Sermon on living the best life – Psalm 90 and the Parable of the Talents from Rev’d Ian Tattum

I apologise to a lot of you this morning, because I am going to start by mentioning a poem again. It is one of those that is most famous for the question in the last two lines:

‘Tell me what it is you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?’

They come from The Summer Day by the American poet Mary Oliver. But, weirdly, the words are often attached to social media photos of elaborate dinners or exotic locations, or moments of high achievement and economic success. Mary Oliver, however, led a quiet, undramatic life with her partner in Province Town, New England, and in the poem made it clear she was not talking about exciting experiences but about attention to the small things.

She was writing about a typical day, for her, wandering in nature and a close encounter with a grasshopper that eats out of her hand. It is about making the most of time by being conscious, aware, and attentive. It is about depth of experience rather than excitement and thrills – a kind of mindfulness.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

It seems to me that the poem has an echo of Psalm 90, which gave the English language another famous phrase, as rendered in the King James version, which Oliver would have known well.

‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut of and we fly away.’

Psalm 90, it has been noticed, is part of what is called the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures – reflections, that is, on what life is actually like and what it is for, before, as the translation we heard this morning puts it, ‘Our years come to an end like a sigh’.

Today is a baptism day when we would naturally turn our thoughts to the beginning of life and its potential, but everything is put into context by what is to come. At a baptism we celebrate that we believe that every human life is made in the image of God. Each person, from the cradle to the grave, and indeed beyond, is precious in the sight of God.

When we talk about rejecting evil, we acknowledge that there are temptations which may lead us from the path, that being vulnerable human beings liable to error, selfishness, lack of courage or conviction affects all of us in our ability to love, be truthful, and follow lives of meaning and value.

But we also believe in forgiveness and the chance to start again and that no one is ever perfect. The image of God is marred in us, but hope is never extinguished.

In a couple of weeks, we are going to have one of our evening sessions with our Theological Consultant, Ben Wood, and it is going to be about what he sees as a kind of Christian mindfulness that we find in St Matthew’s Gospel. And I do think he is on to something. Today’s Gospel included one of the most misunderstood parables – the one about three servants who are given large sums of money when their boss goes off on his travels. The two given the most go and invest it and double their money, but the third just buries his sum in the ground. On his return the master rewards the initiative of the first two, using another phrase which seeped into the English language – ‘well done good and faithful servant’ – while casting the non-productive one into the famous ‘outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

This story, though, has nothing to do with Jesus encouraging a sound investment strategy or the nurture of personal talents, but with making the most of time to lead a life fully lived out in the image of God, now with a sense of urgency.

This parable comes in the gospel in the middle of a cluster of teachings about how God will measure the quality of human lives. Love and be active in generosity and kindness to neighbour and stranger borne out of a sense of your own need and fragility, is the underlying message. Be mindful of who you are. Seize the day. Live your wild and precious life. But let it be rooted in the love of God, which flows through every life.

Remembrance Day Sermon, 2023 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

I am going to dare to share one of my own poems this morning. It is about to be published in a seasonal anthology of autumn and winter poems and is, like too many I have written since the invasion of Ukraine, about war, or at least my experience of being a distant bystander of war.

But before doing so, I think it might help to reflect on why people find they have to write poems.

To me, writing poetry is closely related to praying. It is not essentially a craft or art but a spontaneous act of letting words and images out into the open, which can’t be held back. Both have elements of praise and lament. They respond to the beauty and the tragedy of life which so often reside alongside each other or twine around each other. They are a cry we need to share and might hope God hears.

One of the greatest examples from the Great War is Isaac Rosenberg’s Returning, we hear the larks, with the lines:

‘Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped…’

The contemporary poet Ben Okri began a poem which takes us straight to Gaza and Israel:

I shall tell you
The meaning of love
When the conflagrations
In the cities

My very short poem came about because at dawn – a very cold dawn – when we slept out to raise money for heating costs, the birds were active in the hedge, but the news was in my head too. And this became the cry I needed to share in God’s hearing:

The wrens are building ladders of song in the olives.
The leaves are defying seasonal legend and staying put.
This October is when the storm season begins and the trees
Are shaken, and as the branches crack the innocent fall.

When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan I am sure that he was delivering a message not only about generosity and charity and risk, but also about noticing. The easiest thing, and probably the natural thing, to do when we encounter suffering, outside our own networks of family, friends or ‘own people’ or tribe, is to look away and pass on.

Christ’s message, which he lived and died by, was not to overlook people and their greatest needs but to see there inklings of the kingdom of God: the tiny mustard seed, or the treasure in the field, that could explode into flourishing life, or become the greatest gift of all.

Because of the way the Church’s lectionary works, the texts recommended for Remembrance Sunday happen also to have come around already in the immediately preceding weeks.  These are the discussion about imperial coinage we heard today and the beatitudes. Each of them comes at this fundamental Christian vision from a different angle.

In the beatitudes, Jesus calls some of the toughest human experiences a blessing – a cause of happiness: grief, lack of social significance, those who worry themselves about justice, do the hard work of forgiving, and above all those who make peace, who will be called the children of God.

The argument in the discussion of imperial coinage focuses on the most prominent man who declared himself to be a child of God – the dissolute emperor Tiberius, whose face was on every coin. Jesus’ insistence, though, is that whatever is on the coin and whatever culture wars can be stoked up by it, the more important thing is to look to the divine vision – towards the God in heaven, who we are shortly reminded in the Gospel, invites adoration and demands that we love our neighbour.

On Remembrance Day we call to mind those who have died in military service and those civilians affected by war, old and young, and those enduring today. We notice them, we grieve for them, and we yearn and pray for the healing of memory and our broken world.  We pray for the great blessing of peace as we look for the good and the signs of hope that fulfil God’s blessing for all his children – blessings that are stirringly put in the verse of I vow to thee, my country. There is another country, whose armies can’t be counted and her King cannot be seen:

‘soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.’

And in the words of the poet-prophet Isaiah, writing about Jerusalem:

They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as waters cover the sea.

Peace and the Sword and Jeremiah. A Sermon for 25th June from Rev’d Ian Tattum

When I first started going to church as a teenager in the 1970’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer frequently got a mention. Hands up anyone who can tell me anything about him?

He got mentioned for two main reasons. He wrote theology which was down to earth and engaged with the world. The realities of the modern world were not just things he mused upon. He had been in the centre of the storm. But probably the main reason was that he fitted the category of modern martyr, being executed by the Nazi regime hours before Berlin was liberated by the Allies in 1945. No one could argue that he didn’t give testimony to his faith, and although I was only about 14 when I first heard of him, for my parents’ generation and the one above, the shadow cast by both World Wars was still overwhelming.

I am always reminded of Bonhoeffer whenever I read passages like the ones from Jeremiah 20 and Matthew 10. Bonhoeffer not only took an active part in one of the plots to kill Hitler, he was also a double agent working for German intelligence and a man who believed killing was wrong. He was involved in a plot to kill because he was so intensely against murder. And when you read some of his thoughts from the time before his arrest, you see into the mind of someone who knew about the power of conscience and the fear of death and the contradictions involved in doing what is right and courageous in the service of people and God.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks about the same tensions in his poetic and angry outburst against God. He complains that God has seduced him into being his messenger and thrown him into a situation of terror. This isn’t mere mental anxiety that we all feel at times. His words here come in the wake of him being put into the equivalent of the stocks by the religious authorities and subjected not only to dishonour but to a kind of public torture.

The great Reformation theologian Calvin couldn’t believe that Jeremiah could really rant like this against God, and suggested he was being ironic. But the next thing that Jeremiah says, ‘Cursed be the day I was born’, cropped up word for word a hundred years later in the book of Job, that breath-taking meditation on suffering

In our Gospel reading today we have some extremely scary advice from Jesus on the Cost of Discipleship – which was also the title of one of Bonhoeffer’s most influential books. Probably, the standout example is verse 34: ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’

But if we take a step back and consider how St Matthew has shaped his Gospel, this may seem less startling. St Matthew was a great clumper, and he has just finished with Jesus’ spiritual and ethical teaching all gathered together in the Sermon on the Mount. He has now turned to what Jesus said about some of the great dangers and challenges of taking a different path – the sorts of considerations that would have tempted Jeremiah to say ‘I will never be a prophet, as it is far too dangerous’ and Bonhoeffer to keep out of politics and not risk his own soul and his life and separation from his family and fiancée in a perilous enterprise.

St Matthew’s Gospel was written when the church as we know it was coming into being, and Matthew would not only have been quoting the traditions about Jesus but also adding in reflections on them in the light of experience. Isn’t this last what we all have to do whenever we read or listen to Scripture?

There are Christians who risk their lives daily for what they believe. There are people who try to protect indigenous people and their homes from ruthless business interests, who know that any moment could set their loved ones grieving. And we can think of them and pray for them.

But all our lives have dilemmas over when to speak up or keep silent. When we should act or do nothing. Like in the House of Commons last week. And far more often than we care to admit we can’t square the circle. We do the wrong thing or act in ways which are compromised. We don’t necessarily choose to do something wrong, but find ourselves in situations which are grey or murky.

I think one of the most valuable parts of church ritual and practice is the confession. It is not a simple form of words to get us off the hook and neither is it a way to dwell on our flaws and frailties in a negative way. It gives us the chance, like Jeremiah to be honest and to be angry, and like Bonhoeffer to be open about our contradictions and bring them before God in assurance that we are heard and can start again. There is a cost to discipleship, but sins are forgiven.

Easter Sermon 2023 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

Just before the school broke up, I took an assembly at St Michael’s School on the theme of Easter.

And I tried to tell the story straight.  I took them through the events of Holy Week, including the Last Supper and Good Friday, and the empty tomb.

But I told one further story, which I suggested is a way to begin to get the point of it all. I told them the parable known as the Prodigal Son, a story in which a child who has wasted his inheritance and found himself far from home and in desperate straits decides to return. He says to himself that he will repent and apologise to his father when he gets there, but he doesn’t get the chance. His father sees him coming and rushes to meet him. This parable is behind the prayer we say most weeks, after communion.

‘Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.
Dying and living he declared your love,
gave us grace and opened the gate of heaven.

Easter is God’s initiative. And in St Matthew’s Gospel this is made dramatically clear, in a way that is all noise and fury signifying something. We begin on a quiet early morning, before dawn, with the two Mary’s coming to see the tomb. But the silence and the peace of the early morning, no doubt accompanied by the dawn chorus, is shattered.

‘And suddenly there was a great earthquake.’

An angel descends from heaven to unblock the tomb. A very spectacular angel too, ike lightning in a snow blizzard. The vision knocks the guards unconscious. No wonder the angel says the same words to the women as they said to Mary at the Annunciation and to the shepherds at the Nativity.

‘Do not be afraid.’

This moment is a shock and just a beginning. And perhaps that needs to be emphasised too. If Easter is God’s initiative, Easter morning is only the point at which it begins. Where it will lead is not yet apparent. The consequences are not yet clear. As the angel says.

‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee.

The letter to the Hebrews calls Christ the pioneer of salvation. R S Thomas refers to the ‘fast God, always ahead of us and leaving as we arrive’, and a popular hymn has Christ saying,

‘I’ll lead you all in the dance.’

Early Christian writers wrote about our full humanity being restored by God coming down to earth to lead us back to heaven. An idea that also appears in the prayer I quoted earlier. God ‘gave us grace and opened the gate of heaven. It is a very hopeful message, particularly in the light of its context. Christ might lead the way, but only after navigating the terrors of Holy Week. The road to heaven is paved with political expediency and religious controversy, love betrayed, unjust accusations, cruelty and abandonment.

One of my favourite novels is set in Crete at Easter, at the time when it was under Turkish occupation. The joy of the Greek crowds celebrating the resurrection on a spring morning is genuine, but not sentimental because danger is ever present. And possibly that is one of the reasons that Easter is such a powerful festival. It is not about forgetting or denying how bad things can be or how bad we humans can be, but about celebrating and cherishing how God can bring life out of all kinds of death, on account of Christ’s resurrection. That love will have the victory.

I will leave you with how the American writer John Updike put this, In vivid, visceral, and challenging words:

‘It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart…
regathered out of his Father’s might, new strength.

Jesus Christ is risen.

Sermon on the Samaritan Woman at the Well from Rev’d Ian Tattum

How handy to have a reading about water on the day we have a baptism!

It might we worth imagining, for a moment, that the font is a well, a place from which we draw deep water – water that sustains us for the whole of our life’s journey.

This might seem a bit confusing, because very often baptism is associated with washing: a rite of purification, a cleansing from sin. Such are its most prominent associations for many.

I do think that we have problems thinking about symbols these days. In science and mathematics it is quite important that it is obvious what the radiation sign or a plus sign means. If road signs were ambiguous we would be in big trouble. An icon on our computer usually indicates one thing, one function; but in theology, as in poetry, symbols, like water, are appropriately fluid.

In the prayer which is said in every baptism over the water in the font, we hear of the Holy Spirit moving over the water at the beginning of creation. We are reminded that the children of Israel escaped from Israel due to the parting of the waves of the Red Sea, and that Jesus himself was baptised in the Jordan. So, water there is seen as the source of life, a sign of freedom, and something that Jesus went through before us. It is a sign of God’s solidarity with humanity. But the first sentence of that prayer also connects with the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well: ‘We thank you, almighty God, for the gift of water to sustain, refresh and cleanse all life.’

That Gospel reading is a very long story and has many layers and complexities – some of which are explicit, but others of which are just under the surface. The well in the story is not just any well but is the one traditionally associated with the great figures from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jacob and Joseph – ancestors who were exemplary of the Jewish way of life. Joseph didn’t just have a multi-coloured coat, but was a survivor of fratricidal hatred and slavery, who became a person of great nobility, who also happened to be a prophet who could read dreams. No wonder the Samaritan woman who found herself strangely and marvellously understood by Jesus, immediately called him a prophet, ‘a new Joseph.’ The deep well here is the wisdom of past spiritual insight and lives lived in a way that honours God.

Like too many of the most extraordinary women recorded in the Bible, this one from Samaria has had her name forgotten, but she is a great example of someone on the edges of society who spars with Jesus. She is compared positively with the disciples, who are a bit slow to catch on and fret that Jesus is associating with such a person; she, by contrast, comes over as someone who can see who Jesus is and what he means.

Religious matters are not, for her, about theory but about something life- changing, and she is very quick to catch on to the distinction Jesus makes between water as a necessity for being alive and as a metaphor for something that makes life meaningful and true: ‘…the spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.

Which leads me to one final point, following on from what Daniel said in his sermon last week. In the baptism service there is a reference to being born again, another to being reborn, and finally, after the baptism when a child is anointed, to being renewed every day by God’s Spirit. All mean the same thing: that by drawing on the deep well of faith and by listening to God and one another, we can all change and grow in love.

One of the most helpful illustrations I have heard for what this process of rebirth is like is the story behind the opening scenes of The Sound of Music – all those close-ups of Julie Andrews singing. This was filmed by a passing helicopter which not only deafened her but knocked her over. So, she had to keep on getting up and starting all over again. I read that it took ten takes to get it right.

This is a process we find continues throughout our lives. Being reborn isn’t a magic moment; it is a process that lasts a lifetime. Each time we get to our feet again, we will have changed a little – with God’s grace.

Sermon for epiphany, plus two baptisms from rev’d Ian Tattum

When I was 10 I received a completely unexpected gift for Christmas. My parents did not have much money. We lived in a council house, and my mother also fostered two Nigerian children, Foluka and Olaitan, as well as trying to raise me and my brother Peter. My sisters had lived with us for three years by then, so they were family too. My unexpected gift was from an aunt and it was a pair of binoculars. I had recently got a taste for ornithology and, on that very Christmas day, I got the chance to see some of my favourite birds up close and I have never forgotten it.

Neither have I ever forgotten my sisters. If the word gift means anything they were a gift too. They brought something precious into the life of our family. And they shared my life for a large part of my childhood.

We are celebrating Epiphany today. A time of gifts. When the wise men bring strange gifts to the infant Christ: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

I have to pause for a digression here and answer the usual question. What is myrrh? It was, just like frankincense, a gum from a tree, which was added to the incense burned in the Temple in Jerusalem, but was also named after its taste – ‘bitter’ – and was used as a pain killer and healing ointment.

And we are celebrating two baptisms – of Ethan and Ottilie.

In the wedding service, one of the blessings of marriage is ‘the gift of children.’

Any good gift, I would suggest, whether we are thinking of an object or a person, makes a difference, changes our way of seeing, perhaps, or brings a delight which far transcends any financial cost and opens up our life and expands our horizons.

One of the great themes of Epiphany is that God’s supreme gift is the gift of Christ. Although today our attention is drawn to the questing Magi, the whole period from Christmas to Candlemas is an introduction to the impact of Christ. All those of you who have ever been here for every Sunday between Christmas Day and Candlemas when the Christmas season comes to an end at the beginning of February will be used to the way the stories we hear on Sundays this time of the year dart backwards and forwards. The flight to Egypt, then Jesus’ baptism and the wedding feast of Cana; then back to Jesus’ Nazareth home today with those very peculiar and unexpected gift bearers; then concluding with Mary and Joseph watching with wonder as Saint Simeon takes their infant child in his arms and give thanks to God saying:

‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.’

That God’s light is present in every child and available to us every step of our lives is at the heart of every baptism.

When the water is sanctified, I say a prayer which is not just for the children but for all of us trying to live our lives in response to the love and forgiveness of God, revealed through Christ.

‘Renewed in your image, may they walk in the light of faith and continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord.’

And it is worth listening out for how many times the word gift appears in this service — Christ the light-bearer being the ultimate gift.

But there is another note to a baptism and the story of the Magi, which sometimes gets lost – a note of struggle and conflict. In the baptism service we explicitly commit to repenting of our sins and renouncing evil.

I will pray that Otillie and Ethan will be able to fight valiantly against the powers of darkness.

Maybe in today’s world of invasions, climate change and a cost of living crisis, the importance of these elements might rise to the surface. And, if we look back at some of the art that has been inspired by the gift bearing strangers, that awareness has always been there.

In one famous painting, by Pieter Bruegel, as the ‘kings’ (as the travellers are depicted in that sixteenth-century version) offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the Christ child seems to be trying to hide himself. And no wonder. Behind him a man is whispering into his father Joseph’s ear about Herod’s murderous intentions. There is a platoon of spear-carrying soldiers in the background, and just beside the black ‘king’ who carries a beautiful frankincense container is a man whose face hasn’t got a look of wonder or adoration but of avaricious desire for its golden treasure.

Our gifts, whether people or things, need to be received in the right way: with gratitude, responsibility, reverence and love.

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