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Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension: Lockdown Gardening

Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension: Lockdown Gardening

24 May 2020

Borders and Edges

I’m a willing amateur when it comes to gardening. I tend to go for the straightforward things like clean soil, veg. in rows and neat stripes on the lawn. Well, ‘lawn’ is a bit of an exaggeration; it’s really mown meadow. The border is also a bit of an overstatement.  We grandly call it ‘The Western Border’. It used to be a thick bramble hedge until Les and I tore it out with crowbar and axe. But the contrast between lawn and border is clear, even from this photo. The edge divides the two: predictable grass on the one side and an eruption of surprises on the other.  A gardener has been here before and each year we discover some new addition: shrubs, bulbs, bluebells. We even have some planned fruit and veg. of our own among the surprises.

I spend quite a lot of time on the border – the border between humankind and God. That’s part of what clergy do. Border activities include prayer; scanning the contours of that mystery we call God; developing the community’s interaction with Kingdom values; translating divine movement; staring into the divine fog. And at this Ascension-tide, the line between humanity and divinity is most marked. The Ascension celebrates the end of those extra-physical appearances of Jesus.  We believe that Jesus returns to the company of The Father in order that together they send their councillor, their advocate, their Holy Spirit to support us in the on-going work of Christ here on earth. Through The Ascension, the local can become the universal presence of Christ.

Images of The Ascension

Our reading today tells the story of the Ascension. Luke is the only gospel writer who records the event but even he, with his medical precision, struggles. And so do we. The whole canon of Christian Art on the subject is quite frankly laughable so I’ve asked Joss Jordon, aged 7, to paint us the scene and she’s done a great job. It’s bold, colourful, precise and has that vertical dimension about it which was so important for the 1st century mind. For them, heaven was above; hell was below. Joss’s picture is far more sophisticated than the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, where a pair of plaster feet are screwed into the ceiling!

This boundary of Jesus’s earthly life challenges us. Our minds are stretched to the limit; language seems inadequate.  We are faced with this boundary between earth and heaven, between the physical and the spiritual which Jesus crosses and unites them in himself.  But also in us, The Body of Christ.

Monty Don, writing last week about the loss of Nigel, his beloved dog, points towards this mystery in which we are united

“Part of the pleasure of gardening is the connection to the rhythm of something deeper than our daily lives. It connects backwards and forwards to something of which we are only a part.”


Back to my border.  There’s a big contrast between the rough grass and the teeming border. With the help of my gardening friends, I can tell you what is in the border. I can step into the border and weed, mulch, plant and harvest. And there appears to be a heavy crop of soft fruit this year and I shall be sad if I cannot share it with my jam-making brother who lives in the north. But I can tell him what to expect if the lockdown ends. I can witness to most plants in that border: the shrubs which God has thrown up and the stuff I continue to plant.  I know what’s there.

As Jesus ascended he told his friends that they must be witnesses to all that has happened. They must tell of all the good things that Jesus accomplished here on earth – his teaching, the miracles, befriending of the poor and the speaking of truth to power. It was costly, we know that, but The Ascension beckons us upwards too, to continue that work as he equips us to do.

We too are called to witness to the good things we have experienced directly or indirectly from the hand of God: relationships healed, the lives saved from agony, different directions taken, new skills discovered, a new life, a peaceful death. At The Ascension, Jesus encourages us to explore beyond the border, for the treasures to be found there will colour life on my patchy lawn. Amen.

Talk for Sunday 3 May 2020

Talk for Sunday 3 May 2020

Christopher has managed to video his sermon this week!  You can watch it on Google Drive: just click on the link here and then on the ‘play’ arrow in the image:

But in case you’re unable to access it that way, here it is in full:

Contagious Christianity?   Sunday 3 May 2020. Easter IV.

The Resurrection Season.

We are now 6 weeks into the lockdown and three weeks away from Easter Day. The set readings for Sunday are already wandering away from the resurrection appearances but before we forget them for another year I want to take an overview to find some relevance for us today in this situation of isolation when we crave the assurance of hope, of company, of health and of Christ.

It all begins with the empty tomb on that first Easter Day.  That is enough to raise the suspicions of both friends and foes of Jesus.  No trace of a body: just an alibi about body-snatchers spread by the Jewish guards. The empty tomb doesn’t offer evidence, just questions.

The Resurrection Appearances

Those questions soon get answers of a sort as the Risen Lord starts to appear. He appears first of all as a stranger to Mary at the tomb; then to the apostles in the upper room, to the disciples on the lakeside and to the travellers to Emmaus.  Is it Jesus?  No one is sure until he begins to interact with a name (John 20.16), the blessing of bread (Luke.24.30), his wounded hands (Luke 24.39) or some fishing advice (John 21.6). Caravaggio’s painting of the Supper at Emmaus shows just how amazed the disciples were when the stranger reveals himself as Jesus. One chap can’t wait to get away from his chair!

This strangeness suggests that Christ’s appearance has changed in some way. He passes through locked doors (John 20.19) and yet is able to cook breakfast (John21.12), eat fish and honey (Luke 24. 42). But there is another element to this strangeness: Jesus rebukes the disciples for their lack of understanding (Mark 16.14; John 20.23) but also gives them instructions as to how they should conduct their future lives (John 20.17; Mark 16.15). So those who knew Jesus before the crucifixion have to learn to live with this friend who is also a stranger in a different way after the Resurrection.  We all know people who are difficult to predict. They are often the most exciting but also infuriating friends to have!  So the Risen Lord must have appeared to those first disciples but also to us who need both companionship and divine direction which cannot be presumed.

The appearances of The Risen Lord are not confined to any particular geographical area. Jerusalem and Galilee are the favoured places and they are 100 miles part. Damascus is much further north.  There is no obvious connection between these appearances. They don’t appear to be induced by hysteria, hallucination or a desire for consolation. The most surprising of all is the appearance to Saul, the aristocratic Jew fervently opposed to Christ and his friends. His conversion is well documented in scripture (Acts 9; 2 Corinthians 12) because for him and for The Church it was a seismic change.

The Risen Christ also comes among his friends who are ill at ease. He changes them. Mary is grieving for her compassionate Christ; the apostles are afraid of the Jews; Peter is riddled with guilt; the fishermen are glum and most of them are disbelieving. None of them are in a good place yet this challenge by The Risen Lord changes them. They boldly gossip the gospel (Acts 4.13); they exercise healing gifts (Acts 3.6); they worship in public (Acts 2.42) and they courageously challenge authority (Acts 5.29ff).

So here is a mystery.  What drives such a change – and how is it sustained? People of faith have put the answer down to The Risen Lord: the Lord who came to those first Christians as a stranger, in a variety of locations, with boldness, with compassion but also with a message. The fruits of that mystery – that string of appearances from The Risen Lord – is to be seen in The Church today.  These are the groups that began to form in the first pages of the Acts of the Apostles – that most exciting of biblical books which accelerates through church development like a whirlwind! It is around these encounters with the Risen Lord that the church gathers and develops, then and now.

A virus?

Does this sound like an infection? Richard Dawkins in a clever book from 1976 suggested that God acted like a virus, a selfish gene which looks after its own.  He wasn’t the first sceptic to use such an analogy.  During the Roman occupation of the Mediterranean, Christians were hunted down and if they didn’t recant, then they were killed. Pliny – a Roman magistrate – was sent to Bithynia to sort out the province. He had to put many Christians to death. In a letter to his boss, The Emperor Trajan, he refers to Christianity as a “contagion.”

Apart from the implied negativity – especially in these desperate times of the current pandemic – that is difficult to accept. The appearances of The Risen Lord are scattered. Sometimes they do run among friends but in other occasions the most surprising people become Christians. There are no physical symptoms which connect us and there is no evidence that the faith manifests itself in a weakness.

And Christianity has lasted a long time: two millennia.  Whilst countries in Europe still wait for signs that the coronavirus has peaked, there is no sign of Christianity abating world-wide, though in Europe it is struggling. Whilst we wait behind locked doors, there are signs that our faith is developing. One firm reports that its sales of bibles are up 25% in March this year. Other sacred texts show similar increases. And our behaviour has changed. In spite of the curfew, care for neighbour and community has increased, especially in our villages.

St. Paul, writing soon after the physical resurrection appearances had ceased, reminds us in a passage often used in our funeral services (1 Cor. 15.3,4) that Christ died, was buried and was raised. This third action – ‘was raised’ – is in a different tense, suggesting that the raising has happened but is still in force. Christ is alive now! And this is so obviously true, even in our own experience. People find Christ entering their lives often in the most difficult situations.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Christopher Armstrong


THE LENT BLOG 2020 ‘Beginnings’ from The Very Rev Chris Armstrong

THE LENT BLOG 2020 ‘Beginnings’ from The Very Rev Chris Armstrong

On Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent 2020 – thoughts from our Priest-in-Charge

That smudge on the forehead means so much to us now. Jesus was critical of the Jew’s outward show of piety, but we are now in post-resurrection times – and times when the church is under significant pressure.

I remember in my last job going to The Town Hall on Ash Wednesday to talk about a small charity.  It was not a big deal, but it was my first official visit and I was nervous. I was greatly encouraged when I saw across the table another dusty smudge on the forehead of someone else in the group.

We are dust ourselves: 40%!  And so was Jesus.  He identified with us in our humanity and through the cross on our foreheads, we can identify with him in his agony and his glory.  We are dust but dust destined for glory thanks to the leadership of Jesus and the encouragement of others inside the church.

A thought for Thursday 27 February: We’re so fortunate to be able to worship in six wonderful churches, when we include Wakerley in the Benefice.  The architecture is just stunning and all contained in a small building!  Look at the tops of the pillars – the capitals – when you are next inside.  Many are decorated with all manner of flowers and fruits.  The medieval mind was more adept than our own at seeing the work of nature of creation, as all of a piece with God’s other creations and inside the church we have a duty and a joy to give voice to that beauty. Unfortunately, in modern times we don’t see that unity quite so easily. Our objects of worship are man-made, wordy, earth-bound. Yet we only have to stop and look at the stars from our villages devoid of light pollution to see the grandeur of God’s creation!

This is most striking in Hopkins poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’ and even more so in La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s not-quite-finished cathedral where trees and leaves abound.

A thought for Friday 28 February: Luke chapter 4, verse 20: ‘Jesus sat down, and all eyes were fixed on him’. He had been asked to read the scriptures in the synagogue and then there was a silence. It must have been like the silence at the end of the creation story, when God saw that it was very good and then rested! (Genesis 2.3.).  Can you imagine the depth on expectation in that silence?  If only we could create that quality of silence after our scripture readings today in church!  It is a pregnant silence, full of potential and possibility.

At this, the start of Jesus’s ministry, he gives us a clue about the future and what to expect through his work. The Church which he came to create is here to continue that work.  Today it will be contentious too, as powerful vested interests will try hard to obstruct the care of creation.  It needs all our intelligence, passion and commitment to make headway.  It won’t be easy but carrying a cross is never a walk in the park.

And for the first weekend of Lent: The huge modern church at Taize – so beloved of young pilgrims – is called The Church of the Reconciliation. It reminds us that God brings together all nationalities, all ages, all manner of people but also everything in creation.

What will heaven be like? Will it be like a giant British Harvest Festival with the perfect cauliflowers, carrots and expensive wine on view?  I hope so!  But if it is to be like that – with everything and everybody at the pinnacle of their perfection – then God has got his work cut out!

However, he has started. As Colossians reminds us, it started on the cross and that is the invisible sign on our foreheads at baptism. So, we too are involved in this striving for perfection; we too have so much to offer, so full of potential. But we don’t have long and some of us have less time than others!