Epiphany 3 (23.1.2022)

We’re coming toward the end of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which ends, as always, with our celebration, at lunchtime on Tuesday, of the Conversion of St Paul. So it’s good to hear, as we just have, what St Paul has to say about unity among Christian people.

When we think about the first Christians, especially when we read the Acts of the Apostles, we can easily imagine that everything was wonderful and that it’s only in fairly recent times that it has all gone wrong. When we read Paul’s letters we very soon learn how misguided that view is. There have been divisions from the very beginning. One was between people who believed that in order to be a “real Christian” you first had to be Jewish – or become Jewish if you weren’t born a Jew – and those who didn’t. Another was between the fan clubs of different Christian leaders in those early years. The first of St Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth is full of echoes of those arguments: “We belong to Paul”, says one group. “We belong to Peter”, replies another. “We belong to Apollos”, proclaims a third (probably the “intellectuals”). And then there’s the group who try to squash all the others by telling them “We belong to Christ.”

Then again, as we saw last week, there are the people to whom God has given particular gifts but who use those gifts not to built up the church – which is the reason why they were given – but to boast how much better they are than the people who don’t have those gifts. St Paul is often pictured as bald, and I think I know why. Those Christians in Corinth – and elsewhere – probably caused him to tear his hair out!

But Paul never gives up on them, as we can see from today’s first reading. There Paul is trying to explain to the Corinthians how the various gifts of God’s Holy Spirit which he described in the passage we heard last Sunday come together for the common good. And he picks on a brilliant, and very powerful, image – one which he comes back to later in the letter, and which he uses in letters to other churches. It’s the image of the church as body.

Now, Paul’s chief concern is getting the various parts of one quarrelsome congregation to work together for the good of all, but that image of the church as body applies to the whole church, that “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” in which we will shortly say we believe, as we do every Sunday morning. To be truly “catholic” – which comes from the Greek word meaning “universal” – the church needs the insights and the gifts of all the different traditions, Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Valdese… As St Paul writes to the Corinthians, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” No single Christian tradition has it all. Not even the Church of England!

But to go back to Paul: “God arranged the members in the body”. God puts us together, if we will let God do that, in such a way that we can continue the work of Jesus, God’s Son. As St Paul goes on to write, “you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” And by “members” he means limbs, or organs, like the hand, the foot, the ear, the eye, and so on, each one necessary for the proper functioning of the whole body. And what is the function of the whole body? It’s to carry on the work of Christ in the world. To proclaim – and to live – the message which Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth: “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

None of us can do all of that on our own. All of us working together can do some of it. All of us, when we recognise the gifts God has given each of us, can use those gifts to make a difference to the lives of others. That applies on the level of our own congregation. It applies on the level of all the different churches of this city. The Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Ghost in whose honour this church is dedicated – the Spirit equips us, together, to bring the joy of Christ to the world.

Tony Dickinson

Epiphany 2 (16.1.2022)

Yesterday I was caught up in a discussion on Anglican Twitter about why the Church keeps a long Christmastide. One or two folk were clearly hankering after keeping only those “twelve days of Christmas”, as in the old carol. So you get as far as the coming of the wise men and that’s that. Change back from white into green. Put the crib away ready for next Christmas. Thank you and good (twelfth) night.

But to stop there means that we miss out on a great deal of the story about how God was revealed in Jesus, which is what “Epiphany” actually means – or “Theophany” as they call it in the Eastern Church. For Orthodox Christians the wise men don’t play anything like as big a part as they do here in the West. For the Eastern Churches the important story is the one we heard last week about the baptism of Jesus. For them, it’s not just Jesus who is revealed; it’s God as Trinity. In other words, Father (in the voice), Son (in the water of baptism) and Spirit (descending like a dove).

Then there’s today’s gospel reading. Here again God is revealed in something Jesus does. And Jesus is, as one of our hymns last Sunday reminded us “manifest in power divine, changing water into wine.” The story of the marriage at Cana operates, like so much in John’s Gospel, on a number of different levels. There’s the rescue from potential catastrophe. In Mary’s whispered message to Jesus, ‘They have no wine,’ there’s social disaster looming. What couple starting life together would want their wedding to be remembered as “the one where the wine gave out”? Jesus saves them from that. Then there’s the way in which he saves the situation. He takes ordinary, everyday stuff, the water stored so that people can wash when they come in. Jesus takes that water and he transforms it into something special: wine, really good wine: something with which to celebrate. And then, as John reminds us, there’s the pay-off: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs… and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

Let’s pause there for a moment, and think what that means: and think back to the beginning of the Gospel reading. That wedding in Cana of Galilee took place “on the third day”. Those who know the ins and outs of the opening chapter of John’s Gospel might work out that it is the third day since John the Baptist pointed Jesus out as the Lamb of God to two of his disciples. But John never adds a note about the time when something happens just for the sake of it. When he mentions the day, or the hour, that mention is usually heavy with meaning. “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee,” and Jesus transformed water into wine. Later in John’s Gospel there is another “third day” when what is transformed is not simply the contents of six stone water jars but the whole of creation – starting with the disciples, the witnesses of “the first of his signs” in which Jesus revealed his glory. They will also be witnesses of his resurrection.

And that brings us to today’s first reading in which St Paul spells out to those less-than-perfect disciples in Corinth what it means to be transformed as members of the body of the risen Christ. Some of them clearly saw themselves as more “transformed” than others – and looked down on those others. So Paul tells them not to be so foolish. There are varieties of gifts, and there are varieties of services and activities, but they are not to be “ranked” as if they were taking part in some kind of spiritual beauty competition. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” That is the key sentence and “for the common good” is the key phrase. Whether in Corinth 2000 years ago or in Genoa now, each Christian has a job to do for God. Each one of us has a contribution to the life of this church. Some are up-front and public, like the chaplain, the churchwardens, lesson-readers, the musicians, the welcomers. Others are more hidden, like the church councillors, the cleaning team, the people who keep the grounds free of litter, the people who stock the food bank, or collect donations of clothes. Others are usually invisible, like the people who visit the sick or who pray each day through our chaplaincy cycle of prayer. All are necessary for the well-being of this congregation. All are gifts from God to be offered to God.

The Baptism of Christ (9.1.2022)

Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, was Bishop of Lincoln from 1869-1885, and founded the college where I trained for ministry. Some people said that he had “one foot in heaven and the other in the third century”, which is a bit of a put-down, suggesting that he was one of those Christians who are “so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly use”. It was also quite a compliment, because it recognised that Bishop Wordsworth was steeped in the writings of the thinkers and writers who shaped the development of Christian faith. He also knew from his studies of that era how effective hymns can be as a means of conveying Christian teaching.

As a nephew of the poet William Wordsworth he may not have had his uncle’s poetic gifts, but he knew how to express Christian ideas in verse. The hymn with which John began today’s Eucharist was one of Bishop Wordsworth’s. It pulls together the themes of this Epiphany season, focusing on how Jesus was made known to the world: in the coming of the wise men; in the changing of water into wine at Cana in Galilee; in the healing of people afflicted in mind and body: and, close to the top of the list, at his baptism at which Jesus was, in Christopher Wordsworth’s words, “manifest at Jordan’s stream, prophet, priest and king supreme.”

So we find John the Baptist, himself a prophet, pointing towards the “more powerful one” who will come with the spirit and fire of prophesy to purify God’s people and kindle their hearts with God’s love. We find Jesus, after his baptism, devoting himself to the priestly ministry of prayer. And we hear the voice from heaven calling attention to Jesus in words that the Psalmist uses to describe Israel’s king “You are my Son”, a straight quotation from one of the “royal psalms”, Psalm 2.

Each of those titles, “prophet, priest and king”, and each description of the work which is linked to those titles speaks of the privilege and the challenge which are ours. Through our baptism into Christ, through the gift of the Spirit, we have become part of that prophetic, royal priesthood which is the body of Christ on earth. Through our baptism we have entered into covenant with God, the covenant first made with the people of Israel and renewed, as we have heard, in Jesus Christ. In this covenant God promises us new life in Christ (that’s the privilege), while we promise to live no longer for ourselves but for God (that, dear brothers and sisters, is the challenge). We renew the covenant each time we share in the Holy Communion. We renew it today as we renew the promises made at our baptism, the promises which many of us confirmed when the bishop laid hands on us and prayed that we might be confirmed with God’s Holy Spirit, the same Spirit which descended on Jesus at his baptism and which was imparted to those first Samaritan Christians by Peter and John through the laying on of their hands.

Each new year in Methodist Churches this covenant with God is formally renewed, and the words of the Covenant Service spell out what that means. They spell out that Christ has many services to be done. They remind those taking part in the service that some of those services are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.

The prayer in which each church member then renews their covenant with God is a powerful reminder that when we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come”, the consequence has to be “My kingdom go.” Or, in the words of that prayer, “Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.” A friend who had begun life as a Methodist once confessed to me that she found those words so demanding that she could not say them. But the demand, though great, is more than out-weighed by the gift. And the gift is that by the covenant made in baptism God is ours, and we are God’s. So be it. Amen and Amen.

Epiphany of Our Lord (2.1.2022)

How do you deal with disappointment? How do you react when things don’t go according to plan? Do you take to heart the words of the old proverb: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again”? Or do you go along with the more modern version: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up”? Some people take refuge in bad language, a stream of four-letter-words. Others do as a much-loved hymn advises: they “take it to the Lord in prayer.”

However you react, I suspect that you are unlikely to echo those words of the prophet that we heard just now. The third prophet whose writings have come down to us under the name of Isaiah was writing in a time of great disappointment for the surviving people of Judah. High hopes had been aroused by the decree of king Cyrus of Persia, allowing the Jewish exiles to return home after seventy years in Babylon, but few had actually taken up the offer. The temple and the holy city were still half in ruins. There was push-back against those who returned from the people who had gained money or land out of their absence. People were deflated, disappointed, depressed – like many people today, who can see no end in sight to the pandemic.

It’s into that situation that the prophet’s message comes: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” It may not look like it, but God is at work. “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” Don’t give up hope, in other words. Don’t give up because things will be much better than anything you can see now: much, much better than anything you can imagine now. “Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”

But it isn’t going to be like it was before. In the past the vision of the prophets had been about the restoration of Israel, the renewal of the kingdom which had been ruled by David and Solomon. This vision is of a very different state of affairs. “The abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.” Everyone is included.

Five centuries later there was another difficult situation for the people of Judah. The whole of David’s kingdom was under foreign rule. Even the parts that weren’t directly ruled by the Romans were under the control of a king who wasn’t Jewish. King Herod belonged to the rival nation of the Idumeans, the Edomites, descended, so it was said, not from Israel but from his brother Esau. And King Herod was ruthless in hanging on to power. Wives, children, valued advisers, all were killed when the king felt they were becoming too powerful. It would be fair to say that Herod did not go in for succession planning.

So when a high-powered delegation arrived from the territory of Rome’s rival super-power asking about a new king, it is hardly surprising that “[Herod] was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” He was the kind of ruler of whom a poet wrote

“When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.”

But near that city, under that ruler, in a place associated with king David, Matthew’s Gospel locates the fulfilment of the prophet’s message. The wise men bring gold and frankincense to honour this “child who has been born king of the Jews”, the child in whom all God’s promises will find their fruition – and not only for the Jews, but for all humanity. Amid the “thick darkness” of King Herod’s reign “the glory of the Lord has risen”; and because “the glory of the Lord has risen” we too can “arise, shine; for [our] light has come.” That same glory has risen upon us, no matter how deep the gloom, no matter how long and difficult the way ahead may be. Hope is possible. Healing, renewal and peace are possible. God is with us, in the Psalmist’s words, to deliver the poor that cry out, the needy and those who have no helper; to have pity on the weak and poor; to preserve the lives of the needy; to redeem their lives from oppression and violence.

Tony Dickinson

St Stephen (26.12.2021)

What links a Greek-speaking Jew of the first century with a tenth-century Duke of Bohemia?

More than you’d think, probably, but the carol of we shall sing at the end of today’s Eucharist makes a good starting-point. J.M. Neale’s “Good King Wenceslas” tells the story of how the king, more accurately known as Duke Václav the Good of Bohemia, the patron saint of the Czech Republic, took food and firewood to a poor man, who lived on the edge of 10th-century Bohemian society, in marginal land where cultivated fields gave way to the wild forest.

The story that Neale tells is probably his own invention, rather than something he found in one of the accounts of the duke’s short life. Collectors of carols tend to love the tune, which belongs to a mediaeval spring song and should be sung with a certain “oomph”, but they tend to be quite rude about Neale’s words. “One of his weakest compositions” is pretty much the kindest thing they can find to say about it. Others find the way he tells the story, split between three different voices, confusing. And they don’t “get” the reason why J.M. Neale links his story to this day, “the feast of Stephen”. Was it just because he wanted a rhyme for “deep and crisp and even”?

Well, no. The account of Stephen’s death that St Luke gives in our first reading, and the words of Jesus to the twelve in today’s gospel, both link us directly to Václav of Bohemia – not least the warning that “Brother will betray brother to death”. The Christian prince Vaclav died in his early twenties at the hands of pagan followers of his brother Boleslav, and was widely regarded as a martyr, not only in Bohemia but as far away as England. That would suggest that Neale very deliberately chose “the Feast of Stephen”, the Greek-speaking Jew who was the first person to die for his faith in Jesus, as the setting for his story.

Then there is the content of the story, which also fits this day. Stephen, you see, was not just a powerful speaker with a talent for enraging his opponents. Stephen was one of the Church’s first deacons – and deacons are dangerous. They are ordained to the ministry which is, above all, the ministry of Jesus Christ, who fed the hungry crowds and washed the feet of his disciples.

The deacon’s ministry reflects the ministry of Jesus in two ways. It is about meeting people at their point of need and it is about proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom, by actions as well as by words. In its origins it was about ensuring that the poorest members of the community received the support they needed in order to live and about reaching out to those on the edge of things. Stephen, it seems, was good at that. He showed people, as Jesus had shown them, the kingdom of God breaking into the kingdoms of this world. People who had a vested interest in maintaining the kingdoms of this world felt themselves threatened by Stephen, as they had felt threatened by Jesus, and so Stephen was dragged before the religious authorities in Jerusalem, tried by a kangaroo court and stoned to death by a lynch-mob. And the way Luke tells that story highlights the way in which the story of Stephen’s death echoes the story of the death of Jesus.

Similarly, Václav’s integrity, his reputation as a just and upright prince, and the firm Christian faith which set him at odds with powerful forces in his dukedom, were seen by many as causes contributing to his death at the hands of wicked men. But in this hymn J.M. Neale is making a greater claim than that. As they take food and firewood to that poor man who lived out on the margins where cultivated land gave way to the forest, Václav and his page are carrying out the primary function of the deacon down the centuries. In other words by their action they, like Stephen, are fulfilling the ministry of Christ, as Václav, like Stephen, was shortly to suffer a death that reflected the death of Christ.

Tony Dickinson

Christmas Day (25.12.2021)

A couple of months ago I had a dream. I don’t normally remember my dreams, but this one was frightening. I was walking along the grass verge of a country road in England. I knew it was England because the traffic was on the left and the trees were familiar English hedgerow trees, oak, ash and thorn. It was sunny when I set out, but at some point the sky started to cloud over and the daylight was replaced by a deepening gloom. The further I walked, the deeper the gloom became, until I could barely see ahead of me – and at one point I was nearly mown down by a car with no lights as I tried to take a right turn down a side road. By now the light had almost completely gone and I was walking more or less blind; but I knew that I had to continue my journey into those impenetrable shadows… And then my alarm went off, so I shall never know why I had embarked on that journey, or what my destination was.

As I have thought about that dream in the weeks since, it has struck me as a vivid parable of the present state of the world. The pandemic, the climate crisis, political developments in many parts of the world, all cast deepening shadows over human life, and we have no alternative but to plough on into those shadows, in the hope that something may turn up to scatter the gloom and bring us back into the light. We feel powerless, helpless and hopeless: powerless to bring about any change; helpless in the face of the forces ranged against truth and justice; hopeless because we know that without change our life cannot continue – and there is no sign of change.

In such a situation we can take courage from St John’s words in the Christmas gospel: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” However deep the shadow, the light which is God’s life come into being in Jesus – that light will always have the last word, even when we cannot see it shining, even when it is apparently blotted out for ever by human cruelty. As John reminds us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And in the beginning it shines, as our crib reminds us, from such a tiny source.

In his “Hymn in the Holy Nativity of our Lord”, the 17th-century English poet Richard Crashaw wrote:

“Welcome, all wonders in one sight! 
Eternity shut in a span; 
Summer in winter; day in night; 
Heaven in earth, and God in man. 
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth 
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.”

“Eternity shut in a span.” Everything that there is: all time – and beyond: the whole of space – and beyond that: the whole cosmic kit’n caboodle “shut in a span”. That’s the measurement from thumb fully extended, to little finger, also fully extended. It isn’t much is it? But a new-born baby can sit in there perfectly safely. Even my six-foot son, when he was first born, could be held in that space. It is beyond our imagining, but that is how the light which shines in the darkness first appeared. That is how human beings first encountered, on a human level, the light that cannot be overcome – the light in which our deepest shadows will eventually fade into day.

Three hundred years after Richard Crashaw, another poet, Minnie Haskins, found fame when the prologue to one of her poems was used by King George VI in his Christmas broadcast in 1939. Her words spoke then to a people facing the uncertainty of wartime. They speak to us in our uncertainties and fears today:

“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

“And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’

“So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”

Tony Dickinson

Advent 4 (19.12.2021)

Some years ago there was a character in a comedy programme on British television whose reaction to any difficult situation was to shout: “We’re all doomed!” It’s tempting to do the same after the Climate Summit in Glasgow last month – not to mention the appearance of the omicron variant of Covid-19. The planet is in danger. The pandemic is spreading ever faster.

“We’re all doomed!”

There are times when the Prophets of Israel come across like that character. Take Micah of Moresheth. He lived about the same time as Isaiah, roughly 700 years before Christ, but his view of the world was very different. Isaiah was in many ways a member – albeit a critical member – of the Jerusalem establishment, consulted by kings and high officials. Micah, though, came from Moresheth, a small village a few miles away. He saw life as an outsider, a poor farmer perhaps – with a jaundiced view of the Jerusalem authorities. He knew what it was for the needs of the poorest and the powerless to be ignored. He knew about being stitched up by the rich and powerful. Micah’s prophecies contain hard-hitting denunciations of the way Israel and Judah operated back in the 8th century. In one passage he describes the rulers as people “who hate the good and love the evil… who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat* in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron.”

“We’re all doomed!”

So those words of Micah that we have just heard come as something of a surprise. This isn’t a message of judgement. This is a message of hope. A ruler will come out of Bethlehem – a small place in the country, like Moresheth – but that ruler won’t be like the greedy rulers in Jerusalem. “He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord… And they shall live secure.”

Perhaps we aren’t doomed, after all.

Perhaps we aren’t doomed because those words of Micah foreshadow the events surrounding those two women who carry within their bodies lives that will change the world. The opening of Luke’s Gospel takes us from Zechariah’s vision in the temple to the birth of his son – so longed for and so unexpected – to Bethlehem. It bounces and kicks in this story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Elizabeth asks. “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.” John the Baptist, even before his birth, points to the importance of that other birth, the one we shall celebrate on Saturday. Jesus, who comes into the world as the definitive expression of God’s love, taking human flesh in Mary’s womb, born in a busy inn-yard stable in Bethlehem, hanging, helpless and dying on a cross, an outsider, derided by the Jerusalem authorities.

So we aren’t doomed. The God who loves us so much comes with us into the darkness.

We aren’t doomed. Elizabeth’s words to Mary point us in a different direction. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be* a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Blessed are those who live with a deep trust in the goodness of God, a trust worked out in practical love, the love that sends Mary hurrying to a town in the hill country, the love that makes the embryo in Elizabeth’s womb leap for joy, the love that enables us to see how modern lifestyles stack up against the command to love the world [we] inhabit.

The Jerusalem establishment in Micah’s day looked to their own advantage. The ruler who is to come from Bethlehem “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” – and the strength of the Lord is love, the love that enters human history in Jesus, who comes from Bethlehem. The fudges and failures in Glasgow, like many of the failures in tackling the pandemic effectively, were born out of fear: fear of changes in our lifestyle, fear of the electoral consequences of action, fear of others’ strength – or our own weakness; and fear is, at bottom, a failure to trust. God invites us to identify with the trust of Mary and Elizabeth and to share in the blessing offered to all who, like Mary, “believe that there will be a fulfilment of what was spoken by the Lord”.

Tony Dickinson

Advent 3 (12.12.2021)

What an immense – and intense – mixture of emotions we have swirling around us this week-end! Some members of our congregation are rejoicing that they are in steady employment at last. Others are mourning the death of a colleague and friend in the most distressing circumstances. Extreme weather events, road accidents, terrorist incidents – and another school shooting in the USA – have taken a heavy toll in human lives. It’s all quite challenging, really.

But then, both our readings this morning are challenging, too. John the Baptist certainly doesn’t mince his words when he talks to the crowds. “Brood of vipers” he calls them. That’s coming on just a bit strong, don’t you think? But then he’s dealing with some pretty strong – and fairly unsavoury – characters. Tax collectors in first-century Palestine probably had more in common with Cosa Nostra or the Camorra than with the Agenzia delle Entrate: and soldiers, whether they were Roman or royalist, would have been about as popular with the locals as the Wehrmacht was in Liguria eighty years ago. So, John the Baptist lays it very firmly on the line.

As does St Paul in his letter to the Christians of Philippi. The words we heard this morning come from the section of practical advice with which he ends his letter. He’s done the theology. He’s reminded them what it means to be a Christian. He’s done his best to sort out a couple of difficult relationships in the congregation. Then he comes to the work in progress – how his readers apply in their lives the advice he has given. And what does he tell them? “Rejoice in the Lord always.” That’s such important advice that he repeats it. “Again I will say, Rejoice.” He goes on to explain what he means.

What St Paul doesn’t mean is that we have to go round smiling all the time. He doesn’t mean we have to put on the pretence that we are happy, when we aren’t, or that everything is all right, when it clearly isn’t. What he does mean is that we live with the joy that comes from realising that we are not, after all, in control of our life. We had nothing to do with its beginning and we don’t know how, or when, it will end.

It isn’t, in the end, all down to us. We can relax. “Do not worry about anything” says St Paul. Do not worry because, as he says, “the Lord is near.” God’s love enfolds us even in the darkest times. Even when he seems far away from us or even missing altogether, “the Lord is near”. God’s love enfolds the young people and their teacher who were killed or injured in Michigan. God’s love enfolds their grieving families and colleagues. God’s love enfolds, too, the unhappy young man who took those young lives and his neglectful parents. God’s love enfolds us. If we know that – know it not just with our heads but in our hearts and our guts – if we know that, then the peace of God will indeed “guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus.”

And if we do know that in our hearts and our guts, as well as in our heads, then we can begin to apply it. We can respond to John the Baptist’s challenge. We can begin to bear what he called “fruits worthy of repentance”, good fruit borne in courage and trust and generosity, and that gentleness which St Paul commended to the first Christians in Philippi. We can learn how to share with those who lack even the little we have; we can learn how to be satisfied with what we have – and not try to fill the aching God-shaped void in our lives by constantly accumulating more and more “things”, food and drink, clothes, furnishings, the latest gadgets, money.

As we draw closer to Christmas, we face the same fundamental question that the crowds asked John: “What then should we do?” And the answer we receive now is the same that John gave them then: share what we have, however little it may seem to us, with those who have nothing; be content, and not greedy, in our dealings with others; not abuse our position for personal advantage. Above all, let our hearts be kindled by the fire of Christ’s love and let our life be filled with the abundance of his joy.

Tony Dickinson

Advent 2 (5.12.2021)

After nearly fifteen centuries, it’s quite hard for us to get our mind around a world where people didn’t reckon time in terms of years before or after the year in which Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, was born. That year was calculated by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who lived on the western shore of the Black Sea at the beginning of the sixth century of our era. Today’s Gospel reading brings us up against that world very sharply. Luke can’t simply reel off one set of numbers. He has to do some rather complicated cross-referencing, which brings together the Emperor in Rome, his local representative in Judaea, three of the local rulers who had inherited other parts of the territory once ruled by Herod the Great, and the leading figures of the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem.

Now, when a writer in the ancient world goes to that much trouble to establish a date, their readers can be pretty sure that this was a date when something important happened in the wider world, the beginning of a war, perhaps, or an outbreak of plague, or maybe a major battle. However, the event which Luke dates with such care and emphasis is like none of those. Instead, after leading us through this elaborate build-up, he makes the startling announcement that “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” In other words, prophecy is alive again in Israel – after a gap of nearly 400 years.

And immediately St Luke links John son of Zechariah to one of the greatest of the ancient prophets, the one who wrote under the name of Isaiah of Jerusalem, the eighth-century adviser of the kings of Judah, but whose activity belongs to the period two centuries later when the people of Judah were in exile in Babylon. This prophet, often referred to as “Second Isaiah”, was a prophet of hope. He proclaimed that God would lead the people back from their captivity along “the way of the Lord”. Luke is placing John son of Zechariah very firmly in that tradition, portraying him as ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,’ the voice announcing the promise that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

But John isn’t just a kind of prophetic tribute band, reviving somebody else’s old hits. The word of God has come to him. It is unique to him. Unique to his time, to his setting: that complicated jigsaw of political and religious powers which Luke listed at the beginning of our reading. Although Luke places John in the tradition of that prophet from the time of the Exile, John’s message is a new one. “He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Like many of the prophets of old, John performs a symbolic action to show what God is doing. Unlike the prophets of old his symbolic action involves, as we shall hear next Sunday, all the people. He washes away their past: he tells them to look with fresh eyes at the present: he enables them to face the future, confident in God’s favour and forgiveness. He points them also to the coming Christ.

So, although John’s message is unique to his time and setting, it speaks also to us, nearly two thousand years later. In a world which is still overshadowed by the coronavirus and especially this latest variant, which appears to be causing such panic, John challenges us to look with fresh eyes at the possibilities for life and hope which still exist – NOT the anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements, which seem to be marked above all by what someone who was talking to me at the fair yesterday called “monstrous egocentricity”, a refusal to suffer the slight inconvenience of mask-wearing and the temporary discomfort of vaccination, even if that refusal puts vulnerable people around them at serious risk. Instead let us see the signs of God’s presence in the care and dedication of those who have developed and tested and administered the vaccines so effectively, enabling us to live with a safety that was barely imaginable twelve months ago. And let us take up that prayer of St Paul which ended our first reading: “that [our] love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help [us] to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ [we] may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

Tony Dickinson

Advent 1 (28.11.2021)

Today St Luke begins more or less where St Mark left off on Remembrance Sunday two weeks ago. And it doesn’t make for easier reading, particularly not after the tragic news from the English Channel last week, when we read of “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” – and remember that people are still making the increasingly dangerous crossing from Libya to Lampedusa in unseaworthy boats. Three hundred men, women and children were plucked from the water by the Italian Coastguard on Wednesday night. With all of this and a new variant of the Corona-virus, it is a worrying time to be alive, a very worrying time, and mental health professionals are reporting increasing numbers of people who are, in Jesus’ words, “[fainting] from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”

But, Jesus tells his disciples, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” That’s a message for us, too. It’s a challenge and an encouragement. The challenge is not to collapse in the face of all the problems that the world is facing. The encouragement is to put our faith in God, to trust that God will see us through, whatever happens. God won’t, as some preachers misguidedly imagine, pull true believers out of the world before everything collapses. God will give those who live by trust in God the strength, the courage and the confidence to endure whatever life may throw at them, so that they come at last to God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom where Jesus the Son of man, Jesus who has been through the mill before us, reigns eternally in “power and great glory”.

Now, that needs some working through. We don’t like going through the mill. We don’t like suffering – understandably! We want life to be easy. We want things to be comfortable. That’s one of the main reasons why the world is in the mess it’s in. Too many human beings, when faced with difficult situations, have turned aside or looked the other way – or become angry with the people who warn them that there may be trouble ahead. Or drunk themselves into a stupor or simply collapsed in a whimpering heap while they waited for the scary stuff to go away.

But, as Jesus tells the disciples, that “scary stuff” is the sign of a new time of life, growth and fruitfulness. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” And that isn’t just about “the end times”. It also applies here and now. The kingdom of God, for whose coming we prepare in these four weeks of Advent, the kingdom announced by the birth of a baby two thousand years ago, is a kingdom of peace, justice – and joy, joy that shows itself even in the worst of times. It’s a kingdom which keeps bursting through every attempt to crush or cage it. We can catch a glimpse of it even in the worst human disasters, when people act with compassion and love, when they “put themselves out”, as my parents would have said, making the effort to do good rather than harm, to save life rather than damage or destroy it.

So, despite the awfulness of the news headlines, despite the torrent of hatred and bile spewing from much of social media, despite the despair brought on by the pandemic, the mood of this Advent season remains one of hope: hope in the God who will, as the Psalmist understood, “guide the humble in doing right and teach his way to the lowly,” the God whose paths “are mercy and truth to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.” And because God is our hope we can withstand the fear and foreboding, the shaking of the powers, that “roaring of the sea and its waves” which stands in Jewish thought for primeval chaos and destruction. In hope we watch and wait. In hope we pray: for ourselves, for one another, for our world. And our prayer is simple. It’s the same prayer with which St Paul encouraged the Thessalonians: “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all… And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

Tony Dickinson

Christ the King (21.11.2021)

We are living through a time of medical, political and environmental crisis. We are not out of the pandemic wood by a long way. What is happening in Poland, in Hungary, in Britain, in Nigeria and many other parts of Africa, in Brazil, in the United States is deeply worrying. Survey after survey has shown that we are in the middle of a mass extinction comparable with the one which finished off the dinosaurs – and if the prophets of climate doom are right we could be within a couple of generations of the end of most human life on earth. As the poet didn’t quite say, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs – you clearly don’t understand what’s going on!”

It was in a similar time of crisis that the feast we celebrate today was first introduced, nearly a hundred years ago. In the face of a world still scarred by the First World War and the Russian Revolution and troubled by rising nationalism in many places, including Italy where the Fascists had recently come to power, Pope Pius XI wanted to affirm the unity of humanity and to emphasise that all earthly authority was provisional and temporary. His papal motto translates into English as “The peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ” and one of the main concerns of his papacy was the urgent need to work for justice and peace, in the household, in the world of work, between the nations, preparing for the day when “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah”. Pius XI drew these concerns together in the new feast of Christ the King which he established in 1925 and which has since been adopted by many non-Catholic Churches, including the Church of England.

Now, there’s an ambiguity about what it means to proclaim “Christ the King”. Some have seen it as an attempt to trump the totalitarian rulers who were coming to power in the 17 years during which Pius was pope, to claim for God a power like theirs, but greater. Christ the King, on this view, overcomes the rulers of this world because he has “supreme and absolute dominion over all things created”. It’s a triumphalist vision, like that of today’s Psalm.

But that isn’t quite the message of our two readings this morning. In that interview between Jesus and the Roman governor in John chapter 18, part of which we heard in today’s Gospel, two things are very clear. The first thing is that the governor, Pilate, knows a great deal about power and how it operates in this world. He knows what a king is. He knows what Jewish nationalism is. The second thing, though, is that Jesus undermines all Pilate’s assumptions. He tells the governor, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ And from then on you can see Pilate floundering. He hangs on to the word “king” and tries to make sense of it by asking “So you are a king then?” But Jesus stops him dead again. “King is your word”, he tells Pilate – and then he adds,” For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Truth is not what rulers are about in Pilate’s world. They are about power, slogans, propaganda. They are like the beasts, the terrifying monsters, who provide the background for the vision Daniel describes in our first reading.

Those monsters were about power and propaganda, throwing their weight about, speaking arrogantly, smashing and trashing everything, and everyone, in sight. But they do not prevail. Even though they receive dominion and one of them in particular makes war with God’s holy ones, they cannot prevail. They are defeated. Their power is destroyed. Not by a greater monster but by the “one like a human being” in Daniel’s vision who was given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” For Christians that “one like a human being” is Jesus, the Messiah, the one who bears witness to God’s truth and who calls us to listen to his truth: the truth that God is known not in power and propaganda but in service, in healing, in showing compassion, and that God calls us to follow that same path. If Christians try to match the violence and destructiveness of the beasts they do no honour to Christ our King, who comes to us in humility and peace and who reigns not from a throne but from a cross.

Tony Dickinson

Remembrance Sunday (2 before Advent: 14.11.2021)

Private George Burt might have thought that he was a lucky man. He had been in some of the hardest fighting on the Western Front, from the slaughter on the Somme in Summer 1916 to the horror of mud and misery that was Passchendaele a year later, and he had survived. He was wounded in action on the Somme, but not so seriously as to be invalided out; and, to the continuing relief of his mother and her other children back home in Somerset, his name had not appeared on the lengthening casualty list which had given his unit its grim nickname, “The Suicide Club”. Then at the end of October 1917 he, with the rest of 68 Company of the Machine Gun Corps, was transferred from the mud and blood of Flanders to the warmer surroundings of northern Italy. By 16th November his unit was stationed near Mantua, waiting to relieve the Italian forces desperately trying to stabilise their battle line after the disastrous defeat of Caporetto. But George Burt was not among them. His luck had run out and he had been killed in an accident five days earlier. Where and how I have not been able to discover, but he was buried in Pegli, where his neat, white War Grave Commission tombstone still stands out among the monuments in the cemetery next to the church of San Martino and his name appears on the war memorial in Viale della Rimembranza. He was twenty-two years old.

Now, I have told the story of George Burt, so far as I have been able to establish it, for two reasons. The first is to remind us, on this Remembrance Sunday, that not all deaths in war are heroic. Some, like George Burt’s, are accidental. Others, like my grandfather’s, are the result of unfortunate coincidence. According to the last person to see him alive, he stopped to retie a bootlace in the same place, and at the same moment, that a German shell exploded, blowing him to pieces. He is one of those who have “no known grave”. For others, war is simply the backdrop to a quite different story – as it is for many of those who are buried in the military cemetery in Bordighera. They were in the hospitals there, recovering from wounds, when they were struck down by the great flu pandemic which raged around the world between 1918 and 1920.

The second reason for telling the story of George Burt is to highlight those words of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” Most scholars believe that Mark was writing his Gospel around the time of the great Jewish revolt against Roman rule, a time when many people in Palestine were expecting God to intervene and to restore the kingdom of David and Solomon in all its glory. There were people in Europe and North America, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were waiting for God to intervene decisively in human history in 1918, particularly when the British General Allenby defeated a large Turkish army at the battle of Megiddo – otherwise known as Armageddon. They are still waiting.

War is a tragic part of being human, but “the end is still to come”. Even after Jesus has gone through that list of disasters in which “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines”. He adds “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Disasters happen, destruction happens – even to “great buildings” like King Herod’s temple and the many churches across Europe which were wrecked, as this one was, by bombing or shellfire in two World Wars. People suffer apparently random, devastating loss, as the mother and sisters and brothers of George Burt did, as my mother, her sisters and brother, and their mother did. Today in the two minutes’ silence we will hold before God their loss, and the loss of millions of others worldwide. We will acknowledge their grief – and we will recommit ourselves to “Beware that no one leads [us] astray” by promising “the old lie” of a glorious death in battle, whether that battle is against a recognisable human enemy or against the cosmic powers summoned up by a false prophet. Our battle is against the lies that lead to the death of whole generations. Our hope is in the God who brings life out of darkness and despair and who has intervened decisively in human history through the death and resurrection of Jesus. As the Psalmist says, “in [God’s] hands alone is [our] fortune”.

3 before Advent (7.11.2021)

“After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” Those are the words with which Mark’s world-changing story finally takes off. They lay down a challenge to the powers of this world, for whom “good news” usually meant an official announcement, whether of a victory for Roman armies, or the Emperor’s birthday, or the beginning of a new reign. “Good news”, in the world for which Mark was writing, was another word for “imperial propaganda.”

But for Mark the “good news” wasn’t about the Empire, it was about God’s kingdom, a kingdom whose values were very different from those of Caesar. The difference between the “good news” which imperial messengers proclaimed and the good news which Jesus proclaimed was about as great as the difference between the messages coming from the official spokespeople at the Climate Conference and the message coming from the millions of people who have been filling the streets in Glasgow and in cities all around the world. The officials want to talk about how “the system” can be tweaked so that we don’t all roast to death immediately, but so that big business can carry on making huge profits and donating to political parties. The protestors want to talk about real change to that system so that all of the beauty and variety of God’s creation, including human beings, is respected and preserved. In other words it’s not about getting favourable media coverage for this president or that prime minister: it’s about changing reality significantly for the better. “The time is fulfilled”, indeed.

Now, in Greek there are two words for “time”. There’s χρονος (khronos), which is ordinary time, the long succession of seconds and minutes, hours, days and years, “time like an ever-flowing stream” in the words of a much-loved hymn. And there’s καιρος (kairos), which is time that matters. It can be “the right time”, it can be “crunch time”, “the moment of truth”. It’s the moment when something changes, for an individual life, or for the world as a whole – whether for better or for worse.

The “time” whose fulfilment Jesus announced was “time” in that sense, καιρος time. Through his life and death the world changed. The human understanding of God changed. It wasn’t something that happened in an instant, like switching on a light – but it was something that happened. We are living, dear brothers and sisters, in καιρος time. What happens in Glasgow matters, for the future of life on this planet; but it’s what happens beyond Glasgow, what happens when the politicians and civil servants, the people who were out on the streets in cities around the world have gone home – it’s what happens then that will make a difference, whether for better or for worse, to what an American prayer calls “this fragile earth, our island home”.

But for the difference to be “for better”, people in Europe and North America, in China and India, will need to take seriously that other word with which Jesus proclaimed his arrival in Galilee. The same word that Jonah dinned into the people of Nineveh: “repent”. They need – no: we need to change the way in which we look at God’s creation, to change the way we live, and especially our expectations. You may have heard the slogan “Live simply so that others may simply live”. Today that has never been more necessary – and especially for the richest 10% of people, who cause over 50% of global emissions. So we can all be very cross with Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos, and all the other insanely wealthy people who own private jets and several huge mansions. But some of us will also have to look at ourselves, because the richest 10% of the world’s population includes people who earn around €30,000 a year. People who don’t own their own Boeing 707, like John Travolta, but might occasionally use budget airlines, like me.

Which brings us to the second part of today’s gospel. Peter and Andrew, like Zebedee and his sons, ran a small family business. When Jesus called Peter, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, he took them away from that small family business, because God’s kingdom is not “business as usual” with a side-order of church on Sunday. God’s kingdom is where human beings seek to bring about justice and hope and healing for themselves, for one another, and for all creation.

Tony Dickinson

All Souls (2.11.2021)

Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, is reported to have handed some of his billions to a team of scientists researching into cryonics, the long-term freezing of human bodies with a view to their future resuscitation. In doing so he has attached himself to the exclusive club of those people in the USA who believe that death is optional – at least for those who are mind-bendingly rich. Tonight’s commemoration is a reminder that they are mistaken. Death touches us all, not only in its once-for-all direct impact at the end of our allotted time, but also indirectly many times during the course of our life as those we love are taken from us by illness, accident, age, or any one of what Hamlet called “the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to”; which, in our time as regularly in Shakespeare’s, include a cruel and arbitrary pandemic.

Tonight we come together to remember those people, the family members, the friends, all whom “we love but see no longer”. We come to give thanks for their lives and to try to make sense of what their dying means for us who are left. For some people that is difficult, as many a halting funeral eulogy bears witness. For others it is a reminder of the randomness and ultimate futility of human existence. For us, though, our readings tonight offer a way through what the Psalmist called “the valley of the shadow of death”.

Some years ago when the late Bishop David Jenkins was asked to sum up his faith in the fewest words possible he gave this reply: “God is. He is as he is in Jesus. So there is hope.” That statement of faith, or something very like it, undergirds our two readings tonight. St Paul, writing to the Christians of Rome, begins with hope and works his way through love to the reconciliation of all things in Christ. St John begins with the identity of Father and Son in action and purpose and ends with the life which enfolds both the living and the dead. Both of them spell out our grounds for hope. Paul writes to Rome “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Jesus in John’s Gospel declares that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’

There is hope because there is nothing, and no one, beyond the scope of God’s “goodness and loving mercy.” There is hope because however far we fall, God’s arms are underneath us to catch us and bear us up. There is hope because however far we wander, God’s arms are outstretched, like the arms of Jesus on the cross, to welcome and embrace us. The good news at the heart of our faith is that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Not “once we had made it”. Not “once we had got it together”. Not “once we had proved ourselves”. Certainly not “once we were perfect”! No. “While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Warts and all, in Oliver Cromwell’s words. Our flawed, imperfect life – every life from a billionaire tormented by the awareness that he is mortal to a building worker killed in the tower-block collapse in Lagos yesterday – every life is accepted by God and made whole in Christ, “through whom we have now received reconciliation”.

So, as we come together this evening, we do not come in fear, to beg off a judgemental, vengeful, angry God. We come in hope, to entrust those we love to God’s eternal mercy. “The Father judges no one,” says Jesus in tonight’s gospel, “but has given all judgement to the Son.” And the Son’s judgement is the judgement of unconditional, self-giving love. “Much more surely then,” writes St Paul, “now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath.” And I stop there because the words “of God” are not in St Paul’s original Greek. For Paul “the wrath” was not an attribute of God, but an impersonal force, like the Hindu “karma”, which reminds us that actions have consequences – and that those consequences are not always pleasant. The death of Jesus breaks that link for us. It sets us free from “the law of sin and of death” and saves us, and those whom we love, for a life beyond the boundaries of this life, a life lived, not in a state of fragile cryonic resuscitation, but eternally in God’s boundless love.

Tony Dickinson

All Saints’ Sunday (31.10.2021)

The chapel of my college in Oxford is shaped like a big capital “T”. The main chapel, with the altar and the choir-stalls and the seats for the congregation, is the upright of the “T”. The cross-piece is a sort of threshold, what people sometimes call “liminal space”, bridging the gap between the busy world outside and the peace of the holy place where people gather each day to worship God in words and music. In the middle of that space, and dominating it, there is the statue of a man. It is larger than life-size and it depicts Lazarus, just as he is described at the end of this morning’s reading from John’s Gospel, “his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth”. He is shuffling ever so slowly out of the darkness of the tomb and into the light but his head is turned, so that he is half looking back over his shoulder toward the place from which he had come, almost as if he didn’t really want to return to life.

Now, I don’t think that is quite what the sculptor is intending to say. The placing of the statue and the half-turned head are saying something rather profound. Lazarus, you see, is standing right in front of the great west door of the chapel, about twice the size of our west door here. He is also standing almost at the end of the axis linking that door to the altar in the innermost part of the chapel. Lazarus is preparing to move out into the world beyond that door, but he is half looking back to the place where the Christian community in the college gathers to share the meal which Jesus left to his friends, the meal that we shall be sharing in a few minutes’ time.

So what is that saying? I think it’s reminding us of some of the things that we thought about during the summer, when we looked at St John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand and all John’s teaching about the Eucharist which is embedded there. We talked about the Eucharist as food for the journey. We talked about it as the “medicine of immortality”. We talked about it as sharing in the life of Jesus. What we missed, perhaps, was what scholars sometimes call “the eschatological banquet”, which is a posh way of saying that this meal is a foretaste of the ultimate party, the feast prepared for all which Isaiah described in today’s first reading.

In half looking back toward the altar, Lazarus is telling us that the meal which is prepared for us at the Lord’s table is no ordinary meal, but a taster of that “feast of rich food,… of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear”, the feast which had briefly shared. It’s from that feast that Lazarus has been called back by Jesus, to take his place again in the world, as each of us is called back at the end of this service to head out through the west door of this building and take our place in the world – and, I hope, to take with us some of that joy of which the prophet spoke when he described how “[the Lord] will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.”

And this is where our life, and that statue of Lazarus, and our celebrations today come together. The people we remember today, those “saints” who don’t have a special day in the calendar and don’t have church buildings named after them – they are people who bring something of that banquet out into the world with them. They aren’t superheroes. They aren’t always “happy and they know it”. Some of them bear serious mental or physical scars: but, as Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”: and someone once described the saints as “cracks in time through which you can see eternity leaping and dancing about.” Whether they are full of the joys of the Lord, or whether they endure sorrow patiently for the sake of the Beloved, they are people who have grasped the reality behind those words of the prophet: “This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

The joy and the waiting go together. They always will in this life. But one day we shall know the fullness of that glory to which the statue of Lazarus half looks back. In the meantime we pray to be unbound, like Lazarus, loosed from what holds us in the realm of death, and to be let go, free to move out into God’s world in the service and fellowship of Christ.

Tony Dickinson

Dedication Festival (24.10.2021)

In most dioceses of the Church of England from time to time the bishop will summon his or her clergy for a get-together. For a few days they will sit at the feet of wise and learned speakers. They will worship together, sometimes in new and different ways. They will talk late into the night. And between them they will probably consume a fair amount of alcohol.

Sometimes a bishop will break this pattern, as Bishop Richard Harries of Oxford did twenty-six years ago. That year he decided that, instead of getting just his clergy together, he would invite every parish to send clergy and lay people to meet for a few days at the Butlins holiday camp in Bognor, on the south coast of England. He also invited representatives from his South African partner diocese, Kimberley and Kuruman, including its bishop, Njongonkulu Ndungane, who later succeeded Desmond Tutu as Archbishop of Capetown but who earlier in his life had been a fellow-prisoner with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Bishop Njongonkulu brought with him one of his diocesan staff, Canon Lubabalo Livingstone Ngewu, and by a strange quirk of the room allocation system at Butlins in Bognor, he and I found ourselves sharing the same chalet.

Now in those days when South Africans came to the UK they often would use their European name, because it was easier for the Brits to understand. Bishop Njongonkulu was better known in those days as Bishop Winston, and my room-mate’s conference badge proclaimed that he was “Livingstone Ngewu”. But woe betide anyone who called him “Livingstone”, as though he were named for the great Scottish missionary explorer, David Livingstone. Lubabalo, who was a big man in every sense, would very patiently explain that it was better to pronounce his name as two separate words. Not “Livingstone” but “Living stone”, because that was what he was. And he would expound those words from our first reading today, to make the point that he was one of those “living stones… [being] built into a spiritual house,… a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”, and that that was possible only because he had come to faith in God’s “Living stone”, the chief cornerstone Jesus Christ.

Now I mention that encounter from 1995 because it’s a reminder that each of us is, like Lubabalo, a “living stone”. Each of us is being built into the “spiritual house” of which Peter writes to those “exiles of the dispersion”, scattered across what is now northern Turkey, to whom he wrote his letter. Each of us is part of that holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices to God. Today we come together, as our collect says, to “celebrate the dedication of this house of prayer” by Bishop Charles Harris a hundred and forty-nine years ago; but we do so, as our collect also reminds us, to the glory of Almighty God, and the glory of Almighty God is a human being fully alive, alive with the life of Jesus, the “living stone,… rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.”

So, while we give thanks to God for “the many blessings [God has] given to those who worship here”, we pray for more blessings, by which I don’t mean material blessings, but that closeness to God in prayer through which we gain a deeper understanding of God’s word in Scripture, the “pure, spiritual milk” by which we grow into salvation, a relationship based on trust and hope, nourished by our sharing in this meal which Jesus left to his friends. Those are the means by which we are being “built into a spiritual house”.

Now, as in all of God’s creation all creatures are unique, so in that house there are no two “living stones” which are identical. Each of us has the gifts that God has given them. Each of us has their own faults and foibles, What matters is that each of us brings those gifts, those faults and foibles to Jesus, the cornerstone, who does not put us to shame, but who builds us up, with all our chips and cracks and rough edges, into that house where God is known and loved and served; the house where we offer the spiritual sacrifice of our selves and where we are equipped by God’s Holy Spirit, as Living stone Ngewu was equipped, to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 20 (17.10.2021)

Those who keep an eye on what is happening beyond the borders of il bel paese may have picked up the grim news that a British MP, Sir David Amess, was murdered on Friday while he was holding an open session in one of the churches in his constituency for anyone who lived locally and wanted his help to sort out their problems. I mention that partly because David Amess was one of the good guys, highly regarded by his political opponents as well as his allies, and a sad loss to British political life. More importantly he was a man of firm Christian faith, a life-long Catholic, who had, as they say, “gone into politics” not because he wanted to be “king of the world” but quite simply because he wanted to serve, to the best of his ability, the people who had elected him as their representative and he did that – very effectively by all accounts – for almost forty years. He wasn’t “in it for himself”. He wasn’t interested in the “glory” of being a government minister, sitting at the Prime Minister’s right hand. He was interested in helping people in Essex sort out their problems. And that was what he was doing when he was killed.

Now, I’m focusing on David Amess because I think that deep down he understood something that James and John – and the rest of the twelve – failed to understand, despite the time that they had spent with Jesus, in and around Capernaum, up in the far north beyond the borders of Galilee, and now,as we just heard, on the road to Jerusalem. In today’s Gospel Mark tells us that they were interested in the glory. What favour did they ask him? Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ Despite everything that Jesus had told the twelve, despite the way he had warned Peter and the others not to talk about him being the Messiah, they still didn’t get it. None of them. When Mark tells us that “when the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John”, he doesn’t mean us to think that they were cross because they knew James and John had got it wrong. No. He means us to realise that they were furious because they too wanted their share of the glory, the loot, the spoils of government.

So Jesus spells it out for them again.

First he has a warning for James and John. He points them back to what one scholar calls “the beginning of the adventure”, Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, and forward to what is to come; the cup at the Last Supper, which signified the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, and the cup of suffering which he accepted in Gethsemane. He asks them, “Can you accept it?” The brothers, of course, say yes – and immediately have the ground cut away under their feet by Jesus’ assurance that they will indeed drink it, but that there is no guaranteed place for them in God’s kingdom. ‘To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

Then it’s the turn of the other ten, who are reminded yet again that, while James and John may not know what they are asking, all of them do know how the powers of this world operate. ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” The whole system is based on domination, on the exercise of power – most importantly, as they will soon discover, the power to kill. “But it is not so among you.” Is Jesus setting out the ideal rather than the reality, like the headteacher who says “Pupils at this school do not smoke”, when everyone knows what goes on out of sight of the school building? Or is he being, as has been suggested, drily sarcastic at the disciples’ expense?

Either way, Jesus is warning the twelve to turn away from the path which the sons of Zebedee favour, the path which leads to “glory”, and to follow his own path, the path of non-violence and self-denial, the path which turns upside-down the established order based on power and domination. As the writer to the Hebrews recognised, this is the path of obedient servanthood, and it is costly. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” But because Jesus has gone that way before us and given his life a ransom for many, he has transformed it into the way of liberation, “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 19 (10.10.2021)

The writer to the Hebrews tells us that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword”. That is certainly true of the passage from Mark’s Gospel which we heard just now. The words of Jesus to the man who asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart in a way that has made commentators and preachers down the centuries extremely nervous.

Let’s set them in context.

If we hadn’t been giving thanks to God for the gifts of creation last Sunday, we would have heard Jesus talking about – I was going to say “marriage and the family”, but that wouldn’t be quite right. What he actually did was to answer a question from the Pharisees about divorce and then, in a separate incident, rebuke the disciples for trying to set up barriers between him and a group of parents with their children. Both times he takes a sledgehammer to the social structures which said (and still say): first, that it’s OK for men to have all the power in their relationships with women (Jesus tells us it isn’t); and second that children don’t matter (Jesus tells us they do).

Sadly, many of those who follow Jesus still don’t seem to have caught up with either of those truths, as we don’t seem to have caught up with the truth that he teaches in today’s Gospel. That truth takes us back to an earlier teaching, the parable of the sower. There, you will remember, Jesus listed three things that stop people responding positively to the word about God’s kingdom. The third of those things is “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things”. In today’s reading we have a living picture of how that happens.

It all starts so well: “As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” That greeting, “Good Teacher”, is a bit unexpectedly OTT, and looks rather like flattery, so Jesus’ reply is, perhaps, a bit curt. ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ It’s a warning shot.

Then Jesus tells the man that the way to life is to keep the commandments – with one interesting addition. “You shall not defraud”, unlike the others, is not one of the Ten. It’s a hint of what is to come later, because it’s about economic exploitation, about rich people getting richer at the expense of poor people, but it’s left in the air for the time being. “Yes, yes,” says the man. “I’ve done all that since I was a teenager.” And Jesus just looks at him. Then he says, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ And the man can’t do it. “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” In other words, he was a wealthy land-owner, one of the people who held all the power in first-century Palestine: and Jesus was asking him to give that up and to give something back. And he couldn’t.

So, as the man goes away, Jesus turns to the disciples and hammers home the teaching, twice. Once by simply saying how hard it is for rich people to enter God’s kingdom; the second time using that wonderful punch-line: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ There is no loop-hole, despite all the efforts of preachers and commentators to take the sting out of those words for the well-off.

And the disciples are amazed. They’ve fallen for the first-century Jewish version of the “prosperity Gospel”. They think that someone who is rich and outwardly pious must be blessed by God. “Not so,” Jesus tells them in answer to Peter’s question. It’s the poor and the powerless whom God blesses, the people who have little or nothing but share what they have, even though they may be going through the mill. They are the people close to God’s heart. As for the rich – well, we entrust them to God’s mercy and pray that their hearts may be turned as the man who spoke to Jesus wasn’t. What might happen if bosses paid all their workers more than the minimum wage instead of paying themselves massive salaries and increasing the dividends paid to those already rich? That would please the God of mercy and grace; to whom….

Tony Dickinson

Harvest Thanksgiving (3.10.2021)

Tomorrow Christians of many different traditions will be remembering a scruffy little man with a wispy beard, wearing a long tunic made of brown sacking and tied with a piece of rope. Some will remember how he preached to the birds and said his prayers with a noisy cricket. Others will remember stories about him dancing down the road, playing an imaginary fiddle made of two sticks and singing at the top of his voice. Some might even remember the story of how he and a companion, going on a journey, found themselves at a crossroads and couldn’t decide which road to follow, so he made his companion twirl round and round and round until he was so giddy that he fell over – and then he helped him up and the two of them walked off down the road towards which his friend’s body was pointing when he collapsed.

Does anyone know who I’m talking about?

It’s Francis of Assisi. And I’m mentioning him today for two reasons. The first is that he was one of the few people who have followed closely the advice which Jesus gave in today’s Gospel about not worrying where your next meal, or your next change of clothing, was coming from. The second is that he was someone who lived the whole of his life looking in wonder at everything that God had made and giving thanks that it was so beautiful and varied. What’s more, he didn’t do that like a tourist, or a visitor to the zoo, looking in from the outside and moving on. Francis knew that he was part of God’s creation, like everything and everyone else, so that the birds and the animals, even fierce animals like the wolf who terrified the people of Gubbio, were his brothers and sisters. So were the sun and the moon, and fire and wind and water. Like him, they had all come into being at the word of the same heavenly Father.

Now all of that makes him a very important guide when we come to harvest time, because he reminds us that we owe the good things that we enjoy to God. That all of them are God’s gift, and that they come to us through the work of other people and other creatures.

Have you ever thought how many of our brother- and sister-creatures it takes to bring us a can of beans? Let’s start with the human beings who helped. First of all there’s the farm worker who drove the tractor which planted the seeds and the farm workers who harvested the crop. Then there are the workers who stripped the beans out of their pods, the people who prepared them for cooking and who looked after the big pots in which they were cooked. What happened next?

They were packed into metal cans, so we mustn’t forget the miners who dug the ore out of the earth and the foundrymen who turned that ore into metal sheets, and the factory workers who operated the machines which turned those metal sheets into cans. We ought also to remember the people who designed the machines and the engineers who keep them running. Then there’s another set of operators and engineers who look after the machines which fill the cans with beans and put on the lid and the label.

Who comes next? Well, there are the workers who take the cans of beans from the production line and load them onto lorries and the drivers who drive the lorries from the processing plant to the supermarket or the shop. When they get to the supermarket there are the workers who unload the cans from the lorries and stack them on the shelves. And there you are! So many human brothers and sisters to bring us our can of beans. So many people to thank.

But we’ve forgotten some of the most important brothers and sisters of all. We haven’t mentioned brother Fire and Sister water, who had a very important part to play in making the cans and processing the beans. And we haven’t mentioned the insects which pollinated the blossoms so that they turned into bean-pods. And we haven’t mentioned brother Sun or our sisters the clouds who bring the rain – and plants need both of them if they are to grow properly. And we haven’t mentioned God who, as we shall sing in our final hymn today, “sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.” When we give thanks for harvest, let us remember that we give thanks above all to God.

Tony Dickinson

Holy Ghost, GenoaTrinity 17 (26.9.2021)

We were reminded last week how little the disciples have grasped what Jesus has been telling them while they have been on the road with him. We heard how patiently he sat them down and explained all over again that the kingdom is for everyone, with no barriers of rank or status, age or riches, none of those barriers that human beings are so quick to put up between “us” (whoever “we” may be) and “them”. And they still don’t get it!

It’s John this time. ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ There’s no sense of thanksgiving that someone else has signed up to Jesus’ agenda for the kingdom; no sense of welcome to what we might call “a colleague in ministry”. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” He isn’t on “our” side of the barrier, so we’re not having it. John comes across rather like the character in a children’s radio programme of my childhood, whose reaction to anything new or unusual was to exclaim “It’s disgraceful. It ought not to be allowed!”

So Jesus goes back and explains it all again. ‘Do not stop him.’ In the first place because ‘no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.’ Then, more generally, ‘Whoever is not against us is for us.’ The borders of God’s kingdom remain fuzzy. And he goes on to remind the disciples that it is a fantasy to think that they will always be in the position of power, helping others. There will be times when they are not on the giving but the receiving end of compassionate action – even if that action is only the gift of a cup of water.

Then Jesus returns to the teaching which we heard last week, teaching that focused on a little child as a model citizen of God’s kingdom, to be welcomed and valued in the name of Christ. In an age when Christians of many different traditions round the world are concerned about the way in which powerful individuals in the Churches, both ordained and lay, have used their power to abuse young people and vulnerable adults and to cover up abuse, the words of Jesus that we have just heard are a painful reminder of the collective failure to protect “these little ones”.

Equally painful, and difficult to understand, is the teaching which follows – not helped by the translation having Jesus talk about “hell”. In the Greek text of Mark’s Gospel the word Jesus uses is “Gehenna”, which is the Aramaic name for a valley outside the walls of Jerusalem; a place where children had once been sacrificed to pagan gods and where, in later times, the city dumped its rubbish. It was a place where fires broke out and maggots bred in the rotting flesh and vegetable matter. The causes of stumbling will be thrown on the rubbish tip.

But what are these causes of stumbling? And why the brutal reaction – which sounds like what the Taliban are rumoured to be doing in Afghanistan? It could reflect a similarly harsh legal system, but it has been suggested that St Mark is here borrowing the same image of the Christian community as a body that St Paul uses in some of his letters, so that the “you” is not an individual but the local congregation, and the hand, foot, or eye which causes them to stumble represents those who abandon their faith in time of trouble, or who betray their fellow-Christians. Jesus’ words then would be a warning that, as the good outside the community is to be affirmed, so the bad inside the community is to be cut out – and left to its own devices.

However, that isn’t Jesus’ last word to John and the others. His last word is about sharing the salt of God’s covenant and living at peace with one another: not claiming a status which really isn’t ours: not raising the barriers against those who are “different”: not causing others to stumble or fall away. Instead, being open always to the possibility of reconciliation; being always a community of healing and hope like the one described by James in today’s first reading. And that, as James reminds us, requires three things: that we are honest with ourselves, and one another, about our faults and failures; second, that we are people of prayer, persistent, patient, thankful prayer, in whatever way suits us best. Pray as you can, said a wise teacher: not as you can’t. And finally it requires that we never wholly give up on those who have gone astray – as our persistent, patient God never gives up on us.

Tony Dickinson

Holy Ghost, GenoaTrinity 16 (19.9.2021)

After his encounter with that persistent Syrian woman in Tyre, about which we heard two weeks ago, and after that awesome experience of transformation on the mountain, which was the gospel reading on the Sunday immediately before the beginning of Lent, Jesus is heading south, back to his base in Galilee and then onward to Jerusalem. He is aware that time is short. So he avoids the crowds in order to use the time on the road for teaching the disciples rather than healing or more general preaching. He does not want the disciples to be taken by surprise by what is going to happen when they reach Jerusalem, so he spells it out: ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’

The message could hardly be simpler, but… “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Possibly because they didn’t want to understand him. As the poet said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality”. Very soon it becomes clear how little the disciples have grasped what Jesus has been telling them. Despite all they have seen and heard while they have been with Jesus, despite all he has taught them, they have spent their time on the road to Capernaum arguing with one another about who was the greatest: as if God’s kingdom were like one of the kingdoms of this world, with rankings and orders of precedence and all the rest.

So Jesus very patiently sits them down and explains it all over again: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ And to reinforce what he has told them, he provides them with a living illustration. One of the great Chinese sages is reported to have said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand!” Well, Jesus is leading the twelve as far as that second stage, “I see and I remember”. He takes a little child and puts it among them; and takes it in his arms.” In most of the ancient world, including first-century Palestine, that would have been a very radical illustration. Children in the ancient world had no status and no rights. When boys reached the age at which they were regarded as men they acquired these things. Girls, on the whole, never did.

Which means that Jesus’ action is not the sentimental crowd-pleaser that it would be in much of present-day Europe or North America. What Jesus is doing is turning the normal age-related systems of power, rank and status upside-down. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ “What?” you can almost hear the disciples saying, “You’re taking a creature barely regarded by most of us as a real human being and telling us that in welcoming that we’re welcoming you?” To which the answer is simply “Yes”. God’s kingdom is not imposed “top-down” by the powerful. It is built upwards from the bottom by the “little ones”.

James says much the same in today’s first reading: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” He comes down hard on envy and ambition, on boasting and falsehood. “Such wisdom” he warns his audience, “does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” It doesn’t build up. It divides. As he goes on to say, “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” Where people are competing to be “the greatest”, jostling for status, for wealth, for power of any kind, things will fall apart. We see examples of that every time we turn on the radio or TV, read a paper, or log onto social media. James follows Jesus by reminding us that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” At its heart is non-violent peace-making.

Against that vision of peace, James sets our own divided minds with their petty obsessions and addictions, be they money, power, sex, or social media. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James invites us to reorient our lives, to align ourselves with God’s good purposes and to resist every force, within or outside us, that seeks to lure or to force us away from God. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 15 (12.9.2021)

There’s an old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. It was a favourite of my mother’s, regularly used when my sister or I came home complaining that someone at school had been horrid to us.

Now, while there’s an element of truth in that saying, it isn’t the whole truth. Words have power, as St James points out in our first reading this morning, and, as he also points out, it is power that can be used for good and for ill. As he says “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” If you’ve seen the pictures from Greece, or western North America, or from further south in this country, you will know what damage a fire can do. And many of us know from first-hand experience how much damage other people’s words can do to our reputation or to our mental well-being. The words don’t even have to be malicious. I’ve been reading recently about the sad case of Fr Alan Griffin, a priest in London who killed himself because of suspicions which had been aroused by the thoughtless use of language by a senior colleague – suspicions which had no basis in fact. So those words of James that we heard a few minutes ago are important – particularly for those in positions of influence and authority.

Words are also important in this morning’s Gospel. When we read St Mark’s account of Peter’s moment of insight at Caesarea Philippi, we often focus on that moment and lose sight of everything else that surrounds it. When Jesus asks the disciples ‘Who do people say that I am?’ they answer in the same words that were used earlier in the gospel when Mark tells how Herod Antipas heard about Jesus. ‘John the Baptist… Elijah… one of the prophets.’ In other words, they were putting him into a pigeonhole, with other figures from the distant, or the more recent, past. But when Jesus asks ‘But who do you say that I am?’ – and that “you” in Mark’s Greek is very emphatic – Peter’s answer, ‘You are the Messiah,’ really sets the proverbial cat among the pigeons. Peter isn’t putting Jesus into that safe historical pigeonhole with John the Baptist, Elijah and the others. He is saying something very dangerous indeed.

It’s dangerous because of the overtones it carries. “Messiah” in Hebrew, “Christ” in Greek, “God’s anointed” in English, is not a religious figure. “God’s anointed” was, above all, a political title, used in relation to the Kings of Israel, especially Saul, David and Solomon. So, in Roman-occupied Palestine to say that someone was “Messiah” was dynamite. It had the potential to set off a nationalist rebellion against Rome – or a pre-emptive strike by the Roman authorities.

So Jesus immediately reframes the conversation. “He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus doesn’t only “order them not to tell anyone”: he completely changes the key idea, from “Messiah” to “Son of Man”, recalling the mysterious figure in Daniel’s vision who stands before God to plead for true humanity against the monstrous powers which rule this world – and which are represented here by “the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes”. Jesus is not about nationalism and wielding power from above. Jesus is about sharing the fate of the outcast and building justice from below. Peter can’t cope with that and tries to talk Jesus out of it, to silence Jesus as Jesus had silenced the demons. So Jesus turns and silences him – very firmly indeed.

Then he turns to the crowd, as well as the disciples. He warns them what it means to follow him. And when he talks of them having to “deny themselves and take up their cross” in order to follow him, he isn’t using figures of speech. He isn’t talking about living with serious illness, or difficult colleagues or family members. He is talking about living the truth and the justice of God in the full awareness that anyone who does so will inevitably find themselves in conflict with the powers of this world, a conflict which may lead, as it did for Jesus, to a painful and humiliating death. But, as Jesus points out, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” To stand with Son of Man is a choice which will overthrow the powers and give us a share in his victory.

Tony Dickinson

Holy Ghost, GenoaTrinity 14 (5.9.2021)

In last week’s Gospel we heard how Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees, and some high-powered scribes from Jerusalem, about the care – or rather lack of care – with which the disciples kept the rules about purity. Today’s Gospel follows straight on from that, and it takes us – and Jesus and the twelve – in a direction we would not have expected. They head north “to the region of Tyre”, totally outside the Jewish territory of Galilee. It’s the last place you would expect to find a Jewish rabbi with a reputation as a wonder-worker: and that seems to have been Jesus’s reason for going. “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Time, perhaps, for some rest and recreation by the seaside.

It didn’t last long. Word got around and “a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.” Now, that might remind you of someone else whose daughter was seriously ill and who came and bowed down at Jesus’ feet. We heard his story a couple of months ago. Jairus, an important man in the local synagogue, came and fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him repeatedly to come and heal his daughter. We saw then that Jairus’s approach to Jesus was surprising, but the surprise was as nothing compared with the shock of this appeal from a desperate mother. In the first place it was unthinkable in first-century Palestine that a woman should invade, uninvited, the personal space of a man to whom she was not related either by blood or by marriage. In the second place it was a much greater act of defilement than the disciples’ failure to wash their hands before eating. Mark tells us plainly that “the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin”, in other words, a pagan. So her approaching Jesus in this brazen way was doubly shocking, and with that in mind perhaps it isn’t surprising that Jesus attempted to give her the brush-off. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus actually reminds himself that there are limits to his mission: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Mark, as so often, cuts straight to the chase, making the contrast between the children of the household and the dogs.

But this shameless pagan hussy turns the same argument back against Jesus: ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ And Jesus gives way. ‘For saying that (or perhaps “because of that argument”), you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ Something here has changed. Jesus accepts the woman in a way which would have appalled those Pharisees and scribes in last Sunday’s Gospel. He treats her as an equal, despite her shockingly inappropriate behaviour, and he brings her into the kingdom of God’s healing love, as later in today’s Gospel he brings in the deaf-mute from the mainly Gentile Decapolis. The social dynamics of status and honour, race, gender and religion, so important in first-century Palestine, are being turned upside down. The outsider and the alien, the poor and the impure, are welcome in Jesus’ community.

If we were in any doubt about that, the passage from the letter of James that we have heard this morning puts us right very firmly. In Jesus’ community there is to be no favouritism, no sucking up to the rich and despising the poor. This guide to practical Christianity could not be more clear. No sucking up to the rich in the hope of a generous donation! This is “the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” And as we have seen in both today’s readings, the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes neighbours of the most unlikely people. All are welcome. All are to be loved. All are to be served. That’s why, to take one example, we don’t “ring-fence” the foodbank or the clothing bank or limit people’s access to them. They are open to anyone who needs them. As James writes: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” The genuineness of our faith is attested by our actions. As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, reminded his hearers in a sermon over two centuries ago: “[Love] continually incites us to do good: as we have time, and opportunity, to do good in every possible kind, and in every possible degree to all”. Or as James puts it, rather more bluntly, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Holy Ghost, GenoaTrinity 13 (29.8.2021)

For the past four weeks we’ve been working our way through St John’s account what followed the feeding of the five thousand. We’ve been exploring, in particular, Jesus’ teaching about the bread of life and about what it means to share in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This morning we are back with St Mark’s Gospel, but we haven’t quite left the table, because here we are, following Jesus and the disciples into yet another argument with the Pharisees, “and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem”, about yet another failure to play by their rules. This time, it’s the disciples’ failure to wash their hands before eating that’s the cause of the problem.

Now we need to understand one rather important thing about this story. Most of us, I would guess, have been told off a few times, usually by our mothers, for sitting down at a meal without having washed our hands. The reason for that telling-off is the need to maintain hygiene. Sixty years on I can still hear my mother telling me: “You don’t know what germs you might have picked up!” That isn’t the point which is worrying the Pharisees and those high-powered scribes who had come to Galilee all the way from Jerusalem. They aren’t worried about physical hygiene. They are worried about ritual purity. They are worried that the disciple may have been in contact, not with germs, but with Gentiles – or some other source of uncleanness. The other thing we need to understand is that this was a fairly recent development in Jewish practice, promoted by the strictest groups of Pharisees, who wanted every member of the community to keep the same rules and regulations about ritual purity as the priests and Levites kept when they were on duty in the temple.

That could hardly be more different from the way in which Jesus fed all who came to him on the other side of the lake. So, once again, Jesus is taking a stand against the way in which the scribes and the Pharisees exclude others from the grace and mercy of God – and quoting the prophet Isaiah to make his point. This exclusion is not God’s intention. Quite the reverse. It is, as Jesus says, abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human tradition.

And then, as he always does, Jesus takes the discussion to a deeper level – and he does so very publicly, calling the crowd and speaking directly to them: ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ What goes in passes through. What comes out comes from the depths of the heart. Jesus lists the “evil intentions” he has in mind. Some of them, theft, murder and slander, are what we might call “crimes against the person”, or, in the case of fornication and adultery, sins against the person. Others are crimes against society, even though some of them seem to be highly rated in contemporary culture – on social media at least. “Avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly” are very much with us, offering clickbait to the unwary and eating away at trust and honesty between human beings. It’s a very long way from the upright human being described in today’s Psalm.

It’s a long way, too from the advice in our first reading from the letter of James. The German Reformer, Martin Luther, didn’t care for James. “A letter of straw”, he called it. For him it focused too much on how Christians should behave to one another rather than on their relationship with God. But because it does focus so sharply on how we treat one another, and the wider world, it is important reading for this generation. “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” That’s a good starting point in the age of the twitterspat. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Jesus says much the same at various points in the Gospel. Remember the wise man who built his house upon a rock? He is the one who hears the words of Jesus and acts on them. And then James drops in two closing zingers: control your tongue (he’ll have more to say about this in two weeks’ time) and support the vulnerable. This church has a tradition of doing that. We will probably be doing so again as refugees arrive from Afghanistan. Some will be widows and orphans. Most will be, as some of us once were, exhausted, fearful, deeply traumatised by their experiences. Let us welcome them as we were welcomed in Christ’s name.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 12 (22.8.2021)

Today we come to the end of our exploration into what St John tells us about Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist. We have explored what it means to think of it as food for the journey and as “the medicine of immortality”. Today’s Gospel brings that teaching to an end. We revisit the idea of mutual indwelling: “Those who eat [Jesus’] flesh and drink [Jesus’] blood abide in [him], and [he] in them.” We revisit the difference between the manna, the bread from heaven which the Israelites ate in the wilderness, and Jesus, the true bread from heaven. As Jesus reminds those listening to him in the synagogue, “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.”

It’s at this point that the doubts resurface, even among Jesus’ disciples. “They said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” And by that they mean not just difficult to understand, but offensive. We talked two weeks ago about the horror of cannibalism. What we didn’t mention was how often and how strictly the Hebrew Scriptures forbid eating meat which has not been drained of its blood. St Luke tells us that even after the good news of Jesus was taken beyond the Jewish world, non-Jewish disciples were firmly instructed to avoid any meat that did not comply with this rule. So when Jesus talks here about people drinking his blood in order to share his life, those who heard him would have reacted badly.

In reply to their complaints, Jesus talks about what is to come, when the Son of Man will ascend to where he was before, and about the contrast between flesh and spirit. Again “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” They don’t, or won’t, understand that Jesus is offering them life in relationship with God. What about the twelve? Will they, too, follow the others and turn back? Jesus asks them point-blank, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter replies, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ This is, perhaps, John’s version of the confession of faith which Peter makes in the other gospels at Caesarea Philippi.

Now, at a time like the present, faith does not come easy. How can it in the light of the shocking scenes coming out of Kabul – and the even more shocking realisation that western governments appear to have had no idea that this might happen? How can it in the light of the less widely-shared, but equally grim, news coming out on Nigeria, the growing evidence of impending climate catastrophe, and the continuing background drip of statistics about cases of Covid-19 (nearly 7,500 new cases and 45 deaths in this country yesterday)? Where is God in all this? Why does God not step in to protect those who put their trust in him?

God is in all this in the Son of Man who ascends to where he was before by way of the cross, the Christ who “emptied himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race”. He’s in it with us, sharing human suffering and death now as he did then. He’s in it with us, strengthening those on the front line, in hospital, at the perimeter of Kabul Airport, in the blazing woodlands and flooded villages, sharing the pain and desperation of those who have lost everything.

In the face of the world’s suffering, we remember the warning in our first reading that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In response, we put on “the whole armour of God” so that we may indeed “stand firm”. Don’t believe everything you see on social media. Do hold on to what is right and true and tested. Don’t spread violence, lies and hatred. Do be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation, even if it hurts. Take that “shield of faith” – which isn’t a checklist of “things I know about God” but a deep-rooted trust in the God who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the God whose love is stronger than every evil, even death itself. And above all pray. Pray for those who are suffering. Pray for those who cause suffering, be they jihadi militias who imagine that they are serving God by defacing or destroying God’s image in another human being, or smart-suited executives who put their corporation’s profits above the well-being of God’s creation.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 11 (15.8.2021)

Last week, prompted by Jesus’ words earlier in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, we thought about the Eucharist as food for the journey. Today, prompted by the words of Jesus that we have just heard, we’re looking at what it means to talk about the Eucharist as what one of the Church leaders in the generation after the apostles called “the medicine of immortality”.

Let’s start with what Jesus said to those who were disputing among themselves how he could give them his flesh to eat. The idea of cannibalism, then as now, prompted deep feelings of disgust and revulsion and their questions are a timely reminder to us that the words of Scripture are not always to be taken in the absolute literal sense. This is what Jesus says in reply: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” So, if we were in any doubt that Jesus’s words in this chapter are the teaching about the Eucharist which is missing from St John’s account of the Last Supper, we ought not to doubt any longer.

Now, there is something important that needs to be said at this point. Down the centuries scholars have used hectares of paper and kilolitres of ink as they have tried to explain how the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the flesh and blood of Jesus and how that flesh and blood gives eternal life to those who eat and drink. They have used fancy words like “transubstantiation” and “consubstantiation” to describe what happens. They have disputed, just as bitterly as Jesus’ Jewish listeners, how, or indeed whether, Jesus is “really present” in the bread and wine. Forty years ago that question was answered for this generation by a group of more than 100 scholars, from all the main Christian traditions (both eastern and western), who came to an agreement that Christ is present by the power of the Holy Spirit in the worshipping community, in the Word proclaimed and preached, and in the bread and wine which “become the sacramental signs of his body and blood”.

That is why we say, at the beginning of the great prayer of thanksgiving “The Lord is here”. How he is here doesn’t matter. As one of the classic Communion hymns puts it:

Here our humblest homage pay we, 
here in loving reverence bow;
here for faith's discernment pray we, 
lest we fail to know thee now.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Thou art here, we ask not how.

How he is here doesn’t matter. What matters is that through the bread and wine of our Eucharist Jesus feeds us with his own life, life which doesn’t come to an end with the death of our physical bodies. As Jesus says: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” We live and we will live, because he lives in us, sharing his life under tokens, as they used to say, of bread and wine.

As for the life that we live – well, our first reading has something to say about that. The fifth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians is full of what we would call “lifestyle advice”, in other words guidance on how to live well: in this case, how to live well as Christians, whether as individuals or as members of the community. And, for the writer to the Ephesians, to live well as a Christian meant to live a life marked by discipline, joy, and thanksgiving. There’s a lot more about discipline, self-control, in the first part of the chapter – especially when it comes to the first-century equivalent of sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll. In the passage we’ve just heard there’s a sharper focus on the use of time – and the misuse of alcohol. But then we come to the climax of this section, which is about joy and thanksgiving, “singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That doesn’t mean going around with the awful, cheesy Christian grin which suggests that if you’re not smiling you’re not saved. It does mean remembering always that whatever happens, good or bad, we live in Christ and Christ lives in us, feeding us with the true food and the true drink.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 10 (8.8.2021)

‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ Words of encouragement and warning for Elijah, on the run from the vengeance of Queen Jezebel. Words of encouragement to us, too, because Elijah’s journey is our journey, too. Not that we are trying to escape from death threats – at least I hope we aren’t – but because the journey that Eljiah was on is the same journey that we are on, the journey to an encounter with God.

Now, it probably goes without saying that Elijah knows God. In God’s name he proclaims judgement on Israel. In God’s name he heals the sick: he raises the dead: he performs other miracles. None of that stops him from feeling like a wreck and a total failure: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ He is, as we might say, burnt out. So the messenger from heaven sends him on his way to “Horeb the mount of God”, the place where Moses had met God in the burning bush, the place of commissioning and renewal.

‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ Our journey is not to “the mount of God” in any physical sense. Nor is the food for the journey flatbread baked on hot stones. Our journey is to find God at the heart of our being, at the heart of our life as individuals, and as a community, a family of Christians, a community drawn from many nations. Our food for the journey is the bread of life, the bread which is central to this morning’s reading from St John’s gospel.

Alone among the Gospels, St John’s says next to nothing about the last supper. John tells us about what happened before, about what happened after. John tells us about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, about him teaching and praying: but the only time that John mentions the actual meal is at the moment when Jesus gives a morsel of bread to Judas Iscariot and Judas goes out into the night to gather up the posse that will arrest Jesus in the garden. There is no mention of Jesus breaking the bread, let alone describing it as “my body, given for you”. There is no mention of the cup, his “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

The reason for that gap there is that John has filled it already here. In the gospel readings for these four Sundays in August Jesus talks about himself as the bread from heaven, the bread of life, the bread which feeds everyone who comes to him in faith and trust, the bread which was described by one of the leaders of the Church in the generation after the apostles as “the medicine of immortality”. No wonder some members of the crowd listening to him were confused and grumbled among themselves: ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’

Jesus doesn’t answer that question directly. Instead he takes the conversation deeper, spelling out that this is what God is doing. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” Spelling out, too, what God is offering: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” In John’s Gospel Jesus is always talking about life in God, NOW; life in relationship with him, NOW. ‘Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ That is a startling, even shocking, statement – just how startling we shall discover as we unpack it on the next two Sundays. Where the other Gospels start with the bread and link it to sharing in the suffering and death of Jesus, John starts with Jesus as the source of life, eternal life, for those who believe in him and takes it from there.

Both these approaches are true: and both these approaches take us far deeper than the age-old arguments about how bread and wine become flesh and blood, questions as fruitless as those of the crowd. In the end the “how” doesn’t matter. As the first Queen Elizabeth is reported to have said: “’Twas God the word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it, And what the Word did make it, That I believe and take it.” So, today, we take the bread of our Eucharist, the bread of life, the medicine of immortality, food for our journey through the coming week, and spiritual nourishment on our life-long pilgrimage to encounter God, responding, with Elijah, to the angel’s prompting: ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’

Tony Dickinson

Holy Ghost, Genoa – Trinity 9 (1.8.2021)

First of all, may I wish everybody in church today a very happy Lammas. 1st August is the day when, in Anglo-Saxon England, the people would come to church to give thanks to God that the grain harvest had been safely gathered in and households would bring with them the first loaves of bread that had been baked with the flour from that harvest and ask the priest to bless the bread, and them. The act of worship at which that was done was called (in Old English) “Hlafmæsse”, or “loaf-mass”, and the day on which it was done was “Hlafmæssan dæg”, which slides fairly easily into modern English as “Lammas Day”. So, a happy Lammas to you all.

Now, by coincidence, both of our readings today are about bread. In the reading from Exodus we heard how God answered the constant kvetching of the Israelites by providing them with bread from heaven (not to mention a huge supply of migrating quails). In today’s Gospel, after a complicated game of hide-and-seek between Jesus and the crowds has ended with them finding him in Capernaum, we began to explore Jesus’ teaching about the bread of heaven, the bread of life. We will continue doing that for most of the rest of this month – which is quite a switch from Mark’s Gospel to John’s, though it wouldn’t have been such a sudden switch if last Sunday hadn’t been the feast of St James.

If last Sunday had been one of the long row of “Sundays after Trinity”, we would have heard St Mark’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, which explains all the toing and froing across the lake – and why the first words of Jesus to the crowd are “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” In other words, they have really not understood what happened when Jesus took five loaves and two fish, and turned them into a picnic for 5,000 men – at least some of whom presumably had the rest of the family in tow. They were happy to be fed. They missed the meaning behind the feeding. They missed the sign pointing them to the presence of God in their midst.

So Jesus tries again: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” That produces a more promising response from the crowd. ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ They have got a glimmer of an idea that God is in this somewhere. So Jesus tells them: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ In other words, put your trust in the one who has fed you, not because he has fed you, but because he has come from God. And then everything slips back several steps; because the crowd then asks Jesus, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?’ Jesus was right. They didn’t see the sign when he fed them. What’s even more depressing, it turns out that their idea of a “sign”, is a feeding miracle – the one we heard about in our first reading! “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness.” And they still don’t make the connection with what has just happened across the lake.

This is the point at which Jesus might well have given up, but Jesus has God’s patience, which is infinite and bears with all our failures and misunderstandings as it did with the crowd’s. Jesus reminds the crowd that it wasn’t Moses, but God, who provided food for their ancestors in the wilderness. That “he” in our psalm just now, the “he” who “rained down upon them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven” is the Lord, the God of Israel. And it is the same Lord, the God of Israel, who sends the true bread from heaven, Jesus, the bread of God, who “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

So, on this day when Christians in England a thousand and more years ago would gather to give thanks for the bread which was God’s gift in the grain harvest, we give thanks for Jesus the bread of life, God’s gift to the whole of humankind, and we share in the bread through which he shares with us his life.

Tony Dickinson

Holy Ghost, Genoa – St James (25.7.2021)

Today is the feast of St James the Apostle and this is one of his symbols. People who make the pilgrimage to St James’s shrine at Compostela in northern Spain traditionally bring home a scallop shell from the Galician coast as proof that they have completed the journey. The reason we have this one is rather different. We use it to mark, not the end of a journey of faith in the waters of Rio Ulla, but the beginning of a life-long journey of faith in the waters of baptism.

That journey takes in the high points and the low points – like St James’s own journey. He was one of that inner group of three disciples who were closest to Jesus, along with Peter and John, his own brother. They were present when Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter from death. They witnessed his transformation on the mountain. They were the ones to whom Jesus disclosed something of what the future had in store, the ones he took with him when he prayed in the deepening shadows of Gethsemane.

And, despite that, as we heard in this morning’s Gospel, the brothers got Jesus totally wrong.

Matthew says that it was their mum who asked Jesus for a favour. Mark tells us that it was the two brothers themselves. Either way it sounds as if they really hadn’t taken in what Jesus had been teaching them. Here they were, on the way to Jerusalem, the place where Jesus had told them more than once that he would be rejected and tortured and killed: but they still seem to think that he’s going to overthrow the government, kick out the Romans and take power for himself and (obviously) his friends. That was how politics in the Middle East worked then. It’s pretty much how they work now – and not only in the Middle East.

Now, the idea behind their request still affects how a lot of Christians think. That’s why there have been so many unnecessary deaths in the USA’s “Bible belt” during this pandemic. “I don’t need a vaccine, honey. God will keep me safe.” is a common attitude. But as Jesus hints – very heavily – following him doesn’t guarantee you a trouble-free life. The so-called “Prosperity Gospel” is a con. Christians are just as subject as anyone else to what an ancient prayer calls “the changes and chances of this fleeting world” and, in some places, with added persecution. Most of us have some idea what is going on in Nigeria. Christian communities are suffering in other parts of Africa, too. Blasphemy laws are used against believers in Pakistan. And at the end of today’s first reading there is an almost throw-away reference to the death of St James.

Christianity is not about escaping from suffering. It is about enabling us to cope with suffering in a way that transforms it – and us. When Jesus replies to the two brothers he talks about the nature of authority in the community that would become the Church. For many people, religion becomes a belief system or a belonging system, in which all that matters is who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy, who’s unworthy, who’s right and who’s wrong, so that some people can lord it over others. But that is the religion of scribes and Pharisees. It is firmly rejected by Jesus, with his reminder that ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Jesus confronts the brothers with his coming suffering and death, the death we proclaim every time we share the meal which he left to those who follow him. As a wise American Christian has written, “The genius of Jesus’ ministry is that he uses tragedy, suffering, betrayal, and death itself, not to wound us but… to bring us to God. So there are no dead ends for Jesus. Everything can be transmuted and everything can be used.”

If that is so, then the final truth about the kingdom is that it doesn’t work like human power systems. God is not “out there”, rewarding his “friends”. God’s indwelling presence is also guiding us from within, bringing hope in times of crisis and wholeness of spirit in the face of physical pain and infirmity. The cup which Jesus offers to James and his brother is not only the cup of suffering and death which he faced in the darkness of Gethsemane. It is also the cup of blessing through which we share the very life of God.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 7 (18.8.2021)

Well, now that we have all, I hope, recovered from the excitement – and for some of us the disappointment – of last Sunday evening, it’s time for a little reflection. Not about the game itself, but about what happened afterwards, part of which was good and part of which was horrid.

Let’s deal with the horrid part first. As you may know, the three England players who didn’t score from the penalty spot were Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho: all of whom are black – and all of whom were the targets of extremely unpleasant racial abuse from people who claimed to be England supporters. In addition, a mural painting of Marcus Rashford, erected close to where he grew up in Manchester, a mural commissioned in recognition of this remarkable young Christian’s campaigning on child food poverty – that mural was defaced.

The good part was the wider reaction to that torrent of abuse. People all over England closed ranks in support of the three players. Social media platforms have been full of tributes to them and to the whole England team. The Rashford mural has very quickly been restored to its former state – and now you can hardly see it because of the piles of cards and bunches of flowers which people from Manchester and beyond have left there. What could have been very ugly has turned into something rather beautiful – and very interesting, because people are beginning to recognise that for several of the England squad, including Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling, their Christian faith is central to their understanding of who they are, just as it was for the people for whom the Letter to the Ephesians was written.

That letter was written at a time when the big division was not so much racial as cultural. The great divide was not between people of different races but between people of different religions – and especially between Jews and non-Jews. That’s the setting for the words which we heard just now about Jesus “breaking down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” As somebody once said, Jesus turns the cross into a sledge-hammer to demolish every barrier that human beings erect against one another, whether it’s age, or gender, or sexual orientation, or skin colour, or social class.

By his death Jesus has created that “one new humanity”, one new humanity of which all of us are members, wherever we were born, whatever language we may have learned from our mother, whether our skin is black or brown or what one English writer many years ago memorably described as “pinko-grey”. And it is one of the glories of this congregation that it includes people from Africa, from south Asia, from east Asia, from the Americas, as well as from Europe north and south of the Alps. Earlier this year chaplaincies were asked by the diocesan racial justice team to take part in a mapping exercise. Our results were quite startling. The thirty-four people on our Electoral Roll come from twelve different countries. The Church Council is almost exactly balanced between Europeans and people who are black, Asian or from other minorities.

That “one new humanity” is very definitely what we are about, but we are still very much work in progress, as were the people for whom the Letter to the Ephesians was written. Like them, we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but… citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Like them, we are being “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” But, also like them, we aren’t the finished article yet, as a community or as individual members. We’re more like the people in today’s gospel who “begged [Jesus] that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak”. All of us need to deepen our discipleship, through prayer, through faithful study of the scriptures, through sharing in this meal through which Christ shares with us his life. It is through that deepening that we find our healing as “in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God”.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 6 (11.7.2021)

That great African Christian Desmond Tutu famously remarked, some years ago, that he could not understand what Bible people were reading when they said that religion has nothing to do with politics. The radical American Christian Jim Wallis once got a class of his students to cut out all the references to poverty and injustice in the Bible, to find out what they were left with (“Not very much” was the answer – particularly in the Old Testament).

And yet, there continue to be people who want to confine Christian faith (or any faith) to the private sphere. In a book published in the year of the British General Strike in 1926, a famous mathematician and philosopher wrote: “Religion is what an individual does with his own solitariness.” Others were saying much the same thing a decade later; Hitler’s propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, for one. He would have been more than happy to see the Church confined to the sacristy – as, of course, would the Soviet authorities, whose crack-down on religion in the years after 1917 dealt the Russian Church a blow from which it has scarcely recovered more than a century later.

The long list of the martyrs of the last century includes many, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the young student Sophie Scholl to Janani Luwum and Oscar Romero, who died because they dared to do as Amos did in our first reading, and as John the Baptist did to Herod Antipas. They spoke truth to power. They refused to connive with the self-deceptions and illusions of the powerful. Like Amos, they saw the Lord standing with a plumb-line in his hand, measuring the uprightness, the integrity of the people and their rulers. Like John, they recognised the self-serving, self-regarding, self-indulgent reality that lies behind the façade of “national renewal” or “taking back control”. And like John, they perished, because power cannot afford to “lose face”.

We can see that today in the actions of many national leaders. Like Herod, they must not lose face in the presence of “courtiers and officers and the leaders”. But silencing the messenger who speaks of the demands of God’s justice doesn’t silence the message. Death (as for John) or deportation (as for Amos) may be the regular fate of the prophet, but the Lord God still stands in the midst of his people with a plumb-line in his hand and those who serve him, those who are redeemed by the blood of his Son, cannot fail to recognise that reality.

God’s living word, Jesus Christ, has called us into fellowship with him. Jesus Christ, crucified by the powers, but raised by God, Jesus, who feeds us at his table each Sunday morning with the bread of his broken body and the wine of his out-poured blood, is the one who calls all human powers – and all the powers of the universe – into question. Jesus is not John, even though, like John, he will be handed over to earthly powers to suffer and die. Jesus isn’t “a prophet, like one of the prophets of old”, even though, like Amos, he will be rejected by the powerful and denounced by the religious authorities of his own people.

Jesus is not John. Jesus is not simply “a prophet”. Jesus is the plumb-line against whom the whole of humanity is measured. And he is more than that. Jesus is the one on whom we set our hope. Jesus is the one who invites us to reflect God’s glory, to share in God’s glory, to enter, as God’s adopted children, the life to which he was raised. That glory shows up all the pretensions of worldly power. That status, as God’s children, is higher than the loftiest flights of statesmen and tyrants. That is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer could tell a fellow-prisoner as he was led away to the scaffold, “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.” That is why Hans Scholl, Sophie’s brother, could cry out “Long live freedom!” as he stepped across the prison yard on his way to the guillotine. That is why the Herods of this world are constantly tormented by the fear that “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For those who have discovered the truth and life that are in Christ, there is nothing that can make them afraid. There is nothing that can make them afraid, because there is nothing, no power on earth or in the heavens, that can remove them from the safe keeping of the living God.

Tony Dickinson

St Thomas (4.7.2021Transferred from 3.7.2021)

This morning we are cheating. We have moved St Thomas. His special day is really 3rd July – in other words yesterday – but we thought that Thomas is such an important and interesting person that we wanted to celebrate him properly, not least because there are a few members of our congregation for whom St Thomas is a very important person indeed. For Christians from India, and particularly for Christians from the southern Indian state of Kerala, Thomas is a very, very important person. He is important because, according to ancient tradition, he was the first person to bring the good news of Jesus to south-west India, where Christian communities grew at the same time as in Rome, 500 years before St Augustine and his monks arrived in Kent.

Now that is perhaps not what we would expect if all we know about the Church in India is the story of how the missionary societies in Britain sent out people like me to minister to the people who worked for the East India Company and then, many years after that, to the people of the land. Nor is it what we would expect if all we know about Thomas is that he “doubted” the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Don’t people who go out to share good news need to be convinced of the truth of the good news that they are sharing? Well, yes. But when we read the whole of the story of Thomas in the Gospels, and particularly in John’s Gospel, we realise that there is a lot more to him than his insistence that ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

Thomas, as St John shows us, was one of Jesus’ most faithful disciples. When the others were worried about the danger if Jesus returned from Galilee to Judaea after Lazarus died, Thomas said simply “Let us also go, that we may die with him”. But that same faithfulness stops him from making great leaps of imagination. At the last supper, when Jesus promises to prepare a place for his disciples in the Father’s house, and tells them ‘You know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas says bluntly, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’

So here, a couple of days after the resurrection, Thomas finds himself in a minority of one. Although he was one of the twelve, he hadn’t been with the others when Jesus came to them. And didn’t the others rub it in! “The other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’” The Greek word John uses suggests that they kept on saying it – which must have made him feel very much the odd one out. That probably made the week after the resurrection of Jesus a sad and difficult one for Thomas.

If you have ever felt like “the odd one out” in a group or a situation, you’ll have some idea how it felt. Usually it doesn’t matter much, but it can be embarrassing sometimes (like when you turn up at a party in casual gear and everyone else is in fancy dress). Sometimes it can be dangerous (like being the only Genoa supporter in a bar full of Sampdoria fans). Sometimes it’s just sad and difficult. But Thomas didn’t give up – and the other disciples didn’t give up on him. Even though he hadn’t shared their experience, he was still part of their community, meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jerusalem authorities.

Rather like the prophet in today’s first reading, who wants God to act, now, but is told “If [the vision] seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come”. Thomas is prepared to hang on in there even if he has not received “a vision for the appointed time”. That’s what makes Thomas an important figure for all of us – not only those whose roots are in India. Thomas is the example of how to cope when our faith seems unexciting – even dead – alongside that of our fellow-Christians, and when we haven’t been granted the same vision and we feel as though we are the odd one out. That’s when, like the prophet, we need to “wait for it; it will surely come.” And when it does come, we may find, like Thomas, that what we see and experience takes us to a new level in the life of faith. When Jesus showed Thomas the wounds in his hands and side, he didn’t only draw him into the group of those who knew from their own experience that God had raised Jesus from death to a new kind of life. He opened his heart and mind to the new and deeper understanding which enabled him to say “My Lord and my God.”

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 4 (27.6.2021)

There are some episodes in the Gospels which are so familiar that we forget how strange they are. Today’s Gospel reading is one of them. We focus on the final outcome, the restoring to life of the young girl, and we rather forget the number of sometimes surprising twists and turns in the journey that has brought us to that point.

In the first place, the dying girl’s father is one of the leaders of the local synagogue – and up to this point, St Mark’s account of relations between Jesus and the synagogue leadership in Galilee has not been positive. That Jairus should approach Jesus at all is a surprise. That he should fall at Jesus’ feet and beg him repeatedly to come and save his child’s life is simply amazing. Jairus was clearly an important and influential person and he is treating Jesus as someone of equal status. That Jesus should go with him is, perhaps, less of a surprise.

But then there’s an interruption. A woman in the crowd with a distressing long-term medical condition is also in desperate need of healing. Unlike Jairus, she has no status. In fact she is a complete outcast from the community and has been for the past twelve years. Her medical condition isn’t just painful and distressing. It has bankrupted her and made her ritually unclean. She cannot participate in the life of her community. Anyone who touches her – or who is touched by her – also becomes unclean. It’s as bad as testing positive for Covid-19. The law of Moses prescribes quarantine, social distancing and sanitisation. However, she reckons that if she sneaks up behind Jesus and touches the hem of his garment she will be healed and nobody will know.

Mark tells us that she is indeed healed; but, unfortunately for her desire to remain unnoticed, Jesus knows. He is immediately aware that healing power has gone out of him and he wants to know why. So, despite the urgency of Jairus’s need for help, Jesus stops until the woman comes forward and tells him what had happened. Jesus isn’t angry with her for touching him. He doesn’t tell her off for delaying him on his way to Jairus’ house. He lets her go in peace, with her healing publicly confirmed, no longer an outcast from her community to be avoided by all.

That’s we have when the next twist in the story. This happy ending to a drawn-out saga of pain and misery is interrupted by messengers from Jairus’ household, bringing the blunt message that Jesus’ delay has indeed proved fatal. “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” Jesus overhears them and takes control of the situation. He leaves the crowd, and the disciples – apart from that inner group of Peter, James and John – and goes with the girl’s father, to whom he says “Do not fear, only believe.” In other words, forget your status as a community leader; take on the attitude of humble trust that was shown by the woman from the crowd.

Even so, by the time they arrive at Jairus’ house the formal process of mourning for his daughter is already in full swing, “people weeping and wailing loudly”, as they still do in the Middle East after a death. Jesus tells them to stop. “The child is not dead.” That makes the mourners change their tune, from loud wailing to derisive laughter. This seems to have annoyed Jesus. Our translation says that “he put them all outside”. The Greek word Mark uses means “he threw them out”. Jesus takes the parents and the three who had come with him from the lakeside and they go into the room where the dead girl is lying. If her parents, or Peter, James and John, had expected Jesus to do something dramatic, as Elijah and Elisha had done in similar situations, they would have been disappointed. Jesus simply takes the girl by the hand and tells her to get up. And to their total astonishment she does. Jesus hands her back to her parents and tells them to give her something to eat.

So this story isn’t just about healing. It’s about power and about relationships. The power that is in Jesus turns human ideas of purity and holiness upside down. He should have been defiled by the woman’s touch and by touching the dead girl, but he wasn’t. Instead contact with Jesus brought healing and life to them both. God’s healing love embraces us all. It doesn’t wait for us to become perfect before blessing us. What is more, this story reminds us that human ideas about status and honour mean nothing in the kingdom of God. Jesus brings healing both to the poor woman who had suffered misery and exclusion for twelve years and to the child who had grown up during the same twelve years in a high-status household. Both of them were God’s daughters.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 3 (20.6.2021)

What’s the most frightening sea voyage you have ever made? Was it the journey from Libya to Lampedusa? I know from talking to members of our confirmation group a couple of years ago that even in a flat calm that can be frightening, if not downright deadly. The most frightening sea journeys I have made were both a long time ago. One was the thirty-five kilometres from Dover to Calais, crossing the English Channel on one of those very windy days about which somebody once said that “For the first half hour you are afraid the ferry is going to sink: for the next half hour you are afraid it isn’t.” The other was an even shorter journey, the 20 Km or so from the Turkish harbour of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos. That shouldn’t have been difficult, but there had been a storm a couple of days before, so that there was still a heavy swell – and our boat wasn’t one of the superfast hydrofoils that covers that route these days. It was a caique, a little fishing-boat, probably not much bigger than the boat that Jesus and the disciples were using in today’s gospel to get from one side of the sea of Galilee to the other.

Now, this story of St Mark’s isn’t just a traveller’s tale. It has almost as many layers as one of St John’s, and Mark signals that by the way he tells it. Why do you think he describes how Jesus “rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’”? Galilee isn’t a sea. It’s a lake, a stretch of fresh water fed by the river Jordan. It isn’t even particularly big. You could fit two lakes the size of Galilee into Lake Garda and still have room to spare. So why does Mark call it a “sea”? Part of the answer is in the psalm that we shared just now. In Jewish thought, the sea is the home of turmoil, and danger, and overwhelming fear. Talking about sea-farers, the psalmist says “Their soul melted away in their peril”, just like the disciples, desperate to wake Jesus, yelling ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ So when Jesus calms the storm he is restraining the primeval forces of chaos and destruction, bringing them back into peace and harmony – and preparing the ground for the task that lies ahead on the other side of the lake, which is gentile territory, beyond the borders of mainly Jewish Galilee.

That takes us into another area of turmoil. When Mark was writing his gospel non-Jews had long been accepted as disciples of Jesus; but it had not been easy getting to that point, as St Paul’s letters make clear. In the Acts of the Apostles, too, St Luke recognises that difficult decisions had to be made and that arguments were inevitable between Church leaders in Jerusalem, where the Jewishness of Christians was taken for granted, and those like Paul and Barnabas who were working on the boundaries and, indeed, “going across to the other side”. Some commentators on this passage have wondered whether the sudden storm on the lake reflects something of the conflict that threatened to engulf the disciples in those first years of the Church’s life. Is Mark, perhaps, reminding his readers to recognise the presence of Jesus amid the conflict and not lay themselves open to his rebuke, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’

It’s a reminder to us, too, when we are filled with doubts and uncertainties about whether or not we have taken the right course of action; when faith that had seemed so serene and strong is suddenly tested to breaking-point and we are in danger of being submerged by conflicts going on around us, by fear and anxiety within us; when the Lord seems to be asleep – or absent altogether. That, I suspect, has been an experience shared by many of us in recent years, and particularly during these past eighteen months. This story is a reminder that the Lord is with us, to give hope and confidence even when we think that we are perishing and that he is asleep.

One of my favourite Christian writers is the fourteenth-century recluse, Julian of Norwich, who also lived through a time of pandemic. In the last of her sixteen showings, which happened after what reads remarkably like an account of a panic attack, she heard the crucified Christ tell her “You will not be overcome.” As she pondered these words over many years she realised that “He did not say: ‘You will not be tempest-tossed, you will not be work weary, you will not be discomforted’. But He said: ‘You will not be overcome’. God wants us to heed those words so that we shall always be strong in trust, both in sorrow and in joy.”

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 2 (13.6.2021)

One of the things we have had to learn during these past eighteen months of pandemic is how to be patient. We’ve had to queue for tests. Older members of the congregation have had to wait in line for our vaccination, as all of us will have by the end of the summer, God willing. We’ve had to keep our social distance in shops and government offices – and sometimes that has meant standing outside in the rain until our number was called. We’ve all had to learn to cope with restrictions on where we can travel – and in the early months, that included church. And many of us are still involved in the slow and frustrating business of finding regular work again.

So Jesus’ teaching this morning shouldn’t come as too much of a shock to the system. Those two parables of God’s kingdom are both about being patient, about not expecting spectacular instant results, but waiting while the seed grows “of itself”, whether it’s corn, growing and ripening for harvest, or a tiny mustard-seed, developing into a massive shrub. Both of them remind us that, in Martin Luther King’s famous phrase, “The arc of the moral universe is long”.

They also remind us that the long arc of the universe “bends toward justice.” We often find harvest used in scripture as an image of God’s judgement, from the writings of the prophets, through the gospels, to the book of Revelation. The image of the mustard-seed becoming a shrub with branches big enough for birds to nest in its shade looks back to the prophecy of Ezekiel which was our first reading. That’s a prophecy of judgement on the powerful nations, the “high tree” that God will “bring low”. So these parables are not only about patience. They are about hope. They are a reminder that the coming of God’s kingdom of love and justice does not depend on our poor efforts to make it happen. It will happen in God’s good time.

That was an important message in first-century Palestine. There were groups who resented the Roman occupation of their country and wanted to get rid of it by force. At least one of Jesus’ disciples belonged to such a group. There were others, the “realists”, who had decided that the best thing to do was to submit to the occupation and make as much profit out of it as they could. Jesus had a disciple who came from that group, too. And there were others who had decided that the whole system under which they lived, both the Roman military occupation and the Jewish religious establishment, was rotten and that the only way to survive was to opt out completely, to live in their own little bubble of holiness and wait for the end to come. To each of those groups Jesus is saying “That won’t do!” The “revolutionaries” are relying on their own strength, and not on God’s. The “realists” have sold out to the system. The self-consciously “super-holy” are, when it comes down to it, as selfish as the cynics who work the system because in their view it’s never going to change.

The first task of the Christian disciple is to be alert to the signs of growth and to tend them, like the farmer watching over his field as the seed which he has scattered sprouts and grows, “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head”, not to pull it up every few days to see how it’s growing, but to let it grow. The second task of the disciple is not to be overwhelmed by the forces ranged in defence of the world against the poor resources of those who are longing for God’s kingdom. What we have in us may seem as small as a mustard-seed, but just think for a moment. Jesus was talking to a small core group of Galilean peasant farmers, fishermen, a government official, and a few women. We, who have been listening this morning to what he said, are part of the movement they started, a movement that has spread right around the world – and not just the world that they knew, Palestine and its neighbouring regions. Most of us come from lands that they didn’t even know existed. That is some mustard-seed!

So, yes, we can hope. Yes, God’s kingdom will prevail. It won’t be quick. “The arc of the moral universe is long”. It won’t be triumphal. It will come in God’s good time. It will come in the way which Jesus has shown us, the way of non-violence, of servant leadership, of suffering, self-giving love. So we must be patient, dear sisters and brothers, as our loving heavenly Father is patient with us.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 1 (6.6.2021)

I’ve got some good news and some bad news for all of us here this morning.

The good news is that what we heard a few minutes ago in our first reading is true. The bad news is that what we’ve just heard in the Gospel reading is also true.

Actually, it’s not all bad news; but it is an important warning against letting the values of the people around us – even the people who are nearest to us – take priority over the values of God. Jesus’s family probably loved him very much. They were certainly very concerned about him. But they didn’t understand what he was doing, and they listened to their neighbours instead of listening to God. The legal experts from Jerusalem were also very concerned about Jesus – because he didn’t fit their neat categories. He was doing things that nobody had done within living memory. So they got him completely wrong.

And sometimes, when we try to follow Jesus, people will get us completely wrong, and our nearest and dearest won’t understand what we are doing, and why we’re doing it. They may not say “He (or she) has gone out of his mind”, but they may think it: and they may try to stop us, as Jesus’s family tried to stop him.

It can be tough sometimes being a follower of Jesus. That’s the bad news.

But that’s also where we find the good news; because however tough it may be following Jesus, if we keep following, faithfully, to the end of our life, we know that when we come to the end we shall be where he is. As St Paul wrote to the people who had come to Christian faith in Corinth, “the one who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.”

Most of us have been through a kind of death and resurrection when we passed through the waters of baptism. That’s the first step in following Jesus. It’s the first step towards being where he is for ever.

There are lots of other steps along the way, of course. Probably all of us have discovered that as we follow Jesus there are many twists and turns. Some of them have taken us through glorious and beautiful scenery, where everything is going well and we feel very close to God. Others have taken us into dark and difficult places, where we experience nothing but failure and disappointment and God seems far away – so far away, perhaps, that we doubt whether he is really there. When that happens we need to pay attention to the second part of what St Paul wrote in our first reading, when he tells us not to lose heart.

Let’s listen again to what he wrote to those Christians in Corinth: “Even though our outward nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” In other words, even if things go wrong, God is still at work in us, using the difficult times to shape us and build us up.

God willing, the Olympic games which were postponed from last year will take place in Japan this summer. Think of the athletes in training for those games. Runners and cyclists, swimmers and rowers know all about the pain barrier as they push their bodies to the limit, but they know that if they don’t push their bodies, they won’t win that medal on which they have set their sights. They would recognise, on a purely human and physical level, the truth of St Paul’s words, when he tells the Corinthians that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”

And as we are reminded at the very end of today’s gospel reading. Jesus doesn’t call us to follow him on our own. He calls us into a community of people on the same journey – like pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem (or football fans on their way to the Euros). As we seek to follow Jesus in doing God’s will, we become part of his family. So, even if our nearest and dearest get it wrong, and even if the road we travel is hard and dangerous, we can still share our fears, and our joys, with people who will support us and encourage us as we journey together to God’s kingdom and see his glory in the face of Jesus the Christ.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity Sunday (30.5.2021)

In January 1873, about six months after this church was dedicated, The Revd Dr Edward Bouverie Pusey lay seriously ill in Genova. He had come to Liguria, as many English people did in those days, for the sake of his health and he had developed pneumonia. For many people in those days Dr Pusey was a hugely important figure, more important in some eyes than the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there was great anxiety that he might not recover. Henry Acland, one of the most highly-regarded doctors in Victorian England, was summoned from Oxford to Pusey’s bedside. Fortunately, Dr Acland’s treatment was successful and Pusey’s condition began to improve – to such an extent that, even from a distance of 1400 kilometres, he added his weight (by letter) to the campaign to keep the Creed of St Athanasius as part of Morning Prayer in the Church of England on a dozen or so occasions during the year, including Christmas Day, Easter Day, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t consciously recall ever having said or sung the Creed of St Athanasius. Pusey’s intervention may have helped to win the battle in the 1870s, but in the end, the supporters of the Creed of St Athanasius lost the war. Which is not entirely surprising. In the first place the Creed of St Athanasius isn’t by St Athanasius: it is never mentioned in his writings and it cannot be traced back further than a hundred years or so after his death. In the second place, it isn’t a Creed. It’s a set of rules setting out how Christians can safely talk about God as Trinity, which is a question which has caused many arguments over the centuries. It’s a question which causes serious problems between Christians and Muslims who think, when they hear us talking about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that we are talking about three different beings – and for Muslims, to associate any being with the one true God is the deadliest sin.

So, it might be a good idea to have a copy of the Creed of St Athanasius to hand when talking with Muslims about God, because it makes very clear that while Christians worship God as Father, Son and Spirit, “…yet they are not three Gods: but one God.”

The wider problem, though, is that, while most talk about God is likely to lead to misunderstanding, talk about God which tries to define God is asking for trouble. That’s particularly true when people try to explain the Trinity, because God as Trinity isn’t an idea to be defined, it’s an experience to be lived. We can see that in both the other Creeds which the Church uses, the Nicene Creed, which we say every Sunday, and the Apostles’ Creed, which started life as the answers given by candidates for baptism in Rome eighteen or so centuries ago. They talk about God as human beings experience God. They talk about God the Father as God who is the reason why there is something rather than nothing. They talk about God the Son as God revealed in the context of a human life lived in a particular place at a particular point in history. They talk about God the Holy Spirit as God revealed in our experience in the life of the Church.

In other words they talk about God in God’s effects, God’s activity, rather than God’s being, God’s essence. That is, in this life at least, unknowable, though some may, perhaps, begin to explore it in their prayer. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” And when, in the year King Uzziah died, the prophet Isaiah “saw the Lord”, all he could see was the hem of his robe filling the temple and the house of God full of the smoke of incense.

So, when you hear someone laying down the law about who God is be very, very wary. The God we worship, the God to whom we offer our prayers and praises and thanksgivings day by day, the God who meets us in such everyday things as water and wine and bread, is the God of compassion and mercy, recognising our human frailty, forgiving our repeated faults and failings, loving us so much as to share our life and our death, so that we may share God’s life eternally. That is what matters: that at the heart of the universe, embracing all that there is in infinite and unconditional love, sending the Son “in order that the world might be saved through him”, is the one true God who is Father, Son and Spirit.

Tony Dickinson

For anyone wondering about the Creed of St Athanasius, to which this sermon makes reference: here is the text (and the rules for its use) from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Pentecost (23.5.2021)

Our two readings today seem to be moving us in opposite directions. St Luke’s account of the festival of Pentecost pushes us further into the weeks after Jesus’ resurrection, beyond the ending of the Gospels. St John, on the other hand, pulls us back to the evening before Jesus’ arrest and execution. What holds them together is their shared focus on the Spirit of God and what the coming of the Spirit means for those who follow Jesus.

St Luke makes it all very public and dramatic: “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” filling the house where the disciples had gathered; “divided tongues, as of fire”, resting on each of them; the sudden ability to speak in languages other than the Aramaic they spoke every day, the Hebrew they used in the synagogue, and the Greek which was the international language, the first-century equivalent of English today. And suddenly they are all out in the street telling the crowds who were in Jerusalem for the festival “about God’s deeds of power”, people from all over the Middle East – in modern terms, from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the Gulf states and Saudi – and from all round the Eastern Mediterranean, from North Africa as far as Italy: and being understood by all of them! This is not the outcome we might expect from the way in which John describes Jesus telling his disciples how the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, will come to them.

Now that word which our Bible translates as “advocate” is a tricky word. When we think of an “advocate”, we think of the law. In Scotland the Lord Advocate is the chief legal officer of the Scottish government. In the armed services of Britain and the USA and some Commonwealth countries there is a Judge Advocate General who is the chief military legal officer. It’s the same word as the Italian avvocato. How many of you have had an avvocato alongside you when you have been in front of your commission? So you know what an advocate does. She or he speaks on your behalf in front of a higher authority. He or she is someone who is on your side.

Which fits rather well with what Jesus is telling the disciples. The Advocate will come. The Advocate will be on their side. But, above all, the Advocate will be concerned with truth.

Which is why the Advocate is not only our defender. The Advocate is also a prosecutor. “When he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement.” Now, that’s OK because, as we heard in our Gospel reading last Sunday, “[we] do not belong to the world, just as [Jesus does] not belong to the world.” He has freed us from what Dorothy Day called “the whole rotten system” into what St Paul calls “the glorious freedom of God’s children”. Strangely, it takes some people years to work that out. And there are some, sadly, who never work it out. They have this idea of God as judge and prosecutor, marking down their every lapse from perfection; and that terrifies them. They try to appease a God who is wrath, not love. And, of course, they fail, because whatever they do, their “God” will be angry with them.

That “God” could hardly be more different from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who sends his Son to set us free and the Spirit of Truth to be our Advocate, to stand alongside us, to guide us into all the truth. And the Spirit does more than that, because the word that our Bible translates as “advocate” is, as I said earlier, a tricky word. It has several meanings. Two of the most important of those meanings have to do with encouragement and with consolation, in the sense of being there for us, of seeing us through the grimmest parts of our life and bringing us to glory. Not making it all go away, but giving us strength and hope when we need it – as we have during these past eighteen months, and as we are likely to for some time yet.

So today, on our Patronal Festival, we give thanks to our patron, God the Holy Spirit, God who leads us into truth, God who is on our side, who speaks for us, who encourages us; God who gives us strength and hope when we need it – and God who gives us vision, who gives young people dreams, as Peter told the crowd on that amazing morning in Jerusalem. Let us not be afraid to dream, as we plan next year’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the dedication of this building, and let us not be afraid to share with others, who do not speak in our mother tongue, the story of God’s deeds of power. And to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…

Tony Dickinson

Easter 7 (16.5.2021)

If anyone ever asks you what it means to be a Christian, you could do a lot worse than point them to the two readings that we have just heard this morning. The first one, St Luke’s account of how the gap in the Twelve left by Judas was filled, tells us what it means outwardly. The second one, part of the great prayer, sometimes called “the high-priestly prayer” which Jesus offers to the Father right at the end of the Last Supper – that prayer tells us what it means inwardly. And the two go together.

First of all, let’s look at the outward. Think for a minute about why Peter was so keen to replace Judas. Was it to airbrush him out of the Church’s memory? Well, clearly not. Christians still remember Judas Iscariot. We still puzzle over what he did and why he did it. He is there, “the one destined to be lost”, as Jesus calls him in the prayer. So why was Peter so keen? Well, first of all, it seems to have been to complete the number of the Twelve again, to keep in being the core of God’s “new Israel”. But what Peter says is rather more than that. First he sets out the person specification for this new member of the Twelve. He, and in terms of first-century Palestine it has to be “he” – he must be “one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” He has to be someone who knows what, or rather who, he is talking about. He has to know the story. That, though, is only part of it. His role, like that of the other eleven, is to “become a witness with [them] to [Jesus’] resurrection.’

So that’s what it means to be a Christian outwardly. It doesn’t mean having all the answers. It means becoming a witness to Jesus’ resurrection: not as an event that happened nearly 2000 years in the past in Palestine, but as a living reality here and now in Genova, as something that has made a difference, and still is making a difference to the way we live, to the way we behave, the way we treat other people. Those are the ways in which we become witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, by the impact that his life and death and resurrection has on our lives.

Which brings us to what it means to be a Christian inwardly. And again, it doesn’t mean having all the answers. Nor does it mean knowing the Bible backwards. Being a Christian inwardly means being one with your fellow-believers and one with Christ. It means receiving the words of Jesus and dwelling in them. Not using them to clobber other people, but reading and reflecting on what they mean for you, letting them blossom and bear fruit, letting them deepen your understanding and broaden your vision. If you have a pattern of daily Bible reading, don’t just rattle through the passage for the day but take time over it, chew it over in your mind like that British prime minister in Queen Victoria’s reign who was said to chew every mouthful of food thirty-two times before swallowing it.

It also means being “different”, living by the values which Jesus taught, not by the values which the world tries to pump into us through the press, through broadcasting, through social media with all its group-think and conspiracy theory and “influencers”. It means rejecting any kind of violence, any kind of exploitation or manipulation. It means treating all human beings with respect, irrespective of the colour of their skin, their age, their gender, their wealth (or lack of it), their sexual orientation. It means recognising the authority of Jesus over every aspect of our life, every moment of our life, not just the hour we spend in church on Sunday.

And that brings us back to what it means to be a Christian outwardly. We can’t opt out from engaging with the world. It is true that we do not belong to the world, just as Jesus our Lord does not belong to the world. But to quote from that prayer of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” As the Father has sent Jesus into the world, so we are sent into the world to continue the work of our risen, ascended Lord, to reveal his presence in the midst of his creation, to bring healing and hope to a broken and distracted planet. And so to God the Father, who first loved us…

Tony Dickinson

Ascension Day (13.5.2021)

Why do we celebrate the ascension of Jesus on this day? Well, obviously, it’s because of the time-line that St Luke sets out in the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles with its forty days of teaching by the risen Jesus. Matthew and John – and indeed Luke himself in the Gospel passage we have just heard whose setting, remember, is late in the evening of the first Easter Day – Matthew and John link the Ascension much more closely with the Resurrection. On the other hand, the resurrection appearances which St Paul lists in his first letter to the Church in Corinth would certainly have needed most of those forty days – and maybe more. But perhaps, the important thing isn’t the time-line. Perhaps the important thing is that, whichever way you look at it, the first Christians were, to begin with, intensely aware of the presence of the risen Christ in their midst but that there came a point when that intensity faded and was replaced by a sense that he had returned to the Father, “carried up into heaven” as Elijah had been: and then in the place of his physical presence, there came the dynamic inner presence of the Holy Spirit.

Now, that is where the theologians get quite excited: because what Luke and Matthew and John are telling us is that in returning to the Father Jesus takes our humanity into the Godhead. So that Bishop Christopher Wordsworth of Lincoln could write 150 years ago “Thou hast raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand; there we sit in heavenly places, there with thee in glory stand; Jesus reigns, adored by angels; man [and, we might want to add, “woman”] with God is on the throne; Mighty Lord, in thine ascension we by faith behold our own.” Admittedly Christopher Wordsworth was not as great a poet as his uncle William, but he had the gift of being able to sum up orthodox Christian teaching in words that spoke to people’s hearts and minds.

At the same time this is where the mystics and the contemplatives and the charismatics also become excited. The anonymous English priest who wrote “The Cloud of Unknowing” some time in the middle of the 14th century recognised the Ascension as a kind of “acted parable”. “Since it had to be” he wrote, “that Christ should ascend physically, and then send the Holy Spirit in tangible form, it was more suitable that it should be ‘upwards’ and ‘from above’, than it should be ‘downwards’ and ‘from beneath’ ‘from behind, from the front, or from the sides’. Apart from this matter of suitability, there was no more need for him to have gone upwards than downwards, the way is so near. For, spiritually, heaven is as near down as up, up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on this side as on that! So that whoever really wanted to be in heaven is there and then in heaven spiritually. For we run the high way (and the quickest) to heaven on our desires, and not on our two feet.”

So, in the Ascension of Jesus we have humanity taken into the Godhead. And in the descent of the Spirit God becomes actively present in human lives. It’s a bit like one of our funicular railways here in Genova, where the weight of the railcar coming down the hill helps to haul the railcar going up. Only in this case it’s the other way round. Luke, and John in his Gospel, both emphasise that it is Jesus’ return to the Father which releases the promised “power from on high”, the power which St John calls the Παρακλητος, the advocate, the intercessor, encouraging and consoling. That double movement enables the disciples to “be [Jesus’] witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” and it allows St Paul to speak of the Church in terms of “the body of Christ”, inhabited and animated by God’s Spirit.

So today as we celebrate the Ascension, we are not marking an absence, but a new mode of presence through which we too are the body of Christ coming together to share the Lord’s supper as the Lord’s body around the Lord’s table. As St Augustine told his congregation in North Africa, “It is the mystery of yourselves that is laid on the Lord’s table; it is the mystery of yourselves that you receive….Be what you can see, and receive what you are.”

It’s when we grasp that amazing truth that we are able fully to play our part as “witnesses of these things”, living the proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, because we have experienced both, and sharing that “great joy” of the disciples in a daily prayer which overflows in blessing God.

Tony Dickinson

Easter 6 (9.5.2021)

Today’s gospel reading begins where last Sunday’s left off. It focuses our attention on one of those ideas which feature regularly in John’s Gospel, the idea of “abiding”. It’s there at the beginning of today’s passage, as Jesus tells his disciples “Abide in my love”. It’s there at the beginning of the whole Gospel, when John the Baptist talks about the Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism and “abiding” (or “remaining” – the Greek word can be translated either way), and when Andrew and another of John’s disciples ask Jesus “Where do you abide?” (or “Where are you staying?” – again, though, it’s the same word in Greek). In a sense, what Jesus has to say in this morning’s reading, fourteen chapters further on, is the answer to that question.

“Where do you abide?” “I abide in [the Father’s] love.”

Jesus abides in the Father’s love. He invites us to abide in his love. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” And abiding in his love means keeping his commandments. If we do that, says Jesus, his joy will be in us and our joy will be complete. That can’t be bad, can it?

And then there follows what ought to be the most frightening sentence in the whole New Testament, if not the whole Bible. “This is is my commandment” says Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” It’s that last phrase which is the killer: “as I have loved you.” It’s the killer, quite literally, because it’s his love for the disciples, for us, for the whole of humanity, which brought Jesus to the cross. It’s that love which strengthened Jesus against the realisation that Judas would betray him, that Peter would deny him, that the other disciples would abandon him and run away. And just in case we haven’t grasped that, Jesus spells it out. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Even when one of those friends turns out to be a traitor and the others are revealed as cowards. That is what it means to “love one another as I have loved you.” It’s a reminder of the truth of that children’s song about Jesus’ love being very wonderful: “So high, you can’t get over it: so low, you can’t get under it” and so on.

Now, when we talk about “the love of Jesus” we are not talking about something soft and sentimental, the sort of feelings that we used to call “warm fuzzies”. The love of Jesus is tough love. It has to be, otherwise it would be broken by the cruelty of what John calls “the world.” It’s realistic love. It knows what is going on in the depths of the human heart. It knows our capacity for deceiving others and deceiving ourselves. And it is absolutely without boundaries and without conditions. Peter is restored to his place among the disciples. Thomas’s hesitation is acknowledged and his faith is affirmed. All of the others are accepted by the risen Lord whose first word to them is “Peace”. And there is great insight in the response of the child who was asked what she thought Jesus was doing during his three days among the dead and replied that he was looking for his friend Judas. God’s love never gives up on us, however badly we betray him.

Yesterday the Church of England remembered Julian of Norwich. She was a young woman, probably married with children, who was taken seriously ill at the beginning of May 1373, when she was thirty. On 8th May her illness reached its climax. Julian’s family thought that she was dying, as did she, and sent for the local priest to give her the last rites. He did, and left a wooden crucifix, propped up where she could see it. In fact, Julian didn’t die, but during the night of 8th May and through the next day she received a series of sixteen remarkable visions or “showings”, focused on the figure of the crucified Jesus, who spoke to her and taught her many things about God’s love and Christ’s joy in saving humankind from the powers of evil. Julian pondered these “showings” for many years, before having all that she had experienced set down in writing. This is how she summed it up: “From the time these things were first revealed I had often wanted to know what was our Lord’s meaning. It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit’s understanding. You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was His meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For Love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else – ever!”

Tony Dickinson

Easter 5 (2.5.2021)

How many different peoples are mentioned in the Bible? Israelites, obviously. Egyptians, too, and Assyrians and Babylonians, not to mention the assorted Moabites, Amorites, Hittiites, Hivites, Girgashites, Jebusites and all the rest, who made the Israelites’ life a misery from time to time. There are quite a few Italians in the New Testament, usually military men or politicians, and several Greeks – and there are Africans, lots of Africans. They appear in the Old Testament as well as in the New. In the second book of Chronicles there is a whole army of them, a million strong, says the Chronicler, with three hundred chariots, mainly from Ethiopia. According to the book of Numbers, Moses was married at one stage to a woman from Nubia (modern-day Sudan) and things were difficult with the in-laws. In a later age, it was a Nubian runner who brought King David the news that his rebellious son Absalom was dead. In the days of King Hezekiah of Judah the Ethiopian ruler of Egypt, Tirhakah, saved Jerusalem from being conquered by the Assyrians. A hundred years after that, another Ethiopian, Ebed-Melech, saved the life of the prophet Jeremiah when he was in more than usually serious trouble with the rulers of Judah.

There are mentions of people from North Africa in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, most notably Simon, from Cyrene in Libya, who carried Jesus’s cross to Golgotha. And there’s the Ethiopian we’ve heard about this morning, a senior government official, returning home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – and presumably finding just how strict were the limits on his ability to take part in worship there: not because of his race, but because he was a eunuch. Incomplete males were not allowed to enter the assembly of God’s people.

As the Ethiopian set out on his journey home he was reading the prophecies of Isaiah, and it’s at this point that God pushes Philip, one of the seven deacons of the church in Jerusalem, into the picture. “The Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’” So Philip does, and he offers to explain the passage that the Ethiopian is reading, interpreting Isaiah’s poem about the Lord’s suffering servant in relation to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Ethiopian is attracted by Philip’s explanation of the prophecy and the good news about Jesus which he proclaimed to him “starting with this scripture”. He sees some water beside the road and asks “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The short answer is “Nothing.” He could be accepted into the Christian community in a way that had not been possible for him in the temple. “He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” The Ethiopian began his new life as a Christian and went on his way rejoicing.

This morning we are rejoicing in a new life as we give thanks for Edwin’s safe arrival in the world. Not baptism – yet – but thanksgiving and prayers that Edwin’s life may be filled with joy and with the knowledge that he is loved, not only by his parents but also by God. So we pray that as Edwin’s parents surround him with their love, they will explain to him the good news about Jesus and his love for us. We also pray that Edwin may always abide in that love and bear much fruit for Christ – and that he may always know himself to be fully accepted in the assembly of God’s people. The story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian and the words of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel remind us that we become fully alive when we abide in Christ the true vine, living in relationship with God through him.

Tony Dickinson

Easter 4 (25.4.2021)

While we were listening to this morning’s readings, that beautiful mosaic of “The Good Shepherd” by Antonio Salviati, pictured below, will have been a natural focus of attention for many of us. As an illustration of today’s Psalm, Salviati’s mosaic would be hard to beat. It has the green pastures, the still waters, the shepherd’s staff, and, far off in the background, a set of rather grand buildings that might well be “the house of the Lord”, but there is something missing, something that makes this mosaic an incomplete interpretation of the Psalmist’s words.

Where is the valley of the shadow of death? The hills in the background, like the “green pastures” in the foreground, are all sunlit. And the figure of Jesus offers no sign that he is “the good shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep.” Unlike the risen Christ who has figured in our gospel readings on the Sundays since Easter, this Jesus cannot invite his disciples to examine the wounds in his hands and feet and side. He has none. We are very close, as we look at this picture, to the kind of Christianity in which, as somebody once said, “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” In other words, it’s beautiful, but it isn’t quite real. There is no sense of danger, no sense of the costliness of God’s love for us.

Jesus is quite up-front about that. The flock has to be defended against wolves, powers of evil that terrify the “hired hand”, who “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them”. There are Christians in many parts of the world who could testify to such an experience. People caught up in the events in Nigeria which were mentioned in the sermon and the prayers last Sunday could bear witness. So could my friend Jean in the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose people are under attack and have been largely abandoned by the forces that should be protecting them. But the message of the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep is two-fold: first, that he is there in the suffering with us; and second, that misery, oppression and death are not God’s last word to his creation.

The good shepherd lays down his life so that he may take it up again. Life wins. Love wins. And love’s patience will bring all of humanity and the whole of creation into the sheepfold of life, the sheepfold of God’s kingdom. Each of us has our part to play in that process.

“Now, wait a minute!” you may be thinking. “If Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are the sheep, isn’t our part simply to follow?” Well, yes and no. Yes, because that is our role. The sheep follow the shepherd. But it’s more subtle than that. If you ever watch a flock of sheep in a field – not that there are too many of them round here! – if you watch a flock of sheep you will notice that from time to time one of them, or a small group of them, will decide it’s time to move on – from one part of the field to another, perhaps, where the grass hasn’t been so heavily trampled – and when that sheep, or that small group, moves, the rest of the flock will follow. That’s how the shepherd is able to guide the flock by walking ahead of the sheep. Once the shepherd starts moving, a few sheep will follow, and a few more, and then the rest of them will come along. Christians have that role in the world. To follow Jesus, and to lead the rest.

This morning, at the end of this service, we are going to choose four people who will bear a particular responsibility for following Jesus the good shepherd and drawing the rest of us after him. Two of them are the churchwardens. Two of them are the new members of the Church Council. All four of them, with the continuing members of the church council, and with me, have the responsibility of staying close to Jesus and bringing the rest of the flock with them – and by “the rest of the flock”, I mean the whole people of God here at the church of the Holy Ghost, so that we can draw other people after us, because they trust us to follow the Lord to where there are green pastures and still waters, refreshment for the soul and righteousness of life, and because they start to learn to trust Jesus our good shepherd to be their good shepherd, too, to stay with them in times of danger, to protect them from powers of evil, and to bring them safely, at the last, into the sheepfold that is God’s kingdom.

Holy Ghost, GenoaEaster 3 (18.4.2021)

St Peter has come a very long way. Remember how he reacted when Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again? Mark and Matthew tell us that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” – and that Jesus told Peter off in no uncertain terms. But here we are, no more than a few months later, and Peter is telling the crowd which has gathered round him and John and the man that they have just healed, “In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.”

It’s doubly remarkable, because the crowd to which Peter is speaking with such confidence probably includes many of the people who only weeks before had handed Jesus over and rejected him in the presence of Pilate – and maybe some of those who had forced Peter into three embarrassing denials that he knew Jesus. So, what has made the difference? Quite simply, it’s the experience described in this morning’s gospel, which confirmed and reaffirmed those words of Jesus, “that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”. It’s that experience, followed shortly afterwards by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which makes it possible for Peter to say about himself and John “To this we are witnesses” – the identical words that Jesus had said to the gathered disciples: “You are witnesses of these things.”

So, too, are we. Not in the sense that we were physically “there when they crucified my Lord” – most of the disciples weren’t either, apart from the women – but in the sense that our lives have been changed by an encounter with the risen Christ, through the circumstances of our lives, through other people, even through what a wise English bishop of the last century used to call a “cosmic disclosure situation”, one of those moments when the reality of God hits us smack between the eyes in a way we can’t ignore. We are witnesses of these things, and we bear witness (for good or ill) by the quality of our life both as individuals and as a community of Christian disciples.

We are also witnesses to the cost of that discipleship. You may have noticed on your way in or out of church the pile of the copies of “The Tablet” which are sent to me from England each week. It’s a Catholic publication, but I read it because it provides insights into what is going on in the worldwide Church (and not least in this country) in a way that not many Anglican publications do. One of the “must read” pages is normally the weekly letter from their Rome correspondent, Christopher Lamb: but this week, he’s taking a post-Easter break, so instead of a “Letter from Rome” there’s a “View from Lagos”, written by a freelance Nigerian journalist, Patrick Egwu. It is disturbing reading for anyone who cares about Nigeria, because it shows how close Nigeria is to becoming a failed state, and it highlights the way in which Christian communities, and their leaders, are increasingly being targeted – not just by Boko Haram and other Islamist militants, as you might perhaps expect in the light of recent history, but also by criminal gangs out to make money from kidnapping and extortion.

So I commend to your prayers our sisters and brothers in Nigeria and their pastors and priests: not only that they may be kept safe from this latest threat, on top of the pandemic, but that they may find the same courage and confidence in the risen Christ that Peter showed, courage in the face of criminal violence and governmental failure, confidence in Christ’s power to sustain his Church in times of danger and perplexity, and confidence in his power to heal, not only individuals but also nations when they turn to him in repentance and faith.

And as we pray for them, let us also pray for ourselves, that we may be faithful witnesses to the Christ who has encountered us, as he does today in the breaking of bread,the Christ who has entrusted us with the task of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations – not “by our own power or piety” but by lives which are open to the power of his love to transform and to bring about healing.

Tony Dickinson

​Holy Ghost, Genoa – Easter 2 (11.4.2021)

Many of the eminent clergy invited to preach before Queen Elizabeth at Sandringham or Balmoral have reported that the trickiest part of their experience was not so much preparing and preaching the sermon itself as the meal afterwards at which they would be closely questioned about what they had said in their sermon by the Duke of Edinburgh, whose death was announced on Friday. Prince Philip, like his wife, was a staunch Anglican who thought deeply about his faith and was not afraid to ask questions, even if, at times, they weren’t entirely comfortable for those who had to provide the answers. So perhaps it’s fitting that we should be giving thanks for his long life on this Sunday when we remember St Thomas, who was also not afraid to ask questions – or to say things that others found uncomfortable.

It’s fitting in another way, too, and one that tends to be forgotten by people who think of the British royal family as a kind of block of like-minded, highly privileged, extremely wealthy people. Prince Philip, like Thomas, was an outsider. Thomas, because he hadn’t been with the other disciples when the risen Jesus first came among them; Prince Philip, because his background was so different from pretty well all of the courtiers who surround the royals and enforce all those little unwritten rules and codes which, we are told, made the Duchess of Sussex’s life so difficult that she and Prince Harry have felt driven to take refuge in the USA.

Prince Philip was born on the Greek island of Corfu. His paternal grandfather was Danish. His grandmother was Russian. He belonged to the family of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, whose roots are in North Germany. His father was a younger son of the King of Greece, and the whole family had to leave the country in a hurry for exile in France when Philip was barely a year old, part of the great pool of impoverished aristocratic families which swirled around Europe in the unsettled years after the First World War, living from hand to mouth and often dependent on the kindness and generosity of their more fortunate friends and relations – a bit like the situation of sharing which St Luke described in our first reading.

As his family moved around Western Europe, Prince Philip was educated in France, England, Germany and Scotland, finally ending up at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, in Devon, which was where his path first crossed that of the teen-aged Princess Elizabeth. After completing his training at Dartmouth in 1940, he served with distinction in the Royal Navy. Although the Prince became the husband of the Church of England’s Supreme Governor, he had been baptised as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. To complicate things, his Danish and German ancestors belonged to the Lutheran tradition and Philip explored that connection when he was in Germany. From his time at Dartmouth onwards, though, he felt at home as an Anglican, and when he became engaged to Princess Elizabeth in 1947 he was formally received into the Church of England by Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher. The rest, as they say, is history.

The outsider had become an insider, but he never forgot the difficulties and humiliations of his early years and among the good causes with which he was associated as honorary member or patron, there were a number which, like the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, provide support for people who are excluded by circumstances or disability from sharing fully in the life of the world around them. Above all this, though, was his support for Queen Elizabeth and the sometimes strained and frustrated self-effacement which for the 73 years of their marriage placed her first. One obituary notice described the Prince as a “pioneer of the ‘New Man’” – though he might not have been everyone’s idea of a feminist icon.

Prince Philip’s death leaves a gaping wound in the life of his wife and family, inevitably, but also in the life of the monarchy. For now, though, let us focus on those other wounds, which Thomas was invited to touch, the wounds by which we are healed, and let us remember that as Thomas the outsider draws near to the wounds of the risen Christ he recognises in them the love to which no one is an outsider, the Love who reigns over all humankind as Lord and God, restoring all things to life and wholeness in himself.

Tony Dickinson

Easter Day (4.4.2021)

Alleluia. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

It is so good to say those words in a church with people in it! Last Easter we were in lockdown without an exception for attending church. Even when we came out of lockdown it was a bit like the raising of Lazarus, coming back to something like normal life, but bound hand and foot. This year, perhaps our Easter celebrations will be a better reflection of the Lord’s break-out from the realm of death into a life that has been transformed by what we have experienced.

We don’t know. The story isn’t finished for us, as it wasn’t for the two Maries and Salome when they came at sunrise to the tomb where Jesus had been laid in a hurry just before the beginning of the Sabbath. They came to do the things which were always done to honour the dead, and which they hadn’t had time to do two days earlier as the sun headed toward the horizon and all work stopped. For them it would have been a kind of way back to normality – even if it was a normality without Jesus. So to find the stone rolled back, and a young man, very much alive, sitting in the place where they had expected to find Jesus lying dead, must have been a shattering experience. No wonder they ran away in terror and amazement.

And that’s where St Mark’s story ends. There are no reports of later resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, or in Galilee, or on the road to Emmaus. “[The women] said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And that’s it. Some Christians, quite early on, found that ending so disturbing, so distressing, that they added their own endings, to round things off “properly”.

So why does Mark leave us hanging in the air? Partly, I suspect, because he loves to present a challenge, something for his readers to get their teeth into. He gives us the evidence. He asks us to draw our own conclusions. He is also, I think, making the point that the Good News of Jesus cannot have “a proper ending”. It can’t have a proper ending, because it is still going on, in your life and in mine – and in the life of everyone who has been through the experience that St Paul describes in that passage from his letter to the Christians of Rome which we heard earlier.

In a church which routinely baptises babies and young children it can sometimes be hard to grasp the point that St Paul is making. In a church which routinely baptises babies and young children at the beginning of life it is hard for ministers to speak of baptism as a death, but a death is necessary if we are to enter that “newness of life” about which Paul writes to the Romans. The death which is necessary is the death of our ego, the “false self”, as Thomas Merton called it, the “old self” to which Paul referred in our first reading. That is the self which refers everything to “me”, which judges everything on the basis of “my” interest or “my” advantage and which seeks always to be in control.

That self has to die if we are to be reborn. To follow Jesus is to give up control and never to take the road “onward and upward” in the sense that the world understands it. In Holy Week some of us followed the poet Dante Alighieri down into the depths of hell as we explored his great poem “La Commedia”. To follow Jesus is to travel downward to the place of crucifixion, dying with Christ so that we will also live with him. For some that death comes in a single transforming moment, a life-changing event, maybe, an experience of deep love, or great suffering. For others it comes in a series of little deaths, the acceptance of a discipline, the abandonment of cherished status or ambition, whether voluntary or involuntary: the kind of descent that we saw in the life of Dante thrust down from serious political power into life-long homelessness and exile. There’s something of that descent, too, in what many of us have experienced during these past twelve months of restriction and isolation. But it is in these ways that we draw closer to the living Christ, “united with him in a death like his” so that we may be “united with him in a resurrection like his”. Not “getting back to normal” but living here, now, in the light of God, as we walk with the risen Christ in newness of life.

Alleluia. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Tony Dickinson

Maundy Thursday (1.4.2021)

In many ways, this is the hardest part of the story before the actual crucifixion. Jesus, kneeling at the feet of his disciples, getting on with the job of washing their feet – the job which was usually allotted to the lowliest household slave. No wonder Peter lost it completely. Judging by what’s been appearing on Anglican twitter over the past couple of days, there are a lot of people out there who feel a similar discomfort, although not always for the same reasons. Some worry, as Peter did, about the way in which foot-washing at the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday turns hierarchies upside down. Others worry because it doesn’t. “You still have to be ordained to take the role of Jesus” was one complaint I saw. Others again, because of the modern emphasis on friendship, rather than discipleship, as the core of the relationship between Jesus and the people around him, can’t see why there’s a problem at all.

Perhaps they need to pay more attention to Peter’s opening words when Jesus kneels in front of him with the bowl and the towel: ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ They also need to listen more carefully to what Jesus says when he returns to his place at the table: ‘You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.’ There is a relationship here which is not that of friendship – that comes later, in chapter 15. The relationship here is that of master and pupil, and within that relationship Jesus’ behaviour is unthinkable.

It is also an acted parable of what is about to happen. Foot-washing was a slave’s task. Crucifixion was a slave’s death – the slave’s death according to Roman writers. Jesus is not only providing his disciples with an example of service, nor simply setting out teaching on the once-for-all nature of baptism: “One who has bathed does not need to wash,… but is entirely clean.” Jesus is showing the disciples just how low he will stoop in order to complete the task ahead of him. Right at the beginning of this evening’s gospel, John remarks: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And the Greek word τελος which is here translated as “end” is the root of the last word Jesus utters from the cross, τετελεσται: “It is finished”.

For the Son of God to love his own who were in the world “to the end” means his being prepared to take the very worst that the world can throw at him. Love “to the end” means that descent about which St Paul wrote to the Christians of Philippi in our first reading on Sunday, reminding them that Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Love “to the end” also means that Christ’s descent enables our ascent. As another John, John Donne, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London who died 390 years ago yesterday, said in the sermon which he preached at evensong on Christmas Day 1624: “One of the most convenient hieroglyphics of God is a circle, and a circle is endless; whom God loves, he loves to the end; and not only to their own end, to their death, but to his end, and his end is, that he might love them still.”

So, this evening, we share in the meal which is the sign and symbol of that endless love, the reminder that, however far we fall, Christ is beneath us, his arms outstretched to catch us and bear us up. And, as we receive the bread which is “his body that is for us”, we remember that “as often as [we] eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Not only in symbolic action, but in lives reflecting the love of our Teacher and Lord.

Tony Dickinson

Palm Sunday (28.3.2021)

One of the most powerful images of recent weeks has been the video clip of Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng, a Catholic nun in Myanmar, kneeling in front of a group of armed police in riot gear and begging them to shoot her, rather than the children who were in the crowd behind her, demonstrating against the military take-over of their country. Sister Ann’s courage was a stark reminder that thousands of people in Myanmar are following Jesus along the way of the cross, not as a devout religious exercise, but in deadly earnest. Yesterday more than ninety people were killed by the “security forces”, among them a number of children.

The powers whose cruelty brought Jesus to the cross have been decisively defeated by his sacrifice, but they have not disappeared. They still try to deceive the world into following their way of brutality and violence. They still mock and jeer at those who resist them. They still seek to make us afraid, to divide and rule, to overturn the will of God and crucify the Son of God afresh. Some of us have seen them in action at close quarters. Some of us still bear the scars, mental and spiritual as well as physical, from that encounter.

But as we ponder the story Mark tells and as we let it enter the depths of our understanding, the depths of our being, we realise that what appears to be the moment of crushing, final defeat is the moment of victory. That victory is marked by the officer in charge of the execution squad. “When the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” Something of that is reflected in the photograph of Sr Ann, where two of the armed police facing her also kneel. Like the centurion, they seem to be acknowledging that in her helplessness, which mirrors the helplessness of Jesus, the total aloneness of Jesus, God is made known. In Jesus, God has identified with humankind in life and in death. God invites us to follow Jesus on the way of sacrificial obedience so that we, with him, may find that death is the gateway to eternal life.

Tony Dickinson

The Annunciation (25.3.2021)

Luke’s story on which we focus today has inspired some of the most beautiful art and some of the best-loved words and music in the world. Many of the carols and hymns that we sing at Christmas belong more properly to this day. Painters, sculptors, glaziers and metal-workers, poets, composers and jobbing musicians have given of their best to celebrate the story that we heard in our gospel reading. Powerful men have, like the angel, bowed their knee before the young woman who stands at the centre of those pictures and sculptures. One English statesman of the High Middle Ages was fascinated by this story to the point of obsession. He had it carved above each entrance to the educational establishments which he founded. It features in the richly jewelled “M” which he left to one of them, and tiny golden figures of Mary and the angel were once soldered to the crook of the staff which he carried as a bishop.

This story features so powerfully in Western culture because, despite its strangeness to contemporary ears, it sets out a vision for humankind which is not about wealth and power, not about the great and the good, not about violence, not about suspicion and hatred. It is about a world made whole through the birth of a child, a child in whom heaven and earth touch. It is about the moment when God reveals himself not as cruelty or coercion but as boundless, unconditional love, love which transcends every human category, every human division, every way in which human beings label and marginalise and dismiss other human beings.

In order to understand that we need to set Mary’s fearless response to the divine messenger against the fearful response of King Ahaz to political events eight centuries earlier. We need to set the promise of healing, renewal and hope through a pregnancy and a birth against the ultimate futility of the present multitude of deaths. We need to understand that God is with us, with us beyond the shame and the name-calling which surrounded Jesus and those who follow him, with us in our living and our dying, with us beyond death. We recognise that in him the whole of humanity is accepted by God, that there is no “us” and no “them”.

It’s quite hard to do that in these days of “culture wars” and political polarisation, but that fourteenth-century statesman, and the artists and the sculptors, the poets and musicians who, down the ages, have given today’s commemoration a central place in their art and in their writing are all of them wiser than the bloggers, the influencers, the talk-show hosts who look on events as an opportunity to spread as widely as possible the rage and fear that they feel.

As we mourn the deaths of so many in the pandemic, we pause to look at the life which makes sense of every life, the life which began in the womb of a perplexed young woman in Nazareth and ended on a gibbet outside Jerusalem. In that ending we see a death that gives meaning and value to all those other deaths – to all deaths – and we catch a glimpse of what it means to talk of the child whose birth we shall celebrate in nine months’ time as Emmanuel, God with us.

Each day during Lent we are sharing a poem to guide us through the deepening shadow of these weeks. Today, as we pause for a moment to look to the Light which that shadow can never put out, I’m going to share with you some words from a poem which isn’t part of that series. It’s by Malcolm Guite, who invites us to look beyond the headlines, into the depths of reality where life and love overcome death and hatred, and to share in celebration of what he calls “that blessed moment of awareness, assent and transformation in which eternity touches time.”

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,

We calculate the outsides of all things,

Preoccupied with our own purposes

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,

They coruscate around us in their joy

A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,

They guard the good we purpose to destroy,

A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.

But on this day a young girl stopped to see

With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;

The promise of His glory yet to be,

As time stood still for her to make a choice;

Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,

The Word himself was waiting on her word.

Tony Dickinson

Lent 5 (21.3.2021)

On this day four hundred and sixty-five years ago a man in his mid-sixties – quite an age in those days; not such a big deal now, even in these pandemic-ridden times – was dragged out of the pulpit of the University Church in Oxford and hurried 400 metres or so to where a large wooden stake had been fixed in the ground outside the gate of Balliol College. Around the stake bundles of wood were piled up and the leaders of the crowd which had dragged him out of church tied him to the stake and set light to the bundles of wood.

This barbaric execution, one among three hundred or so that took place across England between 1555 and 1558, was supposed to be a triumph for the government of the day, and especially for the queen, Mary Tudor. It was intended to mark the final overthrow of the Reformation in England, the completion of the queen’s vengeance on the men who had destroyed her mother’s marriage and brought her own legitimacy into question, and a final step toward reconciling the English Church with the Pope in Rome. In fact, the only one of those aims that she achieved was vengeance against the man who had been her father’s, and then her brother’s, Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. If anything, the queen’s persecution of those who held fast to the Reformation made sure that the Bishop of Rome would, for many generations, be regarded, to quote Cranmer’s last words before they pulled him from the pulpit, “as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.”

So why am I telling you all this, particularly after a week in which ministers from several different traditions, including the Catholic archbishop and the Lutheran, Baptist, Valdese and Anglican clergy, have agreed to take the first steps to set up a body which will go beyond old divisions and be a voice for most, though perhaps not all, of the Christian churches in this city?

Well, partly it’s because of today’s anniversary, but more importantly it’s because what happened to Thomas Cranmer on this day nearly 500 years ago, is an almost perfect example of what Jesus said in this morning’s gospel. Let’s hear the Lord’s words again: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Now, when Thomas Cranmer was arrested in autumn 1553, he was imprisoned, with other senior clergy, first in the Tower of London, and then in Oxford. They were put on trial, found guilty and condemned to death: but because Cranmer was archbishop, he had to wait for a formal sentence to come from Rome. Two bishops tried alongside him, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, were dealt with more quickly. They died in the flames in October 1554 – and Cranmer was made to watch, so that he knew what to expect.

Then, two months later, Cranmer was released from prison in Oxford and put under house arrest as the “guest” of the head of one of the university’s colleges. This change for the better was too much for Cranmer and he cracked. He realised that he loved life. He loved books. He loved being able to talk with other scholars. So he rejected, in writing, all that he had said and done as archbishop, hoping that this would win him life and freedom. But the queen was unmoved. She blamed Cranmer for her mother’s divorce. She wanted him dead.

When he knew that, Cranmer wrote one more statement, to be read out in St Mary’s Church before he was executed – but he wrote it with two endings. One version he handed over to the authorities. The other, which reaffirmed his role in the Reformation, he kept – and that was the one that he read out on the day of his execution. What mattered to him, in the end, was not loving this life at the cost of losing his integrity. What mattered to him was keeping the faith that he had taught in his scholarly writings, in his sermons and, above all, in his two Prayer Books, and keeping it for eternal life. So Thomas Cranmer’s death became a seed which for nearly five centuries has borne much fruit, not only in England, but around the world as Christians from England have gone out to share the good news of Jesus Christ, by whose death on the cross all people are reconciled to God.

Tony Dickinson

Lent 4 (14.3.2021)

There is always something slightly strange about Mothering Sunday. On the one hand, today is the day when we give thanks to God not only for our birth mothers but for all who have nurtured us, and cared for us, and reflected for us something of the God who, in the words of the hymn, “from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love.” But, on the other hand, both our readings today are about pain and loss: Hannah giving up her longed-for child to the service of God’s sanctuary in Shiloh; Mary listening to the words of Simeon as he holds her six-week-old son in his arms and tells her, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

In Europe and North America, people are conditioned to believe that “motherhood and apple pie” are part of the natural order of things, simple and uncomplicated. But that is not true and never has been. Parenthood, and motherhood in particular, has always been about loss. I remember my wife telling me on the day our son started school, how difficult she had found it to leave him there and come home. A faint reflection, perhaps, of what Hannah felt when she took Samuel to Shiloh and “left him there for the Lord.” If you have been following our “Poems for Lent” project on Facebook, or on the website, you will have read the tragic story behind yesterday’s poem, how Ellen Robinson lost her husband and two young daughters in the space of three years: her sorrow for them a sword of grief as sharp as the one Simeon prophesied for Mary. And, toward the end of last week, yet another school kidnapping in Northern Nigeria, the third so far this year, has left that sword piercing the families of 39 missing students.

So, on Mothering Sunday, we remember not only those who have mothered us, but those who bear the pain of separation from their children and those who know the piercing agony that is caused by the sharp sword of a child’s death. We remember, too, those mothers who have died before their time, especially those who have died at the hands of someone who shared their life.

In the Italy last year 91 women were killed by violent men, 81 within the family. On the website of the Ministero di Salute there’s a note on the page “violenza sulle donne” (violence against women) that more than 30% of women in this country – that’s nearly one woman in three – have experienced violence of one sort or another, with the worst violence being perpetrated by a partner (or ex-partner), a parent, or a friend. And please don’t think that that is someone else’s problem “out there”! Members of the congregation who have been around for longer than I have will recall that four or five years ago one of our church members suffered such a serious beating at the hands of her partner that she spent several weeks in hospital and nearly lost her sight.

So what are we going to do about it? And by “we” I mean us men. The word that was missing from the heading of that web-page was “maschile”. That “violence against women” doesn’t come from nowhere. 97% of it is carried out by men and it comes out of a culture of what can only be described as toxic masculinity, a masculinity which is about power and control – yes, and “violence against women” of all kinds, verbal, physical, psychological, sexual.

That is not the way of Jesus Christ. On at least one occasion in the Gospels Jesus stands between a woman and a hostile male crowd. He treats women as equal to men in a culture in which they very often weren’t. And at the end, when the sword of sorrow is indeed piercing Mary’s heart as she stands at the foot of her son’s cross, he entrusts her and the disciple whom he loved to each other’s care. He entrusts us, too, to one another’s care as sisters and brothers in Christ. Each of us, whether male or female, is a temple of God’s Holy Spirit. Each of us has a responsibility to teach that truth to any who defile that temple by their actions, their looking or their language.

But today is still a day of thanksgiving in which children and adults, women and men can join together in gratitude to God for those who have mothered us and to ask that by God’s grace women and men together may become more and more part of the same stream of nurturing, life-giving love.

Tony Dickinson

Lent 3 (7.3.2021)

It’s a dramatic scene. Jesus, waving something like the scourge which will so shred the skin on his own back later in the Gospel, bursts into the courtyard of Jerusalem’s holiest building, drives out the animals intended for sacrifice – and those who sold them – turns over the tables of the money-changers and sent their coins flying, and gives those who were selling the small birds offered by poor families their marching orders. What must it have looked like? What would it have felt like?

This morning I’m going to invite us to step into the picture that John paints so vividly. Where are you? What are you doing? What are you feeling? Are you one of the people selling livestock for sacrifice? How does it feel to watch your animals being driven out of the building? Do you go after them? What do you want to say to Jesus? What do you want to do to Jesus? Are you a money-changer, providing the right coinage so that pilgrims can pay their dues to the temple? They couldn’t use Roman money to do that. It had to be Tyrian coins, so you were providing a service – and making a tidy profit on the deal. How do you feel when your table is overturned and you see all of your money rolling across the courtyard, getting mixed up with everyone else’s? All your capital, all your income – gone, just like that!

Are you one of the bystanders? Are you on your way to pray? Are you just looking around? How does this sudden uproar make you feel? Are you frightened? Are you angry at the disturbance of the routine in this holy place? Or are you someone who has queued patiently to buy your ox, or your sheep, or your doves for sacrifice – and suddenly that has gone, driven out by this strange young man from Galilee. How do you feel? And how do you feel if you are one of the people waiting to change a few denarii so that you can pay your dues to the temple authorities? How do you feel if you see the coins you need rolling around your feet, and wonder if there’s anyone to stop you picking them up? What does that feel like? And how do you feel if you have just changed your money – and paid a large commission?

Or are you one of the people who run the temple, a priest or Levite, say, perhaps a singer or one of the temple police? What’s your reaction to this disruption to the orderly life of the house of God – not to mention the loss of income and the effect on pilgrims and other visitors? How do you feel? What are you thinking?

Perhaps you’re one of the disciples. You’ve come with Jesus from Galilee. You’ve seen him in action. You saw what he did at that wedding in Cana. Has that prepared you for this? Did he warn you what he was going to do? So, what does it feel like, finding out that your teacher is capable of quite violent direct action? What does it feel like watching him set himself against some of the most powerful people in Jerusalem? Is it exciting? Or is it frightening? Do you want to go home to Galilee right now, or do you want to stay around and see what happens next?

Think about that for a minute. Picture where you are in this scene and how you are reacting. Picture what you want to say to Jesus and what he is saying to you…

… And come back. Come back from the world of John’s Gospel. Come back to this world in which people are still being exploited, and excluded, in the name of religion. Come back to this world in which people still lose sight of God in their concern to keep the building standing or the system running. Come back to this world in which people who take direct action for the sake of truth and justice are still being pushed to the margins or killed, a world in which people demand, as the temple authorities demanded, a sign that authorises such action.

And listen to what Jesus said to those temple authorities: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Not the building that had been under construction nearly half a century. That would be destroyed by the Romans less than two decades after it was finished. “[Jesus] was speaking of the temple of his body.” There is no longer the need for a single holy place in which God may be met by human beings. God and humanity meet in Jesus, crucified and risen, present with us today in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Lent 2 (28.2.2021)

Last Sunday we followed Jesus from his baptism in the river Jordan, through the wilderness where he was tested by “the adversary”, to his arrival in Galilee after John was arrested and his first steps in proclaiming the good news of God. This morning, at the halfway point of Mark’s Gospel, we find him in the far north of Palestine, not far from a big city with an important pagan sanctuary. We pick up the story just after Jesus has asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter has replied “You are the Messiah.”

Now, that was a title with a lot of baggage attached to it in terms of what people expected, so Jesus shut down discussion very quickly. “He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Instead he started to warn the disciples what was going to happen. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Notice that he doesn’t pick up Peter’s word “Messiah”, which had strong political overtones to do with power and kingship and the restoration of Israel’s status in the world. The title “Son of Man” has very different overtones. In the Book of Daniel, the Son of Man is the figure who stands in the court of heaven to vindicate God’s suffering people in their struggle against the wild beasts who, as we saw last week, represent the powers of this world.

But, as Jesus warns the disciples, the struggle will be demanding. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” The powers of this world aren’t only political. Religious leaders, too, can be more focused on protecting their own power and position than on righting justice and ending oppression; and they can lash out against anyone who appears to threaten their power or position in any way. Mark tell us that Jesus said all this quite openly. And Peter couldn’t bear it. He tries to stop Jesus talking in this way. And Jesus again shuts down discussion. And how! Peter is told he is on a level with Jesus’ adversary in the wilderness.

Then Jesus spells out what it means to follow him, not just for Peter, not just for the disciples, but for anyone who happened to be listening in. This message is not for a “sweet selected few”. This is for everyone, including us. “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” That is a message which has been treated as if it is spiritual and private. Have you ever heard people say “It’s a cross I have to bear” about a personal problem? Or talk about “self-denial” in terms of giving up chocolate for Lent? That isn’t how the people listening to Jesus would have understood it. In Wednesday’s talk about St Mark’s account of the suffering and death of Jesus we were reminded that crucifixion was the punishment handed out to runaway slaves, to rebels, to brigands and murderers, to anyone who challenged the power of Rome. These words of Jesus are a challenge to the crowd, and to us, to work out where we stand when we are faced with the choice between suffering alongside him for truth and right or colluding with evil and falsehood, even though they may come dressed up in religious clothing.

There are many thousands, if not millions, of our sisters and brothers in Christ who are faced with this choice every day. In China, in parts of India, in Pakistan, in the Middle East, in Africa – including parts of Nigeria – to be known as a Christian is to run a very real risk of suffering physical violence, imprisonment, even death. In this country, too, people have died because they put their loyalty to Jesus our Lord above the demands of totalitarian governments or organised crime. One of them, Rosario Livatino, who was a judge in Sicily, will be recognised officially by the Catholic Church in a couple of months’ time as someone who was faithful to Christ’s call to follow the way of truth and justice, even though it cost him his life. Jesus invites us to stand alongside these our brothers and sisters, in our prayers, in acts of solidarity and practical support where we can. In standing alongside them we are standing alongside him, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Tony Dickinson

Lent 1 (21.2.2021)

Yesterday afternoon, I gave way to temptation. When we were in church, getting ready for this morning, Peter told me that the cleaner we use for the floor was running low and asked me to get a fresh supply from Carrefour. I was very happy to do that. It would allow me to pick up food for today’s lunch, and a couple of other things. But when I went into the supermarket, I saw that they had the year’s first strawberries on sale – and at an absurdly low price. It was very tempting. And I fell. I bought a half-kilo punnet.

Now, I tell that story because it shows how people (me included) usually think about “temptation”. We usually think of it as being about self-indulgence when we know we really shouldn’t. And it usually involves food, money or sex. Nothing could be further from what St Mark tells us about Jesus in today’s gospel. Unlike Matthew or Luke, Mark doesn’t attempt to spell out in detail what went on. He simply tells us that “[Jesus] was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” But what went on was about much more than food, money or sex. What went on was a cosmic struggle between God and evil, the struggle for which Jesus had been prepared by his baptism. Jesus is not being “tempted” – not in the way in which we usually understand the word. He is being “tested”. That’s the fundamental meaning of the Greek word which Mark (along with Luke and Matthew) uses in telling this part of the story.

So, perhaps we need to rethink our approach. This short passage in St Mark’s Gospel divides into three distinct sections: first, the baptism of Jesus; second, the temptation, the testing, in the wilderness; and third, the beginning of Jesus’ proclamation of what Mark calls “the good news of God”. As Mark makes clear, the first two are linked very closely together. It’s the Spirit which descends on Jesus like a dove at his baptism who also drives Jesus out into the wilderness to be tested. It’s the Spirit, too, who by descending on Jesus prepares for the voice from heaven, marking him out as the beloved Son with whom God is well pleased.

Somebody once said that reading Mark’s Gospel is a bit like a reading a detective story when someone has already told you how it ends. In the prologue to his Gospel – that’s what the first thirteen verses of this chapter are – in the prologue to his Gospel, Mark gives the game away several times. And he does it deliberately. Mark wants his readers to be sure that Jesus is indeed the Son, the Beloved; with whom God is well pleased. He wants them to realise that when the heavens split open it’s a fulfilment of the prophet’s prayer “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”, to rescue God’s people from the power of their adversaries. He wants them to realise that when the Spirit descends like a dove and hovers over the waters of the river Jordan it marks the beginning of a new creation, as it did when all things began and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of chaos.

And there’s more. Jesus is the one in whom God will rescue his people. Yes. Jesus is the one in whom God’s new creation is beginning. Yes again. But Jesus is also the one who leads God’s people through the wilderness before they reach the land of promise and Jesus is the “one like a human being” in Daniel’s terrifying vision, the one who is presented before God when the wild beasts, who represent the powers of this world, are overcome and their dominion is taken away.

St Mark wants his readers to be sure about Jesus as the one in whom God is fulfilling God’s purposes, not just for Israel but for all humankind. Mark wants his readers to be sure, because he wants them to follow – and he knows that the way ahead will be a hard one. There will be stiffer tests than deciding whether or not to buy early-season Spanish strawberries. Stiffer tests even than living in a time of pandemic. As we follow Jesus through Lent we shall relearn that lesson. We shall also relearn, I hope, that God is faithful to the new covenant with humankind which has been sealed not in the setting of God’s bow in the clouds, but in the death of the beloved Son with whom God is well pleased, the covenant which we renew each time we share in the Eucharist.

Tony Dickinson

Ash Wednesday (17.2.2021)

When news came that Calvin Coolidge, the famously laconic and laid-back 30th President of the USA, was dead, the writer Dorothy Parker is said to have asked “How could they tell?” It’s tempting to make a similar response to the news that today is the first day of Lent.

If Lent is indeed the season of self-examination, fasting and self-denial, then the past twelve months have been a year-long Lent, a grey time of loss, for many, whether of loved ones or health or employment. It has been a time limitation and of enforced solitariness, for all except a fortunate few. So how can we tell the difference? How can we make the difference, between this season and the time that has gone before and the time that will follow? Our being in zona arancione already forces on us a way of life which is marked by that Lenten motif of “giving up” – even such simple pleasures as meeting friends for a coffee in the bar next door.

Well, we could do a lot worse than take the advice of one of my favourite Lenten hymns. Percy Dearmer’s “White Lent” [full text linked below] was written a hundred years ago for “Songs of Praise”. It isn’t in many other hymn-books but it made a huge impression on me when I was a child, because we used “Songs of Praise” at school and we sang this hymn every spring. It helps that it has a brilliant tune, borrowed from the traditional French noël, “Quittez, pasteurs”. But instead of being about the shepherds leaving their sheep as they go to the cradle of the new-born Jesus, it’s about all of God’s people leaving our “care, and anxious fear and worry” and heading off “To where God’s glory flashes, His beauty to come nigh, To fly where truth and light do lie.”

In other words, it’s about not beating ourselves up for our sinfulness, real or imagined; “To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes or rend the soul”. Nor is it about practising our piety before others. Rather it’s about looking out for the signs of God’s presence and heading toward them.

Now, halfway through that hymn something strange and wonderful happens. Dearmer begins with the sounds of Lent: “bells call and clash and hurry”, summoning God’s people to prayer, and inviting them to “come buy with love the love most high”. Dearmer also brings in the sights of an English Lent, “spring… pied with brightness; The sweetest flowers, Keen winds, and sun, and showers, Their health do bring”. But then in the second half of the hymn he moves on to Lent as a focus for righteous action, for generosity of spirit, for healing. In fact, the last three verses turn into an extended riff, almost word for word, on the central section of this morning’s first reading.

“For is not this The fast that I have chosen? – The prophet spoke – To shatter every yoke, Of wickedness The grievous bands to loosen, Oppression put to flight, To fight till every wrong’s set right.”

Now that is something we can do, even in zona arancione. There are still hungry people to be fed, wrongs to be redressed, oppressive situations to be brought out of shadowy corners into the light of day. That can be a struggle, costly work – and work that is not to be done for show. Jesus warns his disciples firmly against making a song and dance about their alms-giving, or their prayer, or their fasting. Those who do have their reward already. But those who don’t make a fuss about their engagement with the world’s need, whether by active well-doing, or by intercession in fasting and prayer, or both, will find the prophet’s promise come true in them.

To quote Percy Dearmer’s verse paraphrase: “Then shall your light Break forth as doth the morning; Your health shall spring, The friends you make shall bring God’s glory bright, Your way through life adorning And love shall be the prize.” There is light, and life, and hope, even in the midst of pandemic. This Lent they invite us to lift our eyes from preoccupation with our own fears and anxieties and turn them to see the people around us, giving thanks for all those whose quiet fulfilment of their everyday responsibilities bears witness to that “love most high” which sustains us and the whole creation and which has been revealed to us as the Father who sees in secret.

Tony Dickinson

Those who would like to read the full text of Percy Dearmer’s “White Lent” can find it here with commentary by Eleanor Parker (otherwise “A Clerk of Oxford”):

Sunday next before Lent (14.2.2021)

Why Moses and Elijah? Why did they appear with Jesus on the mountain? Why not another of the great figures from the story of Israel: Abraham, say, or Jacob, King David, or the prophet Isaiah? Ah, said the old-time preachers, it’s because Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the prophets and Jesus fulfils both. That is why he is “transfigured” in the presence of Peter, James and John.

Well, that’s certainly a believable way to understand this episode, but there’s another reason, too, for Moses and Elijah to be the ones who appeared: one which is at the same time simpler and more profound. Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the mountain because both of them had gone up a mountain to find God. There, I told you it was simple!

But they hadn’t just gone up a mountain to find God. They had also, in a sense, gone up a mountain to escape from a situation of deep discouragement, a world which was getting out of control. Moses had had his message rejected by the people of Israel. Elijah was in hiding, in fear for his life because after his triumph over the prophets of Baal Queen Jezebel had threatened to kill him. In each case they had found God, or God had found them: and God had not just patted them on the head and said “There, there”. God had confirmed each of them in the task they were to carry out. The task for Moses was to return to his people and become their lawgiver as well as their leader. The task for Elijah was to go back and prepare for the hand-over of his responsibility as the conscience of his people, to anoint Elisha as prophet in his place and to prepare for that parting whose dramatic story we heard in today’s first reading.

Now, as God had given Moses and Elijah a task to carry out when they came down from the mountain, so he gave Jesus a task: and, from this coming Wednesday and for the next six weeks we shall follow Jesus as he completes that task, which is nothing less than the task of opening, by his death, the door to God’s kingdom for all people, reconciling the whole of poor, sinful, screwed-up humankind to his heavenly Father.

From now the disciples will not be following Jesus around Galilee. From now on the disciples will be following him along the road south, the road which will lead them, in the end, to Jerusalem. As they follow, other clouds are going to cast their deepening shadows around Jesus; and there isn’t going to be a reassuring voice from those clouds. Those clouds will overshadow him with fear, abandonment, betrayal, torture and death.

But now, this morning, we have just for a moment a foretaste of Easter, a foretaste of the glory of God’s Son, the Beloved, a foretaste which the disciples are sure to misunderstand – as Peter had misunderstood what it meant to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. Peter misunderstands again, here, trying to hang on to the moment rather than recognise what it means. ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ That is why the voice comes from the cloud with a particular message: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ And that is why, when Jesus speaks, he is so stern with the disciples:

“As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

“He ordered them to tell no one.” Jesus steers Peter, James and John away from making a big thing of their vision. He steers them back to its meaning: that he has been confirmed in the task laid upon him at his baptism – that other time when a voice was heard from heaven affirming his Sonship. The task that has been laid upon him is the one about which he has already spoken to the disciples, and about which the disciples were most unwilling to hear. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter couldn’t bear it. No more can we, most of the time. Jesus calls us not to worship him but to follow him into the heart of the pain and sorrow of the world. In these coming weeks let us do just that, for there is no other way by which we can come to his resurrection.

Tony Dickinson

2nd Sunday before Lent (7.2.2021)

I read recently that when work was being done, some years ago, to prepare for the new heating system and floor, preliminary tests showed that as many as seven layers of paint had been applied to the walls between 1872 and 2010. Some of it was, in the words of the old song, a case of “Slap-dab! Slap-dab! Up and down the brickwork”. Some of it was really rather beautiful, though very badly faded, like those patterns and floral decorations that you can see on the wall above the porch.
Now, it may sound far-fetched to compare the text of St John’s Gospel with the paintwork on the church walls, but there are different layers that are being uncovered as we read. They aren’t, however, layers of paint: they’re layers of meaning. As they are in today’s Gospel. The language is very simple. The way it is used isn’t. In English-language Bibles we have that wonderful first sentence which we hear at the climax of the Christmas carol service and at the Eucharist on Christmas morning: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Only one word there is longer than four letters and all of them are easy to understand.

Except that, when you look at them closely, they aren’t. A great Church leader from Africa sixteen centuries ago said “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed.” Even leaving aside the impossibility of explaining “God”, we find ourselves struggling to unpack what “the Word” means – or at least, to make sense of the huge range of meanings which St John’s original Greek includes. It can mean “word”, as it is translated here. It can mean “argument”. It can mean “reason”. It can also mean “thought”, “speech”, “story”, “account” – including the financial sense – “proportion”, “principle”. A wise American priest I know has suggested that we might even translate it as “blue-print”, which would make a great deal of sense when we read today’s gospel alongside those words from the letter to the Colossians which formed our first reading.

A blue-print is a drawing of a piece of architecture or engineering which shows anyone who looks at it how the subject of the drawing is put together and how it works. So, if that American priest is right, then it ought to be possible to look at what the New Testament writers say about Jesus and to read off from that how not a machine or a building, but the whole universe, is put together and how it works. That certainly seems to be what St John is suggesting when he writes that “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

Those words are echoed in today’s first reading. That began with the words, “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” This is what scholars mean when they talk about “the cosmic Christ” – not simply the earthly Jesus, who “became flesh and lived among us”, but the eternal Word who “was in the beginning with God.”

What that means is that if we want to read off from the human scale of our Jesus blue-print how the universe works then we can see three things in particular. The first is freedom. God never compels his creatures. Faced with arrest, torture and death, Jesus didn’t prevent Judas from handing him over to the authorities. God gives freedom to every thing and every person that he has made, even to a virus, for good or ill. The second is self-giving. In healing, in teaching, in suffering, in dying, Jesus reveals that God is in it with us. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” And the third is love. In the series of visions which she received at the height of a serious illness, Julian of Norwich saw “a little thing the size of a hazelnut”. As she looked at it she wondered what it might be and received the answer, ‘It is all that is made.’ She was amazed that something so small and fragile did not disintegrate, until she realised that it stays in being because God loves it, loves it so much that God chooses to live in it – and to die for its healing. “Through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” God invites us, as Christ’s body here on earth, to continue that work of healing and reconciliation.

Tony Dickinson

Presentation of Christ in the Temple (31.1.2021)

Today we reach the end of our Christmas celebration and our thoughts begin to turn toward Lent, and beyond that, Easter. It’s a bitter-sweet celebration as we hear again the words of the old man Simeon, prophesying that this six-week-old child child will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory” to Israel, but also offering that stark warning to his mother: “a sword will pierce your own soul too”.

There’s an extra poignancy this year, as we remember all those in whose memory people around the world have been lighting candles in recent days, and as we come to terms with what we have learned in the last forty-eight hours: that members of our congregation may have been in contact with the virus. So we are praying for them and taking what precautions we can, so that this church does not become a “hot-spot” spreading the infection. That means no Communion this morning. It means no gathering here on Wednesday as we wait to hear the results of their tests.

If the tests are positive, it may mean that we have to close the building for a while. If we do have to do that, we shall begin again with online services as we did during the first lock-down last year. We will also try to find ways of keeping the food bank running. And, above all, we will continue with those ways of providing spiritual food that we developed during last year’s lock-down and which have continued ever since: the daily pause for thought on the church’s Facebook page; the regular reflections on the gospel reading for Wednesdays and saints’ days; the occasional links to pictures and musical performances of different kinds. All of this will, I hope, help us to pray together and reflect together even if we cannot meet together.

We hope, of course, that none of this will, in the end, be necessary. We will do our best to keep everyone informed about what is happening, so please make sure that we have your details. I am in the process of updating our contact list from the “Welcome Book”. If your details aren’t there, please make sure that you add them today before you go.

Now, all of what I have just said has been very much on the “a sword will pierce your heart” side of things. I know from last spring how painful it was for many of us not to be able to gather round the Lord’s table to share in the meal which he left for his friends. I know how painful it was not to meet and greet – and still is, in this situation where we cannot share an aperitivo at the end of the Eucharist. But at the heart of everything we do, whether together or on our own, is the one whose presentation in the temple we celebrate today.

Jesus our Lord is still the light who reveals God’s glory, even as the shadows close around him in Holy Week, even in the gloom of continuing pandemic. The Lord whom we seek will still, in the words of the prophet, “suddenly come to his temple” – and never forget that “his temple” is no longer a building but people, “living stones”, as the first letter of Peter calls them. St Paul reminded the first community of Christians in Corinth “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” That applies to us, too. Whether we are gathered together or scattered in the places where we live and work the light of Christ still shines within us and, I hope, through us, enabling us to share confidence and hope with those around us.

That does not mean acting as though the virus is no big deal. It does not mean trusting that God will see us through, because we’re Christian, however we behave. The number of deaths that have been caused by that sort of attitude (especially in the USA) is frightening. What it does mean is doing all that we can to keep our neighbour safe, wearing a mask, washing our hands, maintaining a safe distance between ourselves and others. It also means holding those who are ill or at risk in our prayers and praying regularly for those on the front line – which means not only the people working in health care and social care, but all the people who keep the public services operating, in public transport, refuse collection, shop workers, the post office, teachers. Their work enables us to live. Let us hold them with thanksgiving in the light of Jesus the Lord of life.

Tony Dickinson

Epiphany 3 (24.1.2021)

Weddings have been very much in the news recently. Three weeks ago we heard the good news of Kingsley Kalu’s wedding in Nigeria to his MaryCynthia. Less good news was a report from London about the police operation to close down a wedding celebration at which around 150 people were present. The maximum allowed under lockdown rules currently in force in England is six. So, our readings today are very topical – and by a strange coincidence one was about a wedding that is good news, and the other was about a wedding that was a disaster – or very nearly.

Our first reading was about a wedding that is good news. It begins with the announcement that “the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” That’s an announcement of cosmic good news. Most, if not all, of John the Seer’s first readers would have recognised what it meant: that God’s kingdom will surely arrive in its fullness. Do you remember how in the Gospels, and particularly in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells stories which compare the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast?

So, when the angel tells John, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”, that’s a message of good news for all those who have clung on through hard and difficult times to their faith in Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Lamb who, as we heard last week, makes his first appearance in John’s vision “standing as if it had been slaughtered”. The God whom we worship is not far away “out there”, remote and unfeeling. The God whom we worship is with us in all the mess, all the suffering, all the horror. His kingdom is being revealed among us. The marks of slaughter which John saw are the wounds which human beings inflict on one another – and on God, because every human being is made in God’s image and likeness.

God is with us, too, in the everyday disasters. Think about the situation at that wedding in Cana of Galilee. What should have been a day of real celebration, a day like the one that Kingsley and MaryCynthia shared at the beginning of this new year – what should have been a day of real celebration looks as if it is about to become a total disaster.

Not like that wedding in London to which the police were called because there were too many people, but much, much worse. This wedding, in Cana of Galilee, could have ended in total humiliation for the bride and groom, and for their two families. Total humiliation because, as John the Evangelist tells us, “the wine gave out”. Can you imagine it? Can you imagine the disgrace, the humiliation, of being known ever afterwards as the couple at whose wedding the wine gave out? Nor would it have just been the couple. The disgrace would have stuck to their parents, too. Cana of Galilee isn’t a big place even today. Fewer people live there than live in Pegli. So everyone, absolutely everyone, would have known.

But Jesus is there, with his disciples. At first he doesn’t want to get involved, but his mother, who also was one of the guests, takes charge. “[She] said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’” The result was that what could so easily have been a disaster is turned into total triumph. John tells us that “the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’”

At that point the Evangelist adds a short note: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee.” John never talks about “miracles”. The word he uses to describe the ways in which Jesus changes things is “sign”. Now a sign is something that points beyond itself. So this changing of water into wine isn’t just about helping a young couple and their families out of a deep hole. It points us to the way in which Jesus transforms our everyday life. The water that is changed is the water the family would have used for washing hands before meals, for ritual baths, for washing cutlery and crockery before they were used for the first time. The wine into which it is changed is the life of God’s kingdom, life lived in ever-deepening union with Jesus. That life is begun at our baptism and renewed every time we share in this Eucharist which is a foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Tony Dickinson

Epiphany 2 (17.1.2021)

One of the things that becomes clear from a careful reading of the Gospels is the sheer attractiveness of Jesus. There are many stories about people dropping everything (or nearly everything) in order to follow him. There are just as many stories about how people gathered – and gathered in their thousands – to listen to him talk about the kingdom of God. We can see something of that attractiveness in the story of Philip and Nathanael in today’s Gospel, especially in Philip’s excited description of Jesus as “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote”.

What is it that makes Jesus so attractive? I think it’s what the Psalmist calls “the beauty of holiness”: not “religiosity”, not an impressive outward show of godliness, but the sense that here is someone who is authentically and intimately close to God, someone in whom and through whom God’s love and goodness is disclosed as fully as it can be in a human life. In Jesus, obviously, such closeness is unique: we are reminded of that every time we say the words of the Nicene Creed, or read the later chapters of John’s Gospel, with their stress on the unity, the mutual indwelling, of the Father and the Son. But it isn’t only in Jesus that we find this.

When I was a curate, thirty-five years ago, my colleagues and I used to compete to visit one particular house in the parish. It was the home of an elderly woman, Mary, a retired civil servant, so disabled by arthritis that she was housebound. We used to tell ourselves that we were doing her a favour by visiting, bringing her news from the world beyond the four walls within which she lived, offering her a half-hour of live human company. But that wasn’t our real motive. If we were honest with ourselves we knew that the main reason we were visiting Mary was that she would minister to us at least as much as we were ministering to her. She didn’t talk about God all the time. You simply sensed that she was close to God, and that closeness somehow rubbed off onto you.

Going back further, to my student days half a century ago, there’s a rather more spectacular example. Imagine a church building about the same size as this one. Perhaps a few metres longer. Imagine that it is so full of people that you cannot move. Every seat in the place was filled. Extra chairs had been put out: they were filled. People were sitting on the floor in the sanctuary, in the spaces between the seats, on the stairs to the organ gallery – that was full of people, too, by the way – and standing room only at the back, which was where I was. In the pulpit there was a man in a black cassock, with a long black beard, talking about the life of prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, then the most senior representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain. There was not a sound. Nobody moved. They sat (or stood) and listened in total, rapt, silence. That was repeated every day for a week – and in between whiles Metropolitan Anthony would be out and about in the city and the university, commending the Christian faith as much by who he was as by what he said, gathering people around him, talking to them, answering their questions – even on a street corner in the pouring rain.

What Mary, in her hidden life, and Metropolitan Anthony, in his public ministry, had in common was that unselfconscious closeness to God which was at the centre of their being. In the attractiveness and the simplicity of their own lives they mirrored the attractiveness of Jesus. They didn’t make a huge song and dance about being Christian: they just were. They lived in God’s love. They radiated God’s peace. They reflected God’s wisdom. Like an earlier Anthony in the Egyptian desert eighteen centuries ago, their lives remind us that what draws people to God is not the outward appearance but the inner reality, the inner reality which John the Seer depicts in the image of the Lamb “standing as if it had been slaughtered”, but ransoming for God “saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” and making them, making us, “to be a kingdom and priests serving our God”.

Tony Dickinson

The Baptism of Christ (10.1.2021)

Why on earth did he do it? Why did Jesus Jesus come from Nazareth of Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan? Mark spells out why everyone else did: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Why did Jesus join them? He didn’t need to “repent”, to change the way he looked at the world. He looked at the world through the eyes of God, not through the distorted vision of the false self like the rest of us. He had no sins to be forgiven. So why did he do it?

Matthew, Luke and John all recognise that there is a problem here and their account of what happened is subtly – or in Matthew’s case, not so subtly – different. Matthew tackles the problem head-on when he reports John as trying to stop Jesus going down into the water and saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Luke tells the story much as Mark does, but without any mention that it was John who baptised Jesus. And John the Evangelist – well, he tells how John the baptiser bore witness to Jesus, and describes the descent of the Spirit “like a dove”, but makes no mention of Jesus being baptised. Which still leaves us with the question: Why on earth did he do it?

The answer that I grew up with was roughly the same answer that Jesus gives to John in Matthew’s gospel: ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ In other words, “This is what the Father wants, so let’s just go through with it.” Others have said something like, “This shows how committed Jesus is to identifying with ordinary people. He takes his place among the crowds who have come to John confessing their sins and letting the water of the river wash them away.” But there’s another layer to this episode. In each gospel John the baptiser tells the crowds, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” And here, in Mark’s Gospel, as in the others, Jesus himself receives the Holy Spirit, and the Father’s voice from heaven declares him to be the beloved Son.

Now, it’s at that point that we leave Mark’s Gospel and head over to the second part of Luke’s, the part that we call “The Acts of the Apostles”, and specifically to the passage which we heard a few minutes ago. Paul meets a group of believers who know something about Jesus and who have been baptised, but only, it appears, with the baptism of John. In other words, they had been baptized… confessing their sins, but they had somehow missed out on the fullness of Christian baptism. They had not been baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus. They had not received the gift of God’s Spirit.

What follows is typically Luke – and typically Paul. For St Paul, God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the down payment on what the Nicene Creed calls “the life of the world to come”. It’s the Holy Spirit which bears witness with our spirit, our true self, that we are children of God, that we, like Jesus, are beloved sons – and daughters! – with whom God is well pleased. The Spirit of God descends on Jesus at his baptism and equips him for everything that is to follow. The same Spirit descends on us at our baptism and equips us for the challenges that we face. We may not speak in tongues and prophesy, as those disciples in Ephesus did when they were baptised into Christ, but we are made fruitful with the other gifts and fruits of the Spirit, be they personal qualities (love, joy, peace, patience and all the rest) or practical skills (speaking, teaching, running things effectively) all of them given for building up the Church. And even when we feel that we are none of these things, but rather failures, losers, miserable sinners, the Spirit is with us in our groans and lamentations, offering them to God.

And that, perhaps, is why Jesus was baptised by John, in order to transform that symbolic recognition of human failure into a sacramental acknowledgement of human potential, setting human life under a heaven which is not closed to our cries but torn apart so that the Spirit of God can descend on us as on Jesus, blessing us in his name and empowering us to be a blessing to the earth.

Tony Dickinson

The Epiphany (3.1.2021)

Did you see it two weeks ago? The great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, I mean? I missed it completely. Every time I looked out of the window during the days when the planets were closest together, there was 100% cloud cover. Which is a shame, because that conjunction is one of the strongest candidates for the star which the wise men “observed at its rising” and which led them in their thousand-mile journey from what is now northwestern Iran to Bethlehem via King Herod’s palace. It must have been a daunting, exhausting journey. I followed the first part of it fifty years ago when I was a student, and even in what passed in pre-Revolutionary Iran for luxury coaches it was tough going. Most of it was mountain and desert, which meant that it was baking hot in the daytime and freezing cold at night – and that was at the height of summer.

Now, some of you may be thinking “Why’s he talking about Iran? Wasn’t one of the kings from Africa?” Well, sadly not: not if you take seriously the story as St Matthew tells it. To start with those weary travellers weren’t kings. Matthew calls them “wise men” – in Greek, μαγοι, which is the word from which we get the English words “magic” and “magician”. They were powerful figures, often seen by outsiders as a bit sinister, who played an important part in the religion – and the politics – of the Persian Empire. In times past they had been known to make and unmake kings, so no wonder king Herod was frightened when they turned up at his court asking about a new king.

So where did the idea that they were kings come from? In large part from today’s Psalm, with its promise that “the kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts.” Never mind that Tarshish was far away to the west, across the Mediterranean in southern Spain, or possibly Sardinia, the place to which Jonah tried to escape when God told him to go east and preach to the people of Nineveh. On top of that, we heard in our first reading about “all those from Sheba” who would come to Jerusalem. What is more, “they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

All of that sort of fits, if you have the sort of mind that likes making connections and isn’t too worried about what today we would call “historical accuracy”, but in a funny sort of way the linking of those words and phrases which don’t really belong together does make two important points which underlie Matthew’s account of the journey of the wise men.

The first is this: these men who came to King Herod and who eventually found their way to Bethlehem to worship “the child who has been born king of the Jews” and offer those gifts of gold for power and frankincense for worship – and myrrh, which is used for pain relief and as an antiseptic – these men were not Jewish: not by race, not by culture, not by religion. They were, in all probability, Zoroastrian fire-worshippers. But they had recognised the huge importance of this child’s birth and had travelled those thousand miles just to pay him homage. They represent the world to which we belong, the world beyond the borders of Judaism.

And the second is this: they were, as we have seen, not just “wise men” but powerful men, men with the ability to affect the life of nations, men who were said to have the power to alter reality. Yet when they reached the small town in Palestine and encountered the child whose birth they had seen announced in heavens by the great conjunction, or whatever it was, they “knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” In doing that they were handing over the emblems of power. Gold, incense and myrrh were used in coronation ceremonies. They could also be used in magical rites. Either way, those wise men were acknowledging that the power of this child is greater than any to which they might have access.

And so we come, to lay our gifts before Christ: not the emblems of power, but the recognition of our powerlessness; not the treasures of wealth, but the acceptance of our poverty. We come in the confidence that we, who are also outsiders in this land and this culture, are accepted by Jesus, the son of Mary, God’s Word made flesh in the weakness of a child.

Tony Dickinson

St John the Evangelist (27.12.2020)

One of the challenges with which we have been faced by this pandemic – particularly during the past week – has been the sense of a need to reconnect with what is good and positive and to discard what is harmful and negative. It is not possible to take family routines and rituals for granted in a world where Christmas meals and family gatherings happen on Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face. It’s not possible to take “Church” for granted either. We’ve been lucky in Italy in that the government has allowed places of worship to remain open – but it has still felt strange as we have tried to apply the usual safety regulations about mask-wearing, and social distancing in ways that don’t kill our celebration of the Lord’s birth. In one sense that has been good for us, as we have looked again at how God comes to us in Jesus, and as we have learned that being a faithful Christian in this time and place isn’t just about “me”, but about “us”, looking out for one another, working together, being connected to one another and to God.

To make that connection we need help. And help is at hand. Help is at hand in the writings whose author we celebrate today. Listen again to what John writes at the opening of his first letter. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”

“We declare to you what was from the beginning” – and what was from the beginning is what was “in the beginning”; and what was in the beginning, as we heard on Friday, is the eternal Word, the “word of life” that gives life. But “what was from the beginning” is not something remote and timeless and indifferent. “What was from the beginning” is “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” John, writing probably within living memory of the birth which we have been celebrating, certainly within living memory of the death of the Child who was born (and of his resurrection) – John sets out his credentials as a reliable witness, one whose testimony carries weight. “What we have heard…” is the subject of this letter – and of the Gospel which also bears John’s name.

That is why, at the very end of that Gospel there is the strange little note which ended today’s Gospel: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” Most scholars believe that this is a note from whoever edited John’s Gospel and sent it on its way into the world. No, the disciple whom Jesus loved didn’t make it until the Lord’s coming again. Nobody has (yet). But that doesn’t devalue his testimony.

But does our distance in time from the Gospel writers devalue our testimony? We can’t claim what he claimed – or can we? And if we can, how is that true for us? In a world of “fake news” what is truly real? In a world where shameless liars become heads of government and heads of state where can we find reliable authority? Who are the people who “walk the walk”?

They are the people who take seriously Jesus’s repeated word to Peter, “Follow me!”, who don’t keep looking round to see how others are doing, but follow the footsteps of Jesus as faithfully as they can, who “walk in the light as he himself is in the light” – they are the people in whose lives we see true discipleship. They can testify truly to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”

And so can we. We can testify truly to “what we have heard” in Scripture, in the deep silence which is the true ground of our praying. We can testify truly to “what we have seen with our eyes”, in the wonder and glory of God’s creation, in the lives of our fellow-Christians, in acts of kindness and self-giving love. We can testify truly to “what we have looked at and touched with our hands” in contemplative prayer, in receiving the sacraments, in the depth of the fellowship we have with one another.

It is as we testify truly to these things – not just in words, but in lives transformed by God’s grace – it is as we testify to these things that we draw others into fellowship with us, and thereby into fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

Tony Dickinson

Christmas Day (25.12.2020)

It has been a tough few days on social media. Leaving aside all the “Will they? Won’t they?” about a deal being made before the UK severs its last official ties with the EU, my home-pages, like those of many people, have been filled with messages from friends lamenting that Christmas plans have been wrecked by governmental responses to Covid-19, parents desolate at the prospect of not spending time with their children and grandchildren, children fearful for their elderly parents. On top of those concerns there are anxieties about the effectiveness of the vaccines against the new variants of the virus that have been identified. The clouds of pandemic cover everything with gloom.

And when we lift our eyes to horizons broader than those of family and friends, it is no better. Apart from the happy outcome of the mass kidnapping in Nigeria, most of the non-Covid news stories seem to be about wars and rumours of wars, ever more destructive assaults on God’s creation, governments ignoring restraints imposed by law or custom, unchecked sleaze and corruption in country after country. The shadows everywhere are becoming deeper and deeper.

So this Christmas morning let us remind ourselves once more of the tremendous affirmation at the heart of today’s Gospel, and at the heart of the faith which we profess: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Forget the Christmas cards. Forget the prettied-up crib scenes – even our own. Remember that the Word became flesh in a small town in a province on the edge of the territory ruled by a military dictatorship. Remember that the one in whom the Word became flesh was executed by that same military dictatorship. The good news of Jesus the Christ, the news we celebrate today, is not simply about the birth of a baby. The good news of Jesus is about the love of God revealed in human existence, facing the worst possible disasters, humanly speaking, and overcoming them. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The passage from the prophecies of Isaiah that we heard a few minutes ago is a kind of pre-echo of that message. To a people who had lost their land, their holy city and its holy places, almost their sense of who they were, the prophet offers hope. He sees God returning, not to a rebuilt city, but to the ruins of Jerusalem. Even in the aftermath of destruction, even amid a scattered and despairing people, God is there. God is there to bring healing and hope. Not easy optimism – I don’t think God does optimism – but hope, confidence that the future is God’s, and that the present, too is God’s, however disastrous it may appear. In a #Christmas tweet yesterday evening Pope Francis quoted words written a hundred and sixty years ago by the American poet Emily Dickinson (no relation, so far as I know): “God’s residence is next to mine, his furniture is love.” A contemporary English writer, Adrian Plass, puts it more simply: “He’s in it with us.”

That is the startling truth at the heart of our celebration: that God is in it with us. God is with us in the mess, in the shadow, in the deep gloom and the temptation to despair, not looking on from a safe distance but camping out amid the wreckage. God is with us to show us that life is possible, that hope is possible, that the light still shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. It did not, because it cannot. It cannot because, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said long ago in the depths of apartheid South Africa, “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.”

Even in the deepest shadows of the past nine months we have had ample evidence of that. Locally we have seen it in the courage of hospital staff, faced with unimaginable challenges and initially in the absence of adequate protection, in the discipline of thousands of ordinary people who have got on with their lives while submitting to all the restrictions with which governments have tried to suppress the virus, in the generosity of the yacht crews who have donated their surplus to our food-bank, in the continuing care of Christians and others for rough sleepers and street people. In all these situations we have seen the light shining in the darkness. Even in the deepest shadow we have seen the glory of the Word become flesh in our day also.

Tony Dickinson

Advent 4 (20.12.2020)

It isn’t often I feel sorry for St Paul. Amazed at the boldness of his thinking, regularly. Astounded by the energy and flexibility of his Greek style, definitely. But sorry? Not a word I would ever use – except possibly in relation to the passage we heard a few minutes ago. After the concentrated and very high-powered thinking of the first fifteen chapters of the letter to the Romans, and that long string of greetings in the first part of chapter 16, these three final verses come as a bit of a shock. They are, if we’re honest, a bit flabby, a bit clichéd, and they don’t even make good grammatical sense. They suggest either that Paul was seriously running out of steam or, as a number of scholars have proposed, that they weren’t actually written, or rather dictated, by St Paul. Did Tertius, the scribe who wrote down the rest of this letter at Paul’s dictation, and added his own greeting a couple of lines higher up the page, think that it needed a stronger ending than “Gaius, Erastus and Quartus (three senior members of the congregation in Corinth) say ‘Hi!’” and did he try to make one up? Or did Paul ask somebody else to wind the letter up for him while he moved on to something different? There are many possibilities.

Whatever the reason for this falling-off, it reminds us that there are times when human language simply can’t express the wonder and glory of what God has done, and is doing, and will do through Jesus of Nazareth: that there are times when we have to use stock phrases, or lines borrowed from hymns or poems or prayers to give voice to what we feel. Sometimes the things we are trying to express are so deep and complex and many-layered that we can’t simply describe them. We have to follow the example of Jesus and use similes and parables and stories – and when we do that we cross our fingers in hope that the language we use doesn’t break down under the weight of meaning it has to carry.

In a way that’s what St Luke does in the first two chapters of his Gospel. The story he tells, about two amazing births, is full of echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. He points to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and then Mary’s, as events which have roots deep in the story of Israel.

But Luke also flags up that what is happening is entirely new. In the stories of Israel the arrival of a messenger from God – that’s all an angel is: angel/αγγελος is the normal Greek word for “messenger” – the arrival of a messenger from God means that something new and startling is about to happen. Sometimes, such an arrival is linked to a birth that is out of the ordinary. Think of the messengers who came to tell Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child in their nineties, or the messenger who dropped in on Samson’s parents-to-be. As he tells the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, now interwoven with the story of Mary, Luke links us back to those other “children of God’s promise” but at the same time he sets before us the question which the neighbours asked about John, ‘What then will this child become?’

There are, though, no such questions about Jesus. This child’s future is not in doubt: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” The question here is will Mary accept the responsibility, the dangerous responsibility, of becoming pregnant with this child “out of wedlock”, as they used to say in England when I was a boy. No wonder she was “much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be”. But she didn’t say “no”. She paused. She listened. She probably pondered some more. Then she agreed. ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’

In that, Mary is a model for every Christian. Very often when we are faced with a challenging situation we want to rush into it – or run away from it. Mary reminds us how important it is, in such a situation, to pause and to ponder and to listen for God’s word to us, the word spoken in the silent depths of our being. That word may be hard to hear, and harder to obey. We may want to take refuge in clichéd religious language. We may want to leave the situation for someone else to pick up because we have run out of steam. But the God who sent Gabriel to Mary will not easily allow us to avoid the task which is ours in the grand scheme of things, however humble or however frightening, it may appear. Like Mary we too are the servant of the Lord.

Tony Dickinson

Advent 3 (13.12.2020)

At some point after church on Sunday I usually have a video-call with my family. We start with our latest news. We share things that are going on in our lives. And we always end by doing the Quiz from the previous day’s newspaper. The first half is all general knowledge. The second half needs a bit of lateral thinking, because all the questions begin with the words “What links…?”

I have a question like that for us this morning. What links a folk-song from Naples, a railway station in Venice, a teenager from Syracuse, a poem by an English Cathedral Dean, and Swedish mothers being brought coffee in bed this morning by their eldest daughter? Any offers?

The link is Saint Lucy, Santa Lucia. The teenager in Syracuse, who died more than 17 centuries ago gave her name to the seaside district which inspired the song, and to the end of the line in Venice. And today is Saint Lucy’s day, another of those feast days that are over-ridden by the Sundays of Advent, like St Nicholas last Sunday. It’s the day on which John Donne, the Dean of St Paul’s cathedral in London, wrote one of his bleakest poems. It’s also the day when young girls in Sweden dress up, put something that looks a bit like an Advent wreath on their heads, and bring early morning coffee and cakes to their mothers.

Lucy, whose name means “light”, wasn’t a Christian to begin with. She was born towards the end of the third century into a family which worshipped the old gods. It is said that her parents arranged for her to be married to a young man who also worshipped the old gods. But Lucia had become a Christian and did not want to be married. She wanted to care for poor people and sick people, as Jesus had done, and to give her life to looking after them. The young man her parents had chosen didn’t like that and he denounced her as a Christian. She was arrested, tried, and executed. But she was remembered, not only because of the courage she showed in the face of death, but also because of the kindness she showed in her short life. In Sweden, where Lucy is greatly loved, children remember her on this special day by doing acts of kindness to their parents, baking special cakes and bringing them breakfast in bed.

So why Sweden? Well, St Lucy’s day comes at the darkest time of the year, when the daylight, even in southern Sweden, doesn’t arrive until half-past eight and it fades away around quarter past three. In northern Sweden at this time of year there is no daylight at all. Lucy reminds people in Sweden that the darkness will not last for ever, that the light is coming. Her day is full of light. Candles are lit in people’s homes and they play a huge part at the special services which are held in churches today. We’re streaming one of them on the church Facebook page.

But St Lucy’s day doesn’t just remind us that the light is coming, that the sun will return to bring warmth and light to the earth, even to dark and frozen Sweden beyond the Arctic Circle. St Lucy’s day points us to the coming of Jesus. It is a marker in the count-down to Christmas. In a sense (and there’s another “What links…? question) Lucy is like John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” And that’s what Lucy does. In her name, in the stories told about her life, and about her death, Lucy testifies to the light of Christ, the light that had entered her life and transformed it.

The light that shone through Lucy’s life, and at her death, the light that kept her name alive among the people of Syracuse after the details of her earthly existence had been forgotten, that light bears witness to the light whose coming we await in this Advent season, the light which shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. In a darkened world, as we look out to that light, to which John bore witness and in which Lucy lived, we recommit ourselves to the vision of a life lived in the light which St Paul set before the Christians of Thessaloniki:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”

And if that all seems too much in this time of pandemic, remember that it isn’t up to you. Paul’s last words remind us. “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

Tony Dickinson

Advent 2 (6.12.2020)

Football, they say, is a game of two halves. Well, today is a day of two saints. The first is John the baptiser, appearing out of nowhere in the Judaean wilderness and “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”, grabbing the imagination not only of those who lived in the countryside but of those who lived in the big city. He lived rough. He lived on the edge. And he behaved like one of the old-time prophets of Israel. Mark, in fact, gives him quite a build-up.

First and obviously, there’s that quotation from “the prophet Isaiah”, which is actually a mash-up. It ends with words from our first reading, which was from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”: but they are introduced by the words of another prophet, Malachi, whose writings come at the very end of the Hebrew Scriptures: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” That tells us that John is a significant figure. And then Mark adds that little detail about his fashion choices: “John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.” To anyone who knew anything about the story of Israel that apparently random detail shouted out one name. There’s another “hairy man with a leather belt around his waist”: the great prophet, Elijah. And that link brings us back to the prophecies of Malachi, because almost the last words of his book tell us that God “will send… the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

John, then, is important. His message is important. No wonder everyone went out to hear him preach! In the way he describes John, Mark is telling us that the whole world is about to be changed. But, unlike Matthew or Luke, Mark doesn’t give any examples of John’s preaching. Instead in Mark’s Gospel John makes it plain that his role is like that of the warm-up man (or woman) at a TV show. He is not the main attraction. In fact, he tells the crowds, “I’m not good enough to bend down and undo his sandals”. John’s task is to make people look at the world, and look at themselves, differently, in readiness for the coming of “the one who is more powerful”, the one who will take the people’s relationship with God – our relationship with God – to a new level.

What that level might be we find out from our second saint, the saint whose day it would be today if it hadn’t been bumped off by this Second Sunday of Advent. In Germany and Austria, in the Low Countries, and in the far north of this country, today is a very important day for children. Today, not Christmas Day, is the day for presents, because today is the Feast of St Nicholas.

All we know about Nicholas is that he was Bishop of Myra, a city on what is now the south coast of Turkey and that he lived about 1700 years ago. He didn’t write great books about God. He wasn’t a bishop whose sermons made emperors tremble. He didn’t found an important religious movement. He wasn’t a great teacher or preacher or writer – yet for over a thousand years he was one of the most popular saints in both the Eastern Church and the Western. Why?

We get a sort of answer in the stories that are told about him, and in the language of the prayers and hymns which the Eastern Church provides for this day. One word turns up again and again: “warm-hearted”. And it’s that quality of warm-heartedness, of love and compassion for people facing disaster – sailors in danger of shipwreck, prisoners on death row, young women faced with the choice between poverty and prostitution, children at risk in a time of famine – that’s what stuck in people’s memories and made him such a popular saint. He was everyone’s ideal of what a bishop ought to be. He was a champion of people on the edge. He stood up for those who were exploited in any way. He was generous in helping people in trouble – which is where his connection with present-giving comes in.

St Nicholas’s generosity provided help for people in his city who were on the edge. He challenges us, however much or however little we have, to be generous in helping people who are on the edge in ours. As John proclaims the possibility of a new beginning for everyone, so Nicholas shows us how to live beyond that new beginning, in a generous concern for others in the name of our generous God, who gave his Son to us and for us two thousand years ago, and who gives him to us today in the bread and wine of our Communion.

Tony Dickinson

Advent 1 (29.11.2020)

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ In Mark’s gospel those are the last words of Jesus the teacher to his disciples. The very next words at the beginning of chapter 14, “It was two days before the Passover”, point us forward to the suffering and death which will overtake him within a few days. “Keep awake”. That’s something that Peter and James and John totally failed to do while Jesus was praying in the garden. It’s something that we fail to do when we let our own concerns blot out our awareness of what God is doing in these days through which we are living, when we allow what we want, rather than what God wills, to direct our thinking and our actions.

That has always been the human way. Our first reading listed the repeated failures of the people of Israel to be the people that God created them to be. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” That is why this time of preparation for Christmas has something of the feel of Lent about it. How can we approach the birth of the Infant King knowing what we do about ourselves? How can we prepare for his coming in glory as the Lord of history when we are aware of our failure to complete the work that he has left his household, the Church; when church leaders have worried more about preserving its reputation than they have about protecting its victims; when ordinary Christians have bowed down to the people with power instead of serving the people who have none; when they have failed to remember that it was those with power who put their Lord to death on a cross?

“Keep awake.” Be aware of what is happening around you. Be alert to the signs of the times. What has God been saying to us in this year of pandemic? What is God saying to us through our growing awareness of the man-made disaster that is overtaking this planet? Which of the thousands of voices competing for our attention on social media are the voices to which we should be listening? Who has the answers to our increasingly desperate questions, the cure for the sickness that has infected the whole earth? – and I don’t just mean Covid-19!

The truth is that there are no easy answers, not for us, not for the prophet, not for the first disciples. Church leaders, political leaders, celebrities, “influencers”, the many voices on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Instagram and all the other channels through which our opinions are formed – none of them has the answer to the deepest questions about the meaning of human existence. We are sent back to the One “who works for those who wait for him… [who meets those] who gladly do right.” We are sent back to the one whose “words will not pass away” – even when the powers of the heavens are shaken and earth has vanished into smoke.

That’s why Advent isn’t quite like Lent. It isn’t only about engaging with our failure. It’s also about watching, and waiting, and listening. It’s about prayer – and by prayer I don’t mean “heaping up empty phrases”, presenting God with shopping list after shopping list, but listening; listening for God in silence and stillness, like the psalmist, asking God: “show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” So on the next three Fridays the church will be open for private prayer. I shall be around if anyone wants to talk, but it’s OK just to come in and sit or light a candle. In addition, each day in Advent on our church Facebook page, from today, there is a thought, an image, some of them based on ancient hymns of the Church, some of them startlingly contemporary. Each of them, whether old or new, points us towards the Jesus whose coming we await. On the Facebook page there is also a daily “pause for prayer”, focusing on a picture and a list of prayer topics linked with the districts of this city, as we remember them in our parish cycle of prayer, from Nervi to Voltri and from Pontedecimo to Molo. It’s a reminder that God is not concerned only with what we do here on Sundays, but with every aspect of the life of every person. It’s a reminder, too, that the Jesus whose coming we await came first, not to the sentimentalised, fairytale world depicted on so many Christmas cards, but to the hard reality of life as a Palestinian Jewish craftsman in a small town up-country, under foreign military occupation.

Tony Dickinson

Christ the King (22.11.2020)

There are many stories in many different cultures about the ruler who disguises himself as an ordinary citizen in order to find out what is really going on in the land that he rules. Those stories usually end, as the story which Jesus told in our Gospel reading ends, with reward for those who show themselves to be good and compassionate and hospitable – and punishment for those who are selfish and cruel. But there’s a difference. In the story Jesus tells, the ruler doesn’t just observe which is going on. The ruler identifies with the people who are having a hard time, those who are “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison”. And it isn’t the wicked who “go away into eternal punishment”. It’s the people who can’t be bothered to put themselves out for a fellow human being in need. They are people who are guilty of what used to be called “sins of omission” – in other words, not the wicked things that they have done, but the good things they have failed to do when they had the opportunity to do them.

That’s a theme Jesus comes back to time and time again in the Gospels. Think of the rich man in Luke’s Gospel who ignored the poor man, lying desperately ill outside his gate. Or the priest and the Levite, who saw the robbers’ victim at the roadside and walked straight past him. Their modern equivalents are, sadly, alive and well and living – well, just about everywhere. There’s another thing, too. In Jesus’ story it wasn’t only those who had failed the to do the right thing who were shocked and surprised. Those who were invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” were equally thunderstruck. “When did we help you?” The people who are rewarded by the king didn’t do those good things in order to get themselves noticed and gain a reward – Jesus is quite rude about that sort of behaviour in the sermon he preached on the hillside much earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. The people rewarded by the king did those good things because those good things were the right thing to do. They saw someone in need and they acted to help, even if “help” meant nothing more than giving up some time to be alongside someone in distress.

I think that one of the reasons why many people, and especially people of faith, have been finding this pandemic so difficult to cope with is that it isn’t possible to do that. If we know people who are ill with the virus, or isolating, it’s quite hard to accept that the best thing we can do is not to go and visit, but to stay away – because if we go and visit it’s quite possible that we might come away carrying the virus, and even if we don’t become infected ourselves we might easily infect others. But we can still send messages, or make voice or video calls on a smartphone – and we can still pray. We can still hold the people who are in our “thoughts and prayers” in the stream of God’s healing love, people who are vulnerable, or awaiting the results of tests, or who have tested positive. We can also hold before God the people who are in daily contact with infection: health care professionals at every level, in hospitals, in clinics, in care homes, in the emergency services – and the people who work in shops and supermarkets, in pharmacies, in public transport, not to mention the police and the carabinieri.

Now, to some people praying might feel like a bit of a cop-out, a reminder of our powerlessness. Most of us, if we are honest, don’t like the feeling that we are not in control. That’s one of the reasons why some people are reluctant to wear masks. They see it as a limitation on their freedom. Some see it as a failure to trust in God, a desperate attempt to “stay safe” as the world understands safety. They forget that it is also a way of expressing our love for our vulnerable neighbour. They forget, too, that the one whom we acclaim as Lord and King takes his place, as we heard in today’s gospel, with the weak, the powerless, the people on the margins and not with the wealthy and the powerful. While our first reading used the language of glory and exaltation and power to describe the risen Christ, the rest of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us that the glory is rooted in the agony of crucifixion, that the exaltation is reached through the deepest humiliation, and that the power is revealed in the acceptance of suffering and death. “Christ the King” enthroned on the cross reveals his glory in self-giving love.

Tony Dickinson

2 before Advent (15.11.2020)

A few minutes ago we heard words from the oldest Christian writing that has come down to us. St Paul’s first letter to the Christian community in Thessaloniki was written about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and about fifteen years before the earliest of the gospels – so probably nearer thirty years before St Matthew’s. It was written to encourage a recently-established community whose members were suffering abuse and, quite possibly violence, at the hands of their non-Christian neighbours. Scholars think that most of them were poor, and mostly non-Jews, people who worked in local industry or in the port. Thessaloniki even today is a bit like a Greek-speaking Genova, an important centre of trade and transport, with people from many different countries living and working there.

It was much the same when Paul visited and preached there nearly 2000 years ago. The city was on the main land route between Rome and the East. It was a place where great wealth existed alongside great poverty – and where the Roman slogan “peace and security” probably did not ring true for many of the inhabitants, whose jobs were insecure and whose lives were far from peaceful. For those people Paul’s message about the Son of the one true God, whose love for human beings was so great that he shared their life from the womb to the most painful and humiliating death that the Roman Empire could inflict on its subjects – and that he would return to replace the corruption and cruelty of earthly rulers with God’s kingdom of justice and true peace – that message came as real “good news”.

It also came with a demand: a demand to live already, here and now, by the standards of God’s kingdom and not by the standards of Caesar’s empire. It came too – as it still comes – with the urgent demand to keep alert, and awake to the signs of God’s kingdom breaking in, not least because most of the first generation of Christians, including Paul, believed that this would happen within their lifetime and that Jesus would return very soon.

Paul hammers home that message, piling one picture on top of another. It will come as unexpectedly as a burglary, as suddenly as a woman going into labour. We who are waiting for it must be sober, watchful, like soldiers ready for battle, but carrying no offensive weapon and taking as our armour “the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation”. In other words, what protects us amid the troubles of this world is not wealth or power, but our relationship with one another and with God, and our confidence in God’s goodness, God’s power to bring us safely to our journey’s end, whatever may happen on the way. When once we have grasped that, and by “we” I mean people in 21st-century Genova as much as people in 1st-century Thessaloniki – once we have grasped that, we can find the courage to take risks for God’s sake, to use the gifts that he has given us in his service, as two of the slaves did in the story which Jesus told in today’s gospel reading.

Now, there are a couple of things to bear in mind as we listen to that “parable of the talents”. The first thing is how much a talent was worth. Originally it was a measure of weight and its exact value depended on which metal was being weighed. In ancient Athens a talent of silver was enough to pay one craftsman’s wages for nine years or the crew of a warship (about 200 men) for a month. So this was serious money that the master was handing out. The second thing is this: that in uncertain times the safest thing to do with anything of value is to bury it in the ground, so that the slave with the one talent was being prudent. He was not going to risk his master’s capital by trading with it or investing it with the bank. Banks went bust then as they do now. So, he did the sensible thing and kept it in a safe place. But the others were not afraid to risk their master’s money, and that, it turned out, was exactly the right thing to do. So here’s our take-away from today’s two readings: first, that the Kingdom of God should never be confused with the kingdoms of this world; and second that the Kingdom of God cannot come without God’s people taking risks, protected only by faith and love and hope.

Tony Dickinson

3 before Advent (Remembrance Sunday) (8.11.2020)

If you take the number 34 bus to Staglieno, get off at the cemetery, walk through gate where the florist’s shop and the café are, and keep on going along the Viale dei Protestanti, a couple of hundred metres up on your right you will find a metal sign pointing you to the “British Cemetery”. If you follow the path and climb the steps, you will find yourself in a section of the cemetery where some past members of this church are buried. It’s a bit wild and wooded, just about kept under control by a small group of volunteers who have family members buried there, but if you carry on up, to the third and fourth level of terraces, you come to a completely different scene. It’s immaculately kept, with mown grass and neat rows of headstones, all to the same basic design. This is the Commonwealth War Graves section, where the mortal remains of British and Commonwealth casualties from two World Wars have been laid to rest, most of them young men in their twenties and early thirties.

Many of the gravestones from the Second World War are for the crew members of bombers shot down in the months after the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 or “special duties” aircraft dropping supplies to the anti-Fascist partisans who harried the occupying forces in Liguria. The dead from the First War are mainly soldiers who were sent to hospitals in Liguria after being wounded while serving with the Anglo-French expeditionary force which helped turn the tide on the Italian front after the defeat at Caporetto. Those deaths are dated at regular intervals through 1917 and the early months of 1918, but suddenly, toward the end of September, the rate increases. Instead of two or three deaths a week there are now deaths nearly every day, and as the war draws to its end the daily number of fatalities increases even more rapidly so that from mid-October to the end of November there are often four, five six – or even more – deaths each day. The “Spanish flu” pandemic had arrived in Italy. Of the 230 war dead from 1916-1918 nearly 150 died in the ten weeks between 22nd September and the end of November. It is an important reminder that those who die in war are not always heroes leading the charge.

But we remember them all, and the Italian troops who were their allies in one war and their opponents, and then allies again, in another war. We remember them all because each one of them, like each one of us, was and is infinitely loved by God, and because each one of them is a brother or sister for whom Christ died. We remember them all because some of us, too, have lost people we love in conflict or in pandemic. We remember them with sorrow but, as St Paul reminds us in today’s first reading, we are not to “grieve as others do who have no hope.”

In the light of Jesus’ resurrection we look forward in hope to the day when he will return as Lord and King to renew this earth which he loves and for which he died, the day which St Paul describes with such startling vividness in today’s first reading, when he writes of angels with trumpets and the living and the dead together being caught up in the clouds “meet the Lord in the air”. But if we leave them there, we miss the whole point of what Paul is saying. His message is not that the Lord will return to pluck his people out of the world and its woes, whatever the “Left Behind” books may say. His message is that the dead and the living are one in the risen Christ. That is why the dead and the living go out to meet the risen, glorified Christ, as the inhabitants of a town or city in the Roman Empire would have gone out to meet the Emperor, when he or one of his high officials made a formal visit, and escort him with great pomp and ceremony into the city. The risen Christ does not take his people, living as well as departed, up to heaven, they accompany him with great jubilation as he returns to earth to make all things new, to bring about, at last, a world in which peace and justice dwell and the horror of war is no more.

So, on this day when we remember those who have died in war, we set that act of remembrance within another act of remembrance. In this Eucharist, in which we remember those who have died in war, we renew, as we do in every Eucharist, our remembrance of the Lord’s suffering and death, through which we and the whole of humanity, living and departed, friends and bitter foes, are reconciled to one another and to God.

Tony Dickinson

All Souls (2.11.2020)

This evening, as we remember the names of those who have died, we shall light a candle for those who have been special for us, life-partners, parents, grandparents, other family members, friends, to hold their name, and their memory, consciously before our eyes, as it is always, though most of the time unconsciously, held in the depths of our heart. We shall do that on this evening conscious of all those others who share in sorrow for the multitudes whose names we do not know, those who have lost their lives to Covid-19, those who have died, or are dying, as a result of Friday’s earthquake in the Aegean, and those who met martyr’s death in Nice.

Tonight we come together not only grieving for our loss but more aware of the fragility of human existence – and of our own mortality – than we may have been for many years. These words of Thomas Nashe, written in a time of pestilence over four centuries ago, have a grim topicality for this generation as they did for his:

Adieu, farewell earths blisse, This world uncertaine is, Fond are lifes lustfull joyes, Death proves them all but toyes, None from his darts can flye; I am sick, I must dye:

Lord, have mercy on us.

But those last five words, which are repeated at the end of each stanza, also resonate for us. The people we name tonight, the people for whom we light a candle, are not named in a void. They are named before God, the God of all mercy. They are named in the confidence that God knows them, knows them eternally and more fully than we ever could, that God loves them, loves them eternally and more deeply than any human heart could. And what is true for those whom we love but see no longer is true also for every name on that unimaginably huge Covid casualty-list.

So we light our candles and name our names in sorrow, certainly. Our life is diminished by their absence as it was enhanced by their presence. But we do not name them in fear and anxiety. We come forward in hope, in the confidence that, in the end, all will be well because the final destination of every human journey, including our own, is the boundless and eternal love of God. And, as St Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us”. Christ’s death and resurrection, the ground of our hope, give meaning to every life, however it may end. I quoted the opening of a poem by Thomas Nashe. In the stanzas that follow Nashe details how wealth, beauty, physical strength, and “wit” fail us in the face of death, but his meditation on the pandemic of 1593 ends with these words:

Haste, therefore, each degree, To welcome destiny; Heaven is our heritage, Earth but a player’s stage; Mount we unto the sky. I am sick, I must die.

Lord, have mercy on us.

“Heaven is our heritage.” Life in the eternal radiance of God’s love is that “destiny” for which humankind has been intended from the beginning. By his death and resurrection Jesus has opened the way to that destiny for us, for those whom we love but see no longer, and for all those million and more dead for whom others in Italy and around the world watch and weep tonight. God’s compassion and mercy enfolds them, as it enfolds us, in infinite, unconditional love. Indeed, as Paul wrote to the Christian communities in Rome, “if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

Tony Dickinson

All Saints (1.11.2020)

This has been a really grim week, whichever way you look at it. The tightening of restrictions locally and nationally was bad enough, but probably unavoidable given the sharp rise in new infections. The troubles in Nigeria continue to simmer. On top of that we had the shocking report from Nice, which brought back for me some less-than-pleasant memories of passing through on the way back to the UK after our first ever visit to Genoa four years ago, days after the slaughter on the Promenade des Anglais. And then, to cap it all, there was Friday’s news of the Aegean earthquake. So it’s understandable if people don’t really feel like celebrating today.

But then we look at Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, the eight blessings which begin the great block of teaching which we call “The Sermon on the Mount”: and as we look at them we realise that most of the people that Jesus calls “blessed” are in the same kind of situation that we are. They aren’t the rich, the successful, the famous. They are poor. They are grieving. They are down-trodden, hard-done-by, suffering. What’s more, some would say, they ask for it. They forgive those who have done them wrong. They always think well of people. They don’t pursue quarrels; they work to end them. They are the sort of people that President Trump would brand as “losers”. They are also the people who are closest to the heart of God.

They are the people we celebrate today, the people for whose lives we give thanks to God on this All Saints’ Day. Ordinary people, like us, often people on the margins of life, but people in whom the light of God’s love has shone. A 19th-century English bishop wrote in praise of “saints made in the old way by suffering and labour and diligence in little things, and the exercise of unselfish, untiring love; quiet lives lived away in holes and corners and not known to the public while alive.” All of us, I suspect, have known saints of that type, people you could go to and talk about anything, people who radiated goodness and generosity and love – and, very often, people who have been through the mill one way or another and come through their experience into a new level of wisdom and serenity.

They are people who are guided not by their own ego but by the Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost to whose glory this church was dedicated nearly a century and a half ago. That, I think, is part of what St John means when he writes that “all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” When he talks about Christians “purifying themselves”, John doesn’t mean the kind of ritual purity that the Pharisees sought, but that purity of heart which Jesus included among his blessings. It means opening ourselves more and more to the love of God and letting that love, and not wealth or success or celebrity, be the motive and the guide for everything that we do. It means trusting God; placing our lives, and the lives of those we love, in his hands each day. It means accepting whatever comes. The 17th-century pastor and poet Richard Baxter addressed these words to the “saints who toil below”, by which he meant ordinary Christians called to do extraordinary things for God: “take what [God] gives and praise him still, through good and ill, who ever lives.”

That’s important, especially when we can’t see the way ahead clearly. St John again: “what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” In the mean time we “take what he gives”, even if it seems, as much of our present experience does, dark and difficult. We “take what he gives” and we claim it for a blessing, we claim it as a sign that we are in the right place, numbered among the poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst to see justice done, the pure in heart and all those other “losers” who are near to God’s heart.

Today we give thanks for them all, whoever and wherever they may be, and we give thanks especially for those who have guided us along the path of Christian discipleship, encouraging us when the going has been tough, picking us up when we have taken a tumble, accompanying us along the way to the kingdom of God.

Tony Dickinson

Dedication Festival (25th October, 2020)

A wise American woman, now dead, suggested that if we want to make sense of what is going on in the worldwide Church today, we need to understand that every five hundred years or so God has a grand clear-out of all the human clutter that gets in the way and blocks human beings from discovering God. She said that the process is like a gigantic rummage sale, when the Church, under pressure from the Holy Spirit, goes through the house, decides what to keep, and puts the rest out to make room for the new things that the Spirit is putting in place.

In a sense, that’s what Jesus is doing in this morning’s Gospel. The Temple in Jerusalem has become cluttered, not just with people buying and selling, but with a kind of determination to keep people out if they couldn’t pay their dues. In fact, if you buy into the idea of a grand clear-out every five centuries, then the coming of Jesus marks the biggest clear-out ever. The things that Jesus did, the things that were done to him, and everything that followed in the years immediately afterwards have transformed the way that everyone understands the world for the past 2,000 years, whether they are Christian or not.

So, when we look at the history of the West, including western Asia and Africa north of the Sahara, we find that there are major breaks roughly every five centuries. Five hundred years after Jesus, the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed. Christians found themselves caught up in great movements of peoples, making their way across the Empire’s frontiers. How were they to tell these newcomers the good news about Jesus? How were they to hold on to the things that they valued when cities were being burned ad looted?

Five hundred years after that came the great split between the Church in Western Europe and the Churches of the East. Different languages, different cultures were making it harder and harder for each side to see the God they worshipped in the life and worship of the others. And five centuries after that there came the great explosion of new ideas about God and about how to be Church that we call “The Reformation” – and that is still working itself out today.

Now, as you may remember, it’s three years since Christians around the world (though probably not so much in Italy) remembered that the spark that set off that huge explosion happened five hundred years ago. Which means that we ought to be in the middle of another great clear-out. And it seems increasingly clear that we are. The world has change enormously – the Church has changed enormously – since I was a child in Liverpool seventy years ago. Empires have collapsed and disappeared. Others are crumbling. There have been huge movements of peoples during those seventy years – including the one that has brought so many people from Nigeria to Genova. The Church worldwide, including the Church of England, is having to face some uncomfortable truths about its behaviour during the past century. Jesus is busy overturning our tables and telling us to rediscover the purpose for which we were called into being, to be a space where people can find hope and healing, where the voices of children are heard, as they are in today’s Gospel.

This day when we celebrate the 148th anniversary of this building’s existence is a good time for us to do that, to rediscover what it means not just to worship in a house of prayer, but to worship as a people of prayer, bringing before God all the confusion, the pain, and the joy of being human – and especially today we hold before God the suffering of people in Nigeria, not only those caught up in the events in Lagos, but those who suffer each day the effects of corruption and crime, of the deep social and religious divisions which undermine the unity of the nation.

But today is also the day when we remember that we are part of that gloriously mixed company which the letter to the Hebrews described in our first reading, not limited to one nation or race, or even one order of being. As we gather in this building, with its century and a half of clutter, we recognise that we too have “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant”, sealed in his body and blood and renewed for us this morning in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Tony Dickinson

St Luke’s Day (18th October, 2020)
Today we give thanks to God for St Luke the Evangelist, the man who wrote the Gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles. He is believed by many to have been one of St Paul’s fellow-workers and a companion on some of his journeys. It is also thought, following a brief mention in one of Paul’s letters, that he was a doctor. None of this is certain. Luke, or Loukas, was not an uncommon name in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, so St Paul’s references many not all have been to the same person – and there is no cast-iron evidence that the Luke who travelled with Paul is the same person as the Luke who wrote the Gospel and Acts.

But what matters to us is not the stories told about Luke but the story, the great story, that is told by Luke: and if you wanted to get to the heart of that story you could hardly do better than turn to the passage from his gospel that we heard just now. Luke’s concern is with sharing the good news about Jesus, about letting the world know what God has done in Jesus. He didn’t write his gospel for the benefit of the Christian community, as Matthew did. He wrote his gospel for people who were in many ways like him: cultured, city-dwelling, Greek-speakers, people with a bit of status, and possibly influence, but also people who were not (yet) part of the growing community of Christians. Luke wants to convince them of the truth of the gospel message and to show that Christianity is not, as many important people of that era believed, a depraved superstition, but the way, marked out by Jesus, that leads to life and wholeness.

So, our gospel this morning tells how Jesus sent out seventy disciples to prepare the way for his coming and gave them their instructions. Their orders are to travel light, not to waste time when they are on the road, and to rely on the hospitality of strangers: and they end with the punch-line ‘Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”’ That’s a pattern we see repeated in the Gospel and in Acts: shared hospitality, healing and teaching, those are the signs which reveal that “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

Now, for many of us, at the present time, it can be hard to see any signs of the kingdom of God. The number of cases of Covid-19 is going up again across Italy – and sharply, just as it did in the spring. The number of deaths, too, is rising but, so far, nothing like as quickly, thanks be to God. Though that doesn’t make life any easier for those who have been infected with the virus, nor for the families and friends of those who have died.

Life was hard, too, for those who lived at the time of our first reading. The Jewish exiles had returned from Babylon, but God had not brought in his kingdom and the neighbours then, as now, were far from friendly. Life was tough and there was no end to their troubles in sight. But the prophet’s message is not one of doom and despondency. Quite the opposite. It is a powerful message of hope and healing. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…. He will come and save you.’ In other words “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

That is the message for us on this St Luke’s day. Life is hard. Death is in the air. But still there is hope because “The kingdom of God has come near.” It has come near not only in those miraculous healings of which the prophet spoke, but in such everyday things as the love between two people, the birth of a child (or even two children!), the courage and resilience of health workers and all who risk infection through their daily work, including supermarket staff and bus drivers. But that message of hope comes with a challenge. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” is a message to us as well. There is work to be done. There is good news to be shared. There is Christ’s work of healing to take forward, through our prayers, through our care for one another, through our willingness to listen to the stories of others, however difficult and distressing they may be. Earlier we prayed that “by the grace of the Spirit and through the wholesome medicine of the gospel, [God would] give the Church the same love and power to heal.” That means us, dear brothers and sisters. Are we up for it?

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 18 (11th October 2020)

After a week away with the ancient Israelites, we’re back in first-century Philippi this morning. And it rather looks as if the church there had been having problems. What had Euodia said or done that had annoyed Syntyche – or was it the other way round? Anyway, Paul thought that the situation needed sorting out and he entrusted one of his co-workers, possibly Timothy, with the job. Importantly, Paul didn’t take sides. Importantly, he affirmed the good things that both of them had been doing as they “struggled beside [him] in the work of the Gospel.”

It’s a reminder that even in the best-run Christian communities there can be tensions and that sometimes those tensions cause a breakdown in relationships which needs sorting out. I hope that Paul’s “loyal companion”, whoever he (or she) was, managed to sort things out, so that the life and witness of the Christian community wasn’t damaged by rivalries and petty jealousies.

It was in order to avoid such damage that St Paul recalled the Philippians to first principles, which he set out in the central section of today’s first reading.

And those first principles are:

  1. “Rejoice in the Lord always”. That doesn’t mean going round all the time with what I once heard described as “that ghastly Christian grin”. What it does mean is letting your awareness of God’s love for you – and for the whole of creation – fill you with joy.
  2. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Don’t throw your weight about. Be kind to people, even when they are being trying. Be patient. They may be struggling. They may be coming to terms with bad news, or coping with a tough situation in their own life.
  3. “Do not worry about anything.” That is one of the key messages of Jesus. We heard it loud and clear in last Sunday’s Gospel. It’s taken up here by St Paul. Yes, life can be hard. Yes, we lose control. But God is God and God is to be trusted. “The Lord is near”, much nearer than we imagine, holding us up when we want to collapse in a heap.
  4. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” We are called to be people of prayer, to make time for God each day, to tell God our needs and the needs of the people around us, to put ourselves at God’s disposal—and to be thankful. Every night, before I go to sleep, I try to make a mental list of all the things that have happened during the day which have taught me something, or brought me joy, or brought someone else joy, even something as simple as a sunny day or a phone call from a friend. And for each item on that list I say “thank you.”

And if you do those things, so Paul tells the Philippians, then “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Now, living like that isn’t always easy. Sometimes life is so challenging that it is very hard to be joyful and people are so annoying that it is hard to be gentle. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by worry and the Lord seems far away. Sometimes it is a struggle to make time to pray, and sometimes we feel so dry when we come to God that all we can do is cry out with St Teresa of Avila, Oh God, I don’t love you, I don’t even want to love you, but I want to want to love you!”

Those are the situations when we need to take heed of St Paul’s final piece of advice to the Christians of Philippi: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Sometimes if we wake up during the night and find it hard to go back to sleep, all sorts of negative thoughts can come crowding in. That is when we need to focus on what is positive, praiseworthy, and good – not on the many times when we have fouled up, but on the many more times when we have been blessed and when we have experienced the presence of our infinitely patient, infinitely loving God, who is nearer to us than the blood pulsing in our arteries.

Tony Dickinson

Harvest Thanksgiving (4th October, 2020)

It is right and good, on this day when we give thanks for God’s good gifts to us in creation, and especially for the gifts which we receive from the harvest of land and sea, that we should also give thanks for God’s gift of a daughter to Queen and Onyeka. It is good, too, as we become aware that the days are growing shorter and that winter is on its way, that Onyeka and Queen have given their daughter the name of one of the loveliest of winter saints, Lucy, the Sicilian teenager whose crown of light brightens the darkest days of a Swedish December. And it is a particular joy that our Lucy is to be brought out of darkness into God’s marvellous light on this day, the day when Christians of all traditions give thanks for the life of the saint who above all others reveals the glory and wonder and interconnectedness of God’s creation.

It was on this day, nearly 800 years ago, that Pietro Bernardone’s son Giovanni, better known by his nickname, Francesco, “Francis”, “the Frenchman”, was laid, naked, on “our sister Mother Earth” in the same church just outside the walls of Assisi where he had begun his adventure of faith twenty years before. As we remember that death we also remember how death opens the way to life. It is through the death of the seed, buried in the earth, that the plants that provide our food come alive. It is the death of Jesus which opens for us the way to eternal life, and in a few minutes’ time, Lucy will be baptised into the death of Jesus so that she may share his risen life.

Jesus outlines the realities of that life in that passage from Luke’s Gospel that we heard just now. He tells the disciples that it’s not just food or clothing. It’s not made safer by worry. He tells the disciples that it is about total trust in God. And, as Lis loves to remind us, God sees and provides. God feeds the ravens. God clothes the lilies. God cares for us. Francis knew that. Francis lived that. So, when they were truest to their calling, did the people of Israel. In our first reading we heard Moses reminding the people of all that they had been through and how God had brought them safely through every danger, every trial. “God freed you,” he reminds them. “God led you. God fed you.” And why? “To humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.”

There are people here in church this morning who have experienced much of what the Israelites went through. Through the desert and across the sea, God has brought you, as he brought the Israelites, “into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity.” For many life, even in this land, is still a struggle, as it often was for the Israelites, but God is faithful. As Jesus reminded the disciples, “if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you!”

Queen and Onyeka, one of your great responsibilities as Lucy’s parents is to help her to understand that: to help her to learn to trust God, whatever happens; and to remember that all that is good comes from God, and to give thanks. We depend on God for life and breath and everything. In this time of pandemic we depend on God all the more, whatever happens. Sadly the world is full of people who don’t believe that – and look what a mess they have made of things! In California an area three times the size of Liguria is on fire. The great cities of the world have been taken over by people who have done the equivalent of pulling down their barns and building larger ones. Blocks of offices and luxury flats have been thrown up to the greater glory of people who believe that ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But now many of those blocks of offices and those luxury flats are empty – and even if a cure for the virus were to be discovered tomorrow many of them will never be occupied. And debt-laden companies and corporations will go broke and people will lose their jobs, because they ‘stored up treasures for themselves but were not rich towards God.’

So let us learn from the Lord and from the little poor man of Assisi. As he lay dying, St Francis said to the friars gathered around him, “I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours.” That is our prayer for Lucy today, and for each one of us.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 16 (27th September, 2020)

Philippi was different. St Paul’s travels since his encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus had been in cities and towns like Tarsus, where he grew up. They were (mostly) Greek-speaking. They had an established Jewish community. And they were in Asia. Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, Ephesus, right up as far as Troas.

But Philippi was different. It was in Europe. It was partly Greek-speaking, but the leading citizens, the people who wielded power, were people whose first language was Latin. They were Roman citizens, the descendants of the soldiers who had been settled there after the great battle fought outside the city about a hundred years before Paul’s arrival. They were people with status. They were, as we might say, an elite, a highly privileged elite, at the top of a pyramid which, as usual in the Ancient World, rested on the backs of the slaves who worked the land or kept house for their owners.

Now, in such a setting what Paul is writing in the passage that we have just heard is nothing short of revolutionary. He is writing to a community in which there are to be no privileged elites, no pyramid of status or ambition. He urges them, “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” And don’t forget that in the Ancient World “humility” was regarded as a dirty word. Not for Paul it wasn’t. For Paul it was an essential part of the love that was the distinguishing mark of a Christian community, because it was the distinguishing mark of their Lord.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he writes, and then he launches into that wonderful hymn of praise to the Christ who “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave”, identifying with those who were right at the bottom of the social heap. In the Roman Empire such an idea was dynamite, not just politically but theologically. The idea of a god becoming a slave was nonsense to pagans. To Jews the idea of God, the God of all creation, becoming a slave was a massive stumbling-block.

It was unimaginable then. It’s barely imaginable now. And what makes it even more explosive is what follows: in Jesus God not only becomes a slave: God suffers a slave’s death – the slave’s death. Crucifixion was the punishment routinely inflicted on slaves who didn’t know their place, who rebelled against the order of things – even by such a simple act as running away from their master. “[Christ] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” So what happened then?

Last week Lis and I were “virtually” away at Archdeaconry Synod. Our theme this year was “Living the Resurrection”. The former bishop of Oxford John Pritchard, now retired, led two on-line Bible studies on St John’s record of the resurrection of Jesus and St Luke’s account of what happened on the road to Emmaus. Bishop John reminded us that for St John the resurrection includes both the gift of the Spirit and the exaltation of Jesus as he ascends to the Father. St Paul also couples together resurrection and exaltation, and links both to the obedience of Jesus. “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Now, if Paul’s earlier words were dynamite, these words are TNT – both then and now. Because if Jesus is Lord then the Emperor wasn’t. Nor are any of the modern pretenders to supreme power, be they in Washington, Moscow, or Beijing: or Kaduna or London for that matter. Jesus’ death and exaltation bring every structure of government under God’s judgement. That applies even to what we shall do when this service is over. At our annual church meeting, as we reflect on what we did in 2019, and as you elect the people who will represent you on the church council and at the Synod during the coming year, it is important that all of us “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit”. Instead let us follow St Paul’s advice to the Christians of Philippi: “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 15 (20.9.2020)

Standing idle all day” in the market-place has been the fate of millions of people in recent months – in this country and around the world. It was bad enough when everything was shut down and there was no work anywhere for anyone, unless they could “work from home”. It somehow seems worse now that the restrictions have been lifted and it’s still difficult to find a job that pays enough to cover the rent and the energy bills, not to mention food and drink. Those who are still on the look out for work “Because no one has hired [them]” are probably wondering where’s the fairness, the justice, in it all?

So it might be something of a shock to listen to the parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel and to realise that the people who are wondering “where’s the justice?” are not those who have been standing idle all day in the market-place, but the people who have been labouring in the vineyard since early morning. It’s all about expectations.

Our first reading, too, is all about expectations – and about how God meets them. Jonah had been directed by God to go to Nineveh and denounce the city and its people. ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ Most people know the story of how Jonah tried to escape that rather risky assignment by taking ship to the other end of the Mediterranean and how he ended up being thrown into the sea and swallowed by a large fish.

Well, in between being coughed up by the fish and the passage from the very end of the book that we have just heard, Jonah did actually make it to Nineveh at the second time of telling and he proclaimed the message which the Lord had sent him to deliver: ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people listened. And the government listened. “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” And he proclaimed a time of fasting and prayer for all the people – and ordered them to turn away from evil and violence.

That is the point at which we picked up the story this morning: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

Now you might think that Jonah would be pleased that his preaching had had such a powerfully transforming effect. Well, as we heard, not a bit of it. He was very cross, very cross indeed. He resented bitterly that God decided not to destroy the city, just as the men in Jesus’ story who had worked all day resented the generosity of the landowner paying men who had worked for an hour in the evening as much as those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” – even though they had agreed to work for “the usual daily wage”.

And so the landowner has to point out how distorted their vision has become. Instead of rejoicing in his generosity to others, they have become envious. That grudging attitude is sadly common, even among Christians. You hear people grumbling about the state’s generosity to the most vulnerable, or about what they see as leniency to offenders. The cry goes up; “It’s not fair!”, even when that professed concern for “fairness” is, in reality, a barely hidden longing for an outcome which blocks the possibility of generosity – and of mercy.

Jonah wants to see justice done on the people of Nineveh for their wickedness. The workers in the vineyard who have been there since early morning want a bit extra in comparison with the late-comers. But God is, as Jonah grudgingly recognises, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing”, and the kingdom of God, like the man who owned the vineyard, can offer only one reward to those who labour for its coming. That reward is not a carefully graded wage-scale, or a tariff of pay-backs and punishments. That reward is nothing less than the vision of God and the experience of being caught up eternally in “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 14 (13.9.2020)

It was nineteen years ago last Friday that fanatics flew two airliners full of passengers into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. A few corners of social media which aren’t focused on the pandemic or the latest shenanigans between Britain and the EU have been reminding us of this grim anniversary. For the non-believer it is evidence of the truth of the ancient poet’s words: “So much of evil could religion urge.” For the believer, it is a painful reminder of the lethal dangers – and the attractiveness – of bad religion, the kind of religion which justifies violence in the name of God, which endorses whatever position “I” decide to take and which is always happy to condemn others to hell if they don’t see things as “I” do.
There is a cast of mind which rejoices in being infallibly right and in condemning those who are, by their reckoning, wrong. It can be found among all faiths, even Buddhists. It can certainly be found among Christians of every denomination. The election campaigns in the USA are providing enough evidence of that. We call it “self-righteousness” and often think of it as being annoying but mainly harmless. And clearly it is a cast of mind which can be found in any age.
Take today’s first reading, for example. Reading between the lines, it seems clear that there was a feud going on in Rome between a vegetarian faction and the meat-eaters in the congregation. It’s a feud which had a sharp theological edge, because most of the meat which was eaten in this part of the world during the first century came from animals which had been sacrificed to pagan gods and was therefore off-limits to Christians. So, no doubt some were getting on their high horse and condemning the meat-eaters as the next best thing to idol worshippers, while others were getting on an equally high horse to dismiss the abstainers as weak-minded fools who could not understand that the pagan gods had no real existence and therefore meat from animals offered in sacrifice was no different from any other meat on the butcher’s counter.
How does Paul tackle it? What he has to say here is pretty much the same as what Jesus says in the Gospels: do not judge one another. On these controversial matters, Paul says, everyone should do two things: first, be convinced in their own mind, and, second, keep their convictions to themselves. His closing words are quite clear: “each of us will be accountable to God” for the way in which we live as members of his people. That being the case, we have no business passing judgment on our fellow-Christians or (worse) despising them.
Religion that delights in passing judgement, in condemning, in despising is bad religion. Religion that delights in making others “pay what [they] owe” is bad religion. Jesus, in today’s Gospel, uses a parable to make the same point that Paul states bluntly: that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and that that affects the way in which we live with one another. We, who experience daily the reality of God’s forgiveness, who know that despite our repeated failures we are still loved and accepted by our heavenly Father – we cannot withhold that forgiveness from one another. “How often should I forgive?” asks Peter. “Seven times?” Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Or seventy times seven, depending on how you interpret Matthew’s Greek. Either way we will lose count long before we come to the 78th offence, let alone the 491st. Life is too short to bear grudges. Relationships are too important to bear grudges. The unity of Christ’s body is too important – although the left hand still merrily hammers nails into the right hand without realising what it is doing.
Nineteen years ago, the people of the USA experienced a major disaster. Nineteen men who began their prayers each day with the words “Bismillah al-Rahman, al-Rahim” (in the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate), blotted out God’s mercy and compassion, which extends to all human beings. They took it upon themselves to judge a whole nation. Nineteen years ago they destroyed the lives of nearly 3,000 people and set off a chain reaction in which thousands more around the world have died and are still dying, from Manchester to China, via London, Paris, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, victims of knife-men and kidnappers, drones and suicide bombers, of IEDs and laser-guided bombs. Bad religion, self-righteousness, isn’t “mainly harmless”. Like the failure to forgive, it can be a killer.
Like Paul, we know that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” From Jesus we learn the power and the depth of God’s forgiveness. In his strength, let us commit ourselves again to the way of peace and reconciliation and turn our backs on the temptation to judge.#
Tony Dickinson

Trinity 13 (6.9.2020)

Bishop Desmond Tutu famously asked “How do you eat an elephant?” And he gave the answer “One bite at a time.” He was talking about the struggle to overcome the apartheid system in South Africa thirty years ago but his words apply to any great project.

How do you build the kingdom of heaven? “One bite at a time”, by doing little things lovingly – and by not falling for the idea that there is some fantastic master plan, some programme, some course of study or course of action which will sweep us into God’s kingdom without any great effort on our part. The way to heaven is not easy, but at the same time it isn’t the sort of journey that demands dramatic action by the people who set out on it.

Years ago I learned a German song whose opening words translate roughly into English as: “Lots of little people in lots of little places taking lots of little steps can change the face of the world.” That’s the sort of world-changing activity that Jesus and Paul might have recognised, if we listen carefully to what they are saying in today’s readings. Both of them are about doing little things, sorting out quarrels within a community of Christians, living as believers in an unbelieving world. Both of them are about the need for “taking lots of little steps” in order to build up and maintain the people of God – and to help them overcome the forces ranged against them.

It doesn’t seem much. It’s not like Mother Theresa of Calcutta picking up the poorest outcasts of that great city and caring for them. But another Theresa, Thérèse Martin, the daughter of a lace-maker from Alençon in Normandy, lived a way of holiness which corresponds very closely with what St Paul writes to the Christians in Rome about owing no one anything, except to love one another. Living as a nun in the Carmel of Lisieux, Thérèse wrote “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”

The doing of the least actions for love” was also a theme of one of the great Christians of Britain, a man who lived thirteen centuries before Thérèse. In his last sermon, preached a few days before his death, St David told the congregation, “Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.” “Do the little things”. Be faithful to Christ in living and dying. Behave lovingly to fellow-believers – which doesn’t mean being soppily sentimental, but putting their needs, their concerns, ahead of your own and not giving your wants priority. As St Paul writes, “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Now, although Paul is inclined, when he writes about “the flesh”, to lay into the first-century equivalent of “sex and drugs and rock’n’roll” – as he does here when he warns the Christians of Rome not to spend their time “in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness” – he also makes it clear that “the flesh” is much more than our physical desires. “The flesh” includes every self-centred attitude, and particularly those attitudes that give rise to the “quarrelling and jealousy” which are also high on Paul’s short-list of behaviours to be avoided.

So, if we are serious about building God’s kingdom, let us shut our ears to those who offer slogans and sound-bites and grand projects and focus instead on how we can play our part among those “many little people in many little places”, doing those “little things”, those little acts of kindness and self-forgetting through which the kingdom of heaven is revealed. For it is in them, as David and Thérèse realised, that we find our true freedom, here and in heaven. What is more, as we make space for one another in those little sacrifices of which St Thérèse wrote, we find that the Lord Jesus himself will enter that space, fulfilling his promise that ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 12 (30.8.2020)

Now, young Brenda, I hope you were listening carefully to the words that were read just now, because those words spell out much better than I can what your parents are letting you in for this morning. If you were listening carefully, you probably thought that some of it sounded really good. But you may also have thought that some of it sounded a bit “meh”. And some of it – well, you really wouldn’t want to go there.

Jesus’ friend Peter had the same problem, as we heard in our reading from the gospel. Last Sunday, you may remember, we heard how everything suddenly “clicked” for Peter and he realised who Jesus was – not just “that bloke from Nazareth who keeps telling people about God’s kingdom”, but the person in whom God’s kingdom had become flesh and bone. But then Jesus started telling his friends exactly what that meant. It wasn’t about what the world would see as “success” or “victory”. It wasn’t about “prosperity” – despite what you hear many preachers say. It was about rejection and suffering and death. Peter was frightened by this talk and he tried to shut Jesus down. ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ It’s a very normal human reaction when we are faced with an uncomfortable truth.

Jesus, though, wasn’t having any of that and he gave Peter a real telling-off. Calling one of your closest companions “the Adversary” is coming it a bit strong! Then Jesus explained to all those who were with him how God’s kingdom works: how it’s about not looking out for yourself, but about being faithful to God, about following wherever—wherever—we are led, as Jesus did. And that can be really good – when it’s not being frightening.

In our first reading St Paul set out what is really good about following Jesus. Writing to the earliest Christian communities in Rome, he reminds them that their life together is about love, about mutual affection, about honouring one another, about rejoicing, about being hopeful – and patient and prayerful when things go wrong. It’s about getting alongside people, whoever they are, helping those who need help, sharing in their joys and in their sorrows.

Paul also reminds the Christians of Rome what their life is not about. It isn’t about being “top dog”. It isn’t about showing off. And it most especially isn’t about “getting your own back” if someone harms you. If anyone does you wrong, leave the situation to God. Or leave it to that impersonal cosmic force, “the wrath”, which operates in Paul’s thinking much as “karma” does in Hindu and Buddhist thought. Actions have consequences. Your task is to live, so far as possible, in peace with everyone. Get on with your life. Don’t worry about those others. Don’t stir up conflict. No, says Paul, quoting from the ancient wisdom of Israel, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.’ He has already told his readers to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them”, but this takes it much further. To feed someone was to accept them into your circle of friends.

Now, that really is following Jesus, who prayed for his executioners as they were nailing him to the cross – and it’s something that people can find very difficult. Many years ago I knew someone who found it extremely hard to pray the Lord’s prayer because of the words “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” There were people who had done her wrong, and she found it difficult to think about them in any sort of positive way. She was deeply troubled by that – and rightly so. As the American writer Anne Lamott says in one of her books, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

So don’t be afraid of the tough bits, Brenda. To quote St Paul, “Do not be overcome by evil”. Enjoy the really good bits, because there are many of them. Enjoy living in love and hope and peace – and, above all, trust that God will see you through the horrors, one way or another. Don’t be like Peter, trying to blot out the possibility of suffering, but follow in the steps of Jesus, who knew what was coming, but went forward on the road to Jerusalem for our sake, for yours and mine and everyone’s, so that each of us may find our true life in him, even though we may think we have lost it.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 11 (23.8.2020)

One of the few items of good news to come out of the lock-down in England was that Wycombe Wanderers, the football team of the town where I ministered for nearly 25 years, have been promoted to the Championship – that’s the English equivalent of Serie B. My son, born and bred in High Wycombe, has followed them since childhood. Sometimes he would drag his father along to home games, though for me the squadra del cuore has always been Liverpool. Among the rituals of being one of the crowd was joining in the chants, which could be the all-purpose, and usually slightly despairing, “Come on, Wycombe” or the more specific chant in which the home supporters joined when a member of the opposing team was booked by the referee for a foul. Then the derisive chant would go up “’Oo are yer? ‘Oo are yer?” Or, in what my mother would have called “proper English”, “Who are you?”
In today’s Gospel Jesus turns that question on its head. Not “’Oo are yer?”, or even “Who are you?” but “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And “the Son of Man”, in all the Gospels, is the way in which Jesus often refers to himself. So the question is not “Who are you?” but “Who am I?”; and it comes at a key point in the Gospel. In Matthew’s Gospel, as in Mark’s, Jesus’ question comes about half-way through, after the great majority of the miracles and after much of the teaching. So the people have plenty of evidence to enable them to make their judgement. And, on the face of it, it’s a very sensible judgment. Jesus is doing the things that Elijah and Elisha did (raising the dead, feeding people), things that Jeremiah did (speaking truth to power, confronting complacency), so he must be a prophet like John the Baptist – perhaps he is John the Baptist miraculously raised from the dead. But then Jesus asks another question, and this time it isn’t about what the crowds think, it’s about what the disciples think. ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Now the disciples have even more evidence. They have not just the parables but the teaching which explained the parables. And they have been present with Jesus, not just now and then as he passed through their village, but 24/7 for the past year or so.
In his book, “Being Disciples”, Rowan Williams says that the essence of being a disciple (anyone’s disciple) in the ancient world was “to hang on your teacher’s every word, to follow in his or her steps, to sleep outside their door in order not to miss any pearls of wisdom falling from their lips, to watch how they conduct themselves at the table, how they conduct themselves in the street… You are hanging around; you are watching, you are absorbing a way of being that you are starting to share. You learn by sharing life; you learn by looking and listening.” And here in today’s Gospel, for Simon Peter, all that hanging around, that sharing, that looking and listening suddenly “clicks” and he says to Jesus ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’
Now, what that statement means, Matthew explains in the remaining dozen chapters of his Gospel. What it doesn’t mean we will find out when we hear next Sunday’s Gospel. For today, Peter is allowed his moment of glorious insight. But that isn’t the whole story. The question which Jesus asks is also a question to us, because we too are disciples. Who do we say say that the Son of Man is? That matters. It matters not because we have ahead of us some kind of examination in what we believe and we have to get the answers right. It matters for reasons that St Paul laid out in our first reading. Acknowledging that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” is about transformation and self-offering. It is about who we are and how we live our lives. As Paul writes to the Christians of Rome, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” “Individually we are members one of another.” That’s our answer to the crowd’s chanted question “’Oo are yer?” We are Christ’s body in the world, his healing hands, his travel-hardened feet, his eyes looking out in compassion. “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” Not a reward for our holiness, but gifts to be used, despite our sinfulness. So let use them, for Christ’s sake.
Tony Dickinson

Trinity 6 (19.7.2020)

Whenever I log onto social media these days I find two mutually contradictory positions, depending on whether the person whose tweet or whose status is displayed is a “libtard, leftie snowflake” or a “right-wing, fascist gammon”. They disagree about absolutely everything except one: that the world is in one heck of a mess and unless something is done soon it’s going to get worse. But they don’t agree at all on a solution. They are rather like the slaves in the story Jesus told in today’s gospel, asking “Do you want us to go and gather the weeds?” In other words, they would be happy to pull all the “right-wing, fascist gammons” or all the “libtard, leftie snowflakes” up by the roots. Then, or so they imagine, the field will be pure and will yield only the harvest of the good seed.
Luckily the householder in the parable, the master of those slaves, is more sensible. He knows that if they try to pull up all the weeds at this stage in the growth cycle, they will probably take a lot of the wheat with them – especially if those weeds are, as some students of ancient farming have suggested, very similar to growing wheat in their appearance. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest,” he tells them. Those who busy themselves in political matters, perhaps, ought to take a leaf out of his book. See how things turn out; play the long game. Don’t try to clear out the people who think differently from you – not even from among your friends on Facebook or your followers on twitter.
That applies to churches, too – or rather, to churches especially. After all, it was to the disciples, not the general public, that Jesus explained the parable of the weeds of the field. Don’t try to clear out people who are different, not even if you think that they are totally wrong-headed – or even “the children of the evil one”. Leave the final decision about who is “weed” and who is “wheat” to God. Concentrate on living your own life in the way to which God is calling you rather than demonising someone else for not living their life in a way of which you approve. Argue with them, by all means, but don’t exclude them or damn them.
To damn those who think differently or believe differently is yet another aspect of what St Paul calls living “according to the flesh”, and as he repeats in the passage which we heard as our first reading, there are no good outcomes to that. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” You will rot away inside like a decaying tree. Our calling is to live in what Paul calls “the freedom of the glory of the children of God”, a freedom from the fear which blinds and cripples so many people, which causes them to rot from within.
Now, that isn’t to say that the world is not in a mess. It is. Parts of it are hurting very badly. I’m getting daily messages from a colleague in the Congo about attacks on his people by armed militias. I hear regularly from another colleague in India where the pandemic just gets worse and worse – as it does in the USA. I’ve no doubt many of you are in touch with what is going on in Nigeria. I read about wildfires and flooding and heatwaves resulting from climate change – and I don’t see people changing the behaviour that is driving this. BUT – and it’s a huge but – that isn’t anything like the whole story.

The whole story is that what we are facing, what this planet is facing, is the birth pangs of a new age. Back to St Paul’s letter to the Christians of Rome: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” That’s not the same as saying “Things can only get better.” It is saying that the key to the future, which is God’s future – the key to the future is hope, “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Waiting for that freedom isn’t fun, any more than labour pains are fun for a woman giving birth, but our calling, the calling of every Christian who knows that she or he is a child of God, is to hang on in there, to be a sign of hope for all people, to be a reminder that our human destiny is to be “children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” 

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 5 (12.7.2020)

A survey carried out in the UK a few years ago found that one of the things that really turned young people off the Church, and particularly the Anglican Church, was the way that it kept going on about sex. To be fair, that wasn’t entirely the Church’s fault. What most people know about the Church is what they read in the newspapers or see on the TV or find on social media, and most of that has been about sex because sex sells, as the people who put together TV ads and those who serve up clickbait on social media will tell you. So when we come up against a passage from the Bible like today’s first reading and find that St Paul mentions “the flesh” ten times in eleven verses,… Well, we all know what “the flesh” means, don’t we?
Actually, no. When St Paul mentions “the flesh” he is very rarely – if ever – thinking about sex. For him “the flesh” is what some modern writers call “the false self” or “the false ego”, by which they mean that bundle of needs and desires which put “me” at the centre of my life, rather than God who is the source and the ultimate end of that life. It’s the “me” that wants to look good all the time, the “me” that wants its own way all the time, the “me” that doesn’t care about others except when they can be used or when they flatter us. Sometimes such self-centredness is obvious. Sometimes it’s more hidden. The interpretation of the parable in the second half of today’s Gospel provides a few examples.
There are those who don’t engage with the word at all, because it’s too much like hard work. There’s “the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet… when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away”. What matters for him (or her) is self-preservation – but they don’t realise that it’s that “false self” that they are preserving. Then there’s “the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” Again, such a person is often looking after their “false self”, determined to be “successful” at all costs – even if the cost includes losing their “true self”, who they really are before God.
So who is my “true self”? The short answer is that only God knows. The slightly longer answer is that my “true self” is who I am in Christ Jesus; the “me” who has been “set free from the law of sin and of death”: the “me” whose life is not measured by achievement, or fame, or any of the activities that pile up “the cares of the world” or that are inspired by “the lure of wealth”. St Paul warns the Christians of Rome that a life which is powered by those desires is at bottom a living death, because it is disconnected from God, the source of all life.
How then do we reconnect with God – and stay connected? That’s an important question to ask in these days when so many of our normal assumptions have been turned upside down and we are being forced to look again at what really matters. St Paul writes to the Romans about “life in the Spirit”, which is about a lot more than a particular way of praying or worshipping God. As he tells the Christians in Rome, “those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” – and “the things of the Spirit” are the things that lead to life and peace, the things that make us one with Christ. As we heard in the interpretation of the parable of the sower, “what was sown on good soil.. is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit.”
That suggests daily engagement with the written word of God, in the reading of scripture, and with Jesus, the living Word of God through whom we have access to the Father, in our prayers. As many of us have discovered during the months of lock-down, those ways of connecting with God continue when every other support has been taken away. In normal times we can add to that our encounter with the living Christ who comes to us in one another and, above all, in the sacrament of the altar, sharing his life with us under tokens of bread and wine, making us part of his body, so that we may continue his work in the world today.

Tony Dickinson

Trinity 4 (5.7.2020)
The birth of a child is always a sign of hope. It is a new beginning, opening up all sorts of possibilities, both for the child who is born and for her (or his) parents. So it’s good to give thanks and to ask God’s blessing, both on the new life and on those who will care for that life. That is what Sarah and Jeffery are doing today as they bring Brenda to offer thanks for her safe arrival and to surround her with the love and prayers of the people of God.

 It’s also good that we have heard those words of Jesus in the middle of today’s Gospel – and, I should point out that they were not chosen with Brenda and her parents in mind. We heard them because this is the point that the Church has reached in our year-long exploration of the good news according to St Matthew. So, Sarah and Jeffery, you have a lot to teach your baby daughter, about living with different cultures and different languages. You will also have a lot to learn from Brenda, because there are things which God has hidden from the wise and the intelligent and has revealed to infants, and they are often things that have to do with wonder and love and joy.

A wise man who lived in England nearly four hundred years ago wrote a book to help one of his friends progress in their Christian life. In it he described the glory of the world which he had experienced as a child, a world in which “eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared.” He also described how the clarity and brightness of that vision faded as he grew older, until the world became grey and empty and meaningless and rather frightening. “I was”, he wrote, “corrupted and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.” An important part of Jeffery and Sarah’s role as parents will be to help Brenda hold on to that original vision of the glory and beauty of God’s creation and of the infinite value of every human being – and to rediscover that vision for themselves.
What is the best way in which they can do that? On the human level, it is for Sarah and Jeffery to love Brenda and to love each other; but it goes beyond that. If we are to hold on to the vision of God’s glory and the wonder of God’s creation we need to recognise that it is God’s creation, and that the God who made it, and us, is the God described by the psalmist: “gracious and merciful, long-suffering and of great goodness”, a God who “is loving to everyone” and whose “mercy is over all his creatures”, “sure in all his words and faithful in all his deeds”, upholding all those who fall and lifting up all those who are bowed down. Even when we can’t see that happening, God is at work, fitting us to the yoke of Jesus; offering his rest to those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, whether those burdens are physical, mental, or spiritual; offering those who are worn out by their care for others, or wearied beyond words by the burdens of lock-down, a place of rest at the foot of his cross.
Two and half millennia ago the Jewish people were wearied beyond words by another lock-down – not because they were coping with a pandemic, but because they had been in exile, far from their homeland in Palestine. A king had arisen in the land of their exile who allowed them to return home, but things had not worked out according to their hopes and they were disappointed and frustrated. Scholars think that it was in that setting that a prophet spoke the word from the Lord that we heard in our first reading. It’s a word of hope and reassurance, a word of encouragement and liberation. It is a word that Christians have always understood as fulfilled in Jesus and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. It reminds us that God’s purposes for us are much, much greater than we can ever imagine and that the hope which opens up for us in the birth of a child is fulfilled for all humankind in the coming of Jesus.
Tony Dickinson

Trinity 3 (28.6.2020)
Last Sunday I mentioned the Archbishop of Genova, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco. On Wednesday, as you probably know, he officially retired as Archbishop, although he will be continuing in other roles. Today, though, I want to focus on another Church leader, one who lived a long way from Genova and a long time before our day. His name was Irenaeus, and he was the bishop (the Church didn’t have such things as archbishops in those days) of the great city of Lugdunum in Gaul – that’s modern-day Lyon in France – eighteen centuries ago.
 Now, Irenaeus wasn’t from those parts. He was born about a hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the great port city of Smyrna on the west coast of Asia Minor, what is now Izmir in Turkey, nearly three thousand kilometres from Lyon. When Irenaeus was growing up there he had listened to sermons from a man who had been a disciple of the apostle John. As a young man he had gone to Rome to study and he had been sent from there to be a missionary priest in Gaul. When he was in his forties there was a violent attack on the Christian community in Lyon and many members of the community were killed, including their bishop, a man called Pothinus. As it happened, Irenaeus had been back in Rome when all this was going on, and when he returned those Christians who had survived chose him to take Pothinus’ place as their leader.
For the next quarter-century Irenaeus shepherded his flock through some difficult times. The Church wasn’t only under attack from outside. There were groups who claimed to be Christians but who had some very strange ideas. Some of them didn’t believe that Jesus had really lived as a human being or that he hadn’t really died on the cross. Some believed that matter was evil and the secret of life was to turn your back on the world and become entirely “spiritual”. Others believed that the physical world was irrelevant and it didn’t matter how you behaved. All of them believed that they possessed a hidden knowledge which enabled them to by-pass the messy business of being human.
Irenaeus was having none of that. He was tireless in preaching and teaching that Jesus had really lived, that he had shared our human life in every respect, from Mary’s womb to the tomb in the garden, so that human beings could share God’s life. He wrote books taking apart the theories and ideas of the people who taught this “hidden knowledge” and showing them up as frauds. And he hammered home the Church’s teaching that Jesus reveals God to us and raises us to God and that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the life of humanity consists in the vision of God.”
In teaching that he was reaffirming St Paul’s teaching in our first reading. What Paul is telling the Christians in Rome is that our life matters: that how we behave matters: that we have been created for freedom and holiness and life, eternal life, in God’s love. What Paul is telling the Christians of Rome (what he is telling us) in that striking, and to modern minds shocking, image is that being “enslaved to God”, putting our hearts, our minds, our lives at God’s disposal, is immensely liberating. It sets us free from fear, and especially from the fear of death, in a way that nothing else can. If Jesus, the Christ, is truly “our Lord”, if we have in Paul’s words, “become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted”, then there is nothing in this world that can destroy us as human beings. However messy, however difficult, our situation may be we can have confidence that Christ Jesus our Lord is in it with us, “revealing God to us and raising us to God.” As Irenaeus wrote eighteen centuries ago,“[Jesus] revealed God to us that we would not fall away and, as a result, cease to exist.” Or as Paul told the Christians of Rome in those closing words of our first reading: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Tony Dickinson

Trinity 2 (21.6.2020)
When our children were at first school they used to take part in a children’s holiday club which the local churches ran during the summer holidays.  I think they enjoyed it.  Beatrice must have done, because she went on to become a group leader.  They certainly came home each day singing the new songs that they had learned.  One in particular that I remember them singing round the Vicarage went like this:“It’s an adventure, following Jesus.  It’s an adventure, learning of him.It’s an adventure living for Jesus.  It’s an adventure following him.”
That sense of adventure lies beneath both our readings this morning.  In our first reading St Paul writes to the Christians of Rome about what it means to enter what he calls “newness of life” through our baptism into the death of Jesus, what it means to start living what the Creed calls “the life of the world to come” within the setting of this life. In our Gospel Jesus spells out that following him means, as any adventure means, both risk and reassurance.  
It means risk, because, as Jesus warns the twelve, following him can result in conflict – even within the same family, the same household.  The values of God’s kingdom, truth, justice, peace, love, are not necessarily shared by those who are close to us, and they are not good news to those who serve the power structures of this world. Sometimes those structures are so completely opposed to the Gospel that following Jesus can be physically dangerous and being “united with him in a death like his” is not just a powerful figure of speech but a real possibility.  It is forty years this year since paramilitary death squads murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador while he was saying Mass in a hospital chapel and followed up that crime nine months later by killing four American women, three of them nuns.  Those who have come to Genova from Nigeria don’t need to go back forty years to be reminded how dangerous it can be to follow Jesus.  And have you ever wondered why Archbishop Angelo is always followed round by two or three solidly-built laymen when he is out and about in his diocese?  Even in Genova it can be dangerous to speak out against the corrupt powers of this world in the name of Jesus the Christ.
But at the same time, following Jesus means reassurance.  It means reassurance because we are the beloved brothers and sisters of God’s beloved Son and God keeps watch over us as closely as over those two-a-penny sparrows.  “Even the hairs of your head are all counted” – which might be a problem for some of us… As St Paul writes, “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”  We are already part of God’s new age, the new age that began with Jesus’ resurrection – even if a lot of the time it doesn’t seem much like it – and that has consequences.  
It has consequences for the way that we behave, and we will, God willing, be looking at some of them in a week’s time. It has consequences for how we think about life – and death. If, as Paul says, “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed”, then we are freed from that fear of death which is one of the chief well-springs of human wickedness. Jesus told the twelve, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” 
Those who followed the daily reflections from Fr Richard Rohr that appeared on the church’s Facebook page around Easter may remember his comment that the larger-than-life, spiritually transformed people he had met all had one thing in common: they had all “died before they died”. Following in the steps of Jesus, they had been led to the edge of their own resources, and that led them into a larger life. As Fr Richard said, “They broke through in what felt like breaking down. Instead of avoiding a personal death or raging at it, they went through a death of their old, small self and came out the other side knowing that death could no longer hurt them.”  These weeks of lock-down, overshadowed by the wider fears raised by Covid-19 have been, and still are for many of us, a time in which we have been led to the edge of our own resources.  My prayer is that we will also find it a time in which we experience that breakthrough into a larger life, “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”.
Tony Dickinson

Trinity 1 (14.6.2020)
That photo-shoot of Donald Trump during the first “Black Lives Matter” protest, standing outside a church, brandishing an upside-down Bible, provoked several people on social media to send round once again the video-clip of a painfully embarrassing interview in which he was asked to name his favourite passage, even his favourite verse, from the Bible. To say that Mr Trump was not comfortable with the question (which he didn’t answer) is putting it mildly.  It’s an interesting question, nonetheless.  How, I wonder,  would we answer it?
I think that this morning’s first reading would be pretty high on my list of favourite passages. It manages to fit the whole of the good news about Jesus into eight verses.  And by Paul’s standards they are very direct and simple verses. 
The first four chapters of Paul’s letter to the Christian communities in Rome are, let’s be honest, pretty heavy going.  Paul has been looking back at God’s dealings with humankind from the beginning and noting how often it has all gone wrong – what an English writer a few years ago described (with a slight modification because we are in church) as “the human propensity to foul things up” or “hptftu” for short.  And Paul isn’t taking prisoners.  Everyone has fouled up.  Not just the pagans but Jewish people too.  The people who were supposed to be the solution have become part of the problem, same as the rest of us.  They’ve been given the Law as God’s blueprint for how to be truly human and instead of sharing it with the world they’ve turned it into a barrier separating them from the rest of humanity, and in the process wrecked the vision that God had shared with Abraham, the man who, above all, trusted God.
And that’s where we start this morning.  Look, says Paul, Abraham trusted God, though he had many reasons not to, and God blessed him. If we trust God, as Abraham did – and we have got one huge reason to trust God that Abraham didn’t have – then God will bless us.  In fact, as we discover later in the letter, God is already blessing us.  It’s just that, because of “hptftu” we don’t recognise it. 
So, here’s the punch-line: “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  In other words, it’s through our trust in God, not any physical mark, that we are part of God’s people. A number of things follow on from that. If we are confident that we are part of God’s people, if we are confident in God’s love, then that is our source of peace. And we can be confident in God’s love because of Jesus, who took on himself all the anger, hatred and cruelty of the world, all that “human propensity to foul things up” – including our pride and greed and foolishness and fear (and the things we are ashamed even to name). He took all of what the thanksgiving prayer calls “the sins of the whole world” – he took it and he nailed it to his cross. “While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” 
That’s the game-changer.  That’s what opens up for us “this grace in which we stand”, God’s free gift of life and hope and the promise of glory.  That is something to rejoice in, even, as Paul says, to boast in.  But it’s more than that. It’s a source of strength here and now. Even if things aren’t going our way, even if we are having a hard and painful time in life, God’s promise and God’s presence give us something to hang on to, even in the dark and difficult times.  Listen to Paul’s words again: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us”.  And why does hope not disappoint us?  Paul tells us right away. “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
That gift is ours already. We are blessed already. Even in all the difficulty of this present time, even amid all the uncertainties about work, and lodging, and food, the racism, the exploitation, the bullying that many are experiencing, we can be confident that God is still at work, bringing hope and blessing and peace to those who put their trust in the love that has been revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus our Lord.
Tony Dickinson 

Trinity Sunday (7.6.2020)
During the past few months of lock-down I’ve found myself dipping back into a couple of English writers about the Christian life who lived nearly seven centuries ago at the time of another great pandemic, the one known as the Black Death. One of them is Julian of Norwich: the other is a writer about whom we know nothing except that he was roughly Julian’s contemporary and that he probably lived in the East Midlands. He also wrote about prayer and his biggest and best-known work goes under the title “The Cloud of Unknowing”.
This morning I’d like to share a few words from both of them. First, Julian of Norwich, from the very last chapter of the book that she wrote about her “Showings”:
“Would you know our Lord’s meaning? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else – ever!”
Then from our unknown author, who wrote in the sixth chapter of his book: “By love God can be caught and held. By thinking, never.”
Those words are crucial as we approach the mystery which we celebrate today. They remind us that the heart of our faith is not a set of statements with which we must agree but a living, growing relationship with the source of all life and being. “By love God can be caught and held. By thinking, never.” Which is not to say that thinking has no place in Christian faith and practice – far from it! We are called to think our way through and round the many obstacles that lie in our way as members of God’s pilgrim people. But when it comes to our relationship with God, thought can take us only so far before human language runs into the brick wall of all those words that can tell us only what God is not, because what God is is beyond the power of human language to express.
When we talk about God, we find ourselves faced with paradox and mystery. Three and yet One. Trinity and Unity. No wonder Muslims find the Christian idea of God so strange and difficult compared to the simple, sovereign unity of Allah which they read about in the Qur’an.
But how can we describe the God whom we have experienced, the God whom Christians down the ages have encountered as Father, Son and Spirit? We can try parables, whether taken from the natural world, like Patrick’s shamrock, or from the world of human psychology, like Augustine’s memory, will and understanding but, in the end, we come back to a central reality which we cannot describe in its essence but which we experience in its operation, as infinite and eternal love.
“Would you know our Lord’s meaning? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else – ever!”
However we try to define, or analyse, or explain God, we find ourselves reduced to the same silence as the fathers who compiled the Church’s creeds. They get no further than affirming that God is “Father”, “almighty”, “maker of heaven and earth” and “of all that is, seen and unseen”. It is only as the second Person of the Trinity takes human flesh, and as the Holy Spirit operates in the “One, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”, that it becomes possible to say more. But still we cannot describe or define God. We can only speak about the human experience of God. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity has to be lived before it can be defined.
“By love God can be caught and held. By thinking, never.”
And so the risen Jesus commands the disciples to baptise people from all nations “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, because those who come to baptism have already experienced something of that love of which the “Cloud of Unknowing” speaks. In coming to baptism, they respond to an experience of God who reveals himself in the wonder and majesty of creation, in a human life lived at a particular point in space and time, in the ongoing story of the people of God. In coming to baptism they affirm their experience of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit”.
So, too, for us this morning, as we approach Christ’s table to share the meal which he left to his friends, we affirm and we experience the Holy Trinity. We offer gifts of the Father’s creation so that the Spirit may turn them (and us) into the body and blood of his Son. In doing that we proclaim the love of God, who gives us not only the fruits of his creation, the bread and wine that we shall set before him, but life and breath and all things. In doing that we experience the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and alive for evermore, his free gift which is healing and hope, forgiveness and eternal life for us and for all the world. In doing that we renew our communion in the Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God and empowers us for Christ’s work and witness in the world.
Tony Dickinson

Pentecost (31.5.2020)You’ve made it. You’ve finally made it! You’ve been saving for years for this trip to Jerusalem.  And at last you’re here. You’re in the city in time for the festival. You’ve prayed in the temple; you’ve made your offering: and now you’re going to do a little sight-seeing.  So, it seems are a lot of other pilgrims.  Judging by the clothes they’re wearing they’ve come from all over the place, from Rome in the west to Persia in the east, from North Africa, from the shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian, from places a thousand, two thousand miles away.  They’ve come on foot, by sea, by camel, even on horse-back.  Now they’re doing the rounds of the royal tombs and the holy places – early in the morning, before the sun gets up and it’s too hot, even in the shaded, narrow streets of the old city. Then, suddenly, there’s a bit of a disturbance.  People are shouting out.  It’s a little group – can’t be more than a dozen, mostly peasants from the look of them. They’ve just come out of that building over there.  Heaven knows what they’re saying, you don’t speak any Aramaic and your Greek isn’t up to much beyond what you need for buying and selling. But wait a minute.  You can understand what they’re saying.  They’re talking your language.  They’re talking about God, about what God has done, about what God is doing, what God is doing here, now, today in Jerusalem.  They’re very, very excited. What is going on?  The man standing next to you laughs and says he thinks they’ve had a skinful, but surely it’s much too early in the day for that? Oh, wait a moment: one of them seems to be the leader. He’s hoisted himself onto the counter outside a shop and he’s calling for quiet.  He must have heard the man next to you, because the first thing he says is that says they haven’t been drinking.  You were right about it being too early. Nine o’clock? The taverns will hardly be open yet.  Now what’s he saying?What is he saying?  What is he saying to you, to me, to that great crowd of people from all round the Eastern Mediterranean and across the Middle East?He’s quoting one of the prophets.  Not one of the big boys.  Not Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel.  He’s quoting Joel. The prophet who got caught up in a plague of locusts.  Joel’s one of those prophets who saw natural disaster as God’s judgement on Israel – and he saw the locusts as an invading army carrying out that judgement, in the same way as Isaiah had seen the armies of Assyria and Jeremiah the armies of Babylon.  Joel saw something else, too.  He saw God’s mercy.  Joel saw God’s steadfast love for God’s people, despite their repeated failures.  He saw that steadfast love revealed in the restoration and renewal of Israel after disaster. He saw it in the pouring out of the Spirit “on all flesh” – a gift not limited by race or age or gender or status. This is a promise to young as well as old, female as well as male, slaves as well as free citizens. This is a promise that God will renew God’s people, that God is renewing God’s people, by the gift of his Spirit. And the death of Jesus of Nazareth has triggered it.That’s what John means when he describes Jesus standing in the temple precincts and promising the gift of living water, flowing “out of the believer’s heart”, according to our translation; out of the believer’s belly, even the believer’s gut, according to John’s original Greek. Either way, it comes from the core of the believer’s being. It’s the same living water Jesus promised to the woman of Samaria.  It’s the same living water that the prophet saw flowing from the temple to make the ruined land fertile and to bring healing. It’s the Spirit of God, sent forth, in the words of this morning’s Psalm, to renew the face of the earth.That promise is for us, here in Genoa.  God has not abandoned the people in this pandemic any more than God abandoned Israel in the time when Joel pondered the meaning of that plague of locusts.  As we open our hearts, our guts, to the gift of God’s Spirit, our thirst will be satisfied. Out of the blood, and fire, and smoky mist, renewal will come. Beyond the darkness, we shall see the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day, when all creation will be restored. “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Tony Dickinson

Easter 7 (24.5.2020) Well, here we are, back in church after nearly three months away.  All of us probably have stories about life during those three months that we are longing to share, stories of struggle for many, but also, I hope, stories of unexpected blessing and of a deepening relationship with God, inspiring stories, embarrassing stories, funny stories. We want, even need, to share those stories, but we can’t – not for the moment, anyway.  Gathering for worship is allowed. Getting together afterwards over an aperitivo for a good old gossip isn’t, not even if we wear our mascherine.  Welcome to life after lock-down.  Welcome to the “new normal”.There’s a bit of that about the end of today’s first reading, though for a very different reason.  The disciples have spent a significant length of time with the risen Lord, learning about the kingdom of God, getting to grips with the meaning of a crucified Messiah. But finally that time together has come to an end. Luke uses imagery taken from the Hebrew Scriptures to describe how that happened.  Jesus is taken up into heaven like Elijah. A cloud comes down to hide him from the disciples’ sight, as God came down in a cloud that hid the tent of meeting while God talked to Moses.  Then, somehow, that’s it. As the two men in white robes remind the disciples, life goes on. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”So, it’s back to Jerusalem; back to the room upstairs: back to being the Twelve – or rather “the Eleven”.  There’s a name missing from that list in verse 13.  Welcome to the “new normal” for Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James – but not for Judas, son of Simon Iscariot who has, in Luke’s chilling phrase, “turned aside to go to his own place.” What then are the Eleven to do?  How do they become used to this new state of affairs? For them, as Luke tells the story, the answer is obvious.  They and the core group of women who had supported them, and Jesus, during the previous three years, with members of Jesus’ immediate family, including Mary, “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”They committed themselves, in other words, to discerning God’s will for their future, to understanding how to go about rebuilding that first community of believers in the physical absence of Jesus.  That prayer to which they were constantly devoting themselves was probably made up more of silence than of words.  And the words were probably as short and simple as the prayer of a holy woman in Northern Europe many centuries later, “Lord, show me your way and make me willing to walk it.” Something like that, I think, has to be our prayer in this time of waiting.  We don’t know what is going to result from this easing of restrictions.  We don’t know how this pandemic is going to develop.  Will it peter out in the summer? Will there be (God forbid!) a second wave of infection? It’s unlikely that there will be a quick solution. Vaccines and treatments take time to develop – and to manufacture and distribute.  Masks will be worn for the foreseeable future. Social distancing will continue.  If not, more people will become ill – and more will die. So we have to get used to said services with no hymns.  We have to get used to not moving round the building sharing the peace of Christ with our brothers and sisters. We have to get used to putting our weekly offering in the bag on our way in or on our way out.  Those who use the food bank will have to get used to picking up a pre-packed bag rather than making their own choices.  And all of us have to get used to keeping this building very clean indeed.But we have to remember that all this, like the situation of the first Christians in Jerusalem, is highly provisional.  Situations can change suddenly and unexpectedly. The whole Christian story is about such changes – about God intervening in unexpected ways, at Easter and on the day of Pentecost. In the mean time, let us follow the example of that first community in Jerusalem, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer”, and let us pray, simply and directly, as they did, using, if you like, that prayer of Birgitta of Sweden: “Lord, show us your way and make us willing to walk it.”
Tony Dickinson

Easter 6 (17.5.2020)Things can’t go back to what they were: not for the disciples after what happened in the hours following the conversation in today’s Gospel; not for the Athenians who listened to Paul’s critique of their city’s religion twenty years later; not for us as some prepare for a return to work and all of us move on from this fragmented, online worship that has been our substitute for the Sunday Eucharist since early March.  Things can’t go back to what they were.For the disciples so many things were turned upside down by the events of that night and the three days that followed. Those who had been sure of themselves found that they were neither as brave, nor as loyal, as they had imagined. Those who had expected God to intervene decisively discovered that God’s intervention was not at all what they had anticipated.  Nothing and nobody was where they had left off at the end of the supper. How could it be?For Paul’s Athenian audience his insistence that there was one God “who made the world and everything in it… who is Lord of heaven and earth… [who] does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is… served by human hands” was revolutionary. They were used to a world in which many gods competed for human worship and could become angry and vindictive if they did not receive it – that’s the point of that altar “To an unknown god” which caught Paul’s attention. It was insurance against accidentally missing one. In such a setting Paul’s insistence that there was one God and that God could be known in Jesus, raised from the dead, was so revolutionary that for most of his hearers it was safer to mock him than to engage seriously with what he said, although a few did and became believers.And for us – well, we can’t be sure what will happen in our daily lives but we are back together in this building as from Wednesday, and that will not be the same as it was before lock-down.  If you’ve looked on the website or on the church’s Facebook page you will know how different things will have to be. No singing. No peace. No aperitivo after the service. Only the wafer at Communion.  Wash hands before you come in. Keep at least a metre apart from everyone else. And wear your mascherine.But beneath all this deeply unsettling change, for us, for the Athenians, for the disciples, there is one constant and that is God’s unchanging faithfulness in love. As Paul told the Athenians “[God] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things”.  God is the God of every nation, not bound to one people or place, unlike the pagan gods, who could be very territorial.  God is indeed “not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” Now beyond that general sense of God’s faithfulness, God’s care for creation and for human beings within the created order – beyond that there is the specific promise of Jesus in today’s Gospel.  “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”  Beyond arrest, trial and crucifixion is the resurrection, and beyond resurrection there is the gift of the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”  But, Jesus adds, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”Confident in that promise, and in the eternal reality of God’s faithfulness, we can learn to cope with change as we have learned to cope with lock-down, even though at times we may want to echo the accusing words of the Psalmist: “You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water.”  But even that accusation is a reason for praising God, because the God who has proved us, who has tried us as silver is tried, is the same God who has “brought us out into a place of liberty”, so that we can join the Psalmist in saying “in truth God has heard me; he has heeded the voice of my prayer.”Things can’t go back to what they were, but we can trust God to bring us out into a place of liberty. Things can’t go back to what they were, but we have Jesus’ promise, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Things can’t go back to what they were, but we can echo with confidence the words that ended our Psalm: “Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his loving mercy from me.”Tony Dickinson

Easter 5 (10.5.2020)On Friday morning half a dozen of the clergy in Italy and Malta held an on-line meeting with Archdeacon David.  It’s something we’re now doing each week, sharing our experience of life under lock-down, encouraging one another and thinking about where we go from here. On Friday we had a few items of good news to share.  One of them was that Fr Russ Ruffino in Palermo has just become a grandfather for the first time – though he isn’t going to be able to see the baby any time soon, because his daughter and her partner live in Sweden. But probably the biggest news was that on Thursday the government in Rome came to an agreement with the Catholic Church about re-opening church buildings for public worship. This will be possible from Monday, 18th May – and it doesn’t apply only to the Catholic Church, but to all the Churches.Now, some of you may be thinking “Great! Two more Sundays and everything will be just as it was!” Well, no. As with the good news that Fr Russ had to share, there were one or two snags. Vickie Sims, in Milan, had studied the text of the agreement and she spelled out what it means in practical terms. And what it means is that every congregation in Italy is going to have to do a lot – and I do mean a lot – of serious thinking about how it manages the return to Sunday worship. That’s because we are, as they say, not out of the wood yet. Corona-virus, Covid-19, whatever you like to call it, is still very much with us.  There were no deaths at San Martino on Thursday for the first time in two months, but that day a dozen people died across the region, and there were 94 new cases.  So we’re talking about masks, and social distancing, and sanitising, and no singing – apparently a rousing hymn is as good as a coughing fit for spreading infection – and there will have to be quite a few other changes from the way in which we have been used to doing things in the past.  The wardens and I will be meeting on-line next week to do some serious thinking about what we do, and about when and how we do it.  And we will do our best to keep everyone up-to-date with what is happening and when.So, in such uncertain times as these, it’s good to be reminded of the opening words of Jesus from today’s gospel: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Things may not be going smoothly.  In terms of our life together, and in terms of our lives as individuals they certainly aren’t going smoothly. Living with lock-down has been, and will continue to be, hard for many of us, but in the end – and that end may be a long way off still – in the end everything will be all right.  It may not look like it from where you and I are sitting, but God still holds our lives and the lives of those who are dear to us enfolded in the unlimited, unconditional love which created the universe. In that love there is a place prepared for each one of us. So, do not let your hearts be troubled.“Believe in God”.  Some people, particularly unbelievers, try to treat believing in God as if it were the same as believing in fairies.  It isn’t. To believe in God is not to believe things about God. To believe in God is to put our trust in God – whatever happens: whether things are going well, or badly, or disastrously.  Jesus said these words on the night that he was handed over to suffering and death, the night when Judas would betray him, when Peter would deny him, and when all the other disciples would abandon him. Jesus knew all those things would happen and yet he still offered these words of encouragement.“Believe in God, believe also in me.”  Believe in Jesus because from Jesus we can read off what God is like.  As he says to Philip later on in today’s gospel, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”. Believe in Jesus because he has lived the good news which he proclaimed. Believe in Jesus because he bears the scars of suffering, the suffering inflicted on him by human sin, by our self-centred fears and resentments, by our foolishness and pride. Jesus takes all that on himself and he transforms it: and he shows us how we can transform the suffering that we experience. By walking in his way, by living out his truth, we come to inhabit his life, to dwell in him as he dwells in the Father.Tony Dickinson

Easter 4 (3.5.2020)Muslims sometimes talk about “the five pillars of Islam”, the five things that are central to their faith, the confession of faith, the daily prayers, the Ramadan Fast, alms-giving and the pilgrimage to Makkah.  Today St Luke has described for us the four pillars of Christian life, they come at the beginning of our first reading this morning, when Luke describes how the earliest Christians lived: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”  They learned from the people who had been closest to Jesus about his life and death and resurrection, and about what that meant for those who were setting out to follow his way. “They devoted themselves to fellowship.” When they came together they didn’t just sit listening to the apostles and then go away again. They spent time in one another’s company. They shared experience, particularly experience of what God was doing in their lives.“They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread.”  This could be, and many scholars think it is, a reference to the Eucharist, but when Luke uses this phrase elsewhere in Acts, including later in this reading, he means sharing meals more generally. However, shared meals were the setting in which the earliest Christians remembered the meal Jesus shared with his friends on the night that he was handed over. Shared meals were a reminder of that meal.“They devoted themselves to the prayers.”  In the setting of Jerusalem, that probably means the regular daily prayers in the temple.  In the next chapter of Acts we read about Peter and John “going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.” Regular prayer, regular time set aside to be consciously with God, was important.Now, for many of us it may feel as if those four “pillars” of Christian life have been knocked over by the restrictions which have limited our lives so severely during the past two months and which will continue to limit them, though not quite so severely, during the coming weeks. We can’t yet gather for worship – and when we do, it will probably feel very different from what we used to do before the virus hit Genova.  The wardens and I have received a letter for the Bishops with a list of “dos” and “don’ts” for congregations as they come out of lock-down.  We will be sharing them with you when once we have worked out which apply in our case and how best to handle them.  In the mean time, here are four things that we can do during lock-down to prop up those “four pillars of Christian life” until we can come together to set them once more on a firm foundation.First, “the apostles’ teaching”. Read your Bible each day, especially the New Testament. If you don’t have a Bible, use your smartphone to download one of the free Bible apps available online. The Bible we use in church is the New Revised Standard Version, NRSV for short.Next comes “fellowship”.  That’s probably the most difficult to create under lock-down, but again, if you have a phone, use it to keep in touch with friends, to find out how they are doing. I’ve been touched by the number of people who have phoned or emailed or messaged me during these past weeks to let me know how they are and to ask how I’m managing. What about “the breaking of bread”?  Well, at the bishops’ request we no longer suggest sharing bread and wine during our services on Facebook, but there is nothing to stop you from sharing food afterwards as a sign of the unity which is ours in Christ.  In the Eastern Churches they do this by giving special blessed bread to everyone at the end of the Liturgy.Finally, “the prayers”, the easiest, and at the same time the hardest thing.  Make some space, wherever you can find it. Make some time to sit quietly before God, to bring to God your needs and concerns, people you love, people and situations you worry about. Tell God what is in your heart and on your mind – and leave silence to listen for God speaking to you.And in all that you do, find things for which you can be thankful: the sight of some blue sky, sunlight dancing on the sea, the sound of a bird singing, good news of family or friends, whether here or far away, an enjoyable meal, a goal you’ve achieved – even something as simple as sweeping out  a room.  All of these things will help you to develop a “glad and generous heart” and will spill over into the praise of God, who brings abundant life in Christ and joyful hope out of lock-down and pandemic. Tony Dickinson

Easter 3 (26.4.2020)When we start reading the New Testament seriously, one of the things we discover is how very differently the first Christians did things.  Today, when people ask about baptism, whether for themselves or for their children, most churches offer some sort of detailed, careful preparation.   It’s all very different from the baptisms described in our first reading this morning.  No careful preparation there.  Just one powerful sermon from Peter, words that cut his hearers to the heart, St Luke tells us, and a huge and immediate response which resulted in the mass baptism of about three thousand people.It is very different from what we expect nowadays, but there is one thing that remains the same.  Peter tells the crowds in Jerusalem: “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”  That applies to us, here, now, just as it did to them then.  “The promise is for you, for your children.”So what is that promise?  It’s the promise of life; life lived in a new dimension.  That’s what Peter means when he talks about “the gift of the Holy Spirit”.  He isn’t promising the crowds “pie in the sky when you die”.  He’s offering them a new start now – a new start, with every past failure washed away in the water of baptism, a new start living in the love and mercy of God, a new start walking in the way of God. “The promise is for you, for your children.”It’s a promise of life and hope in this pandemic-afflicted world.  It’s a promise that, however bad things may seem, they are never beyond the power of God to hold and heal and transform.  Think of those two disciples in this morning’s gospel, trudging home to Emmaus after a desperate week in the big city.  It had all started so well.  They had watched Jesus of Nazareth, somebody they recognised as very special – watched him enter the city amid cheering crowds, challenging the foreign army of occupation, challenging the corrupt leaders of his own people.  And a few days later they had watched that foreign army, and their own leaders, crush him.They had watched how “how [their] chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.”  They had watched him stumble through the city, carrying his cross to the place of execution.  They had watched him die and seen the soldiers make sure that he was dead. So there’s real despair in their words: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” – hoped that Jesus would bring his people freedom and a future.And the stranger to whom they are telling this story listens and waits until they have finished their tale of disappointment and confusion.  Then he shows them how it all fits the way that people have seen God at work down the ages.  There’s a pattern of bringing life out of darkness, hope out of death and despair.  What happened to Jesus is no different.  God is in all the pain of the world as well as in its glory, in the restrictions of lock-down, in the worry of being laid off, in the struggle to save lives in the ITU of San Martino or the Evangelico.  God opens up all kinds of possibilities when everything seems closed down, hopeless, dead.Such is the promise which God makes to us this morning, the same promise that was made to the crowd in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago: that however life may turn out, God will never abandon us.  The risen Jesus is alongside us as he was alongside Cleopas and his companion, even though we may not recognise him any more than they did.  He is with us to bear our burdens of sorrow and suffering, our fears, our sense of failure. He is with us to share our joys and to share with us his life, which is the life of God.  The risen Jesus still comes to us unrecognised.  He is still alongside us in the desolation and limitation of lock-down, in our anxiety about family and friends, showing us the pattern of how God works in the world.And he makes himself known as our living Lord today.  He makes himself known in the words of the Bible and in the breaking of the bread, whether it’s at the home of friends in Emmaus, or on YouTube in Genova.  “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Alleluia! Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!Tony Dickinson

Easter 2 (19.4.2020)On the first Easter Day the disciples were, like us, in lock-down. In our case it is fear of spreading corona-virus even further which keeps us behind closed doors. In their case it was fear of being arrested by the Jewish authorities. In either case, the consequences of breaking lock-down could be fatal. But in both cases lock-down has damaging consequences. It can act as an echo-chamber, amplifying fear. It can cut us off from our support networks, from friends and family, from the people with whom we work, from the faith community to which we belong. For some of us it might feel very much as if we, rather than Jesus, are in the tomb, with the stone rolled firmly across the door and no very clear indication of when it might be rolled away.It’s into that situation that the risen Jesus comes. All the resurrection appearances in the three Gospels which record resurrection appearances happen to small groups of people, grieving people, damaged people, some of them horribly aware that in these last days they had come to the time of trial and in one way or another had been found wanting. What will he say to them? Luke and John are unanimous. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” “Peace”, to this group of fearful, anxious, hopeless people. And “peace” in such a setting means rather more than “Stop panicking”. “Peace” in such a setting means “Trust me. Everything will be all right.”And he shows them the reason why everything will be all right. He showed them his hands and his side. The risen Christ still bears the wounds of the crucified Jesus. The resurrection is not a going back to when everything was fine. There is no pretending that the recent past hasn’t happened, no wiping away all the pain and the sense of failure as if they don’t matter – or as if Jesus has now become detached from the rest of humanity. Those wounds are his credentials. They are the permanent, the eternal, reminder that God is in it with us, in all the mess, the darkness, the lock-down, the fear, the hatred, the violence and the sorrow.God is in it with us. However far we fall, however badly we fail, however much we suffer, God is there, holding us with the wounded hands of Christ. Even when we doubt or despair, God does not give up on us – ask Thomas. He demanded what he thought was impossible, and it was given to him. “‘Put your finger here and see my hands,’ said Jesus. ‘Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” “Trust me. Everything will be all right.”“Everything will be all right.” But that doesn’t mean we can bypass all the problems of being human, and particularly not the problems of being human at a time like this, when we, or people we know, are suffering, or sorrowing, when they are going hungry, or worried about how long they can keep a roof over their head. The resurrection didn’t suddenly make everything all right, so that we can all live happily ever after. If we are serious about following Jesus, we have to be prepared to accept our cross – and to help others carry theirs.Now, we cannot do that in our own strength. We can do it only if we are held in the peace of the risen Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. At the present time that means being patient, probably more patient than any of us finds comfortable. It means following the advice of Abba Moses, a reformed African gangster, a violent criminal who became one of the greatest and gentlest of the fourth-century Desert Fathers. A monk came to visit Abba Moses and asked him for “a word” (that is, a saying that would bring him closer to God). Moses said “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” In other words, “Don’t go wandering about in search of advice from another human being. Let God speak to you where you are.” That’s a word for us, if we are able to accept it. Let the restrictions of this present time become an opportunity to draw closer to God. Let God speak to you where you are, in all the frustration and the longing to be up and doing, in all the fear and anxiety which surround corona-virus. Learn to be still, and in that stillness you will hear the risen Christ saying to you, “Peace be with you.” Trust him. Everything will be all right.Tony Dickinson

Easter Day (12.4.2020)One spring day, when I was a student, great offence was caused in the community when one of the more earnest members of what we used to call “the God squad” went up to one of the less earnest members and greeted him with the words “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”, only to be rebuffed with a blank look and the question “What the hell does that mean?” It’s a question some of us may well be asking this morning as we face up to the reality of another three weeks of lock-down – and at this time of year above all others! What does it mean to say “Alleluia!, Christ is risen!” when it feels very much as if we are still in the tomb of lock-down, when people are still dying, and when many of us are sharing the sorrow of Lis and her family as they come to terms with Giancarlo’s sudden death on Friday – and with the implications of the renewed restrictions for the way in which they will be allowed to mark his passing?   No bringing his body home. No farewells. No gathering of family, friends and neighbours for a funeral mass at the church in Boccadasse.There are no easy answers. But then, there never were. Even in Matthew’s account of the resurrection, which plays down the shock and horror of the two Maries when they find the tomb empty and which plays up the sense that God is in control – with the angel rolling back the stone and sitting on it in their presence – even in Matthew’s account the angel frightens the guards into a dead faint and has to tell the women not to be afraid.  But they are still filled with fear as well as great joy as they run to tell the disciples what they have seen. The resurrection is not a conventional “happy ending”. It is a story of transformation.  Those women who hurry off “with fear and great joy” are transformed from the women who had sat in sorrow opposite the tomb two evenings earlier as Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body to rest.There’s transformation, too, in our first reading.  St Paul reminds the Christian communities in Rome that the resurrection of Jesus does not only transform him, “raised from the dead by the glory of the Father”; it also transforms those who believe, “so we too might walk in newness of life.”  We walk, in other words, out of our own small story, the story of which we are the centre, into God’s big story, the story of a love so amazing that, as Isaac Watts recognised, it demands “my soul, my life, my all”, that total reorientation of our values and out attitudes which comes when we accept the uncomfortable truth that “your life is not about you”.Once we have grasped that, truly grasped it, in our heart and our gut, not only in our head, then a new world becomes possible.  Many years ago, Bishop John Taylor described to a gathering of young people in St Albans how he had recently visited Bedford Gaol to confirm a group of prisoners, men under lock-down for the crimes which they had committed.  But despite the patrolling prison officers, the barred windows and the security doors, they told Bishop John that they had at last found freedom, a freedom in Christ which had liberated them from the compulsions and addictions which had brought them to that place of imprisonment. Their old self had, indeed, been crucified with Christ so that, even though they were behind bars, they were free.A year or two earlier another Bishop, Desmond Tutu, had written these words at the height of the struggle against the permanent lock-down of black people that was the apartheid system:“Nothing could have been deader than Jesus on the cross on that first Good Friday.  And the hopes of his disciples had appeared to die with this crucifixion. Nothing could have been deeper than the despair of his disciples when they saw their Master hanging on the cross like a common criminal. The darkness that covered the earth for three hours during that Friday symbolised the blackness of their despair.“And then Easter happened.  Jesus rose from the dead.  The incredible, the unexpected happened. Life triumphed over death, light over darkness, love over hatred, good over evil. That is what Easter means – hope prevails over despair. Jesus reigns as Lord of lords and King of kings… Easter says to us that despite everything to the contrary, his will for us will prevail, love will prevail over hate, justice over injustice and oppression, peace over exploitation and bitterness.”Barely ten years after he wrote those words the apartheid system was dead and buried and Nelson Mandela was president of a re-born South Africa, the “rainbow nation” to which Desmond Tutu, by now Archbishop of Cape Town, wrote these words of encouragement:“Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.”So for us, in a nation beset by pandemic, a land locked down, a community in mourning, the risen Christ comes bringing freedom and hope and joy. “Victory is ours, through him who loves us.” His word to the women, the angel’s word to the women, is also his word to us.  “Do not be afraid.”Alleluia! Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed. Alleluia!Tony Dickinson

Palm Sunday (5.4.2020)Despite the bright spring weather, we continue to live in dark and dangerous times. All round the world, people are suffering and dying.  All round the world, Christians are not meeting to remember the death and resurrection of their Lord.  Here in Italy there are worrying signs that the bonds of solidarity which have sustained us since the beginning of last month are beginning to fray, as work dries up, money runs out, and there’s no food on the table.Just now, as we heard the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, we were reminded how quickly the bonds of solidarity frayed, and broke, in the last week of his life.  Judas’s betrays him.  The disciples desert him. Peter denies him. Add to that the hostility of the crowd and the mockery coming not only from those with power, the soldiers, the religious and civil leaders, but also from those sharing the same sentence of death.  Jesus is as isolated in his dying as any patient struggling for breath on a ventilator in San Martino.And we remember that crucifixion works in a very similar way to the corona-virus, depriving its victim of the ability to breathe.  Jesus, and the two bandits alongside him, will self-asphyxiate as the weight of their body, sagging from their outstretched arms, prevents them from expanding their lungs in order to inhale.  They can try to lever themselves upright, until the pain from ankles shattered by the piercing nails forces them to drop down again. And in the end body-weight will win.  That grim parallel is yet one more reminder that in all the darkness, the desolation, the despair, the dying, God is in it with us.God is in it with us. There is no situation so desperate, so unendurable, that God’s gaze of love will turn away from it, no abyss so deep that, however far we fall, those outstretched arms cannot catch us.  Not even the devouring depths of hell can be barred against the self-giving, suffering love of the Christ who, for our sake, “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”Tony Dickinson

Fifth Sunday in Lent (29.3.2020)“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  How many families around the world, I wonder, not just China or Italy, or Britain, or Spain, or the USA – how many families are echoing those words of Martha and Mary? They might not be addressing them to Jesus as the two sisters did.  They might be addressing them to a government, or a department of health, or a hospital administration. “If those testing kits had been here…” or “If that protective clothing had been here…” then brothers or sisters, parents, friends, colleagues would not have died.  There were more than nine hundred new deaths in this country on Friday; the biggest total for a single day anywhere in the world so far.So many people in mourning.  So many people crying from out of the depths, like the Psalmist. “Lord, hear my voice.” So many people echoing Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother (or sister, or mother, or father, or child) would not have died.”   And those who mourn today, unlike Martha and Mary, cannot have the comfort of neighbours, friends, kinsfolk coming, whether from down the street or from a distance, to pay their condolences, to offer the support of their presence in a time of loss and sorrow. Nor can they gather together to offer prayer, whether at the bedside of the dying, or in church or at the graveside.But the Lord is here.  He is present in the healing activity of the doctors and the care of the nursing staff, in the faithful commitment of paramedics and ancillary workers, all those who knowingly put themselves in the line of danger in order to save, if possible, the lives of others and in order to keep going the vital work of treatment and care.  He is here, too, in the loneliness of the ITU and the struggle to breathe, in the tears of family and friends.  Jesus weeps now, as he wept then, because he is love. He weeps with the bereaved. He also weeps at the human thoughtlessness, the complacency, the deafness to warnings – all those self-centred, uncaring attitudes that St Paul sums up as “the flesh”, and which have made this crisis so much worse than it need have been. “To set the mind on the flesh” is indeed death.And yet, as the Gospels remind us again and again, death does not have the last word. Suffering and pain do not have the last word.  God’s offer is life and peace, a life and peace secured by the one who raised Lazarus from the dead and who was himself raised from death – not, like Lazarus, to complete his earthly course and die again – but to the life of the Godhead.  Faith, in other words total trust, in Jesus, the resurrection and the life, opens the way to a life that the death of our physical bodies cannot stop, because it is the life of God.Now, that kind of trust can be seen in two people in today’s Gospel.  It can be seen, blazing, in Martha’s declaration “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”.  It’s there, too, in what she says after her half-reproach to Jesus for not arriving while Lazarus was still alive, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” It can also be seen, earlier in the story, in one of the disciples.  While the others are trying desperately to dissuade Jesus from returning across the Jordan into Judaea, Thomas, the Twin, simply says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”There, in a nutshell, is the essence of discipleship.  “Follow Jesus and die.”  There’s a parish in England which adopted those words as its mission statement.  It’s a good motto for us, too, in this time of pandemic – not in the sense of behaving stupidly, putting ourselves and other people in danger, but in the sense of letting God put to death in us “the things of the flesh”, what the old Prayer Book calls “the devices and desires of our own hearts”. They imprison us far more securely than any government restrictions, more securely than Lazarus’s grave-cloths. In his own good time Jesus will call us out of the tomb that has been dug for us by fear and foolishness and pride – our own and other people’s.  Until then, with the Psalmist, we wait for the Lord; placing our hope in his word. “For with the Lord there is mercy; with him is plenteous redemption and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.” Tony Dickinson

Mothering Sunday (22.3.2020)The whole of Lent so far has been strange as we have wandered through this corona-virus wilderness, but today is probably the strangest day.  Mothering Sunday is supposed to be about posies and simnel cake and saying thank you to all the mums in church. But all the mums, like everyone else in Italy – and pretty well every other country in Europe – are self-isolating.  The florists’ shops are all closed by government order.  Sorry about that.On second thoughts, though, is it that strange? Our readings this morning remind us that being a mother is not all posies and cake.  It includes suffering and loss and letting go.  We can see that in what happened to the Levite woman in our first reading.   The background to that story is grim. It’s about attempted genocide by the Egyptians against the descendants of Israel. The Egyptians were worried. Their king had told them, “The Israelite people are more numerous and powerful than we.” So the Egyptians put Israelites to forced labour. But that didn’t kill them off. Then the king tried to bully the Hebrew midwives into killing all the male children born in their communities. But the midwives outsmarted the king. So the king issued an order that baby boys were to be thrown into the river Nile. And that’s where the Levite woman comes into the story.She and her husband had a baby boy.  He must have been at least their third child because, as we shall see, he had an older sister and, as becomes clear a lot later in the story, an older brother as well. And he was gorgeous, “a fine baby”. So his mother didn’t throw him in the Nile as the king had commanded.  She hid him for three months. But as he grew bigger he couldn’t be hidden any longer and she decided that the baby had to go into the river.  But to give this fine baby a chance to live, his mother didn’t just throw him into the water as the king had commanded. She made a reed basket into a little boat and placed it in one of the reed-beds on the edge of the river where someone, a fisherman, perhaps, or one of the river boatmen, might find the child and take pity on him.Well, as we heard in our reading, it wasn’t a fisherman who found him. It was Pharaoh’s daughter.  It was the daughter of the king who had given the order for the death of that baby, and many others. She saw the child and sent one of her maids to take him out of the water. And like those midwives earlier in the story, Pharaoh’s daughter outsmarted the king, her own father. She took the child even though she recognised that he was “one of the Hebrews’ children”. And thanks to a brilliant piece of work by the baby’s big sister, he was given back to his mother to be nursed. A happy ending? Well, not exactly. Think about it for a moment.The Levite woman had given up her son. Now to her great joy she had received him back, but she knew she couldn’t keep him. One day she would have to hand him back to the daughter of the great enemy of her people, to be brought up among their oppressors. That really is a loss and a letting go.  So too is Mary’s in this morning’s Gospel. She was one of the little group of women standing near the cross of her son, watching and waiting as his battered and bleeding body drew closer to death.  Painters and sculptors, poets and musicians have for centuries tried to imagine what it must have been like to be her, of all women, to be there, of all places.In our world today, there are thousands, millions of women, who have experienced something of what the two women in today’s readings experienced: women who live in war zones; women whose lives have been devastated by natural disaster; women who have survived epidemics that their children didn’t. They know what it is to suffer and lose and let go. And it isn’t just mothers who have lived in extreme situations.  Every mother, to one degree or another, knows the pain of letting go, when a child starts school, or goes away to work or to study, or finally moves out of the family home. That experience of loss is honoured by God, who also knows the pain of letting go, as the children of God’s love go their own way, turning their backs on brothers and sisters, crucifying the Son of God afresh. But God, like the Levite woman, waits patiently to receive us back, to nurture us to maturity in Christ.Tony Dickinson

Third Sunday in Lent (15.3.2020)Two weeks ago I shared my memories of a group of students fifty years since journeying along the edge of the great Iranian desert, the Dasht-e Kavir.  On our way to Iran we spent a couple of nights in the Turkish town of Doğubayazıt.  It was, to say the least, an interesting experience.  Doğubayazıt stands on a plain, surrounded by some of Turkey’s highest mountains, including Mount Ararat, but despite that, unlike Genoa, it sees very little rain.  The hills around are bleak, barren and brown. We were told at the hotel where we stayed that the town had running water for two hours each day.   On the basis of our experience, we decided that those two hours must be between two and four in the morning.It was a sharp reminder to people who take water for granted – you turn on the tap in Italy and there it is – a sharp reminder that in some parts of the world water is very scarce and very precious. We were able to survive on bottles of Coca Cola and of a Turkish orange drink called Yedigün.  The Israelites in the desert didn’t have that option when, early on in their travels, they pitched camp at Rephidim but found that there was no well, no spring, stream or pool to provide them with a drink and to water their livestock. So, understandably, they had a go at the man who had brought them there.  “The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’”  And when he tried to fob them off they became angry, complained that he was trying to kill them, and threatened him with violence, until God intervened at Moses’ prayer and provided them with water from the rock.It’s a slightly different scenario in today’s Gospel.  This isn’t set in the desert. This is in town – or at least on the edge of a town; Sychar, “a Samaritan city” according to St John, a town which took pride in its ancient well, linked with the patriarch Jacob. But despite these differences, the story John tells, like the story in our first reading, is still a story about thirst and how it was quenched. Or rather, it’s a story about two thirsts.It starts off as a story about the physical thirst of Jesus and the tiredness which made him sit down by the well while the disciples went off in search of food.  Then a woman comes out of the city to draw water.  Now, that’s very odd.  The time for collecting the day’s supply of water is early in the morning and John pointedly tells us that this was midday.  It looks as if this woman who, as we discover, had a rather colourful marital history might have been trying to avoid the other women who would have gathered there early in the morning to draw water and to gossip – quite possibly about her.  That’s when we discover that this story is about another thirst, not a physical thirst, but this Samaritan woman’s spiritual thirst for some sort of meaning in her life, for a reality and a truth which she has not found in her varied relationships nor in the centuries-old stand-off between Jews and Samaritans. She wants – though at first she doesn’t quite understand what she wants – she wants the water that Jesus will give, the water which will become “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. For us, in this season of Lent which has been so badly disrupted by the corona-virus pandemic, it is easy to complain about the people who have brought us to this point.  We may well be feeling tired and defeated, or even panic-stricken and overwrought, as the figures for new cases continue to climb, not only in Italy but across Europe. Those feelings may be made worse by the fact that at present there can be no physical gathering of “church “to encourage and sustain us. But by God’s grace we live in the age of social media, often criticised for their negative aspects but enabling us to live in connection with one another even when we cannot look on one another’s faces. That is what we are doing now through this virtual Eucharist, and through the various means which are appearing each day on our Facebook page, on the church website and through the various WhatsApp groups and networks to which we belong. And as we connect with one another we also connect with Christ who gives us the living water in which our deepest thirst is satisfied.
Tony Dickinson

Second Sunday in Lent (8.3.2020)
Words from the beginning of our first reading today: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Those words, I imagine, would strike a chord with many if not most of us. Something made us “up sticks” and make the journey to Italy, even if it wasn’t a direct message from God. What brought each us here, I wonder? Obviously I’m talking to the migrants among us, wherever we have come from, not the native Italians. What brought you here? Was it the encouragement of a friend, the offer of a job, the experience of falling in love, the need to escape from a difficult or dangerous situation at home? What was it made you “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house”? If we weren’t obliged by Government decree to keep at least a metre apart, I might have asked you to get into a little huddle with your neighbours at this point and to share something of your experience.
We don’t often, in my experience, hear God’s call in a voice from heaven, but in many hidden ways. In my case the start of my journey to Genova (not all that far short of the age when Abram started his journey from Haran) – the start of my journey lay in the unexpected tail-piece to a telephone conversation with Bishop David nearly three years ago; but everything that has happened in those three years has strengthened my sense that the calling to come here was from God. Some of you, I know, would say the same. I was talking to someone last week who has had a pretty frustrating time in Genova recently and I asked whether, because of those frustrations, they were thinking of moving on. “Oh no,” they said, looking almost shocked that I had asked the question. “Oh no. Genova is my country, il mio paese.” There was a sense that they were in the right place, that this was the land that God had shown them.
People often talk about what happens between Ash Wednesday and Easter as “our journey through Lent”. That is a journey with many ups and downs, marked by failures as much as by moments of understanding, by fear as much as hope – probably by fear more than hope this Lent, when the corona-virus epidemic has knocked so many plans on the head.
But we know the end of our journey, as Abram didn’t. We know that, even though our journey will take us through some very dark places as we follow Jesus along the way of the cross, nevertheless it will end in the light and the joy of Easter. The same is true of our journey through life. If we go as the Lord tells us, if we trust God even in the times when we are feeling utterly lost and abandoned, then we will at the last inherit that promise which God gave to Abram: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Now, those are words to ponder. God blesses Abram in his journeying, not just for Abram’s own sake but so that Abram can be a blessing to others – many, many others. In fact, God tells him, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” When God blesses anyone – when God blesses us – it isn’t simply for our own profit. It is also for the sake of others.
Something like that thought underpins today’s Gospel, especially the last section, where Nicodemus disappears from view and we are left with the picture of the Son of Man lifted up “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Here again, God has sent someone on a journey so that the world might be not just blessed, but saved, healed, made whole – and the someone God has sent is not a nomad, following flocks from pasture to pasture, but God’s own Son, who will be handed over to death for the life of the world. In a world made fearful by climate emergency and epidemic, a world which knows that it is under judgement, let us hold fast to that assurance of God’s love as we move forward on our journey, so that we may be God’s blessing to the people among whom we live and work and worship: not loud in condemnation, but remembering always that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Tony Dickinson

First Sunday in Lent (1.3.2020)
To find out what happened on this Sunday, when Genoa was in lock-down because of Covid-19, please visit
and follow the links there to the text of the virtual liturgy and to our FB page.
The text of the sermon is printed here:
Nearly fifty years ago, when I was a student, I travelled widely with friends in Turkey and pre-Revolutionary Iran. One of our journeys took us along the western edge of Dasht-e Kavir, the Great Salt Desert – which certainly did what it said on the tin!  There was a frightening sense of emptiness. There were no people, no plants, no animals, just salt, sand and rock.  But that experience was nothing compared to what I know some members of our congregation have seen as they came north to Europe. Someone I was talking to recently, someone who has been in Italy for some years now, told me that they still get disturbing flashbacks from the journey across the Sahara; and I guess that they would not be alone in that. 
The desert, any wild place where there are no landmarks and no signs of everyday human presence, is a place of testing.  Even the Judaean wilderness, which is tiny by comparison with Dasht-e Kavir, never mind the Sahara, was a place where people were very much “on their own”.  The wilderness is what is sometimes called “liminal space”, space on the threshold between “what was” and “what will be”. So, in a way, it’s an obvious place for Jesus to spend time as he moves from “what was” in his life in Nazareth, and “what will be” in his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing.  It’s a place of waiting, of not knowing.  Some of our congregation probably feel as if the whole of their time in Italy has been like that, waiting to attend a commission, not knowing if they will be granted that precious permesso; and even then there’s the waiting for a job to turn up. This is a place of testing for them. 
On top of that, for all of us, for the rest of the people of Genova, for most of Italy, especially Lombardy and Veneto, the corona-virus outbreak has led us into a kind of wilderness. The fact that I’m having to say these things on social media rather than face-to-face in church is just one aspect of that.  All of us are waiting to discover what will happen next.  All of us are experiencing something of that testing which Jesus underwent, struggling as disturbing thoughts arise in our hearts: “How am I going to survive this?” (the bread question); “Why should I change how I do things? God will stop me from becoming infected.” (the “throw-yourself-down” question); And “How can I turn this situation in some way to my advantage?” (the power question).
But when we find ourselves in the place of testing, the place of waiting, this “liminal space” the thing to do is to follow the example of Jesus. In reply to each of those questions from the tester he reaffirmed his trust in God.  Not for what he could get out of it, but because that relationship was the core of his being.  St John spells that out very clearly in his Gospel in the chapters where Jesus talks about his relationship with the Father, and he extends it to those who follow him.  I’m not a Christian because it keeps me fed. I’m not a Christian because it enables me to do spectacular things. I’m not a Christian because it gives me power and status. I’m a Christian because I know that when my life is falling apart, when I’m hurting, when I’m struggling, God is there for me. When I’m following Jesus to the best of my pathetic ability, God is alongside, urging me (sometimes pushing me) forward, picking me up when I fall over, setting me back on the right path when I stray into those trackless wastes of rock and sand. 
St Paul expresses that well in today’s first reading when he writes about God’s free gift in Jesus doing much, much more than cancelling Adam’s sin.  When he writes about “the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” Paul is pointing us to how God is always working to widen our horizons, to sharpen our vision, to enable us to see how the wilderness, the threshold, the place of waiting and not knowing can become the start of something new and great and wonderful.  A Franciscan friar I know has described it this way: “This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed… The threshold is God’s waiting room.  Here we are taught openness and patience.”  May our keeping of Lent in this time of epidemic teach us patience and openness to God’s love, that wideness of mercy of which we shall sing in our final hymn. 
Tony Dickinson

Sunday next before Lent (23.2.2020)

Last week I had to go back to the UK for a couple of days.  Someone who had been a key figure both in my congregation in High Wycombe and in the wider community had died and I was asked to take her funeral.  It was a quick visit, so I was travelling light, taking with me not much more than my robes for the service and a change of clothing.

On Wednesday, Lent begins.  Lent is the time of year for all of us to travel light. The fasting, self-examination, and works of mercy which are the hall-mark of the next six weeks are not about showing how holy we are but about helping us to get rid of clutter and draw near to God.  Lent is a time for dropping all the excess baggage which weighs us down as we follow Moses and Elijah and Jesus up the mountain.  It’s a time – the time – to focus on the essentials of our Christian life and to cut out the background noise which prevents us from hearing those three words spoken by the voice from the cloud in today’s gospel: “Listen to him.”

“Listen to him.”   Those words put us, and all who follow Jesus, on the spot. Who do we listen to?  What “mood music” do we pick up in these distracted times?  There are so many different voices competing for our attention and our allegiance that it can be far from easy to discern the voice of Jesus our Lord.  The blare of the news headlines, the blast of the front page, the booming echo-chamber of social media, the chatter of friends, all threaten to drown out the voice of Christ.  So let’s stand back for a moment and think what it might mean to use the coming weeks of Lent to listen to God’s Son, “the Beloved, with whom [God is] well pleased”.  Let’s think what it means for us, here, now, in Genova in spring 2020, to encounter God, not in the mountains which surround this city, but in the depths of our heart.

I’d suggest that we listen for Jesus in the obvious places: in the words of Scripture and in the silence of our prayer.  Follow a daily programme of Bible reading. I know some people do that already.  If you’re used to using the internet, you can log on to the Church of England website and share in the daily pattern on offer there.  The Jesuits also have a good resource. Serious engagement with the Bible day by day is an important way of listening to God, letting God cut through the “noise” of everyday life, to encourage us, to challenge us, and to transform us. 

That is best done within the framework of regular prayer, and when I talk about prayer, I don’t mean simply filling God’s ears with a shopping list of wants and wishes – whether for ourselves or for other people. When I talk about prayer, I mean that encounter in which we are truly open to God’s transforming love, “entering the cloud” where God speaks to us at the deepest level of our being. Like Moses in our first reading, we have to go up into the mountain, and into the cloud; and that journey can take a very long time.  There are no quick fixes, no buttons we can press to make God “answer our prayers”. 

During the coming weeks there will be events to help us listen to Jesus. At midday on Wednesdays in March we shall look at how each of the Gospels tells the story of his suffering and death.  Each Thursday between now and the beginning of Holy Week the church will be open from the beginning of morning prayer at 9.30 a.m. until the end of evening prayer around 6.00 p.m. for people to drop in and spend time consciously in God’s presence.  There will be resources to help us to pray.  There will be things to do, pictures to ponder, books to browse through, ideas to explore. But the most important thing is simply to be there, like the Peter, James and John in this morning’s Gospel, not trying to tell God what to do, not trying to build things in our own strength, but simply listening to what God says to us through the Beloved. 

On Wednesday, as we set out once more into the wilderness of Lent, we may find ourselves in that cloud which an English priest 600 years ago called “the cloud of unknowing”.  As we enter into it, as we listen out for the Lord, may we find him saying to us, as he did to Peter, James and John, “Get up and do not be afraid.”   And may we know his presence transforming our lives with the bright light of his glory.

Tony Dickinson

The original Italian text of the sermon preached at the United Service on the Second Sunday before Lent (16th February 2020).

La scelta di celebrare congiuntamente questo culto proprio oggi non è stata casuale. Domani è il 17 febbraio e molti tra voi sanno che si ricorda un momento importante della storia e per la storia della chiesa valdese: nel 1848, il 17 febbraio, i valdesi videro riconosciuti anche per loro dei basilari diritti civili fino a quel momento negati. E questa data – questo il senso del culto congiunto in questo giorno – non è importante solo per i valdesi, ma per noi protestanti tutti, in un Paese che spesso ancora oggi ci considera, almeno in parte, corpo estraneo.

Questo è, in breve, il significato del 17 febbraio.
Il testo dell’evangelo di quest’oggi, però, non ci parla del 17 febbraio. A dirla tutta, non ci parla nemmeno esplicitamente di libertà o di diritti. Parla piuttosto di ansietà, di preoccupazione, parla di paura per quello che è essenziale per la vita (in questo caso il cibo, il vestito). O, meglio, parla a quanti affrontano questa ansietà, questa paura, questa preoccupazione per ciò che è essenziale per vivere. E lo fa – come molte altre parole del sermone sul monte – con una radicalità che ci lascia senza parole, che ci sembra improbabile saper ascoltare, men che meno praticare. Questa parola parla davvero a noi?
Permettetemi di raccontare una storia, non inventata, una storia vera. Ero un ragazzino e frequentavo ancora i primi anni del catechismo, e nella mia chiesa c’era un anziano pastore Franco Davite (classe 1924) che veniva talvolta a farci lezione di catechismo. Il pastore Davite ci raccontò una volta un ricordo tramandato dal suo bisnonno. Un contadino che nella prima metà dell’Ottocento viveva in quelle vallate alpine, in Piemonte, dove la chiesa valdese era stata “rinchiusa”, come in un ghetto, senza diritti, dalla metà del 500. Questo bisnonno aveva l’abitudine di andare a lavorare sui suoi campi, portando con sé il fucile da caccia. Non per difendersi da animali feroci, ma per difendersi da altri predatori. Era infatti noto che ancora in quel tempo, girava in queste vallate un carro, condotto da alcuni religiosi, i quali avevano il compito di “raccogliere” – o rapire: decidete voi se preferite usare il termine più politicamente corretto o quello più diretto – i bambini delle famiglie valdesi, per portarli a Pinerolo, la città più grande nelle vicinanze, dove venivano cresciuti nella fede cattolica in un istituto creato appositamente a tale scopo. Franco Davite raccontava che un giorno, il suo bisnonno aveva sentito delle grida provenire dalla borgata più vicina e poi aveva visto apparire il famigerato carro che si allontanava speditamente dalla zona. A quel punto, aveva preso il suo fucile, aveva mirato ad uno dei cavalli e così fermato la corsa del mezzo (i due religiosi alla guida se l’erano data a gambe!). E, avvicinatosi al carro, aveva trovato un bambino o una bambina, appena sottratto alla propria famiglia. È inutile dire che, dopo il 1848, con la concessione dei diritti civili, queste azioni contro i valdesi diversi da tutti gli altri non erano più giustificate…ma fino a quell’anno…come poteva suonare per i valdesi del tempo precedente al ’48 la parola che oggi ascoltiamo noi? Non siate in ansia per la vostra vita… Gesù vuole forse limitare il discorso solo alla nostra vita? Non è compreso in questo vostro anche la vita di chi ci è figlio, marito, moglie, compagno? Il fatto che parli dell’ansia per il cibo e il vestire, cioè quegli elementi essenziali alla sopravvivenza, esclude forse l’ansia per l’integrità di chi ci è affidato, per la salute, per i mezzi di sostentamento? Insomma, possiamo davvero disinnescare questo testo dicendo che esso si riferiva solamente a certi ambiti della vita – e quindi per gli altri si può tranquillamente essere in ansia? Oppure, dobbiamo effettivamente ascoltarlo nella sua radicalità, ed evitare di addomesticarlo, rendendolo un po’ più compatibile con la nostra visione delle cose? Sebbene la seconda strada sia la via stretta, più difficile da percorrere, non saremmo fedeli allo spirito dell’evangelo se non riconoscessimo che è questa l’indicazione che ci viene rivolta. Non so come i genitori di quei bambini che rischiavano quotidianamente il rapimento venissero a patti con l’ansia per il domani. Temo però di conoscere – come ciascuno di noi – che cosa significhi per noi doversi confrontare con la fragilità di un’esistenza segnata dalla precarietà. Una precarietà che si esprime in molti modi differenti, che si intreccia ai destini personali e comunitari, che mette alla prova le nostre prospettive di vita. E di fronte a questa esperienza potremmo addirittura pensare che le parole di Gesù manchino di quella dimensione misericordiosa che spesso gli attribuiamo. Insomma: già affronto le difficoltà, e anche lui, anche Gesù, mi fa sentire in colpa quando vedo un domani nero?
Credo che questa lettura non colga un aspetto importante. Le parole del Signore non sono un discorsetto morale che un qualche maestro di saggezza rivolge ad un’anima serena, che vuole ulteriormente elevare il proprio spirito. Gesù parla ad una moltitudine di derelitti, a persone che non vivevano nella sicurezza del cibo e del vestito, a persone la cui vita è radicalmente messa in questione. Parla a quanti hanno il diritto di guardare al domani con preoccupazione, con ansia, a tratti addirittura con una certa disperazione. Gesù parla a quei contadini valdesi che dovevano temere il carro che strappava un pezzo di vita, cioè a chi doveva affrontare l’ansia dell’ingiustizia e dell’instabilità – allora come oggi – parla a te, sorella o fratello, che più di altri hai il diritto di guardare in avanti, sentendo l’incertezza e la precarietà. Parla a chi ha questo sguardo incerto, perché è proprio quella persona che ha maggiormente bisogno della sua parola. Parla con il suo evangelo a quanti riconoscono che la paura ti rende dipendente, che la paura ansiosa ti priva della libertà. Cerca il Regno, cerca la sua giustizia non significa “armati di buona volontà e pensa a cose più importanti, tanto i tuoi problemucci non sono così drammatici!”. L’evangelo di Cristo è radicale non cinico. Ricerca la libertà che solo Dio ti può donare e che l’ansia per ciò che ti attanaglia non può che toglierti. Cerca il Regno, cerca la sua giustizia.
Noi oggi non ricordiamo solamente una libertà storica. Certo c’è anche quella. Noi oggi nell’Evangelo che riceviamo e nell’Evangelo che da generazioni di credenti è stato ricevuto prima di noi, celebriamo la libertà che Dio vuole offrire ai suoi figli appesantiti dalle ansie, alle sue figlie schiacciate dalla preoccupazione. La libertà di Dio è la libertà di confidare che il nostro presente e il nostro futuro sono nella sua mano e la tenacia che è richiesta a te, è richiesta a me per affrontare le ansie quotidiane è accompagnata dalla Sua promessa. Celebriamo questa libertà con gioia, celebriamola con gratitudine, ma soprattutto, celebriamola vivendola. Amen
William Jourdan

3rd Sunday before Lent (9.2.2020)
A great French chef who lived a century ago was fond of saying to those he taught, “Above all, keep it simple”. St Paul, I think would have approved. He certainly wanted to keep the gospel message simple for the people of Corinth. As he said in the passage which we heard a few minutes ago: “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” You can forget all the rest. You can forget the definitions and the dogmas. What matters is the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and what that means for every human being.
So, what do the death and resurrection of Jesus mean? Some people have built up huge, complicated, and sometimes very beautiful, systems based on what happened in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago, but in the end the truth that lies at the bottom of those huge systems is this: human beings, powerful and powerless, oppressed and oppressors, sank their differences in order to kill a man whose holiness and goodness threatened the world which they knew, an ordered world in which there was a set place for everything and everyone. Jesus threatened the order of that world. He challenged the system that kept order – and he did it from the inside. As Matthew reports in this morning’s gospel, Jesus was quite clear about that he was doing. He told his disciples so: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’
But by doing that Jesus went to the heart of things. He would not let the professionally holy people rely on appearances, on doing the outward things “right” while they neglected the inner reality and let it fester. And so they killed him. Goodness and truth and holiness were nailed to a cross because they were seen as a threat to “good order and discipline” by the powers of this world. The worst thing that could happen did happen. And through it all, through Jesus’ words from the cross, and above all through the resurrection, God says, “You human beings have done the worst thing imaginable, but I still love you.” That is “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”
Jesus, you see, is not some tuppence-ha’penny revolutionary, planning to turn the world upside down though other people’s blood and sweat and tears. Jesus’ plan is, like that French chef’s advice on cooking, much more simple and, at the same time, much more complex. His death on the cross shows us that however low we may sink, God is alongside us, even beneath us. His resurrection shows us that suffering and death are not God’s last word to us. It is an invitation to live in the unconditional and unlimited love of God, to be the best that we can be. Not to change the world. Just to be the people that God made us to be, to be salt and light for the world, to give savour to life, to offer hope to a world overshadowed by anxiety and dread – now just as much as it was then. “Let your light shine before others,” Jesus tells his disciples, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” That’s what it means, in religious terms, to “keep it simple.”
A wise and holy man who lived long ago once said “I was a revolutionary when I was young and all my prayer to God was ‘Lord, give me the energy to change the world.’ As I approached middle age and realised that half my life was gone without my changing a single soul, I changed my prayer to ‘Lord, give me the grace to change all those who come into contact with me. Just my family and friends, and I shall be satisfied.’ Now that I am an old man and my days are numbered, my one prayer is, ‘Lord, give me the grace to change myself.’ If I had prayed for this right from the start I should not have wasted my life.”
Those words echo a prayer which used to be popular with Christian preachers and evangelists: “Lord, revive thy Church, beginning with me.” It is when Christians forget that simplicity of “beginning with me”, that they complicate things. It is when Christian leaders give neat theories and carefully worked-out formulae priority over engaging with messy human reality that they “lose their taste” and are in danger of being “thrown out and trampled under foot”. So our readings are a challenge to “keep it simple”, to focus on the love of God revealed in the horror and mess of the cross, to be salt and light revealing that self-giving love.
Tony Dickinson

Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2.2.2020)

Christmastide ends today.  The tree and the greenery were taken down three weeks ago.  The crib will be dismantled, perhaps later today, certainly before next Sunday. The colour of the altar-cloth will change tomorrow from the white of Christmastide to the green of what our Catholic neighbours call “ordinary time”.  After today Peter will take a break from stoking up the incense until we come to Easter in ten weeks’ time. It’s a time of change.  We’re on the threshold of something new – in the church, as in political life across Europe.

It was a time of change for Mary and Joseph in this morning’s Gospel, as well.  Six weeks after her child’s birth Mary can resume her place in the wider community outside the family home.  At the same time Joseph will make the offering that redeems, that pays for, the life of a first-born male child. Because he is a poor man, Joseph doesn’t take the usual lamb to the temple to be sacrificed.  He offers two turtle-doves, or young pigeons, instead.  So far, so very normal – as St Luke emphasises by reminding us twice in as many verses that what Mary and Joseph are doing is “as it is written in the law of the Lord.”

Then suddenly it isn’t.  Suddenly it’s anything but normal.  Two people, a man and a woman, totally unconnected, detach themselves from the crowds of worshippers and sight-seers visiting the temple and head straight for this young couple and their six-week-old child.  And, while the man takes hold of the baby and starts saying some quite amazing things about him, the woman starts buttonholing the other people in the temple and telling them how special he is. She, by the way, is ancient in first-century terms. In a world where medical care was very basic it was only, as the Psalmist said, “by reason of strength” that people made it into their eighties.  But Anna was not only old; she was also recognisably a devout and holy woman.  “She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.”

Luke tells us very little about what Anna said to the people she met.  He doesn’t need to. Simeon’s words tell us all we need to know about how special this six-week-old baby is.  Simeon’s song speaks of his own coming death, of God’s salvation, of light and glory, picking up themes, and echoing words, from the songs sung by Zechariah and Mary in the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel. God is present in the midst of his people. God is acting here and now.  The promises of old are being fulfilled.  All of this is “according to [God’s] word.”  Which is why, for Christians, Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple has long been linked with the prophecy of Malachi which we heard a few minutes ago.  “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”

Now, for Malachi, that coming is distinctly double-edged.  God’s holiness, God’s justice, will make his coming unendurable for human wrong-doers. People who use hidden power to manipulate others, people who play havoc with human relationships, people who distort or pervert the truth, people who exploit the poor and the powerless, who reject the stranger in their midst; all of them are still around – and sometimes in positions of high authority. Even though they may not fear God, they are all under God’s judgement. So are we, when we misuse our power (and all of us have the ability to help or harm).  So are we when we undermine relationships, when we twist words, when we abuse or exploit or harm others. We too will feel the force of that refining fire. We too will go through the wringer of judgement.

But God’s judgement is the judgement of love. The child who gives flesh and bone to God’s salvation does not kill; he gives life.  In time he will give his own life, piercing his mother’s heart with the sword of sorrow, so that the light of God’s love may be revealed to all peoples. We will fall before the infinite goodness of God, but by God’s infinite mercy we will rise.  For, like Simeon, we have seen God’s salvation in the Christ who changes lives as he comes to his temple, not as a six-week-old baby, but in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Tony Dickinson

Conversion of St Paul (26.1.2020 – transferred)

Who is this Jesus? Last Sunday we heard how Andrew and his fellow-disciple were invited to “Come and see”, to spend time with Jesus and find out where he was staying, or abiding, or remaining. Today we have heard the story of a fiery young rabbi from one of the Greek-speaking communities in what is now southern Turkey whose view of Jesus was very different. He would not “come and see”, thank you very much, because he was convinced that Jesus was a man who had led the Jewish people astray and that he was cursed by God. The Law of Moses, after all, laid down that those who were put to death by “hanging from a tree” (a definition which included crucifixion) were under God’s curse.  He was also convinced that the tiny groups of disciples who followed the teaching of Jesus must be hounded to destruction, not just in the Jewish heartlands of Jerusalem and Judea, but wherever they were to be found disturbing the good order of Jewish communities in the Roman province of Syria. 

Saul, you see, stood for clear, firm borders around the chosen people of God, defining who was “in” and who was “out”.  He stood for lives lived in accordance with the Law of Moses, for purity of conduct in every aspect of life, which meant behaviour that marked Jewish people out from the rest of the ancient world as sharply as did their avoidance of pig-meat, their refusal to work on the seventh day of the week and their practice of mutilating their male children. And in Saul’s eyes, the followers of Jesus were a threat to this purity, because of their openness to individuals, and indeed whole groups of people, whom strict Pharisees like Saul would cross the road to avoid.  

So, there was Saul on his way to Damascus with authority to root out these disturbers of the peace in the Jewish community there, to arrest them and take them back to face the religious courts in Jerusalem. That was when he had the experience that was to turn his life upside down. It’s one of those stories in the Acts of the Apostles that St Luke tells three times, because in Luke’s eyes it was of so very important, like the story of Peter’s visit to the Roman officer Cornelius in Acts 10, which gets the same treatment. 

Saul has an experience of the risen Jesus, Christ in glory, a vision which so disturbs him that he loses the ability to see. That vision disturbs Saul because it reveals to him that God has vindicated a crucified man. Jesus revealed in the blinding light of God’s glory is very definitely not under God’s curse. That vision turns Saul from being a fierce opponent of those who followed the way of Jesus into being an advocate who argues powerfully for that way. Rabbi Saul of Tarsus is on his way to becoming St Paul the Apostle.

As God reveals to Ananias, Saul is to be “an instrument whom [God has] chosen to bring [God’s] name before Gentiles and kings.”  So, in a sense, when we celebrate the “conversion of St Paul” we are celebrating the fact that we are here this morning, that because of Paul, and all those others down the centuries who have “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for [Jesus’] name’s sake” – because of them the good news of Jesus has been preached not just in Israel and Palestine, not just in Roman Syria, but across Europe and Africa and Asia and the Americas, from Japan to Johannesburg – and beyond.

Today, as we thank God for a life turned upside down nearly two thousand years ago, we thank God also for a life that has only recently begun. Fumiko Anna arrived in this world in the small hours of 24th November last year, the Feast of Christ the King. In a few minutes’ we shall ask God’s blessing on her, on Hanako and Claudio her parents, and on Kenjiro, her big brother.  And we pray that as she grows she will come to know Christ the King as the guiding presence in her life, perhaps not revealed in the blinding light that overtook St Paul on the road to Damascus, but in the love and mercy that she receives from Christ through the members of her family, the constant renewal in faith and forgiveness which is our shared Christian experience. We pray, too, that when she comes to baptism her eyes may be opened to the wonder and beauty of God’s creation and that she may be filled with the Holy Spirit to carry out whatever task God has appointed for her.

Tony Dickinson

Epiphany 2 (19.1.2020)

When people think of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, they tend to focus on the very beginning. That’s not surprising. The beginning of John’s Gospel is something we hear every year at Christmas, whether as the Gospel on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or as the last of the Nine Lessons in the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”.

But if we want to know what St John’s Gospel is actually about, we need to move past the prologue and further into that first chapter, to the passage we heard just now. It begins with a quick recap of “the story so far – or at least the story we heard last Sunday, with John the Baptist telling his disciples that Jesus is the one for whom John’s preaching prepared the way, the one on whom the Spirit descended from heaven like a dove, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and who will be sacrificed because of human sin. But John’s testimony to Jesus moves us on quickly to a new situation, because the two disciples who heard what John had to say about Jesus decided to find out about him for themselves. “They heard [John] say this, and they followed Jesus”. And the rest of the chapter is about what happened next.

Now, John never tells a story just because it happened. None of the gospel-writers do. They tell stories which tell us something about who Jesus is or about what it means to be a disciple. And the passage we heard just now does both these things, although in one important respect it sets a timer ticking rather than telling us straight out.

The timer starts ticking when John’s disciples ask Jesus “Where are you staying?” Now, on one level, that’s a question we might ask of anyone we meet for the first time. When we are introduced to someone who’s just moved to Genoa, or who is studying here, or on holiday, the natural question to ask is “Where are you staying?” Jesus doesn’t answer, he simply says “Come and see”. So they do. “They came and saw where he was staying and remained with him that day.”

So where is Jesus staying? We don’t find out the whole answer until we get to chapter 15, which describes the talk around the table at the Last Supper. That is when Jesus tells all the disciples – except Judas Iscariot, who has already left – that is when he tells the disciples “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” That is where Jesus is staying – the Greek word St John uses is the same there as in chapter one, where it is translated “stay” and “remain”. “Stay”, “remain” and “abide” are all the same word in Greek, but in English versions of the Bible it is usually translated differently. Jesus is staying, remaining, abiding in the Father’s love – and if we stay with him, like Andrew and the other unnamed disciple, so do we. That’s central to John’s message.

So what does it mean for us to stay with Jesus? First of all it means listening to Jesus, listening to what he says, which may not what always be what the preacher says he says, and not drowning his voice out with our own words. It means reading the Gospels slowly and prayerfully, letting the words sink in, reflecting on which, if any, have a particular impact on us, and why. It means spending time with him in prayer – and again that sometimes means keeping our words to a minimum. A bishop I know is fond of talking about prayer being like basking in God’s presence, like a sunbather basking in the warmth and glow of the sun. Staying with Jesus also means sharing his life, the life he offers us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, “feeding on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving”, as the old Prayer Book says.

But it doesn’t stop there. Andrew and the other disciple “remained with [Jesus] that day”, but they didn’t leave it at that – at least, Andrew didn’t. “He first found his brother Simon… [and] brought Simon to Jesus.” Jesus is Good News (capital G, capital N) and good news is something to be shared. That is our calling: by our words and our actions to share the good news of Jesus, not by beating others over the head with it, but by living his commandments, living in love and peace with all, showing in our lives the attractiveness of Jesus so that others may also want to “come and see” and that, in the prophet’s words, “[God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth”.

Tony Dickinson

Baptism of Christ/Epiphany 1 (12.1.2020)

It is nearly six months since Bishop David’s most recent visit to Genova: which means that it’s nearly six months since five adults and one child were baptised, and all the adults (with two others) confirmed, in this church.  So it’s a good time for us to be thinking about today’s two readings, which talk about the baptism of Jesus and how God, as St Luke writes “anointed [him] with the Holy Spirit and with power.  It’s a good time to do that because the message for those seven adults, and for young Michelle, on the day of their baptism and confirmation is the same message that was delivered by that voice from heaven at the end of today’s gospel reading: “This is my Son (or my daughter), the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It’s the same message, because by his death and resurrection Jesus has not only won for us forgiveness of sins through his name; he has also made us his brothers and sisters, baptised, as St Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome – baptised into his death so that we might be raised to newness of life. That’s newness of life now, not after we’re dead. We are God’s children, his beloved, now: not because of anything we have done; not because we’re special; not because we deserve it: but simply because God loves us, loves us so much that in Jesus God has shared human life from its very beginning to its bitter, painful end, from the womb to the tomb, in order that we may share God’s life eternally.

There are many powerful pictures in the New Testament which try to explain what the community of Christians is: a royal priesthood; a living temple; the flock of Christ – like the sheep in the mosaic above the altar. Or we could see ourselves as branches of the true vine; as God’s field, planted and waiting for harvest; as God’s building.  All of those are important and helpful pictures, but one that speaks very powerfully to many Christians is St Paul’s picture of the Church as the body of Christ, working together for the sake of God’s kingdom, collectively “the Beloved, with whom [God is] well pleased,” continuing the work of Jesus here and now.

So what is “the work of Jesus”? How do we, like Jesus and John the Baptist, “fulfil all righteousness?” How do we work out the meaning of our anointing “with the Holy Spirit and with power”, that newness of life which is ours through our baptism and confirmation?  Well, let’s listen to what St Peter told Cornelius and his household in our first reading.

First: Peter’s words remind us that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable.”  So, Christians are to be people who build bridges toward others, not walls and barriers against them.

Second: Peter speaks about Jesus “preaching peace”.  That has to mean peace with God and peace with other people, not holding grudges, not stirring up conflict, not putting others down, keeping control of thoughts and words as much as actions. A great Russian saint of the 19th century once said “Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation.”

Third: Peter describes how Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”  Again, that’s to do with bringing people together, enabling them to become part of community.  Very often the miracles of Jesus are about restoring women and men so that they can share fully in the life of God’s people, whether they are lepers, or seriously disturbed like the man in the cemetery at Gadara, or ritually unclean like the woman with the twelve-year haemorrhage, or physically incapable like the paralysed man.  All of them were cut off, one way or another, from normal life and Jesus opened the way back for them.  For them it needed a miracle, but very often when we meet people who feel cut off from the world around them it needs less than that, a phone call, maybe, or a kind word, or a friendly gesture.

In these three ways we can know ourselves to be God’s beloved children, but none of them can be achieved in our own strength. As God’s beloved children, we must pray that the Holy Spirit will alight upon us as it did upon Jesus, God’s beloved Son.

Tony Dickinson

Epiphany (5.1.2020)

Events during the past few days have brought the homeland of the wise men sharply into focus, but not in a good way. The assassination in Baghdad of a senior commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on the orders of Donald Trump is a powerful reminder that Middle Eastern politics is a high-stakes game. As indeed it was in the time of Jesus. So when the wise men arrived at King Herod’s court asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they were treading, as we might say, on very thin ice.

They were treading on thin ice because, in the later years of his reign, Herod took great care to eliminate anyone who might have an eye on the throne. He had his favourite wife killed – and her two sons. Just before he died, he had his eldest son killed, too. So the wise men’s question was not exactly tactful, particularly if they were, as Matthew says, “magi”, members of the priestly clan from Persia. If they were, Herod would have seen them as representatives of a hostile foreign power – Persia was part of the Parthian Empire with which his Roman masters had been at war on and off for more than half a century. No wonder the king was frightened! And if the king was frightened, the people of Jerusalem knew him well enough to be terrified. When Herod felt insecure, he became angry. And when Herod became angry, people died. So the chief priests and the scribes of the people probably answered Herod’s invitation to the palace with deep foreboding rather than enthusiasm. They would have recognised that it was their heads on the block.

So they must have blessed whichever scribe it was who dug up from the depths of memory those words from the prophecies of Micah that diverted the king’s attention away from them and to the little city of Bethlehem, five miles or so to the south. Bethlehem, David’s city, the obvious place for a new king to be born. And an obvious place to play on Herod’s insecurity. Bethlehem is, above all, the birth-place of David, the king of Israel by whom all other kings of Israel were measured.

And according to that measure Herod fell far short. He was painfully aware that most of his subjects refused to regard him as the legitimate king of Israel. He was not Jewish. He was not of royal birth. He was the Romans’ puppet – installed by Mark Antony and confirmed by Augustus after Antony’s defeat at the battle of Actium. He had survived for over thirty years by a mixture of efficient government and extreme ruthlessness. But the people hated him. They hated his reliance on foreigners, on his army, on his fortresses. A claimant to the throne who came from the city of David would be a real threat to his power. That’s why Herod asked the wise men to “search diligently for the child”. He could not trust any of his own people to do that – for fear they would be seduced by dreams of replacing him with a king like David.

This whole episode leaves me pondering three points. First: that God uses the events and the personalities of history to fulfil his purposes. The God whom we worship, the God who has come to us in Jesus, does not operate in a purely private sphere of “personal religion”. God is Lord of the whole of human life – and that includes the realm of politics as well as everything else.

Second: that God’s purposes cannot in the end be thwarted. Even when human fear and wickedness seek to block his way, they end up somehow clearing the path, as Herod’s court did in redirecting the wise men to Bethlehem. A Herod, a Hitler, a Stalin can use cruelty to suppress people’s awareness of God’s presence. Secular western culture can use ridicule to encourage indifference and discourage commitment. In the end, their efforts are useless: because the God who is revealed in Jesus is unconditional love and love is infinitely stronger than fear.

Third: that God is not tied to the structures of authority, though he will use them when they fit his purpose. God is found where Jesus told us to seek God, in what is small, or despised, or neglected. Jesus reveals him, not in the king’s palace, but in an anonymous cottage in a one-horse town trading on faded glory. He accepts the rich gifts offered by the wise men, the gold, incense, and myrrh. But he makes himself known to his friends in the simplicity of a shared meal. As he does today in the bread and wine of our Eucharist.

Tony Dickinson

Sermons from 2019 can be accessed here

Sermons from 2018 can be accessed here