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Passion Sunday 2020


We have a very active grandson, currently under lockdown with his younger sister.  Joshua loves practical challenges and aged nine – revels in Lego.  He has inherited his collection from parents and uncles in a variety of boxes so it is not clear to him which instructions he should be following, which picture to copy.  Truth to tell, he loves to embellish the design anyway, giving vent to his creative imagination. 

All of this is fine until his sister brushes by and – accidentally – knocks over this fantastic creation.  Then there is war in the playroom: tears, scraps and a dark mood descends until a more positive moment arrives when re-building can commence. But how will Joshua re-build?



Children’s play explores real life in miniature but few of us would have expected real life to arrive in the form of this current crisis.  It is almost unimaginable. We are now leaning to live a new sort of life. For how long, who knows?  But in the here and now, life is rapidly changing and so have our expectations.  This is a global change. We have heard how smog is lifting from China, pollution is dispersing over Italy and the canals of Venice are becoming cleaner.  And values are shifting. We look forward to an unexpected phone call; we ache for a daily walk; a tour round the garden brings greater pleasure.

At the same time as this terrible pandemic is being fought with all its practical implications and sad consequences, we are all trying to grasp its meaning at a different level. Moral, financial, spiritual as well as physical re-calibration is happening. The Prime Minister is talking about morality; new initiatives are springing up across the Benefice; we are all exploring a different register in our lives: a spiritual level.



Passion Sunday marks the start of the run-in towards Easter. Some churches on Passion Sunday distribute nails to bring home the message of suffering on the cross. For the meaning of ‘passion’ is not just fired-up emotion but ‘suffering alongside’ as we believe that Jesus came to do: to share our lives and lead us in a more positive direction. It was costly, just as so many NHS staff are sacrificially serving us all at the present time.  One man working in the Respiratory Department at Papworth Hospital with relations in one of our villages is not allowed to go home to his family for fear of infecting the patients.

The gospel reading for Passion Sunday describes the death of one of Jesus’s close friends, Lazarus (John 11. 1 – 45). His sister Martha rips into Jesus, saying that Lazarus would not have died had Jesus visited sooner. We can see in Martha’s reaction so much of the panic which grips some folk in today’s crisis. But Jesus’ reply is instructive.  He moves the discussion into that deeper register and suggests to her that Lazarus, as a friend of Jesus, shares in that quality of life which we call eternal. It is not ended at death.

We are all taking our part in this Coronavirus prevention, foregoing many normal freedoms.  There is a growing sensitivity one to another; a greater sharing of burdens. This is Passion-tide when we share in the sufferings of Jesus as he approaches death. He also shares our sufferings. Eternal life is reciprocal: ‘He in us and we in Him’ (John 14.20). There will come a time for re-building but now is the time of shared suffering and suffering shared is suffering halved.

But how will we re-build this tumbled edifice? How will Joshua re-configure his Lego?  That lovely story of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel chapter 37) give us a clue. Bones scattered and isolated is not a living entity. It is only when the Spirit comes that they join together and live. Will we bounce back in the same form after this crisis?  I hope not.  This time of isolation, suffering and reflection must suggest a different way to live. Amen.


Christopher Armstrong.

Mothering Sunday Sermon

Mothering Sunday Sermon

Mothering Sunday  Sermon

John 19: 25-27(NRSV) 

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 

26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 

27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Let me just check if there is anyone here who really should be here!

If you are a mother, please raise a hand? OK hands down

Anybody here – If you were baptised or Christened at this Church please raise a hand?

So which group is right?

The answer is everyone is welcome and everyone here should be here but Mothering Sunday historically has a special place for those who were christened and who returned and if they were in service as many were when this tradition developed this was the one day each year they might expect to get back to their home church and back then where you grew up was probably where you were christened and in all probability where your parents still lived so you may well see and stay with your mother on your return, if she was still alive. But the mother in mothering Sunday refers not to going home to see your Mum, though chances are you did but going back to your mother church. And this term was used variously to describe the church of your christening and also the diocesan cathedral. So I have seen old church records of bequests from this county made in wills to the mother church which there meant the diocesan cathedral and in view of their age that mother church was Lincoln whose diocese famously stretched from the Humber to the Thames. Often small amounts tuppence or sixpence but they all added up across such a vast area. I have often wondered how many of them ever visited Lincoln Cathedral? I suspect not many. But it was the mother church.

Last year I met a volunteer at our current cathedral – Peterborough and she was passionate about the cathedral, while not declaring any Christian faith, she nevertheless described the cathedral in essentially spiritual terms. It was like a great blanket covering and protecting her she said with the sense of all the souls who have inhabited the Abbey over the centuries. She was passionate about the mother church and because of that passion she gave of her time resource and really loved it. And we like that about our mothers too. Wanting as children to bring Mum breakfast in bed on Mothering Sunday or draw a picture or find some flowers. We need to do something. And Jesus hanging on that dreadful cross as his mortal life sapped from him sees John, the disciple who Jesus loved standing beside Mary and said behold your mother and to Mary; woman behold your son. We know Jesus had a brother James and yet his passion for the wellbeing of his mother leads him to make this statement from the cross. Woman behold your Son. To secure her future care and love and at the height of his passion and pain to focus his earthly passion on his mother. And we see that love and passion for mothers repeated in every generation. Not always – sometimes it is tough, sometimes that love is shattered or abused but generally that parent child love and devotion is echoed down the centuries.

So how do we apply that same passion, that same love to the mother church? Indeed do we? What is our passion? What “floats our boat”? Our favourite football or rugby team? Our favourite TV or film celebrity or band? Our car? Our pet? And how much time and money do we lavish on our passion?

The French writer and aviator Antione de St Exupéry wrote this – strangely about boat building!

“If you want to build a ship. Don’t summon people to be workers, to prepare tools, distribute jobs and organise their work. Rather motivate people to yearn for the wide boundless ocean.”

If you want to grow your Church’s income and resources. Don’t summons them to Church and browbeat them into stewardship but tell them the Gospel and the love that Jesus has for them worked out in His Church. Does that seem a fair comparison with the quote of Antione de St Exupéry? I suggest it might be.

Growing churches often have growing incomes available and resources to deliver mission. Manchester United is a very popular football team far more popular than my local football team, Barnet football club where supporters were known to walk out of the game during the match even when Barnet were winning, which admittedly was not that often! Whereas Manchester United supporters go around in the red and white club strip, travel hundreds of miles to get to Old Trafford, pay extortionate gate fees whether their team win or lose. Because they are passionate about their club. Much the same could be said of passionate collectors of whatever and people passionate about their hobbies. Are we passionate about Jesus and what he has done for us? As passionate as we might be for the wellbeing of our own mothers?

I saw this story in a recent flyer from a medical charity about a woman in Old Fangak in South Sudan, beside the White Nile.

A woman came into the clinic in this remote swampy area. It was the rainy season although it seems that makes little difference these days and the Marram runway was now mud and incapable of being used. The mother was haemorrhaging and losing dangerous amounts of blood. She was a mother and had 5 children in her care. They had come with her but her condition was worsening and in danger. The children were all tested for blood types as supplies were so low and they brought in as many people as they could to give blood if they were suitable and found 3 but it was not enough. The woman needed surgical procedures that would have to be done in the capital Juba but they could not get her flown out. I have driven a car in such conditions and it is pretty scary an aeroplane would be out of the question. It would take days to cross by boat and land to get to Juba and there are no good roads. The woman did not have a few days. Then news came in that a helicopter was passing nearby the next day and they offered to winch the woman up and fly her to Juba. Within a week she had been treated, recovered and that mother was starting her 500km journey back to her family.

There is no suggestion that the Doctor who wrote this account was a Christian but his observation was that it was the generosity, passion and commitment of this mother’s family, friends and professional carers that saved her. That same word again – passion and linked here with generosity. Features we see at this time each year, Mothering Sunday and features we need to see throughout the year for the Bride of Christ which is the Church – the mother church.

I finish with a quote from the Confessions of Augustine – he of Hippo, which was a town in North Africa, not a reference to his horselike features (although photography was pretty useless in the 4th century!)  “You called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flamed, you blazed and being led in my blunders you lavished your fragrance – AND I GASPED!”


Ash Wednesday 2020.The Benefice Service, Barrowden

Ash Wednesday 2020.The Benefice Service, Barrowden

Ash Wednesday 2020.The Benefice Service, Barrowden

“When you fast…wash your face.” Mt.6.17.


Contrary to Scripture?

In a few moments, we will kneel at the altar rail for the Imposition of Ashes.  Will we be disobeying scripture by doing so?  On first reading the wearing of ashes is being outlawed by St. Matthew. Why then are we doing it?

Matthew was a Jew who was called by Jesus from the tax office to follow him.  He knew the Jewish tradition inside out, including their pattern of fasting which – as we have heard – was very public: standing on the street corners with long prayers, looking miserable and a bit scruffy. It was these empty gestures which Jesus criticised yet he didn’t come to abolish but to fulfil the Law.  And we too are called to fulfil the Jewish law, including the call to repentance and we will do so with Christ, in Christ, through Christ, and in the company of one another.

The Jews in Jesus’ day wore ash on their heads but attitudes were soon to change in the church. After the resurrection and the growing popularity of the Christian church, the Romans were very edgy about this new group. The cross was a dangerous sign to be wearing and could result in arrest or worse. So the Christians adopted a secret sign – the fish – the Greek for which was an acrostic for Jesus: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’. We can find it today on Christian pottery and in the catacombs. It was only after Christianity became legal with the Emperor Constantine that the cross became popular – and so it remains to this day, or almost so. It reminds us of the hope into which we are baptised and in which we stand together, with that invisible cross on our foreheads. Ash Wednesday is one of those principal days in the Christian Year when we are called to stand together. This cross reminds us that we are dust but dust destined for glory. It is still a gathering point for revolution.  We only have to reflect upon the fate of Christians in China, Russia or Pakistan.



There is strength in numbers, however we identify with each other.

Just before the birth of Jesus, the Romans had to tackle a revolution in their own ranks led by a gladiator called Spartacus.  The Romans were desperate to stamp this out so rounded up their gladiators and demanded that Spartacus identify himself. Otherwise they would all be put to death. He did. He stood up and acknowledged his name. But then, so did others, all of whom were called Spartacus, until the whole hillside was bristling with men called Spartacus. It’s an inspiring story and one beloved of revolutionaries. That story has been immortalized not just in film but in an overture by Saint Saens. It has a dark, brooding start in a minor key but then gathers to a finale with crashing percussion, brass and trumpets.



And so Christ’s will is for us to carry through Lent identifying with him and with each other to the glorious finale which is Easter Day.  Jesus used the word ‘hypocrite’ to describe those who faked their fast.  The word means actor, pretender, dissembler. And we can fall under that criticism too if we are not prepared to see this journey through.

A hypocrite would not change. He or she would carry on just as before. But the cross calls us to repent or change direction; to take on board the way of the cross. It is never too late. Normally one has to change and change again; to keep on following the cross, with the support of Christ and one another. Newman said, ‘To live is to change and to be perfect is to change often’.

This cross of dust reminds us of our mortality. It also reminds us of that invisible cross of baptism which – like Spartacus – binds us together in glory.




‘Give us Today our Daily Bread’

Christmas I Benefice Service, 29 December 2019.

Give us today Our Daily Bread.


Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which means ‘House of Bread’.  So when Jesus responded to his disciple’s request to teach them to pray, this connection would doubtless have been in his mind.

Give us this day our daily bread’ is a phrase that will have been on the lips of millions around the world during this Christmas period especially.  For us who use it regularly, it trips off the tongue so easily but its implications are worth pondering.  I raise this issue because one of the many good things which have happened this year is our warden’s decision to publish a weekly sheet of prayers and notices, which you will have in your hand.  This has been well received almost universally, with some startling results. It does not come free or easily.  People, especially the editor, put themselves out weekly so that we can take these sheets away and one person at least is aware of the danger to conservation which such a project poses.

God gives us today and every day our daily bread through the industrial processes which produce our bread and all manner of basic goods which we depend upon.  We don’t give this activity a second thought until something goes wrong: a disastrous harvest, a strike, a public holiday. Occasionally – especially if this phrase is always on our lips – we might pause and think of those who don’t get their ‘daily bread’ and then we might wonder if God has failed.


God or us?  It could be both. Are we praying for the wrong things?  Does God disapprove of our appetite? IF so, why – and how might we modify our aims? As God – and this phrase in particular – is part of our world view, then we are sensitized to both the needs of others and the will of God.  So saying this prayer – and occasionally pausing to think it through carefully – does have important results.


The Purpose of Prayer.


If you slip off the ferry at Calais and head south-west through the Normandy countryside on the A28 past Rouen you will find the ancient abbey of Bec, which produced in the 11th century an archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm.  You can still see the ruined chapel where Anselm would have prayed and wrestled with God.  He wrote a powerful treatise on the possibility of God and of Prayer. It begins like this:

Come now little man,

                Turn aside for a while from your daily employment….

                …Free yourself for a while for God

                And rest awhile in him.”

                                Proslogion. Ch. 1.

 It’s printed out in full on the yellow card. Please take it away with you. Anselm suggests that even his monks need to give more time to their life of prayer.  Could this be a New Year’s Resolution for all of us?

By inference, Anselm suggests that the purpose of prayer is union with God.

When you did your courting, your aim was to get to know this wonderful other person in your life.  Prayer is just like that.  We begin by doing lot of talking and when we get to know the other person well, then we can risk saying nothing, just enjoying their company.  So it is with prayer but prayer is not just passive.  It requires both Mary the mystic and Martha the activist.  Some are attracted to one rather than the other but for most of us, we have to cope with both requirements if God is able to deliver our bread daily.



Our Prime Minister said that prayer for him was like trying to pick up Virgin radio as he motors through the Chilterns.  It comes and goes. I’m sure he speaks for most of us in this respect but it is worth persevering and fiddling with the tuner, especially when things don’t appear to be working out.

Throughout the biblical record there are countless examples of prayer being answered and sometimes not answered.  Jesus says to us, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find.” (Mt.7.7). Perhaps the most glaring example of prayer not answered is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that the cup of suffering might pass him by.  It didn’t, we know. But in that prayer, Jesus added, ‘nevertheless, not my will but thine be done’.

That is a courageous phrase to add to our prayers, ‘nevertheless, thy will be done’.  Can we honesty say it by the beside of a suffering loved one? Would we not rather rail against God? Both are acceptable. God can cope but in the end, his will prevails and we have to adjust. What we are saying in both the anger and the accommodation is that we pray that our faith will stand the test.

My hope this coming year is that both Martha’s and Mary’s among us will become more passionate about prayer and the way we can assist God’s will in the answering of our prayers, supporting one another in crisis and rejoicing with one another in prayers answered. Amen.