Harvest 2017: Just Enough

One of those stories which go round from time to time tells a touching story of a very elderly man saying goodbye to his daughter at an airport.  They both accept that the next time she will come all the way home again will be for his funeral, and as they depart they wish each other “just enough”.  A passer-by overheard this and asked why they used those words. The old man replied that they were the traditional greeting in his family and had been for generations. “When we say ‘I wish you enough,’” he replied, “we are wanting the other person to have a life filled with just enough good things to sustain them.” Then, turning towards the passer-by, the old man shared these words as if he were reciting them from memory:

  • I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright no matter how grey the day may appear.
  • I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun even more.
  • I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive and everlasting.
  • I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest of joys in life may appear bigger.
  • I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
  • I wish you enough loss to appreciate all you possess.
  • And I wish you enough hellos to get you through the final goodbye.

It’s a bit corny, I know, like all such stories that do the rounds on social media, it may not even be true, but it has a point.  We don’t need to wish each other lavish riches and great fame; all we need wish them is “just enough”.

Conversely, when you come to thank God for all His gifts, you can thank him that he has given you “just enough”. Because, often, at the back of your mind is that nagging wish that God could have given you more. He could have made you richer, prettier, smarter. You may wish you had a house as splendid as the Jones’ next door. You know that you don’t really need all of these things; all you need is “just enough”. In fact, if God had given you more than He has, it might have done you more harm than good, turning you into a spoilt brat, a troubled tycoon, or that rich fool that Jesus describes so accurately in the parable we heard earlier.

Thanking God for the harvest is a tradition which reaches back to the beginning of the agricultural society. But in those days nature was totally unpredictable, and they had no refrigeration to preserve the produce of the good harvests to eat in the leaner times.  When the harvest was in, the first priority was to provide seed for sowing the next year, and food for the whole family until the next harvest-time. That was “just enough” to get by on. Any surplus was sold or traded in the markets to provide money or materials for house repairs, furniture, education, clothing and so on.  These things, though not luxuries, were items you had to forego in the slim years.  We should thank God that our life today is better than theirs was then.

Having said that, there are plenty of people around the world today who live on the same knife-edge of poverty.  Even in this country, there are those who slip through the net of the welfare state, whose only resource in emergencies is a foodbank, if they’re lucky, or a loan shark, if they’re not, dragging them deeper into the spiral of poverty.  For these we should pray that God will bring their income up until it is “just enough”, at least, and ask ourselves if there is any way we could share our surplus with them in a way that would encourage them, rather than demoralise them, maybe by donating to the local foodbank. We have come to believe that essential to a full life are all the latest electronic gadgets, luxury food and clothes, and a shop-until-you-drop mentality, and this makes us greedy, and does us more spiritual harm than their poverty does to those who have less than enough. We must learn to be satisfied with the blessings of God’s house.


Harvest 2016: Thanks-giving not Thanks-getting

Thinking about harvest, I always think of the concluding verse of Psalm 65: The folds shall be full of sheep: the valleys also shall stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing. The sentiments expressed in this Psalm are, of course, appropriate to today’s Harvest rejoicings. It is thought by commentators that the composition of Psalm 65 followed a severe drought that led to famine in the land. Prayers for relief had been answered by God and the barren wilderness had been transformed and restored to green pastures and sprouting fields. The community gathered in the Temple, the place where it was believed that God dwelled on earth, to offer him thanks for their relief from its privations. But the Psalm does more than just say thank you for God’s bounty and munificence in relieving their hunger. Its fine poetic language also demonstrates how the chosen people displayed their understanding of the totality and comprehensiveness of their belief in God, its inner harmony and wholeness. This comprehension included, in their minds, the visible and invisible; the internal and external; and things of past, present and future; all seen and experienced at the same time. The Psalmist envisages that this one particular event, relief from famine, provokes a thanksgiving in the widest possible context, reflecting the full redemptive work of God. In this Psalm, God is the focal point of the poet’s thoughts. His delight in all the blessings of this earthly life, which he makes his starting point, is nothing but an outpouring of joy to his God.

A celebration of the fruits of harvest is one of the oldest forms of man’s offering of thanks to his maker. It is interesting to record that, apart from Christmas Carol services, Harvest Thanksgiving is one of the one most popular services in the church’s calendar. This is true even in the most urban of parishes where the majority of the congregation have never visited a working farm.  Lustily, we sing about ploughing the fields when most of us wouldn’t have the first clue as to how to use a plough. It may be that the idea of saying thank you to God for something tangible is easier and more satisfying than offering gratitude for things that are more vague and nebulous. It may be that the fruits of the harvest, often displayed in great profundity in our churches, give a real, physical sense of making an offering to God. It may be that the knowledge that the vegetables, fruit and flowers will be distributed to nursing homes, foodbanks etc. actively demonstrates a visible perception of charitable giving. Equally, it may be the well-loved hymns, give it an impression of homeliness. There is, of course, after all, an embracing awareness, a deeply ingrained feeling that is rarely if ever analysed, that there is a God who is a bountiful provider of the fruits of the earth and the seas. It still feels right to affirm our unity with nature, and to remember that even in the days of tinned and frozen foods, that we are entirely dependent on the harvest of the land.

If, as I premised, the idea of offering thanks to God for the fruits of the harvest are as old as antiquity, then, by contrast, the modern Harvest Thanksgiving service is relatively new. If it hadn’t been for a Victorian vicar in Cornwall, there probably wouldn’t be harvest thanksgivings in any of our churches. The Revd Robert Hawker, for forty-one years Vicar of Morwenstow on the wild Cornish coast, is said to have initiated the modern Harvest Thanksgiving. Yet, long before this, during the Middle Ages, the church had a form of harvest service. It was called Lammas, a corruption of Loaf Mass. This was held on the first day in August, before the beginning of harvesting had really begun. Each farmer cut one sheaf of corn, and the flour from those sheaves was made into one enormous loaf of bread. Everyone went in procession to their village church and the loaf was offered to God as the first results of the coming harvest. Later, when the crops were all safely gathered in, the farmer would throw a big party for all his workers and their families, celebrated with beer, cider and plenty of food. But these customs gradually died out and today many people are ignorant of Lammas. Yet Lammas is probably the origin of the Harvest Luncheon, or Harvest Supper; events still popular in many places. As the people migrated from the countryside to the newly developing towns of the Industrial Revolution they lost their interest in farms and crops. No longer did they plant and tend and reap and fish – they went to their local stores for their comestibles. Even in the villages the Lammas-tide celebrations went into decline.

Robert Hawker was acutely aware of the life-and-death importance of the harvest to his parishioners and he was convinced that the germination of wheat was a supernatural event. He liked the old customs and, despite criticism from neighbouring clergy who thought him most peculiar, he designed and held a special service in 1843, when everyone was invited to bring their produce as a way of saying thank you to God. Thereafter he urged his parishioners each year to come to church for Harvest Thanksgiving. And so the idea caught on. Along with the service, the traditional lessons, hymns, and fruity decorations, went a Harvest Supper with an abundant supply of food and drink. Inevitably the Vicar sang silly songs to round off the proceedings. So popular was this Harvest service that it became accepted across the whole nation and bred a form of devotee; individuals who, rather like train-spotters, would come from far and wide and do the rounds of country churches during the harvest season. Even today, in many people’s eyes, harvest festival, as it is commonly, if erroneously, called, ranks as one of the church’s important, special days.

But how relevant is this historic act of thanksgiving in the 21st century? You only have to go into a modern supermarket and see the wide variety of food on display – food from every corner of the world. Today few people live or work on farms and fewer fish the seas. Most live in complete ignorance about what actually goes on in agriculture, and, to a lesser extent, horticulture. These people are unaware to say whether, in any year, there’s been a good harvest or a bad one. Even those who live in towns and cities within largely rural areas will read nothing in their local newspapers to tell them whether local farmers have had satisfactory harvests. So, is Harvest Thanksgiving really very meaningful today and why do we continue with this annual service? Living, as we do, on an island that is dependent in so many ways on the harvest of land, forest and sea we should, above all others, appreciate the need to thank God for his abundant providence. But, the true significance is not that we reflect on our various harvests, but that we re-affirm and re-cultivate the Christian virtue of thankfulness. Through the symbolism of Harvest, we remember to give thanks. The purpose of today’s service is not to wallow in the nostalgia of Robert Hawker’s first Harvest Thanksgiving, or even to hark back to a keeping of Lammas-tide, but to give thanks. We must pause in the daily round, the common task: pause and say, ‘Thank you! Thank you for all those good things that have come our way this year.’

Now, thankfulness is an attitude central to the Christian belief. Our first reading from Deuteronomy was part of Moses’ main address to the people of Israel. The occasion was the harvest pilgrimage festival when the worshippers gave thanks for God’s generosity, his gift of land which produced food abundantly, a land, we are told, ‘flowing with milk and honey’. Moses urged the people to be thankful. The great medieval mystic, Meister Eckhardt, said, ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.’ It’s an easy prayer to remember. To say, ‘Thank you’, is simple and straight-forward. But, if the truth be told, it’s a prayer we so often forget.  I have noticed in our own pew sheet, every week the prayer section is full of requests for help and assistance from God, yet very little in the way of thankfulness.

Yet, is it enough simply to feel thankful for our blessings and say ‘thank you’? Well, on one level certainly, it is enough, if that ‘thank you’ comes from the heart. But, on another level it may be just enough, but it’s hardly a complete fulfilment of what thanksgiving is all about. Thanksgiving is both a mental attitude and a physical response; it’s both faith and works. The writer of the Epistle of James said, in effect, ‘Faith without works is dead’ (James 2: 14-17). Some verses in Leviticus note that the ancient Hebrews were told to leave the remnants of their harvest for the poor and the stranger in their midst. The harvest thanksgiving in Israel wasn’t complete if the people gathered up all their crops and kept it all for themselves. Gratitude without sharing was no gratitude at all.

Integrated within this attitude of thankfulness and gratitude was another Jewish principle, that of the Jubilee. The Jubilee was celebrated every fifty years. In that year land was returned to its rightful and original owners, financial debts were remitted and slaves were freed. The people of Israel were told to forgive all debts and obligations of service to one another, and to allow every citizen to reclaim their land and property, free of all liability. The fundamental principle behind this fifty-year anniversary was that land was a sacred possession belonging to God. As such, it was not to be separated from God’s people, to whom it was originally assigned. Imagine what such a practice might do to our real estate markets or to the banking companies that rely so heavily on credit card debt and mortgage repayments. Our materialistic, secular culture elevates ‘getting’ over ‘giving’ to an inordinate degree. When Christmas comes the first thing children, and adults, ask one another is, ‘What did you get?’ No one ever thinks to ask, ‘What did you give?’

If we can remember that we are celebrating thanks-giving, and not thanks-getting; if we can reclaim the attitude and actions expressed in the ancient Hebrew celebrations which rejoiced in the harvest and remembered the needs of the poor and the stranger; if we can recapture the Jubilee sentiment of forgiving one another our accumulated debts, perhaps then, and only then, can we honestly say with Meister Eckhardt that a simple prayer of ‘thank you’, honestly expressed in word and in deed, is enough. In fact, it will be more than enough. Abundant and overflowing with grace our love will be made manifest. So, let us thank God for life; thank God for food; thank God for family and friends; thank God for the opportunity of living our lives in this rich and beautiful land, a land that could be said to be ‘flowing with milk and honey’. Let us thank God for being able to express our gratitude in acts of love, sharing and giving. Only then will we be able to gather in church, stand before God and, like the valleys that stand so thick with corn, and with the Psalmist, laugh, and sing.

One Nation Under One King

Ezekiel 37: 15-end

I really should have known better than to Google Ezekiel! Did you know that he allegedly had encounters with spaceships? Oh yes! Apparently this guy reckons that verse 13 of the very first chapter of the book is an accurate description of extra –terrestrial helicopters: ‘their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were round; and they sparkled like burnished bronze.’ According to St Google he may also have suffered from a rare type of epilepsy called Geschwind syndrome -one of the symptoms being hyper religiosity. Take all that with a pinch of salt if you wish -the fact remains that a simple reading of the text reveals a rather weird bloke -with obsessive compulsive tendencies – who had an extraordinary capacity to see deeper than the surface -to read, deeply what was going on, and what that might mean in terms of the people’s relationship with God. We call people like that prophets. Not specifically telling us about the future, more exposing deep truth. It’s not a great job because there is this human tendency to shoot the messenger. Today’s text begins when Ezekiel has just experienced a vision about dry bones  -fabulatious images – rich, many layered – full of potential for interpretation -then God says: ‘These bones are the whole house of Israel” Dried up, not moving, -well- dead basically. However, the vision ends well. God promises to sort it – breathe the breath of life back into the old, dry bones -but then comes the rub. If Israel wants to live, it needs to become one nation again. Mend the split. These two sticks need to get joined together -one nation under one king. As an analysis of the human condition this is right on the money. Where to start? Well -think of yourself. When you are conflicted internally you can’t perform. You are at risk of depression. The same applies when there is a lack of congruence between what you believe and how you behave. A friend of mine was a senior Heath Service manager and constantly having to justify in public decisions about cuts and the like that she didn’t believe in. She became quiet and withdrawn and in the end she chucked it in for a less well paid job, but one she did believe in.

The same applies to the way a country functions. When you vote for a government which preaches equality and fairness but you experience systems and a class structure that means you never feel there is a level playing field -that lack of unity begins to cause society to fragment and lose self-confidence -and you are along the road to that quintessential expression of depression -anger. You may or may not feel that is what is happening here at the moment. Painfully enough we also need to look at the Church. Not only does the degree of splitting within the church severely limit its efficacy, but, let’s be honest, in the eyes of many folk it simply makes it look foolish and irrelevant. I’m standing here as a woman, preaching the word of God – and still, even after 20 years since the introduction of women as priests, there are some folk – only a few, who find that unacceptable. We now have women bishops – and again a small number of people have left the church because of it. In a church that preaches equality and inclusivity there are sadly still those who treat anyone with a different sexual orientation from theirs as aliens -and unwelcome ones at that. Not only do we behave appallingly, but we are seen as being far more concerned with our own internal splits than with the really big issues of peace and justice.

Ezekiel saw it then and we ought to be able to see it now. A house divided against itself will fall. As with the individual so with the institution -splitting leads to depression. The whole institution is exhausted and defensive. To be frank much of the Church of England is in a mess at the moment. While in other parts of the world the church is growing wonderfully and vigorously, here there is a feeling of having to fan the dying embers. Now if you really want to push the image it’s worth mentioning that Ezekiel is also a prophet in Islam -and the really big story here might be about humanity being divided against itself. One prophet speaking truth to two traditions -the same truth -but to people who are murdering each other in the name of that truth. The hope that Ezekiel holds before the divided Jews is the day when he says: ‘They will be my people and I will be their God.’  He speaks of reconciliation -and what he says is a foretaste of the incarnation -when Christ came to reconcile all thing to himself. This sounds so idealistic and unachievable. – Of course we want reconciliation -but we simply find it too hard. We even sometimes choose death rather than reconciliation. St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes this vividly – this internal conflict we all live with: He says (and I’m paraphrasing here): ‘I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad but then I do it anyway.…..I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no-one who can do anything for me? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.’ We can easily forget how radical Jesus’ message actually is – doing good to those who hate you, loving your enemies. This isn’t wishy-washy – it’s the one and only hope for humanity which is destroying itself by being divided. It probably starts with the need to forgive yourself -love the part of you that you have labelled your enemy. Jesus didn’t just preach this -he lived and died it. He did not retaliate, or escalate. He forgave the very people who were murdering him. His was a death of reconciliation -and that way is life -is resurrection – is hope -eternal hope. I don’t know if you need to make peace with yourself today. I do know that as a church, mending divisions would bring new life and hope. I suspect that mending divisions in our society is just as necessary – before we can thrive again. In a world where we are all encouraged to stand up for ourselves, fight our corner, never admit you’re wrong or show any weakness, this call for reconciliation is counter-cultural -but there is a collective malaise and depression around which threatens to overwhelm us. By choosing to mend what is divided, amazingly, and sometimes life-threateningly difficult though it may be -by choosing that way you are choosing the way of Christ, the way of hope and the way of life.


Bloom Where You Are Planted

I recently preached a sermon about finding God in the place that we are, in whatever situation you find yourself, and for that sermon I used part of the poem Bloom where You Are Planted but added some extra stanzas at the end:

Bloom Where You Are Planted

“Bloom where you are planted”,
Shine where you are sent,
Know that God has used you here,
Just the way He meant.

Love where you are living,
Serve where it’s His will,
Know that God has plans for you,
That only He can fill.

Grow where you are going,
Weep when you’re in pain,
Know that God restores your soul,
Makes you whole again.

Pray when you are breathing,
Laugh when you exhale,
Know that God is near you,
Never will He fail.

“Bloom where you are planted!”
Though it be dark or bright,
Some blossoms give their fragrance best,
In the darkest hours of night.

“Bloom where you are planted!”
Be strong, be not afraid.
The winds may blow and sun may beat,
And your spirit droop and fade

But “Bloom where you are planted!”
You will withstand the strain.
God’s life within will guarantee,
That His plants will remain.

“Sitting silently, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows.”

Dear Friends

Recently, my husband, Paul, and I spent a week on the beautiful island of Sark. The island itself is just over, there are no motorised vehicles allowed and no streetlights, earning it the status of the world’s first dark sky island. The way of life is totally alien to most people’s normal routines – nobody locks their doors, everyone travels by bike or on foot, and time is measured by the sound of the church bells and the position of the sun. The pace of life is considerably slower than the normal hectic pace of the average person’s daily life, so much so, we found it took us a couple of days to settle in to island life and be able to appreciate the wonder of the place.

We spent our week hiking and cycling around the island; exploring the numerous coastal paths, bays and caves. It felt like every time we turned a corner there was another breath-taking view to enjoy, from a natural rock pool large enough to swim in which was only accessible by clambering over huge rocks at low tide, to the majesty of the night sky filled with stars and meteors and, even, the Milky Way. Even just sitting outside our rented apartment, eating lobster fresh from the sea with just the sound of the bees buzzing and the gulls screeching, afforded us a unique opportunity to really appreciate the wonders of the natural world that God created.

During our week, I truly felt closer to God than at almost any other time in my life.  Through those rugged cliff paths and clear, crystal waters, I heard a calling to embrace life and all the challenges that God places before me.  Perhaps you have had a similar experience of God speaking to you through nature. Perhaps you have stood next to a mountain range and felt awe at God’s grandeur, or sat by an ocean basking in God’s peace and felt it enter your spirit.  For me, this was a daily occurrence on the island of Sark, and I was reminded of an inscription that can be found on a plaque on another island, Iona, it reads:

“Sitting silently, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows.”

It is a reminder that we should all take the time in our busy lives to lay aside our preoccupations and allow ourselves to reconnect with God; to remember to appreciate the beauty and majesty all around us. “In returning and rest you shall be saved,” says God through Isaiah, “In quietness and trust shall be your strength.” There is a divine imperative to down tools and just sit a while.

The Bible is full of stories of people meeting with God powerfully in natural surroundings. I think of Moses and his burning bush in the wilderness, Elijah enduring earthquake and fire on a mountain top and finally hearing God in a gentle whisper of wind, and Jesus going up on a mountain to pray.

We are not all fortunate enough to live somewhere like Sark where God is easy to find in every rocky path, sea view, and starry sky, however, we can all take time to go outside and enjoy what we can – the beautiful autumn colours, the dawn chorus, unexpected warm days. However and wherever you have the chance to get out into the natural world I hope you’ll take it and soak in the beauty of God’s creation. Spend a day away from your normal surroundings and travel to the beach or the mountains or just a field nearby. Maybe it’s enough to put some fresh flowers on the table or nurture a new houseplant. Either way, you’re invited to discover and experience God in a new way. I hope you will accept!

The Reluctant Blogger

Keeping Good News To Yourself Is Selfish

2 Kings 7

The news today is full of stories of how people all around the world are starving. Most of us in this country have never seen anybody who has had little or nothing to eat for long periods of time, but a little imagination will point us to what an agonising experience this must be. So we can imagine what the inhabitants of Samaria felt like in the story we just heard from the OT when they were besieged by the Assyrians with no access to food and water. In the part we didn’t hear, some of the people even resort to cannibalism, the situation has got so bad. Particularly graphic is the story of the four men suffering from leprosy who were not admitted into the city for fear of spreading infection – they were stranded outside the walls with an army in front of them. In sheer desperation, they decided to desert and switch sides. They went to the enemy camp to hand themselves over, only to find it empty. They gorged themselves on the food that had been left behind but suddenly realised that it was terribly selfish to keep the news of salvation to themselves. So, in spite of being rejected by the people of Samaria, and being left to die, they hurried off to tell them that their troubles were over, they had been saved. And so they arrived at a basic ethical principle of life – it is immoral and selfish to keep good news to yourself.

Christians describe the story of Jesus, of what he has done to bring us forgiveness of our sins as “the Gospel”, a word meaning good news. If we know that God loves us, and fail to tell other people, especially those who are in desperate need of His forgiveness and grace, we are being selfish.  The purpose of the Christian Church is to glorify God in making the Christ of the Scriptures known to everyone through the love of God; in worship, word, and action.  So, the big question is, “What can each of us do to encourage others to grow in God’s love and in their knowledge of Jesus Christ?”

A good place to search for answers is to turn to the Bible and look at how the early Church grew and developed:

  1. They worshipped God together – Praise
  2. They prayed together – Prayer
  3. They cared for those in need – Care
  4. They shared their faith in Christ – Share

And the Lord added to their number.

Praise – Prayer – Care – Share…a good theory which, let’s be honest, must have worked 2000 years ago or else none of us would be here now, nor would there be over 2 billion practising Christians around the world. But how can we put it into practice in the here and now?

Ask yourself, how did I come to faith in Jesus? It may be that, like me, you were brought up in a Christian family, had the usual teenage rebellion, but later came back to the Church. It may be that you saw Christians busily involved in caring for the needy, and wanted to know more about where they got their inspiration from. Possibly, you got into casual conversation with a Christian friend, who seemed an example you wanted to copy, and who quietly demolished any reasons behind your prejudices you held against religion. You may have been invited by a friend or neighbour to a church service or event and were so impressed by the warm welcome you received that you kept coming back.

A minister or priest can only do so much, and if you leave the task of promoting church growth to the professionals, so to speak, very little will happen. So we as a congregation, and each of us as individuals, must check ourselves to see how good we are at attracting people by praising God together in our worship, by praying for non-churchgoers, , by caring for those in need, or by sharing our faith in Christ with anyone who is willing to listen. Everybody is different, so each needs a different approach. But all those who have not yet heard the good news are metaphorically starving to death.  So if you have an opportunity this week for evangelising one of your friends or neighbours by praise-prayer-care-share, ask God to give you the right words to say. To keep the good news to yourself would be indescribably selfish.

Demons vs Prayers

Luke 9: 37-43

I have just discovered a wonderful series of books which are nearly 20 years old, they are written by Phil Rickman, they are set in the Diocese of Hereford and the main protagonist is a female vicar by the name of Merrily Watkins.  When I read the first book I was a little unsure as it dealt with the supernatural alongside more earthly problems.  The reason I struggled at first was that I am not 100% sure exactly where my beliefs lie as far as that is concerned; however, by the second book our main character has been appointed as the Diocesan Exorcist, or to give it its more contemporary title, Deliverance Minister, and I got far more insight into that side of the Church of England.  Now, before you start heading for the doors and muttering about strange readers from outside churches, I am not about preach a sermon on deliverance and the exorcism of demons. The belief or not in demonic possession is a theological area where each person will have their own thoughts and it is not for me to say whether they are right or wrong.  This does, however, lead nicely on to this evening’s Gospel reading in which we hear one of the healing miracles.  After the Transfiguration, they bring a boy to Jesus, shaking all over from an epileptic fit. At least, that’s what modern translations say.  The Authorised version translates the original literally saying that the boy was a lunatic.  We don’t use that word these days, but the description of the symptoms corresponds directly with what we call epilepsy.  For modern readers we use a modern term that they will understand.  Yet the people of 1st Century Palestine had never heard the word; so when Jesus cured him, he told them he had cast out a demon.  And it is here we return to whether one believes in true demonic possession or not.  It may well have truly been a malevolent, satanic spirit had inhabited the boy’s body and the power of Jesus cast it out; on the other hand it could well be that the presence of the Messiah and the power of prayer calmed the boy sufficiently and gave him such faith that the epilepsy was cured/improved; a case of mind over matter.

Returning to the Merrily Watkins novels for a moment, when she is appointed to her role as deliverance minister, one very traditional vicar who is opposed to women in the priesthood, sends her a note that simply read “Jesus was the first exorcist”.  She takes this to mean that the role should only been undertaken by men.  It transpires, however, that he is calling her to have complete and utter faith in the rites and rituals of deliverance as a relevant part of the modern Church – if it was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for us.  There is a reason that the name of this ministry was changed from exorcism to deliverance – deliverance has a far wider definition than exorcism – deliverance is to be rescued from a situation that is out of control.  This can be of a far more earthly nature than the word exorcism would imply.  It is no coincidence, for example, that alcohol is sometimes referred to as “the demon drink”; alcoholics, addicts of all kinds, and often those suffering with mental health issues are said to “wrestle their demons” (please don’t think I am saying here that all people who have mental illnesses are demonically possessed, I am not – my own daughter has OCD and, although there are occasions where she behaves like she has the devil in her, it is nothing more than the normal behaviour of an average 8 year old!) – and this is where our reading, and deliverance ministry as a whole, fits in to the modern world – there are demons of all sorts that plague people’s lives and we as Christians are in a position to help through the power of prayer and with our faith.  Jesus himself tells the disciples as much after he has healed the boy and they ask him why they couldn’t cast out the demon.  He says: “Because of your little faith.  For I truly tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

That’s an astonishing statement! “Nothing’s impossible to those who have faith,” he said; but many people will disagree with that, saying for instance “My mother was sick, I prayed for her and truly believed that Jesus could save her, but she died anyway.  How can you say anything is possible if your faith is strong enough?”  Well, think of it like this, an electric motor can lift a battleship, but only if it is plugged in, if not, it is powerless. Similarly, human beings are powerless on their own; but if we are connected to the power of God and can draw on God’s energy and will, then we can do anything, or rather God can do anything he wants to through us.  Of course we don’t always know what God wants us to do or not do. It is no good asking God to preserve the life of one of His children, for example, if he is calling them to the Kingdom.  It is only through prayer and reflection that we can even begin to hope to know what God wants of us.

And so we return to deliverance and tonight’s reading, whether you believe in demonic possession or not, there is no disputing that the power of prayer and faith can be a powerful tool in the fight against the demons of the modern world.  This is not to say that I don’t believe in a force called “evil”, I am just not entirely sure whether people who do evil things are full of satanic demons or just completely bereft of spirituality, either way praying with them may be of benefit and bring them peace and comfort.

I guess what I am really trying to say is that, even though on occasion Scripture can seem very alien to our contemporary society, it is as relevant now as it was 2000 years ago – we may not often hear of demonic possession in this day and age, but in the time of Jesus this was the explanation for many illnesses and conditions that we have now given labels to – epilepsy and paranoid schizophrenia being just two.  And then we have the “demons” of modern society not mentioned in the Bible – addiction and violence being two among many.

So whether the thought world you inhabit has a place for true demons or just symbolic demons, the answer is the same – have faith in Christ Jesus, and in the power of prayer.