On Tuesday .. June Jenny Hopkins was commissioned by Bishop James as the Anna Chaplain for St Mary’s. The purpose of Anna Chaplaincy is to be a Christian presence with and friend to the older people in our community, both in church and in the wider village.
Jenny has already been exercising an informal ministry in this area for a number of years but she felt particularly called to develop this further as a result of a dementia-friendly nativity service which was held in December 2019. Although dementia care and older persons care are not the same thing they do overlap at times and we hope that St Mary’s is going to be part of the ‘dementia-friendly’ village initiative which is underway and that Jenny will be part of this too.
In the short term Jenny will be opening the church on two Friday mornings a month (the first and third Friday, staring on 2 July) and would be delighted to see anyone who wishes to pop in for a chat. As covid restrictions lift the plan is that we would be able to re-start some coffee mornings for older people, a bereavement support group and a number of dementia-friendly services each year.
Please do pray for Jenny in this new ministry and if you would like to work with her in any way as this work develops please do not hesitate to speak either to her or to me.
If you would like to see more about Anna Chaplaincy there is a page on the Rochester website which is a good starting point – here.
|Jenny, following her commissioning, with Bishop James and Julia Burton-Jones, Diocesan Co-ordinator of Anna Chaplaincy.|
Faith in stormy times…
Sunday 20 June 2021
Readings: Job 38:1-11, Mark 4:35-41
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is nothing quite like being at sea during a storm to put the fear of God into you.
Some 20 years ago now I signed up to take part in a charity fund-raising trip, sailing an ocean-going clipper down the coast of Norway and across the North Sea back to London.
But before myself and the rest of the novice crew were let loose on the boat we had to go on a training sail for the weekend – to literally learn the ropes.
The training sail took place in the Solent between Southampton and Cowes. The plan was that we would be sailing for 24 hours continuously in a watch system to get us used to the 5 or 6 days it would take us to get from Bergen to London.
During the day the weather was fine and all the other sailors on the Solent had a good laugh at us struggling to pull up sails, tack the boat and all the other things we had to learn how to do.
But, as darkness fell, the other boats went home and we carried on sailing around the Isle of Wight.
And then, out of nowhere a bit like this morning’s reading, a vicious squall came up, a force 8 wind that whipped the sea into a frenzy.
We still had the large mainsail up, which meant that the boat tipped right over, the waves were breaking over the sides and washing down the decks.
In this state we had to try and reef in the mainsail, to make it smaller, and change the foresails.
Which might sound easy but which meant leaving the relative safety of the cockpit, strapping yourself onto the jackstays, going forward into the breaking sea and struggling with complex ropes and heavy sails while the wind and waves are doing their best to knock you over.
I don’t mind telling you that there was quite a bit of fear around while that was going on and I wonder what we would have said if Jesus had been having a bit of a doze on a cushion in the back while we were fighting for our lives, or so it felt.
Let’s remind ourselves of what the disciples, many of whom were experienced fishermen, said in Mark’s gospel:
“Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”
These are strong, challenging words to Jesus and you really get the sense that they come from a place of genuine fear.
In the other synoptic gospels this challenge to Jesus is somewhat toned down. In Matthew the disciples say:
“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
and in Luke:
“Master, master, we’re going to drown!”
But in Mark, who is always more direct, forthright and forceful, the disciples perhaps echo our own voices in times of distress, of which we have had a few recently:
“…don’t you care…”
They say that there are no atheists in a foxhole, as those without God may find him in times of crisis, but here it is those who are literally with God who are challenging his perceived inaction when an unexpected challenge arises.
We are first told that Jesus is asleep in the stern during the storm. It really does look as though Jesus doesn’t care what is happening to the boat or the disciples. But is this the reality, or is it merely the disciple’s perception of what is happening? Is God really absent and uncaring in this situation or is he acutely aware of what is happening but waiting for the disciples to make the first move towards him?
They don’t simply make a move towards Jesus, they actually wake him up. We aren’t told quite how they did this, but given Jesus was managing to sleep through a storm I suspect that they had to give him quite a shake to get this attention. If you think that prayer is always a super-spiritual activity which involves lots quietness then imagine the disciples in a state of real fear having to shake Jesus awake to get his attention. Which I suppose is an act of faith in itself, after all why bother waking someone up if you don’t think they can do something?
As Jesus wakes up the first thing he hears is their complaint: “Don’t you care?”
I don’t know whether to feel more sorry for Jesus or the disciples at this point.
But Jesus answers the question decisively – he ‘rebukes’ the wind and the sea, and there is a dead calm. Interestingly if you think that you want some dead calm in your life remember that we do need some wind in our sails to move our boats at all.
Having rebuked the elements, Jesus then challenges the disciples:
“Why were you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
They don’t answer this question, because they were in ‘great awe’ and spoke not to Jesus but to one another:
“How can this be? Even the wind and sea obey him!”
The disciples seem almost as scared by this action as they were of the previous inaction.
The answer to ‘how can this be?’ is not given in today’s Gospel but is strongly hinted at in the reading from the book of Job. And, of course, the book of Job itself is an exploration of the question of where is God when trouble strikes. After many chapters of Job complaining to God and challenging his decisions part of God’s response is found here, although it is not always comfortable reading. God essentially says to Job ‘who are you to question me – who laid the foundations of the earth.’
‘Who shut in the sea with doors…’
“…and said ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”
The message is clear – the doubt of the disciples is on a par with the doubt of Job and the answer is the same – the God who created the sea can stop it in it’s tracks and the God we see in Job is the same God we see in the person of Jesus in the back of a boat on the sea of Galilee.
He is the God who made heaven and earth. The God of creation has power over creation. This is the God we have faith in and he is there all the time.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question him or shouldn’t metaphorically shake him awake in our fear. Questioning God is a good thing if it leads us from a state of not thinking about him at all to realising that he is with us always. But, as Job and the disciples discovered, we need to realise that God answers our questions and our prayers in his terms and not ours.
God is not asleep to our suffering and our distress but often it is we who are asleep to God. In seeking to shake God awake perhaps it is our own faith and prayer life that is being woken up.
Sometimes the storm passes and we return to normality, although I hope not dead calm. And sometimes the storm does not pass but we find ourselves able to cope better with the situation. When we have faith and perseverance amazing things can happen.
My shipmates and I not only survived that long night on the Solent but when we eventually sailed from Norway across the North Sea we had a storm then too. Because of our experience of being challenged we found that we have been transformed from terrified novices into salty sea dogs – and rather than clinging on for dear life and wondering when God was going to make it stop we found ourselves riding the waves with joy and rejoicing in a God whose creation is bigger and more vibrant than we can possibly imagine.
This CD, recorded by Antony le Fleming on the organ in St Mary’s, Hadlow, is recommended in Church Music Quarterly, the magazine of the Royal Society of Church Music.
14th February 2021
Readings: 2 Kings 2: 1–12 Elisha succeeds Elijah, who is taken up to heaven Mark 9: 2–9 Jesus’ Transfiguration
1. Introduction. Alexei Navalny, the Opposition Leader in the Russian government, is a good modern-day example of a person of great courage, who despite an attempt on his life, returns to his home country to challenge the leaders of his country and in so doing, encourages his supporters. Prior to the event of Jesus’ Transfiguration, our Gospel reading today, Jesus had spoken to all 12 of his close disciples about going up to Jerusalem, where he would die. Peter had taken him to task, causing Jesus to rebuke him. The Transfiguration is an important event for Jesus himself and for three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, who would take on important roles in the leadership of the Church. For two of them it would be at the cost of their lives. We can read in Acts 12 of Herod having James put to death. Not in the New Testament, but in tradition, supported by Jesus words to him after Jesus’ resurrection, “Someone will lead you where you do not want to go.” (Jn 21 v 18), Peter was crucified. As we prepare to enter the season of Lent with a strong focus on the passion of Christ, we do well to reflect on the significance of Jesus’ transfiguration.
2. Liturgical. Despite the significance of the transfiguration, the Church of England, and perhaps more widely in the Church, has found it difficult to give due recognition to such an enigmatic but profound event. The Book of Common Prayer allocates 6th August as the day to mark the Transfiguration, but without any special readings for such a profound event. But then we are not too good with other celebrations. Ask anyone whether churchgoer or not about the significance of today, 14th February, and almost everyone would say, “St Valentine’s Day”, but in the Church of England calendar it is St Cyril and St Methodius’ Day. I guess that Lea, as a native of Hungary, would be one of the few people that we know, who could tell us much about those two great 9th century missionary brothers probably of Slavic origin but from Macedonia, now N Greece, who went to the Slavic people in what is now Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria. They were keen on people having a liturgy in the own native language and to this end Cyril invented the Cyrillic script, still in use in parts of Eastern Europe. To return to the Transfiguration, the Alternative Service Book allocated the 4th Sunday of Lent for the observation of the Transfiguration. This was a sure-fire way of it being overlooked by most individual churches as they celebrated Mothering Sunday. Probably the Common Worship position of allocating the Sunday next before Lent is a good compromise, ensuring that however few Sundays there are before Lent, the Transfiguration is marked every year, with the gospel in the liturgical Year B from the second synoptic gospel, Mark’s Gospel and related readings; the Old Testament being Moses receiving the commandments on the first or second time or, as this year, Elijah’s ascent to heaven as he hands over to Elisha.
3. Elijah and Elisha. I will just draw out a few points from that OT reading. First of all, the two prophets had a demanding journey setting out from Gilgal about 1 to 2 miles from Jericho, down in the Jordan valley at about (Mediterranean) sea level, 13 miles up to Bethel in the hills N of Jerusalem, probably at about the same height as the city. The Jerusalem Central Bus Station is at 2,700 ft (817 m) above sea level. Bethel literally means ‘house of God’, where Jacob, when fleeing from his brother Esau, stopped for the night and had a vision of angels going up and down a ladder between heaven and earth. At Bethel there was a school of prophets. I reckon that Elijah was keen to introduce his successor, Elisha, so that the School accepted Elisha. He suggests that Elisha should even stay there, but Elisha knows instinctively that he must stay with Elijah until that became impossible. Perhaps they stay a night, before returning very close from where they set out, namely Jericho. An easier down-hill journey of about 14 miles, to a second school of prophets, where again Elijah invites Elisha to stay with the prophets, but Elisha firmly resists this and again, perhaps the next day, they set out, but accompanied by no less than 50 prophets from the School, down to the River Jordan just north of the Dead Sea at 1,250 ft (-382 m) below sea level.
Old Testament prophets were known for their performance of miracles. Elijah’s final miracle is to strike the River Jordan to provide a way to cross to the other side, before he is then received into heaven. Some people find such a miracle hard to accept. When Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, crossing the River Jordan, a natural explanation is given, that a landslip higher up the valley was the physical cause of the water ceasing to flow. The miracle is in God’s timing, of bringing the Israelites to the brink of the river at just the right time. The Arabian historian Nuwairi records a similar event in 1267 A. D. In the early 20th Century, in 1906 and again in 1927, similar events of landslips stopped the flow of the river, and now, so much water is regularly extracted, that you can almost paddle across in places. On the East side of the Jordan, the remarkable life on earth of the man, who again and again had challenged authority, including Ahab, King of Israel, putting his own life in danger, comes to an end as he is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. As a representative of the prophetic line, he is the one to be present at Jesus’ transfiguration, together with Moses, the great law giver.
4. The Transfiguration. What was it that Moses and Elijah talked about with Jesus? St Luke tells that “They spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment in Jerusalem.” (Lk 9 v 31). The Greek word translated ‘departure’ is ‘Exodon’, literally, ‘the way out’. The Greek therefore gives us a natural link with the OT Exodus from Egypt, under Moses’ leadership. From beginning to end, Jesus is the one who supports and fulfils the Law and the Prophets. You may wonder about Peter’s response to the situation, especially as it has been translated in Church Bibles that we use. He proposes three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. This is not meant to be some sort of self-isolation for 10 days. The Greek word is variously translated ‘booths’ (RSV), ‘tabernacles’ (KJV) or ‘shelters’ (NIV). I like tabernacles, as this links with the Feast of Tabernacles, a sort of week’s camping holiday with tents or tree branches, perhaps in the garden, to remind the Jews of their forebears’ wilderness experience. This meeting was not only important for Jesus but for the early Church, to help counter any idea that Christians were rabble rousers, intent on flouting the moral law of the Jewish people. The gospels helped any thoughtful Roman citizen to have a more balanced view of conflict between Jew and Christian.
The climax of the transfiguration is a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud which guided the Israelites in the wilderness, coming over the mountain and out of the cloud comes the voice of God the Father, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him’. It can be quite frightening being up a mountain enveloped in cloud. Many years ago, when our younger son Andrew was 7 years old (and he is now 50), I was leading a walking group of 12 in the Lake District. We were at a high level on Sergeant Man in thick cloud and rain and I could not find the track to take us down. We had to go down, on compass and reference to the map, quite a steep slope. I held Andrew’s hand and he was quite unperturbed. We all got down safely.
5. Application. At the beginning of my sermon, I spoke of the courage of Alexei Navalny, a man much in the news. I want to tell you now of Fadzayi Mahere, a woman of great courage who recently returned to her own country of Zimbabwe. A committed Christian and a qualified lawyer, she had worked at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but then decided that she must return home to defend people whose human rights had been abused, and to protest against police brutality. She was quite soon arrested and thrown into prison, a prison with appalling conditions, lacking any kind of human dignity. The Christian way is by no means always an easy way. We may not have the calling or the opportunity to courageously challenge authority where power is misused and people are abused, as did Jesus, and as do Alexei Navalny and Fadzayi Mahere. May we though, out of the clouds of life, hear the voice of God the Father saying ‘You are my son, I love you’ or ‘You are my daughter, I love you.’ and so press on to serve Our lord in all the challenging circumstances of life.
I conclude with the words from the hymn, ‘The King of love my shepherd is’, based on Psalm 23, “In death’s dark vale, I fear no ill, with thee, dear Lord beside me; thy rod and staff my comfort still, thy cross before to guide me.
Sunday 17th January 2021
Readings: 1 Samuel 3: 1-20, John 1: 43-end
Why are we here today?
I don’t mean why are you at home on Zoom, whilst Francis, Annabelle and I are in a rather cold church, we know all about that, I mean what makes us gather as a church at all?
What, or who, calls us together?
I am going to put my neck on the line and suggest that beneath whatever surface reasons we have – friendship, upbringing, joining in with community – I suspect that we are each drawn here for the same underlying reason.
Whether we really know it or not I believe that everyone who is drawn towards worship, has been called by God at some time and in some way and that we are all ‘here’ in response to that call with a desire to experience something more of the God who calls us.
We are still in the season of Epiphany and the old testament, psalm and gospel readings set for this morning give us examples of different ways in which God calls his people and the way in which his people have their epiphany moment of recognising the One who calls.
The Old Testament reading for today is about God’s call to Samuel. Samuel was then a young boy working as an apprentice in the temple to Eli the priest. To our eyes this probably looks like a strange way to bring up a child but given the importance and the centrality of the Temple to Jewish life to be apprenticed to a priest in the Temple
must have been an incredibly important and sought-after position.
A bit like being an intern at Google now.
When you read the stories about Abraham and Moses, it is possible to form the view that in ‘Old Testament’ times people were having visions and encounters with God on a daily basis. But, interestingly we are told at the beginning of today’s reading that in those days the word of the Lord was rare, and there were not many visions. Either God had gone quiet on his people or his people had lost the ears to hear.
Either way God chose to raise up Samuel as a new prophet and we heard that God began by calling his name out loud:
But each time Samuel thought it was his master Eli calling and he came running into his master’s room, saying “Here I am, you called me”. So sometimes God may be speaking to us loud and clear but we simply fail to recognise it.
In verse 7 we are told that Samuel did not yet know the Lord, because the word of God had not been revealed to him. The phrase ‘word of God’ is laden with meanings – it can mean the written word of Scripture, it can mean Jesus as the living Word of God but, in this context, we should not forget that it can also mean the literal, spoken, word that Samuel was hearing for the first time.
God called Samuel in an audible way but because Samuel had never heard the word of God before he mistook it for Eli and it took the older man’s wisdom firstly to discern that it was God and secondly to tell Samuel how to respond. Actually, the first part of his advice to Samuel was “Go and lie down.”
And sometimes we need to do exactly that in order to hear God’s call – to quieten ourselves and our own thoughts and agenda. To consciously make the space to listen out for God over the hubbub of our lives.
And when God called Samuel for final time we are told that there was not simply a voice but, in verse 10, that the Lord came and stood there and called “Samuel, Samuel.”
When God stands in your room, calling your name, that is a pretty full on, hard to avoid call.
Samuel’s response to God when he called for the final time is actually the ideal response for each of us no matter how we experience God in our lives – he says: “Speak, LORD, for you servant is listening”.
Those words of quiet obedience cannot help but remind us of Mary’s response to the annunciation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.
Although we are thinking specifically about Samuel’s experience of being called it is also interesting to reflect very briefly on what he was being called to. In verse 11 God tells Samuel that he is calling him to do something that will make the ears of everyone who hears it ‘tingle’, as he is to pronounce God’s judgement against the family of Eli, the very priest to whom he is apprenticed. Being called by God does not always lead to cucumber sandwiches – sometimes it means disturbing one’s hearers by seeking to bring them back to God’s call, and many prophets and priests and, of course, Jesus Christ himself, have paid the price for saying things which may make others squirm and disturb their sense of power and entitlement.
The calling of Philip by Jesus in John’s gospel was also a direct and unambiguous call: Jesus simply found Philip and, without preamble, said to him “Follow me”. There is no response from Philip other than immediate obedience. Although this instant response to the call of Jesus can be inspirational it can also be challenging, because it can be so different from the way that we often respond, and many scholars have tried to create a ‘backstory’ for the relationship between Jesus and Philip to explain this lack of preamble and questioning – however I was interested to see something by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship:
“This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct and unaccountable authority of Jesus. There is no need of any preliminaries, and no other consequence but obedience to the call. Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons us to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God…When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. Christ calls; we are to follow.”
Samuel heard the call of God the Father in an audible way and that was the call that he needed to begin his prophetic ministry and Philip was called personally by God the Son, Jesus and that was the calling he needed to become a disciple. However, with one or two notable exceptions, very few people are called so directly. The psalm set for today, Psalm 139 which has always been one of my favourites, speaks of a different sort of experience of God and it is one that I suspect more of us can relate to.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, [a] you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
This speaks not of hearing God speak audibly or even of meeting Jesus face to face but of an inescapable sense of God’s presence – of simply knowing that he is there whatever we do and wherever we go. And we should not be surprised that a sense of God’s presence, which we may call the Holy Spirit, is the way in which most people will be aware of God in the present age because Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit on the church to be our comforter until he returns in glory. So this is by no means a second rate manner in which to experience the call of God as we worship one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So perhaps we are gathered today because of a calling by God – whether Father, Son or Holy Spirit.
But maybe you don’t feel that you have ever encountered the call of God and you are here because your friends are here. Well, that is within the divine economy too. Turning back briefly to the gospel reading there is another type of calling: The first thing we see Philip do as a disciple is to call Nathanael to follow Christ by saying ‘come and see’.
Nathanael wasn’t called by Jesus personally but he was called by another disciple to come and experience something of the Jesus that he had discovered. I suspect that may be the way many of us first heard the call of God – from another disciple saying ‘come and see’ and, of course, it is a way that we, as disciples, can call others to see the Lord – ‘come and see’.
Of course the callings of Samuel, Philip and Nathanael are not exhaustive of the way in which God calls his people – the bible is absolutely full of different ways and, I suspect, that God speaks to each of us in the way that we need. If you are bookish and quiet and prayerful then God will likely call you in quietness, if you are loud and active then God may have to speak a little louder.
So why are we here? Because God has called each of us in myriad ways to gather together around the word of God, and everyone here has responded to that call. That is an awesome thought. But God does not call us to sit still and he continues to call each of us in our different ways.
As individuals and as a church we could do a lot worse than to follow the example of Samuel and say: “Speak, LORD, for you servant is listening” and to your friends, “Come and see”.