Carol Service homily

There’s a story I heard of a meeting in heaven between three archangels – they had been given by God the task of working how how to spread the good news of Jesus’ birth, and they couldn’t agree!

Gabriel said, “We should go round and tell everyone one at a time. The personal, individual approach worked very well with Mary and Joseph.”

Raphael said, “We should write it all down – that way there will be no mistakes.”

Michael said, “Swords and trumpets! We need swords and trumpets! Nothing less will do!”

But they all knew that they hadn’t really found the right answer yet.

After much discussion, they finally had an idea that they knew would work – it was brilliant, in fact.

“We will write a song!” they said, in excitement. “If we write a really good song, with just the right words, and a fabulous tune, and harmony that makes your heart sing, then we’ll only need to sing it to a few people – it’ll stay in their heads and they won’t be able to forget it – they’ll sing it in the shower, they’ll whistle it down the road, they’ll teach it to their friends, their family, their children. And before you know it, the whole world will know this wonderful news!”

So they did.

They went to a lonely hillside and sang their song to a group of shepherds under the stars – and they even let Michael have his trumpet. The Shepherds were filled with joy, and the song stayed with them – they sang it as they ran down the hill, and into the town, they sang it as the searched for the stable, and they even sang it very quietly as a lullaby when they found the baby at last. Then they went out rejoicing, and sang that song to anyone who would listen – and anyone who wouldn’t too!

The song worked so well that the news spread throughout the world. People sang the song to their family and friends and their children and their children’s children. The song was so good that we’re still singing it – or a version of it – 2000 years later.

That’s why we gather at a service like this. To sing together, to hear the story again in carols and scripture and to join our voices with the angels who are still singing in heaven.

Singing is how we learn, and remember this wonderful story. I bet we’d all be able to write out the words to ‘While shepherds watched’ more easily than the same story in Luke chapter 2!

Some carols were written for this very reason: Once in Royal David’s City was written by Mrs Alexander, a Sunday School teacher, who wrote a hymn for every line of the creed, to teach the children in her class the basics of the faith.

Saint Augustine said, “Anyone who sings, prays twice” – we don’t only learn the stories of the faith, we learn why they matter.

We learn that Jesus shares our sadness as well as our gladness – he weeps with those who weep and rejoices with those who rejoice. We learn that we can hold those in need before God and know that our prayers are heard – because Jesus is already walking alongside them.

We learn that when we sing “Be near me Lord Jesus” we have already said a prayer, from out of our own needs, and we know that we are not alone.

We learn that when we think of all the complex needs of this troubled world, this isn’t too big a concern to bring to God, because the world belongs to God: we learn that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in the Christchild, on Christmas night and every night.

And we learn that we have an offering to make ourselves: we bring our voices to join with the angels’ song, and we bring our presence with one another in this place, and our love for one another and the world:

What can I give him
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
But what I have I give him:
Give my heart.

This Christmas we can offer ourselves, just as we are, to the one who has already given us everything.

Harvest resources

It must be time to post something about harvest – here’s a collection of stuff that might be useful.

Some all age ideas

  1. The four corners of God’s love (not my idea – I learnt it from a Sally Army officer ages ago!)
    Start with a large square or rectangular piece of paper, and announce that this is the four corners of God’s love. Say, ‘It’s my piece of paper, so it’s the four corners of God’s love for me.’  Count them out to make sure.
    Ask, ‘What would happen if I cut off one of my corners and gave it away?  I have four, but if I gave one away, how many would I have?’  You may get the answer, ‘three’.
    Cut off one corner, give it to someone in the congregation, and count your corners again. You have five! You had four, you gave one away, and you have five. And the other person has three. That’s eight whole corners of God’s love!
    Try it again with another corner. And get one of the recipients to try it with one of their corners etc. Keep counting up the new total of corners until everyone loses count.
    Reflect on generosity, abundance, giving, God’s providence, blessings given and received….
    Encourage everyone to take their ‘corner’ home as a reminder.
  2. Ready steady cook
    Ask members of the congregation to come forward and pick out five items from the donated produce and say what they’d cook with them – get everyone to vote on the best idea.
    Reflect on how bringing the gifts together means we can do amazing things with them – maybe we each brought only one gift, but God multiplies what we give.
  3. World map
    Draw a rough outline of a world map on a double bedsheet and lay it down on the floor  – as people bring their gifts of produce, invite them to place their gift somewhere near its (possible) country of origin. Have some information displayed about some of the key producing nations and what life is like as a farmer/producer there. During your talk, look at some of the foods, and trace their journey from field/forest/ocean to plate.  You could
    (a) Say a prayer for each stage of the food’s journey
    (b) Talk about fairtrade and related issues
  4. Place mat grace
    Give everyone an A4 piece of paper with a simple place setting drawn on it, and some pens. You can also provide glue, scissors and old food magazines for those who like to cut and stick.
    Invite people to decorate their plate with words or pictures that remind them to say thank you for their food.
    Teach everyone a simple grace that they can use at lunchtime when they get home. Invite them to write it on their placemat. This might be something quite traditional, or something sillier – or have a variety to choose from. Popular options might be:
    (a) For these and all God’s blessings may his holy name be praised.
    (b) Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub!
    (c) (sung) One, two, three, four, five, thank you God that I’m alive, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, thank you God for food, Amen.
    (d) (sung) Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below, praise him above ye heavenly host, praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
    Alternatively, you could write a variety of graces on the reverse of the paper so that they’re all provided.
    If you have the facilities, you could offer to laminate the placemats while people are having coffee after church, so that they’ll last longer.


Here is the original (longer) version:

We bring our gifts:
The first-fruits of our labour,
or perhaps the spare we do not need,
(an offering to mitigate against our greed).

To the church we bring them,
and into the hands of Christ we place them,
and we say, ‘Take this,
and do with it some miracle:
Turn water into wine again,
or multiply my loaves and fish
to feed a crowd again.’

And Jesus takes them from our hand,
this fruit of the ocean, this product of the land,
and blesses them, accepting back
what always was the Lord’s.
Our gifts will fill the lack
of hungry people,
putting flesh on words
of charity, and making folk
in our small corner of the world
more equal.

We know there is enough for everyone.
But once the leftovers are gone –
taken to the homeless, hungry poor –
what of those twelve empty baskets standing idly by?
Can there yet be more
that we can ask our Lord to multiply?

Into those baskets therefore let us place ourselves,
those parts of us that need transforming,
grace and strength and healing,
the gifts in us that need to be increased and shared
with a greater generosity than we may be prepared
to offer on our own account.

For we are God’s rich and splendid bounty,
seeds, sown and scattered by the Lord in every place.
the human race:
the crowning glory
of the ever-evolving creation story.
We thank the Lord
that he does not just separate wheat from tare,
but takes our very best
then turns us into far more than we are.

And here is the shorter version:

We bring the spare we do not really need
(for surely God will honour all we bring
although it cannot make up for our greed).
And place into Christs’s hands our offering:
“Turn water into wine again,” we say,
“and multiply my token loaves and fish
to feed another hungry crowd today.”
Our gifts, we know, will put some flesh
on words of charity. Then into those
twelve empty baskets, let us place the gifts in us
that need to be increased and shared
with greater generosity than we may be prepared
to offer on our own account.
For we are God’s most rich and splendid bounty,
sown as seeds and scattered by the Lord
in every place.
the human race:
the crowning glory
of the ever-evolving creation story.
We thank God that he does not only separate the wheat from tare,
but takes our very best then turns us into far more than we are.


Clipart and assorted autumnal pictures

  wheat sheaf clipart       The whole world in his handfeeding of teh 5000

harvest     foodharvest festival clipart


hands held out     19th sept 2014 005broken bread


The Sunday after Ascension

‘Why do you stand there looking up to heaven?’
It’s no wonder the disciples were caught staring up at the place where their friend and teacher and Lord had bid them farewell, but the angels are right to point the disciples back to the world – we are not to be so heavenly that we are of no earthly use.

It seems to me that the Ascension is, above all, a feast of the body of Christ – as is this Eucharist that we celebrate this morning, just a few days afterwards. It’s the period in the church year when we remember the departure back to heaven of Jesus’ earthly, incarnate form, the day when his presence stopped being particular (tied to a specific time and place and material form) and started to be universal – present to all times and places ‘even to the ending of the age’ (Mt 28.20).

But the ascension is but one moment of this process of the particular becoming universal.  Jesus fed a crowd with a few loaves and fish, and called himself ‘the bread of life’; at the Last supper he explained his own body in terms of bread and wine, which he then broke, poured out, and distributed.  On the cross his actual body was broken and his blood flowed.  At the resurrection his body was both physically real (which he proved by eating and drinking) yet also able to go unrecognised and walk through locked doors (a step up, perhaps, from walking on water?).  Then at his ascension, that physical body disappeared into glory, and in its place was left a group of bewildered disciples left with the task of carrying on their teacher’s work.

By the time St Paul started writing his letters to the early church, he had started calling the christian community ‘The Body of Christ’ – something which we still do, and to which we continue to aspire.  There was one final thing that needed to happen before those early Christians could assume the role as Christ’s new body on earth: that body had to receive the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, which we can read about in the story of Pentecost (Acts 2) or indeed in the quieter version in John’s gospel where the risen Christ breathes his Spirit on his friends in the upper room.  It is that which we look forward to celebrating next Sunday.

So during the course of this process, the Body of Christ which begun as the incarnate Son of God, born as a baby in Bethlehem, growing up as a carpenter’s son in Nazareth, being baptised and undertaking a three-year ministry of preaching, healing and teaching, and culminating the cross and resurrection – that Body of Christ is transformed into the Church – established by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to continue his work in co-operation with God.  Thus, Jesus’ particular body (limited to one time and one place, two thousand years ago) becomes universal, filling the whole world, and for all time.

We talk about the universal church, but really is that what we mean?  In the end, to be true to the Christ whose body we try to be, we come full circle: in the Church, the body of Christ becomes not, after all, merely ‘general’ or ‘universal’ but particular again, incarnate in the individuals and christian communities in which the Holy Spirit dwells.  If we are, in Teresa of Avila’s words, “Christ’s hands with which he blesses people now” then our action in the world is particular, in the places where we find ourselves.  The church may fill the world, but if it is truly to be the Body of Christ, then it cannot be ‘general’ but must always be active in the places where it finds itself.  If we are the Body of Christ then we must be incarnate, too – through the ascension we will always have a heavenly life, but here and now our calling is to continue, in his name, the work that Christ began.

You have heard the phrase, ‘you are what you eat’ – hear also these alternative words of distribution at the Eucharist: ‘receive what you are’.  These challenge us to connect what happens here in church with what happens in the other 167 hours each week. We are the body of Christ not just gathered in a church building to hear the word and bread bread together, but in everything that we do and think and say.

At times like these, when as a nation we face again the reality of terrorism, violence, hatred and fear, we must grasp more than ever the need to work out what being the body of Christ looks like in real life. What will it look like for us to be Christ’s hands and feet, his eyes and ears, today, this week, this month?  How will we be active in continuing the work of God in the world?  How will we be continuing to live out Christ’s own manifesto, as we receive the Holy Spirit afresh, and proclaim, as Jesus did, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because he has anointed us to preach good news to the poor; he has sent us to proclaim freedom to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation for the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’  We have seen this week the inspiring and humbling response of the people of Manchester. Their refusal to meet hatred with hatred and evil with evil. Their solidarity in diversity, and their embracing of one another in shared pain and fear so that there might instead be the transforming power of love.

When Jesus said ‘do THIS’ in remembrance of me, he cannot have been talking just about the breaking of a piece of bread in a closed room. He must surely have been talking about everything captured in the phrase ‘This is my body, broken for you’ – the totality of his incarnation, life, ministry, preaching and teaching, passion, death and resurrection, so that as we do ‘this’ and remember Jesus, we may truly receive what we already are, and go out to love and serve the Lord as his body on earth, ready to bless and heal and reconcile and bring something of the love of God to a world in desperate need of it.

St Vincent de Paul (1581-1660)

You can read a brief biography of St Vincent de Paul and the readings set for today (27th September), when we remember his life and ministry, here.

If there was ever a saint who matched their set gospel reading, it is Vincent de Paul: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Vincent de Paul and his gospel reading invite us to look at others and see Christ, and not only to see Christ but to serve Christ – ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ It is in so doing that we become more like Christ.  The subjects take on the character of their king.

This means, though, that we must also look at others and see ourselves – this is something that I became real for me on a prison placement while I was an ordinand.  It is in seeing the Christ in those in need or in those who we find difficult or strange or disturbing that we start to be able to see the Christ in ourselves, not only out of empathy (note the similarity between the gospel reading’s ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty’ and the #Iam solidarity hashtags that have been around since the Charlie Hebdo massacre) but out of an awareness of our common humanity, our common belovedness in the sight of God .  We might think of the great commandments: ‘love God and love your neighbour as yourself’ for it is in love of neighbour that we understand what it is to be loved, and to see ourselves and our neighbour alike truly as beloved of God.

Meanwhile, if we, like Vincent de Paul, were to live out this gospel fully it explodes beyond the individual, and becomes a way for us to participate in the building of the kingdom of God, in which the chasms that are so often fixed in this world between the privileged and the not-priveleged might start to be broken down in preparation for the radical equality of the kingdom of God. What we do right now to join in with this work both brings earth nearer heaven, and prepares us for it.

This is how Vincent de Paul lived, and these are the kingdom values which we are invited, or rather commanded, to live out here in Westcott, in this city of Cambridge, and beyond.


Thoughts towards a homily on Luke 14.25-33

Luke 14.25-33 is another one of those horrible gospel readings where you read it and think, ‘Really? Jesus said this?’  And then you realise you’re supposed to be preaching on it – in other words, making sense of it not just for yourself but for other people too.   So you’re not just talking about hating your own parents, you’re talking about other people hating theirs, and that’s just another whole lot of tricky.
I realised something as I read this through: the way it’s phrased makes it sound like a genuine choice: this thing or that thing, parent or God, as if the two were in any way equivalent to one another. Perhaps our metaphorical use of ‘Father’ for God compounds this immediate (and unhelpful) sense of the possibility of being equivocal.  But what if instead we took seriously the reality that God is not equivalent to anyone or anything?  That we’re not, after all, being asked to make a choice between two equivalent external sources of authority, validation or love, but rather to take on board who God is and what that means for who we are?
God is, after all, the creator of the universe. That’s everything. Stars, planets, black holes, and all the immensity of stuff in between that we don’t even have a proper name for. All of time and space (and spacetime). Huge things and tiny things, and things that don’t even properly exist in any way that physics can explain.  Animals, vegetables, minerals. The whole lot. Me, you, my parents, your parents, life itself.
If we believe that – really believe it – then the universe only makes sense if we are aware of everything being held in God’s hands.
Two brief diversions:
1. My children used to often ask whether, if God was everywhere, ‘is God in this dirty coffee cup?’ ‘Is God in this teatowel?’ ‘Is God in the mud on the bottom of my trainers that I just trod into the nice clean carpet?’  Exasperated, I eventually answered, ‘It’s the other way round. God is not in those things, those things are in God, because the whole universe is in God. Happy now?’ And remarkably, they were. At least until the next question.
2. If you’ve not read Mother Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, you should. The most famous of her visions is of a tiny round thing the size of a hazelnut, which the holy Mother holds in the palm of her hands. She wonders what it is, the answer comes to her, ‘It is everything that is made.’ She wonders how it continues to exist, for it is so small it might just disappear. Again, an answer comes to her, ‘It exists, and will continue to exist, because God loves it.’
So, in our mental image of God as creator of the universe, holding everything that he has made in his hands, that includes us – you, me, our mothers and fathers, the people we love and the people we hate, and the people we don’t even know and will never meet. As well as the stars and planets and black holes.
God is the ultimate context for all our other relationships – with people, and with creation. And our relationships with one another and with the world can only really make sense that way round, in the bigger context of God. It simply doesn’t work if we try to make anyone other the creator of the universe our “ultimate context” – if another creature (a parent, a lover etc) is given the status of Ultimate Context, that’s way too much pressure to put on them – nobody is big enough to be someone’s whole world, no matter how romantic or loyal that may sound. Only God is big enough, flexible enough, strong enough to be our first call, the ground of our being, our all in all. And if we try to make another human being into those things, even if they could hold us in their hands, they simply cannot hold all our other relationships as well, and they definitely cannot also hold all of God in their hands.  Our relationships with others can be held in the hands of God, but it’s very hard indeed to ask someone else to hold our relationship with God in their hands. It’s just the wrong way round.
In ministry I’ve always been grateful for an image of the hands of God being huge, and careful and gentle and strong and utterly reliable – and placed just under mine, ready to catch all the things that slip through my fingers. There are people who rely on me, for whom I am their first port of call. But I am not their last port of call, because of those big generous hands of God just below mine.
For me, there is something of this in the gospel this week.  And this may be my clumsy way of putting what Rowan Williams puts much more deftly in his book, Being Disciples:

“Being with the Master is recognising that who you are is finally going to be determined by your relationship with him. If other relationships seek to define you in a way that distorts this basic relationship, you lose something vital for your own well-being and that of all around you too. You lose the possibility of a love more than you could have planned or realised for yourself. Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”

To love God is to realise that you are held in the hands of God, along with everyone and everything else. That tends to put things in perspective.