From the Vicar
Sunday 4 June
The ruins of Fountains Abbey sit in North Yorkshire beside the River Skell. Once one of the largest and wealthiest monasteries in all of England, the Abbey was dissolved by order of Henry VIII in 1539 and its buildings and land seized by the Crown. These days what is left is little more than a shell made up of half walls and occasional pillars. But you can still visit and wander amongst the ruins, walking through the remains of the cloisters, chapel or Abbott’s lodge. And if you visit and happen to come upon the Chapter House, a guidebook helpfully explains what took place there:
Here in the Chapter House the monks gathered every Sunday to hear a sermon from the Abbot - except on Trinity Sunday [when there was no sermon] owing to the difficulty of the subject!
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, designated by the Church calendar as a day to celebrate the God who we know to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, as the monks of Fountains Abbey discovered, it is a brave preacher who tries to explain the mechanics of the Holy Trinity. Perhaps, given that we are talking about the very nature of God, it is understandable that it is not very understandable. How could human minds perceive the inner working of the divine? But this is not to say that there is no point in talking about the Trinity. Part of our walk of faith is that we seek to know God in the way that He is, even if there are mysteries that we must hold in the knowing.
One of the truths that we learn from understanding the Trinity is that within God there has always existed an eternal, continuing, giving relationship of perfect love. Put simply, God is love. And this love is the reason for our existence (for creation is an overflow of it), the cause of our salvation, and the promise of eternity. In other words, life is all about love. This in turn helps us to understand what it is that God calls us to do. He does not ask us to be nice, friendly and pleasant but to be loving. Because it is in loving that we are most like Him, that we come closest to his nature. That is why Jesus declared that the most important commandments are those which tell us to love.
Of course it is not just any love that we are asked to learn or to share but the divine love of God. This is the love that flows between Father, Son and Spirit, and which flows out of the very life of God. To know this love, to be able to receive it, and then to share it is the great joy of the Christian life.
Sunday 28 May
In my sermon last Sunday I told a story (apocryphal of course) about what happens after Jesus ascends to heaven. On his arrival the angels gather round, excited to see him and celebrating all that he has done. One then asks who, now that Jesus has returned to heaven, is going to continue all of his work on earth? When Jesus replies that he has left that task to his disciples and the Church there is an awkward silence. Finally, one of the angels blurts out, “you can’t be serious” and lists all the ways the disciples have messed up and all the flaws that the Church will have. Surely, they insist, there must be another option, a Plan B. But Jesus responds firmly, the Church is his Plan A - and there is no Plan B.
Somehow we are God’s Plan A. When he considered how he would go about building his kingdom, seeing his love and justice and grace and purposes manifested in our District in 2023, he chose us - his Church - to be the ones he would work through. The ministry of Jesus and the sharing of his Good News is now entrusted into our hands. Realising this we might think the angel in the story is on to something: surely God should have a Plan B or a backup!
But God doesn’t have a backup plan. What he does have, for the disciples and for us, is his Holy Spirit. At Pentecost God sends his Holy Spirit. He sends the Spirit to lead and guide us; so that we might know his love and power; and he sends the Spirit to be alongside us, that is, to help us in the work he has given us to do. God doesn’t expect us to try and build his kingdom in our own strength (what a disaster that would be) but in his. And we find that strength, we meet it, are empowered by it, when we receive the Holy Spirit whom God has already sent to us.
Sometimes we can forget that God’s desire is for everyone to know him and to receive his love. As a consequence, it is also his desire that his Church - including the Anglican Parish of Warkworth (and Matakana, Mahurangi, Kaipara Flats and more) - would flourish and grow. God wants to bless us, to see our lives transformed, to see our ministry be fruitful, and to see our Parish grow in love, in worship and in people. Knowing this should give us confidence, it should be exciting! There is so much that God is yet to do in our Parish and community. Looking forward to this, we can prepare by joining in with that ancient prayer of the Church, “Come, Holy Spirit!”
Sunday 21 May
Normally around this time of year I make the point that Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday, is known as the birthday of the Church. For when the Holy Spirit came upon that small group of believers gathered in an upper room, that is the moment that the disciples became the Body of Christ. We know what happened next, of course, the Apostles went out among the people to spread the good news of Jesus (and saw thousands added to their number). But what precedes this moment, what were the followers of Jesus doing as they waited to become his Church?
Unsurprisingly, they were praying - or as Acts 1 puts it, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” This is unsurprising both because this is what Jesus had told them to do but also because we surely know that prayer is the best place to start. How else could the Church begin if not in prayer? This should make it clear that prayer is not some passive thing: it is active, dynamic. When we pray we don’t just tell God a list of things we hope will happen, we ourselves get involved. Prayer is the first step in joining with God in what he is doing, in becoming part of his work to build his kingdom. To put it another way, when we pray we are doing.
So it is entirely appropriate that this week we take part in Thy Kingdom Come, a global call for churches to pray for people to come to know Jesus. As the Church of England explains it, the call is based on the practice and experience of the earliest church at the first Pentecost:
As we journey from Ascension to Pentecost, we follow the example of the first disciples. They prayed as they had never prayed before (Acts 1:14) and they planned for mission. [Praying] is one way of getting involved in what God, the God who reigns, is doing. Just as those first disciples in Acts, we are to be living out the Kingdom
When the disciples prayed, God sent upon them his Holy Spirit in wind and fire - transforming them, and transforming the lives of many in Jerusalem that day. Do we dare to pray for the same? In Luke 11 Jesus promises, “...how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (v 13). This week let us pray for “how much more” of the Holy Spirit, that we might know the incredible, transforming love and power of God and that we might be able to share it with and in our community. I invite you to join with me as we pray together as a Church, “Come, Holy Spirit.”
Sunday 14 May
Wrapped up on the couch watching The King’s coronation I did not expect the service to begin with the wonderful acclamation, “Christ is Risen!”. But then, as some noted, it was a deeply Christian service. For many of us the service was also familiarly Anglican. Yet, as we were also told, there was much that was different and new about the service. It seems even coronations move with the times.
I realise that the question of whether aspects of our Sunday services should change can be a tricky one. Worship is deeply important to each of us, and there can be a great comfort in worshipping in familiar ways. At the same time, change has always been a feature of our tradition. Whether brought about by new technology (first the printing press, more recently data projectors), new musical tastes or just changes in language, even Anglican services have undergone their own evolution across the years. In one way this is natural, in another it is an important act of missional hospitality - a means by which we welcome new believers (and new generations) into the community of faith. And remember, this is precisely what we are called to do.
Yet, even with these innovations there is so much that does not change. We still use creeds and prayers that date back to the early Church. And our faith is unchanging: our belief in God, our confession that Jesus is his Son, that he died for us and rose again, that remains the same.
Some would argue with this. Suggest that, to ‘get with the times’, the Church should try and recast itself, move away from all the God stuff to something more easily embraced. To focus on good values and kind thoughts, not the tricky matter of divine relationships. But of course, if we did that, we would stop being a Church. The truth is that Jesus has always been difficult because he requires that we accept him as he is, not as we wish him to be. Yet the Church persists. The author G.K. Chesterton, speaking about times in the past when it looked like Christianity might disappear, once wrote, “On five occasions in history the Church has gone to the dogs, but on each occasion it was the dogs that died.” He goes on to say this shouldn’t be a surprise: for Christians worship a God who knows the way out of the grave.
The point is that the Church doesn’t exist because we kept singing old songs nor because we started singing new ones. It exists because of the grace of Jesus who continues to call people to him. Our job, then, is to be a community of believers, faithful to God, and to reflect his love and life in our lives.
Sunday 7 May
I don’t have much experience of coronations. In fact, until this week, I had yet to see one in my lifetime (though I did once make it to the installation of a Pope). So I cannot necessarily speak to the meaning of every part of the crowning of King Charles. I am aware, as I am sure you are, of the significance of Westminster Abbey: home to every coronation service for nearly 1,000 years. I have less of a grasp on why quiche was chosen as the official dish of the coronation!
With or without quiche, the coronation of a new King is a moment for giving thanks for our life as a nation and also for the peaceful handover to a new monarch (something not always guaranteed in history). While the coronation service is no longer considered the moment of accession, it is still the point at which a new monarch is fully accepted and his or her reign inaugurated. In the past we would talk about the Elizabethan or Victorian ages because a coronation meant something new had begun, that a new era was upon us. But, lest we forget it, as Christians we also have another monarch, the King of kings, our Lord Jesus. His reign also heralds a new era and it is for this reason that we pray, “your kingdom come… on earth as in heaven.”
In 2016, picking up on these words from the Lord’s Prayer, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York initiated “Thy Kingdom Come”, an invitation to churches around the world to spend the week between Ascension and Pentecost praying for the growth of God’s kingdom and, in particular, for people to come to know Jesus. In the years since that first invitation “Thy Kingdom Come” has developed into a global ecumenical prayer movement, with Christians in nearly 180 countries and across 85 different denominations responding to the call to prayer.
This year it will be happening again between Ascension Sunday (21 May) and Pentecost (28 May), and as a Parish we will be doing two things to take part. First, on Wednesday 24 May at 7.30pm we will hold an online service of Evening Prayer. This will be conducted on Zoom and an email with the link to the Zoom meeting will be sent out ahead of that evening. The second thing we will be doing is running a prayer roster for that week. The idea is that every morning, afternoon or evening at least one member of our Parish will have committed to spend some time praying for our community and for the people in it to know Jesus. To sign up for a prayer spot simply fill in the form at the back of the church, or email the Parish Office and let us know the day and time when you would like to pray. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has encouraged, let’s all do our part in God’s renewal work.
Sunday 30 April
I find that trips down to Auckland and back are getting increasingly frustrating. Not because the road has got any worse (though in parts it has), nor is this a complaint about the traffic (though the school holidays didn’t help), but rather because of the view. For every now and then, winding down the road from Windy Ridge or sitting in a queue near Puhoi, you see it: the bright, fresh tarmac of a new motorway enticing us with the promise of smooth four-lane travel and a gentle ride home. Yet, as good as the motorway looks, we still cannot use it. It is there but also not quite there.
Of course now the word is that the motorway will open sometime in June. Then again, at the end of last year I heard a very strong rumour that it would be quietly opened before Christmas. Sensibly those in charge of the project have long-since stopped offering deadlines after the first two or three were blown out by various covid lockdowns. So, except for a brief taste between Puhoi and the tunnels, we continue to behold the promise from afar.
I mentioned this to a friend last week and suggested it could be an analogy for the Resurrection: we can see it, understand the promise it holds, even get a taste of it - but we are yet to experience it in its fullness. But to be honest, as an analogy it doesn’t really work that well. Theologically it is questionable. A new road is more than a little prosaic as a metaphor for the glory of the resurrected life. And we can do more with the promise of Christ than simply view it from afar.
In the season of Easter we are reminded of the hope of resurrection life, that Jesus’ resurrection holds within it the promise of our own. As we heard on Easter Day this is utterly life-altering, universe changing news; death has lost its sting, there is the hope and promise of new beginnings, we now know that the story ends well. And all this is a present truth, it is part of our reality today. We can already experience the hope of resurrection and new life in Jesus. But it is also true that we do not yet know this new life in all its fullness. That for us there is a resurrection still to come. That we live with a reality that is both here and not yet fully here. What theologians call ‘living in the tension’.
If you wonder where it leaves us, then the simple answer is that it leaves us with a life of faith. Jesus has done the work. Our task now is to live our lives in the light of what he has done - that which we can see and that which we are yet to see. It is by such living that we not only experience the truth of our belief but proclaim it to the rest of the world. It is by faith that we reveal what is yet to come.
Sunday 23 April
There is a lot going on this weekend, with the school holidays ending and then ANZAC Day on Tuesday. The Church calendar is quite busy too. Ahead of us lie more great feasts, those of Pentecost and Trinity. But right now we remain in the middle of the season of Easter (or Paschaltide). This is a time when we not only celebrate the Resurrection but also remember those occasions when the risen Jesus appeared to, and spent time with, his followers up until the day of his ascension.
Amongst those encounters, including miraculous appearances in locked rooms and unprecedented hauls of fish, this Sunday’s Gospel account of two disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus might seem comparatively undramatic. Two men walk down the road and are joined by a third, with whom they talk about the events and meaning of Easter and the Scriptures. It is only when they stop to eat, and he breaks the bread as he did at the Last Supper, that they at last recognise their companion as Jesus himself.
A simple encounter yet the results are dramatic. God transforms an ordinary event into an extraordinary one and the two men, who had been walking “with sadness written across their faces”, excitedly race back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what happened - and to discover that those disciples have their own resurrection encounter to share. But what resonates with me is the image of Jesus walking with the men, talking with them, teaching and ministering to them, even as they are unaware of who he is. Even as they are unaware that Jesus is with them. It is only later, in retrospect, that they understand: “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road…” they say. Their eyes opened, they realise that God was with them the whole time.
I wonder how often God is with us, and we don’t recognise it. How often He is speaking to us, ministering to us, and we don’t realise it. Because the promise Jesus makes is that he will always be with us, “even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Just because we don’t always see Him does not mean He is not there. Perhaps we might remember those occasions when our hearts burned within us, those times when we belatedly realised that God had been with us, helping us all along. Or perhaps we might take encouragement from two men journeying to Emmaus. Two men who, in the middle of their discouragement and sadness, were met by the risen Christ as he walked down the road with them.
Sunday 16 April
It says something about the unfairness of life that a man who followed Jesus as a disciple and would then go on to become a great missionary apostle, one of the first to carry the Gospel into Asia, should be known throughout history as “doubting” Thomas. We might wonder what more a person needs to do to be considered faith-filled!
Yet there is something apt about remembering Thomas in this way. As the writer Philip Yancey says, “Doubt always coexists with faith, for in the presence of certainty who would need faith at all?” We therefore should be grateful for Thomas’s example, for showing us that it is possible to be faithful-doubters when we ourselves have questions or uncertainties. We see that Thomas, despite his doubts, despite his initial unbelief in the other disciples’ report of having seen Jesus, doesn’t walk away. Instead he persists even as he questions, continuing to meet with the other disciples in prayer. And because he persisted he was able to encounter the risen Jesus. In a way it was through his doubts that Thomas came to believe.
It is also encouraging to note that Jesus himself does not condemn Thomas for having doubts but rather engages with them. By inviting Thomas to put his hands in his wounds, Jesus invites Thomas to explore the very things that he is questioning. Yes Jesus will say that those who believe without seeing are blessed. But it is clear that Jesus is not threatened by our questions, is not worried by our doubts. He is happy for us to wrestle with these things, as long as we keep wrestling with him at the same time.
Christ’s resurrection is a challenge for our faith because believing in it means we have to completely reshape our understanding of life, the universe, indeed everything. All our former certainties are upended and we must learn to understand the world anew in the light of Easter morning. There is risk here; as the German theologian Pannenberg points out, the problem with the Resurrection is that if you believe it happened you must change the way you live.
No wonder we might have doubts. No wonder vague ideas of the Resurrection as a metaphor or symbolic action might seem appealing. But the witness of Thomas, for all his doubts and questions, is that Jesus is risen. And life for Thomas will never be the same.
Easter Day, 9 April
Today, in countries across the globe, in churches of all different styles, in diverse languages and tongues, millions of people will greet one another with the words, “Christ is risen!”. And, like a rolling acclamation, the reply will resound from the Pacific, through Asia, across Africa, Europe and the Americas, “He is risen indeed, alleluia!”
Few words are as central to our Christian faith, to our hope and to our lives as Christians, than the declaration, He is risen! Here is the answer to our fears, to our failures, to the pains and shadows of life: Christ is risen! Here is our hope for the future, for new beginnings and life everlasting: He is risen indeed! Like a defiant shout into the chaos and darkness of our world, everything that seeks to pull us down and consign us to dust is silenced by the cry that Jesus is alive. For in raising Jesus from the dead God has shown that nothing, not even death, can stop us from knowing Him, knowing his love or knowing the new life that he brings.
He is risen! Not revived, not resuscitated, not reanimated, reincarnated or reimagined – risen! Jesus did not avoid death, he was not rescued from its grasp. He submitted to death when it was before him. But by the power of God’s love he was able to pass through that darkness to the dawn of resurrection and now he is risen! No longer dead but alive, now and forevermore. So we celebrate today because our’s is a resurrection faith. We don’t believe in the perfectness of the church, the brilliance of theologians and priests nor even in the specialness of Christians. But we do believe in Christ crucified and risen. Every sermon preached by the apostles and recorded in the New Testament has the resurrection as its central theme. For this is the very heart of the Good News of Jesus.
He is risen! These words are as much invitation as they are proclamation. Because in the resurrection God unveils a new world and a new life, and we are invited to share in them. Christ’s resurrection holds within it the promise of our own. It is the promise of the restoration of the life we were always meant to have, the life we were created for. Christ is risen and as a result we can know new life and new beginnings in him.
That new life begins today. We find it in Jesus. We find it when we open our hearts to the truth of this glorious morning and, joining with the Church universal, declare once more: He is risen indeed, alleluia!
Palm Sunday, 2 April
If you saw the news from France in recent weeks you will have been reminded of two things. First, how the French have a very particular way of dealing with political disagreements (take to the streets). The second thing you would be reminded of is the power of crowds. Even in the 21st century there is something impactful about a mass of people on the streets. So we might imagine what it was like for Jesus and the disciples to be in the midst of the tumult as the crowds rushed to greet Jesus, crying ‘hosanna’ and laying palms on the road. We might also imagine just how terrifying it was when mere days later those same crowds were now crying ‘crucify him’.
But the story of Holy Week and Easter is not a story about the crowds; lest we mistake it, Jesus was not crucified because the crowds turned against him. Nor was it because of the Pharisees, priests, the Roman garrison or even Pilate. No, the crucifixion takes place because Jesus chooses it. He chooses to walk the road to Calvary, and it is there that he chooses to die. Holy Week is the story of Jesus’ secret ambition; his intention to give his life for our sake that by his death and resurrection we might be saved. As the Bible tells us, long before Palm Sunday Jesus had already “set his face to go to Jerusalem”. The point is, whether or not the crowds welcomed or turned on him, whether or not his disciples stayed with or betrayed him, Jesus was always going to walk the way of the Cross.
It is for this reason that we celebrate Palm Sunday. Indeed, we celebrate it for the same reason as the crowds: because the Messiah has arrived to bring freedom and life for all. We know now what that truly means, that it went far beyond freeing one small nation in one particular place and time. For us today, then, Palm Sunday is a reminder of Christ’s determination on our behalf. It reminds us that though we might at different times be confused, uncertain, feel unworthy or guilty, Jesus will still walk the road to Good Friday. For our sake, he has set his face towards the Cross and he will not turn from it.
Sunday, 12 March
In the last week of January, during the first of the floods to hit our District, I got a message from a family who found themselves trapped in Kaipara Flats and wondered if they could stay the night in St Alban’s. By the time I called them back, however, some locals had already taken them into their home and they were happily enjoying a nice cup of tea and a dry place to sleep. There have been a few similar stories over the last month as wild weather has closed roads and forced people to rely on the hospitality of strangers. Of course the idea of welcoming the stranger is one with deep Biblical resonances, indeed we might go so far as to say that hospitality is a reflection of the Gospel: after all, Jesus tells us that when we welcome a stranger we welcome him (Matthew 25:35-40).
But it is not just our homes into which we can welcome people, it is also our Church. We might not always appreciate just what it feels like for someone to come to Church for the first time. If we have been members of the Parish for a long time, or good Anglicans for most of our lives, the sights, sounds and habits of worship (when to stand, sit, kneel or sing) can be not just familiar but reassuring - a bit like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers. But for someone who is new there is a lot to deal with, even just working out where to sit can be daunting (especially if all the back seats are taken!). This is where our hospitality as a Church comes in.
Some of this is the part of those on duty, welcomers in particular have a very significant role in this as do those of us taking the service. (It is, in fact, one of the reasons why we are moving towards using screens in our services instead of prayer books - in the 21st century screens are far more normal, and therefore hospitable, to people who are new.) But the principal burden of hospitality falls on those who are the Church - its people. If you consider yourself a regular parishioner then the Church on Sunday mornings is your home - and that makes you a host whether you are on a roster or not. All of us should be willing to greet people who are new, making sure they are comfortable and that they feel welcome. It is a simple thing to do and yet it is by such small things that we live out the Gospel that we believe.
Sunday, 26 February
A very significant day was celebrated this past week. Naturally I speak of Shrove Tuesday and the important matter of pancakes. However those more devout than I will quite properly point to Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent - our season of preparation, reflection and repentance as we head towards Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter.
It is common, and quite fitting, to think of Lent as a journey. Just as Jesus walked the road to Calvary so we too are invited to walk a path through Lent, to undertake a pilgrimage if you will. Now whilst our pilgrimage might not take us far (geographically speaking) we are still challenged to leave behind the comforts and security of home by taking up a Lenten fast or new Lenten discipline. This is not so that we can “earn” some sort of reward but because, as many pilgrims have found, the act of leaving comforts behind is a step of faith which can lead to a time of real growth and depth in our discipleship. In this way the season of Lent challenges us to stop going with the flow of life and instead seek out the flow of God.
Sometimes that flow takes us into the wilderness. But this is not to be feared nor, as Bishop N.T. Wright points out, is this necessarily a mistake. As we see in the Bible you are never far from the wilderness when you’re in the Promised Land. Wright goes on to say:
Get ready for the wilderness. If you have begun your pilgrimage, sooner or later you will find it, or it will find you… [But] the wilderness is not simply an area through which the pilgrim way unfortunately happens to pass. The wilderness is the place where we are to learn new things about ourselves and about God.
One of the reasons why this learning takes place in the wilderness is because the normal pace of life, and all the things that encourage us to fill our days, don’t really allow us to ask questions. There is no time left for us to take stock, ask who we are, who God is and what that all means. Walking through the wilderness, on the other hand, forces us to ask just those things.
N.T. Wright concludes by reminding us that Jesus trod this pilgrim path before us. Indeed the 40 days of Lent are based on Christ’s own 40 days in the wilderness. And so even in a place of wilderness we can find what we may not expect, that the living God is there as well: “waiting to be discovered afresh, waiting to meet us in a new way, a way marked by the sign of the cross to be sure, but a way of new intimacy, new depths that only the silence and dust of the wilderness could make space for.”
Sunday, 19 February
Sometimes lines from the hymns or songs we sing on a Sunday morning can have a particular resonance. This was certainly the case last Sunday, as we sang “thou rushing wind that art so strong…” while gusts buffeted the Church. (I hope we might soon be singing again about the sun’s “golden beam”.) It has, once more, been an extraordinary start to the year. While fortunately most of our district has been spared the worst of Cyclone Grabrielle, I know that there was damage suffered and that parts are again underwater, recovering from more flooding or still without power. Can I say thank you to those of you who have been checking in on neighbours and other parishioners and who have offered to help out any who need it. It’s great to see (or hear about) the Church in action in these very simple ways.
The news from other parts of the country has been much harder, and I hope you will keep the people of the Hawkes Bay and East Cape in your prayers. But while we by comparison have good reason to be grateful, even so, the repeated cycle of crisis that seems to be the current normal can be taxing. So I paid particular notice when one of my daily Bible readings this week came from Proverbs 3:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.
There is a simple truth, of which the Bible time and again seeks to remind us: we are better off putting things into God’s hands. To the extent that we might try and master our own lives, trying to control events or focusing on our own strength and abilities, we will find ourselves tossed around by all those events we cannot control - natural disasters being one of them. But the wisdom of Proverbs is that when we trust in God we no longer need to lean on ourselves or rely on our own strength; we can transfer everything onto God and rely on Him instead!
We know that this doesn’t mean there won’t be storms, hardships or even grief. But in the midst of such times we can have security and comfort: the security and comfort that comes from trusting in God, in his goodness, his purposes and his love. For these things will never fail. And God is more than able to cope with the things that overwhelm us. This week and every week I pray that the love and faithfulness of God may be your trust and hope.
Sunday, 12 February
Have you ever asked yourself why we not only gather on a Sunday morning for worship and fellowship but do so every single week? Someone who had an answer was D.L. Moody, one of the great revival evangelists of the 19th century. The story is told that Moody was invited to dinner with a prominent Chicago citizen. As they sat around the fire and talked they began to discuss the place and role of the Church. Moody’s host insisted that there was no need for a Christian to be part of a church. In response Moody said nothing but instead picked up some tongs and took a blazing coal from amongst the fire. He sat in silence, watching the coal as he held it in his tongs, his host watching too. All too quickly the coal smouldered and went out. “I see”, Moody’s host replied.
We are not a Church because of our old wooden buildings, nor thanks to the stained glass windows, nor our having a Vicar, nor a Prayer Book, nor even the cross on our roofs. What makes us a Church is that we are people of Christ, who gather together in his Name, in his presence, for his purposes. And if we were to stop gathering, then the buildings, windows, hymn books, and yes clergy could remain but the Church would not.
It is true that just coming to church is not what saves us. For salvation comes through our faith in and relationship with Jesus. And yet it is not possible to divorce being a Christian from belonging to the Church, not least because the story of Jesus is also the story of His Church. As is often said, Jesus did not build a building or write a book to be his legacy, but he did establish the Church. What is more, the Bible makes it clear that there is nowhere for us to be part of Christ other than in his Body - which is the Church (1 Cor 12, Eph 4). Put simply, it is in the Church that we are given Jesus.
Gathering together is therefore about so much more than preserving our Parish. It is because it is in the Church that God says he will encounter us and that means - though being a part of a Church can at times be annoying or frustrating - it is there that our faith can grow and our relationship with God be transformed. Outside of it, we are like an ember left out of the fire to cool and go out. But inside we are warmed by the flames. As the poet John Betjeman wrote:
A fitful glow, is all the light of faith I know;
Which sometimes goes completely out; And leaves me plunging round in doubt; Until I will myself to go;
And worship in God’s house below - My parish church.
Sunday, 18 December
In his short story, Smith of Wootton Major, J R R Tolkien tells of a man who discovers the long-forgotten land of Faery. Tolkien writes that Faery was a mythical place both beautiful and fearsome in equal measure. When Smith began to explore it he at first walked quietly among the gentler creatures of the woods and meads of fair valleys. But as he grew bolder Smith went further: he stood beside the Sea of Windless Storm, gazed upon an untouched lake in the mountains and wandered lost in a vast grey mist until he saw the shadow of a great hill and the King’s Tree on top, its light like the sun at noon.
Eventually Smith found a winding road through the Outer Mountains and at last he stood before the Queen of Faery herself:
She wore no crown and had no throne. She stood there in her majesty and her glory, and all about her was a great host shimmering and glittering like the stars above; but she was taller than the points of their great spears, and upon her head there burned a white flame.
It was then, standing before the Queen, that Smith felt grieved for he remembered from his childhood how the village would place a toy figure atop a cake and called it the Queen of Faery. In the presence of the Queen herself the memory of the toy seemed embarrassing to him. But the Queen told him not to be ashamed, for maybe a little doll was better than no memory of her at all: “For some the only glimpse. For some the awakening.”
It would be easy to dismiss our celebration of Christmas as little more than a token. Despite best efforts our services will fail to match either the humility of the stable where Jesus is born or the glory of the angelic choirs that greet his birth. And even some of those who visit our churches at Christmas may think it is only a sentimental tradition. But there is more to the story than nostalgia and carols. On that first Christmas night in Bethlehem, heaven touched earth - for God came to be with us, as one of us.
For many the celebration of Christmas remains only a glimpse. But for others it can be an awakening: an awakening to the greatest love we have ever known, a love more powerful than death and which will never leave or give up on us. I pray that you will be awakened once more this Christmas. I pray that you might look upon the manger and open your heart to know the child who was laid in it: this Jesus who is our Saviour, Christ the Lord.
Sunday, 20 November
Let me start by saying congratulations! You are not just one in a billion, you are one in eight billion. Yes, according to the United Nations, this week the world’s population passed the eight billion mark. Pretty impressive when you remember that a short 70 years ago there were only 2.5 billion people on earth. If we go way back, to the Year of Our Lord (1 AD), the population of the globe was a mere 300 million people. (Imagine how cheap house prices were then!) But here we are in the third decade of the 21st century trying to squeeze past another 7,999,999,999 people - many of whom, it seems, are trying to get through the Hill Street intersection at the same time.
No wonder the internet is full of teenagers doing silly dances; it’s hard to stand out when 8 billion other people are trying to do the same. But even if online fame is not your primary concern, all of us at some point wonder about the mark we are leaving on the world. The psychologist Henry Cloud says people go through life like a ship moves through water, with each one leaving a wake behind them. The wake which we leave is in our tasks and in our relationships: what did we accomplish and how did we deal with people? He goes on to say that we can tell a lot about people by the wake they leave behind.
What wake are we leaving behind in our families, our street, our workplaces or community? Not just what have we achieved but how are we relating to people? Do we leave people feeling loved, knowing that they are valued? Are we adding to the frustrations and aggravations of life, or are we finding ways of adding God’s grace into the mix?
Last Sunday’s readings, where in the gospel Jesus encouraged us to have “patient endurance” in the face of trials and tribulations, included this verse from 2 Thessalonians 3: “And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.” It’s the Bible asking the Church (which means all of us) to keep being faithful, because God is faithful. To go out and meet Jesus in the messiness of the world, and to be his hands and feet in amongst that mess. It’s asking us to leave a Christ-shaped wake behind.
Sunday, 9 October
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…” His point was that everyone, every person we meet, is created for God’s Kingdom. Created for eternity. For all of us have the opportunity to share in Jesus’ resurrection. As a result, even “the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to” is someone who may be resurrected in the glorified splendour of Christ. Someone whom, if we saw them now as they will be then, we would be strongly tempted to worship so great will be their glory. This, Lewis points out, changes things. It means that we live in a society full of people defined by what Jesus may one day make of them. So then, he says, “It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.”
Of course, in the midst of life and all the stresses and hassles that it brings, it’s not always easy to treat other people (especially given the stresses and hassles they can bring) with “awe and circumspection”. One person who tried to do so was John of Kronstadt. A nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox priest, John worked and ministered at a time when alcohol abuse was wreaking havoc amongst his community. John would go out into the streets where, finding someone lying in a gutter in soiled clothes, he would pick them up, hold them in his arms and say to them, “This is beneath your dignity. You were meant to house the fullness of God.”
You were meant to house the fullness of God. This is the truth about our neighbours and it is the truth about us. No matter what we may think or say about others, no matter what others may think or say about us, it does not change our true identity: we are children of the Most High God, chosen to be one of those in whom He lives and dwells, and created for eternity. As C.S. Lewis would encourage us, we should let that truth inspire our lives.
Sunday, 11 September
I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God… I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.
So spoke our late Queen, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in 2002. Much is now being written about the events of her life, her extraordinary 70 years on the throne and all the many changes to which she was a witness. But one consistency throughout her life was her deep and real faith in God. In the foreword to a book published on her 90th birthday, the Queen wrote of her gratefulness to God for His steadfast love, saying, “I have indeed seen His faithfulness”.
As the Prime Minister has noted, the Queen’s commitment to her role, even when she was well beyond the age at which most of us would retire, was extraordinary. In part this may be seen as dedication to duty but far more than that it was a commitment to service. At Christmas 2012, the Queen spoke of what for her was at the heart of service:
This is the time of year when we remember that God sent his only Son ‘to serve, not to be served’. He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer this Christmas Day that his example and teaching will continue to bring people together to give the best of themselves in the service of others.
The carol, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter”, ends by asking a question of all of us who know the Christmas story of how God gave himself to us in humble service: ‘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’. The carol gives the answer, ‘Yet what can I give him - give my heart’.
As we join with others across our country and around our world giving thanks for Her Majesty’s life and service, let us also give thanks for her faith and the One in whom she had faith. We pray that God will comfort all who mourn for her, especially her family and our new King Charles. And we pray that she will be received into the loving arms of her God. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.
Sunday, 20 February
As I was leading the service at Warkworth last Sunday morning the building shook and the doors blew open - I felt like an old time revivalist preacher! Sadly, I think it had more to do with last weekend’s storm than the power of my sermon. The storm itself certainly delivered with its whipping wind; heading out to Kaipara Flats cemetery this week I was counting the fallen branches and broken trees. But perhaps the most striking thing about the storm was how suddenly it abated. After all that sound and fury, Monday and Tuesday were two of the most still and perfect days we have had all summer!
I was reminded of the events of 1 King 19 when the prophet Elijah, his life threatened by Jezebel, flees to the wilderness in despair. Sheltering on Mt Horeb he cries out to the Lord, only for God to tell him to stand on the mountain and wait for him to pass by. A great wind is stirred up, so mighty that it breaks rocks and splits the mountain - but the Lord was not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake - but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And then a fire! But the Lord was not in the fire. Last of all there is only silence. And it was in the silence that Elijah heard the still, small voice of God speaking to him; “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Lest we miss it, what is important about that moment is the intimacy of the stillness. Paradoxically, God speaks through the silence, not because his was presence was in the silence but because his presence was the silence. God, the creator of mountains and winds and fires, steps from behind the curtain of nature to be present with Elijah.
Our world certainly has its fair share of storms and wildfires at the moment. In such times we can be all too focused on the storms and what God might be saying about them or even through them - because surely a worldwide pandemic, global protests or the threat of war must mean something. And yes of course God speaks about and in the midst of such events. But if we only ever focus on the storms - what they might mean, what others say about them, how we should interpret them - we run the risk of missing God speaking to us in the quiet of his presence. In the midst of the storms of life, perhaps we sometimes need to turn our attention away from all the wind and fury and instead listen in the silence for the still, small voice of God who is present with us.
Sunday, 6 February (Waitangi Day)
On Waitangi Day last year two Anglican churches in Otaki came together for a special service. The Rangiātea Pastorate Church (part of Tikanaga Maori) and the Anglican Parish of Ōtaki (part of Tikanaga Pakeha) met for worship and fellowship on a grassy field that happens to sit between the two church buildings. You see both Ōtaki churches stand on land gifted by local iwi, Ngāti Raukawa, to The Church Missionary Society (CMS) - making it a fitting spot to celebrate Waitangi Day.
The churches said the hope was to set about living a new story on their small patch of shared ground: one of friendship, of faith, of solidarity. As the Rev’d Dr Rangi Nicholson, priest and Minita-ā-Iwi at Rangiatea Pastorate Church, explained it, each Waitangi Day was a chance to face squarely some of the history that had stood in the way of the dream of togetherness in Gospel mission.
Waitangi Day is a day to celebrate. As Archbishop Philip Richardson has said, “I believe ‘our’ day is a day of which we can all feel proud. I’m grateful for all the Treaty offers everyone who lives in this land. It’s a covenant based on generosity and hospitality…” But, embedded within Waitangi, in its promises, its hopes and its failures, is also a call to work. It’s a call to the work of acknowledgement and honouring, of repentance and restoration, of reconciliation and healing, of living a new story. In case we forget, this is Gospel work too. This Waitangi Day let our prayers be for this ongoing work here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Sunday, 18 July 2021
As I commented last Sunday, it is very odd to realise that the Tokyo Olympics begin in just under a week’s time. Where’s the hype, the build-up, the daily countdown that focuses our attention on this four yearly sports extravaganza? We know the answer, it’s the same thing that has been cancelling flights and shutting down cities for the last 18 months. Thanks to Covid this year’s Olympics will be held in empty stadia with few or no fans allowed. According to recent polls most Japanese people would rather not go ahead with the Olympics - probably because they want to focus on more important things (like, again, Covid). But it seems the power of the IOC will not be resisted; the show must go on.
It’s very easy (and probably right) to be cynical about the Olympics: the corruption of the IOC and the role of money and corporate sponsorship. But truth be told, I do enjoy them. It is an enjoyable and, rare for this age, somewhat unifying spectacle. What I particularly enjoy is how, for a few short days, some of the most obscure sports seize the world stage away from football or cricket and their competitors get a chance to shine. (We see this most winter Olympics when curling usually enjoys a brief but very intense burst of popularity.)
I still remember watching the Beijing Olympics late one night and becoming completely caught up in a particular archery competition. As midnight approached I was gripped, willing the South Korean competitor to gold as I quickly became an expert (thanks to the commentators that is) in the interplay between aim, breathing and the all important release. And I think that is quite wonderful. That these athletes, who have shown extraordinary commitment and dedication to excel in their chosen sport, have this chance to be recognised and maybe even become heroes in their home countries.
Of course, most of us don’t get the chance to be an Olympian. There are no expert hosts breathlessly commentating our actions as we take out the rubbish, no crowds to cheer as we wash the dishes or visit the Post Office. But what we do have is a Heavenly Father who doesn’t just love us but is deeply interested in us and in our lives. “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.” 1st Peter 5 says. God cares about us - and not just the big things, but the little, daily things too. Our delights, our disappointments, even the very ordinary. Remember this the next time you are praying, God is interested in you and in what is happening to you. None of it is too small for God. For he cares for us, and for our prayers.
Sunday, 8th Nov, 2020
My earliest political memory is of being in primary school and sending a card to a classmate who was away ill for a month. To cheer him up I included the biggest joke of the year, “What goes up and never comes down? Muldoon’s prices!”. The tragedy for me was that the 1984 snap election then took place with Muldoon losing, so by the time my friend returned to school he told me that my joke was all wrong and that it should have said “Lange’s prices”. Such was my introduction to the vagaries of politics.
This last month has been something of a festival for political junkies with first our own election and referenda and then, this past week, elections in the United States. Of course, like a World Cup final, the nature of elections is to have winners and losers and so some of us will have been delighted by the results of our own ballot and others of us will be counting the years to the next vote and a chance to try again. The elections in America are more distant but, this year in particular, I think we have all been keenly interested and might even have had our own (sometimes strong) views about who should win or lose.
Is there any guide for Christians when thinking about politics? Can we claim that God is on one side or another? In the past I have heard preachers claim exactly that - unfortunately they don’t always pick the same side!
This year I have been reminded that a lot of what Jesus spoke about is very relevant to the political season, especially perhaps in countries where the divisions are the greatest. What am I thinking of? Teachings like, “love your enemies” or “bless those who curse you, bless and do not curse” and even “turn the other cheek”. I am not suggesting that as Christians we shouldn’t be interested or involved in politics, nor am I saying that we shouldn’t campaign and advocate for those ideas, policies or values that we believe in. Quite the contrary, I believe that part of our call as Christians is to be active in the public space - to use the opportunity we have as citizens of a democracy to influence our nation.
Politics matters, as do elections. But the Kingdom of Heaven is much bigger than who sits in the Beehive (or the White House) for the next term. In a world where politics is about winners over losers, which (in some countries at least) sees political differences as grounds for division and hostility, we should remind ourselves that for Jesus the priority was not to beat our opponents but to love them. For in doing so we testify to the power of the Gospel to transform our world.