Thursday, July 18, 2024

Evil, and rest


‘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.’

Jesus (Matthew 11.28-30)

In England, today, when we use the word ‘evil’ we are making a moral judgement. A nation of dog-lovers, we would consider someone who took pleasure in torturing a dog to be evil. In most biblical contexts, such a person would not be called evil but ‘wicked,’ a word we no longer use to describe moral wrongdoing; if we use it at all, it has come to mean ‘exceptionally good’ (as in, ‘That was a wicked sermon, vicar!’)

Often in the Bible, evil is not a moral judgement, but a description of those conditions of existence that are vexing, that burden the spirit, resulting in weariness. So, growing old is evil. Not that being old is immoral; nor that senior citizens are wicked, at least, not simply by virtue of their age: one is wicked, regardless of age, on account of deliberate and repeated choices made. The evil of growing old includes not being able to hold on to the vigour of youth, or a zest for life; as well as the losses of cherished ways of life, possessions, and people.

When Jesus says, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ he surely has in mind those burdened by evil, in this sense (whatever else he might also have in mind). And if they come to him, he will give them rest.

In the beginning, God created the earth and all that is in it. An earth, and its inhabitants, that would continually pass away. Things good, or even very good, but fleeting. And on the seventh day, God rested; stepped back, to enjoy what was, before it was no longer, before it gave way to something else.

To rest is to step, temporarily, away from labour. The thing that might be counter-intuitive for our culture is that rest actually honours labour, gives it worth. To rest from the burden of the evil of aging creates space to look back with gratitude for all that was good, but also, perhaps, space to discern what is good in the present. To find gift and enjoyment in our life as it is now, and so to be set free from the burdens of nostalgia or bitterness.

Growing old is not the only evil in this sense. Every stage and season of life has its vexations; every stage and season must give way to the next. Life, even a good life, is hard work, at times; and rest is the antidote to evil (just as justice is the antidote to wickedness).

Take time to rest today, whatever rest looks like for you. And may you meet Jesus there, waiting to bless you.


Sunday, July 07, 2024

Come and go


Today when the congregation gathered at St Nic’s there were almost as many who weren’t there (I counted 33) as were there (35). The church is not only those who gather, any given Sunday, but also those who are scattered, who are visiting family or friends around the country, or who are frail or ill, or, in Jo’s case, attending General Synod. And by the same token, we had two visitors in our midst, not regular attenders, simply aware of a longing to reconnect with God, and a sense that they might find God in this place, in this shared practice. You would be welcome, too.

Jesus calls us to him; and sends us out ahead of him. So, some of us gathered, to meet him in Word and Sacrament, to receive the love of God which empowers us to love God with our whole being in response, and love our neighbour as ourselves; and allows us to receive forgiveness where we fail at this, and wholeness where we are scattered in ourselves.

Heather and Christine read aloud from the Bible. Brenda led us in prayer for the Church and the World. Dave carried the cross, visual reminder of Christ’s passion; Peter carried the Gospel; and together they assisted in preparing bread and wine to offer to those hungry for God. I spoke of repentance, of changing our mind having spent time with someone else, which is the work of bridge-building between neighbours; and pressed bread on people’s palms as a symbol of God’s grace that supplies all our needs; and blessed those who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to come but unable to eat; and anointed many with oil for healing of body, mind, and spirit, for there were many there who needed that particular grace in their lives. And we sang, old hymns and a contemporary worship song, familiar paths and unfamiliar steps, the hymns accompanied by Susan on the organ.

After all had been fed, or blessed, and anointed, and some had gone, back to their homes and those they care for, I sat briefly with Joan, for whom Sundays are hard at times, too full of ghosts and the cloud of heavenly witnesses, the collision of past, present, and future, until her lift was ready to take her home. Then tea and biscuits with those who stay on.

This never gets easy, never gets old. Fifteen years a deacon, fourteen years a priest, and counting. Thank you, Jesus.


Saturday, July 06, 2024



I was struck, on Friday, by the final speech made by Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister, and by the first speech made by his successor in that role, Keir Starmer. Both men acknowledged the role that the support and hard work of others had played in the opportunity presented to them; the will of others in constraining their own hopes; and the reality that whatever can be built, however our common life is shaped, is and can only be done together.

We do not impose our will on the world, or other people, as a blank canvas or a lump of putty. Indeed, we do not only discover the extent to which our will may be realised in engagement with other people and the physical world we share; our will is actually formed in relation to the will of others.

In the Gospel passage set for this Sunday, Mark 6.1-13, we are reminded that Jesus is constrained by his work as a carpenter, by his family of origin, and by the wider community in which he is situated. This embeddedness places limits on what he is able to do, and in this passage he discovers something of those limits. But these constraints are not solely negative. It is within the contexts of these constraints, these interactions that combine to give shape to what is possible, that Jesus comes to understand himself not only as the Son of Mary, but as the Son of Man, that is, what it is to be a human being, part of humanity. It is within these same constraints that others come to see Jesus as the Son of God, or also the Son (descendant) of David, both of which are to say, the legitimate king of Israel.

Within this embedded context, indeed within the specific context of coming up against the push-back of others, Jesus calls twelve others to him, and sends them out ahead of him into the surrounding area. As they go, and meet other people in the embeddedness of their lives, they proclaim that all should repent. To repent means to change your mind, in relation to something; but, more than that, to change your mind as a consequence of having spent time with another person, of getting to know something of them and their life. The twelve do not go out telling people, repent, or that certain types of people need to repent, but proclaiming that all (that is, the twelve included) should repent.

In other words, this is the work of building bridges, between people, between me and you, together. For this to happen, I must reassess what I believe, including my assumptions about Others, in light of having met with you, having listened to you, having seen you, and you, me. This is listening to people on their doorsteps, rather than just speaking at them.

This goes against the grain of our cultural assumptions, which denies the existence of a grain to work with. We surely only need to programme our desired outcome into the 3D printer. But Jesus was a carpenter, and a carpenter becomes a master carpenter in the mutual submission of the carpenter to the wood and the wood to the carpenter. They work together, this sentient being, and this given material reality or Other, which would only frustrate the inexperienced or immature worker.

We live in a world where the grandson of immigrants, or a man who grew up in a working-class home can become Prime Minister—and can be removed from office. But this is not to say that you can be anything that you want, which is an unbearable burden that can only result in a sense of failure and the deep shame that comes with it, the sense of inadequacy for which we alone are to blame. It means that we start, somewhere, with a set of givens that shape possibilities, that shape further possibilities. Like sailing across a lake, at times we advance carried by the wind, at times we must tack into the wind as a corrective; and at times the wind is so hard against us that we can only get anywhere at great effort, abandoning our ideal plan for what is possible.

Generally speaking, we would prefer that other people repent, than we are willing to repent ourselves. We want to impose our will, or we surrender any willpower and abandon ourselves to fate. We need, instead, to learn that the world is created, and that we are creative agents in that world, through mutual submission. That requires trust, and the willingness to honour the other, even (especially) those with whom we disagree. In this, on Friday gone, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer both served us, as a nation, well.


Thursday, July 04, 2024



Politicians like to say that archbishops (their shorthand for the Church) should stay out of politics. That is, they should not publicly criticise governments, or call society to account on matters of political debate. This is a nonsense, of course, both because in a democracy everyone should be encouraged to engage with politics, and also because the Church is inherently political, in the sense that God demands justice for the poor.

The readings set for Holy Communion on this General Election day are Amos 7.10-17 and Matthew 9.1-8.

Amos consistently spoke out against the indifferent exploitation of the poor by the wealthy in ancient Israel, warning that if they insisted on pursuing this trajectory it would end badly for them. Amaziah, an advisor to the king, who today we would call a politician, demands that Amos shut up and go home, attend to his own affairs. The Church ought to stay out of politics. Amos responds that, as Amaziah has committed himself to his life of casual exploitation, such a calamity would befall the wealthy of the land that his wife would be forced into prostitution, his sons and daughters die by the sword, his wealth be divided up, and he himself die in exile. It is important to note [1] that Amaziah’s wife and adult children were not innocent bystanders, collateral damage, but fully complicit in the exploitation of the poor, and [2] this was not God’s best will for them—God’s will was that they return to him and turn their back on injustice—but, rather, the inevitable eventual consequence of their conscious and deliberate choices.

In contrast, in our Gospel passage we meet a group of friends who are bringing a paralysed man to Jesus, as to one they hope will show compassion. Their action is inadequate—they are recycling either a dining mat (in this culture, people ate reclining on one side) or a funeral bier to carry the man—but it is the best they can do with what they have available to them. The first thing Jesus does is forgive their sins, or, address the shortfall between what they want to do and what they are able to achieve. Addressing their sense of inadequacy, which, left unaddressed, might paralyse them, too. When some bystanders object to this audacious grace, Jesus responds by healing the man, physically. By making up the full gap between what the friends can do and what they hope for.

When you cast your vote, cast your vote in the best interest of the most vulnerable person you know. Your action, and whatever is done by whoever forms the next government, will be inadequate. Ask Jesus to forgive—to send away, or write off debt—the inevitable shortfall, and trust that he chooses to do so.


Sunday, June 30, 2024

Faith, equalities and rights, and democracy


Here in the UK there will be a General Election on 04 July. Over the five Sundays in June, I intend to look at several key issues relating to how we vote, concluding, today, with equalities and rights, and democracy. My intention is not to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for—though I will touch on policies—but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote?

Let’s begin with some principles. First, it is worth noting that Jesus did not live in a democracy, but under the rule of a colonial empire, the latest in a succession of colonising empires. The State we live in, and the state of that State, is a constantly changing accident of history, and not something to vest ultimate identity in. Nor did Jesus ever advocate exerting religious power for temporal gain. Whenever the Church is seduced into trying to do so, the vision of following Jesus is corrupted.

Second, Jesus emphasises the command ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ Command, here, should be understood as divine decree: that it is the human vocation to love one another, in the same way that it is the vocation of the sun and the moon to light the day and the night. When we seek to withhold from others what we would not want withheld from ourselves—and not least when we seek to exercise control over others by declaring that we know what is best for their own good, better than they do—we violate that divine calling.

Third, while democracy, as a system of government, is traced back to ancient Greece, Jesus adopts and expands this model, taking the term ekklesia—a word used 114 times in the New Testament—to describe the church he will build. The ekklesia was the citizen’s assembly in Greek city-states, such as the Decapolis, a league of ten such cities local to Jesus, which enjoyed political autonomy from the Herodian Kingdom and its successors, the Herodian tetrarchy and the Roman province of Judea. The Athenian model was based on three institutions, the ekklesia, boule, and dikasteria. The ekklesia was the sovereign governing body, meeting weekly, writing laws, determining foreign policy, and appointing officials to serve one-year terms as head of state and organisers of festivals. The boule was a council of representatives, chosen by lot from each district (‘tribe’), meeting daily for a one-year term, responsible for the day-to-day running of the city, and setting the agenda for the ekklesia. The dikasteria were courts in which cases were brought before lottery-selected jurors.

In the early church we see citizenship—the criteria for participation in the ekklesia—broadened to include women, slaves, foreigners (the gentiles), and youths, all of whom were excluded from the Athenian ekklesia. We see representatives appointed to administrative roles by lottery, but also by refined terms (when the Hellenist widows complained that they were being overlooked in the distribution of food to widows, those chosen to administer the distribution fairly were only selected from among the Hellenist part of the church community). Settling disputes within the church rather than going to external courts was also encouraged—deliberative democracy, working alongside representative democracy.

So, we see that Jesus and his first followers take up and develop democracy. We see this today in our structures of church governance, including the congregation as local ekklesia, with its own parochial church council and elected officers, as well as elected representative synods and appointed bishops. It is also worth noting that Christianity has been a major influence in the evolving democracy of England.

Let us turn now to the readings set for this Sunday, asking what light they might shed.

Our Old Testament reading is Lamentations 3.22-33. The context is this: Jerusalem has been laid waste, Solomon’s temple burnt to the ground, the city walls pulled down, the royal court taken into exile, all at the end of a devastating siege. Everything is broken. Yet we are reminded that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. And so, we are encouraged to hope, in place of despair; to look for evidence of the Lord’s compassion; and to bear the burden of rebuilding. Every party standing in the forthcoming General Election has appealed to our collective sense of brokenness—a creaking NHS, a cost-of-living crisis, anxiety about broken borders. We would do well to attend to the tone of their messages: do they emphasise hope? do they highlight compassion? do they make messianic claims as to their own (and theirs alone) ability to save us? are they honest about the challenges facing us, and the cost?

Our Gospel reading is Mark 5.21-43. We meet a desperate father, who wants the best for his daughter, and a desperate woman, who is excluded from full participation in society. This raises questions of what we might call equalities and rights. It is worth noting that the woman is trapped by a law intended to ensure menstrual health, and also that the World Health Organisation calls for us to recognise that menstrual health should be recognised, framed and addressed as a health and human rights issue, not a hygiene issue. It is worth noting that the woman chooses to ignore the law, in her determination for restoration, and despite her fear of the consequences. We might also note that Jesus uses power to empower others, as opposed to building his own empire. He focuses his attention—and ours—on the woman, not the crowd, and on the little girl, not the commotion around her.

Finally, let’s turn to policies set out in the various manifestos, relating to equalities and rights, and to democracy.

On equalities and rights, Labour and the LibDems highlight equality for women in the workplace, Race Equality (Labour proposes an Act, the LibDems a Strategy), and workplace equality and ease of access to public life for disabled people, while the Conservative focus here is more on health and welfare reform. On gender identity, the Conservatives plan to implement the Cass Review recommendations, to ‘protect young people who are questioning their gender identity from ideologically-driven care,’ while Labour insists upon ‘freedom to explore sexual orientation and gender identity.’ Both statements uphold the importance of safe space, to question or explore. The LibDems go further, proposing reform of the gender recognition process in favour of respecting a person’s identity claim, and the Greens further still, simply affirming the right to self-identification for trans and non-binary people. This is clearly an example of a complex and contested issue—of crowds and commotion—where legislation matters, and compassion for real lives, including family members, matters even more.

The LibDems affirm the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Greens the Human Rights Act and ECHR, while Reform UK would leave the ECHR, remove the 2010 Equalities Act, introduce a Comprehensive Free Speech Bill expressly ‘to stop left-wing bias and politically correct ideology that threatens personal freedom and democracy’ (i.e. no freedom of speech unless you agree with us) and an Anti-Corruption Unit for Westminster (which could be weaponized against political opponents).

On democracy, Labour, the LibDems, and Greens all propose extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds (at 16 you can join the British army; Athenian democratic citizenship was from the age of military service) enabling them to participate in the democratic processes that impact every area of their lives. The Greens recognise the right to national self-determination for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the LibDems propose a federal UK with a Federal Constitution, including determining the structures of government in England. Labour would reform the House of Lords, the Greens replace it with a second elected chamber, and Reform UK replace it with a structure to be determined. Reform UK would also replace the Civil Service with political appointees that changed with every government.

Issues of equalities and rights, and of democracy, have a bearing on how we conduct ourselves, as the ekklesia Jesus is building. Who is included, as a citizen in the kingdom of heaven? Who is here, in this place, on equal standing? Who gets to have their voice heard, their perspective respected, their daily lived experience taken into consideration? Are those who have been here for fifty years entitled to more power than those who have been here for six months, simply by virtue of having been here ‘first’—or should the first be last, when it comes to exercising power in this kingdom? Are all included, equally, regardless of gender, age, socio-economic means, ethnicity, disability, abilities, sexuality, family status, education? If not, whose ekklesia are we?

These issues also have a bearing on how we vote. We live in a democracy. There are four political parties standing in Sunderland Central: the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens. Reform UK offers an alternative to democracy: namely, authoritarian populism. It is an alternative that many Christians in the USA have embraced, the ‘Christian nationalism’ that coopts Jesus in service of political power concentrated in the hands of wealthy, white, culturally ultra-conservative men to the exclusion and control of other groups. It is antithetical to the Way of Jesus, beloved, and to waiting quietly for the salvation of the Lord. I said that it is not my intention to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for, but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote? This is my caveat: I would have significant issues with anyone who called themselves a follower of Jesus and who voted for an authoritarian populist movement.

As we place our cross in a box on the ballot paper, may we reach out to Jesus, and, grasping the hem of his outer garment, may we be rescued from whatever keeps us from loving service of our neighbour. And may we go out at peace and be made whole.



Sunday, June 23, 2024

Faith, and the environment


Here in the UK there will be a General Election on 04 July. Over the five Sundays in June, I intend to look at several key issues relating to how we vote, continuing, today, with the environment. My intention is not to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for—though I will touch on policies—but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote?

I think that I could make a case for the book of Job being the first treatise on the environment. It starts with God in conversation with an angelic being called the Accuser. God asks whether he has noticed how exemplary a human being Job is? The Accuser responds that this is self-serving on Job’s part, because God has planted a hedge around him, to shelter and protect him. God is not convinced and permits the Accuser to cut down the hedge and see what will happen. What transpires is a heady cocktail of attacks from neighbouring tribes competing for resources, and natural disasters, that between them strip away all Job’s flocks and herds and leave his servants and his children dead. When Job persists in his integrity of character, the Accuser asks to afflict his body with sores, but is prevented from taking his life.

When they hear of Job’s misfortune, his three closest friends come to him, and they do a beautiful thing. They sit with him, in silence, for seven days and seven nights. No trying to offer easy answers where there are none, to ease their own discomfort. And after that, Job speaks. A damn bursts, and words pour out of him. He wishes that he had died in the womb, that there had been no joy at his birth, that the stars had been blotted out by clouds. If you have lost a baby, that might be hard to hear, or understand; but Job is not alone in wishing that he had never been born, not alone in finding himself in such a dark place. He feels utterly hedged-in by God—which does not feel like shelter, but like torment—and his anguish pours out from him like water. God notes everything Job says but, for now, says nothing in return. Instead, Job’s friends speak up, and their advice to him is, to put it in environmental terms, a pile of steaming, well-rotted manure.

Only when they have spent all their words does God speak, answering Job’s complaint from out of the storm (starting with our first reading today, Job 38:1-11). He takes up Job’s death-wish image-for-image with God’s own wish for life. Neither obliterated nor silenced, the morning stars sing for joy. The sea is born, full of vigorous life; and God uses the sea fret to make swaddling bands, to wrap the new-born sea tight—as Mary would wrap Jesus—so that it feels safe and secure. God literally plants a hedge around the sea—a boundary to shelter it—and brings the swell of outpoured waters to peace. In what follows, God reveals a divine fascination with and joy in learning about nature, in discovering how creation will participate in the gift of life. Christians believe that we are made in the image of this God: which is to say, we are made to discover and rejoice in the wider environment.

The divine calming of the swelling waves is taken up in our Gospel passage, Mark 4.35-41. A violent storm comes out of nowhere, threatening to overwhelm the boats in which Jesus and his disciples were caught on the lake. We read that Jesus rebuked the wind, but the Greek means to esteem or place due weight or honour on something. We might say, Jesus, as a frail human, paid due respect to the power of the wind—and that the wind, in return, paid due respect to Jesus. There is something here of human harnessing the wind for human good. There is also something noteworthy in the calm displayed by Jesus before calm is displayed by the waves. He models the contrast between excessive fear and having been persuaded of God’s trustworthiness.

The environment is a major issue, and more so for younger voters. For many younger people, climate change and environmental loss is an existential crisis, which galvanises some to action and paralyses others in despair. The four political parties standing in Sunderland Central—the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and the Greens—agree that environmental policy must be tied to energy production and a commitment to reaching carbon net zero. All four promote significant investment in offshore wind, onshore wind, and solar energy production, including more localised storage and distribution, with both the Conservatives and Labour also supporting new nuclear power, to which the Green party is opposed. All four are aware that this will take strategic investment, targeted support for industries in transition, and various mechanisms for holding businesses to account. Holding water companies to account is prominent in the Conservative and Labour manifestos.

Reform UK is also standing in Sunderland Central. They are a registered business, rather than a political party (thus getting around certain restrictions on political parties, such as the need to be transparent about their funding). They take a very different approach, rejecting net zero ambitions, advocating that we adapt to a warmer climate, and calling for fast-tracking of licenses for North Sea gas and oil, shale gas extraction (fracking), small nuclear reactors, and incentivised mining for lithium and clean coal.

Christians believe that God created the world, and continues to sustain it; that God entrusted humanity with responsibility to guard the flourishing of all life on earth; and that the threat to life on earth for all species is at least in part tied to human abdication of that God-given responsibility, with hope for all living things also tied to God’s initiative—through the divine person of Jesus Christ—to restore humanity to their rightful position as environmental guardians. Indeed, ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth’ is one of the five marks of Anglican mission, across the world (the others being: to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom; to teach, baptise and nurture new believers; to respond to human need by loving service; to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation). While Labour, the LibDems and Greens all highlight the importance of international cooperation and targeted development funding, links across the Anglican Communion allow for actual connection and partnership between local communities. Durham diocese has a link with the kingdom of Lesotho, which could benefit from renewal post the hiatus of the global Coronavirus pandemic.

There are things we can do here, too. Some are large, and will require drawing on external funds, such as replacing our heating systems, in the church hall as a matter of priority and in the church as a matter of planning for the future. But there are other things we can do, to take responsibility in this regard. We can shape and adopt an environmental policy, adapting existing templates for churches to our context. These cover energy use, which banks we might use and which charities we might support, how we apply principles of reducing, re-using and recycling waste to the products we buy for church use, the food and dink we consume, the changes we make in our own homes, and the worship and teaching Sunday by Sunday.

Every church, church school and diocese in the Church of England is also encouraged to engage with the Eco Church scheme, which supports churches to become better stewards of God’s creation working progressively through bronze, silver, and gold awards. We are signed-up to this—and it wouldn’t take a lot of work to reach bronze accreditation—but really we need someone with a vision to serve as an Environmental Champion for the church and parish of St Nicholas, to take this on. Perhaps this is something that God might put on your heart—perhaps in response to a sense of discouragement, as God responded to Job and as Jesus responded to his disciples. Perhaps this is where your faith will grow?

And we can make use of resources from the wider Church to help us engage with care for God’s creation, resources such as those produced to support the annual Season of Creation, which runs from 1 September to 4 October each year. This year’s theme is the firstfruits of hope. Blackburn diocese have produced six sessions of material, including prayers, worship, play, activity and actions to take, designed to help primary aged children join in with creation care. They have generously made this resource available more widely.

The environment is one of those issues that cannot be left to ‘someone else’ to address: we all need to play our part, and as Christians, we do so from a faith perspective. It is also one of those issues where we don’t always know what to do—though there is also plenty of consensus over what we ought to do, but don’t want to do. Here, too, our faith engages us, with the promise that Jesus—the one through whom, and for whom, God created all things—is with us, guiding us where we do not know what we ought to do, and strengthening us where we do know the way forward—or at least the next steps—but do not want to follow, for fear of the cost. Where we are overwhelmed, by guilt or shame or anger or denial, he rises and speaks peace into being in our lives.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Faith, housing, transport, immigration and education


Here in the UK there will be a General Election on 04 July. Over the five Sundays in June, I intend to look at several key issues relating to how we vote, continuing, today, with housing, transport, immigration and education. My intention is not to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for—though I will touch on policies—but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote?

In September 2023 the world-famous Sycamore Gap Tree was felled in an act of vandalism. The outpouring of grief made it very clear that many, many people across the northeast of England, and far beyond, felt a special connection with this one, iconic, tree, a deep bond that is hard to explain to someone who does not share it, but undeniable. There is a real sense of loss, but also hope, a desire that the tree might have a legacy: the stump, left in the ground, will hopefully sprout again; seedlings have been carefully gathered and stored to produce new trees, through grafting and other methods; and the felled trunk and branches have been preserved in hope that commissioned artists will create works to enhance a wide variety of contexts across the region.

Human connection to trees is nothing new. In the Bible, trees are often used as allegories for people, sometimes rulers and sometimes nations. Sometimes these trees are transplanted or cut down. For example, the prophet Ezekiel does this in chapter 17—from which our first reading this morning is an extract—and again in chapter 31. The cedar in chapter 17 is an allegory of the fortunes of Judah, while the cedar in chapter 31 is an allegory of the fortunes of Egypt.

Under king Saul, and then king David, a federation of tribes became a nation. The reign of David’s son, Solomon, was considered a Golden Age. Their neighbour to the immediate north was the island city of Tyre, jewel of the sea. Tyre controlled the great forests of Lebanon, that produced the finest cedars. They used this resource to build fine ships, becoming legendary merchants. But they had no land for growing cereal or farming animals. David and Solomon made alliances with king Hiram of Tyre, supplying food in exchange for cedarwood—and master craftsmen—to build David’s royal palace and Solomon’s temple: and so, the cedar became a symbol of the king in Jerusalem too.

But after Solomon’s death, the kingdom split in two, Israel in the north declaring independence from Judah in the south. The two nations coexisted for some time, until, in 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II of the Neo-Babylonian empire—known as the Great—besieged and captured Jerusalem, carrying king Jehoiachin, the royal court and king’s own regiments, into exile in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar put Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah, on the throne in his place; and Mattaniah take the name Zedekiah. But ten years later, in 587 BCE, Zedekiah rebelled against Babylonia, gambling on an alliance with Egypt. The gamble did not pay off: Jerusalem was besieged for a second time, its walls destroyed, Solomon’s temple burnt down, and the entirety of the remaining population carried off into exile in Babylon. There they would remain until Babylon in turn fell to the Persians under Cyrus the Great, when they would return, in three waves: led by Zerubbabel, who began rebuilding the temple; by Ezra, the reformer; and by Nehemiah, who oversaw the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.

This is what is alluded to in Ezekiel’s allegory of the tree: in the earlier part of the chapter, an allegory of Nebuchadnezzar establishing Zedekiah in Jerusalem, and Zedekiah turning to Egypt to support his rebellion; but towards the end of the chapter, the Lord God promises that he will replant his people in their own land and restore their fortunes. They will become a shelter for all nations (birds) and through them all nations (trees, again) will come to know that the Lord is God.

Trees can be considered an ecosystem in their own right. Our two native species of oak—the English Oak, national tree of England; and the Sessile oak, national tree of both Wales and Ireland—support 2,300 wildlife species, providing food and shelter for insects, birds and mammals, as well as lichens, mosses, and fungi. Likewise, the Scots Pine—our only native pine, and the national tree of Scotland—is a keystone species, supporting many other, including rare, species. Trees are a complex, living infrastructure, which make them a good analogy for infrastructure issues such as housing, transport, immigration, and education.

There is a need for a new vision for housing in the UK, including, crucially affordable housing. The average house value has risen by an average 10% every year for the past fifty years, leaving our housing stock beyond the reach of younger first-time buyers. The Conservative and Labour party manifestos share a commitment to build 1.6 & 1.5 million homes over the course of the next parliament. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both propose a new generation of new towns or garden cities, while the Greens favour smaller scale development. The left-of-centre parties want developers to provide supporting infrastructure, while the right-of-centre parties want to remove this constraint. Some focus more than others on upgrading existing housing to be more energy efficient. Regarding the relationship between landlords and tenants, those on the right want to strengthen the rights of landlords, while those on the left want to strengthen the rights of tenants. The imagery of a tree that supports a rich variety of life in different ways, including nests on branches or hollowed out of dead wood, and sets and burrows within the roots, speaks to a diversity of innovative solutions.

A reliable and fit-for-purpose transport infrastructure is essential if communities are to flourish. Our rail network is key, and all parties are calling for its reform. Labour, the LibDems, and the Green party all call for public ownership; while Reform UK proposes that 50% of our infrastructure be publicly owned and 50% held by a UK pensions fund. Buses are key to connecting local communities, raising questions about fit-for-purpose services are best planned, paid for. The LibDems vison extends to light rail and trams, moving to zero-emissions, shifting more freight from roads to rail, and—in common with the Greens—banning short domestic flights and a moratorium on new airports. Cycleways and footpaths should be integral to urban planning.

Immigration is a thorny issue. Claiming that asylum seekers are illegal migrants is a deflection. An illegal migrant is someone who came into the country on a travel, work or study visa and who remained in this country after their visa expired. Illegal migrants should be sent home. Safe routes to sanctuary must be reestablished for those fleeing persecution. There is both compassion and economic sense in processing claims quickly, allowing those who are granted asylum time to establish themselves (currently they are made homeless within two weeks; the LibDems propose a 60-day transition), and permitting people to work while their application is being processed (Greens). The bigger issue is addressing legal migration: and whether this is best done by a salary threshold (Conservative, currently £38,700 for a family visa) or a strategic workforce strategy identifying specific needs and how to address them through balancing the training of our own population and targeted immigration (Labour, LibDem).

Ezekiel’s vision of the tree included the promise that, in a renewed society, the surrounding nations would come to know that the Lord was God. This raises the question, what is the purpose of education? What is it that we want our children to know? For what are we shaping them? The world is changing, with new technologies advancing rapidly. A primary role of our education system has long been producing a workforce. The Conservative vision is built on rewarding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, fostering competition, replacing the exam structure (yet again) with the Advanced British Standard, with pupils spending more time in the classroom, studying more subjects, including English and Maths to 18 years old. They also promise 100,000 more apprenticeships. Labour look to fund investment in state schools through ending VAT exemption for private schools. They aim to recruit 6,500 new teachers with a focus on areas that present the greatest recruitment and retainment challenges; and address systemic challenges through breakfast clubs and placing dedicated mental health professionals in every school. The LibDems highlight professional development for teachers, a richer curriculum for pupils, and the need to understand and remove underlying barriers to attendance. The Greens would advocate for restoring university grants and abolishing tuition fees; while Reform UK focus on banning the teaching of ideologies they disapprove of in schools, while cutting funding to universities that undermine free speech.

Having an imagination shaped by the Hebrew Bible, as well as the land and its people, Jesus employed crops and trees in his parables, including today’s Gospel passage, Mark 4.26-34. He notes that while the sower scatters seed, the earth produces of itself, which the sower harvests. Infrastructure issues are like this: we invest in certain ways; what grows will grow; and later, we reap the fruit, the good and bad consequences. With a General Election, a government inherits the consequences of whatever someone else has sown. No party has a monopoly on the best ideas, nor control over the soil in which they are sown. No party can take too much credit for the success that follows their actions—the earth produces of itself. Whoever forms our next government, they will face significant challenges and address them as they see best, with mixed results. We must trust that God is at work, through us, and ask how we might both love and bless our neighbour, however small we may feel our agency to be, paying special attention to the most vulnerable. Rather than saying, ‘What difference can one person make?’, attend to the tiny mustard seed and the prolific tree that grows from it.