Category: Podcasts

Pearl Diving

For over 2000 years Japanese women, known as ama, have descended to depths of over 30m underwater, in a single breath lasting over two minutes, in search of pearls. They descend into the darkness where all colour has vanished. Only silence, shadows and outlines remain. It is a place of extreme cold and danger where few ever venture. They do it 100-150 times a day, and continue into their eighties, needing to retrieve a ton of oysters in their nets to find four or five decent pearls. Not many of us will ever experience the physical and physiological hardship of such a way of life.

But many of us do experience the depth of darkness of physical or emotional pain, loneliness, loss, or other forms of suffering. It can seem like a place without end, without hope, devoid of joy or happiness, no ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, just continual darkness. For some, the weight of bearing pain, or caring for others, can be relentless, lasting for years, For others, traumatised by experiences of years ago, or who have suffered abuse of one form or another, it can seem like being trapped in a suffocating cage from which there is no way out.

Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, grapples with the depths on his own failure as a human being. Although he begins with a summary of the mess the world is in (chapter 1), describing our struggles with fallenness, he descends further and further into the darkness of our own, and ultimately his, sinful nature (chapter 7) – “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

It is true that he passes the beautiful corals of Christ’s work on his way down (chapters 5 and 6), and they hint at the treasure below. But he must make that descent himself first, before he can find the pearl of great price for which he seeks in the darkness of his innermost despair.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the 8th Sunday after Trinity (2023) can be found here.

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Beth-El – House of God?

Duplicity. Abraham complies with his wife’s scheming and then denies his firstborn. Isaac is tricked by his second-born with the help of his mother’s plotting. Jacob indulges his wives’ bitter rivalry, and so spawns the twelve tribes of Israel. The Patriarchs of Israel are a sorry bunch, for whom ‘integrity’ was not a word that carried much currency. And yet. And yet God chose them. Promised to bless the world through them – schemers and dreamers though they were.

But perhaps it was the dreaming for which they were chosen? All of them ‘heard’ God speak words of promise. What does it mean to ‘hear’ God? How do you know it’s God speaking and not your own imagination, or madness? Then again, they were all exceptionally wealthy, so perhaps they weren’t mad after all.

But Jacob has fled from his brother, having deceived his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, which his brother, in a moment of rash stupidity (and probably joking), had agreed to give him in exchange for a bowl of stew, and been sent off by his mother to her brother’s household in search of a wife.

Alone and in the darkness of the wilderness, Jacob dreams a dream: God promises to bless his offspring and the whole world. So he calls the place ‘beth-el’, house of God.

But what, really, is this ‘house of God’ that Jacob attempts to locate in the wilderness? Paul, in his majestic letter to the Romans, unpacks the promise, and our place in it.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon the the 7th Sunday after Trinity can be found here.

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The Stories We Tell

‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. A long time ago…’

We love stories. From our earliest days to old age we love listening to, and telling, stories. They are how we make sense of the world around us, how we first encounter ‘others’ in our imaginations, and they are how we form our collective memories that bind us as societies. Jesus was a master story-teller; his stories, called parables, played off the collective stories familiar to his listeners, and turned out to be enigmatic, challenging, full of surprises and unexpected outcomes. His stories are crafted to disrupt in order to allow light to enter the dark places of our hearts.

The problem, though, is that the darkness in our hearts only enters through stories as well. Bad stories. Stories that speak against, stories of victimisation and discrimination, of separation and boundaries, stories that reinforce prejudice. These are the stories that feed self-pity and blame others. We see it all around in families, local communities, society, politics, nations. At every scale stories feed and shape our beliefs.

The story Jesus tells is of the end of all these dark stories and the beginning of the new story, which is the oldest one of all. It is the story of death; Christ’s death, our death. And then birth, with the offering of a new beginning, where, like children, we learn there are no borders other than in the mind. ‘There is no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no male or female, for we are all one in Christ.’ This is the nature and gift of baptism. The new story is of the unquenchable love of God poured into the world, poured into our hearts.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Trinity can be found here.

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Cataract of God

‘Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls’ shouts the psalmist through the drenching thunder.

So many of us are nervous souls, battered down by cares and worries, apprehensive for loved ones or ourselves. The experience of hurt and disappointment has left us timid and small. The adventure of childhood has long since been buried to allow us to cope with our journey towards the end. The thrill of life is now often found only in a book or on a screen. We manage our environments as best we can – warm homes, stocked cupboards, comfortable cars. Even so, financial worries still fret away – will we be able to afford next month? Church, too, is sedate and safe, routine and reassuring. Danger is best avoided with a thorough risk assessment. Our small worlds are contracted to a single stone in a bare field.

The wilderness is a long way from here. Thankfully?

I read a poem recently, about Christ being crucified on “the skull of the world”. It’s reference, of course, to the hill on which he was crucified, called ‘Golgotha’, meaning ‘place of the skull.’ But it captures something far deeper about the deadness of the world, the deadness of humanity, on which and for which he died. The poem goes on to speak of the one who hungered yet fed others, who thirsted while inviting others to come to him to drink, who raised the dead to life while dying himself. As the mockers so astutely put it ‘he saved others, he cannot save himself.’ How? And why?

Christ lived under the thundering cataract of God, the swirling presence of the Holy Spirit. We have been given so many images of this Spirit; water, wind, fire, and none of them are comfortable, not even the dove, who ‘drove’ Jesus out into the wilderness. And yet the Spirit is called the Comforter.

Perhaps its time we rediscovered this Spirit of God.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for Pentecost can be found here.

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A Common Treasury For All

In 1649 to St George's Hill
A ragged band they called the "Diggers"
Came to show the people's will.
They defied the landlords, they defied the laws;
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs.

'We come in peace' they said 'to dig and sow.
We come to work the lands in common
And to make the wastelands grow;
This earth divided we will make whole
So it will be a common treasury for all.'

So begins a song by Leon Rosselson about Gerard Winstanley and the first Diggers – one that I sometimes sing at our folk evenings. The Diggers arrived at St George’s Hill in Weybridge, Surrey, in April of 1649 as a small group of men and women who had lost their homes during the Civil War and due to Enclosure. By August they had been driven from the land by nearby landowners and resettled a short distance away at Cobham, still in Surrey. By April of the next year the local clergyman, another landowner, had managed to force them off that land also. It is a sorry and uncomfortable tale.

For such a briefly-lived movement, the Diggers have had an astonishingly disproportionate influence, still inspiring young and old alike. That fact, alone, speaks of a resonance deep within us that yearns for a different way of being in the world.

Winstanley’s own inspiration, itself, came from the book of Acts, chapter 2, verses 44-45:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 
And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, 
as any had need. 

But this wasn’t the first time in English history that the Bible had been the inspiration for understanding the equality of all. In 1381 the Peasant’s Revolt was stirred by the preaching of the priest John Ball, credited with the first protest rhyme in the English language, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?” Ball worked alongside John Wycliffe, who was translating the Bible into the English vernacular for the first time in history. Now the Word of God was reaching the Commoners and it was dangerous stuff.

This is some of the history with which we have to contend when we read Acts 2. It is difficult because we don’t take it very seriously any more – it poses far too much of a threat to our established way of life. So we hide behind excuses like ‘history proves its entirely impractical to live like that anyway.’ And its true, many attempts to live a ‘common life’ have ended in failure.

Many, but not all. Monastic communities have been since the first centuries of the Church’s existence as a continuation of precisely this description of the Church in Acts. They still continue today. Of course, there are multiple notorious examples where these ‘communities’ have been farcical mockeries, even evil parodies, of their calling through history. But there are also countless others, untold and unsung, where true life has been lived.

The question then falls to us as to how we are to respond because, despite what we may tell ourselves, possession and wealth are not the answer the world would have us believe, and that, generally, we are inclined to accept. If we were, somehow, to find a way of walking to a different drum, what would the world look like then…

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter can be found here.

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We had Hoped

Hope belongs to the world of belief; it has direction and a future. Atheism, in contrast, and by definition, has only chaos, and therefore neither. We, all of us, depend on hope, live our lives in hope, even as we rest in the moment. But hope disappointed can be shattering, destructive, devastating. It can ruin a soul and lead to utter darkness. It is the place of hell.

So how do we choose what to hope for? How do we know who or what to trust and believe in? A topical question in a world of ‘fake news’. A cynic’s answer might be to trust no one but yourself. But only the arrogant would be so foolish, for we all die, and what is ‘hope’ that ceases to exist when we do?

Those seven miles of the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus were the seven miles of holiness. On them, the unknown stranger picked up the broken pieces of shattered hope and started reshaping the story in which they had hoped, had believed, had been destroyed. And at the end of those seven miles an extraordinary new vista emerged, a new hope, a greater hope, a hope that filled their hearts with burning. And then the bread is broken, and the burning bursts into sudden, blinding light. Now, at last, they know who they believe in…

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the third Sunday of Easter can be found here.

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Dawn Treader

How does one make any sense of that which is beyond comprehension? How does someone from a flat world grasp a third dimension? How do we estimate the cost of our darkness, the damage of our sin, both to ourselves and to the stardust of the cosmos of which we are formed, and from which all else is created? Are we arrogant to think that we even have such significance? And yet the story of the Incarnation requires us to understand that the Creator knows we do. How? Worse, for some unfathomable reason, the Creator considers us worth the ultimate sacrifice. Us, who are guilty of dust and sin. Why?

We may think we know. And perhaps we can know enough, and that is enough.

It is called Love.

But the consequence of his coming is beyond our wildest imaginings. All that terrifies us evaporates as the mist in the morning sun. The clouds break open and the sudden shaft of sunlight reveals the brightest of fields. Eternity has inrupted our time-delimited existence. There is no more need for violence or greed, for insecurity or fear, for domination and manipulation, for the quest for power or wealth or freedom; all the trappings of a death-infested world. The Dawn of a new world has woken and we are invited to tread in his wake. The painting has come to Life.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for Easter Morning, 2023 can be found here.

Poem: ‘Love (3)’ by George Herbert

NT: Acts 10:34-43

Gospel: Matt 28:1-10

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Sometimes we struggle with the concept of ‘belief’. Yet everything we do from the moment we get up to the moment we die is governed by what we believe about the world we inhabit. The stories we are told by the society in which we live have the power to control our concept of reality, and hence the entire direction of our lives, simply because we ‘believe’ them.

So when Jesus says to Martha, ‘do you believe?’, he is challenging the story by which she lives, the story that defines her understanding of what is real. ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe me?’ And then the Spirit blows, and breath comes to the dry bones. Our reality cracks, splits, shatters, and Life flows in. So the soil that we are learns how to Breathe once again.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent can be found here.

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Well Met

A loose woman and a single man meet alone at a well in the desert. He starts talking about giving her ‘living water’. This is the sort of place where encounters of a certain type begin.

John’s Gospel is the gospel of the Spirit. Jesus has been speaking to Nicodemus about the Spirit blowing beyond the boundaries. How far beyond? This is the first woman we encounter in John’s Gospel after his mother. Not only is she a woman, but worse, she’s a Samaritan. And although the conversation begins enigmatically, Jesus turns a key and unlocks her to open to the Spirit. John is showing us how Jesus pushes the boundaries, not just beyond Mount Gerazim of the Samaritans, but beyond the Temple of Jerusalem. He has replaced the Temple as the meeting place of God, and the Anointed Agent of the Spirit of God. The living waters of the Holy Spirit in the Sinai desert flow from him who is the rock and the manna, Jesus, the bread of heaven. This is heady stuff.

And the work of the Spirit? To restore us to the likeness of God – to love the world unconditionally, just like him who gave his Son to bring us home.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent (Year A) is available here.

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To Where Does The Wind Blow?

Wind. Breath. Spirit. All the same word. A Pharisee, a son of Abraham, is in the dark, visiting the rabbi by night. What is this wind? What is this birth of which you speak? But we are sons of Abraham. Aren’t we? The wild wind of God has blown beyond the boundaries. So how do you know where it blows to? The death of water and the birth of wind. St John the Evangelist is in his element.

The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent (Year A) can be found here.

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