The usual pattern of services is:
10.30am Choral Parish Eucharist
We are currently worshipping in person in church as well as streaming the service over Facebook. There is no singing at present due to virus risks.
Please note: the following events and services are currently suspended due to the Corona Virus pandemic. Please check back for updates.
6.30pm St Mark's Horizon Voices Community Choir (Term time)
8pm Pints of View at the Elgin Pub, Maida Vale
10:00-11:30 Little Lions
12:30pm Coffee Hour
7pm BCP Eucharist
St Mark's Hamilton Terrace
St Mark's Church
114 Hamilton Terrace
Please call the Administrator on: 020 7624 4065 to enquire about bookings.
To discuss weddings, Christenings or to speak to a priest for any other reason Tel: 020 7328 4373 (vicar) Please note: the vicar is unable to help with hall bookings.
E-mail the parish office on: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or use our contact form.
The Rock and The Stumbling Block
Trinity 13 (6th September 2020). (Matthew 16.21-28)
Last week we heard about Peter being the rock on which the church would be built. That wonderful idea of a solid place. Remember the song that you may have sung in Sunday School: The wise man built his house upon the rock …
But now we hear Peter, that same rock, referred to as a stumbling-block. He’s told that he is getting in the way and causing problems. He’s causing hurt – we all know what it’s like to stumble against a stone. Stubbed toes are one of the worst pains known to man, surely! There are lots of worse pains known to women, of course ...
So, the foundation of the church becomes a stumbling block to Christ. That is huge! I wonder how often that can be said to be true today. This rock we use to build our faith on … that we attend week after week … that we learn from and grow our values from … can it be a stumbling block to God’s work?
When Jesus is saying what he is about to face, Peter’s first reaction is to say “No. That’s not going to happen”. It’s what we all want to say when someone tells us something really uncomfortable, isn’t it? It’s a very human reaction. We hope that the worst won’t happen and turn that into an assertion that, under God, the worst CAN’T happen. “No, of course your Dad will get better”. “I’m sure you want have another miscarriage. You have suffered too much already”. “Everything will be fine”.
I heard this referred to as toxic positivity this week. This sort of positivity, whilst it comes from a place of hope, denies the reality of the person in that space. It denies the fears of the person pregnant for the third of fourth time who has never held their own living child. It denies pain of the person diagnosed with terminal cancer. And it even denies the oppression that people experience “I’m sure no one will look at your name on your CV and decide that you won’t be able to speak English clearly enough to bother interviewing…”. “no one at the school will even notice that your child has two mums, never mind make nasty comments about it”.
And when we deny those issues, we don’t deal with them.
Even worse, this kind of toxic positivity can lead to a particularly pernicious kind of victim blaming. When the church, modelled in one of us, says ‘you will be fine’, any failure can be seen as a failure to have faith. The miscarriage example I cited earlier … I was told “It will all be fine. Just keep the faith”. And it wasn’t fine. Was that because I didn’t keep enough faith? Was it my fault because I simply didn’t hope enough?
We’ve all fallen into the trap of encouraging people to fight terminal illness – they are strong. They will be OK. When people lose their battle … is it their fault because they didn’t fight hard enough?
It’s so tempting to take away our own discomfort when someone shares
fear or pain with us. When someone puts in front of us something which seems hopeless, we are people of hope and we want to share that hope.
But not to acknowledge that we are in a fallen and broken world where things go wrong and the good guy doesn’t always win, is lying. It’s a blind faith which puts everything into the hands of God and refuses to see our part in the cause of issues … and our place in fixing them. It puts a stumbling block in the way of our calling as people of God.
Comfort is not Christian. We don’t become Christians because it makes our lives easier. We become Christian because we see in God a way to change what is wrong. We ARE people of hope, and we are people who believe in joy and a better world. But we are not people of magic. We are people who put our heart and soul into making a difference. Good thoughts, we know, don’t change anything. We are called to work for change. And part of that calling is to notice where things are not as they should be.
We might not be able to change a cancer diagnosis (although I would never rule out miracles!), but we can change the experience of a person living with terminal cancer. We can hold that space with them. We may not be able to ensure with a wave of our hands that there will never again be discrimination. But we can stand with those who have experienced it … seeing them and believing them. We can shout about it and be part of the cause of a change of hearts. We can be the ones who are brave enough to acknowledge pain, fear and discomfort … who have the confidence to say “this is rubbish” rather than lie about the state of the world and pretend it will all be fine without intervention. We have to name the issues. And we have to sit in that uncomfortable space sometimes as the only people who will hold the hands of those who can’t hope.
The Keys of Heaven - Trinity 11 (23rd August 2020). (Matthew 16.13-20)
A young couple, in the first flush of love, die and go up to the Pearly Gates. St Peter is there to welcome them and says “you can have anything you like here. What can I do to welcome you?”. The couple think for a moment then say, “we’ve only just started dating but it’s so lovely to be with each other. Can we get married here?” St Peter says “well, in theory, I suppose so. But it’s not going to be the easiest thing.” The couple beg him, so he tells them to wait where they are and goes off. Hours pass … days pass … weeks pass … months pass …
Finally he comes back with a priest at his side. “Yes”, he says. “I’ve arranged it. Father John here will sort out your wedding for you.
Well, a year passes and the couple have realised that maybe they were a little hasty and they really hadn’t known each other well enough and shouldn’t be together. So they go back to St Peter.
The groom says “we tried really hard, but I don’t think I can stand eternity married to her”.
St Peter throws down his quill in exasperation.
The bride says “I’m sure divorce isn’t something you approve of but I’m sure you don’t want us to be miserable in heaven”.
St Peter says, “no. it’s not that. It’s just … well, you saw how long it took me to find a priest up here. Can you imagine how long it’s going to take me to find a lawyer?!”
What would you do with the keys of Heaven?
We have this image of Peter being the gatekeeper. We see him as some sort of angelic bouncer – checking the list and working out who’s allowed in and who’s sent to ‘the other place’. He’s there holding the keys to keep Heaven safe - keeping the gates locked to keep out those deemed undesirable or undeserving. Making sure the sinners get their punishment and the good get their reward. With that image, it’s no wonder we can tell jokes about how some types of people are not likely to be well represented among the saints around the throne.
But I wonder why we see him this way. It’s a rich image to see St Peter holding the keys, but locking doors is not the only thing we can use keys for. We use keys at least as often to unlock, as we do to lock. And once we’ve unlocked a door … we can hold the keys to prevent it from being locked again.
Once we have a door wide open, there is the chance for anyone who wishes to, to enter. An open door is welcoming. An open door can show a glimpse inside and entice people in for a closer look.
When Jesus asked the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah and had promised the keys of heaven to Peter he gave the disciples the permission to open the door so that all could see inside. This was the moment that Jesus declared that the Kingdom was there for anyone to see and to be a part of if they wished.
People had been saying who they believed Jesus to be. They were defining Him in terms of other people, other work that had been done in God’s name. Now, the disciples had seen something different. Here, Peter is saying that they recognise that Jesus is something that has never gone before. They don’t need to place him in a line of others – to explain his work and character in terms of tradition. They understand that He is a new revelation of God. And this is what the church will be built on.
This is the turning point – the point of no return. Now we see Jesus as the Messiah, revealed not by what flesh and blood has revealed, but by what God Himself has revealed.
Through Christ the gates of heaven have been opened and we now have the key.
We can tell anyone we like who believe Jesus is. We can stand on street corners with a placard and preach through a megaphone. We can tweet endlessly that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour. We can put it something in our email signature about being washed in the blood of the lamb … do it if you like, especially if it is a reminder to you how He has changed your life. But that is not the way that others will get to know Jesus. They will only see the Messiah if they see his work. They will only see him if we allow the kingdom to be seen through our character, through his work through us, through His continuing revelation in our world. We can be the people who allow others to see what God is revealing – to recognise the Messiah for themselves. And we can choose to hold the keys to prevent Heaven from ever being locked again.
The Canaanite Woman - Trinity 10 (16th August 2020). (Matthew 15.21-28)
This is a curious Gospel reading. If I was in charge of Jesus’ PR I think I’d have asked Matthew to tear it up, if I’m honest. It doesn’t exactly show him in the best light. Jesus actually seems pretty rude, doesn’t he?
But this is an amazing Gospel reading and there is more than one miracle here.
In this, we see my two favourite pieces of scripture coming together. Don’t worry – I’m not going to test you. My first is “the Word became flesh”. Those words that describe the Incarnation. Flesh. Not God wearing a human skin like some overcoat … but God actually being as human as you and me. Flesh … in our dirty, messy world … living our dirty, messy lives.
That human man was faced with a person that his culture had traditionally hated. I can’t overplay the problems between the ancient Jewish tribes and the Canaanites. There was no room for them. They were the lowest of the low … the Godless ones who the Jews of the Old Testament believed should be erased from the Promised Land. And they believed that God hated them too. Even in Jesus time, the ancient enmity still lingered. It’s interesting to note that, by the time this account was written, the term ‘Canaanite’ would have been as out of date and non-pc as if we referred to a native American as a Red Indian now. So the fact that Jesus responds that way is quite some way from the loving Jesus we want to see.
A man treating a woman who asks him for help as nothing … dirt … nothing more than a dog … He is siding with culture and his own people.
Do his reasons for refusing to help sound familiar to you? He effectively says, “We should be helping our own first”. It’s very like “They’re given things when people who have been here all their lives are in poverty”. “There isn’t enough to go around so we should be saying no to these people landing on our shores and sending them back”. We’ve heard so much of this recently … read it in newspapers, seen it on social media as the boats come in from the channel …
And it’s not just about asylum seekers. That feeling that there are us and there are them. That some people are worth more than others. There are people who are in our group and people who are out.
There may be extreme ends of these views, but, in one way or another we are all subject to our cultural norms. That is part of being human. We all have our ‘dogs’ … our ‘canaanites’. So Jesus’ response to this woman is … very human …
But then, instead of the woman turning away and going home, she throws Jesus’ words back at him. She talks to him. And he listens. When he listens, he sees something in her. Something different from what he has been led to believe about ‘her kind’. He sees the human who is like him and has needs and dignity. Listening softens his heart and suddenly we see the Jesus we recognise – the Jesus who has compassion for those who others reject.
This is the Jesus who embodies the loving qualities of God.
This is where we see my other favourite piece of scripture; the Magnificat – the song of Mary, where she rejoices in a God who exalts the oppressed and frees the captive. I’ve said many times here that this is the theology that Jesus would have learnt at his mother’s knee.
As he listens to this hated foreign dog, Jesus’ human heart is changed.
The qualities of God – those Mary sang about - take shape in him and, whilst still fully human, the man has become more God like.
He heals her daughter. That’s probably the most obvious miracle. But I believe the biggest miracle … the one which gives us most hope … is the miracle of the changing heart and mind. Surely that’s the lesson here. I often say that God came to live among us to understand humanity fully – to know who we are so that we have confidence there is nothing He doesn’t know about our human existence. But He also came to show us how to change from the fallen humans we had become, to realise ourselves as the humans he originally created us to be.
God’s love is unchanging. His love is the love of the Magnificat – caring for those we may easier see as ‘others’. But Jesus shows us that our human hearts can be changed. And the hearts of others can be changed too. If we approach each person as an individual, if we take away the labels with all their cultural baggage and connotations, if we simply listen to each person’s story, recognising the God created humanity in everyone, we will connect with God’s nature inside ourselves and grow more like Him, our Lord and Saviour … the Lord and Saviour of ALL for the sake of His kingdom.
Wheat and Weeds - Trinity 6. (Matthew 13.24-30,36-43)
But this week we are moving on from the quality of the soil to the quality … or maybe, more accurately the nature … of the seed.
And this time, the seed is people. People of God and people of the enemy … evil.
And so we see a field which is intended to be full of wheat which will provide nourishment and only good things. While we sleep, something else is added which will not provide any of that.
Isn’t it natural for the workers to want to go out and rip that crop up? To get rid of the weeds that have grown up alongside the crop?
This week you may have caught in the news that three new bishops have been consecrated (all following best COVID aware practice, I might add). It should have been a joyful occasion for the church. I think it was. Yet within that, as we have seen so many times, it’s actually shown huge amounts of division.
You see, one of these new bishops was a woman … and one was a traditionalist who cannot in conscience accept the ordained ministry of women. And so all of the old arguments have been dredged up again. And all the old pain has come up again. Wounds have been opened up.
And this is only one of the subjects that the Anglican church (let alone all of the other denominations) has not been able to come to full agreement on. I’m sure I don’t need to cite all of them, but we know there are differences in opinion on sexuality, pro-life vs pro-choice, political differences etc, etc, etc … it’s all there.
You can see, I’m sure, why this has all struck a chord with me as I sat down to write on this week’s Gospel. If we look at the field of the church, there is a huge amount of inter-mixing of seeds going on. And I’ve heard, on most of these issues, calls for the weeds to be ripped up.
But let’s not get carried away here. The weeds in the parable are commonly believed to be darnel. That is a seed which looks almost identical to wheat. Even fully grown, its crop is not so dissimilar that it’s easy to distinguish. I read it described as wheat’s evil twin. It is poisonous and can induce a drunken-like state (in fact, its Latin name ‘temulentum’ comes from the Latin word for drunk). And it has been used throughout history for those very properties. So it’s not entirely useless!
But we can see why the workers want to get rid of it. But what’s harder to understand is, why doesn’t the farmer?
Well, that parable tells us that the roots are intertwined and that destroying one would destroy the other.
Instead the farmer wants us to leave it … to let it be. I’d actually suggest that there is an argument for more than that. The Greek word used for ‘leave’ has a number of meanings, a common one of which is ‘forgive’. This suggests so much more than simply letting the weeds get on with growing as the wheat gets on with growing … it suggests living together in love and harmony … forgiving, and forgiven. And, extending the metaphor even further, allowing for the possibility that evolution may yet allow us to gain from each other.
This parable is the best argument I know for fighting for unity and love within the worldwide Anglican Communion rather than wishing it would split into its little factions.
And let’s not forget that the workers who want to pull the weeds out are not the same as the harvesters who will eventually separate the two crops out.
The intention is clear here. We are not the ones who are meant to be clearing out people from the church we do not agree with. We are meant to be living in love and forgiveness with each other. When it’s hard to determine which is the proper ‘wheat’ and which is the ‘darnel’, we are not best placed to be doing that. After all, we always need to consider the fact that, where both crops believe they are the wheat, there is, logically, always one who will be mistaken. Let’s leave it in the hands of the angels, whilst focussing on being the best possible wheat we know how.
The Parable of the Sower - Trinity 5 (Matthew 13.1-9,18-23)
So, how many times have you heard the parable of the sower? And how many times have you been led to reflect on your heart as the soil, just waiting for the seeds? And we all know that we are the fortunate good soil providing fertile ground for God’s word to find nourishment and to grow, don’t we? It’s quite a comforting little story. It doesn’t really demand anything from us, other than an awareness that we’re ok … and that God will still try to reach out to those who will never have ears …. It’s a wonderful affirmation that God spreads His love to all – that there is no scarcity when it comes to what he wants to give to the world and to us. No human farmer would be so careless as to throw valuable seed where it has no hope of flourishing … but God does. He doesn’t count the cost. He just continues to give again and again.
There is nothing wrong with that comforting story. But I don’t think it’s the whole story here.
How about we take a step back?
The seed, we know is God’s word. The soil is human hearts. The sower is Christ. But, instead of just thinking about what we get out of this transaction and sitting in a nice warm glow, how about we extend the thinking a little?
As many of you know, the vicarage garden has needed a huge amount of work doing on it. Over lockdown, David has valiantly stepped in and worked really hard on it. This time last year we had a couple of roses pushing through. An apple tree suffering from some kind of disease. Loads of ivy taking over every inch it could and some brambles. That’s pretty much all you could see. Now we have beautiful healthy rose bushes with vibrant and fragrant flowers, a tree full of small apples growing bigger every day, fuscias, jasmine, clematis, lavendar … more flowers and more colour than I could have ever imagined in there. It’s beautiful. Really beautiful.
But without that work nothing would have changed.
I have to say, though. He hasn’t planted a single thing. What he has done is spent days and weeks of back breaking work pulling up weeds and the plants which were choking the others out and shading things which needed the sun. He’s moved a couple of plants into better environments where they get more sun. He’s poured fertiliser on the soil and dug it in. He’s broken up the soil, moved big rocks, got rid of rotten branches … and life has come back. What was planted by others has been able to find life and health.
And that’s our role in God’s mission. God is generous and pours out his love for all – great big handfuls scattered far and wide. But it needs work. From the earliest days of faith we, his created humans, have been seen as gardeners for God. Right back from the Genesis story… We can see that as a description of what went wrong when we, instead of joining in God’s work and tending the soil, making all creation ready to flourish under his love, took our own concerns more seriously and just focussed on sustaining ourselves.
We need to make sure the soil of other people’s hearts is cared for. We need to move the rocks that have piled up on people’s shoulders, cut away the weeds that choke people’s belief in what they can achieve, make them safe from those who would oppress and harm them. We need to nourish others – to care for their hearts even when the fruit, like that from our apple tree last year, does not look beautiful or useful. We need to look to see the potential in the soil that others present us with and work towards making it ready to receive the seed of God’s word. All soil is ultimately good. It needs care and it needs kindness. We need to be ready to facilitate healing even when it looks like we haven’t made the slightest difference. It’s back breaking. But that work will pay dividends and the kingdom will bear wonderful fruit and the most amazing beauty because of it.