Thought for the week: 16 August 2020 (9th Sunday after Trinity)

Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus’ meeting the Canaanite Woman is considered one of the most difficult of all the stories recorded of the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ response and retort at the woman request, a woman who had came to plead on behalf of a daughter who was suffering from demon-possession, seems so out of character for one who’s compassion is for all and extends particularly to those pushed to the margin of society.

It might be helpful to remember that Matthew is writing mainly for a Jewish readership and I think we must weight heavy on personal motives for including the words, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’ in this text. There is a very similar story recorded by Mark Chapter 7 (24-30), but in Mark’s Gospel the story is addressed to a woman of Greek origin.

Every commentary I referred to, in preparing this sermon, made heavy going that this is the only time Jesus travelled outside the Jewish territories. That Jesus was driven there to escape the wroth of the Jewish Authorities as the result of their criticism of his teaching and breaking with ritual traditions.

But if we read this passage again paying close attention to who says what and to whom; it is the disciples’ prejudice that is being exposed here. Jesus is silent!

Jesus did not answer a word. So the disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

And it is to the disciples, not to the woman that Jesus replies “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The text confirms this as it continues, ‘The women comes and kneels before him.’

How many of us have responded with the same prejudice expressed by the disciples? How many times have you wanted to reject and dismiss those who are outside the membership of the church? How often has our hearts hardened against those who would otherwise not give the church a second glance but in their time of need seek to reach out and latch-onto Jesus?

We must never forget that Jesus came to dwell among God’s people in order to teach and reveal the love of God, our Heavenly Father.

Jesus, better then anyone, knew that our need of God is universal, that the church, like the Jewish Nation is to be a light through which God’s love is revealed; not a barrier.

More then anything, the church’s role is to awaken faith beyond God’s chosen people; to welcome all who seek, not just a chosen few.

Placing this text in its context, Jesus, so to speak, had been run out of town because he had broken with tradition and the Law of Moses. I can not believe for a moment that Jesus is sitting there and sulking with a sense of rejection when he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Mark’s Gospel records Jesus’ as saying, ‘Let the children first be fed’. Here Jesus explicitly implies a salvation history first for the Jews but included the Gentiles, and the woman picked up this imagery in Jesus’ words.

I believe Jesus looked into the very heart of the Canaanite woman. He knew the depth of her compassion, of the love she held for her daughter, and also the depth of her faith for she called Jesus ‘Lord’ using the same Greek word used by the disciples when they acknowledged Jesus as ‘My Lord and my God’.

I also believe Jesus is using this opportunity to teach: to teach and open the eyes of his disciple and to teach us too by taking our prejudices and turning them onto ourselves.

The common association of the expression ‘dog’ was that of a scavenger, unclean animals always fighting among themselves for whatever scrap is thrown at their feet. The Jews often used the term ‘Gentile Dog’ or ‘Infidel Dog’ as a way of insult and later added ‘Christian Dog’ to refer to those who walked the ‘Way of the Cross’.

But when Jesus used the term and looked into the woman’s eyes she knew these words were not from his heart for Matthew records her amazing words in reply, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

This was no second-class faith and Jesus response was no second-class healing. “Woman you have great faith! Your request is granted.”

Jesus is telling us that we need to examine our hearts for those times when we offered only scraps to those, with a fragile faith, who came in search of God

To examine our hearts for those times when we are too ready to criticise the faith of our neighbour as being second-class.

Only Jesus is able to judge, – and as he judges others so too he will judge each one of us.

We are all God’s children, there is a place for each one of us at His banquet table. No one need eat the crumbs that fall to the floor. There is room enough for all if we but create space in our closed hearts and welcome others in.

Amen.

Thought for the week: 26 July 2020 (Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Have you noticed anything novel lately?

This morning saw the first service in the benefice at which all worshippers were asked to wear a face covering. And I want to think the congregation fo Whitsbury for embracing that new national church guidance.

It was a strange experience, but we are all asked that going forwards and for the foreseeable future, if we attend a service or indoor church even we wear a mask to help protect one another from coronavirus.

As Christians we are called to draw on treasures both ancient and new, and so in this new novel world we must explore and discover how to declare God’s grace, drawing on both the ancient and new treasures of our faith, from the Scriptures to online zoom services.

Our readings today are about potential. The potential which exists in all things. Solomon recognised that his potential would only be realised if God was the basis for his understanding and actions; that was the beginnings of wisdom. The wisdom of Solomon is still today is a byword for deep understanding.

In Jesus’ parables each thing, each object bore potential; a mustard seed, yeast, a hidden treasure, a net. Yet until utilised that potential was dormant. It had no worth. The worth came with recognition, possession and use.

We each bear within us God-given potential, but it is dormant, meaningless, even squandered, if we do not recognise its worth, put it to good use and realise its potential. But where we do, wherever it is well received, it becomes a bounty and a blessing of God.

May God grant you to take your small but precious wisdom, your seed of courage, your step of faith and move mountains and become the blessing of God in the world

Thought for the week: 19 July 2020 (Sixth Sunday after Trinity)

‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’

The largest cargo vessel ever to dock in the UK arrived earlier this year. At 400 metres
long and 60 metres wide, the operation was months in the planning. If it were stood on its
bow the ship would be a quarter as tall again as the Eiffel Tower.

But even the largest vessels are, in the scale of the sea, only small splinters floating on
the waters of the deep. Even the Sea of Galilee, which is not really a sea at all, but a
considerable lake, has its own climatic conditions, which can lead to severe storms.

In any storm it’s hard to hold to courage and fortitude in the face of baser instincts of fear
and accusation. The disciples were afraid and they accused Jesus:
‘Don’t you care that our lives are in peril?
Don’t you care that we might die?’

It’s a question that’s been asked around the world and across history; the question that is
on many people’s lips now.
The ultimate question that frames our dealings with, and thoughts of, God.

But Jesus’ life was governed by a different principle, founded not in base instinct, but in
certain understanding; in the love of his heavenly Father and in the sure purpose to which
he had been called, which governs all things in the universe, rooted in grace and
harmony.

And in that knowledge and sure purpose Jesus could rebuke the waves and the wind and
bring peace not only to the disciple’s minds, but to the natural elements.

As we face this present trial, and as we face other trials, other storms which will surely
come, beyond the current crisis, the question we are asked is this:

‘Who is this One who has the authority to calm even the wind and the waves,
who is this Jesus to you?’

Theo’s Prayer, used in our ‘Sea Sunday’ online service
Heavenly Father
You are the Lord of our lives
We walk with you, in your ways
May we always seek to serve you
May we bless and honour those fishermen who risk their lives to feed is in small boats
upon vast oceans.
May we give thanks to the RNLI who rescue us and keep us safe on our shores and in our
seas.
May we remember to safe guard all the living things in our oceans by not polluting them
and thinking how we dispose of our rubbish.
Lord, thank you that you are always with us.
Amen


Thought for the week: 12 July 2020 (Fifth Sunday after Trinity

We all love the Parable of the Sower and know it well; but let us again look closely at this parable; looking first at Jesus’ use of the word seed. We can not misunderstand what it represents, for Jesus himself gave an explanation in verse 18; he says, “it is the word of God”.

It is good seed for it is the good news of the Kingdom of God. It is the Gospel of God’s own Son. It may seem tiny but it will grow. Within it holds great potential. In it lies hope for the souls of men and women, for it is the seed-corn of salvation.

So much for the seed: now let us look closely at the sower! The sower who scatters the seed on the soil.

There can be little doubt that Jesus saw himself as the ‘sower’. The parable is like a biography. It lays out his life’s work, the meaning of his mission, and the purpose of his preaching. By preaching and teaching he, the Heavenly Sower, scatters precious seed; i.e Gods words.

Like the earthly sower, he has tilled hard soil, for the souls of many were hard and unreceptive. He had to work among those hardened by sin – the publicans, the prostitutes, and the self-righteous. Sinners are like the hard soil, but Jesus sows in hope.

The Gospel had been preached with great grace, and without discrimination, to all. Jesus has harrowed the hard furrow, and trodden the painful path on rocky ground. He had prayed and suffered for the soul of men and women, in the hope of reaping a rich harvest.

So much for the seed and the sower! What of the soil?

“Ah!”, says Jesus, “the soil is the heart or soul of the hearer, it is the hearer’s very self.”

“Some”, says Jesus, “are like the wayside”, like that hard-beaten path across the fields where the chalk is near to the surface. Their hearts are hard, resistant to receiving the Word. – Sin harden the soul; and with hardened sinners the sower’s work seems in vain. – All that harrowing and sowing seems wasted; indifferent to the Gospel and the word of God.

Spiritual sclerosis has set in the soul. Habit has thickened the skin. The Gospel is rejected; and soon Satin snatches away the seed least they should believe and be saved’ (Matthew 13).

And there are shallow hearts, said Jesus; men and women who are superficial; people with no depth. They are like the stony places because they have no deepness of earth… and because they had no root they withered away’.

They are the rootless for they seldom pray, or read or meditate upon the things of God. Life is lived at shallow edge of the field. They are emotional, easily swayed, quickly converted; and as quickly turn back. These’, says Jesus, ‘receive the word with joy; but have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of testing fall away.’

And “hearts that are choked,” said Jesus. – People’s lives cluttered with all kinds of baggage. – The seed sown in their heart becomes choked. – Usually they are busy people – but too busy with the wrong things!

Their constant excuse for neglecting things more worthy is: “I’ve no time”. – Prayer is crowed out; Bible reading neglected; churchgoing displaced by other activities. – Their hearts, said Jesus, become choked with the cares and the riches of this life – they can bring no fruit to perfection.

He knows some soil is poor, but knows too that the seed of the Gospel is good and It holds tremendous potential for our lives.

Lastly, said Jesus, there are not only hard hearts and shallow hearts and choked hearts; but also good hearts. These Hearts are receptive of the good seed; the Word of God.

These are they, with an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it and bring forth its fruit in abundance.

The Gospel, said Jesus, is good seed, and when sown in honest hearts will produce thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold!

And the question each one of us needs to answer for ourselves is this: – what sort of soil are we?

The sower has planted his seed – the rest is now up to you. Amen.

Rev’d Rob Eardley

Thought for the Week: 28 June 2020 (Third Sunday after Trinity)

‘Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’
(From St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 10)

The past week has seen riots, raves, crowded beaches and crowds of celebrating football fans. It might make you wonder whether we’re living in lockdown or a period of liberation.

We can sometimes fail to appreciate that God’s eternal word of challenge and hope is
played out in the lives of individuals, their stories, their places and times. Recovering that understanding, and learning something of the culture and geography in which the Bible is set can help us gain fresh insight into God’s word.

Take for example, the words from Matthew’s gospel about a child and a cup of cold water.

To the Jew of the first century AD people fell into a rigid social order. Men and women, the elderly and children, the healthy and the sick, the Jew and the foreigner all had their specific place in society. And a person’s status defined their place, and importance.

Yet we often find Jesus overturning convention. And here Jesus provocatively places children alongside disciples, prophets and the religiously upright when, in Jewish convention, they would have barely featured in most people’s considerations outside the family home.

And the offer of a cup of cold water, so familiar and seemingly mundane, would have been transformative in a society where much of the land was arid and the temperature for most of the year unremittingly hot. A cup of cold water signified the recognition of an honoured
guest, with all that such a status implied. Jesus places that status on a little child, and
turns the understanding of his disciples on its head.

God does not see us, as human beings so often see one another, according to age, or
status, or wealth. God does not weigh our value according to the colour of our skin, or our nationality, or our position. He looks for how we love one another, and for how we demonstrate that love in the liberality of our care.

In our other reading (Jeremiah 28 verses 5-9), we’re transported six centuries before the time of Jesus, to the court of King Zedekiah; Judah’s last and perhaps most fickle king, and to a titanic religious struggle between two authoritative prophets with competing messages.

Prophets held a particular status in the days of the kingdom of Judah, at least in theory.
But other kingdoms, the kings of Judah had coerced much of the prophetic tradition into
an adjunct of the state, with the central purpose of amplifying the voice of the royal court, just as the state apparatus, and even parts of the Church did in Nazi Germany, and as much of state-controlled media does in Russia and China today.

Standing outside this convention was Jeremiah, who refused to conform. For days, weeks, even months the seemingly eccentric Jeremiah had been carrying a yoke around on his shoulders; the kind of wooden apparatus usually reserved for animals drawing chariots or wagons, or for beasts working the fields. His message was simple and consistent; accept the yoke of the Babylonian Empire. It was an uncomfortable message, not least for Jeremiah, whose reward was the displeasure of the King and many at the royal court. The prophet Hananiah brought a more palatable message; good times for no effort just around the corner. It was pie in the sky… but it was what people wanted to hear; people who wanted an easy life.

Hananiah smashed the yoke Jeremiah was carrying, but despite that, and the hostility of his audience, Jeremiah saw through the lie and stuck to his guns, and to the inner
promptings of God.

The proof of the pudding, said Jeremiah, is in the eating. And within months Hananiah
was dead, and Judah was plunging towards disaster.

Like Jeremiah and like Jesus, we must make sense of our faith in the present, and listen to God’s inner prompting to lead us on a good path, even if it sometimes seems at odds with the world.

And in this present hour we are called to look after one another, and particularly the most vulnerable amongst us liberally, even if there is a cost for us; a need for self-restraint. Cost-free solutions are usually not the right answer, and sometimes we have to look at things differently in order to understand them truly.

Thought for the Week: 21 June 2020 (Second Sunday after Trinity)

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
(From St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 5)

The summer solstice was a rather wet and windy affair this morning, and quite unlike
those normally marked by druids, revellers and those who simply want to see the
spectacle of the sunrise on the longest day of the year in the iconic setting of Stonehenge.

Yet ITV has suggested that, rather than the several thousand people who typically turn up for the event, this year some 3 million people around the world participated – from the comfort of their sofas, or bedrooms.

Marking the longest day of the year has long been culturally significant. The mystery of the sun rising and setting bore, for ancient peoples, a mystical connection with the gods, and with ideas of death and rebirth.

In the Bible the setting and rising of the sun marked the limit – or rather limitlessness – of God; a provocative claim in a world where each kingdom and people claimed their own gods. Our God, said the psalmists and the prophets of the Old Testament is God wherever the sun touches.

The idea that there is one true God has continued to be provocative, and sometimes deadly, in a world of many religions. Provocative and deadly as it was when St Paul wrote the words from our first reading in his first Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 8v1-6). He lived in a world of persecution, and as both Jews and Christian his story is the story of many Jews and Christians down through the centuries.

And to their shame some people, in the name of the Church, have enacted their own persecutions against people of other faiths, claiming it is done in the name of God.

But out gospel reading reminds us of Jesus’ words, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for
those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’

That’s a tall order!

It’s not always easy even to love those dearest to us, or at least to sustain that love in the face of irritations, arguments or misunderstandings.

But Jesus’ words take us far beyond our comfort zone. We have to learn what it means to love our enemies. Not condone their acts, not acquiesce to their demands, not even necessarily like them, but to love, as God our Father loves both us and them.

For it is in our heavenly Father that all true living is rooted. It was the Father’s vision which created the heavens, the Father’s beauty which dressed the landscape, the Father’s power which runs through all life, the Father’s love which fuelled his determination to redeem us and the Father’s call which inspires us to be more than we yet are.

Be perfect, says Jesus, as your heavenly Father is perfect. I don’t know whether that is possible for us this side of heaven, though I’ve seen some few lives which have come close.

What I do believe with all my heart is that Christ walked that path of perfection in human being, and so describes for us a better way, rooted in limitless love for our neighbour whoever they may be, and utter confidence in our Father, who is above all and in all and through all; from the rising of the sun, to its setting.

Thought for the Week: 14 June 2020 (First Sunday after Trinity)

‘As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.
You received without payment; give without payment’ ’

(From St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 9)

Jesus takes a message of transformative grace into the towns and villages of Galilee. And calls the Twelve disciples to share in a ministry of healing and cleansing, deliverance and enlivening. As he calls you and me to the same. What I’ve omitted though are the words which immediately precede the ones above:

‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,
but go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.’

The Gentiles were chiefly Syro-Greek communities peppered across the same landscape a Jewish towns and villages, living often in intimate proximity with them. In it fullest sense, the term ‘gentile’ included all non-Jews. Like the gentiles, the Samaritans shared the same landscapeas the Jews, descended from an intermingling of Israelites and people forcibly relocated the area by the Assyrians some 750 years earlier.

Jesus’ clear instruction to the Twelve is to avoid those ethnic communities of gentiles and Samaritans, and go only to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’.

Recent weeks have seen an increasing intensity of protests, here and in many parts of the world, against the misuse and demeaning of human lives on the basis of colour; a
historical prejudice that continues to inform the experience of many people in our world.

People experience other prejudices too: because of their gender, their sexuality, their
religion; because of disability or intellect, profession or unemployment, status or poverty. Could we imagine that in these words Jesus endorses such intolerable discrimination?

The whole word of Christ frames a salvation accessible to all. His command is to love one another without distinction, as a reflection of our love of God our Father. And the work of the Spirit is to unite us into one family, regardless of race, gender or status. The Samaritan and the Syro-Phoenician women, the Gentile Centurion, the woman caught in adultery, the demoniac, the tax-collector: Jesus gathers them all up into his rainbow kingdom.

We’ve each and all been given a gift, which relies in no part on our worthiness. Jesus died for us while we were, while our people were, while our world was lost in sin.

There was a particular concern expressed by Jesus in this passage, that God’s people had lost their way; like sheep without a shepherd. Those who should most properly have know that they were to stand as a beacon of light to attract all nations, had hooded that light and sought to keep it for themselves alone. In doing so, they had continually narrowed down the field of grace; excluding group after group, on the basis of gender,
disability, behaviour.

In protesting injustice, and affirming that Black Lives Matter, none of us should think too highly of ourselves, or despise another human being. All of us are complex creatures, sometimes choosing the good, often choosing the bad. We should count no one as them less worthy, less valuable, less deserving of God’s grace. Such an attitude is self-excluding.

It is by the free grace of God in our Lord Jesus Christ, that we live, and our daily task is to demonstrate that grace, so freely given to us, as a free gift to all.

Thought for the Week: 7 June 2020 (Trinity Sunday)

‘those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.’
(From the Book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40)

In one sense it’s profoundly challenging to draw close to the nature of God. For God is beyond as, in Psalm 90, the psalmist acknowledges:
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night. (Psalm 90)

and as the writer of the Book of Isaiah also declares:
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55)

In today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 40:12-17, 27-End) the prophet Isaiah acknowledges that neither he, nor any human being, can stand on an equal footing with God; the One who,
‘has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
and marked off the heavens with a span’
.
To God,
‘the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as dust on the scales.’

If this were all we had to say about God, we would be left trembling like the Israelites on the footslopes of Mount Sinai in the days of Moses. Like them we would fear that, in his fierce anger; in his holiness, God would crush us, would strike us with arrows.

But it’s important, vital indeed to remember that Isaiah’s commentary is as much about the organisation of human society, as it is about the nature of human beings. The small kingdom of Judah and its people, chosen by God a special purpose, was beset by internal and external upheavals. Isaiah’s prophecy speaks to them of trust, despite their
sometimes chaotic and even painful individual and collective experiences.

Such a message is vital at this present time, and these challenging days for the lives of people from black and ethnic minority communities fighting for a fair deal, for people seeking an end to domestic violence and, for those addressing social inequalities fuelled by poverty, lack of education and crime.

It may not always seem like it, says Isaiah, but God is in charge, and sure to succeed. Don’t give in to the lie that your sufferings, your oppression is ignored by God; that God is blind to it. God is at work for your good, for your transformation; ultimately for your salvation, ‘those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength’.

God the Holy Trinity is a paradox, an almost unfathomable declaration of faith; that our One God is three Persons, equal and undivided: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Yet in the mystery of this union, we find God revealed, first in the face of Jesus Christ, who makes God known in ways we can understand; in compassion for the sick and blind, in passion for justice and truth, in forgiveness for the wayward, and utter selflessness and love on the cross. And secondly in the person of the Holy Spirit, who enlivens our
imagination, our faith, our hope; and comforts us in doubts and struggles. All to make God known as our heavenly Father, who runs to meet us; who longs to embrace us in his joy

Thought for the Week: 31 May 2020 (Sunday after Ascension Day)

‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.
As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ Now Jesus said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive;

(From the Gospel of St. John chapter 7:37)

I’m struck by the extraordinary, but differing talents and abilities which each of my children displays. They were born to the same parents and, broadly speaking, into the same context. We used the same approach for their upbringing, and yes, there are similarities between them, but each of them is unique. They excel and express themselves differently. In part those differences have been informed by the different experiences they’ve known. But that’s not enough to explain the unique expression which is theirs alone. They are each their own person, and the world would be poorer for the absence of any one of them.

Over the past ten days a number of people in our communities have joined together for an act of daily prayer, as part of the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ intiative, conceived just a few years ago, but which has now been adopted by congregations of all denominations across the UK, and by churches around the world.

Here in Western Downland no one person was the leader of those daily opportunities to pray. Instead different people leading in different ways, sharing some words in common, but bringing their own unique perspective, informed and enriched our understanding and worship. As well as the prayers we shared, one other thing we noted in the quietness between the prayers was the birdsong. We could hear birds not only outside our own windows, but magnified through the audio systems from each others’ homes. Those small creatures were doing what comes naturally, yet it always seemed to me they were joining in with God’s praise.

Many years ago I wrote a short story about a preacher. Filled with his own self importance, he had little regard for others and showed little care. When he died he found himself in a beautiful place and heard there the most exquisite birdsong. When he spoke to himself in wonder at the bird’s voice, the bird spoke back – (why not, it was heaven) – about how the bird’s voice was God’s reward to the bird for having sung so faithfully on earth. The preacher was delighted because if God gave such a beautiful gift to a plain garden bird, what extraordinary gift must surely await him; a man of the cloth. And God did give him a gift; a bird’s feather; the only reward and rebuke the preacher was to ever receive.

Jesus promised that the Spirit would be poured out on all believers. And the firstfruits of that outpouring; that river of refreshment, of joy, witness and blessing, was evident to anyone standing nearby on that first Pentecost morning. So too, as I hear the stories of prayer and care, of practical kindness and hopeful faith, I‘m struck by the ways in which you are individually and together, in your particular way, and your particular place, making visible the love of Christ. And I rejoice in it, knowing that the world and the Church would be poorer for the absence of any one of you.

Thought for the Week: 24 May 2020 (Sunday after Ascension Day)

Jesus prayed: ‘Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them…’

(From the Gospel of St. John chapter 17:1-11)

Last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension; the end of the 40-day period after Jesus’ resurrection, the time when he walked the earth in his risen form, and met with the disciples, teaching and encouraging them with his words of faith, hope and love. Then at the Ascension, he rose through the heavens to return to the right hand of God. It’s an extraordinary, almost surreal, moment. And the disciples struggle to comprehend it, as do we.

But they are left with words of encouragement, first by Jesus, with the promise that he will empower them to be his witnesses; his word in action. Then they are further encouraged by the words of the angels, who assure them that, ‘This Jesus will return’. It was enough to spur them on; to stand in solidarity with one another, to wait and to pray. As many of you are aware, pebbles have been placed on the doorstep of Whitsbury Church in recent weeks, each with a word of encouragement: words like ‘pray’, ‘calm’ and ‘courageous’. I had proposed to distribute these pebbles throughout the village of Whitsbury for Pentecost, but those plans have changed.

It seems that some, perhaps many of those who are passing the Church at Whitsbury on a walk, or who have visited the churchyard in recent weeks as a place for quiet reflection, shelter and prayer, have been encouraged by seeing the pebbles and stones there, with their bright colours and words of encouragement.

Not only this, but little by little the pebbles are being taken away. Those that have gone include ones painted with the words ‘love’ and ‘hope’. It might be reasonable to imagine someone would pick up a pebble with the word ‘love’ painted on it for a whole variety of reasons, but it’s difficult to imagine someone would take a stone with the word ‘hope’ for any reason other than as a message of reassurance or encouragement to themselves, or for someone else.

And so kind souls in Whitsbury are little by little replacing the pebbles on the doorstep of the Church with newly painted words of hope and love, even as other pebbles move on to unknown homes, with their messages of courage, peace and hope, and with the word of God’s people that God has not forgotten his world, nor ever shall.