A reflection for Sunday 23rd July 2023 by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:24-25)

How often have we wondered whether something in our garden is a plant or a weed? Worse still is when someone asks us that question and we don’t know the answer. We can try and bluff our way out of it. With any luck the person asking the question will forget what we said. Alternatively, we can be honest and say that we really do not know. Let it continue to grow. In due course things will become clearer.

Down at our allotment there is a patch of ground in which we know that beetroot has been sown. We know what that looks like. There is however something else which is growing which we do not recognise. We have decided to let it grow for a while. We can decide one way or the other what to do. At the end it doesn’t matter.

On the other hand the end of our gospel reminds us solemnly of the importance of growing the Kingdom of God. Of fields being harvested; of the difference between weeds and wheat as well as what will happen.  The mission of the Church as a friend reminded me is to sow seeds; not necessarily to pull out weeds.

Did you notice that it is the slaves who want to uproot the weeds?  They ask the question “Then do you want us to go and gather them up?”.  They would be prepared to put in any amount of back-breaking labour to uproot the weeds, even if it did mean damaging some of the crops at the same time. They seem anxious, indignant - even a little fearful that their master will blame them for what has happened.

But the master’s attitude is very different. He replies “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them”.  The master’s main concern is to preserve the crop. Separating out good and bad growth can more safely be done when the crop is fully grown. It’s not that he doesn’t mind about the weeds or that he has any intention of pretending that they are anything else; it’s just that he can take the long-term view. There seems to be a tension between those used to small everyday tasks with immediate results and those prepared to patiently wait somewhat longer.

In all our readings there is a sense of longing; of waiting; of hoping for things that have not yet come to fruition.  Our reading from Romans reminds us “that hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it in patience”.

Just as the Master had to wait however infuriatingly for the wheat and the weeds to grow together until they were ready to be harvested, so may we wait patiently for those things which are yet to come and in which we continue to hope.

Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the depths of my being. Show me the hidden things, the creatures of forgotten memories and hurts. Take me down to the spring of my life, and tell me my nature and my name. Give me freedom to grow, so that I may become that self, the seed which You planted in me at my making (George Appleton)

A reflection for Sunday 16th July 2023 Trinity VI

I have always been a gardener. Some of my earliest memories of my Father and my childhood are of working alongside him in the allotment he had. My Dad’s plot was next to that of my Great Uncle Jim’s and I loved, even as I was then, no more than a toddler, digging the ground and planting things like they did; and the excitement I felt when my Auntie Dorothy appeared one day with a miniature gardening set of tools all for me. Even saying those words evokes that same sense of excitement in me.

The feel of the soil, the smell of vegetation and the joy of seeing things grow has never left me. Today, I do grow some vegetables but it is flower gardening that really excites me.

In her book; ‘The well gardened mind’  Sue Stewart-Smith a psychiatrist and gardener writes:

“I went to see a cherished friend (in hospital) clutching a bunch of the most vibrant tulips i could find in our garden. Her world had been turned upside down by a recent diagnosis … I found her marooned in bed looking anxious and pale but as I brandished the tulips, a broad smile cascaded over her face. A wave of positive feeling flowed between us and with her eyes fixed on their tutti-fruits colours, she let out a celebratory: ‘Wow!’.”

You may have experienced similar feelings when seeing your flowers in bloom or receiving a beautiful bouquet. I know that I have and do when I gaze upon flowers in full bloom. They never cease to make me smile.

Stewart-Smith goes on to say:

“Those tulips were an instance of flower power in action. Beautiful flowers are known to trigger a true smile - an involuntary smile, known as a Duchenne smile - which, unlike a polite smile, lights, up the whole face indicating genuine pleasure.”

No wonder we take flowers to those who are ill or who just need cheering up. The sight of them can really make us feel better.

She continues:

“Such phenomena are rarely researched but in 2005, a study carried out at Rutgers university, New Jersey made an attempt to do this. Jeanette Havilland-Jones and colleagues tested the effects of receiving flowers against other comparable gifts. The results showed that being given a bouquet won hands down. Everyone who was given flowers smiled a ‘true smile’ and experienced a longer-lasting sense of good mood..”

Flowers and I believe by extension gardening and tending the soil to grow things is good for you. With this in mind, I think that anyone who has ever gardened cannot fail to resonate with today’s readings. Jesus’ simple parable of the sower uses images and language his hearers would have easily understood. They would have known, as we do, that in order to grow fruitful crops you need to plant them in well cared for, fertile soil. They would also have fully comprehended Isaiah’s words too where he talks about the weather watering the earth and causing seeds to sprout and plants to grow and if you plant well and care for your crops you will end up with the things you want and not the weeds you don’t want. Those Jesus spoke to that day, would have been well aware of the joy a good crop can bring and the well-being it would engender in the community.

This is all well and good but as any gardener, reluctant or enthusiastic knows, gardening is not just about sticking the seeds in the ground or planting the plants to produce their harvest or flowers alone. You have to add a great deal of, often back breaking, garden maintenance. That regular checking for weeds that might choke the delicate seedlings or new shoots; the peering at leaves and buds for any pests that might need to be controlled and choosing the right time to pick or harvest; this takes skill and patience and often many long hours of work. It’s painstaking but as Stewart-Smith suggests its worth it for the ‘true smile’ it can bring about.

That ‘true smile’ and its positive effects are good for our general wellbeing and I suspect that Jesus, who understands us better than we do, knew this. Growing and gardening is worth the time and energy it takes. You only have to look at the efforts of the Church garden team to know how many hours of time they give. I know how many hours my front garden takes from me to keep it up together and how much it costs me to keep the back gardens in check to know that gardening on whatever scale can be a full time occupation. BUT do you know what? It is defiantly worth it.

I have over the past few days and weeks been regularly bowled over by the developing colours in my garden, and at present my roses in bloom often stop me in my tracks. God’s beauty in creation is amazing and the colours of creation make me pray in thanksgiving.

Isaiah tells us that the signs of creation:

“… shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

    Isaiah 55:13b

What he means by this is that Creation is one of God’s ways of actually showing us how much we are cared for. A visual symbol of God’s love for us and an acknowledgement that he provides for us in the harvest; and delights us with his flowers and trees.

We all know, today, how delicate the balance of creation is and how much we need to value the trees and shrubs and the insects that pollenate them. We need to care for our environment in whatever ways we can and to challenge ourselves and our law makers to do all we and they can to ensure that the planet we live on does not disappear due to our greed and abuse of God’s love.

We know the facts as Matthew says, the facts of how we are called by God, through Jesus to live our lives; to hear his Word and to respond to it in all we do. God’s Word is life-giving, and God’s Creation makes for our wellbeing.

The parable of the sower, emphasises all this. Good seed will fail if it is not well cared for. These words challenge its on two fronts; one that we try to be good gardeners co-operating with God and not against him and that we listen to his words and the Word made flesh. Christ’s teaching is good seed, we need to allow it to root in our hearts and tend it just as we would tend a fragile plant, so that it comes to a beautiful flowering or fruition.

Pray that you are fertile soil for God’s Word and that all that he says to you will find the correct growing conditions to thrive in. Let God’s Word planted in you live and grow in you. Put that Word into action as you in turn till the soil and plant it with your actions and enjoy all those ‘true smiles’ your gardening or the gardening of others will bring you.

A reflection for Sunday 9th July 2023 by Canon Dean Fostekew

Zechariah 9:9

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you;

   triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,

   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

That opening verse for Zachariah sounds very familiar to our ears as it echoes the readings we hear on Palm Sunday. Zachariah is predicting the coming of the promised Messiah centuries before Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Zechariah also refers to the Messiah as ‘King’ - perhaps suggesting that the anointed one when he comes would be powerful and noticeably so.

I think reading Zechariah’s piece this morning I can see why many doubted who Jesus said he was. If you have grown up knowing Zechariah’s prophesy then Jesus was certainly not the type of messiah you might have been expecting. A Kingly Messiah sounds grand and imposing and one who would be able to sweep all things aside that stood in his way. Jesus didn’t conform to this expectation as God’s interpretation of what a Messiah is, is very different to what we humans might think he or she should be.

Jesus our Messiah is the ‘Servant King’ not the domineering dictator. Jesus came to serve and save us not to dominate and suppress our enemies. God’s ways are always far more subtle than humanity’s approach to things.

Zechariah predicted that the King, the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem as a victorious champion on a donkey. Riding on a donkey, a humble beast of burden seems a strange steed for the promised one to appear in Jerusalem on. However, in formal processions it was always the King who rode the donkey at the back of the procession in the place of honour. The most important person in the parade on the least important mount. In doing so attention was drawn to that person as being ‘man enough’ to ride the donkey in spite of that beast's humble origins. Only an all powerful man could seemingly debase himself without fear of being overthrown himself.

Jesus appeared in Jerusalem on a donkey echoing the kingly position he held but he rode the donkey as a true act of humility not dominance. He also rode the donkey alone and not in a might procession, a humble man on a humble beast. A servant entering the city to save his people from themselves if they could truly recognise who he was.

We all know how the story pans out from here on in, with Jesus dying on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for us, his friends and loved ones. He didn’t need any might fanfare or parade to win Jerusalem’s loyalty, it would be his life and his blood that would be gifted to us as an act of humble service in order to save us from ourselves.

The Gospel reading from Matthew this morning ends with the words:

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ ’’

in a way they tie today’s readings up very well. burdens are carried and rest promised in the love  of Jesus. Jesus from riding the beast of burden becomes the bearer of our burdens, the one who saves and helps us. His kingly yoke is freely offered and if accepted it will be found easy to bear because Jesus will always be there helping us carry our woes and sins, our suffering and our joys.

That’s the Messiah, the king I wish to follow and like St.Paul suggests, I will do it despite myself and my own failings because Jesus will help me. Just as he will help you too.

A reflection for Sunday 2nd July 2023 Trinity IV by the Rev'd David Warnes

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

A cup of cold water. It seems such a small thing, though whether it is a small thing depends on the context. The saying reminded me of the generosity of Sir Philip Sidney, the English poet, courtier and soldier who was fatally wounded when fighting against the Spanish in the Netherlands during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. His close friend and biographer Fulke Greville described what happened next. Sidney was bleeding badly and was very thirsty. He asked for a drink and a water bottle was brought to him. Just as he was about to drink from it, he noticed a badly wounded soldier lying close by.  He passed the water bottle to him and said:

“Thy necessity is yet greater than mine.”

Philip Sidney was a devout Christian with a deep knowledge of the Bible. His death some days after that act of generosity interrupted a poetic project to which I’ll return later.

Today’s Gospel is a small part of a lengthy passage in which Jesus commissions his disciples to go out on a mission. He has warned them that they will experience rejection and persecution, he has said that they may be alienated from their families, but he has also reminded them that their Heavenly Father will be with them, telling them in the verses on which Russell reflected last Sunday that God has counted the very hairs of their head, in other words God loves them and knows them better than they know themselves. In today’s passage he strikes another encouraging note. Some people will welcome the disciples, and they will be rewarded because in welcoming the disciples they will have welcomed Jesus and welcomed the one who sent Jesus – God the Father.

And then comes a very important teaching about the nature of discipleship. Jesus tells his followers that they are called to a threefold ministry. They are called to be prophets, to challenge injustice and to call people to follow the way of God. They are called to be righteous ones, to walk the walk as well as talking the talk, to show people that they are practising what they preach; that they are following the way of God.

At that point, the disciples were probably wondering what was coming next. In the Hebrew Bible, when things come in threes, the third item is always the most important. They were all too human. They may have expected a word or phrase which would confer an even higher status on them. Instead, they hear that as well as being prophets and being righteous, they are also called to be “little ones”.

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…”

You may be representing me and representing God, Jesus tells them, you may be called to be prophets and exemplars of the righteous life, but don’t let it go to your heads. You are also called to be “little ones”. Your vulnerability, your needs, your dependence on others is vital to the success of your mission. Your calling is to receive welcome and to offer welcome.

On Thursday the church celebrated the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. At this time of year, known as Petertide, many men and women are ordained as Deacons and as Priests. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Dean’s ordination to the priesthood, of his taking up of that threefold calling to prophetic witness, righteousness of life and to the vulnerability and costly availability of being one of God’s “little ones”, receiving and offering welcome, accepting the weight of other people’s sorrows and the burdens of administration.

In those thirty years he has touched the lives of thousands of people for the good, in Maidenhead where he served as curate, in Lockerbie and Annan, in Dalmahoy, as Mission Adviser in this Diocese, as Provincial Mission and Stewardship Coordinator, as Team Priest at the Cathedral and as Rector of the Good Shepherd since 2009. I know that you will all want to join me in offering congratulations and thanks for his ministry, for his friendship and kindness and for his generous self-giving.

In bestowing a cup of water on a wounded soldier, Sir Philip Sidney showed a self-giving love which was Christ-like and therefore priestly. His death some days later, just short of his thirty-second birthday, cut short a poetic project on which he had been working with his sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke. This was a translation of the Psalms into rhyming verse. They had got as far as Psalm 43 when Sidney was sent to the Netherlands. Almost the last verse that he wrote was this:

To God's altars tho’ 
I will boldly go, 
Shaking off all sadness; 
To that God that is 
God of all my blisse, 
God of all my gladness. 

The priesthood is a great privilege, and at the heart of that privilege is the ministry of the altar, the place where heaven and earth come close and where Christ’s priestly self-giving draws us into his welcome. On this the anniversary of his priesting, we wish Dean continuing joy and gladness in his ministry.

A reflection for Trinity III Sunday 25th June 2023 by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

And even the hairs on your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows (Matthew 10:31-32)

How often have we been asked if we would like to do something, yet something holds us back from responding positively? It may be that we are not interested. We may not have the time, energy or feel that we can adequately give of our best. We may be fearful of the consequences or uncertain of how it will be received. We may think that we are not worthy of doing it let alone wondering what other people will think. How very human this all sounds.

Our three readings each in their own way have a serious side and directness as well as offering us encouragement and hope.

The prophet Jeremiah lived through turbulent political times. He became increasingly isolated from the people he was born to serve and at times his life was threatened by them.

In his lament Jeremiah cries out that not to speak is as painful as the fear and loneliness that follows after he has spoken. It burns him up, and the pain of holding it in becomes too much. God only seems to give him words of “violence and destruction” however much he longs to speak of “love and reassurance”.   

The words that we hear from Jeremiah are words of deep depression and despair. Jeremiah almost hates God, though he is at least refreshingly honest about that. Perhaps God recognises something of the truth of the accusations Jeremiah is levelling against him?

Paul reminds us that God’s forgiveness is freely offered; it does not have to be earned, and it never can be.  But accepting it means stepping out of one life into another.  He also reminds us that “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again”.

Christians disciples throughout the centuries have faced similar moments, as Jesus, warned them they would. Like Jeremiah, they have to tell the people what they are given to tell. Like Jeremiah, they cannot choose to soften the message if it is not to peoples’ likings. Like Jeremiah, knowing that God protects them, and that they are “of more value than many sparrows” to him, will not always be a great consolation.

Three times in our gospel reading, Jesus bids his disciples not to be afraid.  Did you notice them? The first is that they are not to be afraid because there is nothing covered that will not be unveiled, and nothing hidden which will not be known.  The second is that we are not to fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. The third is that they are not to fear and is based on the certainty and assurance of the loving care of God. If God cares for the sparrows, surely he will care for us?

So let us take courage and know that we cannot drift beyond the love of God. May we know that our times are forever in God’s hands; that God will not leave or forsake us and that we are surrounded forever and upheld by God’s care. If that is so – of whom shall we be afraid?

We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and to serve you. May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.