translations render Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:27, “And can any of you by
worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” However, the Greek word
translated ‘span of life’ can also be translated ‘stature’ and the Greek word
translated ‘hour’ is in fact ‘cubit’ (about one-and-a-half feet), and so a
better translation would be, “... add one cubit to your height?”
noted earlier that the word Jesus uses for ‘body’ translates both literally as
your ‘body’ and metaphorically as your gathered congregation. And so, it is not
really a stretch to say that, among the layers of meaning here, is, “And can
any of you by worrying bring about the numerical growth of your church?”
ironic humour would have it, after the service this morning — at which, for a
variety of reasons, quite a few members of the congregation were absent — two
members were lamenting how small the congregation is, compared to a couple of
larger independent churches local to us, and how hard it is to know what to do
about it ...
firstly, don’t be anxious! Size does not equate to health, nor to long-term
commitment. And, in any case, we aren’t comparing like for like, as the
Anglicans are simply spread across the city in smaller gatherings — which have
their advantages, as well as disadvantages. If greater size was the best
yardstick, we should close all our churches and gather together at the Minster —
but I don’t fancy the chances of that proposal being well-received, for some
very good reasons, as well as, inevitably, some unhealthy reasons.
the old hymn goes, God made them great and small. And as the saying goes,
comparison is the thief of joy.
thinking about anxiety, and this coming Sunday’s Gospel, which is relatively
familiar and, therefore, widely misunderstood.
is addressing the experience of anxiety, which must be very common: at least, I
experience anxiety, fairly regularly; other people tell me that they experience
anxiety — and I see it up-close in those closest to me; and the bookshops are
filled with titles addressing anxiety. So, this would seem to be a live issue.
Greek word Jesus uses for anxiety is brilliantly descriptive: it describes
being pulled apart.
word he chooses for ‘life’ refers to the soul, or life-breath that animates us.
In biblical imagery, we have heart and mind and strength and soul. Heart refers
to our will, or capacity to choose, between right and wrong, good and evil; and
how such choices, repeated over time, shape our character. Mind refers to our
capacity for insight, informing our choices, and again, over time, shaping our
disposition. Strength refers to our capacity to exercise force, in the Physics
sense, to act on the basis of our informed choices. Soul refers to our
life-breath, to these elements being held together, as a living person, at the
sovereign decree of God.
attempts to pull them apart. The experience of anxiety can even lead to panic
attacks, to breathlessness, or the physical suggestion of a loss of soul.
Again, the use of language demonstrates Jesus’ incredible insight.
also chooses a word for the body which both refers to our bodies, in the
physical sense, and is a metaphor for our community — as in the use, later in
the New Testament, of the term body of Christ for the church. A playful word.
Jesus is addressing anxiety in relation to our selves and our community, to the
network of relationships that are an inextricable part of who we are. And Jesus’
concern is for wholeness, or shalom.
the summary of Jesus’ advice (to skip the middle, which I’ll come back to) is:
desire to know the reign of God over every area of your life, and to know his
approval of the life he has given you, and you will find that all these
elements that have been pulled apart by anxiety are brought back together.
point is not that if you seek to obey God you will not experience anxiety, but,
that if you desire to know God then this is how you can respond whenever you
feel anxiety rearing its head. Which, in my case at least, is often.
how do you do that? Firstly, Jesus invites us to look beyond ourselves. Notice
the birds. They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns — this last, a play on
words, the same root as the synagogue or the gathering of the people to
worship. But the point isn’t really a comparison, it isn’t about us, whether
workaholic or lazybones, devout or never coming to church. It is about birds,
who don't experience anxiety, but, most of all, it is about God’s sovereign
the observation about the flowers of the field, except that this one also
weaves in reflection on the past story of God’s dealing with his people.
God is sovereign over our community, however it looks, and over our past or
history or story; and if that sovereignty is expressed through delight, through
approval and provision; then we can desire to know that in our lives too.
so, we are invited, in all things, in the place of anxiety, the thing we are
anxious about, to imagine God’s reign in this place. To eagerly anticipate that
this might be so, and soon, and to look for even the smallest signs of that
breakthrough. For example, by praising God for who God is and for what God has
done and for what we trust that God will do again.
is a work of the heart and the mind and the strength — our wills choose it, as
an informed choice, on which we act, hard though it might be at first, until we
find that, God delighting in the soul he has created, our whole being is
brought back together. Anxiety is defeated, not once-and-for-all, but, over and
over again, day after day.
births desire, delight births delight. Worship brings our scattered lives back
into wholeness. Anxiety is, more or less, universal; but, there is a cure.
are some good reasons to attend church services, locally and on a regular
Building predictable patterns into our lives builds our resilience — and
building predictable patterns into our communal lives (including being known)
builds up the resilience of our neighbourhoods. We have tended towards doing
things — eating, going to bed — when we feel like it, rather than at set times;
and it is no coincidence that we have become, and raised children who are, less
We need ritual in our lives, to help us make sense of this wonderful, fleeting
tragic-comedy, to be fully alive in the light of our inevitable, inescapable
death. That is why, for example, we light candles at the deepest moments of our
shared existence. The church gathers around ritual, centrally, the sharing of
broken bread and poured-out wine, the sensory, participatory reminder that God
has taken on our substance and our brokenness in order to remake us, whole.
People are dickheads. The documents of the early church are clear: whether
circumcised dickheads or uncircumcised dickheads, doesn’t matter. Our only
option is between radical forgiveness, and cutting people off. As a society, we
seem to be choosing the latter, with ever-increasing speed. In part, this is
because we are by nature creatures of over-reaction, and in the past have
endured abuse, within all of our institutions including the church, in silence.
But I am talking about a lack of charity towards our neighbour. When the church
gathers, we admit that, since we last gathered, we have, ourselves, been
dickheads; and learn to receive and to extend forgiveness, and the hard work of
making amends. In this, the church trains us for living well together. You may
find some hypocrites in the church, but the vast majority stay away.
The church is a community of people who are seeking to help one another to live
life well, within and for the good of the local community in which they are
set. This is grounded in practices, such as eating together, according to the
resources at hand and the needs that might be met. In this, the church, as
community, is focused on Jesus, who not only modelled what it looks like to be
fully human but, we believe, also empowers us to go and do likewise— however
imperfectly. This is, of course, easier (not easy) in community with others
than on our own.
On the whole, the quality is not very professional. And in a society where
every sphere of life is under ever-increasing pressure to be improved, this is
both freeing and refreshing. Not that we don’t seek to do important things,
such as safeguarding, well; but that we use the gifts that are at hand among
us, to the best of our abilities, rather than chase some unsustainable
experience or artificial goal.
people registered on the first night of our running club’s annual Beginners
group. 136 of them came back on week 2 (not everyone will complete the course,
but there are also those who are committed, but, because of work shifts etc.
can’t make every week). And 48 new people also signed up in week 2.
is entirely down to word-of-mouth, to the sharing of a good news story.
talking to people at work, to members of their families, in person and on
walk to the Minster along the cycle path, and back again along the main road.
Both routes now take me past arson sites: a burnt out rubbish bin, and a large
pile of fly-tipped rubbish (the fire was dealt with by the fire brigade, but
the council have not removed the hazardous waste; nor, of course, was it dealt
with before the arsonists targeted it) along the cycle path; and the pedestrian
subway under the main road.
of such arson is the activity of youths. In addition, here in the north east,
there has been an increase in incidents of groups of youths starting fires to
bring out the fire brigade, and then pelting them with missiles as they work to
put the blaze out. This is completely unacceptable, and not to be tolerated.
is also a cry for help. A cry for attention. To not be ignored.
it will not do to say that this is the work of an anti-social tiny minority.
That is like saying that a person whose skin is covered in little red chicken
pox blisters does not have chicken pox in 99% of their body, but only where
there are spots. As a society we have given rise to a generation who feel at
best ignored, at worst demonised. And yes, at times their actions may well
encourage us to further ignore, or demonise, them. But who are the grown-ups in
will take intentional effort to see young people, to hear their cry, to like
them despite their unlikeable behaviour. And if central funding cannot be found
— and what there was has been torched — then we might just have to re-imagine a
in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.” Psalm
routinely assume that December is my ‘busy time of year.’ It isn’t. Yes, there
are additional services; but there are also more mundane things that can take a
break. Even those extra services place more demand on church wardens and choir members,
who are called upon to enable them alongside other commitments, than on
stipendiary clergy. We’re not sitting around twiddling our thumbs; but neither,
on the whole, is it our busy time of year, compared to, say, our parishioners
who work in retail. December brings a variation, rather than significant
increase, to what I do.
from the outside, my diary is often fuller in January and February; not least
due to the spike in funerals. As everyone dies, you might suppose deaths to be
evenly spread, but they are not. The human spirit is remarkably strong, and
many an elderly or terminally ill person finds the will to give their family
one last Christmas. And then there is the toll of a hard, cold snap (and,
similarly, a summer heat wave).
have taken receipt of the funeral of an elderly gentleman who has no family.
The only instruction he left behind was that at his funeral a particular hymn
be sung. I called the nursing home where he died, in search of some sense of
who he was. I hoped to find a convenient time to meet with someone there, but,
instead, the phone was passed from person to person until someone felt
qualified to tell me the most meagre of scraps of information.
sure they aren’t bad people. It’s just the way we live these days. Passing our
days in isolation. Resources stretched. Transactional duties done to the best
of our ability, but with a nagging sense of embarrassment that there ought to
be more to life than this.
will give him a full and proper funeral, knowing that, even if no-one else
remains who knew him, he was known to God, who bears witness to his life. And
we will entrust him, and one another, to God’s justice and mercy. For whom we
are is ultimately dependent on nothing else; and, moreover, in this is hope of
being restored to renewed community, including those who have died before us.
in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.
Old Testament reading set for Holy Communion today is the account, from 1 Samuel 17, of David and Goliath. Goliath is a seasoned warrior, an expert
in close-quarter, hand-to-hand fighting; whom the young David defeats by
its telling, the story focuses on David’s hands. We are told that he sets out
against the giant with his shepherd’s staff in one hand and slingshot in the
other. That, in response to the Philistine’s taunts, he declares that “God will
deliver you into my hand;” that he put his hand into his bag, took out a stone,
and slung it into Goliath’s forehead; that he prevailed over the Philistine
with no sword in his hand — but that he then grasped Goliath’s sword, drew it
out of its sheath, killed him, and cut off his head with it.
irony of the tale is that king Saul, himself a giant of a man, who cowered
before Goliath, was from a tribe that was renowned for its skill with the
slingshot. But Saul was caught in a story he could not break out of.
account is paired with a Gospel passage, Mark 3:1-6, in which Jesus
heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The man’s condition is
underlined. Jesus instructs the man to stretch out his hand — potentially
exposing his weakness, to ridicule or shame — and when he did so, his hand was
Pharisees, however, are incensed. They are trapped in a story they cannot break
out of, that it was not lawful to heal (a form of work) on the Sabbath.
regularly tell me the same stories. I don’t mean older folk who are getting
forgetful, and don’t remember that they have told me this already, not ten
minutes ago. I mean stories told me week by week or month by month, stories
they seem unable to break free from. Often, stories that portray someone else —
or an institution — as a bully to be overthrown, and yet who still exerts
control over their imagination.
they will never see breakthrough unless they are able to see the situation from
a different perspective.
we come to receive Communion, we stretch out our hands, to take hold of Jesus.
And in this simple act of faith, it is just possible that our perspective
shifts just enough, and for just long enough, that we might see the world from
his perspective. Possible, but not inevitable.
has a grip on you, restricting your freedom, your ability to take hold of life
in all its fullness?
breakthrough you need today might just be to hand.
Bible readings at Morning Prayer this week are concerned with surviving the end
of the world.
Old Testament readings are working their way through the account, in Genesis,
of the Great Flood, an account of devastation and new beginning.
Gospel readings are from Matthew 24, where Jesus draws on the
apocalyptic imagination of the prophet Daniel (paying special attention to Daniel chapter 7) to speak about a time of disaster which will be followed by the
revealing of the Son of Man.
some take this to predict the future End of the World, apocalypse is concerned
with making sense of events we live through in history; and Daniel’s Son of Man
functions as a representative for a faithful remnant community, understood to
be accused before God through the actions of Gentile empires, but,
surprisingly, vindicated by God.
Matthew 24, the primary and imminent event Jesus sees coming over the
horizon is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans — this took place in AD
70 — and the subsequent emergence of a new form of Judaism, not dependent on a
rebuilding of the Temple and a return to its daily rounds of ritual sacrifice.
And — though Jesus might not have had this in mind — the divergence of his
followers from Judaism.
course, in a secondary sense, this continues to speak. Indeed, the Bible, from
beginning to end, is concerned with the forming of communities that can
survive, in a new form, the inevitable end of the world as they have known it.
And not only survive, but thrive.
the end of the world takes place over and over and over again. For those who
experience divorce, or the death of a family member. For communities destroyed
by bush fire or flood, famine, or reduced to rubble by missiles in times of
is no guarantee of given individuals surviving the end of the world. Others
survive, but fail to thrive. Yet here is a long, tried-and-tested resource,
testimony to God’s faithfulness and loving-kindness in a world that, for a host
of reasons in complex interaction, is unpredictable.
you are living through the end of the world right now, may you know the
goodness of God, and the adaptable robustness of God’s people.
the service yesterday morning, I was talking with an elderly member of the
congregation. He trundles down the road here in his motorised wheelchair,
accompanied on foot by his wife. He told me that today as they were on their
way to church, a man drove past them on the other side of the road, pulled up,
got out of his car, grinned at them, waited for the traffic to pass by, and
crossed over to them. “Do you remember me?” he asked. “You used to teach me
[many years ago when he was at school]. I often drive past you on a Sunday
morning, and it always lifts my spirits.”
you imagine,” my friend asked me, “that an old man in a wheelchair, with an old
woman walking along beside him, could lift anyone’s spirits?”
night we went to the theatre to see I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Radio 4’s
long-running antidote to panel games is on tour. In between rounds, the host
tells humorous anecdotes about local people and places, only the local place
names changing from night to night.
night we were treated to the tall tale of a well-known local landowner and
employer, whose gardener lost most of his limbs in the First World War, but was
enabled to keep his job after the War. The nobleman paid for his servant to be
fitted with prosthetic limbs — mahogany legs, and arms of oak and leather
straps for joints. Years later, asked why her father should go to such expense
for the gardener, his daughter simply said that he’d been with the family so
long he was part of the family.
host screws up a piece of paper, and throws it away, muttering, it wasn’t funny
first time we laugh is like Pavlov’s dogs. We know where this joke is going,
and when, and how it will end. We prepare to laugh, feeling clever that we have
got there ahead of the teller. And then, even as the laugh erupts, it changes
into laughter because he has got the punchline wrong. That wasn’t what we were
second laugh is also layered. We laugh because the joke is funny, even if it
was messed-up. But this also morphs, as about two-thirds of the audience
realise that the ‘mistake’ was intentional, part of the joke ... a knowing
laugh with undertones of superiority, for, we are sure, two-thirds of the
people in the theatre haven’t got the joke.
third laugh contains a sympathy for the joke-teller — even professionals screw
up sometimes, we’ve all been there — and admiration that a joke can be mined,
or saved, by sheer bravado and deflection.
most funnily, the members of the panel, who have heard this joke told night
after night, still laugh, at every point. For they are watching a consummate
pro, who has just pick-pocketed an entire theatre, despite the fact that many
in the audience had arrived on their guard, expecting just such an attempt to
Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 49:1-7, is similarly layered. It
speaks of the Lord’s servant, who is the people of Israel/tribes of Jacob, and
the prophet known as Isaiah, and, in the understanding of many people, a
passage that speaks of or points to Jesus.
are layers of knowing. And these layers comfort us by their familiarity ... and
unsettle us with their twists. They bring to light our sense of superiority, of
being more in-the-know than others ... only to expose our foolish pride. They
transform our failures into a work of genius, scripted by a pen that never
fails to deliver ... and send us out with glad hearts. They catch up
Sunderland, and every other place, in a shared story of being both special and
a sorry state, loved in spite of it all.
no matter how many times you hear these words, they keep on giving, they never