The “Mother of the Bridegroom” Speech

Ladies, Gentlemen, friends, members of the human race, members of the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley – it is not, I know, traditional for the bridegroom’s mother to  make a speech at a wedding. But then, let’s face it, it’s not traditional for the groom to be given away, rather than the bride, nor for the bridegroom to have a black eye that he received from an irate, costumeless, French Mickey Mouse. There are many good things about tradition, but let us not be bound by it.

But tradition can be good at times. That’s the best inter-family wedding fight I’ve known in years. But still, we’ve moved with the times. In the old days you had to wait for the reception for that kind of punch-up. Not getting out of the church before it all kicked off was a real achievement. And I was really pleased to discover that Charlii’s family are all Quakers. And I’m sure we all wish Charlii’s dad uncle well as he recovers from that broken jaw.

Now, first I would like to turn to my own son, Keith. Young Keith, as we still persist in calling you,  you’re an irresponsible, self-centered, awkward beggar. I’m proud to call you my son. I can only wish that, on this special day, your dad was here. I really wish he was  Then I could smash his face in – the oily, double-crossing, fake get.

And Charlii. Funny, clever, strong-minded, with a dangerous streak of aggression. I’m so pleased to welcome you into the family. I think of this wedding as not so much losing a son, as gaining a full-time, unpaid assistant. Family firms are great, aren’t they?

I’d like to thank Revd Nathan for his part in the service. It was really good of him to let me preach, and to allow a traditional Beaker 25-tea-light salute. Nathan would like to be here with us this evening, but unfortunately he’s got seven sermons to prepare, and a couple of people who need him to visit because it’s Christmas. One of them isn’t even housebound, but she’s off to Brighton on Monday, so thought he’d better get round quick.

I’d also like to thank the providers of the Marquee, the celebrated Marque Marquees, Marquee providers to the Marquis of Tavistock.  It’s a great marquee. If the Daily Express’s predictions are to be believed, it will all be blown halfway across Warwickshire by the morning. But I reckon there’s actually at least a fifty-fifty chance of it still being here in the morning. Good news for the Beaker Folk, who will be sleeping here once the dancing’s over and everybody else has gone home. Although, if it blows away early enough, at least you won’t have to deal with the army of badgers that patrol these parts at night.

So, now the legalities are legalised, and the knot there’s no untying is tied, I can safely unload both chambers of the old shotgun, go back to the knitting needles, and relax. God bless you both, and, on this Winter Solstice, may Charlii grow larger – at least for the next five months or so. God bless us one and all.

The Crunching Gears of Revd Nathan

It’s a damp day – saturated from last night’s downpour and gale. Yet it’s also a cold one, on the edge of frost, and bright.

All of which extended pathetic fallacy is to introduce the following summary of Revd Nathan’s next few days.

This morning he has the Great Tremlett Junior School Nativity in the church. All cherubs and amusing lines failures. And then at 11 it’s the funeral for Donald. Ninety years old and a church stalwart. Outlived his friends and family, so a mostly-old, mostly-Church affair.

This afternoon? Christmas Revue at the Middle School. In somewhat whimsical fashion, the theme is, apparently, “The Christmas Ceasefire”. I doubt there’ll be a dry eye in the house. Couple of home communions (has to be the Vicar at Christmas) and then, after tea, it’s Martha’s  Mulled Wine Evening.

Tomorrow, he completes the set with the Infants’ Christmas Concert. Then the Retirement Home Old Folk Xmas Singalong.  And then, having had no funerals for a couple of months – the second in two days.  Young mum to be lowered into that quiet, cold, damp earth.  Friends from all over coming. Dreadful.

Followed, of course, by the long-planned Christmas Tree Party.

Saturday, of course, he has the Wedding of the Year, in amongst a couple more home visits and a hospital visit. Which is a twenty mile each-way trip.

And then, it being Sunday before Christmas, all five churches want the Vicar at their service.

And so he goes through this time of year, crashing the gears from first to fifth in quick order, slamming on the brakes too fast and then, if you pardon the pun, over-revving. He tops off Christmas with the 4pm Crib Service,  11.30 Midnight Mass, with annual Midnight invasion by confused inmates of the Hanged Man pub, and then after a few short hours’ sleep, down to Grilby-on-the-Hill for the Mass of the Dawn.

And then somebody who he’s not seen at church all year will top it off, at the 10 am Christmas Morning, by joking that he’s got to work more than one day in the week.

It’s a wonder, all things considered, that it’s only the Halls that get decked.

Settling Time

A few days to settle. Apparently ale needs a few days to settle.

Not that I have any problem allowing the Old Rectory and its grounds to be used for the Reception. But Burton’s organised the alcohol and it’s all real ale. And then, knowing about the ale, the Beaker Folk are all sleeping in the Marquee on Saturday Night. It’s going to be like Greenbelt in my own back garden. But twice as smelly. And without Bono sneaking in.

Atkinson Offensive

Rowan Atkinson’s Comic Relief sketch pretending to be a bishop was the most-complained-about TV moment of the year. Apparently it was “offensive”.

I didn’t find it offensive. I found it boring, tired, cliched, very 1980s. Totally lacking in edge. Just remember the Not the Nine O’Clock News “Life of Christ” sketch for comparison I didn’t write to Ofcom to complain. I would have made a mental note not to watch comedians who have long gone past their sell-by date. But as it happens, with Rowan Atkinson, I already had.

A Virgin Most Pure

That’s the old carol, of course. “A Virgin Most Pure”. Implying that non-virgins, for whatever reason, aren’t pure. An odd state of affairs, when the whole existence of the human race depends upon sufficient people deciding that being virgins is not a long-term option. But there you go.

The thing about that whole “virgin most pure” thing is, it’s not something we actually find in the Bible. Virginity was kind of the expectation of a new bride, but had no particular intrinsic value. Jews thought having children was good, and virginity – with a few weird exceptions – wasn’t a great idea, for males or females.

There’s only two Biblical references to Mary’s virginal state at all – one in Matthew and one in Luke. Matthew uses it to crowbar in an inexact prophecy based on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible*, while Luke uses it to far greater psychological effect as he explores Mary’s and then Joseph’s response. The important thing, though, is to note that neither of them worry about it too much. Matthew would find just about any excuse to stick in a prophecy, at the best of times. Luke tells us that the angel sorts out Joseph’s minor niggling worries, and then kicks on into the story of the census and the shepherds.

That relative lack of interest isn’t that surprising – it’s just an other miracle, in one sense. And in some ways it’s a non-essential one. Mark and John, in their totally different ways, manage to get along without mentioning it just fine. Paul doesn’t draw any conclusions from it. It’s just a thing. Just there, in amid all the other wonders and unexpected stuff going on around the life of Jesus. Personally, I’m going to go with it being true. Simply because there was no need to bring it in. Because Matthew deals with it (via a fairly dodgy bit of prophecy-fulfilment) in the same way he deals with the awkward fact of Jesus growing up in Nazareth. I reckon it’s just what it is. It doesn’t mean sex is bad, it just states that God, sovereign and merciful, decides to act in a miraculous way to bring about God’s bodily presence on the earth. And I believe in it, for the strangely ordinary way it’s treated.

She’s under-loved, in my opinion, in the Protestant world, is Mary. The sheer significance of her bringing God into the world is underplayed, lest we start to idolize her. Her persistence – her sheer motherliness. When Jesus starts going round preaching the Kingdom of God, notwithstanding the miracles, Mary is there – deciding he’s gone off the edge of normal behaviour and trying to get his brothers to drag him home.

But, in case we start to think she’s just concerned about the good name of the family – she, the woman who got pregnant in  unexpected and possibly embarrassing circumstances – she’s there, later on, at the Passion. There, feeling every lash of the whip. Every thud of a hammer on a nail. Every pull upwards, against the screaming of the muscles, to get a breath – and there for every gasp for breath. There, to watch the blood fall that will make her, and you, and me, and all things clean. There through the whole thing.

But she’s not there when the big news starts to break in the garden. I wonder where she was – maybe too exhausted, too distressed, to make that journey with Mary Magdalene and the rest, down to where her son’s body was laying. Maybe she just couldn’t face it – first widowed and then bereaved again, so early, of the son who had promised so much – the bright boy who drew angels, and shepherds, and wise men, and argued with the scribes of the temple. And I wonder – when Mary Mag bursts back with the news – “I’ve seen Jesus! He’s alive!” – did Our Lady think, typical – can’t reveal himself to his mother?

But she knows the joy no other bereaved mother can know – though they can cling on with hope and faith – the joy of seeing her son again. Of seeing him there, beyond pain, yet bearing her pain – and your pain, and my pain – forever. And I assume, from the first two books of Acts, that she was there to see him ascend, and there to receive the Spirit – alongside John, and Mary Magdalene, who knew and shared her pain so well, and the joy that came after.

So she was there – and she alone, with Him – at the beginning and the end-which-is-a-beginning. The source, and the bearer of grief, and the receiverof joy. She plumbed the depths with him, and soared to the heights with him. She shared his pain, and walked our way. And she is the one who first did our job – the one who brought Christ into the world, as we are called to do.

It’s strange we write her out of the story so often.

* The Septuagint

The Frozen Limit

But he said scientists do routinely make naked -73C (-100F) dashes outside in the south pole as a stunt, so people can survive that temperature for about three minutes.  (The Gruaniad)

Wacky people, are scientists.

Apparently two scientists who did this stunt were a “couple”. They were engaged before their antarctic streak, but then unfortunately he broke it off.

Of Sex and Slimy Things

Reflecting on a discussion with a friend who said, a propos the theory of Evolution, and the origin of everything, “You can’t think it happened by chance”.

It’s a standard way of rejecting Evolution, on the surface. Digging further in, it appears that “by chance” really meant “without purpose”. And so we came to some agreement in the end.

Do I believe in purpose? Yes I do. Do I believe there’s some point to life other than one we create to overlay the chaos, death, waste and terror of the observable Universe? Again, I do. I look at the beauty and elegance and simplicity that underlies the anarchy, and I look at a man/God on a cross defying it while taking part in it, and I really do believe I can trace a rainbow through the rain.

But do I believe it all happened by chance? Again, at the bottom level, yes I do.

Important to define terms, though. You see, the low-level randomness I’m thinking of here underlies the larger scale apparent determinacy, just as the simple laws of physics, multiplied to a large scale, can produce the third movement of a symphony or a late-night fight in a kebab house.

What you have to consider if we’re talking Evolution is the cumulative effective of billions of changes over millions or hundreds of millions of years. And where those who say evolution couldn’t evolve something as complex as an eye, for instance, miss it is because they can’t grasp the time involved, or the concept of small incremental changes each making a difference.

So a slimy thing in a primeval ocean has a tiny mutation that means it develops the ability to detect light. Just a bit of photosensitivity – not the full David Bailey. But it’s enough that the slimy thing heads towards it. Of course, light is the thing that makes algae grow. So if it heads towards the light, it finds food. In a competitive environment, the slimy-thing-with-photosensitive-cell wins. It eats. It divides. It produces horrible offspring with light sensitivity. It’s a winner.

Then one of the light-detecting slimy things develops a small change in its make-up. Just enough that, when it ingests another slimy thing, it can digest it properly. Full of the new energy that the high-value slimy-thing diet gives it, the carnivorous slimy thing grows like Topsy, and reproduces rapidly. It’s a winner’s winner.

But one of the non-slimy-thing-eating slimy things develops another subtle change in its light-detecting cells. It has a few more, and can detect changes in the light patterns. Just enough to run away from moving blobs in its vision, and towards stationary ones. It selectively goes to algae rather than other slimy things. It’s a peaceful winner.

Meanwhile, all sorts of other mutations happen to the slimy things, as they float in their slimy sea, bathed in the slimy sunlight and gently battered by the slimy background radiation. Some get genes for hair, pimples, ingrowing toenails abd anxiety. Many of these changes make the slimy things worse adapted to the environment, so they die and the “twerking”, “smelling of cabbages” and “planking” genes do not make it through the genetic funnel. One slimy thing develops what the serious geneticists – the real ones, not the ones that get quoted in the Mail – refer to technically as the “Gay Gene”. Since the slimy things reproduce by binary fission, and have not developed specialized sexual organs, this just leaves the slimy thing confused, without affecting its reproductive chances one bit.

But then two slimy things bang into each other, rupturing their cell walls and sharing their genetic make up. The resultant hybrid slimy things are more resistant to the slimy viruses that are suddenly becoming common. Over a few generations, the slimy things that like banging into each other produce offspring that  are generally healthier. The Boris Gene wins. Now we have vegetarian slimy things, carnivorous slimy things, and the new sexy slimy things.

And so on. And so on. When the slimy things are washed up a creek, the ones which are able to balance their internal chemistry better in fresh water conditions survive, while all their mates explode. When the first slimy thing crawls onto land, its wet skin means it can still “breathe”. But it has to dip back into water. One day a slimy thing develops a thicker cell wall and a breathing hole, that guides the air inside its body where it’s nice and slimy all the time. It doesn’t have to dive in the water the whole time. It survives in drought conditions, and heads inland where there’s no competition.

And, as slimy things explode, and eat each other, and dry out when they discover unexpected flaws in their cells, and bang into each other to roll the genetic dice, where is God in this? Other than, presumably, waiting for one of the slimy things to walk on its hind legs, followed shortly afterwards by burning another slimy thing for heresy?

Where God always is, I reckon. Beneath, and within, and between, and sustaining everything. The designer and the upholder, the developer and the run-time environment, the one within which the slimy things live, and move, and have their slimy being.

And the waste, and the wholesale deaths and the dehydrating and exploding slimy things, and all the rest of it – that’s not only been a shock since we discovered the Theory of Evolution. That’s been known since forever – since the prophets noted that a wolf may leave only a fragment of a sheep, that Leviathan has pointy teeth, or that the ones who bashed the brains out of Babylonian children would be blessed. The sheer dumb cruelty of this world isn’t news. It’s been known all along.

So at the bottom, it is all just chance. As you add it up, you gradually find a grim determinism – the triumph of statistics, and sheer weight of time and numbers. And when the slimy thing does stand on its slimy appendages and makes its first slimy altar to its slimy god, that’s its little slimy response to something that it can’t prove, can’t see and can’t eat. But it knows it’s there, nonetheless, deep in its slimy little heart.

A Time For Settling Scores

Matt 3:12 “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

We have deep in us, or at least I have,  a desire for settling scores.

The Bible has an eye for an eye. The popular media has a habit when some criminal has been sent down or died. (The former,  I guess, could be a euphemism for the latter) that he or she should “burn in Hell”. Refereeing mistakes “even out”. People are told they’ll “pay for this”. We sort out the wheat from the chaff, with the sure expectation that the wheat will be safe, but the chaff – well, it will burn. Isn’t that what chaff does?

And over the Advent expectation hangs the promise of pay-back, the threat of fire, the reminder that a Holy and Aweful God is, if you fall into those hands, potentially a Wholly Awful God.  The threat of Gehenna (the rubbish-tip of Jerusalem, made eternal); of Hell, of the Inferno, of the burning chaff, blowing in the breeze, lies behind the promise of a baby in a manger.

The promise of the early apostles, it seems to me,  wasn’t that if we repent we are saved from a kind of hollow feeling; not that we will know new middle-class rectitude; that we will be spiritual Waitrose shoppers. It was not that we will feel better at ease with ourselves – more comfortable in our own skin.

No, and this is one way that the New Testament message, by and large, differs from the old. The Old says, change your ways or you will be conquered by foreign countries. The New says, allow yourself to be changed entirely, or you will burn in Hell.

To be sure, the positives of turning around, running to our loving Creator God, are stressed too – becoming like him, being transformed, knowing the Spirit, all the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. But the two-path option – one tricky, hilly and hard to stay on, and leading to an Eternal City – one easy, wide, and all downhill to the extra-muros rubbish dump – that’s made clear.

And in that place, we’re told, all the rubbish of our lives – all the things we couldn’t help but cling on to – are burned to obliteration. All the scores we held unsettled will be eternally settled. All the wrongs we persisted in, distilled in the heat, to hang around the polluted waste-tip of Eternity. And if we cling on to them then we’re choosing to go with them.

But, say the apostles, there was another place where the rubbish was dealt with, the grievances sorted, the scores settled. And, oddly enough, that’s outside the walls as well. In that place, the scores are settled once, for all, not allowed cling forever unsettled. The rubbish is cast away, the chaff is winnowed from the grain and, in that place, we can walk away to be fruitful – clean and fit for eternal storage in the Lord’s barn.

The Cross is where we can be free from the chaff – the place where we see that human judgement, hatred, cruelty and slander last just for a while, but self-sacrifice, love and God’s forgiveness last forever. If we’re looking at the cross we can see what’s wheat and what’s chaff – what’s gold and what’s rubbish – what’s the gift, and what – no matter how glittery and golden the paoer – is just wrapping.

John’s message is of threat and promise. Of the eternal and the useless. Let’s have eyes to see it in our own lives – and bring our own lives to that place, where we can be separated from the chaff.