, whether we are fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, brothers and sisters. But all of this, whatever is right for us, is an outworking of what it means for us to answer the question “who are you?”, it is about discovering who we truly are in our relationship with God.

Whatever else we are, it encourages me to recognise that each and every one of us is unique, special. Never forget that you are somebody, created by God to be nothing else but yourself, the person God has created you to be. It's interesting to note that in the Bible vocation or calling is bound up with naming. That comes across for example in the prophet Jeremiah where he says: 'The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.' Simon, when he meets Jesus is from then on called Peter. On meeting him, Jesus does not ask "Who are you?" Jesus knows who he is. He says "You are Simon son of John", but Jesus knows him even better than he knows himself. Jesus does not so much give him a new name as give him his true name as he says to him "You are to be called Peter".

It's a wonderful thought, in contrast to the difficulty of answering "Who are you?" to think that each of us has a true name, fully known to God but not always clear to ourselves. What vocation is about, is discovering who we really are, discovering the name by which God knows us. What vocation is not about is identifying a role and asking "Can I do it?" Rather it is about reflecting on whether how we live is really true to who we are. That's what preparing for ordination was about for me. It wasn't about shaping myself to some ecclesiastical mould; it was about reflecting on my past, imagining my future and asking myself "Will ordination really be about me being who I really am?" Such change in life is often gradual and respects what God has done with our lives so far. Tomorrow is St Andrew’s Day and I love the way that Jesus respects the previous profession of Andrew and Simon by saying that they will remain fishermen if they follow him - it is just that they will now catch people rather than fish. But change can also be frightening and Andrew, one who suffered for his faith, who died on that X shaped cross, knew that kind of change too. At times like these, I am mindful of that beautiful song - “do not be afraid for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name, you are mine”.

So, “who are you?” And what is God currently doing in your life? Is he calling you to a gradual or a dramatic change? Is he calling you to some new task or role? If so, it is worth asking these “who am I?” type questions. And these are the “who am I?” type questions I encourage you to ask yourself at times of potential change in your life: “Will my life taking that shape allow me to be me?” “Will it do justice to who I've been in the past?” “Will it enable me to fulfil God’s vision of my future?" These are questions I have asked at various points in my life - when I first became a Christian, when I offered myself for ordination, when I got married, had children, changed job or started a new course of study. And, thank God, I have found more often or not, and even in the face of big challenges ahead, the answers to these questions, much to my delight, have come as a surprisingly clear, joyful, hopeful "Yes!" At such times, I have heard the Lord calling my name.

"Who are you?" It is not an easy question to answer. We are yet to discover our true names. But in the meantime, we are discovering ourselves, we are preparing to make an account of ourselves before the Lord and we do so not least through learning from others who we are to them. For the time being, at least, we can hear the Lord calling our name through the voices of our brothers and sisters. So if you are asked "Who are you?", by a stranger of a friend, you might do a lot worse than give the hugely complex, yet relatively simple answer: "I'm Don", "Edna", "I'm Vera"...

Steven Saxby - November 2009.


SUNDAY 15th Nov 2009. St Barnabas, Walthamstow

Last Judgement

Our readings today focus on an awesome theme – the theme we often refer to as the Last Judgement. These readings are part of the build-up to Advent, which begins in two weeks’ time, and which always begins with reflection on the Second Coming of Christ, a time Christians look forward to as the End of Time. Our lectionary is preparing us for Advent, for the beginning of the Christian Year, but, of course, Advent is always a rather curious beginning to the Christian Year as it always begins with what we normally think of as the end. And these few weeks in the run up to the beginning of Advent and its focus on the Second Coming, also anticipate the End of Time or, as it is also known, the Coming of Christ’s Kingdom, for which reason this pre-Advent period is sometimes called the Kingdom Season.

So it is that our readings today are what are known as “apocalyptic”. Like the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse of John, they in some way predict the End of Time. Our first reading from Daniel predicts the Archangel Michael protecting God’s people at a future of time of great distress, when ‘spared will be the ones whose names feature in the Book, and where they will go to everlasting life, while other to everlasting damnation’. And in Mark’s gospel, Jesus also predicts a time of great distress, when angels will gather up the chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven’. And these passages are like many others in Daniel, and prophets such as Isaiah And Jeremiah, as well as a few other references in the Gospels, which predict events we usually associate with the End of Time and the Last Judgement of Christ. Luke's gospel speaks of this day in relation to signs in sun and moon and stars, to distress upon the earth at the roaring of the seas, and to the Son of Man himself descending on a cloud.

These ‘apocalyptic’ passages have often been interpreted in a way which conjures up rather horrific images of what the end of the world will be like. There is a huge painting in the Tate Gallery by John Martin entitled 'The Great Day of His Wrath'. Soon after it was completed, that is in the early eighteenth century, it toured the country and folk would pay to go and see it much as people pay to see a movie today. I can see why they did. For this painting is full of action. It depicts an apparent valley at the bottom of which there are many people in great panic and fear. This valley is actually formed by what looks like a massive wave of deep red volcanic lather. On closer inspection the viewer of the painting realizes that at the top of the wave, suspended on its edge, way up in the air, is a whole city and that this city is about to come crashing down on the cowering people below. This is just one image of a type with which we are all familiar. Some Christians it seems still enjoy presenting such images to non-Christians, something which always strikes me as a rather counter-productive way of trying to convince people that God is Love. But most of us, I suspect, would, because of these horrific images, prefer to keep quiet about the Last Judgement. We may even feel that if it is really going to be as these images paint it, then we would wish to join neither those perishing in the eternal fire of Hell nor those smug Christians in heaven saying 'I told you so'.

The problem for us in relation to our understanding of the last judgement is that the idea has been somewhat hijacked by those who present it as an horrific final day, the exact date to be revealed on the day itself, and on which Jesus will literally descend on a great cloud and dish out eternal rewards to some and eternal punishments to others. But I want to argue that this is by no means the only way in which we can conceive of the last judgement. To help me make this argument, allow me to share with you five considerations.

The first is quite a frivolous but none-the-less heart warming one. It relates to the fact that all those men who used to walk around with signs reading 'The End is Nigh' in Oxford Street and elsewhere, people who used to horrify me as a child, are now walking around with signs saying things like “50% off, turn right after 200 yards”. We realize now that they were being paid all along and were not, as we might have suspected, special messengers from 'On High'.

My second, more serious, consideration has to do with the issue I referred to earlier about the way in which the Christian Year is structured. We begin at what seems like the end. Why? Why doesn't the Christian year start, like most stories, 'once upon a time' or, as the Bible puts it, 'in the beginning'? It is interesting to note that the Creation story does not feature in the lectionary until around March. The reason for this is, I suspect, relates to the notion that the Christian story is bigger than humanity's part in it. It is the story of the mystery of our faith, yes. But the mystery of our faith must surely point beyond itself to the mystery of God, a mystery which is not contained within the boundaries of human time or space or reason. Our beginning is not God's beginning; nor is our end God's end. To begin our story with our end is curious, but then our story is a curious one. It is one which points beyond itself to that which is the mystery of God, a mystery beyond all our beginnings and all our ends.

Following this, my third consideration relates to the appropriateness of expressing our understanding of the mystery of God as a story. The telling of stories is an important and major feature of human life. But what are they? What do they do for us? Why do we tell them? We all do tell them. We tell them about ourselves. We tell them about others. We watch films that tell stories. We sing songs that tell stories. We follow a team and we become part of its story (in my case the fall and fall of West Ham United). We watch soap operas - and even though the characters in them do not really exist, there is no doubt that the stories about them can tell us something about ourselves, about how to live our lives well and about how to share our lives with others.

One of the things we have increasingly become aware of in recent years is that the Christian story is by no means the only story to which people in Britain appeal to help them live well. Not only do we live in an increasingly multi-faith society but people are increasingly making use of stories that are not from any religious tradition. The daily news, films, soaps, popular music - all of these probably exercise a far greater influence on people's everyday thoughts and actions than all of the religious traditions in Britain put together. This is by no means a thoroughly bad thing. Indeed, we tell many of these stories too. For many of them are good stories which help us to live well. But let us not forget that our Christian story is also a good story. It is our story, a story that helps us to live well. And in a world where not all stories other than ours are bad but in which far too many stories are about distrust and despair and violence, our story of faith and hope and love surely has much to offer.

But am I selling the Christian faith short by saying that what we have to offer is 'a story'? Should I not instead speak of us proclaiming 'the truth', as many other Christians do? I don't think so. For to describe our faith as a story is to keep in mind that the story is ultimately not about us but about that mystery of God to which I have referred. Karl Barth, who most recognize as a very orthodox theologian, wrote that stories are a particularly appropriate way to talk about what is true in relation to God. For telling a story is not about providing a series of neatly packaged bits of information. If this were so then stories would certainly not be appropriate for conveying anything about the mystery of God. A story, even a Biblical story, is not, for example, like a cake. When we bake a cake, however creative that may be - and I am discovering here at St Barnabas that cakes here can be very creative - when all is said and done the cake is consumed and that's the end of it. But it is not the same with a story. The information we put into a story is not just consumed with the telling of that story. Stories go on having an impact on us. And even stories from the Bible do not convey information to be consumed but to be considered, interpreted, used, re-interpreted and re-told. All this is done in relation to our always inadequate understanding of what truth such stories are conveying about the subject of our faith, namely the mystery of God.

And so to my fourth consideration. This has to do with the circumstances in which the references to the last judgement were first produced, namely circumstances of persecution. The first talk of last judgement in the Bible comes from the time when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. These circumstances, which led the prophet Isaiah to speak of a day of righteousness and judgement, were very bleak circumstances indeed. The Israelites were crushed and without hope. They were far away from their country, cut off from their fellow citizens, working as slaves, and with no political or military power to do anything about it. How were they to interpret their experience in relation to the mystery of God? Some of them seemed ready to give up on their God. God may have led them out of slavery in Egypt and into a promised land, but now they felt utterly deserted. It was in these circumstances of apparent abandonment that Isaiah and others encouraged their fellow Israelites not to give in to despair. They should keep hope and keep faith with their God for this God would come to rescue the Israelites from exile.

If we are to believe the biblical scholars, it was the very circumstances of the exile which gave rise not only to a new story about the end of time but also to a new story about the beginning of time. So it was in this period that the 'In the beginning' account of creation was also first written down. And it was in this period that the story about a final day of judgement was first written. The circumstances which gave rise to both a beginning and an end story were circumstances in which the Israelites came to believe that their God was in control of history, that this God was able to act in their history and liberate them from the mighty Babylonian empire which was keeping them in exile. So it seems less likely that the stories were written to convey a package of information about the first seven days and the very last day of history and it seems much more likely that these stories were written for the express purpose of expressing the hope of the people who were the first to hear them.


What these first four considerations amount to is this: for many of us the traditional but horrific image of the last judgement as an actual day at the end of time seems unacceptable; at the same time such an horrific image does not seem to do justice to the original purpose for which the last judgement story was written, nor to the sort of information stories as stories convey, nor to the way in which we tell our Christian story, nor to the primary subject of that story. I am not suggesting that we should dismiss the notion of the last judgement altogether, but I am suggesting that we should all feel easier about re-interpreting the end of our Christian story in ways which make sense for us as we try to live well in relation to the mystery of God.


And so to my fifth and final consideration which relates to paying attention to what Paul says in the second reading were heard today from his letter to the Hebrews. Paul refers to Jewish priest over and over again offering sacrifices, normally animal sacrifices, for the forgiveness of sins. He then says that Christ has offered one single sacrifice for sins and that he has taken his place for ever at the right of hand of God. Notice that even Christ’s enemies are there with him, and even have the honour of being a footstool for him. And Paul goes on to say ‘by virtue of that one single offering, he (Christ) has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying’. Should we, with Paul, believe that the Old Testament notion of some being thrown into eternal damnation no longer applies? Jesus is now at work sanctifying all! It is not for us to know the mystery by which this is achieved, but that is the promise: Jesus is at work sanctifying all creation, working for the eternal perfection of all he is sanctifying and by his once and for all offering of himself, this work is already in the process of completion! As Jesus himself predicts from the cross “It is finished”!

These considerations have, I hope, helped me make the argument that we need not consider the last judgement in relation to the sort of horrific images with which we are all far too familiar. Yet it would be quite contrary to the way in which I have made my argument to suggest precisely what an alternative interpretation of the last judgement story should be. Let me leave you however with just one example of a re-telling of the story which I, at least, find quite attractive. It is the way the composer Mahler re-tells the story in his second symphony. The symphony begins as a very depressing piece of music and as it goes on it basically gets even more depressing - that is until the fifth and final movement which leaves the hearer with a sense of overwhelming joy. In his notes about the symphony Mahler describes the music as a story of a person who goes through a sense of tremendous despair, of feeling totally cut off from God but who finally experiences the last judgement as follows: 'In wondrous light the glory of God appears and behold! there is no judgement, there are no sinners, no righteous ones, no punishment, no rewards, only an overwhelming love.'

15/11/09 – Steven Saxby.

Sun 8th Nov’ 2009 - Remembrance Sunday,
St Barnabas, Walthamstow

Let us pray that the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts may be acceptable in the sight of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Remembrance Sunday and my message for today is this: we come to remember the past - but it is also important that we recall what is going on in the present AND that we remember for the future.

First then, we come today to remember all those who have died in past wars, especially - as is our responsibility - to remember those who died in the service of this country. We are reminded again of the powerful image of the fields of blood which became fields full of poppies. We engage in our Remembrance Day ceremonies on the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, the day on which the First World War came to an end. We remember service men and women who have died in the World Wars but also in more recent conflicts involving this country. We try to remain aware of the sheer horror of war, the terrible suffering endured by those on the front line. Our gospel today was about sacrifice and today we try to honour the sacrifice made by those who died in the service of others. And this is, of course, a difficult task: difficult for those of us too young to remember past conflicts; painfully difficult for those who have served in War and bring their own memories of friends and comrades lost in action. It is important that we keep the traditional two minute silence, as we shall be doing close to 11 o clock - for keeping silence reminds us that no words can do justice to the horrors endured in war, the magnitude of lives taken, the pain felt by those who mourn loved-ones. All we can do in the face of such vast human suffering is to keep silence and each year to renew our pledge - “we will remember them”.

We come to remember the past, but we also come acutely aware of the present, to remember that, even as we gather here, our country is engaged in War and that British forces, mostly young men and women from working class communities in this country, are on the front line in Afghanistan risking their lives in the service of this country. We know that hundreds of British service personnel have died in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, several even in recent days, another today, and we must remember them. And we know too that hundreds and thousands of men and women have died in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Palestine – most of them civilians, many of them children – and we must remember them too. I grew up in what we used to call “peace time”; my children are growing up seeing images of people dying in conflicts around the world, hearing news of British service men and women being killed on an almost daily basis. And then we wonder that so many young people are engaged in their own violence of the streets. Today’s children are growing up being told that we are all involved in a global “war on terror”. This is particular poignant for us here in Waltham Forest where three people, one from this neighbourhood, were convicted of plotting to blow up aeroplanes in the most high profile terrorist trial this country has ever seen. It is fitting that we gather today as a very diverse group of people. In previous years I have sometimes led the Remembrance Sunday service at Walthamstow Town Hall and there we have gathered from different faith communities – Christian, Jewish, Muslim -, different branches of the Christian family, different countries. I have gathered with people, some of whom come from countries even today torn apart by violence, as will be true for some of you here. And it is important today that we stand together, united in our diversity, to say together that we do not want violence whether here or abroad to play any part in dividing us as individuals, dividing our communities, dividing the countries with which we have associations. As we gather here we somehow need to hold together the painful truth that however well we may relate to each other locally, we live in a world torn apart by violence. And at the same time, we owe it to those serving abroad and all caught up in conflict to say that “we will remember them”

We gather to remember the past and with an awareness of the present. It is important also that we remember for the future. There lies at the heart of our remembrance a paradox, the paradox that we come to remember war but that our aim is to strive for peace, for a world where violence is a thing of the past. The Christian tradition is very clear about this. God created a world at peace; violence is a consequence of human rejection of God. As the Bible tells is, it was only after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden that violence came into the world. Indeed the first story after the fall is the story of the first violence, of Cain killing his brother Abel. Violence is a consequence of sin and this is a message that runs all through the scriptures Christians regard as holy. The Prophet Isaiah gives us a picture of future peace when he says: “God will settle disputes among great nations. They will hammer their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning-knives. Nations will never again go to war.” And for Christians Jesus is the Prince of Peace foretold by Isaiah. Jesus himself said “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”. For Christians Jesus choosing the path of death on the cross rather than the path of rebellion against the oppressive Roman government of his day, this path of peace sets the pattern for Christian engagement within the world. Violence is a consequence of sin and if throughout human history some wars have seemed necessary from a Christian point of view, which they clearly have, then it is only as a lesser of two evils that war can be judged to have been necessary. War in itself is never good, it does not reveal God’s intention or promises for his creation, it is only ever a consequence of a world that groans in sin and waits in eagerness for the fulfilment of God’s promise of peace. Some years ago I joined an organisation called the Movement of the Abolition of War. At first the idea struck me as naive. So often we are led to believe that war is part of human nature, that it is a permanent part of the human condition. But why should war be a permanent feature of human society? Why shouldn’t we strive for a world without war? If we believe that war is a consequence of sin, that it is a feature of human beings turning away from God, that it does not express what God intended for his creation – then it is totally consistent with our ideals that Christians should strive for the total abolition of war. War is comparable to slavery, it is a consequence of a world gone wrong. There is no justification for the glorification of war or the remembrance of war for its own sake. Christian remembrance is always remembrance for the future, for a future which God promises will be a future of peace, a future in which war will indeed be no more.

We remember the past, we recall the present and we remember for the future. I want to make a final point about the National Anthem. We did not sing the National Anthem at the beginning of today’s service as has been the tradition here in past years but we shall be singing it soon as part of our remembrance liturgy. Singing the National Anthem represents our identification with the country in which we live and of which we, despite our countries or origin, are citizens. Our identification with this country takes our responsibilities for this country seriously, including our responsibilities to critique and seek to change those aspects of our national life which are less than ideal. When thousands of people marched in protest at the war in Iraq they were exercising their responsibilities as citizens to call our government to account, even, in the end, if it failed to listen. The third verse of the National Anthem, rarely sung, says of the Queen “may she defend our laws and ever give us cause to sing with heart and voice, God save the Queen”. It expresses the sentiment that the Queen shares with us in the responsibility of making sure this country does what is proper. So our identification with this nation, expressed in the singing of the national anthem, is part of the process whereby we remember for the future. It is a reminder of our responsibilities to ensure that this nation is called to account and of our commitment that it should be an expression of God’s ways of justice and peace. And singing it in no way diminishes our commitment to other countries nor to our concern for the whole world. The best nationalism is expressed in the context of internationalism where what we desire for this nation is in harmony with what is best for the world. And we should note that as well as the national anthem we are also singing Jerusalem today, a song very much associated with traditions of internationalism in this country.

And so, as we prepare to engage in the traditions of Remembrance Sunday, as we remember the horrors of war in the past, let us also be acutely aware the horrors of war today and let us commit ourselves, as citizens of this country, to make the whole world a world of peace and justice.

SS - Sunday 8th November 2009.


Sunday 1st November 2009, St Barnabas, Walthamstow
Bereavement Sunday

We are keeping today as Bereavement Sunday, a day to remember those we have known who have gone before us, our loved ones who have died.

This is an opportunity for us to give space for people of all ages to remember those they have lost.

So I invite us to hold before us three visual images this morning, images that I hope will help us to think of the lives of those we are remembering today, to bring our own emotions to God and through our sadness to think of the wonderful promise we are given by God of eternal life for us and our loved ones.

The first image is of the Book of Names. In the Bible we read in several places that there is such a book, a book with the names of those special to God, sometimes called the Book of Life. Let’s just take one example. If we turn to the opening chapters of the Book of Revelation and the letters in the book written to the seven churches of Asia. From one of these letters, to the church in Sardis, we learn that most of the believers there have really fallen away from God, but that a few, if we look at Ch 3 verse 4 are close to God and that these “will walk with God, dressed in white, for they are worthy”. And then we see the words “I will never blot out their names from the book of life”.

What this tells us is that God values the names of those who follow him, that they are recorded in a Book of Life. And I think this is good for us to know as the recording of names of those who have died is something we do in the life of the church. If we think about it, we are surrounded by the names of the dead here at St Barnabas – on the memorial monuments inside the church. We will be reading out a list of names soon. We won’t have known all the people whose names are to be read out. But there is something comforting about hearing the name of those we have lost, as well as all those other names we do not know. The recording of a name shows that every individual life matters. Some churches have a Book of Remembrance and perhaps that is something we could consider here. God records names himself in the Book of Life because every one matters to him and we show that all the folk we mention today matter to us and to God by reading out their names.

The second visual image I am putting before us is that of our hearts. Our hearts are a powerful symbol of our feelings and so much more. And I’ve got some more small hearts today which I am going to ask the children to give out to folk now. When we loose a loved one it is our heart that really feels the pain. The Bible recognises this. If we look at John 14, very often read at funerals, verse 1 we find “do not let your hearts be troubled”. Jesus is talking about his own death and comforts his disciples by saying he will go before them and prepare a place for them, for his father’s house has many rooms. Of course our hearts are troubled when we loose someone, but the heart is also the place where healing takes place. It is in the heart that we carry our most precious thoughts and memories of those we have lost. So I’ve given them out today not so we can lift them up to God as we did before, but so that we can offer them to God, I’ll ask the children to collect them during the offertory hymn, offering to God all those precious thoughts and memories of those we remember today, those who continue to dwell in our hearts.

And the final visual image for today relates to hope and is the image of the candle. The candle really is a symbol of hope and hope is something special that the Christian has even in the midst of the most terrible things in life, including the loss of those we love. Our first reading today comes from St Paul’s first letter to the church of the Thessalonians, a short letter but one that mentions hope a number of times. We see that as early as Ch 1, verse 3, Paul is giving thanks for the endurance of that church, inspired by the hope they have in Christ. In Ch 2, verse 19 he says what is our hope, our joy, in ch 5, verse 8 he talks of putting on the hope of salvation and in ch 4, v 13, we have the reference to hope from our reading today. “Brothers and sisters”, Paul says, “we not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you may grieve like the rest, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”

Now here is a key message for us – we are to have hope that those who have died will rise again with Christ at the last day. Today, as we recall with sadness those we have lost, we can also look forward in hope and joy to them rising again with Christ. Today, we can light a candle, a symbol of hope, to express our hope and belief that those we remember are not gone for ever, but will indeed rise again with Christ.

The recalling of names, our hearts, the candle of hope – all symbols we can use today to remind us that all those we remember are special to God, that our precious memories can be offered to him, and that we can all have hope that we and those we have loved will all one day be united in eternal life with God.

May Christ, who comforts us in all our tribulations, support you in all your trial and bring you all peace. My he, who wept at the grave of Lazarus, be your comforter and wipe away all tears from your eyes. May the almighty God bless you and keep you in all his care; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Steven Saxby – 1st November 2009.

11th Oct 2009-09 – St Barnabas, Walthamstow
Immigration and the church


Our Gospel reading this morning has within it a very challenging saying. Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” This saying has been interpreted in many different ways over the years. Some say Jesus was being literal, that rich people will really not enter the kingdom of heaven. But then we know Jesus spent time with rich people and enjoyed their hospitality, that rich people were counted among his disciples. Others say it was specifically addressed to the rich young ruler in the passage, since he was so attached to his wealth, something all of us should seek to avoid. Some have said there was a slim gate in Jerusalem, known as the needle, which you could just about squeeze a camel through if you tried hard enough. And still others, and this is how I intend to take the text today, have said this is an example of Jesus stressing his preference for the poor and not only the poor but any who are marginalised within society.

With this in mind I want to focus this morning on the topic of immigration and the church. Immigrants are very often among the most poor and excluded in our society and hence they are some of the very people Jesus encouraged his followers to be sure to support.

There are three aspects I invite you to consider as we think about immigration and the church. The first is about how we respond to immigrants. The second is about how we respond as immigrants. The third is the application of all this to our church life here at St Barnabas. To help us reflect on these three aspects, I shall invite you to join me in a Biblical reflection, to see what the Bible teaches us on these matters.

The Book of Deuteronomy 10:17-19 reminds the Israelites that they were once exiles in a foreign land and therefore that they should have a special care for sojourners in their midst:
'The Lord your God is God of Gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner giving food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.'
In other words, the Bible recognizes that the sojourner, the immigrant is very often someone excluded from society. Of course, people emigrate for all sorts of reasons. Over the last few years large numbers of foreigners have settled in a certain area. They refuse to speak the native language. They are living in ghettos where they only consume food and drink from their home country. Thousands have settled there, displacing the local population. You know where I mean don’t you? I am, of course, talking about the thousands of English people who have settled in Southern Spain! Why do they go there - to escape the English weather! Clearly no one moves to the UK for the weather but people come for all sorts of reasons. Many come as economic migrants, seeking better opportunities here for themselves and their families. Much is being made in the media now of Eastern Europeans coming to the UK, and not least to Walthamstow, for this very reason. And many come here from Africa and elsewhere for similar reasons, often escaping desperate poverty, for which countries like the UK must bear some responsibility. The UK’s foreign policy, its economic interference, its sale of arms has contributed to devastation in many a country. Still, the numbers of people leaving those countries for the UK is tiny and we should not complain when people seek refuge here for problems the UK has in part created abroad.
Whether someone comes here as an economic migrant or political refugee, the response to immigrants is often the same – they are treated as outcasts in their new country. But the Bible is clear, we must have special care for the exiles in our midst AND those who have been exiles must remember that they too must show care this care for others. Today this means we must care for the immigrant AND those who have come here as immigrants must show this care for others who arrive here. Those of you who have come here from Africa, the Caribbean, the Philippines and elsewhere, who have been here a while, must also show care for those newly arriving from your own countries and those who are arriving here today from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and many other countries.
The Bible is very clear about this. Time and time again, the prophets remind us of the need to care for the excluded and this includes the exile, what today we can think of as the immigrant. So in Jeremiah 22:3 we read, 'Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, … and do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless and the widow.' (Jer 22:3)
This special concern for the excluded is echoed by Jesus. Take Matthew 25: If we are to enter into the kingdom of heaven we must serve those who are excluded. Matthew 25: 37 onwards reads: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink…. To verse 43’ We could add today, I was an immigrant and you did not show me special care !
The Bible is clear, the stranger in our midst is to be welcomed. The immigrant today is someone who is often excluded, often persecuted, often despised – and our task as Christians is to show the love of Christ.
I want us draw your attention to some more of Jesus’ teaching on immigration. For this I have prepared a handout for you to take home. It was prepared sometime ago by the Newham Churches Immigration Support Group. I was born in Newham and my first post after ordination was in East Ham. I was involved there in the Newham Churches Immigration Support Group which supported people in all sorts of ways. It began when a lady called Marion, who had been in the UK for ten years, received an unexpected visit one morning by the police to be told she was an illegal immigrant and that she must leave the country. She was taken to Holloway Prison. Her pastor spoke to other pastors about Marion’s situation and a group was formed to support her. She came from Sierra Leone where her father had been a Member of Parliament and died as a result of political troubles in the country. Marion received a lot of support, not least because she had been in the country so long and because she was involved in the church and community. Later I was involved in supporting a Hindu man from Bangladesh called Narayan. He had been in this country for 18 years and come here after being tortured by the police in Bangladesh for his involvement in a Hindu political party. With Marion and Narayan and many others, the Newham Immigration Support Group wrote letters of support to the Home Office and they got other people - MPs, pastors, bishops and others - to support those facing unjust deportation. We involved the press, organized petitions, helped people find suitable legal representation. We sat in court while cases were being heard and they made preparations for people to receive sanctuary from Christian communities. All these actions led to many people feeling that they were not alone when facing deportation and, for the most part, those the group supported were able to remain in the UK. Both Marion and Narayan lost their cases but when the cases went to appeal in the High Court, the judge ruled that the Home Office had been unfair and ordered that they should be permitted to remain in this country. They remain here and active in the community: the last time I spoke to Narayan, who now works for the Ministry of Defence, he was about to become a British Citizen!
So that group, the Newham Churches Immigration Support Group, made up of ordinary Christians , is an inspiration for churches which respond to Jesus’ concern for the excluded and choose to help immigrants facing difficulties, especially those facing unjust deportation.
Back to the handout which asks 8 simple and common questions and shows us, in response to each question, that Jesus would have us show concern for immigrants? It begins with the passage from Matthew 25 I quoted earlier and it ends with this marvelous passage from Acts 17: 24-28: Please take the handout home with you and use it for your own Biblical reflection on this topic of immigration and the church.
I said earlier that we must consider three aspects of immigration and the church. Mostly I have spoken about the first, our response to immigrants but I now I come to the second, our response as immigrants. Now I am not an immigrant, I was born in the UK and have lived here all my life. But many of you here today are immigrants so what is your responsibility as immigrants in relation to the host community here? From time to time I am asked to speak as a special guest at ceremonies where immigrants become new British Citizens. There are the three things I say to these new Citizens but these can apply as well to those who are here as resident immigrants.

First, I say to them “cherish your own cultural background”. At the last ceremony there were people from South Africa, the Philippines, Angola, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Ghana, Somalia and Algeria. They were about to become British, but their cultural background remains essential to who they are and to what you have to contribute to British society. This is so even for those who are born in Britain, whether English, Scottish or Welsh, whether they are of second, third or fourth generation of Caribbean or African or Asian or Irish descent, whether they seem thoroughly English on the surface but have, as in my case, English, Irish, Welsh and Gypsy blood. Last time I was a guest of honour with my dear friend and colleague from the Waltham Forest Faith Communities Forum, Mr Hansa. He came as an Indian immigrant to the UK in 1962 and became a British citizen in 1968 (before I was born). So he has been British longer than I have. But he and I are as British as each other: for Britain is by its very nature a nation of immigrants, a mixture of many cultures, each of which makes a unique and important contribution to our society.

Second, I encourage the new citizens to commit themselves to this country. By this I mean that I implore them to take an active role in British society and, of course, you don’t need to be a British Citizen to do that. I tell these new citizens that they are becoming trustees of all that is good about British society – and there is much that is indeed very good – but that they will also become rightful critics of all that is bad about this society – for there are plenty of things that are bad about it too. No human society is a perfect society and every society requires those who will engage in active citizenship to ensure that it preserves the good and seeks to eliminate the bad.

And finally, I encourage the new citizens to aspire to values that are above those of any particular background and above any commitment to the society of which they are becoming citizens. These people come from different faiths but I tell them that in our faith, we have a scripture that says “we are citizens of heaven.”, Ephesians 2 v 19. Now this does not mean that our faith discourages commitment to earthly citizenship ; far from it. It is simply a reminder that we take inspiration from another home and that the values of that other place, values which are higher and better than anything earth can deliver, values that motivate us to make our earthly home a better place to be.

So they are the three things I say to new British Citizens and would say to any immigrant – share your culture, commit yourself to life here and aspire to the values of your faith!

But finally, I promised some comments on how this topic of immigration and faith relates to our life here at St Barnabas. And the first thing to recognise, of course, is that we are very fortunate to be a church congregation where a large number of us are immigrants. Secondly, as we celebrate this we need also to be sensitive to the situation of immigrants in our midst. None of us here is rich, but some of us are much poorer than others. Many are here as migrant workers, sometime working without papers and receiving very low incomes, sometime much lower than the minimum wage. What little some earn is sent back to their home countries. So in all our church activities we need to be sensitive to not asking people for money they cannot afford. If we are to be a church where none are excluded, we need to relaxed about money while at the same time recognising how much we benefit from other ways in which people are more than generous, not least in donating their food, time and labour. And the final thing I want to say and to emphasise very strongly is that if we are to be a church for all we must be a church where immigrants, not least those whose immigration status is not settled (including overstayers) feel welcome and safe. Although the Church of England is close to the government, we are not an arm of the government and certainly not here to do their work for them on immigration issues. The church is a place where, whatever our immigration status, we should feel safe and supported and I hope we can do more in this church to strengthen our support for immigrants.

Jesus had a preference for the excluded – let us be sure to follow his example as we support and celebrate the presence of immigrants here in this church and in our wider community.

SS – Oct 2009.
Sunday 27th Sept 2009 St Barnabas, Walthamstow

Mk 9 - Salt

You may have noticed that I read an extra verse of Mark as part of our gospel reading this morning. Instead of stopping at Mark 9, verse 49 as in the Roman Missal, I read to the end of verse 50 as in the Church of England lectionary. I read on because when I looked at the readings earlier in the week, I found myself very compelled by that verse and its mention of salt.

The part I found particularly intriguing was when Jesus says: ‘Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness...’ - some translations read ‘savor’ or ‘taste’, - ‘...if salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it?’

Let’s start with the easy part: ‘Salt is good.’ Clearly salt is good to the taste. It’s in one of Kipling’s short stories that a character says, ‘Being kissed by a man who didn’t wax his moustache was like eating an egg without salt.’ [Big Mamma, The Gadsbys.] And I guess most of us enjoy putting salt on certain foods. Of course anything in excess can be bad for us and we all aware that consumption of far too much salt in unhealthy and one of the major courses of heart disease in this country. But salt in moderation, like most things, is good. The thing is that a lot of food is cooked with salt and most processed food already contains enough salt so that putting anything more than a little bit of salt on our food once it is cooked is quite unnecessary. But salt is one of the basic tastes and to cook certain foods without salt is a bad idea. Here’s a story that makes the point very well, the story – some of you may know it – of the Salt Princess.

An old king has three daughters, and decides to divide his kingdom among them based on how much they love him. Daughter 1 says she loves him more than her finest silk gowns. Pleased, he gives her 1/3 of his kingdom. Daughter 2 says she loves him more than her diamond bracelets, her ruby rings, her golden crown. Even more pleased, he gives her 1/3 of his kingdom.

Daughter 3 is his youngest and favorite daughter. She says, "Father, I love you more than I love salt."

The king pitches a fit. "Salt? You love me only as much as you love salt? Fine! Salt is all you love, then salt is all you shall have!" He loads her up with a sack of salt on her back and gives her the boot.

She wanders to another kingdom and finds work as a scullery maid in a castle. Because she is so good and beautiful and because it's a fairy tale, the prince falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. Meanwhile, the two shallow sisters back home split the kingdom between themselves and throw their lame duck dad out on his ass. Now a homeless beggar, the former king wanders to the other kingdom and happens to stumble in just as the wedding celebration, open to all, is getting underway.

His daughter recognizes him right away, and sneaks off to the kitchen. She orders the entire wedding feast be prepared....without salt.

Everyone sits down to feast. Soon they're gagging and spitting and grumbling. "There's something wrong with this soup!" "This soup is terrible!" "It's so bland!"

As soon as the beggar king tastes his soup, he realizes what is missing, and tears well up in his eyes. Then he realizes how cruel he was to his poor youngest daughter, who really did love him best...as much as she loved salt.

Fortunately, she's lurking nearby. She explains that her love for him was like salt: although invisible, it was ever-present, an underlying essential ingredient, and without it her life lacked all savor and joy. She could no more imagine living without love for him than she could imagine eating soup without salt.

Salt is good to the taste. But in Jesus’ day it was much more than just a matter of taste. Salt was essential for health. Salt was used as a preservative, not least for meat, something I guess many of you here are familiar with from back home.

Salt was also highly symbolic in Jesus’ day. Jesus would have been very aware of the Old Testament concept of the Covenant of Salt. Those who ate the salt of the King, owed him their allegiance. Those who salt with friends were tied together by their bond of friendship. Covenant meals, involving the symbolic use of salt, were part of Jewish culture. In everyday contexts salt was used as a symbol of hospitality. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to promote good health.

‘Salt is good’ – that part of Jesus’ teaching is easy to understand. But what of his next phrase, ‘if salt loses its saltiness, how will you season it?’ I found this such an intriguing verse and asked lots of people the question, ‘How does salt lose its saltiness?’ Have you ever heard of salt losing its savor, losing its taste? Well, you can imagine that I got lots of interesting answers. Someone said, if you taste too much of anything you will, after a while, cease to taste it. I guess that is why some people put so much salt on their food. Is this what Jesus meant? I am not convinced. A number of people said that Jesus was talking metaphorically, telling a parable, and therefore that we are not supposed to take him seriously. After all, said a number of people, including chemists, salt is a chemical compound, if it loses its saltiness it is no longer salt – in other words you cannot really have salt that isn’t salty and Jesus is using this as an analogy to talk about something else. Now clearly Jesus is making the point about salt to illustrate a point about something else, and I will come to that in a little while. But, something kept nagging me about Jesus’ saying – I wasn’t convinced that he was just being funny or cryptic; I sensed that Jesus was being literal, saying that salt can actually lose its saltiness. And I thought this, not least, because in Matthew’s gospel, where we also find this phrase, another phrase is added. In Matthew 5.13, Jesus says to the disciples, ‘You are salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste how can it be seasoned.’ And then, he says, clearly speaking literally, ‘It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.’

Puzzled? I was! That is until my Biblical scholar friends came to the rescue and left me wondering why on earth I didn’t pick this one up through all my years of theological study. Salt, as we know it, is a chemical compound. It cannot lose its saltiness. It is either pure salt or it is not salt. But salt, as Jesus knew it, was different. It was, after all, salt from the Dead Sea, once known as the Salt Sea. This is the sea famous for being so full of salt that you can float in it – and indeed I have been to the Dead Sea and done just that. Salt from this source is not pure, but mixed with other minerals and it is quite possible for this salt, especially if kept in damp conditions, to lose its saltiness: puzzle solved! Or is it?

Salt is good. We understand that. Salt can lose its saltiness. OK, not the salt we are familiar with in the UK today but the kind of impure salt known to Jesus and used in many parts of the world today, that salt can lose its saltiness. If it loses its saltiness, it becomes useless, no good for anything other than trampling under the foot, an indication that spoilt salt, as we know from other sources, was used on pathways. So, that is what Jesus said about salt, but why did he say it? What was the point he was really trying to make by using this analogy about salt?

Well it seems there is not a straight forward answer to this one either, at least not in the context of Mark’s gospel. In Matthew’s gospel, it is clear that he is addressing the disciples. He describes them as “salt of the earth”. What they have, their faith in him perhaps, maybe their inherent value, whatever it is, they are to preserve. But scholars have been a bit more cynical about the placing of this verse in Mark’s gospel. Many scholars have suggested, and maybe this is why the Roman Missal leaves this verse off today’s reading, that verse 50 is simply a grouping together of Jesus’ sayings with nothing more in common than the mention of salt. We have been looking at the second of these but there are two more in Mark 9, verse 50.

Certainly the first of these seems to follow from verse 49. Jesus is talking about not being corrupted by sin. He speaks in very graphic language, and here it is hard to believe that he is really being literal. If your hand causes you to sin, he says, cut it off. If your eye, then pluck it out. ‘It is better to enter the Kingdom of Heaven with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ And then we have the verse, ‘For everyone will be salted with fire’. The salting with fire part, clearly relates to the previous verses. The salting in hell – the word for hell used here is literally Gehenna, a waste ground used for burial outside of Jerusalem – the salting there is either a kind or punishment whereby the dead are preserved for everlasting damnation or a kind of purification, whereby they are restored to God. However we interpret it, the reference to salting in fire relates to the pervious section.

But then the scholars argue, Mark has taken two other sayings from Jesus about salt and put them here just because they all mention salt. ‘Salting with fire is the first’, ‘Salt is good, but if salt loses its saltiness’ is the second and the third is ‘Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another’.

Now I am no Biblical scholar, but it seems to me that there is some unity to all of these sayings after all. If we go right back to the start of today’s gospel, Jesus is talking about faith in God. He tells the disciples that the one healing in his name is not to be rebuked, because he was acting out of faith in God. Then he talks about remaining faithful to God, not becoming corrupted by sin, and it is here he uses the graphic language about keeping pure from sin, staying away from that which would corrupt our faith, graphically illustrated by his image of cutting of our hands or plucking out our eyes if they cause us to sin. What is the salt we need to preserve? It is our faith. And how are we to preserve it? In two ways: by keeping this faith, this salt within us, not least by being at peace with one another.

Biblical scholars are indispensible. They help us at times to understand passages from the Bible which might otherwise seem obscure. Today’s passage is a great example of their value in understanding that Jesus was not talking about the pure chemical salt that we know, but the impure salt from the Dead Sea, salt which could indeed lose its saltiness. But Biblical Scholars can sometimes over analyze the Bible and their negativity about Mark 9, verse 50 as no more than a collection of sayings about salt seems to be a good example of this. Think of faith in God as the common factor and we can surely do no better than to echo the words of Jesus himself:

47And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48where
" 'their worm does not die,
and the fire is not quenched.'[e] 49Everyone will be salted with fire.
50"Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."

END. Steven Saxby, Sept 09.

Sunday 20th Sept 2009 St Barnabas, Walthamstow

Mk 9 - Children

My reflection today flows from Jesus’ words in our gospel reading about a little child. I am going to read them again, together with two other similar and familiar sayings of Jesus:

‘Jesus then took a little child, set him in front of them, put his arms around him, and said to the disciples, “Anyone who welcomes one of these little in my name welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but the one who sent me.”.

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place – becoming like this child – is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

I am going to offer three thoughts on these passages, then make some remarks about our welcome of children here at St Barnabas, then finish with a story about the very beginnings of this church.

My first thought on those gospel passages is that we see Jesus demonstrating in a very simple and powerful way his preference for the vulnerable. He seems frustrated and angry with his disciples. Here they are again, arguing among themselves about which of them is the greatest! And what a shock and a lesson it must have been to them when Jesus took a child, set the child in front of them and told them they had to become like the child. How embarrassed they must have been when he told them off for trying to stop the children getting to him. Let them come, says Jesus, but not only that – the kingdom of heaven, he says, belongs to such as these. Time and time again in his ministry, Jesus demonstrates that he not only cares for the vulnerable but that the way of the vulnerable, the way of peace, is the way to the kingdom of heaven and not the way of the great and powerful. The two most central images of Jesus are the tiny vulnerable baby in the manger and the dying vulnerable Christ on the cross. Isn’t it something that the great God we worship, is a God we also adore himself as a tiny child! We’ll have more of that at Christmas. But the point is, Jesus favours the way of the vulnerable and in setting a child before his disciples and letting the children come to him, he dramatically rebukes his disciples for all their pride and jostling for greatness!
My second thought is that God really is an all age God! Every person matters to Jesus, no matter his or her age. We see Jesus interacting with all age groups, we celebrate his life as a baby and a child, see him welcomed in the Temple by the elderly Simeon and Anna. Yesterday we had a deanery synod in which we focused on ministry by, for and with older people and one of the speakers said there is nothing dishonourable about being old, not least because God is himself very old indeed. Age is not the issue. Too often people are dismissed because of their age, whether they are too young or too old. But Jesus sees the person, the older person and the young child, not seen for their age but for their humanity. Jesus welcomes the children because he welcomes all people!

And my third thought is that Jesus nevertheless does state, in a very clear and uncompromising way, that children possess something in regard to faith that adults need to re-gain! We should remember, of course, that every adult started out in life as a child! And I have always loved the phrase “there is a child in every one of us”. But what is it that we lose as adults, which Jesus says we need to re-gain? Is it trust? Is it simplicity? Is it wonder? Is it raw emotion, deep sadness or pure joy in response to the things we see around us? I suspect it is all of these things and more. On the back page of this month’s diocesan newpaper is a little story about our church, showing the artist Henry Shelton with his granddaughter Amy. Henry painted the background and lettering on a painting based on that phrase “let the children come to me”, using words based on the translation from the King James Version “suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come to me”. He then got his granddaughter to paint the children on the canvass and, of course, she painted them as only a child could. I am pleased it is hanging there for this month in our lady chapel where is stands alongside an image from a former children’s shrine at St Martin-in-the-Fields and near various images of Jesus as a child and of children being welcomed. She came her with her grandfather knowing that some of his paintings would be here but not expecting to see her own. It was truly wonderful to see the joy on her face and, to see that joy reflected also in Henry – there is a child in every one of us, and unless we become, again, like a child, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Those are my three thoughts on the passages. What now of our welcome to children at St Barnabas?

Well the first thing to say, having arrived here fairly recently with five children in tow, is that we are very grateful as a family for the welcome we have received here. Christine and I have been made welcome AND our children have been made very welcome so that is all credit to St Barnabas!

And yet, I guess we can all recognise that there is a quite a bit of work for us to do here on involving children much more in our worship and in the wider life of our church. As a church serving an all age God, we must aspire to providing a welcome and accessible environment to people of all ages, including children of all ages. What facilities can we provide for babies? How can we re-establish the Sunday School? How can we involve children more in the liturgy? Should we have special services where we make an effort to engage the children more? How should we prepare children for first communion and confirmation? What other activities can we provide for children, including children from the wider community? How can we engage with the schools? These are all questions for us to consider, for the PCC to address and for us to decide upon and implement in due course? And they are urgent questions and issues to prioritize if we take seriously Jesus’ words that “anyone who welcomes one of these little children in name welcomes me”.

To end, I promised a story from the very beginnings of this church. It is a beautiful story because it shows that the man, Richard Foster, who funded the building of this church in 1902/03 took Jesus’ words about children seriously. He was a wealthy man, a successful businessman and in his 80th year when he provided the land and finances for the building of St Barnabas, Walthamstow. Here was a man accustomed to mixing with the great and the good and yet, he had time for and saw the importance of children in the life of the church. So it was that in 1902, before the great ceremony that accompanied the laying of this church’s foundation stone, he organised a ceremony for the children. This was the “cutting the first sods” on the site of the church. Children using a special shovel and small wheelbarrow – still on display in the vestry here – cut the first bits of earth on the ground where this church would be built. Richard Foster himself came to address the children and here are some excerpts from the address he gave.....


Richard Foster who built this church understood Jesus’ message about children. May that inspire us as we continue in the tradition of those before us to respond to those words: “anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me”.

END. Steven Saxby, Sept 09.

Sunday 13th Sept 2009 St Barnabas, Walthamstow

Mk 8: 27-35 - Holy Cross

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus says, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me”; today we are in our second week of displaying our temporary Stations of the Cross; and tomorrow is Holy Cross Day. So, I imagine you’ve guessed by now that I am taking the cross as the theme of today’s sermon. And I want, in particular, to encourage us all to think about how we engage with the cross in our lives.

Let us first call to mind some words from a great hymn: “Lift High the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore His sacred Name.”

Those words hymn capture the meaning of tomorrow’s feast, Holy Cross Day. The story goes that it was St Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, who was responsible for finding the relics of the cross on which Jesus died. Helena was a fascinating person. English historians have claimed she was born in Colchester, but it is more widely believed that she was born in Bithynia, in modern day Turkey. She became a Christian in her 60s after she was divorced by her husband the emperor Constantius Chlorus. She soon became a very devout woman and was known for her simple life, her extensive giving to the poor and her pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Her influence on her son Constantine should not be underestimated. His eventual conversion to Christianity was, of course, to radically alter the development of Christianity as it became the religion of the empire and spread rapidly thereafter throughout the Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor. Constantine sought to build a basilica on the site of the Holy Sepulchre. This has been a site of Christian devotion but was later covered with earth and had even housed a Temple of Venus. And it was during the excavations for Constantine’s large church on the site that Helena is said to have found the relics of the true cross in the year 335.

This is how the writer Theodoret (died c. 457) in his Ecclesiastical History Chapter xvii gives what had become the standard version of the finding of the True Cross:
When the empress beheld the place where the Saviour suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous temple, which had been there erected, to be destroyed, and the very earth on which it stood to be removed. When the tomb, which had been so long concealed, was discovered, three crosses were seen buried near the Lord's sepulchre. All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him. Yet they could not discern to which of the three the Body of the Lord had been brought nigh, and which had received the outpouring of His precious Blood. But the wise and holy Macarius, the president of the city, resolved this question in the following manner. He caused a lady of rank, who had been long suffering from disease, to be touched by each of the crosses, with earnest prayer, and thus discerned the virtue residing in that of the Saviour. For the instant this cross was brought near the lady, it expelled the sore disease, and made her whole.

The cross was later removed and even later rescued from Persians in 628 when it was then restored to Jerusalem. Holy Cross Day commemorates that return and exaltation of the cross. The day on which the cross was lifted up for adoration: Lift High the Cross. There is another aspect to the legend of the True Cross worth sharing and it is that the Cross came from the a seed which was part of the Tree of Life which stood in the garden of Eden. The Legend states that the wood of the True Cross came from a seed of the Tree of Life which grew in the Garden of Eden. When Adam lay dying, he begged his son Seth to go to the Archangel Michael and beg for a seed from the Tree of Life. As he died, the seed was placed in Adam's mouth and was buried with him. The seed grew into a tree and emerged from his mouth.
After many centuries the tree was cut down and the wood used to build a bridge over which the Queen of Sheba passed, on her journey to meet King Solomon. So struck was she by the portent contained in the timber of the bridge that she fell on her knees and worshipped it. On her visit to Solomon she told him that a piece of wood from the bridge would bring about the replacement of God's Covenant with the Jewish people, by a new order. Solomon, fearing the eventual destruction of his people, had the timber buried. But after fourteen generations, the wood taken from the bridge became the Cross used at the Crucifixion of Jesus.
Last Friday, I went to see a South African production of the Mysteries. Little scenery was used but one prominent bit of movable scenery was a large step ladder, first used to represent the throne of God, then the Tree of Life, and later the Cross.

It is strange in some ways to adore the cross. It was, after all, an instrument of torture, used cruelly by the Romans, for the slow and painful execution of criminals. Imagine worshipping a hangman’s noose or an electric chair. But it is, of course, not the cross itself we adore but the fact that Christ died on the cross for the salvation of all. It so happens that there is only a small number of references to the cross in the Bible. Interestingly, Jesus makes reference to the taking up one’s cross and following him, a way of making it clear to his followers that they should expect hardship as a consequence of becoming his disciples. Obviously there are references to the story of Jesus’ death on the cross, including today’s gospel where Jesus talks about taking up our cross and following him.

The notion of taking up the cross is a painful one. In the production I saw, the character playing Jesus screamed in agony as she was forced to lift it. But of course, the cross that cruel instrument of torture, becomes the site on our forgiveness, in looking up to the cross, we see the forgiveness offered to us by Jesus on the cross. In lifting high the cross, we proclaim God’s love and forgiveness for us all. In lifting up the cross, we point others to love of God in Jesus Christ.

So how do we engage with the cross in our lives? How does it help us to worship God and proclaim his love to others? Clearly the cross is a hugely important symbol for so many people in their daily lives. We, like many if you I guess, have a number of crosses on the walls of our house. I once lent a few to someone for a day and the walls, despite other pictures, seemed quite empty afterwards. I was interested that Christine noticed their absence as soon as she returned to the house. The cross serves as a daily reminder for me as a sign of God’s presence with us, of our need to be aware of him in our lives. This is obviously why so many people where a cross for religious reasons. Clearly the cross, for some, is no more than a fashion accessory but many wear the cross as a reminder to themselves and a witness to others of their faith in Jesus Christ. I have never understood the debates on the pros and cons of a cross and a crucifix. Someone told me a little while ago that someone had said something about wanting a cross with a man on, clearly expressing no knowledge of who the man was or what the cross symbolises. But, for Christians, the cross is the symbol of Jesus’ death on the cross and it seems to make no difference to my mind whether the cross is a just a cross without a figure of Jesus or is a crucifix with a representation of Jesus: both encourage us to lift high the cross. Similar could be said for the practice of signing oneself with the cross, helpful to some, not all, as physical way of identifying with the message of the cross. Why not try it if you don’t already, maybe at the start of the service and at the blessing, on the words “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. See if, over time, it helps you in your worship.

In the Franciscan tradition, there is practice, every Friday of Cross Prayers, recognising the tradition that St Francis himself received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ on the cross. The prayers begin with these words “Having in mind St Francis’ devotion to the passion of Christ and looking upon the figure of the crucified, with arms outstretched, let us pray to the Lord”. Participants then kneel, look at a cross and hold out their arms to pray. After a while one is conscious of the weight of one’s arms, another powerful identification with the cross – they end with the blessing “may the life giving cross, be the source of all our joy and peace”.

We have had this temporary display of paintings by Henry Shelton, the 14 Stations of the Cross, around our church. A few times now I have prayed the Stations as I know several here have done. This experience takes us deep into the sorrow and agony of Christ and connects with the pain in our own lives. Yet when I finish the Stations, I feel such a sense of liberation, to think that the way of the Cross I have travelled is the way of my salvation.
We have been considering the exaltation of the cross, but there are times when our spirits are low, when it is hard to look up and glory in the cross in the midst of the difficulties of our lives. These are times, perhaps, when it is easier and more comforting for us to cling to the cross, to the old rugged cross as the song goes. This is the rough old cross that reminds us of the pain and suffering of Christ, that reminds us that what we celebrate in lifting high the cross, is that Jesus has felt human pain and endured unspeakable suffering. I have a holding cross, unusually shaped, to fit a tightly clenched hand – a powerful symbol for those in sorrow and a way to feel Jesus’ comforting presence with us. We can cling to as well as lift high the cross.

Today we celebrate the Cross and share in the church’s history of exalting the cross; we remember Jesus death on the cross as told in the Bible and of how the Bible helps us to recognise the cross as the symbol of God’s love and forgiveness; and we also embrace the cross as a means for us of identifying with Jesus in our prayers and in our daily lives. In good time and bad, let us never cease to lift high the cross.

END. Steven Saxby, Sept 09.

Sermon – 6th September 2009
St Barnabas, Walthamstow, 23rd year, cycle B

This morning I invite you to explore with me three phases that arise from our three lectionary readings. The phrases are “be inclusive”, “be courageous” and “be opened!” I shall say some words about each of these phrases as they arise from our readings as I also encourage us to apply these phrases to our mission and ministry here at St Barnabas.

The first arises from our reading from the letter of St James. We do not find the exact words “Be inclusive” in the text but that it what James is talking about. Those here last week will remember that I preached on this glorious little letter of St James and how valuable it is for us today. I hope some of you will have heeded my advice to read it during the week and if you didn’t please do try to make the time to do so this week. One of the reasons it is so valuable is that it is committed to there being no distinctions within the life of the church. Today’s section of the letter talks about the distinctions that were being made in the church between the richer and the poorer members. James is crystal clear that it is impossible within the life of the church for such distinctions to exist. He says, “do not try to combine faith in Jesus Christ our glorified Lord, with the making of distinctions between classes of people”. James’ message is that all should be included within the life of the church, regardless of their economic status.

How do we apply this text and its message of inclusivity to the life of our church? Well, we might say this is a text that need not apply to us. After all, this is not a church attended by the rich, so there is no question of them lording it over the poorer members, parading their fancy clothes and taking the best seats. On the contrary, I have to say that one of things that attracted me to coming here to St Barnabas was that this is a very inclusive congregation – it includes people of all ages, of various backgrounds, of different ethnicities – and through all of this a vision has been formed of a diverse congregation serving an equally diverse neighbourhood. The phrase “be inclusive” seems ingrained into the life of this congregation and yet being inclusive is always a challenge and requires us always to assess and re-assess our practice as we ask whether we are really providing access, welcome and opportunities for participation to all people. It is fabulous that we are open this and next weekend for the art trail. That is an opportunity to put our inclusivity to the test as we welcome people from the whole community. And our challenge in being inclusive is to be on the lookout, as St James was, for those who are excluded within the context of wider society. Who are the people oppressed, excluded, marginalised, mocked today? What can we do to ensure they have a place within the life of our church? The great strength of being a diverse church already is that we know there can be room for many kinds of different people here, but we must always be alert to whether we are really following the phrase that arises from the letter of St James, “be inclusive”.

The second phrase for us to explore comes from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and it is “be courageous”! In our text today we have the exhortation “courage”, meaning “be courageous”, sometimes translated as “be strong”. I mentioned last week that James, like Jesus, was soaked in the tradition of the great Old Testament prophets, including Isaiah, and so, like them, had a great concern for the oppressed, the excluded and the suffering. We find that concern in this passage from Isaiah. It is one of those passages where Isaiah gives hope to the people of Israel. Even though he has told them that they will suffer for their sins, that they will lose their land and life as captives (as indeed happened when the Israelites were dragged off into captivity by the Babylonians); Isaiah also reminds the Israelites that there suffering will not last forever and that God will restore Israel to its land and its former glory. And what are among the chief things that God will do when he restores Israel? He will first of all attend to those who are suffering and excluded from society. He will open the eyes of the blind, unseal the ears of the deaf; elsewhere we learn of God’s care and concern for the widows, for orphans, and others who are excluded from and marginalised within wider society. In the context of their suffering and captivity the Israelites are given this promise of things to come, they are to be courageous in the midst of their struggles, knowing that the Lord will deliver them from their oppression and that he will take particular care to restore the marginalised, the oppressed and others who suffer.

“Be courageous”: how do these words apply to us today? Well, it isn’t easy being a Christian community here in Walthamstow in the year 2009. We live in an increasingly secular culture. More and more people have grown up with little or no contact with the church. Many in society are hostile towards Christianity. So it does take courage to be a Christian in today’s world and courage for a congregation to reach out into the community, not least, as in our case, when so many in the community belong to other faith communities. Then of course there is turmoil and debate within the wider church, not least within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Much of this has focused on the topic of sexuality and we find ourselves now in a situation where the Church of England, which has for many years been a place of welcome and inclusion for gay and lesbian people – including here at St Barnabas, is now increasingly seen as a church which is intolerant of gay sexuality because of the way the debate is conducted within the wider church. If we are to be an inclusive church, then our welcome surely extends to all, our fellowship wants to embrace all, regardless of their sexuality. Jesus went out of his way to mix with those who were marginalised in his society, including those excluded by others. He mixed with the despised tax-collectors, with women regarded as unrespectable, even with prostitutes, with political extremists. Do we not think that if people had been marginalised then because of their sexuality that Jesus would not have gone out of his way to mix with them, to show that they were to be included as part of his radical message of love? I am so pleased that we have Revd Rowland Jide Macaulay with us this morning. Rowland has been a good friend of our family for many years. And he truly is a man of courage, not least as the person who founded the first church providing an open welcome to gay and lesbian people in Nigeria! I am so pleased he is here, not least because a year ago he had to flee Nigeria after he received death threats related to his leadership of his church, House of Rainbow Ministries. Rowland is currently living just around the corner and this week has been celebrating the 3rd year of House of Rainbow but has had to do so not in Nigeria but here is exile in Walthamstow. His is a wonderful story of courage in the Lord and I pray that we may all learn something from him as he worships here with us at St Barnabas.

“Be inclusive”, “be courageous” and, finally, “be opened”. We find these words “be opened” in our gospel reading today. Jesus heals a man who is deaf and has speech problems. He puts his fingers in his ears and puts spittle on his tongue – thankfully there were no swine flu health restrictions at the time – anyway, he does this and then looks to heaven and says, in Aramaic, “Ephphatha” which means “be opened” and the man was healed. In one sense this is a simple story of Jesus healing a man, as he does countless times in the gospel stories but there are deeper levels to this story as well. On another level it is one of those stories where we see Jesus fulfilling the expectations of a messiah. Isaiah promised that the Lord would unseal the ears of the deaf and here is Jesus doing exactly that. Although Jesus instructs the man to tell know one, he can’t help himself. Like Isaiah predicted, “the tongues of the dumb sing for joy”. Personally, I love that action of the healed man. He cannot contain himself; he wants to tell everyone this exciting news about what has happened to him and to tell everyone about this wonderful Jesus who has healed him. And I wonder when Jesus says “be opened” whether he was only speaking to his tongue and ears and whether he was not also speaking to his heart. So many times in the gospels, it is the faith that people put in Jesus that leads to their healing; the opening of their hearts to Jesus leads to the restoration of their bodies; they are released from their physical suffering by their openness to Jesus as the Son of God.

I hardly need to spell out the relevance of those words “be opened” for our situation here at St Barnabas. Our faith in Jesus, our openness to him and what he can do in our lives is the foundation of all we do as Christians. There is no point in us being here if our life together does not flow from our love for Him. If we know his saving power in our lives, we too will want to sing for joy, sing for joy of his love for us, and tell others what work Jesus can do in their lives if they will be open to him. That is why it is natural that as we welcome others in to our church, we will want to draw them into the faith that inspires us. Our evangelism may be a gentle welcome, a leaflet through the door, a friendly conversation, at times it can be more forthright but it never need be confrontational and above all we must realise that it is by the opening of another person’s heart to Jesus that they will know for themselves what we have come to know and then want to themselves to share it with others. It is easy to lose that first enthusiasm for the Lord, the joy we knew when we were first open to Jesus transforming our lives but that is always the challenge and why we come here every Sunday, to be refreshed, to receive him again in the bread and the wine, to renew our enthusiasm and commitment to share our love of him with others.

It is a challenge, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit may we evermore rise to the challenge here at St Barnabas of responding to those three phrases, “be inclusive”, “be courageous” and “be opened”!

SS/06/09/09