Sermons

On this page you can find details of this month’s services and transcripts of recent sermons preached by our Minister, Revd Dr Kirsty Thorpe.

Sermon Date

Sunday 3rd February 2019
Sunday 27th January 2019
Sunday 13th January 2019
Sunday 6th January 2019 – Epiphany
Sunday 2nd December 2018
Sunday 25th November 2018
Sunday 11th November 2018 – Remembrance Sunday

Forthcoming Church Services

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Sunday 3rd February 2019

Jeremiah 1: 4-10 and Luke 4: 16-30

Where was Jesus when they did the sermon class at rabbi school? Was he on a day off? Was he in the back row on his mobile, not listening because he was following the latest trending news story on poverty in Palestine or racial tensions between Jews and Samaritans? Something must have happened because, to judge by today’s reading, he seems to have missed out on three basic messages that any good preacher should know.  The first is ‘Don’t tell people any home truths – especially if you know a lot of those in the congregation personally and they think they know you.’  It’s never popular and it doesn’t do any good. The second is never to remind people in your sermon about their bigotry and narrowness – they won’t invite you back and they’ll put the word around to other synagogues that you’re a trouble maker. And the third is whatever you do, don’t mention God! People come to worship to meet their friends, to have a good natter, to catch up on the news, to be seen in their new outfit, to keep up with the big noises in the front row, and they don’t want to be troubled with all that business about faith and righteousness and prayer and helping others. Pander to people’s prejudices, massage their egos, confirm their sense of self-satisfied goodness and you’ll be everyone’s favourite preacher.
If any of us thought Jesus preaching at his home town synagogue in Nazareth was going to go well then we haven’t been listening too closely since we began to follow Luke’s gospel at the start of Advent. Luke’s been giving us clues all along that Jesus isn’t going to be God’s easy answer to the problems of the world and that, right from the start, he will divide and challenge people because of what he stands for and is.  Who says to Joseph and Mary: ‘’This child is destined to be a sign that will be rejected; and you too will be pierced to the heart. Many in Israel will stand or fall because of him; and so the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare.’? Those are the words of Simeon, the faithful, prayerful, worshipper who meets the young family in the Temple as Jesus’s parents come for the ritual purification required by Jewish law after childbirth. He sees both the pain and promise within this small infant. Luke places this incident right at the start of the gospel as a sign that things are not going to end well for Jesus, or not in terms that the world will easily recognise. Luke warns us there are choppy waters and turbulent times ahead for all those who love and care for this special child.
So we can’t say we haven’t been warned. But even so the behaviour of those Nazareth worthies that Sabbath morning is still something of a shock. We had the scene set for this in last week’s reading. Jesus has been teaching in the synagogues of Galilee ‘armed with the power of the Spirit’, and he’s been making such an impact that everyone is singing his praises.  You can just imagine the synagogue officials at Nazareth hearing about all of this and discussing why he’s not so far chosen to preach on home soil. They make sure he’s invited to come and be heard in his home town, by those who’ve known him since he was a little lad. It’s about time Nazareth should get a chance to assess this new religious sensation. Everything seems to be going so well. Jesus is a good reader – he is confident and assured in the way he finds the passage on the scroll and they can hear him at the back. He’s a gifted scholar, too, who’s used to study and who brings the words to life as he proclaims them. And the passage he’s reading is an exciting one – a feel good text about hope from the prophet Isaiah. This is all about the change the Lord will bring to people’s lives through his special messenger – how God has poured his spirit out on his chosen one and how that person will speak to the poorest and weakest and most damaged people around with words of power and transformation. This will happen when the Year of the Lord’s Favour is proclaimed. That’s a significant time for the Jewish faithful, one they remember from the book of Leviticus but won’t have lived through in the time of Jesus for many centuries. In chapter 25 of Leviticus, a book of ancient law in the Hebrew scriptures, God calls on the people to mark every 50th year as a Jubilee. During this Year of the Lord’s Favour, unrepayable and long-standing debts are to be cancelled, slaves and prisoners must be set free, disputed land should be returned to its original owner and everyone gets a once in a lifetime chance to reset their economic and relational clock to freedom and a new start.
It’s good to hear talk about God’s ancient promises. It makes the people of Nazareth feel hopeful that, one day, the rule of the Romans and their puppet kings will come to an end, oppression will cease and the Jewish nation will be able once more to live and breathe and make its own independent decisions. What they don’t expect, what they don’t really want when it actually happens, is for this charismatic young rabbi to tell them that revolution is happening here and now. It sounds good at first when they hear it: ‘Today, in your hearing this text has come true’ Jesus tells them. But wait a minute. What does he mean? Who does he think he is? Has he got authority to say things like that with such certainty? Some of them are probably inflating their chests with civic pride at the confidence of their home town boy while others are already ready to burst the pretentious bubble of Jesus, son of Joseph the builder.
Jesus hasn’t done the module on conflict resolution at rabbi school either. He goes straight for the most risky tactic possible. He tells the congregation the truth about who they are and so reflects back to them their prejudices and narrowness. It’s not that Nazareth is any worse than other towns and villages in Galilee but he knows this lot through and through because he’s grown up among them and he sees how their minds work. He knows their inner battles between honouring God, at their best, and petty arguments between each other when they’re at their worst. If they were able to stop and think about it they might be a bit less violent and hasty. Jesus reminds them of two stories from Jewish history, both of times when there was dire need in Israel but God chose to offer help to foreigners instead of his chosen people. Two great prophets of old – Elijah and Elisha – were both sent to help non-Jews in a time of great and universal need. How many Jewish widows were still going hungry at home while Elijah was called on by God to feed one foreign widow and her son in Sidon, up north?  How many good, faithful Jews were suffering the curse of leprosy when God instructed Elisha to heal one, solitary foreign leper, the commander of the enemy army no less, in the person of Naaman, another Syrian? That’s what tips the situation, when Jesus pushes that second button. It pushes the congregation over the edge from approval to fury and almost results in them tipping Jesus over the edge of a convenient and steep cliff on the edge of town to his death.
We want God’s words of grace but we don’t want them to help those we think of as other, as foreign, as the enemy. The gospel, the Year of the Lord’s favour happening now – right in the middle of our unjust, embittered and divided world – is the thing we need most now, just like those worshippers in Nazareth.  At the same time, like them, it’s the thing we find hardest to handle and accept. God is so disastrously unable to judge properly between us all – so unwilling to see things in their proper proportion, as we do. God remains so dangerously willing to give grace to those we know clearly know don’t deserve it. God is so prone to gently showing us our faults when we need his continued attention while we carefully list the failings of others.
How do we get beyond that synagogue in Nazareth and start to hear and live the gospel with Jesus on the road, as he escapes through the crowd and slips away into the backroads of Galilee? There’s a story in the last issue of Reform, our denominational magazine, that helps me with this. It’s an interview with Professor Mela Pattillo Beals who, in her teenage years, was one of the group of African American high school students from Little Rock, Arkansas who was chosen to break the all-white education system at the Central High School in 1957. She explains how, with help from her grandmother, she found both the courage and the grace to resist racism. On the first day at school she and her mother were chased from the building by a white mob keen to hang them if they could: ‘That’s when I remembered that Grandma had for years said: ‘God is as close as your skin. Here, feel your cheek. See? That’s God. He’s right there. All you have to do is ask and he will help you forever.’ I always thought: Who needs this information? But this particular day, when I was being chased by men with rope, I said: Alrighty then. I need to test Grandma’s theory. I said the 23rd Psalm aloud and the Lord’s Prayer. I was running down this street with no sidewalk, my mother behind me, and the first guy stumbled over some dead branches, thereby tripping the men who were behind him, giving us just moments to get in. I got in the car, got my mother and backed down the street faster than I’d ever driven forward. I thought: ‘Huh, integration is a bigger word than I thought.’ Yes, and so are justice, and respect and diversity and dialogue. Just as well God gives us grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this, as the hymn reminds us. Let’s claim that grace and take the walk away from the cliff edge together with Jesus in our midst.

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Sunday 27th January 2019

Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4: 14-21

On a holiday in Venice, some years ago, Martin and I spent a marvellous morning on the small island of Torcello in the northern part of the lagoon. It has an amazing cathedral which dates back to the fifth and sixth centuries. In those days the island was the centre of the area and may have had up to 20,000 inhabitants. Today there are fewer than 100 people living there and the reputation of its near neighbour Venice gets far more attention. On the west wall of the cathedral is a vast mosaic of the Last Judgement, from floor to ceiling. It’s a reminder of the times when most people didn’t read at all and relied on the priest to read aloud to them from scripture, probably in Latin, which nobody without an education would have understood anyway. You needed help to get the message over, hence the wall paintings and mosaics of so many ancient places of Christian worship. Today’s Old Testament passage shows us a moment in Jewish history when many ordinary people needed reminding of what their religion taught and of where they had come from.
Our scene takes place within the newly rebuilt walls of the city of Jerusalem. The city has been deserted and in ruins for several generations, ever since almost all the nation’s leaders had been taken off into slavery by the Babylonians at the end of a long and brutal siege almost six centuries before the birth of Jesus. Some of the descendants of those slaves have already been given permission to return home across the desert but the city is still on its knees. One hundred and fifty years after the original fall of the city Nehemiah, a Jewish courtier of the King of Persia, hears God’s call to rebuild the city’s walls. Amazingly, he gets permission from the king to do just that. Appointed as governor of Judah he returns to the place which is holiest to the Jewish people, even though much of the city remains a pile of rubble with the temple totally destroyed. He organises the Jews he finds there and they – as the early chapters of the book of Nehemiah tell us in incredible detail – divide between themselves the task of restoring the city’s gates and walls. Renewing the city’s boundaries and fortifications is the first task. The neighbouring Samaritans, Ammonites and Arabs are not pleased to see a re-established Jewish presence in the city so they need to be alert to ever present danger from outside.
Next comes the rebuilding of the population – the work that’s to be done within the city walls on the people, their relationships, their day to day interactions. Nehemiah sees a deeply divided population. The wealthy Jews within the city have been oppressing their poor neighbours for years and getting away with it because corrupt governors before Nehemiah have turned a blind eye and possibly got a back hander for doing so. He realises that securing the city’s future means helping everyone to have a new understanding of God’s word.  They must re-establish faith in the one God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and bring people back to understanding the Jewish law, the Law of Moses, on which every part of their religious life is built. With Nehemiah’s encouragement the city’s people gather together and Ezra the priest reads to them from the law – or we could use the Hebrew word ‘Torah’ – of Moses. This is a mixture of law and teaching and it is the term we now use for the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Ezra’s reading takes the entire morning – possibly up to 6 hours – and it has a deep affect on people as they stand and listen.  This is a culture where probably less than 3% of people can read. They depend on the scribes and priests to read them God’s word aloud and to help them understand it. Then other scribes (Levites) preach on what the people have heard, relating it to their everyday lives, and nobody moves or goes home for lunch: ‘They read from the book of the law of God clearly, made its sense plain, and gave instruction in what was read.’ This is a sermon class in action – a great open air sharing of God’s word.
Our world knows how hungry the most desperate and deprived people are still for words of hope and wisdom which they can rely on and trust. In Venezuela today, which oil reserves should make one of the wealthiest countries around, corruption and dictatorship have left people hungry and thirsty with their nation’s health service, education, transport, economy and the rule of law in ruins. Even so, if someone speaks to them words of hope and justice Venezuelans still have energy to listen and engage. We do not live by bread alone, as Jesus reminds us all, and in restoring to the people of Jerusalem God’s word for them Nehemiah and Ezra bring them back to what they most need to re-establish the city on the right foundations. People weep as they hear the law read out, recognising how far away from God’s will for them they are now. Nehemiah sends them away rejoicing, though, to organise a city wide party where everyone will get good food and drink to share: ‘So all the people went away to eat and to drink, to send shares to others, and to celebrate the day with great rejoicing, because they had understood what had been explained to them.’ God’s law brings justice and hope.
Why does this piece of ancient scripture matter to us now? On Holocaust Memorial Day it is a reminder of one of the major things the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have in common. They are centred around the reading and interpretation of holy scripture, as the basis for the way their followers will live and relate to the world every day. The Hebrew Scriptures make up the major part of the Christian bible in terms of words and pages. The Koran talks of figures we know from the Old and New Testaments though it portrays them in different ways, telling other stories about them. One of the ways in which the Jewish faith has been oppressed, and Jewish people persecuted, over the centuries, has been the destruction of scriptural scrolls. These are sacred objects. When you visit a synagogue you discover how much reverence and care is taken in the storage, handling and preservation of the scrolls. They are kept safe within a special cupboard at the centre of the worship space.  The importance of the scrolls, containing God’s word, was known to the Nazis which is why they went to such trouble to desecrate and destroy these holy writings when the persecution of Jewish people began in 1930s Germany. Respect for the religious writings of other faiths is one of the basic human rights of a civilised society and one we need to remember and cherish.
Why do scriptures matter to people of faith? Because, as the story from Nehemiah shows us, they are one way we can reconnect with God. Without them we are trying to build a wall without foundations. The United Reformed Church is sometimes caricatured as a Christian denomination with so little doctrine and structure that anyone can believe anything they like and anything goes. But that’s a serious misunderstanding of what our Reformed forebears understood by engaging seriously with scripture and relating it to the way the followers of Jesus try to live now. Just think back to the words we heard promised by those Elders who were inducted in our communion service last week. We asked them: Do you believe that the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the supreme authority for the faith and conduct of all God’s people?  Their promise is what we hold to as a Church.
And we need to re-engage with the Word of God because unless we do so we risk forgetting the difficult bits of the Bible on which we’re less keen. What had the people of Jerusalem forgotten, all those centuries ago? It was above all God’s word of justice – God’s call to build a society that was fair and which protected the weakest and most deprived – that seemed to have slipped their minds over the centuries. The Law speaks of protection for the widows, the orphans and the strangers in our midst. Strangely enough our society isn’t very good at remembering impoverished women, vulnerable children, refugees and asylum seekers either. That’s why we need to keep re-engaging with God’s word in the Bible and letting it put as back on the right course.

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Sunday 13th January 2019

Isaiah 43: 1-7 and Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

One starting point for me today has been to ask myself: ‘How much can we use our imaginations when we hear a story from the bible?’ This week we’re just starting our journey with Luke, the gospel writer, as he tells us about the life of Jesus as an adult. Luke has already given us a whole lot of stories and poems and songs and pictures which don’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament. Without this gospel we wouldn’t know about Mary being told she’s going to have a child – or shepherds coming to see the new Messiah – or Anna and Simeon recognising this amazing infant when his parents bring him to the Temple as a small baby. And Luke alone talks about Jesus as a an adolescent, debating faith with the teachers in the Temple and so getting left behind when the rest of the group from Nazareth leave for the walk home.
Now, suddenly, in chapter 3 Luke opens up a whole new scene before our eyes. We are standing alongside the River Jordan, and John the Baptist son of Zechariah and Elizabeth is preaching and teaching all over the Jordan valley. He’s quoting the prophets of old, including Isaiah, and challenging people with a tough message about social justice and change in their lives. ‘If you have more than you need then share it – don’t just keep it to yourselves. If you have power then don’t abuse it – use it fairly so others are safe around you.’ On one level this teaching sounds amazingly simple but you only have to think about the trouble and tensions we experience at all levels of our lives in our world if these things go wrong to see how deeply practical and important John’s words are. Without real justice we can’t have real and lasting peace – God’s shalom.
Luke paints this scene in such an impressionist way that we’re almost obliged to use our imaginations to make sense of it. Reading this passage is a bit like standing in front of a beautiful painting by Van Gogh, or Manet or Turner and trying to work out what all the colours and shapes might mean. The gospel writer doesn’t tell us clearly whether John the Baptist is deliberately trying to draw a crowd of people around him to hear his challenging message or whether they just come of their own accord. We are left to work out what it is that has attracted numbers of people to make the walk from Jerusalem and other parts of southern Judea to the river bank in search of such a tough and radical message. We may wonder if their presence a sign of a great longing for a new start with God and a spiritual hunger. We may ask if the success of John the Baptist in drawing a crowd, even though he doesn’t seem to have deliberately gone about doing so, shows us how deep was the failure of the Jewish religion of the time in leaving many people lost and unsatisfied? None of this is made clear for us but, as with the whole of the gospel of Luke already, we’re being encouraged to explore, to ask questions, to get under the surface of the story and mine the layers of meaning there are to be searched.
Let’s start at the surface level to begin with. You can see this passage about the baptism of John the Baptist, which Jesus comes to receive, as a reminder of our human need for new beginnings with God. When we make a decision to change our lives – moving on from something in the past – we may take symbolic action that shows we’re making a new start. Being baptised and being washed clean in the waters of the great River Jordan is just such an action. Some of us remember being baptised while others know it happened to us as a small child because we have a certificate to prove it. For anyone who is journeying with Jesus being baptised is a key moment in saying our ‘yes’ to God. Being able to symbolise this by going totally down under the water and coming up again has not just a great personal power for us but can also remind everyone of the death and resurrection journey which Jesus models for all of us and which can be a helpful way to understand our own losses and renewals in a lifetime of change. Choosing a new name is one way to draw a line with the past and begin again. I have a Pakistani friend, a Christian, who now wants to be known by a name from the New Testament not her original name. Her Muslim name has been a constant reminder of religious tension within the family. It was not her parent’s choice for but that of an aunt’s, which she put pressure on the woman’s mother to accept. I know of a United Reformed Church in another synod which changed it’s name to reclaim a good place in the community. It had become known for bickering and poor relationships. Now it calls itself by a new name people are coming there with fresh eyes and open hearts and the congregation responds better.
The next level on which you might understand the story of Jesus’s baptism as Luke tells it is as a community event. Luke sets the stage in the early part of chapter 3, giving us the buzz of excitement and tension around John the Baptist as he teaches. There’s a great range of people around him from the ordinary Jewish faithful to tax collectors and even soldiers, probably employed by Herod the Roman appointed ruler of the region. Some are choosing to be washed by John in the water as a sign of repentance and Luke gives us a sense that when Jesus joins such a group the whole event changes character.
The question which the gospel writer leaves deliciously open is did people notice something special at the time or did they think back later and remember those events in a new way, once Jesus had become a big name? Was this particular baptism the one everyone later wanted to claim they’d been there for? ‘I was there when Jesus from Nazareth, John’s cousin, turned up.’ ‘I could tell he was different from the first time I set eyes on him.’ It’s hard to answer this without understanding something about the nature of storytelling. When you write an account of someone’s life or of a particular event with the intention of changing the lives of others through what they hear then you’re bound to use some techniques to dramatize things. You will deliberately point out the significant recurring themes you want people to start noticing for themselves. You will place your characters in situations that enable them to be lit effectively or perhaps even hidden in the crowd. You will cut out the boring parts of the narrative and focus on the exciting events. I remember a conversation with a friend who had been on a visit to South America accompanying a high profile Christian writer and journalist who was researching a book on poverty. My friend remarked on how incidents which he remembered as pretty mundane and unremarkable became, in the hands of the writer, very different and almost unrecognizable in the book. That’s what writers do. They pick out things to make their point.
Luke is doing just that here, I think, as he stages the baptism of Jesus happening within a ‘general baptism of the people’. The event is marked out by the arrival of the Holy Spirit, like a dove, descending from heaven and accompanied by God’s words of blessing and approval. I think Luke wants us to conclude that during this event others heard and saw things happening at the moment when Jesus came up from the water that suggested to them this man is one to watch – he’s special – and he’s been particularly blessed by God. And certainly the gospel writer wants us to see this as the moment when this young man was particularly blessed by God. This gives Jesus his platform for ministry and establishes the start of his public role. It doesn’t mean that from now on Jesus will be, as John had been, choosing to live apart from others. After a time of withdrawal Jesus will return to teach, preach and heal in a very intense way. God’s blessing has re-emphasised the relationship, through Jesus, of God with his people and the true meaning of this will soon unfold with significance not just for those around Jesus at the Jordan river that day but for all people in all times and places for all eternity. So the baptism story in Luke gives us a pattern of engagement with the world, supported by God’s blessing, just as it does for Jesus.
But being blessed by God, being helped to journey into the world, is not without its problems, as we all experience regularly. For me that fact is given an amazingly powerful illustration by something that’s been happening on the banks of the River Jordan recently. Some of us were alive in 1967 when Israel fought a Six Day war with its Arab neighbours. As a result of that a large number of landmines were laid along the edge of the river Jordan at the point where it had been thought for many centuries the actual baptism of Jesus had taken place. Visitors coming to that area have been severely restricted in their access because of the danger of the landmines. They partially reopened the site in 2011 but you can only go down a narrow path to the river. So far a group of 22 minesweepers from Georgia have removed 1,500 of an estimated 6,500 landmines.  They’ve made 50 acres safe and there’s 200 acres more to go. There are some amazing ancient churches there – Greek Orthodox, Franciscan, Ethiopian Orthodox – which have so far been liberated. The Russian, Syrian, Romanian and Coptic churches are still unable to be reached because of the landmines around them.  There’s a Byzantine church which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1024 and rebuilt in the 12th century and there have been pilgrims who have gone to that part of the river for two millennia, almost. So in reclaiming that piece of land it seems to me that those who are removing the landmines are giving us symbolic encouragement to recognise that whatever lies ahead of us in life will have its risks and dangers. There are times when we approach each new day in fear and trembling of what might come next. The challenges of life are always with us. But that story of Jesus who comes to the riverside in solidarity with all of us, enters into the water and comes up again receiving God’s blessing, is the reminder for all of us of God’s presence with us no matter what is happening to us, and a source of constant and renewed hope for us and for God’s world.

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Sunday 6th January 2019 – Epiphany

Isaiah 60: 1-6 and Matthew 2: 1-12

Welcome to the run up to Easter! Yes, I’ve seen my first Easter egg in a shop – retailers can’t afford to hang about when there’s chocolate and profits in the offing.  In the Church Year today is Epiphany Sunday – a festival with several layers of meaning. For the world at large it’s the reminder that twelfth night has happened, Christmas is over and decorations now need to be packed away again because East Cheshire hospice are on their way to collect Christmas trees for recycling. For us, as people who try to follow Jesus, it’s a time to have a moment of epiphany – a revelation – about the presence of God among us. I mean something more significant than realising the low, winter sun light is showing up all the marks on the windows and you need to see out more clearly but even that level of epiphany is important if you’re a driver and the poor visibility is your windscreen! This is the day when the Church celebrates the way non Jews – Gentiles – came to recognise Jesus not just as a special child but a divine one, born of God. It’s the start of a season which runs until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and climaxes in Catholic circles with a great festival of Mardi Gras and rich food before the period of fasting that will lead up to Easter.
Our model for non-Jews who have a moment of insight as to who Jesus really is comes from the story of the magi. This is a part of the birth narrative of Jesus which only appears in Matthew’s gospel and is all that gospel says about how Jesus began his life on earth. You may be super-efficient people who’ve already recycled all your Christmas cards. If not, when you’re doing that why not set yourself a little biblical test this year? How many of your cards have a religious theme? Of the ones that do how many of them show Jesus with Mary and Joseph on their own, how many add the shepherds and do any of them have the magi as well in a great curtain call of characters crowding into a tiny space?  If you’ve got any cards showing baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds and the magi all together in one scene that’s an interesting example of the way we blend Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus with Matthew’s. It’s alright to do that but it helps if we realise that we’re blurring the lines between different traditions when we do this. Epiphany is a Matthew centred day.
Let’s put a few myths to one side to begin with. Tom Wright the biblical commentator tells us the word we often hear to describe these visitors from the east – ‘magi’ – can mean magicians or experts in interpreting dreams or astrologers, which is the translation used in our church bibles. How that description got changed into them being kings is not entirely clear but the writer of Matthew is very keen to keep reminding us how the birth of Jesus fulfils all the prophecies of the past, so this could be part of the reason.  Hear these verses from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 60 again: ‘Arise, shine, Jerusalem, for your light has come; and over you the glory of the Lord has dawned. Though darkness covers the earth and dark night the nations, on you the Lord shines and over you his glory will appear; nations will journey towards your light and kings to your radiance.’ The gospel writer wants his first century Jewish hearers to see the links between this account of the birth of Jesus and what had been promised for centuries about the people of Israel and the coming of a Messiah. Visitors who can travel large distances, who can afford rich gifts and who have knowledge and understanding, are powerful people – the fact that myth and legend has made them into kings is not so much of a surprise.
You may have noticed that Matthew’s gospel gives us no firm basis for the other parts of the story we’ve constructed on the basis of very little evidence. Where did we get three visitors from? Simply because the gospel mentions three distinct types of gifts we imagine three pairs of hands holding the gold, frankincense and myrrh. What about the camels? It’s a long way from Persia and camels are good beasts of transport but the gospel is silent about whether the visitors came on camels, on some other beasts or on foot. Do the magi visit Jesus in a stable as a baby? There’s nothing here that parallels with Luke’s version of the story. Matthew tells us the visitors enter a house and there’s nothing about an overcrowded Bethlehem full of census visitors and a baby laid in a manger because the inn was full. The fact that, later in Matthew chapter two, Herod orders the killing of all boys under the age of two suggests this birth story is set a little later in the life of Jesus.
One commentary I read when preparing for today asked: ‘Did Matthew believe that his story was historically accurate?’ and went on ‘We cannot be sure, but probably. He doesn’t seem to have any evidence for the historical veracity of his story of the kind that we would demand today, but what was that against the testimony of Scripture?’ I think those comments show a degree of misunderstanding about what the gospel writer is doing here. Matthew is carefully constructing his life story of Jesus in such a way that we, the hearers, will be led to believe for ourselves that Jesus who was born in Bethlehem is God’s son and the saviour of the whole world. The gospel writer is piling up the indicators that Jesus fulfils what the prophets and people of God of old were expecting and how this happens. Jesus is going to take all these prophecies and hopes and expectations to a whole, new level – to blow our minds with the reality of what God is doing.
The first sign of that is the arrival of these mysterious, insightful, searching, non-Jewish visitors from the east. They open the gospel, as representatives of the world, coming to a little village near Bethlehem because they sense major events unfolding. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, 28 chapters later, the risen Jesus will tell his disciples – and us too – to go out into the world in his name to take the message everywhere: ‘Full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Go therefore to all nations and make them my disciples; baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. I will be with you always, to the end of time.’
What does the story of the magi say to us now, in 2019 – what light does it shine through our dusty windows onto the world and life around us? I am struck by the parallels between the insecurity, fearfulness and instability of Jerusalem under the absolute rule of King Herod and the number of unpredictable, dangerous, leaders strutting on the world stage now. Salisbury is a city I used to visit as a child during the summer holidays. If you had told me, a year ago, that in 2018 it would be the scene of a nerve agent attack carried out – in all likelihood – by Russian agents acting on orders from President Putin I would have thought you’d been eating something strange in your cereal that morning. The gospel writer describes how, on hearing from the astrologers that the Jews have a new born king, he is troubled ‘and so was the whole of Jerusalem.’ If you live under a despot then you depend for your future on the unpredictable behaviour of that individual. Your whole life depends on that person’s state of mind – their irrational thoughts and decisions – and it makes the world a dangerous place not just for your country but for its neighbours too – anyone who tries to relate with your ruler. Bullies cause others to behave differently – that’s their greatest weapon – they get inside your head and change the way you act. The magi get home safely because they don’t go back to Jerusalem as Herod’s told them to after God warns them in a dream about the danger and they take another route. We, too, need to keep on listening to God and following God’s guidance.
This story says something about possession and power too. Herod claims he wants to know where the new king is so he, also, can ‘pay him homage’. In reality he wants to know the place so he can take possession of the whole family and kill this young pretender to his power and rule. God doesn’t allow that to happen. The child is protected because Joseph listens to a dream warning him of the danger and he and Mary take Jesus to safety in Egypt so Herod’s plan fails. Our world still sees things in terms of ownership, possession and power going hand in hand. The recent headlines about the Chinese landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon show that. There’s a mixture of excitement and fear about what they’ve done. Have they staked a claim to a new territory or will the Chinese be open to sharing their new-found knowledge? It’s one thing for the New Horizons probe to fly by Ultima Thule and send back images from the edge of our galaxy but quite another for one powerful nation to land a craft somewhere new and remote like the far side of the moon in their own name. How does this relate to Epiphany’s message for our world? It reminds us that God does power differently. God doesn’t dictate or create fear. God comes not to stake a claim – unlike us flying our rockets past distant objects or worrying about the Chinese on the far side of the moon – but to be with us.
And finally the Epiphany story of the magi visiting Bethlehem says something to us about presence. God comes – through these visitors led from the east – to a home. God comes in quiet, surprising ways. God subverts our understandings of authority right, left and centre. God comes to say ‘I’m here and this world belongs to me’ and also ‘and everything I have is yours’.

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Sunday 2nd December 2018

Jeremiah 33: 14-16 and Luke 21: 25-36

One of our household’s pet hates is when people use words inaccurately.  I can predict the raised voice back to the radio or TV when yet another interviewee describes a part of the NHS or public service as being ‘decimated’ by cuts or something similar. Another word which gets bandied around a lot just now, because of the amount of turbulence and disruption in our world and uncertainty about the future, is ‘apocalyptic’. What exactly does the word mean? The dictionary says apocalyptic means: ‘relating to or involving predictions about future disasters and the destruction of the world. …a gloomy and apocalyptic vision of a world hastening towards ruin.’ Both today’s readings have an ‘end of the world as we know it’ feel to them. They come from two different times in Jewish history but they share a focus on the position and future of the capital city, heart of religion, home of the Temple – Jerusalem. The city is seen as a symbol of all that people hope and fear about what’s happening now and what might be around the corner in the very near future.
Capitals always stand for a lot for a whole nation. When a great city falls to enemy attack it usually means the country as a whole feels lost at best and totally defeated at worst. Think of the impact on New York of the destruction of the twin towers on September 11th 2001 – the city, the nation, the world even felt rocked at its foundations. During the Civil War in the mid 17th century the point when it could be said King Charles 1 acknowledged his weakness in terms of public support most glaringly was when he moved his court from the danger of London (where the forces of resistance were centred on the House of Commons) to Oxford. President Assad has determinedly held onto his position in Damascus throughout seven years of civil war in Syria, even though at times some of the suburbs were rebel strongholds.
In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, within days of his impending death.  He has just warned his close followers, and those others hanging onto his every word, about the danger of putting too much faith in the great building they’re surrounded by.  Jerusalem is going to be attacked and overthrown soon, he tells them, and people will need to flee for their lives as their religious heartland is overtaken by non-believers. But all this is part of something much bigger – part of God’s plan for the judgement and saving of the world, summed up in the coming of a figure Jesus calls the ‘Son of Man’. That’s a title his Jewish hearers would recognise from the apocalyptic texts in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the book of Daniel: ‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.’ (Daniel 7:13)
In the face of this impending disaster Jesus calls on people to stay awake and tuned in to the world around them, so they can pick up the signs of the times. Whereas others may be overcome by fear they need not collapse with fear because God’s judgement is a sign of hope and liberation for them and the world.
What are we to make of a reading like that at the start of Advent, a period of hopeful, attentive waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus? The second reading from the prophet Jeremiah comes from 600 years before the birth of Jesus but is also about darkness and light for the nation and God’s people. The armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon are encircling Jerusalem in the final act of an attack that’s been getting worse year on year.  He’s already threatened the rightful King Jehoiakim of Judah a few years before, who’d bought a temporary peace by forfeiting some temple silver and allowing members of the royal family and nobility to be taken hostage. Now Jehoiakim has been replaced by a young puppet ruler. The Babylonian king is about to depose that temporary King of Judah, destroy the city and the Temple, and cart off 10,000 of Judah’s finest into slavery. Jeremiah, the prophet, is in prison in the city as the end approaches. He hears words of hope!
Having earned himself a reputation as a voice of doom and gloom when everyone else was pretending the state of Judah was fine, happy and secure, Jeremiah now tops his reputation for being totally countercultural by speaking words of hope as disaster in the form of the Babylonian army is about to strike. Has he finally lost it altogether? Is imprisonment tipping him over into madness? We need to know that in the previous chapter of the book Jeremiah has just done the most ridiculous thing possible for someone in prison whose nation is facing total defeat – he’s invested in a plot of land. Why do that when the bottom is about to fall out of the land market altogether and the area around the capital to become nothing more than place to stand and look at the ruins of a once great city? Well, the easy answer is if God tells you and – like Jeremiah – you’ve found that resisting God gets you nowhere you have to obey. Hear Jeremiah’s explanation from chapter 32 verse 9: ’so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out the price for him, seventeen shekels of silver.’ Talk about pointless gestures – this takes the biscuit, surely. But it allows Jeremiah to hear words of hope about the future, even as the present is falling apart before his very eyes: ‘The days are coming, says the Lord, when I shall bestow on Israel and Judah all the blessings I have promised them.’ Somebody else, in the line of the great King David, will spring up to lead God’s people. He will be a person of righteousness, worth placing your trust in, who restores everything and everyone to their rightful place.
If, like me, you can identify with Jeremiah in prison fearing the worst yet praying for the best today, which field is God encouraging you to go out and buy? Is there something you can do to remind yourself of the way God’s plans operate on a totally different time scale from ours, and God’s solutions come at the problems with a very different perspective and understanding too? Is there a place where you feel close to God – somewhere you might return to either literally or in your prayerful imagination while you ponder the answer to these questions – a garden, a graveyard, a sea shore, a hilltop, a special seat, a favourite poem, a dining table surrounded by much loved guests? Where is your field? I have two fields I think of in answer to this. One is in the Kidron valley, on the edge of Jerusalem. Martin and I went there on a trip to Israel and Palestine 8 years ago. It was bought over 60 years ago by Chiara Lubich, founder of the international spirituality and unity Focolare movement and is near the place where tradition says Jesus was imprisoned overnight after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The dream is that one day it might be a place where people of all faiths and none could build unity. It has never been possible yet for planning permission to be given for any building to happen there. Building in Jerusalem is a highly political and contentious thing to do. The bare ground is a silent symbol of that hope. I saw my other field from a distance, on a Welsh hillside, when Martin and I were on holiday a few days ago. It reminded me of this poem ‘The bright field’ by Welsh clergyman R. S. Thomas.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

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Sunday 25th November 2018

John 18: 33-47 and Revelation 1. 4b-8

We’re almost at the end today. Next Sunday is the new beginning. No, I don’t mean the start of another month, or another rush towards Christmas, or another tree to beautify the church. Today is the last Sunday of this Christian Year. Next week we start the cycle all over again with Advent, as we tell the story of the preparations for and birth of Jesus. We go round in circles for much of our lives – the M60, the M25, the route to work and back – and we give one another circles in the form of gold rings to symbolise love and faithfulness. There are annual cycles we all experience too such as the circle – or sometimes the familiar repetitive drag – of the school year, or the accountancy year, or the year in the garden, or the medical year. For the surgeries near us here flu jabs are often followed by a winter health crisis. Cold weather and icy pavements see a rise in falls and breaks and sprains and unhelpful stays in bed for those with broken bones. Come the spring, the patients queue up for their holiday vaccinations as we prepare to go off around the globe and come back again, full circle. And the church year has its own cycles. This year we’ve read mainly from the gospel of Mark and next year starting on Sunday December 2nd we’ll be following Luke. In the year after that our main focus will be on Matthew’s gospel (bits of John’s gospel are inserted around the edges each year) and then we’ll be back to Mark once more. It’s called the Lectionary Cycle incidentally.
On this last Sunday of the Christian year we’ve heard from the opening verses of the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible. This is a letter of Christian instruction, written at the end of the first century to help seven churches in Asia – modern day Turkey – to work out their discipleship. These opening verses contain one of the earliest examples of the way Christians began to understand and express the cycles within God. The writer begins by describing how God chooses to make a home among ordinary humanity by giving us Jesus as God’s witness, ‘firstborn from the dead’. Then we hear a description of God that’s totally new, and had never been heard before: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is, who was, and who is to come, the sovereign Lord of all.”
I am the ‘A’ and the ‘Z’ says the Lord God. That would be the equivalent in the alphabet we use. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega the last. The New Testament manuscripts are all written in Greek with occasional snippets of Aramaic, the language Jesus and his disciples spoke. What does it mean that God should be both the beginning and the end of all things? Here are some end of year thoughts on that. This summer I spent several days trawling through most of our church archive, reading minutes and dipping into newsletters and other documents dating back over a century. We have here on file all the minutes of Elders meetings going back to the beginning of the United Reformed Church in 1972, when this church stopped being Wilmslow Congregational Church and started being Wilmslow United Reformed Church. One thing you always discover when you read accounts of an organisation is how short human memories are. The ability to say ‘we’ve been here once before’ often depends on the alertness of a few individuals who stay around on in an organisation and remember what’s happened in the past. Reading archives also shows you how often history repeats itself. Here’s a couple of examples. There were at least 3 occasions in the last half century when this church addressed problems of damp in the level below the church here and thought they’d sorted it out once and for all. Let’s hope our latest contribution to this process is one that’s really worked – time will tell. There have also been at least 3 instances over the same period when this church and Wilmslow Methodist Church have talked about greater closeness, gone round the houses about it, come back to square one again and then not followed things through.  Sometimes an experience of going round in circles brings out the worst in us in terms of frustration, impatience, anger or even outright rejection of others and a decision to walk away from the situation and the people involved.  You can hear examples of this in the debate about Brexit now. One person’s ‘completing a process’ is someone else’s ‘going round in circles and getting nowhere.’ So how does God see things, the God who the writer of Revelation describes as the beginning and end of all things, the starting point and the destination, the jumping off point and the target?
God knows plenty about our ability to go around in circles. You only have to read the stories of the Israelites in the wilderness to know this is true. In the period after escaping from slavery in Egypt the children of Israel got close to the edge of the Promised Land several times but God knew they weren’t ready for the challenge. In the end their wilderness wanderings filled 40 years and made it impossible for Moses to enter Canaan with them before his death. In all that time whether they liked it or not – and they certainly got themselves a reputation for grumbling in the process – they were learning things, usually the hard way because that’s the only way God could get them to listen. Once they were finally ready to tread and cross the verge of Jordan, and taste the bread of heaven as they were landed safe on Canaan’s side, it duly happened but not before.
In that forty years they had done a lot of going around in circles, literally and spiritually. Going back to worshipping idols such as the golden calf, forgetting the one God whose image cannot be carved or represented by human hands, was one of those major mistakes. Falling out with one another at frequent intervals and failing to listen to their leader Moses, God’s right hand man, was another repeating error.  Two generations had passed by the time God judged them ready for the next part of their adventure and even then it was a big risk letting them loose in the Promised Land, as later events would show.
So how does God, who is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, keep patience with our repeating mistakes and circular journeys? I take some comfort from a Winnie the Pooh story, in which Pooh and Piglet on a snowy day are tracking the footprints of what they fear is a woozle. They are circling a large tree in the forest, getting more and more anxious with each revolution.  As they go round and round they discover more tracks in the snow, and convince themselves they are on the trail of a worryingly large group of woozles. They are only saved from their panic by the voice of Christopher Robin, who’s been watching them from his roost in a nearby tree. He cheerfully calls out how amusing it is to see them following their own footprints in this way. Pooh realises what they’ve been doing and is both relieved and embarrassed. Life goes on.
In training for ministry I discovered a new way to look at this challenge of circles, cycles, beginning and endings. Theological cycles propose that each time we go around the loop and come back to where we began we have in fact grown through the process. We try at the start to discover God’s will for us, listen to one another as we make a plan, put things into action and then reflect on the outcome.  Seen in that way we’re not just coming back to the beginning again having learned nothing. We’ve gained insights on the way – about God, about one another, about ourselves, and that helps us as followers of Jesus. The God who is beyond, above, outside of and who supersedes both our understandings of journey and of time – who was and is and is to come – operates in different ways from us yet understands us perfectly.
I can’t end without recalling a moment which stays with me from over 30 years ago when John Morgans was completing his ministry as Moderator of Wales synod to become full time minister of Llanfair, Penrhys. He spoke about the way his life had begun in the Rhondda Valley, in Hopkinstown where his father was head of the primary school and his ministry would be concluding in the estate at the top of the hill. He read this from T.S Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’. I think it’s a fitting way for us to end this church year:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well.
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

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Sunday 11th November 2018 – Remembrance Sunday

Mark 12: 38-44 and Hebrews 9: 24-28

Memories of one hundred years ago

Wilmslow Congregational Church Magazine came out monthly during the Great War, sharing news of the church on Alderley Road and the daughter church at Morley. When war broke out in 1914 the minister was Horace Turner who had come to Wilmslow from ministry in Bolton in 1904. He and his wife Ada lived at Mendip Villa, Wilmslow, with their two sons Charles and Alfred, and four daughters Lucy, Bertha, Grace and Hilda. 
October 1914
War created a spiritual crisis for many people. In October 1914 the magazine printed Mr Turner’s sermon from the evening service on September 6th on ‘War and the Will of God’.
‘I suppose that all of us have lately been asking again and again – if there is a God why does He permit such things to be? We cannot and will not believe that God brought this thing
about in the ordinary course of His government of the world……  We hold that this war has its origin in human wickedness and not in the Divine will at all. God has not willed it. He has only permitted it…..
When He created man He chose to make him a moral being. A moral being must have liberty of choice or he is not moral….Having given him this freedom God does not take it back; that would be to de-moralise him. God abides by the consequences of His own action and one of the consequences is that there are times when man, in his wickedness, will thwart the Divine will.…
When you look out upon Europe today and see the pitifulness of it, the reek of battle, the agonies of the wounded and dying, the homeless refugees in their pathetic and awful plight, do not lose your faith in God. Do not say “There can be no God, for if there were He would not permit such things to be.” He has given freedom to the human will, and if he were to take it away, man would be man no longer.’
Twelve men from Wilmslow Congregational Church enlisted as soldiers in autumn 1914 and two more were in officer training. They weren’t alone, as Morley Notes proudly recorded:
It gives us gratification to state that quite a large number of our friends of Morley and districts around have responded to the call of duty and are now serving in various departments of National Defence, amongst them Sam Allen, Arthur Harris and Arnold Potts, formerly connected with the school. Two of the most capable teachers of our Sunday School Mr Roger Knott and Mr James Marshall have gone to serve their country. They will perform their duty the more nobly if they feel that they are ever in the thoughts and prayers of their fellow workers and scholars in the Sunday School. We have every confidence that whatever task may be assigned to them they all will bear themselves as true Christian Soldiers.
Women supported the war effort too. Miss May Turner from Wilmslow joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service and wrote home from a military hospital in Cardiff:
‘At 2am sixty wounded arrived from Southampton at our temporary hospital of 180 beds. There were thousands of people outside and they gave them a magnificent reception. They arrived from the station in motors and most of them were able to walk in, although some looked very ill and exhausted. They come from all regiments and have been in their clothes for several weeks and have been 10 days in coming over.
There are Irish Guards, Highlanders in kilts, Hants, Cheshires, Manchesters, British Grenadiers, West Riding and all of them fine men and men to be proud of.  All of them have wounds, bullet and shell, which have not been dressed for days. One poor fellow has three fingers blown off by a shell which killed four others before it touched him. The first move was to give them a big meal and they told us they had had practically nothing for a fortnight except what the villagers gave them as they marched. …After a square meal we had them in a dressing room and dressed all the wounds. I helped a Swansea doctor and we dressed thirty of them, wounds of head, arm, fingers, thighs, chest etc. Some of them must be very painful, yet they are all longing to go back. They all want to be in Berlin when it is taken.   I have felt like crying at the hardships these brave men have gone through for our sake….  I am glad they have comfortable beds and can have a real good sleep. The tales they tell of the German atrocities are dreadful. 
November 1914
People needed a break from the war and the Literary Society came to the rescue with
record numbers of over 180 people attending its meetings to the delight of the committee:
‘Frankly, we have to make the confession that we have almost as many members as we can conveniently accommodate. Our prosperity may be attributed to the following: ‘One – a programme of exceptional attraction. Two – the energy of half a dozen enthusiasts, one of whom (Miss Thompson) deserves the Society’s gratitude for securing no less than 59 members; Three – the necessity for some form of intellectual relief during this period of national tension. 
December 1914
Christmas time brought mixed emotions, as the Church Notes column commented:
‘Our Christmas this year will be so overshadowed by what is happening amongst the nations that it will not be easy for us to get into the spirit of the season, and it might perhaps seem advisable not to make the attempt for fear of a sense of hollowness and unreality. And yet, surely, it will be well for us to realise how far removed the whole sad business is from the spirit of the Prince of Peace. Terrible as the actual is, the ideal must never be lost sight of, and to gaze at it once again may send us to our knees in more earnest prayer to God that He will in mercy shorten the struggle and establish once again the reign of peace upon the earth.’ 
January 1915
Christmas gifts were sent to all those in uniform from both churches, including the minister’s son Charles Turner who was with the Royal Fusiliers.  They got a selection of  woollen jerseys, socks, mitts, pocket knives, wrist watches, a personal letter from the Pastor, and a khaki bound copy of the New Testament.  The men in the training camps and on active service sent letters of thanks:
‘My warmest thanks and appreciation of the parcel of gifts, as also for your very kind letter. It is a strange and in many ways a taking life, this serious training to fight, into which so many of us are for the first time settling down, but I believe when it is all over that we shall find that it has done us no harm.’ 
March 1915
Morley Notes included a glimpse of life on the front line from Lance Corporal Harris:
‘I am going on quite all right and in the best of health. We are now having some very sharp frosts at night but the roads in the day are up to the knees in mud, and are not like the roads at home. It is alright over here, but we have to rough it a lot, the food is not so bad, but we should like more of it.’ 
June 1915
By June 1915 the Wilmslow Congregational Church Roll of Honour for those supporting the war effort included 26 men – five of them in the fighting line – and 2 women, both nurses. The Ladies’ Working Meeting responded to a War Office appeal by making garments for wounded soldiers and sandbags for the trenches.
Morley Sunday School reported: ‘Our scholars on Sunday afternoon May 16th had the opportunity of seeing the shattered Testament which saved the life of Private Richard Cole. At the time of receiving his wounds Private Cole suffered terrible loss in the death of his brother who was killed in action. Both were members of Mr Stark’s class, and prior to their departure for the front received this wonderful book from Mr Stark.’ 
July 1915
Lieutenant James Marshall wrote to the Pastor from the Dardanelles, describing the brutal conditions, the scorching sun and cold nights, the pleasures and risks of sea bathing under shelling: ‘What we do miss is news from the outside world. Apart from tobacco and cigarettes this is the only comfort one can reasonably crave. Letters and mails have begun to arrive, the latest paper we have seen being April 28th, but this makes no mention of any definite move on the part of Greece or Italy.’
Sister May Turner wrote from number 25 General Hospital in France: ‘One poor fellow, a boy of 19 with his leg off, so good and patient, said the other night that he felt “winded” and if he was not better in the morning he thought he should “go sick”. He said it in joke but now he has an embolism and is dying, and his leg was healing so splendidly. Another of my men, a stretcher bearer with the RAMC, was shot through the shoulder while carrying; he continued with his burden to the field dressing tent, along with other wounded, including some German prisoners. While he was being attended to the Germans dropped a shell on the tent and everyone but himself was killed and he had his leg blown off. He took a tourniquet off a dead German and put it on his own leg and that saved his life. … We are still plagued with all sorts of creeping things. You sleep with earwigs and find them in your bath. They crawl out of everything you open, and say “how do you do” to you at every turn and crawl about all night. You find them in air-tight tins and wonder how on earth they got there. You think there’s a tea leaf in your cup and it’s another earwig, and they walk out of your shoes when you go to put them on. 
November 1915
Christmas 1915 saw 36 names on the Wilmslow Roll of Honour and 20 on the Morley one. The cost of sending parcels would be £35, twice that of the previous year, and gifts towards this were requested for the box in the vestibule. 
December 1915
An American visitor, Miss Cole, gave a talk to the Missionary Committee on the Armenian massacres and a collection was taken up for relief work. 
January 1916
Once again parcels produced a wave of thanks from the front:
‘I was delighted with the parcel I received from the Church. It is awfully good of the people to take so much trouble over us. I enjoyed the chocolate very much, and I shall find the waterproof wallet and match-box cover very useful.’
‘We are out at present for a few days’ rest and we find it a very nice change to get lapped in a blanket at nights in some nice clean straw. But the worst of it is it only lasts for a few days and then we have to return to our dug-out in the trench to be tormented with rats and mice as well as Germans.’
‘Since I saw you last I have been to France again and got my shoulder smashed with a bullet at Ypres, and also was gassed. But I am all right again except the gas, and it takes a long time before you get better of that stuff. I expect before long we shall be on our way to Serbia.’
In January 1916 Mr Turner, the Pastor, preached on ‘The Heroism of our British Youth’:
‘Fearlessness and courage are not the same thing…. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the conquest of fear…..  We are hoping for peace. May it come soon! But there is a conflict from which there is no discharge. We were born into it and we shall be in it till we die. Such warfare calls for the grace of the utmost courage. Fears there will be, must be, for the heart is human, and often fails and faints. But in the will that is strengthened by Christ there is power to overcome fear, to turn weakness into strength, and to fight the good fight and to win the glorious victory over self and over sin.’ 
February 1916
Morley received a letter home from Private T. B Worsley in France early in 1916:
‘I have had a very good Christmas considering the circumstances. We are out of the trenches now, and are living in pig cotes at present, but it is all right when you get plenty of clean straw and a blanket. It is quite a change from being in the trenches, sleeping with wet boots and socks, and sometimes in a wet dug-out. I don’t think that I shall be able to sleep for a few nights when I get into a real soft bed again. I shall wonder what has gone wrong with me.’
The following month saw the Sunday Evening Service stopped – due to the new blackout regulations – and switched to 2.30 in the afternoon instead.
Then, in July 1916 Morley Notes reported: ‘Very grave and anxious times are with us and we ask all the members of our congregation to attend more regularly at our services; to unite in prayer for our nation. All Morley people extend the hand of deepest sympathy to our dear friends, Mr and Mrs A A Gillies, of Alderley Edge, in their great loss by the death of their son, who was killed in France. No words can express how deep their sorrow is…’ 
October 1916
In October 1916 Wilmslow’s new organist Arnold Perry was leaving, after only five months:
‘He has only been with us for a short time, but has already won his way with the members of the choir and congregation, especially with those who have personally come in contact with him when entertaining him in their homes on Sundays. Mr Perry has shown marked ability in his profession and received very favourable criticism on his public performances by the Musical Super-Critic of the ‘Manchester Guardian.’ ….It will fall to the deacons to make the best arrangements they can for carrying on the “service of praise”….. Mr Perry has been called up for military service because his work is not considered by the War Office of “national necessity”. This means that “the praises of Zion” must go by the board, to a large extent, whilst we thrash the Kaiser, who considers himself the mouthpiece of the Almighty and his chosen leader! It is a queer state of things indeed!’ 
November 1916
News from the front was too grim to raise a smile. In November 1916 Church Notes said:
‘We deeply regret to report that Second Lieutenant Clifford Bolton has been officially reported as “missing “. He was last seen taking part in an attack upon a German trench. The attack was not successful, and when the men withdrew he was missing. He joined the 20th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Public Schools) soon after the war broke out. In November 1915 he went to France with his battalion and last September he received a commission in the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers.
It is, of course, quite possible that he may be a prisoner in the hands of the enemy. We tender our deepest sympathy to his parents and family in the painful suspense through which they are passing.’
Morley Notes for January 1917 had a sombre tone: ‘The opening of another year finds the area of the great war extended, and no real prospect of peace yet in sight. The forces engaged in the present strife are counted in millions, and the ruin of cities, the slaughter of men, the misery caused to women and children, have surpassed all precedent, yet still in all this terrible gloom and fear we must remember God’s former deliverance. Yesterday’s mercy ought to be a guarantee for mercy to-day. Yesterday’s kindness should keep our hearts warm in spite of today’s hardness. ‘Remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.’
We express our most grateful thanks on behalf of all our Morley soldiers and sailors to the committee of the Mother Church, which has for the third Christmas season again specially remembered our gallant men, by providing each with a most useful parcel. The undertaking has been most efficiently carried out, and our sincere thanks are due to all who have had any share in this kind act.’ 
June 1917
By summer 1917 the war was taking its toll on everyone, as Church Notes showed:
‘We regret to report that official intimation has been received by Mr and Mrs J. B. Stark that their son, Private J. M Stark, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, was wounded on April 23rd. No information has come to hand as to the hospital he is in or the nature of his wounds except that the captain of his company wrote to say that he was wounded in the back and had lain out all day before being picked up. At the time of writing this note nothing further is known, and we express our deepest sympathy with him and also with his parents and family in the extreme anxiety through which they are passing.
‘The Pastor will take a short holiday in June and will be absent on Sundays June 10th and 17th.’ 
September 1917
Mr Turned returned from his holiday with renewed plans for teaching and bible study:
‘The Pastor has in mind the formation of a “Reading Circle” for biblical study. His idea is that some book should be chosen for private reading and study …and that those who join the Circle should meet together regularly, say once a fortnight, for the further exposition and discussion of the points which the book deals with. It is very necessary that thoughtful Christian people should read their Bibles with all the help and light which are available as the result of modern scholarship and historic methods of interpretation…The Pastor would be glad to hear during September from any who would like to join such a Circle and, while he has in view mainly the benefit of the younger people, membership of the Circle would not be limited to the young.’
News from the front included the war in the air in October 1917, as Church Notes reported:
We deeply regret to record that Second Lieutenant S. W. Dronsfield, R.F.C has been officially reported as missing since September 12th. After serving for some time with the Artists’ Rifles, he joined the Flying Corps, received a commission, and went out to France a little more than a month ago. He went out with a squadron over the German lines on September 12th and did not return. His C.O. pays a high tribute to him as a gallant and efficient officer and says that in all probability he was compelled to descend in enemy territory and was taken prisoner.
The Pastor’s Christmas sermon on ‘Emmanuel, God with us’, brought words of comfort and hope to the congregation and was printed in the January 1918 newsletter:
‘We have many a difficult task before us, many a hard place in the pathway, many a failure and discouragement. But the heart whispers to itself, “Emmanuel,” I cannot fulfil this task alone, but God and I can do it together. I cannot travel this way by myself, but God and I can travel it together. I cannot carry this load on my own back, but God and I can carry it together, and God will bear the heaviest end of it.
‘And God is with us to comfort? We need it sorely just now. The past year to many has been the hardest year of their lives. Bereavement, suspense, keen anxiety, fearful waiting for possible trouble. And the way in front of us is dark. Let us take this message with us as we go into the unknown – “Emmanuel”. Say it again and again until its syllables reverberate in the soul; print it upon the memory, engrave it upon the tablets of the heart. There is nothing in the world which can give us such impregnable courage and such unconquerable hope.’
Who can imagine what it was like to be minister of two congregations experiencing hardship and bereavement during the Great War? In April 1918 Mr Turner took time off:
‘The latest reports from the Rev. H. W. Turner indicate that he is benefitting from change of air and scene. At first he went to Harrogate but, finding it too cold, has now gone to Waterhead, Ambleside. There is little doubt that in these anxious and wearing times change of scene is even more important than change of air.’
The summer offensive of 1918 touched the people of Morley as the August newsletter showed: ‘It is now officially announced that Private John Sumner is killed, and not, as at first supposed, a prisoner of war. We deeply regret to lose another member of our Roll of Honour. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to the widow and all the bereaved, and trust that they may receive the consolation that he sacrificed his life for the freeing of the soul of the world.
Mrs. H. Knott conducted the Sunday evening service on July 7th, and delivered a most inspiring address.’
November’s newsletter went to print before the Armistice. It carried the sad news that Pastor and Mrs Turner’s son, Charles, had died. He had fought on the Ypres Salient and a few weeks earlier had chosen to give up his commission and revert to the ranks:
‘The Pastor, Mrs Turner and the family offer sincere thanks for the deep sympathy shown to them in the bereavement they have sustained by the loss of their son Charles, who died on October 17th at the 2nd Canadian Casualty Clearing Station of wounds received in action on October 8th, and was buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, near Poperinghe, in Belgium. Such expressions of sympathy have been a great consolation to them in their sorrow.
We will give the last word to the minister, Mr Turner, in his New Year message to the churches for 1919:
‘May the blessing of Almighty God rest upon us all in the year that is opening. May the trials and sorrows of the past produce in us fruits of faith, and patience, and humility. May the blessings of the past kindle within us the spirit of the deepest gratitude, and may the presence and power of Almighty God gird us with strength and wisdom for the tasks which lie before us. Yours in the bonds of service for Christ, Horace W. Turner’.

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