Light in the Darkness

Christmas Eve 2021

This sermon is partly based on an article by Nick Baines, which you can find here.

Isaiah’s mad idea

Nearly three thousand years ago Isaiah wrote words that must have sounded like nonsense to his audience: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

It sounds lovely in a setting like this, but what about when we leave here and go back into everyday life?

Well, Isaiah was addressing people who were fearful about the future.

They belonged to a small territory which was always under political, economic, and military threat from neighbouring powers.

The question these people faced every day was how to ensure their security and freedom in an uncertain world, in which the future was often shaped not by themselves, but by others.

Each day was a bit of a gamble.

Isaiah, though, wants his people to remember who they are, what they’re about and where they’ve come from.

And, running through their story, was an apparently ridiculous idea that, however dark their circumstances became, the light of God’s presence couldn’t be snuffed out.

Not just God’s presence when everything was going well for them, but when the darkness descended, and the future seemed to be shutting down.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”


A challenging time

This time last year I was here recording this service in a nearly empty church as we were in lockdown, at the end of a challenging year.

Then 2021 came along, promising much before delivering little.

Promises of a return to ‘normal’ gradually got forgotten as the world came to terms with continuing uncertainty and new Covid variants.

We continued to learn that human beings cannot control everything and are not invincible rulers of the world.

Infections, illness, bereavement, death, isolation can’t be organised according to convenience.

But the interesting thing here is that this is exactly the sort of world Isaiah wrote in and into which a baby was born in Bethlehem.

The story of Christmas is not essentially about making us feel comfortable, but, rather, about God joining us in our difficult world.

The real world we know and enjoy and endure.

Darkness is part of that reality and can’t be avoided.

This in itself sounds a bit miserable, but the Christmas story continues to surprise us.

For it invites us to look for the light that is there when the going is tough, and the gloom seems all-powerful.

One of the radical challenges the grown-up Jesus would bring to his people was simply this: don’t just look for the presence of God when all is well, your problems are solved, or you think all is going to be OK in the world; look for the presence – the light – of God even when the darkness persists.

In terms of Jesus’s first friends, this sounded like: “Can you spot the presence of God in your world even while you remain under Roman military occupation, your freedoms are curtailed, illness is all around and the chances of your children surviving infancy are pretty low?


God wins

This is why I think Christmas should be a great celebration.

It rejects the idea that darkness always wins.

It dares to see past appearances to angels bringing good news, a young woman giving birth to the Son of God under enemy occupation, shepherds dropping everything to come and see, foreigners setting out on long journeys to bring gifts and worship.

This isn’t some fanciful story just meant to make us feel good; rather, it takes the world seriously, looks tragedy in the eye, and still insists that this is where God is to be found.

The people who first heard the news that God had come into the world weren’t the ones you’d expect.

They were people whose work meant they couldn’t meet all the religious requirements that were expected of them.

They were foreigners and pagan stargazers who didn’t even come to the right place at first.

They were the local people of this small place called Bethlehem.

These weren’t people who had found all the answers, but they knew the daily struggle to survive in a difficult and confusing world.

And it was to them that God appeared in Jesus, interrupting the routine of the everyday and hinting that the darkness doesn’t get to have the last word after all.

And it’s to us that God appears now.

In darkness and in light God appears, to the tired, the confused, the worried, and the unsure, as much as to the confident, the eager, and the happy.

God is still here, constantly fighting with us and for us against the darkness, bringing light in unexpected places and in unforeseen ways, just as he did among the people of a Middle Eastern village.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and authority rests upon his shoulders.

Thanks be to God!

John the Baptist’s Guide to Changing the World

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

Many preachers like to ease their listeners into their sermons. They might use a prayer or some liturgical words. They might also use a joke or an anecdote or an observation from everyday life.

John the Baptist – not so much. His opening words are: “You brood of vipers!”. I’m sure it got people’s attention, but I don’t think I’ll be trying this approach any time soon.

If anyone else wants to give it a go, though, I’d be interested to come and see what happens!

One thing going for starting this way, though, is that people certainly knew where they stood with John. He also asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”. In other words, what are you doing here without any fruits of repentance? John then finishes his demolition job on the crowd by calling their ethnic and religious heritage based on descent from Abraham meaningless.

We sometimes skip past this last bit, but it’s huge. The idea of a covenant with God based on being a descendent of Abraham is central to the Hebrew Scriptures, to Israel’s identity, and to the Jews’ understanding of salvation. But John brushes this aside, because claiming the promises of Abraham without the faith of Abraham simply doesn’t work. John makes it clear that people can’t be complacent and assume they’re part of the in-crowd just because of their religious inheritance. Instead, they must show that they’re really living and breathing the faith they’ve inherited.

For us, it might be like a preacher telling us, “Don’t presume to say, ‘We’re baptized!’ Show your faith by your actions or get ready for the axe.”

So, after that admittedly challenging beginning, we may be left with the same question as the crowd: “What then should we do?”. On one hand this can be seen as just a straightforward request for information on how to meet John’s demands. For this, John’s answer is simple. We need to share what we have with those in need, avoid oppressing others, and be glad for what we have.

But on the other hand, “what then should we do” can also be a deeper question. How many of us have looked at the huge and pressing problems facing our world and wondered what on earth we can do about any of them? How many of us have faced personal circumstances or relationships that have left us wondering what we can do? I suspect we all have at one time or another. We know the crowd’s question all too well. It’s the question we ask when life is complicated and difficult, and the world has gone mad – or at least madder than usual. When we ask this question it’s often about feeling we’re up against something too big for us to handle. It’s about feeling powerless.

But, while fierce, John’s message isn’t one of powerlessness or hopelessness. Instead, John tells the crowd what they can do. He doesn’t tell them to change others but themselves. He doesn’t tell them to leave their jobs in order to do something huge to change the world, but to live their lives differently, and show something of God in that. This crowd of ordinary people couldn’t end poverty by themselves, but they could help others, and make a difference to someone else. They couldn’t change the unjust tax system, but they could be honest, and show a better way to do things to the local officials.

For those who want the world fixed right now John’s answers aren’t very satisfactory. But let’s be honest, even Jesus didn’t change the world at one stroke. He gave himself to the world one person, one relationship, one moment at a time. He loved the world to death and beyond. He showed a different way of being, a different way of living and relating, he offered different priorities and values, and then invited us to join and follow him. In doing all that he showed us what it means and looks like to be human, to be the dwelling place of God.

As we approach Christmas, we remember once again the birth of Jesus in a tiny village off the beaten track. A new-born baby in an ordinary family is practically the definition of powerlessness. Yet, from that tiny and unpromising beginning, God began the still ongoing work of changing the world, one person at a time. A work which has now changed millions of lives over 2000 years, and which will continue until everything is put right.

And this is work which we are invited to take part in, striving, in God’s power, to do what we can, where we can, one person, one relationship, one moment at a time, changing the world bit by bit.


Bartimaeus and the Son of David

Mark 10.46-end

This week I went into Cambridge and parked at the Park Street car park. At this car park it’s common to see people sitting by the ticket machines begging on the streets.

Sometimes arguments break out between those asking for money and people who think the solution is as simple as “get a job”, not taking into account the many reasons why a person might lose everything, including illness, redundancy, escaping from intolerable circumstances at home, and so on.

And once on the streets, it becomes next to impossible to find a job without a fixed address.

Our response to such need is often based on judgements – whether we feel that person deserves our help or our time, how we think they will use what we give them.

Just asking often isn’t enough to get a positive response.

There’s also often an element of fear – are we being manipulated, is this a scam or a con, are they going to spend it all on drugs or alcohol, will this person refuse to leave me alone?

And so we hurry on, trying not to see, maybe giving our money to charity instead if we feel the need or perhaps keeping it help our own people.

In this country some also doubt that anyone is really that desperate or needy, that real poverty actually exists in 21st century Britain.

But with the huge numbers of people having to depend on food banks, the large numbers of people unemployed or working but struggling to cope financially, and the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, I think it’s safe to say that there are plenty of people who need our help.

We heard today about Bartimaeus, sitting on the roadside at the edge of town, as he did every day, with little more than a begging bowl and a cloak to keep him warm at night.

Bartimaeus had no choice but to beg, as there were no benefits to fall back on, no medical care for his blindness, and no opportunities to find work.

What made things even worse was that to many of the people around him he deserved to be blind – it was seen as a punishment from God, a curse brought about by sin.

This might seem a crude and primitive belief, but there are people even now who think Covid was sent as a punishment for sin.

Bartimaeus must’ve had to deal with insults and mockery, and wondered how people could be so hard-hearted.

The news about Jesus had spread far and wide, and now people were saying that he was passing through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, for the feast of the Passover.

Bartimaeus knew this was an opportunity to change his life.

So, gathering his courage, and defying the crowd, he shouted at the top of his voice: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”.

And this desperate cry reached the ears of Jesus, who heard, saw, and got involved in the plight of this one marginalised man on the edge of a large crowd.

Bartimaeus’ choice of words is interesting because by calling Jesus Son of David Bartimaeus is saying that he believes Jesus to be the descendent of Israel’s greatest king, and therefore God’s Messiah and the rightful King of Israel.

Bartimaeus, blind though he is, has seen more clearly than everyone else.

He has seen that truth about Jesus – that he is, indeed, a king.

And Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, has the courage that comes from having nothing to lose, and so he will not be prevented from crying out the truth even louder.

He proclaims that this is the Son of David, the new king, the one we’ve been waiting for, who will have pity on me, poor Bartimaeus, for he is the one who makes the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk – just as the prophets said it would be.

We hear a lot in the gospels about weak, ill, marginalised and vulnerable people coming to Jesus and being healed, and one thing that’s common to all of them, whatever their individual need, is that they’re willing to admit their problems and ask for help.

Bartimaeus’ vulnerability as a blind, dependent beggar made him willing to throw himself on Jesus’ mercy and ask for the help that could only come from God.

When he asks the Son of David for mercy he’s not expecting a few coins or a sandwich but a solution to the root of his problem – his blindness.

He wants an end to his suffering, and he must ask the one person who’s able to help – Jesus, Son of David, Son of God.

We see in Bartimaeus a powerful example of someone who recognises his own need for God – as we must all do if we’re to receive the help and mercy that we need, and a solution to the problems we can’t fix for ourselves or get help from others for.

This act of healing carried out by Jesus was a revelation of God’s love for humanity – even and especially those members of it who live on the margins of society, not seen because of others’ judgements, fears or preoccupations with their own concerns.

And, as followers of this loving God, people called to be like him and walk in Jesus’ footsteps, we have both a privilege and a role to play.

Our privilege is that we know we can call on God and receive help if we’re humble and vulnerable enough to admit our need and ask.

In the words of a well-known hymn: “what a privilege to carry everything to the Lord in prayer”.

Our role is to meet people in need and walk alongside them, offering what help we can.

The people we meet may not be blind, but they might be lonely or sad, hungry or in pain, struggling to make ends meet, trying to overcome past hurts or facing an uncertain future.

Whatever their need, our role is to offer what love and compassion we can, in whatever form we can, whether that be listening, running errands, using our skills to make things easier and so on.

We may not be able to make the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame run, but by bringing the light of mercy and love into others’ lives we can point them to our loving God – Jesus, Son of David, who has mercy on all who call to him.


The Rich Young Ruler

Mark 10.17-31 / Hebrews 4.12-16


John had learnt and practised all the arm and leg strokes he needed for swimming.


His muscles were well-toned, and his breathing regulated.


He knew all about how to get off to a winning start, turning at the end of each length and how to pace himself.


But one day John said to his coach, “I know all about these things but still can’t swim. What’s going wrong?”


The coach took a deep breath and said, “Well, John, I think the time has come when you really do have to actually get in the water”.




The response Jesus gave to the wealthy man in our Gospel reading was something along the same lines: “You lack one thing … sell what you own … give to the poor … then come, follow me”.


The man had learnt all the rules, practised them, and knew all the rhythms of living his faith.


Yet, he knew something was missing, he knew he still wasn’t getting there, and he turned to Jesus find out why.


So, Jesus looked him in the eye and told him that if he sold everything and gave the money away, he’d finally be swimming.

In other words, he’d be really living the life of faith.


It was a step too far for the young man and the encounter ended in shock and grieving, with Jesus also grieving the loss of someone who just couldn’t take that last step.


In the eyes of many Jews, wealth, power and status were clear signs of God’s favour, even though the Jewish Scriptures didn’t always agree with them.


Hence, the disciples’ amazement at Jesus saying how hard it would be for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.


In their eyes rich people would surely be first in line as God’s favourites, and if they couldn’t get in, what hope would there be for anyone else?


Jesus had turned the order of things upside down, making the first last and the last first.


He’d also struck a blow against the young man’s understanding of himself, and it was a hard lesson, though delivered in love.


This is the kind of thing our reading from Hebrews was talking about, when it described the word of God piercing, laying bare and judging, but also Jesus sympathising with our difficulties and offering mercy and grace.


Jesus laid bare the young man’s desire for wealth, but also loved him and offered him the solution.




At the beginning of today’s gospel story, we might identify with the young man.


We might recognise the sense that even though we do our best to follow God’s commandments we’re still missing something.


We might have a niggling uncertainty or an empty place in our hearts that aches and longs for something we can’t fully identify.


Like the young man, we too might kneel before Jesus and ask him what we must do to receive the assurance and certainty about our faith that we long for.


Just as he looked at the young man and knew what had to be done, so Jesus looks on us with eyes of love and knowledge and sees what it is we need.


His answer to us, though, might not be “go, sell what you own” because it’s not just the fact that the man is wealthy that makes it difficult for him to follow Jesus.


Rather, it’s the relationship the man has with his possessions that holds him back.


What he owns gives him a sense of identity and security which are difficult to put aside, even for God.


Wealth is a good servant but a bad master, and wealth has become too big a part of who this man is.




The answer Jesus gives to us will be deeply personal.


We might already know in our hearts what it is we’re holding on to for our security or sense of identity, over and above our faith and identity in Jesus.

It might be possessions, memories of wrongs done to us, pride in our own abilities, a particular view of ourselves; it might be our job or position in the community; it might be addiction or destructive relationships; it could be any number of things.


We might feel that to let go of whatever it is would just be a step too far, that it means giving up something of who we are.


Then we’d have to go away, like the young man, shocked at what is being asked of us and grieving because we believe it’s impossible and too costly.


But, says Jesus, for God all things are possible.


For the young man it seemed impossible to give away all he owned, and he had to go away bruised and heavy hearted.


But perhaps he thought more about the words of Jesus and struggled with his own reactions.


Perhaps in time, and with God’s help, he did the impossible.


Maybe he came round to seeing that whatever he had to give up would be worth it in terms of what matters in the kingdom of God.


And if we identify with the young man in this story, we can call upon the great high priest who sympathises with us in our weaknesses and offers us mercy and grace.


Then one day, in that mercy and grace, we may well find ourselves doing the impossible and following Jesus with all that we are and all that we own, finding, in the process, who we truly are, and the treasures that really matter.

Questions, questions

A sermon on Mark 9.30-37

19th September 2021


The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Reading today’s gospel passage reminded me of school chemistry lessons.

I was often confused by chemistry, but I was afraid to ask questions because the teacher was always annoyed at my lack of ability.

I didn’t want to look stupid in front of everyone or be told off for not getting it, so I kept quiet and scraped through.

I wonder, though, what might have happened if I had asked questions?

And what if the teacher had shown a little more patience and explained a little more kindly?

Would I now be a chemistry expert?

Jesus’ apostles also had trouble understanding, although I don’t know if they had chemistry lessons.

Just before the reading we heard today they tried to cast out an evil spirit but failed, apparently because they didn’t pray enough.

Then they set off with Jesus to Galilee, and Jesus tried to explain what was going to happen to him: that he was going to be betrayed and killed but then rise again.

Sadly, this did not compute!

The disciples had no idea what he was talking about.

It’s easy for us, with the benefit of hindsight, to know exactly what Jesus was talking about.

It’s at the centre of our faith after all: Jesus died for us and rose again to save us from our sins.

But at the time this was a radical idea.

From their earliest years, the Jews were taught and believed, quite rightly, that God was all-powerful and all-knowing.

They believed that when God’s Messiah came he would crush everyone and everything that stood in his way and rule the world through his mighty power.

The idea that God would let himself be betrayed, tortured and killed was incomprehensible and an insult to his name and power.

So when Jesus said he was going to be betrayed and killed, the disciples, knowing him to be God’s Messiah and therefore expecting him to storm the palace at any moment, didn’t understand – and they were afraid to ask him to explain.

It’s not just that the disciples didn’t understand some piece of information.

They didn’t understand the very heart of the Incarnation.

How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die?

And why should it happen?

So why didn’t the disciples simply ask Jesus to explain?

Maybe they were still embarrassed by their failure to cast out the evil spirit and thought Jesus was cross with them.

Maybe they just didn’t want to look stupid, each one thinking they were the only one who didn’t get it.

Besides, the closer we are to Jesus, the more we are supposed to know about religious stuff, right?

But what if they hadn’t been afraid to ask?

OK, Jesus is sometimes tough, but is he really the kind of person who would meet a sincere desire to understand with annoyance?

Do we really need to be afraid to ask Jesus to help us follow him?

In short, is Jesus really like a not particularly good chemistry teacher?

This isn’t a problem confined to those first disciples: no one wants to look uninformed, confused or clueless.

We withhold our toughest questions from one another and from God, pretending we don’t have them.

Yet the deepest mysteries of life do indeed escape us.

Why do good people suffer?

Why are people cruel to one another?

Why does evil succeed?

Why does God let the world go on like this?

But we withhold such questions at our own peril.

When the disciples were afraid to ask, to reveal that they didn’t know everything, they began arguing with each other, squabbling among themselves over petty issues of rank and status.

There is a direct line from verse 32, when the disciples didn’t understand, to verse 34, when they started arguing about who was the best.

When the disciples avoided asking hard questions, they focused on posturing about who was the teacher’s pet.

They fell prey to the very human tendency to try to cover up insecurity and weakness with bluster and arrogance.

We’ve seen this too often in the history of the Church: Christians fighting each other over things neither side fully understands but with a burning determination to be right, to be the best, to be God’s favourite, and above all to not be seen as lacking in understanding or getting things wrong.

Going back to our gospel story: how might it have been different if the disciples had asked Jesus their questions?

What kind of conversation might have taken place between Jesus and the disciples?

What kind of relationship might have grown up between them?

And how might our stories be different if we asked our questions?

What kind of conversations might we pursue?

How might our life together as disciples be different as a result?

Might we become more understanding, gentler, humbler and wiser if we became more willing to show our vulnerability to God and each other?

We don’t need to be afraid of questions, misunderstandings, confusion or curiosity in the presence of God, whose “perfect love casts out all fear”.

The good news is that Jesus welcomes us even when we don’t understand or don’t know or are just plain wrong.

The good news is that Jesus welcomes honest questions.

This story closes with Jesus embracing a child, the ultimate symbol of not knowing, not understanding, of being immature and undeveloped, with much to learn – yet loved, welcomed and honoured by Jesus.

May God help us all to cast off fear and ask our questions, knowing that in this way we can grow closer to him and each other.

The Magnificat, or Mary’s Song

Luke 1.46-55

Today, the 15th of August, is one of those times when the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church of England all celebrate a major feast, that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

For Roman Catholics, this is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – a celebration of Mary being taken body and soul into God’s eternal presence as Queen of Heaven.

For Orthodox Christians, this is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God – a celebration of Mary, her earthly life ended, falling sleep-like into the eternal arms of God.

We in the Church of England, however, noting that there’s no account of the end of Mary’s life in the Bible, just mark today as a general celebration of Mary.

Mary doesn’t in fact say that much in the Bible, but among the words she does say, the ones we heard in our Gospel reading have been sung, spoken and chanted for centuries.

To get a good idea of what’s going on here, we need to have some context.

Mary has learned that she is pregnant, even though she’s a virgin.

That’s a huge shock, and a scandal.

She’s also learned that her cousin, Elizabeth, is pregnant.

Elizabeth is too old to conceive, so her pregnancy is also a miracle.

Mary visits Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sees Mary, the baby inside Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.

Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”.

Imagine how overwhelmed Mary must be by all of this.

Our Gospel for today is her amazing response.

It is beautiful, prophetic poetry, containing strong emotions.

He has shown strength with his arm.

He has scattered … who?  The proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down … who? The powerful from their thrones.

And lifted up … who? The lowly.

He has filled … who?

The hungry with good things.

And sent… who? The rich away empty.

What’s going on here?

It seems like God loves … who? The lowly and the hungry.

How does God feel about the arrogant, the powerful and the rich?

Not so good.

This is the point at which rich and powerful people start to squirm.

And it raises the question, does God hate rich and powerful people?

Let’s see what’s going on here.

God scatters the proud because he hates arrogance and loves humility.

God brings down the powerful because they use their power to oppress others.

God sends the rich away empty because they keep things to themselves while others suffer.

It seems that the issue here is not our level of wealth or how much power we have but rather how we deal with them.

God’s main concern is not with the size of our bank account but with what we do with the money we have.

Do we selfishly hoard our treasures, or do we have generous hearts and a desire to help those with less?

Do our money and possessions make us feel that we’re better than others, or do we see them as generous gifts from God to be used for the good of all?

God doesn’t say that person is powerful, let’s pull him down a peg or two.

Rather, he wants to see power used responsibly, with care for others, with justice and with mercy.

Is power just for our benefit, so we can get what we want, or does it come with a responsibility to use our position to do good?

I think we can safely say that God doesn’t hate rich people.

Rather, God hates arrogance, selfishness and oppression.

God doesn’t hate powerful people.

God hates injustice and misuse of power.

And on the other side, God doesn’t love poor people because they are poor.

God hates it when people are mistreated and will always stand to defend the weak.

The climate report this week highlighted the threat to some of the poorest people in our world, some of whose countries may disappear completely under the sea.

We also heard the horrific news from Portsmouth, including the tragic death of a young girl.

Surely God cares about these things and these people, and will bring about justice for the weak and the poor?

Not, though, so that the lowly can lord it over the mighty in some sort of twisted justice.

Rather, God’s aim is to remind us that each human being is a beautiful creation of God, and we are all equal in his eyes.

God’s work of salvation involves restoring proper relationships not only between God and humanity but also between people.

Mary understood this, and so she sang of God’s new world order, one in which all have value, all are loved, all are cared for and protected, and each person looks out for the good of others.

Much has been said about Mary during the Church’s history, and she’s been exalted in the minds and hearts of some to a degree I’m not altogether comfortable with.

But she did catch a wonderful vision of what God’s salvation means for our world, and for that we can thank her and God.

Bread of Life, or Lunch is not the only meal

John 6.24-35

Did you know that from April 2020 to March 2021 a record 2.5 million emergency food parcels were given out in the UK by the Trussell Trust? This was a 33% increase on the previous year and included 980,000 parcels going out to children. It also included nearly 250,000 in the East of England. These numbers are staggering, and hopefully will go down again, ideally to nothing because we build a fairer society which cares for all.

Horrible though it is, however, to be without food and have to depend on charity, there’s another important kind of hunger. This is spiritual hunger. You might have felt it when wondering if there’s more to life, a deeper purpose behind everything, or if you’ve felt an urge to pray or meditate or do something that has real meaning or makes a difference in people’s lives.

For me, Jesus is a good place to go to have spiritual hunger satisfied, as he describes himself as “the bread of life”. This is an odd way to describe yourself, admittedly, but it’s all about Jesus saying he can meet our spiritual hunger. And he offers himself as a gift to us in this way, freely and without conditions. Many of us, if we’re honest, worry deep down that we’re not good enough. But Jesus just says come, I’ll give you everything you really need.

I think, regardless of beliefs, there’s something wonderful about the idea that spiritual hunger is an important need, something worth looking for, not just a distraction from what people call “real life”. So, my hope for all of you is that you will see and understand your spiritual hunger, and that you will find answers to your deepest needs and longings.

Breaking Down Barriers

Mark 5.21-end

The people in our gospel story today couldn’t have been more different.


First, there was Jairus, a respected and important member of the community.


He was a leader of the synagogue, and as the synagogue was central and important to the whole community, he was a significant member of society.


It was Jairus, among others, by whose invitation Jesus preached in the Capernaum Synagogue.


He was bold and desperate enough to reach out publicly to Jesus for help at the time of his greatest need.


Then, there was the unnamed woman who touched Jesus’s cloak in the crowd.


She too was desperate, but years of being shunned and despised and an awareness that she shouldn’t be out in society made her choose a more private approach.


Despite their differences, though, these two are connected by the theme of barriers.

People, including some Christians, seem to like putting up barriers between people.

The barriers might be between those who are considered godly and those who aren’t, according to a set of rigid criteria.

They might be barriers of race, gender, sexuality, language, accents, clothing or wealth.

They might be barriers about how and when and where people worship.

Sadly, barrier-building has happened a lot in the Church in the past and can still happen now.

I find this strange, though, because it seems to me that Jesus was all about breaking down barriers.


He welcomed women and children and treated them as equals, at a time when that was unheard of.


His disciples were amazed when Jesus told them not to send children away but let them come to him.


As a Jew, he spoke to non-Jews and was concerned about them, at a time when it was common to look down on non-Jews.


He spoke to a woman by a well in Samaria and granted the prayer of a Syrophoenician woman, while his disciples looked on in confusion.


Jesus also broke down another barrier, one which seems strange to us today – the barrier between clean and unclean.


This is what we hear about in today’s Gospel reading.


The idea of being clean or clean was about whether a person was considered pure under religious law and therefore able to worship God or if there was something which had stained them.


It was a ceremonial rather than moral idea – various animals were considered unclean, as were certain skin conditions.


They weren’t immoral but they weren’t worthy of God.


Importantly for our reading today, though, a woman was considered unclean while bleeding, and dead bodies were also unclean.


And if you had contact with an unclean person, you were also made unclean.


This had serious consequences as, if you were unclean, you were both a social outcast, shunned by others, and a religious outcast who couldn’t go to worship God until you’d been made clean again through a religious ritual.


Jesus, though, took no notice of this in today’s gospel reading.


It describes him praising a woman who touched him for healing from chronic bleeding and talks about him taking the hand of the dead daughter of a local religious leader to bring her back to life.


Technically, Jesus was now unclean and an outcast, having had contact with two unclean people, but it didn’t stop him reaching out to help.


In the process, Jesus showed that there is no condition which cuts us off from the mercy and love of God.


In both of these miraculous healings we see Jesus demonstrating the steadfast love of the Lord.


This love brings genuine healing and hope to those who have experienced enormous suffering and loss.


The woman is restored to health and society; the young girl is restored to life, and in the process the ancient taboos of the law are broken.


No one is excluded from the kingdom of God, from the love of God or from the help of God.


In saying all this I’m conscious that there are times when prayers seem to go unanswered.


There are times when illnesses aren’t healed, people die anyway, and our worst fears come to pass.


This is a great mystery which the greatest theologians have trouble explaining, but I think we can be sure that, whatever it looks like, we are all equally loved, held and supported by the God who, in the words of Lamentations, ‘does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone’.


There are no people who God doesn’t want, no ways to put ourselves beyond his help, and no barriers that he won’t cross to reach us.


Us human beings still put up barriers between people, both inside and outside the Church.


But I wonder what it might be like if we took more notice of Jesus’s example of breaking down barriers?


What if we reached past our social barriers to get to know people who are different from us, or who we look down on?


We might be surprised at the good people we find and the ways in which our lives become richer.

A Ship of Fools, or Calming the Storm

Sermon on Mark 4.35-41


what ship plays with icebergs

and plays soft music as it sinks into the ocean?

what ship on the throw of a dice

feeds a prophet to his fishy destination?

what ship breaks its spine on the rocks

and turns the waves black with lubrication?


a ship of fools

but there are fools and

those who seem to be


what ship is built on a dry highland

is launched in a downpour

and flies on watery wings to the peak of a mountain?

what ship has a crew

of taxmen thieves and fishermen

who decide in the howling storm

to make a small sleeping carpenter

their captain?



a ship of fools

but there are fools and

those who only appear to be.


This poem by Simon Jenkins suggests that living the Christian life is a bit like travelling on a ship of fools. This talk is about being on a boat with Jesus, and what you might expect to happen on that watery journey.


Our gospel story shows that if you’re on a boat with Jesus on the Lake of Galilee then you should expect storms.


Galilee is notorious for its storms. They come out of clear blue skies with shattering and terrifying suddenness.


If you’re on a boat with Jesus, voyaging across that lake, you might expect to encounter just such sudden storms.


And of course, that boat, that lake, those storms, can be seen as metaphors about us and the bumpy ride that we often find ourselves on.


We can put ourselves onto that tiny Galilean boat, into the story of that stormy day.


So, in your life, if you’re on a boat with Jesus, you might expect confrontation.


You’ll be confronted with uncomfortable truths about yourself. You might not be a fisherman, accustomed to travelling this way. You may be a tax collector, a civil servant, a landlubber. Sickly and shaken, out of your depth, you may have to face your weaknesses, on a boat with Jesus.


You’ll be confronted with uncomfortable truths about God, too. Things like, when there’s a crisis, when there’s a storm, finding that God seems to be asleep. You’re panicking, you’re fearful, you’re being tossed and blown by the most awful winds of change. And though you know that God’s there with you, God doesn’t seem to be paying any attention. Just when you need him most, if you go looking for Jesus’s help, you may find him asleep.


And when you wake him – it’s up to you to wake him – if you’re on a boat with Jesus you might expect to find more questions than answers.


Questions like, how do I wake up God? Do I have to tiptoe around, give a little nervous cough, in the hope that the Almighty will stir and notice me waiting there? Can I shout at God, when the storm is loud, can I scream to get God’s urgent attention? Is it ok to pray that way?


Questions like, can I argue with God? Call God to account: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”.


And if I do get into an argument with God, many many more questions:

Why is this happening to me?

Why do innocent people suffer?

If you’re a God of love, why all this horror?

If you’re a God of order, why all this chaos?

If you’re so powerful, why do you seem so impotent?

What does the future hold for us?


If you’re on a boat with Jesus, you might feel like you’re on a ship of fools.


Why put ourselves through all this when we could stay calmly on the shore?


But some only appear to be fools.

Jesus spoke, and calmed the storm. Overcame the evil in the wind and waves. Let the waters become the sailors’ friend again, no longer their enemy. He restored order to creation. He encouraged the amazed disciples to look deep inside themselves to see if there was any faith there, that might liberate and awaken them to see beyond fear to the loving eyes and strong arms of God.


If you’re on a boat with Jesus, you should expect storms, and many questions.


But you should also expect God to turn your eyes to another view of the world, one in which storms will be stilled, even if not when you expect. One in which questions will be answered, but maybe not how you imagine.


The story of this little boat which Mark told is a metaphor for our spiritual lives. But it’s also something the Bible says happened in time and space. We mustn’t forget that Jesus lived this, in the physical, because that awakens us to expect that, in a mysterious way, he lives with us in the physical here and now, with all its storms and chaos.


Jesus is with us in the storms of life as he was with his disciples on Galilee that day. So, when those times come yes, we can shout at God to wake up, we can argue, we can ask questions.


And in return we can expect Jesus to ask us to let our fear go the way of the wind, to embrace faith.


For storms are real, and so are doubt, fear and despair, but within them stands God, reaching out to pull us to safety.


It may look foolish to get into a boat with Jesus, but some only appear to be fools.

Religious humblebragging

A Short Mid-Week Communion Talk

Matthew 6.1-8, 16-18

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the word “humblebrag”?

It’s a kind of ugly word, in my opinion, but it perfectly captures a particular phenomenon.

It refers to saying something which is designed to seem modest, self-critical or casual while actually highlighting something you’re very proud of.

For example, someone might say “I just spent £2000 on a handbag because I’m so terrible with money”.

Or they might say, “I don’t know why people keep complimenting me on how I look”.

It happens a lot on social media, maybe because it’s easier to do behind a keyboard than directly to someone’s face, where they might laugh or challenge you.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus talks about the religious equivalent of humblebragging – doing good things to get praise from others.

He highlights those who want to be seen giving money so that everyone will know how generous they are.

Those who flaunt their spirituality and prayer life so as to seem holier than everyone else are also condemned.

And those who make a big deal about fasting so that everyone is impressed by their dedication are also not in favour.

Giving, prayer and spiritual disciplines can be good things to do if done for the right reasons – but those reasons don’t include earthly rewards.

A more recent example I came across was someone saying online that Christians should be exempt from lockdown regulations because of all the work churches do to help others.

I try to avoid getting drawn into online arguments, but I felt I had to point out that we don’t do things for what we can get out of them here, but for heavenly rewards and out of love.

Jesus urges us to do good things quietly and truly humbly, because in this way we’re not motivated by looking good or getting praise.

Instead, we’re motivated by doing God’s will, knowing that even if no-one else notices God does.

We may be noticed and praised, and that’s always nice, but it shouldn’t be why we do things.

Our focus and aim are always to love God and others and do what good we can.

And we can rest assured that every good act and loving impulse is noticed and will be rewarded by our Father in heaven, without any need for us to be religious humblebraggers.