Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Feast of St Bartholomew

Today is the feast day of St Bartholomew, one of the twelve Apostles, those first followers of Jesus. It ought to be easy, then, to talk about him, to tell some stories, to build up a picture of who this man was, but with Bartholomew it’s not that simple. He’s one of those saints about whom we know very little. We’re not even sure of his name. Matthew, Mark and Luke name a man called Bartholomew in the list of Jesus “inner circle” of friends, but John doesn’t. Instead he has a man called Nathanael, who the other three Gospels don’t seem to have heard of.  Both of them seem to be friends of Philip. Are they the same man? We don’t know. Bartholomew might have been his patronymic – a sort of surname – and Nathanael what his friends called him, but we can’t be sure.

If they are the same person, then we do have just one story about this man. John tells us that Nathanael was very sceptical when Philip first told him about Jesus. He was sitting under a fig tree in his home town of Cana, minding his own business when Philip rushed up, full of the news of this preacher from the neighbouring village. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he said.  “Come and see” said Philip. So Nathanael did. But as soon as he met Jesus his doubts were blown away.  “Here is a truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” said Jesus , seeing him come towards him. Nathanael was puzzled that Jesus seemed to have seen into his heart before he’d even met him. “Where did you get to know me?” he asked. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”. That’s enough for Nathanael.  Jesus knows him, through and through – which makes it quite ironic that we really don’t. All we have are a jumble of legends which, even to those who first told them, seem to have been rather hazy.

He might have gone to India, say the early church historians, as Thomas did, but maybe not. Some stories say he was beheaded, but others say he was flayed and crucified. He’s often painted carrying his own skin, rather gruesomely.
However he died, the most consistent part of the stories say that it happened in Eastern Turkey, which was then in Armenia. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church claims him as its founder along with St Thaddeus, who is equally obscure to us in the Western Church. For Armenians, though, these are important figures, the ones who brought the Gospel to them. They hold them in high regard, strengthened by their courageous example through many hundreds of years of hardship and persecution under the rule of the Ottomans, culminating in the Armenian genocide in 1915.  

Although Bartholomew’s life seems to have ended in Armenia though, his story most certainly didn’t. In the ninth century, somehow, his remains found their way to the island of Lipari, north of Sicily. Legend says they were washed up there miraculously, but possibly they were taken for safekeeping as Islam swept across Armenia… From Lipari Bartholomew’s relics were taken to the Italian mainland, and eventually to Rome. There the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, installed them in a recently built church on an island in the River Tiber, which became known as San Bartolomeo all’ Isola – St Bartholomew on the Island.

This was no ordinary island, though. Long before Christ was born, it had been a sacred place, dedicated to Asclepius the Greek and Roman god of healing, with a temple and a sacred spring to which people came for healing. When Otto built his church on the foundations of the old temple, converting the spring into a font, the healing theme just continued.  A monastic hospital grew up to care for the pilgrims who came to San Bartolomeo to pray to the Christian God, just as they had done to Asclepius.

One of those medieval pilgrims was a jester to the king Henry 1 of England, called Rahere, He’d fallen ill on his pilgrimage to Rome in around 1120, probably with malaria, and he found himself being cared for at San Bartolomeo. As he lay there he had a vision of St Bartholomew, who told him to found a hospital in his own land. inspired by the care of the monks who had nursed him,  Rahere promised he would do so. And that’s why the hospital he founded in London  was also dedicated to St Bartholomew – we often know it better as Barts - one of the oldest hospitals in Europe. It’s not the only St Bart’s hospital though – the association of Bartholomew with healing was now firmly fixed. St Bartholomew’s Chapel in Oxford – Bartlemas Chapel as it’s sometimes known–was once part of a leper hospital there. If you were in Sandwich on Friday you might have happened  on the celebrations at St Bartholomew’s hospital there. It’s now just a set of almshouses with a chapel but once a medieval pilgrim’s hospice. Local children are set the task of running around the outside of the chapel, after which they are rewarded with a currant bun. Adults get a specially made biscuit stamped with the hospital stamp.

But why am I telling you all this? It’s not just random information to fill ten minutes from the pulpit. The thing that struck me about Bartholomew was just how great a distance there was between the shadowy figure from the Gospels and all the things that came to bear his name. He seems to have been an ordinary Palestinian Jew from an ordinary background, a peasant farmer perhaps, or a tradesman or a fisherman, like the rest of the disciples. When he and the other Apostles were sent out to spread the Gospel, they didn’t have a clue what they were doing, and precious few resources to do it with. What would he have thought if he had known that he would become an inspiration to persecuted Armenian Christians, or that hospitals would be named after him, let alone that children would be running round churches in his honour for the sake of a currant bun?

However he died, as he faced his martyrdom, these possibilities would have been the last things on his mind. Like St Paul, whose letter to the church in Corinth we heard today, he would have been concentrating on the immediate challenges and dangers he faced.  St Paul’s rather barbed words are a rebuke to the complacent Corinthians who think they’ve got life all sorted out. The only reason their faith seems so easy to them, Paul implies, is that they aren’t really living it out at all. While they are congratulating themselves on their own successes, the apostles are suffering real hardship.

If we’d asked Bartholomew what impact he thought his life might have as he faced its end, I wonder what he’d have said? A handful of people who’d heard the story of Jesus from him, who’d been touched with kindness, changed with love, perhaps; maybe some communities drawn together by his ministry. There might have been small triumphs, but at the end, there would be pain and humiliation. “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure, when slandered we speak kindly”   said Paul, but those who endured this life must have wondered sometimes whether it was worth it? The small flames of faith he had ignited in people were hardly going to be enough to make a real difference.

But it wasn’t so. We may not know much about Bartholomew, but we do know that those who had been affected by his life must have been affected deeply enough that they wanted to preserve his name, associating it with good things, positive things, healing things. It doesn’t matter whether all the stories are true. It doesn’t matter if the bones that lie in that church in Rome were his or not. The chain of events that led to his name being enshrined in hospitals and churches around the world, celebrated in liturgy and in currant buns began with a real person, trying to live out his faith faithfully. Whatever he did, it mattered enough to those who saw it that they knew they didn’t want to forget him. His life helped them to deal with their own, and that’s what they wanted to remember.

Today people have opportunities for self-promotion, for a sort of instant immortality, which ancient people would never have imagined. Reality TV and social media can make household names of people who might otherwise have been unknown beyond their own immediate circle. Fame can be a poisoned chalice of course, but many people still seem hungry for it. They believe it will help them shape the way that others see them, and the way they’ll be remembered.

The truth is, though, that none of us can tell what ripples will spread out from our lives, even less control them. All we can do is focus on the here and now, trying to drop good stones into the pond, if you like, and let God look after what comes next.
Jesus sums it up in today’s gospel as he tries to mediate between his squabbling disciples. They are not to model themselves on those who are hungry for power and fame – the earthly rulers and powerful people of their time, the people who set the world’s agendas. Their model is the servant.

Servants are often unnoticed, though their work is vital, and rarely have much say in what they do or how they do it. They are there to get the job done, and that’s all. It’s a tough calling, so it’s no surprise that it’s not a popular one.  But it’s the pattern that Jesus set us, putting himself aside for the sake of others. 

It’s not about saying that we don’t matter – that’s a distorted and unhealthy form of servanthood, and can be hugely damaging both to the servant and the one who is served. Quite the opposite. Genuine humility comes from knowing that  we are of infinite worth to God, so we don’t need the acclaim of others. It comes from knowing that  we don’t need to make a name for ourselves, because God names us and knows us through and through. 

The truth is that none of us can know what our legacy will be, what people will remember us for. But perhaps Bartholomew, that elusive, enigmatic saint might help us to leave that in God’s hands, so that we can be free to do what we are called to now, living the Gospel and serving those around us as Christ did.

More about Bartholomew

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Trinity 9: A sermon for those with green heads and blue hands

“Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
 And they went to sea in a Sieve.”

If you are a fan of Edward Lear’s nonsense poetry those words will be familiar. The Jumblies were just one of a long list of unlikely invented creatures and situations he thought up. He’s responsible for the Owl and the Pussycat too – an unlikely pairing in real life, but one we are glad to see get together in a poem.

Edward Lear’s creatures are often in some way outsiders, odd and isolated. The Quangle Wangle, lives a lonely existence high up in the Crumpetty tree; “for his hat was 102 feet wide with ribbons and bibbons on every side, and bells and buttons and loops and lace, so nobody ever could see the face of the Quangle Wangle Quee.” The situation is remedied only when various other creatures decide to come and set up home on his enormous hat. “And at night, by the light of the mulberry moon, they danced to the flute of the blue baboon/ on the broad green leaves of the Crumpetty tree and all were as happy as happy could be/ with the Quangle Wangle Quee.”

The poems reflect Lear’s own life. He often felt like an outsider, awkward and ill at ease in the world. He may have been gay, though no one can be sure. What we do know is that he suffered from epilepsy, in an age when there was a huge stigma about this. He kept it secret as far as he could, but doing so mean that, like the Quangle Wangle, he was often lonely, and he worked that out in his poetry.
They are odd poems, but they have endured, I think, because most of us can identify with them. We all feel like outsiders sometimes, like those Jumblies, as if our head were green and our hands were blue, way out of our depth, at sea in a vessel that seems on the point of sinking. The poems comfort us because they tell we’re not alone, and they hint that maybe even the oddest of creatures is loveable, and the strangest of situations can have a happy ending.

In our Gospel reading we meet two other outsiders, who have a decidedly awkward encounter with each other. The first outsider is Jesus himself. He’s gone to the coastal district of Tyre and Sidon. It’s outside the land of Israel. Why he is there we aren’t told and it’s a strange place to choose if he wants simply to get away for a bit.Tyre and Sidon were notorious seaports in the land of Israel’s old enemy the Canaanites. It was full of dubious characters coming and going, of every race and background and it was a byword for sin and loose living. He must have known it would feel strange there, but it turned out to be even stranger than he’d bargained for. The woman who comes to him is a Canaanite, so she is automatically strange to him, but she is probably viewed with suspicion in her own community too. She is a woman on her own, apparently a single mother in a society where women were expected to stay in the background. Why isn’t there a man to speak for her – her daughter’s father perhaps? We don’t know. She might be a widow, or perhaps he was a sailor, with a girl in every port, and he has gone and left her. Anyway, she is all her sick daughter has, and she’s determined to do what she can to help.

When the disciples beg Jesus to send her away, we probably expect him to rebuke them, but even he seems to have reached his limit of tolerance. He tries to say that she is not his concern. Israel’s bread mustn’t be thrown to the dogs – it’s a shocking response. But she persists, and he suddenly sees beneath the label, acclaiming her faith. Her vision of God is wider and deeper even than his own at this point.

It’s an odd story to be included in the Gospels and a challenging one. But Matthew knew it mattered that it was told because the people he was writing for, an early Christian community, was living constantly at the boundaries of their tolerance too. They were Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, and they regularly floundered as they tried to work out how to get along together. To add to that, following Jesus had often alienated them from their communities of origin. It all felt wrong. To know that Jesus himself had struggled and come through similar feelings was a huge encouragement. Faith and love grow when we work through the strangeness. We discover that God can be at work in our lives whoever and wherever we are.

And that brings me back to those Jumblies I started out with. Did they sink, on their perilous voyage? No, says Lear, they didn’t, and in the end, they were blessed by it.

“in twenty years they all came back,
   In twenty years or more,
And every one said, “How tall they’ve grown!
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
   And the hills of the Chankly Bore”;
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And every one said, “If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,--
   To the hills of the Chankly Bore!”
      Far and few, far and few,
         Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
      Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
         And they went to sea in a Sieve.


Monday, 4 August 2014

Trinity 7 - Overflowing Generosity

Matthew 14.13-21, Romans 9.1-5, Isaiah 55.1-5

Do you have a special place you like to go when you need peace and time to think deeply about important things?

Some people find it helpful to be among nature, looking out to sea or across fields, certainly many have come to this building to find space to think and pray at times of great sadness.

Sometimes we just need to be alone with time and space to mourn or get our thoughts together.

In Tom Wright’s commentary on Matthew he offers us the challenge of thinking how we would feel if we walked to the top of a mountain looking for peaceful solitude only to be surrounded by cheerful hikers or went into a little church to get away from it all only to be invaded by a boisterous wedding party.

Our mood and our mind set would not be on the same wavelength as the hikers or wedding guests so how would we react? Probably we would groan and move on wondering if there is anywhere we can get away from people.

When you think of it like that it makes Jesus behaviour in our gospel reading today quite remarkable.

John the Baptist has been killed because he spoke out against Herod Antipas’ marriage to his brother Philip’s wife when Philip was still alive, which was a violation of Jewish law. John, Jesus’ cousin and co-worker has been beheaded. Not only a great source of sadness for Jesus but also a thought provoking warning of what lay ahead for him too.

No wonder that Jesus’ withdrew in a boat to a deserted place’, but when he went ashore great crowds were waiting for him. Who could have blamed Jesus if he had said to them ‘give me a break people I’m not having a great day, I just want to be alone.’

But his reaction is more like the people we admire when they take great sadness and adversity and turn it into positive energy, for example when people raise money or raise awareness when they have suffered a personal tragedy.

In Jesus case he saw others needs before his own and reacted by showing compassion and curing the sick.

The very fact that he had sought remote solitude meant that the crowd found themselves far from home, prompting the disciples to show their concern as the evening drew in, suggesting that Jesus sent them into the villages to buy food.

Jesus reaction startles the disciples when he effectively says ‘you feed them’. Matthew places this story in a section of the gospel about training the disciples for their mission, so perhaps Jesus is challenging them to understand what they can do, getting them to realise new things are possible.

Loaves and fish were the basic Galilean peasant diet but the meagre portions carried by the disciples led them to think it’s not worth even trying to share with all the people present. There’s a good chance that most in the crowd were there looking for more meaning in their lives, hungry for more than food, while elsewhere the wealthy and powerful had all the mod cons of Roman life with food on the table.

Jesus wants to change the disciple’s way of thinking to one where small resources can achieve great things.

 We have a reminder of the Last Supper. Jesus takes bread, recognises it as God’s gift, blesses it, breaks it, and distributes it. Like the bread we will share today it represents the abundance of God’s love and he wants all to share in it.

Jesus shows us what this means in real terms as the likes of Zachaeus the hated tax collector and Mary Magdalen of questionable repute are invited to join his kingdom showing that God loves all of his creation all the time, even those who lose their way. A lesson to most of us who are a bit more selective with those we love.

You probably don’t need me to remind you that it’s important to look for the context of stories and events in the bible. So if you are stopped by the security man on your way out of the supermarket don’t even think of opening your bible to prove that God said ‘Come, buy wine and milk without money, without price’!

Isaiah is explaining that the real meaning is once again to show God’s boundless grace and challenge our natural ways of thinking.

The theme of generous love continues in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Take one step back in the text to the end of previous chapter and we find Paul asserting that nothing ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. Contrast this positive message with today’s words, which aren’t easy to get to grips with in isolation, and we find a sorrowful Paul agonising over why people who are Jews just as he was cannot recognise Jesus as the Messiah. He would even be willing to be ‘cut off from Christ’, be condemned to damnation, for the sake of bringing his fellow Jews to Christ.

Paul doesn’t shy away from his Jewish identity, for many years he followed Jewish law until he was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus. In his second letter to the Corinthians he boasts of his Jewish heritage saying’ Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.

He tells us how his kindred Israelites have been given so much of value through their religious heritage including their affirmation as chosen people, God’s presence in the desert and his covenants with the patriarchs. All these things point towards and prepare the people to recognise Jesus when he comes, yet, for many it simply isn’t the case.

Of course it’s a problem that goes way beyond the Israelites. Many of us have colleagues, fellow students, friends, loved ones who don’t respond to God’s love in a formal religious way. I think it helps us if we remind ourselves that God is big enough to deal with this, the problem can be our desire to organise and formalise in a way that makes us feel more comfortable, but in doing this we only let others have a glimpse of a small part of God.

We need to try and grow our trust in God as we remind ourselves of his unconditional love.

As Matthew and Isaiah remind us, God’s generosity is not restricted by the small resources we are able to offer.

As we look around our neighbourhood and beyond it’s not hard to find many people in need. Jesus still says to us today ‘you give them something to eat’. If we will respond with whatever we can, even those who don’t have much, we will find that Jesus takes it, multiplies it and many needs are met.

In the case of the local food bank contributions left in the box near the font many do this literally, in the case of the support and encouragement we offer to others we often find that this gets passed on with interest. We need to spread the message through words and actions so that others know that they can approach God, hold out empty hands and have them filled to overflowing.

After all in the feeding of the five thousand all needs had been catered for and many baskets of left overs were also collected up.

I found this poem which seems to capture the essence of the generosity which runs through our readings today.

The bits left over,

What of those?

Pieces left strewn around,

no longer required.

A plethora of scraps yet Christ leaves none discarded

but calls for all to be gathered in,

saved and treasured.

Baskets filled with an extravagance-

excess cherished.


that can only be imagined.

A hungry crowd, a boys packed lunch.

A great big picnic.

People fed and still enough to go on sharing the blessing


and grace of God.


Kevin Bright

3rd August 2014