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.

Thought for the Week: 17 May 2020 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you… But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

(From the Gospel of St. Matthew chapter 6v25-33, abridged)

We’ve certainly discovered in recent weeks just how much people are indeed concerned with what they will eat, as well as how their hair looks, and perhaps – now that we’re moving into the summer season – also with what they will wear. So we must all in fact be pagans, just as our reading this morning suggests!

And, from the images portrayed in this morning’s service of the beautiful flowers of the field, we must surely all recognise that Solomon in all his glory was indeed ‘not clothed like one of these’.

Jesus undoubtedly understood that as human beings we are, in fact, concerned with food and clothing and much else besides. And I don’t believe that Jesus was saying these things are inconsequential. But he had himself moved beyond this being his primary concern. For Jesus, the nature of his relationship with his heavenly Father; his harmony with God was before all things. Out of that relationship flowed his urgent concern to bring us and all things into that harmony; to restore creation to that perfection that had once existed, in the first days, reflected in the opening chapters of Genesis. And although this is a big ask for us, and at present lies beyond the capacity of all but a few noble souls, yet it is a goal worth setting before our eyes; something worth reaching for.

Scripture is full of the mark of God’s creation. Not only in the human story, but in the form of all God’s creatures. From the very beginning, God’s concern has rested upon the whole of creation, even though his eye has settled particularly on you and me, who are made in his image. And if God’s eye has settled on us, and if – as the Bible says – we are made in the image of God, then our duty, our obligation must be for all God’s world, for the creatures that inhabit it, and for the natural landscape.

So let us join in the song of creation, and get creative, after the example of God.

Thought for the Week: 10 May 2020 (Fifth Sunday of Easter)

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation,
my stronghold and my refuge, my saviour
(From the Second Book of Samuel, chapter 22)

Over the past week regulars of Damerham’s Coffee Pot group have been emailing
memories and photos of the VE Day experience of our forbears (and one or two memories of those who were actually there). Perhaps you’ve also been reflecting on your parents’, or grandparents’ wartime experience. It’s been moving to recognise afresh the significance of their collective national effort. And our appreciation is sharpened by the road we’re all currently travelling together.

Many of us have come to understand what it is to be engaged in a great common
endeavour. We see that our choices, our forbearance, our self-discipline, make a direct
contribution to a common struggle, waging a vital campaign against an unseen, and sometimes deadly, enemy. Sadly some choose not to play their part, and some act with the intent to do deliberate and real harm. But the great majority now, as then, shoulder their share of self-denial, of steadfastness and sacrifice, and bear their losses and sorrows with quiet fortitude.

Seventy five years on, the contrast between VE Day’s mass gatherings, military parades and crowded street parties, and our own more subdued commemorations has been stark. On Victory in Europe Day strangers, neighbours and families rejoiced together that they were, at last, able to share in celebrating a hard-won victory which, in the darkest days of the war, had looked anything but certain. After nearly six long years, at last the bells could ring out; and bright lights could pierce the darkness, free from fear of violence and harm. Though challenges, exertions and sacrifices still lay ahead, it was a moment to savour.

For us the way ahead remains uncharted territory. Fears and anxieties are understandable, as they were for the disciples trying – and failing – to accommodate the news that Jesus was leaving them: that he was ‘going on ahead’. As Jesus approached his great trial, his disciples feared abandonment. Jesus’ response was to assure them that their future was already secure in him: I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

In giving thanks to a rejoicing Nation and Commonwealth, both King and Prime Minister directed their people to turn to God (whoever their God might be) with prayers of thanksgiving, just as they had turned to God in the darkest days of the war to beseech his help. Our forbears were asked to do what David did in our Old Testament reading, to turn to God in thanksgiving for being delivered from the hands of their enemies. So let us also pray to our God. For in the end, deliverance is achieved by more than human endeavour; it is an act of grace.

Thought for the Week: 3 May 2020 (Fourth Sunday of Easter)

Jesus said, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
(From the Gospel of St. John, chapter 10 verses 7-10)

It’s a shame we haven’t been able to enjoy, to quite the usual extent, the sight of lambs frollicking in the fields. Though on a walk recently, I did see some young calves, and they were pretty frisky!
In chapter 10 of John’s gospel Jesus famously describes himself as the Good Shepherd, but also as the Gate; a less familiar metaphor. A gate stands in the breach, both barring and opening the way to and from the sheepfiold. The gate keeps what is within safe from outside threats, and also provides the exit point, because sheep can’t live in a fold forever.
The world is urgently seeking a vaccine for Coronavirus. One which will effectively bar the way, preventing Covid-19 – which comes like an unseen thief to steal and kill and destroy from gaining a deadly foothold in the human body, and within the global population, devastating lives. Such a vaccine will open the way to a full return to social living for the billions of people living under a greater or lesser degree of lockdown. We can’t fully thrive as a global society, until there’s a reliable exit point; a safe way out.
Until then, our main defence is to distance ourselves from one another. To distance ourselves, but not – it must be stressed – to become fractured and disconnected. That’s why we’re working so hard as communities and as congregations to build new connections and celebrate the bonds between us.
It’s abundant life, a liberated life, that we long for. And it’s that very life which Jesus offers to his listeners. A life so abundant that it’s liberating in any and all circumstances, even the most desperate. A life made visible in the practical living of those first Christians; in the value they set on one another.
As a nation and as a world, we passed through perilous and dark days in the Second World War. The resolve of wartime leaders like Winston Churchill and King George VI,and of millions and millions of ordinary citizens of those and other nations – our forebears – saw this Commonwealth safely through its great trial. They stood in the breach, to bar the way against those who would wantonly steal and kill and destroy. All life is precious, and it’s to the credit of our forebears that, recognising this, the great majority of them then worked to lift the defeated from their knees, and help rebuild a civil society, just as we will need to do in due course.
We honour their sacrifice, their perseverance, their resolve to keep going until the job was done. May we prove to have that same mettle; that same collective character, which sees the job through, united in common cause. Like those first believers. Like Captain Tom and the wartime generation. And like Jesus, our Good Shepherd.

Thought for the Week: 26 April 2020 (Third Sunday of Easter)

Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  (From the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 24 verses 13-35)

Today’s gospel reading concludes the story of two unnamed disciples (part of the wider
company of Jesus’ followers) who found themselves unknowingly in the company of the risen Jesus on the evening of the first Easter Sunday. The two disciples were walking the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus (a journey of some 7 miles), when a stranger joined them. In their grief – they did not yet know that Jesus was alive – they failed to recognise him. But something in them was instinctively drawn to him: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?’

To the reader Jesus is already alive; to the two disciples he was still dead. But something in their hearts; something beyond understanding, beyond knowledge, beyond rationalising, reached out and began to embrace a truth they did not yet recognise was already present; already walking at their side.

For a time we find ourselves entombed; locked down – of necessity and out of mutual care for one another and for all. In different ways, and to differing degrees, we are all journeying with our load of anguish, sorrow and pain. Our liberation from the Coronavirus pandemic is some way off; it is not yet. The pandemic, and its consequences still dominate our lives, our behaviour, our thinking. Yet, like the disciples travelling a road where the destination seems not yet to have been reached, if we reach beyond what we know intellectually, we may find that our hearts too are burning within us, with the knowledge that Christ has been raised from the dead. And that in him we too have been liberated from all that can ever bind us. Like those two disciples we may find that while we are still on the way, we have already met the Way.

Thought for the week: 19 April 2020 (Easter 2 Low Sunday)

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

John 20.24-29

Today’s gospel is about two of the many appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. Today’s account is special because Jesus appears to a larger group of his followers. The Disciple Thomas the Twin, however, is missing and refuses to believe that Jesus is alive and demands proof. Later, Jesus appears again, this time Thomas is present and believes!

The words ‘faith’ and ‘knowledge’ are not the same and must not be confused. We can know something in our head and not really believe it down in our heart. I know that Jesus is God, but Satan knows this also! It is how I respond to that knowledge that leads to faith.

Faith comes from experienced knowledge, rather than academia, something learnt from a textbook. Thomas was told the Good News of the Resurrection, but he was not prepared to believe until he experienced it for himself.

Faith, in a way, is in my feet; it enables me to step out with confidence in my decisions and in my deeds. Let face it; it is difficult for the human mind to know anything of God. Our terms of reference are so limited and so conditioned. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that when we speak about God, there is only one thing we can be sure of; that we could be wrong!

God is so much more than anything your or I could say or think about Him/ Her! But God does not wish to be clouded in mystery. The coming of Jesus on earth, with his action-packed-life and his public death was a down-to-earth statement from God. And if the Apostle Thomas wanted to touch the wounds of Jesus, then Jesus made that possible, and invite him to do so.

A very real invitation of the gospel is ‘Come and see’ ~ from personal experience I believe that if you genuinely and truly want to know the Risen Christ he will meet that wish, and through the action of his Spirit within your heart you will come to know him in a deep and personal way.

Let me end with a simple story.

Every African village had its own wise old man to whom people came for advice on everything. His wisdom and knowledge is greatly respected by all. A young man from a village was given the opportunity to go to college and obtained an education. He achieved several degrees and in his heart considered himself to be so much more intelligent and informed than the wise man of the village.

One day he decided to demonstrate that he was so much cleverer then the village wise man and contrived to embarrass him by setting up a situation where he would prove the wise man wrong.

He caught a little bird, which he held firmly concealed in his hand and went to ask the old man if the bird were alive or dead. If the old man said the bird was dead, he would release his grip and allow the bird to fly away. If he said the bird was alive he would squeeze it so tight that the bird would immediately die.

He approached the old man, showed him the beak of the tiny bird sticking out from between his fingers, and asked, “Old man, tell me, is this bird dead or alive?” The old man looked at the scholar, and very calmly replied: “The answer to that question, my son, depends totally on you.”

On that first Easter morn the grave was empty; ironically, this year, so were our churches! And so I say, “Look into your heart and answer this question, is Jesus dead or alive to you today?”

Revd. Rob Eardley

Thought for the week: 12 April 2020 (Easter Day)

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

(The Gospel of Saint Matthew chapter 28 verses 1-10)

For years preachers have struggled to convey a sense of what resurrection is. Here we have it writ large in our lives. Resurrection is not simply resuscitated. It is our entry into a whole new existence.

We, you and I, all of us, the whole of humanity is passing through tumultuous times. When we emerge from our homes, from our enforced seclusion, from the discipline of our distancing, as if from our tombs, it will be to a new world. A world reborn.

Life will not be the same again. Some things will of course, appear unchanged. But we have been changed by our common experience; by this new story that did not exist in our lives before, and will now forever be our story.

This present trauma ultimately cannot hold us, just as the tomb could not hold our Saviour Jesus. He burst out of it, and the world burst into life in his resurrection.

A few years ago I printed these words in the Easter order of service in Rockbourne,

‘No matter how devastating our struggles, disappointments, and troubles are, they are only temporary.

No matter what happens to you, no matter the depth of tragedy or pain you face,

no matter how death stalks you and your loved ones,

the Resurrection promises you a future of immeasurable good.’

(Josh McDowell)

This is our hope and our faith. For Christ is raised from the dead, and we are raised in him.

Thought for the Week: 5 April 2020 (Palm Sunday)

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ The disciples did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

(The Gospel of Saint Matthew chapter 21 verses 1-11)

Today, in the light of social distancing, we see crowds with new eyes. People crowded together are a threat to individual health and collective security. In Jesus’ day too crowds were seen as a threat, though for different reasons. Judaea – administered by Rome since the death of Herod the Great – was a powder keg of fermenting revolution. Terrorist groups, resistance movements, and opportunistic bands of raiders all posed a threat to Roman governance, and to the Emperor’s continued tolerance of a native religious administration. Festivals posed a particular threat, because of the crowds they attracted, which provided the opportunity to messianic figures to whip populations into a fervour of violence. In part this was because festivals was rooted in an expectation of religious and national liberation. Over several decades Roman-officered military forces had aggressively stamped out a series of rebellions. The Roman governor (whose title was procurator), attended the festivals in person, bringing a doubling of the military forces at hand to deal with any trouble which arose. It was into this highly charged arena that Jesus came on Palm Sunday. His appearance, and the euphoria of the pilgrim crowds surrounding him caused bewilderment among the residents of Jerusalem. ‘Who is this?’ The response of the pilgrims was that Jesus was a prophet from Nazareth. That alone was enough to put Jesus on a watchlist. But their song, and the manner of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem held deeper significance: of a king who would ride into the city which was his by right to govern (Zech 9:9); a king – and more than a king – who, with humility, would establish justice and save his people. Jesus had resolved to do what was necessary to save the people. The Jewish religious authorities too could see only one solution to the threat they perceived that he posed to the people and to their own authority, “It is better… to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50). And so the scene is set and we, like the disciples, the crowds, the onlookers, the authorities and rulers, and like Jesus himself, must make our choice. Where will we stand, and with whom? And what will we sacrifice for the greater good?

Thought for the Week: 29 March 2020 (Passion Sunday)

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem… and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them… When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’

John 11.17-26

You can read the full extract of today’s reading John 11.1-45

In recent days we’ve watched the alarming increase in the rate of those infected with Covid-19. According to the World Health Organization, on 3 March some 10,000 people had contracted Coronavirus and 166 people had died (excluding China). By 10 March, that number was 32,000 infected and 865 deaths. By 17 March it had reached 180,000 infections and 7,500 deaths (again not including China, which had begun to see a reduction in cases). On 24 March it was well on the way to 400,000 cases and over 16,000 deaths. Three days later the number of infections had reached half a million, and the number of those who have died (including in China) exceeds 25,000. With numbers like these we can lose the human tragedy, seeing only statistics. Until we are brought face to face with a single human tragedy, as Jesus was in the village of Bethany. There Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had died. No cause of death is given, though an infection or other contracted disease is perhaps most likely. Jesus is met by the grieving sisters, torn between faith and reproach ‘Lord, if you had been here…’. Perhaps this mirrors your own feelings: ‘Where is God?’ According to Jesus’ words earlier in the chapter, his delay in responding to the sisters’ appeal to hurry to Bethany was part of God’s greater – but hidden – purpose. To many in the crowd his absence was cause for reproach, ‘Could [he] … not have kept this man from dying?’ Yet though Jesus delayed his departure by two days, there’s no sign that he distanced himself emotionally from the tragedy of Lazarus’ death: ‘When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.’ Likewise, we must not become emotionally immune to the unfolding human drama, and especially to the fact that each person worried for the wellbeing of a loved one, each hospitalisation, each essential worker giving 100% and more, each traumatised member of an intensive care team, each tragic death is a vital narrative, not merely a statistic. Like Jesus, we must draw close, and weep with those who weep, even as we hold to a faith in our heavenly Father which says, like Jesus: ‘I know that you always hear me’; a faith not afraid to challenge, ‘Where is God in this?’, but also not afraid to affirm, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ The gospel reading leaves us uncomfortable. Lazarus is physically raised; a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection. But many others are not. Resurrection stands at the heart of this reading, as it does in the other set reading for today, from Romans chapter 8, where St. Paul urges his readers not to root their lives in the flesh: the physical and mortal, but in the spiritual, the eternal, which is where true life begins and never ends. Jesus offers life beyond death, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ Believing this does not immunise us to this mortal life, but enlivens the compassion, courage and care we offer one another now, when it is most needed.

Thought for the Week 22 March 2020

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

The Gospel of St John, chapter 19, verses 25b-27

On this Mothering Sunday John’s Gospel reveals that Jesus the dutiful son; the true friend was – even from the Cross – attentive to those who loved him, represented by his Mother, and by those whom he loved, represented by the unnamed disciple. Nailed to the Tree, restrained from all physical intervention, held back from being able to embrace those he loved: mother, friend, disciple; unable to console them, or to shield them from his sufferings, in that moment Jesus thought not of his own agony, but of their anguish; not of his impending death, but of their continuing emotional and practical need. And found the means to provide for them.

In our new reality, when we are required to distance ourselves from one another, when our liberty is necessarily curtailed and we are not free to embrace and comfort one another as we would wish, or to open our homes in hospitality to one another; when life feels raw and uncomfortable and fragmented, we can discover new understanding and purpose in finding imaginative ways to reconnect; in re-imagining how we might take one another into our homes by the expansion of our practical loving care towards one another: via a phone call, or Face Time, or What’s App, through the collection of a neighbour’s medication, through a gift left on the doorstep or a card posted through a letter box. Through laughter across the garden fence, or a shared activity in adjacent spaces. By our love for one another. And by our prayers for one another.

Leslie Player, Rector Western Downlands Benefice