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Archive for January, 2019

 

Preaching at Evensong tonight at St Mary’s Priory Church, Br Josh reflected on what the Book of Numbers and St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians says about obedience to God.

Br Josh

Br Josh said: 

1) Greetings

It is very good to be back with you here and with the Holywell Community. I have been moved by the welcome I’ve received from you all and am very thankful for it.

For those who don’t know: I’ve recently returned from a somewhat unanticipated trip to my home country of New Zealand, which was required in order to apply for another visa to continue as a lay member of the Holywell Community.

When I came to look at tonight’s readings, I found that they were helpful for making sense of my recent experiences. I will focus on two ideas. First, obedience to God’s commands and, second, the importance of times of both movement and rest for discerning God’s commands and acting on them.

2) Obedience to God’s Command

The theme of obedience to God’s commands runs through all of the scripture we have heard tonight.

The book of Numbers tells the story of the journey of the Israelites through desert wilderness to the promised land having escaped from slavery in Egypt. In the passage we have just heard, they are just setting out and things are going smoothly; they are following God’s commands.

Things will go less smoothly for them soon and they will become rebellious. But tonight we are interested in this snapshot of a people who are obedient to God. A people who listen to God, encamp, move, and camp again when they are told.

It is all very well for us to be told that we ought to follow their example. Since I’m in the preacher’s position tonight, I’ll say it myself: you ought to obey God’s commands. But this does not tell us how to discern what God commands are in our particular situations.

In Numbers, God regularly talks to the Israelites, and especially to Moses. Much of the book is devoted to regulations which are given from on high. These are explicit instructions about all manner of things, including, for instance, how to set up and pack down their camp and what to do in cases of illness.

But in the section of Numbers that we have heard, God’s commands are made clear by a cloud which appears as a fire at night. The fire and cloud indicate when the Israelites should camp, when they should move, and which way they should go.

The cloud was associated with a special tent called the Tabernacle, which was set at the centre of the camp. God dwelt in a unique way in the Tabernacle. It was a holy place, set aside for special treatment.

We hear that as soon as the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud hovered over it. The cloud thus indicates the presence of God. The movements of this sign of the presence of God then convey commands.

It is important to note that the cloud is not just a miraculous sat-nav: its movements are significant because the cloud represents the presence of God and God’s commands are, I hope you agree, of more importance than the commands of your sat-nav. God’s commands have an authority that the commands of your sat-nav do not have.

So the Israelites of our reading, whose obedience we are to copy, learnt the commands of God by virtue of a clear and visible sign of the presence of God. This can seem a bit unhelpful for us. While we frequently sing the words of William Williams ‘let the fire and cloudy pillar, lead me all my journey through’, this fire and cloudy pillar is, for us, only a metaphor.

In our second reading, St Paul tells the church in Corinth that ‘circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything’ (v. 19). We are being told again: Obey God’s commands.

Here we can ask a familiar question: how are the people in Corinth to know God’s commands? One answer is that the Corinthians have an authoritative voice in St Paul. Much of his letter is devoted to answering specific practical concerns that have arisen for the Christians in Corinth. Just as Moses did for the Israelites, Paul conveys commands which, he explicitly states, come from God. In some cases he distinguishes these commands from his own opinions, which he also offers.

The voices of St Paul and of Moses continue to have authority for us today, as conveyed through the scriptures. The Church also continues to have authoritative voices in the form of bishops, who are successors of the apostles. But the Bible does not give us a straightforward answer to every practical question we ask it. Nor do we expect bishops to be free from error in their judgements. Even if we did, it would hardly be appropriate to bother them with every tricky issue that arises for us!

More progress can be made by considering the ‘conditions’ which St Paul claims are unimportant.

Some members of the church at Corinth were circumcised, some were uncircumcised (that is, roughly: Jewish or Gentile). Some were slaves and some were free. Members of the church clearly put a lot of energy into debating the relative status of these conditions.

But Paul tells them that these distinctions mean nothing compared to following God’s commands. This implies that God’s commands can be followed in any of these conditions. If not, if, say, it was impossible to follow God’s commands as a slave, then Paul would have to tell slaves to try to become free. He doesn’t.

Why can God’s commands be lived out in all of these conditions? The answer in our reading seems to be the following: The Gospel message; the message of God’s coming to earth as a human, suffering the worst that the world could offer, going still further by descending into hell (as we have just said together during the Apostles’ Creed), and rising again and taking our human nature back into the life of God; requires us to radically rearrange our priorities and values. In light of these new priorities and values such differences in our earthly condition and status becomes secondary.

This is, in turn, because the Gospel command is to imitate Christ. In doing this, in attempting to perfectly love God and perfectly love our neighbour, we will be slaves in so far as we are bound by His example and not by our own selfish desires or projects. And by being slaves of Christ we will also be free, in so far as we are not beholden to human masters (if we really manage it, we won’t even fear death – and what could make you more free than that?). In other words, we will be slaves by emptying ourselves with Jesus and free by rising with Him into new life and eventual reunion with God.

The Corinthians, then, are pointed to a different sign of the presence of God: God incarnate in Jesus Christ. They are to follow God’s commands by following the example of Christ.

This is a very different picture from one natural-seeming but incorrect reading of the passage. Paul talks about God ‘assigning’ or ‘calling’ us to a condition. We might look at this, and Paul’s advice to the Corinthians to stay in whatever condition they find themselves in, and conclude that God commands slaves to be slaves forever. Indeed, defenders of slavery have in the past appealed to verses like the ones we have just heard.

Paul clearly does advise the Corinthians that they should not bother too much about changing their condition but, rather, should focus on imitating Christ within their condition. But he does not say that these various conditions are fixed in nature and irreformable.

The picture of the natural and social world as fixed and unchanging that I am warning against can be encouraged by the words of our Psalm: ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth […] For he spake and it was done, he commanded and it stood fast’ (Ps33:6, 9). The incorrect interpretation says that everything that exists is commanded by God in a way that implies that any attempt to change anything is rebellion against God. Surely we don’t want to be quite that conservative.

3) Movement and Rest

The second idea which I want to emphasise tonight is the importance of movement and rest. This idea helps us to both to see what is wrong with the fixed picture of society and the world and to discern what the command of God is in our own situations.

In Numbers, we see God determining appropriate times for the Israelites to move and appropriate times for them to encamp. This continues to be true for us both collectively and individually. That is. there are times for change and times for rest.

Please excuse me for getting a bit metaphysical for a moment. I can’t help it. Christians acknowledge God as creator. We believe that everything depends on God for its existence. God’s way of being is thus distinct from, and superior to, the being of any created thing. This is a great theme of Psalm 33. Paul is also drawing on it when suggesting we are ‘called’ or ‘assigned’ to a place: our being and all of the circumstances we find ourselves in depend on God.

Now, as the Ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides would tell you, there’s something about the very idea of movement that suggests imperfection. Movement is change and if everything is already perfect, then why would you bother changing? You could only get worse!

And yet, mysteriously, God doesn’t just create a world of pure bliss without change or the possibility of decay. God creates a world which develops over time, absolutely depending on God for its existence, but with a level of freedom to do its own thing. We ourselves are created by God and have a role (which we are free to reject) in bringing about God’s purposes.

This does not provide any kind of straight forward answer to why bad things happen. The world is not just a little imperfect: it contains true horrors. This is important to say on Holocaust Remembrance Sunday. When things go wrong, they can go very very wrong and we have to avoid glibly saying that the horrors of the world are made OK by being part of a process towards which achieves a higher good. Nevertheless, we do have free will and God does work through us and through the imperfect world which we inhabit.

Returning to our scriptures, the Israelites are not just sent straight to the promised land in an instant, they must grow and develop in their time in the wilderness. God leads, but they must participate.

Similarly, the early Christians of Corinth could not simply magic away the society which they existed within. As the historian and theologian N. T. Wright puts it, ‘inveighing against slavery per se would have been totally ineffective: one might as well, in modern Western society, protest against the mortgage system.’ But, Wright continues, Paul could plant a seed which would develop over time. That seed is, of course, the Gospel itself which played a major role in the eventual abolition of slavery. And which, we hope, will further transform the world and end injustices. [The quotes for this passage were taken from this useful blog post.]

God has created a dynamic world, in which our actions are part of the transformation of the world. Movement is important! God has also given us an example in Jesus Christ against which our own lives and our societies can be judged, and which we can attempt to imitate. A culture with slavery, all things being equal, is less Christ-like than one without it. The same might be said about pay-day loans or radical levels of economic inequality.

Earlier, I said that the Ancient Israelites were lucky compared to us in so far as they had, in the fire and cloud, a sign of the presence of God which could unambiguously direct their actions. I said that, for us, the ‘fire and pillar’ is at most a metaphor. But, in fact, we are better off because we have Christ to direct our actions. And Jesus isn’t simply an inspirational historical person. We Christians believe that Jesus lives and that this is not just a metaphor.

Of course, our original problem comes back, how do we discern what the Christ-like action or society is? Here we shift from movement to rest.

In order to listen, you need to stop moving every now and then. And in order to obey, you need to listen. This is a connection that the Benedictine tradition insists upon.

The Holywell Community, like all Benedictine communities, take vows of obedience. I have now stood in front of you and vowed obedience twice. Once with Br Seb in August and once when I returned. You will not be surprised to learn, given these vows, that Benedictines have put a lot of thought into what obedience means and what it doesn’t.

The Holywell Community Constitution says that ‘Obedience includes listening to God, and hearing what he has in mind for the Community’. This connection between obedience and listening is clear, as our prior and sub-prior often remind us, in the etymology of the world ‘obedience’ from the Latin ‘obedire’ meaning ‘to listen’.

The kind of listening St Benedict has in mind for his monks is not merely the kind of listening required to follow orders. Rather, it is a kind of listening that changes you internally as well as externally. We are called to listen to Christ and to be transformed in both our internal motivations and thoughts and, consequently, in our external actions. Our imitation of Christ must be both internal and external.

At one of the recent services for the week of prayer for Christian unity, someone said to me: ‘It’s good to see young people being holy.’ But we’re not especially holy and these ideas aren’t just for Benedictines of whatever flavour. All Christians need to find time to rest with God and to listen.

There are countless methods for listening to God and I’m sure you already have some that work for you. One practice that I have found particularly rewarding, and which I have missed while away from St Mary’s, is Holy Hour. It goes like this: after a brief hymn, we kneel or sit in silence. Our attention is focused on a consecrated host placed on the altar. The Eucharist is, of course, a means by which Jesus Christ is present with us. By meditating on the host we are drawn deeper into this mystery. Some people read passages from the Bible or other spiritual writing through which they hope to hear what God is saying. Others simply sit in silence. The service ends with a blessing and some more short hymns.

I cannot recommend the practice enough. Like the Ancient Israelites, we have a sign of the presence of God (and not merely a metaphorical one) in the consecrated host. We even have a pillar of cloud in the form of incense at the side of the altar!

If you are interested, please do join us at 4pm on Fridays in the Benedict Chapel. If a whole hour doesn’t sound appealing to you, you might want to quietly duck in and out for a shorter time. Please feel free to ask any of us any questions you might have about it.

Whether or not the idea of Holy Hour is appealing to you (and my advertisement is over now): it is important to find a way to rest with, and listen to, God that works for you and brings you into closer alignment with Christ.

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4) My Recent Movements

I began tonight by saying that these readings had spoken to my recent experience, but you’ll have noticed I haven’t said anything much about that yet. I’ll now offer some thoughts on the topic to conclude.

I’ve been standing up here encouraging you to listen to God as though I’m some kind of expert on the matter. This is a bit silly given that I’m much newer to the faith than most of you. But, even moreso, I am terrible at listening to God. I am not the kind of person who is comfortable saying God says this or God says that and am always ready to explain away any sense of God’s saying something. My sceptical mind often goes back to an acquaintance at high school who told his girlfriend at the time that God said they’d be together forever… Of course, she broke up with him the next day.

But sometimes in prayer, ideas fix themselves in your mind with a kind of external force. One such thought that would recur to me in prayer was ‘Go Home’, my response was always. ‘Yes, eventually’ or to explain it away by saying to myself ‘ah, I see I must be a bit homesick.’ But sometimes God forces our hand. It turned out I was going to have to go home.

This hiccup has all, from my perspective anyway, turned out for the best. I now have a home church in New Zealand, which I have not had for a long time and I’ve had a much needed chance to reconnect with family and friends. I’ve also come back more secure in myself and more ready to throw myself into the work of the community. I am very much looking forward to the coming year.

This isn’t exactly a case like the Ancient Israelites, who moved and encamped following the command of the Lord. I was less following the cloud than being pushed by a wind from behind. Perhaps things would have been easier if I had followed the command when I heard it… Who knows?

In any case, I thank you all for your patience in dealing with a lay brother who was here one minute and gone the next and I hope that you will continue to pray for me and for the whole Holywell Community that we will, as the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict says, ‘listen with the ear[s] of [our] heart[s]’ to what God is saying to us.

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Morning Sermon

This Lent, members of  the Anglican congregations in Abergavenny will share how they use the gifts God has given them to further their faith and proclaim his Gospel.

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As part of the Proclaim it afresh initiative, the series will look at how the individuals have followed the example of the Book of Ecclesiastes (4.10) , which says “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might”.

From Sunday March 10th – 31st each will preach here at St Mary’s Priory Church at 11am (and at Christchurch at 9am, St Peter’s at 10am and at Holy Trinity at 10.30am) on how they have used the gifts God has given them to proclaim the Gospel.

Local artist Jez Thomas is well known locally for his unique style of painting.  He has started on a series of paintings illuminating the gospel story, which can be viewed at St. Mary’s.

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Jez at work

Originally from Zimbabwe (S. Rhodesia), Liz Brown is an artist who works with textiles. She has made hangings for the hospital chapel at Nevill Hall Hospital, the Baptistry at St Mary’s Priory Church, St Peter’s Church, the Holywell Community House among many others.  She fled from Mugabe’s Zimbabawe to settle in South Wales.

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Liz’s Baptistry hangings

Diane Williams is the South Wales Trainer for Godly play and  was a founder Leader of our Parent and Toddler Group Little Footprints.  She is passionate about nurturing children’s spirituality.

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Diane leads Godly Play

Cllr Sheila Woodhouse is currently Vice Chairman of Monmouthshire County Council. As well as being Sub Warden at Christchurch, North Street she is very involved in Voluntary work in the town, including Gateway Club, Nevill hall Hospital League of Friends and The Royal  Voluntary Service.

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Sheila (right) being installed as Mayor of Abergavenny

Commenting on the series, Canon Mark Soady said, ” I hope others who ‘sit in the pews’ will be inspired by these talks, and empowered to became part of proclaiming the Gospels afresh – one does not need to be Ordained to be proclaimers, as our speakers prove”.

Evening Sermon

Canon Mark Soady will take us through the Letter to the Hebrews at Evening Sermons during Lent.

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Preaching at The Christian Unity Service for the Abergavenny Council of Churches, its President the Revd Catherine Lewis likened Unity to being – in laws

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The Local Methodist Minister, The Revd Catherine Lewis said:

When friends and family who are not linked to church in anyway ask me about all the different denominations and why, I find the easiest way to explain is this.
We are all part of the same family, but are a little bit like in -laws – that is each church or denomination does things a bit differently and understands things a bit differently but we are still part of the one family – part of the one Holy Catholic Church – and believe in Jesus and follow Jesus Christ.

One of the wonderful things about weeks like this one – the week of prayer for Christian unity, where we have family’ get together’ if you like –  is that although we may gather to worship and  to eat together – what we do on each occasion  is share in the recognition that Jesus is Lord, and of course we share that recognition with Cleopas and the other one as we heard in our reading from Luke’s gospel -…..that  recognition that Jesus Christ is our Lord and is God.

There is the recognition that we have more in common, as we recognise that central foundation of Christian faith than in which we differ. And this means that we can and do work together. We recognise that we should work together to show Jesus’ love in our communities and to live lives together that show mercy and love, as we walk humbly together and fight injustice.
Jesus calls us to be one, the body of Christ.

The Bible passages for today were chosen by the churches of Indonesia – a country which of course has seen terrible natural disasters last year, earthquakes and tsunami’s. A country, a people whom perhaps we have been praying for. The passage from Deut esp. speaks of their theme of justice.

The churches of Indonesia speak from a place where there is a large diversity, both ethnic and religious diversity. Diversity between rich and poor. To be united as Christians is needed, there and here.
There is economic injustice in Indonesia, being unified they can challenge this together – and this week we join them in that challenge – and we pray for them and stand in solidarity with them.

The literature we have from  Churches together in Britain and Ireland for this week …reminds us that

Indonesia, is the largest country in South East Asia, and is made up of more than 17,000 islands, 1,340 different ethnic groups and over 740 local languages. It is united  by one national language Bahasa Indonesia. Some 86% of its 260 million people estimated to be Muslim, Indonesia has the largest Islamic population of any country. About 10% of Indonesians are Christian from various traditions, as well as Buddhist and Hindu communities. The nation is founded on five principles called Pancasila, with the motto Bhineka Tunggal IkaUnity in Diversity. Across the diversity of ethnicity, language and religion, Indonesians have lived by the principle of “solidarity and by collaboration”. This means sharing in all aspects of life, regarding all Indonesians as brothers and sisters.

I wonder if in choosing this passage from Deuteronomy were they seeking to remind both us and themselves of how God has been with them in the past, how God has sustained his people?
Deuto purpose , Moses’ words – were to remind the people of what God had done for them in the past, that he was a faithful God, that God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt – and to remind them to recognise that and to recognise that they needed to keep their dedication, hope and focus in God.

The people of Indonesia must have needed this sort of reminder again and again in recent times with the natural disasters they have suffered. we continue to pray for them and for other places, such as Zimbabwe of course.

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Ministers of the town pray the final prayer at the Unity Service

In Indonesia harmony between the different people groups can be very fragile .

.The principle – to ”live in solidarity and by collaboration” sits ill at ease with the approach to economics that has led to Indonesia’s economic growth – with that has come corruption that infects politics and business, often with devastating effects on the environment. Meanwhile those who are supposed to promote justice and protect the weak fail to do so. As a consequence, a country rich in resources bears the burden of many people living in poverty. This is reflected in a traditional Indonesian saying, “A mouse dies of hunger in a barn full of rice”. Particular ethnic and religious groups are often associated with wealth in ways that have fed tensions. As a result the radicalization that pits one community against another has grown and is exacerbated by the misuse of social media to demonize particular communities.

At a time in the UK where there is an increase in people needing to use food banks and more people, being homeless that traditional saying ‘ A mouse dies of hunger in a barn full of rice ‘ – might ring true for the UK as well. this passage from Deut  might well be a good for us to hear as well – whatever may be happening politically in the UK and EU at the moment God is with us, God will never forsake us .

In the Book of Deuteronomy  we hear this of the Passover festivities

11 Rejoice before the Lordyour God—you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are among you—at the place that the Lordyour God will choose as a dwelling for his name

and this verse

14 Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows resident in your towns.

twice in that short passage – we hear that we are to rejoice with others during festival times – and to share with others. Family, male and female, friends, neighbours, strangers, those in need. Slaves and free. We hear also – remember that YOU WERE slaves. In this week of WPCU – we remember that we are to rejoice in the good times with others, to share and help others – and to pray and walk with those suffering. We are reminded that gathering as we do for our Christmas, Easter, WPCU events are not just for us to share in celebration – but so that we may impact our town, our communities.

Including the stranger in the midst …the person who may have no idea what we are about perhaps? why all these denominations and churches?

In response and in recognition that others need help, strangers and friends,  family and slaves, Moses encourages the people to give as they can at Passover – about ten percent.. don’t just celebrate – do something – change things! Help others. Don’t just attend meetings and services – build relationships, see where you / we can work together.

Often when we think about that 10 per cent, we think of ten percent of money in our terms today – but maybe it can be something else in our time poor society! ten percent can be time – not just money – someone who works a long week maybe able to give money to a charity – or church  – others who work less hours – less money but more time –

someone who cannot get out and about could write letters , sign petitions , pray –

we can all do our bit as churches together and as individual, churches and people. Add our ten percents together.

Let’s pause to consider what we can do……….

So today as we gather together to rejoice that ADCC do work together – in many areas,
as we remember, as we recognise and celebrate the Ecumenical work of churches across UK,
such as food banks, night shelters,  Christian Aid week, schools work, in hospitals, in prisons, in workplace chaplaincies, and to mark special occasions and festivals  – Remembrance,

may we remember – it takes time, it takes effort – it takes us all.

We are challenged to take it further – and as we do – may we recognise Jesus with us –

Luke 24:14 – 16 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them.

Amen

 Words in italics either scripture or from Christians Together In Britain and Ireland resources for WPCU.

 

 

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THE main Week of Prayer Service for Abergavenny will be held here on Saturday, January 19th at 2pm. The President of the Council of Churches, Methodist Minister Revd Catherine Lewis, will preach on the week’s theme of Justice.

 

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Other services during the week will be held each day at 12noon. We will visit churches of different denominations each day and hear ‘What special gifts they bring’ to the church.

Friday 18th January – Our Lady and St Michael’s RC Church

Monday 21st January – Salvation Army
Tuesday 22nd January – Castle Street Methodist Church
Wednesday 23rd January – Castle Street United Reformed Church
Thursday 24th January – Abergavenny Baptist Church
Friday 25th January – Holy Trinity Anglican Church

 

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Sunday, January 6th

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8am Holy Eucharist

9.30am All Age Worship

11am Sung Eucharist

Evensong at 6pm will be sung at our daughter Church of Christchurch, North Street

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