Saturday, 26 July 2014

In Summer...

Thought I'd post my lead article for the August/September edition of the Parish magazine - feel free to let me know what you think!


The Curate Writes...

Finally the summer's here – the air is warm, the kids are off school (and running around, yelling!), the sky is blue, and in a few days time will be full of aircraft as the Sunderland Air Show gets off the ground. This is all great, a cause for rejoicing. Yet as I sit to write this, my Twitter feed keeps distracting me. The BBC News website keeps grabbing my attention:
This mark stands for Nazarene. In last few days ISIS
in Mosul put this mark on the homes of the
Christians to mark them out for death.
* The conflict in Gaza, where the air is warm, the kids are off school (and running around, yelling), the sky is blue and also contains aircraft, rockets and bullets. More than 640 Palestinians and 30 Israelis have been killed in the past 15 days of fighting.

* Mosul, Iraq, where tens of thousands of our brothers & sisters in Christ have fled after being offered an unattractive choice by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): convert, pay an unaffordable religious tax, or be put to the sword.

* Flight MH17, allegedly shot down by pro-Russian rebels, killing 283 passengers of which 80 were children.

* The ongoing situations in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, North Korea.

* The latest statistics showing that worldwide a child is trafficked every 30 seconds: that's about 1.2 million children or the population of Birmingham.

The list could go on, does go on, and it's overwhelming. Amongst all the stuff going on in our own individual lives, our own daily battles, stresses and concerns it all seems too much to take in. It leaves us, as Christians, with really hard questions. What can I do about this? Where is God in all of it?

Well, you'd expect me to say we should pray – and we should. But with such huge overpowering issues our own personal prayers can seem so little, & God can seem so far removed that we don't know where to start. So I find myself turning to St. Paul's letter to the Romans, and the second half of chapter 8, beginning at verse 18. For all of us, life can be unimaginably hard. For many in our list above, hell on earth. But through the life, death & resurrection of Jesus there is hope. We cannot see it, but we long for it. We cannot find the words to ask for it, but the Spirit intercedes for us. The darkness that enfolds us seems impenetrable, the gulf between us & God far too wide, yet there is nothing in, of, above or below this world that can “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

A wise man, when asked how to eat an elephant, replied “one bite at a time.” So we need to start small: praying the Spirit will help us to pray, meditating on the passage from Romans (and others that the Lord places on our hearts), giving what we can to charities who directly help those caught up in these situations, like Christian Aid working in Gaza, or Tearfund's “No Child Taken” campaign. And those questions that keep running around our heads? Maybe consider joining the Alpha course that will start in October, where we'll explore together our Christian faith & get to know the Lord, and each other, that bit better.

Keep praying. Keep hoping. Give thanks for what we have, and rejoice in the Lord always!
For more on the situation in Iraq, including things we can be doing to help, visit the dedicated #WeAreN page on the Parish website - 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Constant Gardener

This is the sermon I delivered at the 8:00am & 9:30am Eucharist at St. Andrew's this morning. The readings were Genesis 28:10-19a, Romans 8:12-25 and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.


Brothers and sisters, I feel I should begin with a confession – I am a very poor gardener!

This mainly comes from not being a big fan of weeding.

The house we were in at college had a steep bank that led up to the road – too steep for the kids to play on, hard work to climb, and not really much use for any kind of garden without major re-sculpting work. When we moved in it was completely covered in weeds, which we attempted to hack back. This became an ongoing battle – one we couldn’t win, as we could never give it the time it required. Eventually, as the weeds got higher, the landlords brought in a gardener. This ‘kind gentleman’ turned up, cast his ‘expert’ eye over the scene…then got out a strimmer, chopped the weeds back to ground level & departed. Now, anyone with any knowledge of weeds will immediately spot the problem – about 3 months later the weeds were back, bigger & stronger thanks to the weather over the summer. Eventually, we organised a gardener of our own to come out. This one dug the weeds out by their roots, turned over the soil & planted good plants to help keep them at bay – in the words of our neighbour, this one “knew what he was doing!”

In our Gospel reading today we find Jesus taking part in the earliest recorded episode of Gardener’s Question Time. Just before this, as Junior Church explained so brilliantly last week, he’s spoken of a farmer scattering seed with varying degrees of success, and here Jesus talks about weeds entangled in an important crop of wheat. He explains the weeds are the children of the evil one, and it appears they have been sent to stunt the growth, hold back, and endanger the children of the kingdom.

This got me thinking about how much time I spend tending the garden of my life. When I look at the soil of my heart, I hope I’m doing the right things to make it good and fertile. I try to give it the right nutrients – time spent in church listening to teaching, and engaging in fellowship. I try to plant good seed in it – the word of God through the scriptures. But, as those in the gospel reading discovered, sometimes weeds begin to grow unbidden and, apparently, unaided. The slaves of the householder appear truly shocked that this has happened – they expected only good crops to grow.

All the right precautions had been taken - the ground ploughed up and prepared, only the best seed sown; and yet here come the weeds, tightly bound to the crop.

Possibly fearing blame, they look to quickly rectify the problem, but the householder is good & wise – he knows the only way to remove the weeds completely is to pull them out at the root, and at this point that would damage the crop as well. He casts his expert eye over the situation and urges patience, knowing that when the time is right the weeds can be destroyed and the crop gathered in.

Now, some might say it’s easy to avoid weeds – just don’t plant them in the first place! We all probably feel we have a good grasp of right and wrong, and try to avoid ‘sinning.’ I doubt any of us go ‘looking’ for trouble; we avoid the usual suspects of sin – murder, theft, adultery. We may try even harder, attempting to live out the things Jesus highlighted in the sermon on the mount – seeking reconciliation instead of anger, avoiding lust, turning the other cheek. But it isn’t just about the big things. What else holds us back from our relationship with Jesus?

Weeds come in all shapes & sizes. Some are deep rooted and tough to shift. Some even flower, and externally don’t look too out of place or wrong. But these are habitual weeds, the things we do often and without thinking, that stifle the growth of the seed God plants in us by using up the goodness it needs to flourish.

Just as a weed blocks light and consumes nutrients, these habits block our vision of the light of Christ and steal the precious time we need to nurture that which God has given us. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have hobbies, pastimes, fun! But when these things detract from our relationship with the risen Lord they become a problem. All around us are things that can help us pass the time, but can become overwhelming. If I claim I haven’t got time to read the Bible every day, but spend a couple of hours doing the crossword or looking at Facebook, I may need to do some pruning. If I don’t have time to pray, but know the latest plot twist in Eastenders, I may need to find my trowel and gloves. Lets take a few moments now and ask ourselves - When did I last take a good look around my garden and ask, “what weeds have I left to grow recently?”

Some weeds are smaller - so less of a problem, right? But think of the dandelion – one strong gust of wind and it’s seeds scatter far and wide, and in no time more dandelions spring up all over the place. When we look at our own lives, what are the little things we do that affect other people’s growth in God?

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, was quite keen on our actions not damaging the relationship others had with the Lord. There are things we probably don’t see any harm in. Things we do that we can happily hold alongside our Christian walk. But just because we don’t think they harm us, that doesn’t let us off the hook when it comes to others. Lets think again for a moment. What seeds blow from my garden into others? Will these seeds bear fruit…or choke the life from those around me?

My biggest problem in the garden is I find it hard to tell the weeds from the plants. The slaves in the story appear to have had a similar concern. But help is at hand.

Unlike the bloke who strimmed my slopes, we have access to the expert in tending our particular garden – one who can advise us on what is best because he managed to tend his own garden perfectly, and wants ours to thrive and produce an abundant crop. When did we last ask the expert gardener, the one witnesses believe “knew what he was doing,” the Lord, the giver of life to help us to remove those things that are getting in the way of our relationship with those who we love, and with him?

We’ll pause again for a few moments. Let’s take some time to wander around the garden of our lives, our hearts, and ask Jesus to help us check for weeds.


One thing about a good garden – people stop and look at it. People ask how it got to be like that; what we did differently to make it so attractive; why is it so abundant, so full of life? Friends, neighbours, complete strangers see something special and want to know how to get it for themselves.

We all know the best way for any gardener to find new work is word of mouth – the recommendation of a friend, who has experienced their work, means more than any fancy advert or promotion! Are we ready to tell those who ask how our garden got to look so good!?

As we come to the communion table, to remember Jesus life and death for our salvation, we use the produce of good human gardening; maybe we should take the opportunity to ask him to clear out the weeds, dig over the soil, and fertilize our hearts with his body and his blood. Are we prepared to work with him, tend the good seed he has planted in us, and let the Holy Spirit blow the seed of that crop far and wide? Are we ready to let him loose with his trowel?


Friday, 18 July 2014

♪♫Listen... do you want to know a secret? ♪ ♫

This sermon was preached at the 10am midweek Eucharist on 16th July at St. Andrew's. The Gospel reading was Matthew 11:25-27.
Listen... do you want to know a secret?
Do you promise not to tell?
Woah wo wo,
Closer, let me whisper in your ear.
Say the words you long to he-e-ear,
I'm in love with you.
Woo oo oo oo oo...♪
Who can name the song?
That's right, “Do You Want To Know A Secret” by The Beatles. It's a simple little song, lasts less than 2 minutes, and was a track on their first album. A Lennon & McCartney original, it was written for George Harrison to sing, crafted to be deliberately undemanding as he had a limited vocal range.
But like many things in life there is a beauty in it's almost naïve outlook on life – reading between the lines I see the shyness of the approach to the girl, the fear of others finding out the depth of his feelings lest they see him as soppy or uncool, yet the need to tell her as it just is too big a thing to keep inside.
Jesus, in his prayer recorded in Matthew's Gospel, also has a secret. He knows the Father. He really knows the Father. And nobody can know the Father unless they know Him, because only He can reveal the Father. The people who think they know it all, those who think they are wise, learned, who think they know God through their rules and traditions are missing the point. It is through the childlike naïvety of love that the Father is truly known.

The Beatles nearly didn't make it – on New Years Day 1962 they had an audition with DECCA, at the time one of the biggest record labels, who rejected them declaring “guitar bands are on the way out!” The want on to sign for EMI & be hailed as the greatest & most influential band of all time. Rumour has it that the DECCA executives used to get the tapes of the audition out every year & torture themselves, trying to work out how they let them get away.

You see, these self-styled wise and intelligent men were so certain they knew everything they missed what was right in front of them. They had spent so long giving instruction, claiming to know best that when something truly unique and world-changing appeared, they wrote it off & missed the boat.

How often do we miss the simple things? How often do we get so caught up in our knowledge, our understanding, our tradition, that we fail to see the person standing in front of us. Jesus, through prayer & through the scriptures, is constantly seeking to whisper in our ears “I'm in love with you.”

Let those words sit with you for a moment.

I deliberately didn't say “Jesus loves you,” because that almost doesn't do the depth of his feelings for each one of us justice. He is in love with us. With me. With you. Being in love alludes to the exciting, scary, fireworks and passion part of a relationship – and that is what a relationship with Jesus can be like, if we let it. Because if we allow ourselves to be a bit naïve, a bit childlike in our approach - if we allow Him to whisper in our ear – we find His Spirit can fire us in incredible ways. And like the song we may want to nervously whisper about this relationship as it's scary and precious and almost a bit silly but, if we let that love, His incredible, sacrificial love, grow inside us, suddenly it's hard to keep inside. It spills out into our relationships, our actions, the way we live. And we find ourselves introducing people to Jesus – not big black Bible on the street corner evangelism, but in the way you introduce a friend or loved one to people. And because they know you & trust your judgement their more likely to give somebody you know a chance, and before you know it this love for each one of us becomes the worst kept secret in the world.
Maybe that sounds all too simple. Naïve. Not the kind of thing for us rational grown-ups, more what you may say to an infant...

Listen. Do you want to know a secret...?