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.