“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on Ascension Day, 5th of May 2016.

Albert Woodfox was freed from prison in February of this year on his 69th birthday having spent the past 43 years in prison.  Save for the last few months during his preparation for release, all of those 43 years have been spent n an isolation cell.

As Albert walked out a free man, a highly questionable record had been set.  He became the longest standing solitary confinement prisoner in America.  For 43 years he had lived in a concrete box measuring 6 ft x 9 ft.  He had no view of the sky, there was no human contact and taking a walk meant pacing from one end of the cell to the other and back again.

Ed Pilkington, a journalist with the Guardian who interviewed Albert recently records:

‘Of all the terrifying details of Woodfox’s four decades of solitary incarceration – the absence of human touch, the panic attacks and bouts of claustrophobia, the way they chained him even during the one hour a day he was allowed outside the cell – perhaps the most chilling of all is what he says now.  tow months after the state of Louisana set him free, he says he sometimes wishes he was back in that cell.’

Albert adds:

“You know, human beings are territorial, they feel more comfortable in areas they are secure.  In a cell, you have a routine,  you pretty much know what is going to happen, when it’s going to happen, but in society, it’s difficult, it’s looser. So there are moments when, yeah, I wish I was back in the security of the cell.  I mean, it does that to you.”

Albert has survived 15,000 days of isolation, a form of captivity that the United Nations has denounced as torture.

With his conviction twice overturned, he walked out of prison an innocent man.  For 43 years, he experienced among other things, the powerlessness of having no voice and so is now dedicating his life to being a voice for those still in the hell of solitary confinement, feeling such a great responsibility for them.

But he has also said that the most disturbing part of freedom has been the dawning realisation of the change within society – he feels little sense of struggle for the wellbeing of all that he experienced before his imprisonment; rather “It’s all about me, what I need and how I’m going to get it”. That indifference, he believes, has in turn allowed the iniquity of solitary confinement to flourish.  “People don’t seem to be socially aware, nobody cares.”

And to some extent, that same indifference, indifference to the suffering of others whether as individuals or as a community, and the desire to cover one’s own back at the expense of the truth, enabled the iniquity of the injustice experienced by the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster to continue for 27 long years.

By contrast a judge in Italy’s highest court has ruled that the theft of a sausage and a piece of cheese by a homeless refugee did not constitute a crime because he was in desperate need of nourishment – the need to feed and the right to survive superseded property rights.

And it was a year ago today that we opened the doors of our Soup Kitchen for the first time!    It has been a  joy to witness the way in which our parish community has responded to this initiative and embraced the people whom many would prefer to ignore.  What was experienced by a man in Italy, and what we experience through the work of our Soup Kitchen week by week is a glimpse of what God calls us to  be, a glimpse of how He calls us all to live in community.

Every day, and in so many different ways, we experience personally or through the stories of others, something of the astounding wonder, beauty and goodness of humanity; but also humanity’s capacity for ugliness, brutality, and cruelty; deeply flawed and broken.

So what has all of this got to do with what we celebrate tonight – The Feast of the Ascension??

The amazing truth that the Ascension affirms is that humanity and divinity are not like oil and water – remaining completely separate – but inseparably bound together.  The story of the Ascension makes absolutely clear that the humanity which God assumed at the incarnation is not something temporary – God became fully and completely human in Christ; and that humanity, with its astounding beauty and capacity for goodness and gentleness, and in all its ugliness and brutality, that humanity, flawed though it is, is now taken into the very heart of God.  The ascended Christ remains both fully human and fully divine, and where Christ is, there we may be also.

Year by year, as we reach this particular Feast Day, we are reminded that God in Christ is no longer restricted by time or place, but  is with us always, no matter what, no matter where, no matter when.  And He will take our flawed lives, our stumbling and imperfect efforts and transform them in the building of his kingdom.  How?  Through the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.  He just asks that we open our hearts to that gift, widen our imaginations and dream.  Then the impossible will become possible.

The giving of that gift, celebrated by the Church in nine days time at Pentecost, strengthened, encouraged and emboldened that group of fearful, flawed and hesitant disciples to become the effective dynamic witnesses to Christ ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’.  It is the beginning of that work, with its joys, their dreams, its challenges and its hardships that Luke recounts in the Acts of the Apostles.  The fruits of that work we experience here today, and see in the life of Christian communities across the world!

It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that today’s disciples – you and me and all who are baptized,  are strengthened to continue that work of discernment; and having discerned, encouraged to dream and imagine extraordinary possibilities and then to act, discovering deep within the courage and capacity to respond to the pain and suffering in our world with something of Christ’s love and mercy, justice and compassion, actively at work to make a difference in the world, the kind of difference love makes, the kind of difference that really builds the kingdom for which we long for, hope for and pray for, day by day, week by week.

Re-imagine what God can and will do; lets widen our vision to re-imagine the world through God’s eyes, to see those around us through God’s eyes; to see God in the people you and I meet, day by day.  And lets dream and re-imagine what we can do to ease the pain and suffering of His broken yet glorious world!  For we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.  He is risen indeed. Alleluia

“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come, and stay at my home”

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack at St Michael and All Angels on 1st of May 2016. 

I wonder; I wonder what it must have been like, sitting by the poolside in Beth-zatha, with all those people, each living with their own problems and struggles, longing to be healed, longing to be made whole.  Over the years, he had seen so many broken people come.  He would talk to them, and some he would get to know, listening to their stories.  Then after a while, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, occasionally much longer, they would go – rejoicing in the possibility of new life.  But still he remained.

What was wrong with him, I wonder – and how old was he when he first arrived.  But so long he had been here – years and years had passed, it seems!  And nothing, for him, had changed.  Just the same routine, the same struggle, day after day – begging for whatever charity he could get from anyone who happened to pass by; and never, never succeeding in getting into the pool first.  It just became normal – oh, long ago, it became normal – a sad, hopeless, way of life!

The pool was a well known place of healing, and what is believed to have been the original site has been excavated by archaeologists and I visited when I went to the Holy Land seven years ago.  I remember trying to imagine the people who, over the years, had sat there, waiting for their moment, struggling to get into the waters for healing.  Evidence suggests it wasn’t just a Jewish place of healing, but was regarded by others also as a sacred site and at one time was dedicated to the healing god Asclepius.  Today the site is watched over by the Crusader Church of St. Anne.

At the time of Jesus, the waters in the pool would bubble up periodically; it was believed that when the waters bubbled up, the first person in would be healed.

Into this scene comes Jesus who seemed to know that the man had been there a long time (rather as he seemed to know the life story of the woman at the well in Samaria).  And he asks the man, somewhat disconcertingly out of the blue:  “Do you want to be made well?”  But perhaps the question was not just about being made well, but about being ready to begin a new life, in place of resignation to sad hopelessness.

But our man did what I know I can sometimes do when I am challenged, and perhaps many of us do the same:  make excuses! Albeit very practical reasons for not expecting to be made well.

Jesus, the life-giver, cuts through it all with those words ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’  These echo the words spoken by Jesus to the man lowered down through the roof by his four friends.  On both occasions, and at once we are told, the men are made well, pick up their mats and begin to walk into new life.

And all of this takes place on the Sabbath.  In a profoundly symbolic sense, the man is brought into the Sabbath rest of God, and glimpses the ‘Joy of heaven to earth come down’.  Jesus chose to face the consequences of the ensuing controversy rather than waste time waiting another day; kowtow to his critics was never an option!

Like the man who had lived with disappointment for 38 years, Luke tells us in Acts that Paul also has had to live with disappointment.  Clearly, Paul had a very particular idea of where he would go and what he would do, but this was not to be – but something prevented him, disrupted his plans.  So we read in Acts that having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach in Asia, he diverted to Phrigia and Galatia, was stopped from going to Bithynia and so went to Troas via Mysia.  If you look at this on a map, it is clear that Paul had planned to go North and East, but this was thwarted and instead he goes North West ideally placing him so that he could respond to his dream, his vision – the nudging of God urging him to travel to Macedonia across the Ageaen Sea.

Having crossed the sea, Paul goes to Philippi and it is here that he meets Lydia, who was possibly Greek, but certainly according to Acts a dealer in purple cloth.  Purple dye was expensive, very expensive!  In the 4th Century, the historian Theopompus reported that ‘purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver’.  Consequently, purple dyed textiles became status symbols.  We might therefore assume that Lydia was a wealthy woman, otherwise she would never have afforded to buy the cloth in which she dealt.  She was a woman of means, a woman the world.

So here we are, at this place of prayer by a river and a conversation opens between her, Paul and his companions.  She listens eagerly, intently, with heart and mind opened by God.  What she hears has an immediate impact and her response is equally immediate; she and her household are baptised.  Lydia hears the invitation, grasps it and quite literally walking into the waterfor baptism, walks into the promise of new life.

But there is a second response to this extraordinary gift of God, and she offers hospitality reflecting if you like God’s invitation to all of us to ‘Come and eat’.

And who know, that gift of hospitality, making people feel welcome may have been instrumental in the foundation of the Philippian Church.  Hospitality is fundamental to the Gospel, to mission, to living out the love and welcome we are called to proclaim. This love is the kind of love that is willing to take a risk, commits itself in trust, long before it has full knowledge of where it might lead!

And so it was with enormous sadness and regret that I learned of the shocking news that on Monday night, MPs voted to block a new law that would have fast-tracked 3,000 refugee children reuniting them with their families here in the UK.  I simply cannot comprehend how our government can think it is acceptable on any level to turn our backs on the needs of vulnerable, frightened, traumatized children who desperately need to know once more what it is to feel safe, warm, loved and protected.  ‘Let the children come to me’ said Jesus to his disciples as they tried to stop them approaching.

Living the life of the gospel, demands our willingness to take risks.

The man at the pool of Beth-zatha was faced with a choice.  Stay with the life he had with its grim familiarity which lent its own sense of safety – or risk accepting the invitation to take a step into the unknown with its life-enhancing possibilities!  ‘Come and stay at my home’ says Lydia to the strangers she has only just met at the water’s edge, reflecting the open welcoming love of God revealed in Christ

The life of open, welcoming, sacrificial, self-giving love is the life we are all called to live as people who dare to call ourselves followers of Christ.  It may be risky, it will be costly.

But such a life always brings with it life-enhancing joys and possibilities that will turn the world upside down, turn night into day,  and enable us to glimpse God’s new creation of healing, wholeness and peace.

Amen

 

Appointment of Rector

The following announcement was read at all service on Sunday 24th April 2016.

We are delighted to announce that, following interview and with the agreement of the patron and of the parish representatives, the Reverend David Walsh has accepted Bishop Donald’s invitation to become Rector of Kettering St Peter & St Paul with St Michael and all Angels. Subject to the normal Church of England legal and administrative procedures, David will be instituted by the Bishop of Brixworth on Sunday 4 September at 4.00 pm.

David is currently Associate Vicar of St Mary Abbots with Christ Church and St Philip, Kensington, with particular pastoral responsibility for St Philip’s, and Area Dean of Kensington, in the Diocese of London. David is married to the Revd Dr Carys Walsh, who serves on the teaching staff of St Mellitus Theological College. David says “Over the years, Carys and I have often heard about Kettering, as we both have family connections there. But Kettering itself is a new experience for us: coming to live and work there is a big adventure. We really like what we have seen of the town and the two churches and have been inspired by your vision as a parish for the future.”

Bishop Donald and Archdeacon Gordon are very grateful to all who helped with the preparation of the benefice profile, all the arrangements for the interview day and for the continuing and encouraging ministry of the parish in the service of Christ during the vacancy. We ask for your prayers for David and Carys as they prepare for their move.

The Venerable Gordon Steele
Archdeacon of Oakham

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.”

Preached at Evensong by Kate Bowers for the Feast of St Mark the Evangelist 24th April 2016.

Words from our first lesson this evening.

Tomorrow is the feast day of St Mark. As a child I went to St Mark’s Junior School. We didn’t have a school hall of our own so assemblies were held in the church hall. Over the stage in that hall was a picture of a winged lion –the symbol of St Mark. I think it particularly appealed to me because of my love of the Narnia Stories and Aslan. If you are lucky enough to have visited Venice you have probably seen the ancient bronze winged lion sculpture in St Mark’s square.

The lion is one of the four living creatures described in the book of Revelation and chosen as symbols of the four evangelists. The lion symbolizes the power of the Evangelist’s word carried swiftly  through the strength of its wings.

St Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four gospels. In the past this meant it was perhaps under-rated because it included less detail; but it is in part the brevity that gives this gospel its real punch!

When I was doing the Lay Ministry training one of my assignments was to design a cover for Mark’s Gospel. I tried to design a cover showing Jesus as the ‘Superhero’ striding towards the cross. Unfortunately my artistic talents let me down and the assessor wrote a comment indicating that he could not work out what the picture was meant to show! But the feel of this Gospel is of Jesus having a clear purpose that would bring him to the cross.

While preparing this sermon I returned to the book – Meeting God in Mark by Rowan Williams. It was a book we used in study groups in the parish a year or two ago. Who then was Mark? Early tradition suggests that he was an associate of St Peter, but Mark was a common name and so whether that is true is hard to ascertain on present evidence. It does appear that this tradition helped the acceptance of this gospel in gaining credence as an authentic account of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Perhaps more important is why Mark wrote this gospel? After all it is not about him but about the one he has found a relationship with.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God

The opening words of the Mark’s Gospel! Good news, gospel, the Greek word euangelion Rowan Williams tells us is literally ‘a bit of good news’. He compares it with a press release from Buckingham Palace or Downing Street – an announcement of good news that will change something! We could compare it to the announcement made in church this morning of the appointment of a new Rector – this is good news and it is good news that will bring about change!

Mark presents Jesus immediately – centre stage. No introduction, no family history or birth story. Here he is – the anointed one, the son of God.

He is writing the gospel for Christian communities who were living with and facing fear and persecution. The Jesus that Mark wants to show them is the incarnate God present in the world as they know it, entering into the pain and suffering of the world, taking it to himself and transforming it.

In this very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel it feels as though Jesus has come crashing into the world – ‘the heavens torn apart’; the spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness but
at the same time those present at Jesus’ baptism see an ordinary man go down into the waters then hear God’s words of love, ‘You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am
well pleased.’ This is the Good News Jesus brings to each of us, this is what will bring about change – through Jesus we are each brought into that same loving relationship with
God. That is the euangelion Mark proclaims!

Euangelion is obviously the route from which our words evangelist, evangelise, and evangelical come. Because such words have become the domain of a particular wing of the church we sometimes shy away from them or connect evangelism with aggressive attempts to convert people but we are all called to share the good news that others have shared with us. In fact, we are all evangelicals.

So, how do we share the Good News?

I have heard some very good sermons over the years but I think that it has been conversations with other Christians that have had most impact on me. My own mother started going to church because a neighbour talked about her faith and invited my mother to go to church with her.

Most of us are reticent about sharing our faith with others. It can feel uncomfortable and too personal. Sometimes we feel we can’t articulate what we believe and that others may not understand or will laugh at us. One of the enormous privileges of sharing in confirmation preparation the last few years has been hearing people talk about their own faith journeys. We don’t need to have all the answers and other people’s questions may evoke our own questions – a great way to grow our own faith. Why not start sharing your faith by talking about it with friends from church or with your family?

The German theologian Jurgan Moltman read St Mark’s Gospel when he was a prisoner of war in Scotland in 1945. He and his fellow prisoners had come to the terrible realisation of what the regime they had been fighting for had been doing in camps like Belsen.

Moltman writes:

I read Mark’s Gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion; when I heard Jesus’ death cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction; this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now….I summoned up the courage to live again.

Mark’s Gospel changed him as it has changed others. Reading it in one sitting is powerful and not hard; perhaps you can fit it into your schedule in the coming week?

For if the gospel is to bring about change in our world we need to be transformed by its message so that we live out the gospel in both word and action.

In the words of St Teresa of Avila

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

His Master’s Voice

Preached on Sunday 17th April 2016, The Fourth Sunday of Easter by Kate Bowers.

As a small child my parents taught me to pray – every evening before bed. I can remember asking my mother why it was that when I talked to God he didn’t answer me. My mother as a wise woman who told me that if I carried on praying I would learn to hear God’s voice.

In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells the religious authorities:

“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish.”

I have been reading, The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks (The Herdwick Shepherd on Twitter), which is a fascinating account of the life of a shepherd in the Lake District, the shepherding he describes is rather different from the shepherding Jesus’ hearers would have seen around them. James Rebanks describes how the community of shepherds work together with their dogs to drive the sheep to new pastures at different times of the year. The shepherds in bible times and in many parts of the Middle East today led their
sheep from place to place. The sheep learned to hear and to follow their shepherd. If you have a dog you will know how your dog responds to your voice – I watch my neighbour’s dog, Patch, each morning as he comes out through the front door. He runs along in front of the houses having a good sniff but as soon as my neighbour calls him he races back to his master.

Many of you will remember the record label with picture of a dog listening to a wind up
gramophone with the words His Master’s Voice – later abbreviated to HMV.

The trademark image comes from a painting by the artist Francis Barraud and titled His Master’s Voice. It was acquired from the artist in 1899 by the newly formed Gramophone Company. According to their publicity material, the dog, a terrier named Nipper, had originally belonged to Barraud’s brother Mark. When Mark Barraud died, Francis inherited Nipper, along with a cylinder phonograph and a number of recordings of Mark’s voice.

Francis noted the peculiar interest that the dog took in the recorded voice of his late master coming from the horn of the gramophone, and had the idea for the painting.
Jesus tells us “my sheep hear my voice.” But how do we hear it? Those who were questioning Jesus about whether he was the Messiah were told to look at his works.

A few years ago wrist bands with WWJD – “what would Jesus do?” were popular in a section of the church. Although the question is simplistic and needs to be recognised as such we can look at the way Jesus lived His life to understand how we should live our lives, we can do this by reading the bible – especially the gospels. We can help our children do this by introducing them to bible stories – in books, or through bringing them to church and Sunday club.

To go back to the analogy of the sheep and the shepherd, the sheep are part of a flock – the sheep wandering off on its own is likely to get lost and fall into danger. We need to be part of the church so we are all listening for the Master’s Voice. That is not to say we should follow blindly – don’t forget that often Jesus’ harshest words were for the religious people of his time.

Those who questioned Jesus probably did not want Jesus to be telling the truth. Why? Because what he was telling them was demanding – they wanted to tame their God to the point where he didn’t make too much difference to their lives! We so want to do that too – but Jesus doesn’t let people do that. He wants us to choose.

In a few moments Mahaeleth’s parents and Godparents will make a choice – for themselves and for Mahaeleth. You will chose to bring Mahaeleth up as part of God’s flock; to help her to hear Jesus’ voice and to follow Him.

It is a choice we all must make every day, every week – because if we listen to our Shepherd we cannot just go our own way, with what we do on Sunday making no difference to how we live out our lives on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

We have heard from this pulpit many times in recent weeks and months of the plight of refugees and been challenged to respond as Christians. It is often hard to know what we can do but yesterday the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols talked about the inadequacy of Britain’s response and his belief that many people would welcome more of the migrants here. He talked of the difficulty for politicians who know that there are fears about allowing in greater numbers and their concern that public opinion would not be with them. So perhaps an action you and I could take today –or this week is to write to your M.P. and ask for a more welcoming and generous response here to desperate men,  women and children?

The beautiful little story of Tabitha, our first reading today, reinforces Jesus’ message in the Gospel, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” Tabitha is someone who has chosen to follow Jesus, to share his life and his love with all those around her. She chooses the living God, and her reward is life.

Both these readings call us to choose life. The choice is ours, but let us choose life – for ourselves and for Mahaeleth.