Voice i

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OUR COLLECT TODAY asks that we “sheep” may hear God’s voice and respond to its call so that all may be gathered into one flock.

Yesterday in Cumbria I heard the voice, and witnessed the tending of shepherds – only recently engaged in round-the-clock marathon to rescue flocks buried deep in snow. The local church is part of what’s appropriately called The Good Shepherd Team.

There are smiles of relief and pleasure in all the communities around at the sight of spindly legged white coated lambs skipping on fresh newly green hillsides. Not long ago the taut faces of over-stretched shepherds driving their quad bikes over threatening snow-drifts were their only hope. The lambs now run to the sound of both the bikes and the shepherd’s voice.

Does a lamb experience joy in the now warming sunshine? Well, whether it thinks about it or not, a lamb often looks and sounds as though it’s full of the joys of Spring. William Blake was moved, as I am, to ponder

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing woolly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Yes, whilst but a tiny part of the grand sweep of nature all around it, the lamb speaks to me of beauty and grace.

And beauty and grace, a doe, a gazelle, are the meaning, actually, of the name Tabitha. Of Aramaic and Hebrew origin, and translated as Dorcas in Greek, our reading from the Acts of the Apostles today tells of a Tabitha devoted to good works and acts of charity – the word charity itself being derived from the Greek word charis – which also means grace!

Beautiful people committed to caring for others in need – widows amongst these – are usually well thought of. So when Tabitha died in Joppa, and the disciples realised that Peter was nearby in the cosmopolitan city of Lydda, they sent for him, and the widows in their grief held the clothes that Tabitha had made and were keen to show Peter what a good and well loved woman Tabitha had been – a woman possessed indeed of both beauty and of grace.

That this story should be set in Joppa, now called Jaffa, is of significance. Joppa is one of the oldest port cities in the land of Israel and the Mediterranean. Due to its natural advantages, a hill above a bay, and its strategic location on the crossroads of Israel, the city was a centre of historical events over thousands of years.

The story is set in a port – a place of goings and comings and comings and goings. So people will have a good memory for events from the past, both distant and recent. Is this why Peter was called to “come without delay” – ? Are the people of coastal Joppa only too well aware of Peter’s having once seen Jesus call Jairus’ daughter to rise up from the dead? Only too well aware of departures and arrivals, of comings and goings?

Well, at any rate, Peter arrives. And acting in a way almost exactly like Jesus before him – for he’d truly been a ‘disciple’ and had learned his apostleship from his Christ – Peter sent all the grieving chatterboxes out of the room. The graceful, beautiful Tabitha needed to hear only one voice at this moment in her history – needed only to hear the quiet call of Peter: ‘Tabitha, get up.’

And he echoed the voice of his Christ, and he called her to the new life, and he beckoned her to the healing, the restoration and the oneness that had once been offered to him, and he offered her his hand, as though asking her ‘dear one, filled with beauty and grace, please come and dance.’

Please God that, on our own way to paradise, when we sheep need to be plucked from danger, we might hear the call of one who prays ‘get up’ – and take the proffered hand.

So this little story ends with the rejoicing that surrounds the gift of life where previously all had seemed lost. And Peter, the Rock upon which the story depends, stays near the coast for a while, there in the midst of all the comings and goings, with a namesake, a man called Simon – whose name means ‘obedient’ and whose profession, that of a tanner, meant that he lived, as Pope Francis would have it, ‘with the smell of the sheep’. Obedient Pastor Peter lives among working people having raised, and even now continuing to raise up ‘Tabitha’ – ‘beauty and grace’.

Looking backwards now for a moment, to John’s Gospel, we heard tell of its being winter in Jerusalem. I’d never dreamed that Jerusalem would experience snow until I woke up to a white Mount Zion, one Advent Sunday morning, years ago. Yes: winter. Cold and perhaps a bit of gloom and doom around the place. Hurry up the new life. Roll on Spring. Jesus is walking in the temple, in ‘Solomon’s portico’, bringing to mind historical reminiscences of Solomon’s great wisdom.

And there the wise Jesus hears the unwise and mocking words of an angry mob that will – in just a few moments time, and not for the first time – take up stones to throw at him:

‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’

‘Ah!’ Jesus replies. ‘But I have told you plainly. It’s just that you won’t believe.’

Here we see a shepherd, in the depths of threatening ‘winter’, who is wise enough, and teacher enough, to model for anyone watching that a good shepherd will never abandon his sheep – not even under the most intense pressure of violence against his person. No-one will pluck the Father’s beloved sheep out of his hand. No-one. And the Father and Jesus, like Jesus and the sheep, ARE ONE.

Of course this same Jesus was soon to be plucked from the midst of the sheep and was crucified, dead and buried. Fearful friends stood around, clutching his clothes and the tattered tales of the things he had wrought in their hearts and souls and minds and bodies. But ‘beauty and grace’ in the soul of Jesus heard the same gentle call that would later be heard by Tabitha, and by the entire flock of God in every age, past, present or future.

Jesus, Tabitha, little flock, ‘dost thou know who made thee?’.

‘Get up.’

And now He is risen. And Tabitha with him.

Christ is risen; we are risen!
Shed upon us heavenly grace,
Rain and dew and gleams of glory
From the brightness of Thy face,
That we, Lord, with hearts in Heaven
Here on earth may fruitful be,
And by angel hands be gathered,
And be ever safe with Thee.

Bishop Christopher Wordsworth

He is risen. We are risen.

And generations of shepherds have lived in obedience, with ‘the smell of the sheep’ to tell of good news:

Father, Beloved and Spirit, together with the flock. We are, all of us, all the sheep in the world, called home to the safety of the sheepfold; to be One.




Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple – Rembrandt van Rijn – c. 1666-69

I KEEP COMING BACK TO IT – to the “miracle” of it, to the miracle of the ordinariness of it, to the surprise of the light that shone out of a Christ-child into the face – and the dawning recognition – of an old man of the Temple; to the presentation. As Austin Farrer put it so eloquently: the Maker of the World is born a begging child and does not even know that it is milk for which he begs … (in a sermon entitled A Grasp of the Hand).

It seems that “knowing” isn’t necessary. In fact this presentation rather reminds one that it was the pursuit of “knowing” that was the problem in the Genesis of things. Not that knowledge of itself is ever deemed a bad thing – we were built to explore and to enjoy exploring. No. It’s power that’s the issue at stake here: any of us believing that the knowledge we gain gives us some kind of commanding rights over others. It’s the baby’s not knowing – the baby’s powerlessness and needing the blessing, the benediction (good things being said) and protection of others that is the source of Light. It is the baby’s vulnerability, any baby’s vulnerability, that blesses the world around. And it’s the recognition in the old man that enables him to trust his own future entirely to God. Paraphrased: I’m ready to die now. Really. Ready to die. I know I can trust you completely, as this infant in my arms trusts me, effortlessly. I’ve just seen that everything you ever promised has been fulfilled – in fact I’ve held the promise, and its fulfilment, in my arms – like countless wonder-struck infant-carers before me. “According to thy word” (in this small bundle of life rather than in a sermon).

In this world in which every shape and form and faithing of humankind are all becoming Real it is necessary that our religion is real – incarnate – a proper and an intimate “binding together”, or holding together as one, of all created things. God is in the midst of us. Born in us today as well as yesterday.

Christopher Burkett reflected with the same degree of wonderment in Simeon and in Anna, in early December last year (and I hope he won’t mind me quoting him whole) …

Christmas troubles me as a preacher. The incarnation is surely God doing a new thing, but it’s so hard to express the wonder and shock of it. Often it feels as if it’s all been said. And I certainly don’t want to go down the weary path of complaining about consumerism. There’s a kind of ‘expected part of the show’ element to Christians whingeing about how Christmas is celebrated popularly that I think is counter-productive. What I’m looking for is some way of telling afresh how stupendous this birth is. I want to convey that amazing but often tearful joy of when ‘the penny dropped’ for the first time.

That might be the retelling of those ‘penny drop’ moments of my own past: standing in the gloom of an ancient abbey as part of the bass line of a school choir and suddenly realizing with dumb-struck awe the significance of the words of O Come, O Come Emmanuel; seeing the light of something beyond words in the sparkling eyes of an Alzheimer’s sufferer’s rare smile at the pulling of a Christmas cracker; recognizing in the playful determination of a small dog in deep snow a thread of life-joy that mysteriously connects sensate beings; or finding a gaggle of excited young children suddenly still and quiet as the story simply told touches them. Fortunately I could tell of many such instances, but their power, though real, is so hard to recreate as a third party retelling. Where then should I look for inspiration?

As is so often the case, looking back might be a key. Looking back at what the stream of tradition we inhabit might offer. And that brings me to a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), painted 1849-50. What Rossetti portrays is the frailty of a young woman, a slip of a girl; a simple shift clinging to her figure, her arms bare, suddenly awoken from sleep perhaps, her knees drawn up, she cowers against the wall of her sleeping room. She is thin, troubled looking, and possibly feeling threatened. She avoids looking directly at the presence that has invaded her room. She certainly doesn’t look as if she considers herself favoured – much perplexity sums it up. As one scholar suggests, Mary’s exclamation at the end of the encounter, “Let it be to me according to your word” is more a shrug of resignation faced with the inevitable within the world of the sexual politics of first century Palestine, than the triumphant consent we usually take it to be. The painting is suggestive of that fearful acquiescence.

Rossetti’s version of the story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary her pregnancy and its purpose has none of the studious contemplation and noble acceptance of traditional renderings so beloved of Renaissance artists. This is a radical reinterpretation in which the humanity – the bodiliness if you like – of Mary is plain to see. Her holiness is apparent by the halo, but the posture and the look make her clearly a woman not a superhuman saint. The women figures of the pre-Raphaelite painters like Rossetti do have a romantic, otherworldliness about them – but those ethereal faces and forms all the more emphasise the feminine, passionate, mysterious and sensual nature of flesh, human flesh.

The picture is almost wholly restricted to white and the three primary colours – a curious goldness hangs around the angel’s feet, blue drapes signify heaven and the virgin, red hair brings to mind Christ’s blood, and the whiteness of cloths and the lily mark purity. The symbols that any earlier artist might have used are all there – yet the picture makes a new statement. When it was exhibited in 1850 criticism rained down on Rossetti and he vowed never to show it again in public.

The Church sees fit to label this cowering girl the Blessed Virgin Mary – we should hear that not such much as a title but as a description of her body. Virgin here can designate nothing else but a body. Her swollen womb is just that, her carrying as tiring as any mother-to-be’s carrying, her labour as painful and exhausting, her birthing as bloody and as emotional as any birthing. God will be born a body of a body. And we will carol the promise of long ago made new again in amniotic fluid spilt, a slimy form squealing and stretching in air for the first time, and breasts heavy with milk.

That’s wonder; that’s gospel. God is born a body to make holy every body. A place to begin …..

The sermon woven from this strand is here. (highly recommended! – SRM)

via Christopher Burkett’s Blog.

Here’s a presentation that is wholly ordinary and yet holy. Ordinary ordinariness. Body of body. A relief. A light. Hope. Love. Blessedness. Emmanuel. A surprise.


Two disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus - by William Hole

EMMAUS AGAIN in the morning! But I never tire of the story, or of reflecting upon it, nor of any and all the post-Resurrection appearances – because appearances, in the midst of the ordinary, are what the extra-ordinary Resurrection was and is all about.

Recognising God in the most surprising places and joyfully acknowledging  that we’d only got a tiny piece of the story when we thought we knew that God was only to be found in the Temple (whichever particular branch of “the Temple” we thought most likely).

Of course, God was to be found in the Temple, and in temples. But Jesus numbered you and me, in the very midst of all the complex and glorious and painful and wonderful details of our lives, amongst those temples.

God honours and loves us not because we deserve it, or need to deserve it, but because without that honour, and without that love, we wouldn’t have a life. Because that honour, and that love, and that God IS Life – in us!

What shall we do? – shocked hearers of the truth about the crucified Jesus asked Peter, cut to the heart. Quick as a flash Peter replies with one word. Repent. Look again. Think again. See again. Isn’t that him sitting at table with you?

30 years ago when I was a new Curate in Mottram in Longdendale I used to look forward to saying Evensong with the Vicar, Richard Price, on Saturdays especially. I’d never heard anyone pray before, nor ever since, with the utter simplicity and faith with which Richard used to close Saturday Evensong:

“As watchmen wait for the morning, so we wait now for Thee, O Lord our God. Come to us, Lord Jesus, in the morning, and at the breaking of the bread.”


ISAIAH PROPHESIED the appointment of “one” who was to be “covenant of the people and light of the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.” (Isaiah 42.7) This – and so much else in holy writ – speaks of an intimacy of relationship between God and humankind. There doesn’t seem to me, by my reading anyway, an over-riding-all-else assumption on God’s part that we alienated humans are all utterly and helplessly riddled by “sin” from the moment we’re born until some magical moment when we’re “saved”. I should have thought that that kind of assertion would place humankind into the dungeons (of depression and hopelessness – and be the root cause of catastrophes like an entire twentieth-century filled with examples of the most obscene warfare the world has ever known) rather than free them.

So year after year I am irked anew by the “God takes out the Divine Cheque-book and pays off your guilt-ridden debts” tale. There’s one of these tales of “substitutionary atonement” being peddled in our part of the world this week that likens this kind of salvific act to having a neighbour who ever-so-kindly writes a cheque to clear the worrying Hire Purchase debts on one’s car. Jesus takes on all my bad debts apparently – because his Father told him to, and instead of being rewarded for his kindness he gets crucified for it whilst the Father just stands by and watches (albeit rather upset).

Oh but it’s a funny (no: tragic) kind of at-one-ment, though, that rules out that same at-one-ment for anyone who doesn’t toe a particular political or religious line. Ugh! I just don’t recognise that kind of contractual arrangement in the God I know and love and worship, though I recognise it all too plainly, and all too frequently, in certain human religious types. I don’t recognise wrath in God’s life-giving ways, though I recognise it all too plainly and all too frequently in certain power-mad and controlling humans. I don’t recognise that salvation is entirely dependent on Church affiliation, or a little formulaic prayer, though I absolutely recognise that it is entirely dependent upon the grace of a patently loving Source of all our lives. The late Fr Edward Schillebeeckx rings much clearer, and much more readily believable bells in my head and heart:

Lord God, we thank you for Jesus, the truly human being, who has changed the face of the earth, because he spoke of a great vision, of God’s new age which will come one day, a world of freedom, love and peace, the perfection of your creation. We remember that wherever Jesus came people rediscovered their humanity, and were filled with new riches, so that they could give one another new courage in their lives. We remember how Jesus spoke to people, about a lost coin, a sheep that had strayed, a prodigal son: of all those who no longer count, out of sight, out of mind; the weak and the poor, all those who are captive, unknown, unloved. We recall that he went to search for all who were lost, for those who are saddened and out in the cold, and how he always took their side, without forgetting the others. That cost him his life because the mighty of the earth would not tolerate it, and yet he knew that he was understood and accepted by you, confirmed by you in love. He became one with you. And so, freed from himself, he could live a life of liberation for others.

I’m never much surprised to be reminded that Jesus had a bit of a rocky relationship with the Temple and with the leaders of the synagogues. I think he’d “blow his stack” if he had to listen to some of the “theological” accretions of the last two thousand years. (I heard of another Roman Catholic today who’s recently been told “you’ve GOT to go to confession. I must, so you must”. (Lord, have mercy). Jesus himself showed no interest in substitutionary sacrifices. God didn’t require them was the clear implication. What God – what Life-at-Source requires is real justice and real kindness for all people, and all created things, and real humility in our walking with “him”.

Justice, kindness and humility are to be sought and found in “God’s only begotten Son” – and as we’re fond of reminding ourselves (though perhaps not very efficaciously) “we (humans) are the Body of Christ (God’s only begotten Son)”. Human inability to recognise the primacy of love crucified Jesus. And yes, I’d say further that human inability to recognise the primacy of love crucified God, and still crucifies Divine Life. But there’s absolutely no “you owe me something” implied in the words “forgive them, for they know not what they do”. This forgiveness flows from Grace, pure gift. Any other deal would render God no better than us. And we’d all be permanently left rotting in a dungeon. Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our (humanly) common life. Let’s aspire to holy communion.


A KING ON THE COLT of a donkey (Mark 11.1-11). How much more plainly can you portray a desire for a world blessed with a deeper humility? Could anything be more ungainly – even tragi-comical – than the sight of a grown man, probably using the strength of his own legs to help the little animal, ‘riding’ towards Jerusalem – “the city, or ‘vision’ of Peace” – on the colt of an ass? Is this triumphant entry? Or is it real and divine identification with lowly humanity – and indeed the perceived ‘lowliness’ in all Creation?

The Gospel tells us that this king entered and “looked around at everything” in the Temple. But at this critical moment in his life he didn’t stay there in “church”. He headed out to Bethany (in Aramaic, ‘house of, or for, the suffering – ie, everyone) – to a house warmly and humanly familiar to him as a place of welcome, hospitality, conversation  and rest. The home of his beloved Mary, and Martha, and their brother Lazarus.

Perhaps, then, for a hug? For tears maybe, and for more gentle words of encouragement shared between each of them, in company with other learners, at the outset of a week that he may well have known would change if not the world, then at least the locality. The week in which he’d say to a thief crucified alongside him “Today you will be with me in paradise” – raising that thief and all humankind to the status and dignity of God’s “only begotten Son.”

The Source of all our lives created, and is still creating, the possibility of a holy communion between all humankind, and all created things.  Let go of the power, suggests king Jesus, loosen your grip, get down from your Roman steed and walk to Jerusalem with the people. We belong to one another, fickle or thieving, disloyal, scared, opinionated or oppressed – as any of us are, or may be. We’re all  ‘Adamah. Dust raised up into life. Matter matters!

Sir John Templeton asks:

Maybe enthusiasm for worship and adoration of god can be multiplied when we no longer limit god to one tribe or one species or one planet but rather humbly search for unlimited love and purpose and creativity vastly beyond limited ancient human concepts … ?

Possibilities: John Marks Templeton, page 20

Yes: we’re all  ‘Adamah. Dust raised up into life. Matter matters!

See also Maggi Dawn: triumphal entry? or pilgrimage?


FROM TIME TO TIME somebody seeks to assure me that there’s “no future for the dear old C of E”. And I recall reading the authors who, at the beginning of the 20th century, found it hard to imagine the Church of England surviving much beyond the next ten years or so. But we’re still here! In the early and exciting years of the 21st century. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Here we are still. And wherever people are to be found, even if the entire edifice we’ve known and loved as the “dear old Church of England” has been razed to the ground, yet will the Church of England survive and thrive, in our inner lives, the home – as Jesus taught us – or the temple of the Holy Spirit, in hearts and souls and minds and bodies that have discovered the joy of resurrection, in human and in humane persons anointed by a knowledge of The Anointed—the Christ—who has displayed a consistent habit of showing up quite simply all over the place, before as well as throughout time, as St John puts it so eloquently

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.  John 1.1

All God’s people today live in the light—and amidst the evidence—of daily resurrection. And Jesus assured his disciples that it would be so. “Today you will be with me in paradise” said Jesus to the thief who was crucified alongside him. Today. Luke 23:43. Now the world is full of cynics about Church and Nation let alone the concept of paradise. The difference between cynic and saint however is just a little one, just a question of which direction you’re looking in. And once you’ve found the resurrection, the ‘paradise’ right there in the heart of your own inner life, you can’t help but to join in the glorious task of co-creating. Prayer—inner life—empowers, informs and directs our moving outwards. All ways. New life. Happy resurrection days!


for Bramhall Parish News, April 2011


I LOOKED UPON WELL-LOVED FACES before me today. And new-born George was presented in the temple. Jet black hair. Quietly chuntering to himself in the arms of delighted parents – and under the gaze of the little brother our whole church family already loves dearly. And all the well-loved faces are such a joy. Young and old. Individual, unique, personal. Community, learning together, alongside other communities learning together, sometimes gladly, sometimes perseveringly, sometimes not-so-willingly, that, by the grace of a grand Love, greater by far than anything we’ve yet conceived of,

“… into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud, nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.” – John Donne