Category Archives: Sermons

A Shem Story for Mothering Sunday 2020

I can’t tell you how sad Shem was when I said there was no Rainbow Church because of coronavirus. Mothering Sunday is one of his favourite days in the whole year.
‘Why do you like this Sunday so much, Shem?’ I asked.
‘It’s the Sunday when I can tell my best joke,’ he said.
I had a funny feeling I wasn’t going to like his answer to my next question, but I pressed on regardless. ‘What’s your best joke, Shem?’
‘It’s when I say “I love you, Mum. There’ll never be another ewe”.’
I groaned. ‘And what does your mum say?’
She says, ‘There’ll never be another Shem!’
‘I think your mum is right. You are one in a million. So, tell me, Shem, why do you get to tell your special joke on this Sunday?’
He looked at me in astonishment. ‘You’re a vicar. Surely you know that today is Mothering Sunday? That’s when we say thank you to our mums.’
‘Yes, Shem, you’re right. Mothering Sunday is very special. Years ago, when your great-great-great-grandmother was young, everybody used to try to go back to their home church, their mother church, for Mothering Sunday, even if they were living miles and miles away. Some of the young women, especially if they were working as servants, used to bake a special cake for their mums called a . . . ’
‘A simple cake,’ said Shem. ‘I know. I’m making one later on. The recipe looks really easy.’
‘I’m not sure about that, Shem,’ I said, ‘A simnel cake can be quite complicated. There are lots of ingredients. It’s called a simnel cake, not a simple cake, because simnel is an old word for flour.’
I could see that Shem was working up to another joke involving flowers, so I kept going. ‘Are you going to put anything on the top of your cake?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Some possels.’
‘Possels?’ I said and then I realised that he meant ‘apostles’. ‘Quite right. We usually put eleven or twelve little balls of marzipan on top of the cake to remind us of Jesus’s apostles, the friends who worked with him. Now you’re going to have to be quiet for a bit while I tell you today’s story.’
Shem looked down at his feet. That’s usually a sign that he’s ready to listen so I knew I was safe to begin.
‘You remember, don’t you, that Jesus had twelve special friends?’
Shem nodded.
‘They were the apostles, the friends Jesus trusted. One of them was called Judas. We don’t know why, but he betrayed Jesus to the leaders of the Temple. The Temple guards came and arrested Jesus and then he was put to death on a cross.’
‘Is that why there are only eleven balls of marzipan on the cake?’ said Shem. ‘Because Judas did something bad?’
‘Yes, that’s right, but some people still put twelve balls to remember poor Judas as well. He was very sorry for what he had done.’
Shem looked thoughtful. ‘When I do something bad and say I’m sorry, my mum says she forgives me.’
‘That’s right, Shem. Whatever we have done, if we are really, really sorry, then God will forgive us. So how many marzipan balls are you going to put on your cake?’
‘Twelve,’ said Shem firmly. ‘One for Judas too. Are you going to get on with the story now?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Today’s story* is about something that happened when Jesus was dying. One of his special friends, John, one of the apostles, was standing near the Cross to keep him company. Jesus’s mother, Mary, was standing there as well. It must have been very hard for both of them. And then Jesus did a wonderful thing. He told John to look after Mary, and Mary to treat John as her own son. And that’s what they did. John looked after Mary by taking her into his own home. They really looked after each other. And that is what we should do too, especially at this time when people are getting sick. We need to be extra kind to each other and make sure that everybody is looked after.’
‘Can we say prayers for people, and for the nurses and the doctors?’
‘I think that would be very good, Shem. Would you like to say a prayer now?’
And this is Shem’s prayer:
‘Thank you, God, for all the nurses and the doctors who are caring for people in hospital. Thank you for our mums and thank you for our families. Please, God, keep them safe and help us to remember that we are all your family. Help us to be kind to everybody. Amen.’

*John 19. 25-27


The village of Eyam in Derbyshire is famous for the heroic action it took nearly three centuries ago when an outbreak of bubonic plague afflicted the community. At the time plague was rife in London, where the infection was spread by fleas. It was carried to Eyam in a flea-ridden bale of cloth sent to a tailor’s workshop.

Because the cloth felt rather damp when it was unpacked, it was spread out to dry by the fire, thereby releasing its unwelcome inhabitants. The tailor’s apprentice died within a week and after several more deaths the village turned to the vicar and his Puritan predecessor for advice.

They decided on a radical strategy. No one was to enter or leave the village but instead a ring of stones was set which acted as a cordon sanitaire. Food and supplies were deposited at the boundary where villagers left money in a bowl of vinegar.

Instead of worshipping in the church, outdoor services were held so that a safe distance could be observed between worshippers. Over the course of fourteen months many of the villagers died but their quarantine arrangements meant that the plague did not spread beyond the village.

We live in difficult times. The corona virus pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people. On the one hand we hear of panic buying which has led to supermarket shelves being emptied as people stockpile essential goods. On the other hand, medical staff up and down the country are daily risking their own safety to test and care for people infected with the virus.

And there are individual heroes, such as the Chinese doctor who first raised the alarm and who was accused of spreading an anti-social lie until the authorities could no longer deny the truth of what he was saying; sadly he lost his life after becoming infected with corona virus.

The Chinese authorities have subsequently been praised by the World Health Organisation for the radical measures they took to try to prevent the spread of infection. In the process many people have had to sacrifice their individual liberty for the sake of the wider community.

This is maybe not the jolliest of addresses on Mothering Sunday but our readings today all speak in one way or another about family and family responsibilities. The Old Testament reading tells the story of Hannah, who was desperate for a child and prayed for a son whom she would give up to God to be a servant of the Temple. Her life had been blighted by childlessness so this was a sacrifice she was glad to make. God granted her prayer and Hannah kept her side of the bargain. When the time came for her little boy to be weaned, she gave him up to God’s service.

The Gospel reading involves a different kind of family situation. Here it is Jesus on the Cross, commending his mother and the beloved disciple to each other’s care. “‘Woman, here is your son,’ he says to Mary. And to John he says, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’” Jesus is offering himself for the wider human family, but he is still able to think about his own immediate family.

In the epistle, the New Testament reading, Paul talks about the virtues expected of individuals within the Christian family: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

The current crisis offers an opportunity for us to foster these values within our church family for the sake of our local community. Compassion and kindness are essential if vulnerable people are to be supported, whether they are isolated because they are in the ‘at risk’ group, or whether they are self-isolating because they are already sick. Fetching shopping or being at the end of the phone are two ways in which we can help.

It is a time when we should also exercise patience. People vary enormously in the way they react in a crisis and we should be patient with anybody whose dread of infection makes them a prisoner in their own home. They too need our compassion and our help.

It is a time for the community itself to develop cohesion and to rise above any disputes. ‘Above all clothe yourselves with love,’ Paul says, ‘which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’

We cannot afford to be anything other than united in the current crisis. It is not going to last for ever but it is unlikely to be over quickly, so we have ready to be in this for the long haul.

It is also an opportunity to do some personal housekeeping and try to resolve anything which might be holding us back in our spiritual lives. If there are people with whom, for whatever reason, we are at odds, this is the time to mend fences and build bridges. Christian ministers know that reconciliation is particularly important when life hangs by a thread. Do not let this opportunity pass you by if you need to say sorry to someone or, conversely, do not make it difficult for somebody to say sorry to you.

It is also a very good time to rediscover the importance of Bible reading if that is what we need to do. In the current enforced ‘leisure’ most of us should have ample time on our hands for the things which can sometimes get neglected in the midst of busy lives. It is also an opportunity to encourage those around us to consider the importance of their spiritual side. The pressure of the situation means that it might be easier than normal to have this kind of serious conversation.

Finally, let’s not forget the importance of prayer, not only our personal prayers but also prayer for others and for the needs of the whole world.

On this Mothering Sunday family comes first, but we need to enlarge our view of family to include not just our immediate relatives, but our extended human family and the ultimate and heavenly family to which we all belong.

Lent 3 March 15 2020 John 4.4-45

In the course of our lives there are sometimes moments which, when we look back upon them, turn out to have been watersheds, turning points which changed our lives for ever. It might be meetingsomeone for the first time, or hearing a dramatic piece of news, or even experiencing a personal crisis. One thing l can almost guarantee: when something affects us that deeply it is generally speaking not a comfortable event, and sometimes it is deeply troubling.

I wonder what was going through the mind of the Samaritan woman in the story as she went to draw water at the well. Almost certainly it wasn’t something which filled her with joy! There was a reason why she was fetching water alone at the hottest point of the day. Normally this would have been a sociable activity, one which the women of the town would have done together but earlier in the day or later when the sun was lower in the sky.

The Samaritan woman however seems to be a bit of an outcast, which is hinted at by her dubious marital situation – five husbands and now a partner possibly married to another woman? But there are any number of reasons why she has had a string of men in her life.

Life expectancy could be brutally short and women were economically dependent upon men for their survival. But whatever her circumstances, the woman goes out to fetch water on her own at a time of day she knows that she is unlikely to meet anyone and therefore can avoid all those disapproving looks and unkind remarks.

To her surprise she finds someone already at the well, a man. It is an unlikely meeting. Now there are a number of reasons why Jesus should not have spoken to her. First and foremost, he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan, two closely related ethnic groups who, as so often happens in families, had become sworn enemies. Jews would normally make a detour to avoid Samaritan territory but instead Jesus takes the direct route.

Secondly, he is a man and should not have spoken to an unchaperoned woman. It is why his disciples are so shocked when they come back from their shopping trip to find them in lively conversation. But they know better than to ask questions for their master is anything but conventional. Here he is engaged in a conversation which will transform a social outcast into the very first evangelist. In the course of it, a teasing exchange with Jesus turns into the moment of truth for the woman when she finds herself coming clean about her marital situation. It is an uncomfortable moment. But she is intrigued by this
straight-talking stranger with the offer of miraculous water that gives eternal life, and the revelation that he is the promised Messiah.

The Samaritan woman may not realise it as she rushes back to tell the townspeople what has just happened to her, but this encounter has released her from her captivity and isolation. And when she tells her neighbours that Jesus knew all about her, they are clearly impressed enough to find out for themselves. They certainly don’t dismiss her testimony and are so convinced by the power of her testimony and the conviction with which she delivers it that they go out to see Jesus for themselves.

She is the catalyst that hooks their interest until they have had a personal experience of Jesus. Once that happens her work is done though l can’t imagine that it is the end of her career as an evangelist.

Well that’s her side of the story, but what about Jesus? Was it chance that led him to the well outside the city of Sychar? Was it chance that he was sitting there exhausted, alone in the heat of the day? Was it chance that made him ask for a drink of water from the lone woman coming to the well?

And what about the conversation between them?

Jesus steers it expertly so that the woman is led to the point where she has to say that she has no husband. Notice that Jesus doesn’t criticise her. It seems that his insight into her situation is enough to convince her that she is in the presence of someone very special, someone about whom it is not unreasonable to ask the question: can this really be the Messiah? It seems to me that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing throughout the episode. This was mission, spreading the word through the most effective means.Person to person. Not through some kind of specially selected religious person with impeccable moral and theological credentials, but through someone on the margins, someone who has seen a bit of life and is no doubt carrying the bruises.

A few weeks ago our student minister Heulwen shared with us something of her experience on placement in a charismatic church in Bristol. Their worship differed radically from ours – no formal liturgy, little use of scripture in services – but lots of emphasis on uplifting music and on real-life stories, testimonies from people willing to share their experience of Jesus. The value of testimony is that it is real. It is that person to person transmission that was the mark of the early church. Testimony, real-life stories about the way that Jesus changes lives, puts flesh and blood onto the bones of formal liturgy, just as the vision of Ezekiel showed the valley of dry bones becoming animated with the breath of life as they gained flesh and substance.

Somehow we have got to be able to communicate our experience of a living God, rather than tending dry bones of old creeds and practices. I don’t think we are going to be replacing the organ with a band any time soon or holding services two hours long with 30 minutes of hymn singing at either end, but the key to the worship witnessed by Heulwen was the focus on the Holy Spirit. I sometimes think of the Spirit as a potential electrical charge flowing unseen but powerful, waiting for the invitation of the on-switch. I think we need to start switching onto the grid and praying for renewal and revival.

Asking for opportunities to share our faith in ways that are meaningful to people for whom God seems distant at best, at worst, non-existent. So let us pray as hard as we can for the Holy Spirit to intervene in our current situation and give us new strength and new enthusiasm to share our faith – even if that has to be at the end of a phone! If the outcast woman at the well can do it, then so can we!

8 March 2020 Lent 2 (Nicodemus)

What does your accent say about you? Well, apparently, quite a lot. We learn about speech and speech sounds even when we are in the womb and research has found that young babies show a preference for the familiar voices and accents they heard before they were born. In studies of trustworthiness, Received Pronunciation (BBC English) has been rated as the most trustworthy accent (perhaps because it sounds the most authoritative) followed by a West Country (Devon) accent.

Face to face communication includes a lot more than accent of course. When we are in conversation, we convey all kinds of attitudes by intonation, the ups and downs of the human voice, as well as its pace and volume. And that’s before we start on body language. All these things contribute to how much we inspire trust in the person we are speaking to.

Communication and trust are two of the important themes in both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings for today.

The Old Testament is perhaps the more remarkable because Abram (not yet called Abraham) demonstrates total trust in God’s word when he is given instructions to leave his country and his people and set out for an unknown land. Abram has to put total trust in God’s promise that he will be the father of a great nation and will be a blessing to all the families on earth. And on the strength of this promise, Abram goes forth.

No wonder the Apostle Paul uses Abraham as an example of faith. What trust it must have taken to follow such radical commandments! We only have to put ourselves in Abram’s position to know what a difficult thing God is asking. Even when today’s migrants put their lives in the hands of total strangers,they have some idea of where they hope they are going. Abram simply had to trust. We do not always know what it means when God ‘speaks’ in the OT but I don’t imagine that Abram hears the kind of authoritative tones boomed out by Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.

The face to face encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in our Gospel reading is rather different. This time we have a full account of the words spoken by both parties but we still do not know the manner in
which they are spoken. Even without this information, we are probably safe to make certain assumptions about Nicodemus, who is a member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin. For one thing, he is likely to be
apprehensive because his visit to Jesus takes place at night; presumably he does not want to be discovered associating with this controversial young rabbi. But he is clearly intrigued by the signs, the miracles, that Jesus has been performing. ‘No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ I think we can assume that he sounds sincere when he utters these words.

His bewilderment too seems genuine when Jesus tells him that he must be born ‘from above’, that unless he is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is clearly puzzled: how can he be born again at his age?

If we put ourselves in Nicodemus’s shoes, he is working with quite slender evidence at this early stage in Jesus’s ministry and so we can see his nocturnal visit as an act of trust in itself. We cannot blame him for not understanding or accepting everything Jesus says. Even though we are possessors of a much fuller picture, there are some things which we still find puzzling.

Jesus’s response to Nicodemus’s incomprehension is a reproach: ‘Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ I like to imagine that Jesus’s tone is playful when he says this, almost teasing rather than sharply critical.

As John’s gospel unfolds, we meet Nicodemus again in ever more testing circumstances. In broad daylight, no longer under the cover of darkness, he defends Jesus before the Sanhedrin, saying that he should be given a hearing before being judged. And then finally when Jesus has been taken down from the cross Nicodemus supplies a huge, even an absurd, quantity of spices to embalm Jesus’s body. He is still making mistakes but each of these actions involves increasing levels of courage, even if it isn’t the blank cheque that Abraham gives God in Genesis.

So what can we take from today’s stories that will help us in our own situation? Both Abraham and Nicodemus are called upon to take a leap in the dark, to accept things on the basis of trust. Which one do you feel that you identify with? Are you an Abraham, prepared to act unquestioningly upon what you perceive as God’s commands? Or are you a Nicodemus, poking and probing at the evidence, clear that there’s something more to this mysterious person Jesus but not quite sure that you fully understand everything about him.

Well, the good news is that you don’t have to. The clue is in the last sentence of the Gospel reading: ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Not to condemn but to save.

I used to worry when I was younger that I did not have the ‘right’ kind of faith. I used to look at others and envy the unquestioning conviction of their beliefs. And then someone said to me, ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t’. What a good piece of advice. You cannot turn yourself into a different person, a different kind of believer. You are who you are. God made you and knows who and what you are.

What I believe we are called to do is to pray for grace to trust, to trust that God loves us, to trust that we are lovable in his eyes if not in anybody else’s!

Trust grows. The more we are prepared to trust God, the more reasons he will give us to trust him. There are lots of things going on in the world at the moment which test our trust – the terrible flooding which so many communities have experienced over the last few weeks – the fear of more flooding to come – the threat of the spread of corona virus. In all these cases it is important that we take sensible precautions to protect ourselves and our families but we nevertheless have to trust that, whatever happens to us, ultimately all will be well. I think in these circumstances we might take inspiration from the words and wisdom of fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich, who said:

‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’